Ruling Exposes Worrying Gap in Court Powers to Protect the Vulnerable

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The case of a troubled teenage girl, said to be at grave risk of exploitation, is bound to cause concern to police and social workers after it exposed a worrying gap in the powers of family judges to protect the vulnerable from those who would prey upon them.

The girl, aged 18, was addicted to heroin and suffered from a serious eating disorder that put her life at risk. She was made a ward of court when still a child and her local council had been granted non-molestation injunctions against her father and a male friend, forbidding them from contacting her or approaching within half a mile of her home.

Her father had a history of drug abuse and was said to have first introduced her to heroin. He was known to the local authority as someone with a history of exploiting vulnerable people as a means of obtaining money and somewhere to live. The male friend, a drug user with an extensive criminal record, was also alleged to have taken serious advantage of her, cutting her and forcing her to take drugs.

The girl did not accept that she was a vulnerable person and, although she did not have the capacity to manage her own finances, she had been assessed as capable of, amongst other things, making her own decisions about contact with others. Social workers nevertheless remained concerned about her welfare after she attained adulthood and the injunctions were continued.

A novel issue arose, however, as to whether a power of arrest could be attached to the injunction in respect of the male friend. That would have enabled the police to take him immediately into custody if he breached the order. In ruling on that point, the High Court found that it had no power, either statutory or in its inherent jurisdiction, to grant the power of arrest sought.