£100,000 For Abused Siblings Council Failed To Take Into Care

A 39-year-old woman and her two younger siblings have won a total of £100,000 in an out-of-court settlement with Hackney council in east London because it failed to remove them as children from their abusive home.

{mosimage}Jennifer Routledge, who received £57,500, was raped aged nine by a stepfather who was jailed for the crime, and later abused by another who she believed had groomed her for the purpose. She and her siblings were beaten and deprived of food and she left school at the age of 13 unable to read and write properly.

No court has yet awarded damages against a local authority for failing to take children into care. In 1995 five law lords ruled that five children who suffered “horrific” abuse before they were eventually removed from their parents could not sue their local council. The judges ruled that councils owed no duty of care to those affected by the way they carried out their childcare functions.

Lawyers say the law has moved on in the wake of the Human Rights Act, which places public authorities under a duty to protect individuals from inhuman and degrading treatment. They point to cases like that of Ms Routledge where councils have paid compensation even though there is no binding precedent obliging them to pay.

Most claimants rely on legal aid but lawyers have now been warned that their funding may be put on hold by the Legal Services Commission (LSC), the body which administers legal aid. The commission is looking to choose one or two test cases to take to court to clarify the law and in the meantime other pending cases may have to wait.

“Clearly if you’re running a test case you don’t pursue lots of other cases of that type,” said David Keegan of the LSC. “Local authorities might settle one or two but that doesn’t mean they’re going to settle the majority. What you need is a precedent case.”

Ms Routledge’s solicitor, Jonathan Wheeler, of London solicitors Bolt Burden Kemp, argues that a test case is unnecessary. He and other lawyers maintain that the wording of an appeal court judgment which gave the go-ahead for a child to sue for being wrongly taken into care also covers those who were wrongly left to be abused.

“These cases are settling,” said Henry Witcomb, a barrister specialising in child abuse cases. They include not only historic cases but those where the victims, who were belatedly taken into care, are still children and young enough for the high-level psychiatric expertise they can access through litigation to make a real difference.

“If there is any reluctance on the part of the funding authorities to support these cases that’s misguided because the court of appeal has confirmed there is a duty of care. The cases are often shocking and, particularly for those cases where the children are still children, the litigation can be of great benefit to them in providing the assistance they require,” he said.