Social workers can wield immense power over people's lives – but one case clearly shows how carefully their activities are regulated by the courts. A local authority was ordered to pay damages of £45,000 to a mother and two young children after an inordinate delay in launching care proceedings violated their human rights.
The children were born in Britain but had spent much of their early lives being cared for abroad by their aunt. Their mother remained in England and social workers became involved after they were delivered back to a UK airport. They barely recognised their mother and were eventually placed with foster carers.
A family judge said that the council's delay of almost two and a half years in seeking care orders in respect of the children had led to a very poor outcome. They were living in separate foster homes and had no contact with each other. They had seen very little of their mother and one of the children's placements was culturally inappropriate.
The council failed to promote contact between the children and their mother and the lack of formal proceedings meant that the former had been denied the benefit of independent representation. There had been no formal assessment of the children's position until more than two years after their return to the UK.
The judge found that the council's failings breached the children's human right to a fair hearing. They also breached both their and their mother's right to respect for their family lives. The council was ordered to pay £20,000 in damages to each of the children and £5,000 to their mother.