U.K. Accused Social Workers Sue over Wrongful Investigation

Judgment believed to be the first time that parents in the U.K. have won damages from a council over a breach of duty to parents in a child abuse case.

The actual names of the accused were thoughtfully anonymised by HH Judge Anthony Thornton. The case may otherwise be referenced as [2013] EWHC 416 (Admin) Case No: CO/7304/2012.

According to Patrick Butler, social policy editor with The Guardian, the case “was the latest blow for a council struggling to recover from the controversy in 2008 surrounding the death of Peter Connelly, a 17-month-old boy on its child protection register known as Baby P.” As Butler’s article describes it:

Two senior child protection professionals who were wrongly investigated over false allegations they abused their young daughter have launched a scathing attack on the “unlawful and unprofessional practices” they say are rooted in Haringey council’s social services department.

The couple, known for legal reasons as AB and CD, were exonerated and awarded damages by a court last month following a botched inquiry in 2011 by the council’s children’s social services into a “malicious” anonymous tip-off that they had slapped and verbally abused their child, known as EF.

The couple described their experience as a “nightmare” in which they feared their daughter would be taken into foster care, and that their professional careers may be ruined as a result o the investigation. They sought out judicial review against Haringey council children’s services to ensure that references to the unlawful investigation were expunged from their records.

In a letter addressed to Libby Blake — the council’s director of children’s services — they attacked what they described as a “culture of bad practice” at the council, expressing that they have no confidence that it offers anything other than “superficial compliance” with social work law and the codes of practice.

In March of 2013, the couple was exonerated and awarded damages by the court, The Guardian reported in a previous article.

“In his ruling, Judge Anthony Thornton agreed that AB and CD had several grounds for legitimate complaint over Haringey’s handling of the case, including that it embarked on an initial assessment of the daughter without evaluating whether she was really at risk, and that it failed to take steps that would have ‘enabled an objective and fair decision’ to be taken, the paper reported.

The judge also ordered Haringey council children’s services to pay the parents £2,000 compensation for the infringement of their Article 8 rights to “private and family life” under the European convention on human rights.

The mother said council social workers had acted “outrageously,” adding that: “They thought they were completely unaccountable – but today they have been held to account by the court. This is a landmark case for parents. One wonders how many families are out there suffering.”

In the United Kingdom it is called a “section 47 enquiry,” however a rose by any other name is still a rose. A child abuse investigation may be the most devastating “enquiry” a family may have to face, and regardless of the final outcome, there are tangible and lingering consequences.

These points were not lost on judge Thornton, who wrote:

A section 47 enquiry has in recent years become very damaging for the life, career and family relationships of many who are parenting or caring for the child being assessed. There are now extensive statutory checks that must be made about adults who are caring for or working with children or who are coming into contact with them in an educational, health, pastoral or care context. Thus, involvement in a section 47 enquiry may often result in the ending of a career involving contact with children. This will usually be for good reason but this is not always so and there will rarely be a means for those unfairly marked out by involvement in a section 47 enquiry to eradicate that stain on their professional and personal reputation.

A section 47 enquiry can of course prove to be very damaging for a child, for her parents and for their mutual relationships. In particular, the lives of parents can be badly affected if and when adverse conclusions are made about the harm that they have inflicted on their child. These can include criminal prosecution, the loss or their child, intrusive involvement in their family and private lives, loss of employment or being barred from working with children and an adverse entry on their records held by reporting authorities such as the police and various regulatory bodies. A particular trigger for any of these adverse effects is the fact that a section 47 enquiry was undertaken in relation to their child at all since its threshold is that significant harm has occurred or that there is a risk of it occurring. Thus, a section 47 enquiry, which will often be reportable by the parents concerned, can blight their lives irrespective of the nature and extent of the significant harm or of their involvement in it or of the reasonableness of the suspicion that generated the enquiry in the first place.

The United Kingdom adopted many of the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, and its Protocols are incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act of 1998. Article 8 of the Convention provides:

Article 8: Right to Respect for Private and Family Life

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

As Liberty’s Your Rights website explains it:

In many cases decided by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), interferences with privacy have been in breach of Article 8 because they have not satisfied this first condition. In order for an interference to be in accordance with law, the interference must have a proper legal basis, such as a piece of legislation or rules of a professional body. The law or rule must be understandable, detailed and clear enough to allow a person to regulate his or her behaviour – a secret, unpublished memo in a government department will not suffice, for example. Some well known scenarios involving interference that could not be justified under Article 8(2) have been the telephone tapping, or bugging, of individuals by the police using procedures and systems not authorised expressly by statute.

As this case illustrates, Section 8 may well provide a measure of legal redress for those families in Europe who have been unfairly impacted by careless child abuse investigations and/or unnecessary child removals.