Supreme Court Clarifies Local Authorities' Duty of Care to Protect Children from Third-Party Harm

Citation: [2023] UKSC 52
Judgment on

Introduction

In the recent Supreme Court judgment HXA v Surrey County Council and the related proceedings YXA v Wolverhampton City Council, pivotal issues surrounding the common law duty of care by local authorities towards children under their purview were scrutinized. The appeal required a thorough analysis of the circumstances under which local authorities owe a duty of care at common law to protect children from harm, specifically harm caused by third parties.

Key Facts

The appellants, HXA and YXA, were children who had suffered abuse by a parent or parent’s partner. They brought negligence claims against the respective local authorities, alleging a common law duty of care to protect them from such harm. These authorities had been involved with the families for a period and had failed to prevent the abuse despite their statutory duties under the Children Act 1989. The central question revolved around whether these facts could constitute an “assumption of responsibility” by the authorities, thereby giving rise to a duty of care.

In the case of HXA, the Surrey County Council had conducted investigations and had considered taking protective measures such as initiating care proceedings and carrying out ‘keeping safe’ work, but ultimately failed to execute these plans. For YXA, Wolverhampton City Council provided respite care accommodation under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989, but did not proceed with care orders to protect the child from his parents’ abuse.

The legal framework for this judgment hinged on several key principles. Firstly, it was emphasized that statutory duties do not directly create a tortious duty of care. The focus should be on whether a private individual would owe a duty of care in similar circumstances.

Secondly, in order to establish the duty of care for omissions or failures to protect from harm, an “assumption of responsibility” by the local authority was essential. However, it was made clear that simply undertaking statutory duties does not equate to assuming such responsibility. This notion has been clarified in previous judgments such as N v Poole Borough Council, Robinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, and Michael v Chief Constable of South Wales Police.

The court further elaborated that there are circumstances under which local authorities may assume responsibility. This includes instances where a care order is in place, giving the local authority parental responsibility. Conversely, systematic statutory operations may not generate an assumption of responsibility unless they meet criteria similar to those found in private contexts, such as explicit trust and acceptance of a protective role.

Outcomes

The Supreme Court concurred with the previous decisions to strike out the claims. It held that there was no arguable case that an assumption of responsibility had been made from the assumed facts pleaded. Delving into HXA, the court found no basis for the leading of evidence at trial from which a relevant assumption of responsibility by Surrey County Council could be inferred. Similarly, for YXA, the pattern of providing respite care under Section 20 did not substantiate a more extensive assumption of responsibility by Wolverhampton City Council.

Conclusion

In this definitive ruling, the Supreme Court underscored the significance of separating statutory duties from common law duty of care and the requirement for an unequivocal assumption of responsibility. It clarified that local authorities may only be said to owe a duty of care in negligence when their actions or inactions equate to the thresholds expected from a private individual in a similar situation. This case reaffirms the stance taken in N v Poole and reinforces the court’s cautious approach towards expanding the duty of care owed by public authorities in negligence to prevent harm by third parties.

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