The duty imposed on local authorities by the Children Act 1989 s.17(1) to promote the upbringing of children by their families did not impose a duty upon them to provide residential accommodation for the families of children within their area who were in need.
A appealed against a decision that the Court of Appeal had no power to intervene and compel the local authority, B, to provide her and her three children, two of whom were autistic, with suitable accommodation. A and her children lived in a two bedroom local authority flat with no garden. An assessment of the needs of A's children concluded that the family needed to be rehoused with an outside play area and four bedrooms. A argued that the general duty under the Children Act 1989 s.17(1) to promote the welfare of children in need and to promote their upbringing by their families crystallised into a specific duty which was owed to each individual child once that child's need had been assessed. Accordingly, B owed a duty to each individual child in need to provide that child with accommodation to enable it to live with his or her mother in the same family if an assessment of that child's needs showed that this was what was required.
Held, dismissing the appeal (Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead and Lord Steyn dissenting), that s.17(1) did not place an absolute duty on B to provide accommodation to A and her family in accordance with the assessed needs of her autistic children. Section 17(1) imposed a general and overriding duty towards children in the local authority's area to maintain a level and range of services sufficient to enable the authority to discharge its functions under Part III of the Act. It did not impose a specific duty towards each individual child in need. An examination of the range of duties mentioned elsewhere in the 1989 Act supported that view. Those other duties were framed so as to confer a discretion on the local authority as to how it should meet the needs of each individual child in need. The other duties which then followed in the Act had to be performed in each individual case by reference to the general duties in s.17(1). In other words, s.17(1) set out the duties owed to a section of the public in general by which local authorities must be guided in the performance of those other duties.