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Emotional wrecks

Following the Supreme Court decision in Re B yesterday, which we hoped would tackle the four issues on which leave to appeal was granted :-

(i) the meaning of significant harm;

(ii) the relationship between the nature and gravity of the harm which is feared and the degree of likelihood of that harm being suffered in the future;

 (iii) the proportionality of a care order with a care plan for adoption in a case such as this; and

(iv) the proper approach of the Court of Appeal to a finding that the threshold has been crossed, and (although this was not expressly referred to) to the issue of proportionality.

 

And I shall leave it to others to debate whether or not they successfully clarified those points (save for (iv) which they undoubtedly did tackle, some might say at the expense of the 3 more important issues)

 

But it made me think about emotional harm post Re B, and some hypothetical examples to debate.  In each of these hypothetical examples :-

 

(i)                 The child is well fed, well cared for, their basic needs are met

(ii)               They are not hit, or sexually abused or neglected

(iii)             The parents are not drug addicts or alcohol abusers

(iv)              The parental behaviour complained of is just simply as is set out baldy and nothing else

(v)                All efforts to divert them from this behaviour has been unsuccessful to date

 

I make those caveats so that it is clear what we are debating is ‘pure emotional harm’, not the emotional harm that accompanies neglect, or physical or sexual abuse.

 

Have a look at the examples, if you would and consider whether you think (a) that it is appropriate for the State to intervene in this family’s life by issuing proceedings (b) whether the section 31 threshold is crossed and (c) whether the Court might consider it proportionate to make an order, if – as in Re B, all prospect of the parent being able to address that behaviour were not successful.

 

 

Example 1

 

 

The parent routinely tells the child that they are worthless, that they will never amount to anything, that the parent is ashamed of them, that they are fat and ugly and unloveable,  that even their parents don’t love them, that they will be a failure in life.

 

Example 2

The child wants more than anything to grow up to be a professional footballer, and the parent routinely tells the child that they are no good at football, that they aren’t getting any better at it, that they have no chance of becoming a footballer and that they are not going to be able to do it for a living.

 Example 3

The parent routinely tells the child that once you are an adult, “you shouldn’t knock it till you’ve tried it” and that they should try cocaine, heroin, amphetamines for themselves once they become an adult. The parent also makes it plain that once the child is an adult, if they want to try drugs, they do so with parental blessing and the parent will provide them with funds if they wish to do so.

 

Example 4

The parent has strong Marxist beliefs/no conscience about personal property, and regularly tells the child that “all property is theft” and that once the child reaches adulthood, it is perfectly legitimate, if they so wish, to steal things if they want them or need them. They make it clear that their view is that only a fool would work and save up for something when it is so easy to just take it from someone else.

 They themselves steal to supplement their lifestyle, and the home is full of luxury goods that they could not afford and they make no secret of how they obtained them. They do, however, not involve the child in any theft (either as witness or accomplice) and stress to the child that until they reach the age of 18, they should not steal anything.

 

Example 5

The parent routinely tells the child that the Holocaust never happened. They make it plain that Jewish people have lied about it, and that any small number of Jews who did die deserved it. They communicate to the child that books and television programmes or films that claim otherwise are lies and that the creators of such material cannot be trusted.

 

 

Example 6

 

The parents believe in reincarnation and karma, and routinely tell the child that people who die of terminal illnesses or have disabilities have these problems because they did bad things in a former life and are paying for them.

 

 

[I will stress that none of these are actual cases or even small features of actual cases, they are purely hypothetical examples of ways that a parent could behave which may lead the State to question whether the behaviour amounts to significant harm. I also stress that I am not attempting to claim that post Re B, all of these examples WOULD meet threshold or that a Local Authority would issue on them even if they did, rather to simply debate whether they are CAPABLE of meeting threshold and whether there is consensus about which that do or not, or whether there is uncertainty. ]

 

 

Do any of them, on their own, cross threshold?

 

Supreme Court and emotional harm

The Supreme Court judgment in Re B is out, and can be read in full here:-

 

http://www.supremecourt.gov.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2013_0022_Judgment.pdf

For the too-long didn’t read version, the parents lost. The case was hoped to clarify emotional harm, and whether it justifies State intervention, and whether the risk of future emotional harm (when it becomes somewhat tenuous and predictive) justifies the most draconian of orders, a plan for adoption.

There was an excellent preview of the case by Celtic Knot over on Pink Tape, here

http://pinktape.co.uk/cases/rescuing-children-from-significant-harm-looking-forward-with-trepidation-and-hope/

and it sets out the backdrop to this case very clearly and why it was that he and I were both hoping that the parents would succeed. In all of this debate, I am mindful that  (a) I haven’t had the chance to read or hear all of the evidence and (b) that the case sadly involves real people and a real child.  Sadly, as it has important principles, it is something that needs to be discussed in broader terms than just the tragedy for the immediate family.

Frankly, my reading of the Re B Court of Appeal decision was that there was a lot that professionals were worried about or anxious about, but none of it actually amounted to proof that the child was at risk of significant harm. [I stress, this may very well be a fault of the Court of Appeal judgment in not properly framing how they found threshold to be crossed, rather than on professionals involved in the case]

 

I think the closest it came to threshold was in this passage here

It was the diagnosis of Dr Bass, which Judge Cryan accepted, that, beyond  abnormal personality traits and in additi on to, and more significantly than, her  somatisation disorder, M suffers a factitious  disorder of mild to moderate intensity.

This is a related psychiatric disorder in  which the sufferer is driven repeatedly to exaggerate symptoms or altogether to fabricate them and to offer false histories.

There is therefore a deceptive dimension to  the disorder which was replicated in a  mass of other evidence before the judg e, unrelated to M’s medical condition,  which raised questions about  her ability, and for that matter  also the ability of F, to behave honestly with professionals. Dr Bass  stressed that M’s psychiatric disorders required psychotherapy which might last for a year and which could be undertaken  only if she were to acknowledge the problems and to engage honestly with the therapist.

 

 

Undoubtedly within the case, and the Supreme Court gave multiple examples, there had been incidents where claims had been made by M which the Court found to be untrue, and they were florid claims. That much, I don’t disagree with.  The decision of the Court of Appeal that this crossed the threshold seemed, to me, to fall short on the critical area of actual evidence that it HAD harmed the child or was a risk of harming the child, and not merely in nebulous “Jedi-hand-wave” terms – what was it that was said the parents might do that would harm this child, and how likely was it that they would do it?

 

The original trial judge said this:-

The judge concluded: “Ultimately, I find that I am persuaded… that what the evidence  clearly demonstrates is that these parents do not have the capacity to  engage with professionals in such  a way that their behaviour will be  either controlled or amended to  bring about an environment where  [Amelia] would be safe… In short I cannot see that there is any  sufficiently reliable way that I can fulfil my duty  to [Amelia] to  protect her from harm and still place her with her parents. I  appreciate that in so saying I am depriving her of a relationship  which, young though she  is, is important to  her and depriving her  and her parents of that family life which this court strives to promote.”

 

Again, that seems to me to be a legitimate decision for the Judge who heard the evidence to take ONCE it was established that the threshold was crossed. If there WAS a risk of harm, then whether the parents could manage that harm, take advice, work with professionals and change their behaviour is massively relevant.

But did we ever cross the threshold on the facts as reported?

My fundamental issue is this – if one cannot put into a paragraph, or a page, what harm it was that the State was protecting this child from, I am not sure that the harm is actually properly made out. [Not a criticism of the LA involved – I  haven’t read the papers, I don’t know the whole case, but from the twin judgments I have seen, I don’t see anything that comes close to telling the parents, or the public, what it was that this child was being protected FROM – other than very peculiar behaviour short of abuse]

 

One focus of the appeal was the wording of the threshold criteria (the test that the State has to cross before a Care Order can be made) which is “significant harm”  and whether the law has wrongly developed to an extent where it is now hard to see the distinction, in law, between harm and significant harm.

 

If one were to get a family lawyer to draw up two columns, one headed Harm, and one headed Significant Harm, and then gave them a series of allegations, would all of the family lawyers put each allegation in the same column ? would there be broad consistency about which is which, perhaps with a few grey areas? Or in fact, would nearly everything go into the “significant harm” column.

 

Here is what the Supreme Court have to say

26.  In my view this court should avoid attempting to explain the word “significant”. It would be a gloss; attention might then turn to the meaning of the  gloss and, albeit with the best of intentions, the courts might find in due course that they had travelled far from  the word itself. Nevertheless it might be worthwhile to  note that in the White Paper which preceded the 1989 Act, namely The Law on  Child Care and Family Services, Cm 62, January 1987, the government stated, at para 60:

“It is intended that “likely ha rm” should cover all cases of unacceptable risk in which it may be necessary to balance the chance of the harm occurring against the magnitude of that harm if it does”

The Supreme Court also rejected the applicant’s submission that when a Court determines whether or not the threshold is crossed, article 8 is engaged, and determined that article 8 only arises when the Court are deciding whether or not to make an order.   [I can’t say that i am happy about THAT either]

 

The second matter relates to Mr Feehan’s submission that the threshold set  by section 31(2) is not crossed if the deficits relate only to the character of the parents rather than to the quality of their parenting. His alternative submission is  that harm suffered or likely to be suffered by a child as a result of parental action or inaction may cross the threshold only if,  in so acting or failing to act, the parent or parents were deliberately or intentionally to have caused or to be likely to cause such harm. M is, of course, not responsible for her personality traits nor for her psychiatric disorders; and in effect the submission is that the dishonesty,animosities and obstructionism of the parents represent deficits only of character

and that, if and insofar as they might cause harm to Amelia,whom they love, the harm is neither deliberate nor intentional

 

This is an interesting one, taking us into issues of free will and determinism. I would agree partly with Mr Feehan QC  - I think that the threshold ought to get into quality of parenting or how the parenting impacts on the child, but I don’t go as far as saying that a parent is not responsible for elements of their personality which are beyond their control. (The latter, seems to me, to invite later ligitation on the basis of paedophilia being intrinsic to a person, rather than a conscious or deliberate choice on their part)

The Supreme Court rejected this anyway.  

 

One interesting addition from the Supreme Court was their debate about whether, when deciding whether a lower Court had mistakenly found threshold to be crossed (or vice versa) the test for the appellant Court should be the usual one (derived from Piglowska) that the Court had been “plainly wrong”  or whether in the context of the threshold, which is a binary value judgment – the evidence is there to satisfy it, or it is not, the test should simply be whether they were “wrong”

it is generally better to allow adjectives to speak for themselves without adverbial  support. What does “plainly” add to “wrong”? Either the word adds nothing or it serves to treat the determination under challenge with some slight extra level of generosity apt to one which is discretionary but not to one which is evaluative.

Like all other members of the court, I  consider that appellate review of a  determination whether the threshold is crossed should be conducted by reference  simply to whether it was wrong.

 

 

I think they may come to regret that formulation.

 

Going to the issue of threshold this passage in the judgment outlines why the majority of the Judges found that it was met and the decision was not wrong

The nature of the harm which concerned Judge Cryan was (i) “the emotional harm to [Amelia] likely to be caused by” (a) “the Mother’s somatisation disorder and factitious illness disorder”,

(b) “concerns … about the parents’ personality traits”,

(c) “her mother’s lying”,

(d) her father’s “active, but less chronic, tendency to dishonest

y and vulnerability to the misuse of drugs”, and

(ii) “physical harm to [Amelia]” which “can not be discounted, for example, by over treatment or inappropriate treatment by doctors”.

As to the possibility of such harm being prevented or acceptably mitigated, the Judge concluded that Amelia’s parents did not have “the capacity to engage with professionals in such a way that their behaviour will either be controlled or amended to bring about an environment where [Amelia] would be safe”. He explained that the result of this was that he could think of no “sufficiently reliable way” in which he could “fulfil [his] duty”

to Amelia “to protect her from harm and still place her with her parents”.

 

66. Those conclusions are concerned with what may be characterised as risks, prospects or possible outcomes, and they

are not, therefore, findings of primary fact, let alone conclusions of law. As explained above, they are evaluations based

on the findings of primary fact, and on assessments of character and likely behaviour and attitudes, made by the Judge

as a result of many days of considering oral and written evidence and also as a result of hearing argument. They are

evaluations which are also plainly dependant on the Judge’s overall assessment of  the witnesses, and in particular on his opinion as to the character and dependability of Amelia’s mother and father, and as tothe reliability of the assessments of the expert witnesses. His conclusions appear to me to be ones to which, to put it at its lowest, he was fully entitled to come on the evidence he had heard and assessed. In other words, they were justified in terms of logic and common sense in the light of his findings of primary fact and his assessment of the witnesses, and they were coherently formulated. There is no basis in my view, for saying that they were wrong.

 

Sadly, to me, it seems that the Supreme Court have tackled this case in that very narrow way, rather than comparing the threshold said to be met in this case with the doctrines of Lord Templeman and Justice Hedley, about the difference between abusive parenting which harms a child or is likely to harm a child, and eccentric odd or even poor parenting which falls short of that mark.  I slightly have to wonder why they agreed to hear the appeal at all if they were not going to roll up their sleeves and tackle the issue of emotional harm. They just really said that it was a matter for the trial judge which side of the line the case fell on, unless it was apparent that he had got that wrong.

 

Lady Hale in her judgment, which in my mind actually tackled the issues and concluded in the dissenting judgment that the original judge was wrong to have made a Care Order,  sets out what practitioners felt was the key issue in the case in her opening paragraphs

 

143. This case raises some profound questions about the scope of courts’ powers to take away children from their birth families when what is feared is, not physical abuse or neglect, but emotional or psychological harm. We are all frail human beings, with our fair share of unattractive character traits, which sometimes manifest themselves in bad behaviours which may be copied by our children. But the State does not and cannot take away the children of all the people who commit crimes, who abuse alcohol or drugs, who suffer from physical or mental illnesses or disabilities, or who espouse anti-social political or religious beliefs. Indeed, in Dickson v United Kingdom (2007) 46 EHRR 937, the Strasbourg court held that the refusal of artificial insemination facilities to a convicted murderer and the wife whom he had met while they were both in prison was a breach of their rights under article 8 of the European Convention.

 

How is the law to distinguish between emotional or psychological harm, which warrants the compulsory intervention of the State, and the normal and natural tendency of children to grow up to be and behave like their parents?

 

144.Added to this is the problem that the harm which is feared may take many years to materialise, if indeed it ever does. Every child is an individual, with her own character and personality. Many children are remarkably resilient. They do not all inherit their parents’ less attractive characters or copy their less attractive behaviours. Indeed some will consciously reject them. They have many other positive influences in their lives which can help them to resist the negative, whether it is their schools, their friends, or other people around them. How confident do we have to be that a child will indeed suffer harm because of her parents’ character and behaviour before we separate them for good?

 

Hear hear

 

 

Sadly all of this next bit is by the by, since it is from the dissenting judgment, but I think it is all correct, and I wish it were an accurate reflection of what the law was, post Re B

The reason for adopting a comparatively low threshold of likelihood is clear: some harm is so catastrophic that even a relatively small degree of likelihood should be sufficient to justify the state in intervening to protect the child before it happens, for example from death or serious injury or sexual abuse. But it is clear that Lord Nichollsdid not contemplate that a relatively small degree of likelihood would be sufficient in all cases.

 

The corollary of “the more serious the harm, the less likely it has to be” is that “the less serious the harm, the more likely it has to be”.

 

 

Of course, another reason for adopting a test of “real possibility”, rather than “more likely than not”, is that it is extremely difficult to predict the future and to do so with the sort of accuracy which would enable a court to say that it was more likely than not that a parent would harm a child in the future. Once again, this is a particular problem with emotional or psychological harm, which may take many years to manifest itself. The Act does not set limits upon when the harm may be likely to occur and clearly the court is entitled to look to the medium and longer term as well as to the child’s immediate future.

 

190 However, the longer term the prospect of harm, the greater the degree of uncertainty about whether it will actually happen. The child’s resilience or resistance, and the many protective influences at work in the community, whether from the wider family, their friends, their neighbourhoods, the health and social services and, perhaps above all, their schools, mean that it may never happen. The degree of likelihood must be such as justify compulsory intervention now, for there is always the possibility of compulsory intervention later, should the “real possibility” solidify

191. The second element in the threshold sheds some light upon these questions. The harm, or the likelihood of harm, must be “attributable to the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if an order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him”(s 31(2)(b)). This reinforces the view that it is a deficiency in parental care, rather than in parental character, which must cause the harm. It also means that the court should be able to identify what that deficiency in care might be and how likely it is to happen.

 

For my part, I am unsure why the other Judges did not share those views, they seem to me eminently sensible and fair. In reality, it is merely a sieve to remove the sort of cases that Lord Templeman and Hedley LJ were referring to as being short of the level of parenting that requires State intervention.

I also feel somewhat for Lady Hale, who has given excellent judgments in many of the Supreme Court cases but seems to be being characterised as the dissenter who does not sway the majority.

Supreme Court to give judgment on emotional harm case on 12th June

An interesting report from Family Law Week, confirming that the Re B case will be determined by the Supreme Court on 12th June, and I will write about it as soon as I get the judgment

 http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed114264

 The Court of Appeal decision is one that I blogged about here :-

 http://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/11/16/lies-and-the-lying-liars-who-tell-them/

 The reason that the case is important is that the threshold in the case was based entirely on emotional harm. I disagree with some of my readers about how prevalent that is  (my own experience of many, many Local Authorities over many, many years is that whilst emotional harm is a facet of lots of cases, I have NEVER picked up a case where the threshold contained nothing other than emotional harm. Ian Josephs says fairly that the people who come to him are invariably emotional harm cases). 

At the very least, it is plain that emotional harm is a controversial basis for separation of families, and it is probably the greyest area that we currently have, so it is good to see it being tackled.

 On the facts reported in Re B, I thought that the Court of Appeal were wrong in finding that the threshold was made out, and wrong further in moving to the conclusion that this meant that permanent separation was justified.  My heart is with the parents on this one, I have to say.

 There were certainly issues with the parents and there was certainly a suggestion that there would have been unusual features of the way the child would be brought up, but I did not see in the judgment I read evidence that the child was being harmed or likely to be harmed by it.

 

A classic bit of Hedley J, as far as I was concerned

 

Re L (Care threshold criteria) 2006  ”Society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent. It follows too that children will inevitably have both very different experiences of parenting and very unequal consequences flowing from it. It means that some children will experience disadvantage and harm, whilst others flourish in atmospheres of loving security and emotional stability. These are the consequences of our fallible humanity and it is not the provenance of the State to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting. In any event, it simply could not be done. … It would be unwise to a degree to attempt an all embracing definition of significant harm. One never ceases to be surprised at the extent of complication and difficulty that human beings manage to introduce into family life.”

 

As some people remarked to me at the time, there must have been more to it than came out in the Court of Appeal judgment. That might be the case, but in which case, I consider there to be a fault in the judgment  – if a parent is to be separated from their child by the State, the least we can offer them is a fair judgment that sets out plainly why that has to be the case.

 I think it is important that if the State is removing children for emotional harm, which is such a slippery concept to pin down (as opposed to fractures, sexual abuse or even neglect), it is important to have some parameters as to what that might mean, and where the bright line is between unusual and eccentric parenting and harmful parenting.

I will be interested to see what the Supreme Court makes of this, and as an incidental, I think Lord Clarke of Stone-cum-Ebony has a great, great title.  I have vowed, and will hold to it, that in the vanishingly unlikely event that the Government go bananas and make me a peer of the realm, I shall go by the name of Lord Vader, but that title does tempt me. Perhaps I could be Lord Ebony-cum-Ivory…

 

 

 

Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them

 

A discussion of Re B (A Child) 2012

 

 

The case can be found here

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1475.html

 

 

I think this case is of interest, and it certainly interested two of the Appeal Judges, because it looks in quite a lot of detail at the intersection between odd, unusual and peculiar parenting and significant harm where the State has to intervene.

 

 

The case is rather neatly summed up by these two passages, firstly from Lewison LJ’s  judgment :-

 

  1. I have found this a very worrying case. In a long, detailed and careful judgment HHJ Cryan found that:

“I am satisfied that the threshold has been crossed, not perhaps in the most extreme way that is seen in some cases, but crossed it has been.”

  1. Yet when he came to make his ultimate order he made an order with a view to placing A for adoption; in other words to remove her from her parents forever. As I understand it that is, for practical purposes, the most extreme order that he could have made. How is that to be reconciled with his finding?

 

And then from Rix LJ’s judgment

 

However, standing back, I also wonder whether this case illustrates a powerful but also troubling example of the state exercising its precautionary responsibilities for a much loved child in the face of parenting whose unsatisfactory nature lies not so much in the area of physical abuse but in the more subjective area of moral and emotional risk

 

 

I know, from the comments I get on this blog, that emotional risk  or emotional harm is the area that concerns many of them the most. It feels nebulous and vague and tenuous, and rather as though it could catch anyone in the net and snare them, if they just happened to fall foul of the State.  And of course, it is the one area of child abuse that couldn’t  result in criminal proceedings being brought – what the parents are alleged to have done is not treat their child in an illegal way, but just an improper one.

 

 

Let’s have a look at the harm that the LA alleged was posed by these parents

 

 

  1. The local authority’s case was that each of the parents posed a significant risk to A. The cornerstone of their threshold case was as follows:

“[M] and [F] have innate psychological and/or personality issues and/or anger management issues (in relation to the father) which are likely to impair their ability to provide good enough physical and emotional care of their daughter. [M] has been assessed as suffering from a significant disturbance of psychological functioning, being best described as somatisation disorder and has a long standing history of engaging in deceptive behaviour.

There is a real risk that A’s emotional, education and social development will be impaired as a result of the parenting and emotional nurturing she is likely to receive by her parents due to their own innate issues; this leading to a real risk of significant harm.

[F] does not accept the fact that [M] can be untruthful nor that she is a risk to A. He is not therefore a protective adult for A.

[F] is unable to communicate in an open and honest way with professionals and accordingly exacerbates the risks to A.”

  1. As the foundation for this, the local authority relied upon findings made by Judge Cryan in the proceedings relating to AE about M’s relationship with Mr E and about M’s untruthfulness, demonstrated inter alia by her criminal convictions. They also relied upon a number of other features including:

i) M having continued to live with Mr E despite his abusive behaviour and, when she left, having left AE behind with him;

ii) The apparent difficulties in M’s relationship with AE;

iii) The risk to A of unnecessary medical investigations and treatment flowing from the somatisation disorder that two psychiatrists had diagnosed in M;

iv) The risk that M may impair A’s moral, emotional and social development by involving A in her deceptions and exaggerations, termed in the threshold document a “tendency to pathological lying”;

v) The problem created by social services and other professionals being unable to rely on the truth of what M says;

vi) F’s long history of criminality and drug use;

vii) F’s refusal to engage with the local authority’s attempts to find out about him and to assess him, his failure to be open and honest with professionals and his deep hostility to social services including his threatening and aggressive behaviour towards them;

viii) F’s unwillingness to accept that M poses any risk to A and therefore inability to protect A from her.

 

 

 

Apart from the issue of father’s drug abuse, of which not much seems to be made, the rest of this seems to boil down to  ‘the mother is a pathological liar’ and that might bring about harm to the child.

 

Whilst the totality of the case makes it pretty clear to me that there were sound reasons for believing the mother to be a pathological liar, and the Court of Appeal were very complimentary to the way that the trial judge had carefully sifted and weighed all of the evidence,  I have to confess that I am struggling for concrete risks that having a pathological liar as a parent causes to the child.  Some of the lies she is reported to have told are bizarre, odd and strange, and it is not a massive leap to suggest that a child exposed to them might find it bizarre, odd and strange that such lies were routinely told by a parent. But, I’m not sure that amounts to significant harm, or risk thereof.

 

There’s a hint at it in this line :-

iii) The risk to A of unnecessary medical investigations and treatment flowing from the somatisation disorder that two psychiatrists had diagnosed in M;

 

which implies that mother’s pathological lying might extend to making up illnesses or need for treatment of the child.  In part because some of her pathological lying has manifested in her lying about her own medical situation to get attention. So it might transpose to the child (back at Munchausen by proxy again).

 

Well, it might.  They don’t say that it HAD done this, and if it HAD, the LA would surely have been relying on it, and I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

 

It seems to me that this risk could be pretty comprehensively managed by the GP and local paediatric department being alerted to mother’s somatisation disorder, which presumably they had on the files about her anyway, so they would know not to take everything she said about A’s health at face value.

 

 

 

There is an interesting criticism of the Guardian by the original trial judge, which I think flows from working practices rather than any poor work on her part as an individual  (yes, I am back on my Homeopathic Guardians hobbyhorse)  – although the fact that in the previous paragraph she had not understood the limitations of an Interim Supervision Order was pretty troubling.

 

 

Judge Cryan’s judgment set out the limited role that the guardian had played during the care proceedings and the judge’s concern that in a case of this complexity she had not been able to engage more closely so that she could help the court from a more personally informed position. Her assessment of the family support network was described by the judge as “virtually useless”. His overall conclusion about the guardian was that she was “an unimpressive witness whose input to this complex case was little short of superficial”.

 

 

 

On threshold, this was the passage where the Judge decided whether it had been crossed

 

  1. Judge Cryan said [189]:

“I am satisfied that the threshold has been crossed, not perhaps in the most extreme way that is seen in some cases, but crossed it has been. I am satisfied from the evidence of Drs Bass and Taylor that when A was taken into the care of the local authority some two years ago now she would have been at risk of significant harm from the care likely to be given to her by her parents. I am satisfied that the mother suffered from each of the disorders which the doctors have diagnosed and following on from that I accept their evidence that in the way described by them there was a risk of significant harm being caused to A. In addition, though for the purpose of the section 31 threshold such considerations are otiose, I am satisfied that the matters identified by Ms Summer, whose evidence I accept, cause me considerable concerns. In particular, curious as it may seem in light of the parents’ obvious commitment to contact, I would be seriously concerned about the parents’ capacity adequately to promote her emotional welfare if she was in their full-time care.”

 

 

The parents appealed, relying in large part on the doubt that the behaviour alleged by the LA, could (even if proven) constitute a risk of significant harm.

 

I liked this passage from their submissions

 

  1. Counsel invited our attention to a number of authorities, domestic and European, in order to provide a framework for the consideration of their factual submissions, whilst rightly identifying that there is relatively little authority on the meaning of “significant harm”; I will consider some of this jurisprudence a little later. Counsel submitted that the section 31 threshold is not a low threshold and that the requirement that the harm should be “significant” should not be diluted but interpreted in the light of the fact that any interference with family life must be “necessary”.
  1. They argued that the risk at its highest is that A “may develop unacceptable or unusual behaviour” but that it is not said how that would harm her or others.
  1. In a passage of their skeleton argument which brings to mind some often-quoted words from Hedley J’s judgment in Re L (Threshold Conditions) [2007] 1 FLR 2050 (see below), they said:

“Many parents are hypochondriacs, many parents are criminals or benefit cheats, many parents discriminate against ethnic or sexual minorities, many parents support vile political parties or belong to unusual or militant religions. All of these follies are visited upon their children, who may well adopt or ‘model’ them in their own lives but those children could not be removed for those reasons.”

  1. They submitted that to justify interference in family life, the harm which is foreseen must have some element of immediacy or at least reasonable proximity which is lacking here given the number of contingencies upon which it depended and given that the general practitioner would act as a safeguard against problems developing.

 

 

And I have to say, I don’t really disagree with any of that.  To this point in the judgment, I am still struggling to see what transforms this from being a child who will be brought up in an odd, unusual and possibly downright peculiar environment to one who would be significantly harmed by the parenting she received.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is how Black LJ squared that particular circle

 

 

  1. Although a significant focus of the argument before us was upon M’s medical behaviour and particularly upon whether her somatisation was sufficient to justify the orders the judge made given that there was no evidence of inappropriate consultation since she left Mr E, and whether she could additionally be said to suffer from factitious illness disorder, in fact the judge’s consideration of the case was rightly considerably wider than this. All the professionals involved in the case, whether or not advising that A should be united with her parents, accepted that there were risks. The focus of each individual witness varied depending on their point of view but the field was not limited to the acknowledged risk that M’s distorted behaviour in relation to illness (whatever it may be termed) may not be historical only and may revive. It included also wider risks to A’s emotional welfare posed by M’s personality problems and her non-medical behaviour, as well as F’s conduct separately and in conjunction with her.
  1. Given the focus of the hearing before us, I will deal in some detail with the type of harm that I consider the judge was entitled to find was a real possibility here. I do not accept that he erred either in the harm that he identified or in treating it as of significance. Furthermore I do not accept that the judge’s reasoning about harm and risk is confined to the latter parts of his judgment; he refers to both issues repeatedly throughout it as I hope can be seen from my earlier summary of the judgment.
  1. The judge was clearly aware of the need to look critically at what harm there actually was and in particular to separate that issue from the question of whether the parents would cooperate sufficiently with social services. This was evident not only from the judgment but also from a passage to which we were taken in the cross-examination of the social worker where at one point the judge intervened to explain to her that it did not matter how uncooperative parents were with social services if there was no risk against which social services needed to guard. He isolated for her the questions, “What is the risk to A that is actually being guarded against?” and “Why is it necessary [for social services] to engage with M?” (transcript 7/35).
  1. The corollary of the risk of M’s medical behaviour reasserting itself was the risk that A would be harmed by the “intergenerational transmission of abnormal health behaviour” and “excessive medicalisation”, which terms are self-explanatory even if not part of everyday language. This harm would not necessarily be physical but the judge did not discount the risk of physical harm. He is criticised for his acceptance of such a risk. The criticism is misplaced in my view. He found only that there was a risk of over-treatment or inappropriate medical treatment. He was undoubtedly entitled to find that there was a risk that M’s illness related difficulties, if they reappeared, would lead her to present A inappropriately to doctors and unnecessary treatment was a logical potential consequence of that. His finding about the parents’ approach to A’s health whilst she has been in foster care added substance to this risk as did M’s exaggerated description of A’s condition on her hospital admission to which both Dr Taylor and Dr Bass attached significance and which might, if repeated or made to those not in possession of the facts, influence her medical care as the judge said.
  1. Ms Summers dealt with the harm flowing from M’s chronic lying and F’s active tendency to dishonesty [192] in her report at paragraph 6.5. She considered that as A got older and reached more sophisticated levels of understanding, she would become aware that her mother’s version of the truth differed from her own which would be confusing for her and force upon her difficult decisions about whether or not to collude with her mother against the outside world such as friends, school and professional agencies. She said that exposure to persistent and longstanding patterns of lying would present a moral risk to A, potentially making it difficult to differentiate right from wrong which could lead to problems with her social and emotional development affecting school life, friendships and other relationships. Continued exposure to deceptive behaviour was likely, she thought, to result in A adopting similar styles of behaviour which would potentially have serious consequences in later life, such as delinquent/criminal behaviour.
  1. The judge said he shared Ms Summers’ view but he had plainly also made his own assessment of the likely emotional risk/harm to A from features of the case other than M’s illness related behaviour. He had the evidence of Dr Bass and Dr Taylor that M had personality problems and he had found a catalogue of ongoing deception which Dr Bass had indicated he would find very concerning. The catalogue can be found in full in the judge’s judgment and I have referred to it above so I will only briefly draw together a few of the features here.
  1. I would attach particular importance to the findings that the judge made about M’s position in the E household. M had plainly suffered very considerably in that household and she deserves sympathy for the abuse inflicted upon her there but the judge’s findings disentitle her from arguing that she was solely a passive victim and that her problematic behaviour will not recur. There was, to borrow phraseology from the guardian’s skeleton argument, a problem about learned or ingrained behaviour. The judge did not see M’s role in the E household as entirely inert [22]. In the April 2011 judgment, he described her as “a habitual and purposeful liar and accomplished fraudster” and said he could not see that there had been any very marked improvement in her truthfulness despite her nearly two year separation from Mr E. Her use of complaining tactics since she separated from Mr E, as detailed in the judge’s current judgment, led him to describe her as “an accomplished pupil of Mr E” [131]. The incident when M behaved vindictively with CN was redolent of the E household and worrying. It will be remembered that the judge also found that her dishonesty was pervasive and not merely reactive to a given situation such as the proposal that A should be adopted [165], giving examples which substantiated this assessment.
  1. F could not be relied on to curb the excesses as he had known of M’s inappropriate activities and furthermore had not been entirely candid himself in ways which the judge described. The judge also found him to have very poor impulse control and to have an assertive wilfulness about him as well as a problematic way of approaching authority including social services. The wider context was that F had not played a full role in the upbringing of his other four children and had an extended history of criminal behaviour and of taking Class A drugs, albeit that in more recent times he had not been convicted of any offences and had confined himself to cannabis.
  1. The judge’s assessment of the couple’s relationship was that they were deeply loyal to each other against the world, viewing the world of authority with great suspicion and sharing a disregard for the truth and integrity of conduct [54]. It will be recalled that he referred to their “characteristically toxic reaction” when matters did not please them as they probably would not at times [177] and said that they were “controlling and wilful” when challenged on some of the distorted elements of their world view or faced with a refusal to be compliant [196]. Commenting that there was a high probability that F would not separate from M in any meaningful sense in order to bring up A alone, he said that “their mutual tendency to lie and deceive is so profound and effective that there would be no way in which the situation could be effectively monitored and A safeguarded” [199].

 

 

You may, like me, still be at the  ‘it is all pretty unsavoury, but am still not sure it crosses threshold and results in adoption, because it still boils down to being mum is a lying liar’ point

 

Black LJ presses on

 

  1. Counsel for M submitted that non-medical risks of the sort identified by the local authority and the judge were not what the Children Act was driving at. However, I agree with counsel for the local authority who submitted that it is a question of degree. The judge was best placed to assess the situation as a whole and to make the necessary value judgment about whether the threshold criteria were established and whether a care order was required. Somatisation might not have been an active problem for M in recent times but the same could not be said of her other maladapted behaviour and the judge was entitled to take the view that he would have to proceed upon the basis that there would continue to be problems. The emotionally harmful effects of maladjusted behaviour, albeit it may be said that they were in a more extreme form, had been amply demonstrated in the course of AE’s case. That the judge had made the link with this can be seen from his remark at [155] that the “highly undesirable isolation of the E household comes to mind”.
  1. It was argued on the parents’ behalf that the risk/harm was not sufficiently immediate. No doubt it could be said that A, at her present age, would not be old enough to appreciate the difficulties in her parents’ behaviour. However, a child’s emotional and social development begins from the earliest stages whether he is conscious of the influences upon him or not and, as the social worker said in her statement (C44), the actions and behaviours of parents can have a long lasting effect on children from an early age. Furthermore, this was not a case in which there appeared to be any realistic hope that things would change in future and a placement of A at home followed by a later removal into care would import a danger of more emotional damage plus even greater difficulties in finding a suitable permanent placement.
  1. In short, the catalogue of problems identified by the judge went beyond the routine; the problems were undoubtedly more than commonplace human failure or inadequacy. They were also of long standing and had not only manifested themselves in response to the intervention of this local authority. There is no doubt that the judge was entitled to take the view that any strategy to manage the risks would have to go beyond the safeguard of the watchful eye of the general practitioner and would need to involve social services. The parents needed to have the capacity to engage with professionals to ensure that A was safe from harm and there was ample evidence on which the judge was entitled to conclude that they would not be able to do this.

 

 

Nope, I’m still with the parents on this. The two other Judges basically came down to saying that the trial Judge could not be said to have been plainly wrong, though hinting that they might have reached a different conclusion, and the appeal was refused.

 

My gut feeling, and of course seeing the full case and hearing all of the evidence is an entirely different affair, is that on the headlines of what is alleged to have given rise to threshold, I don’t believe threshold is met. But I am wrong, because the Court of Appeal have decided otherwise.

 

I don’t think we have seen the last of risk of emotional harm as a topic ripe for litigation and clarification.

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