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Case update 13 June 2023

Family Court rules local authorities must protect unaccompanied children seeking asylum

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Campaigners are calling on the government to provide proper funding so local authorities can fulfil their duties to look after vulnerable children.

The Family Division of the High Court has ruled that unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK are the responsibility of local authorities, which have full powers and duties to protect them under the Children Act 1989.

These children have been treated as if they are in legal limbo since 2021, without proper safeguarding, and hundreds have been reported missing. But on Friday the judge confirmed that local authorities have the responsibility to keep them safe and secure.

Earlier this year, a whistleblower revealed that dozens of children had gone missing from a hotel run by the Home Office. So children’s charity Article 39 – supported by Good Law Project – applied to the Family Court to consider making a cohort of children who went missing in Brighton and Hove “wards of court”, to ensure they would get the urgent protection they needed.

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This was a novel application: our two organisations are not aware of a charity seeking to protect the rights of a group of highly vulnerable children this way before. 

Two hearings were held in March and April this year. At the first hearing, the Home Office said that 66 children remained missing from a single hotel. It has since been said that a total of 154 children who have been housed in Home Office accommodation remain missing. According to the Home Office minister Robert Jenrick, there are no unaccompanied children currently in hotels run by the Home Office – but this could change. 

The judge ruled that the children could not be protected as wards of court because they are already protected by the Children Act 1989. This important clarification of the law means that local authorities must now uphold their safeguarding duties for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who come into their area.

“This judgment has brought vital clarity to a wholly unacceptable situation,” said Carolyne Willow, Director of Article 39, “where extremely vulnerable children have been treated as being in ‘legal limbo’, outside the protection of the Children Act 1989. That was a fiction which unforgivably exposed children to serious harm.”

Jennine Walker, Legal Manager at Good Law Project, said: “We call on the Government to ensure local authorities have the funding and support they need to fulfil their statutory obligations, and ensure that these children now receive the fundamental protection and care they need and to which they have a right.”

This application was one of three challenges we are working on with Article 39 to protect the rights of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

We can only do this crucial work with your help. If you would like to support our work on this case, you can donate here.