Two brothers who claim they suffered harassment and abuse from neighbours have lost a landmark Supreme Court bid for compensation from their local council – but the Court reinstated the potential for children and young people to bring negligence claims against local authorities who have failed to protect them from harm.
The pair, identified only as CN and GN, alleged Poole Borough Council negligently failed to protect them from harm between 2006 and 2011, when they were aged under 10.
Part of their case was that they should have been taken into care for their protection.
But a panel of five justices ruled that their claim could not go ahead because the local authority had not assumed responsibility for their safety and did not owe them a duty of care.
The judges said there were “simply no grounds” for the council to take them into care, because the alleged harm they suffered was from their neighbours and not from a lack of parental care.
Lord Reed, giving the lead ruling, said: “Although the court does not have before it all the evidence which may emerge at a trial, there is no reason to believe that the claimants could overcome these fundamental problems as to the legal basis of their claim.
“That being so, it is to the advantage of all concerned that the claim should not proceed to what would be a costly but inevitably fruitless trial.”
CN, who is severely disabled, and his brother GN claimed the council knew they were at foreseeable risk when they were housed next door to a family who engaged in persistently anti-social behaviour.
The pair were said to have suffered significant physical and psychological harm as a result of attacks, threats of violence, verbal abuse and vandalism, and GN attempted suicide at the age of 12.
They brought claims against the council for breach of a common law duty of care derived from statutory duties under the Children Act 1989 but, in 2017, the Court of Appeal ruled against them.
The Supreme Court justices agreed with the Court of Appeal’s decision that CN and GN’s case should not proceed, but came to a different conclusion on the effect of previous rulings.
Lord Reed said that, although it did not apply in this case, there are circumstances in which a local authority can be held accountable for failing to protect vulnerable children.
The case was supported by charities including Article 39, which fights for the rights of children and young people who live in children’s homes, prisons and other institutions, and the Care Leavers’ Association, which supports care leavers of all ages.
Lawyers from Simpson Millar, which represented the charities, welcomed the ruling, saying it offered clarification on the law and meant other claims – which had been on hold following the Court of Appeal decision – could now go ahead.
Peter Garsden, a partner at the law firm, said: “This decision affects some of the most vulnerable members of our society and we are delighted that those affected will continue to have access to the justice that they deserve in instances where they are let down by those they have put their faith in.”
Carolyne Willow, director at Article 39, said: “We are incredibly relieved that the Supreme Court has reinstated the potential for children and young people to bring negligence claims against local authorities who have failed to protect them from harm.”
David Graham, national director of the Care Leavers’ Association, said: “A court ruling that a local authority had a duty of care and acted negligently can give care leavers a real sense of justice and vindication, as well as financial compensation for harm that should never have happened.
“We hope the courts will now quickly deal with the backlog of cases from adults who were failed as children.”