Social Services Inquiry 'Unlawful'

The parents of a young girl have won High Court damages over an "unlawful" decision by social services to investigate whether their child was being ill-treated or was at risk of suffering significant harm.

A judge ruled there was no basis on which the London Borough of Haringey's social workers should have started the inquiry - including approaching the child's GP and her school.

Judge Anthony Thornton, sitting at London's High Court, declared:

"There was no evidential, reasonable basis upon which the inquiry could have been launched.

"The defendant (Haringey) acted unlawfully in not seeking (the parents') consent before approaching their child's GP and school and without seeking information from them."

The judge quashed the decision to commence the investigation, made under Section 47 of the 1989 Children Act, in May 2011.

He also ordered Haringey to pay the parents, referred to as AB and CD, £2,000 to compensate them for the infringement of their Article 8 rights to "private and family life" under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The child's mother, "AB", who cannot be named for legal reasons, later described what had happened to her family as "a nightmare".

She said council social workers had acted "outrageously" and added:

"They thought they were completely unaccountable - but today they have been held to account by the court.

"This is a landmark case for parents. One wonders how many families are out there suffering."

It was revealed in court that the mother is herself a self-employed consultant working in the field of child protection and her husband a senior social worker.

The judge said the decision to make inquiries about the six-year-old child was taken by Sylvia Chew, the head of Haringey's Service for First Response (SFR), responsible for frontline child protection work.

SFR had reacted to what was "highly likely" to have been a "malicious" tip-off.

An unsigned letter dated March 11 2011, addressed to the council's "social services child abuse department", was received by SFR on April 15, said the judge.

The anonymous writer claimed to be a neighbour of the family and wrote of having "some very big worries about how they are looking after the young girl in the house".

The writer asked Haringey: "Please could you make sure that the little girl is all right."

The mother was described as "always shouting and screaming at the little girl" and had been seen "pulling the little girl along by her arm and slapping her".

The letter went on:

"The little girl looks so unhappy. She is not allowed to speak to anyone and when you see her in the street the little girl looks very sad and never raises her head to look at you."

The judge said the only indication of a decision to launch an investigation under Section 47, which allows in-depth inquiries, was Ms Chew's letter of May 5 2011 stating that "this department will be undertaking a Section 47 investigation".

An SFR screening team made background inquiries which showed that the child had not come to the attention of the police.

On April 26 2011 the team sent an information request form to the child's GP without first obtaining the consent of the parents, said the judge.

The form stated that SFR was "currently working with the family" after a member of the public had reported "emotional and physical abuse".

The form sought information about the child's health history, ongoing needs and about "possible abuse risk indicators".

The judge said the GP was "perturbed" because the request form had not been signed by one of the child's parents.

When he telephoned SFR, he was informed by a team member that, at that stage, "all that was asked for was the parents' names and contact numbers and whether the GP had any concerns about the child".

The GP said the family were well-known to him and he had no concerns.

The screening team also emailed the nurse at the child's school and asked whether the school had any information to add.

The judge said:

"There was no answer from the school, which is not surprising since the parents' consent to make these inquiries had not previously been obtained."

The team was, however, able to obtain "no fewer than three mobiles and one landline telephone numbers for the family" from the school and was also told the child was not known to social services.

The case was then referred to Haringey's First Response Team 1 (FRT1), and a student social worker member was tasked to contact the family and carry out further checks.

The judge said the social worker, Mr Mamattah, telephoned one of the mobile numbers.

"At that moment, CD (the father) was driving AB and himself back from a visit to his father and, having stopped the car at the side of the road, he answered the call at about 2.00pm."

When Mr Mamattah explained that he was calling about his daughter, AB said he was "flabbergasted" and that Mr Mamattah should speak to his wife, who worked in child protection.

The judge said AB "reacted strongly". With her knowledge of child protection procedures, it seemed to her that Haringey had made several serious errors in the way it had dealt with her daughter's case.

The judge ruled that AB had legitimate grounds for complaint.

He said both parents were entitled to an order quashing "the purported Section 47 inquiry decision", and a declaration that, in any event, no proper decision had been taken.

The child was not at risk of significant harm and it was highly likely that the anonymous referral was malicious.