Respecting the right to family life: the Human Rights Act, parents with learning disabilities and access to justice

By Sanchita Hosali and Natalie Threfall at British Institute of Human Rights

“Human beings are social animals. They depend on others. Their family, or extended family, is the group on which many people most heavily depend, socially, emotionally and often financially. There comes a point at which, for some, prolonged and unavoidable separation from this group seriously inhibits their ability to live full and fulfilling lives.” (Huang, 2007)

The right to respect for family life protected by the Human Rights Act (in Article 8) goes to the heart of decisions involving children and care, reminding us to consider the both the rights of a child as an individual and their rights as a member of a family. Yet it is a human right that is often misunderstood in practice (and sometimes maligned in headlines and sound-bites). A recent decision in the family court, Re DE (A Child) [2014] EWFC 6, is a reminder that the local authority and its staff need to understand that consideration of the Human Rights Act is an important part of making fair and lawful decisions that respect the rights of the child and the family.

What happened?

The case concerned D, the child of a couple with learning disabilities. D had been subject to a care plan from birth, and had been living at home with his parents who were supported by the local authority. The local authority had become concerned that D’s welfare was deteriorating and made plans for D to be taken into foster care. This would be followed by a hearing to determine the future of the care plan. The parents’ solicitors asked the courts for an injunction preventing D from being taken into care before the care plan hearing. They said the injunction should be given using powers under the Human Rights Act, because removing D before the hearing was a disproportionate restriction on their right to respect for family life. The first judge rejected this as he did not believe he had the power to grant such an injunction.

Challenging the interim care decision on human rights grounds

At the higher court Mr Justice Baker found that the first judge had limited himself and his powers wrongly when refusing to grant an injunction under the Human Rights Act. Local authorities have a duty under section 6 of the Human Rights Act to make sure all their decisions respect the rights in the HRA. In D’s case the authorities had failed to respect the Article 8 rights to the family (discussed below). Therefore the courts, which also have a duty under section 6 to respect human rights in their decision making, can rely on the Human Rights Act to prevent an unjust decision. This means if a judge has the power to grant an injunction, a power which has recently been granted to the family courts, then they can grant an injunction under the Human Rights Act.

Did the care decision therefore violate the rights of D or his parents?

The right to respect for family life is a qualified right, this means officials can restrict this right when there is a law in place to allow such a restriction and when it meets one of the aims set out in the Act, e.g. to protect the rights of others. In any event, any restriction of the right should be proportionate. This means all alternatives should be considered, and the decision maker should not simply jump straight to the most restrictive option.

In cases of removing a child from the family home, looking at the situation through a Human Rights Act lens means recognising that the child and the family have rights which should be respected unless the tests of lawfulness, legitimate aim, and proportionately justify restriction. For example, where a child is at danger of serious harm or neglect the Human Rights Act places a positive obligation on officials to step in and take action (this underpins safeguarding).

In D’s case he was not in immediate danger, nor was there any threat of future danger. Yet he was taken into foster care before the hearing to determine the future of the care plan and the child’s best interests. If, after a full and proper hearing had been carried out, it was found to be in D’s best interests for him to be taken into foster care, the interference with his and his parents’ Article 8 rights would be justified. However, to take him into care when he was not in danger and before evidence could be heard from his parents failed to take the family’s human rights into account.

What does this mean?

D’s case simply (but importantly) clarifies that in such situations parents can apply to the courts for an injunction under the Human Rights Act. Whether the removal decision breached human rights, is a matter which must be decided at a full hearing.

However, it does have a broader significance in reminding officials about the importance of taking human rights into account at every stage of the decision making process. We have blogged before about cases where decisions that drastically alter peoples’ lives have been made before their human rights have been considered and the proper safeguards put in place, such as in RR v Milton Keynes Council where the local authority failed to apply for authorisation to remove an elderly woman from her home. The decision in Re D highlights once again the weight local authorities must put on all rights when making their decisions.

Hold on, there is an access to justice issue too

D’s case also raises access to justice questions, an issue of growing concern with recent changes to legal aid, which have had a particular impact in family and civil cases. Because of the specific nature of the original care plan and the changes that were being enacted, under the Children Act 1989 the family fell into a gap that left them without non-means tested legal aid. As the father had a steady, but low paying job, he was unable to access legal aid and his solicitors and barrister acted pro bono.

Justice Baker highlights this gap as being a real barrier to accessing justice, particularly for adults with learning disabilities involved in care proceedings. Being unable to challenge a local authority’s care decision potentially leaves many families separated and unable to challenge violations to their rights. In particularly serious cases, being unable to contest life altering decisions may also risk falling foul of the right to a fair trial under the Human Rights Act (Article 6), which applies in many civil issues including family law.

At the end of his judgment, Justice Baker specifically calls this point to the attention of the President of the family courts, Sir Justice Munby. This week he made the important decision to suspend proceedings in a case where contact arrangements for a child were complicated by his father’s inability to access representation or translation services (Q v Q).

That case deals with contact arrangements between a father (who was a registered sex offender) and his child. As part of the hearing both sides put their case and evidence to the judge, however in this case legal aid for the father has been discontinued, and without translation or representation he cannot take part in the case. Justice Munby said:

“that there could be circumstances in which, without the assistance of a legally qualified representative, a litigant might be denied [their right to a fair hearing] … these are matters which are required to be investigated in justice not merely to the father, but I emphasise equally importantly to the son, as well as in the wider public interest of other litigants in a similar situation to that of the father here … there is the risk that, if one has a process which is not fair to one of the parents, that unfairness may in the final analysis rebound to the disadvantage of the child.”

As a result, he has suspended proceedings, inviting the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to intervene in the case and explain how the costs of the case, which is “necessary and fair”, should be met. If necessary, he says, it may be the court, as a public body with a duty to respect human rights as described above, which must meet the costs of the case and ensure access to justice. We await the Minister’s response…

 

 

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