The Misuse of Section 20 Agreements by Social Services

Under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 the social services have a duty to provide accommodation to a child that does not have a home, or a safe home. Sometimes, social services will ask a parent to voluntarily agree for their child to be removed from their care and placed with foster carers or with a friend or family member so that assessments of the parent can take place as to how safe the child is with them. This is known as a section 20 agreement.

Under such an agreement, social services will not have parental responsibility for the child, so cannot make any decisions about the child without the parent’s consent.

Sir James Munby, the president of the Family Law Division, has expressed concern in a recent case over how these agreements are sometimes made.

He commented in his judgment that there are 4 common problems with how the agreements are made:

  1. The failure of the social services to obtain informed consent from the parent at the outset – this means that the parent should understand what the section 20 agreement is and what they are signing. This may be particularly important if the parent is not fluent in English.
  2. The form in which the consent of the parent is recorded – this means that the agreement may not have been written as an accurate record of what was agreed.
  3. That the agreement lasts too long – section 20 agreements should be a short-term measure and if circumstances do not improve then social services should consider going to Court rather than letting the voluntary agreement go on for a long time.
  4. That social services appear reluctant to return a child to the parent immediately upon a withdrawal of parental consent – as a section 20 agreement is voluntary, a parent can withdraw their consent at any time and the child must be returned to them. The social services would then need a Court Order to remove the child from their care.


After listing these concerns, the President suggested some ways in which section 20 agreements can improve:

  1. When possible the agreement should be in writing and signed by the parent.
  2. The agreement should be clear, precise, and easy to understand.
  3. The agreement should state that the parent can ‘remove the child’ from the placement agreed to ‘at any time’.
  4. The agreement should not try to impose a time condition on the above, for example: ‘the parent can remove the child if they give 48 hours notice’.
  5. If the parent is not fluent in English, the agreement should be translated into the parent’s own language and the parent should sign this.


The President said that the misuse and abuse of section 20 agreements will no longer be tolerated and needs to stop.


Here at Emery Johnson Astills, we hope that these recommendations and comments made by the President mean that there will be improvements as to how section 20 agreements are made with parents in the future.

It is important when asked to make a section 20 agreement for your child to be removed from your care that you have legal advice. Here at Emery Johnson Astills, we have a wealth of experience with section 20 agreements and can give advice on how they work and what it is that you could be agreeing to.

If you require advice on similar issues to those above or social services are involved with your family, do not hesitate to call Emery Johnson Astill’s care department on 0116 255 4855.