England and Wales’ dedicated ‘deprivation of liberty’ (DoL) court has been up and running since July 2022. Specialist family judges run the DoL court, dealing with local authority applications for authorisation to deprive a child of their liberty – that is to say, applications allowing local authorities to lock children up. DoL orders might be needed to protect children already involved in care proceedings.
Locking children up is potentially a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, article 5 – the right to liberty and security – and the court has to decide whether to authorise locking up a child. There has to be a risk of grave harm to the child, making it necessary to deprive them of their liberty so as to protect them from that harm, for a DoL order to be justified.
A year on, research from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (FJO) shows that more than 10% of applications to the DoL court were repeat applications, to extend or vary existing DoL orders (these orders have to be reviewed by a judge at least once a year). This essentially means that some children are subject to multiple applications to deprive them of their liberty, or to extend the duration of an existing order beyond 12 months.
Recent court cases have highlighted the lack of suitable accommodation for these very vulnerable children, with some being placed in accommodation that is not Ofsted registered, so not checked by a regulator. Others are placed in accommodation hundreds of miles away from friends and family, leaving them isolated. The Nuffield FJO’s research has confirmed this shortage.
Family judges have repeatedly highlighted this shortage of placements. The director of Nuffield FJO, Lisa Harker, has added her voice, saying that action is desperately needed to develop local placements that can meet children’s needs and ensure meaningful changes to their circumstances, health and wellbeing.