Poole Borough Council v GN

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtSupreme Court
JudgeLord Reed,Lady Hale,Lord Wilson,Lord Hodge,Lady Black
Judgment Date06 June 2019
Neutral Citation[2019] UKSC 25
Date06 June 2019

[2019] UKSC 25

Supreme Court

Trinity Term

On appeal from: [2017] EWCA Civ 2185


Lady Hale, President

Lord Reed, Deputy President

Lord Wilson

Lord Hodge

Lady Black

Poole Borough Council
GN (through his litigation friend “The Official Solicitor”) and another


Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC

Iain O'Donnell

Duncan Fairgrieve

Jim Duffy

(Instructed by Leigh Day & Co)


Lord Faulks QC

Paul Stagg

Katie Ayres

(Instructed by Wansbroughs Solicitors (Devizes))

1 st Intervener

(The AIRE Centre)

Andrew Bagchi QC

Philip Havers QC

Hannah Noyce

(Instructed by Allen & Overy LLP)

2 nd and 3 rd Intervener

(Article 39 and Care Leavers Association)

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC

Aswini Weereratne QC

Nick Brown

(Instructed by Simpson Millar LLP)

4 th Intervener

(Coram Children's Legal Centre)

Deirdre Fottrell QC

Martin Downs

Tom Wilson

(Instructed by Coram Children's Legal Centre)

NB: 2nd to 4th Interveners – written submissions only

Heard on 16 and 17 July 2018

Lord Reed

( with whom Lady Hale, Lord Wilson, Lord Hodge and Lady Black agree)


This appeal is concerned with the liability of a local authority for what is alleged to have been a negligent failure to exercise its social services functions so as to protect children from harm caused by third parties. The principal question of law which it raises is whether a local authority or its employees may owe a common law duty of care to children affected by the manner in which it exercises or fails to exercise those functions, and if so, in what circumstances.

The facts

The claimants, who have been given anonymity for the purposes of these proceedings and whom I shall refer to as Colin and Graham (not their real names), seek damages for personal injuries suffered while they were children living in the area of the respondent council. There has been no investigation of the facts, but the matters on which they rely, as set out in the particulars of claim, can be summarised as follows.


In May 2006 the claimants and their mother, whom I shall refer to as Amy (not her real name), were placed by the council in a house on an estate in Poole, adjacent to another family who to the council's knowledge had persistently engaged in anti-social behaviour. Colin was then nine years old and Graham was seven. Colin is severely disabled both mentally and physically, and requires constant care. The council made extensive adaptations to the house in order to meet his needs, and provided him with a “care package” through its child health and disability team. He had an allocated social worker. The support provided in respect of Colin was kept under review over the relevant period by the child health and disability team together with Colin's social worker. A core assessment of his needs was updated in November 2006.


Following the placement an incident occurred when children belonging to the neighbouring family sat on Amy's car and kicked a football against it. When she remonstrated with them they abused and threatened her. She reported the matter to the council's chief executive. As a result the police attended and issued a warning to the neighbouring family. This resulted in their targeting Amy and her family for harassment and abuse which persisted over a period of several years. It included vandalism of Amy's car, attacks on the family home, threats of violence, verbal abuse, and physical assaults on Amy and Graham. These incidents were reported to the council. Various measures were taken against the neighbouring family, including eviction, the obtaining of injunctions, proceedings for contempt of court, anti-social behaviour orders, and the imposition of sentences of imprisonment, but the harassment nevertheless continued. When Amy's requests for assistance from the council and other agencies failed to bring the abuse to an end or to secure the rehousing of her family, she contacted councillors and Members of Parliament, prompting coverage by local and national media. This resulted in the Home Office commissioning an independent report, which was critical of the police and of the council's failure to make adequate use of powers available under anti-social behaviour legislation.


Graham expressed suicidal ideas during 2008, and in September 2009, aged ten, ran away from home leaving a suicide note. He was then provided with psychotherapy by the local health authority. A social worker undertook an initial assessment of his needs in October 2009, concluding that Amy should be referred to mental health services and that a core assessment of Graham's needs should be carried out by the council's family support team. That assessment was completed in February 2010. Graham was then allocated the same social worker as Colin. In May 2010 the strategic manager for children's services acknowledged that the initial assessment had been flawed. In July 2010 a child protection strategy meeting decided that the risk of Graham's harming himself should be managed under a child in need plan rather than through the child protection system. The child in need plan was completed later that month. In November 2010 the council concluded that its assessment of Graham's needs had been flawed and that a revised core assessment should be undertaken by Graham's social worker. Following its completion in June 2011, the council decided to undertake an investigation in relation to Graham under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 (“the 1989 Act”). The following month a child protection conference decided to make Graham subject to a child protection plan.


In the meantime it had been decided that the family should be rehoused away from the estate. A suitable house was identified, and the necessary adaptations were made. Amy and the children moved into their new home in December 2011.


It is alleged that the abuse and harassment which the children underwent between May 2006 and December 2011 caused them physical and psychological harm.

The history of the proceedings

The claim form which instituted the present proceedings was issued on behalf of Amy and the children in December 2014, following the striking-out of an earlier claim issued in 2012. The council is the sole defendant. Particulars of claim were served in April 2015. They advanced allegations under two limbs. The first was to the effect that the council, in the exercise of its housing functions, owed Amy and the children a duty of care to protect them from abuse and anti-social behaviour by rehousing them. The second limb was to the effect that the council owed the children a duty of care in relation to the exercise of its functions under sections 17 and 47 of the 1989 Act, which are explained below, and failed to protect them from harm by allowing them to continue to live on the estate.


In April 2015 the council applied for the claim to be struck out. On 2 October 2015 Master Eastman acceded to the application and struck out the claim. The main focus of the hearing before him was on the first limb of the claim, and he dealt relatively briefly with the second limb. Referring to X (Minors) v Bedfordshire County Council [1995] 2 AC 633 and to the discussion in Charlesworth & Percy on Negligence, 10th ed (2001), he concluded that no duty of care arose out of the statutory powers and duties of local authorities under the 1989 Act.


The claimants appealed in relation to the second limb of the claim only. On 16 February 2016 Slade J allowed the appeal: [2016] EWHC 569 (QB); [2016] HLR 26. She considered that the principal issue arising was whether the decision of the Court of Appeal in D v East Berkshire Community NHS Trust [2003] EWCA Civ 1151; [2004] QB 558, in which it declined to strike out a child's claim against a local authority arising from action which it had taken to separate her from her father following a negligent investigation of suspected child abuse, had been impliedly overruled by the decisions of the House of Lords in Mitchell v Glasgow City Council [2009] UKHL 11; [2009] AC 874 and of this court in Michael v Chief Constable of South Wales [2015] UKSC 2; [2015] AC 1732. She concluded that it had not, and that there was no absolute bar to a negligence claim by a child against a local authority for failure to safeguard him or her against abuse. Whether a common law duty of care was owed by the council to the claimants would in her view depend upon a full examination of the facts. By an order of the same date she gave the claimants permission to amend their particulars of claim.


Amended particulars of claim were served in March 2016. These allege both a common law duty of care owed by the council and a duty of care owed by its social workers, social work managers and other staff allocated to the claimants or tasked with investigating their situation, for the breach of which the council is said to be vicariously liable. It is said that the claimants “rely in terms of the statutory backdrop giving rise to a common law duty of care on the statutory duty to safeguard the welfare and promote the upbringing of all children in a local authority's geographical area, as set out in sections 17 and 47 of [the 1989 Act].”


In relation to the council itself, it is said that it had a duty to protect children in its area, and in particular children reported to it as being at foreseeable risk of harm. Such a risk is alleged to have been communicated to the council in the present case from July 2006, placing it under a duty to investigate whether the claimants were at foreseeable...

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2 firm's commentaries
  • UKSC: Public authority liability for negligence
    • United Kingdom
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