Section 20 Of The Children Act 1989

What is Section 20 of the Children Act 1989?

Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 sets out how a local authority can provide accommodation for a child within their area if that child needs it, due to:

  • The child being lost/abandoned;
  • The person caring for the child being unable to provide suitable care or accommodation; or
  • That there is no person with parental responsibility for that child.

Anyone with parental responsibility can voluntarily allow the local authority to accommodate their child under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

Section 20 is “voluntary accommodation” although parents can often be left with no alternative but to give their agreement when requested to do so. Situations, where this may occur, include where someone is on Police bail, with conditions saying that their child cannot live with them, or during the PLO process where the local authority might want to give the parent some space to deal with any issues they may be going through.

The voluntary accommodation can either be with formal local authority foster carers or with a family member who has been approved by the local authority (often a grandparent).

Section 20 can provide a valuable tool to accommodate children in the short term. However, parents must consider how long the accommodation is allowed to continue without a clear plan for the child/children to return home.

Parents must always seek independent legal advice before agreeing to Section 20 accommodation.

How do I end a Section 20 accommodation agreement?

Sometimes Section 20 voluntary accommodation can work very well and be to the advantage of the children, parents, and the local authority. However, often this is not the case and parents will find that the voluntary accommodation continues for far longer than they originally anticipated or intended.

What begins as a short-term agreement can, quite easily, continue for months while the local authority undertakes assessments. Regrettably, sometimes these situations continue with little or no progress to return the children home. Unless they can pay privately, parents will very often not have access to a solicitor during this time leaving them at a real disadvantage.

The voluntary accommodation could potentially drift on for weeks or even months leaving both the parents and children in limbo during that time.

The law

Section 20 (8) provides:

“any person who has parental responsibility for a child may at any time remove the child from accommodation provided by or on behalf of the local authority under this section”.

Essentially, if a parent withdraws consent the child MUST be returned to their care immediately. The local authority might issue proceedings and seek an ICO with a plan of removal if they allege it is not safe for the child to return home. Sometimes they will leave the children with the parents and work with the family under a Child Protection Plan. It really does depend on the individual circumstances.

If care proceedings are issued, there is a 26-week timescale for care proceedings. However, the clock does not start ticking until the local authority actually issues the Court proceedings meaning time spent in voluntary Section 20 accommodation pre-proceedings does not count.

If the local authority issues proceedings parents have access to fully funded legal advice and have the advantage of challenging Local Authority decisions knowing it is for the Court to make decisions in the best interests of the child.

Want to know more about the Court’s view of Section 20 and its use?

Case law

Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, made criticisms of Section 20 misuse in N (Children) (Adoption: Jurisdiction) [2015] EWCA Civ 1112 saying:

there is, I fear, far too much misuse and abuse of section 20 and this can no longer be tolerated.”


“steps must be taken as a matter of urgency to ensure that there is no repetition ever again”.

The case concerned a delay of nine months where the child had been accommodated voluntarily under Section 20 before proceedings were issued.

Concerns relating to Section 20 were also noted by Lady Hale in the Supreme Court case of Williams & Anor v London Borough of Hackney [2018] UKSC 37 (18 July 2018):

“These cases illustrate a number of problems with the use of section 20: separation of a baby from the mother at or shortly after birth without police protection or a court order, where she has not delegated the exercise of her parental responsibility to the local authority or been given in circumstances where it is questionable whether the delegation was truly voluntary; retention of a child in local authority accommodation after one or both parents have indicated a desire to care for the child or even formally asked for his return; and a lack of action where the perception is that the parents do not object to the accommodation, even though this means that no constructive planning for the child’s future takes place. They also illustrate the dilemma posed to the local authority: something has to be done to look after the child but there are serious doubts about whether the parent can validly delegate the exercise of her responsibility. Equally, they illustrate the dangers if the local authority proceed without such delegation or obtain it in circumstances where the parents feel that they have little choice. There are none of the safeguards and protections for both the child and the parents which attend the compulsory procedures under the Act. Yet, rushing unnecessarily into compulsory procedures when there is still scope for a partnership approach may escalate matters in a way which makes reuniting the family more rather than less difficult.”

Prolonged use of Section 20 outside proceedings like that described above deprives the child:

  • The benefit of having an independent figure to represent and safeguard their interests (Guardian);
  • The Court of the ability to control the planning for the child; and
  • The parents have the opportunity of legal advice from an appropriately funded specialist solicitor, as they will not be entitled to legal aid on a non-means/merits basis absent Court proceedings if they are not in the Public Law Outline (PLO) process.

How can Nelsons help?section 20

Melanie Bridgen is a Partner at Nelsons, specialising in children law. She is a member of the Law Society Children Panel and is also a Resolution Accredited Specialist.

If you would like more information on this subject or any related children’s law issues, please contact us and we will be happy to discuss your circumstances in more detail and give you more information about the services that our family law solicitors can provide along with details of our hourly rates and fixed fee services.

Please contact Melanie or another member of the team in Derby, Leicester or Nottingham on 0800 024 1976 or via our online form.

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