RSS Feed

Category Archives: private law

if legal aid is being refused to people such as this mother I am satisfied that injustices will occur

This is a report of a short judgment from Her Honour Judge Hallam sitting in Middlesbrough, building on a decision from District Judge Reed in the same Court. Huge credit to both of them for calling out the Legal Aid Agency on this dreadful state of affairs   (the LAA in turn are just doing what they are told to do by our Lord  Chancellor)

 

Re H 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B127.html

 

 

This was a private law case, between a mother and a father. The father had legal aid, because the child was known to social services and they were supporting him. The mother did not.   [One could make far more sense of it if it were the other way around - the father had a lesser need of representation because his case was being supported]

 

At a hearing in May 2014, the Court picked up that this mother was not someone who was going to be able to represent herself – there was an assessment of her cognitive abilities that assisted with that

 

She is not sufficiently disadvantaged to say that she does not have capacity to litigate. She has capacity to litigate but in my judgment that is only with the assistance of a solicitor. She has difficulties in hearing, in speech and intellectual difficulties. She is unable to read or write. They are not fanciful difficulties. In previous public law proceedings there has been a report from Dr Cooper, who is a psychologist, informing the court of the mother’s cognitive difficulties and learning difficulties. Having seen the mother in court, I am satisfied that she would not have been able to represent herself in a case as complex as this and therefore, in my judgment, she was, to all intents and purposes, prevented from having access to this court

 

 

At that hearing, D J Reed gave these directions

 

The matter came before District Judge Reed in May of this year, on 19th May. As I say, it was apparent at that stage that the mother opposed the father’s application. Furthermore, it was apparent that the local authority supported the father in his application. There was a recommendation about contact. When the matter came before District Judge Reed, the local authority, Middlesbrough Council, were made a party to the proceedings. At that stage the mother was self-representing and the judge was clearly concerned about that and there is a lengthy preamble to the order that he made in May. That preamble recorded that the attendance of GHu in court to support the mother was not appropriate, given the issue in the case. He recorded that:

 

 

 

‘In the absence of legal aid to secure representation of the mother, it is inevitable that her article 6 and her article 8 ECHR rights will be at risk of being violated, given her evident speech, hearing and learning difficulties, if the case proceeds without further representation.’

 

 

That could not have been a clearer indication of the judge’s opinion and consideration of this matter and therefore he also said that:

 

 

 

‘On its facts and having regard to the surrounding circumstances and, in particular, the recent party status of Middlesbrough local authority, the criteria for assessing an exceptional grant of legal aid are likely to be made out.’

 

 

He went further and said that the local authority involvement in the current proceedings is based largely on public law and child protection issues relating to the respondent mother’s fifth child, subject to public law proceedings which concluded in 2014, resulting in both care and placement orders. He said there is considerable similarity and overlap in the issues which present in both sets of proceedings. That part of the preamble continues with:

 

 

 

‘Furthermore, in the circumstances of this particular case and those of the respondent mother, it would be unrealistic and potentially unjust to expect the respondent mother to be a self-representing person.’

 

 

Therefore he adjourned what was to be a final hearing on that occasion in order for a further application to be made to the legal aid authorities.

 

 

You might think that you could not have a clearer indication (particularly in light of Q v Q) that the State would be breaching mother’s article 6 and article 8 human rights by not allowing her to have free legal representation.

 

You will, however, not be surprised to know that the Legal Aid Agency did not grant her exceptional funding under s10 LASPO. Of course they didn’t. As part of that decision, they considered that there was no risk of article 6 or article 8 breach. Of course they are in a far better position to assess that than the Judge who is seized of all the facts and knows the stakes. Of course they are.

 

The second matter that I am told that Mr Keegan relied upon was that there would be no breach of Convention rights. I find that statement astounding. A district judge had already found, having seen the mother, that undoubtedly her article 6 and article 8 rights would be breached. When I pause to consider the article 6 first of all, which is to ensure that people have fair trials in the courts of this country, and in order to do that should have equality of arms, I cannot see how anyone can come to the conclusion that this mother’s article 6 rights were not in jeopardy. I repeat again the father has the support of a legal representative. The local authority, who are advancing a case contrary to that of the mother’s, has legal representation. Without legal aid, therefore, the mother, on her own, would be facing two advocates pursuing a case against her. On any basis that cannot be equality of arms. She is the party with the least ability, the greatest vulnerability and she should have had the benefit of legal representation. She is faced with the father, who has the greater ability and the support of social services; as I say, both being legally represented. In effect, this vulnerable mother is faced with two advocates running a case against her and she does not even have one. I cannot think of a clearer breach of article 6. Article 8 – this matter is clearly about family life and the mother’s right to family life, whether the children should be in her care or not and what contact she should have. Again, I cannot see any conclusion other than that her article 8 rights were engaged, as the district judge said, in my view, properly, in the court below.

 

 

Fortunately for this woman, someone stepped in to represent her pro bono, but that doesn’t get away from the fact that we simply don’t have a system where s10 LASPO is the safety net that the MOJ claimed that it was when they were getting this awful legislation through Parliament.

 

If a Judge says that a person’s article 6 rights will be breached without representation, that’s a really really really good indicator that they would be. Judges don’t say these things for fun.

 

Ithas been fortunate that she has had the assistance of someone today because this matter has reached agreement. However, it is not right that legal professionals should have to attend a hearing, as complex as this one, without remuneration. The mother still has concerns about the father’s care for the children and many of those concerns are shared by the local authority, so she has not been running a fanciful case. The matter has resolved; it has resolved with an order and a very detailed working agreement. Again, I cannot see how this mother could have entered into that working agreement which has resolved this case without the assistance of Mr Nixon here to help her understand it, consider whether it was right and ultimately agree to it. Therefore, I have given this judgment because I am satisfied that this mother should have had legal aid and should have been represented. Mothers in her situation should have proper and full access to the court with the assistance of legal advice. As I have said, I am going to order a transcript of this judgment, both for the Legal Aid Board and also because I feel that it should be shown to the President of the Family Division to show what is happening in these courts. I am told that since April 2013 there have been only eight or nine cases where exceptional legal aid has been granted. I do not know if that is correct, but if legal aid is being refused to people such as this mother I am satisfied that injustices will occur. Had this matter proceeded without the assistance of Mr Nixon to a fully contested hearing, this court would have been put in an impossible situation. Having said that, I approve the order. I am grateful to everybody for the time they have spent and I am also, as I keep saying, very grateful to Mr Nixon for having attended today.

 

Allegations of abuse against a father

Reported cases in private law where serious allegations of sexual harm are made against a father against a backdrop of separation and acrimony and disputes over the children are becoming more common. They are always extremely difficult. And these days, more and more, they may begin as private law cases but end up as public law cases.

 

The Court is generally left with four choices when faced with allegations of this kind

 

  1. The allegations against father are true, with all the consequences that that will mean for his relationship with the children
  2. The allegations are not true, but they were an honest mistake (with the hope that once the Court has given that judgment, everyone can move on)
  3. The allegations are not true, and they were made with the honest belief of the mother that they were true (again, with the same hope as above)
  4. The allegations have been fabricated by the mother with the intention of hurting father and frustrating his contact.

 

In this case, Hampshire County Council v Mother and Others 2014, there are two linked judgments.

 

The first http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCC/Fam/2013/B19.html was in December 2013 and was the finding of fact judgment.

 

That concluded that the allegations against father were not true, and that mother had played a part in bringing them about

 

My finding is that while Mother has indeed been the victim of her psychological problems, she has also consciously created some of the allegations here. I have been told that the Guardian is also of the view that there is a combined explanation for the allegations. The timing between contact re-starting and the next allegation being made is too much of a co-incidence for there not to have been some volition on her part. There are also examples of Mother embellishing stories as – the addition of the alleged threat of self harm she over-heard Child make to a nurse or doctor on the 31st August when she was questioned about it by MG is a good example.

 

 

It must be understood by Mother that her allegations that Father has sexually abused Child have been found to be totally unfounded, created by her both unconsciously and consciously. She must also understand that what she has done has been hugely emotionally damaging to Child, who will take a long time to recover her own psychological equilibrium, even with her Father’s help. She must never allow herself to make such allegations again, or she will risk never seeing her daughter.

 

 

An interim care order had been made in October 2013, placing the girl in foster care.

 

 

The second judgment http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B126.html

 

relates to the final decisions in the case, mother having been given six months of time to reflect on the findings and move forward.

 

Sadly, she had not been able to do so. That led to the child being placed with the father, that mother would have seven contacts per year and that there was a s91(14) order meaning that mother would be unable to make any further applications to Court without leave.

 

(The Court note in that analysis that it is not lawful to attach conditions to a s91(14) order but did agree that it would help to tell mother the sort of changes that she would need to be making for such leave to be granted)

 

One of the difficult features in this case was that mother’s position if anything had hardened in that intervening period, probably not helped by the fact that her therapist was supportive of her belief that father had abused the child, and so were her family.

 

(MG was an expert in the case, who had made some recommendations as to the best way of moving mother forward after the finding of fact judgment)

 

 

MG has been cross examined as to her findings and conclusions in this hearing. She said that since the last hearing it is a great pity that her recommendations as to treatment for Mother have not been taken up. She had recommended that Mother be seen by an independent psychiatrist to formulate a treatment plan to reduce her anxieties and her medication. She said that therapy should be found for Mother in conjunction with the psychiatrist. Instead Mother has been discharged by her treating psychiatrist in the NHS mental health service with a diagnosis of “no serious mental illness,” which MG said is regular practice these days by treating mental health professionals. And instead of seeing an independent psychiatrist, she has found a psychotherapist who she consults by webcam, and who has accepted without question everything that Mother has told her about her allegations of sexual abuse against Father. MG said that it is a great pity that this treatment is not evidence based and does not challenge her at all, so the net effect is that Mother is no further forward with any form of treatment, but appears to be reinforcing her views by getting professionals on-side.

 

Mother’s actions since the December hearing, it should be recorded, have been to try and shore up her position that the allegations against Father were true. She has repeated them fully to her psychotherapist, who wrote a lengthy letter to the court on her behalf. A mental health professional contacted Children’s Services on her behalf in connection with the allegations. Her vicar has become involved in the case, getting up a petition with over 100 signatures from churchgoers for the return of Child to Mother’s care, and attending contact uninvited. And finally Mother has re-asserted the truth of the allegations in a document written by her for a contact planning meeting in January 2014 after a difficult contact session.

 

 

[The Court doesn’t seem to have picked up on the point that it is unlawful for mother or others to identify that her child is the subject of ongoing Court proceedings, which someone must have done in order to sign the petition]

 

 

These cases are all really hard. For a father, to be accused of sexually harming your child when you have not done it must be one of the worst things imaginable and if the Court decide having tested the evidence that you are innocent you think that this will be an end of the nightmare, but it isn’t. And looking at it from the mother’s perspective, either the allegations are true and the Judge has got it wrong (which is not right legally, but is a human reaction) or by that point your relationship with the father is so corrosive and damaged that you have convinced yourself that he IS a risk and yet nobody will listen to you.

 

 

Looking at it from a purely forensic and legal perspective, the only thing for a mother to do in this situation is to say that the allegations were made in good faith and to protect the child, but that she now accepts the judgment.

 

But human beings don’t make decisions based on pure forensic legal considerations but on emotions and feelings.

 

I am reminded of the Blackadder lines

 

It is so often the way, sir, too late one thinks of what one should have said.

Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, “I recant my Catholicism”

 

 

In a case like Hampshire, where mother is given the chance to recant her allegations and not only doesn’t do so, but proclaims them anew, it is not a very difficult decision for a Court to make.

 

On the ground, for a family and a child, they are some of the hardest things of all.

 

The mother and her side of the family are never going to accept that the child should be with father, they are always going to feel that mother has been punished for speaking out and saying the truth and that the child is in the most dangerous placement possible. What does that do to their relationship with the child? What are those contact sessions like? How will difficult questions raised by the child be answered?

 

I’ve got very little sympathy for mothers who perniciously fabricate such allegations about fathers (the option 4 in my original list), but what about those mothers where the allegations were made in good faith and they can’t move on from “it is my child, I KNOW in my heart that this really happened”?  (options 2 and 3)

 

Legally and forensically it is easy – recant your Catholicism and accept the judgment. I can’t help but have some sympathy for mothers in that position though. What, they might say, if the Judge has got this wrong? People make mistakes – Courts get things wrong.

 

If you are in that position, how easy is it to just say “I give up, okay, it never happened”, when every fibre of your being says that it did?

 

What, they might say, if the Judge thinks that on the balance of probabilities, it is 55% likely that the allegations aren’t true. For the law, that proves it. But for me as a mother, what about that 45% chance? How could I, as a mother, be happy that there was a 45% chance that my child has been abused?

 

[None of that counts in legal and forensic terms – once the Judge has made a decision, you either accept it, or you successfully appeal it. The Court’s decision means that all of that doubt and uncertainty is removed and that what the Court say happened IS what happened]

 

We are hearing more and more from the Courts that it is not the job of the Court to fix people, to make them better, to solve their problems.

 

(for example T v S http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/2521.html

 

The court simply cannot micro-manage this very difficult relationship. If it sought to do so it would simply disempower the parents and add to the stresses on the child. Despite the force and intensity of the father’s complaints, he has said nothing in my judgment which, whether looked at individually or collectively, justifies the drastic step, so shortly after Mr. Justice Hedley refused, entirely appropriately as it seems to me, to vary the arrangements, to throw all that back into the melting pot and to embark upon the kind of investigation preparatory to the kind of fundamental change in the arrangements which it is the father’s ambition to achieve.

 

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

 

“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.”     )

 

 

And to an extent, that is right. The Court don’t have a magic wand to make things better, they don’t have resources to fix people.

 

Indupitably, however, there are people who come out of Court proceedings substantially more broken than when they went in. I don’t have an answer, and I suspect we’re less likely to get one that we were pre Austerity.

 

the interaction between Children Act and Mental Health Act

This reported case is a County Court one (which means that it is not legally binding precedent) but it raises some unusual issues.

 

The “Too Long; Didn’t read” version – don’t treat a s20 child as no longer s20 just because they get detained under Mental Health Act; and if you enjoy judicial dressing downs, there’s plenty in here worth reading.

 

Re T (Children) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B116.html

 

The application itself was by a child, St, now 16, for contact with her siblings. There were five children  (plus St herself, plus another sister older than St). I note that the Judge identifies birth dates for all of the children.  I won’t in this piece, because I think that there are a limited number of families in the Preston area with seven children and the specific dates of birth is probably all that is needed for them to be inadvertently identified by people in that area reading the judgment.  (The “jigsaw identification” issue)

St had had many difficulties in her life and at the time of the application was detained under section 3 of the Mental Health Act for treatment in a hospital. Her parents had had difficulties in caring for her and from around June 2012 had really delegated her care to the Local Authority.

 

For all practical purposes, the Local Authority had been caring for St and meeting her needs and looking after her from June 2012 until she was detained under s3 of the Mental Health Act.

 

The case was not care proceedings, but rather St’s application under section 8 of the Children Act 1989 for contact with her siblings (or as I must now describe it through gritted teeth “for a Child Arrangement Order to spend time with her siblings”  (or in my own rebranding of the rebranding  “Shiny Happy People order”)  )

The Judge had been concerned about the impact on these five children of contact with St, given her predicament and health. He directed the Local Authority to file a section 37 report advising about these matters.

On 7th January 2014 it emerged that St’s status had been changed by the Local Authority and that she was no longer deemed by them to be a child looked after within the meaning of the Children Act, with to s.20 status, but was deemed by them to be a child in need under s.17 of the Children Act. That was extremely concerning because the change of status was reported already to have had a direct impact upon St’s circumstances for the worse. It therefore seemed to me to be appropriate to make a s.37 direction in relation to St and to make her brothers and sisters parties to the proceedings. I recorded, the Local Authority being represented, what the Local Authority had to say about the change of status at that hearing and the order I made includes this recording:-

“The Local Authority contends that under internal policy, St is not ‘looked after’ by them and has not been since she was sectioned under s.3 of the Mental Health Act 1983.”

 

 

[I will confess very quickly that I don't know, off the top of my head whether a looked after child ceases to be looked after once they become detained under the Mental Health Act. There are two possibilities - a common sense literal one that says that it isn't the LA looking after her any more, it is Health, so she is not. And a technical one that suggests to me that there were a raft of statutory instruments that said that children in prisons were looked after so maybe there's one kicking around that I can't yet find that says the same thing about mental health]

 

But more to the point, the Judge’s issue was that this decision had actually detrimentally affected St.

Once again, I made recordings about St’s circumstances, setting out what was being relayed to me by the Local Authority through their counsel; this is recorded on the face of that order:-

“Lancashire County Council informed the court that they deemed the applicant, having ceased to be accommodated under s.20 of the Children Act 1989 when she became detained under the Mental Health Act in September 2013”.

And also;-

“Lancashire County Council further suggests that from the point of such detention, primary parental responsibility which was not being exercised by the respondents was to be exercised by the hospital”.

 

That doesn’t sit right with me – the hospital were looking after St and meeting her physical needs and mental health needs, but they weren’t exercising parental responsibility for her. Suppose for the sake of argument, she had needed an operation that would not have been authorised without parental consent and does not come within the treatment powers of s3? This suggests that the hospital could consent in loco parentis, and that just does not feel right to me.

I was sufficiently concerned that this decision making and approach deprived St of anybody to exercise parental responsibility for her was likely to cause her significant harm given her particular vulnerabilities and circumstances. I therefore made interim care orders in respect of her in accordance with the section pending the preparation of a further s.37 report the need for which was conceded by the Local Authority,.

 

[As readers of the blog may have picked up, I'm not a huge fan of ICOs made under s37 of the Children Act by a Judge of their own motion, but that seems to me to have been the right call here.  I dread to think of how the LA resolved the placement provisions under s22C with a placement in a mental health hospital. For what it's worth, my attempt would be s22C (6) (d)   - I'm not going to set all of that out, because there are limits to even my law geekiness]

 

The LA decided not to issue care proceedings at the conclusion of that Interim Care Order.

 

The Judge was disappointed

 I should explain why I consider three separate aspects of the Local Authority’s decision making in respect of this child are in error and represent a failure to promote her welfare.

I have three purposes in delivering the judgment. Firstly, I very much hope that after receipt of the judgment the Local Authority will review again their approach to this case. It seems to me that it is always a professional strength and not a weakness to be able to change decisions previously taken if it is right to do so.

Secondly, this seems to me to be an important opportunity to publish a judgment which highlights what has happened to a child who ought to have benefitted from two statutory schemes of protection, both under the Mental Health Act as a person suffering from a mental disorder and under the Children Act as a child who a has suffered or is likely to suffer significant harm. St, in any event, is a child whose welfare overwhelmingly deserves scrutiny and promotion within proceedings.

Thirdly, and this is not my primary purpose, it is the intention of those who act on behalf of St to pursue either or both a complaint and/or other remedies in respect of her against the Local Authority and it may very well be that there are matters covered in this judgment that they consider to be of use in pursuing such courses of action. Providing assistance for those proposed actions is certainly not my primary objective and neither would it be proper for that to be a primary objective. The judgment is therefore mainly given in the hope that the Local Authority might reconsider and to highlight the difficulties that have beset this child who has unfortunately fallen between two statutory umbrellas of protection.

 

As nobody was “looking after” St, and her parents had effectively stepped away from her, when she was in the hospital nobody had provided her with funds or the wherewithal to even have basic funds to buy toiletries or christmas presents for her siblings.

 

The hospital were firmly of the view that the Local Authority ought to be looking after St

I therefore have a full letter dated 21st May 2014 written by Dr K, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at the hospital, the responsible clinician for St. The letter sets out his perspective upon what he regards as the necessity of ongoing looked after status during admission. I am very grateful to him for providing that. He says at paragraph 3 of that:

“I find this to be an unusual position and not one which is taken by other local authorities who have responsibility for looked after children who are placed on [name of hospital given] unit.”

He goes on to say:

“I am not aware of any hospital ward that would take parental responsibility upon themselves. Provision of care in loco parentis is much the same as is provided by schools or residential homes and specific decisions regarding treatment require the hospital to seek consent from the individual with parental responsibility in a similar manner as would be the case in the community.”

He also goes onto say that St, for the most part, may have the ability to give her own views but that there will be times when that may not be the case given her illness. He says this:

It may also be worth clarifying limitations of the Mental Health Act in regard to consent to treatment. Section 3 allows for the provision of treatment for a mental disorder to be provided within a hospital setting and as such it allows for treatment to be given under certain circumstances against a patient’s wishes or where they lack mental capacity to give their valid consent. However, the MHA only relates for treatment of the mental disorder, it does not make provision for physical health conditions to be provided against a patient’s wishes, nor does it allow for any other decisions to be made about wider aspects of a patient’s affairs and lifestyle. In the case of a minor, such a decision is either required to be made by taking valid consent from the patient or where this is not possibly by seeking consent from the individual with parental responsibility. There is no legal provision within the Mental Health Act, or any other statute of which I am aware, that allows for a hospital to take parental responsibility upon themselves. In fact I would argue that is strongly in the interests of the young person that a party independent of a hospital hold this role, particularly when the young person is detained by the hospital against their will.”

He goes on:

Moreover, the benefits of continued looked after status whilst a minor is placed within a hospital setting go beyond the provision of valid consent for decisions that do not relate to the mental disorder. Given the complexity of St’s case and the nature of her social care needs it appears essential to me that she has the benefit of a social worker taking a parental role so as to provide her with continuity and stability of care as well as advice and support around the many challenging issues that she is currently facing.”

Equally that was the view of both Mr Jackson and Mrs. Walwin-Holm, the children’s guardians who have at different times represented St within these proceedings. Dr K’s perspective is that of an experienced clinician working within an acute setting to alleviate the distress and improve the situation of young people in the very distressing circumstances that St finds herself. Any person in hospital, whether a young person or a child or not, seems to me to need – and I apologise for being intensely practical – moral support, social support and financial support. My focus here is upon this child during this admission.

 

By the time of the hearing, the Local Authority had wisely reconsidered their decision to treat St as no longer being a looked after child. That of course does not prevent St or her representatives from satellite litigation about whether that decision was unreasonable and whether it had a deleterious effect on her.

 

I don’t think that the Judge really warmed to Mr McHale, the senior manager who had made the original decision to stop treating St as a looked after child.

   I should, in passing, take some comfort from Mr McHale’s approach to the views of the clinicians. This paragraph I read from his statement, of 23rd July 2014 also reflects his oral evidence when he was challenged. He says:

“While I respect the views of my health colleagues, they do not have a full understanding of the roles and responsibility of CSC in relation to children and young people and although we would always listen to their opinion, ultimately it is our responsibility to decide how we deal with individual children and their legal status.”

So I should perhaps take some comfort that the Local Authority are no more prepared to defer to the clinical view than the court’s view.

 

Ouch.

 

On discussing how that decision was made, and why, the Judge had this to say  (underlining mine for emphasis)

 

I am not going to attempt to make a finding of fact as to what the reasoning actually was or what was actually decided. Mr.McHale claims that it was a child specific welfare focused decision. If it was, it seems to me that it worked very badly indeed because it had an immediate impact upon the service that St was receiving for the worse. She ceased to receive any financial support from the Local Authority and the level of moral and social support given to her also decreased in the wake of that decision. There was a CPA (Care Programme Approach) meeting at the hospital in December 2013 which the Local Authority did not attend. St therefore lost her Looked after Child status and the review system, she lost her independent reviewing officer, she lost the duty of the Local Authority to promote contact between her and relevant people and she was left with no money for basic necessities. She is said to have felt abandoned, a feeling that she has been reported as having to have felt on a number of occasions during the proceedings.

Mr McHale asserted that this was never his intention and that in fact what he intended was for all those services St had been receiving under s.20 to be continued by way of an exercise of discretion under s.17. The Local Authority have not brought any contemporaneous documentary evidence to support this assertion. Mr. McHale was apologetic for particularly the loss of money for St which had an intensely distressing effect upon her in circumstances I will come to describe. In general however it seems to me overall that the impact of the decision, whether specifically child focused or a matter of policy, was deleterious to the welfare of the child. It seems to me as a matter of common sense and experience that if somebody is admitted to hospital they do not change their usual home or their residence. They go to hospital to be treated for the duration of an illness. It seems to me highly unlikely that a Local Authority would even contemplate changing a child’s status from s.20 to s.17 if that child were to be admitted to hospital for treatment for any serious or long-term physical illness. It therefore seems to me quite inappropriate that this child, who was subject to s.3 of the Mental Health Act and detained for treatment in hospital for a mental disorder should have lost a status which conveyed rights upon her which would have continued had the illness requiring treatment not been a mental disorder

It seems to me that the care programme approach of the Mental Health Acts should work hand-in-hand with the Looked after Child processes of the Children Act. These schemes should not be alternatives but should be complementary. That would seem to be the view also of the clinicians. The Local Authority and other parties to these family law proceedings have concentrated on St’s right to services upon discharge from hospital, whether as a Looked after Child entitled to a Pathway plan and services for leaving care or otherwise. That is not the focus of this judgment not only because it should not be the focus of this judgment but also because upon discharge from hospital under the Mental Health Act St will be entitled to extensive services both from the health authority and the Local Authority under s.117 of the Mental Health Act.

My concern is that St’s circumstances on the ground were acutely and deleteriously affected by her change of status and this was also the view of the clinicians at the hospital which was expressed during the CPA meeting to which I have referred on 13th December 2013. I have the record of the meeting in which the following is recorded:

“On admission to [name of residence given] St was under a looked after child s.20. Whilst in hospital her case has been closed and she is no longer considered to be looked after. A senior support worker has not been allocated to ensure that St continues to have involvement with services whilst she remains in hospital.”

Later, the meeting, minutes record this:

“Members of the meeting expressed frustrations and difficulties associated with the removal of St’s LAC status due to her being in hospital. Difficulties arise in particular around St’s physical health and the need for parental consent for certain forms of treatment, despite the current lack of contact and care from St’s parents. There is also a lack of money for St now. Kayley I, advocate, also expressed St’s views and distress at the lack of monies. Options were discussed as to how this could be managed. Funding agreed from social care that St to receive £20 a month for toiletries, all agreed that this is not enough. The meeting discussed making a complaint to the Local Authority about the removal of a young person’s looked after care status when a young person becomes an inpatient and all agreed this would be a good idea.”

 

[I think the Judge's analysis that if this child had been in hospital for a broken leg there would have been no suggestion that she was no longer looked after by the Local Authority is a very good one, and it is a good way of looking at it. It may be, and it would require a delve into the Regs that is beyond my current level of enthusiasm and curiousity that this child is not technically s20 but it must be manifestly better for her to have treated her in all ways as though she were]

 

In case you think that the Judge was social-work bashing in this judgment, she clears this up.

 

Mr McHale in his evidence, having read what was trenchant criticism of the Local Authority written by Mr Jackson the then child’s guardian, repeatedly asserted that he considered that the Local Authority had delivered an excellent service to St. In that sense he seemed to me to be understandably taking up cudgels on behalf of his staff. I hope he understood, and I hope that anybody reading this judgment understands, that this judgment is intended to be critical, indeed trenchantly critical of the decisions of the Local Authority. However it is by no means intended to be a criticism of the staff who have been working the case on the ground. It is my impression that those staff, that is Mrs S and her manager, have delivered, as Mr McHale asserts, an excellent service to St within and despite the parameters of the decisions of their senior management. This judgment is not intended in any way to undermine that impression. This court, the social workers on the ground, their managers, the clinical team and the children’s guardian are all motivated by having come across a child in St’s situation to improve her situation. My focus has been on how the realisation of that aspiration has been marred by the decisions of senior management. I therefore agree with Mr McHale that his staff have delivered an excellent service to this child. This is despite the decisions that have been made by their senior management.

 

 

This isn’t social work bashing – this is manager bashing. Short of Mr McHale writing to the younger children to tell them that there was no such thing as Father Christmas, there was not much lower for the Judge’s opinion of him to go.  The overriding judicial impression I was left with was (to borrow from Mark Twain) that the moment had arrived for Mr McHale to leave this world and to declare to the Court which of the two possible destinations he was heading for, so that the Judge could make arrangements to head to the Other Place.

I don’t know Mr McHale, let us be charitable and say that this was one where his actions were out of character (and to be fair, it is legally tricky as to whether s20 technically applies here).  It is never fair to butcher someone based on one case alone, particularly a tricky one.

 

The LA, in the light of all this made the submission that the case should now come to a close and the Court bow out and let the LA get on with it.

 

The word on the tip of your tongue is ‘bold’  – that’s a ‘bold’ submission.

 

That doesn’t really go far enough – that’s a submission for which an advocate is entitled to have a stuntman for.

 

Do we think the Judge agreed with their Stuntman submission?

The Local Authority case, put with admirable clarity by Miss Grundy in her written submissions, is that now is the time for the court to bow out completely not only in relation to St but in relation to all of the children and that the proceedings are ready to be concluded. There are cases when that is entirely right and the court should take a focused and issue specific approach to dive in and dive out of children’s lives and not exercise a more surveying role. In this case I decline to do so. It seems to me necessary that the proceedings continue and the court will bow out when the court is assured that that contact is set to continue appropriately and that all of the necessary services are going in. I flagged up to the parties the possibility of a family assistance order at the final hearing. No party considered this to be a good idea. This court’s scrutiny is going to be upon all of the professionals involved in any event, whether they remain in via s.37 or merely as witnesses. I note that the Local Authority decline to accept a family assistance order as well.

I would very much hope that the Local Authority will consider what I have said in this judgment. It is to be transcribed and published. It seems to me right that the plight of children who are subject to both the Mental Health Act because they are ill and need to be detained for treatment and to the Children Act because they are likely to suffer significant harm attributable to being out of control or by reason of parental default is one that should be brought to the public attention.

 

 

 

 

Re-branding Child Arrangement Orders – draft MoJ press release

 

Now look here, you silly plebs. When we changed the name of Custody and Access to  Residence and Contact, you were all supposed to realise that these new fluffier terms meant that it wasn’t worth fighting about who got which order and that you’d just agree very quickly who was going to get what and save money.

Well, that didn’t work, so then we came up with the super wheeze of calling both orders by the same name – Child Arrangement Orders.

You people just don’t seem to get it.  Once the order has a neutral name, you’re just supposed to agree to have one and go away and stop bothering our Judges and trying to get in to public counters to talk to Court staff.  The rebranding to Child Arrangement Orders hasn’t worked either. It seems that people still want to fight about where the child will live, and how much time the child will spend time with you. Selfish, that’s what we at the MOJ call it.

 

We now realise where we went wrong. It was in calling the orders the same thing to both parents, whether you got the order or the other parent got it. Of course that ends up making one person feel like a winner and one person feel like a loser. We have now fixed that.

 

In our example orders, imagine that the children live with / are Resident with / are in Custody of Robin, and spend time with / have contact with / has access with Evelyn.

 

Here is what Robin’s order looks like

 

1. The children will Get to Spend Nearly all their time with you Robin! They will grow up loving you best and you are thus, the winner!

 

2. The children will Begrudgingly Have a Boring Time with Evelyn every other weekend. In the meantime, you get every other weekend to Find Yourself! Why not learn to tango, play the guitar, read Dr Zhivago in the original Russian, get twatted with your mates who all hated Evelyn anyway.  You are thus, the winner!

 

 

And here is what Evelyn’s order looks like

 

1. Robin will be the N0-Fun Parent. Robin will be responsible for making packed lunches, nagging, making the children tidy their room, dealing with 90 per cent of “Are we there yet?” queries and late night vomiting, and the ironing. Oh, so much ironing.  Robin will find it hard to meet new people and friends because they are to have the life of Drudge. Did we mention the ironing? You are thus, the winner!

 

2. The children will have SUPER-FUN time with you, every other weekend. The SUPER-FUN time will be directly compared by the children to the life of drudge and nagging with Robin. You are thus, the winner!

 

Neither parent will ever, ever ever see the other parents order, and this will be all that it takes to make each of them leave court knowing that they, and only they, are the winner!

We at the Ministry of Justice are pretty sure that this will work. In order to further distract parents from the reality of how awful it is to be parcelling up your children and bitterly quarelling with someone you used to love but no loathe and knowing that all the while you are screwing your children up for decades to come, the orders will now be printed on shiny silver paper. Oooh, shiny!

 

 

[Suesspicious minds was so distracted by the new shiny silver paper orders "Is that tinfoil?" that he wrote Child Assessment Orders instead of Child Arrangement Orders. Every single bloody time.  What a divvy]

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.

 

 

 

LASPO and article 6 – a huge case

The President has given his judgment in Q v Q, and it is a helluva read.

If you want the “Too Long: Didn’t Read” version – in a case where the Judge concludes that it is necessary for a party to be legally represented or to have the costs of an expert paid for and that failure to do so would be a breach of article 6, and the Legal Aid Agency refuse to use their power under s10 LASPO to grant exceptional funding,  the Court would be entitled to order that Her Majesty’s Court Service pay for the legal representation.

 

The original Q v Q I wrote about here :-  http://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/06/09/q-v-q-an-impasse/

 

The facts broadly are that a father was seeking contact with his child, an expert assessment as to future risk had been obtained, he disagreed with the conclusion and wanted to challenge it by way of cross-examination, but wasn’t in a position to do that himself, it was a task that would have been beyond him.  At the end of the judgment, the President floated the idea that if the Court considered that a party’s article 6 right to a fair trial was being breached, and the Legal Aid Agency wouldn’t pay for representation, then the Court Service might well have a duty to.  He didn’t finally determine that, giving the Ministry of Justice a chance to intervene and make representations as to why not  (they didn’t take that chance, because they are not the brightest crayon in the box)

 

The President also bundled up with Q v Q two private law cases where serious sexual offences were being alleged against the father and the Legal Aid Agency’s refusal to grant exceptional funding was going to place the Court in a position where the father might have to cross-examine in person the alleged victim. One of those,  D v K and B 2014   I wrote about here http://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/03/14/equality-of-arms-d-v-k-and-b-2014/

 

The judgment in Q vQ 2014 is here

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/31.html

 

I have not been, over the last few years, the biggest flag-waver for the President – many of my grumbles are about his performance as a reforming administrator rather than a Judge; but he delivers for justice here.  And puts a target on his head, because this won’t be a popular decision in the Ministry of Justice, who are probably in a room now with a flip chart drawing up battle-plans and watching old episodes of  Judge John Deed to try to pick up some tips for when the MOJ are at war with a ‘rogue’ Judge.

 

Let’s have a quick look at why the MOJ, when placed on notice that the President was contemplating making a decision that would in effect be – “either the LAA write a cheque or HMCS write a cheque, but a cheque’s going to get written”, decided not to get involved

I decided to invite the Secretary of State for Justice (para 20) to:
 

“intervene in the proceedings to make such submissions as are appropriate in relation, in particular, to the argument that in a situation such as this the expenditure which is not available from the Legal Aid Agency but which, in the view of the court, if it be the view of the court, is necessary to be incurred to ensure proceedings which are just and fair, can be met either from the Legal Aid Agency by route of the other certificate, the mother’s certificate, or directly at the expense of the court.”
On 25 June 2014 I received a letter from Shailesh Vara MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice in the Ministry of Justice. After an opening paragraph the letter reads as follows:
 

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to intervene but the Ministry of Justice does not propose to do so in this case.
Ministers have no right or power to intervene in individual legal aid funding decisions made by the Director of Legal Aid Casework. The independence of the Director is an important statutory measure, which ensures impartiality in decision making. From the information recorded in your judgment, it is clear that the father in this case failed to satisfy the statutory merits criteria required to access funding. The merits test is a fundamental and long established part of the legal aid system, and ensures that limited public money is focussed on sufficiently meritorious cases and is not available in cases lacking sufficient merit. It is clearly established that it is legitimate for the Government to focus limited public resources through applying a merits test.
As you record in your judgment, there is expert evidence in the case (one report plus addenda commissioned by the father and one plus addendum commissioned jointly by the mother and the father) which set out unequivocally that the son would not be safe in his father’s presence and that at the moment there should be no contact between the father and the son. There have always been litigants in person in family proceedings, whether because individuals do not qualify for legal aid or choose to represent themselves, and the Courts have been able to resolve such proceedings justly and fairly.
I agree with you that further delay should be avoided in this case and, in the absence of a mechanism for funding the appearance of the experts or representation for the father, you will have to decide this issue in the absence of the cross examination you refer to in your judgment.”

 

So, we’re not coming, and if you can’t find a lawyer to do the cross-examination for free, then you’ll just have to decide the case without any cross-examination.

 

Do you remember in 1984 how Orwell talks about the Ministries in Airstrip One being named for the opposite of what they really do? So their Ministry of Peace was really a Ministry of War and so on?   Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Ministry of Justice.  Bravo, bravo.

 

The President goes through the various options, looking chiefly at the cases involving an allegation of rape in private law proceedings which is challenged and where the ‘accused’ has no lawyer.  In short they are ‘pro bono’,  the Guardian conducting the cross-examination, the father doing it in person or the Judge doing it and shows why each are insufficient and flawed.

 

He then establishes that as a result of European jurisprudence, notably  Airey v Ireland, and the Human Rights Act, the Court itself is bound by article 6 and fair trial and would itself be breaching the person’s right to a fair trial if it were to conduct the trial in a way that it considers to be unjust

 

46. The court is a public authority for the purposes of the Human Rights Act 1998 and is therefore required, subject only to section 6(2), to act in a way which is compatible with Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention. So far as is material for present purposes Article 6(1) provides that “In the determination of his civil rights and obligations … , everyone is entitled to a fair … hearing within a reasonable time”. Article 8, which guarantees “the right to respect for … private and family life”, also affords significant procedural safeguards in relation to the court process. As the Strasbourg court said in McMichael v UK (1995) 20 EHRR 205, para 87, “the decision-making process leading to measures of interference must be fair and such as to afford due respect to the interests safeguarded by Article 8.”
 

47. It is necessary also to have regard to Article 47 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights:
 

“Everyone whose rights and freedoms guaranteed by the law of the Union are violated has the right to an effective remedy before a tribunal in compliance with the conditions laid down in this Article.
Everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal previously established by law. Everyone shall have the possibility of being advised, defended and represented.
Legal aid shall be made available to those who lack sufficient resources insofar as such aid is necessary to ensure effective access to justice.”
I do not take up time considering whether this is applicable in cases such as those before me. In any event, it is not clear that it creates any greater right than arises under Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention: see Gudanaviciene and others v Director of Legal Aid Casework and another [2014] EWHC 1840 (Admin), paras 36-37.

48. Article 6 guarantees the right of “practical” and “effective” access to the court. In the case of a litigant in person, the question is whether, without the assistance of a lawyer, the litigant will be “able to present her case properly and satisfactorily”: Airey v Ireland (Application no 6289/73) (1979) 2 EHRR 305, para 24. In that particular case, the court held that Ireland was in breach of Mrs Airey’s Article 6 rights because it was not realistic in the court’s opinion to suppose that, in litigation of the type in which she was involved, she could effectively conduct her own case, despite the assistance which the judge would afford to parties acting in person. In DEB v Germany [2011] 2 CMLR 529, para 46, the CJEU summarised the Strasbourg jurisprudence in this way:
 

“Ruling on legal aid in the form of assistance by a lawyer, the ECtHR has held that the question whether the provision of legal aid is necessary for a fair hearing must be determined on the basis of the particular facts and circumstances of each case and will depend, inter alia, upon the importance of what is at stake for the applicant in the proceedings, the complexity of the relevant law and procedure and the applicant’s capacity to represent himself effectively.”

49. Mantovanelli v France (Application no 21497/93) (1997) 24 EHRR 370, indicates the significance of the right to an adversarial hearing guaranteed by Article 6 specifically in the context of an expert’s report which is “likely to have a preponderant influence on the assessment of the facts by [the] court.”

 

 

The President also looked at section 31 G (6) of the  amended Matrimonial and Famly Proceedings Act 1984

 

33….section 31G(6) of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984, set out in Schedule 10 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which came into effect on 22 April 2014:
 

“Where in any proceedings in the family court it appears to the court that any party to the proceedings who is not legally represented is unable to examine or cross-examine a witness effectively, the court is to –
(a) ascertain from that party the matters about which the witness may be able to depose or on which the witness ought to be cross-examined, and
(b) put, or cause to be put, to the witness such questions in the interests of that party as may appear to the court to be proper.”

 

And in conclusion

 

75…does section 31G(6) operate to confer on a judge of the Family Court power to forbid a party who wishes to conduct his own case from examining or cross-examining a witness? Again I have heard no sustained argument, but my inclination is to think that the answer is, no it does not, for principle suggests that such an important right is only to be cut down by express words or necessary implication, and neither is very obviously to be found in section 31G(6): see again General Mediterranean Holdings SA v Patel and Another [2000] 1 WLR 272. As against that, I can see the argument that there may be cases where to expose the alleged victim to cross-examination by the alleged perpetrator might engage the alleged victim’s rights, whether under Article 8 or Article 3, in such a way as to impose on the court an obligation under the 1998 Act to prevent it, so that in such a case section 31G(6) has to be read as giving the court the appropriate power to do so.
 

76. The second thing which is unclear is this: what, in contrast to the word “put” in section 31G(6), do the words “cause to be put” mean? When section 31G(6) provides that in certain circumstances “the court is to … put” questions, that must mean questioning by the judge or magistrate. In some – probably many – cases that will be entirely unproblematic. But in cases where the issues are as grave and forensically challenging as in Re B and Re C, questioning by the judge may not be appropriate or, indeed, sufficient to ensure compliance with Articles 6 and 8. There is, in my judgment, very considerable force in what Roderic Wood J and Judge Wildblood said in the passages in their judgments (respectively, para 24 and paras 6(iii)-(v)) which I have already quoted.
 

77. The words “cause to be put” must, in contrast, contemplate questioning by someone other than the judge. Now that someone else might be an advocate whom the court has managed to persuade to act pro bono. It might be the guardian, if there is one, or the guardian’s advocate. But there are, as both Roderic Wood J and Judge Wildblood understandably pointed out, great difficulties in expecting the guardian or the guardian’s advocate to undertake this role – difficulties which were expounded also in the argument before me. I agree with what Judge Wildblood said (para 6(ix) quoted above). The point applies with equal force in the circumstances of both Re B and Re C.
 

78. What then is the court to do if the father is unable to pay for his own representation and “exceptional” legal aid is not available?
 

79. In the ultimate analysis, if the criteria in section 31G(6) are satisfied, and if the judge is satisfied that the essential requirements of a fair trial as required by FPR 1.1 and Articles 6 and 8 cannot otherwise be met, the effect of the words “cause to be put” in section 31G(6) is, in my judgment, to enable the judge to direct that appropriate representation is to be provided by – at the expense of – the court, that is, at the expense of HMCTS.

 

 

Now, some caveats  – the President is careful to say that these were cases with particular characteristics, each involving allegations of sexual offences and two involving allegations of rape, and that he had been looking at these cases in particular not s10 LASPO in general.   And also we need to bear in mind that  (a) the LAA might appeal this decision, as they are threatening to do with Gudanaviciene and others v Director of Legal Aid Casework and another [2014] EWHC 1840 (Admin),  and (b) hardly anyone at the LAA seems to have taken on board Gudanaviciene so far, as can be seen from the Smackdown judgment from HH Judge Bellamy I wrote about yesterday.     The criminal bar were all cock-a-hoop about the  Op Cotton judgment and the rug was pulled out from under them by the Court of Appeal.

 

Here are the President’s own caveats   (and if you are a Local Authority lawyer or budget-holder note the chilling implications of the LA funding intervenors or grandparents to litigate against them)

 

Three caveats

In this judgment I have been concerned only to consider the problems that may arise in private law cases. I have therefore not had occasion to consider any further the point I made in Q v Q (para 18), where I suggested that “In a public law case where the proceedings are brought by a local authority, one can see a possible argument that failing all else the local authority should have to pay.” That is a matter for another day.
 

I have concluded that there may be circumstances in which the court can properly direct that the cost of certain activities should be borne by HMCTS. I emphasise that (the provision of interpreters and translators apart) this is an order of last resort. No order of this sort should be made except by or having first consulted a High Court Judge or a Designated Family Judge.
 

I emphasise also that the allegation in each case is one of sexual assault, in two of the cases an allegation of rape. It may be that a similar approach is appropriate in cases of serious non-sexual assault. It may be that it will not be appropriate in less serious cases. I express no concluded views, beyond drawing attention to the trite observation that everything will, in the final analysis, depend upon the particular facts of the specific case.
 

Concluding observations

The Ministry of Justice, the LAA and HMCTS may wish to consider the implications. That is a matter for them. For my part I would urge the early attention of both the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group and the Family Procedure Rules Committee to those aspects of the various matters I have canvassed that fall within their respective remits.

 

In both of the live cases, the Judge gave the Legal Aid Agency one last chance to see sense and grant the funding under LASPO, but gave the clearest of indications that to proceed without representation would be an article 6 breach and that the Court would have to consider its own duty to fund such representation.

 

Care proceedings by the back door

The Court of Appeal decision in Re W (Children) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1065.html

 

This was an appeal from a mother, about a private law decision that her child should live permanently with the grandmother. The placement with the grandmother had come about by the mother signing a Written Agreement with the Local Authority that the child should live there.   [see previous post]

 

There are some obvious, and well-known points about whether such a placement is a section 20 placement (in which case the Local Authority have to do a fostering assessment of grandmother and pay her fostering allowance) or a private family arrangement (in which case they don’t).  As a general rule of thumb – if the Local Authority’s fingerprints are all over the placement (as they were here) then it is almost certainly going to be a section 20 placement – whether anyone involved wants it to be or not.

That wasn’t the thrust of this appeal though.

 

That was, rather, that by private law proceedings where the child was placed with grandmother (and the Local Authority had never done an assessment of the mother to see if she could have the child back) this child was permanently moved from mother to grandmother without any of the safeguards that such a proposition would have had in care proceedings. Were these, in fact, care proceedings by the back door?

 

The children had been placed in July 2012, the proposed assessment of the mother by the Local Authority never took place, and the mother made an application for a Residence Order (as it then was) in May 2013

A particularly odd aspect of these situations is that when the private law case goes to Court, when the Court asks for an independent section 7 report (to make recommendations for the child’s future), such report is usually sought from the Local Authority (rather than CAFCASS) because of their historical involvement.  Can you spot an obvious flaw in that aspect, if it is the Local Authority who engineered the move from mother to grandmother?

 

This is what the Court of Appeal say about their section 7 report

 

The mother sought the return of the children. Eventually, after mediation had failed and following difficulties in obtaining legal funding, the mother issued proceedings on 28 May 2013 seeking a residence order and the return of the children to her care. The local authority was ordered to provide a section 7 report. Written by Ms Nesbitt, it was dated 4 October 2013. An addendum section 7 report was written by her successor, Ms Fitzgerald, dated 13 December 2013.
 

Ms Nesbitt expressed the view that the children should remain with the paternal grandmother under the auspices of a residence order. For present purposes it is Ms Fitzgerald’s report which is more significant. In paragraph 4.1.2 she said:
 

“Further assessment of [the mother's] current ability to meet the needs of the children is required in order to provide evidence that she has made positive changes and more importantly is able to sustain such changes in the longer term.”
In paragraph 4.3.1 (paragraph 4.6.1 was to much the same effect) she said:

“… there is little evidence to support the children returning to their mother’s care … It is therefore the view of the Local Authority that Family Resource Team intervention is required in order to support [the mother] and her relationship with the children to include work around routines, boundaries and the appropriateness of comments made to the children by [the mother] … This intervention will enable the Local Authority to assess [the mother's] current ability to meet the needs of the children. [The mother] reports that she has made positive changes by accessing counselling and evidence of those positive changes is required by the Local Authority in order to establish [her] current ability to meet the needs of the children in the immediate and longer-term future.”
In paragraph 4.8.1 she said:

“As previously indicated, the Local Authority are of the view that intervention is required from the Family Resource Team who will work with [the mother] and the children in relation to routines, boundaries and inappropriate comments made to the children. This will enable the Local Authority to further assess [the mother's] current and longer-term ability to meet the needs of the children”
In paragraph 4.9.1 Ms Fitzgerald recorded a counsellor describing the mother as “engaging well with the service” which, as she commented, “demonstrates [her] willingness to engage with services to address concerns.” In paragraph 4.10.2 she observed that “mother’s current ability to meet the needs of the children remains un-assessed” and continued:

“it is the view of the Local Authority that Family Resource Team intervention is required in order to assess her ability to meet the needs of the children.”
Ms Fitzgerald’s overall view was expressed in paragraph 4.10.3:
 

“It must be acknowledged that if the children were to grow up in the care of the 2nd Respondent and not the Applicant mother, this has the potential to affect their identity and they may feel a sense of rejection from their mother. That said, at the present time, the un-assessed risk of placing the children in their mother’s care, far outweighs the risk of them remaining in paternal grandmother’s care and the ‘potential’ for this to have an impact upon their identity/emotional wellbeing.”

 

In light of Ryder LJ’s withering comments in Re P and B about the use of ‘unquantified’ as a perjorative term, the ‘un-assessed risk’ here is somewhat dubious. Particularly since it was unassessed precisely because the Local Authority had not assessed it.

 

Those representing the mother, quite rightly, sought that assessment of the mother’s parenting and any risks. That would be a basic foundation of any care proceedings and something that would be vital if deciding whether children should live permanently away from a mother. But in private law proceedings, it can often be rather more of a ‘beauty parade’  – which person is in a better position to provide care for the children here and now

 

The hearing before the Recorder commenced on 9 January 2014. We do not have a transcript of the hearing but Mr Ben Boucher-Giles, who appeared on behalf of the mother before the Recorder, as he subsequently appeared before us, has prepared a very helpful case summary for our use which sets out what we need to know. It has been circulated to the other parties and to the local authority, who have raised no objection and identified no errors.
 

The Recorder heard evidence from Ms Fitzgerald and her team manager, Ms Richardson. In cross-examination Ms Fitzgerald accepted that the mother was committed to her children and was prepared to work with professionals. She re-iterated that the local authority had not assessed the mother and could not therefore say that she had made sufficient progress to prove that she could safely care for them. In answer to the specific question whether there was any event since July 2012 which gave her any specific cause for concern in relation to the mother or her ability to care for the children, Ms Fitzgerald accepted that she could not think of anything in particular. She indicated that a delay in the proceedings – the assessment and associated work might take between 12 and 16 weeks – would have a “high potential of emotional impact” on the older child, though this was no more than the usual consequence of delay.
 

Ms Richardson expressed concern about the lack of assessment and accepted that the local authority had failed in its duty to provide the court with the information it required. She indicated that rehabilitation of the children to the mother “would not be beneficial until perhaps after CAMHS had reported – something may arise.”
 

Unsurprisingly in these circumstances, Mr Boucher-Giles applied at the conclusion of this evidence for an adjournment for the preparation of a full assessment of the mother’s parenting abilities. His argument, as recorded by the Recorder in the judgment she gave refusing his application, was that the court could not make a decision because it did not have any information about the mother and her ability to care for the children. The application was resisted by the paternal grandmother on the basis that the best interests of the children were served by the matter being brought to a conclusion, in circumstances where the local authority had indicated that it would not ‘walk away’ even if the case came to a final conclusion.

 

You can guess that the Recorder refused the adjournment, otherwise there wouldn’t be an appeal   (you may take it that every sentence that I have underlined could be read aloud  in a tone of total shock and wonder0

 

The Recorder dismissed the application. She explained why:
 

“In seeking that adjournment and in considering whether or not I should allow it, I must take account of various factors, one of those of course being that delay is inimical to these sort of proceedings. They need to be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible. I have to weigh against that, the fact that [the mother] has not been subject to any detailed assessment, the fact of the matter is that the court is in the position today where it has sufficient information to consider what is in the best interests of the children and if I were to adjourn where would we be then? We would be at a position where the local authority might be saying by virtue of their role in these proceedings that the matter should move to overnight staying contact. It does not mean that they would be in a position to make a final recommendation, not that anything is ever final in the lives of children because things move and things change, but I take the view that to delay these proceedings any further, these proceedings having been ongoing for some time, to delay them any further for the purpose of an assessment which might not be able to come to a final conclusion and might not be able to be effected due to the involvement of CAMHS with the older of the two children”.
The hearing proceeded. The Recorder heard oral evidence from the mother and the paternal grandmother. Cross-examined on the point, the paternal grandmother, who said she had spent a great deal of time in the mother’s company over the past 18 months, could not think of anything that had happened during that time which gave her cause for concern in respect of the mother or her ability care for her children, apart from some missed contacts.
 

In closing submissions Mr Boucher-Giles again invited the Recorder to adjourn for an assessment of the mother.
 

At the end of the hearing, on 10 January 2014, the Recorder gave judgment. She summarised the history of events, recording that, on the mother’s own evidence, she had had problems in the past with ill health, post natal depression and drug misuse and that, as a result, she had not been able to offer adequate care to the children. She described how matters had “almost reached crisis point” in July 2012. She described the mother’s position as being that she had only ever envisaged a temporary arrangement and that by April 2013 she was in a fit and proper position to deal with looking after the children herself.
 

The Recorder then said this:
 

“It has become apparent as well that there have been failings in social services dealing with this case and that was acknowledged by the team leader Miss Richardson when she gave her evidence that in fact no assessment of the mother has at any time been undertaken since the mother has recovered from all the difficulties that she had.
However I have to look at the welfare checklist and I have to decide this case on the basis of those matters”.
She drew attention to the fact that the older child appeared to be saying that she wished to live with her grandmother. She directed herself that the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration and that she had to have regard to the general principle that any delay is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child.

The Recorder reiterated her reasons for refusing an adjournment, saying:
 

“Clearly delay is a matter which I have to take account of if it is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child or the children and I take the view that any delay in this case, any extension of these proceedings with all the necessary conflicting views of all the parties, would mean that it is likely, it is probable that certainly [the older child] would be adversely affected in terms of her emotional wellbeing by knowing that these proceedings were on going.
It is clear as well that such a delay is an open ended delay, because no-one can say at this stage as to how long, as to what the outcome of overnight contact would be, if it was in fact recommended by the social services department.
… I take the view that delay would not be in the interests of these children, it would not be productive in terms of their welfare and it is for this reason that [the proposition that I should] adjourn for a period of time, is not one which lends itself to me.”

She then said this:
 

Can I say that I accept that there is no assessment of the mother as she is now. I do not make an assessment of her because I have only had the opportunity of seeing her in the witness box and my decision is based not on the fact that I have made an assessment of her, it is based on the fact that I feel that delay in the case would be prejudicial to the children.
One can only speculate as to what the outcome of that assessment will be“.
The Recorder then considered the welfare checklist, saying in the course of this:
 

“The court must also take into account the children’s physical, emotional and educational needs, well it is perfectly plain to me and I think it is even accepted on behalf of the mother that those needs are being met by the paternal grandmother at the present time. On the other hand so far as the mother is concerned I have no evidence before the court that she is able to provide them with the same level of support in terms of their physical, emotional and educational needs.”
Having found that in the past the children had suffered harm as a result of the mother’s inability to cope, the Recorder continued:
 

I cannot say whether they are at risk of suffering in the future, it is probable that matters will move forward in fact it is inevitable that matter that matters will move forward but I am not in a position to make any finding as to whether or not they are at risk of suffering in the future.
What I also have to take into account is how capable the mother and the grandmother are in relation to the question of meeting the children’s needs. Well as I have already indicated it appears to be accepted and in fact I make a finding that the grandmother is in fact meeting the needs of these children and has done so at least for the last eighteen months and possibly for longer so far as [the older child] is concerned.
Taking all those matters into account I then have to decide what is the proper order in this case.
This is a case where the mother has, I have no doubt the best of intentions at heart, but I am not satisfied that it would be appropriate at this stage to make an immediate order granting her residence and so in those circumstances I dismiss her application for residence.
I then have to consider what orders I should make. At the present time the paternal grandmother has no legal standing because she has no orders and nothing in place at the present time. I intend therefore to make a residence order in favour of the paternal grandmother.”

 

The application for appeal was made, and Ryder LJ gave permission, identifying four important principles

 

The mother’s appellant’s notice was filed on 31 January 2014. Considering the application for permission on the papers, Ryder LJ had the benefit of Mr Boucher-Giles’ powerful skeleton argument. In giving permission, Ryder LJ observed that the grounds of appeal and skeleton argument at least four potentially significant issues, which he described as follows:
 

“(a) whether a court dealing with a private law children application is obliged to deal with the proportionality of the order as an interference with art 8 rights – the horizontality argument;
(b) whether the judge should have attached any greater significance to the position of a mother as against a grandmother – the imperative of being brought up by a parent if that parent is a good enough parent even though the grandmother may be better;
(c) whether the judge’s refusal to order an adjournment to obtain a section 7 assessment report from the local authority deprived the mother of the evidence that might demonstrate her capability;
(d) how the court should deal with section 20 accommodation cases where the local authority is acting as the decision maker but not taking care proceedings (and has not assessed the parent when arguably it should have done so).”
Ryder LJ “invited” the local authority to intervene in the appeal to make submissions in relation to issue (d). It has declined to do so.

 

Quite so. The vital ones of public interest are (a)  (c) and (d)  – point (b) already has the benefit of a lot of settled law.

 

The Court of Appeal determined the appeal solely on ground (c), leaving us in limbo as to the important questions in (a) and (d) until they arise again. The appeal was granted and the case sent for rehearing.

The stark facts here are clear and obvious. There had been no assessment of the mother. Ms Fitzgerald’s report was peppered with the recognition that an assessment was “required” in order both to provide evidence that the mother had indeed changed, and was able to sustain that change, and to assess her current and longer-term ability to meet the needs of the children. The Recorder acknowledged that there had at no time been any assessment of the mother, made clear that she herself had not made any assessment of the mother, and, most strikingly of all, found that, to repeat:
 

“I cannot say whether [the children] are at risk of suffering in the future … I am not in a position to make any finding as to whether or not they are at risk of suffering in the future (emphasis added).”
It is quite apparent that the Recorder’s decision was driven by her concern about delay. She says so explicitly in the passage, already cited, where she said:
 

“my decision is based not on the fact that I have made an assessment of her, it is based on the fact that I feel that delay in the case would be prejudicial to the children.”
That is elaborated in the passage where she said:

“any delay in this case, any extension of these proceedings with all the necessary conflicting views of all the parties, would mean that it is likely, it is probable that certainly [the older child] would be adversely affected in terms of her emotional wellbeing by knowing that these proceedings were on going.”
As to this I merely observe that one needs to bear in mind what Ms Fitzgerald had said in evidence (see paragraph 8 above) and that the Recorder’s comment about the delay being “open ended” (paragraph 16) involved little more than an educated guess – what the Recorder herself described (paragraph 17 above) as speculation – as to what might be revealed by the strictly time-limited assessment being proposed by Mr Boucher-Giles. There is also, in my judgment, much force in his submission that the Recorder focused too much on the short-term disadvantages without addressing, as she should, the medium and longer term implications.
 

The simple fact, in my judgment, is that the Recorder fell into a double error. By refusing an adjournment for the assessment which had never taken place, which the local authority acknowledged was required and which Mr Boucher-Giles was understandably pressing for, the Recorder denied herself vital evidence to fill what on her own findings were serious gaps in her knowledge of the mother and of the mother’s ability to care for the children. This was, as Mr Boucher-Giles submitted, an essential piece of information if the Recorder was properly to do her duty in accordance with section 1(3)(f) of the Children Act 1989. On top of that she placed far too much weight on a view as to the consequences of delay which was not borne out by the evidence.
 

This all fed into an approach which ended up being unfair to the mother and went far in the direction of effectively reversing the forensic burden. I have in mind in particular the passage in her judgment where the Recorder, having correctly found that the children’s needs were being met by the paternal grandmother, went on to note that:
 

“On the other hand so far as the mother is concerned I have no evidence before the court that she is able to provide them with the same level of support in terms of their physical, emotional and educational needs.”
Indeed, but why was that?

It follows that, for all these reasons, the mother in my judgment succeeds on issue (c) and accordingly succeeds on her appeal.

 

The Court of Appeal then went on to have a go at the Local Authority (deservedly so in this case)

Moreover, the “Agreement” was expressed, more than once, to be “whilst further assessments are completed”, yet it seemingly remained in place even after the assessment had been cancelled. And the children were not returned to the mother even after she had asked. If this was a placement under section 20 then, as my Lord pointed out during the hearing, the mother was entitled under section 20(8) to “remove” the children at any time. Why were they not returned to her? I can only assume it was because the local authority believed that the arrangements were not within section 20, so that it was for the mother, if she wished, to take proceedings, as in the event she had to, against the paternal grandmother. But if this was so, why did the local authority arrogate to itself effective decision-making power as to whether the mother’s contact with the children should be supervised or not? And why was the local authority as recently as January 2014 seemingly arrogating to itself decision-making power as to whether or not there should be overnight staying contact?
 

The local authority’s decision to decline Ryder LJ’s invitation to intervene makes it impossible for us to get to the bottom of these issues. The picture we have, however, is disturbing. I can well understand why Mr Boucher-Giles complains that the local authority has in effect instigated and resolved what ought to have been public law proceedings without legal authority to do so, sidestepping the need to prove ‘threshold’ and thus avoiding the important protections against State interference which Part IV of the Children Act 1989 provides. The mother, he says, was by virtue of the State’s actions placed in a position whereby her children were being cared for, against her wish, by the paternal grandmother and without any legal order in place. I place these submissions on record without expressing any concluded view, though agreeing with Mr Boucher-Giles that it would be a matter of concern if ‘back door’ care proceedings such as this were to become prevalent.

 

It is a great shame that the Court did not get to grips with the issue of ‘back door care proceedings’, but one can see why the appeal so obviously suceeds on point c that it was not strictly necessary.

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,607 other followers