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Category Archives: cafcass

Research and stats round-up

 

A few important reports on statistics / research documents have come out in the last two weeks. I’m afraid that I don’t have enough time to write about each in depth, but I’ll give you the headlines and a link to each and if that whets your appetite, you can read the whole thing.
1. Serious case reviews

Ofsted have published statistics showing that the number of Serious Case Reviews have dramatically increased

http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/serious-incident-notifications-official-statistics-release

A 53% increase on Serious Case Reviews since 2012.

You might think, as I immediately did – is this evidence that the new methods of working aren’t working and that children are paying a heavy price?

It may be much more prosaic than that. The real chance in Serious Case Review policy is that they went from being internal documents to published documents in 2011, and the numbers went down as a result. Public bodies that had been using them to learn lessons and discuss failings were less keen on doing so in published documents – the “washing your dirty linen in public” effect. And then last year as a result of that decline an independent board was set up to scrutinise decisions as to whether or not to hold a Serious Case Review. So the dramatic rise is just that independent board restoring normality.

However, the number of referrals of “serious incidents” to Ofsted did go up. “Serious incidents” can cover incidents that would warrant a Serious Case Review or that are likely to attract media attention. So a greater media interest in family justice might account for the increase.
2. Ministry of Justice Statistics show a 19% reduction in family cases

http://www.familylaw.co.uk/system/redactor_assets/documents/1657/court-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2014.pdf

Private law cases dropped by 41% from the same quarter last year, as those cases that had got in just before LASPO have now all just about ended.

The MOJ say that numbers of public law cases has been fairly stable since 2011 (so the figures earlier this year showing a decline was really just the effect of everyone pausing in new cases to make sense of the new PLO requirements rather than any real downturn in demand)

What is interesting is that despite the huge Government push on mediation being the way forward, the number of mediations in the last year decreased by 50% from the level that it was when parents could go and see a lawyer for free advice who would explain the benefits of mediation to them. That’s pretty damning, that a compulsory mediation service has lower take up than when it was voluntary.

http://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/new-moj-laa-data-low-income-families-turn-backs-on-court-mediation-falls-50-compared-to-pre-laspo-times

3. CAFCASS research on care proceedings
This is an annual follow-up since the death of Peter Connolly, in which Guardians in public law cases are surveyed after the conclusion of the care proceedings and asked some general questions about whether they feel the LA was right to bring the proceedings, the quality of the evidence and whether the proceedings were brought too soon, too late or about right.

http://www.cafcass.gov.uk/media/217447/three_weeks_in_november_five_years_on.pdf

The headline from that is that “social workers are taking the right actions to keep children safe”

And that in 84% of proceedings, the Guardian felt that there had been no other choice than to issue proceedings. [Of course, the other way of looking at that is that 16% of proceedings are being issued when they didn’t need to be]

It probably isn’t the most impartial measure either – although Guardians are independent of social workers, the ethos of CAFCASS has been fairly obviously “safeguarding” as a priority over family preservation for a few years now.

If you were to ask parents whether the case should have been brought to Court I suspect 84% or higher would say no.  So it rather depends on who you are asking.

The really interesting research would be if you could get Judges to do this survey, keeping it all anonymised.

Cafcass note that the proportion of Guardians feeling that cases were being issued too late rose from 26% to 39% – they fairly note that this could be that delays are getting worse, or that cases have moved to pre-proceedings or that the greater focus on timescales and targets have made Guardians more sensitised to the issue and more critical of delays that would have been tolerable a year ago.

 

 

4. The Children’s Rights Commissioner says that legal aid cuts have detrimentally affected children
To which the MoJ have replied “Well it isn’t meant to”

So that’s all fine then.
“Behind the evidence in our research are countless heartrending stories of children and vulnerable young adults whose lives have been seriously affected by their inability to access legal representation,” Atkinson said. “This means, in effect, that they cannot seek, let alone receive, justice. We should not expect children and young adults to face the complexities of the legal system on their own. These systems are daunting enough for adults, let alone vulnerable children and young people.

“The system is so difficult to navigate that it leads to people having no legal representation. That in turn can prevent decision-makers making decisions properly, as well as stopping individuals obtaining the justice they need … Short-term savings to one part of the legal system – legal aid – are simply shifting costs to another, because judges direct that representation has to be funded.”

http://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/content/publications/content_871

5. NSPCC research suggests that spending a bit more on family support where children are rehabilitated would be far cheaper than our present arrangement

http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/resourcesforprofessionals/lookedafterchildren/reunification-costs-report_wdf104058.pdf

Over 10,000 children are returned home from care every year, however it is estimated that 30-60% of these reunifications fail, meaning children are then moved back to care, at great human and financial cost.

This process costs an estimated £300m, according to a study by the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University, commissioned by the NSPCC. The costs include social work costs, legal costs, decision-making and placement costs.

However, the researchers found that a £56m investment in providing effective support for families when a child returns from care could reduce the number of reunification breakdowns.
This is an interesting piece of research, and I know that sign up for the pilot scheme was very fast, with it being oversubscribed. If a new approach for support for children being returned home meant that more of them could stay there.

Quick caveat – I think some of the underlying maths is iffy. These are social scientists, not acountants. For example, there are some underlying assumptions that are weak

(i) That it covers s20 not just care
(ii) That a child who comes back into care will remain in care and the costs can be worked out on that basis (whereas some children in s20 might come back into care for a short period)
(iii) That it is fair to work into the costings of the child coming back into care that some children are in residential care (the most expensive type and frankly the ones who are in residential care are likely to be the ones least likely to get turned into successful permanent rehabs)
(iv) That for some reason the estimated legal costs of proceedings is calculated as being less than just the Court issue fee. If a Local Authority can manage to run the whole care proceedings for less than it costs to get the Court to start them off, that’s some wonder economics there
(v) That the figure for failed rehabs is 47%, which is something of a finger in the air taking an average of two other studies   (the headline numbers in those studies look extreme, but if a child is in care, goes home, and comes back into care, the “going back into care” might include a short respite period rather than permanent placement away from the family)

 

But my criticisms are really that the figures are slightly cooked to make the scheme seem even more desirable – I don’t think they needed to do it, the case for better support services is well made out in the body of the report.

This bit some people might find useful – we hear so much about “a low level of support” or “this family need a high level of support” – what does it mean in practice?

The report shows the real actual numbers

This comprises 6 months at a high level (8 hours 15 minutes social worker time plus 50 minutes team manager per month);

3 months at medium level (5 hours and 45 minutes social worker time plus 50 minutes team manager per month);

and 3 months at a low level (2 hours and 35 minutes social worker time plus 50 minutes team manager per month). These activity figures are taken from Holmes and McDermid (2012).
From that – high level of support is just over 2 hours a week of social work time. Medium level is about 1 ½ hours a week of social work time and low level is about 40 minutes a week.

Anything more than that would be accurately described as ‘exceptionally high levels of support’ although when you see the numbers it might not seem to be.

 

I absolutely welcome anyone trying to find out what the best way to make rehabilitation of children back home work better, and credit to the NSPCC for funding this sort of research. I hope that it makes a difference and that if so it is rolled out nationally.

Court deciding of its own motion to remove a child into care

 

I’ve been writing more or less since I started this blog about my concerns regarding the power in section 37 of the Children Act 1989 for a Court to place a child in foster care of their own motion. (for non-lawyers, ‘of the Court’s own motion’ means that the Judge decides to do this himself or herself, rather than there being a formal application by the Local Authority.   There has been a lot of press attention on one young boy over the last week, but the Court of Appeal’s decision in Re K may have a considerable impact on a number of families. There’s a story here, if the Press care to tell it.

 

That power exists, that is beyond doubt. It is set out in section 37 of the Children Act 1989 that where a Court is dealing with a private law case (i.e two parents arguing about where a child should live or how much time the child should spend with either) they can direct that the Local Authority (social services) carry out an investigation and the Court can make an Interim Care Order for up to 8 weeks whilst waiting for that report.

 

Why does that matter?

 

Well, an Interim Care Order allows the child to be taken away from a parent and placed with another parent, or a relative or in care.

 

And why does it matter that the Court do it of its own motion rather than with the Local Authority applying?

 

Well, here are the protections you get if you are a parent, when the Local Authority apply for an Interim Care Order :-

 

(a) You get a period of notice – three days

(b) You get to see the Local Authority evidence – why should there be an Interim Care Order,

(c) Sometimes more importantly,what do they plan to do with it – the interim care plan

(d) You get FREE legal advice and representation

(e) The Court has to find that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the child has been harmed or would be likely to be harmed (the threshold criteria) and the reasons for this have to be set out in a 2 page document, that the parent can challenged

(f) There will be an independent Guardian, appointed to advise the Court on what is best for the child. They may challenge the social work view and have an alternative plan to put forward

(g) Finally and most importantly, the person who is asking for the application is NOT THE SAME PERSON as the one deciding whether to make the order.

 

With an Interim Care Order made under section 37 of the Children Act, these things do not necessarily happen. It might be that the parents have lawyers, but these days they probably don’t.  There might be a Guardian (but as we’re about to see, the wrong type of Guardian can be worse than not having one at all)

 

Re K (Children) 2014

 

This case, just decided in the Court of Appeal, doesn’t set out all of these concerns, but it is dealing with a case in which the making of Interim Care Orders under section 37 of the Act went badly wrong.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1195.html

 

I will put the killer line in first, because I don’t want this point to get lost

 

33. The judge had in her mind from the beginning of the hearing the jurisdiction of the family court to make an interim care order under section 38(1) CA 1989 where a section 37 report has been directed. The procedural protections of notice and an opportunity to be heard apply to a jurisdiction that is available to the court of its own motion just as much as they do to a jurisdiction invoked on a party’s application.

 

That is a big deal – the Court of Appeal have never said that before. Within the last couple of years, the Court of Appeal take on ICOs made under s37 has included:-

 

If the Local Authority report says no need for a further order, the Court can just tell them to write another one, and another one, and keep making Interim Care Orders until the Local Authority writes a report that the Judge agrees with

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/11/30/it-is-lawful-to-make-icos-under-repeated-s37-i-say-it-is-lawful-to-make-icos/

 

And that it was okay for the Local Authority to turn up at Court, pop in to see the Judge on their own and suggest this route and for the Judge to make an Interim Care Order under s37 even though the mother and her lawyer were AT Court and knew nothing about it

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2013/03/14/ex-parte-removal-by-the-back-door/

 

The Court of Appeal in this case also added that the law on removal is the same under s37 as when the Local Authority apply for it (again, the Court of Appeal have been weak on this in recent years)

 

35. The tests to be applied where a removal into public care is being considered by this route are: a) whether the court ‘is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that circumstances with respect to the child are as mentioned in section 31(2)’ (the interim threshold as set out in section 38(2) CA 1989); b) whether the court is satisfied that the child’s safety demands immediate separation (see the authorities reviewed in Re L-A (Care: Chronic neglect) [2010] 1 FLR 80 CA); c) whether the court is satisfied that removal is in the best interests of the child (the welfare analysis required by sections 1 and 1(3) CA 1989; and d) having regard to a comparative welfare analysis of the options, whether the court is satisfied that removal is a proportionate interference with the child’s and other relevant persons’ article 8 ECHR rights

36.The interim threshold was satisfied by the determination made by the Recorder in his May judgment but that was not enough in itself to demonstrate an application of the other tests. The safety question described by Thorpe LJ in Re L-A was neither asked nor answered. It could not be because of the poor quality of the evidence before the court. In the absence of quality evidence on the point, not only was the safety issue not identified with sufficient clarity or particularity, but of necessity there could be no analysis of the evidence relating to it in order to conclude that a removal was justified.
 

37. Re L-A is the domestic legal test for the justification of removal that takes note of the Strasbourg jurisprudence i.e. the interference of the state in the article 8 rights of those involved in circumstances where there is an issue of safety. In order to identify the nature and extent of an alleged risk to the physical or emotional (psychological) safety of a child the court needs evidence relating to the prima facie facts. As has been explained by the President in Re G (Interim Care Order) [2011] 2 FLR 955, it is also necessary for the court to undertake a broad proportionality evaluation of the comparative welfare analysis of the options for each of the boys on the facts of the case to cross check whether a ‘more proportionate’ option than separation is available. That did not happen, but in fairness it could not happen, because those options were not identified and analysed in the evidence. The absence of this reasoning is fatal to the decision made in respect of A in this case.

 

So, yes, I think this is long, long overdue. If I were for a parent in private law proceedings and got a sniff of the Judge contemplating the atom-bomb answer of “If you two can’t sort it out, maybe the child should be put in care” you are going to want this authority to hand, and you are going to want to argue for three days notice.

 

Back to Re K

 

There were two children, one nearly 15 and one aged 12. The private law proceedings, as so often happens, had been emotionally fraught and acriminious. It was one of those cases where the children were saying that they didn’t want to see their father and there were doubts about whether that was a genuine belief or one instilled in them by their mother. The original Judge heard what was no doubt a very difficult case and decided to separate the children, one going to father, one going into care under an Interim Care Order made under s37 of the Act. The children had never been separated before.

 

No doubt because there was no agreement about how the removal and separation was to occur, a recovery order had to be made in accordance with section 34 of the Family Law Act 1986 and the removal happened late at night with the police in attendance. The circumstances were distressing to all involved, including at least one professional. B was so distressed that he evacuated his bladder and had to change his clothes. The removal was described by mother’s representatives as ‘violent’.

 

[This was not the first time, and sadly probably will not be the last time, that removal of children from a parent following a private law hearing has gone badly wrong]

The Court of Appeal upheld the appeal and decided that the Judge’s decision had been wrong. They were sympathetic as to how this had happened – the pressure of time to make a decision had caused everyone to rush into a decision without really taking everything into account that needed to be dealt with. It is a salutary lesson and the Court of Appeal treat it as such, that sometimes Judges need to step back from the time limits and pressures and say “This needs more time to consider”

The decision taken by the judge was an exercise by her of the ultimate protective functions that are available to the family court when it is exercising its private law children jurisdiction. Those functions have rightly been the subject of anxious and rigorous scrutiny in this court but it should not be forgotten that this decision, like others that have to be taken every day in the family court, was made in the context of asserted urgency of the most immediate nature relating to the safety of the boys concerned, poor quality evidence and little or no time to reflect upon the judgment that was to be made. Although, as I shall describe, this court allowed the appeal in part and set aside the orders made, we did so without criticism of anyone. If there is any lesson to be learned by everyone involved, it is that a judge has to give him or herself time regardless of what anyone else wants that judge to do. I would suggest that the decision that was made in this case would not have been made in the way that it was had time been taken to reflect on the history, the implications for the boys, the options available and the patent need for further and better evidence.
 

This is one of those family cases that a family court judge instinctively knows will cause harm to the children involved whatever decision is made. With that in mind, the analysis that has to be undertaken must bring to bear an acute focus on the balance of welfare factors given the facts of the case. The children are highly enmeshed in their parents’ conflict and the order that Judge Marshall came to have to re-consider was expressly made with the words in mind of Wilson J. (as he then was) in Re M (Contact: Welfare Test) [1995] 1 FLR 274:
 

“Whether the fundamental emotional need of every child to have an enduring relationship with both his parents (s 1(3)(b) of the CA 1989) is outweighed by the depth of harm, which, in the light inter alia of his wishes and feelings (s 1(3)(a)), this child would be at risk of suffering (s 1(3)(e)) by virtue of a contact order.”
An enduring solution to the problem that exists in a case like this depends upon a comprehensive welfare analysis derived out of specialist case management which identifies the problem with clarity, a well informed judicial strategy based on good practice and good quality evidence and a measure of good fortune. The building blocks for such a solution are rarely available in the context of an urgent safety enquiry i.e. in the heat of conflict and, as will appear from the circumstances of this case, it is not a dereliction of duty to stand back and take time to consider whether the building blocks exist. In this case, they did not.

 

As hinted earlier, the situation was compounded because being a private law case, the CAFCASS officer involved was very familiar with private law cases but had little or no experience in public law cases (i.e children being taken into care).  They also had an expert who proposed a strategy, but had no suggestions as to what to try when that strategy went wrong. There had been no Plan B

 

It might have been thought that the solution to the problem that had occurred would have been within the skill and expertise of the guardian and the expert who had recommended the strategy to date: sadly, it was not. As I have described, the expert had written to the court and the parties some time before the summer placement had broken down to say that the circumstances were beyond anything with which his clinical guidance could assist. That was surprising but in fairness there was also the issue of trust that had arisen because of the dual function that the expert had been expected to perform. The result was that the court lost the expert that it had previously decided was necessary. To add to that unfortunate circumstance, the guardian conceded during questions put by this court that she had no public law experience and that the good practice, research based options and/or evidential materials which should be the meat and drink of any public law Cafcass practitioner were not part of her skill and expertise.
 

The consequence has been, as she informed this court, that she has asked the family court for her functions to be transferred to another more experienced public law guardian i.e., as I understand it, an application for the termination of her appointment and her substitution by another guardian will be made before the next hearing. With the benefit of hindsight, the children’s guardian should have asked Cafcass management for assistance and that should of course have been disclosed to the court, leading to an application to the court to add another guardian (which is possible under the rules) or substitute guardians for the hearing before Judge Marshall.
 

It is not at all clear how much of this the judge knew. Some of it she could not have known because it was revealed to this court when it asked questions which had the benefit of hindsight. In any event, it would have needed a more detailed and nuanced hearing to establish that which is now known or identified as respects the problem to be solved.

 

The failure to properly plan was compounded because of course when the Judge makes their own decision to grant an Interim Care Order without an application, there is no interim care plan

 

38.It is almost an aside in this case to remark that even where the court has rightly decided to make an interim care order, it should as part of the process consider what in practice will happen to a child if the order is made i.e. the local authority’s proposals or their care plan if by then it exists. That is not the statutory obligation imposed on a family court by section 31(3A) CA 1989 because the requirements relating to a section 31A care plan do not by section 31A(5) apply to interim care orders. It is simply essential good practice to ascertain how the local authority that finds itself in this position is going to exercise its statutory responsibilities. That evidence is bound to be relevant to the welfare analysis and proportionality evaluation. I do not believe that in this case the divergence of professional view between the children’s guardian and the local authority social worker on the point was sufficiently investigated in evidence. It is perhaps sufficient to record that this court was told that if one includes respite, A has experienced three foster care placements already.
 

39. There were no formed proposals in this case because the local authority did not at the stage the order was made accept that an order should be made. This was not a case of a local authority being difficult. The only time available to the local authority to put together their proposals was the time during which the hearing was taking place where the local authority was not a party and its witness was not its decision maker. What was needed was more time for mature consideration. A plan, using that word in its non-technical sense, would of necessity have been skeletal and would probably not have extended beyond describing the means of recovery, the immediate placement into which A would go and the assessment or other planning process to decide what to do next. At the very least the court should have found time to give consideration to this question.

 

The fact that the Local Authority were present and were saying that there shouldn’t be an order ought to have given someone pause for thought. This course of action was always likely to go wrong.

 

The Court’s failure to consider the effect on the children of being separated from each other was also damning

 

I need not do more than state the obvious in a case of this nature. As young people who have experienced family courts, public care and relationship breakdown make very clear in, for example, the proceedings of the Young Peoples Board of the Family Justice Board, the separation of siblings can be one of the most traumatic elements of their experience, particularly where no provision is made for the sibling relationship to be maintained so as to safeguard their long term welfare into adulthood. Generalisations are dangerous, the intensity of sibling relationships can be very different and this court has not been taken to any of the research studies that consider this issue. However, it is sufficient to say that a sibling relationship is central to both the article 8 respect for family life which is engaged in a decision to make a public law order such as an interim care order and welfare, which by section 1 CA 1989 is the court’s paramount consideration when it ‘determines any question with respect to the upbringing of a child’. It will be a relevant factor in all or nearly all of the section 1(3) factors to which the court is required to have regard.
 

The absence of a value judgment soundly based in evidence about the effects on each of them of the separation of the boys was, in my judgment, almost as fundamental a flaw on the facts of this case as the failure to consider the safety issue and the proportionality of interference in relation to A. It went directly to the quality of the outcome of the court’s intervention for each of the boys.

 

The Judge met with the boys (in the proper way) but unfortunately her impression and observation of the boys leaked into her judgment  (Non-lawyers note, it is acceptable for a Judge to meet children for the purposes of explaining  who she is and what the Judge’s role is, and possibly for very very general chat, but not for the purpose of gaining evidence. We wait to see whether the Ministry of Justices proposal that children should routinely be able to meet Judges will change this, but that’s the current law)

 

The boys saw the judge but were told this was not an opportunity to discuss any issues in the case including their wishes and feelings. It is plain from the transcript of the discussion that they could not believe what they were hearing and the judge observed that ‘they were very concerned and very disappointed’. The judge in seeking to avoid a discussion about the evidence clearly felt unable to listen to them. She entered into a discussion about the inadvisability of the boys’ written communications that it is difficult to characterise as being other than an admonition. They boys left the process distressed and apparently even more convinced in their view that no-one was prepared to listen to them.
 

This case has not been about judges seeing young people. I shall return briefly to the wealth of material on that topic. The question which arose out of the discussion with the boys was whether, despite her best intentions, the judge inappropriately relied upon her impressions of the boys and what they said to her to come to conclusions in the case. Sadly, perhaps as an inevitable consequence of the charged emotions in this case, the judge made that error. There are a number of passages in her judgment where the problem is highlighted. I shall choose three:
 

“[26] The findings that I make on this evidence need to be considered in the context of the opportunity I had to meet with the boys this morning. The parties are aware that I felt that they are at the moment presenting as being rather out of control, not subject to parental influence or indeed able to set appropriate boundaries for themselves. I also formed the view that they had perhaps rather lost touch with reality in relation to what was going on and I do have a concern that they are rather immature and may somehow view this as some sort of fantasy adventure.
[…]
[24] […] My own experience this morning is that these children could exhibit considerable distress and yet were able to calm themselves very quickly and the word ‘histrionic’ was exactly the one which I would have used in relation to their behaviour that I observed.
[…]
[47] I was particularly struck by something that the Guardian said, which is that “it is almost like the children expect someone to put their arms around them and to say ‘do not do this anymore'”. Again that exactly resonated with my own assessment after seeing the children this morning. They are out of control. “
I need go no further than the recent judgment of this court in Re KP (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 554 for a comprehensive statement of the law that takes account of the Family Justice Council’s [FJC] April 2010 ‘Guidelines for Judges Meeting Children who are Subject to Family Proceedings’ [2010] 2 FLR 1872, the FJC’s Working Party December 2011 ‘Guidelines on Children Giving Evidence in Family Proceedings’ [2012] Fam Law 79 and the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the Matter of LC (Children) (Reunite International Child Abduction Centre intervening) [2014] UKSC 1, [2014] 2 WLR 124. It remains an essential principle of the guidance and the relevant authorities that a meeting with a child is not for the purpose of gathering evidence. There is likewise an emphasis on the court hearing the voice of a child and of the court reminding itself that a child’s wishes and feelings may not be capable of being represented to the court by the adult parties. The court should ensure that the child’s access to justice is effective, whether that be through formal separate legal representation or the offices of a guardian, a family court advisor or a parent. Even where formal representation is appropriate there is a wide discretion in the court to determine the extent of a child’s participation.
 

I have regrettably come to the clear conclusion that the judge’s discussions with the boys strayed beyond reassurance, explanation and listening. It was certainly not the latter and to the extent that the boys needed it to be, the judge could and should have adopted the practice of listening, disclosing what was said and not placing reliance on it in her judgment. It is entirely possible to listen without gathering evidence. Where a process is intended to or as here inadvertently leads to evidence being gathered, including by very firm impressions and judicial assessments about the boys’ needs, wishes, feelings, behaviours and the risks which their own needs might occasion, then consideration should be given to whether that evidence should be gathered or considered by a suitable neutral person (an expert or a guardian who is not conflicted). In a case where the conflict that had arisen in this case does not exist, the children’s guardian could have been asked to sit in with the judge or read the transcript of the discussion to assess the material in context. A process needed to be agreed that permitted the evidence to be challenged without harming the boys themselves.
 

The judge’s reliance on her own assessments of the boys derived from her discussion with them was procedurally unfair and to the extent that her primary concern was that they were ‘out of control’ it dominated her thinking. That was a value judgment derived from evidence gathered by the judge in a discussion that was not intended for that purpose and which could not be effectively challenged by others.

 

 

Sadly, with a string of appeal points  being upheld, there was never any doubt that this appeal would succeed. I think the Court of Appeal were right to recognise that there are cases in which Judges are urged and feel that a decision has to be taken  (the politician’s syllogism – “Something must be done”  – “This is something” – “Therefore we must do this”   and that hard as it is to tell people that the decision needs more evidence, more analysis and more thought, with an unsatisfactory status quo remaining in the interim, sometimes that is the right thing for a Judge to do.   The Court of Appeal also remind the parents that the extent of their adult quarrel has been very damaging to their two children.

 

55.The judge in this case was not well served by the evidence or the problems created in part by the history of the case and the supposed urgency of the situation. The circumstances that dominated the hearing were not those which were the most important in the case and she was left to make a decision with poor quality material. Although articulate and intelligent, the father was a litigant in person who would have been simply unable without legal assistance to pursue the legal issues that have been pursued before this court. I question whether in the absence of legal representation he is able properly to put forward a sustainable position to the court.
56. The absence of a determination on the question of separate representation and the severe conflict that has arisen between the boys and their guardian and solicitor mean that I am persuaded that they have not been afforded access to justice. A separate representation application must be properly considered with evidence as soon as possible. I say to the boys who should be asked whether they wish to read this judgment, that the degree to which they may be harmed by being even further enmeshed in their parents’ conflict and inappropriately being involved in the decisions that have to be made by adults, will have to be balanced by the harm that is being done by their perception that no-one is listening to them. The conclusion of an application is by no means clear but whatever the conclusion is, it must provide for them to be listened to and to participate to an appropriate extent.
 

57.I return in conclusion to the boys’ parents. Mother should not and must not continue to believe that she can override the repeated conclusions of the court. It is, as the court has repeatedly said, desirable that the boys should have a close parental relationship with their father. The mother’s approach has contributed to the damage that has been caused to the boys’ emotional welfare. This cannot continue. The father must understand that the court cannot achieve the impossible. He has been responsible for at least some of the conflict that exists and the boys have suffered because of that.
 

58. The problem in this case is the maintenance of a meaningful relationship between the boys and their father. As is too frequently the case, the problem was caused by the parents of the children who are locked into a damaging, deteriorating spiral of conflict which desperately needs to be resolved. Without that resolution, whatever the court orders and no matter what steps are taken to enforce the court’s orders, harm will continue to be caused to the children. Cases of this kind are unhelpfully and generically referred to as ‘implacable hostility’ cases because of the parental conflict that exists. The label provides no insight into or assistance with the myriad of circumstances and features that such cases present.
 

59. Mothers, fathers or both are just as likely to be responsible for the precipitating circumstances in such a case which may be far removed from and are sometimes if not often, irrelevant to the conflict which endures. Such research as there is into available and workable solutions suggests either a) that there should be a careful analysis of the reasons for the conflict by fact finding to identify and assess risk to the children and sometimes to one or other of the adults and/or b) that if the reasons for the conflict do not present identifiable risks to the children or their carer and sometimes even if they do, a resolutions approach to the conflict can be adopted to try and resolve it by professional intervention such as individual or family therapy, external support from local authority children’s services or education and assistance from the various parenting programmes and activity directions that are now available under the CA 1989 or otherwise. Sometimes it is necessary to fundamentally alter a child’s arrangements by removing that child from the adverse influence and control of one parent by placing the child with the other parent and making a child arrangements order that has the effect of limiting the relationship with the harmful parent. In an extreme case (and I emphasise they are and should be rare) where the child is suffering significant harm or is likely to suffer significant harm, the court can intervene and exercise its ultimate protective function by removing the child from its parents and by placing the child into public care so that the local authority shares parental responsibility with the parents.
 

60. The removal of a child from the care of a parent whether by a transfer of living arrangements from one parent to another or by placing the child into public care is not and must never be a coercive or punitive measure. It is a protective step grounded in the best interest of the child concerned. In so far as there was a perception in this case that either the transfer of the conditional residence of the boys to their father by the Recorder or their subsequent removal from their mother was a punishment of the boys for their behaviour and for being unwilling to accept contact with their father, then that was inappropriate.
 

61, For a family to be facing the possibility of a wholesale change of living arrangements between parents because of the harm that one or both of the parents is causing is bad enough, for a family to face the removal of children into public care when they are both capable of caring for their children is, frankly, sad beyond measure. This is such a family. I say that without attributing any causative blame to one parent or the other in the sense of saying that one or other parent is responsible for the problem that now arises. That may or may not need to be determined by a fact finding exercise. This court does not yet know. Where the parents are to blame is that neither of them has facilitated a joint approach to the resolution of their conflict for the benefit of their children. It is time for this court to start saying that which is obvious. The family court is empowered to make decisions for parents who cannot make them for themselves but it cannot parent the children who are involved. When parents delegate their parental responsibility to the court to make a decision, that decision will be in the form of an order. The court cannot countenance its orders being ignored or flouted unless an appropriate and lawful agreement can otherwise be reached. That is not simply to preserve the authority of the court, it is to prevent continuing and worsening harm to the children concerned. Parents who come to court must do that which the court decides unless they agree they can do better and there is no court order that prevents that agreement.
In this case, the parents were both to have a meaningful relationship with their sons. That should have involved active practical and emotional steps to be taken by both parents to make it work. Instead the case is suffused with anger and arrogant position taking that has nothing to do with the children. There has undoubtedly been mutual denigration, true allegations, false allegations, irrelevant allegations, insults, wrongly perceived insults and the manipulation of the boys to an outrageous degree. The idea that the court can wave a magic wand and cure all of those ills is dangerously wrong. It cannot – its function is to make a decision. It does not have available to it a supply of experts, be they psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, counsellors, drug, alcohol and domestic violence rehabilitation units, social and welfare professionals or even lawyers who can be ‘allocated’ to families. Experts that the court relies upon are either forensic experts i.e. they are specifically instructed to advise upon the evidence in a case or they are experts who are fortuitously already involved with the family through one agency or another. Their role in proceedings is to advise the court. There is no budget to employ them or anyone else to implement the court’s decision save in the most limited circumstances through the local authority, Cafcass or voluntary agencies.
One can only sympathise with any family court judge who is faced with such a case. There are no right answers but inevitably there are many wrong answers. To make it worse, in this case, the proceedings had to be re-allocated because of judicial indisposition so that the new judge came to the case without the detailed knowledge of the previous ten years of litigation. The hearing was said to be urgent so that, no doubt, all other judicial work stopped and the case took priority. It was said to be a case that needed an immediate order. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and the nearest a first instance family judge can get to it is to take time for reflection.

 

 

 

Getting an expert report in private law proceedings

 

The Court of Appeal (almost a year after the High Court ruled otherwise) have decided in JG v the Lord Chancellor and Others 2014, that a Court can lawfully decide that the costs of an expert report be bourne by one party (the one who is receiving public funding) rather than split between everyone.

 

I wrote about the original decision here http://suesspiciousminds.com/2013/04/11/not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper/  with quite a bit of disappointment in my heart, so I am pleased that the Court of Appeal have taken a different view.

 

Quick bit of context first – up until LASPO  (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Prosecution of Offenders Act) came into force, most private law proceedings (i.e mum and dad arguing about where a child should live, or how much time the child should spend with each parent) had at least one of the parents, sometimes both, receiving legal aid (free legal advice). That legal aid could be used to pay for expert reports  – for example, if there was a dispute over paternity, a DNA test, if one person alleged the other had an alcohol or drug problem, testing, if the child was displaying unusual behaviour an expert to help understand that.

After LASPO, people now only get legal aid in exceptional circumstances  – it doesn’t matter if they are on benefits, or have learning difficulties, they won’t get legal aid unless they fit some very narrow prescribed criteria.

Next bit of context – in particularly tricky cases, the Court appoint a Guardian (which we call a Rule 16.4 Guardian, after the bit in the Family Procedure Rules that governs it) to assist the Court in reaching decisions. The Rule 16.4 Guardian GETS legal aid.

That led to a situation in which if an expert report was needed and the parents could not afford it, the Court would order that the costs be met entirely by the Rule 16.4 Guardian (and hence legal aid).  The Legal Aid Agency cottoned on to that, and started refusing to pay (even after the expert had done the report and the Guardian’s lawyers had written the expert the cheque, leaving the lawyers out of pocket and thus reluctant to take on such cases in the future).   One such refusal was judicially reviewed, and Ryder J (as he then was, he is now Ryder LJ) refused the judicial review and said that the Legal Aid Agency was entitled to take a position that any expert costs should be divided equally between all of the parties and that the costs should not all be loaded on to the Guardian’s public funding.   [It is a little like three people going out to dinner, and putting the bill on the person who has an Expense Account, if that makes sense, and then the firm paying the Expense Account saying  "Hey, we don't mind paying for YOUR dinner, but not for the other two"]

Ryder J did say that in an exceptional case where the parent could not possibly pay anything towards the cost of the report, and the Court considered it was vital, things might have to be looked at differently.

So, the Court of Appeal disagreed with Ryder J’s decision – but not in a way that gives carte blanche for all reports to be loaded on to the Guardian’s public funding certificate (actually the Child’s) and the parents to pay nothing. It is a bit more nuanced than that.

http://www.familylaw.co.uk/articles/jg-v-the-lord-chancellor-and-others-2014-ewca-civ-656

 

There were basically two sides to this (because it had now become an issue about principle, rather than the parents own case) – the Law Society, arguing that the Court should have the power to decide how costs should be apportioned and particularly where failure to have the report would breach article 6 (right to fair trial) or article 8 (right to family life),  and the Lord Chancellor – arguing that this should only be in a situation where the Legal Aid Agency deemed itself that it was appropriate. It’s a fundamental question of who is in charge, the Court or the Legal Aid Agency.

 

Law Society to throw first

a) The appellant’s and the Law Society’s case on the general question
67. The appellant adopted the Law Society’s submissions on the general question. The Law Society submitted that where expert evidence was necessary in the circumstances set out in the question, the court should direct the child, through her guardian, to obtain the evidence and give the child permission to adduce it, although in instructing the expert, the guardian should normally seek to agree with the other parties, if possible, which expert is to be instructed and the instructions to be given to him. The court’s direction should be subject to any prior authorisation or increase in costs limitation that may be required for the purpose. The Law Society submitted that those responsible for administering legal aid could not refuse to give such approval as refusal would be incompatible with articles 6 and 8 of the ECHR and would deprive the court of the assistance it needs to enable it to determine what the welfare of the child requires, thus being “incompatible with the object and purpose of the legislation for the protection of children involved in private law family proceedings”. There is no point, submitted the Law Society, in funding the representation necessary to protect a child’s interests in the private law proceedings yet denying the funding required to enable the evidence to be provided that is necessary to establish what the child’s welfare requires.
68. It was submitted that a requirement, such as that favoured by Ryder J (see §§75 et seq of the judgment), for a “robust scrutiny of … means” with reference to a party’s financial eligibility for legal aid prior to the instruction of the expert would present the courts with a task for which, unlike the Legal Aid Agency, they are not equipped and which would import harmful delay whilst investigations were carried out. The Law Society’s proposal was therefore said to be a better alternative because the expert could be instructed without delay on the basis that the cost of the report could be met as a disbursement on the child’s certificate, leaving the parties’ respective liability for the fees to be dealt with by means of a costs order, if appropriate.

 

Lord Chancellor, you require forty  (sorry, to go next)

b) The Lord Chancellor’s case
69. The Lord Chancellor accepted that “if there were a case in which a report was genuinely sought by the publicly funded party alone, for reasons affecting that party, and the other parties did not agree with or seek to make use of the report, then the court might direct that the cost[s] were borne by that party alone and it would be legitimate for the legally aided party to bear the full costs of that report” (§61 of the Lord Chancellor’s skeleton argument). In those circumstances, he said, the legally aided party would have to formulate the instructions without the involvement of the other parties. That set of circumstances was not what he was addressing in his main submissions.
70. In cases where expert evidence was necessary but the report was not genuinely sought by the publicly funded party alone, the Lord Chancellor submitted that the judge’s solution, which had of course largely been put forward by him, was correct. Only in “very exceptional cases” could the court depart from the norm of a single joint expert whose fees would be apportioned equally between the parties, it was submitted. Two conditions had to be satisfied:
i) “a party’s means, assessed following a robust process, are such that he or she cannot afford to pay for his or her share of the report”
and
ii) “an order for equal apportionment would involve a breach of a party’s Convention rights in the family proceedings because it would prevent an expert report which the court considered necessary to the proper resolution of the case from being adduced”.
If the two conditions were satisfied, the Lord Chancellor’s case was that the court should still order a single joint expert but could visit a greater share of the costs on the legally aided party than normal, although whether the legally aided party would have to pay all the costs would depend on the circumstances.

 

The Court of Appeal then distil the arguments down to common ground and areas of difference

c) Points in common and points of difference
71. It can be seen that all parties agreed that there may be situations in which an order can be made which does not apportion the cost of an expert equally between the parties in a case. It was common ground that where this was a departure from the apportionment that would normally have been ordered, the justification for this would be that otherwise there would be a breach of a party’s Convention rights. It was also common ground that in these circumstances, section 22(4) would not present an obstacle to the order being made. The absolutist position which I think was adopted by the LSC in front of Ryder J, namely that there were no circumstances in which the LSC could be ordered to pay experts’ fees “beyond a proportion that represents the proportion of legally aided parties” (see §79 of Ryder J’s judgment), was not advanced before us.
72. Underlying matters of detail were not agreed. There was debate as to whether it was necessary to impose a requirement of exceptionality, as to when and how a party’s inability to pay should be established and, an allied question, as to whether the proper way in which to regulate the parties’ share of the fees was by regulating their contractual liability to the expert or by means of conventional costs orders. Another major difference between the parties was that the Lord Chancellor was wedded to the idea of a single joint expert (and utilised that as a significant part of the foundation for his arguments) whereas the other parties contemplated that the expert could be instructed by the child/guardian alone, albeit with input from the other parties to the instructions.

 

 

A major part of the argument was whether the report being commissioned was really one being commissioned solely on behalf of the Child, or whether it was really one for the benefit of all parties and just pretending to be a sole instruction to get the free funding   (To go back to the dinner analogy – was this really a business meeting that the Expense account could pay for legitimately, or were two people getting a free lunch?)

The Court of Appeal consider some hypothetical situations but eventually come down to this

 

84. Doing the best I can to forecast the sort of situations that may arise, it seems to me that it may not be all that infrequent that an application by a child/guardian for permission to instruct an expert will genuinely be for an expert on behalf of the child, as opposed to a single joint expert, notwithstanding that the other parties have some input into the process of approval by the court and into the format of the expert’s instruction. Section 22(4) will then present no obstacle to the cost of the expert being met by the child’s public funding.

 

But going on to say that even if it is really a joint report, and the parents can’t pay, the Court still have to consider what is right and fair

 

When the expert is not solely the child’s expert
85. If the expert is not in fact the child’s expert but is a single joint expert, and the other parties are unable to contribute to the cost of the expert, it is necessary to consider in what circumstances public funds can be required to meet the whole cost. Once again, I will confine myself in this discussion to the current provisions of the 2010 Rules.

 

The Court then looked, in a lot of detail, about whether there was a presumption in law that any report would have the costs split equally –  there is a provision in the Family Procedure Rules that says that this is what will happen in the absence of the Court saying otherwise.  Does that mean that the Court have to have reasons for deviating from an equal split, or does it just mean that if the Court is silent, that’s what happens?

92. This provision received quite a lot of attention in argument in front of us. It is perhaps rather an odd provision to find in procedural rules, appearing to concern itself with the contractual relationship between the parties and the expert. It needs to be read with Rule 25.12(4)(a) which provides that the court may give directions about the expert’s fees and expenses. It is quite clear from that, and from its own terms, that Rule 25.12(6) is not intended to be prescriptive and merely establishes a default position as to liability to the expert in the event that the court does not direct otherwise. I do not see it as setting up a “normal rule” that the cost is to be apportioned equally, any more than the Calderdale case did.
93. None of the authorities which I have just cited turned on the impecuniosity of the parties. Although they differ from the present case in that they were care cases, they are capable of providing assistance as to “the principles on which the discretion of [the] court is normally exercised” in relation to the cost of expert evidence. As I have explained, to my mind, they do not reveal the existence of a normal rule that costs be apportioned equally any more than Rule 25.12(6) does. Accordingly, in so far as the Lord Chancellor’s submissions proceed upon the basis that equal apportionment is the norm, I would question the premise. In order to decide whether a court order has fallen foul of section 22(4), a more sophisticated exercise is required. It is necessary to ask what order the court would make in its discretion on the particular facts of that case, leaving aside any resources problems. The answer may not uncommonly be an order for equal apportionment of the costs but that cannot be assumed. It may be that a full consideration of the circumstances of the case produces the result that the publicly funded party should be paying a greater share of the costs in any event, quite irrespective of any financial difficulties that the other parties may have in sharing the cost of the expert. In such circumstances, section 22(4) does not prevent the court from making an order accordingly, because the order is in no way affected by the fact of public funding.

 

That’s quite dense, but basically, what the Court of Appeal say there is that there may be circumstances (even if there is no issue over the parties ABILITY to pay) where the costs of the report might be met by one party exclusively or where one party may make a larger share, and the Court has the legitimate power to do that.

[That, to make it explicit, is the Lord Chancellor losing an argument]

 

Next – what about a situation where the Court thinks that it is FAIR to split the costs equally, but one or more parties has resource issues (impecuniosity – or in layman’s terms, they are skint)

95. In the light of what I have said in the preceding section, I would reformulate the Lord Chancellor’s submission so that, rather than focussing upon whether the court can depart from equal apportionment of the expert’s fees, it focusses upon whether the court can depart from the order that it would have made but for the resources problem (to which I will refer in shorthand as “the normal order”). The Lord Chancellor sought to impose what, for the purposes of the discussion that follows, I will treat as three conditions for such a departure from the normal order although I accept that he may well not have intended the third one to be a condition as such. The three “conditions” are that it must be established that the other party could not pay his share of the cost; the normal order would involve a breach of a party’s Convention rights; and the case must be a “very exceptional” one.

 

Condition 1  (remember these are the conditions proposed by the Lord Chancellor) – an equal split would involve a breach of the party’s convention rights  – there’s a lot of this, so I have skipped to the conclusion

108. The Lord Chancellor’s argument seems to me to risk prejudicing the child in order to prevent a parent who is not otherwise entitled to legal aid deriving a benefit from a report which has been paid for by public funding. I have already emphasised that FPR 2010 acknowledge that a party may benefit from a report produced by another party’s expert without that expert becoming a joint expert. Anyone who has ever conducted or watched a successful cross-examination of an expert knows this perfectly well. The fact that a party who is not publicly funded will or may benefit from the expert’s input is likely to be a material factor in the court’s discretion as to the cost of the expert but it is not a reason to conclude, as I think is the conclusion to which the Lord Chancellor’s submissions would logically lead, that even though the child’s Convention rights would be violated by the inability to obtain the expert advice that the court had concluded was necessary to assist it, the expert could not be paid for on the child’s public funding certificate because that would benefit one or both of the parents as well.
109. It is as well to remember that cases in which the child is joined as a party are far from commonplace, as can be seen from the various provisions which I outlined earlier in this judgment starting at §39. They will be cases in which there are particular challenges in determining what is in the best interests of the child or in actually achieving the right solution in practice. The role of the child’s guardian is directed very firmly at achieving a resolution that is in the best interests of the child. His or her duties are defined and circumscribed as I have described earlier. His or her decisions must be made for the benefit of the child and he or she must make such investigations as are necessary to carry out his or her duties including obtaining such professional assistance as he or she thinks appropriate. By the time the guardian has endorsed the instruction of an expert as appropriate and the court itself has approved it as necessary, there will be the beginnings of a strong foundation for an argument that the child’s Article 8/Article 6 rights will be violated if the court cannot be provided with that expert assistance. Whether the argument will ultimately succeed will depend, of course, upon the precise nature of the decision to be taken in relation to the child.

 

It will be necessary for the parties to persuade the Court that an equal split (if that means the report can’t be obtained) would result in an article 6 or article 8 breach, but that’s not as much of an uphill struggle as the Lord Chancellor would have hoped – the parties start partway up that hill.

I reckon the Lord Chancellor   (apologies for not continually putting that title in quotation marks, since he isn’t a Lord Chancellor in the way that any lawyer or historian would recognise the role) lost that one as well

 

b) A very exceptional case
110. It is understandable that the Lord Chancellor should seek to confine the cases in which the cost of the expert would be apportioned unequally to avoid a breach of Convention rights by stressing that this could apply only in “very exceptional cases”. This approach ties in with the language of section 10 of LASPO 2012. However, whatever the immediate impact on the reader of the reference in section 10 to an “exceptional case determination”, the definition in section 10(3) makes it clear that “exceptionality” is not in fact an extra requirement and that what lies beneath the label is simply that if the services are not made available to an individual, there would (or sometimes might) be a breach of his Convention rights. I see no more justification for introducing a specific exceptionality requirement in the context we are considering here than the draftsman appears to have seen in relation to section 10 and it seems to me that it would distract attention from the central question. Granted, we are concerned with a departure from the way in which the court would otherwise have catered for the costs of the expert, so to that extent the order would be exceptional. That is a description, however, not a test or an additional hurdle.

 

That’s an indisputable loss for the Lord Chancellor.

 

c) Impecuniosity
111. It was common ground that the court would not be considering departing from the normal order unless the parties who would normally have to share the cost of the expert were unable to do so. There was debate, however, as to when and how impecuniosity would be determined.

 

There’s a risk of course, that the Court spends so long gathering information about whether or not someone is genuinely impecunious (as opposed to not keen on paying £2000 for a share of a report, which would apply to pretty much everyone) that the child’s welfare is prejudiced by delay.  There’s a difficult balance to be struck here.

112. Ryder J held, accepting the Lord Chancellor’s submissions, that “a robust scrutiny” was required of the party’s means, and said that what was a robust scrutiny would depend on the circumstances of the case but “an important consideration …. should be the party’s eligibility for legal aid where that still exists” (§76). He considered that if the party would not qualify for legal aid on the basis of their means, that was a factor that should point very strongly in favour of that party having to pay their full share of the cost of an expert’s report whereas, in contrast, if the party would qualify for legal aid, it may suggest that they should pay less than a full share, although paying nothing at all should be exceptional, bearing in mind that legally aided parties often have to pay a contribution (§77).
113. A particular concern of the Law Society was that the assessment of impecuniosity should not delay the proceedings. They were right to be concerned about that. Section 1(2) CA 1989 (see above) requires the court to have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining a question with respect to the upbringing of a child is likely to prejudice the child’s welfare. Furthermore, delay in resolving matters is capable, itself, of giving rise to breaches of Convention rights. What has happened in this case amply demonstrates that wrangles over the extent to which an expert’s costs should be met from public funds can introduce huge delay. The proceedings relating to this child were commenced in 2006, the guardian first sought a report in 2008 and the question of the payment of the expert remained unresolved in 2012 when we can see that the debate was impeding a final hearing of the case. It is quite possible that there were other problems as well as the expert’s fees but this is quite an indictment of the system. It leads me to the view that whatever system is operated must be one which is practical and not over technical and which avoids delay wherever possible.
114. The Law Society’s proposal that the child should be directed to obtain the expert evidence in the first instance with the ultimate liability for the expert’s fees being distributed between the parties by means of a costs order later in the proceedings therefore has considerable appeal.
115. The Lord Chancellor challenged it on a number of bases. Some of the arguments raised against the proposal amalgamated the issues of a breach of Convention rights and impecuniosity whereas I have dealt with these separately. Some covered the ground which I have examined when considering whether or not an expert is properly the child’s sole expert. I only reach the question of impecuniosity on the basis that the Lord Chancellor’s condition that the normal order would involve a breach of a party’s Convention rights is satisfied and, as I have explained, in my view there is no third condition of “exceptionality”
116. I sensed that an understandable concern of the Lord Chancellor was that joining the child as a party and using the child’s public funding to pay for an expert would become a widely used device – a back door to public funding for parents who would not otherwise have it – and I think he saw the Law Society’s proposed scheme as a way in which to have all the benefits of a single joint expert without the non-legally aided parties having to bear the cost. He did not, however, go so far as to suggest that only those who would in fact satisfy the financial criteria for legal aid should be treated as impecunious for the present purposes but submitted that eligibility might be a useful starting point and yardstick.
117. Ryder J also saw financial eligibility for legal aid as a relevant factor and I do not disagree. In my view, the Lord Chancellor was right not to argue that satisfying the financial eligibility criteria is a necessary qualification, not least because it may well place the family courts in considerable difficulty if they had to carry out the sort of detailed and technical assessment that the LSC would use to determine financial eligibility. The challenges facing the courts in private law cases in the new post-legal aid regime are evident and they are also working hard to process care cases with expedition. It is difficult to envisage them having the resources to assess a party’s eligibility for legal aid as the LSC would do, without seriously holding up the individual case or prejudicing the rest of their work or both. But in so far as financial eligibility can be ascertained, it must be relevant. If the party in question would not qualify for legal aid, that may count heavily against an argument that they could not pay their full share of the cost of the report whereas, conversely, if they would qualify, then that may suggest that they cannot pay a full share. As Ryder J rightly pointed out, it is not all or nothing. It may be that a party could not pay a full share but could pay something towards the expert’s costs, just as they could be required to pay a contribution towards their legal aid.
118. It is difficult to forecast what financial information will be available to the court and at what stage in the proceedings. There may be cases in which a party has already been assessed for financial eligibility for legal aid and no doubt it would be appropriate to have regard to the outcome of such an assessment in those cases. In some cases, as in the present case, financial information is available because there are or have been ancillary relief proceedings. In other cases, directions will have to be given to secure the necessary information from the parties.
119. The stage at which the court can reach a final determination as to whether a departure from the normal order is required for Convention reasons is likely therefore to vary, depending on the facts. There may be cases in which the decision can be taken before the expert is even instructed, with the parties’ shares of the cost being settled from the outset. There may be others in which that would or may import harmful delay into the proceedings and in which there is no option but to adopt the Law Society’s solution of requiring the guardian to instruct the expert in the first instance, but with the intent of revisiting the question of cost, on proper financial information, later by means of a conventional costs order. The court would, not, of course, embark on that route without some cogent evidence that the other parties would not be able to pay their way in the instruction.

 

I wouldn’t call that an outright victory for either side – it seems that before a Court decides that a party is impecunious (and thus couldn’t pay an equal share, and thus the report wouldn’t be obtained) it has to decide what information about finances is reasonable to inspect – if they can be obtained swiftly then it would be considered before the expert report is comissioned, if not, then the Court may make an order that the report be paid out of the Child’s public funding, and then remedy that with a later order once the financial information is available.

 

In the individual case, the Court of Appeal decided that it was right that the costs should have been met through the Child’s public funding /legal aid, and that they differed from Ryder J’s decision.

 

For broader cases, the Court of Appeal say this

 

132. I would simply add that when judges are called upon to deal with the sort of difficult issues that have arisen here, it would be prudent for them to explain their reasons for each decision that they take in a short judgment and for their orders to be precisely spelled out.

 

[All of this boils down to a Britney Spears type exhortation -  You want an expert? You want a 16.4 guardian? You want the costs of the expert to be paid by the child's legal aid? You want the court to say you're impecunious?   You better work bitch]

 

 

 

 

 

Donating your… ahem… time

 

The High Court have recently dealt with another case (there have been a lot, relatively speaking) where a man (DB) fathered a child for two women in a relationship and later wanted to have more contact than the two mothers had in mind.

 One of the contested issues in the case was whether the man had (as he said) offered to father a child to be raised by the two women but play a part in the child’s life, or whether (as both of the mothers  said) he was basically being asked for nothing but his biological contribution.

 It was common ground that the child had been conceived in the usual way, rather than by artificial insemination, the argument was about whether the common understanding was that this was where DB’s role ended.

 

Re SAB (A child) 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/384.html

 

One of the big lessons from this (as indeed from most of the previous cases about this sort of situation) is that if you are embarking on a plan of conception that is something out of the ordinary, firstly make sure that all of the adults involved have exactly the same understanding and thoughts about what is intended, and secondly get something down on paper that reflects that.

 

This case was complicated further by the fact that the father DB, and the biological mother AB, had previously had a romantic and sexual relationship, which was over by the time of the conception of the child.

 

The tension that this must have brought to bear on the whole dynamic probably wasn’t helped when DB engaged in some ‘sexting’ and sent a photograph of his  [Menswear Department]  in a mobile phone text. This text and image ended up being received by AB. 

 

DB said later that it was meant to go to an entirely different woman, hopefully one who was a willing or keen recipient of such image. In fact, he had never sent it to AB and wasn’t sure how it had ever reached her.

 

One can appreciate how AB, and the other mother CB might have misconstrued his intentions there.  The Court accepted that this was entirely an accident and not an attempt to rekindle his relationship with AB or cause tension between her and her partner CB.

 

In any event, what happened was that from going from a voluntary arrangement whereby the father was seeing his child in the first year, contact was completely ended, and the Court needed to become involved.

 

The tensions, already high, were not helped by a long paragraph in a statement filed by the father   – this, whatever it was, ramped up the temperature so much that it led AB to express the feeling that she hated him. 

 

19. Throughout this hearing, which has now spanned three days, I have, frankly, been puzzled as to the intensity of the opposition to contact now, when, until a year ago, it was happening relatively smoothly and given that it was accepted that DB had not, himself, sent or caused the obscene photograph to be sent. It was very difficult to discern any other clear explanation in the facts and circumstances of this case as to why attitudes now appear to be so entrenched

  1. I have read, of course, the third statement of DB, originally signed and dated in November 2013. That included at paragraph 9 a paragraph of some length, and I have been shocked at what DB thought it appropriate to state in that paragraph. Nothing, however, had been said about it throughout the first two and a half days of this hearing. Almost at the very end, whilst she was asking some questions of the child’s guardian, Mrs Susan Scott, this morning, AB referred to her “hatred” for DB. Apparently she had used the word “hatred” in some meeting or meetings with Mrs Scott, but it was certainly the first time a word of such intensity and violent emotion had been used within the courtroom. I enquired of AB why she felt such “hatred” and it emerged that it stemmed from what he had chosen to say in paragraph 9 of his first version of that statement.
  1. As a result, that statement has been edited so as to remove altogether the highly offensive parts of paragraph 9, and a fresh version, with a much shorter paragraph 9, has been signed by DB today, 23rd January 2014. All the copies in the courtroom of the earlier version with the longer paragraph 9 have all been returned to Mr Shelton, counsel for DB, who will ensure that they are totally destroyed. I am not going to make any reference whatsoever to the offensive parts of paragraph 9. But it tragically appears that AB expresses a feeling of hatred toward somebody for whom she previously felt friendship and affection, in considerable measure because of his foolish lack of judgment in saying such unnecessary, deeply offensive and highly intimate things. As I observed earlier this afternoon, however, it would be very wrong for decisions to be made affecting the entire childhood and, indeed, lifetime of this tiny, vulnerable child on the basis of one foolish misjudgment of that kind.

 

I rather like the pragmatic solution that the Judge hit upon for this. Rather akin to Basil Fawlty dealing with Bernard Cribbins’ flawed Spanish omelette  (“There, I’ve torn it up, you’ll never see it again”).  I think there’s a line in one of A P Herbert’s imaginary judgments about a judgment given by a High Court judge having been locked in a trunk, secured with chains and thrown into the depths of the ocean so that nobody need ever refer to it again.

 

As ever, the Bard puts it well

 

“I’ll break my staff. Bury it certain fathoms in the earth. And deeper than did ever plummet sound. I’ll drown my book”

 

[Although, hands up anyone who is NOT insanely curious about what was said in paragraph nine. The guess would be that rather than discussing the facts or issues or principles, he said something that was sticking the boot in and personal and offensive to AB. This is what lawyers sometimes call "playing the man and not the ball"  - a term borrowed from football, where the intention is not in a tackle to get the football but just to hurt the other person] 

 

On the whole discord about whether father was a “sperm donor who would walk away” or an intention to father a child and play some role in that child’s life, the Judge said this

 

  1. There is, of course, one major conflict of fact in this case, namely, whether or not it was agreed that the father would simply be a “sperm donor” and then “walk away” or whether, as the father says, there was a joint intention to conceive a child who, it was anticipated, would have some relationship with both his parents. I can only resolve that conflict on what lawyers call a balance of probability. I am not at all persuaded on a balance of probability that DB did agree, as is alleged, that he would merely be a sperm donor. That does not seem to me to fit either his personality or his personal history. As I have said, his situation was that it had been a source of sadness and regret to him that he had been unable to have a child or children throughout a marriage of some length due to infertility on the part of his wife. It was also a source of the utmost regret and guilt to him that he had never had a proper relationship with his one daughter, L. It seems to me highly unlikely that he would have been willing on the one hand to father a child and on the other hand to completely “walk away”.
  1. Further, there are a number of facts in the case which do not seem consistent with the notion that, having had intercourse and conceived a child, he would then “walk away”. Indeed, it is agreed that in September 2011 he and the mother went on a camping weekend together in the Yorkshire Dales where the two of them shared a tent. They did not have sexual intercourse on that occasion but nevertheless the circumstances were obviously ones of some intimacy.
  1. As I have said, after the birth of S the father was permitted to see S quite regularly and amicably. So there was certainly no concept of “walking away” in play for an appreciable period of time after the birth of S. Further, in such texts as are available, nowhere is there an assertion that he had agreed to “walk away”. As I have already said, some of the texts are, indeed, quite affectionate; and even where the mother did ask for some time and space away from him, she did not put that in terms that he had agreed always simply to be a sperm donor and walk away.
  1. It may be that in this case there was, as so often in these sorts of situations, a lack of clarity and understanding between them. It may very well be that A and C, in the spring and early summer 2011, were looking for a mere “sperm donor” as RS might, indeed, have been. But I cannot accept that when DB had intercourse that night he had, himself, agreed that his role was simply to be that of a sperm donor.
  1. In any event, as authority of the Court of Appeal makes clear, even somebody who has agreed to be a mere “sperm donor”, unless anonymous, should not necessarily be excluded from the life of the resulting child. However, it is not necessary to wrap up my decision in this case by reference to authority. It is absolutely clear that cases of this kind are highly fact specific. It is absolutely clear that there is only one legal principle in play, namely, that the welfare of the child concerned must be the paramount consideration.

 

 

It is clear that feelings were running high on this one, and the Judge makes some very helpful remarks, applicable to other cases about what the role of the Court is in this regard.

 

  1. The principal reasons that A and C advance against any contact are these. First, A, in particular, clearly has a very strong view as to parental autonomy, and it is her view that she and C (who also has parental responsibility for S) alone know what is best for their child and that they, and they alone, should decide. Whilst I have some appreciation of that point of view, it is, of course, not the law, and it is precisely because an individual parent, or in this case two mothers, do not have that degree of autonomy that courts in the end do have to decide the outcome of cases such as this.
  1. Next, they stress that from the outset the agreement was that DB would simply be a sperm donor and walk away. I have already explained that I cannot accept that there was agreement to that effect. It may have been their hope and expectation, but it certainly was not that of DB.
  1. Next, A in particular refers to the intensity of her feelings now in relation to DB. As I have said, earlier today she used the word “hatred”, and her overall position is that it could not be in the best interests of S to be brought up in a situation of conflict between the adults.
  1. Allied to that is a similar, but discretely different, point, namely, that in any event she, or they, cannot bring themselves to promote the image of DB as the father and present him in a positive light.
  1. So their overall position is that this would simply be a situation of such stress and intensity of emotions that they would inevitably impact upon S and be damaging to him.
  1. I do, of course, appreciate and understand all those arguments. They are often deployed in situations where there is conflict and disagreement as to contact. But the argument and consideration the other way is the real benefits that S may gain throughout his childhood and, indeed, into his adult life from having proper knowledge of, and interaction with, and some relationship with his father.
  1. Of course, at this moment, when he is aged 20 months and a mere toddler, none of this is immediately apparent. No one could suggest that S is suffering at this moment from the absence of his father from his life. But it is in infancy that the seeds should be laid for slowly developing a relationship in the most natural of ways as the child grows up. The position of the mothers is that S can, of course, see his father when he is older if he wants to do so. But that would not happen in that spontaneous way, at any rate for many years, unless he has grown up with knowledge of, and some relationship with, his father.

 

 

The Judge opened his judgment with this, but I have moved it for my purposes to the end

 

  1. In a letter written as long ago as 23rd August 2013 the mothers forecast that:

“Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear to ourselves that this awful situation will just have to play its course within the court system.”

 

That is what has happened and, despite repeated attempts and encouragement on my part and my affording ample time and opportunities in which to do so, the parties have, unfortunately, not been able to narrow their differences and agree an outcome. Nonetheless, it is very clear that the three adults involved in this case are all, if I may say so, very worthy, caring and decent people, and it is a matter of the utmost sadness that there is currently so great a rift between them.

 True enough. Sad when three decent people end up in such a  situation.

So, three golden lessons to avoid it happening to you / your client

 

  1. Make sure you are all on the same page, and have it written down, before embarking on an unorthodox conception

 

  1. When you write a statement and you play the man and not the ball, bear in mind that this might cause significant problems in due course, and if it has really inflamed things too much, an offer to remove the offensive remarks is not a bad idea. In fact, just don’t play the man and not the ball. It never works.

 

  1. If you think that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, imagine taking two irate mothers on at once…

 

Get it in writing, always get it in writing.

 

Or as Sam Goldwyn didn’t say  “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on”

The work of Guardians in care cases

 

One of my regular readers, Boxerdog, asked me to have a look at the CAFCASS commissioned research into the work of Guardians in care cases – it has been a bit of a week, and ordinarily this would have been much higher up my agenda.

Anyway, the report is here :-

https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/media/174659/sdcrvnafil008/caf_home$/rcafPRiordan/My%20Documents/Documents%20for%20the%20internet/FINAL_VERSION_Cafcass_-_The_work_of_children%27s_guardians_in_care_cases.pdf

 

The report sets out to answer two questions

1. What work was undertaken by Guardians?

2. When in the proceedings did that work take place?

 

So the fact that the research isn’t particularly helpful is the fault of the persons framing those parameters and questions, rather than flaws with the research itself.  I don’t think many people’s big unanswered questions with CAFCASS were these, but more about were they a genuine check and balance to the State, were they genuinely representing the voice of the child and looking at things in the round rather than the focus on “safeguarding” which seems to have crept in, was their work considered helpful and useful by other (shuddering at the word) stakeholders in the process – the children, the parents, the Judges?

 

But anyway, those are the questions we got. The answer to the second is “Mostly at the beginning” and in the first three months, chiefly.  Of course, most of the really important stuff in care proceedings is happening at the end, as assessments are completed, decisions are being made and the views of children about the range of options for their future is being gathered, so some might think that the balance here is a bit askew.  As a counterpoint to that, the meeting of the parents and relatives, reading the court papers, deciding on an expert and questions, and reading the social work files (ha!) all happens at the beginning, so I am perhaps being slightly unfair.  It depends whether the ‘front-loading’ means  “More at the front, but quite a bit all the way through”  or “almost all at the front and very little thereafter”

 

The report shows that CAFCASS met with the parents in 90% of care cases  (giving the benefit of the doubt, there ARE SOME parents who don’t involve themselves in any point in the proceedings, think 10% is rather high estimate of that) and met with/observed the children in 95% of care cases

 

Contact with the child
: the guardian had contact with the child in 95 per cent of cases. Four of the five cases in which there was no contact had some features in common, notably previous proceedings in respect of older children and the child being 0 years of age. In the fifth case the court found that the significant harm threshold was not met. The mean number of contacts per case was three, and the range was 0- 13 contacts. The type of contact was influenced by the age of the child. Thus, the guardian met with the child in 33 per cent of cases, but in every case where the child was aged 12 or older. Fifty seven per cent of children in the sample were aged four or under, the guardian observing children in this age group, in the presence of a parent, carer of foster carer, in 92 per cent of cases. There was telephone contact between the guardian and the child in nine per cent of cases
Not blaming individual workers for this, it is a shift in our times and the organisational priorities and how workloads are managed. But when I started, if a Guardian had visited the child 3 times during the course of the proceedings, they would have been SLAUGHTERED in the witness box. I remember on rare occasions seeing a Guardian ad Litem (as they then were) get completely taken to the cleaners for having made just 3 visits.  And that was in the days when care proceedings were shorter  (yes, before we had all of the protocols and PLOs to reduce the duration of care proceedings, they were actually quicker than 55 weeks) and more pertinently, before the Human Rights Act and article 8 was at the forefront of our minds.
What the report doesn’t look at, of course, is whether that contact is sufficient for the purpose of representing the child and being their voice in proceedings. As we diminish the role of independent experts in the court process (by a combination of cutting their fees until they don’t want to do it, and raising the bar on getting permission from the Court to instruct them), a good, solid, robust, inquiring and genuinely independent Guardian with no axe to grind other than “what does this child want, and what is best for them?” becomes a vital check and balance to the State, and this low-level of input doesn’t always provide for that.
Not the fault of individual Guardians – there are damn good ones who are very committed and work very hard, and rightly pull Local Authorities up on bad practice or decisions or unfairness, but the organisation s a whole decided to try to manage the increased volume and workloads by spreading the individual Guardians more thinly, and that has had profound knock-on repurcussions.
Back when I started, if you had a new baby born and there had been previous proceedings on a brother or sister, the first thing anyone would read from the old papers would be the Guardians report, which would tell you everything you needed to know, it would set the scene and give you all of the story of what had happened in the case. (you might agree with the final recommendation, you might disagree with it, but the report would tell you the story). I haven’t started with the Guardian’s report for many years now.

 

Rearrange these three letters – F, W, T

This is the private law case of Re C (A child) 2013, and frankly, the Court of Appeal missed a trick in not naming it Re (WTF?) 2013    (which also makes me pang for a Court of Appeal authority involving a child named E, where wind plays a major feature, so they can call it RE-E-Wind  – when the crowd say Bo, Selecta)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/1412.html

The case involves a five year old boy, C, who became the subject of residence and contact applications, his parents having separated.

  1. The order complained of was made in the county court on 6 March 2013 in Children Act 1989 proceedings issued by mother in March 2012. The order prohibited father from removing his son from the care of mother or from his primary school and provided for indirect contact between father and son in the form of letters, cards and small gifts. It follows that direct contact was refused. In circumstances which I shall describe the order was the culmination of a series of serious procedural irregularities which caused the decision to be unjust. The order was also wrong given that one of the irregularities gave rise to an assumption of alleged facts against father when the court had not conducted a finding of fact hearing and accordingly the judge’s welfare evaluation was based on what is said to be a false premise. 
  2. It needs to be understood that the allegations made against father are serious. The most serious of the allegations and the assertions of risk were not made by mother but by the Cafcass practitioner who was the family court advisor. The allegations have not been decided and nothing which follows in this judgment should be taken to minimise the risk that might exist if the allegations are true. Equally, if the allegations are not proved or the risk assessment is as a consequence or otherwise wrong, the child who is the subject of these proceedings and his father have been seriously failed.

The case peculiarly seems to have proceeded on the basis that allegations made about father had been proven by the Court, when in fact they had not yet been tested. That failing, which is bad in itself, increases when one realises that the main source of the allegations of risk was not one of the parties, but the CAFCASS officer who had been appointed to be the independent eyes and ears of the Court.

In fact, by the time the case got to a substantive hearing, the CAFCASS officer was refusing to visit the father at home, refusing to meet with him in the officer unless there was another worker present, was unable to complete the section 7 report and had become the complainant in criminal proceedings about father’s behaviour towards her.

The opinions that were being expressed by the Cafcass practitioner were not just in her role as a family court adviser independent of the parties. She was also a complainant in criminal proceedings. This court has come to the very firm conclusion that it was wholly inappropriate for the family court advisor to continue to act as the court’s advisor and the child’s ‘effective access to justice’ at a time when she was the complainant in criminal proceedings against the father. It was submitted to us that it is a regrettable fact that Cafcass practitioners are placed in positions of real conflict by complaints and threats made against them and that their priority must be to try and put that to one side and undertake their duties on behalf of children. We acknowledge that and the extraordinary work that they do in the public interest but there is a dividing line in terms of due process and conflict of interest that was crossed in this case. A criminal complainant cannot advise in a family case where the person accused by that complainant is a party.

 

(I’d suggest that one doesn’t need Basil Rathbone, Robert Downey Junior or Benedict Cumberbatch to help one in reaching that conclusion. How on earth can a CAFCASS officer be independent at that point?  That doesn’t mean that the Court have found that the CAFCASS officer was wrong or right in her complaints, just that by that point, she could no longer be assisting the Court in making recommendations about the child’s future – whatever was happening between her and the father had contaminated the independent nature of the role which is so integral to it)

However, she did continue, and prepared a report which understandably was not very favourable to father and considered that he presented an unmanageable level of risk.

 

 

  1. The report filed on 19 December 2012 was 19 close typed pages in length. It described detailed allegations of fact previously unknown to the court in terms which read as if the allegations were true. The reader is left in no doubt that the family court advisor believed the allegations to be true. At no stage was it highlighted that the facts had not been established by a process of fact finding in a family court. It is entirely unclear what facts father had conceded or might concede, which is not surprising given that he was not involved in the preparation of the report. The author described the risk in the case as being:

     

     

    “father’s lack of understanding of the impact of his offences on his child in relation to his risk taking behaviours, domestic violence, risk of possible child abduction; the father’s mental health and related issues, public disorder and so on.”

  2. A very detailed analysis of risk was conducted by the family court advisor with the benefit of input from professionals contacted by her during the preparation of her report. That included whether father’s mental health issues including suicidal ideation, depression and anger and his own social isolation were relevant (on the assumption they were accurately described). One of those professionals compared father with Raoul Moat (the panel beater, tree surgeon and bouncer with criminal convictions for violence who shot his ex-partner, killed his new partner and seriously injured a policeman in 2010). That was not only a professionally inappropriate comparison, it was presumably quoted in the report for maximum impact. Despite that, the author clearly indicated in her report that father’s “mental health status remains an un-assessed risk factor“. The report recommended the order made by the judge three months later. It did not recommend that a fact finding hearing should take place.

 

Okay, you are probably thinking by now that this case was something of a car crash – there are allegations being reported as though they were facts, the independent CAFCASS officer being the complainant in criminal proceedings about father and lurid comparisons of the father to Raoul Moat being made without much evidence.

Stay with me, it is about to get worse.

The Court of Appeal note that both parents were litigants in person, and though they were doing their best with the thorny process, were not able properly to highlight to the Court exactly how messed up things had become. The Court of Appeal describe the judicial handling of the case as ‘fire-fighting  – it may even have been quality fire-fighting, but it was not Case Management’

  1. On 21 December 2012 the proceedings were adjourned to a contested hearing because father did not accept the Cafcass recommendation. The first available date was on 6 March 2013 before a Recorder. There were no attempts in the intervening period to update any of the information contained in the Cafcass report, in particular about father and the risk that it is said he presented. Although both parents were given permission to file further statements the question of how father could or should respond to the serious allegations in the Cafcass report was not addressed, that is the key issues were not identified to be answered and a direction for a fact finding hearing was not made.

     

     

  2. Appointments of the type I have so far been describing take time, particularly where one or more of the parties are litigants in person as a consequence of the provisions of LASPO 2012. If the dispute is not immediately susceptible of conciliation or out of court mediation it will require a lawyer’s analysis. This is after all a court of law. In the absence of lawyers, the judge has to do that and to do that without assistance and sometimes with quite vocal hindrance. That requires more time than in a circumstance where the lawyers can be required to apply the rules and practice directions, produce the witness statements, summaries, analyses and schedules, obtain instructions and protect their lay client’s interests. Where a court is faced with litigants in person the judge has to do all that while maintaining both the reality and perception of fairness and due process. I do not criticise any of the judges involved in this case. Each was handed a case about which he or she knew nothing and given time only to deal with the most pressing issue or two that had arisen. That was fire fighting, it may even have been quality fire fighting but it was not case management.

 

So, we have a car-wreck with the CAFCASS officer, both parents are in person – looking back earlier the only statement from mum dealing with the allegations against dad was not actually evidence (it had no statement of truth) and the Judges who looked at the case were doing their best, but hadn’t really gripped it.

It still gets worse

On the morning of 6 March 2013, that is immediately before the contested hearing began, the family court advisor filed and served a 22 page document entitled ‘Chronology of Significant Events’. The court had not given a direction to permit such a step and so far as can be ascertained there was no advance notice of the same. The document was a detailed schedule of hearsay evidence that might have been appropriate if it had been directed by a court as a lawyer’s forensic summary of the allegations and materials that had already been filed. It was not a summary of the evidence filed unless it could be argued to be a record of the source materials for the section 7 report that was filed three months earlier. It should not have been admitted without argument and it was clearly highly prejudicial and of questionable probative value. It became the primary evidential document in the case, replacing the mother and almost everyone else who might have had something to say on a question of fact. The document was made available to father on the morning of the contested hearing that gives rise to this appeal.

So in the context of all I’ve previously said, the CAFCASS officer then turned up on the day of the hearing, against litigants in person, and ambushed them with a 22 page document, full of stuff that wasn’t actually evidence.

Does it surprise you that I am about to say – it still gets worse

  1. In that context, father made an application to adjourn the contested hearing. His primary purpose was to adduce up to date evidence about his mental health. He asserted that his treatment was susceptible of successful completion and that he would be able to demonstrate that with materials from the professionals involved. In addition and unknown to the family court advisor, the probation officer she quoted in good faith had been replaced sometime in 2012 and as this court now knows, the risk described by father’s senior probation officer who had detailed knowledge of father’s supervision was fundamentally different. In simple terms, his analysis was that father presented a low risk.

     

     

  2. It is not surprising that the judge who was new to the case was unimpressed by an application to adjourn given the lengthy delay there had been in getting the first contested hearing listed. Had she known that a fact finding hearing had never occurred she might have been able to find a constructive way to use the hearing to good effect and still afford father the opportunity to update the evidence about risk and to fairly deal with the family court advisor’s materials.

So father wasn’t given his adjourment, to deal with the ambush that he’d been hit with. And the Court didn’t properly appreciate that the allegations being thrown at him were untested allegations rather than determined facts.

What do you think? Does the next bit make it better or worse? Place your bets ladies and gentlemen.

  1. The hearing then commenced. The mother did not give evidence to substantiate her allegations and was accordingly not questioned by anyone. As a matter of pure technical form, her document of 12 August 2013 was never admitted into evidence. There was therefore no evidence from mother for father to meet and he was accordingly afforded no opportunity to test the direct evidence of domestic violence. The only evidence came from the family court advisor. As I have remarked, she treated the allegations as fact. She gave evidence based upon her report and her substantial chronology, that is hearsay evidence about the facts in issue as well as reported opinion from other professionals and her own opinion. I do not say that this was entirely inappropriate. It is appropriate for a family court advisor to identify the facts or alleged facts she has relied upon and the opinions of others that she accepts or adopts in coming to her own opinions and recommendations. She is after all a qualified social worker whose skill and expertise are those of an expert in that field. That said, had a fact finding hearing been held, third hand hearsay evidence of facts in issue might not have been given great weight in the absence of the evidence of mother or a concession from father.

     

     

  2. I do not ignore the possibility that an alleged victim of domestic violence from an allegedly over controlling or dangerous perpetrator may need considerable support to give her evidence. At the very least it should be established just what evidence she is able to give and an appropriate opportunity should be given to the alleged perpetrator to challenge that evidence. That could have been done by case management or, as I shall describe, by a more inquisitorial process that protected the interests of all involved. What was not acceptable in my judgment was the presentation of facts that were in dispute as if they were decided. The judge who heard the case (and who would have had no knowledge of it before she walked into court on the morning) was entitled to know that contrary to the impression given this was a fact finding hearing where the facts were in dispute. The hearing that was conducted was accordingly not a fact finding hearing, it was a welfare hearing which heard about the severe risk that it was said father presented to mother based upon facts that had never been tested let alone determined by a family court.

Oh God… and just when you think that I must be finished, and things could not possibly have got any worse

To add to the air of unreality the family court advisor gave her oral evidence from behind a screen. Special measures in a family court are not fixed by primary or secondary legislation as they are in the Crown Court. They can however be used in a similar way and for similar reasons. They are a means of facilitating the evidence of someone who is vulnerable so that the quality of their evidence is not damaged by their vulnerability. Children who give evidence often do so with the assistance of special measures such as a video link. It is not inconceivable that a professional witness might need the same facility but it is much less likely: Re W (Care Proceedings: Witness Anonymity) [2002] EWCA Civ 1626, [2003] 1 FLR 329 at [13]. The mischief in this case is compounded by the fact that the family court advisor gave her evidence as an officer of the state behind a screen rendering her effectively anonymous and unseen and she was afforded that facility without due process. If it was said that such measures were necessary that should have been on application to the court on notice to the father and to the mother and full reasons should have been given. There was no such application and if there was neither this court nor the father were aware of it and there is no record of any determination. There is no order. It should not have happened in the way that it did.

 

Scroll back, read that again  – the CAFCASS officer gave her evidence from behind a screen.

Re WTF 2013

Needless to say, the father won his appeal against the order – he was fortunate that he realised, or got advice, which showed him that (as the Court of Appeal said) he had been denied Natural Justice at almost every stage of the process, and the final decision was fundamentally flawed in almost every regard.

 

The Court of Appeal give some useful guidance  for management of cases involving litigants in person (this can only be aimed at Judges, since there’s no prospect of LIPs being aware of this case, never mind drawing judicial attention to it)

  1. I have intimated that a more inquisitorial process may help those judges who need to deal with very difficult cases involving litigants in person where emotions can run very high. At the hearing at which the section 7 report was first available there was an opportunity for detailed case management. In less fraught cases this is often a real opportunity for dispute resolution in the same way that an Issues Resolution Hearing provides that facility in public law children proceedings. That was the latest of the various hearings at which the key issues of fact and opinion could have been identified and if not resolved, described on the face of an order so that the parties and the court would have been clear about the purpose of the contested hearing. Directions could have included providing short answers to the key issues identified and up to date materials which would have avoided father’s last minute adjournment application and his successful application to this court to adduce additional evidence.

     

     

  2. At the hearing and given that it would have been clear whether the key issues included the need to make findings of fact, the judge can control the process to ensure that it is fair. Having been sworn, each party can be asked to set out their proposals and to confirm their version of the disputed key facts. They can then be asked by the judge what questions they would like to ask of the other party. Where lawyers are not instructed the judge can then assimilate the issues identified into his or her own questions and ask each party the questions that the judge thinks are relevant to the key issues in the case. It may be appropriate to give the parties the opportunity to give a short reply. In that way the issues can be proportionately and fairly considered. 

     

  3. At the conclusion of the hearing before us it became clear that separate proceedings under the provisions of the Family Law Act 1996 had been commenced by mother without notice to father. This court has not had the opportunity to scrutinise that process. Yet another judge is involved but directions have been given in those proceedings for the facts in issue to be identified and resolved. Given that this has led to detailed witness statements being filed by the parties, we shall direct that any further directions in those proceedings be listed before the same judge who is allocated to determine the Children Act proceedings. 

     

  4. The problems which have complicated this case are hopefully rare. The solution is to use the processes of the court to better effect. The family court is a court of law not a talking shop. No matter how much its judges will strive to obtain safe agreements between the parties, its rules, practice directions and forensic protections are for a purpose – to do right by all manner of persons, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.

Voice of the child in pre-proceedings work

 

Work done with the Local Authority and parents before the case ever gets to Court (and ideally with the view of the case never needing to come to Court) has been important for a few years now, and will become even more important when the new PLO comes in, and there’s even more emphasis on what happened before the case got into the Court-room.

 

There have been many people saying for a number of years, that not having a Guardian, representing the child’s interests and being either the check-and-balance to a Local Authority who may be being zealous or oppressive OR an independent person who is able to impartially communicate to the parents that they are in a perilous situation if improvements are not made, is a major flaw in the pre-proceedings system.

 

It is for that reason that a pilot was set up in Coventy and Warwickshire, to have a Guardian involved in pre-proceedings meetings between the social worker and the parents.

 

The pilot is complete now, and the report is available here http://www.cafcass.gov.uk/media/167143/coventry_and_warwickshire_pre-proceedings_pilot_final_report_july_4_2013.pdf

 

{There was a third pilot area, Liverpool, and there will be a report on that in due course}

 

The positive aspects of the pilot was that the diversion rate of pre-proceedings cases where a Guardian was involved was fifty per cent   (by diversion rate, they mean, cases that ended up with the problems being sufficiently resolved by the parents that the case did not have to go to Court).  That’s a decent figure, comparing favourably to the existing Masson studies of pre-proceedings work generally diverting about 25% of cases, and the other cases in the samples in those Local Authorities where Guardians were not involved.

 

 

Of the cases that do go to Court, are they dealt with any faster? Well, the sample sizes are frankly very small to draw conclusions from – one or two “long runners” could skew the figures very badly, but they do claim that the Pre proceedings cases where there WAS a Guardian (CAFCASS Plus) finished more quickly than the ones where there was not

 

The overall average (mean) duration of the care proceedings for the Cafcass PLUS cases (excluding the complex cases) is 36.3 weeks (based on 11 cases). The duration of the comparator cases is 42.6 weeks (18 cases). There is a distinct differencebetween the Warwickshire Cafcass PLUS and comparator cases in respect of careproceedings duration. There are fewer longer running cases (more than 40 weeks) in the Cafcass PLUS sample as a whole.

 

I really think the sample size is far too small to get excited about that. And actually, is the over-arching aim of having a voice for the child in pre-proceedings work speed of resolution, as opposed to fairness and getting the work done right?

 

 

The positive diversion rates, the pilot considers largely due to two things – (1) galvanising extended family members to assist the parents, and this seems to me to be a very laudable aim and (2) parents engaging in reparative work.

 

It would have been interesting to know whether the involvement of a Guardian either increased the reach out to family members OR somehow made it more likely that the family members ‘stepped up to the plate’. And also whether the reparative work was either better focussed, or the parents more committed to making use of it.    That would be something I would hope is focussed on more, if the pilot is enhanced in numbers.

 

This bit is interesting

 

However, the pilot also provides clear evidence that where cases progressed to court on an unplanned basis and local authority work is

incomplete, then the FCA was not able overturn deficiencies in pre-­proceedings practice.

 

[i.e, where the pre-proceedings work hasn’t been done very well, having a Guardian on board didn’t fix that. That seems to me rather disappointing, that’s clearly what one would hope that a Guardian would be doing during this pre-proceedings work, making sure that the LA did the work properly and covered all of the bases, with the benefit of that fresh pair of eyes and an independent pair of eyes.]

 

 

The pilot report raises some very good questions about systemic causes of delay, two of the four of which rest on the shoulders of the Courts rather than other professionals

 

Systemic factors include:

 

1. the enduring problem of variability in the quality of social work

assessment but equally failure of courts to recognise good social work

practice which creates something of a ‘chicken and an egg’ situation;

 

2. that a number of cases appear to enter the pre-proceedings process too late, such that the window for further assessment and attempt to effect change is missed and cases then progress to court on an

unplanned/emergency basis;

 

3. the difficulty of making effective decisions about, and providing effective support to parents with fluctuating mental capacity who are not deemed to warrant the services of the Official Solicitor;

 

4. difficulties in timetabling contested final hearings due to insufficient court sitting time and problems of co-ordinating the diaries of very busy

professionals.

 

 

The Official Solicitor issue is a perennial one, and becoming even more important as we have a hard cap of 26 weeks – if you can’t fairly work with parents or ask them to make decisions/agree assessments/sign written agreements because they don’t have capacity to do so, and you can’t get the Official Solicitor representing them until you are in proceedings, it will mean that all parents who lack capacity will have less time to turn their problems round than ones who do have capacity. That seems to me to be a decent Disability Discrimination case to run at some point.

 

The pilot report echoes many of the issues already raised in the Masson report about pre-proceedings work, chiefly the overwhelming feeling of professionals involved that the Court didn’t really pay any attention to it and that Courts simply routinely commission fresh assessments with the view that any parenting or risk assessment only counts if it takes place within Court proceedings.

 

 

Independence is an important issue – there’s an obvious risk that a Guardian who participates in pre-proceedings work that culminates in care proceedings being issued might be felt by the parents to have come to the care proceedings with a view of the case already formed  (rather than being completely fresh and impartial at the time that proceedings are issued)

 

The FCA’s Independence: was it in question?

The question of whether pre-proceedings involvement of the FCA compromised the FCA’s independence was raised by a range of stakeholders encountered during the course of this project. A review of parents’ statements did not reveal any concerns about this from their representatives in the Cafcass PLUS sample. The FCAs themselves stated that they did not feel their independence was compromised by

earlier involvement, they felt able to assert an independent perspective regardless of when they became involved in a case. Of course, in a small number of cases, because the FCA who was involved in pre-­proceedings had left the service, in actual fact the

case was then allocated to another FCA as described above.

 

 

[If you’ll forgive me, I’ll continue to use the word “guardian” rather than Family Court Advisor or FCA, I just don’t like it… I still miss “Guardian ad Litem” to be frank]

 

The report overall is positive about the benefits to be achieved by involving Guardians in pre-proceedings work.  I am afraid that given the costs and resources that rolling it out nationally would require, the pilot study would have needed to be much more glowing and triumphant.  And that in particular, it would have needed to show that Guardian involvement pre-proceedings had a real bearing on the success of cases being concluded within 26 weeks.

 

I think in the current climate and the agendas that are being pursued, I don’t see this pilot being positive enough to be rolled out. But it is still an interesting report and the issues that it touches on of just how hard hitting those 26 week targets will be until there is genuine systemic change are important ones.

 

 

 

[Voting link for Suesspicious Minds in the Family Law awards – you can vote for me – or any of the other candidates, who incidentally are not offering to save your life at some unspecified point in the future, here

 

http://www.familylawawards.com/ShortlistedNominees2012   ]

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