S17 Children Act 1989 – absolute duty – target duty – accommodation
The principal issue before the House of Lords in these three appeals was the nature and extent of the duty imposed by section 17 Children Act 1989. The claimants argued that s17(1) requires a local authority to assess the needs of a child in need and imposes an absolute duty to meet that child’s needs once they have been assessed. The Court also considered whether a local authority could insist on providing accommodation to a child alone, as distinct from a child and mother, when a child was in need of accommodation and it would cost no more to provide accommodation for the two of them.
The Law Lords held that s17(1) Children Act 1989 imposed a general and overriding duty to maintain a level and range of services sufficient to enable the authority to discharge its functions under the Part III of the Act. The correct analysis of s17(1) was that it set out duties of a general character which were intended to be for the benefit of children in need in the local social services authority’s area in general. The other and specific duties which then followed had to be performed in each individual case by reference to the general duties which section 17(1) set out. S17 was broadly expressed with a view to giving the greatest possible scope to the local social services authority as to what it chose to do. The proposition that the effect of assessing the needs of a child was to crystallise the general duty under s17, so that it became a specific duty owed to that individual child, was not consistent with the statute.
Although the services which the authority could provide included the provision of accommodation, the provision of residential accommodation to house a child in need so that he could live with his family was not the principal or primary purpose of the legislation. Housing was the function of the local housing authority, for the acquisition and management of whose housing stock detailed provisions were contained in the Housing Acts. Provisions of that kind were entirely absent from the Children Act 1989. The expenditure of limited resources on the provision of residential accommodation for housing children with their families would be bound to mean that there was less available for expenditure on other services designed for the performance of the general duty which s17(1) had identified. It could also have the effect of turning the local social services authority into another kind of housing authority, with a different set of priorities for the provision of housing than those laid down for the local housing authority.
Their Lordships drew a distinction in the case of disabled children, noting that social services departments are subject to particular statutory obligations regarding the needs of disabled children.