An examination of a Judicial Review involving the refusal of support under Children Act 1989 for a family claiming destitution.
The aproximate text of the podcast is set out below. A note of the case and the link to the judgment which is referred to is here.
This case involved a successful Judicial Review of a decision by the London Bexley to refuse housing and subsistence payments to a mother and 3 children under the Children Act 1989. This post can also be listened to as a podcast or watched on Youtube. The references to paragraph numbers in the judgement below are to the paragraphs on the Baili report.
The factual background was that mother had been working and supporting her family until 2015 when she had to stop due to her immirgration status as an overstayer. This status meant that she had no recourse to public funds and was not able to claim benefits or obtain housing as a homeless person under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996. It also meant that she was not allowed to rent a private property herself even if she had the money with which to do so. She and the children were however entitled to be provided with accommodation and subsistence payments under the Children Act if Bexley was satisfied that they were destitute.
For just over two years Bexley accepted that the family were destitute and provided them with housing and subsistence payments. However, in September 2017 they carried out a new assessment and decided that the mother had additional income which she had not disclosed and that the family were not destitute. They carried out a fraud investigation and in June 2018 reached a decision that the family were not destitute, the children were not therefore in need and the family were not entitled to housing or support.
Judicial Review proceedings were issued and led to a 2 day hearing in January 2019 and a judgment from David Casement QC sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge on 1 February. He found that the council had failed to carry out a proper assessment or investigation and that their decision was Wednesbury unreasonable so that it had to be quashed. The judgement is worth reading as it shows how an unfair and hostile assessment by a council can be challenged through attention to detail. Unfortunately it has been very common for councils to make decisions of this kind and to hope that they can successfully defend Judicial Review proceedings by repeating unfounded accusations against destitute families.
The political background to the case lies in the creation of the hostile environment for migrants openly and unashamedly encouraged by David Cameron’s government. This built on the hostility of the previous Labour governments which had denied access to mainstream housing and support for migrants through the introduction of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Treaty obligations meant that the governments were not able to deny all support to children and leave them sleeping in the street with no food which is why accommodation and financial assistance remained available to destitute children and their families under the Children Act.
The changes since 2002 meant that hundreds of families with children who might previously have been entitled to mainstream housing and benefits now had to seek support under the Children Act. This in turn meant that Children's Services Departments were inundated by huge numbers of applications. They struggled to deal with this flood in terms of carrying out the necessary assessments let alone providing housing and support for those families whose children were found to be in need.
Unfortunately staff in many Children's Services Departments responded to the crisis which led to destitute families seeking assistance not by speaking out about the plight of the children but by adopting an increasingly hostile approach towards the children and their parents themselves. Lewisham council, for instance which for a long time was one of the worst when it came to the mistreatment of destitute children openly adopted a policy which it called “Robust Front Door”. This soon led to applicants being routinely branded as fraudulent and to assessments being carried out with a view to justifying the decision which had been taken to refuse assistance and to keep the front door shut. Applicants would be routinely refused support because their accounts were considered to be “plainly incredible” (an expression used by for Bexley in this case - see paragraph 36) or were accused of not cooperating with the assessment process because they were trying to hide their real comfortable incomes.
The hostile approach taken by councils towards destitute children received encouragement in 2013 with the case of R (MN) v Hackney where the council had decided that they were satisfied that the children of the family were not in need for the purposes of Section 17 of the Children Act because the parents were considered to have refused to cooperate with the assessment by not answering questions. A judicial review of the decision was dismissed. Unfortunately, I understand that the case was settled and the family were housed before the decision could be appealed. The original judgment was therefore left on the books and served as a green light for councils to slam their robust front doors in the faces of applicants. All they had to do was to complete an assessment report which concluded that the applicant parent(s) had failed to cooperate and had been dishonest. If the applicants issued Judicial Review proceedings indignant barristers reciting the allegations of fraud and bad faith on the part of the applicant would attend court. If they were lucky a busy judge might dismiss a Judicial Review challenge having concluded that Parliament had intended that local authorities should assess the facts in this sort of case such that it was not for judges to question the specialist decision making of council staff and that in any event that it seemed that the applicant had not cooperated with the assessment process. Fortunately in this case the Judge adopted an approach of subjecting the council’s decision making to an appropriate level of scrutiny.
So lets see what actually happened in this case.
I am not going to go into the legal framework in detail here as that would take too long. I will try and to this another time. For now though please just accept that in order for the family to be entitled to housing and subsistence payments the council had to be satisfied that they were destitute after carrying out a balanced assessment and only having regard to relevant matters.
In their decision they gave twelve reasons for this which are set out at paragraph 24. These can be summarised as being:-
- She had failed to provide timely evidence of the destitution claimed
- Her bank statements showed that she had regularly spent money on non essential items which she would not have done if she was really destitute.
- Despite claiming to be separated from her ex husband and divorced she maintained a good relationship with him and he was providing support for her family.
- She had other sources of income such as family, friends and work.
The mother’s challenge was based on four arguments which are listed at paragraph 3. These were that
- The council’s decision was based on material errors of fact.
- The council had failed to make sufficient enquiries and its decision is procedurally unfair.
- The council’s decision was based on a failure to take account of relevant and material considerations and based on taking account of irrelevant matters.
- The council’s decision was irrational and on the facts of the case was not one which was open to the council to take.
A good example of these errors of fact and of taking irrelevant matters into account was that that council had relied on the fact that the mother owned an iPad. They also referred to her owning computers. The mother confirmed that she did have an iPad and a computer (only one) but she stressed that she had bought these before she was destitute when she was working. She said that the council had never asked her when they were bought but had nevertheless asserted that they were bought after she became destitute. She also pointed out that the council had failed to put a number of their concerns such as this one to her so that she might have a chance to answer them. This was the point about procedural unfairness.
She also pointed out that the council’s assertions to the effect that she was receiving financial support from her ex husband was not based on any real evidence but was mere speculation.
The council had also suggested that the family could be given accommodation by family and friends without any evidence to suggest this.
In response to this the council argued that the mother was lying about the income available to her. They agued that they did not have to prove that she was receiving income from any of the sources they mentioned but that they were entitled to conclude that she was not destitute because she was not considered to have been full and frank during the investigation. The council did have to concede (see paragraph 36) that the mother had not even been asked about some of the things such as the purchase of the ipad.
Sadly this incredibly unfair approach is not unusual. The old argument about the mother’s account being “plainly incredible” was raised. The argument usually goes along the lines that the mother has been in the UK for a long time so it is plainly incredible for her to suggest that she does not have a support network which can provide her with housing and money. In reality I tend to find that by the time they apply to the councils destitute families have run out of people to help them and apply to the council as a last resort. The council suggested (at paragraph 43) that the council’ decision should be “looked at in the round so as to see the overall picture…”. This seems to be a request not to scrutinise the decision but to look at it in an unfocused or a superficial manner way which might lead to a prejudiced and unsupported conclusion being reached.
The Judge was not prepared to abandon property scrutiny and observed (at paragraph 44) that something more than mere suspicion or feel is required on the part of the council before drawing inferences with potentially serious consequences for the family. He went on to conclude at paragraph 48 that the council’s decision was flawed for the reasons argued by the mother and that the decision was therefore quashed.
This case is very encouraging. It shows councils cannot simply accuse people of lying and fraud without proper evidence obtained through a fair and balanced assessment process in the hope that a judge will consider their accusations in the round and not subject them to scrutiny. I hope that judgments like this will lead to an improvement in the quality of assessments by council staff.
A final word of warning here is not to think that a Claimant in Judicial Review proceedings can run arguments such as those run here about defective decision making and expect a Judge to adopt them straight away. I suspect that a very large amount of work went into this case in terms of analysing the council’s evidence and preparing counter evidence and arguments to show what the actual position was. This worked so well that it almost makes it look easy to achieve such a great outcome. Based on my experience it must have required great effort and skill on behalf of the Clamant’s legal team to scrutinise and respond to the council’s evidence so that the Judge was obliged to find in their favour. It could easily have gone the other way if the work had not been put in and answers to the accusations were not provided.