Landmark judgment rules that Local Authorities can face legal action if they fail to protect vulnerable children

This morning the Supreme Court has handed down a landmark judgment in the case of Poole Borough Council v GN (through the Official Solicitor, his litigation friend) and Another. The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that local authorities can be held legally accountable if they fail to protect vulnerable young people and children in their area who are considered to be at risk, regardless of whether they are officially in care. The Supreme Court’s approach differs to that of the Court of Appeal in this case, which held in December 2017 that local authorities could no longer be held liable for negligence when a child suffered harm due to their failure to act. Such cases had been possible since 2003, when the Court of Appeal decided the important case of D v East Berkshire Community NHS Trust [2003] EWCA Civ 1151; [2004] QB 558. The Court of Appeal’s ruling raised very serious concerns for those who have experienced abuse in care and custodial settings and who seek legal redress and accountability.

The Court of Appeal in the Poole case held that the case of D v East Berkshire had been implicitly overruled by Michael v Chief Constable of South Wales [2015] UKSC 2; [2015] AC 1732. The Michael case concerned the question whether the police owed a duty of care to a person who made an emergency call reporting threats of violence by a third party; the Supreme Court decided by a majority that no duty of care was owed by the police.

Today, the Supreme Court has unequivocally held that the Court of Appeal was “mistaken: the decision in D v East Berkshire has not been overruled by any subsequent decision” (paragraph 75). The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal of CN and GN on the facts of their case, but for reasons which differ significantly from those of the Court of Appeal.

Aswini Weereratne QC, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Nick Brown acted for two interveners in the case, Article 39 and The Care Leavers’ Association, instructed by Peter Garsden and Oliver Studdert, Simpson Millar. Article 39 and the Care Leavers’ Association intervened because they were “extremely concerned about justice being denied to the children, young people and adults we serve.”

Today, the charities and their solicitors at Simpson Millar have welcomed the ruling, saying it provides protection for victims and clarity for local authorities. More details are available in this press release from Article 39 and the Care Leavers’ Association and in Simpson Millar’s press release, here.

The Supreme Court’s judgment is available here.