In situations where the Local Authority have significant concerns regarding a child’s safety and well-being whilst in the care of their parents, the Local Authority may seek what is known as Section 20 consent from the parents (or from any other person with parental responsibility for the Child) for the Child to become looked after by the Local Authority, usually in a foster placement.
The Local Authority cannot place a child in foster care where a parent or other person with parental responsibility objects. If the Local Authority is satisfied that the child’s best interests can only be met by providing accommodation for him or her, and the parent does not agree to Section 20 Voluntary Accommodation, the Local Authority will issue Care Proceedings or seek Police Protection.
It is important to note that where a Local Authority looks after a Child with Parental Consent, the Local Authority does not acquire parental responsibility for the Child. This is retained by the Parent or any other party who had parental responsibility for the Child prior to the Child being looked after.
A Parent, at all times, has the right to withdraw their Section 20 consent. However, it would be highly inadvisable to take such an important step without first taking legal advice. Particularly, in cases where the Local Authority’s concerns are so significant, that without such consent, it is likely that they would issue an urgent application to the Court to secure an Interim Care Order for the Child to continue to be looked after.
Whereby there is a Child Arrangements Order (Residence) or Special Guardianship Order in place, in favour of another person, then parents cannot object or remove a child from section 20 voluntary accommodation if the person with whom the child lives, agrees to section 20.
Section 20 does not place a time limit on how long the child can remain accommodated. However, where there are concerns around safeguarding and promoting the child’s welfare, the Local Authority should consider longer term planning for the Children.
The inappropriate use of Section 20 was recently discussed in the case of Worcestershire County Council v AA  EWHC 1855 (Fam). Within this case, a 13 year old child had spent 8 years in local authority foster care under a section 20 voluntary accommodation agreement.
Within his Judgement, Mr Justice Keehan drew upon recent case law around section 20 and provided examples of when section 20 should be used and misuses of section 20.
Some key points to take from this case are as follows: –
- Section 20 consent should always be provided voluntarily and not under any duress;
- Parents or persons maintaining parental responsibility for the child should be provided with a full explanation of their rights under section 20 and the Local Authority’s responsibilities.
- Parents or persons maintaining parental responsibility for the child should be advised also of their rights under other provisions of the Children Act 1989; particularly in relation to promotion and maintenance of contact between the Child and their Family.
- Constructive planning for the Child’s future should be carried out;
- Section 20 should not be used as an alternative to the issue of Public Law Proceedings or to provide accommodation and to delay the issue of Public Law Proceedings.
- Whilst it is not a breach of Section 20 to keep a child in accommodation for a long period of time without bringing care proceedings, it may be a breach of other duties under the Act and Regulations or unreasonable in public law terms to do so.
It is of significant importance that you seek legal advice immediately after voluntarily consenting or not consenting to section 20 voluntary accommodation. Local Authority involvement can have a significant impact upon your family life and as such, you should seek appropriate advice from a Child Care Solicitor.
Case Reference Worcestershire County Council v AA  EWHC 1855 (Fam)
Blog by Annabella Dolling, Paralegal