Care ruling will impact rural councils

The plight of society's most vulnerable youngsters has come in for High Court scrutiny in two cases against Kent County Council that have re-emphasised the problem of aftercare funding.

The cases are a warning for a number of rural local authorities. These authorities often have large numbers of youngsters from nearby cities placed in foster homes in their areas.

While the youngsters are under 18, responsibility for funding their care rests with the authority in whose care they were originally placed.

But councils have been arguing over who should fund continuing needs such as education and accommodation, and services such as psychotherapy, once the youngsters turn 18.

Kent and other rural authorities believe the financial burden should stay with the authority that originally fostered out the youngsters.

However, the High Court has now backed the stance of Hammersmith and Fulham and Lambeth Councils, which argued that once the youngsters turn 18 the financial responsibility for assisting them shifts to the authority in the area where they live.

Mr Justice Latham ruled in the cases – which were very much a re-run of a similar challenge several years ago, and which is now expected to go to appeal – that two youngsters, who both had disturbed childhoods and now suffer from learning difficulties, were entitled to "advice, befriending and assistance" from Kent County Council if they chose to remain in the county.

He rejected claims by Kent County Council that the London councils that sent them to Kent should continue to provide for them as they made the transition to adulthood.

But although he ruled that Hammersmith and Fulham and Lambeth had no financial obligations for the two, he said he sympathised with Kent. He said: "It seems as if councils in Kent's position have got reason to feel aggrieved. To use the pejorative term, they have been lumbered."

The solicitor for the two teenagers was Sarah Harman, senior partner at Canterbury-based Harman & Harman, and a specialist in actions involving the rights of young people. She, too, has sympathy for councils such as Kent, although she says her first priority is the interests of the young people involved.

She says: "Section 24 of the Children Act gave local authorities responsibilities for providing aftercare and support for children leaving care at the age of 18. I don't think anyone would dispute that children who live in care are among the most vulnerable in society. We all know that the bulk of youngsters get support from their family far beyond the age of 18. These, who need it more than most, however, do not."

She adds: "When the Children Act was passed, the fact that children would be placed out of the county or the borough was not considered. The approach was that there would be a seamless passage and children would be in their home local authority areas when they left care. But in many instances that is not the case."

She says careful reading of the Act indicates that it is the authority where the children have been living that takes on the responsibility once the child has passed 18.

"This problem first emerged in 1997 when I acted for another London teenager who had had 50 foster home placements and wanted to remain living in Kent.

"Kent took that case to court but the judge in that case took the same view as has just been supported by Mr Justice Latham. Since then, these councils have had no alternative but to struggle with the financial burden of all these children in care, and the London boroughs have been saying 'over to you'," she says.

Harman adds that a local authority circular issued last month states that the law is going to change so that the local authority with the care order takes responsibility, but that there is no timescale for implementing this change.