Can a local authority restrict a child’s use of a mobile phone?

I was recently asked to consider a case involving a 16 year old child in local authority care, following fears of child sexual exploitation. The local authority wanted to apply to the court for permission to put ‘spyware’ on the child’s mobile phone, in order to monitor any conversations the child was having with those who posed a risk of harm. The local authority made an application for permission under the inherent jurisdiction to deprive the child of liberty. The court raised a question mark about the appropriateness of this application – was it really a deprivation of liberty? 

The questions raised here have broader applicability to on going tension between ‘paternalism’ (protect the child from his foolish decisions ) or ‘autonomy’ (allow the child the freedom to make decisions). I find it interesting that there is such intense scrutiny of a child’s access to a mobile phone but rather less of a child’s assertion that they have ‘changed sex’ and want access to cross sex hormones. Children aged 16 and over pose particular problems in this debate, but it is one we must keep on having

The local authority wanted permission to restrict a 16 year old child’s access to the internet via a mobile phone or other device and in particular asked the court to give it permission to remove the phone and monitor the child’s access to the internet by installing ‘spyware’ that would log texts and messages. This was done with aim of protecting the child from further sexual exploitation and it was argued this was proportionate and necessary. The local authority suggested that these restrictions be in place for a relatively short period of time, and they could then be reviewed. 

I identified the following questions to the court

  • Is removal or monitoring of a child’s mobile phone a deprivation of liberty?
  • If it is, is it lawful? i.e. a proportionate and necessary response in the best interests of the child or does the child have capacity to consent and does consent?
  • If this isn’t a deprivation of liberty, is it rather a a breach of article 8 ECHR (right to privacy)
  • If so, is that breach lawful? 

If the proposed restrictions are neither a deprivation of liberty nor breach of article 8 ECHR, then the local authority does not require the authorisation of the court to exercise parental responsibility for the child. However, given the child’s age and the nature of the restrictions sought, it was sensible to put this matter before the court. 

Use of mobile phones by teenagers in local authority care

A survey from Ofcom in 2014 showed that in the UK, 88% of sixteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds owned a smartphone. It seems unlikely that this percentage has fallen in intervening years. The use of mobile phones with internet access is now commonplace and most teenagers will have and use one. Although there are obvious risks inherent in the use of mobile devices that can connect to the internet, such as making children more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, they can be a very useful tool to allow a child to maintain contact with friends and family. 

The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services noted

The use of mobile devices and the internet are a normal part of everyday life for children and young people, including those in care.

A balanced view of use of devices and the internet by children and young people in care is to appreciate both opportunities and risks associated with use.

There are a number of factors known to increase the vulnerability of children and young people online. However, in considering vulnerability online, this should be done holistically, taking account of a child or young person’s life in general at a given time, and with awareness of both protective and risk factors.

There is a need for practitioners to move towards a more expansive and child-centred approach with a focus on relationships. This should encompass an appreciation of stepfamily and biological family, and the maintenance of relationships with a wider variety of individuals that reflect the world of the child or young person in care.

As the child is subject to a care order, the local authority ‘shares’ PR with the parents and may override the parents’ wishes if it is ‘necessary’ to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare.  The parents in this case did not object to the proposals but the child was refusing to discuss the matter with social workers. However, parents cannot consent to their child’s deprivation of liberty. A child can, if they have capacity, but also that consent may be withdrawn.

For a child under 16 it is submitted that the removal of a mobile device, restriction on its use or monitoring of conversations on it, are likely to be well within the ‘zone of parental control’ and do not require the local authority to seek the court’s permission. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) is clear that parental controls on internet usage is accepted and necessary – such as requiring phones to be turned off at school or surrendered during the night. 

Some local authorities have set out advice for foster carers around removal/restriction of mobile phones which suggests that certainly for younger children, the local authority as corporate parent does not need to seek the court’s permission to exercise control over a child in care’s mobile phone use. For example, see the guidance from East Riding which considers the removal of a mobile phone as a decision of ‘last resort’ 

…  taken when other measures have failed. This decision should itself be reviewed regularly and the phone returned as soon as possible. Any decision to remove the mobile phone for a long period (more than a few days) should be endorsed by the Safeguarding/LAC/Pathway Team Manager, with confirmation for the reasons in writing to the young person and a copy to the carer.

Not only is removal of a mobile phone considered a serious matter, the older a child gets, the less likely it will be that this is a reasonable exercise of parental responsibility. The House of Lords in Gillick approved the following dictum of Lord Denning MR

… the legal right of a parent to the custody of a child … is a dwindling right which the courts will hesitate to enforce against the wishes of the child, and the more so the older he is. It starts with a right of control and ends with little more than advice.

Once children reach 16, they are held by various statutes as able to make their own decisions across a range of issues. These are set out in the judgment of Lady Hale at para 26 of D (A Child) (Rev2) [2019] UKSC 42 (26 September 2019). For example Section 8(1) of the Family Law Reform Act 1969 provides that the consent of a child of 16 to any surgical, medical or dental treatment “shall be as effective as it would be if he were of full age”.

Therefore, it is important to consider what is the lawful basis for depriving or restricting a 16-year old’s access to a mobile phone or the internet. If this is outside the ‘zone of parental control’ then it is submitted that it is desirable for the local authority to seek authorisation from the court, rather than run a risk of being found to have unlawfully breached either Article 5 or Article 8 of the ECHR. 

Article 5 ECHR provides that everyone has a right to liberty and security. Distinguishing between a ‘deprivation’ of liberty and a mere restriction is one of ‘degree or intensity’ and not one of nature or substance. The question whether a person’s liberty is restricted is determined by comparing the extent of that person’s actual freedom with someone of similar age and situation whose freedom is not limited. All children should be subject to restraint upon their freedom to do as they wish, but these restraints necessarily decrease as the children grow. 

Many cases involving a deprivation of liberty involve restriction on physical movement, such as refusing to allow a person to leave premises without supervision. Such cases are governed by the three limbed test set out in Storck v Germany (Application No 61603/00) (2005) 43 EHRR 96, para 71, and 74 emphasising physical confinement. 

However, deprivation of liberty is not restricted solely to limits set on physical movement. Lord Kerr in Cheshire West described ‘liberty’ as “the state or condition of being free from external constraint” 

The Mental Capacity Act (2005) Deprivation of Liberty Code of Practice states that denying social contacts constitutes restraint and therefore is a significant factor as to whether the care and treatment amounts to a deprivation of liberty. The importance of social contact for a child is reflected in article 37 of the UNCRC “…. every child deprived of liberty… shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances.”

In the case of HC (A Minor Deprivation of Liberty) [2018] EWHC 2961 (Fam) the court considered a variety of issues beyond mere physical confinement which had the cumulative effect of depriving a child of his liberty. For example, at para 40 the judge commented on the issues of ‘supervision, support and control’. 

Linked to the question of freedom of movement is the question of supervision.  A typical 13-year-old will certainly be supervised or controlled in certain formal or dangerous settings.  For example, at school, much of the time is supervised to a greater (e.g., in the classroom) or lesser (e.g., during break-time) extent, and a risky sport or activity will generally be conducted under close adult supervision.
However, a typical 13-year-old will also enjoy significant periods of time without any active supervision whatever.  In particular, it is intrinsic to the lives of teenagers that they are able to spend ever-increasing periods of time speaking to and interacting with their friends and peers, and without this being subjected to adult scrutiny.  Equally, it is very much a part of a teenager’s life that they are able to spend time alone, without the presence of an adult or any other person, whenever they like (and their routine allows).

The Judge considered further the consequences of restricted access to social media and the internet. 

Most 13-year-olds have access to social media and the internet.  For many, this represents a very significant element of their burgeoning independence, sense of self and social life.  Of course, for most, the use of social media is important because of and to the extent of that young person having both an immediate network of friends and possibly a secondary network of online acquaintances or ‘followers’ using any particular medium or platform.
To a greater or lesser degree, most 13-year-olds will be subjected at least to parental attempts to monitor and to restrict their use of social media and the internet.  Close and constant monitoring of all use would, in my view, be unusual

Conclusions 

This child was 16 years old and therefore it was highly unlikely a court would agree that it was within the ‘zone of parental authority’ to deny her access to her mobile phone for more than a short period of time or to monitor her use of it by way of ‘spyware’. (If a parent is paying for the mobile phone, it is probably lawful to refuse to keep paying for it!) and thus the proposed restrictions may amount to a deprivation of liberty, for which the court’s authorisation must be sought. It not a deprivation of liberty, this could be an unlawful breach of Article 8, but if its neither then the local authority will be reassured that its actions are within the lawful boundaries of its exercise of parental responsibility. 

UPDATE 23 November 2022

When this matter came before the court, the Judge did not agree that restrictions on use of mobile phone, or adding ‘spyware’ was a deprivation of liberty (which required the court’s authorisation) but it was a breach of Article 8. However, this breach was lawful as it was necessary and proportionate to protect the health and morals of the child. The Judge did not think the local authority required authorisation from the court as this situation was within their parental responsibility.

I think there is probably room for further argument about all of this, certainly on the deprivation of liberty point but for the time being, local authorities should consider carefully such restrictions, make sure that the reasons for them are articulated and impose restrictions for the shortest time necessary. This will protect against any future assertions of an unlawful breach and possible action under the Human Rights Act 1998.

Further reading

More general discussion of depriving children of their liberty and secure accommodation https://childprotectionresource.online/depriving-children-of-their-liberty/

NSPCC Guidance Keeping children safe on line

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