Local authorities may have a duty to accommodate those who are not eligible for homelessness assistance or Home Office support under its various powers.
Section 17 support for children in need
Under s.17 of the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of ‘children in need’ within their area and, so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of children by their families by providing services that meet the child’s needs. A child without accommodation is considered to be a ‘child in need’ and local authorities are able to provide accommodation and cash to families in order to prevent children from becoming destitute.
Local authorities have a responsibility towards children in need ‘within their area’. A child may be in the local authority’s area if they are living there, staying with a relative or friend there or attending school there. It may be that more than one local authority will have a duty towards an individual child.
In order to ascertain what services a child may need, local authorities should conduct what is known as ‘a child in need assessment’. The purpose of the assessment is to gather information about the child and its family, analyse what the child’s needs are and whether it is a ‘child in need’, and then decide what services should be provided.
The government’s guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children states that a social worker should decide what type of response is required within one working day of the referral and the maximum timeframe for an assessment to be completed is 45 days. This does not prevent services, including accommodation, from being provided to the child and the family immediately. When conducting the assessment, the local authority should take into account the wishes and feelings of the child involved.
Families frequently encounter the following difficulties in obtaining s.17 support:
- Children’s services not responding to a referral
- Being told that they are not the responsibility of the local authority from which they have requested support
- Being told told that they can accommodate the child but not the parent
- Being accommodated far away from the children’s school or other services that are used by the family
- Where the family has accommodation, children’s services refusing to grant support even where the family does not have the resources to meet other essential living needs, such as buying food.
Where these situations arise or when local authorities refuse to conduct an assessment or provide accommodation and other services, the only remedy is judicial review. It is important that a client is referred to a solicitor with a legal aid contract at the earliest opportunity so that they can get support with making representations to the local authority.
Section 20 support for child victims of trafficking
A child is classed as anyone under the age of 18. Local children’s services departments are responsible for accommodating unaccompanied child victims of trafficking. They have duties under s.20(1) of the Children Act 1989 to provide accommodation to any child who appears to require accommodation if:
- There is no person with parental responsibility for them
- They are lost or abandoned
- The person who has been caring for them cannot provide them with suitable care.
They also have a duty under s.17 to safeguard and promote the welfare of ‘children in need’ within their area by providing services that meet the child’s needs.
A number of different arrangements can be made for children to be accommodated under s.20, including placing them with a foster family, in a children’s home, with a relative, friend or other connected person or, in some circumstances, in their own self-contained accommodation. Local authorities should take into account the wishes and feelings of children when deciding where to place them.
A local authority may dispute whether or not a child is under the age of 18. In these circumstances, the child should be referred to a solicitor with a public law/community care legal aid contract at the earliest opportunity. This can be very important for a young person’s immigration status and the young person should be advised to also contact their immigration solicitor for assistance.
Once a child is accommodated under s.20, they will become what is known as a ‘looked after child’ and the local authority will have a duty to maintain the child, safeguard and promote the child’s welfare and promote the child’s educational development. Local authorities must appoint a social worker who will be responsible for ensuring that the local authority provides the services that it is obliged to.
Local authorities may offer to accommodate 16 or 17-year-olds under s.17 rather than under s.20 of the Children Act 1989. The distinction between the two is important because if a child is accommodated under s.20, they will be entitled to a leaving care package when they reach the age of 18. It is really important that 16 and 17-year-olds receive legal advice on the implications of receiving such support. In some cases, the courts have found that 16 and 17-year-olds have been accommodated under s.20 even where they had agreed to be accommodated under s.17.
When a child who has been looked after by the local authority under s.20 reaches the age of 18, they may be classed as a ‘former relevant child’ and be entitled to a leaving care package, which may include, the provision of accommodation while they are in education. Whether a care leaver is entitled to a leaving care package will depend on when they were looked after and the length of time that they were looked after for. It will also depend upon the immigration status of the young adult. A care leaver should be referred to a specialist community care solicitor.