This is the private law case of Re C (A child) 2013, and frankly, the Court of Appeal missed a trick in not naming it Re (WTF?) 2013 (which also makes me pang for a Court of Appeal authority involving a child named E, where wind plays a major feature, so they can call it RE-E-Wind – when the crowd say Bo, Selecta)
The case involves a five year old boy, C, who became the subject of residence and contact applications, his parents having separated.
- The order complained of was made in the county court on 6 March 2013 in Children Act 1989 proceedings issued by mother in March 2012. The order prohibited father from removing his son from the care of mother or from his primary school and provided for indirect contact between father and son in the form of letters, cards and small gifts. It follows that direct contact was refused. In circumstances which I shall describe the order was the culmination of a series of serious procedural irregularities which caused the decision to be unjust. The order was also wrong given that one of the irregularities gave rise to an assumption of alleged facts against father when the court had not conducted a finding of fact hearing and accordingly the judge’s welfare evaluation was based on what is said to be a false premise.
- It needs to be understood that the allegations made against father are serious. The most serious of the allegations and the assertions of risk were not made by mother but by the Cafcass practitioner who was the family court advisor. The allegations have not been decided and nothing which follows in this judgment should be taken to minimise the risk that might exist if the allegations are true. Equally, if the allegations are not proved or the risk assessment is as a consequence or otherwise wrong, the child who is the subject of these proceedings and his father have been seriously failed.
The case peculiarly seems to have proceeded on the basis that allegations made about father had been proven by the Court, when in fact they had not yet been tested. That failing, which is bad in itself, increases when one realises that the main source of the allegations of risk was not one of the parties, but the CAFCASS officer who had been appointed to be the independent eyes and ears of the Court.
In fact, by the time the case got to a substantive hearing, the CAFCASS officer was refusing to visit the father at home, refusing to meet with him in the officer unless there was another worker present, was unable to complete the section 7 report and had become the complainant in criminal proceedings about father’s behaviour towards her.
The opinions that were being expressed by the Cafcass practitioner were not just in her role as a family court adviser independent of the parties. She was also a complainant in criminal proceedings. This court has come to the very firm conclusion that it was wholly inappropriate for the family court advisor to continue to act as the court’s advisor and the child’s ‘effective access to justice’ at a time when she was the complainant in criminal proceedings against the father. It was submitted to us that it is a regrettable fact that Cafcass practitioners are placed in positions of real conflict by complaints and threats made against them and that their priority must be to try and put that to one side and undertake their duties on behalf of children. We acknowledge that and the extraordinary work that they do in the public interest but there is a dividing line in terms of due process and conflict of interest that was crossed in this case. A criminal complainant cannot advise in a family case where the person accused by that complainant is a party.
(I’d suggest that one doesn’t need Basil Rathbone, Robert Downey Junior or Benedict Cumberbatch to help one in reaching that conclusion. How on earth can a CAFCASS officer be independent at that point? That doesn’t mean that the Court have found that the CAFCASS officer was wrong or right in her complaints, just that by that point, she could no longer be assisting the Court in making recommendations about the child’s future – whatever was happening between her and the father had contaminated the independent nature of the role which is so integral to it)
However, she did continue, and prepared a report which understandably was not very favourable to father and considered that he presented an unmanageable level of risk.
- The report filed on 19 December 2012 was 19 close typed pages in length. It described detailed allegations of fact previously unknown to the court in terms which read as if the allegations were true. The reader is left in no doubt that the family court advisor believed the allegations to be true. At no stage was it highlighted that the facts had not been established by a process of fact finding in a family court. It is entirely unclear what facts father had conceded or might concede, which is not surprising given that he was not involved in the preparation of the report. The author described the risk in the case as being:
“father’s lack of understanding of the impact of his offences on his child in relation to his risk taking behaviours, domestic violence, risk of possible child abduction; the father’s mental health and related issues, public disorder and so on.”
- A very detailed analysis of risk was conducted by the family court advisor with the benefit of input from professionals contacted by her during the preparation of her report. That included whether father’s mental health issues including suicidal ideation, depression and anger and his own social isolation were relevant (on the assumption they were accurately described). One of those professionals compared father with Raoul Moat (the panel beater, tree surgeon and bouncer with criminal convictions for violence who shot his ex-partner, killed his new partner and seriously injured a policeman in 2010). That was not only a professionally inappropriate comparison, it was presumably quoted in the report for maximum impact. Despite that, the author clearly indicated in her report that father’s “mental health status remains an un-assessed risk factor“. The report recommended the order made by the judge three months later. It did not recommend that a fact finding hearing should take place.
Okay, you are probably thinking by now that this case was something of a car crash – there are allegations being reported as though they were facts, the independent CAFCASS officer being the complainant in criminal proceedings about father and lurid comparisons of the father to Raoul Moat being made without much evidence.
Stay with me, it is about to get worse.
The Court of Appeal note that both parents were litigants in person, and though they were doing their best with the thorny process, were not able properly to highlight to the Court exactly how messed up things had become. The Court of Appeal describe the judicial handling of the case as ‘fire-fighting – it may even have been quality fire-fighting, but it was not Case Management’
- On 21 December 2012 the proceedings were adjourned to a contested hearing because father did not accept the Cafcass recommendation. The first available date was on 6 March 2013 before a Recorder. There were no attempts in the intervening period to update any of the information contained in the Cafcass report, in particular about father and the risk that it is said he presented. Although both parents were given permission to file further statements the question of how father could or should respond to the serious allegations in the Cafcass report was not addressed, that is the key issues were not identified to be answered and a direction for a fact finding hearing was not made.
- Appointments of the type I have so far been describing take time, particularly where one or more of the parties are litigants in person as a consequence of the provisions of LASPO 2012. If the dispute is not immediately susceptible of conciliation or out of court mediation it will require a lawyer’s analysis. This is after all a court of law. In the absence of lawyers, the judge has to do that and to do that without assistance and sometimes with quite vocal hindrance. That requires more time than in a circumstance where the lawyers can be required to apply the rules and practice directions, produce the witness statements, summaries, analyses and schedules, obtain instructions and protect their lay client’s interests. Where a court is faced with litigants in person the judge has to do all that while maintaining both the reality and perception of fairness and due process. I do not criticise any of the judges involved in this case. Each was handed a case about which he or she knew nothing and given time only to deal with the most pressing issue or two that had arisen. That was fire fighting, it may even have been quality fire fighting but it was not case management.
So, we have a car-wreck with the CAFCASS officer, both parents are in person – looking back earlier the only statement from mum dealing with the allegations against dad was not actually evidence (it had no statement of truth) and the Judges who looked at the case were doing their best, but hadn’t really gripped it.
It still gets worse
On the morning of 6 March 2013, that is immediately before the contested hearing began, the family court advisor filed and served a 22 page document entitled ‘Chronology of Significant Events’. The court had not given a direction to permit such a step and so far as can be ascertained there was no advance notice of the same. The document was a detailed schedule of hearsay evidence that might have been appropriate if it had been directed by a court as a lawyer’s forensic summary of the allegations and materials that had already been filed. It was not a summary of the evidence filed unless it could be argued to be a record of the source materials for the section 7 report that was filed three months earlier. It should not have been admitted without argument and it was clearly highly prejudicial and of questionable probative value. It became the primary evidential document in the case, replacing the mother and almost everyone else who might have had something to say on a question of fact. The document was made available to father on the morning of the contested hearing that gives rise to this appeal.
So in the context of all I’ve previously said, the CAFCASS officer then turned up on the day of the hearing, against litigants in person, and ambushed them with a 22 page document, full of stuff that wasn’t actually evidence.
Does it surprise you that I am about to say – it still gets worse
- In that context, father made an application to adjourn the contested hearing. His primary purpose was to adduce up to date evidence about his mental health. He asserted that his treatment was susceptible of successful completion and that he would be able to demonstrate that with materials from the professionals involved. In addition and unknown to the family court advisor, the probation officer she quoted in good faith had been replaced sometime in 2012 and as this court now knows, the risk described by father’s senior probation officer who had detailed knowledge of father’s supervision was fundamentally different. In simple terms, his analysis was that father presented a low risk.
- It is not surprising that the judge who was new to the case was unimpressed by an application to adjourn given the lengthy delay there had been in getting the first contested hearing listed. Had she known that a fact finding hearing had never occurred she might have been able to find a constructive way to use the hearing to good effect and still afford father the opportunity to update the evidence about risk and to fairly deal with the family court advisor’s materials.
So father wasn’t given his adjourment, to deal with the ambush that he’d been hit with. And the Court didn’t properly appreciate that the allegations being thrown at him were untested allegations rather than determined facts.
What do you think? Does the next bit make it better or worse? Place your bets ladies and gentlemen.
- The hearing then commenced. The mother did not give evidence to substantiate her allegations and was accordingly not questioned by anyone. As a matter of pure technical form, her document of 12 August 2013 was never admitted into evidence. There was therefore no evidence from mother for father to meet and he was accordingly afforded no opportunity to test the direct evidence of domestic violence. The only evidence came from the family court advisor. As I have remarked, she treated the allegations as fact. She gave evidence based upon her report and her substantial chronology, that is hearsay evidence about the facts in issue as well as reported opinion from other professionals and her own opinion. I do not say that this was entirely inappropriate. It is appropriate for a family court advisor to identify the facts or alleged facts she has relied upon and the opinions of others that she accepts or adopts in coming to her own opinions and recommendations. She is after all a qualified social worker whose skill and expertise are those of an expert in that field. That said, had a fact finding hearing been held, third hand hearsay evidence of facts in issue might not have been given great weight in the absence of the evidence of mother or a concession from father.
- I do not ignore the possibility that an alleged victim of domestic violence from an allegedly over controlling or dangerous perpetrator may need considerable support to give her evidence. At the very least it should be established just what evidence she is able to give and an appropriate opportunity should be given to the alleged perpetrator to challenge that evidence. That could have been done by case management or, as I shall describe, by a more inquisitorial process that protected the interests of all involved. What was not acceptable in my judgment was the presentation of facts that were in dispute as if they were decided. The judge who heard the case (and who would have had no knowledge of it before she walked into court on the morning) was entitled to know that contrary to the impression given this was a fact finding hearing where the facts were in dispute. The hearing that was conducted was accordingly not a fact finding hearing, it was a welfare hearing which heard about the severe risk that it was said father presented to mother based upon facts that had never been tested let alone determined by a family court.
Oh God… and just when you think that I must be finished, and things could not possibly have got any worse
To add to the air of unreality the family court advisor gave her oral evidence from behind a screen. Special measures in a family court are not fixed by primary or secondary legislation as they are in the Crown Court. They can however be used in a similar way and for similar reasons. They are a means of facilitating the evidence of someone who is vulnerable so that the quality of their evidence is not damaged by their vulnerability. Children who give evidence often do so with the assistance of special measures such as a video link. It is not inconceivable that a professional witness might need the same facility but it is much less likely: Re W (Care Proceedings: Witness Anonymity)  EWCA Civ 1626,  1 FLR 329 at . The mischief in this case is compounded by the fact that the family court advisor gave her evidence as an officer of the state behind a screen rendering her effectively anonymous and unseen and she was afforded that facility without due process. If it was said that such measures were necessary that should have been on application to the court on notice to the father and to the mother and full reasons should have been given. There was no such application and if there was neither this court nor the father were aware of it and there is no record of any determination. There is no order. It should not have happened in the way that it did.
Scroll back, read that again – the CAFCASS officer gave her evidence from behind a screen.
Re WTF 2013
Needless to say, the father won his appeal against the order – he was fortunate that he realised, or got advice, which showed him that (as the Court of Appeal said) he had been denied Natural Justice at almost every stage of the process, and the final decision was fundamentally flawed in almost every regard.
The Court of Appeal give some useful guidance for management of cases involving litigants in person (this can only be aimed at Judges, since there’s no prospect of LIPs being aware of this case, never mind drawing judicial attention to it)
- I have intimated that a more inquisitorial process may help those judges who need to deal with very difficult cases involving litigants in person where emotions can run very high. At the hearing at which the section 7 report was first available there was an opportunity for detailed case management. In less fraught cases this is often a real opportunity for dispute resolution in the same way that an Issues Resolution Hearing provides that facility in public law children proceedings. That was the latest of the various hearings at which the key issues of fact and opinion could have been identified and if not resolved, described on the face of an order so that the parties and the court would have been clear about the purpose of the contested hearing. Directions could have included providing short answers to the key issues identified and up to date materials which would have avoided father’s last minute adjournment application and his successful application to this court to adduce additional evidence.
- At the hearing and given that it would have been clear whether the key issues included the need to make findings of fact, the judge can control the process to ensure that it is fair. Having been sworn, each party can be asked to set out their proposals and to confirm their version of the disputed key facts. They can then be asked by the judge what questions they would like to ask of the other party. Where lawyers are not instructed the judge can then assimilate the issues identified into his or her own questions and ask each party the questions that the judge thinks are relevant to the key issues in the case. It may be appropriate to give the parties the opportunity to give a short reply. In that way the issues can be proportionately and fairly considered.
- At the conclusion of the hearing before us it became clear that separate proceedings under the provisions of the Family Law Act 1996 had been commenced by mother without notice to father. This court has not had the opportunity to scrutinise that process. Yet another judge is involved but directions have been given in those proceedings for the facts in issue to be identified and resolved. Given that this has led to detailed witness statements being filed by the parties, we shall direct that any further directions in those proceedings be listed before the same judge who is allocated to determine the Children Act proceedings.
- The problems which have complicated this case are hopefully rare. The solution is to use the processes of the court to better effect. The family court is a court of law not a talking shop. No matter how much its judges will strive to obtain safe agreements between the parties, its rules, practice directions and forensic protections are for a purpose – to do right by all manner of persons, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.