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Sibling rivalry

 

In Re P (A child) 2015, His Honour Judge Wood had to deal with an application for a Care Order for a girl who was sixteen years and four months old. That in itself is unusual. Even more unusual, the central allegation was that of physical abuse (which was disputed by the family). More unusual still, the allegation was that the girl had been physically assaulted by her older brother.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B101.html

 

Now, if you have a sibling, you might be thinking along similar lines to my initial reactions.  My sister and I fought, not like cat and dog, but like two fighting roosters whose feed had been laced with PCP. We fought about absolutely everything. No topic was too trivial , no imagined slight too minor.  That did occasionally spill into physical conflict. I’m sure that my sister has many dreadful stories about me – many of which would be true, and I will simply indicate that there was a day at Pwllhlei Butlins putting green where she hit me with some degree of force on the nut with a golf club  (from behind) and when it knocked me out, ran off and spent the rest of the afternoon in the arcades playing Burger Time.  She also once hit me full in the face with a tennis racket swung with genuine purpose and intent (but as I recall, that was warranted, though painful).

 

This story, however, goes rather further even than those (admittedly shameful) incidents.

 

At 18.11 hours on Monday, 20th June 2014 P, a girl born on 28th October 1998 and now aged 16 years 4 months, was admitted by ambulance to the emergency department of Hospital A. She was found to have six distinct areas of injury: the first were three red linear marks on the right upper thigh, 1cm by 6cm long; second were two linear marks on the outer aspect of the left forearm, 4cm by 1cm wide; the third was an oblique red mark across the left upper outer thigh, 10cm by 1cm; the fourth was a bruised area, circular in shape, 3cm in diameter with a contusion over the left shoulder tip; the fifth was a linear bruise to the left upper outer arm approximately 4cm by 1cm and the final were a number of red marks across the lower thoracic area, that is to say the back, approximately 3cm by 1cm to the left and right of the midline.

 

 

The fact that the girl had been injured was not therefore in dispute, what was disputed was how these injuries had occurred.

The girl said that she had been at home, watching television and that she and her brother had had an argument (he wanting to turn the channel over to watch football and she wanting to finish watching what she had started), whereupon he started hitting her, escalating to hitting her with an iron bar.

 

The brother said that the girl had come home from school, complained of being hot and fainted from the heat.

It had of course been June when this happened, so perhaps it was hot. However, the girl had grown up in Nigeria and only been in England for a year.   And the family were living in Sunderland. Perhaps the weather in Sunderland that particular day was so hot that a girl who had spent 13 of her 14 years in Nigeria was unaccustomed to such heat and it caused her to faint.

 

The weather in Sunderland on 20th June 2014 was pretty hot for Sunderland. 20 degrees Celsius.  Looking at the weather in Nigeria in the year before, when the girl had been living there, 20 degrees C would represent a brisk chilly day in Nigeria, with a hot day being about 33-36 degrees.

https://weatherspark.com/history/28568/2013/Ikeja-Lagos-Nigeria

 

I have to say that the ‘fainting from heat’ explanation is in need of some work.  I suspect that “Girl Faints from Heat in Sunderland” would be headline news in the North East were it ever to happen.

 

[Actually out of curiosity, I just Googled ‘Sunderland heat wave’ ready to tell you that there were no results, but there were 168,000. Perhaps many of them were along the lines of  “Ed Milliband making a comeback as Labour leader in 2020? That’s about as likely as a Sunderland Heat Wave”]

 

The brother’s evidence became less credible when, for example, he denied that the iron bar was something that he had ever seen before and then retracted this when it was suggested to him that his DNA would be on it.

 

The mother, who had been present, and her father (who had been in Nigeria) both supported the brother’s version of events.

The cultural issue of course raised its head, and the Judge dealt with that

  1. Before considering which evidence I prefer, I want to say a word about cultural issues. This family come from a remote part of Nigeria. English is not their first language, albeit they have a good command of it. They are, as I have said, born again Christians and they seek to live their lives by a strong religious code. Their cultural background is in many ways very different to that which exists in the north east of England. They do things in Nigeria which are acceptable there but not here.
  2. Specifically, physical chastisement of children is normal. The father’s evidence was very clear that for what he called an accountable child, probably from the age of 10 onwards, whipping a child on the legs with African broom or with a cane as part of a process of punishment and learning is normal. It is not so long ago, certainly within the lives of some of the lawyers here, that such was acceptable in this country and so the court has no difficulty at all in accepting that but, given the way that this case has proceeded, its relevance is limited because it is not said either by the mother or R that this is what happened to P. Rather, they say she was not struck at all but I do accept that P and R are likely to have a more benign view of physical chastisement on a child than most British people would have in 2015. All that said, I agree with Mr Donnelly that this is not a case about chastisement in a different culture but a case about significant harm in the care of a mother.
  3. I accept that, further, there is a strict hierarchical structure within families whereby the father of the house, whether he is there or not, has to be consulted on important decisions. That has had significant practical consequences given parental separation here and I accept that it may have played some part in the refusal to consent to P being accommodated, as well as the initial engagement with the Local Authority and possibly even going to court in the early stages which I have no doubt is both a frightening and possibly shameful thing for the mother, in particular, to have experienced. So I have all of these factors very much in mind in making the decisions that I have to and I will return to this in due course.

 

 

The Court had to consider the evidence given by all parties, and of course the legal framwork, which is all very carefully set out. It is a very well constructed judgment.

  1. So which evidence do I prefer? Unhesitatingly, that of P. There is no more explanation for her lying now than there was in June last year. The lengths to which she went in feigning a faint point to the seriousness of the assault that she suffered. The instincts of the ambulance man first on the scene were, in my judgment, entirely correct. The injuries are entirely consistent with her account. They are all about the same age and fresh. They have the characteristics of being hit with an object such as a table leg in their linear appearance. They affect the outer aspects of both thighs, the outer aspects of the left arm and the back. They are not consistent with a simple collapse to the floor. They are, as Dr Mellon said but the mother, father and R denied, characteristic of defensive injuries. It appeared to be beyond the father and R’s comprehension that P would not fight back. She is described elsewhere as an underweight, 15-year-old girl of slight build pitched against a 19-year-old male who appeared to be over six feet high and who was armed and one might have thought that that was a sufficient reason to adopt a defensive position rather than try and fight back.
  2. There is simply no other explanation for these injuries, just as there is no reason put before the court as to why, as R said, P would want to put herself in care and be separated from her family. I reject her father’s submission that because P has told him that she has been refused permission to go to church and to foster care, to the foster carer has said that she does not want to go, that she is demonstrably untruthful or unreliable. There could be many reasons for two different accounts at different times and there has been no opportunity to investigate the circumstances in which those accounts were given in any event. I also reject R’s submission that because she identified her shoulder to the ambulance man, she was thereby not complaining of being beaten by her brother. The medical evidence, in my judgment, is clear. There is no alternative, credible explanation.
  3. The evidence of the mother and R, far from causing me to question her veracity, confirms that they were neither credible nor reliable. I found R to be evasive, argumentative and unwilling to confront the truth staring us all in the face. I could say more about it but I am satisfied, as it happens, that in her letter P has described her brother to a tee:

    “My brother is not a type of person that says sorry so easily. He is a type of person that is so proud and full of himself.”

    It seemed to me that that was a very accurate description of a rather arrogant and self-centred young man. I am quite satisfied that he is an intelligent and articulate man. Having seen him give his evidence and be cross-examined, I am quite sure that he was generally intent on ensuring that he gave answers which supported and/or did not undermine his case rather than trying to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth at all times. Accordingly, I did not find him credible and reliable.

  4. I am satisfied that R lost his temper with his sister over an argument about the television. He wanted to watch the five o’clock football match and would not let her finish the programme that she had been watching for some time since she came in from school and, not for the first time, he responded with violence. I am satisfied he beat her with a table leg and caused the injuries that I have noted and, furthermore, I am satisfied that P’s mother knew that this is what had happened for the very reason that she saw it. I pay due regard to what her husband has said about his belief in her veracity but I do not believe that she intervened but, in seeking to deflect attention at the outset, suggested that very thing to the police only to back away from it, as she did, when the seriousness of the incident became known.
  5. P’s shock and distress at her mother not intervening was marked and entirely understood. Although the mother told me that both R and P are her children and that she loves them equally, by her conduct she has demonstrated that, in fact, she has put R’s interests before her daughter. She has protected him when she knows the truth of what he has done. She has almost inexplicably abandoned – and it is not too strong a word – her daughter by denying her contact, putting up as obstacles the Local Authority’s perfectly reasonable conditions. Most parents would walk over hot coals to see their children, however objectionable the terms, because to do so would be to prioritise the child and to meet the child’s needs to see her family. Furthermore, she is not ignorant of the role of social workers. Her professional training and experience over a period of almost ten years contradicts her claim. She may very well be ashamed at the misfortune that has befallen her and her family but she simply has persistently refused to engage in this process as I will explain.
  6. So looking at the threshold document prepared by the Local Authority in the bundle at A16, I am satisfied it is made out as pleaded. That refers in paragraph 4(a) to the injuries themselves, in paragraph (b) to R being the cause of the injuries, being struck by an iron rod and that it was causing her pain, in subparagraph (e) that the mother has been complicit in that physical abuse perpetrated by her son in that she knew or ought to have known it was happening and had failed to tell anyone so as to protect her own interests. She misled professionals and, indeed, now the court about her son having assaulted her daughter and instead alleged that P is lying about the abuse she has suffered and following P’s admission to hospital and subsequently care has, as I have said, abandoned her daughter preferring to protect her son.

 

The family in this case had adopted a strategy of not engaging with the assessment or coming to contact, which is the all or nothing approach that only really ever works if the Court find that the threshold is not met. In a case like this, where the Judge found that the brother had caused very serious significant harm to the girl by hitting her with an iron bar, and that the mother had been in the home at the time, had not intervened and had lied about it, that is not really giving the mother much chance of a happy outcome.  They absolutely would not countenance the brother moving out of the home so that the girl could come home.

 

Even then, though, the Judge was holding out a hand and inviting the parents to take it

I want to say this at this stage: it is still not too late for this family, mother and R in particular, to accept the findings of this court, to make a suitable admission and to work with the Local Authority to reduce the risk both to P and any other children with whom they may be concerned – a very particular concern of P as she said in her letter to me

 

The Court had to make the Care Order, there was no other option

 

This is a very, very sad case. It began as a one issue case, the assault. It could, as Mr Rowlands has said, have had a very different outcome. That it has not is entirely due to the family and not their daughter. It has ended up as more than that because of the astonishing and persistent denial in the face of all of the evidence and the near complete rejection of P by her family. The harm to her from the latter is likely to outweigh the harm from the former in the longer term but, I repeat, even now it is not too late to reverse that process. These parents have an attractive, appealing and loving daughter who has shown the Christian virtues of forgiveness and love that they taught her. She really deserves a very much better outcome than this but I am afraid the solution lies entirely in their hands.

 

One particularly worrying feature of this case was the removal of the child by Police Protection. The mother having refused section 20 and the girl at that time not being sixteen so she was not able to accommodate herself using section 20 (11).   However,

I want to register my extreme concern at the level of force which was used when the police recovered P from her home when she ran away from foster care in September. She was handcuffed, under what power is not clear, and the incident is said to have been recorded because of its nature. This incident needs to be noted and taken up by the Local Authority in conjunction with the police. It is ambiguous from the statement as to whether a social worker was actually present when it happened. It has not formed part of the material evidence before me but it was an extremely unfortunate incident, it was harmful to P that her guardian was rightly horrified about. I do not know what the Local Authority response to it was at the time, what its response has been since and I do seek separately an explanation from the Local Authority and the police as to the circumstances that were pertaining and as to what measures have been devised and agreed upon to avoid a repetition of such an event in the future.

 

Medway case part 2 – a lot of practice issues

Following on from the last blog – I don’t often split case discussions, but in this one I felt that the issues over the foster carer and recording was worth a piece on its own.

 

This piece now tackles some of the many practice issues raised by Medway Council v A  2015 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B66.html

 

Let us start with our old friend section 20

 

 

  • 6 On 6.8.14 the SW claims she contacted the Maternal Grandmother and Mr S to see if alternative arrangements could be made within the family to support them. Issues have been raised about her manner of doing so, and whether appropriate support was offered. I make no finding as it has not been possible to explore this fully, but I note that there were several meetings that took place on this date and the SW will have wanted that information beforehand and so may have sounded abrupt and left little time for matters to be considered.
  • 7 By the end of that day the parents had signed a section 20 agreement which they and Mr S thought simply covered a two week period in a mother and baby foster placement. It is clear from the notes in the medical records, and the SW accepts, that the issue of Mother’s vulnerability was raised by Mrs Rose before Mother signed the section 20 agreement. The SW also accepted that in addition to the hospital’s concerns, Mr S and the Maternal Grandmother had confirmed that Mother had a learning difficulty. The SW accepted that it was not appropriate to have obtained Mother’s signature to an agreement under s20 in such circumstances where her cognitive abilities had been questioned by other professionals and no assessment had taken place. I also note that it was obtained prior to the strategy meeting taking place on 7.8.14.

We now know that the mother’s IQ was 54, making it extremely questionable that she had capacity to sign a section 20 agreement – certainly without it being really carefully explained to her. In any event, the parents understanding was that they were agreeing to a two week placement and the placement was actually intended to be for twelve weeks, breaking down after 40 days. This, once again is not a fair and proper use of section 20.

 

  • The guidance of Hedley J in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] COPLR 658 is as follows, at paragraph 46: “i) every social worker obtaining consent to accommodation of a child from a parent (with parental responsibility) is under a personal duty to be satisfied that the person giving consent does not lack the required capacity; ii) the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity, take into account all the prevailing circumstances and must consider the questions raised by Mental Capacity Act 2005, section 3 and in particular the mother’s capacity to use and weigh all the relevant information; iii) if the social worker has doubts about capacity, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion. Advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.”
  • I acknowledge that the Father signed the section 20 agreement, but this is not good enough (cf s.20(7) Children Act). I have been appalled at the reliance placed by Medway on a section 20 agreement signed by the Mother. She was encouraged to sign it on 6.8.14 without any assessment of her learning difficulty or her capacity. This is wholly unacceptable when the SW knew from the hospital staff and family members that Mother had a learning difficulty and appeared to have problems with her understanding.
  • Medway should not have waited to rely on assessments prompted and undertaken by another agency. Given the anxieties expressed by Mrs Rose at the meetings on 6.8.14, I consider that a section 20 agreement should never have been pursued that day.
  • While I accept that subsequent assessments, by the Learning Disability nurse and by Dr Conning, have suggested that she has capacity, these should not vindicate this practice of relying on a section 20 agreement that was obtained beforehand. In any event I do not consider that an Learning Disability nurse’s assessment on the ward should have been relied upon in relation to the import of a section 20 agreement by which a parent agrees to major interferences with the family’s life. And I further note that Dr Conning’s assessment of the Mother’s capacity in October 2014 was couched in terms of having capacity in the context of her being supported by her legal team and her husband (also legally advised by then).
  • It is likely that the cognitive assessment appointment two weeks after the section 20 agreement was signed, on 21.8.14, followed from the Resource Panel’s concerns expressed at the meeting on 19.8.14, and there appears to have been no attempt by the SW or her team manager to arrange one before then. Although I acknowledge that efforts were then made to obtain a cognitive assessment of Mother on 21.8.14 and 2.9.14 that were not successful due to the Mother’s non-attendance, nonetheless it meant that the section 20 agreement that was extended on 3.9.14 was equally flawed.
  • Mr Crimes’ assessment was sent on 8.9.14. He assessed Mother as having a full IQ score of 54, and as he noted in the accompanying email to the SW this was about the lowest level of functioning he had ever assessed. This was not an assessment of her capacity but set out a grave picture of impairment of her ability to comprehend and make decisions about complex information. Mother was not then assessed as to her capacity until 10.10.14 which was within the care proceedings and with the benefit of legal advice and representation – an important difference. Given the information from Mr Crimes on 5.9.14, Medway should immediately have taken steps in early September and not continued to rely on a section 20 agreement obtained from a vulnerable new mother with this degree of learning disability.
  • Several difficulties arise for vulnerable adults in these circumstances. They are unlikely to want to appear to be difficult or obstructive and so they may well agree to section 20 arrangements that are not necessarily appropriate. Once they have agreed to such arrangements, and are in a mother and baby foster placement as in this case for example, there is a natural impetus to remain with the child and so be locked into a continued agreement to the arrangement. Most significantly, the use of section 20 agreements results in vulnerable adults coping with such circumstances without legal advice or representation.
  • This was compounded here by there being no referral to adult services and no input from social workers experienced in working with vulnerable adults and who are not focussing simply on child protection issues, but are able to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on the case.
  • Just over 40 days passed between the section 20 agreement and the issue of proceedings. It was in this period that the Mother was placed in an inappropriate placement, isolated from her family and increasingly deprived of the support of her husband, and moving towards the breakdown of the placement. I acknowledge that this is not the length of time experienced by the families in the recently reported cases of Re P (A child: Use of section 20) [2014] EWFC 775 and Northamptonshire and DS [2014] EWHC 199 (Fam), but the real significance is this: if it had been properly recognised that section 20 should not be used in these circumstances and proceedings had been issued at an earlier stage, it is likely that arguments about appropriate placements and assessments would have been raised by the parents’ legal representatives, and an inappropriate placement and lack of assessment and ultimately early separation of baby A from his parents may well have all been avoided.

 

 

Learning difficulties

 

We touched in the last piece on the failure to find a specialist placement for the mother, and as you can see from the passage above, no referral was made to Adult Services to get help for mother in her own right, though it must have been apparent that she needed it. There simply wasn’t proper thought given to what the mother’s difficulties meant in terms of how she should be supported, helped or treated

 

 

  • I have set out in Appendix A and B to this judgment respective links to the 2007 DoH Good Practice Guidance on working with parents with disabilities which is cited as a relevant resource in the 2015 Working Together Guidance, together with limited extracts from those documents (while of course recommending that these documents should be properly considered by those involved in this case in their entirety).
  • I also quote here from Mr Justice Baker’s analysis in Re X Y X (Minors) [2011] EWHC 402 (Fam):

 

“132. The last thirty years have seen a radical reappraisal of the way in which people with a learning disability are treated in society. It is now recognised that they need to be supported and enabled to lead their lives as full members of the community, free from discrimination and prejudice. This policy is right, not only for the individual, since it gives due respect to his or her personal autonomy and human rights, but also for society at large, since it is to the benefit of the whole community that all people are included and respected as equal members of society. One consequence of this change in attitudes has been a wider acceptance that people with learning disability may, in many cases, with assistance, be able to bring up children successfully. Another consequence has been the realisation that learning disability often goes undetected, with the result that persons with such disabilities are not afforded the help that they need to meet the challenges that modern life poses, particularly in certain areas of life, notably education, the workplace and the family. 133. To meet the particular difficulties encountered in identifying and helping those with a learning disability in the family, the government published in 2007 “Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability”. In their closing submissions, Miss Ball and Miss Boye contended that such good practice guidance is required because there is little evidence of effective joint working between adult and children’s services and practitioners in each area rarely have a good working knowledge of the policy and legislative framework within which the other is working. They submitted that local authorities frequently do not take account of the fact that, if children are to be enabled to remain in their own families, a specialist approach to a parent with a learning disability is absolutely central to any work that is done, any protection which is offered and any hope of keeping the family together. The 2007 guidance points out, inter alia, that a specialised response is often required when working with families where the parent has a learning disability; that key features of good practice in working with parents with a learning disability include (a) accessible and clear information, (b) clear and co-ordinated referral and assessment procedures, (c) support designed to meet the parent’s needs and strengths, (d) long-term support where necessary, and (e) access to independent advocacy; that people may misunderstand or misinterpret what a professional is telling them so that it is important to check what someone understands, and to avoid blaming them for getting the wrong message; that adult and children’s services and health and social care should jointly agree local protocols for referrals, assessments and care pathways in order to respond appropriately and promptly to the needs of both parents and children; and that, if a referral is made to children’s services and then it becomes apparent that a parent has a learning disability, a referral should also be made to adult learning disability services. The guidance also stresses that close attention should be paid to the parent’s access needs, which may include putting written material into an accessible format, avoiding the use of jargon, taking more time to explain things, and being prepared to tell parents things more than once.”

 

  • And Wall LJ makes a relevant comments in P v. Nottingham City Council and the Official Solicitor [2008] EWCA Civ 462:

 

“175. It is, I think, inevitable that in its pre-proceedings work with a child’s family, the local authority will gain information about the capacity of the child’s parents. The critical question is what it does with that information, particularly in a case where the social workers form the view that the parent in question may have learning difficulties.’ 176. At this point, in many cases, the local authority will be working with the child’s parents in an attempt to keep the family together. In my judgment, the practical answer in these circumstances is likely to be that the parent in question should be referred to the local authority’s adult learning disability team (or its equivalent) for help and advice. If that team thinks that further investigations are required, it can undertake them: it should, moreover, have the necessary contacts and resources to commission a report so that as soon as the pre-proceedings letter is written, and proceedings are issued, the legal advisers for the parent can be in a position, with public funding, to address the question of a litigation friend. It is, I think, important that judgments on capacity are not made by the social workers from the child protection team.’

181. In the pre-proceedings phase local authorities should feel free to do whatever is necessary in social work terms to assist parents who may become protected parties. My view, however, is that this is best achieved by members of the adult learning disabilities team who do not have responsibility for the children concerned.”

 

  • It is clear that the purpose of the 2007 DoH Good Practice Guidance, namely to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to ensure services and training are in place to meet the needs of parents with disabilities, has yet to be met in Medway; and there appears to have been little if any awareness of the DoH Good Practice Guidance’s recommendations shown by Medway’s practice in this case.
  • In order to comply with their duties under s17 Children Act 1989 and in accordance with the good practice set out in the Guidance, this SW, her managers and this local authority should have:

 

  • Immediately made a referral to the adult services Learning Disability team and worked together with them to benefit from their advice, training, experience and resources;
  • Triggered an assessment of Mother’s abilities via the Learning Disability team;
  • Ensured the appointment of an adult care SW for Mother:
  • Identified and provided a specialist resource within a short period of time, in order to assess the Mother, and her and the family’s needs for support;
  • As soon as the parents expressed complaints about the placement, if not before, provided her with details of how to complain;
  • Investigated more fully the support options available from Father, friends and family.

 

Bundle-culling

 

The stipulations of Practice Direction 27A were followed in this case – care was taken to produce a bundle that did not exceed 350 pages in length. The problem is that despite that intention to comply with those stipulations, the culling exercise itself was problematic.

 

  • Thus at the outset of this hearing there were significant contested findings and the most serious of final orders sought against the parents. However, it became apparent that the preparation for such a hearing had been a mess, and there were a number of evidential and procedural issues that almost forced the adjournment of an entire final hearing that would have caused significant delay and extended further the separation of parents and child. I will discuss aspects of this case management as a separate final section of this judgment.
  • In short, it quickly emerged that the documents included in the 350 page PD27A compliant bundle prepared by Medway had been ‘culled’ (to use the term coined by counsel for Medway) from all the documents relating to the case. That cull had been undertaken unilaterally by Medway at the last minute and without agreement of the other parties, and they unsurprisingly considered it to be partial and incomplete. Last minute attempts were made by A’s advocate to prepare a more comprehensive bundle. Given the wide-ranging and serious counter-factual issues it was necessary to further expand the bundle during this hearing to include key missing documents. These have included the medical notes and social work case recordings for the key period of August to September 2014, but the bundle was also even missing the Mother’s statement and the Father’s first statement.
  • Additionally, the evidence has now included the statements and notes of the Safeguarding Midwife Mrs Rose and the Health Visitor Ms Gibson. These were directed by DJ Gill at the IRH held on 5.2.15 to be filed by Medway by 12.2.15 and they were named in the IRH order as witnesses to be heard at the final hearing, but their evidence and notes were still outstanding at the outset of this hearing (mid-April). I made peremptory directions to ensure, in A’s interests, that this evidence was available by day 3 of this hearing. Such directions were among those that should and could have been sought and made since the IRH but long prior to the final hearing. I was also obliged to direct that missing foster carer’s notes and social work recordings from the crucial period in August and September 2014 should be provided. I did not permit Medway to file a further statement by Ms Down, supervising SW from ISP (the agency providing the foster placement), as to what she had seen, heard or done regarding the foster placement. This application was made over a week after the final hearing had begun and on the morning that the foster carer was due to give evidence. Ms Down had not been one of the named witnesses in the IRH order, and I considered it was unfair for the local authority to be attempting to add further evidence and witnesses at this very late stage in the proceedings, and would risk an unnecessary and disproportionate adjournment.
  • I have read all the documents and evidence filed in this case and all the documents additionally prepared by the advocates (whom, I must add, have been of great assistance to the court in the challenging circumstances in which this final hearing came to court). I have heard evidence from Mrs Rose, Ms Gibson, Ms Anyimiah, Ms Barton, the foster carer Ms McG, Ms Stewart, the parents and the Children’s Guardian; and I have heard and read the parties’ submissions.

 

 

 

a) PD27A COMPLIANT BUNDLE – There is little point in Medway having created a bundle a few days before a final hearing by unilaterally selecting documents to fit the 350 page limit. Needless to say it was not considered fit for purpose by the other parties and I have already identified that it lacked crucial documents. This, and the various acts of non-compliance discussed elsewhere, betray an unacceptable failure by Medway to adequately prepare the case, to consider properly which documents would be required, to focus on the issues and the evidence, and to apply itself with care and a sense of the necessarily heavy responsibilities borne by applicant local authorities when applying for care and placement orders which have life-changing consequences for families.

b) In order to achieve a meaningful compliance with PD27A, the local authority should liaise with the other parties at an advocates’ meeting prior to the IRH to agree a provisional core bundle index. This will not only assist with the proper analysis of the issues and evidence in readiness for an IRH, and permit a proper resolution of issues at that hearing, but will also identify any further documents that may need to be the subject of an application to depart from PD27A and form a supplemental bundle, and which can be addressed and resolved at that IRH. I will be implementing directions to facilitate this approach at CMHs, but even absent such directions it is evident that a local authority applicant should be taking on this responsibility in any event.

 

That is the only way that the 350 page stipulation can actually work. However, that hinges on getting actual responses from the other advocates. If they have not yet read all of the source material and records, or are not going to be trial counsel, then there’s resistance to culling any document. I can see why – who wants to agree that “we don’t need the Health Visitor records” only to find later during exhaustive preparation that there’s something vital within them.  And rather than argue that those particular records must go in, it is simpler just to not agree to any culling at all.  Of course, if everyone came to an IRH having prepared their cross-examination and knowing all of the issues they would want to take up with witnesses at final hearing and what documents would assist, that would solve everything. But that’s not likely to happen. Preparation for an IRH IS different to preparation for a final hearing. For one thing, you’ve got all of the evidence, whereas all too often at IRH final statements from this or that party are still outstanding.  For another, counsel preparing for a final hearing knows that they are actually going to be the ones asking the question, whereas at IRH the final hearing will be listed at the Court’s convenience and it will be pot-luck whether counsel at the IRH will be free to do the final hearing.  [That’s a solveable problem by going back to the old system of listing a final hearing at the early stage of the case that everyone can work towards. That’s even more important given that we have to conclude cases by week 26, so only deciding to list a final hearing at week 20 is a recipe for disaster. Everyone bar HMCS thinks that is a good idea, but as HMCS don’t like it, it won’t happen]

 

 

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

I think this summarises our position

I think this summarises our position

 

 

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

 

Newcastle City Council v WM and Others 2015

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

(e) skeleton arguments, if appropriate;

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

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

 

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

 

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

And PD27A para 6.4:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Angola – gross, inexplicable and unjustifiable delay

 

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

 

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

 

 

Re N (Children) 2015

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Unfortunate and woeful – Local Authority failings

 

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

 

Northamptonshire and DS 2014

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Inexperience of the worker and delay in issuing

 

 

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

 

 

The changes in social worker

 

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

 

 

The section 20 agreement

 

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

 

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

 

 

Whether the s20 ‘consent’ was really meaningful consent

 

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

 

And overall

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

As the Judge says at the end

 

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

section 20 drift

This case is not a legal authority, in that it was delivered by a Circuit Judge, (Her Honour Judge Atkinson) but it is a good judgment, on an important issue, so I am sharing it.

 

Re P (A child : Use of section 20) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/775.html

 

By way of context for non-lawyers, section 20 is the provision in the Children Act 1989 where a parent can agree to the child being placed in foster care – that doesn’t automatically trigger court proceedings, so the case might not go before a Judge and the parents would not have lawyers to give them free advice about their situation.

 

If you want to know more about section 20, Sarah Philimore has written an excellent and comprehensive guide – it is valuable for lawyers, professionals and parents alike http://www.childprotectionresource.org.uk/what-does-section-20-mean/

P is a little boy who was born on 04/08/09 and is now aged 5 years and 4 months. P has not lived with his mother and father for 2 ½ years. He was accommodated under s.20 Children Act 1989 by the applicant local authority, London Borough of Redbridge, (LBR) on 28th June 2012 and placed in foster care. Care proceedings were not issued until almost 2 years after his removal, on 30th May 2014.

 

There is not (currently) anything in law that prevents section 20 going on for so long, but it is not good practice. With a child of this age, decisions need to be made in good time about whether he is able to go home to his parents, or be found a home elsewhere. The longer he remains in limbo, the more uncertain his future is. Two years, for a child who was not quite three at the time the s20 started, is a long, long time.

 

In this case, that’s made even worse, because once the care proceedings did start, assessments showed that these parents would, with help, be able to look after him.

These parents accept that at the relevant date in 2012, they needed help in developing the parenting skills necessary to meet their son’s needs and that the statutory threshold is crossed as a result. On the issue of welfare, suffice to say by way of introduction, that by September 2014 it was clear, on the evidence of the jointly instructed assessment service, Symbol, that these parents were able to resume the care of their son. It was also agreed that they needed a carefully managed programme of rehabilitation which could only commence once they had somewhere to live. The problem in this case and the only reason why P has not been returned to their care is that these parents have no home of their own and it is suggested that the local authority fixed with the obligation to house them, the Royal Borough of Greenwich (RBG) is unwilling to assist.

 

It didn’t help that the stumbling block was housing, and that the Local Authority wasn’t doing all it could to provide the parents with suitable housing

  1. In my judgment, P has not been appropriately cared for by the applicant local authority within the care system where for many years he has languished in s.20 accommodation with no clear plan. It is likely that he will have suffered confusion and some harm as a result. To its credit, the authority fixed with the responsibility for P’s care, LBR, has recognised the errors in its management of this family.
  2. However those errors are compounded by P’s ongoing separation from his parents caused, I am told, by the wholesale failure of another public authority to find them somewhere to live. The RBG is unrepentant in the way that it has handled this housing issue maintaining that it has followed all proper procedures and denying any bad faith. I have listed this case next week for me to determine whether there has been any bad faith in its handling of this case and to give the authority concerned the opportunity to reflect upon the circumstances in which this family finds itself. In the interim I have fixed RBG with the responsibility to support this family through an interim supervision order in the hope that by bringing children’s services on board I will see some “joined up thinking” develop within the authority as between housing and children’s services.

 

[If you want to know more about the housing side of things, I recommend Nearly Legal’s blog piece on it http://nearlylegal.co.uk/blog/2014/12/every-possible-obstacle/   which highlights that this appears wasn’t just the wheels of bureacracy moving slowly, but a conscious decision not to offer housing]

 

The Judge had this to say about the Local Authority’s use of section 20, particularly in relation to establishing threshold criteria (the test for whether it is right for the State to intervene in a family’s life and seek orders) and fairness

 

29. The relevant date for the purpose of this threshold is the date when P was first accommodated – 2 ½ years ago. For reasons which I am sure are obvious, the significance of those facts is reduced the more distant we are from them. In this case, for example, the more difficult it is to discern whether the child in question has suffered harm as a result of the parenting given to him before separation rather than the events he has had to endure after. I wonder at the impact upon P of the changes in his carers over the 2 years before proceedings were issued in circumstances in which he was living away from his parents with no real sense of why or for how long because LBR had no plan in place. I wonder at how damaging the process of holding him in s.20 accommodation without any plan for his future will have been for him.

  1. It goes without saying that it is totally inappropriate for a local authority to hold a child in s. 20 accommodation for 2 years without a plan. That is what happened here. The local authority has “disabled” these parents from being able to parent their child with every day of inactivity that has passed. The driver for the issue of proceedings was the parents’ lawyers making clear that they did not give their consent. To its credit LBR, during the hearings before me, has accepted its errors in this regard and has tried to make good but there needs to be a careful examination internally of how it was this family was treated in this way.
  2. In these situations it is the local authority that holds all of the power. I think it likely the mother was told that if she did not agree to P’s accommodation then the LBR would issue proceedings. Parents are unlikely to want to drive the local authority to issue proceedings and so the vulnerable are left almost powerless to object. Meanwhile the child is “parked” and the local authority is under no pressure or scrutiny to ensure that it is dealing with the case in an appropriate and timely fashion. In my capacity as DFJ for East London I warn that there will be nowhere to hide for those authorities in this designated family area who fail the children in their borough in this way.
  3. Finally, I would also add that on my assessment of the undisputed facts in this case there is real doubt as to whether LBR had proper consent from the parents to the accommodation of P after he was removed from the PGF. In the first statement filed by the LBR there is an acknowledgement that the parents did not want P to be placed in foster care after he had been placed with the PGF. The author of the statement comments that in spite of this knowledge once he was moved to foster carers the parents did nothing to come and get him – as if the responsibility was somehow theirs. These parents go everywhere with an advocate. They are vulnerable young people. It is the responsibility of the local authority to ensure that they give proper consent. Unless they abandon their child, they do not give consent by omission. I should add that they have never abandoned him.

 

With all of that in mind, you might well be amazed that the Local Authority proposal for the way forward was for section 20 to continue whilst housing was resolved.  That shrill beeping noise you are hearing is the Court metal detector still going off three weeks later due to the balls of steel that London Borough of Redbridge’s team must have had to even suggest that as a solution.

Iron cojones or not, the Judge wasn’t much taken with that as a plan.

Turning now to the welfare decision, and contrary to my usual instinct to bring matters to a close and leave the LA to do its job, I absolutely agree that I am unable to make final orders here today. I am horrified that LBR should even ask and in doing so suggest that we should revert to the arrangement in which we use s.20 accommodation to “hold” the child until an unspecified point in the future when the other authority in this case complies with its housing obligation.

 

If you remember being at school and watching a classmate being told off and enjoying it, only to then have the teacher swivel towards you and say “And I don’t know what YOU’RE grinning about…”   this next bit will bring back memories.  Royal Borough of Greenwich are about to cop an earful too

I now turn my focus away from LBR to the RBG. The evidence before me today seems to suggest that there has been a complete and utter failure of the RBG to meet its responsibilities to provide housing to this family or even allow them to apply as a family such that these parents are prevented from bringing to an end the 2 ½ years (half of his life) that P has spent as a “looked after” child. Indeed the information that I have received suggests that the RBG has acted in bad faith and has sought to engineer a situation in which they would be freed of the obligations I might impose pursuant to a Supervision Order. I make no findings in that regard but intend to investigate that matter further when this case returns next week. I observe, however, that the most recent position statement from RBG indicates that the housing department are now satisfied that it can be reasonably be expected that P will reside with his parents and they will now consider him as part of any application for housing. However the final paragraph of that statement indicates that the RBG has failed to grasp what it is that this family needs in order to succeed in their reunification because it ends by pointing out that the most likely outcome of the application for housing will be the provision of “temporary accommodation” and that this may include accommodation outside of the Borough.

 

At least to their credit, after the judicial dressing down, accommodation was found for the family, and they were reconciled, nearly 2 1/2 years after first being separated

 

At the first listed hearing after the one at which I gave the Judgment transcribed above, RBG attended, asserting that they had found accommodation for the family which could be taken up by 15th December. A transition plan drafted by LBR was drafted on the basis that they would take up residence by Monday 15th. It transpired that this was not a tenancy or even an offer of tenancy but rather a referral or nomination to be considered for a tenancy by a local housing association. It also became clear to me upon hearing from the senior housing officer who attended on the day that juggling the housing resources of this London authority meant that this family was only ever going to be top of the list when they were recognised as an emergency and it had taken my order that he attend a hearing for them to be so recognised. That is not an acceptable way of working by public authorities in my view. It was known to RBG that the situation was as I have described it as long ago as September. I suggest that RBG ensures that it has systems which enable it to respond more appropriately to such emergencies.

Happily, at the second hearing on 16th December, the tenancy was confirmed as signed. The transitional arrangements had to be redrafted. I hope and expect that the parents will be assisted to take up their housing.

As a result I had no need to make findings on the disputed facts.

The LBR have committed to embark upon an investigation as to how this child was accommodated without a plan for such a long time. I am grateful to them for that.

 

This Judge did remarkably well to secure justice for this family. It is a shame that her remarks about section 20 drift aren’t authority, but they will be useful pointers in framing the argument in similar cases. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before Courts set down an authority that such drift and delay amounts to an article 8 breach for which compensation is payable.

 

I’m afraid that this can be part of human nature – social workers are busy and are fire-fighting crises all of the time. If the child is in section 20 and the parents aren’t clamouring for the return, there’s a danger that the case drifts not by design but because it never presents as being a towering inferno that has to be tackled as an immediate priority then and there.

The IRO in this case also got away without criticism, but this drift ought to have been nipped in the bud at the Looked After Child reviews.  There has to be a LAC review for a child in care after 28 days, then after 3 months, and then at least every 6 months. So for P, there should have been at least four, perhaps five LAC reviews before the proceedings were issued.

 

And by the second LAC review, there should be a plan for the child’s permanent future, which probably did not happen here. It is the job of the IRO to make sure that this sort of drift doesn’t happen and that the case doesn’t get put on the backburner over and over.

 

“Hope your child enjoyed their stay, now if you could just settle your bill, please”

 

Or, on an Alan Partridge vibe “Cashback!”  (Have been hitting the Partridge in readiness for the film, apologies)

The legal implications of the mooted proposals from Worcestershire to charge parents for voluntary foster care.

 

Worcestershire are of course, only consulting on the scheme at the moment, and haven’t made any decisions; but the idea in a nutshell is that where a parent can’t look after a child and the child goes into voluntary foster care, the parent would be charged by Worcestershire to recover the costs of this (subject to the parents means)

 

http://www.communitycare.co.uk/articles/14/08/2013/119417/council-defends-controversial-plans-to-charge-parents-whose-children-go-into-care.htm

 

 

and here

 

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/aug/13/children-charged-social-care-worchestershire?INTCMP=SRCH

 

 

There are, as we know, two distinct categories of services that a Local Authority provides for children in need

 

  1. Section 17 services to meet their needs
  2. Section 20 accommodation of children who have to live away from their families for whatever reason.

 

Most lawyers are dimly aware that the Children Act has in it tucked away the POWER to make charges for section 20 placements, but the Act actually goes further than that.

 

Surprisingly, despite all the vitriol that Worcestershire’s mooted policy has caused them, they are actually just complying with the Children Act 1989

 

 

     Schedule 2 para   21. —(1) Where a local authority are looking after a child(other than in the cases mentioned in sub-paragraph(7)) they shall consider whether they should recover contributions towards the child’s maintenance from any person liable to contribute(“a contributor”)

See that word ‘shall’ there? That means it is a mandatory duty. The Local Authority are legally obliged to consider whether to recover financial contributions from a parent where the child is in voluntary foster care.  (para 21 (7) prohibits doing so where the child is in compulsory foster care i.e an interim care order, for obvious reasons). They HAVE to consider whether they should try to recover the costs from the parent.

 

What Worcestershire’s maligned policy goes on to say is that such charges wouldn’t be imposed on any parent in receipt of benefits  (which the Act already says in Schedule 2 para 21(4) ) and that they would only ever recover those financial contributions where it is reasonable to do so (which the Act already says in Schedule 2 para 21 (2))

 

So Worcestershire could simply have told everyone that their intention was to comply with their duties under the Children Act 1989.  Job done.

 

Of course, although those duties exist, they are one that most authorities overlook, just as (cough cough) many of the OTHER duties in Schedule 2 get overlooked from time to time.

 

This is really more of a corporate decision that where a parent is working and has financial means, that the Local Authority would genuinely look at the issue of charging them for accommodating their children  i.e they would ACTUALLY give it consideration under Schedule 2 para 21;  whereas most Local Authorities, if they have thought about para 21 at all, it is that they would not ever try to recover such contributions.

 

One can see why, as soon as one looks at para 22’s provisions as to how such charges would actually come about

 

 

      22. —(1) Contributions towards a child’s maintenance may only be recovered if the local authority have served a notice(“a contribution notice”) on the contributor specifying—

 (a)  the weekly sum which they consider that he should contribute; and

 (b)  arrangements for payment.

(2)  The contribution notice must be in writing and dated.

(3)  Arrangements for payment shall, in particular, include—

 (a)  the date on which liability to contribute begins(which must not be earlier than the date of the notice);

 (b)  the date on which liability under the notice will end(if the child has not before that date ceased to be looked after by the authority); and

 (c)  the date on which the first payment is to be made.

 

 

Para 22 also caps the contributions to be no more than the actual cost of foster care.  That of course, prevents the Local Authority blessed with affluent parents with stroppy teenagers from propping up their budgets by charging Mr and Mrs Moneybags £10,000 a week to look after young Tony Moneybags.

 

 

Okay, well having :-

 

(a)  Found a parent who has some means and isn’t on benefits, whose child is voluntarily accommodated

(b)  Decided whether it is reasonable to ask them for a contribution

(c)  Set that amount at what it is reasonable for them to pay – that being no more than the foster care allowance

(d)  Drawn up a Contribution Notice

 

 

What happens when the parent doesn’t pay the money?

 

Well, para 23 kicks in

 

23. —(1) Where a contributor has been served with a contribution notice and has—

 (a)  failed to reach any agreement with the local authority as mentioned in paragraph 22(7) within the period of one month beginning with the day on which the contribution notice was served; or

 (b)  served a notice under paragraph 22(8) withdrawing his agreement,

the authority may apply to the court for an order under this paragraph.

(2)  On such an application the court may make an order(“a contribution order”) requiring the contributor to contribute a weekly sum towards the child’s maintenance in accordance with arrangements for payment specified by the court.

(3)  A contribution order—

 (a)  shall not specify a weekly sum greater than that specified in the contribution notice; and

 (b)  shall be made with due regard to the contributor’s means.

(4)  A contribution order shall not—

 (a)  take effect before the date specified in the contribution notice; or

 (b)  have effect while the contributor is not liable to contribute(by virtue of paragraph 21); or

(c)     remain in force after the child has ceased to be looked after by the authority who obtained the order.

 

 

See that last little paragraph that I’ve underlined? That means that the order that the Court can make (but won’t) doesn’t have any effect once the child stops being looked after.

 

So what, you say?

 

Well, once you realise that the Local Authority HAVE to stop accommodating a child voluntarily once the parent objects (s20(7) , but that they HAVE to provide accommodation for any child who meets the criteria in s20(1), which includes “the person who has been caring for him being prevented (whether or not permanently or for whatever reason) from providing him with suitable accommodation”

 

(Lightbulb)

 

It is pretty clear that the wealthy parent, served with a contribution notice, who ignores it, and is then taken to court, can simply declare as soon as the Contribution Order is made that they object to the child being accommodated.

 

That ends the accommodation and the Contribution Order.  The parent can then notify the LA that the child needs to be voluntarily accommodated all over again.

 

And note that the Contribution Order doesn’t compel any payments HIGHER than the original weekly amount in the contribution notice, so it doesn’t provide for recovery of the previous weeks missed. (that’s the net effect of reg 23(3) (a) )

 

In those circumstances, the Contribution Order will net the Local Authority not one shiny penny, and will lose them all the legal fees and costs in the meantime. 

 

 

So, just running things through in my own mind :-

 

  • A policy of charging middle to high income parents for voluntarily accommodating children would be politically unpopular

 

  • It would garner very negative publicity (as we have seen, just saying that you are considering it makes things get ugly)

 

  • Probably only covers a small proportion of the children who are voluntarily looked after in any event 
  • Has the possibility of discouraging parents who are not coping temporarily and need a break from seeking that help

 

  • It almost certainly inhibits the working relationship between the Local Authority and the parent aimed at fixing the problems so that the child could go home.

 

  • It would be administratively expensive – someone has to do financial assessments (and how do you get a parent to tell you their income anyway? What’s in it for the wealthy parent to tell you?), someone has to draw up Contribution Notices, someone has to collect the money and keep track of it

 

  • Any attempt to enforce it would be incredibly vulnerable to a side-step using the interplay of s20(7) and para 24 (4) (c), as outlined above

 

  • It would be unlikely to actually recoup any income

 

 

 So, ending with Alan Partridge again, I’m not sure that this policy is “back of the net” material

 

Of course, all Worcestershire have done so far is remind themselves that they have a statutory duty to CONSIDER this and all that they have done is complied with their duties under the Children Act 1989.

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