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Your Honour, I am afraid that I have not done a position statement, but may I just hand this up?

I think this summarises our position

I think this summarises our position

 

 

I thought of that gag this morning, and kudos to Cobb J for giving me the opportunity to deploy it.

 

Newcastle City Council v WM and Others 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/42.html

 

When a High Court Judge asks why you haven’t filed and served a position statement, don’t do THIS

 

 

  • I return to consider some of the matters outlined at the beginning of this judgment.
  • At the outset of this hearing not one of the respondents’ advocates had troubled to prepare a Position Statement. Counsel addressed me on the first morning of the hearing to explain the absence of these documents addressing me as if the requirement for such a document were a personal idiosyncrasy of mine. It is not. May I, for the record, remind counsel again of the following points: PD27A para.4.3:

 

At the commencement of the bundle there shall be inserted the following documents (the preliminary documents) –

(a) an up to date case summary of the background to the hearing confined to those matters which are relevant to the hearing and the management of the case and limited, if practicable, to four A4 pages;

(b) a statement of the issue or issues to be determined (1) at that hearing and (2) at the final hearing;

(c) a position statement by each party including a summary of the order or directions sought by that party (1) at that hearing and (2) at the final hearing;

(d) an up to date chronology, if it is a final hearing or if the summary under (i) is insufficient;

(e) skeleton arguments, if appropriate;

(f) a list of essential reading for that hearing; and

(g) the time estimate (see paragraph 10.1).

 

  • May I draw to their further attention PD27A, §4.4:

 

Each of the preliminary documents shall be as short and succinct as possible and shall state on the front page immediately below the heading the date when it was prepared and the date of the hearing for which it was prepared. Where proceedings relating to a child are being heard by magistrates the summary of the background shall be prepared in anonymised form, omitting the names and identifying information of every person referred to other than the parties’ legal representatives, and stating the number of pages contained in the bundle. Identifying information can be contained in all other preliminary documents

And PD27A para 6.4:

The preliminary documents shall be lodged with the court no later than 11 am on the day before the hearing and, where the hearing is before a judge of the High Court and the name of the judge is known, shall (with the exception of the authorities, which are to be lodged in hard copy and not sent by email) at the same time be sent by email to the judge’s clerk

Sadly, this is once again one of those cases where poor planning and preparation had led to massive delays for the children,  and unfairness in the process, and once again, the misuse of section 20 played a part

  • The burden of judicial decision-making has regrettably been made significantly more complex by the failures of the professionals and child care systems involved with this family. To give prominence to those failures, I highlight some of them at the outset of this judgment:

i) At the time of the final hearing, the children have been in foster care for 93 weeks awaiting a decision about them;ii) The children were accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 (“CA 1989″) from July 2013 until March 2015, when interim care orders were made (under section 38 of the CA 1989) at the Issues Resolution Hearing;

iii) The ‘letter before proceedings’ (prepared pursuant to PD12A FPR 2010) was sent to the parents in January 2013, 73 weeks before the proceedings were ultimately issued (July 2014);

iv) The final hearing is taking place in the 43rd week, not the 26th week following issue (see section 14(2)(ii) of the Children and Families Act 2014);

v) The mother has significant learning disability; she has an assessed IQ of 61. She is assessed to lack capacity to litigate in these proceedings. There is a significant question whether she ever had capacity to consent to the accommodation of her children (it is said, per Dr. Thorpe, consultant psychiatrist, that “she did not appear to understand the reasons why her children had been placed in foster care”), and whether, in the circumstances, the children were for the extended period referred to above lawfully accommodated;

vi) On any of the outcomes proposed for the children, they will have to be separated; as indicated above, the family placement on offer is for the two older children only. The Local Authority does not contemplate an adoptive placement for all three siblings together;

vii) The youngest child has spent more than half his life waiting for a decision about his long-term future, which is, and has been for some time, essentially undisputed;

viii) The Children’s Guardian and Local Authority propose radically different outcomes for the older children. The Social Worker and the parties were only made aware of the final recommendation of the Guardian on the first morning of the hearing.

ix) The maternal aunt, who wishes to care for the children, suffers a serious and debilitating eye condition; it is identified and briefly described in the independent social work assessment of her capacity to care for the children. The aunt’s lawyers did not apparently explore the implications of this condition before the hearing began. The extent of her significant visual disability was astonishingly only revealed at the conclusion of her oral evidence, and only when I asked to describe it (she had obviously been struggling to read from the documents presented to her while giving evidence); this led to a short adjournment during the hearing to obtain necessary expert medical evidence;

x) In a case which generates a range of possible outcomes, and in which some of the key parties have vacillated about their preferences during the proceedings, none of the respondent advocates had prepared position statements prior to the final hearing (I exonerate Ms Moulder as she stepped in on day 2 of the final hearing to replace counsel who had unavoidably had to relinquish the brief at short notice, and for entirely legitimate reasons), leaving me, when reading into the case, to speculate about their final preferred outcomes;

xi) There was no attempt by the Local Authority to provide one pared-down trial bundle of the relevant material; I was provided with four lever arch files; no reading list and no reading time.

  • Lessons are obviously to be learned from the sorry state of affairs described in paragraph [3] above. I suspect that the facts outlined above speak for themselves. Lest they don’t, I expand more about them in the judgment which follows, and (in relation to (x) and (xi)) in the post-script which follows the judgment (see [105-111]).

 

I think that we are really close to the judiciary making human rights compensation orders in these cases – these children had on that reading been unlawfully accommodated for around 21 months, as the mother did not have capacity to consent to such accommodation.

 

Even more wretched than that, is that when the case was finally litigated, the Judge concluded that two of the children should be placed with a family member, their aunt. That could have been done much much earlier, and the children spent more time in care than was necessary. That’s a tragedy.

 

The judicial analysis and approach is excellent, and the judgment as a whole is worth reading.

 

Lest you think the whole thing is critical, the Judge was more than willing to lavish praise on those who deserved it.

 

 

  • Having identified some of the failures in the case, I turn next, and briefly, to one of its significant redeeming features. The role of the intermediary service.
  • I wish to pay particular tribute to Clare Jones and Rebecca Fletcher from Communicourt Limited who offered an excellent intermediary service to the Court for the mother in this case. The mother has significant communication difficulties, both with understanding and using language; this is likely to be attributable in part to her learning disability, and in part to acquiring English as a second language.
  • Ms Jones’ report, dated 20 February 2015, was clear and practical, providing guidance about how best to manage the case in a way which would optimise the mother’s participation. Ms Jones was regrettably unable to attend the final hearing, and the intermediary service was therefore provided by Ms Fletcher, who performed her role with great skill and discretion. Ground rules had been set by HHJ Hudson at the IRH; these were re-visited at the outset of the hearing. Specific ground rules were set for the mother’s evidence, which we all endeavoured conscientiously to observe.
  • Overall, I was satisfied that the mother had been enabled to participate in the process as fully and effectively as could possibly be achieved. I am indebted to the intermediary service for its assistance

 

 

Angola – gross, inexplicable and unjustifiable delay

 

This is a judgment by a circuit Judge, His Honour Judge Wood, sitting in Newcastle. It is not binding precedent, but I think that it illuminates some important issues.

 

The mother in the case was Angolan, born in 1977. The eldest child had been born and raised in her early life in a refugee camp in Angola. The family came to England in 2005. It was sadly and brutally apparent that this mother had seen and experienced things that you would wish on no human being, and that obviously as a result, she had severe and serious need of help that she did not receive.

 

 

Re N (Children) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/37.html

  1. I have found this case simultaneously to be very difficult, very sad and also to have made me very angry. In reverse order, the anger flows from the failure of this Local Authority to meet these children’s needs in a significant way. First, the gross, inexplicable and unjustifiable delay, the breach of statutory duty under section 1(3). Secondly, this is a family with, if not a unique background, a relatively unusual and extraordinarily difficult one, which until Mrs Louw reported does not seem to the court to have been really considered at all and even following her report I question the extent to which it was properly embraced. The search for suitable cultural support has come really very late indeed.
  2. Thirdly, the likelihood of the parenting course that the mother was sent on barely scratching the surface was evident before the mother even went on it. I do not say that she learned nothing from it, she was able to explain what she had learned and spoke to me in quite complimentary terms about it, but the real difficulty identified by Mrs Louw was completely beyond its scope. Fourthly, the delay in obtaining the evidence from Mrs Louw was caused entirely by the Local Authority not identifying that need until these proceedings were issued. It was ordered at the earliest point at the case management hearing but by then 17 months had elapsed since the children went into care.
  3. Fifthly, the Local Authority knows about this mother’s isolation. It is apparent on all of the evidence. She belongs to a church but does not mix with other families, at school or elsewhere. She has, on her account, maybe one or two visitors from her church to her home but she does not visit the homes of her visitors and she has no other family or friends, certainly locally. As an asylum seeker from a war-torn country but with children brought up in a western educational system, the potential for cultural issues and expectations to give rise to conflict ought to have been obvious. I do not underestimate the difficulty of finding appropriate help. Even at the end of this hearing it is not clear what does exist but no real attempt was made even to mount a search until much too late. To criticise the mother for not having learnt from five group sessions of an effective parenting course is really just not fair.
  4. Sixthly, the background of being a refugee, particularly from Angola, even with an elementary knowledge of recent Angolan history and absent that an enquiry just on the internet, should have alerted the Local Authority to the likelihood that this mother had experienced real trauma likely to be of a severe kind which should have set alarm bells ringing as to her likely needs. On all of these scores the President’s textbook example of how not to conduct a care case seems to the court to have been met.

 

The Judge was rightly scathing about the delay between the Local Authority taking these children into care and issuing proceedings, some 17 months. With all of the features of this case, it should have been apparent that section 20 would not be sufficient and that proper plans for the long-term future of these children was needed.  Even worse than the delay was that the Local Authority took SEVEN MONTHS to issue the proceedings from the date that they wrote to mother’s solicitors saying that they were going to issue.  As the Judge points out – if the LA had issued when they said they were going to, the proceedings would have been concluded a month earlier than when they were actually issued.

[Even worse than this, the children had been taken into Police Protection a year before the section 20 accommodation, as a result of a physical assault, and then returned home, so the LA were seized of the issues and concerns for some 29 MONTHS before care proceedings were issued]

 

5. I want to say at the outset that the course that this case has taken in the hands of this Local Authority has been deeply unsatisfactory. Following a precipitating event in the middle of June 2013 the children were accommodated with the mother’s consent under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. Despite taking a decision in January 2014 that the plan was to be long term foster care and the Local Authority writing to the mother’s solicitor in March of that year to the effect that proceedings would be issued within seven days, they were not issued for another seven months on 22nd October 2014. As I observed when Miss Woolrich on behalf of the Local Authority addressed me, had the proceedings been issued when the Local Authority said that they were going to issue, they should have been concluded before the date when they were, in fact, issued. That they were not is bad enough but that bald fact ignores the period of nine months that preceded that statement of intent. Thus, these children were voluntarily accommodated for 16 months prior to the issue of proceedings and can properly be said today to have been in limbo now for 21 months.

  1. It is difficult to avoid a direct application of the words of Sir James Munby P in the recent Darlington Borough Council case reported at [2015] EWFC 11 in which he described that case as being, “Almost a textbook example of how not to embark upon and pursue a care case.” A specific criticism from that case that applies directly in this case is, “The misuse and abuse of section 20″, that the President said could no longer be tolerated endorsing, as he did, the observations of the Court of Appeal in Re W [2014] EWCA Civ 1065 and Northampton County Council v AS [2015] EWHC 199 quoting with approval the remarks of Keehan J recorded at paragraphs 36 and 37 of that latter judgment.
  2. This all lies entirely at the door of the Local Authority and requires addressing at the highest levels within Children’s Services and their legal advisors. That said, no parent in such circumstances is left without a remedy. Legal advice is available from the outset of notification of proceedings and it is a matter of both surprise and disappointment that the mother here was not encouraged to force the point as she was perfectly entitled, and I would say bound, to do in the circumstances of such gross delay by withdrawing her consent. I want to emphasise I do not blame this mother personally but it is the fact and a matter of regret that this did not happen long before the Local Authority belatedly got round to issuing proceedings. The effect of delay varies from case to case but in no sense could it here have been described, using the now disapproved term, as being purposeful. It served no identifiable purpose, it has delayed the outcome inordinately for young children wanting their futures decided and, as a matter of law, it has amounted to a complete and inexcusable breach of the statutory delay principle enshrined in section 1(2) of the Act.

 

The Judge sadly had to make Care Orders – one will never know whether if during those 17 months of drift the mother had been given the right help whether the outcome would have been different.

He decided that these failings were not solely those of the social worker but of the organisation and system as a whole, so followed the President’s decision in Darlington not to name and shame the individual workers

 I make a disclosure order to the head of service and to the independent reviewing officer in respect of this judgment which will be transcribed as anonymised, the cost of which to be shared equally by all parties. I should say that for the avoidance of doubt for the reasons that the President gave in the Darlington case itself, I have also directed that the two social workers who have been involved should be anonymised as well because it seems to me entirely unfair that, whatever individual shortcomings may have arisen, the criticisms that have been levelled against the Local Authority should be laid at their door or that they should be identified as responsible.

 

It also seems to me that with all of the demonisation of asylum seekers that goes on in both political discourse and the media reporting, it is worth reading this little passage and remembering that asylum seeker ought not to be used a synonym for ‘sponger’

The mother was born on 23rd October 1977 in Angola. By then the brutal civil war that shocked the outside world had been underway for two years. G was born in a refugee camp in Zambia in 2002 just after that war ended. The psychologist who reported in this case makes the point that the mother grew up and came to maturity in a war-torn country. The central province where she lived is said to have been devastated. The mother herself reports that there came a day in 1999 or 2000 when they “all ran different ways” and she thereby lost contact both with her parents and her sister. She has no idea where they might be – that is to say, assuming they are still alive – and somehow she ended up following a convoy of complete strangers that took her to Zambia. Little more than that is known, albeit the expert assessment of her presentation was consistent with her affirmative nod in answer to a direct question as to whether she had been jailed and/or tortured. She is likely to have experienced first hand, or at least witnessed, extreme brutality that has traumatised her to this day.

 

 

Unfortunate and woeful – Local Authority failings

 

This is a High Court case in which the Judge (Keehan J) was very (and rightly) critical of the Local Authority, including criticism that when they were asked for explanations of their conduct prior to and during the proceedings those explanations were not satisfactory and amounted to not much more than attempts to defend the indefensible.

 

Northamptonshire and DS 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/199.html

 

The case ended with a child, DS, being placed with his maternal grandparents in Latvia.

 

It began, as cock-ups so often do, with a section 20 agreement. There were some legitimate concerns that DS would be at risk in the care of his mother and his mother was asked to agree to place him in ‘voluntary’ foster care. This happened when he was 15 days old.

 

The Local Authority did not properly think about care proceedings until five months later, and even worse than that, having decided that care proceedings were the right thing to do, did not then issue them until five months after that.

 

The care proceedings were plagued by delay, most if not all being ascribed to the Local Authority, ending up with a child spending nearly two years in foster care when there were grandparents who were eventually able to care for him.

 

The Guardian and mother issued claims for Human Rights damages on behalf of the child, and the LA by the time of the final hearing were accepting that they had violated the child’s human rights in all of these human rights claims:-

 

 

(a) The local authority failed to take any protective action to safeguard the child despite having concerns that he was at risk of suffering significant harm between 15 and 30 January 2013, in breach of his article 6 and 8 rights.

(b) Whilst the child was accommodated pursuant to section 20 CA on 30 January 2013, a decision to initiate proceedings was not made until 23 May 2013 and an application for a care order was not made until 5 November 2013. Over this period of 11 months the child was without access to any independent representation of his welfare interests and had no access to any remedy or recourse and no person was exercising parental responsibility for him, in breach of the child’s article 6, 8 and 13 rights. *

(c) The local authority, by its acts or omissions, caused or contributed to a series of delays in the filing of necessary evidence during the course of the care proceedings and the final evidence filed for hearing in October 2014 was inadequate and incomplete, in breach of the child’s and mother’s article 6 rights.

(d) The delays and general mismanagement of the case by the local authority has been seriously prejudicial to the child’s welfare and the child’s and mother’s ability to enjoy a family life with a member of his extended family prior to November 2014, which may have irredeemable consequences for the child’s future welfare and development. Such failures were in breach of the child’s article 8 rights.

(e) The child and mother were subject to a high turnover of social workers and locum social workers with conduct of his case file leading to a lack of cohesive, comprehensive management and care for a significant period of time and in breach of the child’s and mother’s article 6 rights and prejudicial to their article 8 rights.

(f) The local authority failed to organise contact between the child and his mother in accordance with an explicit order of the court and the advice of the Children’s Guardian for a significant period of time and poor organisation and communication by the local authority led to various sessions of contact being cancelled. Such failures were in breach of the child’s and mother’s article 8 rights.

 

 

*you don’t often hear of article 13 rights, but it was a good call in this case:-

 

Everyone whose rights and freedoms as set forth in this Convention are violated shall have an effective remedy before a national authority notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity.

 

There wasn’t an effective remedy until the LA issued the care proceedings that should have begun in February at worst, but instead started in November.

 

A package amounting to £17,000 was agreed by the Local Authority and approved by the Court.

 

Looking at some of the particular criticisms made by the Court:-

 

 

Inexperience of the worker and delay in issuing

 

 

I cannot begin to understand why an inexperienced social worker who was not familiar with care proceedings was allocated as a social worker for a 15 day old baby. I do not understand why it took until August to provide her with support or why senior managers did not intervene in this case. It is wholly inexcusable for a local authority to take three months to decide to issue care proceedings in respect of a very young baby and then a further five months to issue care proceedings. The fact that the parents are Latvian and that close family members lived abroad, provides no explanation less still an excuse for the extraordinary delay in this case.

 

 

The changes in social worker

 

I appreciate that social services’ departments have difficulties recruiting and retaining social workers but it is deeply worrying that over the course of these proceedings DS has been allocated no less than eight different social workers. It is evident to me that neither the social workers, nor the senior managers at Northampton Children’s Services Department had DS’s welfare best interests at the forefront of their minds. Worse still they did nothing to promote them. Their chaotic approach to this young baby’s care and future life was dismal.

 

 

The section 20 agreement

 

The use of the provisions of s.20 Children Act 1989 to accommodate was, in my judgment, seriously abused by the local authority in this case. I cannot conceive of circumstances where it would be appropriate to use those provisions to remove a very young baby from the care of its mother, save in the most exceptional of circumstances and where the removal is intended to be for a matter of days at most.

 

The accommodation of DS under a s.20 agreement deprived him of the benefit of having an independent children’s guardian to represent and safeguard his interests. Further, it deprived the court of the ability to control the planning for the child and to prevent or reduce unnecessary and avoidable delay in securing a permanent placement for the child at the earliest possible time.

 

 

Whether the s20 ‘consent’ was really meaningful consent

 

On 30 January the local authority concluded that DS was at risk of harm in the care of his mother and secured her agreement to him being placed with foster carers. I question how effective that consent was when it was sought without the mother having the benefit of an interpreter.

 

And overall

 

The catalogue of errors, omissions, delays and serial breaches of court orders in this matter is truly lamentable. They would be serious enough in respect of an older child but they are appalling in respect of a 15 day old baby. Each day, each week and each month in his young life is exceedingly precious. Where so young a child is removed from the care of his mother or father his case must be afforded the highest priority by the local authority.

 

 

 

None of this is good. It is, in fact, deeply bad.

 

Critics of the family justice system, and there are many, are entitled to point to a case like this and say that this is what goes on. The parents in this case, and the child in this case, were badly let down by professionals and there were systemic failures to put things right.

 

It is only a small crumb of comfort that this was a case in which the Judge dealing with it was prepared to be tenacious and forensic about those failures, with a view to preventing them happening to other unfortunate families.

 

As the Judge says at the end

 

I trust that the events of the first 23 months of DS’s life will not have a detrimental impact on his future development and his emotional and psychological well being. There is a real risk they will do so.

Beware the PLO my son! the jaws that bite, the claws that catch (Is the PLO coming to Court of Protection?)

 

Having opened with Lewis Carroll, I’ll digress to Bruce Springsteen – if you practice in the Court of Protection –  “You’d better not pout, you’d better not cry, you’d better watch out, I’m telling you why – the PLO is coming to town”

 

Cases A and B (Court of Protection : Delay and Costs) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCOP/2014/48.html

Mr Justice Peter Jackson  (I know, it is supposed to be Jackson J, but when there are two Jackson J’s, that just causes confusion) gave a judgment in two linked Court of Protection cases that had gone on an inordinate length of time and cost an inordinate amount of public money, and ended with this exhortation to the President  (who of course wears those two hats of President of the Family Division And President of the Court of Protection)

 

The purpose of this judgment is to express the view that the case management provisions in the Court of Protection Rules have proved inadequate on their own to secure the necessary changes in practice. While cases about children and cases about incapacitated adults have differences, their similarities are also obvious. There is a clear procedural analogy to be drawn between many welfare proceedings in the Court of Protection and proceedings under the Children Act. As a result of the Public Law Outline, robust case management, use of experts only where necessary, judicial continuity, and a statutory time-limit, the length of care cases has halved in two years. Yet Court of Protection proceedings can commonly start with no timetable at all for their conclusion, nor any early vision of what an acceptable outcome would look like. The young man in Case B is said to have a mental age of 8. What would we now say if it took five years – or 18 months – to decide the future of an 8-year-old?

 

I therefore believe that the time has come to introduce the same disciplines in the Court of Protection as now apply in the Family Court. Accordingly, and at his request, I am sending a copy of this judgment to the President of the Court of Protection, Sir James Munby, for his consideration.

 

Brace yourselves, Court of Protection folk, for “streamlining” and “case management” and “standardised documents” most of which will make you wish that you had taken a different career path – for example, rather than “Law” that you had decided to become a practice subject for CIA agents working on their interrogation techniques.

The Judge has a point here, we absolutely would not tolerate cases involving a vulnerable 8 year old taking 5 years* (*although see case after case of private law children cases that drag on for years and years) and costing this sort of money.

 

  1. In Case A, the proceedings lasted for 18 months. In round figures, the estimated legal costs were £140,000, of which about £60,000 fell on the local authority, £11,000 on a legally-aided family member, and £69,000 on the young man himself, paid from his damages.
  2. In Case B, the proceedings lasted for five years. In round figures, the estimated legal costs were £530,000, of which about £169,000 fell on the local authority, £110,000 on a family member (who ran out of money after three years and represented himself thereafter), and £250,000 on the young man himself, paid for out of legal aid.
  3. These figures are conservative estimates.
  4. Each case therefore generated legal costs at a rate of approximately £9,000 per month.

 

The Judge draws a comparison between taxi drivers and advocates (and not the usual “cab-rank principle” one)

  1. Just as the meter in a taxi keeps running even when not much is happening, so there is a direct correlation between delay and expense. As noted above, the great majority of the cost of these cases fell on the state. Public money is in short supply, not least in the area of legal aid, and must be focussed on where it is most needed: there are currently cases in the Family Court that cannot be fairly tried for lack of paid legal representation. Likewise, Court of Protection cases like these are of real importance and undoubtedly need proper public funding, but they are almost all capable of being decided quickly and efficiently, as the Rules require.
  2. In short, whether we are spending public or private money, the court and the parties have a duty to ensure that the costs are reasonable. That duty perhaps bites particularly sharply when we are deciding that an incapacitated person’s money should be spent on deciding his future, whether he likes it or not.

 

It is very hard to argue against that, and there can be little worse than burning through a vulnerable person’s money in order to protect them from financial or alleged financial abuse (see for example Re G, and the “94 year old woman subject to gagging order” case)

 

What drives up those costs? The Judge identified two major things – a search for a perfect solution, rather than a decent solution that carries with it some imperfections, and a tendency to deal with every concievable issue rather than to focus on what really matters.

 

A common driver of delay and expense is the search for the ideal solution, leading to decent but imperfect outcomes being rejected. People with mental capacity do not expect perfect solutions in life, and the requirement in Section 1(5) of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 that “An act done, or decision made, under this Act for or on behalf of a person who lacks capacity must be done, or made, in his best interests.” calls for a sensible decision, not the pursuit of perfection.

Likewise, there is a developing practice in these cases of addressing every conceivable legal or factual issue, rather than concentrating on the issues that really need to be resolved. As Mrs Justice Parker said in Re PB [2014] EWCOP 14:

“All those who practice in the Court of Protection must appreciate that those who represent the vulnerable who cannot give them capacitous instructions have a particular responsibility to ensure that the arguments addressed are proportionate and relevant to the issues, to the actual facts with which they are dealing rather than the theory, and to have regard to the public purse, court resources and other court users.”

  1. There is also a tendency for professional co-operation to be dissipated in litigation. This was epitomised in Case A, where the litigation friend’s submission focussed heavily on alleged shortcomings by the local authority, even to the extent that it was accompanied by a dense document entitled “Chronology of Faults”. But despite this, the author had no alternative solution to offer. The role of the litigation friend in representing P’s interests is not merely a passive one, discharged by critiquing other peoples’ efforts. Where he considers it in his client’s interest, he is entitled to research and present any realistic alternatives.
  2. The problem of excessive costs is not confined to the Court of Protection. In his recent judgment in J v J [2014] EWHC 3654 (Fam). Mr Justice Mostyn referred to the £920,000 spent by a divorcing couple on financial proceedings as “grotesque”. In V v V [2011] EWHC 1190 (Fam), I described the sum of £925,000 spent by a couple who had not even begun their financial proceedings as “absurd”. Yet everyday experience in the High Court, Family Court and Court of Protection shows that these are by no means isolated examples: in some case the costs are even greater. There is a danger that we become habituated to what Mostyn J called “this madness”, and that we admire the problem instead of eliminating it.
  3. The main responsibility for this situation and its solution must lie with the court, which has the power to control its proceedings.

 

I hope that if there is going to be a committee or working group on solving some of the problems in the Court of Protection that they can co-opt Mr Justice Peter Jackson and District Judge Eldergill onto it – both of them are extremely sensitive and sensible Judges and the Court of Protection could do a lot worse than have its future steered by them.

Surrey seems to be the hardest word

 
The High Court decision in Surrey County Council v AB and Others 2014
http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/1115.html

This is a judgment which might be pertinent for an elephant in the room issue since the Family Justice Review started moving us away from independent experts. Once you take that expertise out of court rooms and decisions about families, what is filling that gap? Is it sufficient to treat all social workers as experts without considering the huge differences between an experienced and analytical social worker and a relative newcomer?

The writer is aware of a pending article for Family Law Week prepared by Miss Battie of counsel, which touches on this very issue.

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed128671

In this case, the Local Authority ended up apologising, in writing, to the parents and grandparents because the social worker they had been allocated was “at the bottom of her learning curve”

[Just like any profession, newcomers start out new and have to gain experience by doing it. Every social worker has to have a first case, a first contested case, a first adoption case. The significance of course is that adoption(or separation of a child from birth parents permanently) is, as the Supreme Court reminded us last year, the most dramatic order that can be made in family Courts and it requires a robustness and rigour in the analysis and decision-making if it is to be done fairly. I don’t mean to suggest that all experienced social workers get everything right, nor that all new social workers get everything wrong, rather that when you are looking at a social worker having the entireity of the assessment process on their shoulders rather than having experts to consult with, the individual ability of that social worker comes into play far more than it did two years ago.]

“That document repeats the apology given to the parents and paternal grandmother for them being at the bottom of the “learning curve” for the allocated social worker.”

[Any underlining is mine, for emphasis]

The child in this case was 2 ½ years old. He had significant needs

X has complex health needs. He was born with hypertonia, suffers from a visual impairment Peters Anomaly Type 1/Anterior Dysgenesis Anomoly, has significant motor delay, scoliosis of the spine and suffers from digestive difficulties. As a result of these health difficulties he requires a standard of care that enables his particular health needs to be met. Such care includes 24 hour postural support, careful monitoring of his diet and significant care when feeding and essential auditory and tactile stimulation to ensure his emotional needs are met and to compensate for his loss of other senses. He has been placed with foster carers since May 2012 under a section 20 agreement.
The parents also had significant needs

10. His parents have their own health difficulties. His mother has cerebral palsy involving weakness in one arm and both legs and a possible mild learning disability. The father was diagnosed as a child with ADHD and is said to have Asperger-like symptoms, although there is no formal diagnosis.

The quality of the assessment and interventions that the parents received were a critical part of the case (and given that the Local Authority apologised in writing, you can make an informed guess that there was some judicial criticism of them)

11. One of the central issues in this case has been the adequacy of the assessments of the parents as to their capacity to care for X. Put simply the parent’s case was that the local authority comprehensively failed in their duties to support X’s continued placement with his parents. It is submitted there has been an unfair process resulting in a catalogue of missed opportunities and inadequate assessments, which have resulted in the parents now being at a significant disadvantage in putting themselves forward to care for X.
12. The local authority acknowledges some of their procedures and assessments have been inadequate, but submit the basic factual background has not changed. This is a young boy who needs exceptional care due to his particular needs and the combination of the parent’s volatile relationship and the father’s inability to provide emotional care for this young boy mean his parents were unable to provide the care he needed.

The Judge follows through the chain of mistakes and missed opportunities
Core assessment
17. A core assessment was started on 23 March 2012 and completed on 25 April 2012. Curiously the core assessment under “Agencies contributing to core assessment” records “No Key Agencies identified”. Under the section asking whether there were any disability or communication issues for the child or parents are to be recorded the box is left blank. This is despite it then being known about some of X’s health difficulties and the body of the assessment refers to his ‘global delay’, the mother having cerebral palsy and learning difficulties and the father Aspergers. The assessment also records in relation to the mother that she was ‘unable to use public transport due her physical disability’. The assessment goes on to record under parents’ views ‘[the parents] do not believe that their difficulties will impede on their capacity to care for or meet their son’s needs and their wish for him to be returned to their care in the very near future’. The parents are recorded as not agreeing with the local authority’s recommendation that X be made the subject of a child protection plan, however it goes on to record that both parents ‘are keen to work with all agencies so that they will be able to care for their son’. In the decision section the ‘No further action’ box was ticked.
18. This was not a promising start. On the face of the document it seems incomprehensible that the core assessment failed to identify the disabilities and communication difficulties that were obvious on the face of the assessment. Of the ‘tick box’ decision options there was included ‘specialist assessment’ and ‘referral to other agency’ yet despite identifying difficulties which required further assessment and the parents expressing their willingness to work with agencies no further action was taken. It is suggested that this was one of the first lost opportunities to support the parents in their wish to care for X. I agree.
Core group meeting
19. There was a core group meeting on 27 April 2012 attended by the parents, maternal grandparents, allocated social worker Ms Perrin, the ATM Mr Taljaard, Ms Livingstone the health visitor and Ms Murdoch (described as other social care staff). The minutes dated 8 June 2012 (some six weeks later) record ‘a residential unit for AB and X was discussed with AB stating that she is not keen for this to happen as this would put further stress on [the parents] as a couple’.
20. At this time X remained in the care of the mother in the maternal grandparents’ home. After the parents reported the mother’s brother’s use of pornographic sites X was placed with foster carers pursuant to section 20. There is no evidence of what, if any, other options within the wider family were explored to enable X to remain being cared for by his mother.
Allocation of new social worker

21. Ms Kim Horrox became the allocated social worker on 29 June 2012. She took over from Claire Stevens. Garth Taljaard was the ATM and remained so until Ms Grindon took over in January 2013, she remains the ATM to date. Ms Horrox qualified in 2011 although she had some previous social work related experience. This was her first case that resulted in care proceedings. By this stage X had been with the foster carers for six weeks.
22. Ms Horrox was clear in oral evidence that at the handover meeting in June 2012 she was informed that a residential assessment had been refused by the mother and was not being further explored. However, this is not consistent with other documents at the same time which seemed to indicate this issue was being actively pursued. There is a record of a discussion with the mother on 15 May 2012 in which she says she would rather go to a mother and baby foster home or residential unit than go back to her parents’ home for further assessment. A letter from the paediatric dietician to the consultant paediatrician on 24 May records that the mother was ‘awaiting a mother and baby placement in foster care for her and X’, it was mentioned as being the preferred plan in a meeting with the safeguarding nurse Mel Baxendale on 29 May 2012 and on 22 June 2012 there is an email from Mr Taljaard ATM after the review CP conference stating that the team manager and area manager have agreed a care plan that allows mother and baby to be placed in an appropriate residential unit for further assessment. This is said to be a further lost opportunity, I agree.
Assessment by the new social worker

24. Ms Horrox stated that on taking the case over she wished to conduct her own assessment of the parents and make her own judgment. She met with the parents on 3 July and on 17 July a youth support worker informed Ms Horrox that the mother was declining support from adult services. Ms Horrox accepted in oral evidence that she should have been more creative in helping the mother access appropriate support.
Assessment of the parents

29. In February/March 2013 there was a referral by Ms Horrox to the adult services team for an assessment to be conducted as the parents were said now to be consenting to such an assessment. It is accepted by Ms Horrox that this referral was not accepted by the relevant team until 23 September 2013 some 7 months later. Ms Horrox said in evidence that having made the referral she chased it three times and on the third time was told it needed to be sent to the ‘transition team’, that required a different referral form which she completed and sent. That was apparently deleted by mistake, once that was discovered a further referral was sent and then, finally, it was ‘actioned’. I agree this was another lost opportunity.

 

Delay in issuing / drift in section 20
30. The care proceedings were issued on 25 March 2013, 10 months after X had been placed with foster carers and over 4 ½ months after the local authority issued letters of intent to the parents informing them of their intention to issue proceedings. Ms Horrox frankly accepted in evidence this delay was unacceptable, she acknowledged it was her first case where care proceedings had been issued and had been a ‘steep learning curve for her’. She agreed with Ms Jenkins on behalf of the father that it was not fair the parents were at the bottom of this learning curve she said ‘I apologise for it being at the expense of this family’.
Lack of supervision of the social worker
31. Despite the volume of material in this case and the length of the social work statements there is little, if any, evidence of effective supervision of Ms Horrox between June 2012 and September 2013. If there had been it would have been expected such unacceptable delays would have been picked up and effectively managed.

 

Failure to consider of all of the options
32. The local authority care plan at the time the proceedings were started was, in reality, adoption, although Ms Horrox said she kept an open mind. The discussions she had had with the mother at the PLO meeting in November was in the context of long term placement with Mr and Mrs SG, either under a care order, adoption or SGO. In her evidence Ms Horrox kept talking about ‘parallel planning’ but there was no evidence of any effective parallel assessment of the parents’ ability to care for X at the same time as investigating alternatives in the care of the local authority. That is what parallel planning means. It is right the mother is recorded at the meeting in November as effectively supporting the long term placement of X with Mr and Mrs SG but that was without legal advice and in circumstances where there was no evidence of any alternative involving X being cared for by his family being actively discussed at that time.

The social work assessment in proceedings being flawed

33. Following transfer of the proceedings to the County Court the first effective hearing was not until 13 August. HHJ Cushing case managed the four significant hearings between then and 17 October 2013 when the deficits in the assessments undertaken by the local authority became clear. In essence a parenting assessment had been undertaken by Ms Horrox without the benefit of any assessment from adult services, and the subsequent assessment by adult services was accepted by the local authority to be inadequate. The care plan filed by the local authority on 6 September sought care orders and placement orders with contact with the birth family 4 times a year and made no mention of any outstanding assessments
The failure of the professionals meeting to answer the agreed questions
34. The Professionals Meeting convened on 2 October 2013 was, unfortunately, not a good example of how such a meeting should be structured. The minutes record at the beginning the 8 questions that were described as the purpose of the meeting, which included such matters as what are the identified needs of the Mother and Father, now and in the foreseeable future? What services are required to meet those needs? How can those serves be provided? What services are therefore required to allow the parents to meet X’s needs? This is followed by 9 pages of typed notes of the discussion with a record at the end as follows:
Meeting confirmed that
1) X’s needs are such that he needs consistent care
2) CWD will not offer a service
3) SSD to arrange another TAC meeting (team around the child)
35. In her evidence Ms Horrox agreed with Ms Wiley, on behalf of the mother, that this meeting did not answer the questions at the beginning, although it is clear from the record of the meeting that both the CWD team and the AWD team informed the meeting that they could only do assessments of the parents if X returned home, which seemed an unnecessarily unhelpful and rigid position to take. This was another lost opportunity.

 

 
The failure of the community based assessment

 

37. The matter came before Mostyn J on 22 October 2013. He transferred the case to the High Court and the order provides for further comprehensive community assessments to be conducted with a recital recording that ‘the court indicating that there should be an independent element to the assessment and that if a different person from both the Children with Disability Team and the Adult Team undertake the assessment, this would constitute that independent element’.
38. A 6 week community based assessment plan was devised at the end of October which included the children with CWD and AWD teams. The assessments were completed in early December 2013 and involved nearly 100 hours of observed assessment by the various teams. The matter came before me on 18 December. I made directions leading to the final hearing on 12 March 2014. It transpired that Ms Gomesz carried out one of the assessments. She had been part of the earlier assessments, this was not made clear by the local authority in the evidence they filed. When the Children’s Guardian made enquiries she was informed there was no one else available and, in any event, it was too late to do anything about it. Whilst there is no criticism of the work undertaken by Ms Gomesz it was not what was intended by the order made by Mostyn J.
By the end of all of this (and a further independent social work assessment) consensus had been reached between the parties that the current foster carers who wanted to permanently care for X were the best people to do this.
This must be one of the most damning paragraphs I have ever read in a family court judgment. It is heart-breaking. We should NEVER be in this position.
48. I am satisfied the agreement reached in this case does meet X’s welfare needs. Whilst it will never be known if the correct assessments of the parents had been undertaken earlier, as they should have been, whether the parents would have been in a position to care for X the reality is now the comprehensive assessments undertaken since are united in their conclusions that the parents would not be able to care full time for X, even with extensive support being provided. Those assessments have been subject to the critical eyes of two independent people.

 
If all of that were not enough, the Court went on to make four particular findings about the failings of the Local Authority
(1) Delay generally and, in particular, in issuing proceedings
72. Some of the delays in this case have been wholly unacceptable. There are three specific examples that illustrate the point:
1) X was placed with foster carers in May 2012, care proceedings were not issued until March 2013 some 10 months later. The fact of that delay put the parents in an increasingly difficult position to seek to restore X to their care, as there was no structure to the period of time prior to the issue of proceedings and they did not have effective access to legal advice. To rely, as Ms Horrox did in her evidence, on the fact that they did not take up the offer of legal advice at the PLO meetings misses the point;
2) The decision to take care proceedings appears to have been made prior to November 2012 yet the proceedings were not issued until some 5 months later. Again leaving the parents in limbo with the local authority, in effect, recommending permanent removal of X from his parents care by way of adoption but the parents not being within the structure of legal proceedings to challenge that was unfair. I appreciate the mother at the November PLO meeting appeared to be endorsing the plan of the local authority, but that was without the benefit of independent legal advice and was perhaps illustrative of the internal struggle she has had about where X’s best interests lay.
3) The delay in the referral to adult services from February/March to September 2013 was unacceptable. It was caused by a catalogue of errors, a lack of effective co-ordination and structure between teams that should be effectively working together. There appeared to be no system in place to chase up referrals.
(2) Ineffective supervision, planning or co-ordination
73. This concern applies in almost every aspect of this case up until late October 2013. There appears to have been a chronic lack of effective supervision of the allocated social worker who was inexperienced and dealing with a complex case. I agree with the observations made by Ms Dove about the lack of effective multi agency planning which should have been in place immediately after the initial core assessment in April 2012. Again three examples well illustrate this area of concern:
1) The initial core assessment dated 25 April 2012 is on the face of it flawed. It details the disabilities both X and the parents have, yet fails to record that in the relevant box which specifically addresses that issue. It records the parents willingness to work with all agencies so that they will be able to care for their son and then in the decision section ignores the options that would flag up further assessment or referral to other agencies and just ticks the ‘no further action box’. There is no evidence these inconsistencies were picked up in any subsequent discussions with the ATM or in any of the meetings.
2) When Ms Horrox took over the case she was clear in her evidence that at the handover a residential assessment was no longer being pursued as the mother did not agree. However other contemporaneous documents, one just a few days before she took over from the ATM is reported to state ‘the team manager and area manager have agreed a care plan that allows the mother and baby to be placed in an appropriate residential unit for further assessment’ and a letter in May refers to the mother waiting to hear about a residential assessment. It is deeply concerning that there appeared to be such a deep level of miscommunication on such a fundamental issue by two of the key social work professionals managing the case.
3) The failure to pick up in supervision (i) there had been no referral to adult services or when there was the delay of six months; (ii) to consider getting advice about how to more effectively communicate with the father; (iii) what further steps could be taken to engage the parents with support services; (iv) filing a care plan seeking adoption when a key referral to the adult disability team was still outstanding (which is not referred to in the Care Plan dated 6 September 2013 or the parenting assessment dated 17 July 2013)

(3) Not keeping an open mind about placement
74. There is a thread of evidence which points towards the local authority making up their mind at a very early stage that X could not be restored to his parent’s care and that, in reality, the options were either adoption or an SGO with his current carers. Whilst Ms Horrox said she retained an open mind, from the parent’s perspective that may not have been readily apparent to them. There is no evidence of a structure as to how that position was reached and an analysis of the options, with the advantages and disadvantages being properly weighed up and considering what support could be available for the parents. From the parent’s perspective it may have seemed an unfair process.
(4) Content of the statements filed on behalf of the local authority
75. The social work statements were far too long and, in part, unfocussed and there was a lack of balance regarding their content. For example, it was extremely difficult to find the core relevant material that underpinned the threshold criteria. There were pages of generalisations which lacked any real evidential value. The lack of balance in the way some of the information in the statement was presented is illustrated by the reference in Ms Horrox’s statement referring to the police being called by the neighbours in early December as the parents were reported to be arguing. The statement records the mother being ‘dishevelled’ is not in the referral from the police, which is the only source of the information. Also, what the statement does not record, which is in the referral document sent by the police to the local authority, is the particular neighbours who alerted the police had been previously arrested for wasting police time for making such calls. That could have been an important context that should have been set out and addressed, not just left out.
76. Another matter that arose in the oral evidence was comments made by the mother in July 2013 regarding her concerns about the paternal grandmother. Whilst those comments were referred to in general terms in the written material the detail only came out under cross examination by Ms Stone on behalf of the Children’s Guardian. Ms Horrox’s instincts were correct that information should have been recorded and disclosed. She was understandably concerned about the management of when it was disclosed, but appeared to be awaiting authorisation from some unspecified person to disclose it. It is right to record that the Court has made no findings about the concerns raised by the mother and no party has suggested that those concerns affect the paternal grandmother’s ability to care for X in the future during periods of contact.
To be fair to the social worker, the Judge outlined that these were not faults that lay entirely with her, but systemic failings
81. The court is acutely aware hard choices have to be made about limited resources but the structural failures in this case, particularly at the early stages, to properly assess the parent’s ability to be able to care for X has caused enormous delay in decisions being made about X’s future care.
82. I should make it clear whilst Ms Horrox has been the person giving evidence and been at the front line, I am satisfied on the information I have seen that the faults appear to be primarily systemic faults within the structure of the local authority. It was Ms Horrox first case where proceedings had been issued. She accepted there were delays in the disability assessments, delays in completing the relevant documentation for care proceedings. Those and other delays should have been picked up by those with responsibility for supervising her much earlier.

 

The Local Authority did take on board those failings and presented the Judge, after the judgment was delivered, with a blueprint for how they proposed to remedy those failings in the future. That doesn’t help this family, who were badly let down.

 

Having reached a broad consensus that X should live with his foster carers and under Special Guardianship Orders, there was also agreement that the Court should review the case in six months time.

62. What is being sought by the parties is for the court to retain a welfare oversight for a short period of time to assist the parties, if required, to deal with issues concerning the welfare of X. In particular to provide a legal framework which kept all parties on equal terms and did not undermine the morale of the parents and made both the parents and the local authority accountable to the court for the maintenance of a proper working relationship.

That posed a problem – how to legally structure that review?
One can easily understand that simply adjourning the care proceedings was not a palatable one, with the LA being in the driving seat, given the raft of criticisms made of them.
The eventual solution settled upon was to give the Local Authority leave to withdraw their application for care proceedings, and for the Court to use its inherent jurisdiction (if one of the parties asked them to)

64. Having considered the position I have reached the clear conclusion that in the very unusual circumstances of this case, and particularly because of the history, the court should accede to the request by the local authority to withdraw the care proceedings and invite one of the parties to issue proceedings under the inherent jurisdiction with the other parties to the care proceedings being joined as parties.
65. I have reached this conclusion for the following reasons:
1) The agreement reached by the parties was on the basis that the local authority does not pursue its findings regarding the threshold criteria and seeks leave to withdraw the care proceedings. It would be inconsistent with the letter and the spirit of that agreement, if the court went on to make findings, albeit on the lower level necessary to found an interim supervision order. The risk with that course is that it may hinder the future good working relationship between the parties which is not in X’s best interests. Particularly as there is going to be a change of team.
2) I am satisfied that the withdrawal of the care proceedings is consistent with X’s welfare. In the light of the agreement reached between the parties it would be wrong to require a trial on the threshold issues in this case. The parents accept X will be cared long term by Mr and Mrs SG under an SGO and they accept the revised care plan put forward by the LA regarding their contact. There would be no demonstrable welfare purpose in such a contested hearing. On the contrary I consider such a trial would seriously risk the positive steps made by the parties in reaching agreement. Having said that I am certainly not prepared to say on a summary basis that threshold could not have been made out in this case. As I indicated in argument, Ms Wiley’s submission at the start of this hearing that the proceedings were unlawful was ambitious and was wisely not pursued. I did not hear all the evidence and whilst it looked like the issues concerning missed medical appointments and failure to provide breakfast on one occasion during the assessment did not stand up to forensic scrutiny there were other issues, such as the parents’ relationship and the emotional care of X that would, if necessary, have required detailed consideration by the court as to whether the threshold criteria was met.
3) X’s welfare requires the parties in this case to look forward. I consider that has the best chance of succeeding if the care proceedings are withdrawn at this stage, rather than lingering on in the way suggested which may hamper the parties on the ground being able to move forward with a proper working relationship, which is what X’s welfare demands.
4) I have been informed by the parties that there are no procedural or funding obstacles in the way of the same parties being re-constituted within different proceedings. This step will not cause delay.
I am not sure that I share the same degree of confidence about funding obstacles, but no doubt some assurances had been obtained from the Legal Aid Agency. Care proceedings receive no questions asked free legal advice for parents (or at least “non means, no merits” funding within tight fiscal limits) whereas representation within the inherent jurisdiction sounds to me like it will be entirely discretionary for the Legal Aid Agency.

 

When is a duty not a duty ? (when it falls on CAFCASS, of course)

 

A brief analysis of the Court of Appeal decision in R & Others and CAFCASS 2012

 

 

http://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/markup.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/853.html&query=cafcass&method=boolean

 

 

It may alarm and stagger you to learn that in some cases back in 2009, CAFCASS did not appoint a Guardian immediately to represent children in public law proceedings.  (It would probably alarm and stagger you still less to learn that this was also the case in some private law proceedings, and almost certainly still is)

 

 

There were four individual cases bundled together :-

 

R – care proceedings began 28th June 2009 and a Guardian was allocated by CAFCASS on 15th September 2009   (the risks were of physical harm, and he was in voluntary foster care at the outset of proceedings)

 

E – care proceedings began 22nd December 2009 – there was a finding of fact hearing relating to physical injuries alleged to have occurred when E was just an infant. There never seems to have been a Guardian appointed. This bit (a direct quote) is astonishing even to my jaded palate.

 

“Therefore, other than to inform E’s parents that he was the guardian he did not participate in the case at all. He forgot to inform the court that he was the allocated guardian.” 

 

 

In the words of the immortal P G Wodehouse , on reading that, I inspected my mind and found it to be boggled.

 

J – care proceedings began 30th October 2009  and a Guardian was appointed on 22nd March 2010  (3 weeks after a Letter Before Claim was sent by those representing the mother)

 

K – care proceedings began on 25th August 2009 – on 22nd March 2010 a Guardian was appointed. (Once again, 3 weeks after the Letter Before Claim was sent to CAFCASS)

 

 

 

The case really turns on whether CAFCASS’s duty to represent children and provide Guardians to represent children extends to a duty to do so in any one individual case, or whether it is more of an aspirational global mission statement which does not ensure that any individual child gets proper representation   (note, this sentence does not purport to be in any way neutral and is strictly the author’s rather than the words of any Judge either at first )

 

 

These passages from the Court of Appeal judgment (that of Lord Justice McFarlane) illustrate the sympathy that the Court had with the Claimants argument that appointment of a Guardian is pivotal to the progress of a care case and that doing so in the early stages  (when the issues are separation or not, the levels of interim contact and the shape and nature of assessments) is critical.

 

 

  1. I need absolutely no persuasion as to the essential merits of the complaint that lies behind the claims of each of the four children before this court or of the plea that is now made so forcefully and eloquently on their behalf. Whether one uses the words of the Inquiries that argued for the introduction of the guardian’s role, or the words of the Family Justice Review and the government’s response to it, or those of Charles J and the Divisional Court, the immense importance of the role of a children’s guardian both to the operation of the statutory scheme for protecting children from significant harm and to the quality of outcome for the individual child in each such case is hard to understate. Without, I hope, stretching the metaphor beyond its tolerance: in the tandem model it is the children’s guardian, rather than the child’s solicitor, who steers the course for the child’s representation in the proceedings. A guardian who is appointed promptly at the start of the proceedings can conduct an initial investigation of the circumstances, offer a preliminary analysis of the issues and, crucially, assist the court in crafting the case management directions which will, to a large extent, determine the course and timetable of the litigation.
  1. The great value to the child, the other parties and to the court of appointing a children’s guardian very promptly after the start of proceedings under CA 1989 Part IV has been readily accepted by both sides in this appeal and has, since April 2008, been a key expectation of the PLO (and now the FPR 2010, PD12A). Although  CAFCASS  has, understandably, carefully chosen the word ‘undesirable’ to describe the delay in appointment in the four appellants’ cases, Mr McCarthy has not in any manner sought to justify what occurred in positive terms. All are effectively agreed that the optimal outcome is for a children’s guardian to be appointed promptly in every public law child case. The points made about the importance of representation to any party, particularly one under a disability, are well made. The question raised in this appeal does not, however, concern the desirability of prompt or immediate appointment. The question for us is not one of desirability but one of statutory duty and it is whether  CAFCASS  has a statutory duty, owed to each individual child, to effect the prompt or immediate appointment of a children’s guardian in every such case.
  1. Despite the real sympathy that I have for the plea that lies behind the Appellant’s case, it is necessary to apply a legal, public law, analysis to the arguments raised and to the wording of the key statutory provisions. In doing so, where a choice of statutory construction arises, and a purposive interpretation is called for, I am plain that any purposive construction must point to the early or immediate appointment of a guardian.

 

 

 

But also highlight where this is going – in order to impose a duty on CAFCASS to appoint a Guardian in an individual case and do so promptly, the Court would have to find something within the statutes which creates such a duty in an individual case. If not, CAFCASS escape with the Jedi hand-wave of ‘we represent children in general, just not in this particular case, and at a time that suits us’

 

The Court did not find that such a statutory construction could be derived, and that the earlier decision of Mr Justice Charles in R v CAFCASS 2003

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2003/235.html  remained the correct expression of the law, that there was no duty on CAFCASS in any individual case to appoint a Guardian.

 

 

 

There was then an attempt to argue that the failure of CAFCASS to appoint a Guardian ‘immediately’ on the commencement of proceedings or on direction from the Court led to a breach of Human Rights, variously on articles 6 or 8.  This did not succeed either.

 

 

  1. It may well be that in one or more individual cases where there has been failure by  CAFCASS  to appoint a children’s guardian in a timely manner, or at all, it will be possible to conclude that there has been a breach of the Art 6 and/or Art 8 rights of the individual child before the court. Such a conclusion would, in my view, only be achievable after the completion of the trial process and after it had been evaluated as a whole so as to determine whether or not a violation of these Convention rights had taken place. We are not invited in respect of the four cases before the court to conclude that in any one of them there was an actual breach of Convention rights. It is of note that in none of the four cases did the trial court hold (or was, I suspect, invited to hold) that a breach of Arts 6 or 8 had occurred.
  1. To hold that, of itself, a failure to appoint a children’s guardian immediately upon being directed to do so amounts to a breach of Convention rights, would involve assuming that the judge, the other parties and, in particular, the solicitor for the child (who, we understand, is likely to have been appointed promptly) would have failed to act in a manner which, to some degree, accommodated the lack of guardian and protected the child’s rights. In proceedings under CA 1989, Part 4, the family court itself has a primary duty under the HRA 1998 to conduct its process in a manner which is compatible with the Convention. To hold, as Mr Geekie asks us to do, that a failure to appoint a guardian immediately is sufficient to establish that the proceedings as a whole are bound to be conducted in breach of Art 6 or 8 must involve the assumption that it will be beyond the capacity of the trial judge to ensure a fair trial in the absence of a guardian for any stages of the proceedings.
  1. The issues involved in public child care proceedings are often of the utmost importance to the parents, to the state and above all to the subject child. No one involved in these cases should be under any misapprehension that rights under ECHR Arts 6(1) and 8 will be ‘engaged’ at every stage of the process. There is a duty upon public bodies, of which  CAFCASS , the local authority and the court are three, to act at all times in a manner which is compatible with the convention (HRA 1998, s 6(1)). It is against that background that  CAFCASS  readily accepts the duty that Charles J found lay within s 12 of the 2000 Act to appoint a children’s guardian as soon as practicable after the request is made. Although not expressly argued before him, the ECHR arguments that we have heard support the conclusion to which Charles J arrived, just as they support the conclusion of the court below in the present case. It is, however, just not possible to hold that the Appellants’ human rights arguments support the conclusion for which Mr Geekie now argues which would involve holding that in every case a failure to appoint a guardian immediately upon request would inevitably amount to a breach of Convention rights. HRA 1998, s 3 will only give this court jurisdiction to read text into a provision where the provision is not otherwise compatible with the Convention rights. Nothing short of a finding on the level I have described would make it permissible for this court to ‘read in’ to s 12 of the 2000 Act a requirement for immediate appointment which, as Charles J has held, is not otherwise present.
  1. Even if, contrary to the foregoing, the effect of Arts. 6 and 8 were to require the immediate appointment of a guardian in every case, it would not justify the court adopting, pursuant to HRA 1998 s.3, a different interpretation of s.12 from that which otherwise be adopted in accordance with the normal principles of statutory construction under domestic law. That is because the CJCSA 2000 contains its own mechanism for the laying down of any appropriate time limits, by means of directions under paragraph 9 of schedule 2, and any requirement as to immediate appointment of a guardian could be imposed by such directions. Compatibility with the Convention could therefore be achieved within the terms of the Act without any need to adopt a different interpretation of s.12 in order to produce such a result. The fact that the statutory mechanism would call for action by the Lord Chancellor in making the relevant directions would not be a good reason for the court to adopt a different interpretation of s.12.
  1. Despite fully acknowledging the very real importance of achieving the appointment of a children’s guardian for a child who is the subject of care proceedings at an early stage in every case, I am entirely satisfied that the decisions of Charles J in R v  CAFCASS  and of the Divisional Court in the present case are sound and correctly describe the duty upon  CAFCASS  under CJCSA 2000, s 12.

 

 

The battle-weary amongst you may be saying, so what?  These cases were all 2009 and we know that CAFCASS were having huge problems now and that these are conquered.

 

I, however, am feeling uncomfortable that this case is a continuation of the green light for CAFCASS should workloads increase or staff numbers decrease in the future, to run what I’ve described in the past as a homeopathic Guardian service, where the active ingredient of a Guardian actually being involved in the case talking, reading, listening and observing becomes so dilute that there is barely any of it.  It imports the ability for CAFCASS to run a sort of ‘triage’ service where they determine which cases need a Guardian straight away, and which can potter along on their own until the work-load crisis ameliorates a little.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also feel uncomfortable than in the last two months, the family Courts have decided that family Court judges have no sway, influence, or jurisdiction over :-

 

(a)  CAFCASS if they drag their heels appointing a Guardian, or

(b)  The Legal Services Commission if they decide they don’t want to pay the costs of an assessment or want to quibble over the bill to an extent where the proceedings are catastrophically delayed whilst that is resolved, and where it is apparently okay for them to tell the President of the Family Division that they don’t come to Court when they are ordered to and just ignore those orders.

 

And leaving the remedy for both being judicial review for Wednesbury unreasonable individual examples  (ignoring the difficulties in funding, proving, litigating and timely resolution of this, and that what is needed is general principles, not individual case resolution piece by piece, and that almost certainly the judicial review courts will quickly stamp on these sorts of cases because they are already swamped in ongoing JRs)

 

Although we haven’t had a case about whether the Court can make the Official Solicitor move more quickly in representing the most vulnerable in our society, I have little doubt that the outcome on that would be the same; we’re already inviting them in more and more courteous terms to do the job that they are charged with.

 

Whilst in the same broad period of time decided that their judicial muscles can be flexed in making LA’s pay the costs of intervenors who happen to triumph in their cases.

 

Is the LA now the only body who can be cheerfully pushed around by the Court? It begins to look that way.

 

And Justice Ryder’s recent speech on modernisation points that way too (my underlining)  :-

 

There is a place for independent social work and forensic experts to advise on discrete issues that are outside the skill and expertise of the court or to provide an overview of different professional elements in the most complex cases but regard must be had to why those who are already witnesses before the court have not provided the evidence that is necessary and who should pay for it when it is missing.

 

Who on earth could he mean? Are the Courts going to order CAFCASS to pay when a report needs to be commissioned because Guardians are no longer the independent active ‘Court’s eyes and ears on the ground’ that they used to be?   Or are they just going to make the LA pay for everything and blame it on poor quality social work reports? I wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

I suggest that the Government take half the money that is currently spent on psychologists and Independent Social Workers, and put the Guardian service back the way it was, with staff given caseloads and time to actually be the independent social work check and balance and voice of the child they were intended to be. The reason for the proliferation of experts is because we no longer allow Guardians to do the job they signed up to do and that very very many of them were extremely good at doing.

 

As a footnote on my snarky comments about mission statements, the best advice I ever read about them is to imagine that they say the opposite. If that becomes ridiculous then the mission statement is meaningless.  (i.e This Organisation wants to please its customers – the reverse is not something that would be true of any business, thus the mission statement is redundant nonsense. If nobody could possibly disagree with it, it isn’t meaningful. For example  “We’re against nuclear war” is meaningless, “We’re against nuclear power” is not – there’s a degree of choice and standpoint with the latter – you could agree or disagree, whereas really nobody is in favour of nuclear war)

 

 

Oh Ofsted, you’re such a, you’re such a hot temptation…

 

(A summary of the Right on Time Ofsted report into delays in adoptions)

 

 

 

 

Ofsted have prepared a report about the adoption process, which is an interesting read, particularly in conjunction with the Government’s own independent look at this, and the groundswell of political and media opinion that something has to be done.

 

I would not describe myself as an uncritical admirer of Ofsted, but this does actually read like a good solid piece of work, and they have examined the process and inspected those well-known saws about adoption panels causing delay, politically correct social workers delaying things to look for ethnic matches, and considered whether there is in reality any truth to it.

 

The report is available here  http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/right-time-exploring-delays-adoption

 

 

They visited nine Local Authorities, with a good geographical spread. I have the advantage of having worked at one of those authorities, which is always nice to see.

 

The report outlines some helpful local initiatives – I particularly liked Norfolk’s “Family Law Summit”  and a few of the authorities had appointed professionals to perform a liaison job between the social work and family finding tasks and the Court process  (what you might call the “Claude Makele role of social work”  – okay, you might not, but I just did)

 

 

Adoption Panels

 

 

I think often Adoption Panels are an unwitting scapegoat in delays, with under pressure and beleaguered social workers, questioned about why their final evidence is late find themselves throwing out the “I couldn’t get a Panel date” excuse, which is too often accepted uncritically.  (And when did you first ASK for a Panel date, and when were you told you couldn’t get one, being the supplementary questions that never get asked)

 

And so we have a culture nationally that the judiciary and family lawyers generally think that Adoption Panels are nothing but a blight on the process, delaying matters whilst they drink tea and eat warm curled-up potted meat sandwiches in an airless room.

 

Ofsted haven’t actually bought into that myth….  (bolding here is mine)

 

71. Inspectors found no evidence of adoption panels contributing to delay, either in their responses to cases or in their capacity to meet the fluctuating but generally increasing number of cases presented to the panel.

72. All adoption panels made efforts to meet these demands by convening additional meetings when necessary. One panel had held four extraordinary meetings in the last 12 months to ensure that recommendations were made on time. Another had increased the number of regular panel meetings; yet another had already met three times in the month that inspectors visited. Elsewhere, a panel had used the opportunity to hear a case during their recent panel training day. Three additional panel dates were arranged as a contingency by one local authority, although they had not been required.

73. Effective arrangements were made to ensure that panels were quorate. One agency had recruited additional panel members to increase flexibility. Another had two panels but members could sit on either panel as required. Vice chairs stood in for panel chairs as necessary.

74. Inspectors saw several examples of the flexibility of panels in reducing delay in cases they were tracking. In two cases, the approval of adopters and the matching of those adopters with children were recommended on the same day. This was done to ensure that introductions and placement could commence more promptly. In one of the cases, this avoided the further delay of having to wait for the placement to commence until after the sensitive period of Christmas.

75. In one local authority, the variable quality of reports and the perceived lack of management oversight of these reports prior to panel meetings were identified as significant problems which caused delays in the progression of some cases. Nearly all panel chairs, however, reported that the quality of paperwork was uniformly high.

76. The Family Justice Review made a recommendation, accepted by the government that the requirement that local authority adoption panels must consider the suitability of an adoption plan for a child should be removed. There were mixed views about this. Some, mainly court or Cafcass representatives, felt that as adoption was a legal process, this was an unnecessary duplication of the court’s task. Panel chairs in particular felt that the panel discussions brought a range of perspectives and areas of expertise that added rigour to the decision-making process. Inspectors did not, however, find that the panel’s scrutiny of the case added delay for children. There was no evidence in the tracked cases that panel decision-making about the suitability of adoption delayed final hearings.

 

Politically correct yoghurt-knitting social workers insisting on ethnic matches

 

Ofsted did not consider that this crude stereotype, much beloved of the popular press was accurate.   (I recall vividly having had to search through Hansard on the debates on the Adoption and Children Bill, to see if they had addressed a particularly quirky lacunae, and the debate was 98% about same-sex adopters and unmarried adopters, and 2% sheer drivel, much of that drivel being hackneyed clichéd garbage about whether all social workers wear corduroy trousers. It was incredibly demoralising to see that MPs charged with delivering a legal framework for some of the most vulnerable in our society were so utterly out of touch with the real world)

 

11. Careful consideration was seen to be given to how the ethnic and cultural needs of children could be met. As in the wish to keep siblings together, the objective of seeking to meet these needs had to be balanced against other demands, such as the need to avoid delay. There was no evidence that local authorities were only looking for the ‘perfect’ or exact ethnic match, reflecting stated policies regarding adopter recruitment and permanence.

12. While local authorities paid due attention to ethnic or cultural needs, decisions to look for a ‘best fit’ were generally made promptly. In nearly all the cases seen by inspectors, ethnic and cultural issues did not cause delays. There were several examples where minority ethnic children had been placed with adopters from a similar background, with no delay. In those cases where it proved hard to find suitable adopters who could meet children’s needs in those areas, but were not necessarily from the same background, delays typically ranged between one and six months.

 

 

 

 

Court proceedings and assessments

 

The finger does get well and truly pointed at the plethora of assessments and the often sequential nature of such assessments, being the main factor in delay, however.

 

[I am reminded here of my all-time hero, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who stung by a series of letters to The Times about what varying things were making our great country go to the dogs, wrote his own pithy letter. Dear Sirs, I know exactly what is wrong with this country. It is me. Yours faithfully, G K Chesterton]

26. The most significant cause of delay in tracked cases was the length of time taken for care proceedings to be concluded before an adoption plan could be confirmed. The average duration of completed care proceedings in tracked cases was slightly under 14 months. The individual local authority area average for these cases ranged from 11 months to 20 months.

29. Additional and repeat assessments during care proceedings, generally occurring sequentially, were found by inspectors to contribute to the delay in achieving permanence for children in 20 (38%) of the cases tracked. This figure does not include those cases where the ability of parents and extended family members to care for children was quite properly assessed as part of proceedings in a timely manner. The 20 cases were cases where repeat or late assessments had a measurable and adverse impact on the timely granting of a placement order. Delay for these children was measured in months, or in some cases, years.

 

Now, one has to be careful here, because the Inspectors were looking back at cases which ultimately had unsuccessful outcomes (in that the child/children were adopted, rather than could be placed within the family), so there is a danger in drawing inferences about cases generally; since obviously all cases that end in adoption did not have assessments which made the positive difference and ended up with rehabilitation.

 

I happen to think that it is probably right that in 75% of cases, those second opinion assessments, when you’ve already done one thorough assessment, tell you nothing at all and make no difference.  The trick is, in determining whether the instant case before you is one of the 75% or the 25%.

 

32. There was a common perception that the courts’ anxieties about upholding the Human Rights Act[1] often overrode the ‘no delay’ principle of the Children Act 1989. There was a general consensus that the court process was adult-centred. One social worker said that children get ‘sucked into court’, without sufficient consideration of the impact on the children’s emotional well-being.

33. In eight cases, the commissioning of independent social work assessments essentially duplicated the task of the allocated local authority social worker and prolonged care proceedings. These assessments generally arose due to a disagreement about the proposed plan between the guardian for the child and the local authority or as a result of effective advocacy on behalf of the parents. In a number of the cases examined, repeat assessments, often ordered late in the process, ended up confirming the outcome of the original assessments but added months to the delay before the child’s future could be determined. In one case, a potential adoptive match was lost, leading to further delay.

 

It is hard to say if this is right; it certainly appears that there’s a correlation between the duration of care proceedings going up  and the introduction of the Human Rights Act  (and I noted from a recent analysis that prior to introducing a 40 week time limit, the average duration of proceedings was below that, and after the 40 week limit the average just went up and up and up  – why? Because once you set a time limit, it is assumed that the run of the mill case will take that limit, and then you add all of the longer ones on top, skewing the average, whereas before there was a time limit, the shorter cases would end earlier)

 

But correlation is not causation.  It could well be that the decisions of the Court of Appeal, quashing Judge’s decisions when they had tried to resist independent assessments had more to do with the proliferation of second opinion expert reports than the HRA  – or it could of course be that it was thinking about the HRA that led to those assessments.

I would suggest that in a considerable number of cases, assessments are commissioned not because there is the gap in the evidence envisaged by the Court of Appeal in TL v (1) LONDON BOROUGH OF HAMMERSMITH AND FULHAM (2) ED (3) S (BY A CHILDREN’S GUARDIAN (2011) [2011] EWCA Civ 812  but through fear that if you get to final hearing without a psychological, or an independent social work assessment, or a culturally appropriate expert, that the whole of the final hearing will be spent bemoaning that fact and trying to persuade a Court that it would be unfair to make final decisions without one; so acqueisance to the instruction of an expert is often with a view to it being worse to reach a final hearing in four months time and then have the Court decide to adjourn for a further four-five months to get a psychological assessment rather than get one now, and have the final hearing in six months time.

 

That’s not going to change until the Courts who determine that a further assessment isn’t needed and apply the principles in TL V London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham get the backing for that decision by the Court of Appeal.  It may come on its own, it may require the FJR to be put into statute, it may still not come, but one can’t be surprised that professionals and the Court play cautiously when there’s such a risk of being overturned when robust case management decisions are implemented.

 

This also feeds into the next issue that Ofsted considered, which was the relative weight that social workers evidence gets, compared to that of other professionals.

37. In nearly all local authorities, social workers reported that they lacked credibility and status in the court arena. They believed that the lack of confidence in the quality of local social work assessment resulted in a reliance on independent ‘expert’ assessments, and therefore an increase in the duration of care proceedings. Several representatives from Cafcass and the courts, including senior judges, shared this view.

38. Social workers in several local authority areas were frustrated by a sense that they were not perceived as ‘experts’ in their own right and they felt that independent assessments were not often of superior quality to their own. Managers and social workers in some of these local authorities felt that the implied criticism was unfair, and based on an historical reputation that was no longer warranted.

39. In some areas, Cafcass and the court representatives accepted that the general view of social workers may in part be based on an out-of-date stereotype, but nearly all stressed that the uneven quality of local authority social work assessment remained a problem and was the main factor in the high number of repeat and independent assessments.

40. Senior managers in four local authorities openly expressed their concern that too many social workers responsible for cases in care proceedings did not yet have the necessary expertise and experience to undertake the work well. In particular, they believed that some social workers struggled to consider permanence issues adequately among all the immediate demands of court work including undertaking family assessments, managing contact arrangements and carrying out the myriad responsibilities associated with looked after children.

It is a particular bugbear of mine that Courts continue to give Guardian’s evidence the same weight as they did in the early days of the Children Act 1989, when Guardians really were the independent eyes and ears and a check and balance that the Act envisaged, rather than the Diet-Diet-Diet Guardian we currently have, as a result of CAFCASS trying to manage the service within budget by diluting the service. The next dilution of the service will result, I think, in homeopathic Guardians, where they are so dilute that there is no longer any actual connection with the child in question at all. No doubt they will still have a placebo effect…  Ofsted acknowledge that this gap between a social worker’s opinion and that of the Guardian exists.

 

 

 

43. There was a general perception within local authorities that children’s guardians were likely to be more experienced than the local authority social workers and that their views, as a result, carried more weight. Several Cafcass and court representatives acknowledged that this perception may, however generalised or mistaken, have sometimes affected courts’ decision-making.

44. In one case, the local authority had a firm plan for adoption but at a directions hearing as part of the ongoing care proceedings, it was agreed that the plan should be changed to reunification with the child’s mother. Both the social worker and the senior manager reflected that the local authority had been ‘railroaded’ into this change of plan; in their view the social worker’s low status in court compared with that of the guardian, who supported the change in plan, was a key contributing factor. The social worker did not feel equipped to challenge the court’s position and the local authority acknowledged that its own legal advice was insufficiently robust. The plan for a return home was not successfully implemented and there was now likely to be a delay of over a year for the child to be adopted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local Authority legal representation

 

It would be wrong of me, as a local authority lawyer, to gloss over the complaints and issues identified in the Ofsted report about people like me across the country.

45. Views varied on the quality of local authority legal advice. Social workers and managers did not always feel that legal representatives robustly challenged parents’ solicitors or guardians. One authority had recently altered its commissioning arrangements for obtaining legal advice, and each consultation now incurred a fee. This was designed to discourage a previous over-reliance on legal advice, but there was a general consensus that access to legal advice was now actively discouraged by managers and, consequently, was sometimes delayed.

 

Working relationships between Local Authorities, CAFCASS and the Courts

 

50. Inspectors found that the relationship between the main participants in the court process was often marked by mistrust – ‘There is an inherent tension here between social workers and guardians,’ said one senior Cafcass manager – and it appeared at times to be adversarial, with each often blaming the other for faults in the system. This tension, however, was less evident in areas where more regular meetings between key agencies were held to address shared concerns and had promoted the development of more constructive and mutually understanding relationships.

51. In all local authority areas, inspectors heard that key court stakeholders met on a regular basis, but often those meetings concentrated on business issues of the court and were acknowledged to lack focus on outcomes for children. Other examples of joint working included regional away days, training, and development work as part of a local performance improvement group. Too often, however, these meetings were erratically attended or had ceased to be convened and most of the professionals spoken to by inspectors felt that they had not had a measurable impact. There was often a lack of consistency in reports about joint activity across local areas, reflecting a low awareness among professionals of how the different partners worked together.

 

 

These are much the same concerns as highlighted in the Family Justice Review, that there is mutual suspicion, distrust and blame, between the different organisations who are trying to deliver family justice. This clearly is a problem, and the bit I have put in bold above is something telling, but the first time that I’ve seen someone brave enough to put it into writing.

 

Maybe Norfolk’s idea of (peace) Summits is a good one.  I for one look forward to being involved in such talks, and perhaps we should introduce the UN Model of simultaneous translation too, since Local Authorities, Cafcass and the Courts all seem to be speaking slightly different languages.


 

 

 

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