Lawrence v. Pembrokeshire County Council

[2007] EWCA Civ 446
Download Judgment: English

Following visits from Pembrokeshire County Council’s Child Protection Team (“CPT”), in 2002, L’s children were placed on the Child Protection Register as being at risk of emotional harm from her and their father. The children remained on the Register for two months. L brought a claim against P under sections s 6 and 7(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA”), asserting that the conduct of the social workers employed by CPT breached her right under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“Convention”) to respect for her family life with her four children. She alternatively brought a claim for negligence, alleging that CPT’s conduct had caused her psychiatric harm.

The lower court dismissed her claim, holding that a previous decision that had found no common law duty of public authorities or their employees to parents when investigating and/or taking steps to protect children whom they consider to be at risk of parental abuse, was not affected by the advent of Article 8 of the Convention. L appealed the decision. On appeal, the issue was whether, in light of Article 8 of the Convention coming into force by means of the HRA, a local authority could owe a duty of care to a parent of a child when exercising, through social workers, its duties to protect children from their parents.

[Adapted from INTERIGHTS summary, with permission]

In dismissing the appeal, the Court held that the existing common law principle that there is no duty of care owed by investigative professionals to parents suspected of child abuse continues to apply following the enactment of the HRA. This was justified on the grounds of public policy that the primary aim is to protect children from abuse, or the risk of abuse, from, among others, their parents. The Court reasoned that there could be no duty owed to the parents as there would be conflict of interest between the duty to protect the child from parental abuse and the right to respect family life, as stated in Article 8 of the Convention.

[Adapted from INTERIGHTS summary, with permission]

"Thus, in my view, the advent of Article 8 to our domestic law, bringing with it a discrete right to children and parents of respect for their family life, does not undermine or weaken as a matter of public policy the primacy of the need to protect children from abuse, or the risk of abuse, from, among others, their parents.  Nor, when those interests are or may be in conflict, does Article 8 so enhance the status of family life as, in the balancing exercise involved, would require the development of the common law by the introduction of a duty of care to parents suspected of abusing their children, a duty precluded by that public policy.  In that respect the cogency of the reasoning of the Court of Appeal and of the majority of the House of Lords in East Berkshire remains untouched and is compatible with the reasoning of the Strasbourg Court in TP and Venema." Para. 41.