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

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

 

Re H 2014

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

At that hearing, D J Reed gave these directions

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Legal aid for section 51 applications – contact post adoption

Forgive me for this, because it is going to be dryer than eating a packet of Jacob’s Cream Crackers in the Gobi desert, but it is potentially important, and might save someone else an hour of slogging through law to find the answer.

 

“Can you, or your clients,  get legal aid to help you make an application for post adoption contact, when the section 51 provisions come into force?”

 

 

If you haven’t read the preceding blog, none of this s51 stuff will make any sense, so you might want to do that first.

 

There’s a bit tucked away in the Children and Families Act 2014, that specifies that there are some changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act  2012  (LASPO).

 

Why does that matter? Well, because LASPO is what decides whether a person can get legal aid to make their application 

 

[It also probably has the unique distinction of being a piece of legislation that every English lawyer can agree about hating. Usually, even if an Act comes in that is stupid and frustrating, say the “Hairdryers – Prohibition against making them out of Ice Act 2009”  you can find a couple of lawyers who made some money out of training on it, or suing someone for breaching the Act, or defending someone accused of breaching it.  This one, everyone hates. And you can’t even think – well, I’m diametrically opposed to everything that LASPO stands for, but I can still admire it as a beautifully crafted and mechanically sound piece of drafting. It isn’t that, either]

 

This is what s9 (12) of Children and Families Act 2014 says:-

 

 

(12) In Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of

Offenders Act 2012 (civil legal services)—

(a) in paragraph 12(9) (victims of domestic violence and family matters), in

the definition of “family enactment” after paragraph (o) insert—

“(p) section 51A of the Adoption and Children Act

2002 (post-adoption contact orders).”, and

(b) in paragraph 13(1) (protection of children and family matters) after

paragraph (f) insert—

“(g) orders under section 51A of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (post-adoption contact).”

 

[The Children and Families Act 2014 is no Mona Lisa of the drafting world, either, to be frank]

 

Which brings the potential that section 51 applications MIGHT be eligible for legal aid.

 

Under LASPO, there are two distinct categories

 

1)     Cases which are within scope, and will be funded if there is means and merits to the application, but are the SORT of cases that in principle that legal aid can be given for  (those are ones that are contained in Part 1 of Schedule 1 of LASPO, so you can see that there is POTENTIAL for s51 applications

 

2)     Cases that are not within scope, but MIGHT be funded if the Legal Aid agree that there are exceptional circumstances that justify it  (in practice, no chance)

 

 

You find that explicitly in LASPO, though written in oblique language

 

9 General cases

(1)Civil legal services are to be available to an individual under this Part if—

(a)they are civil legal services described in Part 1 of Schedule 1, and

(b)the Director has determined that the individual qualifies for the services in accordance with this Part (and has not withdrawn the determination).

 

10 Exceptional cases

(1)Civil legal services other than services described in Part 1 of Schedule 1 are to be available to an individual under this Part if subsection (2) or (4) is satisfied.

(2)This subsection is satisfied where the Director—

(a)has made an exceptional case determination in relation to the individual and the services, and

(b)has determined that the individual qualifies for the services in accordance with this Part,

(and has not withdrawn either determination).

(3)For the purposes of subsection (2), an exceptional case determination is a determination—

(a)that it is necessary to make the services available to the individual under this Part because failure to do so would be a breach of—

(i)the individual’s Convention rights (within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998), or

(ii)any rights of the individual to the provision of legal services that are enforceable EU rights, or

(b)that it is appropriate to do so, in the particular circumstances of the case, having regard to any risk that failure to do so would be such a breach.

 

 

[What section 10 means in practice is “we were obliged to say that this Act was compatible with the Human Rights Act, so we stuck in this exceptional provision for legal aid to be granted in cases where NOT granting it would be a breach of Human Rights, but actually dishing it out to real people, for real cases? I should cocoa”    *]

 

 

*I wish people said “I should cocoa” more often

 

 

Anyway, the addition of s51 applications to Part 1 Schedule 1 means that the applications MIGHT fall within scope for legal aid (and thus be applications which might get legal aid after a means and merit test is applied)

 

However, it is not as simple as that (sorry) because where s51 gets placed in Part 1 Schedule 1 of LASPO means that these applications are only in scope in narrow circumstances, and for all others you are stuck with exceptional (remember, when I say exceptional here, the statutory definition of whether that will actually occur is  “as likely to happen as a comet made of solid gold landing in your back garden and striking oil where it lands”      –    The Let’s Pretend Something is Available when it really isn’t Act  2014 section 1(1) )

 

 

 

So, in Part 1, Schedule 1 of LASPO  (as amended by Children and Families Act 2014),  applications under s51 come in two possible categories where the application can qualify for public funding

 

 

Paragraph 12

 

Civil legal services provided to an adult (“A”) in relation to a matter arising out of a family relationship between A and another individual (“B”) where—

(a)there has been, or is a risk of, domestic violence between A and B, and

(b)A was, or is at risk of being, the victim of that domestic violence.

 

 

So, if you can persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the reason you are applying for an order for post-adoption contact is that you are the victim of domestic violence or are at risk of domestic violence and that the application is in some way a remedy for that, you might get legal aid.

 

[Is it just me, or does that seem inherently unlikely? I mean, I have a creative brain and love thinking up crazy scenarios, but I’m struggling to come up with a set of circumstances that would fit that]

 

I suppose, racking my brain, that given that s51 allows for the Court to make an order that there shall be no contact, there MIGHT, just MIGHT be a conceivable circumstance in which the post-adoption contact order application might be to stop the perpetrator of domestic violence having contact and that would in some way alleviate the risk to the applicant. 

 

 [It is also possible, and perhaps more likely,  that this is referring to the adopters themselves as applicants for an order for NO contact to an individual, though the amount of adopters who would pass the means element of the Legal Aid test is microscopic, I suspect]

 

 

The other category is

 

Paragraph 13

 

Protection of children and family matters

13(1)Civil legal services provided to an adult (“A”) in relation to the following orders and procedures where the child who is or would be the subject of the order is at risk of abuse from an individual other than A

 

 

So the applicant would need to persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the purpose of the application for post-adoption contact is to protect the child from risk of abuse from a named individual  (that individual has to be someone other than the applicant)

 

If you are the biological mother, you MIGHT be able to persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the risk of abuse comes from the child’s father and not yourself, or vice versa.  But I’m struggling to see how you persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the right way to protect the child from the risk of abuse is that you have some post adoption contact.

 

I again think that this is probably aimed more at financially impoverished adopters who meet the means test for Legal Aid, and are saying that contact poses a risk of abuse to the child from the parents.

 

 

I’m afraid that all of that was very long, because it is complicated, but how it ends up, it seems to me, is that section 51 applications aren’t going to be backed by Legal Aid UNLESS the LAA agree that there are exceptional circumstances   [solid gold comet strikes oil – you are now so rich you don’t need Legal Aid]

 

You could argue that if Parliament genuinely intended section 51 applications to be made, and for deserving cases to result in section 51 orders, they could have placed such applications squarely in Part 1 Schedule 1 of LASPO without the bizarre qualifications.  The gatekeeping provision could have been that the Legal Aid Agency would have to determine whether the application had sufficient merits to justify the funding being awarded.

Unless and until either the English Courts or the ECHR give a decision saying that failure to provide funding for such an application is in breach of human rights, it looks as though any parent making such an application would be doing so as a litigant in person.  Good job the legislation is written in such plain English.

“The peril of Auntie Beryl”

As the 26 week time limit comes upon us (being introduced by Parliament, the President’s revised PLO guidance and behind the scenes pressure on Courts and Local Authorities via the “Stick of Statistics” TM   - not necessarily in that order), I have been musing about the elephant in the room, of what happens when late in the proceedings, the Court is presented with a suitable relative, Auntie Beryl.

 For what it is worth, I think delays in court proceedings are caused by one or more of these things :-

 (a)   Parties (including the LA) being late in filing documents and this having a domino effect

(b)   The expert report being late, and the whole carefully built timetable collapses round people’s ears

(c)   There is a material change in circumstances  (an unexpected dad emerges, or a relationship ends or begins, or someone you thought was going to be fine relapses into drug misuse, or falls pregnant, or has some sort of unpredictable illness or disease)

(d)   A relative comes forward at the eleventh hour and has to be assessed

(e)   The evidence is all ready, but the combination of accommodating social worker, Guardian, expert and more importantly Court time, means that you have to wait 3 months for a hearing

 I think the intention of the revised PLO  (which you can find here http://www.adcs.org.uk/news/revisedplo.html  )   is to try, as much as one can, to eliminate (a) and (b), and the hope is clearly that if you have much crisper and tighter and fewer Court hearings, there will be less backlog and more judicial availability for (e)    – though it would have been nice to see something spelling out exactly what the Court service is going to do about (e)  – save for having Listings offices run by Capita…

 (c )  is probably the stuff that ends up coming into the bracket of exceptional cases that get an extension to the 26 week limit, or at least where this is actively considered.

 So that leaves the elephant in the room, where it looks as though a child MIGHT be able to be placed with a family member, but doing that assessment will take the proceedings outside of the 26 weeks, because the family member has been put forward late on.

 I suspect, and am already seeing this, that the Courts will try to tackle this by very robust directions at early Court hearings, along these lines :-

“The parents shall, by no later than                       , identify in writing to the Local Authority (to be copied to all parties) the names and contact details of any person that they put forward as a potential permanent carer of the child. Any person put forward after that date will ONLY be considered with the leave of the Court and the parent would need to apply to Court for leave for such assessment evidence to be filed and would need to provide VERY cogent reasons as to why they were not put forward within the deadline period set out in this paragraph”

 

 That looks pretty strong, and will no doubt be backed up by the Court leaning forward and stressing to the parents just how important it is to focus their minds right NOW on who might be able to care for the children, if the assessments of them are not positive.

 But, human nature being what it is, at some point, lawyers and parents and Judges will be faced with an Auntie Beryl coming forward at week 18 or 19, when the LA have announced that they won’t be rehabilitating to parents and will be seeking an adoptive placement. Auntie Beryl, on the face of it, seems like she might be suitable – she doesn’t have any convictions, or history of children being removed, or any major health issues, she has a house in which the child could live, and so forth. So there is a positive viability assessment, but still a lot to be done – more than could be done in the time we have left.

 The six million dollar question, which the Court of Appeal will be grappling with pretty quickly after the revised PLO comes into force I suspect, is

 When a parent puts forward a family member late, and the assessment of that family member would push the case outside 26 weeks, what does the Court do?

 

The immediate “26 weeks or bust” approach suggests that the Court will say, “too late, you had your chance, you had the stern warning on day 12 to cough up the names, you can’t leave it until the assessments are in and the LA are talking about adoption”

 So, what happens if they do that?

 For these purposes, we will assume that the assessment of the parents is negative (since if it were positive, there would be no need to delay matters to assess Auntie Beryl) and that we are dealing with a child under six.

 The alternative care plan is therefore adoption. 

Can an application for a Placement Order be made when there is a viable carer who has not been assessed?

 

The Local Authority have a duty, pursuant to section 22(6) of the Children Act 1989

 s22 (6)  Subject to any regulations made by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this subsection, any local authority looking after a child shall make arrangements to enable him to live with—

 (a)  a person falling within subsection(4); or

 (b)  a relative, friend or other person connected with him,

unless that would not be reasonably practicable or consistent with his welfare.

 

The LA can’t, it seems to me, determine that placement with Auntie Beryl isn’t consistent with the child’s welfare if all they have is a positive viability assessment, they have to go on to do something more, EVEN IF the Court has made a Care Order.

 Before the adoption agency can decide that adoption is the plan for the child, and thus make the application for a Placement Order, they have this duty under the Adoption and Children Act 2002

 Section 1 Considerations applying to the exercise of powers

 (4)The court or adoption agency must have regard to the following matters (among others)—

 (f)the relationship which the child has with relatives, and with any other person in relation to whom the court or agency considers the relationship to be relevant, including—

(i)the likelihood of any such relationship continuing and the value to the child of its doing so,

(ii)the ability and willingness of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, to provide the child with a secure environment in which the child can develop, and otherwise to meet the child’s needs,

(iii)the wishes and feelings of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, regarding the child.

 

And again, how can the adoption agency decide that Auntie Beryl can’t provide the child with a secure environment if all they have is a positive viability assessment? They have to have a full assessment.

 Thus, even if the Court determined that they were not going to allow time for Auntie Beryl to be assessed, because she has come late into the proceedings, that won’t allow the LA to simply discount her and issue a Placement Order application.

 Unless they have done sufficient to satisfy themselves that Auntie Beryl is NOT suitable, they can’t commit to a plan of adoption and no such plan could be put before the Court. Neither can they commit to “Placement with Auntie Beryl” until they have sufficient information to be satisfied that this has good prospects of success.

 Therefore, the Court cannot have a hearing by week 26 at which a Placement Order could be made.

 

 If the Court can’t consider a Placement Order application, what can it do?

 

The Court would be left, I think, with these three options :-

1. Taking the information that is available about Auntie Beryl and taking a punt on her, by making a Residence Order (or an SGO – but bear in mind that the Court cannot make a Special Guardianship Order without a Special Guardianship report   – and the Court won’t have one of those between week 18 and 26    RE S (A CHILD) NO.2 (2007) [2007] EWCA Civ 90 )

 

2. Adjourning the proceedings in order for a Special Guardianship report to be filed and served, which will push the proceedings outside of 26 weeks.  

 

3. Determining that the Court is in a position to make a Care Order, with the care plan being that the Local Authority will assess Auntie Beryl and the child will remain in foster care pending that assessment.

 

[And of course option 4 of placement with parents, but we are dealing here with those cases where the Court has the material to determine the issue of rehabilitation to parents, since in those cases Auntie Beryl isn’t important]

 

My concern is that option 3, in a post PLO world (and more importantly a world where the Judges know that their performance on timescales is being gathered and measured), becomes superficially attractive. The case concludes, it concludes in time, the Care Order is made, and Auntie Beryl becomes the Local Authority’s problem.

 Of course, it doesn’t actually resolve the future for the child, or end the proceedings with the parents knowing what will happen, and it almost invariably will lead to satellite litigation   (either the assessment of Auntie Beryl is positive, whereupon the LA will want to shed the Care Order and get an SGO or residence order made, OR it is negative, in which case the LA will put the case before their Agency Decision Maker and in due course make an application for a Placement Order)

 The only advantage option 3 has over option 2 is determining the proceedings within a 26 week timetable. There might have to be a judgment that works hard to say that the no delay principle is more important than the no order principle  – but that isn’t the only problem.

 

Get your inchoate, you’ve pulled

 

Is a care plan which at heart is “either this child will be placed with a family member OR adopted, and we don’t yet know which”  actually a legitimate care plan? Is it in fact, an inchoate care plan?

 Inchoate care plans are bad, m’kay? Not good for the Court to hand over the keys to that sparkling vintage E-type Jag to the Local Authority without having a clear idea of where they intend to drive it.

It seems so to me, even on the new Children and Families Bill reworking of care plans as being  “don’t sweat the small stuff”    model

 Section 15 of the draft Children and Families Bill

 

(1) For section 31(3A) of the Children Act 1989 (no care order to be made until court has considered section 31A care plan) substitute—

“(3A) A court deciding whether to make a care order—

(a) is required to consider the permanence provisions of the section  31A plan for the child concerned, but

(b) is not required to consider the remainder of the section 31A  plan, subject to section 34(11).

(3B) For the purposes of subsection (3A), the permanence provisions of a section 31A plan are such of the plan’s provisions setting out the long- term plan for the upbringing of the child concerned as provide for any of the following—

(a) the child to live with any parent of the child’s or with any other  member of, or any friend of, the child’s family;

(b) adoption;

(c) long-term care not within paragraph (a) or (b).

 

And it does not seem to me that even with that more limited scrutiny, a care plan which doesn’t identify whether the plan for the child is to live with a family member or in an adoptive parent, is sufficiently clear.

 Let’s see what the law says about inchoate care plans (underlining mine) and from Re S and others 2002:-

 99. Despite all the inevitable uncertainties, when deciding whether to make a care order the court should normally have before it a care plan which is sufficiently firm and particularised for all concerned to have a reasonably clear picture of the likely way ahead for the child for the foreseeable future. The degree of firmness to be expected, as well as the amount of detail in the plan, will vary from case to case depending on how far the local authority can foresee what will be best for the child at that time. This is necessarily so. But making a care order is always a serious interference in the lives of the child and his parents. Although article 8 contains no explicit procedural requirements, the decision making process leading to a care order must be fair and such as to afford due respect to the interests safeguarded by article 8: seeTP and KM v United Kingdom [2001] 2 FLR 549, 569, paragraph 72. If the parents and the child’s guardian are to have a fair and adequate opportunity to make representations to the court on whether a care order should be made, the care plan must be appropriately specific.

    100. Cases vary so widely that it is impossible to be more precise about the test to be applied by a court when deciding whether to continue interim relief rather than proceed to make a care order. It would be foolish to attempt to be more precise. One further general point may be noted. When postponing a decision on whether to make a care order a court will need to have in mind the general statutory principle that any delay in determining issues relating to a child’s upbringing is likely to prejudice the child’s welfare: section 1(2) of the Children Act.

    101. In the Court of Appeal Thorpe LJ, at paragraph 29, expressed the view that in certain circumstances the judge at the trial should have a ‘wider discretion’ to make an interim care order: ‘where the care plan seems inchoate or where the passage of a relatively brief period seems bound to see the fulfilment of some event or process vital to planning and deciding the future’. In an appropriate case, a judge must be free to defer making a care order until he is satisfied that the way ahead ‘is no longer obscured by an uncertainty that is neither inevitable nor chronic’.

    102. As I see it, the analysis I have set out above adheres faithfully to the scheme of the Children Act and conforms to the procedural requirements of article 8 of the Convention. At the same time it affords trial judges the degree of flexibility Thorpe LJ is rightly concerned they should have. Whether this represents a small shift in emphasis from the existing case law may be a moot point. What is more important is that, in the words of Wall J in Re J, the court must always maintain a proper balance between the need to satisfy itself about the appropriateness of the care plan and the avoidance of ‘over-zealous investigation into matters which are properly within the administrative discretion of the local authority’. This balance is a matter for the good sense of the tribunal, assisted by the advocates appearing before it: see [1994] 1 FLR 253, 262.

 

 It seems very clear to me, that waiting for the assessment of Auntie Beryl removes that obscurity and uncertainty in the case, and that this uncertainty is NEITHER inevitable or chronic – it can be resolved by making a direction for the filing of the report.

So, the revised PLO doesn’t erode this, nor would the introduction of the Children and Families Bill as currently drafted – the Court still have a duty to look at the ‘placement’ aspect of care plans, and it appears very strongly that a care plan that is “either Auntie Beryl OR adoption” is inchoate.

 Well that’s fine, we can just overturn the decision about inchoate care plans, and say that it is fine to have “either or” care plans.  Just let’s not worry about inchoate care plans anymore, we’ll just airbrush the whole concept out. The slight stumbling block there is that the passages above are from the House of Lords, and thus it isn’t open to lower Courts to overturn it.

 Oh-kay, so we are just going to interpret Re S very widely, to mean that a Court can and should think about whether it is right to make a Care Order rather than an interim care order where the care plan is inchoate, BUT it is not a prohibition on making a Care Order where the plan is inchoate, they don’t go that far.

 And, you know, before Re S, the former President (Wall LJ) had made Care Orders in a case where he declared the care plans to be inchoate but still decided that making care orders was the right course of action RE R (MINORS) (CARE PROCEEDINGS: CARE PLAN) (1993) [1994] 2 FCR 136 

 

Although that predates Re S, it was specifically referred to by the House of Lords (though they call it Re J, it is the same case) and endorsed, so it is good law for the proposition that a Court is not BARRED from making a Care Order with an inchoate care plan.   [Or is it? The House of Lords seem to draw a slight distinction between inchoate care plans, and care plans where the future is not certain because there are things which can only be resolved after the care order is made]

 

This is what the House of Lords say about Re R/Re J

 

  97. Frequently the case is on the other side of this somewhat imprecise line. Frequently the uncertainties involved in a care plan will have to be worked out after a care order has been made and while the plan is being implemented. This was so in the case which is the locus classicus on this subject: In re J (Minors)(Care: Care Plan) [1994] 1 FLR 253. There the care plan envisaged placing the children in short-term foster placements for up to a year. Then a final decision would be made on whether to place the children permanently away from the mother. Rehabilitation was not ruled out if the mother showed herself amenable to treatment. Wall J said, at page 265:

‘there are cases (of which this is one) in which the action which requires to be taken in the interests of children necessarily involves steps into the unknown … provided the court is satisfied that the local authority is alert to the difficulties which may arise in the execution of the care plan, the function of the court is not to seek to oversee the plan but to entrust its execution to the local authority.’

In that case the uncertain outcome of the treatment was a matter to be worked out after a care order was made, not before.

 I suspect there may be dancing on the head of a pin to try to make ‘auntie beryl cases’ the Re J style of uncertainty, rather than the Re W style of uncertainty that is neither inevitable nor chronic.

It seems then, that it is POSSIBLE for a Court to make a Care Order, even where the care plan is “either Auntie Beryl OR adoption”  and even though it achieves nothing of value for the child  (since the uncertainty is there, the timing of the assessment and any applications will be no longer controlled by the Court, there will be the inevitable delay of reissuing and listing for the second wave of litigation  – whether that be for SGO or Placement Order application.

 But even more importantly, and from an article 6 point of view – how certain is the Court that the parents  (who would be represented and able to challenge the making of SGO or Placement Orders if the care proceedings continued, under their existing certificates) would get public funding in “stand-alone” applications for an SGO or a Placement Order?

 My reading of the Funding Code  (and I am not a “legal aid” lawyer) suggests that it might well not be a “non-means, non-merits” certificate for a parent faced with an application for Special Guardianship or Placement Order that is a “stand alone” application, rather than one taking place within ongoing care proceedings  -where the public funding, or “legal aid”  is covered by non-means non-merits certificates  – for the uninitiated, “non-means, non-merits” means that a person gets free legal representation in care proceedings by virtue of the sort of proceedings they are NOT based on what money they have (means) or the chances of them being successful (merits) 

 Again, underlining to assist with clarity, mine

 

20.28 Other Public Law Children Cases

1. Other public law children cases are defined in s.2.2 of the Funding Code Criteria. The definition of these proceedings excludes Special Children Act Proceedings and related proceedings. The fact that proceedings involve a local authority and concern the welfare of children will not, of itself justify the grant of Legal Representation. The Standard Criteria and General Funding Code (as varied by s.11 of the Code and including criterion 5.4.5) will apply. The proceedings include:

a) appeals (whether against interim or final orders) made in Special Children Act Proceedings;

b) representation for parties or potential parties to public law Children Act proceedings who do not come within the definition of Special Children Act proceedings in section 2.2 of the Funding Code – this includes a local authority application to extend a supervision order (which is made under Sch.3 of the Children Act 1989);

c)other proceedings under Pt IV or V of the Children Act 1989 (Care and Supervision and Protection of Children);

d) adoption proceedings (including applications for placement orders, unless in the particular circumstances they are related proceedings); and

e) proceedings under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court in relation to children.

 

(d) seems to me to cover stand alone Placement Order applications, and they would be a matter for the discretion of the Legal Aid Agency  (oh, also, they wouldn’t be a devolved powers application, where the lawyer can just say “yes” and get on with it, it would need to be a full-blown application and waiting for the Legal Aid Agency to say yes or no)

 

Special Guardianship orders as stand-alone would be classed now as private law proceedings, and I think you can guess how the parents funding on that would go

 20.36 A special guardianship order is a private law order and the principles in s.1 of the Children Act 1989 will apply as will the Funding Code criteria in 11.11. This includes the no order principle which will be taken into account when considering prospects of success. Regard will also be had to the report of the local authority prepared in accordance with s.14A of the Children Act 1989 when considering an application for funding. When considering an application for funding to oppose the making of a special guardianship order, the way in which the proposed respondent currently exercises their parental responsibility and how this will be affected by the making of an order will also be considered.

 

 To quickly sum up then :-

 (a ) Declining to extend the timetable to assess Auntie Beryl won’t let the Court go on to determine a Placement Order application

(b) The Local Authority would be legally obliged to assess Auntie Beryl before they could even ask their Agency Decision Maker to make a decision about adoption

(c)  Making a care order with a care plan of “Auntie Beryl OR adoption” is almost certainly inchoate

(d) It almost certainly opens the door to parents to challenge that decision, given what the House of Lords say about inchoate care plans and  specifically “If the parents and the child’s guardian are to have a fair and adequate opportunity to make representations to the court on whether a care order should be made, the care plan must be appropriately specific.”

 

(e) There seems to be a very foreseeable chance that if the Court make the Care Order, the parents may not get the public funding to be represented to subsequently challenge or test any application for SGO or Placement Order, funding that they would have had as of right if the Court had made Interim Care Orders and had the assessment of Auntie Beryl before considering those orders  

 (f) There must be scope for an article 6 claim that losing the ability to be legally represented to challenge whether your child might be adopted PURELY so that the Court could make a care order (on an inchoate care plan) just to satisfy the 26 week criteria is, you know, slightly unfair.

 (g)     Changing this so that it is workable only requires changes to  – a House of Lords decision,  two pieces of Primary legislation (maybe 3, if you just want to allow Courts to make SGOS in cases where they feel it is right without having a full blown SGO report), the private law funding code and the public law funding code. 

 So, job’s a good un.

 [If you are representing someone in a case where the Auntie Beryl issue crops up, “you’re welcome!”  I think the answer for the Court is to identify what issues it would need the LA to deal with in a report on the carer and to get this done as swiftly as is fair and reasonable]

 

One of these nights you’re gonna get caught, It’ll give you a pregnant pause for thought

 

 (Always nice to sneak a bit of Billy Bragg into the blog.  My favourite Billy Bragg line is, of course, from Sexuality  “I had an uncle who once played / for Red Star Belgrade”)

This is a discussion of the extraordinary case of A Local Authority v S & O [2011] EWHC 3764 (Fam)

 

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed102837

 

You know that something is peculiar when a High Court Judge begins with Even by the standards of the Family Court this is a strange tale.. 

 

And he is not wrong.

 

 

Mr and Mrs S were a Nigerian couple, living in England. They wanted to have a baby, and heard of a fertility clinic in Nigeria, Port Harcourt.  They paid a lot of money to this clinic, and the mother had treatment there. She returned to the UK and had tests and scans with her GP, which confirmed that she was not pregnant. She rang the Port Harcourt Clinic, who told her that this was not unusual with the process and that she should come over.  She visited Port Harcourt and was sedated and then presented with a baby.

 

Mr and Mrs S returned to the UK with the baby.  On visiting their GP, the GP considered that the care of the baby was very good, but having determined that Mrs S had not been pregnant, was deeply troubled by the story of the delivery and contacted the Local Authority.

 

A DNA test was done, showing that the child had no biological connection to either Mr or Mrs S.

 

Care proceedings were commenced, it being apparent to the Local Authority that this child had been removed from birth parents and brought into the country and was living with people who had no parental responsibility.

 

The issue that fell to be determined by the Court was whether Mr and Mrs S had been deceived and hoodwinked by the Port Harcourt clinic, or whether (as the LA asserted) it was inconceivable (pardon the accidental pun) that they had fallen for this and that they had either fully known or simply turned a blind eye to the obvious truth that this had never been their baby.

 

 

Here are the contentious findings sought

 

“(vii)  Mr. S knew or ought to have known that Mrs. S was not pregnant as asserted.

(viii)  Mr. S knew or ought to have known that O was not their biological child.

(ix)  On a balance of probabilities, Mrs. S and Mr. S were complicit in the removal of O from her biological mother at or shortly after the time of her birth.

(x)  At the relevant date, O’s care arrangements had been based upon a fundamental deception to which Mr. and Mrs. S were knowing parties.”

 

 

 

Now, this is the bit I find significant, and appalling. As the DNA test had shown that this was not their child, Mr and Mrs S had no PR, and received no public funding. So, they were fighting to defend themselves against these highly damaging allegations and also seeking to care for a child who they had formed an emotional connection though not a biological one.   Whilst my gut instinct view of the allegations was that the LA were probably right, it seems to me manifestly wrong that Mr and Mrs S had no legal representation to fight this case, and it is one of those bureaucratic idiocies which makes me slightly ashamed to be British.

 

As luck would have it, a pro bono barrister came forward, Mr Nicholas Paul, and he clearly did an admirable job for his clients.

 

 

I think it is worth setting out the history of the matter given by the mother, as it is important in trying to establish whether this was a nod and a wink  “Oh, I’ll pay for ‘fertility treatment’ but we both know I’m actually buying a baby”  or whether the clinic was actually seeking to deceive naïve and desperate couples.

 

“I have been married to Simon S since 2002.  On 8 January 2011 I gave birth to O at God’s Gift Clinic Maternity in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.  The treatment started in December 2009 under Dr. Chineri Emica Precious who gave me a number of injections and tablets and capsules.

4.  In April 2010 I started to feel the symptoms of being pregnant such as bloated stomach and gaining of weight.  I returned to Nigeria in April upon Dr. Chineri Emica Precious’s request for a medical check-up and she confirmed that I was pregnant. 

5.  I returned to the United Kingdom and visited my GP, Dr. H, who was not convinced that I was pregnant in May 2010.  I asked her to reduce my blood pressure medication as I was now pregnant, but she declined until there was confirmation that I was in fact pregnant.  At this stage, my symptoms of pregnancy persisted.  I had another appointment with Dr. H in September 2010 where a body examination was done and she referred me to Homerton Hospital for a scan.

6.  On 16 October 2010 I attended Homerton Hospital for a scan and it showed no pulse or heartbeat from the baby.  This came as a great shock to me, bearing in mind what I was told in Nigeria, that I was pregnant.  I kept up my line of communication with Dr. Chineri Emica Precious in Nigeria, who assured me that it was not unusual for the baby not to be seen on the scan.  Also, I was reassured by the testimonies of others who had had the treatment before (my sister and a friend).

7.  I returned to Nigeria in October 2010 to see Dr. Chineri Emica Precious who informed me, conversely to what I was told in England by my general practitioner and scan results, that I was pregnant and she continued to treat me with injections and one big medication.  I assumed that this continued treatment was in order to maintain the pregnancy.  I had no reason to doubt her sincerity or expertise in this regard.

8.  In November 2010, Pastor B at my church in London, like other people around me, including my husband, asked me if I was pregnant as he saw that my stomach was bloated as if I was pregnant and I had gained a substantial amount of weight.

23  She continued at paragraph 13:

“In December 2010 I went to Nigeria for the yearly crossing over programme at the headquarters of MFM and later went to Port Harcourt.

14.  Soon afterwards whilst in Nigeria, I noted that I was bleeding from my back passage.  I recalled that when I was carrying E my previous pregnancy, that the baby and I were bleeding.  However, in that prior instance, the bleeding was internal and this tragically led to E suffering her disability, as this was not detected on the scan.

15.  In January 2011 during what I perceived to be the birth of O, I recall a doctor inducing labour through intravenous drip and I experienced what was labour, a very traumatic delivery and a baby was presented to me covered in blood as would have been normal in a delivery room.  I felt all the natural manifestations of labour and delivery and my baby, O, was presented to me in the manner described.  Subsequently, when both the Metropolitan Police and the Applicant suggested a DNA test, I fully cooperated and was not in any way concerned as to the outcome as I knew I had given birth to O.  I had named her as was customary and obtained a birth certificate for her.”

24  Paragraph 19:

“Since 21 March when we were informed of the DNA results that suggested that we were not the biological parents of O and she was removed from us, my whole life has been shattered and it was as if we had suffered E’s bereavement all over again.  In short, I have been depressed and traumatised.  We have struggled to maintain any level of sanity as I am now convinced that I have been a victim of a very serious fraud by those who have exploited my vulnerability and infertility for their own financial gain.  I had paid a total of 1.3 million naira (just under £6,000) to this medical practitioner at this stage for the fertility treatment.  I enclose for the consideration of this court an article in The Vanguard, a Nigerian newspaper, that clearly sets out in detail the type of scam that I have been a victim of.

21.  I have cooperated fully with the police and the Applicant in the course of their investigations into this matter.  As a family, we coped fully with E’s serious disability and maintained our composure and dignity throughout.  The fact that we have been exploited in this way and the consequent investigation, albeit legitimate, has dragged on and has been devastating for us as a family.  I categorically deny that we have been involved in any child trafficking, except to say that this is a tragic case in which we have been a victim.”

25  That ends the quote from her statement. They obviously had in fact filed an earlier position statement, I think without any benefit of legal advice, on 11 April.  In that they said this.  It was a joint statement produced by both Mr. and Mrs. S.  I read from it because it is of crucial significance:

“O was not deliberately removed from her parents in Nigeria.  She was brought into this country as I was made to believe that I gave birth to her as a result of the fertility treatment that I embarked on from December 2009.  During the treatment I went through gradual stages of pregnancy and was made to believe in the delivery procedure, under which intravenous drip and drugs were used to induce labour, that I gave birth to O.  My experience of the treatment and the testimony of others who had previously undertook the treatment built a very strong belief in me that O was my biological daughter, until the DNA test results concluded otherwise.  The strong belief in the pregnancy and birth experience led to O’s birth registration.  All due processes were followed to obtain travel documents for her to be brought to the UK as our legitimate daughter without any doubt.

The above beliefs were also responsible for us being so adamant that O was our biological child before we had the DNA results.  We complied throughout with the investigation in good faith with every assurance that the DNA results would vindicate us.  However, it was the DNA results that caused us to see ourselves as victims of crime or error.”

26  They carry on in similar vein, concluding in this way at paragraph six:

“Regardless of the DNA results, we genuinely love O as we would love our own child.  S, our nephew, has lived with us for over 11 years and we care for him and love him as our own child.  We would be heartbroken if the court allowed O to be abandoned into the hands of the social services to navigate her way through the care system.”

 

 

If what she says is right, and the clinic sedated her and gave her medical treatment intended to make her believe that she was in labour, and then presented her with a baby, then her ‘crime’ is really to have believed the clinic rather than her GP who was saying that she wasn’t pregnant.  You may think that she was gullible, foolish, perhaps even stupid; but that’s a distance from deceit and complicity.

 

 

The story seems utterly fanciful, however. A fertility clinic that goes to all the trouble of trying to make women believe that they have given birth as a charade for what is actually a straightforward sale of a baby? However…

 

35  Could this be a true story or is it an elaborate piece of invention?  On the face of it, the court’s first obvious and natural reaction to this very far fetched tale is to be highly sceptical, but for one crucial piece of further evidence.  It is in the form of a lengthy cutting from a newspaper, the Port Harcourt Vanguard, for 11 September 2011.  This is also available in fact on the internet.  Under the headline, “Baby Factories: how pregnancies/deliveries are framed”: “Vanguard’s investigation reveals more baby factories.”  There  appears a two full page article carried out by an investigative journalist which describes in elaborate detail the process largely described to me by the mother.  I shall read two sections from the article.  I have already read the banner headlines about baby factories and it contains a number of black and white photographs.  These passages are to be found in the article:

“Our findings reveal that the unpublicised native maternity homes use illicit means to procure babies for childless couples on the payment of huge amounts of money ranging from N750,000 to N1 million, depending on the sex of the baby.  We gather that twins go for about N1.5 million or more.  The delivery date depends on the baby seekers.  While some opt for a nine month period, some go for a fast deal of one month or two, also depending on the availability of the baby from the sources.  Investigations reveal that for those who go for a nine month period a pregnancy would be framed and a delivery date given.  The delivery date can be postponed indiscriminately based on the availability of the baby.  Their patrons are desperate women ranging from high society women, clergymen and women who most times hide the arrangements from their husbands.  Most of these centres are found in …”

36  It mentions three towns including Port Harcourt.  Then under the heading, “How Pregnancy and Deliveries are Framed” it reads:

“Investigations reveal that these clinics administer certain substances on the patients that form a sort of tumour in the womb of the expectant mothers, making them believe they were pregnant.  Occasionally, a movement is caused in the belly making it look as if a baby is kicking.  The women are warned not to go to any hospital or undergo ultrasound or any sort of scan as they would lose the pregnancy or baby in the process.”

37  It goes on in similar vein and it contains this passage further on:

“Further investigations reveal that when it is time for delivery another substance is administered on the woman which gives a false impression of labour.  Part of the growing tumour will come out through the vagina and it is cut to discharge blood and make it look as if there was an actual delivery.  A baby is then sneaked in and made to cry.  The woman is also made to believe she has been delivered of a baby.  In Precious Ogbana’s case, she told the reporter that when she had one of the babies it was recorded to a friend’s cell phone but she deleted the video a few days later.  She regretted deleting the stuff, fearing her husband would not like it, especially if the video got to a third party, adding that she went into labour and gave birth to the kids.”

38  There are a number of case studies set out in the course of that lengthy, double page article.  Having seen that article, there cannot be any doubt at all that this far fetched story is rooted most solidly in reality and that this kind of practice is common in certain parts of Nigeria.  I have described the process as a baby exchange.

39 So there can be no dispute now that the mother was indeed a participant in this elaborate scam but, as I said at the outset, the central question remains and has to be answered: was she a knowing and willing participant? 

 

 

 

The Judge then had to grapple with that central question, and reached these conclusions

 

50 How do I analyse the evidence to arrive at a conclusion in this mysterious case?  The following factors have guided my decision:

51  The mother is an intelligent woman who teaches at an adult literary college in London.  She is a God fearing practising Christian, as is her husband, to whom lying is complete anathema.  This factor has to count for something even in these cynical days in which we live.

52  The mother gave evidence to me at great length over two days and I found her to be impressive and unshakeable in relation to all important matters.  In all important respects, her versions both in writing and to the police have remained consistent.  In short, incredible though it seemed to me at the outset, by the end I was driven to believe her account.

53  By the same token, I found the husband, a responsible man in regular employment, to be a patently honest witness.  I do not think for a moment he would have gone along with knowingly assisting his wife in participating in a deception on the court. 

54  Both the mother and her husband have cooperated fully and willingly with the inquiry once they realised the circumstances of the arrival of the child and once they realised they were suspicious and they realised that these suspicions needed to be allayed.  They willingly took part in the two DNA tests. 

55  When conducting a fact finding inquiry, particularly one as strange as this, often the most important guide is to be found in the presence or absence of so-called “smoking guns”.  That is to say, factors which point to or are either consistent with or entirely inconsistent with one or other side’s version of the possible truth.  In this case, there are factors which, in my judgment, point inexorably to the conclusion that the mother is most likely to be telling the truth.  What are these factors?

56  The fact that during 2010 she went on visiting her GP, firstly to find out if she was pregnant and then to check whether she was and whether there might have been a mistake.  I find it to be unthinkable that she would have returned to the GP if she had knowingly become involved in this scam and after she had received negative tests in England.  To do so could only sensitise the GP to the possibility of something untoward happening when the child was eventually produced to the doctor later.  But that is precisely what did happen because the GP of course had the chance to examine the mother in the months preceding the so-called birth.  In my judgment, the last thing this mother would have done is to go back to the clinic to persuade the doctor to arrange a scan when she could only have known it would reveal nothing.

57  By the same token, why was the mother going backwards and forwards to Nigeria and seeing the doctor if she knew the pregnancy was an invention?  She would merely have gone out there in December, around the time of her expected delivery, and collected the child.

58  By the same token, it is unthinkable as I find that the mother would have produced the baby to the GP within three days after returning to this country if she had known the circumstances of her removal from her natural mother and Nigeria were highly suspicious or possibly criminal.  She produced the child to her GP in all innocence, expecting the GP to be delighted to be proved wrong.  Miss Watson, having to overcome this telling point, says that she took a calculated risk.  That, if I may say so, is a gross understatement.  It would have been sheer lunacy.  As Mr. Paul points out, there were other much less risky ways of proceeding which would have hugely reduced the risk of detection which, were she part of the scam, she must at all times have feared.

59  Then there is the short video clip arranged by the mother.  If there had been anything untoward going on which the mother realised, the video would have been set up and stage managed in a way which supported her having given birth.  In fact, it does nothing of the kind.  It merely shows the mother writhing in agony and a child lying in the vicinity, still attached to a placenta.  There is in fact no sign or real attempt to link the baby with the mother.  There is no sign of blood on the mother or indeed any sign that she had just given birth.  It would have been the easiest thing in the world to have linked the baby more directly with the mother to make it look as if she had just delivered.  Similarly, if this had been an elaborate deception, the camera would have had pictures of her arriving at the clinic and of the mother holding the baby etc., immediately following the supposed birth.  The video evidence is certainly excellent evidence of the scam disclosed by the newspaper article, but in my judgment it points away from the mother’s involvement.

60  I also think it is highly likely that, if the mother knew what had happened but nevertheless wanted to take her new baby to the doctor, she would not have gone armed with the camera and the clip ready to show the doctor the pictures if challenged.  In fact, the mother did not do so.  She only produced the pictures (potentially her best evidence if she was being deceptive) in response to questioning from the police and not as her first trump card and without being asked, as one would have expected.

61 All the mother’s actions, in my judgment, both in this country and Nigeria, are consistent with her evidence that she had no idea she was involved in this strange scam, designed to put together unwanted children with desperate, childless parents.  Her complete desolation when confronted with the reality, as attested to by both the police and the Guardian, further in my judgment supports her credibility.

62 What are the findings that I make based on this assessment of the evidence?  Firstly, most of the primary facts are agreed and not challenged.  Secondly, the mother was in a highly suggestible state, especially following the death of her disabled daughter at the end of 2009.  She is also, as the Guardian points out, immersed in a Christian religious environment where miracles are not regarded as impossible.  Thirdly, I am totally satisfied on an examination of all the evidence that this mother had no idea she was taking part in bogus fertility treatment, much less an elaborate and well tried system for selling unwanted babies to desperate parents in exchange for very substantial sums of money.  Fourth, both she and her husband were hoodwinked and are innocent victims so far as their involvement in these matters is concerned.  They neither knowingly participated in the wrongful removal of the child from her natural mother nor in the wrongful importation of her into this country. 

63 The highest it can be put, as I find it, is that the mother unwittingly took part in an unorthodox adoption process surrounded by an elaborate piece of play acting. 

64 Fifth, and for the avoidance of doubt, I find nothing concerning so far about the mother’s mental health any more than the general practitioner does or did.  It is perfectly plain the mother now fully appreciates what was going on and what she has been involved in.

65 Sixthly, on the face of it, the mother from what I know seems a good and experienced mother who has brought up her nephew impeccably and looked after her very disabled child over a very long period until her death. 

 

 

The Judge then invited the Local Authority to reconsider their view of the case and specifically whether Mr and Mrs S could be considered as carers. They declined to do so and an Independent Social Work assessment was therefore commissioned.

 

The mainstream media seem, to me, to have reported this case as being that Mr and Mrs S got the child back, and not that they had won the right to an independent assessment of whether they should.

 

A fascinating case, and one that I hope will be unique, although as our world gets smaller, the chances of unscrupulous practices playing a part in UK care proceedings must increase.

Respect my prior authoriteh !

 

“I guess one person can make a difference… but most of the time, they probably shouldn’t”   – Marge Simpson

 

I would be very interested to know if this is a local problem, or more widespread, but I’ve had a spate over the last five months (getting steadily worse) of cases being delayed and my email being clogged full of problems about Prior Authority.  This tension seems to have arisen because the LSC appear to intepret a Court order that says “The costs of this expert be shared in equal one quarter shares between the Local Authority and the public funding certificates of the mother, father and Child” to actually mean “The costs be split one quarter to the LA, who have to pay up and shut up, whatever we feel like we want to pay, and the rest out of the solicitors profit costs – providing of course that we think the assessment should actually happen at all”  and “the report to be filed and served by 1st April 2012″  to mean “The expert report will be filed at some indeterminate time in the future, after we’ve processed prior authorities, granted one of them, rejected one of them, and refused one, then reconsidered on appeal”

 

 

If that’s sounding familiar, I have a suggested order, and a generic skeleton below, which I have been using in a concerted effort to educate the LSC that in Court proceedings, it is the Court who decide what reports take place, and who pays for them. Hint – the clue is in the wording of the initial order, and the omission of the words “Whatever we feel like we want to pay and the rest out of the solicitors profit costs”

 

Please let me know of problems or solutions in your area. It will all be helpful should the LSC decide to challenge the Court’s jurisdiction on costs.

 

Order :-

The Court orders that the costs of the assessment be met in equal one quarter shares between the Local Authority and the public funding certificates of the mother, father and Child/ren, it being a reasonable and proportionate disbursement for the purposes of public funding, and the Court having determined that the report is necessary for the resolution of the case.  In the event that the Legal Services Commission, who adminster the public funding certificates and payments made, seek to vary or set aside this order, such application should be made on notice to the parties, no later than                (2 weeks time).  If no such application has been made by that date, this order shall stand. The publicly funded parties shall serve both the sealed order, and a typed version of this order (to avoid delay in waiting for the sealed order) upon the branch of the LSC dealing with their certificate, forthwith.

 

Skeleton

Case No: 

IN THE                                  COURT

 

IN THE MATTER OF

 

AND IN THE MATTER OF THE CHILDREN ACT 1989

 

B E T W E E N:

Applicant

-and-

 

1st Respondent

-and-

 

 

2nd Respondent

-and-

 

 

(by his/her/their Guardian)

3rd Respondent

 

_____________________________

Skeleton argument

Prepared by the Local Authority

______________________________

 

 

Brief background

 

 

Proceedings in relation to                                            were commenced on                          .  [Information re dates of birth of the children, who the parents are, where the children are living and under what orders]

 

The concerns in the case relate to                                           as set out in the threshold document [page reference].

 

 

 

 

On [date] , the Court made the following direction relating to the instruction of an expert:-

 

 

 

 

Certain of the publicly funded parties made an application to the Legal Services Commission (hereafter LSC) for “Prior Authority”  – that is, agreement in advance of receipt of the invoice from the expert that the LSC would honour that payment.

 

Obtaining “Prior Authority” from the LSC is not a required element of the solicitors firms contract with the LSC, but many firms, locally and nationally, take the cautious and not unreasonable view that they would wish to ensure that the LSC will pay any costs incurred, as if they do not, the firm themselves are left paying any shortfall, thus taking a financial loss on dealing with the case.

 

The Local Authority would emphasise that they have sympathy and understanding for the solicitors firms involved, who have to operate in a financial climate where making up the shortfall between what an expert charges and what the LSC pays towards that expert fees can mean a Mr Micawber-esque outcome :- “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

 

 

The “Prior Authority” mechanism, whereby the solicitors firms seek reassurance from the LSC that their allotted share of the expert fees will be recouped in full, in advance of the expert incurring any fees (by commencing the work which has been directed), is sadly not flexible, fluid or swift enough for such results to be known in good time for the expert to undertake the work and hit the deadlines imposed by the Court. In many cases, the process is taking a period of months, rather than weeks, leading to significant delays in the expert commencing the work, and hence the report being available when directed. This in turn, leads to delays in the Court being able to resolve decisions for children.

 

 

 

The Local Authority stance is that the Court have ordered, legitimately and lawfully, that an expert report be commissioned, and ordered, legitimately and lawfully that the costs of that report be apportioned in a certain way. If the LSC now resist that legitimate and lawful order, they should seek to apply to vary or discharge it.

 

It is suggested that to clarify this position in future, it should be made explicit on the face of the order that if the LSC seek to vary or discharge the order as to the apportionment of costs, they do so within 14 days of the order being made, and that the publicly funded parties shall file and serve the order (or a typed note thereof) upon the branch of the LSC dealing with their particular certificate.

 

This then avoids the need for any application for Prior Authority, as the Court will have ordered how the costs are to be paid, and the LSC will have their opportunity to challenge that within timescales which are more suitable for the child, and the administration of justice.

 

 

 

 

Notwithstanding the legitimate desire of the LSC to manage their budget and to drive down the costs of expert assessment, the Local Authority submit that where this causes delay for the child, the system has not worked properly.

 

 

 

The law

 

 

Section 38(6) of the Children Act 1989 gives the Court the power to order that assessments be conducted within care proceedings.

 

That this power extended to directing how the assessments were to be paid for derives from a number of authorities, notably

 

CALDERDALE METROPOLITAN BOROUGH COUNCIL V (1) S (2) LEGAL SERVICES COMMISSION (2004)

 

[2004] EWHC 2529 (Fam)

 

In which the High Court determined that the Court had jurisdiction to order that the costs of obtaining an assessment be divided in whatever way it saw fit, including making provision  (as in this case) that the Local Authority pay one quarter, and each of the three publicly funded parties pay their own one quarter share through their public funding certificate.

 

It will be noted that the LSC played an active role within that case.

 

The principles in Calderdale were revisited in

 

LAMBETH LBC v S (2005)

 

[2005] EWHC 776 (Fam)

Fam Div (Ryder J) 03/05/2005

 

Where the High Court determined that funding of section 38(6) assessments was not outside the remit of the LSC, and importantly that the Commissions own guidance on funding was not binding on the Court.

 

 

Some extracts from that judgment which are pertinent to the issue here (and given that it was made nearly seven years ago, prescient)  :-

 

Paragraph 43 : – “It is equally correct that the Community Legal Service Fund has fixed and limited resources but so do local authorities… the services they both provide are inextricably linked to the obligation on the Court to ensure within the Court’s process the exploration rather than the exclusion of expert assessment and opinion that might negate the State’s case for the permanent removal of a child from his parents

 

Paragraph 62 : –  “ There is already a healthy delegation of the Commission’s powers and duties to the parties legal advisors. That practice of delegation was very properly exercised on the facts of this case and as a matter of practice around the country great care is taken by publicly funded practitioners to abide by their duties. A paper review of a case by the Commission is in any event a poor substitute for the Court’s overall impression gained by its continuous case management”

 

Paragraph 63 “It is a matter for them (the LSC) to put in place guidance to deal with exceptional expense provided that any prior authority or notification systems do not cause delay”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Court do have the power, under Rule 25.4 (4) of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 , set out below, to limit the amount of an experts fee and the expenses that may be recovered from any other party.  There is nothing within that power to circumscribe HOW the Court may limit the amount, and certainly nothing to indicate that they are bound by the LSC’s own internal policy or guidance.

 

Court’s power to restrict expert evidence

25.4.—(1) No party may call an expert or put in evidence an expert’s report without the court’s permission.

(2) When parties apply for permission they must identify—

(a) the field in which the expert evidence is required; and

(b) where practicable, the name of the proposed expert.

(3) If permission is granted it will be in relation only to the expert named or the field identified under paragraph(2).

(4) The court may limit the amount of a party’s expert’s fees and expenses that may be recovered from any other party

 

 

The Court must consider, in any application to vary or discharge the original order :-

 

Section 1 (1) of the Children Act 1989  “when a Court determines any question with respect to (a) the upbringing of the child; the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.

 

And section (1) (2) of the Children Act 1989 “in any proceedings in which any question with respect to the upbringing of a child arises, the court shall have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining the question is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child”

 

The paramount consideration is the child’s welfare, and that delay is likely to be prejudicial to that welfare; rather than the financial aspects (important as they legitimately are to both the LSC and the firms involved)

 

 

It is submitted as a result of all that has preceded,  that :-

 

(a)    the Court has power to direct that an assessment take place (pace s38(6) of the Children Act 1989)

(b)   the Court has power to direct that the costs of the assessment be apportioned in such way as they see fit, including directing that the parties public funding certificates bear all or some of the costs  (pace Calderdale)

(c)    The LSC own internal policy on funding, and the limits they will pay in relation to experts is not binding on the Court (pace Lambeth)

(d)   The Court does have the power to set a cost limitation when instructing an expert, and also when considering any application to vary the original order.  (pace rule 25.4 (4) of the Family Procedure Rules 2010)

(e)    If the consequences of setting a cost limit and varying the existing order, mean that a fresh assessment be commissioned, or significant delay incurred, the Court cannot make that variation without considering the provisions of section 1 (1) and section 1 (2) of the Children Act 1989

 

And that

 

(f)    the interests of the child would be better served by the report which is so close to completion being completed and filed and served, as originally intended, and for the existing order to remain in place, with no cost cap being added.

 

 

The Local Authority would accept that in some cases where the LSC actively seek to become involved and make representations, that the balance might well fall another way, and that the LSC’s perfectly legitimate motivation in controlling costs and curbing what had been excesses might justify the Court setting a cap pursuant to rule 25.4 (4) of the FPR.

 

In this case, however, it is not. Decisions here need to be made about this child/these children, and what the appropriate arrangements for his/her/their family life should be.

 

In general, the Local Authority would suggest that where Prior Authority is  refused, then there is a need for the case to be urgently restored for directions, to consider whether the original direction needs to be varied, and the impact on the timetable generally.  The Local Authority would remark that a great deal of their time is currently spent on wrangling with decisions in relation to Prior Authority and whether expert assessments which have been directed by the Court can take place, and many of these disputes have led to delay for the children concerned.

 

 

 

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