England’s education secretary acted unlawfully in scrapping a string of legal protections for children in care, Appeal Court judges have ruled.
They said Gavin Williamson should have consulted England’s children’s commissioner and other groups, before scrapping 65 safeguards for children.
The court said consulting such bodies would have been “manifestly in the interest of vulnerable children”.
The government says it is disappointed by the ruling.
Children’s rights group Article 39 mounted the challenge against what it called a “bonfire of children’s rights” after the government changed the rules safeguarding children through the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) regulations in April.
Parliament did not debate the changes which were introduced in April.
The legal challenge came after a lengthy battle between the government, peers, opposition MPs and children’s rights groups over attempts to push through the changes which cover the rights to support for children in care. The High Court previously ruled in the government’s favour.
The regulations affected included legal timescales for social-worker visits to children in care, six-monthly reviews of children’s welfare, independent scrutiny of children’s homes and senior officer oversight of adoption decision-making for babies and children.
The protections affected also cover disabled children having short breaks and children in care sent many miles away from home.
The government had argued in an earlier court hearing that these changes were “minor bureaucratic burdens”, but the Appeal Court said the alterations to children’s rights were “substantial and wide-ranging”.
After the government review of the legislation was begun in February, Department for Education officials had private telephone, email and face-to-face conversations with adoption agencies, private providers and local government bodies.
But bodies representing children and young people affected by the changes were not consulted, and the children’s commissioner – the statutory protector of children’s issues – was not informed until after the changes went through.
Announcing the ruling, Lord Justice Baker said: “I can find nothing about the circumstances that existed in March 2020 to justify the secretary of state’s decision (if indeed any conscious decision was made) to exclude the children’s commissioner and other bodies representing the rights of children in care from the consultation on which he embarked.
“He decided to undertake a rapid informal consultation, substantially by email.”
He said he found it appropriate for the consultation to be carried out that way because of the circumstances of the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“But having decided to undertake the consultation, there was no good reason why that process should not have included the children’s commissioner and the other bodies,” he said.
“On the contrary, there were very good reasons why they should have been included.”
Lord Baker said it was “potentially misleading” for the government to claim their actions were “broadly endorsed by the sector”.
The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said she would be seeking urgent assurances from the DfE that this would not be repeated in future.
Carolyne Willow, director of Article 39, called the government’s actions “shameful, both in the scale of the protections they took away from very vulnerable children in England and the way they went about it”.
“This should draw to a close back-room, secret government consultations which exclude the rights , views and experiences of children and young people.”
A DfE spokesman said: “Protecting vulnerable children has been at the heart of our response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and our intention has always been to act in their best interests.
“We took swift action to bring in temporary changes during a national crisis, all of which have now expired.
“We will continue working with the Children’s Commissioner and children’s charities to provide the best possible support to vulnerable children.”