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Lawrence v Pembrokeshire County Council [2006] EWHC 1029 (QB)

Local authority’s application to strike out negligence claim regarding child abuse issues granted.

Queen's Bench Division: Field J (11 May 2006)

Local authority's application to strike out negligence claim regarding child abuse issues granted.

The claimant in the main proceedings brought an action against the local authority in negligence, and also under sections 6 and 7(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 (the HRA) for breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), in respect of the way that social workers employed by the local authority dealt with her and her four children. In particular, she claimed that her children's names should never have been placed on the Child Protection Register; and, as a consequence of the way that she and the children were treated, she suffered psychiatric injury.

Between 1999 and 2003, a strategy meeting, a Child Protection Conference (CPC) and three review CPCs were held, involving various members of the family and representatives of the local authority, and differing conclusions were reached as to whether the children's names should remain on the 'at risk' register. In December 2004, following a complaint by the claimant, a report by the Ombudsman found that there had been several instances of maladministration, and recommended that the local authority should pay to the claimant £5,000 in recognition of her distress and damage to her reputation and of her time and trouble in pursuing her complaints.

In the main proceedings, the claimant's principal submissions were that: (1) with the coming into effect of the HRA, the courts should hold that a duty of care was owed by the investigating professionals acting after 2 October 2000 to a parent who was suspected of abusing his or her children and who was foreseeably at risk of suffering a consequential infringement of his or her right under Article 8 of the ECHR to respect for his or her family life; and (2) on the pleaded facts of the instant case, there was sufficient proximity between the social workers and the claimant for a duty of care to be owed to her as well as to her children. By these present proceedings, the local authority sought to strike out the claimant's action in negligence or obtain summary judgment under CPR 1998, r 24.2.

Counsel for the claimant, in submitting that the conflict between the interests of the child and the parent suspected of harming it should no longer be a reason for holding that no duty of care was owed by investigating professionals to a parent suspected of child abuse, strongly relied on the judgment of the Court of Appeal in D v East Berkshire Community Health NHS Trust [2003] EWCA Civ 1151, [2004] QB 558. Conversely, the local authority contended that the claim in negligence must fail by reason of the House of Lords' decision in the same case ([2005] UKHL 23, [2005] 2 AC 373).

Held, striking out the claim in negligence and granting summary judgment on the claim, that the claim was bad in law and was bound to fail.

The court took account of the fact that D was decided by the House of Lords as recently as April 2005, and had been followed and applied by the Court of Appeal in AD and Others v Bury Metropolitan Borough Council [2006] EWCA Civ 1; it concluded that the policy reason given by all four of their Lordships in the majority for declaring that a duty of care was not owed by investigating professionals to parents suspected of child abuse – namely, the avoidance of conflicting duties that could prejudice the interest of the child – was not rendered invalid or otherwise inapplicable by the fact that, in a case based on acts and omissions occurring after 2 October 2000, such a parent may have a claim for breach of Article 8.

The court expressed the view that, if it was against the public interest that professionals investigating child abuse should owe a duty of care to parents suspected of such abuse, the common law should not pretend that the public interest was something different merely to keep pace with Convention jurisprudence. Indeed, the way forward was to apply Article 8(2) so as to give effect to the public interest identified in D. Thus, if the interest of children suspected of being victims of child abuse demanded that the investigating professionals should owe no duty of care to parents suspected of being responsible for the abuse, the courts should hold that the removal of a child or the inclusion of its name on the 'at risk' register, due to an honest but mistaken view that the abuse was the work of one or both of the parents, was necessary in a democratic society.

Read the full text of the judgment here