A fostering agency has launched a legal challenge, alleging that most councils fail in their duties to children by prioritising their in-house fostering services over those of other providers.
The Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP) has been given leave to bring the judicial review on 3 and 4 November.
The case is against Bristol City Council, Leeds City Council and Suffolk County Council but the association says most English councils fail to consider independent fostering providers alongside their own agencies when placing children.
The judicial review will claim councils fail to comply with their legal duty under the Children Act 1989 to “find the most appropriate placement available” when they do not consider independent placements alongside in-house provision.
Association chief executive Harvey Gallagher told LGC the organisation wanted to set a “precedent” to which all local authorities would have to stick.
“We want to shift the priorities so the most important consideration is what the child needs. We believe at the moment processes don’t allow that to happen,” he said.
Mr Gallagher said his organisation had made freedom of information act requests to all English councils about their policies and practices on fostering placements.
He said: “Of all the local authorities in England, we have evidence that all bar single figures have policies and practices that prioritise in-house foster placements. It is a cultural thing as much as anything. They all always look at in-house first.”
While legal challenge will focus on foster care, Mr Gallagher said the argument about whether councils were finding the most appropriate placement for children could also apply to residential care, adoption and special guardianship.
Councils were not “comparing like with like” when looking at the types of children placed or system used to place them when evaluating the cost or speed of placements in council versus independent foster care, he argued.
Mr Gallagher said NAFP had decided to bring a judicial review after failing to make progress in discussions with councils.
He said they had chosen to bring the case against Bristol, Suffolk and Leeds because they were diverse in their policies and geography and therefore representative of the wider body of councils.
It would also be expensive to involve a larger number should the NAPF lose the case, he added.
In a joint statement, the three councils said: “We are absolutely committed to providing the best possible care for looked after children. The individual needs of the child and the level of care provided are always our highest priorities. We will continue to strongly contest this challenge.”