Human Rights in Child Welfare

Human rights underpin every aspect of children’s social care and are protected by laws which have been passed in England and Wales. However they are rarely acknowledged or put into practice. 

This page includes a selection of key cases and pieces of research about children’s social care which mention or involve human rights. 

Family law cases

Arguments about children’s social care in England and Wales can be settled through Britain’s family courts, the UK’s Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Parents, children or local authorities can ask the courts to settle such disputes.

The government allows the family courts to publish selected judgments. There are also plans to increase the number of judgments made public. At the moment, most judgments from Britain’s courts do not include important information about the human rights of children or their families in children’s social care. 

Some cases have challenged public bodies like local authorities, which are run by the government, on their interpretation of human rights in children’s social care. And a handful of cases have argued that decisions made in child protection cases had breached families’ human rights. 

Please note: the cases below have been decided “on their merits,” which just means that as a general rule each case is considered unique and the decisions made by judges “turn” on the special elements in each case as well as the law at the time. While not every case with similar facts will achieve the same outcome in court, the cases below offer important insights into the central role of human rights in children’s social care. 

Key cases:

  1. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that the 10-day separation of a mother and father from their daughter after bringing her to see their GP for injuries she had sustained, which were found not to be the parents’ fault, had been a breach of the child’s human right to a family life. A failure to access legal aid in this case was also ruled to be a breach of the family’s human right to a fair hearing. (M.A.K. and R.K. v. UK 2010
  2. Part of a series of important cases examining the tension between forced adoption and human rights belonging to children and families in Britain, these two cases make it clear that an adoption order should only ever be made if ‘nothing else will do.’ The case law in this area confirms that every decision made by a judge or social work practitioner must be compatible with a person’s human right to respect for family life. And that the justification needed to interfere with a person’s right to family life when considering an adoption order must be very high. (Re B-S (Children) 2013 and Re B (A Child) 2013)
  3. A judgment in the Supreme Court confirmed that parents considering placing their children in temporary local authority accommodation could only give their consent to the accommodation if it was “real and voluntary.” The judgment followed a scandal which involved social workers across Britain forcing parents to place their children in LA accommodation under the false impression that the placements were mandatory and could not be terminated, by parents or their children, at any time. The case centred around the human right to respect for a person’s private and family life.(Williams and another v London Borough of Hackney 2018)
  4. This important judgment from Nottingham’s family court explains how a judge’s behaviour in children’s social care cases can impact the right to a fair trial. The judgment warns against making a court environment so hostile for parents and their children that it makes a trial or hearing unfair. (C (A Child) 2019)
  5. Though not from the UK, this ground-breaking case from Norway heard in the ECHR found that children’s social services in Norway had violated a mother and son’s right to family life, following the child’s forced adoption. The judges ruled that the agency had not carried out adequate investigations into the mother’s parenting skills or provided adequate evidence to justify its claim that the child was vulnerable and that adoption was in his best interest. (Strand Lobben and Others v. Norway 2019)

Children’s social care research

There is much research that sets out how decades of reforms focussed on targets, efficiency, procedures and safeguarding children have not led to any overall decrease in child maltreatment. 

But these reforms have taken social workers further away from families and led to very real impacts for children and families, including breaches of their human rights.

A number of authors argue that children and families social work has become punitive, interventionist and authoritarian, while moving away from support and humane practice. 

Key research:

  1. Researchers found that from 2009-2010 one in seven referrals to English local authorities led to a Section 47 child protection investigation, but that by 2015 this figure had risen to over one in four. The research also found that there were in excess of 200,000 Section 47 child protection investigations: this is equal to one starting every two and half minutes. Bilson & Hunter-Munro (2019) 
  2. Despite referrals to local authorities remaining fairly stable between 2014 and 2017, research held there was a 24% increase in child protection plans and a 25% increase in care orders through the family courts. Additionally there was a 322% increase in the rate of children adopted or made subject to special guardianship care arrangements from 1999 and 2017. Hood (2019) 
  3. Children who live in the most deprived 10% of areas in England are 11 times more likely to become a looked after child and 13 times more likely to be made the subject of a child protection plan, according to this research. Bywaters et al (2018)
  4. Benefits cuts leading to greater levels of child poverty have been associated with increased numbers of children becoming looked after and subject to a child protection plan. Between 2015 and 2020 this increase in poverty was associated with an additional 22,000 children being made the subject of a child protection plan. Bennett et al (2021) 
  5. Punishment-focused practice, and parents and children being cracked down on for things beyond their control, for example poverty, through child protection processes or removal of their child cannot ever accord with a human rights approach. Gupta, Blumhardt & ATD Fourth World (2016) 
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