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Child giving evidence

Very quick one – this is an appeal just decided, about a 14 year old girl who wished to give evidence in care proceedings. She was saying that the allegations made against her father (about sexual abuse of her younger sibling) were not true, and thus the father was not a risk to her or her sister and her mother had not failed to protect.

 

The Local Authority and the Guardian were both saying that what the girl was saying was not correct  ( This might have covered either that she just didn’t know about the abuse or that she was lying to protect her parents) but that she should not give evidence and the trial Judge had agreed with that.

 

The Court of Appeal ruled that this decision was wrong – this was a witness who had capacity, who was willing to give evidence, she had filed a statement and the contents of that evidence was being challenged and it went to a material issue. The girl should have been able to give evidence, and if her evidence in her statement was not right for that to have been tested in cross-examination.

 

(Of course a Local Authority when bringing care proceedings on a child feels uncomfortable about cross-examining that child and causing them emotional harm, and similarly the Guardian is in a tough position cross-examining a child, but in a situation like this, the child has to be able to give evidence if she wishes)

 

Re R (children) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/167.html

 

  1. In civil litigation the general rule is that where a party witness provides an appropriately verified written statement of her evidence, and is willing to attend for cross-examination, the court cannot be invited by other parties to disbelieve that evidence on a matter within her personal knowledge, unless it has been tested in cross-examination. This is a basic and deep-rooted aspect of the fair conduct of a trial, and reflects the central role which cross-examination plays in the ascertainment of the truth.
  2. It is therefore very unusual to find, as in the present case, a situation where the parties who do wish to challenge verified statement evidence from a party witness with the closest personal knowledge of the relevant events, seek to persuade the judge not to allow that witness to attend for the necessary cross-examination, where the witness herself positively desires to do so. Of course the motivation for this persuasion is of the very highest, namely an understandable concern for the young witness’s welfare. But for that concern, one would expect it to be common ground that there was a need for the witness to attend for cross-examination, since she denies in her evidence the very thing which the Local Authority seek to prove, namely that both she and her sister have been sexually abused by their father.
  3. To my mind it is the absence of any real recognition of the basic importance of the cross-examination of GR to a fair trial of the serious issues in this case, in the judge’s judgment or even in the respondents’ submissions on this appeal, that makes it necessary that the appeal should be allowed. I would regard the welfare implications of the choice whether to permit her to give oral evidence and to be cross-examined as being evenly balanced. The risk of harm which the process may cause to this bright and articulate fourteen year old does not seem to me to be more substantial than the risk of long-term harm at being denied the opportunity to have her evidence properly weighed in the determination by a court of matters of the utmost importance to her.

Judicial appointment is not a licence to be gratuitously rude

 

You may recall His Honour Judge Dodds, who has not had the best time with appeals in the lifespan of this blog.

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/02/02/sentence-first-verdict-afterwards/

where he made full Care Orders at the first hearing, when none of the parties were expecting that or asking for it.

 

and

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/07/02/go-on-then-appeal-me-i-dare-you/

 

Where the Judge refused to assess family members largely because they were in Poland and offered the remarkable sentence of “If you don’t like it, there is always the Court of Appeal”

 

And this is the one that I’ve been waiting for.

Re A (Children) 2015

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed143386

 

This was an appeal, arising from the conduct of a hearing. The Judge was asked for several things at that hearing. The mother and father both applied to discharge the Care Order and for more contact. The child SA, asked for DNA testing, saying that she had always had doubts that the father was really her biological father.

It is quite a short judgment, and practically every line of it is remarkable. This is the sort of thing that people who disapprove of the family justice system can rightly point to and say “This is the sort of thing that goes on”

In this case, the appeal was probably the easiest that the Court of Appeal have ever had to deal with – every single aspect of the hearing was wrong and improper. So in this case, the system screwed up royally, but then worked because an appeal put things right. But what we can never know is how many times something a bit like this happens and the advocates don’t appeal. Either they can’t get funding, or their client doesn’t want to, or they take the view that appealing a Judge who approaches things in this way is going to be counter productive in the future  (the “don’t poke an angry bear with a stick” argument)

 

It is a terrible indictment and this case makes sorry reading. The only consolation really is that the child herself was not in Court.

 

5. The importance of and the right of children to know the identity of their biological father has long been recognised and has only recently been restated by the President in Re Z (Children) [2014] EWHC 1999 Fam. Para 5. An application under section 55A is the proper procedural route in order to determine the parentage of a child. It must therefore have caused Ms Roberts and Mr Saunders (who acted on behalf of the Local Authority), considerable consternation when the judge, having dismissed out of hand the father’s application to discharge the care order as, “Factious” and the mother’s as, “An affront”, turned to Mr Saunders and told him that in relation to the section 55A application, “You may want to put your crash helmet on”.

6. Mr Saunders and Ms Roberts valiantly tried to explain to the judge what they sought and why they sought it, only to be met with evermore intemperate responses from the judge. In relation, for example, to the cost of the DNA testing, Ms Roberts told the judge that Legal Aid would paid for it. The response was, “You can pay for it if you want, I will let you. In fact, I am half minded to make an order that you do so”. Judge Dodds continued, “If she (meaning SA) told you that the moon is made of green cheese will you say, ‘Yes, S, no, S, three bags full S?” He continued: “The lunatics have truly taken over the asylum” and “For heaven sake, in this day and age especially, just because the lunatic says, ‘I want, I want’, you do not have to respond by spoon feeding their every wish”. The judge went on to comment, “Can I tell you how bitterly resentful I am at how much of my Saturday I spent reading this codswallop”.

7. Finally, the judge in dealing with the actual application said, “There is not a syllable of evidence before me to warrant making the order you seek and so it is refused”. He went concluded:

“At lest there be a nanosecond’s doubt as to the application for an order under section 55A of the Family Law Act 1986, I am nothing short of appalled that it was thought that public funds could be expended upon such nonsense. And I tell you I am within a hair’s breadth of ordering that any costs incurred in respect of that application should be paid by you.”

 

 

The Appeal Court, as indicated earlier, had no trouble in deciding that the appeal had to be granted and the case sent back to a different Judge for re-hearing.

 

9. In my judgment, it is not necessary to consider the merits of the application itself. The submission that the hearing amounted to a serious procedural irregularity is unanswerable. Each of the points made in the skeleton argument are made good when the transcript is considered. The judge did not allow proper submissions to be made; the premature threat of costs inevitably, and rightly, gave the impression that the judge had a closed mind in relation to the application and no proper reasons were given for the decision to dismiss the application. The manner in which the hearing was conducted went far beyond anything that could be characterised as robust case management.

10. In the event, neither parent attended the hearing, fortunately, although not surprisingly, SA was not there either. Even so, the unrestrained and immoderate language used by the judge must, I am afraid, be deplored and is wholly unacceptable. Such bombast can only leave advocates seeking to present, on instructions, their cases to the court feeling browbeaten and impotent and, rightly, as though their lay clients have been denied a fair hearing.

 

 

and

 

The transcript of the hearing makes embarrassing reading and I hope that Judge Dodds will read it for himself and be ashamed of his behaviour on that particular occasion. Appointment as a judge, at whatever level, is not a license for intemperate language or for being gratuitously rude to advocates and others appearing before you. Judge Dodds’ behaviour on that occasion was beyond what is permissible. It meant that there was a serious procedural irregularity. That particular hearing was not fair. I do emphasise that my remarks concern only that one particular hearing. However, this appeal must be allowed.

 

I am aware that the newspapers in Liverpool made enquiries about whether there was an investigation or complaint into judicial conduct as a result, and were told that there was not, because no complaint had been received.  One does not want to see judicial complaints made each and every time a Judge loses an appeal or gets something wrong, but you might think that an appeal judgment as serious as this might be a trigger for an investigation without a formal complaint being made.

 

[In case you are ever before a Court and this sort of thing happens, and I very much hope that it never does, there is a formal body who deal with complaints about judicial conduct, as a separate body to the appeal process which deals with the decision made.

 

http://judicialconduct.judiciary.gov.uk/making-a-complaint.htm

Re D (part 2) a damp squid

 

 

The President’s judgment in Re D  (part 2) is up.  The blog post about part 1 is here:-

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/11/03/everyone-really-ought-to-read-re-d/

Re D is the case in which parents had a care order at home, the LA removed under the Care order, there was no legal aid to challenge that decision despite father lacking capacity to instruct a solicitor. Then the LA lodged an application for a Placement Order, and as it was not joined up with care proceedings, there was no legal aid for THAT either.

Father’s legal team were not only acting for free, but they had to write the Official Solicitor an indemnity that if a costs order was made against the O/S they would pay it. Which is above and beyond.

So Part 2 is all about whether Legal Aid would be granted for the father under s10 LASPO (exceptional circumstances) and if not, what would happen.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/2.html

 

Annoyingly, as keeps happening before the President, the Legal Aid Agency eventually blinked and granted funding, thus avoiding a judgment that might declare that s10 LASPO as being practiced is incompatible with article 6.  So we don’t get a valuable precedent because there was no live issue to try. Grrrr.

 

However, note that the public funding granted here is still subject to an ongoing merits review  (that’s NOT what happens in care proceedings – even if your case looks hopeless you are still entitled to have a lawyer fight it for you)

 

The next hearing took place on 2 December 2014. As can be seen from the Annex, the final piece of the legal aid jigsaw had fallen into place the day before. My order recited the position as follows:

“The Father has a substantive funding certificate to cover all work undertaken to date and up to a final hearing in both the s.39 CA 1989 and s.21 ACA 2002 applications. The Official Solicitor will, in the usual manner, conduct an ongoing review as to the merits of the case and this may effect whether the funding certificate will remain in place.

The Mother has a substantive certificate to cover the period up to the exchange of final evidence in respect of both the s.39 CA 1989 and s.21 ACA 2002 applications, whereupon it will be subject to a merits review and report to the LAA which will determine whether the certificate will be extended to cover the final hearing.”

 

So it could be that if all of the professional evidence is against the parents, they will have no legal aid to have lawyers to challenge and test that evidence at a final hearing, although what is at stake is adoption.

 

The President has strong views about this (though note that parents routinely don’t get lawyers to help them on applications for leave to oppose the making of adoption orders, which also feels pretty shabby to me)

I have set out the parents’ legal aid position in paragraph 14 above. It will be noticed that there is, as yet, no assurance that legal aid will be in place for the final hearing. This causes me some disquiet. Whatever view may be taken as to their prospects of success at the final hearing, a matter on which I express no views whatever, though recognising, as I have earlier noted (Re D, para 9), that the report of the independent social worker is unfavourable to the parents, I would view with the very gravest concern any suggestion that they should be denied legal aid on ‘merits’ grounds. Given the extreme gravity of the issues at stake and their various problems and difficulties, it is, as I said before (Re D, paras 3, 31), unthinkable that the parents should have to face the local authority’s application without proper representation. I repeat what I said in my earlier judgment:

“To require them to do so would be unconscionable; it would be unjust; it would involve a breach of their rights under Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention; it would be a denial of justice.”

A parent facing the permanent removal of their child must be entitled to put their case to the court, however seemingly forlorn, and that must surely be as much the right of a parent with learning disabilities (as in the case of the mother) or a parent who lacks capacity (as in the case of the father) as of any other parent. It is one of the oldest principles of our law – it goes back over 400 centuries to the earliest years of the seventeenth century – that no-one is to be condemned unheard. I trust that all involved will bear this in mind.

 

The really sad thing about this case is encapsulated by the mother

  1. This is a case about three human beings. It is a case which raises the most profound issues for each of these three people. The outcome will affect each of them for the rest of their lives. Even those of us who spend our lives in the family courts can have but a dim awareness of the agony these parents must be going through as they wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, to learn whether or not their child is to be returned to them. Yet for much of the time since their son was taken from them – for far too much of that time – the focus of the proceedings has had to be on the issue of funding, which has indeed been the primary focus of the last three hearings. The parents can be forgiven for thinking that they are trapped in a system which is neither compassionate nor even humane.
  2. I leave the last word to the mother, who, together with her husband, was present at the hearing on 2 December 2014 as at previous hearings. In an up-dating note dated 8 December 2014, her counsel, Ms Sarah Morgan QC and Ms Lucy Sprinz, said this:

    “The mother was distressed following the last hearing that the child had not, as far as she had heard it, even been mentioned during the course of the submissions and discussions between Counsel (including her own) and the Court. It doesn’t, she remarked afterwards, seem right that so much time has to be taken up about the legal aid when it should be about D.”

    They added, “Clearly she is right about that.” For my own part I merely pose this question: Is this really the best we can do?

 

Hear hear.

Equally, it can’t be a decent solution to this situation that we have to get a case before the President before the Legal Aid Agency will blink and see sense. He can’t hear all of them.

The annexe is shocking- it has taken nine months of wrangling to sort out legal aid for something that most people would assume was automatic.

I completely agree with the position of the ALC (Association of Lawyers for Children) and ADCS  (Association of Directors of Childrens Services)  – parents facing an application for a placement order should get non-means, non-merits public funding regardless of when the application takes place.

 

…the ALC makes these two assertions:

    1. “Section 10 of LASPO is not being implemented so as to provide the safety net for the most vulnerable.
    1. Placement orders in particular should be included in those proceedings for which non-means-tested and non-merits-tested public funding is provided.”
  1. I draw attention to two of the points made by the ADCS. The first is that:

    “From the perspective of a child on a journey to a permanent placement, ADCS would argue that the impact of a care order and a placement order are effectively equivalent; the same is true of their impact on the child’s parents. ADCS would therefore argue that equivalent checks and balances are required before either order is made. There appears to be no logic to support treating the orders differently simply because they have become decoupled in complex proceedings

    In this case it would appear to ADCS that the application of the current legal aid rules has led to an injustice and could create a detrimental impact on the child in question. We would agree with the court that the State has created a problem by introducing these rules and should therefore find a means of resolving the problem.”

     

    [For the benefit of pedants, yes, I know it is ‘squib’, but I like that particular eggcorn. Actually, this case isn’t quite as damp as it appeared when I first read it, because there’s a rap over the knuckles for LASPO here, although it doesn’t end up being the declaration of incompatibility that many were hoping for]

Human rights claim – £12,000

 

This is the decision of Bellamy J, sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge.

 

Re H (A child) 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/38.html

 

In this case, the LA accepted that their actions had breached the parents article 8 and article 6 rights, and the only issue was whether there should be a financial penalty, and the scale of it.

 

I’ve rather given the whole plot away (in the style of a cinema trailer that shows you everything that happens in the film) in the title – the parents were awarded £6,000 each.

 

What was the nature of the breach? Well, in effect it was that the LA had obtained written consents from the parents for their child to be in voluntary care, but had not followed the principles of fairness in ensuring that the parents actually understood what they were signing up to and their right to say no.  (You will recall that the High Court gave a powerful precedent on this issue in Re C – particularly where a parent might be lacking capacity)

 

In this case, to be fair, the social worker picked up straight away that these parents might have some cognitive or learning difficulties.

  1. The local authority conducted an investigation pursuant to s.47 of the Children Act 1989. The assessment was completed on 29th May. The local authority considered that the parents had concealed the pregnancy. The local authority concluded that H was at risk of significant harm from her parents due to the concealed pregnancy, the parents’ learning needs and their limited support networks and that it would therefore be unsafe to discharge H into her parents’ care at that time.
  2. During the course of the assessment the local authority social worker noted that the parents’ learning difficulties were evident during discussions and that the parents appeared to have difficulty in understanding and processing information. She discussed her concerns with her manager. She did not take any steps to explore this issue further

 

Thus missing the boat. That would have been the time to get a cognitive assessment done, to establish what the parents issues were and find out the best way to work with them.  It didn’t happen, and arrangements were made for the child without any real consideration of whether the parents properly understood what they were agreeing to.

There is no record of the parents having been provided with an explanation of all of the available options or of the consequences if they did not consent to H being cared for by Mr and Mrs B or of there having been any discussion about how long this ‘informal’ placement might last. They were advised to seek legal advice if they were unhappy with this plan and were provided with a complaints leaflet. The parents did not seek legal advice.

 

 

The case moved to another social worker, who again picked up on the learning difficulty issue immediately.

 

The case was transferred to the local authority’s long-term childcare team in August 2013. The social worker later raised concerns with her manager about the lack of progress in completing an assessment of the parents. She suspected that this may be linked to what she believed to be the parents’ learning disability. The social worker was also concerned that the parents appeared not to have fully understood what they were agreeing to when H was placed with Mr and Mrs B. The parents were anxious to know when H would be returned to their care

 

Did that resolve it? Well, not quite.

  1. In October 2013 the Team manager sought advice from senior management. This led to a legal planning meeting being convened. The meeting took place on 12th November 2013. The meeting recognised that the placement of H with Mr and Mrs B was not a private fostering arrangement and yet was clearly a ‘placement’ as it was initiated by the local authority. The meeting decided,

    (1) that the parents should be asked to give their retrospective consent to the placement of H in the voluntary care of the local authority pursuant to s.20 of the Children Act 1989 with effect from the date she had been with Mr and Mrs B (7th June 2013);

    (2) that there should be an urgent cognitive functioning assessment of both parents in order to inform the local authority assessment and how best to work with the parents.

    (3) that if the parents refused to consent to H being accommodated under s.20 and placed with Mr and Mrs B and/or to co-operate with arrangements for a cognitive functioning assessment, then the local authority would commence care proceedings.

  2. It was also agreed that the social worker would meet with the parents to discuss the decisions made by the legal planning meeting. It was accepted that H, her parents and Mr and Mrs B had been subjected to unacceptable delay and uncertainty and that the need for conversation with the parents was now urgent.

 

 

Absolutely right that there should be a cognitive assessment. But to try to get the parents to sign a s20 agreement when there was a doubt as to their capacity can’t be right. This is of course after the Re CA decision, so obviously some people haven’t read it. Let me set out those principles again

i) Every parent has the right, if capacitous, to exercise their parental responsibility to consent under Section 20 to have their child accommodated by the local authority and every local authority has power under Section 20(4) so to accommodate provided that it is consistent with the welfare of the child.

ii) Every social worker obtaining such a consent is under a personal duty (the outcome of which may not be dictated to them by others) to be satisfied that the person giving the consent does not lack the capacity to do so.

iii) In taking any such consent the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity and take into account all the circumstances prevailing at the time and consider the questions raised by Section 3 of the 2005 Act, and in particular the mother’s capacity at that time to use and weigh all the relevant information.

iv) If the social worker has doubts about capacity no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.

v) If the social worker is satisfied that the person whose consent is sought does not lack capacity, the social worker must be satisfied that the consent is fully informed:

a) Does the parent fully understand the consequences of giving such a consent?
b) Does the parent fully appreciate the range of choice available and the consequences of refusal as well as giving consent?
c) Is the parent in possession of all the facts and issues material to the giving of consent?
vi) If not satisfied that the answers to a) – c) above are all ‘yes’, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought as above and the social work team should further consider taking legal advice if thought necessary.

vii) If the social worker is satisfied that the consent is fully informed then it is necessary to be further satisfied that the giving of such consent and the subsequent removal is both fair and proportionate.

viii) In considering that it may be necessary to ask:

a) what is the current physical and psychological state of the parent?
b) If they have a solicitor, have they been encouraged to seek legal advice and/or advice from family or friends?
c) Is it necessary for the safety of the child for her to be removed at this time?
d) Would it be fairer in this case for this matter to be the subject of a court order rather than an agreement?
ix) If having done all this and, if necessary, having taken further advice (as above and including where necessary legal advice), the social worker then considers that a fully informed consent has been received from a capacitous mother in circumstances where removal is necessary and proportionate, consent may be acted upon.

x) In the light of the foregoing, local authorities may want to approach with great care the obtaining of Section 20 agreements from mothers in the aftermath of birth, especially where there is no immediate danger to the child and where probably no order would be made.

 

IF YOU DOUBT that a parent has capacity, you really shouldn’t be getting them to sign ANYTHING, particularly not a section 20 agreement.

 

Back to the case – the cognitive assessment didn’t arrive until 1st April 2014 – yes, eleven months after the issue was first spotted, and six months after it was spotted the second time around and a Legal Planning Meeting recommended it.

 

Perhaps my experience is unusual, but having worked at seven local authorities, I’ve never had a difficulty in obtaining a cognitive assessment – they aren’t reports that take a long time to produce – you can normally get them within 2-3 weeks of asking the doctor to provide them.

 

Oh wait, I’m wrong. That was the date of the APPOINTMENT. The report itself didn’t turn up for another 8 weeks, at the end of May. So yes, a year had passed between thinking the parents had learning difficulties and getting a cognitive.

 

To paraphrase Edmund Blackadder, we may have been at home for Mr and Mrs Cock-up here.

 

Here’s what the cognitive assessment said

  1. It is appropriate to set out Dr James’ conclusions at this stage in the narrative though she did not, in fact, report until 27th May 2014.
  2. With respect to the mother, Dr James says that all of her scores fell within the borderline range, indicating consistently limited functioning across all areas. With respect to the father, Dr James says that:

    ‘While [the mother’s] scores give a consistent picture of Borderline abilities, the distribution of [the father’s] scores, ranging as they do from Learning Disability, through Borderline to Average, is unusual, and presents a complex picture. As a result of this intellectual profile, [the father’s] ability to understand, process and use verbally mediated information and concepts is significantly below what might be expected, given his ability in other areas. This is likely to present a very real limitation for him in everyday life. The most likely explanation for this very specific impairment is that it is related to his epilepsy.’

  3. Dr James gave advice on how the parents should be approached. With respect to the mother, Dr James said that:

    ‘As far as information and advice presented verbally are concerned, [the mother] has a reasonable ability to understand this, and I would expect her to be able to cope well with the kind of discussion likely to take place during a parenting assessment. She will seem at times to be a little slow to respond to what is said, but if you wait for an answer she will give it in a way which shows that she has understood the question.’

    With respect to the father, Dr James advised that:

    ‘Allowance will need to be made for [the father’s] specific difficulties with verbal comprehension…Of particular importance in the course of the assessment will be not expecting him to portray verbally what he is capable of, since he can evidence this more effectively through practical means. In other words, his behaviour rather than his descriptions will be the best guide to what he can achieve.’

  • In a subsequent letter, Dr James gave the following further guidance so far as the father is concerned. She said that, 

    ‘The following guidance is intended to help his Solicitor to support him to have full capacity in the Proceedings. At the beginning of an appointment, [the father] can present with rushed speech, and a jumbled account of recent events. He needs a little time to settle down, after which he will become more coherent, and can be systematically led through the information he wants to convey. He responds well to direct questioning. Advice given to him should be expressed carefully to avoid ambiguity. Ideally, each sentence should contain one idea only, with a pause at the end of the sentence for this to be absorbed, before offering the next piece of advice or information. It can also be helpful to specifically remind him to listen carefully to important points.’

 

But you know, maybe these parents were unknown quantities and that explained some of the problem. Nope.

 

  1. Given that the father was in the care of this local authority during his own childhood, much of this information about his presentation and functioning should have been contained in the local authority’s earlier case file and should, therefore, have been available to the local authority when it became involved with the father again following the birth of H.
  2. The local authority finally issued these care proceedings on 29th April, 2014. H was born on 16th May, 2013. She was, therefore, fast approaching her first birthday when these proceedings were issued. It took this local authority almost a year to issue these proceedings. That delay was unjustified and inexcusable.

 

Where the Local Authority did recover some mild credit was in ‘fessing up once these mistakes came to light, rather than trying to defend the indefensible.

  1. Sonia Grant, Service Manager in the local authority’s Children In Need Service, filed a written statement. Most of the narrative set out above is based on Ms Grant’s evidence. Ms Grant concedes that in this case the performance of this local authority has fallen below acceptable standards. She says,

    ‘4.1 The local authority’s review of the events surrounding both situations has identified serious practice issues relating to the identification of [the mother’s] capacity to give consent, particularly in respect of the placement with Mr and Mrs B in June 2013.

    4.2 The parents’ capacity to consent was not fully considered or explored at all the key stages of the assessment and decision-making process…

    4.5 The placement with Mr and Mrs B was clearly a ‘Section 20 placement’ made by the local authority, who would have had to place H in foster care and possibly initiate care proceedings if Mr and Mrs B could not care for her. The Legal Planning Meeting held on 12th November attempted to bring the matter back on track to avoid further delay, but there was a significant delay in arranging the cognitive functioning assessment which only added to the delays within the case.

    4.6 The local authority accepts that the social work judgments and decision-making within this case fell below what was required at key points, and failed to fully take account of the combined complexities of the parents and H’s competing needs in a timely and child-centred way.

    4.7 The issues about parental capacity to give consent that occurred within this case have highlighted the urgent need to ensure social workers are aware of their responsibilities in this area. Therefore, the local authority intends to urgently address this training issue to avoid this happening again.’

  2. It is against that background that the local authority accepts that it has breached the parents’ rights under Article 6 and Article 8 and that it is appropriate for the court to make declarations. With respect to the declarations sought by the mother, the local authority concedes that it has acted in breach of the mother’s Article 6 and Article 8 rights in that it:

    1. failed to issue proceedings in a timely manner;

    2. failed to involve the parents in the decision making process;

    3. failed to take steps to explore concerns regarding the mother’s lack of understanding [though making the point that at the meeting on 18th November 2013 the social worker was satisfied that the parents were able to provide informed consent to s.20 accommodation at that stage];

    4. should not have sought the parents’ consent on 31st May 2013 or taken their proposals of alternative carers as consent to the placement with Mr and Mrs B;

    5. placed insufficient weight on the parents’ clearly expressed wish to care for H themselves;

    6. failed to explain all available options, timescales and the consequences if they did not consent to H being cared for by Mr and Mrs B;

    7. should not have asked the mother to sign an agreement on 3rd June 2013 consenting to placement away from the parents;

    8. permitted H to be cared for away from her parents against their expressly stated wishes;

    9. failed to acknowledge that they had placed H with Mr and Mrs B or to undertake a written viability assessment of Mr and Mrs B [though noting that it did undertake routine checks, interviews and a review of the accommodation in the process of making a decision that it was a safe arrangement for H]; and

    10. significantly delayed in assessing the parents’ capacity to parent H.

  3. With respect to the declarations sought by the father, the local authority concedes that it acted in breach of the father’s Article 6 and Article 8 rights in that it:

    1. failed to provide him with appropriate information as to the consequences of not consenting to s.20 accommodation;

    2. failed to consider or explore his capacity to consent to s.20 accommodation before removing H from his care;

    3. permitted unacceptable delay and uncertainty in the assessment process; and

    4. by its flawed procedures, deprived the father of living with H for the first year of her life [though being of the view that both parents have complex histories and difficulties and that H’s removal pending assessment of the parents was necessary to ensure her safety].

 

Having established those breaches, the Court then turned to the issue of damages. It is too law geek for the general public, but the judgment does set out an helpful analysis of the law and judicial approach towards making punitive awards in family law cases. It would be a decent starting point for skeletons for and against the principle.

 

  1. In the case with which I am now concerned H is these parents’ first child. Whilst it may be the case that had the local authority issued care proceedings soon after H was born an interim care order would have been made, the fact is that proceedings were not commenced promptly. They were not issued until shortly before H’s first birthday. It was not until June 2014 that these parents eventually managed to secure the return of their daughter to their care, exactly a year after she was placed with Mr and Mrs B. Whilst it is true that during that year the parents were having regular contact, supervised contact at a local authority contact centre is far removed from the joys of fulltime, unsupervised care of one’s own child. The residential assessment which began in June 2014 could have begun a year earlier. The cognitive assessment of the parents, not finally obtained until May 2014, could have been obtained months earlier. Unlike the parents in the Coventry case, these parents’ have suffered a loss of time with their daughter which was both unnecessarily lengthy and deeply distressing.
  2. I am in no doubt that, bearing in mind the guidance given in the authorities to which I have referred, this is a case in which merely to make the declarations set out earlier in this judgment would not provide just satisfaction for all that these parents have had to live through as a result of the conduct of this local authority. I am satisfied that an award of damages is ‘necessary to afford just satisfaction’ to these parents.
  3. Quantum
  4. The final issue is to determine the appropriate quantum of damages. There is little guidance in the authorities on the approach to be taken when quantifying an award of damages under s.8(2). If one looks at the authorities for appropriate comparators, again there is relatively little assistance.

 

It is worth noting the underlined passages – these parents were successfully reunited with their child, and had lost the first year of that child’s life due to these mistakes.

 

The Court looked at such historical precedents as there were for human rights act breaches and financial recompense and agreed with the parents that their claim for £6,000 each was fair.   (I think that’s probably a bit light, having read the case, but can you really be compensated for something as priceless as time with your child?)

 

To finish up, there was a film which had a very memorable strap-line, used in the trailers and on the posters. It was so memorable that everyone knows it, though hardly any of you will be able to tell me which film it was from. Let me know if you know it, or think you do.  Googling or such is cheating – you either know it, or you don’t. I know that you can type.

 

The strapline, apposite here was

 

BE  AFRAID

 

 

BE VERY AFRAID

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

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

 

Re H 2014

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

At that hearing, D J Reed gave these directions

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

LASPO and article 6 – a huge case

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The judgment in Q vQ 2014 is here

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

And in conclusion

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Three caveats

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

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

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

Concluding observations

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

 

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

 

Written Agreements

 

Written agreements in cases involving Social Services are always a tricky thing. It is important that the wording is clear about what is being asked of a parent and what is okay and what’s not. It is also important that they are fair and not  “setting a parent up to fail”

 

These would be my golden rules for parents about written agreements

 

1. Don’t sign one unless you understand every single bit, and you’ve been told clearly what will happen if you don’t stick to it

2. If you have a lawyer, you should ask for legal advice BEFORE you sign it.  If you don’t have a lawyer, say that you want the Local Authority to hold a Meeting Before Action, so that you can have free legal advice about the agreement.

3. If you think that something isn’t fair, say so

4. If you’re willing to do what is being asked, but you want help, ask for that help to be identified and put in the agreement

5. Never ever sign a written agreement if you don’t intend to stick to it – your position is made worse by signing it and not doing it than by not signing it.

 

 

And for social workers

 

1. Be clear

2. Be fair

3. Don’t try to solve every tiny problem – worry about fresh fruit and veg and home-cooked shepherd’s pie AFTER you’ve solved the violent partner hitting the children.

4. It should be a two-way street – what are you doing to help the parent?

 

The Court of Appeal touch on a particular aspect of Written Agreement in Re W (Children) 2014

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

 

There are some important issues in this case, so I will do a follow-up post, but just on the Written Agreement issue.

 

In August 2012 a social worker, Ms Nesbitt, was appointed to the case and in October 2012 began work on a core assessment. On 12 November 2012 the mother and Ms Nesbitt signed a document which described itself as an “Agreement” made between the local authority, the mother and the paternal grandmother. So far as material for present purposes it read as follows:
 

“This is not a legal agreement however; [sic] it may be used in court as evidence if needed.
This agreement has been complied [sic] to ensure that [the mother] agrees for [the children] to remain in the care of paternal grandmother whilst further assessments are completed.
[the mother] agrees to [the children] remaining in the care of paternal grandmother whilst further assessments are completed.

 

[As one of my commentators once had a go at me for [sic]  I will point out that these are the words of the Court, not mine. I loathe the use of [sic], and it isn’t something I would ever do.]

 

Ryder LJ seems to have assumed, and I can well understand why, that the powers the local authority was exercising in and after July 2012 were those conferred on it by section 20 of the Children Act 1989. But the very curious terms of the “Agreement” dated 12 November 2012 give pause for thought. Why was it stated to be “not a legal agreement”? Why was it said that “it may be used in court as evidence if needed”? Whatever it meant, and whatever its true legal status, it was treated by the local authority as enabling it – I decline to say authorising it – in effect to control this mother and her children. And, moreover, to exercise that control without the need to commence care proceedings and hopefully, from its perspective, without exposing the local authority to the various obligations which arise in relation to a child who is or has been ‘looked after’ in accordance with section 20.
 

I express no view at all as to whether this was in law the effect of what was being done, a question on which my Lady’s judgment in SA v KCC (Child in Need) [2010] EWHC 848 (Admin), [2010] 2 FLR 1721, is illuminating (compare the facts in that case as analysed in paras 57-60, 72-74). See also my Lady’s judgment in Re B, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council v Others [2013] EWCA Civ 964, [2013] Fam Law 1382, and the earlier judgments of Smith LJ in Southwark London Borough Council v D [2007] EWCA Civ 182, [2007] 1 FLR 2181, para 49, and of Baroness Hale of Richmond in R (M) v Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council [2008] UKHL 14, [2008] 1 WLR 535, para 42, to which Mr Boucher-Giles referred us.
 

That is not all. I suspect that the reference to the “Agreement” being “used in court as evidence if needed” can only have been intended to have the effect of warning the mother that if she did not ‘toe the line’ the “Agreement” would be used against her in some way in any proceedings that ensued. I remark that, as Hedley J put it in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 27, the use of section 20 “must not be compulsion in disguise”. And any such agreement requires genuine consent, not mere “submission in the face of asserted State authority”: R (G) v Nottingham City Council and Nottingham University Hospital [2008] EWHC 400 (Admin), [2008] 1 FLR 1668, para 61, and Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 44.
 

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

The local authority’s decision to decline Ryder LJ’s invitation to intervene makes it impossible for us to get to the bottom of these issues. The picture we have, however, is disturbing.

 

There are two issues here :-

 

1. The use of the wording that “this is not a Legal Agreement”  and

 

2. Whether a written agreement that is signed as ‘mere submission in the face of asserted state authority’  is fair

 

On the first point, I’ve seen this wording crop up on Written Agreements, and I don’t care for it. It is factually true that the document is not a Legal Agreement – in the sense that the Local Authority can’t sue for compensation or breach of contract or go to Court to MAKE a parent give up heroin because they agreed to it in writing.  But as the Court of Appeal point out, it is a document that would be used in evidence if there was a breach. It is a document that HAS CONSEQUENCES if you don’t stick to it, and those consequences are legal ones.

 

Does writing ‘this is not a Legal Agreement’ on them assist a parent? Well, I think very few parents were signing under the impression that the document was a contract under Contract law.  Does it hinder a parent? Well, if any of them read that message to mean ‘you don’t have to stick to it’, then yes, it does.

 

I can only think that at some time in the distant past, someone or other has said “These Written Agreements have to have written on them ‘This is not a Legal Agreement’, and it got absorbed into practice or philosophy. It might even have been a Judge. I haven’t found an authority to that effect, but it could easily be a small line in a judgment.

 

On the second, the Court of Appeal don’t go as far as saying that written agreements signed in that way should be disregarded   (unless they are a section 20 agreement that the child should live elsewhere, in which case it is established law that this consent must be given on an informed basis and freely, not under duress.

But it raises an important point – if the Written Agreement, as so many of them are, is really a  ‘sign this and you get one last chance before we take the kids’ then is the consent to the written agreement just an extension of what the Courts have ruled wrong in s20 cases ?  Remember that the s20 cases are not about the wording of the Act, which doesn’t mention consent at all, but about the wider Human Rights Act principles of proportionality and fairness.

 

Written Agreements can be valid tools for helping a family to change, to solve problems and in some cases to remove the risks that would otherwise make the children unsafe at home, but a degree of thought has to be given about their construction and use if they are instead being ‘sign this or else’

 

The principles in Re CA would be a sensible way to look at Written Agreements  (even when they are not agreements that involve agreement that the child live elsewhere , section 20)

 

i) Every parent has the right, if capacitous, to exercise their parental responsibility to consent under Section 20 to have their child accommodated by the local authority and every local authority has power under Section 20(4) so to accommodate provided that it is consistent with the welfare of the child.

ii) Every social worker obtaining such a consent is under a personal duty (the outcome of which may not be dictated to them by others) to be satisfied that the person giving the consent does not lack the capacity to do so.

iii) In taking any such consent the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity and take into account all the circumstances prevailing at the time and consider the questions raised by Section 3 of the 2005 Act, and in particular the mother’s capacity at that time to use and weigh all the relevant information.

iv) If the social worker has doubts about capacity no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.

v) If the social worker is satisfied that the person whose consent is sought does not lack capacity, the social worker must be satisfied that the consent is fully informed:

a) Does the parent fully understand the consequences of giving such a consent?
b) Does the parent fully appreciate the range of choice available and the consequences of refusal as well as giving consent?
c) Is the parent in possession of all the facts and issues material to the giving of consent?
vi) If not satisfied that the answers to a) – c) above are all ‘yes’, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought as above and the social work team should further consider taking legal advice if thought necessary.

vii) If the social worker is satisfied that the consent is fully informed then it is necessary to be further satisfied that the giving of such consent and the subsequent removal is both fair and proportionate.

viii) In considering that it may be necessary to ask:

a) what is the current physical and psychological state of the parent?
b) If they have a solicitor, have they been encouraged to seek legal advice and/or advice from family or friends?
c) Is it necessary for the safety of the child for her to be removed at this time?
d) Would it be fairer in this case for this matter to be the subject of a court order rather than an agreement?
ix) If having done all this and, if necessary, having taken further advice (as above and including where necessary legal advice), the social worker then considers that a fully informed consent has been received from a capacitous mother in circumstances where removal is necessary and proportionate, consent may be acted upon.

x) In the light of the foregoing, local authorities may want to approach with great care the obtaining of Section 20 agreements from mothers in the aftermath of birth, especially where there is no immediate danger to the child and where probably no order would be made.

 

 

 

 

 

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