Legal Aid Costs

3: COUNCIL MUST PAY £500,000 FOR WRONGLY TAKING GIRL INTO CARE

Clare Dyer, legal editor
The Guardian, Friday March 17 2006
The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Thursday March 23 2006

(The headline for the article below was misleading. As the story made clear, the £500,000 was the total cost to public funds. The council was ordered to pay the parents £200,000 legal aid costs and will have to meet its own costs. The child would also have been represented and payment of those costs will be met from public funds).

A couple had their family life torn apart when social workers wrongly took their nine-year-old daughter into emergency care without good reason and kept her from her parents for 14 months, a high court judge said yesterday.

Mr Justice McFarlane castigated the social workers for “multiple failings” and criticised the family court magistrates who had granted the emergency order. The costs of the case, payable from public funds, were £500,000, including the parents’ legal aid costs of £200,000, which the judge ordered the local council to pay. The judge took the unusual step of making his judgment public after a hearing behind closed doors, although the family, the local authority and the magistrates court are all unnamed.

He laid down guidelines to prevent future miscarriages of justice which are certain to lead social services departments and magistrates courts to re-examine their practices. He said it gave him “absolutely no pleasure to have to record the multiple failings of the local authority in this case”.

But to do so was “necessary not only in order to come to a conclusion on the issues in this case, but also in order that lessons may be learned for the future”.

He said the girl’s mother had sought the help of social services and child health services because her daughter, the couple’s only child, was displaying some “modest behavioural difficulties”.

Mother and daughter had been referred to the child guidance unit for psychotherapy and the girl had been put on the local child protection register.

The notes of a social services planning meeting read: “No neglect issues. Home and care good. Mother and child have good relationship. Detrimental to move.”

But social workers suspected it was a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy – now called fabricated or induced illness (FII) -a rare form of child abuse in which a mother or carer makes a child ill or fakes illness to get attention. At the end of a case conference on the girl in November 2004, social services received a phone call from a nurse at the local hospital.

They were told that the mother had taken the girl there with stomach pains and was asking to see a doctor after the nurse found nothing wrong. Within hours and without any information from the doctor, social workers were at the magistrates court seeking an emergency protection order allowing the girl to be taken from her parents immediately.

They acted without telling the parents and without seeking any medical opinion to try to confirm their suspicions. The girl had had medical treatment before and no doctor had suggested fabricated illness.

The council’s actions were described by the mother’s counsel as “outrageous” and “inexcusable” leading, as it did, to “the destruction of this family’s ordinary life”.

Those descriptions “do not, in my view, overstate the quality of what took place on that day”, the judge said. The social services team leader, who had no detailed knowledge of the case, made 13 assertions to the magistrates, of which every one was “misleading or incomplete or wrong”.

He ruled that the council had no case to take the girl into care and made her a ward of court “to facilitate the child’s return home”.

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