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Reporting restriction orders and anonymisation

 

This Court of Protection case raised, and answered, an important question that was causing people doubts, in relation to Reporting Restriction Orders. It has broader implications than just Court of Protection cases.

A Healthcare NHS Trust and P 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCOP/2015/15.html

 

A Reporting Restriction Order is just as you might guess, an Order of the Court saying that the Press can’t report some details on a particular case.  When the Court decides whether to make one, it is balancing up the article 8 right to privacy of the people involved (particularly if they are vulnerable people who can’t consent for themselves) AGAINST the article 10 right to freedom of expression (the concept that the Press ought to be free to report stories of public interest, or that are just interesting to the public)

What you might not know, if you haven’t made an application of this type, is that when faced with a story that you don’t want the Press to run, the procedure to obtain an RRO is to contact the Press and tell them all that there’s a really juicy story that you don’t want them to run.

 

That is so that the argument about article 8 v article 10 can be run with the Press being present and represented.  It does mean that you need to think carefully about whether stamping out a small fire (a newspaper wanting to run a story) by applying for an RRO might mean you accidentally starting a forest fire (by shouting “Fire, fire” to the rest of the media)

 

It is also worth noting that the transparency guidelines are that any application for an RRO, whether granted or not, should have an anonymised judgment published  – so RROs in practice are really going to be about ensuring that the NAMES of the people involved do not become published.

So, when the Press are told about the application for an RRO, should the real NAMES of the people involved be used, or should they be anonymised?

  1. It is submitted by the Press Association that pre-notification anonymisation appears to becoming a practice amongst claimant lawyers, who appear to be under the erroneous misapprehension that not only would they be committing a contempt but that by identifying the parties to a claim to the media means that the media will or may publish the material before the Court has had the opportunity to consider and possibly prohibit publication. It also suggests that the assumption is being made that the applicant’s right to privacy under Article 8 of the ECHR outweighs the media and public’s rights under Article 10. That approach by lawyers representing applicants seeking reporting restrictions or injunctions in refusing to identify the parties involved in a case involves restricting the media’s rights even before the Court has had an opportunity to consider the matter. That, it is said, leaves the media unable to take advice or make sensible and informed decisions as to what approach, if any, to take in a particular case.
  2. When the Press Association raised the question of identification of the parties with the applicant’s solicitors in this case, the response apparently was that the solicitors would be committing a contempt of court by disclosing the information; the argument put forward today by Mr Sachdeva QC is altogether different.
  3. The short issue of course is whether there is an obligation subject to paragraph 15-17 of the Practice Direction 13A to disclose information.

 

If there is an obligation to provide the real names of those involved as part of the application process, then there’s no issue of contempt of Court in complying with that obligation. And this is the issue that the Court had to decide.

On the one hand, the argument is that giving out the real names might be a contempt of Court and might breach privacy and might pose a risk of the names accidentally leaking out. On the other, if you tell the Press that they aren’t allowed to write about person X, but you don’t tell them who person X is, how can they really know whether they might have already been approached by X about the story, or even whether they would want to run the story.

  1. The questions therefore seem to be as follows. On the one hand the arguments in favour of revealing the parties’ identity to the Press before such an order is made include Practice Direction 13A requiring that the application notice (COP 9) be served with the media notification. The COP 9 has the parties’ names on it as of course does the witness statement (COP24). It is in accordance with open justice to allow the media fully to consider whether to object. It is pragmatic, otherwise the media would have to attend every case to learn the parties’ identity. Arguably no harm is done by notification because the media cannot report the parties’ identity despite no RRO being yet in place without being in contempt and the media will learn the parties’ names once the RRO is made in any event.
  2. Against the proposition is the assertion that the Practice Direction (which is a practice direction, not a Rule of Court) does not require the draft order to be served on the media (as noted by Baker J in Re M). However, he was considering the issue in relation to the identities of a considerable number of people who would be covered by the anonymity order. More directly than that it is simply unnecessary for the media to know the identity of P before forming an opinion on the terms of the RRO being sought, the issues being the centre of interest. Relevance is also placed on the absence of prohibitive order prior to hearing, a breach of which it is said is not clearly a breach of confidence or contempt of court.

Mr Justice Newton marshals the law and principles very well here, and it would be a good source for any RRO research in future cases.

To skip to the conclusion – the Judge was satisfied that the Press having the real names on the application form would not result in those names being published before the Court considered the RRO and that there were a number of safeguards to ensure that would be the case, even if there were to be one maverick or rogue player:-

  1. I am therefore completely satisfied that a number of factors come together preventing the media from revealing the parties’ names, because

    1. It would be a statutory contempt.

    2. It would be a contempt of common law.

    3. It would be in breach of the express contractual arrangements between any subscriber and the Press Association (with a powerful deterrent effect).

    4. It would be a breach of confidence.

  2. In the interests of transparency, the whole thrust of the law from the Practice Direction onwards dictates that in order to form a proper view the Press should see all the information including names. I therefore order the disclosure of the identity of P and the family to the Injunctions Alert Service so that the Press may respond if they wish to do so.

 

 

The statutory contempt of court bit is interesting, particularly in relation to publication of information whilst the proceedings have not been concluded.

  1. Section 1 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 provides:

    “In this Act “the strict liability rule” means the rule of law whereby conduct may be treated as a contempt of court as tending to interfere with the course of justice in particular legal proceedings regardless of intent to do so.”

    Section 2 of the Act sets out the scope of strict liability. The following must be established to the criminal standard:

    a) publication addressed to the public at large, as any sections of the public;

    b) publication which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be severely impeded or prejudiced;

    c) publication occurs at a time when the proceedings are active.

    So there is a double test, there has to be a risk that the proceedings in question will be affected at all and if affected, the effect will be serious.

  2. Anything that has a deleterious impact on the conduct or outcome of proceedings is prejudicial to the course of justice (I have had regard to the definitions in Arlidge, Eady and Smith on Contempt (citing Re Lonhro 1990 2 AC 154 and AG v Times Newspapers Times 12/2/83).

 

What about common law contempt?

  1. In the unlikely event that statutory contempt is not established common law contempt (under section 6(c) of the Act) could clearly be established. The actus reus and mens rea both have to be established. Lord Bingham in A-G v Newspapers Publishing plc [1997] 1 WLR 926 at 936B-D set out the actus reus to be established:

    “We do not accept that any conduct by a third party inconsistent with an order of the court is enough to constitute the actus reus of contempt. Where it is sought to impose indirect liability on a third party, the justification for doing so lies in that party’s interference with the administration of justice. It is not our view necessary to show that the administration of justice in the relevant proceedings has been wholly frustrated or rendered utterly futile. But it is, we think, necessary to show some significant and adverse effect on the administration of justice. Recognising that the restraints upon freedom of expression should be no wider than are truly necessary in a democratic society, we do not accept that conduct by a third party which is inconsistent with a court order in only a trivial or technical way should expose a party to conviction for contempt.”

  2. At 936H-937A, Lord Bingham set out what had to be established in respect of the necessary mens rea:

    “To show contempt, the [A-G] must establish, to the criminal standard of proof, that: ‘the conduct complained of is specifically intended to impede or prejudice the administration of justice. Such intent need not be expressly avowed or admitted, but can be inferred from all the circumstances, including the foreseeability of the consequences of the conduct. Nor need it be the sole intention of the contemnor. An intent is to be distinguished from motive or desire …’

  3. The publication of material contained in an application for reporting restrictions prior to the hearing to determine those restrictions is likely to amount to a contempt of court at common law. It is likely to have a significant and adverse effect on the administration of justice by thwarting the very purpose of the application, thereby making the application for reporting restrictions redundant. Intent to impede or prejudice the administration of justice is likely to be inferred from the context that the publisher will be aware of the context of how the information was received, the purpose for which it was received and the likely restrictions sought in the application.

 

 

A whole heap of trouble (secure accommodation)

You don’t often get secure accommodation judgments published, largely because they are usually decided by Justices rather than Judges so don’t fall into the publication scheme, but this one was decided by Mr Justice Hayden and throws up some interesting philosophical issues.

London Borough of Barking and Dagenham 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/4436.html

 

There’s an exercise in philosophy where one starts putting individual pebbles on a table. You add one at a time, every few seconds. At some point, what you have is a heap or a pile of pebbles. But if you are adding them one at a time, it is difficult to see the point at which you go from “non-heap” to “heap”.  Equally, once you have a heap of pebbles and start removing one at a time, finding that precise point at which you’ve removed the pebble that turns it from “heap” to “non-heap” happens.  Obviously we can all agree that 3 pebbles aren’t a heap, and that 300 are, but where that precise boundary line happens is much more fuzzy.

 

In this case, the heap issue arises in part on the legal test for making a Secure Accommodation Order (which, lets not forget, is an order that allows a family Court to sanction a child being locked up not as punishment for a criminal offence but for their own good)

“Use of accommodation for restricting liberty

(1) Subject to the following provisions of this section, a child who is being looked after by a local authority may not be placed, and, if placed, may not be kept, in accommodation provided for the purpose of restricting liberty (‘secure accommodation’) unless it appears –

(a) that –

(i) he has a history of absconding and is likely to abscond from any other description of accommodation; and

(ii) if he absconds, he is likely to suffer significant harm; or

(b) that if he is kept in any other description of accommodation he is likely to injure himself or other persons.”

 

They are alternate tests – either (a) OR (b),  you don’t have to satisfy both  (though in many such applications, both limbs are satisfied).

Now, for ground (a) it all flows from “has a history of absconding”, so how many incidents of absconding amount to a history. One incident isn’t a history, fifty clear is. But at what point do the number of incidents crystallise into a “history”

For the purposes of this application, I find that SS has absconded on two occasions. I doubt whether that can truly be said to be a history of absconding and it is, as I said, significant that, on the second occasion, it was she who sought to return to the foster carer. I am, however, entirely satisfied that she is likely to abscond in the future, if not in secure accommodation, in the sense that there is a real possibility of her absconding. I am absolutely sure that she is at risk of significant emotional and/or physical harm were she to do so.

This was one of those cases where the child was the victim of Child Sexual Exploitation by unsavoury adults, but because of the difficulty in prosecuting such adults for their criminal behaviour, the child is locked up instead, a state of affairs which post the Rochdale child grooming debacle, is happening more and more.

  1. It scarcely needs to be said that restricting the liberty of a child is an extremely serious step, especially where the child has not committed any criminal offence, nor is alleged to have committed any criminal offence. It is for this reason that the process is tightly regulated by the Children Act 1989 in the way I have set out, but also in the Children (Secure Accommodation) Regulations 1991 and the Children (Secure Accommodation No.2) Regulations 1991. The use of s.25 will very rarely be appropriate and it must always remain a measure of last resort. By this I mean not merely that the conventional options for a child in care must have been exhausted but so too must the ‘unconventional’, i.e. the creative alternative packages of support that resourceful social workers can devise when given time, space and, of course, finances to do so. Nor should the fact that a particular type of placement may not have worked well for the child in the past mean that it should not be tried again. Locking a child up (I make no apology for the bluntness of the language, for that is how these young people see it and, ultimately, that is what is involved) is corrosive of a young persons spirit. It sends a subliminal and unintended message that the child has done wrong which all too often will compound his problems rather than form part of a solution.
  2. The courts have seen a number of cases in recent years where vulnerable young girls have been exploited in a variety of ways by groups of predatory men. That so many of these men escape prosecution and continue to enjoy their liberty whilst the young girls they exploit are locked up (for their own protection) sends very confusing messages to the girls themselves, to the distorted minds of the men who prey on them and to society more generally.
  3. I have heard something of the regime the unit in which SS has been resident. I have no reason to believe that it is any different to any other of the welfare-based units. I equally have no doubt that those who run and work in them and the variety of disciplines which support such units are all highly motivated to help. There will be circumstances where young people have to be incarcerated to protect them, ultimately, from themselves.
  4. That said, I heard that this unit has what is referred to as an “air-locked security system”; that is to say that only one room can be left open at any stage. There is no computer access. There is a reward system by which privileges are both earned, and taken away. It is difficult not to see, from the eyes of the young people concerned, a custodial complexion to this environment. It has the most profound disadvantage in the case of SS in that it must surely reinforce her own already overactive sense of having done wrong.
  5. I do not criticise the structure or regime of this, or, indeed the other units. I recognise, as I have already stated, that they have a place in the panoply of strategies required to safeguard vulnerable children, but I was not satisfied that such a regime was a proportionate interference in SS’s life and so, to investigate it further, I asked Ms. Lewis, counsel on behalf of the Local Authority, whether she could contact senior officials within the unit so that I could have some closer idea both of the nature of the regime in operation and the philosophy which underpins it. At very short notice, the deputy principal was able to make herself available. She told me that, for young women in the situation of SS, such units could only really try and achieve one objective and that was to keep the young people concerned safe in a time of crisis “only long enough to find them somewhere more suitable”. That seems to me to crystallise the very limited scope of this provision.

 

There’s a peculiar wrinkle with the law on Secure Accommodation, which I was always surprised survived the Human Rights Act but still stands. It is this – unlike any other order in the Children Act which is subject to the “no order” principle and the “welfare paramountcy” principle, orders under s25 are MANDATORY if the Court find that the criteria are made out.

The role of the Court on secure accommodation applications is not, as with any other Children Act application, to decide on both the facts and what to do with those facts for the child’s best interests, but to simply decide whether factually the grounds for the order are made out, and if so  to make the order.

The provision goes on, at subsection (3), to provide that:

“It shall be the duty of a court hearing an application under this section to determine whether any relevant criteria for keeping a child in secure accommodation are satisfied (inaudible)”

And (4):

“If a court determines that any such criteria are satisfied, it shall make an order authorising the child to be kept in secure accommodation and specifying the maximum period for which he may be so kept.”

 

This doesn’t always sit entirely comfortably with the suggestions and recommendations that a Secure Accommodation Order ought to be a last resort.

 

What is a Court to do where it considers that the s25 threshold is met, but that the making of a Secure Accommodation Order is not proportionate? (It surely HAS to consider whether it is proportionate, because it is an article 8 interference with the child’s right to private and family life)    i.e, the LA consider that the case has reached that “last resort” stage, but the Court think that more could be done?

If the case is being brought on the second limb

(b) that if he is kept in any other description of accommodation he is likely to injure himself or other persons

then the Court COULD conclude that really an attempt should be made to place the child in another form of accommodation with different resources and safeguards as one last try, and so the criteria is not made out.

 

What about the first limb?

(a) that –

(i) he has a history of absconding and is likely to abscond from any other description of accommodation; and

(ii) if he absconds, he is likely to suffer significant harm;

 

That’s probably harder to resist – if factually there IS, a history of accommodation and if factually there IS a likelihood of significant harm if the child absconds again  (and that likelihood is the ‘risk that cannot sensibly be ignored’ provided that there’s some factual basis for thinking that that risk exists), it is hard for the Court to avoid making the order, even if they don’t consider that Secure Accommodation is the right order for the child.

So you can see that the issue of what amounts to a history of absconding can be important as to whether the Court are in charge of the order, or whether they are just there to factually determine that the criteria are made out.

 

[This judgment is also a good go-to resource for the law on secure accommodation, as the Judge gives a very punchy summary of the key issues, in part because not all of the parties in the case had quite grasped the rather unusual nature of s25]

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Vulnerable witnesses and parents article 6 rights

 

 

This is a big case anyway, but it particularly struck a chord with me having heard Penny Cooper speak very eloquently at the Westminster Policy Forum yesterday on the shabby way vulnerable witnesses are treated in care proceedings as compared to criminal proceedings.

 

The Court of Appeal in Re J (A child) 2014 overturned a finding of fact by Pauffley J that a vulnerable witness X had been sexually abused by the father in private law proceedings. This had become pertinent in the private law proceedings because X had contacted the mother and told her, and the mother had decided that if what X said was true, the mother didn’t want father around the children.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/875.html

 

The witness in question, X, had been the subject of litigation that went all the way up to the Supreme Court, on the issue of whether father was entitled to see the details of what the allegations were, you may remember it

 

Re A (a child) 2012   http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKSC/2012/60.html

 

The lawyer representing her, Sarah Morgan QC was arguing there that the prospect of X giving evidence in her circumstances was so traumatic that it amounted to an article 3 inhuman and degrading treatment breach.

 

The expert evidence about X was this

“It is my opinion that disclosure of the social services records regarding X to other parties would be potentially detrimental to her health. As above, she appears to manifest psychological distress in physical terms both through medically unexplained symptoms and through the well recognised exacerbating effect of stress on a particular medical disorder. Her physical health has deteriorated considerably recently and, at times, has deteriorated to the point of being life-threatening. There is therefore a significant risk that exposure to further psychological stress (such as that which would inevitably result from disclosure) would put her at risk of further episodes of illness. It would also be working against the current therapeutic strategy of trying to help minimise stress and engage with psychological therapy.”

The Supreme Court didn’t go that far, but were sympathetic

 

This was what happened in relation to X’s evidence at the finding of fact hearing.

 

  1. In the light of the advice of Dr B, X gave evidence in the proceedings over a video link. Throughout she was supported by a trained registered intermediary who sat in the video room with her. It was planned that X would give oral evidence over the course of the Monday and the Wednesday during the first week of the hearing. However, for much of the morning of the first day X felt unable to contemplate answering questions and required discussion with and encouragement from her legal team assisted by the intermediary. Her evidence in chief, which was punctuated by breaks to enable X to re-gather her confidence, occupied the remainder of the first day and much of her second day in the witness box. Frustratingly, the first day of evidence coincided with what the judge described as “quite appalling noise disturbance” coming from road-works outside the video room window.

     

  2. During the morning of the second day a further difficulty occurred. One of the clear ground rules established for the giving of X’s evidence was that at no time should F see X on the television screen. F failed to abide by this ground rule and, on being spotted by the judge craning forward to see X, the evidence was abruptly curtailed. The effect of this event upon X is described by the judge as being “considerable” and that “thereafter, progress was painfully slow”. In the event the judge decided that F should leave the court room. However, by that stage X had become distraught and had locked herself in the lavatories in the court building and was refusing to come out. The court therefore adjourned for the rest of the morning hoping that X’s testimony could be resumed after lunch. X’s evidence in chief then continued until shortly before 3.30 p.m. Thereafter, following a short break, counsel on behalf of F cross-examined for something short of one hour. At 4.25 p.m. the judge concluded the process for the day and also concluded that “it would have been inhuman to have required X to return for a third day”. Cross-examination on behalf of F was thereby cut short and ended at that point. There was also no cross-examination on behalf of the guardian.

 

Clearly the process was pretty ghastly, and also it is clear that the father did not get to have all that he wanted to put to X in cross-examination put to her.

 

This is what Pauffley J said about X’s evidence

 

  1. Under the related heading of “X’s presentation at this hearing” the judge went on to describe X’s presentation during her evidence in striking terms:

     

    “I should say at once that I have never before witnessed anyone of any age demonstrate such emotional turmoil and distress whilst participating in a court hearing. If one phrase encapsulates the whole experience, it is that watching and listening to X was harrowing in the extreme.”

  2. That observation, coupled with the detailed description that the judge gives in the ensuing paragraphs, is a matter to which I give the greatest regard. This court frequently, and rightly, reminds itself of the substantial premium that must attach to the analysis of a trial judge who has had the experience, not available to those who sit on appeal, of observing the key witnesses give their testimony live at the court hearing. When the judge in question is a tribunal of the experience and standing of the judge in the present case, the level of respect and the premium that attaches to her observations must be of the highest order.

 

When a High Court family Judge describes hearing evidence as harrowing in the extreme, that is not something one can take lightly. The tolerance that High Court judges have for hearing things that would make most people faint or run out of the room to avoid is very high indeed.

 

Sarah Morgan QC described the process of X’s evidence like this

Miss Morgan submitted, and I readily accept, that the transcript of X’s evidence gives no real impression of the quality of her presentation over the video link. She told the court, and again I accept this, that this case was one that would stay in the minds of all of the professionals who had been in the court room “for decades”.

 

The whole thing was rather compounded by the father not being able to get legal aid, for one reason or another, and then that the barrister paid for by the Local Authority to represent him  (as the alternative would have been him cross-examining X himself) not realising until very late on that she was in conflict and someone fresh having to pick up the papers.

 

During the fact finding hearing, the Guardian’s team took on an almost amicus role to assist with this, putting both sides of the case and making extremely detailed submissions of the pros and cons of the evidence and the considerations that the Judge had to make.

 

And did so similarly at the appeal

On behalf of the children’s guardian Mr Paul Storey QC and Ms Camille Haboo have, through their submissions, continued to provide the court with assistance which is of the highest quality. At the stage of the conclusion of their written submissions they retained a neutral position as to the outcome of the appeal. Their helpful oral submissions included the following points:

 

a) In a case where there is no direct physical evidence or other clear “diagnostic” proof of sexual abuse, the process of judicial evaluation requires great subtlety;

b) There was an inevitable imbalance in the court process as a result of the inability of any party to cross-examine X;

c) There was a need for the judge, who obviously found X to be a very impressive witness, to exercise caution in relying upon such an impression where the full process of ordinary forensic evaluation has not been seen through;

d) Where, as here, the process of cross-examination has been halted, it is incumbent upon a judge to explain the approach that she has adopted to that factor in her overall evaluation. That is especially the case where the alleged perpetrator is a litigant in person for much of the hearing;

e) The fact that F was a litigant in person meant that he had no one to call him to give evidence in chief, he had to undertake his own closing submissions and was therefore much more on display before the judge than would be the case if he were represented.

 

 

Where the Court of Appeal were critical of Pauffley J was that in her analysis of the factors, all of them were factors which were supportive of the findings being made and none setting out that counterbalance of the reasons not to make the findings and particularly not the difficulty in X’s evidence and the risk of placing weight on the emotional content and impact on it over and above the forensic issues.

 

  1. Despite the very valuable support given to X by NM, a registered intermediary, who was described by Pauffley J as extremely impressive, it is clear that X found the process of discussing these matters to be highly distressing. As I have explained, her evidence was halting, truncated by the need for breaks and, in the end, concluded in the early stages of questioning on behalf of F.

     

  2. Within this appeal, no criticism has been made of the sequence of decisions which led to the choice of these particular arrangements, as opposed to other less direct methods, for the court to receive evidence from X. As Baroness Hale explains, in any case there will be a scale of options, running from no fresh input from the witness into the proceedings, through written answers, video-recorded questioning by trained professionals or live questioning over a video-link, to full involvement via oral evidence given in the normal forensic setting. The aim, again as Baroness Hale says, is to enable witnesses to give their evidence in the way which best enables the court to assess its reliability. It must be a given that the best way to assess reliability, if the witness can tolerate the process, is by exposure to the full forensic process in which oral testimony is tested through examination in chief and cross-examination. Just as the sliding scale of practical arrangements rises from ‘no fresh involvement’ to ‘the full forensic process’, there will be a corresponding scale in which the degree to which a court may be able to rely upon the resulting evidence will increase the nearer the process comes to normality. In each case, where a vulnerable witness requires protection from the effects of the full process, it will be necessary for the court to determine where on the scale the bespoke arrangements for that witness should sit with a view to maximising the potential reliability of the resulting evidence, but at the same time providing adequate protection for the particular vulnerabilities of that witness.  
  3. Where special measures have been deployed it is, however, necessary for the judge who is evaluating the resulting evidence to assess the degree, if any, to which the process may have affected the ability of the court to rely upon the witness’ evidence. Where, for example, the witness has simply been unable to play any active part, the court will be required to fall back upon hearsay records of what has been said outside the court context on earlier occasions and without any challenge through questioning.  
  4. In the present case it is clear that even the process of X giving evidence in chief encountered a range of difficulties, some entirely outside the court’s control, which made progress painfully slow and, at times, came to a halt. Cross-examination was very limited and was, for good reason, brought to a premature conclusion. Despite these difficulties, which the judge describes in full, the judgment does not contain any evaluation of the impact that this compromised process had upon the court’s ability to rely upon the factual allegations that X made within her evidence as a whole. This was a case where, partly as a result of the limitations on her ability to give evidence in the normal court process and partly because of the difficulty in fully understanding what she was explaining, the court only experienced X’s account ‘through a glass darkly’ because of the number of filters (both psychological and forensic) in place between X and the judge. In assessing the reliability of X’s account it was, in my view, necessary to acknowledge these difficulties and give them appropriate weight within the overall analysis.

 

 

 

The Court of Appeal felt that they had to overturn the findings

  1. It is with the heaviest of hearts that I now contemplate the conclusion that must inevitably flow from the serious detriments that I have identified in the fact finding analysis conducted by Pauffley J in this case. My reluctance arises primarily from consideration of what must follow from a decision to allow this appeal, thereby setting aside the judge’s finding of sexual abuse. I have also, at every turn, been acutely aware of Pauffley J’s enormous experience of conducting these exquisitely difficult cases.

     

  2. Despite giving every possible allowance for the factors that I have identified which either support the judge’s finding, or properly caution against the appellate court from interfering with that finding, for the reasons that I have given, the judge’s determination cannot be upheld. In summary the factors that have led me to this view, taken together, are:  

    a) The only evidence of sexual abuse came from X’s accounts given in 2009/10, as confirmed by her to be true during oral evidence. No other evidence directly supported or corroborated X’s allegation of sexual abuse. The evidence around the ‘trigger event’ established that, in at least one central respect, X’s accounts in 2009/10 were not reliable. Whilst the unsupported testimony of a single complainant is plainly capable of establishing proof of what is alleged, where, as here, there were a number of factors that detracted, or may have detracted, from the degree to which reliance could be placed on X’s testimony, a finding of fact should only be made after those factors have been given express consideration and due weight in the judicial analysis.

    b) X’s emotional presentation in 2009/10 and over the video-link was a relevant factor, but the weight given to the emotional presentation was unjustified and was disproportionate in the absence of a corresponding analysis of the detail of what she was actually saying together by undertaking a process, similar to that presented on behalf of the guardian, of balancing the factors either for or against the making of a finding.

    c) Once it was established that the ‘trigger event’ of X informing M had never occurred, despite being reported by X on a number of occasions in 2009/10, it was necessary to conduct a full appraisal of the impact of that highly material change in X’s account.

    d) The judge’s conclusion that the ‘prohibitions’ went so far as to provide a ‘complete answer’ to the lack in X’s account of any of the detail identified by Mr Storey was a conclusion that was unsupported by any expert evidence and was not open to the judge. This is particularly as the ‘prohibitions’ themselves were shadowy and only partially understood.

    e) In the light of the expert evidence concerning the difficulty encountered in determining a psychological link to X’s physical symptoms, and, particularly where some of those symptoms may be consciously generated, great caution was needed before concluding that X’s account provided a reliable foundation for the finding of fact.

    f) The judicial analysis should have included assessment of the impact of the lack of any ABE interview and/or narrative statement in 2009/10.

    g) The judicial analysis should have included assessment of the impact of the, necessarily, limited forensic process around X’s oral evidence.

  3. In the circumstances, the appeal must be allowed and the judge’s findings of fact set aside.

 

 

Lady Justice Gloster went even further and accepted the submissions made by father that the process had been a breach of his article 6 rights

  1. However I should also add that I accept Ms Branigan’s submission (as referred to at paragraph 52 above) that the trial procedure, so far as F was concerned, was unfair to him.

     

  2. The allegations being made against him were extremely serious. If established they might well have led to him being deprived of contact with his daughter, to the possibility of criminal proceedings against him, and resulted in an indelible scar to his reputation and character, with potential consequences for his future employment and personal relationships.  
  3. Whatever the difficulties surrounding X’s position as a witness, F was nonetheless entitled to a fair trial of these allegations. For the following reasons, in my judgment he did not receive one:  

    a) First, there was no equality of arms. For various reasons, he received no legal aid, and the only legal representation which the local authority agreed to fund was a barrister solely for the anticipated 3 days of cross-examination of X and her mother (see paragraphs 17 and 18 above). This might be thought to have been designed more in order to protect X from direct cross-examination by F, than for the purpose of assisting F in the presentation of his case.

    b) Second, because of the conflict of interest problem (see paragraph 19 above) his counsel was instructed on absurdly short notice for what was, necessarily, going to be an extremely difficult cross-examination.

    c) Third, whilst one can readily understand the reasons why the judge terminated X’s cross-examination, the consequences of that decision so far as F was concerned were clearly highly significant. In my judgment the judge should, at the very least, have considered whether in those circumstances, where there had been no full or adequate cross-examination of X on behalf of F, it remained possible to reach any fair outcome of the determination of the issue so far as F was concerned.

    d) Finally, F’s exclusion from the court room when X was being cross-examined, meant that it was extremely difficult for him, when he came to make his final submissions, to know what X’s evidence had been. I find it difficult to understand how he was expected to have successfully deployed what his counsel may have told him about X’s evidence in his own final submissions as a litigant in person. Whatever the perceived egregiousness of F’s conduct in “craning his neck” to see X on the screen, I cannot believe that practical arrangements could not have been made which would have enabled him to remain in the court-room but nonetheless would have prevented him from repeating his attempts to see X on screen. To exclude a litigant in person from the courtroom in such circumstances was a very serious step.

  4. It is obviously important in trials with vulnerable witnesses that the trial process should be carefully and considerately managed in such a way as to enable their evidence to be given in the best way possible and without their being subjected to unnecessary distress. But that should not come at the price of depriving defendants and others, who claim that they have been falsely accused of criminal conduct, of their right to a fair trial in which they participate and a proper opportunity to present their case in accordance with natural justice and Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  
  5. It does not surprise me that, in the light of the history of this litigation, F has on occasions, as set out in paragraphs 133-136 of the judge’s judgment, expressed his dissatisfaction with the court process in strong, emotional terms. That should not, in my view, have been relied upon by the judge (as it apparently it was at paragraphs 133-137 of her judgment) as a basis for reaching adverse findings as to F’s credibility. It is not difficult to see, given the long history of this matter and the actual and potential personal consequences for F, why he might have found it difficult to refrain from making comments of this sort, or might have behaved in an inappropriate manner in what no doubt he perceived to be a hostile court environment.  
  6. Whilst I consider that the trial process was unfair to F, it is not necessary in the light of the Court’s main conclusion in relation to the inadequacy of the evidence upon which the judge based her conclusions, to consider whether this ground alone would have sufficed as a reason for allowing this appeal.

 

 

The question then arose as to what the Court of Appeal should do. The idea that the case would be reheard seemed deeply unattractive to everyone – I’m sure that the advocates involved did not relish the idea of taking X’s evidence again

  1. Finally, there is a need to determine whether a re-trial of the issue of sexual abuse should now take place. For my part, and in the light of the material to which this court has now been exposed in full detail, and even allowing the fullest justifiable weight to X’s demeanour, I do not consider that a finding of fact against F was open to the court on the evidence as a whole.

     

  2. It seems highly unlikely that X will be able to engage to a greater extent in the forensic process than she did before Pauffley J; indeed powerful submissions were made by Miss Morgan and by M to the effect that it would be abusive and/or untenable to expect X to take part in a further hearing.  
  3. In the circumstances, and whilst fully accepting that this leaves A, M, and indeed F, in the very difficult situation that M so clearly described, I consider that no greater clarity is likely to be obtained by a retrial and that this court should therefore now put a stop to the evaluation of X’s 2009/10 allegations within these proceedings.  
  4. As a result, the private law proceedings relating to A must now proceed on the basis that there is no finding of fact against F (arising from X’s allegations). The Family Court will therefore make any determination as to A’s welfare on the basis that F has not engaged in any sexually inappropriate behaviour with X.

 

 

This all leaves vulnerable witnesses very erm, vulnerable. X was about as vulnerable as anyone could get, as a reading of Re A would show – she was almost suicidal at the idea of father even seeing what she had said about him, let alone giving evidence. She had strong expert evidence about the harm that the process might do to her. I never felt reading Re A that she would get anywhere near to giving evidence.

But she did so, and the measures that the Court put in place still weren’t enough.

Adding what we know about X from Re A with the judicial comments that the process of her giving evidence was harrowing in the extreme almost turns your stomach, even at this remove.

And the remarks of Lady Justice Gloster even call into question whether a Court can safely make those protective measures without risking an article 6 breach.

 

So where does this leave a vulnerable witness who doesn’t have such a compelling and rich case as to vulnerability as X did here? I know that the President has been speaking about this issue, and I’m sure that some guidance is going to come our way. (For once, this is a piece of guidance that I will welcome, as I think Re J throws huge doubt on where a Judge should draw the line between protecting the witness and protecting the article 6 rights of those accused)

 

Getting an expert report in private law proceedings

 

The Court of Appeal (almost a year after the High Court ruled otherwise) have decided in JG v the Lord Chancellor and Others 2014, that a Court can lawfully decide that the costs of an expert report be bourne by one party (the one who is receiving public funding) rather than split between everyone.

 

I wrote about the original decision here http://suesspiciousminds.com/2013/04/11/not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper/  with quite a bit of disappointment in my heart, so I am pleased that the Court of Appeal have taken a different view.

 

Quick bit of context first – up until LASPO  (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Prosecution of Offenders Act) came into force, most private law proceedings (i.e mum and dad arguing about where a child should live, or how much time the child should spend with each parent) had at least one of the parents, sometimes both, receiving legal aid (free legal advice). That legal aid could be used to pay for expert reports  – for example, if there was a dispute over paternity, a DNA test, if one person alleged the other had an alcohol or drug problem, testing, if the child was displaying unusual behaviour an expert to help understand that.

After LASPO, people now only get legal aid in exceptional circumstances  – it doesn’t matter if they are on benefits, or have learning difficulties, they won’t get legal aid unless they fit some very narrow prescribed criteria.

Next bit of context – in particularly tricky cases, the Court appoint a Guardian (which we call a Rule 16.4 Guardian, after the bit in the Family Procedure Rules that governs it) to assist the Court in reaching decisions. The Rule 16.4 Guardian GETS legal aid.

That led to a situation in which if an expert report was needed and the parents could not afford it, the Court would order that the costs be met entirely by the Rule 16.4 Guardian (and hence legal aid).  The Legal Aid Agency cottoned on to that, and started refusing to pay (even after the expert had done the report and the Guardian’s lawyers had written the expert the cheque, leaving the lawyers out of pocket and thus reluctant to take on such cases in the future).   One such refusal was judicially reviewed, and Ryder J (as he then was, he is now Ryder LJ) refused the judicial review and said that the Legal Aid Agency was entitled to take a position that any expert costs should be divided equally between all of the parties and that the costs should not all be loaded on to the Guardian’s public funding.   [It is a little like three people going out to dinner, and putting the bill on the person who has an Expense Account, if that makes sense, and then the firm paying the Expense Account saying  “Hey, we don’t mind paying for YOUR dinner, but not for the other two”]

Ryder J did say that in an exceptional case where the parent could not possibly pay anything towards the cost of the report, and the Court considered it was vital, things might have to be looked at differently.

So, the Court of Appeal disagreed with Ryder J’s decision – but not in a way that gives carte blanche for all reports to be loaded on to the Guardian’s public funding certificate (actually the Child’s) and the parents to pay nothing. It is a bit more nuanced than that.

http://www.familylaw.co.uk/articles/jg-v-the-lord-chancellor-and-others-2014-ewca-civ-656

 

There were basically two sides to this (because it had now become an issue about principle, rather than the parents own case) – the Law Society, arguing that the Court should have the power to decide how costs should be apportioned and particularly where failure to have the report would breach article 6 (right to fair trial) or article 8 (right to family life),  and the Lord Chancellor – arguing that this should only be in a situation where the Legal Aid Agency deemed itself that it was appropriate. It’s a fundamental question of who is in charge, the Court or the Legal Aid Agency.

 

Law Society to throw first

a) The appellant’s and the Law Society’s case on the general question
67. The appellant adopted the Law Society’s submissions on the general question. The Law Society submitted that where expert evidence was necessary in the circumstances set out in the question, the court should direct the child, through her guardian, to obtain the evidence and give the child permission to adduce it, although in instructing the expert, the guardian should normally seek to agree with the other parties, if possible, which expert is to be instructed and the instructions to be given to him. The court’s direction should be subject to any prior authorisation or increase in costs limitation that may be required for the purpose. The Law Society submitted that those responsible for administering legal aid could not refuse to give such approval as refusal would be incompatible with articles 6 and 8 of the ECHR and would deprive the court of the assistance it needs to enable it to determine what the welfare of the child requires, thus being “incompatible with the object and purpose of the legislation for the protection of children involved in private law family proceedings”. There is no point, submitted the Law Society, in funding the representation necessary to protect a child’s interests in the private law proceedings yet denying the funding required to enable the evidence to be provided that is necessary to establish what the child’s welfare requires.
68. It was submitted that a requirement, such as that favoured by Ryder J (see §§75 et seq of the judgment), for a “robust scrutiny of … means” with reference to a party’s financial eligibility for legal aid prior to the instruction of the expert would present the courts with a task for which, unlike the Legal Aid Agency, they are not equipped and which would import harmful delay whilst investigations were carried out. The Law Society’s proposal was therefore said to be a better alternative because the expert could be instructed without delay on the basis that the cost of the report could be met as a disbursement on the child’s certificate, leaving the parties’ respective liability for the fees to be dealt with by means of a costs order, if appropriate.

 

Lord Chancellor, you require forty  (sorry, to go next)

b) The Lord Chancellor’s case
69. The Lord Chancellor accepted that “if there were a case in which a report was genuinely sought by the publicly funded party alone, for reasons affecting that party, and the other parties did not agree with or seek to make use of the report, then the court might direct that the cost[s] were borne by that party alone and it would be legitimate for the legally aided party to bear the full costs of that report” (§61 of the Lord Chancellor’s skeleton argument). In those circumstances, he said, the legally aided party would have to formulate the instructions without the involvement of the other parties. That set of circumstances was not what he was addressing in his main submissions.
70. In cases where expert evidence was necessary but the report was not genuinely sought by the publicly funded party alone, the Lord Chancellor submitted that the judge’s solution, which had of course largely been put forward by him, was correct. Only in “very exceptional cases” could the court depart from the norm of a single joint expert whose fees would be apportioned equally between the parties, it was submitted. Two conditions had to be satisfied:
i) “a party’s means, assessed following a robust process, are such that he or she cannot afford to pay for his or her share of the report”
and
ii) “an order for equal apportionment would involve a breach of a party’s Convention rights in the family proceedings because it would prevent an expert report which the court considered necessary to the proper resolution of the case from being adduced”.
If the two conditions were satisfied, the Lord Chancellor’s case was that the court should still order a single joint expert but could visit a greater share of the costs on the legally aided party than normal, although whether the legally aided party would have to pay all the costs would depend on the circumstances.

 

The Court of Appeal then distil the arguments down to common ground and areas of difference

c) Points in common and points of difference
71. It can be seen that all parties agreed that there may be situations in which an order can be made which does not apportion the cost of an expert equally between the parties in a case. It was common ground that where this was a departure from the apportionment that would normally have been ordered, the justification for this would be that otherwise there would be a breach of a party’s Convention rights. It was also common ground that in these circumstances, section 22(4) would not present an obstacle to the order being made. The absolutist position which I think was adopted by the LSC in front of Ryder J, namely that there were no circumstances in which the LSC could be ordered to pay experts’ fees “beyond a proportion that represents the proportion of legally aided parties” (see §79 of Ryder J’s judgment), was not advanced before us.
72. Underlying matters of detail were not agreed. There was debate as to whether it was necessary to impose a requirement of exceptionality, as to when and how a party’s inability to pay should be established and, an allied question, as to whether the proper way in which to regulate the parties’ share of the fees was by regulating their contractual liability to the expert or by means of conventional costs orders. Another major difference between the parties was that the Lord Chancellor was wedded to the idea of a single joint expert (and utilised that as a significant part of the foundation for his arguments) whereas the other parties contemplated that the expert could be instructed by the child/guardian alone, albeit with input from the other parties to the instructions.

 

 

A major part of the argument was whether the report being commissioned was really one being commissioned solely on behalf of the Child, or whether it was really one for the benefit of all parties and just pretending to be a sole instruction to get the free funding   (To go back to the dinner analogy – was this really a business meeting that the Expense account could pay for legitimately, or were two people getting a free lunch?)

The Court of Appeal consider some hypothetical situations but eventually come down to this

 

84. Doing the best I can to forecast the sort of situations that may arise, it seems to me that it may not be all that infrequent that an application by a child/guardian for permission to instruct an expert will genuinely be for an expert on behalf of the child, as opposed to a single joint expert, notwithstanding that the other parties have some input into the process of approval by the court and into the format of the expert’s instruction. Section 22(4) will then present no obstacle to the cost of the expert being met by the child’s public funding.

 

But going on to say that even if it is really a joint report, and the parents can’t pay, the Court still have to consider what is right and fair

 

When the expert is not solely the child’s expert
85. If the expert is not in fact the child’s expert but is a single joint expert, and the other parties are unable to contribute to the cost of the expert, it is necessary to consider in what circumstances public funds can be required to meet the whole cost. Once again, I will confine myself in this discussion to the current provisions of the 2010 Rules.

 

The Court then looked, in a lot of detail, about whether there was a presumption in law that any report would have the costs split equally –  there is a provision in the Family Procedure Rules that says that this is what will happen in the absence of the Court saying otherwise.  Does that mean that the Court have to have reasons for deviating from an equal split, or does it just mean that if the Court is silent, that’s what happens?

92. This provision received quite a lot of attention in argument in front of us. It is perhaps rather an odd provision to find in procedural rules, appearing to concern itself with the contractual relationship between the parties and the expert. It needs to be read with Rule 25.12(4)(a) which provides that the court may give directions about the expert’s fees and expenses. It is quite clear from that, and from its own terms, that Rule 25.12(6) is not intended to be prescriptive and merely establishes a default position as to liability to the expert in the event that the court does not direct otherwise. I do not see it as setting up a “normal rule” that the cost is to be apportioned equally, any more than the Calderdale case did.
93. None of the authorities which I have just cited turned on the impecuniosity of the parties. Although they differ from the present case in that they were care cases, they are capable of providing assistance as to “the principles on which the discretion of [the] court is normally exercised” in relation to the cost of expert evidence. As I have explained, to my mind, they do not reveal the existence of a normal rule that costs be apportioned equally any more than Rule 25.12(6) does. Accordingly, in so far as the Lord Chancellor’s submissions proceed upon the basis that equal apportionment is the norm, I would question the premise. In order to decide whether a court order has fallen foul of section 22(4), a more sophisticated exercise is required. It is necessary to ask what order the court would make in its discretion on the particular facts of that case, leaving aside any resources problems. The answer may not uncommonly be an order for equal apportionment of the costs but that cannot be assumed. It may be that a full consideration of the circumstances of the case produces the result that the publicly funded party should be paying a greater share of the costs in any event, quite irrespective of any financial difficulties that the other parties may have in sharing the cost of the expert. In such circumstances, section 22(4) does not prevent the court from making an order accordingly, because the order is in no way affected by the fact of public funding.

 

That’s quite dense, but basically, what the Court of Appeal say there is that there may be circumstances (even if there is no issue over the parties ABILITY to pay) where the costs of the report might be met by one party exclusively or where one party may make a larger share, and the Court has the legitimate power to do that.

[That, to make it explicit, is the Lord Chancellor losing an argument]

 

Next – what about a situation where the Court thinks that it is FAIR to split the costs equally, but one or more parties has resource issues (impecuniosity – or in layman’s terms, they are skint)

95. In the light of what I have said in the preceding section, I would reformulate the Lord Chancellor’s submission so that, rather than focussing upon whether the court can depart from equal apportionment of the expert’s fees, it focusses upon whether the court can depart from the order that it would have made but for the resources problem (to which I will refer in shorthand as “the normal order”). The Lord Chancellor sought to impose what, for the purposes of the discussion that follows, I will treat as three conditions for such a departure from the normal order although I accept that he may well not have intended the third one to be a condition as such. The three “conditions” are that it must be established that the other party could not pay his share of the cost; the normal order would involve a breach of a party’s Convention rights; and the case must be a “very exceptional” one.

 

Condition 1  (remember these are the conditions proposed by the Lord Chancellor) – an equal split would involve a breach of the party’s convention rights  – there’s a lot of this, so I have skipped to the conclusion

108. The Lord Chancellor’s argument seems to me to risk prejudicing the child in order to prevent a parent who is not otherwise entitled to legal aid deriving a benefit from a report which has been paid for by public funding. I have already emphasised that FPR 2010 acknowledge that a party may benefit from a report produced by another party’s expert without that expert becoming a joint expert. Anyone who has ever conducted or watched a successful cross-examination of an expert knows this perfectly well. The fact that a party who is not publicly funded will or may benefit from the expert’s input is likely to be a material factor in the court’s discretion as to the cost of the expert but it is not a reason to conclude, as I think is the conclusion to which the Lord Chancellor’s submissions would logically lead, that even though the child’s Convention rights would be violated by the inability to obtain the expert advice that the court had concluded was necessary to assist it, the expert could not be paid for on the child’s public funding certificate because that would benefit one or both of the parents as well.
109. It is as well to remember that cases in which the child is joined as a party are far from commonplace, as can be seen from the various provisions which I outlined earlier in this judgment starting at §39. They will be cases in which there are particular challenges in determining what is in the best interests of the child or in actually achieving the right solution in practice. The role of the child’s guardian is directed very firmly at achieving a resolution that is in the best interests of the child. His or her duties are defined and circumscribed as I have described earlier. His or her decisions must be made for the benefit of the child and he or she must make such investigations as are necessary to carry out his or her duties including obtaining such professional assistance as he or she thinks appropriate. By the time the guardian has endorsed the instruction of an expert as appropriate and the court itself has approved it as necessary, there will be the beginnings of a strong foundation for an argument that the child’s Article 8/Article 6 rights will be violated if the court cannot be provided with that expert assistance. Whether the argument will ultimately succeed will depend, of course, upon the precise nature of the decision to be taken in relation to the child.

 

It will be necessary for the parties to persuade the Court that an equal split (if that means the report can’t be obtained) would result in an article 6 or article 8 breach, but that’s not as much of an uphill struggle as the Lord Chancellor would have hoped – the parties start partway up that hill.

I reckon the Lord Chancellor   (apologies for not continually putting that title in quotation marks, since he isn’t a Lord Chancellor in the way that any lawyer or historian would recognise the role) lost that one as well

 

b) A very exceptional case
110. It is understandable that the Lord Chancellor should seek to confine the cases in which the cost of the expert would be apportioned unequally to avoid a breach of Convention rights by stressing that this could apply only in “very exceptional cases”. This approach ties in with the language of section 10 of LASPO 2012. However, whatever the immediate impact on the reader of the reference in section 10 to an “exceptional case determination”, the definition in section 10(3) makes it clear that “exceptionality” is not in fact an extra requirement and that what lies beneath the label is simply that if the services are not made available to an individual, there would (or sometimes might) be a breach of his Convention rights. I see no more justification for introducing a specific exceptionality requirement in the context we are considering here than the draftsman appears to have seen in relation to section 10 and it seems to me that it would distract attention from the central question. Granted, we are concerned with a departure from the way in which the court would otherwise have catered for the costs of the expert, so to that extent the order would be exceptional. That is a description, however, not a test or an additional hurdle.

 

That’s an indisputable loss for the Lord Chancellor.

 

c) Impecuniosity
111. It was common ground that the court would not be considering departing from the normal order unless the parties who would normally have to share the cost of the expert were unable to do so. There was debate, however, as to when and how impecuniosity would be determined.

 

There’s a risk of course, that the Court spends so long gathering information about whether or not someone is genuinely impecunious (as opposed to not keen on paying £2000 for a share of a report, which would apply to pretty much everyone) that the child’s welfare is prejudiced by delay.  There’s a difficult balance to be struck here.

112. Ryder J held, accepting the Lord Chancellor’s submissions, that “a robust scrutiny” was required of the party’s means, and said that what was a robust scrutiny would depend on the circumstances of the case but “an important consideration …. should be the party’s eligibility for legal aid where that still exists” (§76). He considered that if the party would not qualify for legal aid on the basis of their means, that was a factor that should point very strongly in favour of that party having to pay their full share of the cost of an expert’s report whereas, in contrast, if the party would qualify for legal aid, it may suggest that they should pay less than a full share, although paying nothing at all should be exceptional, bearing in mind that legally aided parties often have to pay a contribution (§77).
113. A particular concern of the Law Society was that the assessment of impecuniosity should not delay the proceedings. They were right to be concerned about that. Section 1(2) CA 1989 (see above) requires the court to have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining a question with respect to the upbringing of a child is likely to prejudice the child’s welfare. Furthermore, delay in resolving matters is capable, itself, of giving rise to breaches of Convention rights. What has happened in this case amply demonstrates that wrangles over the extent to which an expert’s costs should be met from public funds can introduce huge delay. The proceedings relating to this child were commenced in 2006, the guardian first sought a report in 2008 and the question of the payment of the expert remained unresolved in 2012 when we can see that the debate was impeding a final hearing of the case. It is quite possible that there were other problems as well as the expert’s fees but this is quite an indictment of the system. It leads me to the view that whatever system is operated must be one which is practical and not over technical and which avoids delay wherever possible.
114. The Law Society’s proposal that the child should be directed to obtain the expert evidence in the first instance with the ultimate liability for the expert’s fees being distributed between the parties by means of a costs order later in the proceedings therefore has considerable appeal.
115. The Lord Chancellor challenged it on a number of bases. Some of the arguments raised against the proposal amalgamated the issues of a breach of Convention rights and impecuniosity whereas I have dealt with these separately. Some covered the ground which I have examined when considering whether or not an expert is properly the child’s sole expert. I only reach the question of impecuniosity on the basis that the Lord Chancellor’s condition that the normal order would involve a breach of a party’s Convention rights is satisfied and, as I have explained, in my view there is no third condition of “exceptionality”
116. I sensed that an understandable concern of the Lord Chancellor was that joining the child as a party and using the child’s public funding to pay for an expert would become a widely used device – a back door to public funding for parents who would not otherwise have it – and I think he saw the Law Society’s proposed scheme as a way in which to have all the benefits of a single joint expert without the non-legally aided parties having to bear the cost. He did not, however, go so far as to suggest that only those who would in fact satisfy the financial criteria for legal aid should be treated as impecunious for the present purposes but submitted that eligibility might be a useful starting point and yardstick.
117. Ryder J also saw financial eligibility for legal aid as a relevant factor and I do not disagree. In my view, the Lord Chancellor was right not to argue that satisfying the financial eligibility criteria is a necessary qualification, not least because it may well place the family courts in considerable difficulty if they had to carry out the sort of detailed and technical assessment that the LSC would use to determine financial eligibility. The challenges facing the courts in private law cases in the new post-legal aid regime are evident and they are also working hard to process care cases with expedition. It is difficult to envisage them having the resources to assess a party’s eligibility for legal aid as the LSC would do, without seriously holding up the individual case or prejudicing the rest of their work or both. But in so far as financial eligibility can be ascertained, it must be relevant. If the party in question would not qualify for legal aid, that may count heavily against an argument that they could not pay their full share of the cost of the report whereas, conversely, if they would qualify, then that may suggest that they cannot pay a full share. As Ryder J rightly pointed out, it is not all or nothing. It may be that a party could not pay a full share but could pay something towards the expert’s costs, just as they could be required to pay a contribution towards their legal aid.
118. It is difficult to forecast what financial information will be available to the court and at what stage in the proceedings. There may be cases in which a party has already been assessed for financial eligibility for legal aid and no doubt it would be appropriate to have regard to the outcome of such an assessment in those cases. In some cases, as in the present case, financial information is available because there are or have been ancillary relief proceedings. In other cases, directions will have to be given to secure the necessary information from the parties.
119. The stage at which the court can reach a final determination as to whether a departure from the normal order is required for Convention reasons is likely therefore to vary, depending on the facts. There may be cases in which the decision can be taken before the expert is even instructed, with the parties’ shares of the cost being settled from the outset. There may be others in which that would or may import harmful delay into the proceedings and in which there is no option but to adopt the Law Society’s solution of requiring the guardian to instruct the expert in the first instance, but with the intent of revisiting the question of cost, on proper financial information, later by means of a conventional costs order. The court would, not, of course, embark on that route without some cogent evidence that the other parties would not be able to pay their way in the instruction.

 

I wouldn’t call that an outright victory for either side – it seems that before a Court decides that a party is impecunious (and thus couldn’t pay an equal share, and thus the report wouldn’t be obtained) it has to decide what information about finances is reasonable to inspect – if they can be obtained swiftly then it would be considered before the expert report is comissioned, if not, then the Court may make an order that the report be paid out of the Child’s public funding, and then remedy that with a later order once the financial information is available.

 

In the individual case, the Court of Appeal decided that it was right that the costs should have been met through the Child’s public funding /legal aid, and that they differed from Ryder J’s decision.

 

For broader cases, the Court of Appeal say this

 

132. I would simply add that when judges are called upon to deal with the sort of difficult issues that have arisen here, it would be prudent for them to explain their reasons for each decision that they take in a short judgment and for their orders to be precisely spelled out.

 

[All of this boils down to a Britney Spears type exhortation –  You want an expert? You want a 16.4 guardian? You want the costs of the expert to be paid by the child’s legal aid? You want the court to say you’re impecunious?   You better work bitch]

 

 

 

 

 

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