The recent authority of Manchester City Council v CP & Ors  EWHC 133 (Fam) deals with what is today, one of the most important aspects of a child’s life: their technology and social media use. Whilst most children thankfully do not experience a deprivation of their liberty in the legal sense, for those who do their use of personal devices and social media raises a very important and modern question: to what extent, if at all, can these be the subject of DOLS restrictions?
The High Court in Manchester City Council v CP & Ors was confronted with this very question, concerned with a girl (P) aged sixteen at the time. P was assessed as working at the level of a seven-year-old child and was placed in local authority care under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 on 9 June 2021. She was prone to self-harm and suicide attempts, and like many other children, was not deemed eligible for a Tier 4 CAMHS bed.
P was placed under DOLS restrictions on 24 June 2022 and the terms were renewed on several occasions until on 1 September 2022, P was firstly restricted from using her mobile phone, tablet and laptop, and from accessing social media. Amongst the reasons given in support of the restrictions were negative conversations between P and her friends, P recording staff and generally managing her behaviour.
The Court decided that removing or restricting the use of P’s devices and social media were not violations of Article 5(1) ECHR (the right to liberty and security, which can only be deprived in accordance with the law) and accordingly such measures could not be authorised under the DOLS regime. Instead, and so the crucial distinction was drawn, the Court ruled that the Local Authority could lawfully impose the foregoing restrictions but instead under its exercise of parental responsibility prescribed by Section 33(3)(b) of the Children Act 1989, much the same as a biological parent could remove their child’s mobile phone to safeguard them from an online threat or to manage their behaviour.
Interestingly, however, Mr. Justice MacDonald countenanced the use of the inherent jurisdiction and not Section 33(3)(b) to authorise restraint or other force to remove a child’s device if they did not hand it over, if justified by evidence (). He decided that that technology is theoretically a matter for both parental responsibility and DOLS, but that normally parental responsibility is the correct legal mechanism to manage a child’s use of their technology.