horwich farrelly

Poole Borough Council v GN 2019 UKSC 25

June, 7, 2019

The Supreme Court have issued a judgment in the case of Poole Borough Council v GN 2019 UK SC 25, dismissing the Appeal and finding that the local authority owed no duty of care to the claimants in the circumstances of this case.

Background facts

The claimants and their mother were placed in a local authority house which was adjacent to a family who were known to the local authority as persistently engaging in anti social behaviour.  Shortly after the family moved in, the children from the neighbouring family sat on and kicked a ball against the claimants’ mother car. When she challenged this, she was threatened and abused. As a result, the claimants’ mother reported the incident to the local authority and the police issued the neighbouring family with a warning. Thereafter, the claimants’ family was subject to harassment and abuse which took place from May 2006 until the claimants’ family was re-housed in December 2011. The claimants sought damages for physical and psychological injuries sustained as a result of this harassment and abuse. They alleged that their injuries were caused by the local authority’s negligent failure to exercise its statutory powers under the Children Act 1989.

Main Question for the Court

Did the local authority or its employees owed a common law duty of care to children affected by the way in which it exercised its social services functions and if so, in what circumstances?

It was accepted by the claimants that the 1989 Act does not create a statutory cause of action. However, it was alleged that the local authority was liable at common law for breaches of duties of care in relation to its performance of statutory functions under the 1989 Act.

Decision

The Supreme Court held that a public authority does not owe a duty of care at common law, simply because they have statutory powers or duties. However, in certain situations, for example where the local authority has created a source of danger or has assumed a responsibility to protect a claimant from harm, a common law duty can arise.

In this case, it was not alleged that the local authority had harmed the claimants but rather that it had assumed a responsibility for them and that the local authority ought to have exercised its powers in terms of the 1989 Act and removed the children from their home, at least into temporary care. However, the Supreme Court was of the view that the local authority’s role in these circumstances did not amount to an assumption of responsibility towards the claimants and therefore, no duty of care arose. In particular, the court highlighted that in order to obtain a care order under the 1989 Act, it would have been essential for the local authority to establish that the claimants were suffering or were likely to suffer substantial harm attributable to a lack of parental care. In this case, the harm alleged was caused by the conduct of a neighbouring family and in these circumstances, there were no grounds for removal of the children from the home by the local authority.

Separately, the claimants alleged that the local authority were vicariously liable for the negligent acting of its employees and in particular, social workers in its employment. The Supreme Court outlined that the existence of a duty of care under tort law depended upon whether the employees had assumed a responsibility towards the claimants by the provision of an undertaking that the performance of a task or the provision of service would be carried out with reasonable care. The undertaking may be express or implied. However, in this case, the claimants had failed to set out any basis on which such a responsibility would be established.

What should we take from the decision?

The Supreme Court’s decision that there was no duty of care in these circumstances of this case will provide some reassurance to already under pressure local authorities concerned about the possible expansion of their responsibilities beyond what was envisioned by the statute. Although the Supreme Court has held that no duty of care existed in this case, it should still be noted that there may be instances where a local authority may owe a common law duty of care in situations where the court is satisfied that they have created a source of danger or assumed a responsibility to protect a claimant from harm.

    Publication Authors:

  • Val Pitt
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