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MN (adult) 2015 – Court of Appeal pronouncements

Re MN (an adult) 2015 is a Court of Protection case, heard in the Court of Appeal, which spends nearly half of its length talking about care proceedings, housing and practice directions.

It is very very dense, and in all conscience, I couldn’t ask you to read this unless you are a lawyer or are particularly fascinated by Court of Protection work.  (There’s a brief bit in there of relevance to family lawyers – about whether Courts have the final say on care plans. If you’re pushed for time – despite Neath Port Talbot, they don’t)

Lots of big stuff in there though, including important bit for children cases.  There’s care plans, court power to make Local Authority change their plans, whether declarations are valid, costs and timescales in Court of Protection cases and our old friend bundle sizes.

If you are a lawyer working in the Court of Protection, brace yourself for a huge pile of standardised orders, case summaries, and practice directions, all of which will be carefully and thoughtfully designed to make every aspect of your working life more awkward and time consuming than it was before.  Flaubert once said that writing his novels was like having ones flesh torn off with red hot pincers, but he never had to complete a standardised Case Management Order. He would have considerably softened his view of how hard it was to write his novels, if he had this broader experience of life’s miseries.

If you see an announcement of the Court of Protection Outline being launched, quit your job, and take up gainful employment as someone who tests the sharpness of porcupine quills by bungee jumping onto them face first – you will be much happier in the long run.

[Editor note – somewhat over-selling that, Suesspicious Minds? Perhaps a smidge. ]

The actual point of the appeal is an important one,  and in deciding it, the Court of Appeal say some useful things about care cases and specifically care plans.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/411.html

Let’s deal with the care plan bit first (sorry Court of Protection folks, but actually explaining this will help explain what’s going on later on in the judgment)

 

Historically this has been the deal – the LA submit their care plan (what will they do if the Court grant their order?) and the Court decide whether to grant the order. We then got into something of a tangle in cases where the Court wanted to grant the order, but not on the plan put before them. There have been various stages of that arm-wrestling, but where we got up to recently was Re W (or the Neath Port Talbot case) in which the Court of Appeal (principally Ryder LJ) tried to put the power in the hands of the Court.  [I personally think that flies in the face of Supreme Court authority, but ho-hum]

The President here clarifies the law, and takes a step backwards from the more bullish aspects of the Neath Port Talbot judgment. Underlining mine for emphasis.

  1. Finally, I need to consider the position where the court – that is, in relation to a child the subject of care proceedings, the family court, or, in relation to an adult the subject of personal welfare proceedings, the Court of Protection – is being asked to approve the care plan put forward by the local or other public authority which has brought the proceedings. I start with care proceedings under Part IV of the 1989 Act.
  2. It is the duty of any court hearing an application for a care order carefully to scrutinise the local authority’s care plan and to satisfy itself that the care plan is in the child’s interests. If the court is not satisfied that the care plan is in the best interests of the child, it may refuse to make a care order: see Re T (A Minor) (Care Order: Conditions) [1994] 2 FLR 423. It is important, however, to appreciate the limit of the court’s powers: the only power of the court is either to approve or refuse to approve the care plan put forward by the local authority. The court cannot dictate to the local authority what the care plan is to say. Nor, for reasons already explained, does the High Court have any greater power when exercising its inherent jurisdiction. Thus the court, if it seeks to alter the local authority’s care plan, must achieve its objective by persuasion rather than by compulsion.
  3. That said, the court is not obliged to retreat at the first rebuff. It can invite the local authority to reconsider its care plan and, if need be, more than once: see Re X; Barnet London Borough Council v Y and X [2006] 2 FLR 998. How far the court can properly go down this road is a matter of some delicacy and difficulty. There are no fixed and immutable rules. It is impossible to define in the abstract or even to identify with any precision in the particular case the point to which the court can properly press matters but beyond which it cannot properly go. The issue is always one for fine judgment, reflecting sensitivity, realism and an appropriate degree of judicial understanding of what can and cannot sensibly be expected of the local authority.
  4. In an appropriate case the court can and must (see In re B-S (Children) (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, [2014] 1 WLR 563, para 29):

    “be rigorous in exploring and probing local authority thinking in cases where there is any reason to suspect that resource issues may be affecting the local authority’s thinking.”

    Rigorous probing, searching questions and persuasion are permissible; pressure is not.

  5. I should add that the court has the power to direct the local authority to file evidence or to prepare and file a further plan, including, if the court directs, a description of the services that are available and practicable for each placement option being considered by the court. The local authority is obliged to do so even though the plan’s contents may not or do not reflect its formal position, for it is not for the local authority (or indeed any other party) to decide whether it is going to restrict or limit the evidence that it presents: see Re W (Care Proceedings: Functions of Court and Local Authority) [2013] EWCA Civ 1227, [2014] 2 FLR 431. As Ryder LJ said (para 79):

    “It is part of the case management process that a judge may require a local authority to give evidence about what services would be provided to support the strategy set out in its care plan … That may include evidence about more than one different possible resolution so the court might know the benefits and detriments of each option and what the local authority would or would not do. That may also include requiring the local authority to set out a care plan to meet a particular formulation or assessment of risk, even if the local authority does not agree with that risk.”

Where Ryder LJ was suggesting that at this point, the Court can mutter darkly about judicial review and invite a party to make such an application  (in effect compelling the Local Authority to either give in or incur horrendous costs in judicial review proceedings with no prospect of recovering those costs from the other side, who will be ‘men of straw’), the President considers that after those attempts at persuasion have failed, the Court has to choose the lesser of two evils.

  1. Despite its best efforts, the court may, nonetheless, find itself faced with a situation where it has to choose the lesser of two evils. As Balcombe LJ said in Re S and D (Children: Powers of Court) [1995] 2 FLR 456, 464, the judge may, despite all his endeavours, be faced with a dilemma:

    “if he makes a care order, the local authority may implement a care plan which he or she may take the view is not in the child or children’s best interests. On the other hand, if he makes no order, he may be leaving the child in the care of an irresponsible, and indeed wholly inappropriate parent.”

    Balcombe LJ continued:

    “It seems to me that, regrettable though it may seem, the only course he may take is to choose what he considers to be the lesser of two evils. If he has no other route open to him … then that is the unfortunate position he has to face.”

  2. In practice courts are not very often faced with this dilemma. Wilson J, as he then was, recognised in Re C (Adoption: Religious Observance) [2002] 1 FLR 1119, para 51, that “a damaging impasse can develop between a court which declines to approve their care plan and the authority which decline to amend it.” But, as he went on to observe:

    “The impasse is more theoretical than real: the last reported example is Re S and D (Children: Powers of Court) [1995] 2 FLR 456. For good reason, there are often, as in this case, polarised views about the optimum solution for the child: in the end, however, assuming that they feel that the judicial processing of them has worked adequately, the parties will be likely to accept the court’s determination and, in particular, the local authority will be likely to amend their proposals for the child so as to accord with it … In the normal case let there be – in the natural forum of the family court – argument, decision and, sometimes no doubt with hesitation, acceptance: in other words, between all of us a partnership, for the sake of the child.”

 

It would remain an unwise Local Authority who continued to disagree with judicial persuasion at that point, but if they do, the Court simply has to choose.  [It is worth noting that the issue that Ryder LJ went to war on – the ability to force a Local Authority to have a care order with a plan of the child being at home, is exactly the situation which is wreaking havoc in Re D – since if it all goes wrong, the parents get no legal aid to argue the case and there’s no easy application to be made to fix things]

 

Moving on, (come back Court of Protection people) , the Court of Protection say that the same provisions apply. The Court can try to persuade a Local Authority to alter their plan, but they can’t compel them to.

In my judgment exactly the same principles as apply to care cases involving children apply also to personal welfare cases involving incapacitated adults, whether the case is proceeding in the Family Division under the inherent jurisdiction or, as here, in the Court of Protection under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. The fact that a care plan is now part of the statutory process in relation to care cases involving children, whereas there is no corresponding statutory requirement for a care plan in an adult personal welfare case is neither here nor there. Care plans are a routine part of the process in adult cases.

 

That’s important, because the fundamental issue in MN was that MN’s family disagreed with the plan that the Local Authority had for him, and wanted the Court to decide that this plan was not in his best interests.

  1. MN, born in 1993, is a young man who suffers from profound disabilities and lacks capacity to make relevant decisions for himself. When MN was 8 years old he was made the subject of a care order on the application of the local authority, ACC. Shortly before his 18th birthday the court approved MN’s move from his residential children’s placement to an adult residential placement, RCH, where he continues to live. The clinical commissioning group, ACCG, took over responsibility from ACC for the funding of MN’s placement at RCH when he turned 18. The present proceedings were brought by ACC and commenced on 25 August 2011. MN’s parents, Mr N and Mrs N, accept, reluctantly, that MN should live at RCH, where they have regular contact with him, but their aspiration remains that he should return to live with them at home.
  2. By the time the matter came on for hearing before Eleanor King J, the issues had narrowed to disputes (i) as to whether Mrs N should be permitted to assist in MN’s intimate care when visiting him at RCH and (ii) as to whether contact should also take place at Mr and Mrs N’s home. As to (i), RCH was not willing for this to be done. As to (ii), ACCG was not willing to provide the necessary funding for the additional carers who would be needed if MN was to have home contact.

You can see from the lead-in that the Court of Appeal weren’t terribly taken with the idea that by deciding that X plan wasn’t in MN’s best interests, the Local Authority could be compelled to redesign the plan for MN.  The Court has to choose from the options which are realistically before it – they have to choose from what’s on the menu, rather than demanding that the chef cook something more to their liking.

 

If the family really think that the LA are unreasonable, then the remedy is judicial review, not getting the Court of Protection to twist the Local Authority’s arm (or make declarations whose value is merely to lay the foundations for a good judicial review case)

 

  1. In my judgment the judge was right in all respects and essentially for the reasons she gave.
  2. The function of the Court of Protection is to take, on behalf of adults who lack capacity, the decisions which, if they had capacity, they would take themselves. The Court of Protection has no more power, just because it is acting on behalf of an adult who lacks capacity, to obtain resources or facilities from a third party, whether a private individual or a public authority, than the adult if he had capacity would be able to obtain himself. The A v Liverpool principle applies as much to the Court of Protection as it applies to the family court or the Family Division. The analyses in A v A Health Authority and in Holmes-Moorhouse likewise apply as much in the Court of Protection as in the family court or the Family Division. The Court of Protection is thus confined to choosing between available options, including those which there is good reason to believe will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future.
  3. The Court of Protection, like the family court and the Family Division, can explore the care plan being put forward by a public authority and, where appropriate, require the authority to go away and think again. Rigorous probing, searching questions and persuasion are permissible; pressure is not. And in the final analysis the Court of Protection cannot compel a public authority to agree to a care plan which the authority is unwilling to implement. I agree with the point Eleanor King J made in her judgment (para 57):

    “In my judgment, such discussions and judicial encouragement for flexibility and negotiation in respect of a care package are actively to be encouraged. Such negotiations are however a far cry from the court embarking on a ‘best interests’ trial with a view to determining whether or not an option which has been said by care provider (in the exercise of their statutory duties) not to be available, is nevertheless in the patient’s best interest.”

  4. Back of the specific authorities to which I have referred there are, in my judgment, four reasons why the Court of Protection should not embark upon the kind of process for which Ms Bretherton and Ms Weereratne contend. First, it is not a proper function of the Court of Protection (nor, indeed, of the family court or the Family Division in analogous situations), to embark upon a factual inquiry into some abstract issue the answer to which cannot affect the outcome of the proceedings before it. Secondly, it is not a proper function of the Court of Protection (nor of the family court or the Family Division) to embark upon a factual inquiry designed to create a platform or springboard for possible future proceedings in the Administrative Court. Thirdly, such an exercise runs the risk of confusing the very different perspectives and principles which govern the exercise by the Court of Protection of its functions and those which govern the exercise by the public authority of its functions – and, in consequence, the very different issues which arise for determination in the Court of Protection in contrast to those which arise for determination in the Administrative Court. Fourthly, such an exercise runs the risk of exposing the public authority to impermissible pressure. Eleanor King J rightly identified (para 59) the need to:

    avoid a situation arising where the already vastly overstretched Court of Protection would be routinely asked to make hypothetical decisions in relation to ‘best interests’, with the consequence that CCGs are driven to fund such packages or be faced with the threat of expensive and lengthy judicial review proceedings.”

    Precisely so.

  5. The present case, it might be thought, illustrates the point to perfection. The proposal was that the judge should spend three days, poring over more than 2,000 pages of evidence, to come to a ‘best interests’ interest on an abstract question, and all for what?

 

That last point segueways into all of the Practice pronouncements.

Let’s start with bundles.

  1. We were told that the trial bundle in the present case ran to five lever arch files and also, which did not surprise me, that this was not atypical in this kind of case. I confess, however, to being surprised – and that is a pretty anaemic word – when told that the bundle contained no fewer than 2,029 pages of evidence. That, I have to say, is an indictment of the culture which has been allowed to develop in the Court of Protection. It must stop. In the family court, the relevant Practice Direction in relation to bundles provides that the bundle must not exceed one lever arch containing no more than 350 pages unless a larger bundle has been specifically authorised by a judge: FPR 2010 PD27A, para 5.1. It might be thought that the corresponding Practice Direction in the Court of Protection, PD13B, should be brought into line. In the meantime, proper compliance with PD13B is essential and should be rigorously enforced by Court of Protection judges. In particular, proper compliance with PD13B, paras 4.2, 4.3, 4.6 and 4.7, which judges must insist upon, will go a very long way to meeting the concerns identified by Charles J in A Local Authority v PB and P [2011] EWHC 502 (COP), [2011] COPLR Con Vol 166.
  2. In the Court of Protection, the use of expert evidence is restricted by Rule 121 to “that which is reasonably required to resolve the proceedings.” One of the most salutary and effective of the recent reforms to family justice has been the imposition of a significantly more demanding test by section 13(6) of the Children and Families Act 2014 – “necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings justly.” Here, as I have already noted, the bundle contained an astonishing 1,289 pages of expert evidence. The profligate expenditure of public resources on litigation conducted in such an unrestrainedly luxurious manner is something that can no longer be tolerated. As I recently observed in relation to the family court (Re L (A Child) [2015] EWFC 15, para 38):

    “I end with yet another plea for restraint in the expenditure of public funds. Public funds, whether those under the control of the LAA or those under the control of other public bodies, are limited, and likely in future to reduce rather than increase. It is essential that such public funds as are available for funding litigation in the Family Court and the Family Division are carefully husbanded and properly applied. It is no good complaining that public funds are available only for X and not for Y if money available for X is being squandered. Money should be spent only on what is “necessary” to enable the court to deal with the proceedings “justly”. If a task is not “necessary” – if it is unnecessary – why should litigants or their professional advisers expect public money to be made available? They cannot and they should not. Proper compliance with PD27A and, in particular, strict adherence to the bundle page limit, is an essential tool in the struggle to control the costs of family litigation.”

    Consideration requires to be given to the early amendment of Rule 121 to bring it into line with section 13(6).

 

Get ready for 350 page bundles and rigorous scrutiny over expert evidence. If the experience in family proceedings is anything to go by, expect to be spending 10% of your working day f***ing about with bundles.

What else?

 

Timescales

  1. That takes me on to the other point. The time these proceedings took to reach a final hearing was depressingly long. I am very conscious that one must not push too far the analogy between personal welfare proceedings in the Court of Protection and care proceedings in the family court, but they do share a number of common forensic characteristics. Even allowing for the fact – not that it arose in this particular case – that cases in the Court of Protection may involve disputes about capacity which, in the nature of things, do not feature in care cases, there is a striking contrast between the time some personal welfare cases in the Court of Protection take to reach finality and the six-month time limit applicable in care proceedings by virtue of section 32(1)(a)(ii) of the 1989 Act. The present case, it might be thought, is a bad example of what I fear is still an all-too prevalent problem.
  2. We invited counsel to make any comments on this aspect of the matter which they thought might assist. Their historical accounts of the litigation are illuminating and need not be rehearsed but demonstrate that the delays were not caused by any one party nor by any one factor. The truth is that this case, like too many other ‘heavy’ personal welfare cases in the Court of Protection, demonstrates systemic failures which have contributed to a culture in which unacceptable delay is far too readily tolerated.
  3. In the family court the handling of care cases has been radically improved, and the previously endemic problem of delay has been brought under control, by the procedures set out in the Public Law Outline, contained in the Family Procedure Rules 2010, PD12A. Key elements of the PLO are judicial continuity, robust judicial case management, the early identification of issues by the case management judge, and the fixing at the outset by the case management judge of a timetable, departure from which is not readily permitted. Failure to comply with the timetable set by the judge and failure to comply, meticulously and on time, with court orders is no longer tolerated, as defaulters have discovered to their cost (for the applicability of this to the Court of Protection see Re G (Adult); London Borough of Redbridge v G, C and F [2014] EWCOP 1361, [2014] COPLR 416, para 12). Moreover, the parties are not permitted to agree any adjustment of the timetable or any extensions of time without the prior approval of the court: see Re W (Children) [2014] EWFC 22, paras 17-19. In the family court there has been a cultural revolution, from which the Court of Protection needs to learn.

 

[Of course, the best revolutions to learn from are those that actually worked, but I suppose you can learn from an unholy mess of a cultural revolution too]

What else?

Lack of rigour in defining the argument

  1. The first relates to the need, rightly identified by Charles J in A Local Authority v PB and P [2011] EWHC 502 (COP), [2011] COPLR Con Vol 166, paras 31-33, to identify, flag up and address, well before a personal welfare case comes on for hearing in the Court of Protection, (i) any jurisdictional issues and the legal arguments relating to them and, more generally, (ii) the issues, the nature of each party’s case, the facts that need to be established and the evidence to be given. The purpose, of course, is to ensure that each party knows the cases being advanced by the others. Charles J went on (paras 34-46) to elaborate how all this might be achieved.
  2. That judgment was handed down on 26 January 2011. It is depressing to have to note how little of what Charles J had said seems to have percolated through to those involved in the present case.
  3. The proceedings began, as I have said, on 25 August 2011. The hearing before Eleanor King J commenced on 18 November 2013, over two years later. The issues with which Eleanor King J and subsequently this court have been concerned had, to use Ms Bretherton’s phrase, been “bubbling under the surface for some time.” The case was listed for three days. As Eleanor King J described it in her judgment (para 46):

    “[Mr and Mrs N] had anticipated until the morning of the trial that, whilst they make a concession in relation to MN’s residence, there would still be consideration by the Court of Protection of the contact issue. Their expectation was that, over 3 days, witnesses would be called and cross-examined and submissions made prior to the court reaching a ‘best interests’ decision as to whether or not MN should have contact at the home of his parents as the first stage of a gradual progression to either living or spending lengthy periods of time with them there. I understand that they may feel that the ground has been cut from under their feet by what Ms Bretherton referred to as the public authorities’ ‘knock out blow’.”

  4. As the judge records in her judgment (para 18), counsel for ACC in a position statement dated 14 August 2013 had flagged up one issue in the case as being the interface between the Court of Protection and the Administrative Court, and had made it clear that her case was that the Court of Protection is limited to choosing between the available options and making decisions that MN is unable to make by virtue of his incapacity. However, directions were given at a hearing on 28 August 2013 for the filing of further evidence and thereafter, we were told, the parties prepared for a three day trial of the contested issues of fact.
  5. ACC’s stance on the jurisdictional issue was clarified in an email (to which copies of various authorities were attached) sent by ACC’s counsel to the other counsel in the case at 23.02 the night before the hearing was due to start. The judge recorded what followed (paras 22-23):

    “[22] … When the court sat it was told, for the first time, that a jurisdictional issue arose as to whether … the court should, or should not, now embark on a contested ‘best interests’ trial in relation to home contact and of personal care of MN by Mrs N.

    [23] No skeleton arguments on the law had been prepared and none of the position statements filed directly addressed, or even identified this legal argument.”

    The judge (para 47) appropriately paid tribute to Ms Bretherton for being both able and willing to deal with the argument then and there.

[Suesspicious Minds note – never mind credit – Ms Bretherton deserves a 21 gun salute and a parade for being able to walk a Court through all of this complexity without a substantial written document]

 

  1. The judge was rightly critical of how this state of affairs had come about and (para 46) “wholeheartedly endorse[d]” the observations Charles J had made in A Local Authority v PB and P [2011] EWHC 502 (COP), [2011] COPLR Con Vol 166.
  2. Steps need to be taken to ensure, as best can be, that there is no repetition of this kind of problem.

 

The quest for perfection

  1. This is not the first time that practice in the Court of Protection has attracted judicial criticism: see the judgments of Parker J in NCC v PB and TB [2014] EWCOP 14, [2015] COPLR 118, paras 126-148, and of Peter Jackson J in A & B (Court of Protection: Delay and Costs) [2014] EWCOP 48, [2015] COPLR 1. A & B related to two cases. In one case the proceedings in the Court of Protection had lasted for 18 months, in the other for five years. In his judgment, Peter Jackson J described (para 11) how:

    “the consequence of delay has been protracted stress – described by one parent as “the human misery” – for the young men and their families, with years being lost while solutions were sought.”

  2. He rightly drew attention (para 14) to a particular problem:

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

    I agree, and wish to emphasise the point. He went on (para 15) to deprecate, as Parker J had done, “a developing practice in these cases of addressing every conceivable legal or factual issue, rather than concentrating on the issues that really need to be resolved.” Again, I wholeheartedly agree.

 

Declarations

Unless the declaratory order sought comes squarely within the statute, it ought not to be used, says the Court of Appeal. It is a hangover from the inherent jurisdiction days, but the Court of Protection is not in that ‘theoretically limitless powers’ kingdom any longer-  it has the powers that Statute provides it, and no other.

 

  1. There was a certain amount of debate before us as to the use of declaratory orders in the Court of Protection. This is not the occasion for any definitive pronouncement but three observations are, I think, in order.
  2. First, the still inveterate use of orders in the form of declaratory relief might be thought to be in significant part both anachronistic and inappropriate. It originated at a time when, following the decision of the House of Lords in In re F (Mental Patient: Sterilisation) [1990] 2 AC 1, it was believed that the inherent jurisdiction of the Family Division in relation to incapacitated adults was confined to a jurisdiction to declare something either lawful or unlawful. Even before the Mental Capacity Act 2005 was brought into force, that view of the inherent jurisdiction had been shown to be unduly narrow: see St Helens Borough Council v PE [2006] EWHC 3460 (Fam), [2007] 1 FLR 1115. Moreover, the Court of Protection has, in addition to the declaratory jurisdiction referred to in section 15 of the 2005 Act, the more extensive powers conferred by section 16.
  3. Secondly, the Court of Protection is a creature of statute, having the powers conferred on it by the 2005 Act. Section 15 is very precise as to the power of the Court of Protection to grant declarations. Sections 15(1)(a) and (b) empower the Court of Protection to make declarations that “a person has or lacks capacity” to make certain decisions. Section 15(1)(c) empowers the Court of Protection to make declarations as to “the lawfulness or otherwise of any act done, or yet to be done.” Given the very precise terms in which section 15 is drafted, it is not at all clear that the general powers conferred on the Court of Protection by section 47(1) of the 2005 Act extend to the granting of declarations in a form not provided for by section 15. Indeed, the better view is that probably they do not: consider XCC v AA and others [2012] EWHC 2183 (COP), [2012] COPLR 730, para 48. Moreover, it is to be noted that section 15(1)(c) does not confer any general power to make bare declarations as to best interests; it is very precise in defining the power in terms of declarations as to “lawfulness.” The distinction is important: see the analysis in St Helens Borough Council v PE [2006] EWHC 3460 (Fam), [2007] 1 FLR 1115, paras 11-18.
  4. Thirdly, a declaration has no coercive effect and cannot be enforced by committal: see A v A Health Authority, paras 118-128 and, most recently, MASM v MMAM and others [2015] EWCOP 3.
  5. All in all, it might be thought that, unless the desired order clearly falls within the ambit of section 15, orders are better framed in terms of relief under section 16 and that, if non-compliance or interference with the arrangements put in place by the Court of Protection is thought to be a risk, that risk should be met by extracting appropriate undertakings or, if suitable undertakings are not forthcoming, granting an injunction

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Historical amputations and lessons

 

Warning, yet again this blog post contains testicles – like the last one (and no doubt, some critics would say, most of them so far have been b******s throughout)

 

In the early days of surgical procedure, one man stood as a giant amongst his fellow professionals. Liston, often called “The Fastest Knife in the West End”.  In those days, prior to anaesthetics, the priority was to get the job done quickly, to get the ordeal over with as soon as possible and hopefully leave the patient alive.  One of Liston’s specialities was limb amputation, and he was well reknowned for being able to remove a limb in less than two and a half minutes. Of course, during one of his lightening fast amputations he took the patients testicles along with the leg. On another, it is said that he was sawing and cutting so fast that he took his assistant’s fingers off in the process, and also accidentally cut a nearby spectator. As the patient, spectator, and assistant ALL died of their wounds, this is said to be the least successful operation in history, having had a 300% death rate.

BUT overall , the death rate in Liston’s procedures was 1 in 10, as opposed to the usual 1 in 4.  And of course, Liston left medicine with one of the biggest advances ever, being the man who introduced anaesthesia to British medicine and gave it world-wide credibility (the chloroform he used was in practice in America, but Liston popularised its use).  Ironically of course, this made his lightening fast surgical skills rather redundant, as for the first time a surgeon could work with care and precision without risking the patient’s life.

 

It occurs to me, therefore, and this little vignette seemed a decent illustration of it, that speed isn’t always the best measure of something, and that being faster and faster for the sake of it doesn’t necessarily achieve the best results. The Family Justice Review looked very carefully and thoughtfully at how we could make care proceedings more efficient – meaning both faster and less costly, taking as an unspoken premise that our system was already getting good results and what we had to do now was just get them quicker and cheaper.  We already had the leg amputation techniques down pat, we just needed to get more efficient at it.

As has been evident to me from writing this blog, and thrown into even sharper focus with the furore about the decision of the President in Re J 2013, there’s a counter opinion to that unspoken premise. There are plenty of voices saying that actually, we aren’t currently getting the core function of family justice (to achieve the right and fair outcome in cases) and that speeding up the process isn’t going to put that right.

Now, I happen to believe that in the overwhelming majority of cases, if one looked at them independently, they would be achieving the right and fair outcomes. One can’t realistically expect a parent who loses their child to feel anything other than hurt and aggrieved and devastated. You’re not ever going to reach a system whereby every parent nods at the end of the case and says “Yeah, that was a fair cop”, but are those who speak out about the system just parents who haven’t come to terms with an awful and painful (but objectively fair decision) or are they actually as they report, the victims of injustice? Are even some of them?

 

I don’t mean do social workers sometimes make mistakes? Of course they do. All professions make mistakes. I mean, do we have confidence that the system we have in place – which gives the parents the chance to see the evidence against them down on paper, to see all relevant records, to have free legal advice, to question witnesses who accuse them of things, to call their own witnesses to support them, and all of that being determined by a Court who are unbiased and fair and start from the principle that children ought to be at home with parents if at all posible – does that system, catch the times when social workers have got it wrong, have come to a conclusion that might not be the best for the child?

I personally believe and hope that our system does that, but it doesn’t really matter what I believe and hope. We deal in evidence.  When the State is given power by the Government, to make recommendations about whether children should live with families, or be adopted, and where the Court is given power by the Government to make the decisions about whether those recommendations are correct; we need to remind ourselves that those powers are exercised in the name of the public, and it is therefore essential that the public have confidence that a system is in place that whilst individual errors might sneak through from time to time, is not inherently flawed or failing.

 

This is a debate which needs to take place. Not just ‘how can we do it cheaper, how can we do it faster’   – but is the system strong enough to get things right and learn from those cases where mistakes are made?  It was very easy in Re J to allow criticism of social workers to take place in the public domain, but did the Court really “own” their own decision-making? That child was removed, and remained in foster care because the Court decided so. The LA ask for the orders, but the Court decide whether or not to make them. If there’s blame there  (and we really don’t know about Re J, because no information about the case is in the public domain) part of that blame rests with the Court too.

With that in mind, I can see why the President is in favour of greater transparency, both in his plans to publish anonymised judgments as a matter of routine and in the RE J case of allowing criticisms of the system in language that might seem emotionally loaded to remain in the public domain (so long as the identity of the child remains secret). In doing so, an awful lot changes, and as yet, we don’t know how much will change and in what ways. As the ruler of China said about his thoughts on the French Revolution “It is too early to say”

 

With these changes, the 26 week timetable, the financial pressure on family law solicitors and the prospect of more and more advice deserts spreading across the country, these are watershed moments for family justice.  I’ve seen in a relatively short few years, cases move from the occasional parent being a heavy cannabis smoker to large proportions of cases being about heroin and crack addiction; I’ve seen the internet move from dial-up and “Page not found” – effectively a slower form of Ceefax, to becoming a fixture in most people’s lives, somewhere that can make publishers, documentary makers, journalists of almost anyone who chooses to be one. The times, they are a changing.

“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]

 

View from the President 2 : Into Darkness ?

The President of the Family Division has published his second bulletin/speech/rallying cry/let’s get ready to rumble.

This is backing up a lot of what is rumoured to be in the new PLO and represents a significant shift in judicial mindset from the current practice. Less paper, more analysis, is the “too long, didn’t read” summary

 

It is an important precursor to the PLO and is worth reading in full

 

http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Reports/pfd-process-reform-revised-plo-may-2013.pdf

 

 

It confirms that the thinking is for a CMC on day 12  (I’ve already written about what that would mean for any parent solicitor seeking an expert assessment)

 

It confirms the thinking that we would basically have three lots of material – that filed in the Court bundle  (slimmed down, almost to ring binder status), a set of primary disclosure which is given to the parties and choice bits might find their way into the Court bundle but it doesn’t go to the Judge until that sifting process is done, and effectively a list of unused material which the parties may seek discovery of.

 

This reinforces really that counsel who will be running the case on behalf of the parents needs to be involved throughout – it won’t be any good someone sitting down and prepping a five day trial on the Friday before, because it will be too late to realise that there’s something useful in those papers which haven’t been before the Court.  Of course, continuity of counsel is great and very important anyway, but it comes at a price – there has to be some resolution of the conflict between counsel’s availability and when the Court can accommodate hearings, and I’m yet to see a proposal for this.

 

It confirms that the Court don’t want to see any documents that are older than two years   (for my own part, I assume that for that purpose they don’t necessarily mean to exclude thresholds or judgments of previous proceedings, but everything else would go)

 

At the same time, there is a strong imperative to produce documents that are focused and succinct. The social work chronology must contain a succinct summary of the significant dates and events in the child’s life. The threshold statement is to be limited to no more than 2 pages.

 

 

Well…. yes with a but.  If you pick up a file of previous proceedings that was dealt with by someone else, from years ago, or from another local authority, the final determined threshold is a really decent way of seeing what the problems and concerns in the case were – not the allegations, but what was finally determined. A two page one isn’t going to be much use (unless we have to run alongside it an old-fashioned meaningful Guardian’s report which draws together the entire case)

 

We must get away from existing practice. All too often, and partly as a result of previous initiatives, local authorities are filing enormously voluminous materials, which – and this is not their fault – are not merely far too long; too often they are narrative and historical, rather than analytical. I repeat what I have previously said. I want to send out a clear message: local authority materials can be much shorter than hitherto, and they should be more focused on analysis than on history and narrative.

In short, the local authority materials must be succinct and analytical. But they must also of course be evidence based.

I worry there that we are just going to have hour upon hour during final hearings of  ” Well, this isn’t in your statement”      and rightly “My client hasn’t been able to see this in your statement, and therefore hasn’t been able to deal with it before now”

And on the issue of experts

 

 

One of the problems is that in recent years too many social workers have come to feel undervalued, disempowered and deskilled. In part at least this is an unhappy consequence of the way in which care proceedings have come to be dealt with by the courts. If the revised PLO is properly implemented one of its outcomes will, I hope, be to reposition social workers as trusted professionals playing the central role in care proceedings which too often of late has been overshadowed by our unnecessary use of and reliance upon other experts.

Social workers are experts. In just the same way, I might add, CAFCASS officers are experts. In every care case we have at least two experts – a social worker and a guardian – yet we have grown up with a culture of believing that they are not really experts and we therefore need experts with a capital E. The plain fact is that much of the time we do not.

 

 

Social workers may not be experts for the purposes of Part 25 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010, but that does not mean that they are not experts in every other sense of the word. They are, and we must recognise them and treat them as such.

 

 

One assumes that the Court of Appeal  (which has several of the drivers of the family justice modernisation sitting on it) will this time around, back Judges who make robust case management decisions, rather than slap them, which is what brought the PLO and the Protocol to their knees.

 

I’m not so sure – it seems to me that faced with an individual case where rigorous application of the new 26 week principles seem to result in unfairness and prejudice to a child’s chance to be brought up within a family, the Court of Appeal will do what is best for that individual child, rather than the system as a whole. That’s what they are charged to do, and it seems to me proper that they do that.  It will depend, of course, on the detail and flavour of the first cases that come before them on   :-

 

(i)                 I was refused an expert because it would have gone out of timescales

(ii)               I was refused for my Auntie Beryl (who used to be a foster carer in Croydon) to be assessed, because I didn’t realise it was going to end up with adoption, so I didn’t tell her my child was in care until week 19.

(iii)             The expert said I could parent my child and make the changes if I was given six months of help, but the Court made a Care Order.

 

 

And whether the cases that come before the Court of Appeal are strong on their facts.

[If you are thinking, by the way, that the subtitle to the article is a gratuitous excuse for a Star Trek reference and a chance to put in another picture of Benedict Cumberbath for the benefit of Ms Suesspicious Minds, you would be correct]

benedict

“I’m on the edge, the edge, the edge, the edge…”

The Judith Masson (et al) research on families on the edge of care proceedings is now available 

http://www.bris.ac.uk/law/research/researchpublications/2013/partnershipbylaw.pdf

 It is a long and dense piece of research, but no less interesting for that. As ever with Judith Masson’s research, the paper itself is a lively read and if you wanted to get a real sense of context of the whole system of family justice, it would be a very good starting point.

 It really tackles the “pre-proceedings” element of intervention and working with families, which is going to become more and more important as the new changes come into force.

 Masson highlights how wide-ranging the participation in pre-proceedings work varies across authorities and indeed how wide-ranging the underpinning philosophies and aims of it are, from being a chance to bring about change, to an opportunity for parents to turn away from a course of action or get the help they need, to a recognition that it is fair and ‘right’ for parents to be warned of consequences, right through to it being ‘a mandatory’ step which has to be gotten through.

 

The research also shows how we ended up with this disparity and range of views, given that what happened was a top down imposition of requirements to have a meeting and a letter and to file a record of the meeting, but without there being any guidance or philosophy as to what was to be achieved.

 

The real headline from it is one which most professionals will recognise, that the Courts did not recognise or value pre-proceedings work,

 

 They [Judges}  preferred cases to come direct to court so that they could control what was done, and felt that the pre-proceedings process would only serve to delay cases which would inevitably need to come to court.

These judges were aware that local authorities were discouraged from undertaking assessments in advance of proceedings by court decisions to order further assessments and, particularly, to expect the local authority to contribute, financially, towards these. However, they felt constrained to allow parents to obtain further assessments, so the local authority’s assessment could be tested in a fair hearing; because they felt that local authority social workers’ assessments were not of the required quality and often merely reflected what their managers wanted; and to prevent their decisions being overturned by the Court of Appeal:

 

‘[The process] would work much better if there was a mechanism in court for us to say more robustly than we have in the past: you don’t need another assessment.’ Judge 6

 

‘[I]t’s so much easier to, say, spend £5,000 doing another assessment and the appeal won’t occur.’ Judge 7

 

These judges were not unique in mentioning the spectre of the Court of Appeal (Pearce et al. 2011). Indeed, the former President of the Family Division sent a letter to judges on case management in response to concerns hehad heard about the need to order further reports to avoid criticism of their decisions (Wall 2010).

 

and that as a result of Judges routinely commencing fresh assessments rather than actively considering the existing assessments, there was no real discernible difference in the time it took to conclude care proceedings in cases where there had been active and detailed pre-proceedings work from the ones that were issued with no pre-proceedings work.

 

And when Masson adds the work done pre-proceedings (after a formal meeting with parents and their solicitors) to Court proceedings, then it turns out to take nearly 70 weeks to get a decision for children if you do pre proceedings work, and around 45 if you don’t bother doing any.

 

She highlights this as being a core issue, going to the heart of care proceedings.  Is the purpose of proceedings to explore solutions to the problems of parenting through ‘investigation, assessment and management of change’” (Hunt 1998)  OR is it “to determine matters by assessing the application, in the light of the evidence presented and the parents’ response”

 

I think either course is a valid approach for the State to take, and I would suggest that at the moment, we have currently the former, and may be about to move to the latter.  Personally, I think that there would have been a place for a proper debate about those issues, and it would have been nice for these to be transparent and up front, rather than a fresh approach being sidled in.

 

Masson also touches on the fierce debate about whether the removal of children is “too few, too late”  or “too many, too fast”  – she seems to me to come down more on the former, whilst recognising that much more intervention and support could be provided and properly targeted.

 Regardless of where you stand on those issues – I know many of my readers are on the “too many, too fast” side of things, it is interesting to see someone actually identifying that this is a genuine debate, with value on both sides and that the State really needs to decide what it wants from a child protection system.

 There are some really sound conclusions to the research, I hope some of them get followed   (better funding for parents solicitors so that they can devote the pre proceedings work the time it needs is particularly important)

 I was taken, particularly, with Masson’s comments about how large changes in the family justice system occur. Of course, she approaches this from the viewpoint of an academic and researcher, but it is a perspective I’ve not heard or considered before, and so I wanted to share it with you [underlining is my own, for emphasis]

 Many of the changes to care proceedings practice since the implementation of the Children Act 1989 have been made not as a result of research evidence or interagency consultation but through litigation. The removal of children under interim care orders, the requirements for without notice EPOs and the contact regime where new babies are not in their parents’ care have all been the subject of ‘guidance judgments’. These have imposed standards or procedures which have had major implications for local authorities, the police, carers and children.

The close consideration a judge gives to an individual case gives him or her the detailed knowledge of the factual scenario necessary to make a decision. It is neither designed nor intended to provide a wide understanding of the range of circumstances where similar issues arise. Moreover, in our adversarial system, the information the judge receives is not simply an objective account but is intended to influence the decision. For these reasons, it would be better if judgments which were intended to shape the operation of family justice were subject to review and discussion before they were published.

 

Research has a contribution to make to law reform. Understandings from theoretical work and experience in other jurisdictions can provide some indication about what might work, the problems and limitations etc. Empirical study of the operation of laws and legal procedures can provide knowledge about practice from a range of perspectives including from litigants themselves, countering beliefs based on anecdote, information derived from the unusual cases that feature in law reports, and from the most vocal in the system. It can supplement the limited information available from case management systems and reach parts of the process that such recording cannot reach. Without research evidence it will not be possible for the Family Justice Board to secure major improvements to the family justice system, or know whether many forms of improvement have actually been achieved.

 

 Now, if you’ve been following this blog at all, you’ll have picked up what a caselaw geek I am, but I think this makes a really important point.

 If you take as an example the contact case Masson raises, the decision that our now President made in judicial review case effectively (at least for a period of some years) overnight transformed the amount of contact that babies placed in foster care should have with their parents, and did so dramatically.  And that case, which had massive implications for family after family, child after child, local authority after local authority, was decided without hearing any evidence about what was best for a child, it was just what the Judge at the time, considering that case, felt was best.

 (Now, as we know, the current research on quantum of contact for babies is pretty fraught, and it is a hot potato; but people on both sides of that debate have at least attempted to research and establish whether contact twice a week is better or worse for infants than contact five times a week, rather than determining it on the basis of listening to four adversarial submissions and concluding which is better.  It is quite possible that overall  the lives of children were made much better by the President’s decision, it is quite possible that overall they were made worse, it is possible perhaps even likely that for some children having more contact was good and for some it wasn’t so good, but we had no way of knowing at the time, the whole system had to embark on a sea change in contact regimes as a result of one judicial opinion in one case)

 That gave me some food for thought.

 

 

“It is not down on any map, true places never are”

The DFE Adoption maps and what we can learn from them, if anything

The DFE have published their adoption maps, whilst repeating over and over that these are not a  judgment on local authority performance. Much in the same way that listing all of the countries job centres in tabular form, with those who have achieved the highest number of stopping people’s benefits is not a league table, or an indication that stopping people’s benefits is considered to be a good thing.

 Anyway, I love maps, and I thought there were some interesting things to emerge from them. Plus, the chance for this title, which is probably my favourite line in all literature (it is from Moby Dick, and the nearest competitor is probably Hotspur’s rejoinder to Glendower’s  “I can call spirits from the vasty deep”   – “Why so can I, or so can any man. But do they come when you do call for them?” )

 

Also, it lets me make reference to another of my favourite passages, from The Hunting of the Snark

 He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

 

 carroll-map-thumbnail

 

I’m not sure that the DFE maps constitute a map we can all understand, though there are some who would claim it has as much meaningful content as the map in Hunting of the Snark.  Certainly, if we apply the Bellman from Snark’s rationale that “What I tell you three times is true”  then it is not intended to be a comparison of Local Authority performances    *

 

[And for an excellent analysis of the “What I tell you three times is true” motif,  see this wonderful piece from Inky Fool  –  which tells you the derivation of that annoying habit people have of politely refusing something twice and then accepting it at the third time of asking. It all arose with a polite convention about what you are supposed to do if someone asks you to become a bishop. I wish that I had written it, but as I liked it so much, the least I can do is steer others towards it. If you are ever asked to become a bishop, now you know the polite convention

 

http://blog.inkyfool.com/2010/04/nolo-episcopari-and-rule-of-bellman.html  ]

 

Enough literature, on with the maps!

http://www.education.gov.uk/childrenandyoungpeople/families/adoption/a00219985

 

The main DFE caveat with the maps is that they only include figures for adopters approved by Local Authorities and none by any voluntary adoption agencies.  The main gripe from the Local Authorities is that looking at a map just tells you something bald, and you can’t compare, say Leicestershire and Liverpool without knowing something about the size of population and social problems that each might have.

 

Anyway,  there are several maps, but the one I was most interested in was Map B

http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/m/map%20b%20number%20of%20children%20waiting%20for%20each%20adopter.pdf

Map B does a clever little exercise – for each Local Authority, it takes all of the children in that area who are waiting to be adopted  (i.e where an Adoption Panel / Agency Decision Maker has considered that adoption is the plan and where a Court has made a Placement Order) and compared that to the number of adopters that that Local Authority has approved.

 In an ideal world, you would want 1 adoptive family approved for every child that you are looking to place   (maybe even ideally slightly higher than that, to give you some choice, though of course, some adopters are looking to adopt 2 children).

 

What it tells you is, notionally speaking, if a Local Authority decided that they were going to match every single adoptive family with a child on their books,  whether they would have adopters left over, or children left over. And how many.

 For children waiting to be adopted, this map is bad news. The lowest category, the darkest blue, is where there are 2 or fewer children waiting for each approved adopter.

 The highest category, the yellow, is where there are between 11 and 23 children waiting for each approved adopter.

 Now, whilst some adopters are prepared to adopt two children (and thus the navy blue Local Authorities might be able to clear their children waiting for adoption if they could theoretically match up all the children with all the adopters), there aren’t adopters waiting to adopt eleven or twenty three children.

 

Meaning that if one did that notional exercise, matching every adopter up with as many children as they were prepared to take, the yellow authorities would have barely put a dent in the children needing to be placed (maybe reducing the number of children waiting by 20%, maybe 10%, maybe even less)

 Green authorities have between 6 and 10 children waiting for each approved adopter.

 So, the more yellow and green authorities there are, the worse it is for children waiting to be adopted.

 How many dark blues are there?  I made it about fifty.

 And yellows? I made it about 13, with 19 greens.

 Bear in mind, that what often happens is that one local authority places children for adoption with adopters approved by another local authority. But you can see that even the best authorities don’t have adopters left over (compared to the number of children that need families) and that even spreading out the yellow and green authorities additional families across the country doesn’t solve the problem.

 Nationally, we have far more children needing to be adopted   (* Anticipating the comments, by which I mean children where a Court has heard evidence and argument and decided that adoption is the right plan for them) than there are people approved as adopters.

 Equally, you can see that whilst the Midlands is pretty evenly matched between children needing placements and placements available, the East of the country and the South/South East of the country is pretty bad, with there being no neighbouring counties to raid for adoptive placements, since they are all struggling to meet their own demands.

 It is a shame that the independent adoption agencies figures are not in there, it may well be that those figures would dramatically alter the position.

 It is a worry, however, that the demand for adoptive placements is substantially outstripping the supply of such placements. That leads to delay, of course, it leads to some children not being able to be found placements, and inevitably it needs to a situation where the chance to place difficult children (in large sibling groups, or with profound problems, or with a family background of mental health problems) becomes much harder.

 Perhaps the Government’s ambitious thinking that there are four million potential adopters out there and that more can be converted from potential to actual if the process is made less bureaucratic and terrifying is right, and that the problem can be addressed by better recruitment.

 [There’s a curious little spreadsheet tucked away with some hard data

 http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/xls/a/adoption%20scorecard%20underlying%20data.xls

 I liked looking at the average duration of care proceedings in each authority, given that we are told that 26 weeks will be coming in, and we have been ostensibly working on an average target of 40 weeks for  NINE YEARS now.  Yes, the Protocol, god rest its soul, would have been ten years old this November.

 I counted 11 of the 149 authorities that had an average duration of care proceedings of 40 weeks or under.

 Let’s look at 50 weeks – that being 25% longer than the current target.  I counted NINETY SIX authorities where the average duration of proceedings was 50 weeks or longer.  There were some, not many, but some, that were over 60 weeks  (i.e 50% longer than the current target)   – 18 in all.  

 So actually, there are MORE authorities going 50% OVER the current target than there are going UNDER the current target. After NINE YEARS of pressure to get the duration down to 40 weeks  ]

 

 [A completely irrelevant footnote – as a blogger, I have a spam filter, and I get the most extraordinary spam comments, most of which are thinly disguised links to fake sunglasses or handbags, some are extraordinary Williams Burroughs-esque stream of consciousness masquerading as genuine dialogue. Today, however, I got a spam link from someone purporting to be from a website named “Toddler-hitting.org”   which might really have missed its target audience completely. I did not follow it up, I don’t think its likely to be my cup of tea]

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