The Supreme Court handed down their judgment today in the case of two children, known only as CN & GN, against Poole Borough Council.
In an important decision on the liability of social welfare services and public authorities more generally, the UK Supreme Court has considered the extent to which local authorities and their employees owe a common law duty to protect children from harm caused by third parties.
The case on behalf of the children, who were represented by law firm Leigh Day, was that the local authority had been under a common law duty to protect them from harm after it became involved with their family having placed them in accommodation adjacent to another family known to have persistently engaged in anti-social behaviour. Following their placement, the two boys (one of whom was severely disabled) and their mother suffered years of physical and mental abuse, at one stage leading the older boy to run away from home leaving a suicide note. Their case had been struck out before a Queen’s Bench Master, before being reinstated upon appeal to the High Court. That judgment was then overturned by the Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal's decision that the claim should be struck out, on the facts of this particular case. However, in its judgment the court made an important ruling that a duty of care could be owed by local authorities when undertaking their social welfare functions. In so doing, the Court explicitly departed from the previous decision of the House of Lords in X (Minors) v Bedfordshire  2 AC 633. Importantly for all such cases in future, the Court reaffirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal in D v East Berkshire Community NHS Trust  EWCA Civ 1151; the Court of Appeal in the instant case had been mistaken to find that D v East Berkshire had been impliedly overturned by the decision in Michael v Chief Constable of South Wales Police  UKSC.
Emma Jones of solicitor from Leigh Day who represented CN and GN, said:
“Whilst our clients are disappointed that the Justices decided that their case should remain struck out on the facts they welcome the fact that the Supreme Court Justices were with them on a number of our grounds of appeal and are pleased that by bringing this case they have helped to clarify the law and move it on for other individuals. This Supreme Court judgment today is an incredibly important decision for so many cases that have been in limbo since the court of appeal judgment as it confirms that local authorities could owe a duty of care when undertaking their social welfare functions. This is a departure from the law on the issue as it was left following the Court of Appeal judgment and I hope that local authorities recognise the importance of this decision when considering work practices.”