State powers and private rights in child protection and safeguarding assessments: the question of balance

Lauren Devine*, Stephen Parker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When families are referred to local authorities, the State has power to intervene into private family life to assess whether a child meets section 17 and/or 47 Children Act 1989 thresholds. In 2019/2020 (the latest available data) nine percent of families in England and Wales were referred. Thirty-seven percent did not reach the section 17 threshold, and 88 percent did not meet the Section 47 threshold. This is concerning given the available prevalence estimates, suggesting that 25.3 percent of children in the UK may have been abused. A legitimate debate is merited to consider whether State processes of referral and assessment have struck the right balance. We argue that given the apparently high number of false positives and false negatives under the existing policy framework, it is possible that the State may be failing in its primary aim of protecting sufficient abused children and risks potential harm to non-abusive families who are caught in the ‘glare’ of referral and assessment. We conclude by considering whether the balance between State power and private rights should be re-balanced to more clearly separate section 17 support from section 47 protection, as originally intended in the Children Act 1989.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)255-274
Number of pages24
JournalChild and Family Law Quarterly
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2022

Bibliographical note

This is an author's accepted manuscript of an article published in Child and Family Law Quarterly. This accepted manuscript is made available under the Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial License (CC BY-NC) [].

Funding: The research presented in this article was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, grant number ES/M000990/1 and the Nuffield Foundation, grant number JUS/43090.


  • family law
  • family rights
  • child protection
  • remedies
  • State power


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