R (on the application of O and the child’s mother and litigation friend MS PO) v LONDON BOROUGH OF LAMBETH (2016)
Keywords: Reasonableness, defensible decision making, assessment, child in need
This case was a judicial review of Lambeth council’s refusal to provide a child and her mother with accommodation and support as a child in need under s.17 Children Act 1989. The mother had NRPF as a result of her immigration status. However the local authority was obliged to consider whether to provide support to the child on the grounds that the family was destitute, as the mother claimed.
The mother had been in the UK since 2007 and the child had been born in 2010. They had lived with friends and family since the child’s birth.
The mother initially requested an assessment in April 2015. At that time, the assessing social worker concluded that the mother had sufficient resources to provide for the child relying on evidence of the mother’s income from her bank statement, combined with receipt of Children’s tax credit and child benefit for the child by the person with whom they were living.
In July 2015 the mother again applied for support, claiming to have been evicted and to have no access to accommodation. The council provided emergency accommodation and carried out a further assessment. Bank statements at that time showed no income. However they also showed that payments into the mother’s bank account had ceased immediately after the first assessment and the mother was unwilling to provide a reason for this.
Lambeth’s social worker concluded that the family was not destitute on the grounds that the mother appeared to have ceased to have her income paid into her bank account in order to give the impression that she was destitute.
He also concluded that the family had been living with friends and family for the previous 8 years and, therefore, that they had access to more extensive support network than the mother was claiming. During the second assessment the mother declined to explain why they were evicted and, despite the mother’s claim that they had no-one with whom to stay, the child had mentioned that they sometimes stayed with friends or family.
The claimant sought judicial review on the grounds that the social worker’s findings were irrational.
ANALYSIS: This case demonstrates once again the high threshold of “unreasonableness” and the wide discretion available to local authorities to make lawful decisions provided their approach is robust and defensible. It provides some useful specific guidance as to the latitude given to professional social work judgement in reaching conclusions. It demonstrates that drawing inferences from behaviour and omissions is reasonable provided that sufficiently thorough and diligent enquiries are made to gather relevant information and, crucially, that the client is given an opportunity to explain any apparent discrepancies. Mere ‘feel’ is not enough, there does need to be a defensible, rational basis for the conclusion on the evidence (including evidence of gaps and omissions).