A couple whose children were unlawfully removed by a local authority have been awarded £10,000 each in damages for a breach of their right to a family life.
The case is one of the first where damages have been awarded under the Human Rights Act in childcare proceedings.
Deputy High Court judge Sir Robert Francis QC said: ‘If ever there was a case illustrating the challenges that face children, parents, public authorities and the court when concerns are raised about the safety and welfare of the children it is this.’
In Williams & Anon v London Borough of Hackney, a husband and wife took the local authority to court for wrongly placing their eight children in foster care.
The eight were removed from their parents after one of the children was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting eight years ago. According to the judgment the child told police that he had been beaten by his father with a belt.
When police visited the home they declared it was not in a fit state for the children to live in, and took them away.
Francis said: ‘A swift consideration of the welfare issues concluded that if some simple improvements were made to their home, the children could return home. Yet it was two months before the children returned to their parents after experiencing a variety of foster placements, some of which were of dubious quality.’
Hackney council in London said that the parents had given their consent under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 for their children to be kept away from them for longer than the 72 hours allowed under the police order.
But the judge said no valid consent was obtained as there was no evidence the parents were told to seek legal advice and because their distressed state led them to believe they would never see their children again unless they signed the agreement.
The judge said that although the initial separation was justified, it was unlawful for the authority to keep the children beyond 72 hours.
He said: ‘This was undoubtedly a close family presided over by loving parents. They were extremely distressed by the continued separation from their children and constantly voiced their anxieties in that regard to the defendants. They witnessed the adverse effects of foster care on more than one of their children, one of whom was a baby who was just being breast fed.’
In light of this, the judge awarded the parents £10,000 each.
Commenting on the case, Tom Harrill, a barrister at St Ives Chambers said: 'This case, following on from Northamptonshire CC v AS  EWHC 199 (Fam) and Re H (A Child: Breach of Convention Rights: Damages)  EWFC 38, demonstrates the courts’ increasing willingness to make an award of damages under the Human Rights Act 1998 in relation to local authority failures in the course of care proceedings.
‘Family practitioners will need to be ever more alive to these issues and the way in which the court is dealing with them both within - and following the conclusion of - care proceedings.’