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Key duties of public bodies

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Duty of local authorities to investigate whether a child is being harmed

A local authority has a duty to make enquiries where they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child living or found in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. These enquiries should help them decide whether to take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare.

Reference: Section 47 of the Children Act 1989

Duty of local authorities to safeguard ‘children in need’

Local authorities have a general duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need and so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families, by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.

A child is 'in need' if:

  • they are unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision of services
  • their health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision of such services
  • they are disabled.

‘Development’ here means physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development. Health means physical or mental health. Disability includes blindness, deafness or dumbness, mental disorders and those substantially and permanently handicapped by permanent illnesses, injuries or congenital deformities.

Local authorities have responsibility for determining what services a child needs and must ascertain and consider the child’s wishes and feelings in relation to the proposed services, so far as is reasonably practical. The local authority must also consider the financial circumstances of the child and each of their parents before any conditions are imposed or assistance given. Much will depend on the individual situation.

The services in question may be carried out by others acting on behalf of the local authority (for example, a charity or other voluntary organisation).

Reference: Section 17 of the Children Act 1989

Local authorities’ duties to ‘children in need’ are ‘general’ and are owed to all the children in need within the area and not to each child in need individually.

Reference: R(G) v Barnet London Borough Council [2003] UKHL 57

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 15 June 2022

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