Section 20 imposes a duty on the Local Authority to provide a child with somewhere to live when he or she has no home, or where a person with parental responsibility cannot provide or arrange for suitable accommodation for him/her.
Clients are often asked to voluntarily agree to the children being accommodated by the Local Authority under s.20. They are given to believe that they have no other option than to agree, resulting in the children being placed into foster care. Children may remain in foster care for substantial amounts of time before a decision is made to issue care proceedings or it is considered safe for the children to return home.
All parents should be aware that bail conditions that prevent unsupervised contact with children do not remove their parental responsibility. Parental responsibility enables such a parent to specify where their child should live should they not be in a position to care for them. The children can be placed with family members, or family friends; there is no requirement for them to be placed in foster care unless these options are unavailable or unsuitable.
Clients often inform us that they have been told that the Local Authority must complete risk assessments or checks of family members or family friends BEFORE children are placed with them. This is simply not the case. The Local Authority has no role to play in where the children are placed if the parent is in a position to exercise their parental responsibility.
There has been a spate of case law concerning the improper use of s.20 by Local Authorities. The President of the Family Division, Munby P focused on the misuse and abuse of s.20 in N (Children) (Adoption: Jurisdiction)  EWCA Civ 1112 – “There is, I fear, far too much misuse and abuse of section 20 and this can no longer be tolerated” and “steps must be taken as a matter of urgency to ensure that there is no repetition ever again”.
In this case, there was a seven month delay between the child being accommodated under the auspices of s.20 and care proceedings being issued. Munby P endorsed the role of s.20 as a short term measure in some cases, but deplored its use for this length of time as a prelude to care proceedings.
Parents should also be aware that if they have given their agreement to s.20, this can be revoked at any time. No notice period is required and the Local Authority is obliged to return the child to the parents or persons identified by the parents immediately. Any continued placement of the child in foster care is unlawful without a Court Order or consent.
Should you find yourself in such a position, please contact a member of our Family Team who will be happy to advise you as to your rights and the correct course of action available to you. Please always seek legal advice before signing a s.20 consent.