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I agree with Nick

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

“Tales of the Un-experted” (sorry)

CAFCASS have just published a study looking at experts – their use in proceedings, what type is being used, who asked for them, were they helpful?

 http://www.cafcass.gov.uk/media/149859/cafcass_expert_witness_research_6.2013.pdf

 It is interesting, although on their study of whether the use of the expert was beneficial, I think it would have been amazingly helpful, rather than just asking the Guardian in the case if they found them to be beneficial (which is in itself a huge leap forward, we’ve never even done that before)  the study or a subsequent one could ask the Judge

 

  1. Did you find that report helpful in reaching your conclusions?
  2. Looking at things now, after the conclusion, was the obtaining of that report worth the waiting time?  [ie, was it "value for time"]

 

 

This is what I found interesting about it though, in the Guardian’s analysis of whether the report was beneficial or not

 100% of the drug and alcohol tests obtained were found to be helpful

100% of the paediatric reports obtained were found to be helpful

But only 75% of the psychological reports obtained were found to be helpful

 Given that psychological reports are the most cash-expensive AND time-expensive, the fact that even Guardians (who in my view were being a bit generous with how useful they found reports) found only 3 in 4 of these reports to be helpful is STAGGERING

 The report also headlines that since 2009 there has been a massive drop in the instruction of independent social workers – from about 33% of cases then to about 9% now.  (That is probably a lot more to do with them being starved out of doing the job and thus not being available than any reduction in need for them, rather than, as some of the reporting I have seen of the report, that it shows how we have been busy embracing the Family Justice reforms)

 The study also shows that, so far as Guardian’s were concerned, the quality of the pre-proceedings work done by the LA, or the prior involvement of the LA had no impact on whether or not an independent expert was instructed.

 [The report goes on to cite 3 individual cases where Guardian’s had felt that poor social work had been the cause of the instruction, but of a survey of 184 cases this is statistically not significant]

 

Actually, the Court was rather more likely to instruct an expert if there had been historical social services involvement than in cases where little was previously known about the family prior to proceedings. (still scratching my head about that one)

 

The other interesting piece of information from the study (given the drive to cut down experts) was the breakdown of what discipline contributes what proportion of the assessments commissioned

 

The largest by far was psychologists, accounting for 35% of the experts instructed  (and we know now that this means that about a quarter of those were unhelpful, or nearly 9% of all expert reports commissioned by the Courts. You’re welcome)

 

The next largest group was adult psychiatrists – coming in at 20%.  I would suggest that this is going to be a difficult group to screen out of the system. One tends to go to an adult psychiatrist because there is a mental health or substance misuse issue that requires expertise over and above that that a social worker or Guardian can give. Even a talented and skilled Guardian or social worker can’t tell you what the prognosis for mother’s bi-polar disorder will be now that she has switched to different medication.

 

 

[Honestly though, I think that gathering this information has been a really useful start, and I would really really welcome a follow-up study where the Judiciary are asked on those sample cases, whether the expert report was beneficial and represented “value for time” for that child, submitted of course in an anonymised way so that we get the statistical information but that the judical feedback is kept apart from the actual case]

And in case my clunky pun has got you hankering after seeing a silhoutted woman dancing in front of a roulette wheel whilst playing cards are thrown about, and you have been singing “doo-doo-doo, noo-no0-noo doo-doo-doo” during your reading, here it is :-

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oc46Gk-6qrA

 

In the Jingle, Djangoly morning, I come following you…

 

The Parliamentary Justice Committee met recently, and if you’re a fan of conspiracy and outrage the debate makes for entertaining reading  (y’know, if you’ve been reading the Daily Mail for so long that you are starting to find it utterly reasonable, and you want something to provoke a reaction of “these people are just plain wrong”, then Parliament is a good place to go for that fix)

 

This is the bit that is relevant to us, where Mr Djangoly MP lets us glimpse what the Government fix on family law experts is going to be – my underlining. (I’m afraid I left in his first remark, which is his attempt to get John Hemmings MP to stop talking when grown-ups are talking, because it made me laugh)

 

Mr Djanogly: Will my hon. Friend let me make some headway, and then he can come back on what I say?

Such reports take up precious time. I agree that they should be used only where necessary to determine a case and the courts should ensure that such evidence is properly focused on the key questions that the court needs to be answered. We already plan to change the family procedure rules to bring that into effect. Expert evidence will of course continue to be important in some cases to ensure a fair and complete process. Where expert evidence is required, we are working to ensure that it is of high quality and delivered promptly.

To go into more detail, because of the concern shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, we are introducing early changes to the court rules through secondary legislation. The main elements are raising the threshold for the court to permit an expert to be instructed; requiring expert witness evidence to be necessary, rather than reasonably required; and in family proceedings concerning children, there will be a list of factors that the court must explicitly consider in deciding whether to permit an expert to be instructed. Those factors include the impact on the child of a delay and undergoing an assessment, the cost, and whether the information could or should be provided by one of the parties, such as the local authority. We will also require the court to exercise better control over the questions put to the expert and require solicitors to undertake preparatory work earlier in the process to reduce delays in the experts beginning work.

We recognise that minimum standards are necessary for expert witnesses in the family court. We are working with the Department of Health, health regulators and the Family Justice Council to establish minimum standards that judges should expect from all expert witnesses. We are exploring how and whether we can implement the family justice review recommendation that meeting minimum standards should be a requirement for public funding. We will also consult key stakeholders on proposed minimum standards, which we hope to have in place later this year.

 

An interesting idea. Perhaps putting some stringent guidelines about when assessments are needed into a revised Family Procedure Rules will work. After all, when we’ve tried that in the past, it has always worked. For example, it might work  as well as :-

 

The Protocol, which said, don’t use experts unless they are necessary

The PLO, which said, don’t use experts if you can get the social worker or Guardian to answer the questions

The current FPR, which gives a huge set of tasks to be followed if anyone seeks to persuade the Court to instruct an expert

The House of Lords decision in Kent County Council v G which sets out very firmly that s38(6) is about assessment of the child, assessment of the current situation and is not for the purposes of affecting CHANGE in a parent

 

All of which are currently ignored by professionals on a regular basis. Changing the requirement to ‘necessary’ rather than reasonably required, will just change the words that advocates use when asking for the report.

 

The idea which really would stop the instruction of experts altogther is the one mooted in the Family Justice Review – make the Judge write the Letter of Instruction. Introduce that, and you’ll see the number of experts instructed in care proceedings fall by about 90%.   And if you want to stop them altogether, make the payment come out of the Court budget….

The problem of the hanged man

 

Bear with me, this is going somewhere.

So,  a man is sentenced to be hanged to death for a crime. He hears the verdict and the sentence, and then addresses the Court. He explains that he knows he has done wrong and that he must pay for it, but that what he wants is to sleep in peace on his last night on earth, and asks if the Judge would agree that he should not know, for certain, when he goes to sleep that he will be hanged the next day. The Judge agrees. He will be hanged sometime in the next week, the Judge tells him, and this is all put down carefully into an official order. He cannot be hanged if he knows for certain the night before that the next day is the day he will be hanged.

 

And at the end of the week, he is not hanged, and goes free.

 

Answer at the end.

 

Now, as some of you may know, the 26 week time cap for new proceedings has been brought in, without fanfare, hullaballoo, announcement or even legislation. None of the new arrangements which will make it possible for the proceedings to conclude in 26 weeks (best interest adoption decision being removed, no more argument about care plans, greater respect for social work evidence, less experts) have come in, but there’s a new computer system that says all new proceedings will end in 26 weeks and the Courts have to give reasons why.

 

So, let’s look at 26 weeks, which might sound initially like quite a long time (it’s more than twice what the original inventors of the Children Act envisaged would be needed to crack all but the most difficult cases)

 

By week 26, we need to have a final hearing. So, let’s work on the basis of a 5 day hearing, at which the Guardian, social worker, allocated judge (since we’re going to get judicial continuity now) and any experts can attend. Let’s be optimistic and say that the Court listing will be able to magic that availability for us with no more than 2 weeks notice.

 

So, by week 24, we need to have our IRH and tell the Court that we need a final hearing and 5 days of Court time. Let’s also, for the sake of argument, have the Guardian file on the same week as the IRH.

 

So, by week 23, giving the Guardian only a week to see the parents evidence, which won’t be late, because it never, ever is, we need the parents to file.

 

By week 21, we need the LA evidence (I squeezed the Guardian down from the usual 10-14 days to seven, but really, the parents do need two weeks to see the LA evidence). If it is an adoption case, the Agency Decision Maker will need to have authorised the Placement Order application the same week. Let’s pretend that can be issued and not lost or misplaced by the Court and served on everyone in a week, just for giggles.

 

So, by week 20, Panel need to have considered the case and made a recommendation to the Agency Decision Maker – there has to be a seven day period for that, until the law gets changed.

 

Let’s be more ruthless and say that the time that Panel members get to see the expert report is cut from the current 3 weeks, to 2  (because the Social worker has to submit a Child Permanence Report to Panel and needs to know what the expert says before that can be finalised. And the law that says Panel have to read the expert report is still law (I hesitate to say ‘good law’)

Thus, by week 18, the expert report needs to be completed.

Now, let’s work from the other end, and see how long the expert gets to do their report, because 18 weeks looks like AGES.Four and a half months.

The proceedings are issued and the clock starts. The first hearing is at the end of week 1.

 

Assuming everyone moves quickly, let’s have a CMC in week 2. Unlikely, but let’s assume we do. And let’s assume that in that week, the parties have considered all of the papers and agreed not only what sort of experts they need, but who they should be, and found out timescales.

 

Lets go further crazy, and assume that the Letter of Instruction is agreed and finalised in Week 3, and that the LOI and papers go off to the expert in Week 4. There’s no hold-up in getting any additional disclosure, or medical records, or documents from past proceedings or other local authorities, or private law proceedings, or police disclosure. Hooray for simplicity.

The expert then has from week 4 to week 18 to do a report. Fourteen weeks. Three and a half months.

But don’t forget, that the expert can’t see anyone until the parties all have their Prior Authority for public funding in place. Let’s be wildly optimistic and say that that takes a fortnight.

 

So, by week 6, the  expert is ready to go, and has 12 weeks to do the report. Don’t forget, that the expert has to be available in weeks 25 or 26 for any contested final hearing.

 

I just don’t think that this is feasible. Worse than that, it means that when the parent sees the expert to demonstrate that they have changed sufficiently to justify a positive care plan, they have not had 26 weeks to make that change, but probably 14-15 weeks, just over half the time. If they are someone with substance misuse problems, or anger issues, they’ve probably just started with any intervention – if they need therapy, they might have got a GP to make the referral but won’t have had any counselling.

 

My point is – you can’t roll out the timescales independently of the new way of working which is going to make cases achieveable in those timescales. Even with a case where nothing goes wrong, you can’t do it on the PLO model and just say “do it in half the time it currently takes”.   The new 26 week cap is going to head slap-bang into “we need this expert, and he can’t report till week 22, so the timetable won’t work, expert instruction refused,Court of Appeal”

 

You can’t have a 26 week system where parents need to be able to demonstrate change by week 18 unless there’s something in place for them to help them make those changes. You could try a model where we divert all the money that’s currently spent on diagnosis onto treatment – task-centred and swift interventions and supports that are ready to roll out and begin once the referral is made, but they don’t currently exist and the funds aren’t there for them. So, if you roll out a 26 week cap without any sea change as to the way proceedings are done, you’re going to end up with a shed-load more cases in the Court of Appeal and a shed-load more cases that end with children in Care, since you haven’t given any ability for the parents to change from the low-point that generally exists when proceedings are issued.

 

And back to the hanged man – he knows he can’t be hanged on Sunday, the seventh day, because if he goes to bed on Saturday, he knows for certain that he’ll be hanged the next day, and that’s prohibited by the order. So, they can’t hang him on Sunday. Which means the latest they can hang him is Saturday. But now he knows that, and so if he goes to bed on FRIDAY, he knows for certain that he’ll be hanged the next day, because there’s only Saturday and Sunday left, and they can’t hang him on Sunday. And so on.

 

 

 

“You can’t handle the truth!”

(An imaginary judgment about an imaginary situation, in homage to the incomparable A P Taylor’s “Misleading cases in the common law”)

This is an application brought by X County Council under section 31 of the Children Act 1989, who seek Interim Care Orders in relation to two children, a boy who we shall call A, who is aged 7 and a girl who we shall call B who is aged 5.   The Local Authority seek orders from the Court permitting them to remove A and B from their parents and to place them in foster care. Further, as I shall consider in more detail later, the Local Authority have placed the Court and the parties on notice that should their application be granted, they would not be able to accommodate the parents wish for the children’s religion to be observed in foster care. The parents contest the application and contend that the section 31 threshold criteria are not made out, that the test established by the authorities for removal of a child is not made out, and that even if the Court were to be against them on both of those issues, that the children’s religious practices should be observed in foster care. The children’s Guardian confesses that she has found this an extremely difficult case with deeply unusual features, but on balance supports the Local Authority case.

It is common ground that these children are happy, that they are doing developmentally well, that they attend school and nursery and have positive reports from those establishments, that they are properly fed, that their home conditions are clean, tidy and with suitable toys for the children; further that they are not mistreated either physically or emotionally and that they receive good quality parenting from parents who love them very dearly. The parents shun the use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs. There are many Judges who would gaze enviously at this litany of praise for parents within care proceedings before gazing sternly at the Local Authority who placed the application before the Court.

However, this particular application does have a feature which leads the Local Authority to suspect that the children are at risk of significant harm; they accepting that there is no evidence that the children HAVE suffered significant harm to date.

The parents in this case moved to the United Kingdom from the state of Arkanas in the United States. They are both committed to their faith, which they have practiced for their entire lives, including when they were children in Arkansas.  Their faith is that of snake-handling.

The Court has heard evidence from senior figures within the Snake-Handling faith, and this evidence has been sufficient to make it plain that the faith is legitimate and recognised, albeit, as the parents concede more of the margins than of the mainstream.  The faith arises from quotations from the Bible:-

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)

Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)

In terms, those who practice the snake-handling faith believe, and it is a central tenet of their belief system, that they may handle snakes and drink poison and that it will not harm them as they are protected by God.

The parents in this case have made it plain, and their evidence on this aspect was, I find, credible, that they do not indulge in the consumption of poisons; as this was not the practice in the Church where they practiced their Faith.

They were, however, candid, that their religious practice is to pray and celebrate the words of the Bible whilst handling  live snakes. They gave evidence that they undertook this ceremony several nights per week, a minimum of three times and as many as five nights per week. The ceremony and handling of the snakes would be for a minimum of ninety minutes, and could on occasion last considerably longer.

Dr Parsel, the expert herpetologist who gave helpful and invigorating evidence confirmed that some of the snakes kept by the family are venomous, and that their bite would be harmful to humans, and in rare cases if medical attention were not sought, could be fatal. She indicated that she would consider the risk of a bite having serious consequences requiring for example an overnight  hospital stay to be at around 30% and the risk of a bite being fatal (if medical attention were sought) to be at around 5% – if medical treatment were not sought for a venomous bite, the consequences would be more severe.   In relation to the non-venomous snakes, her evidence was that a bite would be painful, comparable to the bite of a medium-sized dog, but more of a ‘nip’ than something that would necessarily require medical treatment.

She freely confessed to not have any particular expertise in whether snake-handlers were immune to pain or consequence from receiving bites, but did refer the Court to documented examples of some fatalities emerging from the practice. I note, in relation to this, that the snake-handling church treats such aberrations as being evidence of a lack of genuine faith in the religion, rather than a failure of the religion itself.

She was understandably cautious about estimating the possibility of a snake inflicting such a bite, but did accept in cross-examination by those representing the parents that the risk of a bite being inflicted was considerably reduced where the persons handling the snake are respectful, gentle and not apprehensive or scared.

The medical records of both parents, in this country and those obtained from America have bourne out their account that neither of them have received medical treatment for snake bites and of course, both are here to tell the tale.

They both gave evidence to the effect that being bitten by the snake is very rare in the ceremony, and that it is not the intention of the ceremony to provoke or promote a bite from the snake. I accept the parents’ evidence in this latter regard, but am more cautious about the rarity of the occurance.

Their further evidence, that if they were to be bitten, it would have no effect as they are protected by God and their faith is something that the Court have to be more cautious about. It would probably be best expressed in this way, that the Court is satisfied that the parents genuinely believe this to be the case, that they believe this as a fundamental part of their religious faith and that they are not knowingly placing themselves in what they consider to be harm or jeopardy.

The Court further accepts the following, as drawn from the parents’ evidence:-

1)    That they would intend for the children to become involved in the religious practice, and to handle the snakes, some of which are venomous.

2)    That the older child has already, under careful supervision been involved in the handling process; but not with the venomous snakes

3)    That the younger child has observed the ceremony and worship

4)    That both of the children have been shown how to handle the snakes with care and dignity

I now have to consider whether  there is, on the balance of probabilities a likelihood that significant harm may arise. For today’s purposes, the section 38 criteria apply and the test is whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that the children have suffered or would be likely to suffer significant harm, such harm being attributable to the care given or likely to be given not being what it would be reasonable for a parent to provide.

The risk of harm, as outlined by the Local Authority is as follows :-

(a)  that there is a risk of the children sustaining a bite injury from a non-venomous snake, which would be painful, on a par with a ‘nip’ from a medium sized dog, and which would be likely to hurt a child for several minutes but not require medical attention

(b)  that there is a risk of the children sustaining a bite injury from a venomous snake. This would have the same degree of pain as above, accompanied by a feeling of nausea and light-headedness, which would probably last for an hour or two  (if the anti-venom serum were administered immediately) and might require hospital treatment.

(c)  That if the parents did not, as a result of their religious belief that the children would suffer no ill-effect, obtain medical treatment, the consequences could be much more serious and there is a risk of a fatality

(d)  The Local Authority add that although the risk of either incident occurring might be said to be low for each ceremony (though they took pains to point out that they did not necessarily accept this) the Court were entitled to take into account that exposure to a low level of risk several times per week, over the children’s minority could give rise to a cumulative risk which would perforce be higher.

The parents respond in the following way:-

(a)  the children would feel no pain from the bite of non-venomous snakes, as is clear from their faith

(b)  the children would feel no pain or ill-effects from the bite of a venomous snake, as is clear from their faith

(c)  thus, no harm would result from the children demonstrating their faith and engaging in their legitimate act of worship

They accepted wholly that a parent who were not a snake-handler and protected by their faith, who gave venomous snakes to a child, would be acting in a way that it would not be reasonable to expect from a parent; as such a child would sustain a painful injury, and I myself would not find it a stretch to make such a finding.  (They do not claim that venomous snake bites are harmless to the population at large, and if I were required to find that being bitten by a venomous snake would be generally a bad thing for the average child, I would make such a finding)

I find myself in difficult waters here. I would have no difficulty whatsoever in finding that a parent who allows a child to handle venomous snakes for long periods, on numerous occasions per week, would have a child who was at risk of significant harm.

The parents’ case is, in part, that no harm could arise, because of the protection that their faith offers them and their children.

All parties accept that there is some risk (although they differ as to the level) that the children could be bitten by a snake whilst handling it. The Local Authority say that there would be consequences if so, which would constitute significant harm, the parents say that there would be no such consequences.

To reject the parents’ conviction out of hand would draw the Court into territories of ruling that an individual’s faith is incorrect in fact.  The accepted fact that this particular religion is followed by a relatively small group, rather than having a groundswell of popular opinion does not mean that I should discount their beliefs. There might be many who would regard their beliefs as nonsense, but the same could be said of those who believe that God sent his son to earth to die for our sins.   Many generations of philosophers and theologians have grappled with these weighty issues without necessarily coming to a conclusion; and it would certainly be wrong of me to attempt to do what Aquinas, Bertrand Russell and Descartes could not and put a full stop under whether a particular religion is true or misguided.

I have had to consider whether I need, to determine, on the balance of probabilities whether the Local Authority is right (and thus that the parents faith is misplaced) or vice versa.

Looking at the law, it is clear that what I must consider, in weighing up “likelihood”  is the construction set out in Re H and R 1996  “the context shows that in section 31 (2) (a) likely is being used in the sense of a real possibility, a possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored having regard to the nature and gravity of the feared harm in the particular case”

With that in mind, I am able to determine, with confidence, that there is a real possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored that these children, might over cumulative exposure to snakes (some non-venomous, some venomous) be bitten by the snakes and suffer adverse harm as a result.

I do not, when determining this, need to set out that the risk of this occurring is greater than 50%, and therefore do not need to determine that the parents belief is objectively true, or objectively false, rather that there is some margin for doubt.  I am absolutely plain that I could not rule that one could be absolutely categorically certain that the children of snake-handlers would suffer no harm if they were bitten by a snake, and thus I have to accept that there is a possibility which cannot sensibly be ignored that they might be.

I further accept that the consequences of a bite could constitute significant harm if consequences were to arise, and that therefore the threshold criteria as set out in section 38 of the Children Act 1989  are made out.  I do not believe that, having made that determination, there will be a dispute as to the section 31 criteria at final hearing, the same facts coming to bear.

Turning now to the test for removal, I shall not recount the plentiful authorities, as it is common ground between all of the parties that a satisfactory construction of the test would be “is the harm, or risk of harm that the child would suffer or be at risk of suffering proportionate to the removal of the child at interlocutory stage”

I am mindful here that having effectively established that the religious practice of snake-handling gives rise, if children are participating to a likelihood of significant harm, there is a risk of developing a position whereby the Court determines that effectively all parents who are snake-handlers and wish to bring up their children in that faith are not able to safely care for their children.

That in turn, would effectively be the Court saying to a parent that they do not have the right to practice their religion AND simultaneously parent.  Whilst snake handling is a relatively small religion, practised in some forty churches, it is nonetheless a religion. I am reminded of Martin Niemoller’s famous statement “First they came for the communists….”

Considering the body of authorities where the Court have had to consider the extents to which the State can interfere with someone’s religious practices, I would distill this concept  – that any person is free to believe whatever religious principles they wish and that the State should not interfere with that belief, but that where the exercise of such beliefs has an adverse, or potentially adverse impact on the rights and freedoms of another, the State may intervene and must consider whether such intervention is necessary and proportionate.

I have attempted to apply that principle throughout this case – it is perfectly legitimate for these parents to believe that they, and their children can safely handle snakes as part of their religious practice – it is the point at which they propose that the children actually do handle snakes which leads to the Court needing to become involved. That crosses the line from belief into action.

I have obtained some useful guidance from the Court of Appeal in Re R (A minor) (Residence : Religion) 1993 2 FLR 163 where it was held that it is no part of the Court’s role to comment on the tenets, doctrines or rules or any particular section of society provided that these were legally and socially acceptable, but that the impact of tenets and rules on a child’s future welfare was one of the circumstances to be taken into account.  I have endeavoured to approach the case in that manner.

I have to consider that the parents Article 9 right to freedom of religion, would be engaged. Whilst this is a qualified right, and the Court would be entitled to prescribe those rights if it were necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, the Court should be reluctant to curtail someone’s religious expression.

Speaking for myself, I would feel an enormous sense of disquiet in being the Judge who set a pebble rolling down a slippery slope; whilst I cannot think at present of other religions who might effectively be outlawed to parents I would not wish to set that particular precedent.

In relation to this issue, I have had to consider whether it is possible for safeguards to put in place so that the risks to children I have ruled cannot sensibly be ignored in snake-handling can be managed, such that the child can remain with the parent and that the family can have the freedom to observe their religious practices.

I have a proposal in mind, which I shall outline, and I propose to adjourn the hearing briefly to allow the parents to consider that proposal.

I would not rule that the snake-handling faith in all circumstances is dangerous to children, but I am prepared to decide that  the snake-handling faith, where children are participating in it, requires robust safeguards to be in place in order to prevent the likelihood of significant harm that otherwise would justify the intervention of the State in removing the children to alternative accommodation.

On that basis, I indicate that I would be minded, if the parents accept the safety proposals, to make Interim Supervision Orders, and for there to be monitoring of the adherence to these safety proposals between now and final hearing. If the proposals are agreed but the Court is later presented with evidence that they have not been adhered to, the Local Authority are likely to find the Court much more amenable to the application they have made today. They would be, as the saying has it, pushing at an open door.

If however, the parents are not able to bring themselves to accept the safety proposals, then my ruling will be that the risk of harm that the children are exposed to in the absence of safety mechanisms, is such that the removal of the children is a proportionate response to dealing with it, and would be minded to make the Interim Care Orders.

In the event that I make Interim Care Orders (and I would hope not to need to)  I would not be minded to invite the Local Authority to make arrangements pursuant to section 22 (5)  (giving due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion) , being satisfied that they are extraordinarily unlikely to find foster carers who are snake-handlers or to find foster carers who are willing to allow the children to handle snakes (even in a carefully prescribed environment or regime)

This also requires me to consider s 33 (6) of the Children Act 1989  “while a care order is in force with respect to a child, the local authority designated by the order shall not – (a) cause the child to be brought up in any religious persuasion other than that in which he would have been brought up if the order had not been made ‘

And it could be argued that any form of placement other than with snake-handlers would be in breach of this, even if the carers had no religious beliefs  (it is hoped that at final hearing, one would not need to cross-examine Richard Dawkins as to whether atheism or agnosticism constitutes a religious persuasion in the negative)

Thankfully, Justice Baker rides to my rescue in that regard in the case of Re A and D (Local Authority : Religious Upbringing ) 2010 1 FLR 615  involving a child who had been brought up by Muslim parents but the mother reverted to Catholicism after they separated (it being largely impossible to raise a single child as both a Muslim and a Catholic)  and the Court determining that section 33(6) is subject to the overriding duties on the Local Authority under section 22 (3) to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare when they are caring for him.

I am satisfied that it would not be reasonable to expect the Local Authority to provide the children with live exposure to snake-handling in their foster placement, though the children should be educated about their religious faith without practically carrying it out. That would be sufficient to ensure that they are not in breach with either s 22 (5) or s 33(6).  As I have said, I would hope that the issue of these children being cared for by the State does not arise.

My proposals, which I invite the parents to consider very carefully are as follows :-

  1. When handling snakes as part of their faith, the children shall not handle venomous snakes until such time as the Court can review this safety package
  2. The children shall be supervised by adults at all times
  3. In any event, the parents shall obtain anti-venom serum suitable for treatment of bites from the venomous snakes that they own
  4. The herpetologist having identified the symptoms of snake bite from the venomous snakes that the parents own, the parents shall undertake to administer that anti-venom serum immediately if they observe either of the children to be bitten by a venomous snake; or if they observe these symptoms in the children, and to seek medical attention for the children in either event
  5. This is by way of a placatory mechanism, and does not reflect adversely on the parents’ deep-seated conviction and belief that the children would be unharmed by snake bites. It is simply their recognition that the State has to manage that degree of risk that cannot safely be ignored by the Court that the children would not be unharmed by snake bites, regardless of their faith.
  6. The parents accept, as a long-term proposal, that notwithstanding their faith and conviction that the children would be unharmed by handling snakes and would not require any medical intervention, they will keep this safety net in place until such time as the children are adjudged to be competent to make informed decisions about the risks themselves [by which I would contemplate their later teenage years], or the Court rule that the safety provisions may be relaxed.

I would refer the parents to the decision of the High Court in Re W (A Minor) 25th November 1991, involving parents of a child who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and could not consent to a blood transfusion.

In that case, the order was phrased “Being Jehovah’s Witnesses, the parents do not and cannot approve the order hereinafter stated but recognise the power of the Court to direct the same and cannot therefore maintain any objection to this order”

I would ask the parents to go further in this case, but I think a preamble to the order that  “It is accepted by all parties that the parents are snake handlers and profoundly believe that they and their children would receive no harm or damage from handling snakes as part of their religious practice, but recognise the authority of the Court to make decisions about children who are deemed to be at risk of harm, and offer the following assurances to ensure that during the children’s minority, they are protected from harm that might arise from snake-handling, even if that risk is no higher than one which the Court cannot sensibly ignore”   would be a sensible resolution to the religious quandary that the parents find themselves in.

what can the past of section 31 tell us about the future and the Family Justice Review?

 

 

No plan ever survives contact with the enemy

 

 

                                      Helmuth von Moltke the elder

 

 

 

I’m fairly sure that I’ll be writing about the Family Justice Review and their proposals on many occasions, but I just wanted to set aside any ideas for a moment about the merits of the ideas within it, or how practical they are to implement, and just to take the main headline idea and imagine how it will be once exposed to lawyers in the field; using the history of the threshold criteria and the litigation around that as an example.

 

I’m sure everyone who has done any public children work knows that the test for whether the Court can consider making orders that give the State (in the form of Social Services/the Local Authority) powers about children,  is the ‘threshold criteria’ set out in section 31 of the Children Act 1989.  (It is worth noting that the threshold criteria being met doesn’t mean that an order will be made or what it would be, but rather that it allows to proceed to the next stage of considering what is in the child’s welfare – no threshold means the State has to go away)

 

Section 31 (2) says “A Court may only make a care order or a supervision order if it is satisfied  -

 

(a)  that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and

(b)  that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to –

(i)            the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or

(ii)          the child’s being beyond parental control  “

 

 

That appears to me to be a solid piece of drafting– positively wonderful by modern standards (where half of the relevant bits would be defined in Schedule 2 and another key element being with reference to other sections). It is self-contained – everything you need to know is set out in that one section, rather than cross-referring, and using everyday language and concepts.  [You can see, for example, that paraphrasing it as ‘the State have to prove that you’ve caused your child harm, or will probably cause them harm in the future, by not doing what the State expects of you as a parent’  distils the essence of it, without getting too far away from the concepts as stated]

 

Now, following contact with lawyers and thirty years of cases which have unpicked within it every single word other than ‘child’, the actual unspoken and unwritten, but legal meaning of the section is as follows, [original in bold, additions in italics]

 

 

A Court may only make a care order or a supervision order if it is satisfied [on the balance of probabilities, with the burden of proof falling upon the applicant Local Authority]   -

 

(a)  that the child concerned is suffering [at the time of the hearing of the application for the care or supervision order, or at the time when the local authority initiated the procedure for the protection of the child concerned provided those arrangements have been continuously in place until the time of the hearing – to cover the situation where a child is voluntarily accommodated before the application is made and would no longer be currently suffering significant harm at the time the application were made, it is possible to consider later acquired information as to that state of affairs at the relevant date but not evidence of later events unless these events can be used to show the state of affairs at the relevant date ] , or is likely to suffer [likely meaning having a real possibility, a possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored having regard to the nature and gravity of the feared harm in the particular case, the seriousness of the allegations or the consequences having no impact upon the standard of proof to be satisfied,  and the facts upon which that prediction of likelihood is based having been proven to the balance of probabilities to have actually occurred, it not being sufficient that those facts may have occurred or that there is a real possibility that they did, and establishing that one child did suffer significant harm does not automatically establish that another child of the same family is likely to suffer significant harm, note also that the Court is not limited to looking at the present and immediate future but may look at the long-term future], significant harm [the harm must be significant enough to justify the intervention of the State and disturb the autonomy of the parents to bring up their children by themselves in the way they choose. It must be significant enough to enable the court to make a care order or a supervision order if the welfare of the child demands it; society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent, it is not the province of the State to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting; the harm must be more than commonplace human failure or inadequacy, where considering whether a child’s health or development has been significantly harmed one has to compare with that which could be reasonably expected of a similar child; and

(b)  that the harm, or likelihood of harm [see everything above], is attributable to

  1.     the care given [which can go beyond physical care and includes emotional care] to the child, or likely  to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him [it is not necessary that there be culpability on the parents part who may be trying their hardest yet failing to reach the required standard of care and thereby causing significant harm, also this test can be met in a circumstances where one parent has caused significant harm and the other has not, or where a parent and a person other than a parent, such as a childminder, cannot be excluded from having perpetrated an injury to the child where the identify of the perpetrator cannot be established on the balance of probabilities even where there is only a possibility that the parents themselves were responsible for injuries that the child had sustained,  regard may also be had to whether the failure of a local authority to provide the necessary statutory support has contributed to this]; or
  2. the child’s being beyond parental control [this must have caused the significant harm or created the risk of such harm, there is no requirement to show some failure on the part of the parent in order to establish that a child is beyond parental control, and parental control is something which will no doubt vary with the age of the child]

 

 

and we have gone from an 87 word definition to nearly 700  words, nearly an eightfold increase; and from a definition of a vital concept which could be read (albeit with some throbbing about the temples) by an ordinary person  to one which is to all extents and purposes unintelligible.

 

 

The point is, that these were all ‘clarifications’ or glosses to the existing statute that were required, and which arose in the context of individual cases where those shades of meaning were vitally important.

 

I have particularly fond memories, having lived through it of the changes to “likely” where there was a period when one couldn’t tell from one month to the next whether a sexual abuse allegation was capable of meeting the threshold or not. Frustrating for the day to day job, but fascinating for the inner-law-geek.

 

This was largely through the H&R case which changed tack at various stages of the process until the House of Lords delivered a final decision in 1996.  During that lengthy process, the sands were shifting as to whether the law was going to import an additional test in accordance with David Hume’s philosophy that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof;  or in the gloss put on it by lawyers ‘that where the allegations are very serious, a higher standard of proof is required’, this eventually morphing into ‘for very serious allegations, the difference between the criminal standard of proof and the civil standard is, in truth,  largely illusory-  this last commonly asserted maxim, derived from some judicial remarks in firstly a sex offender order, and secondly an ASBO case took a second House of Lords case in Re B  2008 to finally resolve once and for all  that neither the seriousness of the allegation nor the seriousness of the consequences should make any difference to the standard of proof to be applied.

 

 

So, and here is the million-dollar question, how robust can a six month cap on the duration of care proceedings be, even if it is put into statute?  The fact that the FJR and the Government response both talk about there being a need for Judges to be able to make exceptions to the six month cap where the welfare of the child requires it, means that a  clause that says :-

 

Section 1   “The duration of care proceedings shall not, under any circumstances, exceed six months, the duration being calculated as being from the date that the proceedings are issued to the making of a final order”

 

cannot be what is being considered, and anything with more fluidity than that is just going to be litigated with vigour, to try to expand the definitions and categories and terminology that applies to the exceptions, and in the meantime, there will be a temptation to instead fudge the 6 month cap by saying that in the circumstances of this particular case, the child’s welfare requires additional time for the issues to be determined.

 

We are, after all, a group of professionals who spent from 1989 to 2008 arguing about what the word ‘likely’ meant, and aren’t necessarily done with it quite yet.

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