We have all seen the sequence on television, the police arrest their suspect, snap the cuffs on and lead them away (probably pushing down on their head as they get them into the panda car) saying “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned, something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence”
And the right to silence is enshrined in English law in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. A person may be interviewed by the police and say nothing, or say “no comment” in relation to every matter put to them.
The jury would be directed that no inferences should be drawn about that, unless there is something that they later rely on and there was no good reason for them not to have said it in interview.
So, how do we square that with care proceedings, where the onus is on a parent to be open and honest, and they have to meet with professionals and talk to experts and have to give evidence, often in advance of the criminal trial?
Well, the primary protection is (or was intended to be)
Children Act 1989, section 98(1):
“In any proceedings in which a court is hearing an application for an order under
Part IV or V, no person shall be excused from—
(a) giving evidence on any matter; or
(b) answering any question put to him in the course of his giving
on the ground that doing so might incriminate him or his spouse of an offence.”
(2)A statement or admission made in such proceedings shall not be admissible in evidence against the person making it or his spouse [or civil partner] in proceedings for an offence other than perjury.
So, ostensibly, a parent in care proceedings can give their evidence, either in a statement, or in oral evidence, knowing that it cannot be used against them or their spouse for any offence other than perjury.
[Note that there is no protection of it being used in prosecutions against your boyfriend or girlfriend, or cohabitee, or the father of your children, if you are not married to them]
There is no right to ‘plead the Fifth’ and “refuse to answer questions on the grounds that it may incriminate me”
The Court of Appeal clarified this in Re Y and K (Children) 2003
35. We are glad, therefore, to have the opportunity today of clarifying the situation. Parents can be compelled to give evidence in care proceedings; they have no right to refuse to do so; they cannot even refuse to answer questions which might incriminate them. The position is no different in a split hearing from that in any other hearing in care proceedings. If the parents themselves do not wish to give evidence on their own behalf there is, of course, no property in a witness. They can nevertheless be called by another party if it is thought fit to do so, and the most appropriate person normally to do so would be the guardian acting on behalf of the child.
And then in Re O (Care Proceedings: Evidence)  1 FLR 161 the High Court ruled that where a parent was giving evidence and flatly refused to answer a particular question, the Court would be entitled to, and usually should, draw inferences that the allegations being put are true.
As a matter of public policy, it is vitally important that parents give evidence in care proceedings and set out their version of events, in order for the Court to best arrive at both the truth of disputed matters and a determination of what is in the child’s interests in the future. Candour is an extremely important feature of care proceedings, particularly where an allegation of physical abuse is being investigated, and one often hears that an admission, even at a late stage would be more desirable than an adverse finding being made after denials. That is why there is no ‘right to silence’ imported into the Children Act 1989, but that does not mean that this should impinge on your right to silence in the criminal proceedings.
That places the parent in care proceedings, and most particularly in care proceedings involving a serious allegation which is also the subject of a police investigation, in a difficult situation.
They cannot refuse to give evidence, nor can they during their evidence, refuse to answer questions, and if they attempt to do so, the door is wide open for the Judge to make adverse findings against them.
Their protection then, such as it is, is the provision of s98(2) that in giving their account, this will not be used against them for any other proceedings other than perjury.
But how true is that, in reality?
There were a swathe of cases in the mid 1990′s about which statements were covered by s98(2) and which were not, and earlier decisions that any admissions or statements made to a social worker during the course of the proceedings WERE COVERED by s98(2) were then overruled by the Court of Appeal in Re G (Social Worker Disclosure)  1 FLR 276 who distinguished between admissions made to a Guardian (which WOULD BE covered by s98(2) since the Guardian’s was a creature of the proceedings only) and to a social worker (who had a role and function outside of the court proceedings).
So, if you, as a parent are going to confess all, but don’t want to waive your right to silence in the criminal trial, it is best to do it to a Guardian and not to a social worker. (Of course, the bigger problem for you will be getting any actual face-time with a Guardian to make your confession, since these days you’ll be lucky if they ever speak to you after the very first hearing)
The Courts have also ruled that statements or remarks you make to an expert during an assessment ARE covered by s98(2) Re AB (Care Proceedings: Disclosure of Medical Evidence to the Police)  1LR 161
But in practice, what do the provisions of s98(2) mean? They are after all, your bulwark against losing your right to silence in the criminal proceedings by virtue of the State having decided that transparency and candour in care proceedings is vital.
In Re EC (Disclosure of Material)  2 FLR 725 the Court held that the police could apply for, and be provided with, transcripts of a parents evidence, which would include their admissions, and that the police could use these to shape their investigation, including framing their questions for interview.
The transcript could not be produced as evidence in criminal proceedings for anything other than perjury, but the fact that their use for this purpose has become increasingly common (you will often see the police making applications for disclosure following a finding of fact hearing) is troubling for s98(2)
In the course of writing this article, I came across a very splendid article on a similar topic, written by Sarah Cooper, a barrister at Thomas More Chambers. It is a good read, and it is only my chance to publicise it further that led me to not abandon my own post halfway through, Ms Cooper having done it so well in the first place.
Ms Cooper makes the excellent point, which I would not in all likelihood have found, but which is incredibly important, that where a person in a criminal trial makes an inconsistent statement
“The Criminal Justice Act 2003 s119 provides that a previous, inconsistent statement by a witness which is put to him in criminal proceedings is now admissible as evidence of any matter stated of which oral evidence by him would be admissible.”
Raising the spectre of at least a debate or legal argument in the criminal proceedings as to whether the document the police have got their hands on through the care proceedings is admissable, to refute an inconsistent statement made by the defendant. So whilst the admission made in Court may not be evidence ITSELF as to what it says, it may end up being imported as evidence that a statement made by the defendant to the contrary is untrue or at least in doubt. As Ms Cooper suggests “section 98(2) is a very leaky sieve indeed”
I have to say, that I don’t like any of the law on this that sprang up in the mid nineties. I think that the Court tried to square a public interest in parents being free to make admissions in care proceedings whilst retaining their right to silence as against a public interest in the prosecution and detection of crime, and for me, they got the balance wrong. I’m sure they genuinely felt that they had been able to do both, but it was a classic slippery slope. Once the police got a foot inside the door of the family court, it was only going to erode the intention of s98(2) over time to a point where it is now nearly meaningless.
For me there is a huge and overriding public policy interest in openness and where a person makes an admission, that being recognised as a good thing, rather than a person running the risk that candour in care proceedings might well be punished in criminal proceedings.
I would like to see the law reset to s98(2)’s original intent, that a person could give their evidence freely within care proceedings without fear of external consequences, and to be able to be honest and open with social workers, guardians and the Court.
[I think that the fact that the cases that pushed the door ajar pre-dated the Human Rights Act and particularly article 6, and particularly the inconsistent statement provision of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 means that the time might be right for them to be challenged]
Of course, the negative side of such a reset is that the police would no longer have access to this potentially valuable material collected within care proceedings, and that valuable police time might be spent chasing a red herring, or spending hours in trying to prove something which has already been admitted.
I think it would be legitimate, where it is known that the police have charged X with an offence, for them to be formally notified, with a form of wording agreed by all parties and approved by the Judge, that the Court in the care proceedings determined that X DID NOT do this thing.
That would avoid or reduce the risk that someone would be wrongly charged or prosecuted for an offence that has already been scrutinized in detail by the family Court.