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Monthly Archives: April 2012

“Returning home from care” – an analysis of the NSPCC research on rehabilitation of looked after children

The NSPCC have published their research into outcomes for looked after children who are rehabilitated to the care of their parents. The report can be found here: -

http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/resourcesforprofessionals/lookedafterchildren/returning-home-from-care_wdf88986.pdf

Their big headline figure is that over 70% of the children in that situation they surveyed said that they weren’t ready to go home.

That initially made me blink, and wonder why the children had said that to the NSPCC but hadn’t said it to their Guardians, but then I realised that the pool of children concerned were probably the older children who were going home from s20 care rather than care proceedings.

There are still some startling figures in the report, however. In 2011, 90,000 children were looked after in England. 39% returned home (about 10,000 children, compared to the 3,050 who were adopted) Of the children who return home, between a third and a half come back into local authority care because the rehab breaks down, and around half suffer further abuse at home.

The NSPCC suggest that variance in Local Authority practice plays more of a part in whether a child is rehabilitated and whether that rehabilitation is successful than the child’s needs.

The report is quite critical of whether the family Courts have skewed the protection of children as against parental rights and article 6 too much in favour of parents.

“For children on care orders, family courts play a central role in assessing whether a child should return home. Their involvement can lead to improved planning and service provision26. However, courts have been shown to favour parents’ rights over those of the child27,28. Interviewees told the NSPCC that courts often instructed reunification, even when it was not in the best interests of the child, with decision making tipped in favour of the parents rather than the child.”

The tiny footnote there is referring to the Farmer research published in 2011, which is also worth a read.

The NSPCC recommendation in this regard is :-

Action must be taken to ensure that court decisions are always based on the child’s best interests. The new Family Justice Service must ensure that members of the judiciary specialising in family law receive training in child development and the implications of returning home from care. Information made available to the courts must enable members of the judiciary to receive better feedback on the outcome of their decisions.

To an extent, this strikes a chord with the Justice Ryder modernisation campaign, with its suggestion that the Family justice system should commission and take notice of some agreed research, rather than operating in a vacuum. I have to say, that for many years, my default reaction to seeing research quoted in a social work report is to reach for the red pen (or now, the ‘strikethrough’ button) as I know how unpopular it can be with the bench or judiciary to have a lot of research spouted to them -it tends to be either a statement of the bleeding obvious, in which case, why bother, or something which supports a proposition which is controversial (such as – the odds are that this child you’re thinking of sending home is 50-50 to suffer abuse at home as a result, or having five sessions of contact with a parent per week isn’t actually good for a baby) in which case nobody trusts it.

But you know, if all of the time and money we spend in trying to reach the right outcomes for children is resulting in half of the children we send home after that exhaustive process being abused, then we might want to recalibrate.

(of course, from the other side of the coin,  there’s something of a paucity of research as to the number of children who get long-term fostered or adopted when the Court and professionals were wrong and they could  successfully have gone home – that’s probably a harder piece of research to work out – probably working on the parents who go onto have another child and successfully care for that later child)

It is a bit hard to totally trust research commissioned by the NSPCC – I’m not questioning their integrity in the slightest, but when it comes down to working out where they stand on the “Keep children safe at all costs” versus “keep families together at all costs” spectrum (or the Cleveland-Haringey axis, if one is being unkind) it doesn’t take long to spot that they come with an agenda.

(Not necessarily a bad agenda – I wouldn’t claim to be precisely on the fulcrum of that particular see-saw myself – but it makes it harder to rely on their research as probative. It’s like seeing a report from Benson and Hedges about passive smoking – you sort of suspect there’s a starting point there)

 I liked this quote from a senior social work manager, though :- “Support is crucial. [But] we have to take a pragmatic approach as often the support that has been suggested by the courts or experts is simply not available.”

 Very true – an awful lot of expert reports which recommend that the door to rehab is not shut do so in complete absence of context about just how feasible it is that the parents GP will commission six months of therapy for them, and that that can start without delay.

The first bit of this next quote is blindingly obvious, the second part much less so.

Poor parenting, drug or alcohol misuse, domestic violence, and parental mental health problems, all increase the chance of harm when the child returns home. Farmer et al found that 78 per cent of substance-misusing parents abused or neglected their children after they returned from care, compared to 29 per cent of parents without substance misuse problems29

 

78% of rehabs involving substance-misusing parents result in further abuse or neglect. Being a maths guy, that suggests to me that rehab to parents who misuse substances is more likely than not to result in the child being abused or neglected if rehabilitated to their care. (of course, what you argue in any individual case is that for this particular parent, these are the factors that mean the Court can be confident that they are one of the 22% who won’t abuse their child; but that context of how prevalent the risks are to that subject-group remains important.)

 The challenge of rehab to a substance-misusing parent is significant – on the one hand, if you can resolve the drug problems there’s often a good parent underneath, but on the other it is so easy to be over-optimistic about an upward curve on a graph of peaks and troughs being a sign of a genuine change – being too close to the graph to see the pattern as being anything other than up, up and up)

From a bit more of a parental perspective, I think this is probably a valid and fair criticism of LA support.

Where support is provided it is often removed after a short period of time, before a problem has been sustainably addressed. Alongside resource constraints, support can be removed due to a belief that parents need to be able to shoulder their responsibilities and not become dependent on services33. Support is often discontinued once a child returns home without any assessment of whether the families’ problems have diminished. This results in further instability and an increased risk of harm to the child. Parents also report concerns about the short-term nature of interventions designed to support them.

Some more recommendations – all of which make sense to me

Decisions about whether a child should return home must always be led by what is in their best interests.   [Of course, it already is, it is just that what one body thinks is in the child's best interests isn't necessarily the same as what another body thinks]

Support for children and their families prior to and following reunification must improve. 

 The government should ensure there is sufficient support for parents who abuse drugs and alcohol, who are victims of domestic violence, who have mental health difficulties or who have other issues which could affect their ability to parent effectively when their child returns from care. Local services must be incentivised to provide sufficient support for these parents. 

 Local authorities must ensure that the support provided to children and families matches the needs identified in a child’s risk assessment. This information should be used to inform local commissioning and investment decisions. •

Local authorities must ensure that foster carers and residential care workers are involved in the process of a child returning home from care and are supported to help the child prepare for a return home, where that is in their best interests. 

 Guidance on designated teachers for looked after children should be revised to include children who return home from care, even if they cease to be looked after on their return. The support provided by the school can play an effective part in successful returns home.

The very last bit of the report sets out a new method of classifying risk, which the NSPCC are working with 8 local authorities on. To my cynical eye, it looks somewhat simplistic given how complex the variables are in child protection cases, but it’s not bad as a benchmarking exercise. I’m not sure I’d place quite as much weight on them as the child’s wish to return home being an element that allows you to consider the risk is lower. (It seems to be about a third of the factors in weighing the risk, which appears to my untrained eye to be far, far, far, far, too high)

Classifying the risk of reunification – a tool to support decision making about children returning home from care, adapted from Safeguarding Babies and Very Young Children from Abuse and Neglect (Ward, Brown and Westlake, 2012) 

 Severe risk

 • Risk factors apparent and not being addressed, no protective factors apparent.

 • No evidence of parental capacity to change and ambivalence or opposition to return home by child or parent.

High risk

 • Risk factors apparent, and not being addressed. At least one protective factor apparent.

• No or limited evidence of parental capacity to change and ambivalence or opposition to return home by child or parent.

Medium risk

• Risk factors apparent or not all risk factors addressed. At least one protective factor apparent.

 • Evidence of parental capacity to sustain change. Parents and child both want return home to take place. 

 Low risk

 • No risk factors apparent, or previous risk factors fully addressed, and protective factors apparent.

• Evidence of parental capacity to sustain change. Parents and child both want return home to take place.

subdural haematomas, fractures and rickets

This is a case which has been in the news lately. I was tempted to write a blog on it, but I have to be frank and say that the summary prepared by Leading Counsel in the case which appears here :-

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed97208

would be hard to be bettered.

I think that Islington were in an extremely difficult spot here. On the one hand, the case did not go before a Jury in the criminal trial because the trial Judge did not consider that it would be possible given the medical evidence for the criminal standard of proof to be met.  (It may have gone higher than that,  since it wasn’t even put before the jury with a direction to acquit, and it may have been that the criminal summing up went very close to saying that the defence were right)

But Islington were faced with medical professionals in their area saying that the injuries were as serious as it is possible to be, and were on the balance of probabilities caused non-accidentally, and faced with another child of the family.

They had a tough decision to make – either no intervention at all (since if the American experts were right, the parents had done nothing wrong and suffered a huge tragedy AND had that compounded by a criminal trial) or place the issue before the Court to establish whether it was more likely than not that the younger child was at risk.

It is of course, awful, that the parents had to go through not only their loss, but two sets of legal proceedings to defend themselves and reach the truth, and that this process was no doubt gruelling, distressing, arduous and all consuming.

But I think those who criticise Islington for bringing the case perhaps misunderstand the position that they were in – it wasn’t a second bite of the cherry, but an untenable position that was only capable of being resolved by either the Local Authority taking a gamble that the American experts had been right and there was no risk to this child (and who would have been defending them had they taken that gamble and been wrong) or saying to a Court – this is beyond our scope to decide which set of medics is right, and that’s what you’re there for.

The Court could have taken a very robust view of the case at a really early stage and said, having viewed the criminal papers, it is understandable that the Local Authority have brought this case but there is no need for a finding of fact hearing and the Court is satisfied that the threshold isn’t met. That would effectively have taken that burden of managing an unknown risk off the shoulders of the Local Authority. The Court did not do that. The fact that the Court decided that the issues in the case had to be resolved by a four week finding of fact hearing meant that the issues were difficult and needed careful thought and resolution.

It might be, I know not, that when the evidence was heard, it was all blindingly obvious what the correct version of events was, but it wasn’t blindingly obvious until that process began, and I think that everyone involved in this process was just in a really difficult situation.

 

[Caveat - there's obviously a large range of nuance that can be applied by a Local Authority in this situation, from the extremes of "We don't believe that these parents did anything wrong, and invite the Court to give a brief judgment to that effect" to "the LA firmly believe in the medical views expressed by the Great Ormond Street medics, and seek the highest findings" and where this LA positioned themselves on that wide scale is probably critical]

“ISW this a dagger I see before me?”

 

 

(Sorry, there’s not much scope for puns around Independent Social Workers. Most of the humour in ISW work at present is in the LSCs idea that they are worth only ¼ of the fees a psychologist can charge for doing a similar task)

 

 

 

The independent research into the quality and efficacy of Independent Social Work reports is now available. The report was carried out by Dr Julia Brophy.

 

The report can be found here: -

 

http://www.ciswa-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/PDF-FINAL-REPORT-EVALUATION-OF-ISW-ASSESSMENTS-FOR-CARE-PROCEEDINGS-FINAL-18-Apr-2012.pdf

 

The keen-eyed will note that Dr Brophy is a different person to Dr Ireland, who did the same task on psychologists.

 

One might think that it would have been helpful, if you were carrying out research into court experts in two disciplines, to have the same team carry out both assessments, but that would involve introducing common sense into the equation.  (Perhaps we have a third report in the wings on psychiatrists)

 

One might also think that if you were doing research into whether psychological assessments and ISW assessments were useful and fit for purpose that you might look at the outcome of that research before deciding that one group could have their hourly rates cut down to £30 per hour, whilst the other group get hourly rates of £130 per hour.

 

But heck, what’s wrong with Red Queen justice – sentence first, verdict later!

 

 

 

Pink Tape has done a very good article on this report, written by Noel Arnold  (getting in first, whilst I have been busy puppy-wrangling)  :-

 

 

http://pinktape.co.uk/family-justice-review/use-of-independent-social-workers-in-care-proceedings/

 

 

 

I think the report does get some important stuff wrong – deciding that because a Local Authority is a joint party to the instruction of the ISW that means that they are supportive of the instruction is not necessarily right.  Being party to the instruction means that you were told you had to pay for a share of it. Sometimes that will mean the LA were champing at the bit to get an ISW involved, sometimes it will meant that they have bowed to the inevitable that it is better to have a report that won’t be accused of bias and prejudging the outcome, sometimes the ISW can do it quicker than the LA can do in-house and sometimes the LA will protest with varying degrees of success about instruction of another expert and the protest will fall on deaf ears.

 

So, it did slightly trouble me that the report considered that because the LA were involved in the instruction of the ISW in 65% of cases and were the sole instructing party in 15% that there is something to be drawn from that in terms of whether the LA was a driving force behind the assessment.

 

(Which is not to say that all LAs at all times oppose all ISW instructions – rather that sometimes they are the right thing on a case, and sometimes they are not)

 

 

 

 

So, what are the headlines?

 

 

Concern has been expressed that ISWs simply duplicate existing parenting assessments, that they cause delay and that there is a high use by parents seeking ‘second opinion’ evidence based solely on claims under Article 6 under the ECHR. Findings from this study do not support those concerns.

 

It was found that ISW reports mostly provided new evidence not already available to the court. This is already in line with recommendation 3.132 of the FJR.

 

In the absence of changes within cases and purposeful delay, ISW reports were almost always delivered to the date specified in the LOI. There was no evidence that reports delayed scheduled hearings.

 

There was no evidence of high use of ISWs by parents seeking second opinion evidence based solely on Article 6 claims under the ECHR – indeed as a ‘stand- alone’ application in this sample this was rare. Perhaps Article 6 is used in a ‘make weight’ argument but arguably it would be unlikely to succeed unless there were real weaknesses in an existing assessment or clear evidence of bias.

 

Findings indicate that courts would be severely hampered in the absence of access to the body of expertise and the evidence provided by ISWs – not least in case managing to meet the 6 month deadline for care cases recommended in the FJR90 and accepted in the Government’s response to it.91 Any legislative changes and adjustment to the Family Procedure Rules and Guidance would need to reflect an understanding of that finding.

 

Moreover as expert witnesses for the court the evaluation identified that ISWs have ‘added value’. They are able to engage with difficult and disaffected parents where, for whatever reason, relationships with the local authority are frequently at an impasse, where parents and children face a powerful state agency and where certain child welfare questions remain outstanding. While the independence and status afforded by the court process cannot be underestimated, that alone does not explain the ISW’s success in this regard.

 

Alongside considerable skills and experience in assessing vulnerable parents and children within care proceedings, other values follow from the ISW’s role and responsibilities as an expert for the court:

 

Independence (from all parties but with an overriding duty to the court to observe the paramountcy of the best interests of the child)

 Demonstration of ‘balance’ in reporting the outcome of the assessment process and key findings

 Ability to spend sufficient time with parents and engage in reflective practice

 Skills in observation, interpretation and analysis of information

 Clear specification of what is needed from parents and others to demonstrate capacity for change – and what they might have achieved so far

 Use of research in presenting issues and opinions

 Provision of a report which is evidence-based and forensic in method

 Ability to work to instructions posed by parties and by the court and for the most part, answering all the questions posed

 Ability to draw out key hypotheses in a list/hierarchy of questions posed

 Delivery of reports on time

 Provision of skills and expertise tailored to the specific needs of the case (e.g. in assessing parents with a learning disability, where there are allegations of sexual abuse, domestic abuse etc).

 

 There has been something of a misconception in the debate about independent social work practitioners in care proceedings: their work has been portrayed as simply doing what social workers do (i.e. fulfilling the welfare task). That is not correct: whilst they undertake a welfare task providing high quality welfare reports, they also have an additional role. It arises from their duties and responsibilities to the court as an expert witness and permits them to undertake tasks for the court which a social worker – as a professional witness for the local authority – cannot. Moreover the work of the ISW can move cases forward in a way not achievable by local authorities or children’s guardians.

 

 

 

 

Those all seem, at first blush, to be pretty positive conclusions  (so positive in fact that I spent time scouring the report to make sure it wasn’t just a PR-puff commissioned by a group of ISWs to promote their services) ; and not terribly in keeping with the twin attacks of the FJR  (ISWs are just telling us stuff we already know and should be frozen out) and the LSC  (ISWs aren’t as good as psychologists and should be starved out)

 

I think both the LSC and the FJR have fundamentally misunderstood how difficult it will be on the ground to run cases if Independent Social Workers disappeared from the landscape.

 

They are under the impression that they will have cut costs and cut out a tranche of experts and thus reduced delay and saved money. Hurrah!

 

They have fundamentally misunderstood that all they have achieved is greatly increasing the number of parents who will be seeking psychological assessments in care proceedings.  And those assessments already cost more, and take longer.  (I shall remain silent, if not neutral, on whether they are better or worse in quality).   That situation will not improve as the demand for them goes up.

 

If what you want to know, genuinely, is whether a parent has a psychological condition or barrier that is interfering with their ability to parent, and whether that can be overcome, and if so how and in what timescales, you want a psychologist.

 

If what you want to know is, genuinely, has the social work in this case been proper, rigorous and fair, and might there be another way forward in the case than that promoted by the Local Authority, then frankly, you want an Independent Social Worker  (or an old-school Guardian, but that’s an entirely different debate).

 

If what you want to know is, is there a rent-a-mouth expert who will give me something to fight with at a final hearing because I have a hopeless case, then perhaps you should consider moving into Civil law (and probably also getting a time machine back to the 1980s)

 

I hope that BASW and NAGALRO are going to mount the challenge to the LSC about fees that I have heard whispers of, since it seems to me that the different treatment meted out to two groups of professionals who both have degrees and both have professional expertise and experience is capricious and unreasonable.

 

I am encountering cases at present where I cannot get the ISWs I want to do cases, because they won’t get paid £63 per hour, so I will be ending up having psychologists to do the work at £130 per hour.  I am struggling to see the savings here.  I will have a report which is twice as expensive, takes months longer, and is less on point.

 

What we have is a situation akin to the NHS providing free smoking materials to all, and wanting to cut down on costs by deciding that you can’t get free cigarettes any more, but still letting everyone get free cigars.  We will all just smoke the free cigars, I’m afraid.

 

“A labyrinth of DoLs”

 An imaginary judgment

 

(I am extremely grateful in the construction of the legal framework of this judgment to Lord Justice Wilson’s careful and precise analysis of the law in RE P and Q 2010 – often known as the MIG and MEG case. Almost everything in this that you think is well-written was written by Lord Justice Wilson, and everything shabby and feeble is my own)

 

 The Court is today dealing with an application by those representing the parents of a young man named L, to the effect that his accommodation in the Minos Taurus care facility amounts to a Deprivation of Liberty under the Mental Capacity Act 2005, and that as this has been done without authority, the facility, and the Local Authority who placed him there are in breach of Article 5 of the Human Rights Act 1998 in that his liberty is being restricted without lawful excuse.

 

The Local Authority and the owners of Minos Taurus – Mr Ian K Harris and his dad, Ellis, contend that there is no restriction on L’s liberty and that there is an open door that L can leave by at any time and a path that can be followed to the outside world should he wish to leave at any time; and that thus L is effectively remaining in the placement of his own wish.

 

Matters are complicated when the Court looks, as I am strenuously urged to, beyond the face value of that statement and at the reality of the layout of the Minos Taurus care home. The care home has a front door, which is locked at all times. Staff members have a key, and visitors will be admitted, but residents are not able to freely enter or exit through that door. That much is common ground between the parties.

 

The rear door is indeed, unlocked at all times and any resident is free to go through it and staff would not attempt to prevent or discourage a resident from doing so.

However, emerging from that back door does not grant the resident immediate access to the public highway or the world at large, but rather to the grounds of the Minos Taurus home, which are over two acres in size. I have been shown aerial photography taken by the applicants of those grounds and it is plain that what has been constructed is an array of hedges, constructed in such a way that only one path moves from the entrance to the exit.

The hedges themselves are impenetrable, and could not be scaled without considerable difficulty, being both prickly and twelve feet in height.

In short, what lies at the rear of Minos Taurus can best be described as a labyrinth. The entrance to this labyrinth is the back door of the physical Minos Taurus building and the exit is to the public footpath that runs outside the rear of the property. There is no physical gate, or barrier to that exit.

 Minos Taurus therefore contend that L, or any other resident, would simply have to walk a path between the entrance and the exit. If they walked that path, which they are free to do at any time of the day or night, nothing would prevent them from reaching the footpath and thus leaving the land owned by Minos Taurus. Thus, there is no deprivation of liberty.

I note that they contend that describing their grounds as a labyrinth is pejorative and that it is, in reality ‘a restful and soothing arrangement of hedges in a classical form’.

 They are to be admired for their chutzpah in that submission, but I find that quite the simplest of this entire tangled and byzantine case to unpick. The grounds are laid out in the form of a maze (I note in passing that whilst I may, as counsel did throughout, flit between the term maze and labyrinth, that what we are dealing with here is a maze – since it has an entrance and exit and branching paths, whereas a labyrinth leads to the centre and is not intended to be difficult or puzzling to navigate).

I am satisfied that the applicant’s claim that the grounds of Minos Taurus are intentionally laid out as a maze, and that it is not a merely coincidental happenstance or an intention to create a geometrically and horticulturally pleasing arrangement which simply happened to also take the form of a maze. Nor is it a homage to Hampden Court, or the many other notable horticultural efforts that are set out in glossy photographs in Section J of the bundle. Whilst those photographs have indeed been soothing to consider and admire, they have not assisted me as Minos Taurus had hoped they might.

The grounds are laid out in the form of a maze and this has been a deliberate intention on the part of Minos Taurus.

L’s family contend, that L, being a person who lacks capacity to make decisions in his own regard, is incapable of navigating a maze or labyrinth, and that whilst theoretically, he is free to leave at any time, in reality he is imprisoned by this maze and his liberty is just as restricted as if he were blocked by a locked and barred door.

They state that it is of significance that their Freedom of Information request gleaned that :-

 (a) Since the construction of the maze, no member of staff has chosen to enter by the back door rather than the front

(b) Since the construction of the maze, no resident has left the home by way of the back door.

(c) All residents who have left the home have done so by the front door, which had been unlocked for them by staff.

Turning now to the law, which one might rightly muse is almost as impenetrable as the hedge and with as many twists and turns as the construction in question. The issue whether the arrangements for L amount to a deprivation of his liberty and whether the arrangements engage Article 5 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950.

Article 5 provides: “1 Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be deprived of his liberty save in the following cases and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law – … (e) the lawful detention … of persons of unsound mind …; … 4 Everyone who is deprived of his liberty by … detention shall be entitled to take proceedings by which the lawfulness of his detention shall be decided speedily by a court and his release ordered if the detention is not lawful.”

 The practical effect of a conclusion that the arrangements for L amount to a deprivation of his liberty is to be found in the valuable right provided by paragraph 4 of Article 5. For in that event his right would be to take court proceedings for a decision in relation to the lawfulness of their detention The paragraph would impose a duty on the court itself periodically, again probably at least annually, to review the continued necessity for the arrangements which deprive him of his liberty, albeit perhaps only on paper unless requested otherwise: see Re BJ (Incapacitated Adult) [2009] EWHC 3310 (Fam), [2010] 1 FLR 1373, at [26] – [28]. The court’s review would probably again require independent representation of him.

It is not, therefore, a merely academic question, but one which goes to the heart of L’s rights. I shall not go into details of the nature of L’s problems, suffice to say that his day to day functioning is approximately that of a five year old child and that it is beyond dispute and accepted by all parties to these proceedings that he lacks capacity to make decisions for all matters relevant to these proceedings pursuant to section 2 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005. There is expert evidence, undisputed, to that effect.

 L came into the Minos Taurus care home as a voluntary patient, his family having brought him there for a period of respite. They say that they had no idea that having taken him there, they did not have the power to discharge him. Although he is free to leave whenever he wishes, he is, they say, prevented from doing so by the practical barriers that have been put in place.

As indicated earlier, Minos Taurus and the Local Authority who are assisting in the funding of L’s placement there, and supporting his remaining in that placement, are of the view that L can leave the placement at any time and that there is a route or path which can be followed which is completely unimpeded to L, if he chose to follow it. Minos Taurus have indicated that if the Local Authority determined that L should leave the home by the front door, or were to cease funding the placement, they would facilitate L leaving by the front door.

The European Court of Human Rights (“the ECtHR”) has made clear that a deprivation of liberty has three elements:

(a) “the objective element of a person’s confinement to a certain limited place for a not negligible length of time”: Storck v. Germany (2005) 43 EHRR 96, at [74];

(b) the “additional subjective element [that] they have not validly consented to the confinement in question”: the Storck case, also at [74]; and

 (c) the confinement must be “imputable to the State”: the Storck case, at [89].

That is not disputed by any of the parties. The critical issue that is in dispute is whether, as a matter of fact, L is confined to a certain limited place, or whether he is not. I am invited by L’s family to reword the test as being whether L is confined to a certain limited place or whether he is free to come and go as he chooses, but I decline to replace the construction that has been carefully arrived at by the ECtHR in Storck with a different formulation. It is not incumbent on the State to demonstrate that L is free to come and go as he chooses, but to refute the claim that he is confined to a certain limited place for a not negligible length of time. The classic exposition of the nature of the enquiry into the objective element, on which no doubt has been cast for 30 years, is that of the ECtHR in Guzzardi v. Italy (1981) EHRR 333, at [92] – [93], as follows: “… the starting point must be his concrete situation and account must be taken of a whole range of criteria such as the type, duration, effects and manner of implementation of the measure in question … The difference between deprivation of and restriction upon liberty is nonetheless merely one of degree or intensity, and not one of nature or substance … the process of classification into one or other of these categories sometimes proves to be no easy task in that some borderline cases are a matter of pure opinion …”

These are prescient words indeed and ones that have survived the last three decades better than tastes in literature, music, art or fashion. It certainly is no easy task to determine the clear bright line that separates a restriction of liberty from a deprivation of liberty. One is reminded of the philosophical debate about a pile of stones, and one stone being removed at a time, and at what point there ceases to be a pile.

To the layperson it would seem a relatively easy task to determine whether objectively someone is deprived of their liberty. They would probably begin with asking the question “What’s stopping them from leaving?”  , but there is no question no matter how simple or blindingly obvious the answer that cannot be obfuscated by the combined efforts of Parliament, the judiciary and the focussed minds of the Bar.

In relation to the objective element there are two more recent decisions of the ECtHR of great importance.

The first decision is HL v. UK (2005) 81 BMLR 131;  Mr HL was an incapable 48-year-old man who was autistic, unable to speak and had a history of self-harm. For 30 years prior to 1994 he had been an inpatient in Bournewood Hospital; and for the final seven of them he had been in its Intensive Behavioural Unit. Then, in 1994, without being formally discharged, he was moved into the home of paid carers. In July 1997, following an incident of self-harm at a day-care centre, he was readmitted to the unit at the hospital and he remained there for four months, whereupon he was returned to the carers. For the first three of those months he was an informal patient, i.e. not compulsorily detained there under the Mental Health Act 1983; and such was the period during which, so the ECtHR held, he had been deprived of his liberty in breach of Article 5. Thus did the court identify “the Bournewood gap” in our legal framework for control over the deprivation of liberty in the case of an incapable person effected otherwise than pursuant to the Act of 1983; and Parliament sought to fill the gap by making insertions into the Mental Capacity Act 2005 which, by s.4A(5) and Schedule A1, set up a framework for such control in the case of a person receiving care or treatment in a hospital or a care home and which, by s.4A(1) and (3), rendered any other such deprivation lawful only if made pursuant to a court order that such was in her (or his) best interests. In its submissions in the case of HL the UK government had laid considerable emphasis on the fact that Mr HL had been compliant with his return to live in the unit and had never attempted to leave it nor expressed the wish to do so. But the court held, at [90], that, in that Mr HL was incapable, his compliance was not of central importance. The fact was that, irrespective of whether his ward was locked or lockable, he had not been free to leave the unit: [91] and [92]. The court said, at [91]: “the Court considers the key factor in the present case to be that the health care professionals treating and managing [Mr HL] exercised complete and effective control over his care and movements from 22 July 1997, when he presented acute behavioural problems, to 29 October 1997, when he was compulsorily detained.”

 

The second decision is the case of Storck cited above. A young woman aged 18 was placed by her father in a locked ward of a private psychiatric clinic and she remained there for 20 months. Very strong medication was administered to her, at times by force. On a number of occasions she attempted to flee from the clinic and was prevented from doing so by being fettered. Once she succeeded in escaping and the police forcibly returned her there. She was unable to maintain regular social contact with persons outside the clinic. The ECtHR held that all three elements of a deprivation of liberty were present and that, in respect of the objective element, the case was a fortiori that of HL.

 

In the case of RE P (known as MIG) and Q (known as MEG) 2010, the Court of Appeal determined that there were some important factors to be considered when determining whether there was objectively a deprivation of liberty.

 1. A person’s happiness, as such, is not relevant in determining whether there has been a deprivation of liberty.

 2. However, an objection is relevant, even where a person lacks capacity. If they do not want to be in a place and they object, there will be conflict. At the very least there will be arguments and they will suffer the stress of having their argument overruled. This would be a factor which could be properly taken into account when determining if a person’s liberty were being deprived, rather than restricted.

3. From the relevance of objections and also of the lack of them, it is logical to move to the relevance of medication and also of the lack of it . The administration to a person of medication, at any rate of antipsychotic drugs and other tranquilisers, is always a pointer towards the existence of the objective element: for it suppresses her liberty to express herself as she would otherwise wish. Indeed, if the administration of it is attended by force, its relevance is increased. Furthermore, in that objections may be highly relevant, medication which has the effect of suppressing them may be relevant to an equally high degree. But again, conversely, the absence of medication is a pointer in the other direction.

4. The purpose of the arrangements under scrutiny can be relevant.

 5. the relative normality, or otherwise of the arrangements under scrutiny can be relevant

 6. an enquiry into the residential arrangements and the degree of outside social contact. “Whether a certain situation constitutes a deprivation of liberty may depend on the living conditions of the person concerned and the degree of freedom he or she enjoyed otherwise”: “The European System for the Protection of Human Rights,” by Macdonald, Matscher and Petzold, 1993, 289.

I propose to analyse the case on the basis of those principles, to form an objective view of whether, as a preliminary issue the first of the three limbs of Starck are made out. Has there been the objective element of a person’s confinement to a certain limited place for a not negligible length of time ?

 

I am however, before conducting that exercise, mindful of the following authorities , and indeed that the Court of Appeal in Re P and Q determined that there was NO deprivation of liberty in that case and this body of caselaw strives to convince me that there is far more to the objective question that considering the commonsense formulation that an ordinary person would use “What’s stopping them from leaving?” , in that these cases illustrate that locked doors, tranquiliser medication and physical restraint can all, in certain circumstances be deployed to stop a person leaving somewhere without his liberty being deprived. 

  (I wonder, in an idle moment, whether a Judge in a civil trial to determine a tort of False Imprisonment, would wrestle for even a moment with the issue of whether someone who was drugged, locked up or sat on was being prevented from leaving, but that is by the by)

 

RE  C (BY THE OFFICIAL SOLICITOR) v (1) BLACKBURN WITH DARWEN BOROUGH COUNCIL (2) A CARE HOME (3) BLACKBURN WITH DARWEN TEACHING CARE TRUST (2011) [2011] EWHC 3321 (Fam) Where an individual who was living in a care home with locked doors was not considered by the High Court to be deprived of his liberty.

 

The Honourable Mr Justice Peter Jackson commented here, and they are sentiments which I would not only echo, but shout into the Grand Canyon via a megaphone and perhaps even go so far as to embark upon a process of chiselling these words into Mount Rushmore:- 

 It is a truly unhappy state of affairs that the law governing the fundamental rights and welfare of incapacitated people should be so complex. As this case shows, its intricacies challenge the understanding of professionals working in the field and are completely inaccessible to those for whose benefit the legislation has been devised, including those with a relatively high level of understanding, such as Mr C. This judgment, while keeping citation from statute, regulation, codes of practice and reported cases to the necessary minimum, still remains more focused on technical issues than I would like

Bravo.

 I wish that my own meagre contribution to the law in this regard could add illumination, but I fear it is likely to do little other than complicate matters still further.

 I am also referred to the case of CHESHIRE WEST & CHESTER COUNCIL v P (BY HIS LITIGATION FRIEND THE OFFICIAL SOLICITOR) (2011) [2011] EWCA Civ 1257 In which the Court of Appeal determined that restrictive measures taken in relation to a man who lacked capacity did not amount to a deprivation of his liberty.

HELD: (1) After reviewing the relevant authorities, the court identified the following factors which were likely to be significant in the type of deprivation of liberty cases coming before the Court of Protection: (a) the starting point was the “concrete situation”, taking account of a range of criteria such as the type, duration, effects and manner of implementation of the measure in question (see paras 32-33, 188, 102 of judgment); (b) deprivation of liberty had to be distinguished from restraint because restraint alone was not deprivation of liberty (paras 23, 102); (c) account had to be taken of the individual’s whole situation and context was crucial, Guzzardi v Italy (A/39) (1981) 3 E.H.R.R. 333 and Engel v Netherlands (A/22) (1979-80) 1 E.H.R.R. 647 applied, Secretary of State for the Home Department v JJ [2007] UKHL 45, [2008] 1 A.C. 385 followed (paras 32-35, 102); (d) mere lack of capacity to consent to living arrangements could not in itself create a deprivation of liberty and the fact that a domestic setting could involve a deprivation of liberty did not mean that it often would, Surrey CC v CA [2010] EWHC 785 (Fam), [2011] M.H.L.R. 108 approved (paras 27-28, 41-59, 102-103); (e) it was legitimate to have regard both to the objective “reason” for a placement and treatment and also the objective “purpose”, Austin v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [2009] UKHL 5, [2009] 1 A.C. 564 followed (paras 60-75, 102); (f) subjective motives or intentions had only limited relevance since an improper motive or intention might have the effect that what would otherwise not be a deprivation of liberty was, for that very reason, a deprivation whilst a good motive or intention could not render innocuous what would otherwise be a deprivation of liberty (paras 74-77, 102); (g) it was always relevant to evaluate and assess the ‘relative normality’ of the situation, Secretary of State for the Home Department v JJ and others followed (paras 78-97, 102); (h) the assessment had to take account of the particular capabilities of the person concerned since what might be a deprivation of liberty for one person may not be for another (paras 92, 97, 102); (i) in most contexts the relevant comparator was the ordinary able bodied adult but not in the kind of cases that came before the Family Division and the Court of Protection, concerning children and adults with disabilities whose lives were dictated by their own cognitive and other limitations (paras 86, 102); (j) in such cases, the comparator was an adult of similar age with the same capabilities as the adult concerned, affected by the same condition or suffering the same inherent mental and physical disabilities and limitations. In the case of a child, the comparator was a child of the same age and development, Surrey CC v CA [2011] EWCA Civ 190, [2011] 2 F.L.R. 583 applied (paras 86-97, 102). (2) In the instant case, the judge had not compared P’s situation with the kind of life he would have been leading as someone with his disabilities and difficulties in a normal family setting. There was nothing to show that the life he was living there was significantly different from the kind of life that anyone with those difficulties could normally expect to lead, whatever kind of setting they were living in. On the contrary, there was a strong degree of normality in his life, assessed by reference to the relevant comparator (paras 105-112). The judge’s reasoning in relation to the measures applied to P from time to time was equally problematic. The measures involved the kind of occasional restraint that anyone caring for P in any setting would have to adopt from time to time. The finger sweep was obviously intrusive but had to be looked at in context. It was little different from what any properly attentive parent would do if a young child was chewing something unpleasant or potentially harmful. It involved a degree of restraint but that was far removed from anything approaching a deprivation of liberty. P’s care plan did not involve a deprivation of his liberty (paras 113-117).

 

The Minos Taurus unit, and the Local Authority urge that I exercise caution before determining that the arrangements for L amount to a deprivation of his liberty. They contend that :-

1. There is an unlocked door through which L may leave at any time.

2. L’s needs are being met in the unit

3. L is not making attempts to leave through the unlocked door. Setting aside whether he could navigate the maze (about which they make no concessions) he has not attempted to step out of the physical building and into the grounds at the rear of the building.

 4. L does attend social functions and some educational/play facilities outside of the unit and has a quality of life comparable to that which persisted before his admission 

5. L is not on any medication

6. L has not been the subject of any restraint

7. There are no entries in any of the records of L objecting to the placement, or of wishing to leave. It is plain that he is asking for his family and making positive comments about them and his time with them.

On the evidence that has been placed before me, there is nothing to counteract these facts and I have to find that these contentions are all made out.

 

Set against that,  I am satisfied that the purpose of the arrangements, in having a maze built in the grounds of the building and there being an open door leading into that maze is in order to provide the illusion of a person being free to leave. This illusion does not sit well with me, leaving as it does, an indelible impression of an attempt to circumvent the need to make the application to detain a person using the Mental Capacity Act, which application could be challenged.

I am also satisfied that none of the residents at Minos Taurus, who are there on a “voluntary” basis are capable of negotiating or navigating that maze successfully and that within a few short minutes of being in the maze unaccompanied they would become fearful, lost and no doubt calling for staff to help them. That is not an indication of them consenting to be in the home or wishing to remain there, but the reality of them being simply incapable of negotiating the obstacle that has been placed in their path by Mr Ian K Harris and his father, Ellis.

This, however, is the only matter that I can set against the 7 positive factors listed above to indicate that there might be a degree of deprivation of liberty rather than restriction of it.  I do not feel able to imbue that matter, grave as it is, with sufficient weight to tip the scales against those 7 positive factors.

Much as this conclusion might leave a bad taste in my mouth, the construction of the maze being a clear device to circumvent suggestion that L and his fellow residents are deprived of their liberty, I am in difficulties on the authorities to reach the objective conclusion that L’s family invite me to make. Given that some of the authorities find that locked doors and physical restraint need not amount to an objective deprivation of liberty, and that those factors are not present in this case, I am driven by the authorities and an analysis of the law to find that there is no such deprivation of liberty.

However, my conclusion is that L would like to have a member of his family to visit him in the unit and to walk with him in the grounds. Should they happen to wish to wander in the maze, and should they happen to find their way out (perhaps with the benefit of the aerial photography that can be found at G42 of the Court bundle) then that might be a coincident outcome.

If the unit were to refuse to allow L to be visited by his family and to walk with them in the grounds, or to refuse to allow L to leave by the exit of the maze, should he find his way there, then I would be minded to find that a deprivation of liberty had occurred at that point. Indeed, I determine that if they were minded to do so, they should make the relevant application to give them authority to deprive L of his liberty to walk in the garden with his family.

 The same would be true of any of the other residents of Minos Taurus, and I am happy for this judgment to be published and made available to the family members of all other residents of the unit.

I apologise that my solution and judgment in this case is more akin to the Gordian Knot than Ariadne’s ball of thread, but I trust that it will meet with some satisfaction in at least some of the participants of this fascinating piece of litigation.

Is more Hedley than the Mail *

My ongoing and ever growing brain-crush on the Honourable Mr Justice Hedley continues apace, in K (Children) 2012   – which can be found here :-

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed97030

*(apologies for the title, the story has nothing whatsoever to do with the Daily Mail)

This case is not particularly remarkable for its grappling with complex legal issues or because it resolves a matter of grave national import. The facts of the case are incredibly sad and the matters of huge importance to the family and those working with them, but the case is of interest and significance for the way that the Judge approached matters.  I hope that in years from now, we will see this case as one of those times when fish climbed out of the sea with stubby fins onto the land and gulped pure clean air.  (Probably not, but I am, despite eighteen years in child protection law, an incurable optimist and a hopeless romantic)

I would urge you to read these short extracts, but effectively, this is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote about an inquisitorial approach (actually well beyond, in the right direction).

The Judge was dealing with a case with three children with profound special needs as a result of their disabilities, and the dispute that the family were having with the Local Authority about services for the children; culminating in the issue of care proceedings and there being considerable conflict in the papers as to where the children should live and whether the threshold was met. It could very easily have been approached as a classic adversarial case and the parties spending two weeks in the High Court tearing one another to pieces and seeing who was limping least at the conclusion of the case.

Instead, a very different approach was adopted.

16. Because all this seemed to me both unusual and difficult, I have gone about its resolution in an unusual manner, albeit with the consent throughout of the parties.  The fundamental purpose has been to see if a way forward can be found in partnership, which, as I have said, must happen indefinitely into the future, without the need for a damaging trial over the question of whether the threshold criteria have been satisfied.  I regarded this approach as all the more urgent in this case because of the deeply conflictual tone of almost all the statements, not just of the parties towards each other, but of the Local Authority towards some experts and, of course, a letter from Simon suggesting, unsurprisingly no doubt, that he has been drawn up to his ears into this dispute.  It is the fact that some two years have passed since a Local Authority social worker was admitted to the house and it is the fact that, until this hearing began, the parents had not spoken to the current social work team.   It was a matter of relief that on one matter all parties were agreed.  This could not go on and change had to occur.  It is also worthy of note that, as a matter of fact, the combined work of the parents and the professionals to date has in fact succeeded in promoting and safeguarding the welfare of the children in very substantial part.  Despite the ongoing conflict with the family, the Local Authority social workers have managed to negotiate substantial investment in the family, including procuring the two places at H, and there is no reason to doubt that the parents have secured the children’s emotional welfare throughout.

17. I have pursued this aim by making my provisional views about the case and my suggested possible route to solution much more readily available than would necessarily be right were I hearing an arm’s length trial.  I have allowed considerable amounts of court time over the last seven days to be used outside the court room.  From those discussions have emerged four agreements: one between the Local Authority and the parents, one between H and the parents, and a tri-partite agreement between them all, and a further agreement between the Local Authority, the parents and the proposed coordinator or case manager in this case.  There are two issues of disagreement remaining and all agree that they can be considered in this judgment and then acted on by the parties.

18. Moreover, on the second day of the hearing we adjourned to H, who kindly made their boardroom available to us.  During the course of discussions, the parents met constructively with the social work team under the aegis of the guardian, though of course this must only be the start of what needs to be a regular pattern of meetings.  I had a chance to see the premises and speak informally with the general manager and the chief executive.  I also had the chance to see the family together, of which more in a moment.  At the request of the parties, I also went to the special school (F) attended by Alec, Alice and now Zac, and spoke informally with the headteacher and a member of the medical staff.  I wish to record my gratitude both to H and F for their tolerant hospitality, and I have written personally to the general manager and the headteacher to express that.  In a case in which, as I have said, context is everything, I found this second day particularly valuable.  In short, this case, being unique, has received unique treatment.

And here :-

43. I greatly appreciate the effort of all – family, professionals, Local Authority, H, guardian, as well as the legal teams who have given clear advice and have been willing to adopt both an unconventional and a non-confrontational approach, all of which have served to secure this end.  I want only finally to say this.  Whatever the disputes of the past, this remains an intact family in which the best interests of the children are paramount.  I hope this case has given the parents the confidence to continue the task that compels the admiration of all.  I hope, too, that in that renewed confidence they will feel less anxious, will feel that they do not always need to be right on everything or in control of every issue, but will learn to trust others and to respect and consider contrary views; in short, that all will come to recognise that that which will unite this family, and H and the Local Authority in the future, is not the written agreements, important though they are, but their shared commitment to promoting the welfare of these children, especially Alec, Alice and Zac, who of course have nowhere else to turn.

Now, all of this may have come in the context of a unique family  (I nearly said very unique, but of course that concept is a nonsense), and I note that the school provision for the children is costing £246,000 in 2012 and will increase year by year; and that in those circumstances one can understand that there is more willingness to be flexible and supple and try a different approach, but I really would like to see much more of this.

At the risk of getting into private law, which is no longer my cup of tea, I have thought for some years that an approach in private law where the Judge indicates really early on what a desirable final outcome for the children would be  [that they see both parents, spend lots of time with both, know that each parent loves them very much and that whilst they don’t love each other any more, that doesn’t stop mum being mum, and dad being dad, that new relationships for mum or dad don’t change that at all]  would be, and directs the parties as to how to get from this awful starting point to that desirable finishing point, is worth considering…. sorry to keep people waiting for that unexciting ending…

“Gone till November, I’ll be gone till November” *

 

 

 

Has the 26 week target been snuck in by the back door?

 

 

 

There’s a new computer system for care proceedings in the Courts which tracks a variety of useful pieces of information, and is worth reading, because it has come in for all new cases issued after 2nd April.

 

The Courts have been given some guidance, which I set out below, and can also be found here :-

 

http://www.familylaw.co.uk/system/uploads/attachments/0004/3875/Care_monitoring_system_guidance_for_practitioners_April_2012.pdf

 

 

Look specifically at the  passages about Timetable for the Child, which is all calculated on the basis that the timetable for the child (in which the proceedings should be resolved) is 26 weeks from issue.  This is in readiness for the change to the law to make that a hard cap. (but of course we don’t yet have such a cap)

 

Obviously, this is just guidance to the Court staff on the new system and not legal authority for 26 weeks, but I do suspect that some resistance will be encountered when listing IRHs on new cases that go outside the 26 week period that the computer is setting as a maximum, and it appears that where the Court decide that the case will go over 26 weeks they have to make a formal decision about this and record it on the face of the order.

 

It’s always nice, when introducing new principles about timing of care proceedings, to bury them in some guidance to court staff as to how to use their new computer system…

 

 

THE NEW CARE MONITORING SYSTEM:

GUIDANCE FOR PRACTITIONERS

The new care monitoring system (CMS) is a judicially led management information programme intended to provide accurate ongoing information about case volumes, case progress and allocation. The system will provide the case management information necessary to enable leadership judges and the administration to oversee and manage public law caseloads and the allocation of individual cases in their Care Centres. The programme will also assist judges, legal advisers and magistrates to focus on avoiding delay for children and will help identify the real causes of delay. CMS has been jointly developed by the judiciary and HMCTS and has been written to a judicial specification which looks at both the real progress of a case through the court and the DFJ’s and JC’s responsibilities for all cases within their courts.

The system is being piloted nationwide from the 2nd April 2012 from when all new care and supervision cases will be entered on to the system.

The CMS case summary will provide judges/legal advisers/benches with ongoing information updated for every hearing about the ages of the child or children they are dealing with, the length of time a case has been running (measured in weeks), the number of hearings which there have been, any adjournments of hearings and applications for experts.

TRACKING THE AGE OF THE CASE BY REFERENCE TO THE TIMETABLE FOR THE CHILD

In preparation for the reforms which are contemplated in the family modernisation programme, and for the purpose of this trial, all cases will be given a standard 26 week timetable on issue. The system will keep track of where the case is in the process and whether it is on time to be completed within the 26 week period.

If, at any point, the court decides that the timetable for the child is such that the proceedings will not be completed within 26 weeks of issue then it will make a decision about this. The determination of the timetable for the child must be done at the CMC. This must be done in court in the presence of the parties based on the evidence and information available and what it is necessary to do to conclude the proceedings. The timetable should then be expressed as the expected number of weeks which are necessary to conclude the proceedings. This must then be recorded on the face of the order (usually in the form of a recital). Staff will use that order to input the data onto the CMS.

The timetable for two or more children involved in the same proceedings may be different. Once the expected conclusion date has been set as being outside 26 weeks, it cannot be reset; however this does not preclude the case being completed earlier than the expected conclusion date.

 

 

 

* Re November – it doesn’t quite work out, because 26 weeks is mid-October, but I didn’t think “October, the trees are all bare’ works as well, and also, it reminded me of the brilliant Vic and Bob sketch, where Vic is Craig David, working in a garage shop, and Bob is his manager, rollicking him for not turning up on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc and then Chilling on Sunday.  Craig David quits, and is replaced by Wyclef, who cheerfully tells poor Bob that he’ll be “gone till November”

Nobody expects the English (and Welsh) Inquisition

 

 

(their chief weapons are delay, their devasting deployment of working parties and committees, and more delay)

 

 

This post arises from Mr Justice Ryder’s fourth tranche of Modernisation updates.

 

You can see an excellent analysis of this update over at Family Lore here:-

 

http://www.familylore.co.uk/2012/04/family-justice-modernisation-programme.html

 

 

and the actual source document is here :-

 

http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/family_newsletter4.pdf

 

 

The bit that has really struck a chord with me is the recognition that what we have at present is not the “inquisitorial” system that it is often labelled, but at best “quasi-inquisitorial” and in reality “adversarial”

 

This is not a quasi-inquisitorial approach. It is a full inquisitorial approach with the

court in the driving seat in relation to the issues to be tried and the evidence which is necessary for that hearing to be conducted fairly.

 

Recently, every time anyone has said to me that we have an inquisitorial system and not an adversarial one, my response has been “Imagine for a second that you wanted to make our current family justice system MORE adversarial, how would you do it?”

 

Short of ducking-stools for witnesses, I’m struggling with a suggestion to make our process more adversarial.

 

[Not that this is necessarily de facto wrong – you might well argue that when the State and Courts are deciding what should happen inside a family, that this is just as worthy of an adversarial system as crime, or personal injury; but rather that the illusion of it being an inquisitorial system is a nonsense. If it is a good thing to have an adversarial system in family law, then let’s say so and be transparent about it, but if we think an inquisitorial system is the right way to do it, then let’s genuinely have one]

 

 

So, how could we make the system an inquisitorial one?

 

The Family Drug and Alcohol Court is a reasonable model – though it takes longer and no doubt costs more, the outcomes – in terms of keeping families together and having rehabilitations that work, are far superior to other Courts.

 

My imaginary version of an inquisitorial system would work like this (and I don’t claim it is without flaws) :-

 

 

  1. The Local Authority file their threshold document, outlining what has gone wrong in the past, and also outline the areas that they would want to change in the future. Where there are practical steps that the parent could take to address the concerns, they should be set out.
  2. The parents with the assistance of their representatives produce a response to threshold, outlining what is accepted and what is not, and outlining where they accept a need to change, and whether they will take the practical steps put forward.
  3. If there is agreement, the heads of that agreement will be approved by a Judge, who will make it plain that progress in relation to the areas of concern will be necessary by the time the 26 week period is up, and that the parents will be measured against what they do  (moving away from the psychological bent of what a parent is theoretically capable of with the right support and towards what they actually do]
  4. If there is a dispute, the Court will consider matters and give a judgment that sets out clearly where the LA concerns are justified, and where they are not, and what has to be done between now and the final hearing, by all concerned.

 

[In essence, this would be similar to the written agreement that is attempted at Letter Before Action stage, but this time, it would have the force of the Court behind it.  If the Court rule that the level of drinking these parents do isn’t problematic, then we knock that issue on the head and waste no further time on it unless matters deteriorate. If the Court feels that these parents would need to stop using heroin in order to parent to a good enough standard, then the parents can hear that from the Court, rather than from the social worker they’ve no time for…]

 

  1. It would be the Judge, at that stage, who would decide what expert evidence they require to allow a fair outcome in the case and what information needs to be gathered. Of course, representations can be made, to ensure that the Judge has considered matters from a variety of perspectives, but rather than the Court being asked to approve the instruction of experts, the Court drive the process and decide what expert evidence THEY need to make the right decision. And they set the questions  (again, with some input to ensure that if there’s a critical issue that might be overlooked it is drawn to their attention, but getting away from the Letter of Instruction being a document produced by committee with the questions being pulled this way and that so that they end up being sprawling, voluminous and anodyne, and instead, focus on the questions that the Judge needs the expert to give guidance on)
  2. The Issue Resolution Hearing becomes the sort of hearing we were promised when the PLO launched, conducted by a Judge who has (a) judicial continuity (b) time to consider the papers and embrace the issues, and with advocates who are prepared to set out what issues are agreed and which are controversial, and what the proportionate way of dealing with the controversial issues are.
  3. At the final hearing, if less than fifty per cent of the questions asked of the professional witnesses don’t come from the Judge, something has gone wrong.

 

 

Now, of course, you can’t do any of that whilst Judges have the time pressures that they currently have. Anyone who comes to family courts will have noticed how the lists have swollen over the years, and tackling a directions day must now be something akin to trench warfare for a family judge – just getting through the day is a triumph, never mind the overarching strategic objectives.

 

It might well be that this sort of inquisitorial approach would free up space at the other end of the spectrum – having Judges spend far less time on cases where no stone is left unturned, no bad point left untaken, and no contact record unthumbed.  But I suspect that those savings would take time to come through, and that poor Judges would find themselves in an unenviable interlocutory position of having to be continuing trench warfare in the old style cases and having to be Field-Marshal Montgomery in the new style.

 

As a sidebar, here’s a little theory – I would wager that an astronomically greater proportion of collective brainpower and prep (in terms of Judges, solicitors, counsel and professionals) goes into each minute of a final hearing compared to a Case Management Conference, but if you put that same degree of focus and thought into a CMC, you’d reap substantial rewards at the end of the case, by getting things right at the beginning.

 

And of course, the listings stick the CMCs right in the middle of that trench warfare directions day, when a Judge is listening to the fourteenth set of people who have ‘helpfully agreed some directions for your approval’  and with a portion of their mind turning to the next nine cases that are waiting outside…

 

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