In a perfected Judgment issued and approved on 16 January 2013, the Court of Appeal answered the question – can a Court make a child a ward of court at their own initiative or on the application of the parents when a child is accommodated by a local authority?
The Court of Appeal concluded: Yes – this is an option open to the Judge.
The question arose in an appeal brought by the parents of E against a Judgment of HHJ Bellamy sitting as a Judge of the High Court at Coventry District Registry. Martin Downs acted pro bono for the parents assisted by Aviva Le Prevost.
The child (then 15) suffered from reactive attachment disorder and no longer lived with her adoptive parents and was accommodated by the Local Authority – they having previously declined to offer respite care. The child was sexually assaulted within days of being accommodated by the LA who has unsuccessfully sought secrecy orders in the High Court to prevent the parents being told. The Judge found that the LA had repeatedly disregarded the written agreement they themselves had drawn up governing their relationship with the parents.
The Judge, supported by the parents, wanted to make the child a ward of court but decided he was precluded from doing so where the child was accommodated by a Local Authority (pursuant to section 20 Children Act 1989). Instead the Judge made a Care Order, as sought by the Local Authority and supported by the Children’s Guardian.
The parents appealed and were represented by Martin Downs, supported by Aviva Le Prevost and instructed by Geoffrey Goldkorn of by Goldkorn Mathias Gentle. All acted pro bono.
The appeal was opposed by the LA who instructed Lorna Meyer QC and Elizabeth McGrath and the Children’s Guardian who instructed Elizabeth Walker.
The Court found that the intention and purpose of section 100 of the Children Act 1989 was to prevent a Court circumventing all the procedural safeguards of care proceedings and requiring a child to be placed in the care of a Local Authority. However, the Court had the discretion to make a child a ward of Court where a child was voluntarily accommodated (as here). The child was made a ward of court.
The Court has preserved a possible power for Judges to use in exceptional circumstances. In so doing, the Court of Appeal confirmed the Judgment of Headley J in Re F Mental Health Act Guardianship  1 FLR 192, which is the only other reported example of this power being used in circumstances like this.
It is instructive to note that Wardship was considered to be in the best interests of the child in both cases despite the factual circumstances being polar opposites in that in Re F the parents had simply refused to co-operate with a Local Authority whereas in Re E, the problem had been that the Local Authority had not been prepared to keep to the agreement they had made with the adoptive parents.
The case is also interesting as an example of the use of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 Practice Directions as a persuasive summation of current law. Lord Justice Thorpe went out of his way to remark on the care and expertise that went into their drafting.
This confirms that the use of Wardship, while greatly diminished since the introduction of the Children Act 1989 is still available in exceptional circumstances – even when a child is voluntarily accommodated by a LA.