AA was represented by Nick Bano of the Garden Court Chambers Community Care Team, instructed by Morrison Spowart solicitors.
R (AA) v Southwark LBC  EWHC 2487 (Admin).
The High Court has quashed a Children Act assessment carried out by Southwark Council, where the social workers disbelieved that the family was destitute because of their concerns about the mother’s credibility.
This is one of a growing line of ‘culture of disbelief’ cases in respect of families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF). In R (O) v Lambeth  EWHC 937 Admin, Deputy High Court Judge Helen Mountfield QC explained that social workers are entitled (and indeed ought) to ask why families’ resources have dried up when they ask social services departments for support, but in the four years since then there has been an alarming number of substantive judicial reviews (this case is the ninth) as claimants and local authorities have tested the limits of this principle.
AA is the mother of two children (one with special educational needs). Like many people with NRPF she had been living a discreet and semi-formal existence: she had lived with friends, and she would sometimes receive small amounts of cash or let other people in the community use her bank account. She had no money – indeed, she was in a significant and rising amount of debt – and she was not allowed to work or claim benefits. When she approached Southwark Council she was staying with an elderly man, Mr A, who could no longer put up with the children’s difficult behaviour.
AA approached Southwark Council, who made various inquiries (but refused to provide any support) between 6th December 2018 and 18th December 2018, when the High Court made an order for interim relief.
In January 2019 the council completed an assessment under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. It raised a number of concerns about AA’s credibility, on the basis of which the council disbelieved that the family was destitute and refused to provide support. AA’s solicitors sent detailed correspondence correcting or clarifying the matters that had caused the council concern, and asked the council to re-assess the family on the basis of that new information.
In March 2019 the council carried out a new assessment. There had been no new inquiries since that time, except that the social worker had tried to visit Mr A (who was not at home). The new assessment did not comment on the matters that had been corrected, but instead raised new concerns about credibility. Again, the council concluded that the family was not destitute.
Permission was limited to two grounds, but they both succeeded.
First, Deputy High Court Judge Darryl Allen QC concluded that – as the second assessment did not refer to any of the corrections and clarifications that the solicitors had provided after the first assessment – the council had not properly taken that new information into account (§37, 41).
Second, the council had failed to get to the bottom of the issue about whether the family had been staying with Mr A. This was clearly an important matter for the council because they had telephoned Mr A and made a visit to his home, so it was “essential that that issue was properly investigated”. The social worker’s failure to phone Mr A again to clarify his evidence was a failure to make proper inquiries (§52).
The authorities show that the courts will be slow to interfere with the professional judgments of social workers, and it is always difficult to bring public law challenges on the basis that the council’s approach to the facts was unlawful. But this case reminds us that High Court judges can and will quash social workers’ decisions in these ‘culture of disbelief’ cases.
Credit is due to AA’s solicitors (Morrison Spowart) for rigourously challenging the first assessment. It was the council’s failure to deal with that important correspondence that led to the claimant’s success under the first ground.
And community care lawyers should continue to be astute to the possibility of social workers exaggerating – or even manufacturing – credibility concerns. In this case, for example, it had been held against AA that she “intentionally did not disclose her husband’s correct telephone number” (§36) when in fact it had been written down incorrectly by one digit (§30), and there is a suggestion that words had been put in Mr A’s mouth by the social workers (§30(i)).