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love thy vulnerable tenant - X and Y v London Borough of Hounslow 23 May 2008

13 June 2008

X and Y v London Borough of Hounslow 23 May 2008

This case has serious implications for those local authorities working in multi-disciplinary teams, particularly in the areas of social care, housing and mental health. It has potential to affect all those working with vulnerable children and adults and is timed well, coinciding with the Law Commissions Announcement of 11 June 2008 concerning proposed reform of social care law.

The claimants were a married couple with learning difficulties. They lived, with Ys two children (aged 8 and 11), in a two bedroomed flat on the ninth floor of a block of flats in Feltham. The local authority was their landlord and was also involved in the provision of some support to the family.

The family were befriended and later taken advantage of by a number of youths on the estate they lived on. The youths would use the claimants flat to live, take drugs, engage in sexual activity, leave stolen goods and truant. X was assaulted quite seriously by one of the youths who believed X had grassed on him in relation to some stolen goods found at the flat. This was all known to the defendant.

This activity culminated on a particular weekend when the youths imprisoned the claimants in their own home and repeatedly assaulted and abused them, often in the presence of the two children.

The claim

The claimants alleged that the defendant should have moved them into alternative accommodation before the relevant weekend. They alleged that the failure to do so represented a breach of the defendants duty of care to them.

The defendant argued that the claimants were effectively challenging a failure to re-house them and had no right to bring an action in negligence for breach of duty.

The existence and nature of the duty of care owed

Maddison, J ruled that the defendant should be treated as a single entity since each of departments were under a duty to communicate to each other any information which suggested that the claimants and their children were, or might be, in danger.

He considered the appropriate test to be that set out in Caparo Industries Ltd v Dickman [1990] and concluded that the gradually mounting concern about the welfare and safety of the claimants made it reasonably foreseeable from an early stage that the claimants and/or their children might come to serious harm resulting from an attack of the kind that occurred. The defendant was the claimants landlord and more importantly, was aware of the claimants disabilities, providing social services for them and indeed their children. There was therefore a sufficiently close relationship between the parties.

The learned Judge found that the defendants were not under a duty to move the claimants before the relevant weekend. However, they became under a duty to protect them in response to the developing crisis before the weekend in question. This narrow duty could be imposed in response to the unusual but dangerous situation that had developed.

Breach of duty

The court concluded that there had been a lack of proper cooperation and communication between the social services and housing departments and that the defendant had breached its duty of care to the claimants. Maddison, J held that the claim was not based simply on narrow considerations of the defendants housing policy. The claim involved both the housing and social services departments and focussed on their interaction and the manner in which they reacted to information they received about the claimants.

He concluded the claimants had a cause of action and the defendants subsequent breach of the duty of care owed to them had caused the injury and loss alleged.

Implications for local authorities

  1. This case indicates a willingness by the courts to treat the acts and omissions of separate local authority departments as one. In addition, it makes local authorities accountable for ensuring that their internal relationships and communications are effective. It has implications for childrens services departments, and similar consideration will apply to education and social care professionals who may need to share information, and responsibility for protecting children
  2. Several references are made throughout the judgment to the unique features involved in this case that justified the application of such a narrowly defined duty of care, but it is to be recognised that the law in this area has become fragmented and unclear
  3. The Law Commissions review will cover adult residential care, community care and support for carers. The Commission argues that the legislative framework for these areas has so far developed in a piecemeal fashion making the law fragmented and difficult to understand and apply

The defendant is intending to appeal

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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