The Court of Appeal decision in Re S (A child) 2014.
Very quick summary, to persuade you that this case is worth reading
- Guidance on whether split-hearings are needed and when (hint, the new Court of Appeal isn’t keen on them any more – expect to be taken to this case during any Case Management Hearing where the issue is physical injury or sexual harm)
- Confirmation that for “findings of fact” the appeal test is PLAINLY WRONG, not wrong.
- Really important stuff about threshold criteria and notably criticism of the phrase “non-accidental injuries” and the need to go to the statutory construction of the threshold criteria
If you aren’t familiar with the term, “split-hearing” is what happens when there is a narrow (although sometimes complex) factual issue to determine in a case involving children, and that resolving that factual dispute is done at a hearing with evidence and cross-examination and a judgment AND THEN the case goes on to a hearing to decide what the Court should do about those facts that have been proved or disproved (what is usually called the Welfare stage)
For the majority of children cases, the hearing about the factual dispute and the welfare dispute (What happened, what should happen next) are all dealt with together, but there are some cases where historically the hearings have been split in two (hence “split hearing”) and had a hearing to decide “What happened” first and then “What should happen next” later.
Indeed, for a while, split-hearings were very much in vogue and the higher courts were keen on them and critical where they had not happened. There are a few reasons for that
- If a parent is accused of injuring a child and it can be proved that they didn’t, the sooner that happens the better
- Everyone can plan for the future of the child KNOWING what happened, rather than speculating about what might have happened and ending up with plans that are “If X, then what should happen next is…. But if Y, then what should happen next is”
- If the Court finds that one parent injured the child and the other didn’t, then the parents have an opportunity to think about whether they want to stay together or split up
- If the Court finds that the parent injured the child, there can then be an assessment of whether that is likely to happen in the future – maybe there would be treatment, maybe having had the Court make those findings frees people up to talk about how the injury happened and those discussions can potentially identify the stress points and triggers and avoid it happening in the future.
Well, over the last year, it seems that the Courts have been getting cold-feet about split-hearings with hints being dropped that they were being used in too many cases and that Courts must be carefully to ensure that they are only used in cases where it really helps.
And of course, nobody has a real clue how a “split-hearing” works in the rigid 26 week timetable – the PLO guidance is clear that the fact that a split hearing is needed or the case involves physical injury isn’t itself a reason to go beyond 26 week. At the moment, it is a struggle to get ONE hearing done within 26 weeks, never mind two.
The Court of Appeal looked at this in Re S, and go the farthest that they have done since the concept of “split-hearings” was introduced to suggest that they have had their day.
To give the background, the care proceedings were issued because of an injury to the head of a one year old child, resulting in two skull fractures. The Local Authority considered that the parents had caused/contributed to the injury (more of this later), the parents saying that this was an accident or some other medical explanation.
In the case, there was an account of the evening leading up to the injury which was demonstrated to be false (as the Judge and the Court of Appeal remind us, just because a person is caught out in a lie on one thing does not mean that they are lying about everything else)
This was an appeal by the Local Authority, because the Judge concluded this
The judge concluded that S suffered significant harm while in the care of her parents and that the harm was caused by an injury. He was not satisfied that either of the parents had deliberately inflicted the injury
They lost the appeal, the Court of Appeal found that it was misconcieved and there was no reason to interfere with the findings. [In essence, the LA had put all of their eggs in the "deliberate harm" basket and didn't satisfy the Judge of that, and hadn't sufficiently explored the possibility that there could have been some form of negligence or carelessness without a deliberate element]
Guidance on split-hearings
- It is by no means clear why it was thought appropriate to have a ‘split hearing’ where discrete facts are severed off from their welfare context. Unless the basis for such a decision is reasoned so that the inevitable delay is justified it will be wrong in principle in public law children proceedings. Even where it is asserted that delay will not be occasioned, the use of split hearings must be confined to those cases where there is a stark or discrete issue to be determined and an early conclusion on that issue will enable the substantive determination (i.e. whether a statutory order is necessary) to be made more expeditiously. The reasons for this are obvious: to remove consideration by the court of the background and contextual circumstances including factors that are relevant to the credibility of witnesses, the reliability of evidence and the section 1(3) CA 1989 welfare factors such as capability and risk, deprives the court of the very material (i.e. secondary facts) upon which findings as to primary fact and social welfare context are often based and tends to undermine the safety of the findings thereby made. It may also adversely impinge on the subsequent welfare and proportionality evaluations by the court as circumstances change and memories fade of the detail and nuances of the evidence that was given weeks or months before.
- I ought to emphasise for the avoidance of doubt that although parallels can be drawn between the use of fact finding hearings in public and private law children proceedings, the appropriate and measured use of fact finding hearings in private law proceedings which are often safety cases, for example involving recent domestic abuse between parents, are not the subject of this court’s consideration in this judgment. An example of this court’s guidance in relation to those proceedings can be found in In the matter of C (Children)  EWCA Civ 994. In private law proceedings it is the court that is defining an aspect of parental responsibility in its determination of the arrangements that are put in place for the child and findings of fact are appropriate, where necessary, to inform that process by reference to the factors in section 1(3) of the 1989 Act and in particular where safety issues have arisen which justify the court’s interference with the article 8 ECHR rights of the family members. In public law children cases where a care order is in issue, the court is being asked to sanction an agency of the state, namely the local authority, being permitted to exercise parental responsibility for a child. The jurisdiction in the court to undertake that task has to be based upon the existence of facts (primary and / or secondary) that satisfy the threshold in section 31 CA 1989. Accordingly, concessions or findings of fact relevant to the threshold question will always be necessary in public law cases alongside such further findings of fact as are necessary to inform the welfare evaluation.
- It ought to be recollected that split hearings became fashionable as a means of expediting the most simple cases where there was only one factual issue to be decided and where the threshold for jurisdiction in section 31 CA 1989 would not be satisfied if a finding could not be made thereby concluding the proceedings (see Re S (A Child)  2 FLR 773 at 775B per Bracewell J). Over time, they also came to be used for the most complex medical causation cases where death or very serious medical issues had arisen and where an accurate medical diagnosis was integral to the future care of the child concerned. For almost all other cases, the procedure is inappropriate. The oft repeated but erroneous justification for them that a split hearing enables a social care assessment to be undertaken is simply poor social work and forensic practice. The justification comes from an era before the present Rules and Practice Directions came into force and can safely be discounted in public law children proceedings save in the most exceptional case.
- Social work assessments are not contingent on facts being identified and found to the civil standard (see, for example Oldham MBC v GW & PW  EWHC 136 (Fam),  2 FLR 597 and Re S (Sexual Abuse Allegations: Local Authority Response)  EWHC Admin 334,  2 FLR 776 per Scott-Baker J at  and ). That is the function of the court not a social worker (Dingley v Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police  UKHC 14 per Lord Hope of Craighead at  and ). Social work assessments are based upon their own professional methodology like any other form of professional risk assessment. In care cases, an appropriate social work assessment and a Cafcass analysis should be undertaken at the earliest possible opportunity to identify relevant background circumstances and context. In so far as it is necessary to express a risk formulation as a precursor to an analysis or a recommendation to the court, that can be done by basing the same on each of the alternative factual scenarios that the court is being asked to consider (see, for example, In the matter of W (Children)  EWCA Civ 644 at ).
- It may be helpful to highlight the fact that a decision to undertake a split hearing is a case management decision to which Part 1 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 [FPR 2010] and Pilot Practice Direction 12A ‘Care, Supervision and Other Part 4 Proceedings: Guide to Case Management (the PLO)’ apply. A split hearing is only justifiable where the delay occasioned is in furtherance of the overriding objective in rule 1 FPR 2010, that is:
i) as a consequence of active case management by the court which includes in accordance with rule 1.4:
“(a) setting timetables […],
(b) identifying at an early stage […] the issues,
(c) deciding promptly (i) which issues need full investigation and hearing and which do not; and (ii) the procedure to be followed in the case;
(d) deciding the order in which issues are to be resolved;
(i) considering the likely benefits of taking a particular step justify the cost of taking it;
(j) dealing with as many aspects of the case as it can on the same occasion;
(m) giving directions to ensure that the case proceeds quickly and efficiently.”
ii) in accordance with the child’s welfare having regard to the timetable for the child within the meaning of that concept in para  of pilot PD12A; and
iii) in accordance with the timetable for proceedings within the meaning of that concept in para  pilot PD12A.
- On the alleged facts of this case, there was no discrete issue which was appropriate for trial without its social or welfare context and delay was the inevitable consequence of the decision to have a split hearing. Given that by rule 1.3 FPR 2010 the parties have a duty to help the court to further the overriding objective, it is all the more surprising that one of the submissions made to this court was that a split hearing was inappropriate. That professional analysis should have been offered to the court below. The benefits and detriments of such a course, if proposed, should be analysed by the children’s guardian. In future, a decision to undertake a split hearing should be reasoned in court at the case management hearing and the reasons should be recorded on the face of the Case Management Order alongside what has always been the good practice of the court which is to settle the issue to be tried on the face of the order
Of course it must be right that the Court ought to have clear thinking and rigour before listing a split hearing and deciding what the benefits are, that’s hard to argue against. But this seems to be a heavy hint that split hearings will rarely be effective.
I have to say that I struggle with this – there clearly was a discrete issue here. If the parents had done nothing wrong, there was clear advantage for everyone in deciding that as soon as possible. If there had been some wrong-doing, then it was important to determine what that was and allow the parents to make decisions about what they put forward as the best future care of the child at the earliest opportunity.
This is exactly the sort of case that split-hearings were meant for, and one has to ask – if the Court of Appeal think a case like this isn’t right for a split hearing, is one left with any split-hearings in public law cases?
So, at a final hearing on week 26, when the Court decide that a child suffered a skull fracture and that this was caused by dad but mum didn’t know about it and did nothing wrong, what exactly is supposed to happen?
Are the Courts going to say that mum ought to have separated from dad and gone it alone months before the Court made its decision? Or is mum to be given half an hour with her lawyers to make a decision whether to leave dad or not?
Another interesting and potentially important development in the case is the discussion about “non-accidental injury”.
What the Court was interested in was whether this term was being used in a sloppy, “catch-all” fashion, and indeed being used differently by the medical professionals and the social work professionals.
When the phrase “non-accidental” is being used, is what is meant simply that the injury is not a result of an action, or does it mean that the parent is culpable, or that the injury was caused deliberately?
It seems that the Local Authority in the case were putting the case on the basis that if the medical evidence was that this was a “non-accidental injury” that the parents had thus inflicted the injury.
Going back to the judicial finding, it is obvious that the Judge at first instance (and the Court of Appeal did not interfere with his discretion) did not make THAT finding
The judge concluded that S suffered significant harm while in the care of her parents and that the harm was caused by an injury. He was not satisfied that either of the parents had deliberately inflicted the injury
On the face of it, that seems unsatisfactory to both sides. If there was an accidental or “innocent” explanation for the injury, then the threshold criteria ought not to have been made out - whilst the skull fractures were significant harm, the harm is not attributable to the care given or not given by the parents not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give. So from the parents viewpoint, why did the Judge find that threshold was met? And from the LA viewpoint, if the Judge did not consider that there was an accidental explanation and found threshold met, how had the injuries occurred? How can anyone plan for the future on that basis?
Is there anything else that the Judge found that helps in understanding what happened to this child, and from there to see whether there is any future risk?
- It was a conceded fact before the judge that a false history of how the harm occurred had been given at the hospital. The false history was subsequently repeated in various degrees of detail to suggest that the child had been in a bouncer suspended from a door in the flat at a height of about half a metre from the ground when a strap broke, the bouncer fell and the child hit her head. That false history was discarded by the family when the child’s father voluntarily went to the police and said that the history previously given was not true. It was also discovered that the strap had been cut (it is said by grandmother) to make it look like it had snapped. A new history was then proffered by the family which was given to the judge in evidence. The evidence was that father was standing holding S in the kitchen behind mother and grandmother when S wriggled and in some way fell to the floor.
- With the possible exception of grandmother’s partner, who was not said to have witnessed anything of relevance, the judge found the family’s account of what happened on the night in question including the timings to be wholly unconvincing. He regarded the grandmother as a particularly unconvincing witness and was satisfied that father, mother and grandmother had conspired to attempt to exculpate father from what had occurred.
- The judge’s ultimate finding was that the grandmother and the parents had lied to the hospital and again to the police and the court i.e. both histories were untrue. He found as a fact that the court had not been told the truth about what had occurred. He found as a fact that something happened to S in the care of her parents (i.e. that the harm was not a true accident) but did not find that either of the parents deliberately injured their child. Having read and heard the evidence he was not satisfied on the balance of probabilities that either parent had deliberately inflicted the injury. That was not a positive finding that exculpated the parents or indeed any other adult. The case management order which purported to record the findings is erroneous if it was intended to suggest otherwise.
- The judge’s conclusion left open the question of how the injury occurred. The judge put down a marker to himself for the future welfare hearing that what had happened “may well involve negligence”. It is clear from the terms of the judgment that he did not find that the parents or any of the adults had been negligent but he opened up that possibility no doubt for future examination in the light of any other evidence that the court may consider at a subsequent hearing.
This is what the Court of Appeal had to say [underlining mine for emphasis]
- It may be obvious to the interested bystander that there was a theoretical range of possibilities relating to what had happened to S: from accidental harm through to deliberate infliction of injury, but that was not the way the case developed in evidence. The neuroradiologist who gave evidence to the court gave his opinion about the range of possibilities in the following terms:
“The skull fracture can occur as a result of accidental injury. In this context fracture most commonly arises from a fall from a carer’s arms and results in an un-displaced unilateral fracture most often of parietal or occipital bone. Skull fractures may also occur as a result of impact in the context of non-accidental head trauma. If the injury is non-accidental, a fracture may also be displaced, comminuted, involves (sic) more than one bone or if there are multiple fractures in the same bone, it is more likely that the injury is non-accidental in origin”
- The local authority chose to pursue deliberate infliction of injury with the witnesses at the hearing and both at that hearing and before this court equated the term non-accidental injury with infliction. The local authority submitted that infliction was not necessarily deliberate infliction, but it is by no means clear that anyone else defined the terminology in that way and that characterisation of the evidence ignored the statutory formulation that the local authority needed to prove. This court was helpfully taken by counsel to the questions put to the witnesses which appear to demonstrate that the local authority assumed that ‘non-accidental injury’ if proved would be deliberate. They did not adequately explore the circumstances of the adults’ care other than to cast doubt on both of the histories that had been given nor did they explore what has come to be known as the attributability element of section 31(2) of the Act. Whether there had been reckless or negligent acts and omissions or what the neuroradiologist meant by the terminology that he had used or the causative mechanisms he had described remain in doubt.
- This court has sympathy both with the judge and the advocates in a situation where the direct evidence from those who were present is false and the local authority rightly assumed the burden of demonstrating that. In doing so, however, they appear to have lost sight of the rest of the case and of the statutory formulation in section 31(2) of the Act.
- The term ‘non-accidental injury’ may be a term of art used by clinicians as a shorthand and I make no criticism of its use but it is a ‘catch-all’ for everything that is not an accident. It is also a tautology: the true distinction is between an accident which is unexpected and unintentional and an injury which involves an element of wrong. That element of wrong may involve a lack of care and / or an intent of a greater or lesser degree that may amount to negligence, recklessness or deliberate infliction. While an analysis of that kind may be helpful to distinguish deliberate infliction from, say, negligence, it is unnecessary in any consideration of whether the threshold criteria are satisfied because what the statute requires is something different namely, findings of fact that at least satisfy the significant harm, attributability and objective standard of care elements of section 31(2).
- The court’s function is to make the findings of fact that it is able on the evidence and then analyse those findings against the statutory formulation. The gloss imported by the use of unexplained legal, clinical or colloquial terms is not helpful to that exercise nor is it necessary for the purposes of section 31(2) to characterise the fact of what happened as negligence, recklessness or in any other way. Just as non-accidental injury is a tautology, ‘accidental injury’ is an oxymoron that is unhelpful as a description. If the term was used during the discussion after the judgment had been given as a description of one of the possibilities of how the harm had been caused, then it should not have been; it being a contradiction in terms. If, as is often the case when a clinical expert describes harm as being a ‘non-accidental injury’, there is a range of factual possibilities, those possibilities should be explored with the expert and the witnesses so that the court can understand which, if any, described mechanism is compatible with the presentation of harm.
- The threshold is not concerned with intent or blame; it is concerned with whether the objective standard of care which it would be reasonable to expect for the child in question has not been provided so that the harm suffered is attributable to the care actually provided. The judge is not limited to the way the case is put by the local authority but if options are not adequately explored a judge may find a vital piece of the jigsaw missing when s/he comes to look at all the evidence in the round.
- This court has not been addressed about the volume of guidance in materials issued by professional bodies (including the medical Royal Colleges) and Government which makes reference to ‘non-accidental injury’. Indeed, counsel for the local authority went so far as to submit that none of that material provided a generally accepted medical or legal definition of the term. Whether that is right or not, it is not necessary for this court to analyse that material because all that is required in a case of this kind is for the court, legal practitioners and experts to have regard to the statutory formulation with which the court is concerned. If other terminology is used in evidence its meaning should be precisely ascertained so that the court knows what is being alleged and advised.
- In this case, the judge was careful to sever the question of whether the harm was an example of a true accident i.e. a chance happening that is by definition unexpected and unintentional, from the question of attributability which in the circumstances of this case was said to include perpetration of harm and lack of protection from harm. The local authority’s case was of (deliberate) infliction by one or the other parent and that was the case they put. They did not succeed in establishing that case. No other possibilities were sufficiently examined to enable the judge to make conclusions upon them. The medical expert had left open the possibility of an accidental cause, albeit that it was unlikely and in that circumstance anything between accident and deliberate infliction must also have been possible. Accordingly, there was no inconsistency between the findings and the evidence and the local authority’s description of the findings in the grounds of appeal are misconceived.
- The judge examined what were conceded before him to be the false explanations for the injury given by those who took S to the hospital which were subsequently repeated by other members of the family and also what was said to be the true history of the events of the night in question which he decided was also false. He directed himself to consider that there may be innocent explanations or explanations that do not attract responsibility for telling an untruth about a fact in issue: the so called Lucas direction (R v Lucas  1 QB 720). Far from failing to consider drawing an inference of attributability from the repeated lies that were told, the judge overtly considered the options and having given himself a Lucas direction concluded that the lies were more likely to be related to their inexperience as parents. Having heard the parents in evidence the judge declined to draw the inference that they had deliberately inflicted injury but did draw the inference that they had failed to protect S by delaying the obtaining of medical treatment.
There is a big hint here for advocates, particularly Local Authority advocates that in any case where harm is disputed, one has to avoid tunnel vision and just exploring the binary possibilities (the parents deliberately injured the child v this child had an accident which simply could not have been helped) and to explore all of the middle ground, and focus particularly on not just the harm but how that harm might, or might not, have been attributable to the parents care.