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Somerset County Council to pay costs in detention dispute

Somerset County Council has been ordered to pay the full costs of an extended dispute with the family of a teenage girl it had detained.

Somerset County Council v MK & Anor concerned a 19 year old women who suffered from severe learning difficulties, as well as autism. She lived with her mother and three siblings. One day, while at school, her behaviour dramatically deteriorated after she became distressed by her menstrual cycle. She repeatedly hit herself in the chest and later she had to be restrained by her teachers. The following day her mother found bruising on her chest. Not long afterwards, she left her daughter in respite care to go on holiday. Before she returned a paediatrician became concerned that she might be responsible for the bruising on her daughter’s chest. They were not told, however, about of the recent incidents at school which could have caused the injuries.

As a result of the doctor’s concerns, social workers detained the teen under sedation in the respite facility for a full six months, and then transferred her to a different facility and kept her for a further period before her case eventually came before the Court of Protection.

There His Honour Judge Marston came down firmly on the side of the family. Somerset County Council had, he declared, failed to carry out a “competently conducted investigation”, which would have established that there was no risk in sending the girl to her mother. The authority, meanwhile, admitted to breaching the girl’s human rights in detaining her for close to a year, saying its actions had been “inappropriate and unlawful”.

Various members the girl’s family applied for a costs order – i.e. the authority should pay the legal costs incurred by the family during the case. Judge Marston reconsidered the “this whole painful process of the illegal detention of MK”, and the Council’s “manifestly bungled investigation”. He noted that his earlier judgement had contained a “litany of negative findings” against the authority, concluding:

“In the light of all of this it seems to me that this is plainly a case where the usual order for costs should be departed from to the extent that the Local Authority should pay the costs of all of the other parties involved.”

In addition, the Council’s behaviour had been sufficiently unreasonable for those costs to be awarded on an ‘indemnity basis’ – i.e. with the payees receiving the benefit of the doubt in any disputes or uncertainties regarding the precise sums involved.

Read the judgement here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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