In the beginning was section 7, Local Authority Social Services Act 1970:
Local authorities shall, in the exercise of their social services functions, including the exercise of any discretion conferred by any relevant enactment, act under the general guidance of the Secretary of State.
The Act which set up social services authorities over 40 years ago also set up a peculiar type of legal authority for social workers. On the one hand, it was guidance rather than law. On the other hand, we had to follow it. It is not surprising that a challenge was going to come: how can something be binding if it is guidance? The answer has also stood the test of time. In R v Islington LBC ex p Rixon  1 CCLR 119 it was held:
Parliament by section 7(1) has required local authorities to follow the path charted by the Secretary of State’s guidance, with liberty to deviate from it where the local authority judges on admissible grounds that there is good reason to do so, but without freedom to take a substantially different course.
And there we have it: a peculiar kind of law emanating from the executive rather than the legislature. It is still guidance because, exceptionally and with good reason, we might deviate slightly from it; but it carries its own legal authority because, almost all the time, we must follow it.
Over recent years, other Acts of Parliament have created similar powers for executive-driven binding guidance; the guidance has been held to be binding on a wider range of people; and a plethora of both major and minor documents have been stated to have the status of what is now generally termed ‘statutory guidance’.
I think it is time to revisit the term ‘statutory guidance’. The label confirming the status ‘statutory guidance’ helped us for a while. I am not sure it does any more. I think we should be asking the question, is it ‘binding’ guidance instead. Here is why.
What is the status of non-statutory guidance?
All sorts of people throw guidance at professionals that does not bear the label ‘statutory’. It is of varying quality and usefulness. Some of it is driven by a political agenda, whether of politicians or campaigning groups. Much guidance emanates from employers – policy, practice and procedural documents.
As we weigh up the merit of what is being thrown at us, and decide whether to consign it to the bin, or to pin it to the notice board with fairy lights around it, we will make some important discoveries about non-statutory guidance. Some of it is darned good:
- There are documents which merit our attention because they make the law more accessible;
- There are documents that merit our attention because of the special expertise of the authors;
- There are documents that merit our attention because they disseminate quality research that ought properly to inform our practice;
- There are documents that merit our attention because they tell us what executive-driven guidance fails to tell us…
Such documents may not have the label ‘statutory’, but if they guide our path, improve our practice and keep us from legal error, they may have an important role nonetheless.
Six months ago, the High Court in Ali v London Borough of Newham  EWHC 2970 (Admin) (30 October 2012) ruled on the status of a piece of non-statutory guidance.
The Department for Transport has produced guidance on the use of tactile paving to assist the visually impaired. The national guidance was developed in conjunction with and with the endorsement of Guide Dogs for the Blind and the RNIB.
So the guidance emanated from the executive, with the input of non-government expertise. The court ruled it had to be followed:
As to the principal contest between the parties, namely, the status and effect of non-statutory guidance, I recognise some force in [counsel’s contrary] submission that the court should be circumspect and careful so as to avoid converting what is a non-binding guidance into, in effect, mandatory rules. To do so would tend to subvert the intention of the guidance and would risk undermining the autonomy of the primary decision maker upon whom Parliament has conferred ultimate responsibility for discharging the function in question. However, this does seem to me to be yet another area which bears out Lord Steyn’s famous dictum that “in law, context is everything”. In my view, the weight that should be given to particular guidance depends upon the specific context in which the guidance has been produced. In particular (without intending to create an exhaustive list) I believe that it is necessary to give due regard to the authorship of the guidance, the quality and intensity of the work done in the production of the guidance, the extent to which the (possibly competing) interests of those who are likely to be affected by the guidance have been recognised and weighed, the importance of any more general public policy that the guidance has sought to promote, and the express terms of the guidance itself. In my view, it would be unwise for the court to descend into the intrinsic merits of the guidance, unless it was seriously contended that it was unlawful or very obviously defective. [my emphasis]
The caselaw has arrived at a significant point in relation to non-statutory guidance: we may be bound by guidance because it is authoritative and expert, rather than because of its label.
Can statutory guidance change our legal obligations?
There are a number of threads to pick up, to work out the effect that statutory guidance has on our legal obligations as social workers.
First, let’s not beat about the bush: by section 7 and similar sections, Parliament intended to delegate authority to the executive to create guidance that social workers should follow, irrespective of the wisdom of that guidance.
There are plenty of examples of guidance which have enlarged the law. That is to say, by embellishing the bare bones of the legislation, they have created additional obligations upon us. The various Codes of Practice we must follow (Mental Health Act, Mental Capacity Act, Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards) are examples.
It is one thing to suggest that guidance can enlarge the law, quite another to suggest that it can change it. Delegated guidance has to be consistent with the higher legal authorities from which it derives its own authority. That this includes human rights ought perhaps to be uncontroversial, but in fact two recent legal tussles have illuminated the interface of delegated guidance and human rights.
First is the Home Secretary’s frustration with the approach taken by the courts to deporting foreign nationals in the light of Article 8. In one bout of this ongoing struggle, the Home Secretary amended the Immigration Rules, purporting to tell judges how to apply human rights. These Rules have in common with statutory guidance that they emanate from the executive, and are not legislation. They go further than statutory guidance in that they are “presented to Parliament” under the primary statute, rather than simply deriving their authority from it.
As explained by Dr Mark Elliott in ‘A human rights reality check for the Home Secretary’, the Home Secretary’s attempt to tell judges how to think was doomed:
Quite properly, the Upper Tribunal has held that while the new Rules can “operate to enhance judicial understanding of the ‘public interest’ side of the [proportionality] scales”, they cannot relieve courts or tribunals of their obligation under the Human Rights Act 1998 to apply Article 8 itself.
Second is the decision last month in strategic litigation on the Police ‘Code C’, which treats 17-year-olds in detention as adults. The Codes are issued by the Secretary of State under part VI of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.The court ruled
that the Secretary of State acted in a way which was incompatible with Article 8 of the Convention in failing to revise Code C so as to distinguish between the treatment of an adult detainee and a detainee under the age of 18. Article 8, read with UNCRC, requires a 17 year-old in detention to be treated in conformity with the principle that his best interests were a primary consideration.
Statutory guidance, then, can usefully enlarge on the detail of our legal obligations, but cannot diminish our obligation to give precedence to human rights.
Appendix C to ‘Working Together 2013’
We have arrived at a point where authoritative expert guidance from the Executive that will help us to apply the law correctly might not need the prop of a ‘statutory’ label to make it binding; whereas even the label ‘statutory’ gives us no certainty that guidance is actually compliant with the law so that it should be followed.
That is the context in which, in an earlier blog, I boldly suggested practitioners might keep ‘Working Together 2010’ by their elbows. It had been modified over time to take account of developing learning; it set our lessons from research; it had whole chapters devoted to particular areas of practice difficulty; it incorporated lessons from the Laming reports; it attempted to set out how to comply with human rights principles; and it incorporated by reference a number of other specialist guidance documents. It was by no means perfect, but it was unquestionably useful. It served the purpose such guidance should serve, of drawing together in one place what we need to know to get it right.
One of the criticisms proffered of its successor guidance concerns Appendix C. Here, over 3 pages, is a list of “Supplementary Guidance”. But it is just that – a list. It doesn’t set the context of the documents, as Chapter 6 of ‘Working Together 2010’ did. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t even tell you whether you should follow the supplementary guidance. It’s more like a reading list.
This has led some to suggest or to fear that ‘Working Together 2013’ has downgraded the status of some of the specialist guidance that used to be incorporated, or incorporated by reference, in the older version. ECPAT, for example, has criticised the omission of the detailed guidance on trafficked children. That is only the tip of the iceberg of specialist materials that have been omitted in service of the goal of a shorter, pithier ‘Working Together’.
But I venture to suggest all is not lost. In this brave new world where we must look beyond the label, and check for ourselves whether guidance does what it says on the tin, the absence of authoritative detail may diminish ‘Working Together 2013’. But the documents mentioned in its Appendix C may be enhanced rather than diminished by standing alone.