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Appeal against a supervision order – and what happens when the Judge rejects the professional evidence

The Court of Appeal have given their decision in Re Z O’C 2015  http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed143389  and it raises some curious issues.

 

Firstly, this was an appeal against the making of a Supervision Order. Those don’t get appealed very often. Secondly, this was an appeal by the Guardian, and the Court sent the case back for re-hearing. Third, the parents in the case agreed when the original Judge made the Supervision Order (which would mean return home) to agree section 20 accommodation pending the appeal – which they didn’t have to – they could have pushed the Local Authority or Guardian into applying for a Stay  (meaning that the Supervision Order would not apply pending the appeal)

Also it sort of answers a question posed by one of my commentators – what happens in a case where the Judge sends the child home, and the appeal Court say -re-hearing. Where does the child go pending that re-hearing?

In this case, the child stayed in foster care.  That won’t always be the case, but the fact that the Court of Appeal did it here is fairly powerful.

 

During the hearing, the Judge was unhappy with the assessment conducted by the Local Authority, and also as the Guardian relied on it, of the Guardian’s evidence as well. That posed something of a problem, since an earlier hearing where the parents had applied for an independent assessment had been refused. By a different Judge, but the Court having ruled that an independent assessment wasn’t necessary was faced at final hearing where the assessments could be properly scrutinised and tested with assessments that were not satisfactory.

 

The detail of why the Judge felt the FAST assessment that informed the social work was flawed is not really the subject of this piece – it is all there in the judgment if you are interested. Here’s a flavour of it

 

33. The judge found himself in an invidious situation.  The District Judge had properly refused the application for an independent social worker report and had attempted to put in place through her careful case management order, provisions to rectify the deficits in the assessment process.  Unhappily, the local authority failed to comply with the order in terms of arranging for a family group conference, an important event in order to ascertain what support would be available in the event that there was rehabilitation and which would have given the guardian an opportunity to meet the extended family who would have to form part of a successful rehabilitation programme. 

34. It was also a serious deficit that, despite indicating to the contrary in the assessment, the social workers had not in fact read Dr Dowd’s report and so did not have the advantage of putting what they were seeing and hearing from the parents in context against the backdrop of the psychological assessment.

35. The local authority’s case in closing was that, notwithstanding the criticisms of the defects in the FAST assessment, the conclusion was not undermined nor was it rendered unsafe to rely upon its conclusion.  The judge said in his judgment in terms, “I respectfully disagree”.

 

These were the judicial conclusions

 

37. The judge, having dismissed all the evidence going directly to the parenting assessment, moved on to analyse over five paragraphs, a number of serious concerns he had about the father, the headlines of which were: (1) his failure to take up a parenting course; (2) his failure to attend contact; (3) his decision to go to Pakistan at a critical time in December 2013; (4) his failure to inform his family of the birth of [A]; (5) his failure to do anything about the state of the home where his child was living, which was revealed in the photographs as “disgusting”.  These issues, the judge said, brought into question the father’s motivation; a key issue, it will be recollected, in Dr Dowd’s view in determining if the father could care for the children.

38. How then did the judge conduct the welfare analysis which led him to conclude that notwithstanding those findings he was satisfied that rehabilitation to the father and mother was in the best interests of the children.  The judge said in relation to his conclusion:

i. “In my overall view too little weight has been given by the local authority and the guardian to the role that he can play in the future care of the children.  I am satisfied that his family now do know of his relationship … and of the birth of [A].  When asked in evidence about his parents’ and family’s acceptance of [A], he said as they love him, so they love [A].  I accept that.  It is hard not to.”

39. The judge went on in the following paragraph:

i. “When I come to look at [the father’s] evidence overall, even with the adverse findings I have made, I am satisfied that he intends to be available to parent his child and also [L].  He certainly has the capacity to do so, as determined by Dr Dowd …

ii. Further, in my assessment [the father] has shown that he has the motivation to change.  It may be late in the day, but I accept that that is now the position.  He has embarked on a parenting course.  He has the ability to learn from that and to put that learning into practice.”

40. The judge then referred to the fact that the father’s legal status in this country is tenuous. But concludes by saying:

i. “Overall, I find that [the father] can be a significant factor in parenting [A] and [L] together with the mother.”

41. The judge noted the efforts that the mother had undoubtedly made in improving the state of the house and in embarking on a course of cognitive behavioural therapy.

42. Finally, the judge concluded that:

i. “The local authority’s case simply does not reach the point that nothing else will do. …  I have balanced the harm which [L] and [A] have suffered or are likely to suffer against the capacity of the mother and [father] to meet their needs, with the likely effect upon both [A] and [L] of their being removed permanently from the care of their parents.  The FAST assessment was inadequate.  The social worker and the guardian relied upon it.  This has produced an analysis by them of the case that, in my judgment, is not supported by the evidence that I have found.”

43. The judge made the findings summarised above and expressed his intention to make a supervision order allowing for the return of the children to the care of the mother and father.

44. After the judgment was delivered the local authority, supported by the guardian, sought permission to appeal.  Final orders were not made at that stage and the matter was adjourned to enable an alternative care plan to be prepared for the rehabilitation of the children, which instruction was faithfully carried out by the local authority.

45. The matter came on before the judge again on 27 June 2014, when final supervision orders were made.  An agreement was made, however, for the children to remain in their current placements pursuant to section 20 of the Children Act 1989 pending the hearing of appeal.  At that hearing the judge quite properly asked those representing the local authority and the guardian if they wished him to clarify any particular issues.  They declined his invitation.

Let’s take that last point first – there’s substantial authority that it is the responsibility of an advocate to draw the Judge’s attention to apparent flaws or deficiencies in the judgment to give the Court the chance to correct those, and that is supposed to be a prelude to appeal.  If the Court offers that opportunity and the advocates don’t take it, are they precluded from issuing an appeal, or do they get a second bite of the cherry?  This is what the Court of Appeal say:-

64. Counsel referred the court to a number of authorities relating to the course to be adopted where it is believed by the parties that there has been insufficient, reasoning or analysis in a judgment.  In particular the matter was considered by the Court of Appeal in Re A & L (Appeal Fact Finding) [2011] EWCA Civ 1205, [2012] 1 FLR 134.  Munby LJ (as he then was) emphasised the responsibility of the advocate to draw to the court’s attention any material omissions in the judgment and the mirror obligation upon a judge to consider whether his judgment is defective for lack of reasons when permission to appeal is sought.

65. It should be noted that Munby LJ did not suggest that failure to comply with such obligations would lead to the dismissal of an appeal.  Clearly, no matter how frustrated a court may be by a failure on the part of advocates to seek clarification at the proper time, the sanction for such an omission cannot be such as would compromise the welfare of the child in issue.

{I wonder, idly, whether a Court of Appeal containing the author of those remarks in Re A and L might have decided this differently – we are not likely to ever know now}

So advocates should draw the attention of the Court to appeal points to give opportunity for the Judge to remedy them, but if they don’t, that is not a bar to the appeal. It probably isn’t the smartest move to irritate the Court of Appeal before you even start, but imagining that you were either struck dumb in the final hearing or someone else did it and said nothing, this is now the authority to produce to persuade the Court of Appeal that you aren’t sunk before you set off.

The Court of Appeal ultimately felt that the Judge was wrong to have dealt with the case in the way he did – they were careful not to say that the final outcome was wrong, but the route taken was not right. The case had to be sent back for re-hearing

56. In my judgment, the judge failed to carry out such a welfare evaluation. There is no analysis of risk to be found in the judgment. On the face of it, even with the positives he found in relation to the mother’s changes and the indications of same late change by the father, when the serious criticisms he had made of the father which related directly to the key issues of the father’s motivation, were factored in it is hard to see how the judge reached a decision that the children’s welfare would be protected by only a supervision order, and I further note that. 

57. In any event, I am satisfied that the judge, having discounted the welfare evidence filed, was, as was recognised at trial by counsel, left without essential evidence to enable him to carry out the welfare evaluation.  Without parenting assessment evidence in the broadest sense the judge was left without the material he needed with which to compare the benefits and deficiency of each realistic option; in this case, so far as [L] was concerned, this meant living with her grandparents or moving to her mother and stepfather; and, as far as [A] was concerned, the last resort option of adoption or alternatively rehabilitation home to his natural parents.

58. By ground 3 of the grounds of appeal, the children’s guardian argues that the judge failed adequately to consider the effect of any order upon [L].  [L], it is quite clear, was not considered separately from [A] by the judge.  [L]’s position needed separate analysis and consideration given that she has never lived with the father, whom she says she does not really know, and that queries were raised about the relationship between the father and [L] which the guardian felt needed further assessment. Specific consideration was also needed as to whether or not [L] and [A] should have separate placements.  The local authority and guardian’s care plan having provided, as I have already indicated, for adoption for [A], and for [L] to remain within the family.

59. On behalf of the guardian, it is rightly observed that rehabilitation for [L] was complicated.  She would leave her grandparents, where she has now lived for over a year, and return not to her mother and three siblings but to a household without her elder brothers and instead a “new” baby brother and a stepfather she barely knows.  Clearly, the father’s ability to build a positive relationship with [L] is the key to a successful rehabilitation plan.

60. [L] had suffered a long period of serious neglect in the care of her mother.  If she was returned to her mother’s home, a position which can only be contemplated with the support of the father, the court needed to be clear that this 24 year old man with no previous parenting experience was willing and able to care for [L] as well as his own child.  His lack of attendance at contact with [L] and criticism of his attitude towards her at contact was not reassuring upon that point, nor was the guardian’s observation that, whilst she was clear that the father loves his son, she was less convinced “at his relationship on feelings towards [L]”.

61. The case is an example of the difficulties which can result from the preparation of inadequate assessments, in this case compounded, through no fault of her own, by the late appointment of the children’s guardian. Whilst delay is always to be depreciated, the judge having identified the deficits in the assessments was wrong in failing to accede to the practical and realistic submission of counsel for the mother to adjourn the matter to enable an independent social worker report to consider the key issues of the motivation of the father and his ability to accept the considerable responsibility necessary for him to be able to support the mother. Without the father’s practical and emotional support the mother would be unable to care for either of her children, and and the court needed proper evidence as to, his ability to provide her with security and stability and to be an antidote to the mother’s difficulties in maintaining a household and environment that was safe and healthy for either of the children.

62. In her written submissions in support of the original application for the appointment of an independent social worker, counsel quoted from Re NL (A Child) (Appeal: Interim Care Order: Facts And Reasons), setting out Pauffley J’s  observations that, “Justice must never be sacrificed upon the altar of speed”,  in support of her submission that on the facts of this case the extension of proceedings beyond 26 weeks would be both reasonable and necessary.

63. It is trite law to say that delay is inimitable to the welfare of a child but, as Pauffley J’s noted, the family justice reforms are intended to promote the welfare of the children and not to render those very children more vulnerable by premature decisions being made in order to achieve the statutory timetable.

If after hearing the evidence, the Court felt that the assessments before the Court were not satisfactory to make a proper decision, the approach was to consider ordering fresh assessments and not to feel hamstrung by the 26 week regime.

I suspect that those who represent parents might be feeling that this is a Local Authority getting two bites of the cherry – they had the chance to prove their case, the burden is on them to do so and they failed. They get a second attempt to do so, rather than the parents getting their child back because the Local Authority had not proved to the Judge’s satisfaction that the concerns warranted permanent separation. It feels a little like that to me too. The parents have lost out here because the judgment wasn’t thorough enough to back up that decision. It could have been made appeal proof, but it wasn’t.   (Actually, maybe it is three bites of the cherry, given that they had their chance to speak up after the judgment about what was wrong with it, and didn’t)

There’s a nice exchange about contact notes – I find that some Judges find evidential purpose and value in contact notes, some tolerate them, some grudgingly tolerate them and some consider that they show little if anything of evidential value and disproportionate time is spent on them. It rather depends on your Judge. Surprisingly little guidance from senior Courts about what to make of them  (one might think that the fact that the Legal Aid Agency now refuse to pay counsel to read them speaks volumes – they got that tip from somewhere)

If you are an assessor, these words will be music to your ears  (unless you LIKE reading contact notes, in which case I (a) feel sorry for you and (b) am worried that you are also reading this blog and whether it compares favourably or unfavourably to the joy you find in reading contact notes)

32. Counsel for the mother lays heavy emphasis on the contact notes as an assessment tool for the judge but it is important that the value of contact notes are not overstated.  For my part, no matter what legitimate criticisms are made of the FAST assessment, it should not be expected that the assessors should in every case, read all of the voluminous contact notes; in this case made 5 days a week over many months.  The essential flavour can often, although not always, be obtained from reading a representative sample and by the observation of contact by the assessors.  Contact notes do, of course, have a value and can highlight both good and bad aspects of parenting.  In this case, they show that the mother has been assiduous in attending contact and that the quality of that contact is good.  What the contact notes cannot do, even if every single visit is closely analysed, is demonstrate whether the mother can make and sustain change day in day out, year in year out in such a way that history does not repeat itself.  Observation of contact could have given some increased insight into the relationship between the parents and of the father’s progress as a new father in handling his baby.  Unfortunately, due to his inconsistent attendance, that information was not available.

My last point is really dealt with en passant by the Court of Appeal, but I think it is quite significant. The father in this case got free legal representation to fight his case in the original care proceedings – he won  (I know, no such thing as winners and losers, yadda yadda yadda*, but he persuaded a Court to return the child). Yet in the Appeal hearing, which was just as important for him, he had no representation and had to appear in person.  The mother got legal aid and was represented, but why not both? I know, we are saving public money and we can do it with just one parent being represented. But was this really fair? I don’t think so.

 

68. The father today, as I have already indicated, is unrepresented and as a lay man it is inevitably difficult for him fully to understand the nuances of the hearing or the judgment.  I should make it clear for both his benefit and also for the mother that this court is not on any level making a determination as to whether [L] and [A] or either of them should or should not be rehabilitated to their care.  What the court is saying is that before such a decision can be made it needs the further assessment of the parents, such an assessment will no doubt cover the fact that the house is now in good order and that the parents have been to parenting classes as well as aiming to achieve a better understanding of the father’s family and the role they would play in [A]’s life if he goes home.  The matter will go to a different judge for the case to be heard again in the light of a newly commissioned independent social worker’s report and any additional evidence the designated family judge may order to be filed.  Such a report will be conducted against the circumstances as they are now, as opposed to the circumstances as they were at the trial, and will be filed in accordance with the judge’s broad case management powers.

Yadda yadda yadda

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6kRqnfsBEc

Sentence first, verdict afterwards

Some extraordinary appeals kicking around – there’s a cracker called Re A, which involves a judge shouting at a 13 year old child and threatening to make costs orders against her personally (but I’m waiting for that to go up on Bailii).

 

In the meantime, this little treasure.

Re S-W children 2015

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/27.html

 

Three children, 14, 11 and 10. They’d been living with grandparents for about a year and a half by the time the case came to Court, because the mother was having problems with alcohol and drugs and was struggling to end a violent relationship.  There had been a period just before issue where rehabilitation looked like a possibility, but the assessment looking at that had been unsuccessful.

It wasn’t an initial hearing where there looked to be great prospects of these children returning to mother’s care, but one has to bear in mind that these were not tiny tots, but children of 14,11 and 10, and who would have their own views to express and be considered.

The Children’s Guardian had made it plain in the initial document that she hadn’t been able to meet the children yet, but knew that all three were saying they wanted to go home to mother, and that this would be an important part of her work.

The first hearing then, was one in which all of the lawyers were in agreement that there was some work to be done

 

i) The local authority would pay for a drugs hair strand test on the mother. This was a matter of considerable importance …….because

ii) the local authority were to convene a Family Group conference in order to see if a way could be found for LW to return, in whole or part, to the care of his mother. It was hoped that if that could safely be achieved, it might act as a break on the disruptive behaviour which was leading to the constant breakdown in his placements. The local authority note of the meeting says “is it just about good enough with mum, may be able to go back.” The timetable was to provide for an addendum to the parenting assessment already filed by the local authority;

iii) Efforts were to be made to trace the father of ES who had not been served;

iv) Neither of the grandmothers wished to be considered as foster carers and therefore Special Guardianship assessments were to be carried out by the local authority with a view to securing the future of those two children by the making of Special Guardianship Orders;

v) It was agreed that a slimmed down number of documents from that listed by the Guardian in her report would be disclosed, but that only one or two of those documents would be placed in the bundle. This would allow the Guardian to carry out a full review of the case whilst ensuring compliance with Practice Direction 27A – Family Proceedings: Court Bundles (Universal Practice to be applied in the High Court and Family Court)… the Bundles Direction) para 5.1 which limits the court bundle to 350 pages of A4 text; (see also Re W (Children)(Strict Compliance with Court Orders) [2014] EWFC 22);

vi) The matter would be listed for an early Issues Resolution Hearing (IRH) with a view to the case being concluded substantially within 26 weeks.

 

The Judge, His Honour Judge Dodds (who you might remember from http://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/07/02/go-on-then-appeal-me-i-dare-you     – they did, he lost)  took something of a robust approach, making Care Orders and ending the case at the first hearing, making that decision within minutes, not listening to anyone, and not giving a judgment.

 

  1. A transcript of the hearing in front of the judge has been made available; it reveals that within a matter of minutes, the judge had made abundantly clear, in trenchant terms, his determination to conclude the case there and then by making final care orders. The judge was fortified in his approach, he told the parties, by the fact that the previous week (30 July 2014), an application for permission to appeal in relation to another final care order he had made at the CMH in a different case had been refused by McFarlane LJ : Re H (Children) Case No: B4/2014/2033.
  2. The judge was scathing of the Guardian’s report and her reasons for requesting further information, saying that “advice about the practice direction that came in on 31st July” (a reference to the new Bundles Direction), would signal the end to what he referred to as “this sort of Victorian detail”.
  3. In relation to LW’s situation he said that whilst he wished LW “every good luck in the world but the Children Act and the court has nothing to do with it”.
  4. All the parties crumbled under the judge’s caustically expressed views, and as a consequence, were unable to explain to the judge that the situation was more complicated than the one the judge clearly saw, and expressed. The judge viewed the case as one in which he had before him three children each of whom had been in care for well over a year, two of whom were in settled placements. The mother he saw had had a recent positive drugs test, and therefore in his mind, the inevitable outcome was the making of care orders. The judge said that all future placement decisions in relation to LW would be made by the local authority through the Looked After Children review process (LAC reviews).
  5. At one stage the judge referred to the mother as looking “upset and bewildered”. It is hard to see how she could have looked otherwise given the course the proceedings were taking.
  6. The judge gave neither a judgment nor reasons prior to making final care orders in relation to all three children.

 

I imagine there was something of a sprint or scissors-paper-stone battle as to which of the parties was going to appeal this first.  Bear in mind that this was a DIRECTIONS hearing, the first hearing in the case and that nobody had been suggesting that the Court should make final orders.

 

The Court of Appeal had to consider whether the Judge might, just might, have exceeded his robust case management powers, and instead made an order which was disproportionate and unfair.

The fact that when Permission to appeal was granted, McFarlane LJ had effectively said to the appeal judges “Bloody hell folks, you really need to check THIS ONE out” was rather telling:-

“In any event, there is a compelling reason sufficient to justify this case being considered by the Court of Appeal. The judge’s approach could not have been more robust. He sought to justify such an approach on the basis that recent family justice reforms and case law. There is a need for the Court of Appeal to consider whether such a robust summary approach is justified and/or required by the recent extensive changes to procedure and case law and, if so, how the basic requirements of a fair trial and judicial analysis are to be accommodated in such a process”.

 

Nicely put.  The  approach adopted ‘could not have been more robust’  – well, not unless the advocates in sequential order had carefully and precisely driven their cars into the Judge’s own car in front of him, moments before the hearing. The Court of Appeal do wonders with their “hell to the power of no, squared”

  1. The expectation is therefore that a CMH will ordinarily be an essential management hearing designed to get the case in proper order to enable it to be ready for disposal, whether by consent or following a contested hearing, within 26 weeks. This is in contrast to the IRH when all the evidence, including expert evidence should be filed and where, unlike the CMH, the rules specifically require consideration to be given as to whether the IRH “can be used as a final hearing” (PD12A Stage 3- Issues Resolution Hearing)
  2. Every care judge will be conscious that, whilst it is in a child’s best interests for their future to be determined without delay, it is equally in their best interests that the management of the case which determines their future should be fair and Article 6 compliant. The danger lies when, as unfortunately happened here, vigorous and robust case management tips over into an unfair summary disposal of a case.

 

The President took up the baton

  1. My Lord has drawn attention to the famous words of Lord Hewart CJ in R v Sussex Justices [1924] 1 KB 256, 259. In the present case it is unhappily all too apparent that no dispassionate observer of the proceedings or reader of the transcript could think that justice was done, let alone that it was seen to be done. It was not.
  2. Vigorous and robust case management has a vital role to play in all family cases, but as rule 1.1 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 makes clear, the duty of the court is to “deal with cases justly, having regard to any welfare issues involved”. So, as my Lord has emphasised, robustness cannot trump fairness.
  3. In the context of case management, fairness has two aspects: first, the case management hearing itself must be conducted fairly; secondly, as I observed in the passage in Re TG to which my Lord has referred, the task of the case management judge is to arrange a trial that is fair. Here, there was a failure in both respects.
  4. We are all familiar with the aphorism that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’. But justice can equally be denied if inappropriately accelerated. An unseemly rush to judgment can too easily lead to injustice. As Pauffley J warned in Re NL (A child) (Appeal: Interim Care Order: Facts and Reasons) [2014] EWHC 270 (Fam), [2014] 1 FLR 1384, para 40, “Justice must never be sacrificed upon the altar of speed.”
  5. Rule 22.1 gives the case management judge extensive powers to control the evidence in a children case: see Re TG, paras 27-28. But these powers must always be exercised, especially in care cases where the stakes are so high, in a way which pays due regard to two fundamental principles which apply as much to family cases as to any other type of case.
  6. First, a parent facing the removal of their child must be entitled to put their case to the court, however seemingly forlorn. It is one of the oldest principles of our law – it goes back over 400 years, to the earliest years of the seventeenth century – that no-one is to be condemned unheard: see Re G (Care: Challenge to Local Authority’s Decision) [2003] EWHC 551 (Fam), [2003] 2 FLR 42, paras 28-29. As I observed (para 55):

    “The fact, if fact it be, that the circumstances are such as to justify intervention by the State, … does not absolve the State of its duty nonetheless to act fairly. It is not enough for the State to make a fair decision: the State must itself act fairly in the way in which it goes about arriving at its decision.”

    A parent who wishes to give evidence in answer to a local authority’s care application must surely be permitted to do so.

  7. Secondly, there is the right to confront ones accusers. So, a parent who wishes to cross-examine an important witness whose evidence is being relied upon by the local authority must surely be permitted to do so.
  8. I stress the word important. I am not suggesting that a parent has an absolute right to cross-examine every witness or to ask unlimited questions of a witness merely with a view to ‘testing the evidence’ or in the hope, Micawber-like, that something may turn up. Case management judges have to strike the balance, ensuring that there is a fair trial, recognising that a fair trial does not entitle a parent, even in a care case, to explore every by-way, but also being alert to ensure that no parent is denied the right to put the essence of their case to witnesses on those parts of their evidence that may have a significant impact on the outcome.
  9. Quite apart from the fundamentally important points of principle which are here in play, there is great danger in jumping too quickly to the view that nothing is likely to be achieved by hearing evidence or allowing cross-examination, in concluding that the outcome is obvious. My Lord has referred to what Megarry J said in John v Rees. The forensic context there was far removed from the one with which are here concerned, but the point is equally apposite. As I said in Re TG, para 72:

    “Most family judges will have had the experience of watching a seemingly solid care case brought by a local authority being demolished, crumbling away, at the hands of skilled and determined counsel.”

  10. I agree with my Lady that there can, in principle, be care cases where the final order is made at the case management hearing. But, unless the decision goes by concession or consent, it will only be exceptionally, in unusual circumstances and on rare occasions, that this can ever be appropriate. Re H, to which my Lady has referred, was such a case, but the particular and unusual facts which there justified a summary process need to be borne in mind. Re H is not and must not be treated as justification for any general principle, let alone for proceeding as the judge did in the present case.
  11. Quite apart from the fact that such a ruthlessly truncated process as the judge adopted here was fundamentally unprincipled and unfair, it also prevented both the children’s guardian and the court doing what the law demanded of them in terms of complying with the requirements of the Children Act 1989 and PD12A. I agree with my Lady’s analysis, in particular in relation to care plans and the meaning and effect of the various provisions in sections 31 and 31A of the Act to which she has referred.

 

Now, of course Judges are human beings, and can have a bad day. And of course, there are some Judges who would have read the background and thought “well, this is one that has some inevitability written all over it”. There might even be Judges who would cut back on the timetable proposed by the parties and view this as a fast track case. One could make a reasonable argument for finishing this case in 10 weeks rather than 26.

There might even be Judges who are unable to supress what their eyebrows think of the whole state of affairs.

But if you’re a Judge in a family case who has made a decision which the appeal Courts can describe as ruthlesss, fundamentally unprincipled and unfair, then things have gone very badly wrong.

I don’t practice in this particular area of the country, but I wonder whether any advocate representing a parent could possibly feel that their client is going to get a fair hearing from a Judge who was capable of making a decision of this sort.

 

Being late to the party (turns out Auntie Beryl was Grandma Beryl…)

 

KS v Neath Port Talbot 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/941.html

 

This was an appeal by the grandmother who was refused her application to be joined as a party to care proceedings, which resulted in Placement Orders. She put herself forward in a formal application five days before the final hearing.

 

The Judge arrived at a sort of half-way house, refusing party status for the grandmother, but allowing her to be in Court, to give evidence and to ask the father’s representatives to put questions on her behalf. This unusual position was not helped by the Judge believing when judgment was delivered that the grandmother’s primary application had been dismissed by the Judge on day one of the final hearing (it hadn’t, it had been adjourned for decision until the end of the case)

 

 

 

  • Some five days before, on 9 October 2013, the child’s paternal grandmother had made a formal application to be made a party to the proceedings and for an expert assessment concerning her capability to care for the child. The application was adjourned at the beginning of the hearing and refused at the end. The effect of the adjournment was, however, to refuse the grandmother party status for the hearing that was taking place. Despite this, the judge permitted the grandmother to remain in court during the hearing and to give oral evidence. He records in his judgment that the grandmother:

 

 

“… opposes the applications and has played a part in these proceedings in as much as she has given evidence and has put herself forward as a potential carer for her grandchild”

 

  • There was a real issue before this court about what the judge intended to decide by his case management ruling. Although it is clear from the words he used that he adjourned the grandmother’s application until the end of the hearing on the merits, when he refused it, he later recollected (erroneously) that he had refused her application at the beginning of the hearing. Furthermore, although he failed to grant to the grandmother some important due process protections that a party would have, in particular notice of the issues in the case and knowledge of the evidence filed relating to those issues, he afforded the grandmother a partial opportunity to participate in a hearing which decided those issues.

 

 

The trial judge’s determination of the grandmother’s case was fairly short, and viewed criticially by the Court of Appeal

 

 

  • The terms in which the judge dealt with the grandmother’s application at the beginning of the hearing are as follows:

 

 

“This is an application for leave to make an application under section 8 of the Children Act. I bear in mind that this is a very late application and I bear in mind the Family Proceedings (sic) Rules and the overriding principle that I have just referred to. Although this is a late application, it has the potential for disruption not only of these proceedings but the interests of this child.

I am not going to shut the grandmother out of these proceedings at this stage. She can stay and hear the evidence, she can stay during all the proceedings, she can find her seat comfortably with other parties and she will be able to give evidence and through the solicitor for the father she can cross examine the author of the assessment that was made of her which was negative. I, therefore, adjourn her application to a stage in the proceedings after all the evidence has been completed. I do so in balancing the fairness to all the parties here and to the child.

There will be no ostensible delay of these proceedings by doing this, I allow her interests at least to be considered and for her to hear all the evidence as it potentially may interest the third party.”

 

  • At the end of the hearing the judge refused the application for five reasons that involved no analysis of the evidence, no analysis of the content of the assessment of the grandmother or the potential merits of her case, as follows:

 

 

i) the late nature of the application and the delay that an additional expert would occasion;

ii) the nature of the grandmother’s proposed application, namely for a residence order which the judge described as lacking in detail;

iii) the limited connection with the child: the judge accepted that there was an emotional attachment but erroneously described the continuous and significant contact arrangements as being “some ad hoc inter-familial arrangement for contact”;

iv) the real disruption that the application would cause to decision making about the child’s immediate future; and

v) the fact that the grandmother did “not fall within the remit of the local authority’s plans”.

 

  • As to the merits of the grandmother’s case, the judge was brief. The analysis in his full judgment was limited to the following words:

 

 

“The original assessment of the grandmother on 12th July of 2012 was negative. There is scope to believe that things have not so fundamentally changed that that report should stand to be considered as being valid. Any contribution as sought by the grandmother would require considerable analysis of the family dynamics, including of course an exploration of the father’s upbringing which itself has been the subject of various explanations, and also the management of contact. That was the view of the Guardian and I accept it. There is no merit in the application for the grandmother to care for the child. I appreciate that she may well have a kind heart and show commendable maturity as a grandparent herself in conceding that the time is now right for a decision to be made in respect of [the child].”

 

 

On the other side of the coin was the grandmother’s case, and the Court of Appeal felt that she had a better case than the Judge had recognised

 

 

  • The grandmother’s case was that she has a meaningful connection with the child who had regular contact including staying contact with her. That contact had existed before the child’s placement with the great grandparents, had continued after that placement had ended and was still taking place during the proceedings on a twice weekly basis. In addition, the July 2012 assessment acknowledged that the paternal grandmother and her husband displayed genuine emotion for and were clearly concerned about the child’s future. They were assessed as being fully aware of the local authority’s concerns about the parents and the child’s care needs. There was a significant attachment between the child and her grandparents that would be severed by the adoptive plan. By the time of the final hearing, the child’s parents supported the grandmother’s application.

 

 

 

  • The assessment also described the manifestly good care that was provided by the grandparents for a 14 year old boy and a 12 year old girl within what was evidently a long term stable relationship. There were no concerns about their parenting abilities in respect of these children and there had been no involvement of children’s services.

 

 

 

  • The local authority response to this court about the merits of the grandmother’s case was that the positives in the assessment were outweighed by the negatives which included the paternal grandmother’s partner having significant mobility problems such that he might not be able to assist with his granddaughter’s care. There were also fears about the impact the parents might have in undermining a placement with the grandparents, the appropriateness of the grandparents’ accommodation and the grandparents’ commitment to the children already cared for by them and whether that would be compromised by another child in the household.

 

 

 

  • In my judgment, the analysis of the negatives in the local authority’s evidence and by the guardian did not exclude the grandparents as a realistic option. To put it another way, the grandparents’ prima facie case on paper was stronger than that of the local authority relating to them. It is difficult to conclude other than that the grandparents’ case was arguable on any basis. It went to the critical proportionality evaluation of whether ‘nothing else would do’ than adoption. The grandmother’s application accordingly demanded rigorous scrutiny of the factors set out in section 10(9) of the Children Act 1989 in the context of the reasons for the late application.

 

 

Decision

 

  • The paternal grandmother submits and I agree that the case management decision that the judge made was plainly wrong because it was procedurally unfair. If, by his case management decision, it was the judge’s intention to exclude the grandparents from the care of the child, then he did not have regard to evidence relating to the section 10(9) factors or to the potential merits of her case which he would have found in the content of the assessment to which I have referred. His reasons lacked sufficient or any analysis. Case management decisions that have the character of deciding a substantive issue must be treated with particular care: hence the nature and extent of the enquiry that is made necessary by section 10(9) of the Act and its associated case law.

 

 

 

 

 

  • The purpose of section 10(9) of the 1989 Act and the case law that supports it is defeated if there is no analysis of the benefits and detriments inherent in the application and the arguability of the case. The section provides a framework for decisions of this kind to be made so that there is an appropriate balance between case management principles and the substantive issues in the proceedings. Furthermore, the lack of attention to detail and in particular the lack of analysis of what had been happening during the proceedings in particular as between the local authority and the grandmother and the child, including the timetable for the child and for the proceedings, deprived the decision of the character of individual and collective proportionality that application of the overriding objective would have provided. In simple terms, the decision was too superficial and un-reasoned to stand scrutiny.

 

 

 

  • If it was the judge’s intention to consider or re-consider the grandmother’s case at the end of the evidence, in what would then have been an holistic overview of the options to which a welfare analysis and proportionality evaluation were applied, then he failed to put in place any procedural protections for a person whose case was distinct from the other parties. In particular, his decision at the beginning of the hearing had the effect of refusing to make the grandmother a party, thereby denying her access to the documents so that she could challenge matters relating to her own case and condemned her to giving evidence without knowledge of the relevant evidence in the case. The essential due process protections of notice of the issues and an opportunity to challenge evidence relating to those issues was missing and in my judgment that was also procedurally unfair.

 

 

 

  • By reason of the manner in which the case management decision was made, the evidence relating to whether grandmother was a realistic option was not identified and tested. It was neither tested by reference to applicable case management principles nor substantively as one of the options in the case about which the court was hearing evidence with the usual due process protections. The judge allowed the issues raised by the grandmother to fall between two stools. That was plainly wrong and as a consequence the process was procedurally unfair.

 

 

 

  • At the end of the hearing, the case management decision made by the judge was re-iterated as a substantive decision to exclude the grandparents from the care of their granddaughter. Whether or not the grandmother as a non-party to that decision has the locus to challenge that aspect of the case, the mother does. She submits that as an exercise of value judgment it was wrong and in any event the judge failed to conduct a non linear, holistic welfare analysis and proportionality evaluation of all of the care and placement options and that was an error of law. The judge did not reason why the grandparents were to be excluded, there is no comparative welfare analysis of the benefits and detriments of each option and a proportionality evaluation is entirely missing from the judgment. Further and better reasons of the judgment were requested but they do not assist in any of these respects. That has the effect that there is no consideration in judgment of the effect on the child of breaking family ties, in particular her attachment to her grandparents and whether nothing else would do other than adoption.

 

 

 

  • In summary, the grandmother supported by the mother submit that the judge failed to address that which is required by the Supreme Court in Re B (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Threshold Criteria) [2013] UKSC 33, [2013] 1 WLR 1911 in analysing whether ‘nothing else will do’ and the subsequent Court of Appeal cases of Re P (A Child) (Care and Placement: Evidential Basis of Local Authority Case) [2013] EWCA Civ 963, Re G (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Welfare Evaluation) [2013] EWCA Civ 965 and Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146. I agree. There was no overt analysis of the child’s welfare throughout her life nor the likely effect on her of having ceased to be a member of her original family in accordance with section 1(2) and 1(4)(c) of the 2002 Act. The distinctions between the factors in the welfare checklists in the 1989 Act and the 2002 Act were not explored. The essence of the recent case law and of the statutory tests was not sufficiently demonstrated.

 

 

 

  • The local authority concede that the judge’s approach to the welfare analysis and proportionality evaluation was not in accordance with the authorities. Their case rests on the ability to exclude the grandmother from that exercise. That would have involved an analysis by the judge of the timetable for the child and the timetable for the proceedings as part of the overriding objective, the section 10(9) factors and the arguability of the grandmother’s case. That analysis was missing with the consequence that neither the grandmother’s case nor the local authority’s case was properly considered during case management and the grandmother’s case was not considered on the merits. It is fortunate that the child’s interests can be protected by an expedited re-hearing before the Designated Family Judge for Swansea.

 

This does seem to be the right decision for the child, but it raises real questions about the 26 week timetable.  It has been a long-standing question as to what the Court of Appeal would do with a Judge that refused in an adoption case to allow a delay to assess a relative who came forward last minute, and now we know. If the Judge is robust and looking at the new wording of the Act and the principles of the Act in relation to delay and achieving finality, they run the risk of being successfully appealed.

 

There’s another Court of Appeal decision forthcoming which does much the same in relation to giving a parent more time to demonstrate the ability to provide good enough care (even when the proceedings had reached 64 weeks http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/991.html  ), so the message here is somewhat muddled.

In speeches, it is 26 weeks can happen, it must happen, it will happen.

 

In the cases that hit the Court of Appeal it seems to me more – 26 weeks can happen, it must happen, it will happen – but to those other cases, not the ones we’re looking at.

So can a Judge who delivers that sort of robust judgment, refusing delay, be confident that the Court of Appeal will back them?  That’s exactly what happened with the ‘robust case management’ that was supposed to be the underpinning of the Protocol and PLO Mark One.  If the Court of Appeal aren’t really behind the 26 weeks, and the appeal process takes forever (as presently), then won’ t Judges cut out the middle man, save time and just allow the adjournment requested knowing that the Court of Appeal will probably grant it eventually anyway?

 

 

*To be scrupulously fair, this Court of Appeal decision, though only now released, was decided in March BEFORE the Children and Families Act 2014 came into force. But hardly in ignorance of the culture, and the main judgment was delivered by Ryder LJ, a major architect of the revised PLO.

 

The President’s decision in Re S (26 weeks and extensions) Part 2

 

The judgment is on the previous blog (I’m sure it will be on Bailii shortly)

This case really turns on the provisions of the Children and Family Act 2014 that come into force on Tuesday 22nd April. What we have here, somewhat unusually, is a leading Judge giving authority as to the interpretation of an Act which has not yet come into force.  Sentence first, verdict later, as it were.

At least it avoids any other Judge giving a judgment on Tuesday or afterwards which doesn’t accord with the President’s view of the test, so we all know where we stand.    [In fairness, because the decision that was being sought was to adjourn the case well beyond 22nd April, the future provisions would have kicked in by the time that the case fell to be determined, so it might have been hard to simply ignore them]

 

On the facts of the particular case, this was about a mother with a history of substance misuse problems, on child number four, with the previous three having been removed. There had been drug tests within the proceedings showing  “at worst very low levels of drugs in the mother’s hair”

The proceedings began in October, and we are now April. The mother’s application was for a residential assessment, that would last for a period of six to twelve weeks and if successful that would be followed by an assessment in the community. That would obviously take the case beyond the 26 week target of the PLO (and of course, given that the Children and Families Act provisions about timescales come into force next week, by the time of any final hearing, that would go beyond the new statutory requirement of 26 weeks). There were, however, three expert reports suggesting that the mother was making progress and that such an assessment might bear fruit.

The President was therefore considering whether to grant the adjournment and application for residential assessment, and doing so against the backdrop of the 26 week statutory position and the new provisions of the Children and Families Act as to exceptional circumstances that justify an adjournment of 8 weeks beyond that.

What was also in his mind was the new statutory provisions about expert evidence (which in effect incorporates into section 38 of the Children Act the current Rule 25 Family Procedure Rules tests and guidance)

 

21. For present purposes the key point is the use in common in section 38(7A) of the 1989 Act, section 13(6) of the 2014 Act and FPR 25.1 of the qualifying requirement that the court may direct the assessment or expert evidence only if it is “necessary” to assist the court to resolve the proceedings. This phrase must have the same meaning in both contexts. The addition of the word “justly” only makes explicit what was necessarily implicit, for it goes without saying that any court must always act justly rather than unjustly. So “necessary” in section 38(7A) has the same meaning as the same word in section 13(6), as to which see Re TG (Care Proceedings: Case Management: Expert Evidence) [2013] EWCA Civ 5, [2013] 1 FLR 1250, para 30, and In re H-L (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Expert Evidence) [2013] EWCA Civ 655, [2014] 1 WLR 1160, [2013] 2 FLR 1434, para 3.

 

This is what the President says about the statutory provision that care proceedings should be concluded within 26 weeks

24. Section 32(1)(a)(ii) does not describe some mere aspiration or target, nor does it prescribe an average. It defines, subject only to the qualification in section 32(5) and compliance with the requirements of sections 32(6) and (7), a mandatory limit which applies to all cases. It follows that there will be many cases that can, and therefore should, be concluded well within the 26 week limit. I repeat what I said in my first ‘View from the President’s Chambers: The process of reform’, [2013] Fam Law 548:

“My message is clear and uncompromising: this deadline can be met, it must be met, it will be met. And remember, 26 weeks is a deadline, not a target; it is a maximum, not an average or a mean. So many cases will need to be finished in less than 26 weeks.”

 

The issue then was the statutory provision in s32(5)

 

            A court in which an application under this Part is proceeding may extend the period that is for the time being allowed under subsection (1)(a)(ii) in the case of the application, but may do so only if the court considers that the extension is necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly.

and what factors the Court should consider when determining whether to grant such an adjournment.

One might think that those factors are already set out in the Act

s32 (6)        When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court must in particular have regard to –

(a)        the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the welfare of the child to whom the application relates, and

(b)        the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the duration and conduct of the proceedings;

and here “ensuing timetable revision” means any revision, of the timetable under subsection (1)(a) for the proceedings, which the court considers may ensue from the extension.

(7)        When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court is to take account of the following guidance: extensions are not to be granted routinely and are to be seen as requiring specific justification.

The President cites various authorities  (Re B-S and Re NL notably, as authorities for the principle that there will be cases where an extension of time IS necessary to resolve the proceedings justly)

31. In what circumstances may the qualification in section 32(5) apply?

32. This is not the occasion for any elaborate discussion of a question which, in the final analysis, can be determined only on a case by case basis. But some preliminary and necessarily tentative observations are appropriate

Let’s look at those preliminary and tentative observations

34. There will, as it seems to me, be three different forensic contexts in which an extension of the 26 week time limit in accordance with section 32(5) may be “necessary”:

i)                    The first is where the case can be identified from the outset, or at least very early on, as one which it may not be possible to resolve justly within 26 weeks. Experience will no doubt identify the kind of cases that may fall within this category. Four examples which readily spring to mind (no doubt others will emerge) are (a) very heavy cases involving the most complex medical evidence where a separate fact finding hearing is directed in accordance with Re S (Split Hearing) [2014] EWCA Civ 25, [2014] 2 FLR (forthcoming), para 29, (b) FDAC type cases (see further below), (c) cases with an international element where investigations or assessments have to be carried out abroad and (d) cases where the parent’s disabilities require recourse to special assessments or measures (as to which see Re C (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 128, para 34).

ii)                   The second is where, despite appropriately robust and vigorous judicial case management, something unexpectedly emerges to change the nature of the proceedings too late in the day to enable the case to be concluded justly within 26 weeks. Examples which come to mind are (a) cases proceeding on allegations of neglect or emotional harm where allegations of sexual abuse subsequently surface, (b) cases which are unexpectedly ‘derailed’ because of the death, serious illness or imprisonment of the proposed carer, and (c) cases where a realistic alternative family carer emerges late in the day.

iii)                 The third is where litigation failure on the part of one or more of the parties makes it impossible to complete the case justly within 26 weeks (the type of situation addressed in In re B-S, para 49).

34. I repeat, because the point is so important, that in no case can an extension beyond 26 weeks be authorised unless it is “necessary” to enable the court to resolve the proceedings “justly”. Only the imperative demands of justice – fair process – or of the child’s welfare will suffice.

 

So, to skip to the chorus  – three categories of case where an extension might be warranted  (forgive my short-hand mnemonic prompts, which Malcolm Tucker has helped me devise)

 

1. The case was always going to be super-complicated from the outset (heavy duty fact-finding, FDAC cases, heavy duty international element, parents with disabilities such that specialised assessments are necessary)

“This case was fucked from the beginning”

2.  Something massive emerges during the proceedings – (fresh allegations that need to be resolved, death or imprisonment of a key player, a realistic family member comes forward late in the day  – “Auntie Beryl alert! Finally an answer – adjournment is going to be permissable for an Auntie Beryl situation!”)

“This case got fucked in the middle”

 3. Litigation failure on the part of one of the parties means that it would not be fair to conclude the proceedings

“Some fucker has fucked up”

 

The Judge then goes on to praise FDAC but delivers this guidance (which probably has wider applicability)

 

38. Viewed from a judicial perspective a vital component of the FDAC approach has to be a robust and realistic appraisal at the outset of what is possible within the child’s timescale and an equally robust and realistic ongoing appraisal throughout of whether what is needed is indeed being achieved (or not) within the child’s timescale. These appraisals must be evidence based, with a solid foundation, not driven by sentiment or a hope that ‘something may turn up’.

Typically three questions will have to be addressed. First, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent is committed to making the necessary changes? If so, secondly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to maintain that commitment? If so, thirdly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to make the necessary changes within the child’s timescale

 

I think those principles have wider applicability, because the President goes on to use them in this case, which although the background is drugs and alcohol, is NOT a FDAC case.

For this particular case, this is what the President says (bear in mind that this is NOT a final hearing, but an application to adjourn the final hearing and seek a residential assessment. As far as I can tell from the judgment, no live evidence was heard.  The remarks don’t leave much room for manoeuvre at final hearing…)

44. there is no adequate justification, let alone the necessity which section 32(5) of the 1989 Act will shortly require, for an extension of the case so significantly beyond 26 weeks. Again, there are two aspects to this. Looking to the mother, there is, sadly, at present no solid, evidence based, reason to believe that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale. Even assuming that there is some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that she is committed to making the necessary changes, there is, sadly, not enough reason to believe that she will be able to maintain that commitment. In the light of her history, and all the evidence to hand, the assertion that she will seems to me to be founded more on hope than solid expectation, just as does any assertion that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale. Secondly, I have to have regard to the detrimental effects on S of further delay. Far from this being a case where the child’s welfare demands an extension of the 26 weeks time limit, S’s needs point if anything in the other direction. I accept the guardian’s analysis.

 

If you were thinking that this was all very peculiar, I haven’t even got to the best bit

 

I have been sitting at Bournemouth in the Bournemouth and Poole County Court hearing a care case. It is a very typical County Court case

[There is nothing in the history of the litigation set out in the judgment that ever shows that the case was transferred from the County Court to the High Court. So is this binding authority about provisions of an Act which weren’t in force at the time the judgment was given, actually a County Court judgment? ]

 

 

 

relatives and 26 weeks – a reported Auntie Beryl case

 

It has been a vexed issue ever since the 26 week guillotine came in, heightened by the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal’s emphasis on adoption as ‘last resort’ where nothing else will do  – what is a Court actually going to do when a relative comes forward at week 20, week 22, week 24, and assessment of them would derail that all-important timetable?  This is something I dubbed the “Auntie Beryl” question, and it is one that crops up in these cases around the country.

We won’t really know until a Judge somewhere tells Auntie Beryl that she is too late, that she should have come forward sooner, that she can’t be assessed, and makes an adoption order. Then that will be appealed and the Court of Appeal will try to square that circle of “26 weeks” with “nothing else will do”

In this case, which is the first to touch on this point since it became a genuinely difficult issue  (since pre 26 weeks, the assessment would ordinarily be done), the High Court attempted to deal with it.

Re K (A minor) 2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/4580.html

The grandparents in the case put themselves forward as alernative carers really early on, just after the child was born. A “guardedly positive” viability assessment was prepared.  At a hearing in March 2013, the grandparents decided with a heavy heart that they weren’t able to offer a permanent home and withdrew.

However, by 6th March when the case came on at this court, grandmother and grandfather had come to the conclusion, I am sure with an extremely heavy heart and sadness and feelings of regret, that it was not right to pursue the application. The grandmother wrote on behalf of herself and her husband to the Circuit Judge. She wrote that that it was the hardest letter she had ever had to write, that they loved K and have a bond with him, but they want what is best for him. She said that although it broke their hearts, they had to put their feelings to one side and focus on K. She said that health issues which had not initially seemed significant enough to affect them caring for K, had come to the fore during the assessment process. She was having tests for Multiple Sclerosis, and the results so far were pointing towards an MS diagnosis. The grandfather, who had had a heart attack two and a half years previously, had started having chest pains. They had done a lot of soul searching, and after a lot of deliberation and tears, decided that it was unfair to K for them to put themselves forward as carers. They could not give him 100 per cent, which they believed he deserved. They wanted him to have the very best in life, and if they truly believed they could give him this, they would still be seeking special guardianship. But they had to be realistic, so that he could have a happy, loving, secure and stable upbringing. If their health deteriorated any more, it would be hard to meet all his needs. They would always have him in their hearts, and drew strength from knowing that he would have a happy loving childhood with a family that loves him. It would be unfair for him to live with them if he would then have to live with someone else because they were unable to care for him. They hoped that K would understand when he is older that they had done this for him, to give him the best possible life.

 

In due course, having completed assessments of the parents, the Local Authority’s plan was for adoption.

Today is 8th May 2013. Last Friday, the grandparents, through their solicitors, issued their application, returnable today. The grandmother wrote another letter to the court. She wrote that they had not expressed themselves correctly in her previous letter. They were 100 per cent committed. They had wanted to tell the judge the real reason that they were pulling out but could not, because they were scared that at a later date when K was older, he would read the letter and it would upset him. She said that they did have some health problems, but that the real reason for withdrawing was that they were terrified that if they were awarded special guardianship there was nothing to stop K’s mother or father seeking and obtaining custody of K. Then he would have been subjected to their lifestyle and would have been at risk. They have since learned that this could not happen because the parents’ legal aid funding had ceased and they would never be able to make an application. They had always thought and believed that K deserved to stay with and have the benefit of his loving, large, warm and close natural family, and this would be best for him emotionally.

 

The May hearing was pushing very close to the 26 week deadline. It certainly would not have been possible to undertake the Special Guardianship assessment within that period – in fact, the assessment would have required another 12 weeks, pushing the case from a six month case into a nine or ten month case.

The Court had a hearing to decide whether to grant the grandparents leave to apply for a Special Guardianship Order (i.e to delay the final hearing to obtain that assessment) and heard some limited evidence from the grandmother.  The Court referred to the case law in relation to applications for leave (although personally, I think the caselaw cited is somewhat out of date, and there is substantially more recent authority making it plain that it is a more nuanced procedure balancing all of the factors rather than Re M 1995’s rather ‘soundbite’ approach – the Court of Appeal in Re B (A child) 2012 [2012] EWCA Civ 737  – in fact, the Court of Appeal say that rather than s10(9) containing a ‘test’ or anything like a ‘test’ to be crossed it simply tells the Court to have ‘particular regard’ to certain factors, whilst other factors can by implication be weighed in the balance too)

The Judge concluded

    1. I am sure that this application is entirely well meant and good-hearted. But it is emotional, unconsidered, unrealistic, and not thought through, I suspect that the prospect of losing contact with K has been a very powerful factor here.

 

    1. No doubt in March the grandparents reached their considered but painful decision to agree to a firm plan for this little boy for adoption with difficulty, but focussing on the child. I am afraid that whatever the love that the grandparents have for K, that their approach at the moment is not child-focussed in the objective way required. The grandparents know very well that they cannot properly commit themselves to this task. This came through in the grandmother’s evidence, when she had to face up to reality. They know that their health problems are important. They are aware of the potential disruption which could be created for K, particularly by his father, but perhaps by the mother too when she is in a less sanguine state of mind, for the rest of K’s minority. Although Mr. Taylor quite rightly stresses the benefits of this warm and close family, that was available in March when they made their decision.

 

  1. I am satisfied that there is a very significant risk that the proposed application will disrupt K’s life to such an extent that he would be harmed by it. I am quite satisfied having had the opportunity to assess in sharp and painful focus what the problems are likely to be, that this application has no real prospect of success. So I do not simply bring the guillotine down on the basis of 26 weeks. This is a summary decision but it is welfare based nonetheless, and based on an evaluation of the facts. It is for me to factor in all these considerations in K’s interests. Therefore I refuse the application.

 

Not quite an Auntie Beryl case in that the Court felt that there was enough information to say in effect that the grandparents application was not going to be successful even if the proceedings were delayed – rather than there being a paucity of information about the family member due to late presentation.

Parker J then gave some general guidance

    1. Cases where relataives or friends come forward at the last minute are likely to present the greatest challenges to the court in complying with the 26 week limit. The Court has a duty to consider whether there are alternatives to a care order. But in my view the court is entitled to dismiss such an application without detailed assessment and must take into account delay.

 

    1. Some measures may assist the court to manage such applications :-

 

a. Orders must record that parents have been advised that failure to identify family members at an early stage is likely to preclude their assessment and that the case will not be adjourned.

b. Where a relative has come forward and then withdraws a court should record that that person understands that this is their final decision and is unlikely be revisited without the strongest justification.

c. Any application for further assessment or joinder by a relative or other person must be resolved very swiftly. Such applications will usually be able to be dealt with on paper. Oral evidence, to be adduced only if necessary and proportionate, should be short and focussed.

I agree with Nick

Ah, those heady days of the televised election debates, where Brown and Cameron were falling over themselves to position as the party who most agreed with Nick Clegg, and for a time Nick Clegg had the brightest burning star in British politics…

 

No, this is about District Judge Nicholas Crichton, and his very firm views about the PLO.  For those who don’t know D J Crichton, he is the pioneering judge behind the Family Drug and Alcohol Court in London, which has done so much to help troubled families and children.  He is not the ,ost influential or powerful family judge in the country – the Daily Mail wouldn’t be able to call him “Top Judge” but he is one that most of the profession look up to as a thoroughly decent, committed and imaginative judge who has tried to help those who come before him.

Therefore, when he speaks out, what he says is worth listening to.

http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/pioneering-family-court-on-the-edge/5038532.article

 

And what he says here is that the rigid 26 week mandate is a tyranny that will lead to grave injustice for individual families who could have turned things around given the time, and he urges solicitors to appeal decisions where the 26 week mandate is rigidly imposed.

I think regular readers of this blog will know that I share those concerns myself – not that aspiring to cut out delay and the ‘dead time’ in care proceedings where nothing happened other than waiting for experts is a bad idea, rather that the rigidity of ‘one size fits all’ was inevitably going to lead to some cases being decided at the wrong time for that family.  So yes, largely I do agree with Nick.

I possibly agree less vehemently than I would have done two months ago. I think that DJ Crichton suspects now, as I did then, that the 26 week mandate was part of a greater political drive to faster and more adoptions and that troubled families weren’t going to be given a fair and reasonable chance to turn things around.  My only interpretation of the recent batch of Court of Appeal cases is that there is some judicial moving around of chess pieces on the board to lay the foundations for less adoptions and more Care Orders at home, with Local Authorities being ordered to hold onto higher levels of risk than they have historically been prepared to, and to provide more services at home to families than have historically been available.

It might be argued that this is long overdue, it might be argued that as we have a Child and Families Bill going through Parliament, that a proper and thorough debate about what Society and Parliament wants to do about families who come into the family justice system – are we there to penalise them, to test them, to help them, to prop them up? would have been the appropriate place for such a shift in national policy to happen.

 

Historical amputations and lessons

 

Warning, yet again this blog post contains testicles – like the last one (and no doubt, some critics would say, most of them so far have been b******s throughout)

 

In the early days of surgical procedure, one man stood as a giant amongst his fellow professionals. Liston, often called “The Fastest Knife in the West End”.  In those days, prior to anaesthetics, the priority was to get the job done quickly, to get the ordeal over with as soon as possible and hopefully leave the patient alive.  One of Liston’s specialities was limb amputation, and he was well reknowned for being able to remove a limb in less than two and a half minutes. Of course, during one of his lightening fast amputations he took the patients testicles along with the leg. On another, it is said that he was sawing and cutting so fast that he took his assistant’s fingers off in the process, and also accidentally cut a nearby spectator. As the patient, spectator, and assistant ALL died of their wounds, this is said to be the least successful operation in history, having had a 300% death rate.

BUT overall , the death rate in Liston’s procedures was 1 in 10, as opposed to the usual 1 in 4.  And of course, Liston left medicine with one of the biggest advances ever, being the man who introduced anaesthesia to British medicine and gave it world-wide credibility (the chloroform he used was in practice in America, but Liston popularised its use).  Ironically of course, this made his lightening fast surgical skills rather redundant, as for the first time a surgeon could work with care and precision without risking the patient’s life.

 

It occurs to me, therefore, and this little vignette seemed a decent illustration of it, that speed isn’t always the best measure of something, and that being faster and faster for the sake of it doesn’t necessarily achieve the best results. The Family Justice Review looked very carefully and thoughtfully at how we could make care proceedings more efficient – meaning both faster and less costly, taking as an unspoken premise that our system was already getting good results and what we had to do now was just get them quicker and cheaper.  We already had the leg amputation techniques down pat, we just needed to get more efficient at it.

As has been evident to me from writing this blog, and thrown into even sharper focus with the furore about the decision of the President in Re J 2013, there’s a counter opinion to that unspoken premise. There are plenty of voices saying that actually, we aren’t currently getting the core function of family justice (to achieve the right and fair outcome in cases) and that speeding up the process isn’t going to put that right.

Now, I happen to believe that in the overwhelming majority of cases, if one looked at them independently, they would be achieving the right and fair outcomes. One can’t realistically expect a parent who loses their child to feel anything other than hurt and aggrieved and devastated. You’re not ever going to reach a system whereby every parent nods at the end of the case and says “Yeah, that was a fair cop”, but are those who speak out about the system just parents who haven’t come to terms with an awful and painful (but objectively fair decision) or are they actually as they report, the victims of injustice? Are even some of them?

 

I don’t mean do social workers sometimes make mistakes? Of course they do. All professions make mistakes. I mean, do we have confidence that the system we have in place – which gives the parents the chance to see the evidence against them down on paper, to see all relevant records, to have free legal advice, to question witnesses who accuse them of things, to call their own witnesses to support them, and all of that being determined by a Court who are unbiased and fair and start from the principle that children ought to be at home with parents if at all posible – does that system, catch the times when social workers have got it wrong, have come to a conclusion that might not be the best for the child?

I personally believe and hope that our system does that, but it doesn’t really matter what I believe and hope. We deal in evidence.  When the State is given power by the Government, to make recommendations about whether children should live with families, or be adopted, and where the Court is given power by the Government to make the decisions about whether those recommendations are correct; we need to remind ourselves that those powers are exercised in the name of the public, and it is therefore essential that the public have confidence that a system is in place that whilst individual errors might sneak through from time to time, is not inherently flawed or failing.

 

This is a debate which needs to take place. Not just ‘how can we do it cheaper, how can we do it faster’   – but is the system strong enough to get things right and learn from those cases where mistakes are made?  It was very easy in Re J to allow criticism of social workers to take place in the public domain, but did the Court really “own” their own decision-making? That child was removed, and remained in foster care because the Court decided so. The LA ask for the orders, but the Court decide whether or not to make them. If there’s blame there  (and we really don’t know about Re J, because no information about the case is in the public domain) part of that blame rests with the Court too.

With that in mind, I can see why the President is in favour of greater transparency, both in his plans to publish anonymised judgments as a matter of routine and in the RE J case of allowing criticisms of the system in language that might seem emotionally loaded to remain in the public domain (so long as the identity of the child remains secret). In doing so, an awful lot changes, and as yet, we don’t know how much will change and in what ways. As the ruler of China said about his thoughts on the French Revolution “It is too early to say”

 

With these changes, the 26 week timetable, the financial pressure on family law solicitors and the prospect of more and more advice deserts spreading across the country, these are watershed moments for family justice.  I’ve seen in a relatively short few years, cases move from the occasional parent being a heavy cannabis smoker to large proportions of cases being about heroin and crack addiction; I’ve seen the internet move from dial-up and “Page not found” – effectively a slower form of Ceefax, to becoming a fixture in most people’s lives, somewhere that can make publishers, documentary makers, journalists of almost anyone who chooses to be one. The times, they are a changing.

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