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Category Archives: case law

Sibling rivalry

 

In Re P (A child) 2015, His Honour Judge Wood had to deal with an application for a Care Order for a girl who was sixteen years and four months old. That in itself is unusual. Even more unusual, the central allegation was that of physical abuse (which was disputed by the family). More unusual still, the allegation was that the girl had been physically assaulted by her older brother.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B101.html

 

Now, if you have a sibling, you might be thinking along similar lines to my initial reactions.  My sister and I fought, not like cat and dog, but like two fighting roosters whose feed had been laced with PCP. We fought about absolutely everything. No topic was too trivial , no imagined slight too minor.  That did occasionally spill into physical conflict. I’m sure that my sister has many dreadful stories about me – many of which would be true, and I will simply indicate that there was a day at Pwllhlei Butlins putting green where she hit me with some degree of force on the nut with a golf club  (from behind) and when it knocked me out, ran off and spent the rest of the afternoon in the arcades playing Burger Time.  She also once hit me full in the face with a tennis racket swung with genuine purpose and intent (but as I recall, that was warranted, though painful).

 

This story, however, goes rather further even than those (admittedly shameful) incidents.

 

At 18.11 hours on Monday, 20th June 2014 P, a girl born on 28th October 1998 and now aged 16 years 4 months, was admitted by ambulance to the emergency department of Hospital A. She was found to have six distinct areas of injury: the first were three red linear marks on the right upper thigh, 1cm by 6cm long; second were two linear marks on the outer aspect of the left forearm, 4cm by 1cm wide; the third was an oblique red mark across the left upper outer thigh, 10cm by 1cm; the fourth was a bruised area, circular in shape, 3cm in diameter with a contusion over the left shoulder tip; the fifth was a linear bruise to the left upper outer arm approximately 4cm by 1cm and the final were a number of red marks across the lower thoracic area, that is to say the back, approximately 3cm by 1cm to the left and right of the midline.

 

 

The fact that the girl had been injured was not therefore in dispute, what was disputed was how these injuries had occurred.

The girl said that she had been at home, watching television and that she and her brother had had an argument (he wanting to turn the channel over to watch football and she wanting to finish watching what she had started), whereupon he started hitting her, escalating to hitting her with an iron bar.

 

The brother said that the girl had come home from school, complained of being hot and fainted from the heat.

It had of course been June when this happened, so perhaps it was hot. However, the girl had grown up in Nigeria and only been in England for a year.   And the family were living in Sunderland. Perhaps the weather in Sunderland that particular day was so hot that a girl who had spent 13 of her 14 years in Nigeria was unaccustomed to such heat and it caused her to faint.

 

The weather in Sunderland on 20th June 2014 was pretty hot for Sunderland. 20 degrees Celsius.  Looking at the weather in Nigeria in the year before, when the girl had been living there, 20 degrees C would represent a brisk chilly day in Nigeria, with a hot day being about 33-36 degrees.

https://weatherspark.com/history/28568/2013/Ikeja-Lagos-Nigeria

 

I have to say that the ‘fainting from heat’ explanation is in need of some work.  I suspect that “Girl Faints from Heat in Sunderland” would be headline news in the North East were it ever to happen.

 

[Actually out of curiosity, I just Googled ‘Sunderland heat wave’ ready to tell you that there were no results, but there were 168,000. Perhaps many of them were along the lines of  “Ed Milliband making a comeback as Labour leader in 2020? That’s about as likely as a Sunderland Heat Wave”]

 

The brother’s evidence became less credible when, for example, he denied that the iron bar was something that he had ever seen before and then retracted this when it was suggested to him that his DNA would be on it.

 

The mother, who had been present, and her father (who had been in Nigeria) both supported the brother’s version of events.

The cultural issue of course raised its head, and the Judge dealt with that

  1. Before considering which evidence I prefer, I want to say a word about cultural issues. This family come from a remote part of Nigeria. English is not their first language, albeit they have a good command of it. They are, as I have said, born again Christians and they seek to live their lives by a strong religious code. Their cultural background is in many ways very different to that which exists in the north east of England. They do things in Nigeria which are acceptable there but not here.
  2. Specifically, physical chastisement of children is normal. The father’s evidence was very clear that for what he called an accountable child, probably from the age of 10 onwards, whipping a child on the legs with African broom or with a cane as part of a process of punishment and learning is normal. It is not so long ago, certainly within the lives of some of the lawyers here, that such was acceptable in this country and so the court has no difficulty at all in accepting that but, given the way that this case has proceeded, its relevance is limited because it is not said either by the mother or R that this is what happened to P. Rather, they say she was not struck at all but I do accept that P and R are likely to have a more benign view of physical chastisement on a child than most British people would have in 2015. All that said, I agree with Mr Donnelly that this is not a case about chastisement in a different culture but a case about significant harm in the care of a mother.
  3. I accept that, further, there is a strict hierarchical structure within families whereby the father of the house, whether he is there or not, has to be consulted on important decisions. That has had significant practical consequences given parental separation here and I accept that it may have played some part in the refusal to consent to P being accommodated, as well as the initial engagement with the Local Authority and possibly even going to court in the early stages which I have no doubt is both a frightening and possibly shameful thing for the mother, in particular, to have experienced. So I have all of these factors very much in mind in making the decisions that I have to and I will return to this in due course.

 

 

The Court had to consider the evidence given by all parties, and of course the legal framwork, which is all very carefully set out. It is a very well constructed judgment.

  1. So which evidence do I prefer? Unhesitatingly, that of P. There is no more explanation for her lying now than there was in June last year. The lengths to which she went in feigning a faint point to the seriousness of the assault that she suffered. The instincts of the ambulance man first on the scene were, in my judgment, entirely correct. The injuries are entirely consistent with her account. They are all about the same age and fresh. They have the characteristics of being hit with an object such as a table leg in their linear appearance. They affect the outer aspects of both thighs, the outer aspects of the left arm and the back. They are not consistent with a simple collapse to the floor. They are, as Dr Mellon said but the mother, father and R denied, characteristic of defensive injuries. It appeared to be beyond the father and R’s comprehension that P would not fight back. She is described elsewhere as an underweight, 15-year-old girl of slight build pitched against a 19-year-old male who appeared to be over six feet high and who was armed and one might have thought that that was a sufficient reason to adopt a defensive position rather than try and fight back.
  2. There is simply no other explanation for these injuries, just as there is no reason put before the court as to why, as R said, P would want to put herself in care and be separated from her family. I reject her father’s submission that because P has told him that she has been refused permission to go to church and to foster care, to the foster carer has said that she does not want to go, that she is demonstrably untruthful or unreliable. There could be many reasons for two different accounts at different times and there has been no opportunity to investigate the circumstances in which those accounts were given in any event. I also reject R’s submission that because she identified her shoulder to the ambulance man, she was thereby not complaining of being beaten by her brother. The medical evidence, in my judgment, is clear. There is no alternative, credible explanation.
  3. The evidence of the mother and R, far from causing me to question her veracity, confirms that they were neither credible nor reliable. I found R to be evasive, argumentative and unwilling to confront the truth staring us all in the face. I could say more about it but I am satisfied, as it happens, that in her letter P has described her brother to a tee:

    “My brother is not a type of person that says sorry so easily. He is a type of person that is so proud and full of himself.”

    It seemed to me that that was a very accurate description of a rather arrogant and self-centred young man. I am quite satisfied that he is an intelligent and articulate man. Having seen him give his evidence and be cross-examined, I am quite sure that he was generally intent on ensuring that he gave answers which supported and/or did not undermine his case rather than trying to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth at all times. Accordingly, I did not find him credible and reliable.

  4. I am satisfied that R lost his temper with his sister over an argument about the television. He wanted to watch the five o’clock football match and would not let her finish the programme that she had been watching for some time since she came in from school and, not for the first time, he responded with violence. I am satisfied he beat her with a table leg and caused the injuries that I have noted and, furthermore, I am satisfied that P’s mother knew that this is what had happened for the very reason that she saw it. I pay due regard to what her husband has said about his belief in her veracity but I do not believe that she intervened but, in seeking to deflect attention at the outset, suggested that very thing to the police only to back away from it, as she did, when the seriousness of the incident became known.
  5. P’s shock and distress at her mother not intervening was marked and entirely understood. Although the mother told me that both R and P are her children and that she loves them equally, by her conduct she has demonstrated that, in fact, she has put R’s interests before her daughter. She has protected him when she knows the truth of what he has done. She has almost inexplicably abandoned – and it is not too strong a word – her daughter by denying her contact, putting up as obstacles the Local Authority’s perfectly reasonable conditions. Most parents would walk over hot coals to see their children, however objectionable the terms, because to do so would be to prioritise the child and to meet the child’s needs to see her family. Furthermore, she is not ignorant of the role of social workers. Her professional training and experience over a period of almost ten years contradicts her claim. She may very well be ashamed at the misfortune that has befallen her and her family but she simply has persistently refused to engage in this process as I will explain.
  6. So looking at the threshold document prepared by the Local Authority in the bundle at A16, I am satisfied it is made out as pleaded. That refers in paragraph 4(a) to the injuries themselves, in paragraph (b) to R being the cause of the injuries, being struck by an iron rod and that it was causing her pain, in subparagraph (e) that the mother has been complicit in that physical abuse perpetrated by her son in that she knew or ought to have known it was happening and had failed to tell anyone so as to protect her own interests. She misled professionals and, indeed, now the court about her son having assaulted her daughter and instead alleged that P is lying about the abuse she has suffered and following P’s admission to hospital and subsequently care has, as I have said, abandoned her daughter preferring to protect her son.

 

The family in this case had adopted a strategy of not engaging with the assessment or coming to contact, which is the all or nothing approach that only really ever works if the Court find that the threshold is not met. In a case like this, where the Judge found that the brother had caused very serious significant harm to the girl by hitting her with an iron bar, and that the mother had been in the home at the time, had not intervened and had lied about it, that is not really giving the mother much chance of a happy outcome.  They absolutely would not countenance the brother moving out of the home so that the girl could come home.

 

Even then, though, the Judge was holding out a hand and inviting the parents to take it

I want to say this at this stage: it is still not too late for this family, mother and R in particular, to accept the findings of this court, to make a suitable admission and to work with the Local Authority to reduce the risk both to P and any other children with whom they may be concerned – a very particular concern of P as she said in her letter to me

 

The Court had to make the Care Order, there was no other option

 

This is a very, very sad case. It began as a one issue case, the assault. It could, as Mr Rowlands has said, have had a very different outcome. That it has not is entirely due to the family and not their daughter. It has ended up as more than that because of the astonishing and persistent denial in the face of all of the evidence and the near complete rejection of P by her family. The harm to her from the latter is likely to outweigh the harm from the former in the longer term but, I repeat, even now it is not too late to reverse that process. These parents have an attractive, appealing and loving daughter who has shown the Christian virtues of forgiveness and love that they taught her. She really deserves a very much better outcome than this but I am afraid the solution lies entirely in their hands.

 

One particularly worrying feature of this case was the removal of the child by Police Protection. The mother having refused section 20 and the girl at that time not being sixteen so she was not able to accommodate herself using section 20 (11).   However,

I want to register my extreme concern at the level of force which was used when the police recovered P from her home when she ran away from foster care in September. She was handcuffed, under what power is not clear, and the incident is said to have been recorded because of its nature. This incident needs to be noted and taken up by the Local Authority in conjunction with the police. It is ambiguous from the statement as to whether a social worker was actually present when it happened. It has not formed part of the material evidence before me but it was an extremely unfortunate incident, it was harmful to P that her guardian was rightly horrified about. I do not know what the Local Authority response to it was at the time, what its response has been since and I do seek separately an explanation from the Local Authority and the police as to the circumstances that were pertaining and as to what measures have been devised and agreed upon to avoid a repetition of such an event in the future.

 

Couple “too old” to look after their granddaughter

I saw this case break in the Telegraph  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11754837/Couple-told-they-are-too-old-to-look-after-their-granddaughter.html   where the line was that grandparents who were able, willing and capable of looking after their grand-daughter were turned down on the basis of their age and the child would be adopted.

 

That immediately didn’t sound right. It had the immediate ring of “I think that you’ll find its a little bit more complicated than that”.   [If you do find yourself being outraged and appalled by a case and you haven’t actually read the judgment, that’s usually a safe answer.  Of course, there are cases where reading the judgment actually does appall you at the scandal that’s gone on, but at least you are now being appalled on an informed basis]

 

That would fall extremely short of the legal tests involved, and you can see from the Telegraph article that they do include the comment from the Social Services department involved, who said flatly that age was not the deciding factor in the case.

 

The judgment is now available and people can see it for themselves

 

Re C 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B99.html

 

You can see that the grandparents made an application to Court, to challenge the assessment done of them that did not recommend that they could care for the child. The Court heard from them, including hearing evidence from the grandfather (who sounds like a thoroughly nice man, to be honest).  The Court then applied the statutory tests and the case law guidance to whether they should have that application granted and whether the child could live with them, or whether adoption was the right way forward.

 

Additionally, you can see that whilst the Judge does mention the age of the grandparents, it is mentioned in passing rather than being the reason for the decision.

 

The reason for the decision, very simply, was that the mother had considerable mental health difficulties, including cutting herself in front of the child, that the mother had a very difficult relationship with the grandparents and that they were not going to be able to shield the child from these things.

 

The main concern however it seems to me is the fact that this family would be in my judgment completely unable to cope with the triangular relationship of C, M and the grandparents. Mr G expressed in evidence that he hoped that his daughter was going to recover her mental health, that she had had some recent treatment that over the next four years might lead to her mental health recovering. I very much hope that that is the case and it may well be right, but he was very clear that he was going to continue his relationship with his daughter and indeed he is to be commended for that. He said he saw her yesterday. I just cannot envisage how the triangular relationship can possibly work. Dr Martinez in her report expresses the concern that mother is unable to bring up C because she is likely to expose C to extreme behaviours – ‘scary situations’ is the word she uses – and she is referring to the incident in January when M in front of C self-harmed, cutting herself, and C was clearly in a scary situation witnessing her mother bleeding. That is exactly the type of situation which Dr Martinez envisages recurring and which puts C at the risk of significant harm if she were to be placed with her mother. If I were to envisage C being placed with her grandparents it seems to me that it is only a matter of time before C is put in that situation again. This is because of the conflict which the grandparents will experience in their meetings with their daughter, who they will not be able to turn away and in the conflict that is likely ultimately to create and which C is inevitably going to experience. Their personal circumstances are not ideal but ultimately it is that relationship which it seems to me makes it impossible for their application to succeed. Given the disruption to the local authority Care Plan against the likelihood of success of their application, I am afraid that I have no hesitation in saying that that application should therefore be dismissed.

 

Now, you may agree or disagree that this is a valid reason for saying no to these grandparents; but it certainly isn’t a decision that was made because of their age.

I don’t fault the grandparents at all for this – Courts can be confusing and scary places, and Judges use language and concepts that aren’t commonplace for ordinary people. Add to that, that of course this was an emotionally charged hearing and it is little surprise that the grandparents left not completely understanding all the reasons why the Judge said no to them, and that they got the wrong end of the stick.

Nor do I blame the journalist  – if the judgment had borne out what the grandparents said, that a Court had ordered that the child be adopted purely because the grandparents were too old, that would be a miscarriage of justice and a scandal worth reporting.  Of course, the journalist did have the clear rebuttal from Social Services that the case wasn’t about age, but also they had the comments from the solicitor engaged to represent these grandparents in an appeal  (which I doubt has any legs at all).  So it is not the flaw we often see in the Telegraph of the story having a single source – the journalist here did try to get multiple sources and to stand the story up.

You could make a criticism that the journalist didn’t try to get the judgment from the Court or wait for it on Bailii, but I think that’s to confuse the worlds of law and journalism.  Firstly, news stories are time sensitive. If the Telegraph waited for it to be published, they could have missed the scoop element that they had. And secondly, given that most lawyers can’t get an answer out of the Court service, what makes you think a journalist enquiring about “there’s been this case, I don’t have the case number, but can I have an anonymised copy of the judgment” is going to get any better response.

So I think it was okay for the Telegraph to run the story.  The problem, however, is that the Telegraph’s version of the story – that social workers and Courts rule people out just based on age, is the one that fluorishes and replicates and spreads, and the actual truth that the reasons for the decision were based on a Judge’s assessment of their ability to keep the child safe from mother, won’t get out there.

It is really important in care proceedings that family members who are able to help out, support the parents and ultimately offer a home if the parents can’t do it, come forward and aren’t put off. So, the story here spreads a myth that simply isn’t true.

I do appreciate that newspapers don’t exist solely as a vehicle to communicate the truth. They have to sell copies, they have to get clicks on their articles, they have to exist as a commercial venture. If they print articles that are factually accurate but that nobody wants to read, then the advertisers who want to sell their conservatories, plates with Princess Diana on them,  safes disguised as baked-bean tins, and mustard coloured polyester slacks*, won’t be placing those adverts.

I can’t actually work out a sexy way for the Telegraph and other news outlets to tell this story and correct the myth.  The best I can do is “Family Courts do still screw up from time to time, but they didn’t on this occasion. Sorry”   – and even I probably wouldn’t read that article.

[* Other products are, I’m sure, advertised in the Telegraph , and that’s just the sort of flippant generalisation and stereotyping that I would criticise them for when writing about social workers wearing corduroy trousers and knitting their own muesli.  It was just a cheap gag…   – now,  if you want to find “cheap gags” in the advertising section of a publication you are looking for something in the newsagents on an entirely different shelf to the Telegraph]

“We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files” :- How long can Social Services hold onto records ?

Warm applause to the first person who gets the reference right.

I had not been aware that this issue was even being ventilated, so I read this judgment with a degree of nervousness, particularly when I got to the passages suggesting that a Local Authority would need to go through all of their records and throw out the ones older than six years.

 

C, R (on the application of) v Northumberland County Council 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2015/2134.html

 

This was a judicial review of Northumberland’s policy on how long it would keep social work records. The claimant had been arguing that he and his family had been mistreated by Social Services and wanted his records to be destroyed.   (Northumberland agreed to this, but the judicial review continued on the basis of public policy rather than harm to the particular individual).

It occurs to me that in destruction of the records, one of course also destroys those bits of the records that say that the claimant was exonerated, and that might not be ideal.

 

The policy is specifically to retain the records for 35 years after the case is closed, unless the child is or becomes looked after (in which case the retention policy is 75 years from the date of birth) or adopted (in which case the retention period is 100 years from the date of the Adoption Order).

 

The Claimant (and also the Information Commissioner) were arguing that this policy was Wednesbury unreasonable and hence unlawful.

They instead proposed that the files be kept until the child became 24  (i.e reaches the age of 18 and then allow for six years to pass, which is the period of time in which any civil claim can be brought for say negligence or vicarious liability).

 

[It is always nice to see someone who is in the role of bossing others about get some criticism, no offence to the good people of the Information Commissioner’s office, but the ‘counsel of perfection’ stuff does get irksome]

 

  1. The Information Commissioner’s view about the Retention Policy has changed. In a letter dated 2 July 2012, he wrote to the Claimant expressing the view that it was likely that the Defendant’s 35 years policy was compliant with the DPA and was lawful. In his submissions to the Court (dated 5 January 2015) he indicated a revised position, which is that the 35 year Retention Policy was unlawful and that it would only be lawful under the DPA for the information to be retained by the Defendant’s legal department, and then for only 6 years after the child in question turned 18 and for the purposes of defending itself against litigation, unless on the facts of any particular case, a shorter or longer period should apply.
  2. Although I accept that it is open to anyone to change their mind, or even change sides, and that sometimes the change may show that a party has thought with particular care about the issue and has concluded that it was wrong in its initial view, the change in position is striking.

 

 

I believe that the expression is 'reverse ferret'

I believe that the expression is ‘reverse ferret’

 

 

 

I do know that some LA’s have a policy like the one mooted by the Information Commissioner, others go with the 75 years for which adoption files must be kept by law, still others strike a compromise like Northumberland.  The stakes in this case were high then, since if the Information Commissioner and Claimant persuaded the Court that the files should be destroyed once the child was 24, then there would be a LOT of work to be done in going through old files and destroying them.

It also occurs to me, since I have worked many years ago on cases where foster carers were prosecuted for criminal mistreatment of children that happened in the 1970s, and of course, the revelations about sexual abuse including in residential children’s homes decades ago, that we might potentially be destroying very valuable and useful evidence.

 

The Judge sets all of this out, very carefully

  1. The third purpose of maintaining records relates to matters which may become the subject of investigations or inquiries in which retained information may become important. This was a matter addressed in the Policy Report at §§4.3 and 4.11. There are several types of proceedings which might call for this type of evidence.
  2. First, there are public inquiries. The most important is the current Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, headed by Justice Lowell Goddard (‘the Goddard Inquiry’), whose wide-ranging task is to investigate the failures of various institutions to protect children from abuse over the past several decades.
  3. The Goddard Inquiry follows several other high-profile inquiries in recent years into the abuse or exploitation of children. These include one in Rotherham, whose remit was for the years 1997-2013, and Oxford, which investigated abuse as far back as 1999. A review by Peter Wanless and Richard Wittham QC into the extent of the Home Office’s knowledge of organised child abuse covered the years 1979-1999. One of the issues which has given rise to particular public concern is the existence and sufficiency of records; and, where records are no longer available, why this may be so.
  4. The Defendant argued that these inquiries are of fundamental public importance, and would be severely hampered if records were deleted in accordance with the Claimant’s or Information Commissioner’s proposed policy. This was a matter taken into account by Horner J in the JR60 case at [20] where, accepting this element of public interest, he referred to an Inquiry into Historical Institutionalised Child Abuse in Northern Ireland for the period from 1922 to the present day.
  5. The second type of enquiries are police investigations. Revelations about historic child abuse and exploitation give rise to criminal investigations, most infamously in the case of Operation Yewtree, led by the Metropolitan Police. This operation investigated allegations that well-known media personalities and others had engaged in criminal sexual activity, in some cases with underage and vulnerable people. Some of the crimes took place as long ago as 1967. Records of the neglect and abuse of children may be of significant interest to criminal investigators and prosecutors many years after the events themselves; and it is plainly in the public interest that critical evidence be preserved to enable justice to be done, whether this is by corroborating a victim’s allegation or exonerating someone who is wrongly accused.
  6. The third area of potential relevance is internal reviews. Local Authorities may have concerns about the provision of care and wish to review its procedures in order to make improvements. This is in keeping with their general duties to safeguard children’s welfare, as supplemented by the mandatory recommendations in Chapter 2 of the March 2015 Inter-agency Guide, referred to above. Old records may also be relevant to performance reviews or disciplinary proceedings relating to one or more employees, advancing not only the protection of children, but also public confidence in social services.

 

 

The Claimant and Information Commissioner then argued that whilst it might be necessary to hold SOME documents for many years, this should be the exception rather than the norm.

 

  1. The Claimant and the Information Commissioner accepted that there might be exceptional cases where the case files would need to be retained; but submitted that this could be done by forming a prospective view of their future utility at the end of the 6 year period which they advocated. In my view this approach would involve a cumbersome and time-consuming predictive exercise, which would necessarily err on the side of retention; and the argument overlooks the importance of one of the purposes for which the information is retained: its later use in order to analyse what may be a pattern or risk which can only be identified with hindsight, see Lord Sumption at [31] and Baroness Hale at [54] in Catt (above). The possibility of considering different retention periods for different files was considered and rejected for good reason in §§4.4 and 4.18 of the Policy Report.
  2. One of the unusual aspects of this case is that the Claimant is not advancing a case that his own circumstances highlight a particular deficiency in the Defendant’s Retention Policy. The challenge is made at a relatively high level of abstraction when compared, for example, with the challenge in JR60 case (above). Furthermore it relates to the storage of specific personal material in relation to a confined number of people, and for a particular and identified purpose. It is a very different to the Digital Rights Ireland case (above), where the Grand Chamber of the ECJ considered the impact of Council Directive 2006/24/EC which covered the retention of all traffic data relating to all electronic communication. Its conclusion that the Directive was inconsistent with Articles 7, 8 and 52(1) of the European Charter, was hardly surprising in the light of the Court’s view at [56] that it entailed ‘an interference with the fundamental right view of practically the entire European Population.’
  3. The suggestion that the files should be reviewed every 7 years seems to me to involve a disproportionate use of labour and unproductive use of resources which are better devoted to protecting children. As Ms Brown noted[3], such reviews could not be carried out by anyone other than an experienced social worker, looking at the entire file and having to assess potential risks.

 

 

The Court was not of the view that the Council’s policy was unreasonable or unlawful

 

  1. As Ms Brown put it in §58 and 59 of her witness statement:

    58. [The Defendant] deal[s] with a large number of cases and at any point will have approximately 3,000 children as open cases to Children’s Services …

    59. The current retention policy provides for retention for a period long enough to ensure that it is improbable that information from a closed record will be of central importance in any future work to protect children. In some cases, it might in principle be possible to dispose of records after a shorter period – particularly in situations where an investigation found where an investigation has found no evidence that abuse or neglect [has] taken place – but it would be necessary to assess the risk in every case.

  2. I accept that evidence. As noted above, the Defendant’s investigation into the Claimant and his family found no evidence of abuse or neglect, and the records have been dealt with consistently with the Defendant’s Retention Policy by deletion.
  3. In the light of the above I accept the Defendant’s submissions that there is a need to keep the records for a substantial period, and certainly substantially longer than the period argued for by the Claimant and the Information Commissioner. It might be argued that the period of 35 years is not the only possible period of retention, but in my judgment it falls within the bracket of legitimate periods of retention.
  4. I have therefore concluded that the Defendant’s Retention Policy of 35 years is in accordance with the law, has been carefully considered, adapted to the purposes for which it is required, and is applied proportionately and flexibly.
  5. It follows that the claim fails.

 

 

[For clarity, this judgment does not require that a Local Authority whose policy is NOT to hold the files for 35 years would be acting unlawfully and thus need to change it, it is rather that the policy about holding documents is something which has to have rational underpinning and is capable of being defended if challenged. Northumberland’s policy is annexed to the judgment, and is a very well thought out document which is now bulletproof should others choose to make use of it.  ]

 

Every time I type Northumberland I think it sounds like an area in Skyrim, infested with bearded dwarven blacksmiths who need me to go and find four frogs that have escaped, so that they can extract the poison and make me a really good sword.

 

Private law, infinite appeals and IT naughtiness

The case of Re N (Children) 2015, http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B98.html involves a private law case with 3 children, aged 11, 9 and 6.   Her Honour Judge Atkinson had to deal with a novel and delicate point of law on an appeal.

The children all live with their mother, and the dispute has been about the time that they spend (or do not spend) with their father.

In this case, the mother made a series of very serious allegations against the father, of physical abuse. The father faced criminal trial for these and was acquitted.  the mother then sought findings against him in the family court proceedings.  That was complicated by the last minute addition of a rape allegation.

In any event, the District Judge who heard the case dismissed all but one of the allegations, which he found was proved in part. The finding that was made would not have been a barrier to contact, and really contact should have resumed.

However, mother then appealed that decision, and the appeal was unsuccessful.

She then made a subsequent appeal, and it is that subsquent appeal that gives the case its novelty.  I am not naming the DJ here – it is in the linked judgment if people want to see it, but I took a call that the interest in the case is in the legal issue rather than any naming and shaming of the DJ himself.

 

  1. On 17th March 2015 District Judge B was removed from judicial office following an investigation into an allegation that he had viewed pornographic material on judicial IT equipment in his office. The material did not include images of children or any other illegal content. However, this was considered to be an inexcusable misuse of his judicial IT account and “wholly unacceptable conduct for a judicial office holder”.
  2. On 18th March, together with an enquiry as to the progress of their application for an oral hearing, solicitors acting for the mother wrote to the court lodging a fresh ground of appeal based on the fact of DJ B’s dismissal and its apparent association with sexual matters. Ground 10 argued his lack of judgment, as demonstrated by his dismissal, and argued that the pornography added a sexual element to that lack of judgment directly relevant to the issues that he had tried in this case.

 

The case got still more complicated, because at the appeal, mother sought to withdraw the appeal – not because she accepted DJ B’s findings but because she had realised that there was a finite pot of money for her legal representation and if she went ahead with the appeal there would be little or none left for the remainder of the proceedings.   (Grounds 1-9 here were the ones that had previously been rejected in the previous appeal, ground 10 was the “as the Judge has been sacked for viewing pornography, his judgment is questionable and he was not someone who ought to have been dealing with sexual allegations” angle)

 

  1. So it was that on 11th June 2015, 6 months on from the decision made by DJ B that there was no evidential basis for the assertion that this father has been the perpetrator of violence or sexual abuse against the mother or violence against the children, the mother’s appeal was listed before me to hear. On the day before the hearing the mother’s representatives contacted the court and the father’s representatives stating that she intended to withdraw her application for permission. They asked for the case to be vacated and directions made to enable the matter to proceed as directed by DJ B. The father’s team, shocked by the sudden turn of events refused to agree the vacation of the hearing and the parties nevertheless appeared before me.
  2. I note that the mother does not retract these allegations. Nor does she state that she is accepting of the findings made. Her main motivation in withdrawing from the appeal is cost – not that she will be saddled with a bill of costs but rather, she risks not having enough left in her publicly funded pot to continue to be represented after the appeal has been concluded. A secondary consideration was, it would seem, the “welfare of the children” and the impact upon them of this continuing litigation. Unsurprisingly, the father expressed his concern that if given simple permission to withdraw her appeal then these allegations would almost certainly surface to be litigated again in some form or other.
  3. Accordingly, although I have decided to give permission for the mother to withdraw her application for an oral hearing in relation to Grounds 1-9, I have decided to do so only after I have made a decision on Ground 10 effectively as I would have done on the papers. By this means there will have been a merits based decision recorded on each of the Grounds.

 

 

That, I think, was a good call. It would otherwise have always been hanging over the case.  In case anybody else is envisaging an appeal on similar grounds to Ground 10, this might pour some cold water on it

 

 

  1. Ground 10
  2. I turn now to the additional Ground which reads as follows: “the decision of the DJ in this matter related to various matters of a sexual nature…

    it demonstrates the poor exercise of Judgment in relation to matters of a sexual nature…it demonstrates poor exercise of judgment more generally…justice has to be seen to be done and the public would have no confidence in this DJ dealing with a matter of a sexual nature”

  3. The skeleton argument develops two arguments between paragraphs 88 and 93:

    a. The removal of the District Judge from office demonstrates that he had conducted himself in a manner inconsistent with the high standards of judicial office expected of the judiciary and shows a lack of judgment which is undermining of his decision making generally;

    b. The sexual nature of the behaviour leading to dismissal demonstrates that his judgment in “matters of a sexual nature has been found to be impaired” and the public cannot be expected to have confidence in his decision making as a result.

  4. I give permission to appeal only if I consider that there is a real prospect of success or there is another compelling reason why the appeal should be heard. To succeed on the substantive appeal the mother will need to show that the DJ was wrong or that the decision is unjust by reason of some other serious procedural or other irregularity in the proceedings.
  5. I have now read all of the papers lodged in what was to be an oral application for permission. I have not heard oral argument and so the decision which follows is effectively made on the papers but on a considerable body of paper. I am quite satisfied that the appeal on Ground 10 has no reasonable prospect of success and indeed I consider it to be without merit. I will explain why.
  6. The lack of judgment arguably demonstrated by the District Judge through misconduct in his office does not necessarily infect all areas in which he has to exercise Judgment. District Judge B was dismissed because of inappropriate use of judicial IT. It does not follow that he has thereby demonstrated himself incapable of making a proper judicial decision. If it did it would mean all of his decisions would be null and void following his dismissal. That simply is not right.
  7. The argument does not become different or stronger simply because his misuse of judicial IT involved the watching of pornography. In the first place it is important to note that he was not dismissed for viewing pornography. In any event, the viewing of pornography does not of itself suggest that he would have disbelieved an allegation of rape. It does not suggest that his approach to the sexual element in this case would be in any way skewed or biased. Had he been viewing such material in the privacy of his own home that would not have rendered him unable to make a determination in the case.
  8. The best way to determine whether District Judge B carried out a proper judicial exercise of discretion is by examining the detail of his Judgment. I have done just that and the transcript reveals a Judgment that is in my assessment beyond complaint. It contains all necessary directions on the law. It gives full and detailed reasons as to why he found the evidence of the mother lacking and why she failed to establish her case to the appropriate standard. As I have already rehearsed, the mother has been unable on the papers (in spite of the numerous and voluminous skeleton arguments in support of her appeal) to establish any basis for criticism.
  9. Accordingly, I find there is no basis for the granting of permission in relation to Ground 10.

 

 

Where you might, I suppose, have stronger grounds for appeal is for example if the decision-maker in an Employment case where the allegation against the employee was illicit use of IT for this purpose and the decision-maker had found in favour of the employee  (where you’d be wondering whether the decision was a ‘kindred spirit’ / ‘there but for the grace of God’ scenario)

 

[It does occur to me that if you are a Judge doing nothing but private law conflicts, where you are just hearing people say “no” all the time, one can perhaps see why DJ B wanted to just listen to people saying “yes yes yes oh yes” once in a while]

 

There’s a rather sad postscript to the judgment

  1. Finally, the mother at this hearing indicated her desire to move on from these matters and look forward. She expressed a willingness to be guided by professionals. I was encouraged by that until it became clear that the professionals that she has put her trust in are currently limited to Norfolk County Council, specifically the author of the s.37 report, who has advised against face to face contact between the children and their father with no clear plan as to how this situation can be improved.
  2. It was made clear at the hearing that the Guardian may not be of the same view. Disappointingly, it was far from clear that if that be the case this mother will be accepting of the Guardian’s advice. I felt it necessary to record this position as a post script to this Judgment.
  3. The court has determined that there is no evidential basis for the allegations made against the father by the mother. He has been through two Crown Court trials and one trial of the facts in the family court. Six months have been wasted on an unmeritorious appeal. Meanwhile these children have not seen their father now since November 2011. If the mother’s concern is for the welfare of her children as she has insisted then going forward she will have as her aim how she can best assist these children in re-establishing their relationship with their father

 

High Court expresses doubt that the inherent jurisdiction covers the ‘name and shame’ CSE cases

 

Readers will probably be familiar with the case of Riaz, where Keehan J was invited to use the inherent jurisdiction to make injunctions preventing a group of men who were believed to pose a sexual risk to children from associating with children, and also allowed them to be named in the national press.

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/12/16/child-sexual-exploitation-birmingham-injunction-case/

 

At the time and still, I have mixed feelings about that case.  As a society, we do desperately want to do something to protect children from Child Sexual Exploitation, and we have to face the reality that criminal prosecutions often cannot get off the ground where the child does not want to make the complaint or give evidence. And at the moment, the only remedy to protect such children is Secure Accommodation – i.e locking them up for being victims, which doesn’t sit well with anyone.

 

Therefore, when Keehan J announced that he was using the inherent jurisdiction to make injunctions that would prevent men suspected of sexually exploiting children from spending time with children, in a ‘bold and innovative’ move, I was really hoping that it would be a robust mechanism that could be deployed by Local Authorities.

 

However, when I saw the judgment, I was concerned that it was placing a great deal of weight on the concept that inherent jurisdiction has theoretically limitless powers. I wondered whether it was robust enough if the men who were being subject to the orders sought to challenge the power to make them.

And so it has proven

 

London Borough of Redbridge v SNA 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/2140.html

 

The London Borough made their application, before Hayden J, set out that they relied on the Riaz case as authority for making the application and no doubt confidently thought that if they could persuade the Judge to the civil standard of proof that these men were more likely than not to pose a risk to children, the order would be made. However, the power to make the order was challenged.

 

The limit that Hayden J draws is the one that myself and Martin Downs of counsel observed at the time – the inherent jurisdiction has powers to make orders to protect a particular named individual child from such men, but the Riaz order was drafted broadly to protect all children. Hayden J feels that this went too far.

 

 

  1. It is easy to see why the Local Authority has brought this application. Indeed, given the emphasis in Dr. Parsons’ report on the risk to adolescent females the Local Authority may very well have faced criticism for failing to act, given the apparent jurisdictional basis on which to do so highlighted in the Birmingham case. If I may say so Mr Lefteri has advised the Authority entirely properly and has prosecuted his case succinctly and effectively. In the course of exchanges however, he could identify no jurisdictional basis for the order he sought other than the Birmingham case.
  2. Mr Lefteri concludes his supplemental submissions thus:

    “It is respectfully submitted that the use of injunctive orders pursuant to the inherent jurisdiction should be perceived as a deterrent to dissuade abusive and exploitative practices of the perpetrators of sexual abuse, not to dissuade Local Authorities from adopting the “bold and innovative” approach of Birmingham City Council for the protection of children.

    The Local Authority does not suggest that the use of injunctive orders should be used as a substitute for the Police actively pursuing Sexual Risk Orders. Indeed, multi-agency cooperation and sharing of information should be strongly encouraged by this Court, irrespective of the outcome. It is respectfully suggested that as a matter of good practice, Courts in care proceedings (or indeed any other family proceedings) where findings of sexual abuse or harm are made, should immediately direct the disclosure of the Court’s judgment to the relevant Police department.

    The purpose of keeping the remedy open to the High Court is to provide potential relief to Local Authorities under the inherent jurisdiction in the future, to account for transitional protective arrangements or where Sexual Risk Orders are inappropriate, delayed or unavailable. The Court will undoubtedly consider each case on its facts and circumstances and consider the implications of such an order on the Convention Rights of each individual against whom such remedy is sought.”

  3. These are important issues and I reserved judgment to reflect on the arguments. The concept of the ‘inherent jurisdiction’ is by it’s nature illusive to definition. Certainly it is ‘amorphous’ (see paragraph 14 above) and, to the extent that the High Court has repeatedly been able to utilise it to make provision for children and vulnerable adults not otherwise protected by statute, can, I suppose be described as ‘pervasive’. But it is not ‘ubiquitous’ in the sense that it’s reach is all- pervasive or unlimited. Precisely because it’s powers are not based either in statute or in the common law it requires to be used sparingly and in a way that is faithful to its evolution. It is for this reason that any application by a Local Authority to invoke the inherent jurisdiction may not be made as of right but must surmount the hurdle of an application for leave pursuant to s100 (4) and meet the criteria there.
  4. The point is illuminated by considering the fetters that exist on the scope of the inherent jurisdiction in those cases where the needs of an individual child are in issue. In Holmes-Moorhouse v Richmond Upon Thames London Borough Council [2009] UKHL 7 the House of Lords emphasised that a child who is a Ward of Court cannot be regarded as having special privileges, nor has the High Court any power to obtain access to resources for a Ward which would not be available otherwise. The same principle is reflected in the situation of the incapacitous adult see: Aintree University Hospitals Foundation Trust v James and Others [2013] UKSC 67.
  5. Not only is the scope of the inherent jurisdiction restricted but the interface between the Family Court or the Court of Protection and Public Authorities is subtle. Thus the High Court may try to persuade a Public Authority to act in a way which the court considers to be in the best interest of the child but it must not allow itself to be utilised to exert pressure on a public authority see: R v Secretary of State for Home Department ex p T [1995] 1 FLR 293.
  6. The development of Judicial Review, as illustrated by ex parte T (supra), has also served to curtail the exercise of the powers of the inherent jurisdiction. No power be it statutory, common law or under the prerogative is, in principle, unreviewable. The High Court’s inherent powers are limited both by the constitutional role of the court and by its institutional capacity. The principle of separation of powers confers the remit of economic and social policy on the legislature and on the executive, not on the Judiciary. It follows that the inherent jurisdiction cannot be regarded as a lawless void permitting judges to do whatever we consider to be right for children or the vulnerable, be that in a particular case or more generally (as contended for here) towards unspecified categories of children or vulnerable adults.
  7. Whilst sympathetic to the objectives of this Local Authority and indeed to those of Keehan J in the Birmingham case, I think Ms. Johnson is correct when she says that to extend the scope of the inherent jurisdiction to children who are neither known nor subject to any proceedings, is to go beyond the parameters of it’s reach. However well intentioned the ambition to prevent child sexual exploitation generally, this is ultimately to make a utilitarian calculation of social policy. The framework within which such children should be safeguarded and protected is for Parliament to create and for the Courts to enforce.
  8. Certainly, a survey of the case law reveals that however creatively the jurisdiction may have been implemented it has always been deployed to protect or promote the best interests of an identified child or vulnerable adult. The most recent consideration of the jurisdiction was by Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, in Re M (children) [2015] EWHC 1433 (Fam). In considering whether to grant leave pursuant to s100 (4) the President addressed the application in this way:

    “27. The local authority has turned to the court inviting its assistance and proposing recourse to the inherent jurisdiction, to wardship. That requires consideration of section 100 of the Children Act 1989. There was, in my judgment, reasonable cause to believe that, if the court’s inherent jurisdiction was not exercised, the children were likely to suffer significant harm, as that expression is defined in section 31 of the 1989 Act: see section 100(4)(b) of the Act. I had no doubt that this is a case in which I should give the local authority leave in accordance with section 100(3) of the Act. I was satisfied that each of the conditions in section 100(4) is met. Quite plainly I should exercise my powers under the inherent jurisdiction. The questions was, can I and if so how?”

  9. Answering the question posed in that final sentence, the President sets out his reasoning thus:

    “29. The Crown – I put the matter generally and without descending into detail or identifying any qualifications to what I am about to say – has a protective responsibility for its subjects wherever they may be, whether in this country or abroad. The correlative of this, as both Casement and Joyce ultimately discovered to their cost, is the subject’s duty of allegiance to the Crown wherever he may be, whether in this country or abroad: see The King v Casement [1917] 1 KB 98 and Joyce v Director of Public Prosecutions [1946] AC 347. As Darling J said in Casement (page 137), “the subjects of the King owe him allegiance, and the allegiance follows the person of the subject. He is the King’s liege wherever he may be”.”

    “30. Now the significance of this in the present case – I say nothing whatever of its significance (if any) in relation to the children’s parents – is that the Crown’s protective duty, as parens patriae, in relation to children extends, in the case of a child who is a British subject, to protect the child wherever he may be, whether in this country or abroad.”

  10. The emphasis in bold above is my own. What is plain is that the President is contemplating the inherent jurisdiction in the context of an individual child, casting his language in the terms of the Practice Direction 12 D (see para 17 above).
  11. In Al Habtoor v Fotheringham [2001] EWCA Civ 186, [2001] 1 FLR 951, Thorpe LJ made the following observations in relation to the scope of the inherent jurisdiction:

    “42. The first is that in my opinion the courts of this jurisdiction should be extremely circumspect in assuming any jurisdiction in relation to children physically present in some other jurisdiction founded only on the basis of nationality. Parens patriae jurisdiction has a fine resounding history. However its practical significance has been much diminished domestically since the codification of much child law within the Children Act 1989. In order to achieve essential collaboration internationally it has been necessary to relax reliance upon concepts understood only in common law circles. Thus our historic emphasis on the somewhat artificial concept of domicile has had to cede to an acknowledgement that the simpler fact based concept of habitual residence must be the currency of international exchange. The parens patriae concept must seem even more esoteric to other jurisdictions than the concept of domicile. If we are to look for reciprocal understanding and co-operation, so vital with the steady increase in mobility and mixed marriage together with an equal decrease in the significance of international frontiers, we must refrain from exorbitant jurisdictional claims founded on nationality. To make a declaration of unlawful detention in relation to a child of dual nationality cared for by a biological parent in a jurisdiction whose courts have sanctioned the arrangement by order is only to invite incomprehension, and perhaps even stronger reactions, in that other jurisdiction.”

  12. Later, Thorpe LJ reviewed the existing case law and observed:

    “I accept Mr Everall’s submission that the decision nearest in point is the judgment of Ward J in F v S (Wardship: Jurisdiction) [1991] 2 FLR 349. In that case Ward J held that where the court in wardship did not have jurisdiction under the Family Law Act 1986 to make an order in relation to a child’s care and control it should not assume inherent jurisdiction to make an order for the recovery of the child. In his judgement he categorised such an order as ‘a devious entry to the court by the back door where parliament has so firmly shut the front door’. Although his judgment was subsequently reversed on the facts, his conclusions on jurisdiction were not criticised. In my opinion by analogy there is equally no jurisdiction to make a declaration of wrongful detention in similar circumstances.”

 

 

He refutes any notion of sharp practice by Keehan J

 

I would wish to make it abundantly clear that I do not consider Mr. Lefteri’s application here to be ‘a devious entry to the court by the back door where parliament has so firmly shut the front door’. I most certainly do not suggest that of Keehan J either. I am, as I have been at pains to stress, entirely sympathetic to their respective objectives but as Thorpe LJ emphasises this is a jurisdiction that should be used with ‘extreme circumspection’ respectful of the role of Parliament.

 

 

But decides that use of the inherent jurisdiction to protect all children or a raft of children rather than individual named ones has finally found a limit to the inherent jurisdictions theoretically limitless powers

 

Cumulatively therefore, reviewing the relevant law, statute and practice directions, I have come to the clear conclusion, for the reasons I have set out above, that the injunctive relief sought on behalf the London Borough of Redbridge is outwith the scope of this Court’s powers. I recognise that in this and on this point only I disagree with the approach taken by Keehan J in the Birmingham case.

 

 

Hayden J also points out that at the time Riaz was decided, the Sexual Risk Orders hadn’t come into force  (they’d been in the statutory powers for nearly a year but hadn’t been implemented, and they now have). So from this point on, you can use the inherent jurisdiction to protect AN individual child from risky persons, but if you want to stop those risky persons being around children, you’ll need to use the criminal jurisdiction (which is going to be the police making these applications  – underlinign as ever, mine)

 

  1. Serendipitously, at least for the purposes of my analysis, Parliament has now amended parts 2 and 3 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Anti-social Crime and Policing Act 2014. Section 122 A provides for the making of ‘Sexual Risk Orders’ (SRO) and outlines the Grounds on which they may be obtained and their effect:

    Sexual risk orders (England and Wales)

    122A Sexual risk orders: applications, grounds and effect

    (1) A chief officer of police or the Director General of the National Crime Agency (“the Director General”) may by complaint to a magistrates’ court apply for an order under this section (a “sexual risk order”) in respect of a person (“the defendant”) if it appears to the chief officer or the Director General that the following condition is met.

    (2) The condition is that the defendant has, whether before or after the commencement of this Part, done an act of a sexual nature as a result of which there is reasonable cause to believe that it is necessary for a sexual risk order to be made.

    (3) A chief officer of police may make an application under subsection (1) only in respect of a person—

    (a) who resides in the chief officer’s police area, or

    (b) who the chief officer believes is in that area or is intending to come to it.

    (4) An application under subsection (1) may be made to any magistrates’ court acting for a local justice area that includes—

    (a) any part of a relevant police area, or

    (b) any place where it is alleged that the person acted in a way mentioned in subsection (2).

    (5) The Director General must as soon as practicable notify the chief officer of police for a relevant police area of any application that the Director has made under subsection (1).

    (6) On an application under subsection (1), the court may make a sexual risk order if it is satisfied that the defendant has, whether before or after the commencement of this Part, done an act of a sexual nature as a result of which it is necessary to make such an order for the purpose of—

    (a) protecting the public or any particular members of the public from harm from the defendant, or

    (b) protecting children or vulnerable adults generally, or any particular children or vulnerable adults, from harm from the defendant outside the United Kingdom.

    (7) Such an order—

    (a) prohibits the defendant from doing anything described in the order;

    (b) has effect for a fixed period (not less than 2 years) specified in the order or until further order.

    (8) A sexual risk order may specify different periods for different prohibitions.

    (9)The only prohibitions that may be imposed are those necessary for the purpose of—

    (a)protecting the public or any particular members of the public from harm from the defendant, or

    (b)protecting children or vulnerable adults generally, or any particular children or vulnerable adults, from harm from the defendant outside the United Kingdom.

    (10)Where a court makes a sexual risk order in relation to a person who is already subject to such an order (whether made by that court or another), the earlier order ceases to have effect.

  2. When Keehan J heard the arguments in the Birmingham case these provisions had not come into force and accordingly, the protection that they offer was, at that stage, not available. I have been told by Mr Lefteri that an application has been made to a Magistrate’s Court in respect of SNA it is believed that the conditions for the making of such an order are met. That will ultimately be a matter for the Magistrates Court. It would seem therefore, that the protection contemplated in this application may, in due course, be available. Recognising this from the outset Mr Lefteri sought orders in this Court in an attempt to ‘hold the ring’ until orders have been made in the criminal courts.
  3. There are sound reasons why the criminal courts are the correct venue to consider the making of these orders. Firstly, and most obviously, Parliament, after proper scrutiny, has carefully defined the scope and ambit of the provisions. Secondly, notwithstanding the considerable advancements made in achieving much greater levels of transparency in the Family Court, a judge sitting in this jurisdiction will invariably have to protect the identity of the child and in order to do so, preserve, by a side wind, the anonymity of a perpetrator. I do not believe any right minded person having read my short review of the facts of this case (above) would consider it appropriate to expose this young girl to the inevitable harm of publicity. The Press, in my experience, have been assiduous in their respect of this principle.
  4. In the Criminal Courts however, the focus is different. There is now, rightly, much greater emphasis on the ‘victim’ but that is wholly different to the range of the enquiry necessary in the Family Courts. In the Criminal Court, where the liberty of the individual is in issue, the public interest in the administration of the criminal justice system must always weigh heavily. The Criminal Courts are now, frequently, able to conduct trials entirely in the public domain whilst at the same time protecting the identity of the Complainant and, where necessary, his or her relationship to the Defendant. Certainly, where the Complainant is a minor, society recognises the necessity of this measure. The family justice system is unlikely to replicate this. Thirdly, the responsibility for the policing of such orders rest with the police who are far better equipped than social services to monitor compliance

 

 

 

Genuinely shocking

 

The Court of Appeal in Re A-S (children) 2015 had to deal with an appeal, the facts of which were genuinely shocking to me. And that is as a lawyer who has been dealing with Children Act 1989 cases for over twenty years now.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/748.html

 

Within care proceedings, a range of findings were made against the mother, the most serious of which was that she had deliberately drowned her baby (who survived and is fine now). The mother’s case, including her case on appeal, was that she had been negligent in leaving her child unattended in the bath, where he became submerged, but that it was an accident.

 

You may be thinking that it must be very difficult to establish to the requisite standard of proof whether the incident of drowning was deliberate or accidental. The shocking thing about this case is not merely the incident itself, but that the whole thing was recorded by way of a 999 call.

 

The call lasted for around 15 minutes.  The mother telephoned 999 to say that there had been an accident, that her baby had been left unattended in a bath and had slipped under the water.  However, that 999 call is recorded, and the medical experts (and indeed the Judges) who listened to it had three major concerns :-

 

1. That up until around the nine minute mark, the baby can be heard making normal baby noises that would not be consistent with a child who had nearly drowned.

2. That at around the nine minute mark, the mother stops speaking although the paramedics can be heard trying to talk to her and engage with her. And the sound of running water is heard.

3. That after that period, a scream is heard from the mother, and thereafter, the noises made by the baby are consistent with a child having been immersed under water –  the baby is heard again grunting and coughing then in further respiratory distress and suddenly stops breathing at 10 minutes 48 seconds  – and he was in this position until the paramedic arrived and resuscitated him at around the 15 minute mark.

 

There was also evidence from several medical professionals that it was just not possible that a child would have nearly drowned, showed no ill effects for nine minutes, then stopped breathing and required resuscitation by a paramedic. The sequence of events is just wrong.

“Diana Howlett … is a consultant paediatrician of 20 years. She and two of her colleagues of similar experience, Dr Goldsworthy and Dr Linton, who had been asked to listen to the recording of the call. Her report is at G87. Putting its contents very simply all the three doctors say there is a disparity in their view between the history given by the mother (the child had been found drowned a few minutes prior to the phone call) and the “auditory history” of the child on the call, ie the crying and other sounds L was making in the first 10 minutes of the call and his presentation when medical help arrived at the house. They concluded that they can hear the sound of running water after 10 minutes and the explanation is that it is at this point the child is being drowned. In their written submissions Mr Ekaney QC and Miss Evans ask me to treat this evidence very carefully. The doctor said in cross-examination “we were asked to give an opinion but none of us would consider ourselves experts in this area. It raises more questions really”. I do not intend to put any significant weight on this evidence. They heard what they heard, the baby appeared to be crying while mother was shouting things like “don’t die”, “stand up”, and in particular “wake up, wake up” when from the noise he was making he appeared to be awake. I have to say I heard that too.”

 

  1. I turn to the report of Dr D S James of the Wales Institute of Forensic Medicine at Cardiff University. It was accurately and sufficiently summarised by Judge Marston in his judgment as follows:

    “He says if you ignore the content of the 999 call M’s description of immersion, apparent respiratory arrest, gradual recovery after rescue breaths and presentation to paramedics after 10-15 minutes wet, cold and in respiratory distress but responding well to oxygen with an eventual good recovery is in keeping with the pathology of near drowning. If the child was not in respiratory distress and apparently vocalising normally for an infant of his age ie “well”, the description of a very unwell infant, cold, quiet and collapsed raises the question why there has been a significant and sudden deterioration in his condition. In his report the doctor puts two possibilities, either it is a complication of the immersion or “there has been a further episode of immersion causing L to collapse”. In his conclusions he says the baby would not usually be normal for 10 minutes prior to a sudden deterioration but the consequences of near drowning are complex and variable and there are pathophysiological mechanisms which merit consideration by paediatric clinicians.”

  2. Finally, I go to the report of Dr Stephen Playfor, Consultant Paediatric Intensivist in the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. Dr Playfor’s report contains a very careful and detailed analysis of what can be heard on the recording of the 999 call. He constructed what he called “a robust timeline of events”. His opinion, on the balance of probability, was that L was drowned during the interval of 49 seconds between 21.43:28 and 21.44:17. (Since the recording started at 21.34:48, this corresponds with the interval between 8 minutes 40 seconds and 9 minutes 29 seconds.) He opined that the likelihood of the respiratory distress which can be heard subsequently on the recording occurring as a physiological response to an episode of drowning before the making of the 999 call is “very small (<5% chance).” He said:

    “A single episode of drowning occurring before the recorded 999 call … is not compatible with the sounds contained within that recording.”

    He added:

    “L can be heard to vocalise and cry normally during the first 8 minutes and 40 seconds of the recorded 999 call without any sign of respiratory distress. During this period I am confident that he was conscious, ‘near normal’ and not in any need of resuscitation.”

 

 

The conclusion that the Judge was inexorably drawn to was that the mother had made a 999 call when there was nothing wrong with the child, but during the course of the call had done deliberately to the child what she was claiming had happened accidentally.

 

About the only argument that mother could deploy is that this seems unbelievably improbable, and so she deployed it.

“I now turn to consider the final part of [the] jigsaw, M’s evidence. She deploys a number of powerful points before she even gets into the witness box. First there is the inherently unlikely nature of the allegation that a mother would drown her own child. Her father, for example, thought such a possibility here as absurd. That does not of course change the standard of proof but it is something I must have strongly in mind when considering the case. Next there is something called the wider canvass. Here I am dealing with the loving, kind mother who it is said was without external stressors and who gave a consistent account throughout.”

 

 

It was, of course, a very significant finding for the Judge to make, particularly in a case where there’s nothing in the background features of the case that would cast any light on why the mother would do something as peculiar and harmful as this.

The judge’s conclusion is in a passage which I must set out in full:

“The medical evidence all points in the same direction. The baby was normal until about 8/9 minutes into the 999 call. There is no reason related to an earlier drowning incident that would cause the post 10 minutes in collapse. The Mother’s evidence of what happened is not substantiated by any external matters eg a pan of burned food or a full baby bath, there is some evidence of what might be brown flecks of faeces in the bath but no other bit of the Mother’s story is supported The Mother’s evidence is shot through with so many lies and so much vagueness that I am forced to conclude she is trying to hide something. The only thing that she can possibly be attempting to hide is that there was no incident of drowning in the bath and that she is responsible for attempting to drown the child after 8 minutes and 40 seconds of the phone call for about 47 seconds. Most likely this was under the tap in the conservatory. I cannot speculate on why she made the call in the first place or why she did what she did. It seems to me that at the point where she seeks reassurance from Mr Mahony that the baby will be alright and he says the child is seriously ill she becomes hysterical because she realises what she has done. It may be that she did not intend to kill the baby. Until the mother tells the truth we are left with speculation.

I find [the] allegation proved on the balance of probabilities.”

The Judge added a clarification about the mother’s motivation for making the 999 call

“With regard to the 999 call I have to conclude that the 999 call was instigated for a reason I can only speculate about, and I do not think it is appropriate for me to speculate. My finding is that at the start of that call the child had not been subject to an incident of drowning. I made that finding specifically on all of the evidence that I heard; the medical evidence; the evidence from all of the parties who gave evidence; and the witnesses that were called. I do not know why the mother was distressed during the first part of the call. She was certainly at the time of the arrival of the paramedic in a calm condition, and became distressed – in fact hysterical according to the paramedic – after she was told, as I pointed out in my judgment, the condition of her baby was very serious. I rely on the totality of the evidence about the 999 call. I gave only marginal weight to the three paediatricians who were not jointly instructed experts and who, one of whom in Mr Kenny’s cross-examination, conceded that they were only again marginally connected with the case. I obviously give a great deal more weight to the jointly instructed experts, and I have listened to the call myself and read the transcript.”

This is one of the sad truths about Court hearings – sometimes even after every scrap of paper is obtained and every witness is scoured in cross-examination, the Court doesn’t get to the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth.  We will never know what made the mother do what she did here, and speculation was quite rightly put out of the picture by the Judge.

The appeal was on the basis largely that the Judge had gone too far in making a finding that the mother had deliberately injured the baby by drowing it, after making a 999 call.

The problem that mother’s team had to overcome was that the 999 recording was not only compelling evidence for the medical experts, but that it was striking and easy to follow for anyone listening to it, including the Court of Appeal Judges.

  1. This appeal comes before us in forensically unusual circumstances. As I have already remarked, at the heart of the appeal is the question of what it is that can be heard on the recording of the 999 call; crucially, what exactly it is that can be heard of L. Each of us has listened to the recording. I have listened to the recording more than once. We are therefore in almost as good a position as the judge to come to a conclusion.
  2. The experts described what they had heard on the tape during the first nine minutes or so of the recording. It is apparent from his judgment and his subsequent clarification that their descriptions accorded with what Judge Marston heard. It accords with what I heard when I listened to the recording.
  3. Two points emerge:

    i) First, during the first nine minutes or so of the recording one hears what Dr Howlett and her colleagues described in their report as “Normal baby vocalisations”including “polysyllabic babble and normal multi-tonal crying.” Equally important is what one does not hear: coughing, grunting, wheezing or other sounds of respiratory distress.ii) Secondly, the layman’s impression is confirmed by expert opinion: what can be heard is not compatible – the words used both by Dr Howlett and her colleagues and by Dr Playfor – with a previous drowning.

    Put very simply, a baby who presented as L did to Mr Mahoney when he arrived, would not have been vocalising, indeed would not have been capable of vocalising, as L was during the first nine minutes or so of the recording, if he had drowned before the 999 call was made.

  4. It was this which drove Judge Marston to his conclusion as to the timing of L’s drowning. That was plainly a conclusion properly open to him. Indeed, I would without hesitation have reached the same conclusion. L was not drowned before the 999 was made; he was drowned some nine minutes or so after the recording began.
  5. That being so, the only remaining question is whether this drowning was itself accidental or, as the judge found, deliberate. Judge Marston inferred that it was deliberate. In my judgment hewas entitled to come to that conclusion. Mr Ekaney submits that the judge was here in the realm of mere speculation. I do not, with respect, agree. Two factors point compellingly in this direction. First, it follows from the ascertainment of the true timing of the drowning, that the mother’s 999 call was false. L had not at that time “fallen in the water”. There had been no negligence on the mother’s part. What an astonishing coincidence that, some ten minutes later, L should actually have suffered an accidental drowning, that precisely what the mother had fabricated should so soon become reality. Secondly, if this drowning was in truth accidental, then why on earth did the mother not say so? Why should she persist in her lies? It would of course expose her to the charge that she had made a false 999 call, and wasted the time of the emergency services, but surely better that than being found to havedeliberately drowned her own baby.
  6. Where Judge Marston did, correctly, say that he would be entering into the realm of speculation was in relation to two matters: first, the mother’s reasons for making the false 999 call and then deliberately drowning L; and, secondly, as to the mechanism she adopted. The fact that, in relation to these crucial matters, he could only speculate no doubt gave Judge Marston pause for thought, just as they have me.
  7. Given his, and my, inability to provide anything except the most speculative answers, could he be confident, can I be confident, in relation to the timing of the drowning? That, at the end of the day, as it seems to me, is what this appeal really comes down to.

 

The appeal was dismissed, but the Court of Appeal went further than saying that His Honour Judge Marston was not shown to be wrong.

 

  1. So far as concerns Judge Marston, I have no doubt that the appeal must be dismissed, essentially for the reasons so succinctly articulated by McFarlane LJ. Despite all Mr Ekaney’s very considerable and very skilful endeavours, Judge Marston’s ultimate conclusion is, in my judgment, unassailable. In the light of all the evidence, and in particular in the light of what he heard when listening to the recording, he was entitled to conclude as he did and for the reasons he gave.
  2. That suffices to dispose of the appeal, but in these very unusual circumstances I can, and should, go further. As I have said, having listened to the recording, I am convinced that the judge was right. What I was listening to during the first nine minutes or so was a baby who had not then been drowned. From this it follows inexorably, given all the other evidence, that the mother’s 999 call was false and that the drowning which took place at some point thereafter but before Mr Mahoney arrived was indeed deliberate. I have anxiously asked myself whether I can truly be that confident, given that I am left speculating, as was Judge Marston, on important matters to which such a finding necessarily invites attention. I can only say that, despite my inability to provide more than speculative answers to those questions, I am convinced by what I heard. The recording is, to anyone who has heard it, extraordinarily compelling. It drives one inexorably to the conclusion at which Judge Marston arrived.

 

This must have been a very terrible case to deal with. I’m sure that in order to deal with it properly, those involved had to listen to that harrowing tape many many times. Having had to listen to that sort of tape myself , I know that it stays with you very vividly for many years, and never completely leaves you.

 

Cases like this are of course, very very rare.  When children are injured, it is more usually a momentary lapse, a loss of self-control or careless handling without thought to the strength that an adult can bring to bear.  Sometimes, as in this case   Cumbria CC v Q 2015http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/59.html , something that looks like horrific abuse can actually have an innocent explanation.  That case took 18 medical witnesses to arrive at the juidicial finding that the baby had rickets and thus had a propensity to fracture more easily than an average child.  Up until that point, there had been features  that would have led anyone to be deeply suspicious (both parents had convictions for violent offences, the parents had given inconsistent evidence and lied about things, the injuries were multiple, serious and ‘classic’ nai type injuries)

 

It really is very rare, that as here, something happens that leads a parent to deliberately set out to harm their child.

 

From what is reported here, there was nothing that could have led anyone to predict that this might happen, and so we are fortunate that mother made the 999 call and that a paramedic arrived. This does not appear to have been something that could have been predicted or prevented before it happened.  If someone had ever alleged that such a risk was likely, or even theoretically possible, before it happened, they would have looked a fool.  Hopefully nothing like this will ever happen again.

 

 

 

 

 

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