A trafficked Vietnamese woman has lost a judicial review against two councils over her age assessment, though the judge involved criticised both authorities for failing to resolve the matter earlier.
The woman claims to be a child. She was subject to an age assessment by a local authority in the north east of England but is unsure which authority and did not retain a copy of the result.
In February, Sunderland City Council conducted an age assessment of a vulnerable young Vietnamese woman giving the same birth date, but a slightly different name, to the claimant, and who Sunderland concluded was an adult.
A dispute arose as to whether this assessment was of the claimant or someone else. Sunderland did not believe that the assessment it conducted was of the claimant and so refused to disclose it to her.
She was by then living in Stockton where both the council and the Home Office considered that Sunderland had conducted an age assessment of her and she should therefore be treated as an adult.
In HBTN, R (on the application of) v Sunderland City Council & Ors  EWHC 3221 Dan Squires QC, sitting as a deputy High Court judge, said: “The dispute between the authorities matters. If it was the claimant who Sunderland assessed, it is accepted by the parties that, should she wish to claim that she is entitled to support or accommodation as a ‘child’ pursuant to the Children Act 1989, the claimant will need to issue proceedings against Sunderland challenging its age assessment.
“If Sunderland had not assessed the claimant, it is accepted that, as the claimant is now residing in Stockton, Stockton Council may owe her duties under the Children Act, and, if it considered there is a significant doubt about her claimed age, would need to conduct an age assessment for itself.”
The claimant in May 2019 issued judicial review proceedings against both Sunderland and Stockton as Sunderland had not disclosed to her the age assessment it had conducted - and which the Home Office believed related to her - while Stockton considered it had no duty to either accommodate or assess her as Sunderland had already done so.
Judge Squires said: “Whether or not the claimant and P [the person assessed by Sunderland] are the same person turns very much on the credibility of the claimant, and, in particular, the veracity of her unsigned witness statement of 1 November 2019.”
He said that such fact finding was not a task the Administrative Court was well-placed to perform and the Upper Tribunal was the appropriate place for settling such a factual dispute.
The claimant later did see the assessment made by Sunderland and “accepts that it is overwhelmingly likely that it was her that was assessed by Sunderland” and so “whether or not Stockton had some duty to ascertain the claimant's age or provide her with support at some earlier stage when the position was unclear, it cannot be said that it owes such duties now,” the judge said.
“Where the claimant's position is that it is overwhelmingly likely she has already been assessed by Sunderland, I do not consider Stockton is acting unlawfully in not itself assessing her age.”
He said: “I do not underestimate the difficulty of the position in which Sunderland and Stockton's staff found themselves.
“Given the obviously confidential nature of an age assessment, I can appreciate Sunderland's concerns about disclosing an assessment to the claimant where they doubted she was the person they had assessed.
“I also appreciate Stockton's concern about conducting its own assessment of a person who the Home Office believed had already been assessed as an adult by another local authority. Stockton also raised concerns that it had sought to correspond with Sunderland about the case but the latter had not been responsive.”
Despite dismissing the judicial review application, Judge Squires noted: “In my view the dispute in this case could and should have been resolved many months ago without requiring the issuing of proceedings.”