Shortage of secure units for children ‘fundamentally unsatisfactory’, says judge

The most senior family court judge in England and Wales has raised concern about the knock-on effects of a shortage of approved secure accommodation units for children in council care.

Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division of the High Court, says he is concerned about youngsters being placed in children’s homes which have not been approved as secure units.

His worries have been echoed by two other senior judges who specialise in family court litigation – Lord Justice Moylan and Lord Justice Peter Jackson.

The three judges aired their thoughts on Thursday after analysing a case involving a teenage girl at a Court of Appeal hearing in London.

They said they wanted a written ruling they had produced on the case to be sent to Education Secretary

Damian Hinds and Justice Secretary David Gauke.

Legislation meant that a child in council care could only be placed in secure accommodation in a children’s home if that home was a government-approved secure unit, Sir Andrew said in the ruling.

He said he understood that in recent years there had been a growing disparity between the number of approved secure units and the number of youngsters needing secure accommodation.

Sir Andrew said council bosses who could not find secure units had been asking High Court judges to allow them to “restrict the liberty” of children in homes which were not approved secure units.

He said it was a “matter of concern” that council bosses were making “so many” such applications.

“The concern is not so much because of the pressure that this places on the court system, or the fact that local authorities have to engage in a more costly court process,” he said.

“The concern is that young people are being placed in units which, by definition, have not been approved as secure placements.”

He added: “Whilst the High Court has a duty to consider such cases and must come to a decision taking account of the welfare needs of the individual young person in question, in the wider context the situation is fundamentally unsatisfactory.”

Sir Andrew said judges could not inspect accommodation but had to “simply” rely on what they were told.

Lord Justice Moylan and Lord Justice Jackson said they agreed.

The three judges had analysed a number of legal issues surrounding the teenage girl’s case.

A series of judges have raised concerns about a shortage of secure accommodation places for teenagers in England and Wales in recent years.

Two years ago, Sir James Munby, Sir Andrew’s predecessor as President of the Family Division of the High Court, said the problem had led to social services bosses at English councils trying to place children in secure accommodation units in Scotland.

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