This presentation was designed to consolidate student's understanding of 'significant harm' following group work and a reading of Harwin and Madge's journal article, "The concept of significant harm in law and practice".
Structure of this Presentation
• The following questions (as seen in the slide
headings) are prompted by a reading of
Harwin and Madge (2010), “The concept of
significant harm in thaw and practice”.
• The ‘answers’ are taken from the Harwin and
Madge article, alongside more detailed
material from elsewhere.
• The Children Acts 1989 and 2004 remain the
legislative framework for child protection
policy and practice in England with Section 47
as the cornerstone.
• Section 47 is the investigative duty required
of local authorities when there is reasonable
cause to suspect actual or likely significant
harm to a child.
Which piece of legislation introduced
the concept of ‘significant harm’?
The Children Act 1989
s.47 Local authority’s duty to
Where a local authority are
informed that a child who
lives, or is found, in their
area. . . . . . . . . . . . .have
reasonable cause to suspect
that a child who lives, or is
found, in their area is
suffering, or is likely to
suffer, significant harm
s.31 Care and Supervision
On the application of any
local authority or authorised
person, the court may make
court may only make a care
order or supervision order if
it is satisfied—
that the child concerned is
suffering, or is likely to
suffer, significant harm; and
The legislation does not set absolute criteria for
significant harm, guidance states that in reaching
decisions, consideration should be given to:
• The degree and extent of harm
• Duration of harm
• Frequency of harm
• Extent of premeditation
• Presence or degree of threat, coercion, sadism
and bizarre or unusual elements
Which two scandals of the 1980’s
contributed to 1985 Review of Child
Cleveland Jasmine Beckford
Significant harm was the new legal
threshold regarding compulsory
intervention into family life, on whose
• However,h ow do social workers’ expectations of
‘normality’ impact upon their assessments i.e.
‘preventing the child from participating in normal
social interaction’ (Emotional Abuse).
• Parental final say: Without the ‘diagnosis’ of ‘significant
harm’ parents may reject support, whether or not the
child would benefit or indeed requests the support
On what ‘P’ basis was family support
to be provided wherever possible?
• In Partnership with parents.
The Act deliberately set out ‘b’ criteria
for significant harm.
The Act deliberately set broad criteria for
significant harm and identified three main areas of
1. ill-treatment (eg. sexual abuse and emotional
2. the impairment of physical or mental health;
3. and the impairment of physical, intellectual,
emotional or behavioural development.
If the harm is significant, it must be
‘what’ to the care given? How do you
think poverty affects this?
s.31 Care and Supervision
(1)On the application of any local authority or authorised person, the court
may make an order—
( (2)A court may only make a care order or supervision order if it is satisfied—
(a)that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm;
(b)that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to—
(i)the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not
made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to
(ii)the child’s being beyond parental control
Which Act widened the definition of
significant harm, to include what?
• Adoption and Children Act 2002
• Section 120 of the Adoption and Children Act
2002 extends the legal definition of ‘significant
harm' to children to include the harm caused by
witnessing or overhearing abuse of another,
especially in a context of domestic violence.
• It is important to remember that the
responsibility for the harm lies with the abuser.
What was the general finding of
Masson et al’s research?
Of particular note was the
young age of the children:
57% were below five years,
with 29% under a year.
According to Masson, what was the
commonest type of harm?
• Three-quarters of cases reflected actual harm,
and most of the rest involved infants.
• Neglect was the commonest type of harm
• Almost half the families had been known to
services for five years or more.
Why did Rose and Barnes say that
older children were a high risk group?
What could you say about Brophy’s
Brophy’s (2006) research review of child
care proceedings under the Children Act 1989
had earlier found that neglect coupled with emotional
maltreatment was in fact the most common form of harm
Indeed, very few cases were based on just one category
of ill-treatment, with most containing two or three
categories from physical ill-treatment, sexual abuse,
emotional ill-treatment, neglect and ‘child beyond
What point does Dickens (2006) make?
Views on what constitutes reasonable parenting
can be at variance between social workers and
legal representatives, reflecting the more general
point that decisions on significant harm can lack
consistency due to the many views that need to be
taken into account (Dickens, 2006, 2007).
What did Packman and Hall (1998)
find? Do you understand what this
Packman & Hall (1998) found in their study of
the operation of section 20 that parents were in
effect being coerced to agree to their child being
accommodated so that the local authority never
had to test out the threshold conditions.
Why is it problematic to bring cases of
neglect to court, what do they ‘lack’?
What is the ‘standard of proof’
required to bring care proceedings to
• On the ‘balance of probabilities’
• Even though the standard of proof is lower in
civil cases the use of such a standard is that in
some cases the question of the probability or
the improbability of a happening is an
imperative consideration to be taken into
account in deciding whether that event has
actually taken place or not.
How does The Children Act 1989
• The Children Act guidance defines ‘significant’
harm according to the dictionary entry of
‘considerable, noteworthy or important’,
• This judgment raises the question of quite what is
• To decide whether harm is significant, the health
and development of the child is "compared with
that which could reasonably be expected of a
similar child" (The Children Act 1989).
What were the findings of the case Re
• it was further ruled that extrapolation from
past events involving one child to another was
unsafe because a parent may treat individual
children in different ways.
• In Re M , the key point is that there
needs to be convincing evidence, based on the
balance of probabilities, to support decision-
What happened after the death of
Baby ‘P’? What name do the authors
refer to this as?
• ‘Panic’ and patterns of referrals for care
• The Baby P Effect
What point did the House of
Commons’ Children, Schools and
Families Committee (2009) make
• About The Looked After Child (LAC) System
deterring agencies from seeking orders.
• However, an alternate view:
What did Lord Laming (2009) allude to
regarding court fees?
The higher costs of court fees as
introduced by the Public Law
Outline (PLO) would deter Local
Authorities from making necessary
Care Order applications; putting
children at risk.