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composite threshold – a living example

 

I wrote about the difficulties of composite thresholds here http://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/05/28/composite-threshold-documents-in-which-a-tightrope-is-walked/  particularly where a document is produced that sets out what everyone says but doesn’t end up with clarity as the precise way that threshold is said to be met.

 

This judgment by Her Honour Judge Owens  http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B73.html  OCC v B and T 2015 is a really good example of that.

Particularly since the Judge includes a suitably anonymised version of the threshold at the end of the judgment. I commend that, I think it makes far more sense when considering what decisions was made by a Court to see the factual background set out.  I really like it.

The version provided is a composite document, set out in tablular form (and again, I like the way that this is produced, it is really helpful in terms of seeing what the allegation is, where the evidence is for it and what the parents say).

 

But it is a composite document. It doesn’t end up by setting out the findings that the Court was either making by agreement or was asked to adjudicate upon. So it isn’t a final threshold.

And then, there’s this bit in the judgment itself

Threshold is no longer in issue in this case. A composite threshold document has been agreed and the Local Authority accepts that the concessions recorded in that document are sufficient for threshold purposes. They do not therefore seek findings in relation to the issues not accepted on that document and I adopt that threshold document as my threshold findings in this case and make no findings in relation to items 1 (e), 3(a) and (b) on that schedule. A copy of that schedule, suitably redacted in relation to the identities of the parties, is appended to this Judgement

 

All very sensible and practical – the LA deciding not to push for additional findings where there is agreement and the concessions are sufficient.

However, when I look at the composite document, I see that whilst mother accepts all of the matters that remain (3 a) and (3b) were the only bits that she disputed, father was disputing just about EVERYTHING.  And the LA were accepting that they did not seek any findings in relation to matters that were disputed, so effectively all of those matters are just crossed out of the threshold.

Here is what father actually concedes, in totality

 

1(b) I accept arguing which can be seen as verbally abusive but not aggressive.  [Really hard to see in the light of Re A and Re J – and even before then, that this amounts to threshold]

1(c) The mother made allegations of domestic abuse against father but then withdrew them.   [Well, that’s not threshold unless the assertion is that the allegations were true OR that the making of false allegations caused emotional harm to the child, neither of which are asserted]

1(d) Both parents sent abusive text messages and Facebook messages to each other

2 The father had an argument with the Health Visitor because she came to the home for an important meeting without a sign language intepreter  (again, that’s not threshold)

4. The father accepts that he had some convictions, the most recent of which was ten years ago.

 

5. The father accepts that his other children were placed on the Child Protection Register but disputes that this was the right decision.

 

As we’ve previously discussed, it is possible that on a line by line basis, each individual allegation in and of itself would not amount to threshold, but that taken as a totality, it would. But that’s also not the case here. [Given that para 5 as drafted by the LA contains reference to his two older children being adopted, the Court could have been asked to find that the threshold relied upon and found in those proceedings was sufficient to establish a risk of harm from father, depending upon what was in it and how historical it was, but that didn’t happen]

 

Given what the Judge says about threshold  – LA don’t invite Court to make findings on any matters in dispute and that those matters which are accepted are how threshold is established, then those are the only concessions that are agreed by both parents.  The Local Authority could have invited the Court to find that the threshold was met on the basis of the mother’s concessions, and the Judge would then have had to rule on the matters that father disputed, but that’s not what happened. The LA invited the Court to make a finding that threshold was met on the basis of father’s concessions.

Now, just imagine for a moment, drafting a threshold that contains only those matters set out above. As a stand alone document, saying that this is why the children are at risk of significant harm.  It appears to me that this would be very short of threshold.

 

[There are 3 matters that relate chiefly to mother that father does not dispute, so we could add those in. She wasn’t always honest with professionals, she went to a refuge and then went back to father, and refused to go into a refuge just before the Court proceedings were issued.  IF the Court established that father was domestically violent, then those are matters which could add to the threshold, but there isn’t such a finding.  On the threshold that the case has ended up with, the very high point of the findings made is that harsh words were exchanged between mother and father (both verbally and via text messages/facebook) ]

 

I’ll be clear,

(a) The allegations set out by the Local Authority in their original document (the first two columns of the composite document) were more than capable of meeting threshold

(b) From reading the judgment, I would be confident that most, and perhaps all of them, would have been found had the LA pushed for this – the evidence was there to do so

(c) I’m fairly sure that all involved were approaching the case on the basis that it was not in dispute that there had been DV between father and mother and that he posed a risk to the children

(d) But actually there was. Father’s response to threshold disputed this. And that became a live issue as to whether his admissions were sufficient or whether the Court needed to deal with the disputed issues on threshold

(e) In my opinion, the actual concessions made and accepted, are way short of threshold  (particularly threshold for deciding that the children should be permanently separated from their mother – whilst there is only one section 31 threshold criteria it is plain from the Supreme Court in Re B that the Court’s final orders have to be proportionate to the harm suffered or a risk of being suffered.  )

 

I think there was ample evidence for the Court to find that father was a risk to the children and that mother had been subjected to domestic violence and had not been able to protect. And reading the totality of the judgment, I think that’s the basis on which the Court approached the case. Additionally, there were three significant  findings made which could properly go into a finalised threshold, and given that the Judge set these out in passages of her judgment that were explictly considering ‘risk of harm’ I would legitimately be putting them into a final threshold document.  BUT that would have been dependent on the Judge’s paragraph about threshold adding ‘and the specific matters that I found in my judgment in relation to risks of harm to the children’ or something similar.

 

  If they return to the care of their mother, however, I find that the likelihood is that this placement would breakdown due to her inability to apply the required parenting skills to a good enough standard

I find and the only conclusion I can draw is that she is simply not capable of working openly and honestly with the local authority in the best interests of her children.

The stakes are therefore very high indeed for them and the risk of them suffering further disruption and emotional harm is, as I have found, high

 

The Judge also makes comment that mother failed to understand the risk that father poses (and that’s very important, but it is equally important to remember that the Court hasn’t actually made findings about the level of risk father poses, and the adverse findings against him relate to mutual exchanges of harsh words between him and mother. )

 

There is also reference to what was probably the most important incident

On the 9th December 2014 RB moved to a place of safety following an alleged assault on her by ST on 8th December 2014. This assault was witnessed by a member of the public and ST was arrested. The Police records of this assault are at F110-112 and F129 – 144 and I have also seen the DVD recordings of ST’s Police interview and RB’s statement to the Police about this incident.

 

Although that is in the LA threshold document, at 1(d),  it is disputed by the father, and because of the formulation of words in the judgment about threshold (which I’ll repeat here) it is NOT a finding made. The Judge had done sufficient to make a decision about that allegation, and would probably have made the finding if asked, but was not in fact asked to do so.

 

Threshold is no longer in issue in this case. A composite threshold document has been agreed and the Local Authority accepts that the concessions recorded in that document are sufficient for threshold purposes. They do not therefore seek findings in relation to the issues not accepted on that document and I adopt that threshold document as my threshold findings in this case and make no findings in relation to items 1 (e), 3(a) and (b) on that schedule.

 

It is really obvious that the Court is proceeding throughout on the basis that it is established that father is a risk to the children and indeed to the mother.

BUT the threshold findings that were actually made by the Court were astonishingly low – far lower than I suspect anyone involved really grasped. And if there had been a second threshold document, one that went beyond just setting out a Scott Schedule  (we say,she says, he says) and into just setting out the precise allegations that were actually agreed i.e a final threshold, looking at that on a piece of paper would have made it clear that the concessions given were not sufficient to cross threshold and that the Judge would have to be invited to make findings.

IF this father were to be involved in future Court proceedings, someone picking up this judgment might consider that the Court had made findings that he posed a risk to his children and that he had been domestically violent to the mother   (and I’m sure that’s what those involved thought had happened) BUT as a matter of law, the findings against dad that were made were only those things that he admitted to – which amount to an exchange of harsh words with mother and an argument with a Health Visitor.  Would the actual findings that were made by this Court be sufficient to establish a likelihood of harm with future children?

 

I don’t mean to be critical of anyone involved – this is just an illustration of how a composite style threshold can pose a problem. Had a second document that sets out, taking into account just those matters that were accepted, it would have been really plain that the LA needed to go above and beyond just the accepted matters and into asking the Court to make findings on the central issue (was father domestically violent towards the mother and was he a risk to the children?).   I am sure that all involved took those matters as a given – I’m sure that if father had been fighting the allegations he would not have succeeded, but the approach that the concessions themselves were sufficient to meet the threshold doesn’t seem to stack up when you look at it with fresh eyes.

 

There’s a lot of other stuff to praise in this judgment, it is just a shame about that one element.

 

 

 

 

Composite threshold documents – in which, a tightrope is walked

 

Two nightmares of legal blogging this week. The first was the McKenzie Friend case in which I had to write an account of the Court roasting a person for bad behaviour when that person was not just a name on a page but someone that was in my mind a real flesh and blood person.  And now this one, where the judgment is written by my local Designated Family Judge.

That’s something that I dread seeing, because it puts me in an ethical quandary. If I praise it to the skies, I’m a suck-up. If I take a red pen to it and dissect its flaws – well, I’m stupid but I’m not THAT stupid.  So if I see one, I hope that it has nothing of wider relevance and I can ignore it. That avoids the need for me to walk a tightrope.

 

Damn. This one does have some wider relevance. It says things that have been said before and emphasises them, but it also says some things that haven’t been said before and that have been worth saying.

Behold, Suesspicious Minds walks a tightrope, without a safety net. GASP as he wobbles. WONDER if he will plummet to his certain demise?  PUZZLE as to why he has thought up too late that he could have put at the start that this particular article was a Guest post…

 

Why am I going to walk the tightrope for this case?

Firstly, it is the DFJ identifying several flaws in practice and I know that many of my readers practice in Sussex and will come before this DFJ. Forewarned is forearmed, and actually many of these practice issues would, if fixed, make for smoother running of Court hearings. What the Judge has to say about practice issues is important to read.  The less time that the Court has to spend in a hearing on fixing practice issues, the more that everyone can concentrate on the child and the child’s future, and we all want that.

 

Secondly, the DFJ says things about composite threshold documents which have wider implications for practitioners in all parts of the country.  What the DFJ says about composite threshold documents is, in my opinion, very long overdue, and I can’t think of an authority which sets out just how problematic they have become.

So I’d recommend that all Sussex practitioners put this judgment high on their “to-read” pile, and I have little doubt that these issues are troubling other Judges across the country and that similar judgments will be following, so it should go on everyone’s “to-read” pile, which will for many of you involve getting a stepladder and sliding the authority in the ever-decreasing gap between the top of the pile and the aertexed ceiling of the office.  (Top tip – avoid starting the pile directly under a ceiling fan)

 

East Sussex County Council v BH and Others 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B57.html

 

A quick note, for readers who aren’t lawyers. (Ah, how I envy you all).

The threshold document is a 2 page document prepared by the Local Authority setting out the harm that the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering and the allegations/facts that lead to that. The parents both respond to that, with the help of their lawyers. The Local Authority then prepare a final, or composite threshold document that sets out exactly what is agreed.

The problem is, and this isn’t a Sussex problem – I’ve seen it all over the county, and it has always irked me,  that often what you end up with is a “He said, she said” document, that doesn’t set out what the parties agree happened, so much as just squash the parents responses in next to the Local Authority allegation.

 

I’ll give you an example.  We are going to work on the basis of a single sentence within the LA threshold, and for illustrative purposes it is going to be  “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”

[Pedantic note – I originally used ‘jumps’ as in the typist sentence, but because the threshold is in the past tense, it made me wince every time, so I had to go back and change it. Also, because my father was a speed typist and taught me with the sentence  “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’s back”  to put a punctuation mark into the mix, I felt guilty for not using that version. ]

[That is NOT real threshold, before anyone rings the Daily Mail and claims that children are taken into care as a result of athletic foxes]

 

Mother’s response is “It is accepted by the mother that she does own a dog, it is accepted that on occasions the dog does enjoy a sleep but on other occasions he leads a full and active life. On the morning in question, the mother does not recall the state of the dog’s alertness. It is accepted that a fox did jump over the dog. The mother considers that the fox was orange.  The mother had been meaning to shut the back door, which would have prevented the fox entering the house, but at that moment the postman rang the bell at the front-door and she had to attend to that.”

 

Father’s response is  “It is accepted by the father that on one occasion, a fox entered the home. This was through a window that had been broken the night before by a gang of youths, father did a week later report that criminal damage to the police. The fox did move swiftly and it was a brownish-orange colour.  The fox did leap over a member of the household, though father tried to prevent it, he was holding a jar of Branston pickle at the time and his grip was impaired. What was leapt over, however, was not the dog, but the cat”

 

And the composite threshold document then becomes.

 

Paragraph 7.  The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog

Mother’s response is “It is accepted by the mother that she does own a dog, it is accepted that on occasions the dog does enjoy a sleep but on other occasions he leads a full and active life. On the morning in question, the mother does not recall the state of the dog’s alertness. It is accepted that a fox did jump over the dog. The mother considers that the fox was orange.  The mother had been meaning to shut the back door, which would have prevented the fox entering the house, but at that moment the postman rang the bell at the front-door and she had to attend to that.”

Father’s response is  “It is accepted by the father that on one occasion, a fox entered the home. This was through a window that had been broken the night before by a gang of youths, father did a week later report that criminal damage to the police. The fox did move swiftly and it was a brownish-orange colour.  The fox did leap over a member of the household, though father tried to prevent it, he was holding a jar of Branston pickle at the time and his grip was impaired. What was leapt over, however, was not the dog, but the cat”

 

Not only is that cumbersome and unwieldy, but it doesn’t actually tell you anything about what actually happened.  It could instead be put like this.

 

Paragraph 7.  Something happened. Nobody agrees what, but they all agree that something happened.

And you can end up with two pages of long-winded “Something happened. Nobody agrees what” as being apparently the factual basis on which the Court is invited to make final orders – serious final orders.

When a Judge comes to hear the case, and considers what the risk of a future episode of a lazy dog being jumped over by a fox might be, how on earth does that composite threshold help anyone?

 

This is a problem on two fronts. Firstly, there’s a tendency in responses to threshold to put in extraneous detail and mitigation, when that could be in a statement instead. If the response focussed on – is the allegation accepted in full, accepted in part or denied?  And if accepted in part, provide a form of words which would be acceptable to your client, we would avoid much of the superfluous detail that clouds the issues.  In this case – was there a dog, was there a fox, did the dog jump over the fox?

Secondly, there’s a failure by the person drafting the final composite threshold (that’s someone like me, and even though I hate it, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it) to not be able to strip away all the superfluous detail and mitigation, to be able to get to the core of what form of wording would be agreed.

 

For example, here are three acceptable composite documents.

 

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog   – this is accepted

The fox jumped over the dog and the dog showed no later ill-effects – this is accepted

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog – this is denied by the parents and the Court is asked to make a finding

 

(and a fourth, which the allegation is disputed, and the Local Authority agree to remove it from the document.   There are some important issues about whether you’d go for option 3 or option 4 and whether a parents concessions are sufficient – I’ve written about it here  http://www.jordanpublishing.co.uk/practice-areas/family/news_and_comment/view-from-the-foot-of-the-tower-horse-trading-and-threshold-concessions#.VWa9FEY1Ouc)

 

So, for parents lawyers, please please please stop your documents being pleas of mitigation, and hone in on the task of ‘is this agreed, partially agreed and here’s my form of words, or denied’ .  It’s a response to threshold, not a plea of mitigation.  And for me, and those like me – produce a final threshold document that actually sets out for the Judge (and those to read it in years to come), what the AGREED basis for the order is, and where there is not agreement, set out what finding is sought from the Court.

 

The Judge deals with this without the need for fox and dog imagery.

 

  • As frequently happens, a “composite threshold document” had been completed in a cut-and-paste fashion. By that I mean the document set out the evidence relied upon by the local authority, together with the responses and explanations of each parent in turn. However, whilst it was clear from the document that the threshold was met to the requisite standard, the replies when examined clearly revealed that a number of facts relied upon were not accepted, and not capable of being resolved. There was no indication to me, even at the eleventh hour, as to what I was being expected to determine from the outstanding facts and matters which were in dispute. Threshold must be thought out, and any issues in need of determination identified at the earliest possible stage and the PLO applies. It is entirely unsatisfactory to present a court at the start of a final hearing with matters relied upon which have not been either agreed or identified for determination. Precious time was therefore taken up on this issue alone. Either a threshold is agreed or it is not at the earliest possible stage, in which case the court takes a view. In the event the parties managed to agree threshold at the start of the hearing.

 

Finally, the judgment makes a point about judicial reading time. There is never enough of it allocated, but the parties don’t help by not estimating it properly. We are obliged to put in the case summary how much judicial reading time is needed.  That bit is never nice to fill in – if you are realistic, and put that for an IRH the Court ought to read everything, and have a grasp and knowledge of it, then for a 350 page bundle, a minute a page gives you a 6 hour reading time.  A minute a page might be breezy for some parts of the bundle but others might take much longer than that.  Handwritten medical notes for example… Or a page of heavy analysis or cross-references – you might have to slow down to check that the quotations from other documents are fair and representative rather than cherry picked and misleading.

 

Do you think any Judge is going to thank you for putting a 6 hour – or a cut-down slightly unrealistic 3 hour (30 seconds per page) time estimate for a hearing that is listed for an hour?  So we all fudge and put 2 hours…

If judicial reading time is included, advocates might consider how long it took them to prepare the case for hearing in terms of reading time and allocate judicial reading time accordingly.

 

Of course, if we had the old days of special prep SIPS forms, a Judge could tackle this by saying that the reading time that counsel would get paid for would not exceed the reading time allocated to the Judge. That would have made for more accurate estimates of judicial reading time…

 

 

 

Only just over the threshold

 

I am tending to think that there’s a repositioning of the threshold criteria going on at the moment. It is a little hard to call, since there’s always been the unspoken background that what constitutes threshold in Liverpool doesn’t necessarily be the same things that consitute threshold in Torquay. But it feels that Re A and Re J are a subtle raising of the bar.

When a bar is raised, it can be tricky to work out exactly where that bar now is. We know that on the facts of Re A, threshold was not made out, but we don’t know if it was miles short or inches short.

Which is why when the President decides a case and says that the threshold criteria was satisfied but only just, it gives us some potentially useful information.

 

Leeds City Council v M and others 2015   http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/27.html  is the follow-up to the President’s judgment on Female Genital Mutilation (you may remember, this was the case where that was alleged, and the President had to decide (a) if it had happened (no) (b) whether it could amount to threshold (yes) (c) Would it amount to risk of harm to a male child (no) and (d) if it had happened, would it by itself justify adoption (no)

 

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/01/14/fgm-an-important-authority/

The President’s first judgment pre-dated Re A, which is what makes me think that there’s a shift in thinking. The President here didn’t seem to be struggling with the idea that domestic violence, even if not of the most serious nature could amount to significant harm:-

 

“(i) The local authority is unable on the evidence to establish that G (as I shall refer to her) either has been or is at risk of being subjected to any form of female genital mutilation.

(ii) There was a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F (as I shall refer to them) was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety.

(iii) Given all the facts as I find them, including but not limited to (i) and (ii) above, threshold is established.

The President had said in the first case that adoption, the LA’s plan, was not proportionate, and was seeking an alternative resolution. This case is that resolution.

In giving his final judgment, the President identified four key areas where the LA contended threshold was met:-

1. Mother’s mental health

2. Domestic violence

3. Neglect and physical abuse

4. Lack of cooperation / engagement

Remember, the President concluded that threshold WAS met, but only just.

I am prepared to accept, in the light of my findings, that threshold is established, though not by a very large margin.

So, looking at things in detail

 

1. Mother’s mental health

The psychiatrist, Dr T, made the diagnosis that mother had ‘schizo-affective disorder’, currently in remission, but a lifelong condition vulnerable to relapse caused by stress. Dr T said at least 12 months’ stability in M’s condition was essential if B and G were to be safe in her care and that the necessary period had not yet elapsed. If stability and compliance could not be maintained over that length of time, it would be “very risky” for them to be returned to her care

The Judge accepted Dr T’s evidence and opinion.

 

  • I accept that there has been improvement in M’s mental health. But Dr T’s evidence, which I accept, is clear, compelling and withstood all challenge. It would be irresponsible not to heed and give effect to it. In my judgment, M is not at present able to look after B and G.

[You might look at that and say that this in and of itself is sufficient to cross the threshold – there’s a factual matrix which allows the Court to establish that there is a risk of significant harm – remember that if a factual matrix is established, the risk itself does not have to be more likely than not, it is sufficient to be a risk which cannot sensibly be ignored, as decided by the House of Lords in H and R 1996. ]

 

2. Domestic violence

 

The mother had made allegations of domestic violence against the father, but later retracted them. The Court had heard evidence from mother and father.

My conclusion, having carefully considered the mass of material put to me and the helpfully detailed submissions from counsel, is that there was, as I have said, a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety. It was, as Mr Ekaney submits, at the lower end of the scale. Beyond that it would not be right to go.

 

Remembering that the definition of ‘harm’ was expanded in the Children Act 1989  to include the words in bold  “harm” means ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development [including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another];     – the words being added in the Adoption and Children Act 2002. So a child being exposed to domestic violence, or at risk of being so exposed can be considered to have suffered harm, or risk of such harm – the issue really being whether it is significant.  The President does not, in his judgment, specify whether his conclusion about domestic violence here amounted to significant harm or the risk thereof.  The best we can do is go back to this bit

“(i) The local authority is unable on the evidence to establish that G (as I shall refer to her) either has been or is at risk of being subjected to any form of female genital mutilation.

(ii) There was a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F (as I shall refer to them) was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety.

(iii) Given all the facts as I find them, including but not limited to (i) and (ii) above, threshold is established.

 

 

and suggest that domestic violence was part of the factual matrix that led the President to conclude that threshold was crossed, though not by a very large margin.

 

3. Neglect and physical abuse

 

This is the section where you get to see the Re A dynamics play out. There are facts established to show what happened to the children

There were two very specific allegations of neglect, amongst more general complaints

in October 2013, G was taken to nursery with spare clothes that were damp, soiled and smelled of urine; much more significant, on 7 November 2013 M, it is said, abandoned G in an alleyway in the city centre, where she was found cold, wet and very distressed. 

[The mother accepted the abandonment. G was born in July 2011, remember]

 

There is no doubt that B and G experienced instability and inconsistency of care, brought about by M’s recurrent mental health difficulties and F’s limited ability to cope with them. There were the specific instances of neglect I have already referred to.  To the extent that there was marital discord between F and M, B and G were exposed to it. I think it is probable that on a few occasions B and G were exposed to mild chastisement – but nothing more serious.

 

But as Re A showed us, establishing a contested (or accepted fact) as being proven is only half of the story. The next stage is for the Local Authority to satisfy the Court that what happened caused the children harm.

In this case, the Guardian considered that the children did not present as having been damaged by their experiences

“Without exception these two children have been described in very positive ways; it is clear they are delightful and endearing children who make a good impression on anyone who meets them. It is also clear that the first impressions of these children did not signify children who had been exposed to neglect, or an abusive home environment. They appeared to have been protected from the worst excesses of the mother’s mental health challenges. They have experienced positive parenting.”

 

The President says

I entirely agree. The guardian’s analysis accords with everything I have read and heard.

What is important, however, is the fact that, as I have already found, none of this seems to have had any significant or prolonged impact on either B or G – so nothing they have been exposed to can have been that serious.

 

The President doesn’t say so explicitly (which is somewhat vexing for those of us who are trying to decipher the Delphic offerings), but I think that that final remark can be read to mean that he did not accept that the threshold was made out on the basis of the neglect aspects.

Frankly, I think abandoning a 2 1/2 year old child in an alleyway is significant harm, but it appears that I am wrong about that.

 

Firstly, this troubles me because that sort of thing also feeds into risk of future harm, and of course a child isn’t yet showing the ill-effects of future harm. This approach seems to ignore future harm entirely.

The other thing that concerns me about this approach is that I can forsee that we are ending up with a different threshold criteria for a resilient child, who is exposed to poor parenting but has inner qualities that allow them to cope, and a fragile child whose reaction to the same parenting is marked and plain to see.  And it also requires that the child is showing the effects of the harm that they have suffered in a very visible and measurable way – I know that the neuroscience is controversial, but there is at least some evidence to suggest that neglect has much longer repercussions than the immediate visible impact.

 

4. Lack of cooperation / engagement

 

Here the parents made concessions

 

 

  • M admits poor engagement with professionals due to her mental health problems.
  • F accepts that, prior to the children being taken into care, he failed to engage and co-operate with the local authority and that this led to him adopting what was understandably perceived as a controlling attitude towards M. This, I accept, was driven by the two factors to which Mr Ekaney drew attention. The first was F’s perplexity about the family situation, largely caused by his failure to recognise the nature and extent of and inability to understand M’s mental health difficulties. The other was F’s desire to protect his family and his fear, from his perspective well-founded fear, that B and G would be removed from their care. Since B and G were taken into care, F’s attitude has changed. There has been, as Mr Ekaney puts it, a high level of co-operation and engagement with the local authority, coupled with a high level of commitment to B and G. And, as I accept, this is not due to any compulsion; it reflects F’s growing realisation and acceptance of the underlying realities.
  • Given M’s and F’s concessions, which appropriately reflect the reality of what was going on, there is no need for me to make any further findings.

 

[Well, there is a slight need – again, I am assuming that this was not found to have amounted to significant harm or the risk of significant harm, but it is rather difficult to say for certain, because the judgment doesn’t outline it.  To be honest, I do not envy the Local Authority advocate who had to draw up a final settled threshold based on this judgment. I THINK that the totality of the judgment suggests that findings of fact were made across points 1-4, but only those in points 1 and 2 amounted also to findings of significant harm. But I would not race to Paddy Power with bundles* of fivers to back that conclusion. My actual bet would be that over the next year, the number of cases where threshold is agreed rather than fought out will dramatically reduce. And as we can’t have fact finding hearings any more, thresholds will be fought out at final hearings. How’s that going to work out for 26 weeks, I wonder?]

 

 

The President ruled that whilst mother could not care for the children now or within their timescales, the father could and should be given that opportunity, and the children would be placed with him under Supervision Orders.

So there we have it, on these facts, the case crossed the threshold, but not by a very large margin.

 

 

*IF I did happen to be going to the bookies with bundles of fivers, I would ensure that in accordance with Practice Direction 27 there were (a) no more than 350 of them (b) They were A4 sized  and (c) that they were printed only on one side. Which explains why Paddy Power doesn’t want me going in there any more.

 

A tottering edifice built on inadequate foundations

The President’s decision in Re A (a child) 2015 in which the Court were asked to make a Care Order and Placement Order on a child who was not quite a year old, and refused to do so – even more significantly finding that the threshold criteria for making such orders were not made out, and castigating professionals for sloppy thinking and lack of rigour in their analysis of significant harm.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/11.html

 

(It comes pretty close to how I expected the Supreme Court to have dealt with threshold in the Re B case, but in the event, Baroness Hale was the only one who went near that)

 

Skipping ahead to the core analysis and decision on threshold and the applications:-

 

  1. I have gone through the local authority’s various concerns in some detail. As I have explained, many of the local authority’s allegations have been abandoned or cannot, for the reasons I have given, be substantiated. What is left? I can summarise it as follows:

    i) The father is immature and can sometimes act irresponsibly. As the history of his relationships with both the mother and J illustrate all too clearly, he seems to have a tendency to fall very quickly into unsatisfactory and short-lived relationships.

    ii) In some instances, though not to the extent alleged by the local authority, the father has minimised or played down matters which were properly of concern to the local authority. He has not always been open and honest with professionals. He failed to appreciate the significance of his actions in relation to J.

    iii) To an extent the father is lacking in insight regarding A’s needs and minimises some aspects of his character and behaviours which may bear adversely on A.

    iv) On occasions the father drinks to excess. On occasions he has taken cannabis. There have been episodes of domestic discord between the father, his mother and his step-father, involving the police and, on occasions, actual violence.

    As against that, I should record that on matters of fact I found the father to be a truthful and, for the most part, reliable historian.

  2. What does this amount to? Does it suffice to establish a real possibility that A will suffer significant harm? Even if it does, has the local authority established that A’s welfare requires that he be adopted, that “nothing else will do”?
  3. In my judgment, the answer to each of these latter two questions is No. My essential reasoning is two-fold. First, the many flaws in the local authority’s case to which I have already referred go a very long way to weakening its case. Taking account of all the evidence, and surveying the wide canvass, the real picture is very different from that which the local authority would have had me accept. Secondly, and having had the advantage of hearing the father and his mother give evidence, I cannot accept that the father presents the kind of risk to A which gives rise to a real possibility of A suffering significant harm, let alone the degree of risk which would have to be demonstrated to justify a plan for adoption. I say that taking full account of all the father’s faults but also factoring in the positives identified by SW1 and giving appropriate weight to the degree of commitment to A the father has demonstrated in contact.
  4. I can accept that the father may not be the best of parents, he may be a less than suitable role model, but that is not enough to justify a care order let alone adoption. We must guard against the risk of social engineering, and that, in my judgment is what, in truth, I would be doing if I was to remove A permanently from his father’s care.

 

And later

I am very conscious that in coming to this conclusion I am departing from the views and recommendations not merely of the local authority (that is, of SW1, SW2 and TM) but also of A’s guardian, CG. But I have to have regard to a number of factors to which I have already draw attention:

i) In a significant number of very material respects the local authority has simply failed to prove the factual underpinning of its case.

ii) SW1’s work was seriously flawed. Neither SW2 nor CG seems to have explored or analysed in any detail the underlying factual basis of the local authority’s case. In large part they simply accepted SW1’s factual assumptions. Insofar as they conducted independent investigations with the father, each met him only once, SW2 for about 75-80 minutes, CG for only 45 minutes.

iii) The local authority was too willing to believe the worst of the father, which led to it being unduly dismissive of what he was saying.

iv) The local authority failed to link the facts it relied upon with its assertions that A was at risk. Nor did CG.

v) The local authority and CG did not sufficiently reappraise the case once it had become clear that the father was no longer in a relationship with either the mother or J.

For all these reasons I am entitled, in my judgment, to come to a different conclusion. My duty is to come to my own decision having regard to all the evidence, and, for reasons which will by now be apparent, I am driven to conclusions other than those shared by the local authority and CG.

 

 

A lot to cover in this, but let’s start with the Children’s Guardian. This read to me like a Guardian who saw which way the wind was blowing and jumped off “HMS Adoption Full Speed Ahead” and onto the “good ship Naughty Local Authority”   (this is one of my pet hates – by all means criticise a Local Authority and challenge them on poor work, but don’t do it after the event)

We have a Guardian who was saying to the President that she was “appalled” by the social work assessments and evidence, but in her written evidence to the Court was supporting their conclusions and saying there wasn’t a need for any further assessments.

  1. On 6 October 2014 CG completed her initial case analysis. It is striking for what it did not say. In her oral evidence to me, CG described herself as being “extremely concerned” by the assessments. She was, she said, and this was her own, unprompted, word, “appalled”, not merely because of the local authority’s delay in issuing the proceedings but also because of the poor quality of the assessments, both the assessment of the father and the assessment of the paternal grandmother and step-grandfather. Nothing of this is to be found, however, in her initial case analysis. Having summarised what was reported by the local authority, she turned to the assessment of the father, which she described as “negative” and as highlighting various concerns, which she then enumerated. She said:

    “Taking into consideration all of the information contained within the documentation filed with the Court by the Local Authority I do not consider that any further assessment of either parent will assist in determining the long term plans for A.”

    Having expressed concerns about the local authority’s delay from 17 February 2014 to 16 September 2014 in issuing proceedings, she identified the need for any other potential kinship carers to be identified and assessed and recommended the making of an interim care order.

  2. The letter from Mr Leigh had, as we have seen, referred to the guardian being “most concerned at the social work exhibited in this case” but it focused on the issue of delay. In her oral evidence to me, CG said that she had brought her concerns about the quality of the assessments to the attention of the local authority’s representatives when the matter was back at court on 6 October 2014. No doubt she did, but what is far from clear is the extent to which, if at all, her concerns were articulated, either to the other parties or to Judge Taylor. I am driven to the unhappy conclusion that whatever may have been said was wholly inadequate to bring home, either to this very experienced family judge or to the parties, the guardian’s real views about the inadequacy of the assessments. The order made following the hearing recorded the guardian only as having “significant concerns regarding the delay” and as wishing matters to be concluded “swiftly”.

 

The Authority is named, but social workers are not. . I know that this vexes people, so given that it was the President who wrote the guidance saying social workers should be named AND that this judgment is a mullering, I’ll allow him to say in his own words why he decided that

 

  1. It will be noticed that I have, quite deliberately, not identified either SW1 or SW2 or TM, though their employer has, equally deliberately, been named. There is, in principle, every reason why public authorities and their employees should be named, not least when there have been failings as serious as those chronicled here. But in the case of local authorities there is a problem which has to be acknowledged.
  2. Ultimate responsibility for such failings often lies much higher up the hierarchy, with those who, if experience is anything to go by, are almost invariably completely invisible in court. The present case is a good example. Only SW1, SW2 and TM were exposed to the forensic process, although much of the responsibility for what I have had to catalogue undoubtedly lies with other, more senior, figures. Why, to take her as an example, should the hapless SW1 be exposed to public criticism and run the risk of being scapegoated when, as it might be thought, anonymous and unidentified senior management should never have put someone so inexperienced in charge of such a demanding case. And why should the social workers SW1, SW2 and TM be pilloried when the legal department, which reviewed and presumably passed the exceedingly unsatisfactory assessments, remains, like senior management, anonymous beneath the radar? It is Darlington Borough Council and its senior management that are to blame, not only SW1, SW2 and TM. It would be unjust to SW1, SW2 and TM to name and shame them when others are not similarly exposed.
  3. CG stands in a rather different position. I have expressed various criticisms of her: see paragraphs 39-40, 49 and 97 above. But it would be unfair and unjust to identify her if others are not.

Looking now at some of the detail, although much is fact specific, the President is really attacking a wider malaise, in that there was an approach here in relation to threshold which put in almost everything negative about the parents that one could think of, without proper consideration of these two issues:-

1. Could those things be proved? And proved properly, not merely relying on hearsay?

and

2. Even if proved, did they go to establishing that the child had suffered harm or was at risk of suffering harm?

To highlight one example, the father in the case had a conviction, when he was 17 for having sex with a girl who was 13. He accepted that, although said that he had not known her age at the time. The offence was nine years ago.

In her witness statement SW1 said much the same. I need not set it all out. Two passages suffice:

“[He] has failed to work openly and honestly with the Local Authority, as has his mother and her partner. [His] acceptance and understanding of the severity of the offence … continues to cause the Local Authority significant concern …

Despite several attempts of advising [him] that the Local Authority acknowledge that this offence was committed a significant period of time ago, he was unable to acknowledge the significance of this. A requires appropriate role models within his life whereby he is given the opportunity to learn socially acceptable behaviours. It appears [the father] fails to acknowledge the immoral nature of this offence, and as he did not receive a criminal conviction, feels this incident is not significant, nor is it in the interests of A for this to be explored further.”

 

That is the sort of thing that one does see in social work statements and assessments fairly often, and it is perhaps not a huge surprise that the social workers considered this something of a roadblock to their work with father and whether they could trust him.

The President puts them right, as falling foul of the second question above. They could prove it, yet, but did it MATTER? Was it harm?

  1. There are two things about this which, to speak plainly, are quite extraordinary. First, what is the relevance of the assertion that the offence he committed was “immoral”? The city fathers of Darlington and Darlington’s Director of Social Services are not guardians of morality. Nor is this court. The justification for State intervention is harm to children, not parental immorality. Secondly, how does any of this translate through to an anticipation of harm to A? The social worker ruminates on the “current risk he poses” to “vulnerable young women”? What has that got to do with care proceedings in relation to the father’s one year old son? It is not suggested that there is any risk of the father abusing A. The social worker’s analysis is incoherent.
  2. The schedule of findings asserts (W1) that the father “minimises the significance of these events”. Perhaps he does. But where does this take the local authority? I sought elucidation from both TM and SW2. Their answer was two-fold. First, that the father’s trivialisation of what he had done would inhibit his ability to protect A were A to be at risk of future sexual abuse by others. Secondly, that it would prevent him instilling in A a proper understanding of society’s values. With all respect to those propounding such views, the first is far too speculative to justify care proceedings and the second falls foul of the fundamental principle referred to in paragraphs 14-17 above.
  3. It is an undoubted fact of life that many youths and young men have sexual intercourse with under-age girls. But if such behaviour were to be treated without more as grounds for care proceedings years later, the system would be overwhelmed. Some 17 year old men who have sexual intercourse with 13 year old girls may have significantly distorted views about sex and children, and therefore pose a risk to their own children of whatever age or gender, but that is not automatically true of all such men. The local authority must prove that the facts as proved give rise to a risk of significant harm to this child A. It has failed to do so, proceeding on an assumption that is not supported by evidence. The father has not helped himself by his behaviour towards the social workers, but the burden of proof is on the local authority, not on him. The fact that he was rude to the social workers does not absolve the local authority of the obligation to prove that there is a risk of significant harm. It has failed to do so.
  4. Many children, unhappily, have parents who are far from being good role models. But being an inadequate or even a bad role model is not a ground for making care orders, let alone adoption orders.

 

That is an illustration of the sort of thing that peppered the threshold, and the President really encapsulates the issue in this line here

 

9. It is a common feature of care cases that a local authority asserts that a parent does not admit, recognise or acknowledge something or does not recognise or acknowledge the local authority’s concern about something. If the ‘thing’ is put in issue, the local authority must both prove the ‘thing’ and establish that it has the significance attributed to it by the local authority.

 

and then in paragraph 10

The schedule of findings in the present case contains, as we shall see, allegations in relation to the father that “he appears to have” lied or colluded, that various people have “stated” or “reported” things, and that “there is an allegation”. With all respect to counsel, this form of allegation, which one sees far too often in such documents, is wrong and should never be used. It confuses the crucial distinction, once upon a time, though no longer, spelt out in the rules of pleading and well understood, between an assertion of fact and the evidence needed to prove the assertion. What do the words “he appears to have lied” or “X reports that he did Y” mean? More important, where does it take one? The relevant allegation is not that “he appears to have lied” or “X reports”; the relevant allegation, if there is evidence to support it, is surely that “he lied” or “he did Y”.

  1. Failure to understand these principles and to analyse the case accordingly can lead, as here, to the unwelcome realisation that a seemingly impressive case is, in truth, a tottering edifice built on inadequate foundations.

12. The second fundamentally important point is the need to link the facts relied upon by the local authority with its case on threshold, the need to demonstrate why, as the local authority asserts, facts A + B + C justify the conclusion that the child has suffered, or is at risk of suffering, significant harm of types X, Y or Z. Sometimes the linkage will be obvious, as where the facts proved establish physical harm. But the linkage may be very much less obvious where the allegation is only that the child is at risk of suffering emotional harm or, as in the present case, at risk of suffering neglect. In the present case, as we shall see, an important element of the local authority’s case was that the father “lacks honesty with professionals”, “minimises matters of importance” and “is immature and lacks insight of issues of importance”. May be. But how does this feed through into a conclusion that A is at risk of neglect? The conclusion does not follow naturally from the premise. The local authority’s evidence and submissions must set out the argument and explain explicitly why it is said that, in the particular case, the conclusion indeed follows from the facts. Here, as we shall see, the local authority conspicuously failed to do so.

What we don’t know, to be fair, is whether this mealy-mouthed threshold document which was a tottering edifice was as drafted by the Local Authority, or the composite document that ends up being produced as an ‘agreed threshold’  – I often see responses to threshold which purport to be an agreed threshold but the revised version is so watered down and wishy washy that it no longer meets the test.  “seemed”, “appeared”  “the child said X but father denies it”, are all the sorts of things that either end up being inserted in an “agreed” threshold to remove argument and dispute OR to be put in to the document in the first place with a view to the threshold not being controversial.

After the opening bit of a threshold document that tells you the child’s name and date of birth and parents, every other paragraph should be  sharply focussed on:-

This is an allegation that can be proved and if proved would demonstrate that the child had suffered significant harm, or is at risk of significant harm.

 

As the President points out, where the case becomes dominated by the fringe issues of whether a parent has insight, or is truthful, or is open and honest, or is working with professionals, one loses sight of the actual statutory test that we are working to.  These things may have some value  (though less than is believed) when deciding on the right orders ONCE threshold is crossed, but they have no probative weight in deciding WHETHER threshold is crossed.

 

I have noticed over the last fifteen years a real shift in litigation about care proceedings from scrapping over every single allegation and inch of threshold to a rush to get threshold accepted and resolved, ideally at the first hearing, and all of the litigation being about future disposal and care plan. The President is right – it is rigour in analysing threshold and whether it is met and how which enables the Court to properly decide whether the State should be intervening at all.

 

Going back to detail, there was substantial play made of the father’s membership of the English Defence League, and it gets crowbarred into the threshold document.

  1. In her statement SW1 returned to the same theme. I need set out only the key passages:

    “the immoral nature of the values and beliefs of members of the EDL and the violence within the protests EDL members engage in is inappropriate and supports inflicting violence injury to innocent members of the Muslim heritage …

    … it is commonly known that this barbaric protestor group promote ignorance and violence in respect of the muslim community … By all means, the assessing social worker supports equality, difference of opinion and that not all races and cultures agree with one another’s beliefs and views. What cannot be condoned however is expressing these beliefs through violence, irrational behaviour and inflicting physical and psychological pain against others due to their religion, the core beliefs and subfocus of the English Defence League. A should reside within an environment that supports difference, equality and independence. He needs to be taught how to express his views systematically and in a socially acceptable way. A should not reside within an environment whereby violence is openly condoned, supported and practiced. [The father] and J need to appreciate this is the twenty first century, the world is a diverse place whereby all individuals should feel accepted, regardless of their ethnic background, race and origin.”

  2. In the schedule of findings the allegation (paragraph 5) is that the father “has been a member of the English Defence League” and that the mother “has previously stated that he has been the target of serious threats to his person and home.”
  3. As in relation to what is said about the father’s previous sexual activity, I find much of this quite extraordinary. The mere fact, if fact it be, that the father was a member, probably only for a short time, of the EDL is neither here nor there, whatever one may think of its beliefs and policies. It is concerning to see the local authority again harping on about the allegedly “immoral” aspects of the father’s behaviour. I refer again to what was said in In re B, both by Lord Wilson of Culworth JSC and by Baroness Hale of Richmond JSC. Membership of an extremist group such as the EDL is not, without more, any basis for care proceedings. Very properly, by the end of the hearing Mr Oliver had abandoned this part of the local authority’s case. Not before time: it should never have been part of its case. That the local authority should have thought that it could, and that its case should have been expressed in the language used by SW1, much of it endorsed by TM, is concerning.
  4. If it really were the case that the father was at risk of serious threats to his person and home, that might be a very different matter, though it is not easy to see why the appropriate remedy for such threats should be the adoption of A rather than the provision of suitable security arrangements. Be that as it may, the local authority has in my judgment failed to establish that such threats were ever uttered with any serious intent, that, if they were, there remains any continuing risk to either the father or his family, or that the risk, if any, is such as to justify its concerns. It is, after all, noteworthy that there is no suggestion that there has been any actual attempt either to harm the father or to damage his home.

 

The President was also dismissive of the items in the threshold relating to the father drinking and smoking cannabis

  1. It is further said that the father “has a history of use of illegal drugs”, that “alcohol played a part in an incident on 3 December 2014″, that his mother “says that it [alcohol] affects his temper” and that he “failed to disclose that there was a police search of the property … where he was a tenant during which there was discovered 4 cannabis plants and 18 buds on 24 April 2014″.
  2. I have no doubt that the father on occasion drinks to excess, but not to such an extent as to justify care proceedings. He may have taken cannabis on occasions, but the reality is that many parents smoke cannabis on occasions without their children coming to any harm. The police search was of a property which at the time was tenanted and there is nothing to suggest that the father was in any way complicit. These allegations take the local authority nowhere. Parental abuse of alcohol or drugs of itself and without more is no basis for taking children into care.

 

Okay, say the Local Authority – you’re going to strike out the sexual offence, the lack of insight, the lack of honesty, the alcohol and drug misuse – but we’d still rely on the domestic violence. Not so fast…

I accept, and find, that there have on occasions been episodes of domestic discord between the father, his mother and more particularly his step-father, that drink has played a significant part in this, that the police have on occasions been called out, and that there was a particularly physical confrontation with violence on 3 December 2013. I accept also that there was some lack of frankness on the part of both the father and his mother in relation to the accounts they gave the local authority of that incident. This history, however, needs to be kept in perspective. Neither the number nor the frequency nor the gravity of these incidents is such, in my judgment, as to cause any major concern. Moreover, it is clear to me, having heard their evidence and watched them carefully throughout the hearing, that, despite their differences and notwithstanding these incidents, the relationship between the father and his mother is, overall, positive and mutually supportive.

 

This is probably the most significant thing about this case – it wasn’t a Local Authority who felt they were on thin ice with dad and were scratching around for threshold – they instead probably legitimately felt that there were a raft of concerns in a number of areas and that the threshold was crossed quite comfortably. As the President showed, if you dissect each and every part of the foundations with that two fold approach – (i)can you prove it? and (ii) if you can prove it, how does it establish harm or likelihood of harm, all of those foundations crumble away leaving the Local Authority with nothing.

This case would have very little to say if it were a case where the LA were “trying it on” but as it relates to a body of thinking where the threshold can be made up of ‘concerns’ or ‘worries’ or ‘issues’ rather than allegations that (a) can be proved and (b) can be shown have a direct bearing on harm or likelihood of harm to the child, it has much broader implications.

If you are a lawyer reading this case in thorough detail, I’d be surprised if you weren’t picking up a red pen and looking through some recent threshold documents.

Where does that leave a parent who has conceded the threshold as being met (given that the PLO and the case management orders press the parties to resolve this issue at the very first hearing)? Well, you’d probably argue that the President’s clarification and sharper focus might warrant looking at the threshold again. I doubt whether this alone would justify an appeal of orders already made, but it might involve some recalibration of threshold documents in cases yet to be concluded.

Epilepsy and rib fractures

 

 

This is a County Court decision on a finding of fact hearing, involving a child of two Brazilian parents who sustained a rib fracture.

Because I am childish, I like to think that the Judge specifically named the case Re O because of the Brazilian connection…

Re O (Minors) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/B44.html
The case threw up a number of important issues. The parents defence had been that they had not done anything and that there had been a Vitamin D deficiency, leading to rickets, leading to weak bones. A substantial amount of expert evidence was called on this, and eventually it went nowhere.

The mother, who had been caring for the child L, during the relevant period, is someone who has epilepsy. She gave evidence about whether she had had a fit on that day
As to her epilepsy the mother said that she had five such fits during her pregnancy with F and two during her pregnancy with L. She could recall no fits between F’s birth and her pregnancy with L. Although she does not remember having such fits she usually begins to feel unwell shortly beforehand. Following a fit she feels drowsy, unwell and everything seems muddled. She did not recall any such symptoms occurring on 7th April 2013.
With that in mind, you may be surprised that the finding of His Honour Judge Bond was that the injury was caused during an epileptic seizure. I think, to be fair, that everyone else was surprised as well, and this emerged as a result of some expert evidence from a Dr Hillier
121 Attempts had been made before and during the hearing to secure the attendance of Dr. Hillier. He is a Consultant in Neurology. Unfortunately he did not give evidence until after the parents. He was the last witness to give evidence.

122. The mother’s G.P. had first referred her to Dr. Hillier in 2009. He has written a short report dated 30th September 2013 (C2199) about the mother’s possible epilepsy. He last saw the mother in November 2012. Dr Hillier found it difficult to make a clear diagnosis but thought that the mother suffered from faints which look like seizures, but perhaps has a tendency to fainting and to suffering seizures.

123. In his oral evidence Dr. Hillier went further and took everybody by surprise. He distinguished between what he described as partial epileptic fits and full epileptic fits. In his opinion it was possible that the mother could have had a partial fit, during which she injured L, but remembered nothing of it. Further he thought it possible that the mother would experience no symptoms, before or after a partial fit, that would lead her to remember that she had suffered such a fit.

124. The doctor described situations where a patient had attended his clinic and reported that he had suffered no fits since the last appointment. Not infrequently, the patient’s partner reported that he/she had observed occasions when the patient was “spaced out”, having had some form of partial fit, but which the patient could not remember.

125. It was because of this evidence that the local authority reconsidered its position and no longer sought any public law orders.
The very vivid illustration given by Dr Hillier was that he had once had a patient who had been peeling an orange, had had a partial fit, and continued peeling the orange afterwards, and that for this patient there had been no gap at all in the sequence of events, she had simply peeled an orange and nothing of any significance had occurred at all.

The suggestion therefore was that mother could have had a partial fit, injured the child completely accidentally during it and been utterly unaware of it.

The Local Authority, in the light of that evidence, threw the towel in (save for shutting the door on all of the Vitamin D debate in relation to this case)

That suggestion that a parent could injure their child during a partial fit and have NO RECOLLECTION of it at all is startling, but Dr Hillier’s evidence was clearly compelling.
The Judge had to consider whether this was capable of meeting the section 31 threshold in any event (for example was there some negligence or fault or flaw in the mother handling a child when she was prone to fits?)
In paragraph 8 of his written submissions, Mr Hand [counsel for the LA] deals with the question of whether the threshold criteria are satisfied. He referred to the case of Re D (Care Order: Evidence) [2011] 1 FLR 447 per Hughes LJ that the test under Section 31(2) of the Children Act is an objective one. As the Lord Justice said in that case:

“It is abundantly clear that a parent may unhappily fail to provide reasonable care even though he is doing his incompetent best.”

145. Mr Hand submits, and I agree, that on the facts of this case, if the court finds L’s injuries were caused by the mother during a partial fit, the threshold criteria are not met by reason of the fractures that L suffered. Mr Hand said that, had the Local Authority been aware, at the outset, of Dr Hillier’s evidence, they would not have instituted proceedings under Section 31.
[i.e so far as the LA were concerned, although it was theoretically possible for the Court to find that the s31 threshold was crossed by the child being injured whilst being held by mother who had a partial fit that she had no recollection of, they were not going to invite the Court to do so]
The next interesting point to arise is that clearly once the LA accepted the partial fit theory, and the mother and father accepted it, was it a done deal? In this case, those representing the Guardian felt uncomfortable about that.

168. Mr Tolson QC [counsel for the Guardian] submits, and I agree, that the medical evidence did not alter during the course of the hearing. The three jointly instructed experts agreed substantially, as did Dr Allgrove. The thrust of the evidence was that non-accidental injury is the only explanation, save in wholly exceptional medical circumstances which it is submitted do not exist in this case. It is submitted that the parents’ evidence was not credible and in this case the matter goes further than simply being unable to offer an explanation. It is submitted on behalf of the guardian that the omission of any recall prior to the observation of the lump is particularly striking given the obvious thoroughness with which the parent’s statements have been prepared in other respects. Further submits Mr Tolson QC it is clear that the parents were tired and under some stress on Sunday 7th April 2013.

169. In his oral submissions Mr Tolson QC accepted that he was now the only advocate who contended for a finding of non-accidental injury. Following Dr Hillier’s evidence, Mr Tolson QC had been able to take brief instructions about the Local Authority’s change of position. The guardian maintained her position, as I have just described.

170. Mr Tolson QC dealt with the point raised by Charles J in Lancashire CC v D & E, in respect of the guardian’s position in a case such as this. In the particular circumstances of this case, and particularly since the Local Authority’s change of position, the guardian felt it important that the court should have before it, on behalf of the children, arguments which supported a finding of inflicted non-accidental injury.

171. It is the case that the role of the guardian’s advocate in a fact-finding exercise is to be fully involved in testing, in particular the expert evidence. Generally I would expect the guardian to help the court by making submissions which alert the court to the important matters, but to remain neutral as to the court’s findings. In the unusual circumstances of this case, it was helpful for the guardian to maintain the position that she did, although I regard it as an exceptional course.
The Court therefore permitted the Guardian’s advocate to ‘test the evidence’ and to make submissions that the partial fit explanation might not be the correct answer in this case. (It would perhaps have been interesting to see if the Court would have taken a different view had the key piece of evidence, Dr Hillier, not been the very last witness in the case)

Here is what the Guardian (through leading counsel) had to say about the partial fit theory
172. As to the question of the burden of proof, and given that the Local Authority no longer pursued a finding of inflicted non-accidental injury, Mr Tolson QC pointed out that the court must still, in the circumstances of this case, consider whether such a case has been proved on the balance of probabilities.

173. As to the question of the mother’s epilepsy, Mr Tolson QC pointed out that there was no evidence that the mother had had a fit on the day in question. Further, there was no evidence that the mother had ever had a partial fit of a kind which Dr Hillier thought might have been possible. Mr Tolson QC did not accept that Dr Hillier’s evidence necessarily meant that during a partial fit the mother would drop L and not remember such an event. He submitted that a partial fit would not fill the gap to explain the vagaries of the mother’s evidence, in respect of what happened between about 13.00 and 18.00 on 7th April 2013. It is accepted, on behalf of the guardian, that if the mother had had a full epileptic seizure she might not recall dropping L.

174. Mr Tolson QC submitted that an epileptic fit does not explain L’s rib injuries. For example if L had been dropped that would not involve a squeezing mechanism, which is generally thought to be the cause of a type of rib fracture that L had suffered. Further, said Mr Tolson QC, one such fit would not explain the presence of the bruises.

The Judge said that before having heard from Dr Hillier, he had reached the tentative conclusion that he was satisfied that the injuries had occurred but was not satisfied that they had been deliberately caused by either of the parent, their overall presentation and absence of any other troubling issues weighing significantly in these deliberations.
The applications for Care Orders were dismissed and the children returned home.  [It is worth noting that the Judge indicated that even before Dr Hillier’s evidence, he had been of the view that he should not make a finding of fact that either of the parents had deliberately harmed the child]

 

The Judge had this to say about epilepsy

184. The question of epilepsy and its possible implications in cases such as this has been explored. There is clearly much to learn.

 

“I need not descend into detail”

 

So said the original trial judge in Re B (Children : Long Term Foster Care ) 2014

 

http://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/re-b-children-long-term-foster-care-2014-ewca-civ-1172#.U_YJE2NuVjM

 

The Court of Appeal took the opposite view.

 

 

[That might be the shortest case summary I’ve ever written. Let me see if I can get it into a Tweetable format   “Re B – judge says less is more, Court of Appeal says ‘fraid not”]

 

 

Some slight elaboration – there was a point in the case where the plan for the children was placement with mother probably under a Supervision Order – that was the case by the end of July 2013. But by the time of the final hearing (September 2013), the Local Authority plan was for the children to remain in long term foster care and be subject to Care Orders.

 

The Judge agreed with the LA and made Care Orders at the final hearing.

 

There are some odd nuggets in the case, not least being that the mother’s new boyfriend was using the name of his brother as an alias from time to time, only to find that his brother’s Certificate of Convictions was worse than his own, that either the children were brandishing knives at neighbours or cutting string off a tree branch, and so forth.

 

There simply wasn’t enough in the judgment to explain to the satisfaction of the Court of Appeal why that was the case (they sent it back for re-hearing, they weren’t necessarily saying that the Judge was WRONG, but that the judgment didn’t do sufficient to show whether he was right or wrong). See the underlined section in paragraph 66 for the pithy quotation that will be deployed in all cases (since in any case, one can always find at least one advocate who thinks that the case is ‘finely balanced’ and persists in saying so throughout. Sometimes, to be fair, that advocate is me…)

 

65.  Mr Hall submitted in his skeleton argument that when the new concerns arose in the summer of 2013, the case was finely balanced, and in oral submissions, he acknowledged that there was a mixed picture including extreme concern at times and at other times positive involvement and engagement by M. That is, in my view, an accurate description of the situation. Mr Hall’s submission was that the judge scrutinised the evidence sufficiently, made the required findings, took into account the positives in relation to M as well as the negatives, and carried out the necessary balancing exercise so was entitled to find that care orders should be made. Indeed, he said, proceedings could have been taken earlier. It was notable, however, that in seeking to support the judgment, Mr Hall was obliged to have regular recourse to the underlying reports and statements from which he sought to draw further material to justify the care orders. That this was necessary reinforced my overall conclusion that the judgement did not contain a sufficient review of the evidence that was available to the judge.

 

66…. The basis on which we allowed the appeal was that the judgment was flawed in its approach to the events which led to LA’s change of mind and was lacking in the detail that was required to substantiate the decision taken. The more finely balanced the decision in a case, the more exacting must be the judge’s approach to the evidence, the more precise his findings of fact on pivotal matters and the fuller the explanation of his route to his determination.

 

67…the judge’s treatment of the background history compounded the problems with his treatment of more recent events. Mr Hall submitted that the social work chronology revealed pervasive profound concerns about the children. For my part, I have no doubt that a study of the history had the capacity to contribute valuable material to the judge’s decision but, in my view, there was no alternative but to look at it in some detail because it was a mixed picture. There were significant problems but we also know that the case was periodically closed by social services following short interventions and that at times, assessments were complimentary about M and sympathetic to her as a victim of prolonged domestic violence. The threshold criteria agreed were far from detailed and could not be relied upon as sufficiently informative of the history. Accordingly, it was not sufficient for the judge to deal with that history (apart from domestic violence from F) in a single short paragraph (§7) summarising the themes and concluding with the observation, “I need not descend into detail”. In summarising things shortly in this way, the positives and negatives were lost and there was no picture of what was actually happening to the children.

 

[68] In short, this was a case which could only be resolved by a detailed and critical review of the evidence, old and new, with each step of the way meticulously charted in the judgment. I have great sympathy with the judge who was trying to reach a determination for the children with reasonable promptness, within the confines of a two day time estimate, and without much offered to him by way of direct evidence. I am conscious that he took trouble to reflect on his decision before giving judgment. However, I am afraid that, for the reasons I have set out, his determination cannot stand.

 

 

The thrust of Court of Appeal judgments over the last year, and this goes hand in hand with the transparency agenda, is that a person ought to be able to pick up and read a judgment and understand why the decisions were made, without rummaging around in the background material to try to plug the gaps. It needs to be spelled out.

 

That has consequences, not least time pressures on the judiciary. A day spent writing a judgment is a luxury in terms of workload, but a necessity now if it is to be fireproof for the Court of Appeal. Where are all these extra Judge days to be found?

[I can’t leave para 67 without saying – well, of course the threshold criteria were far from detailed, that’s because we’re told to squish it into 2 pages. You will see more of this]

 

 

Split-hearings and “non-accidental injuries”

The Court of Appeal decision in Re S (A child) 2014.

 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/25.html

 

 Very quick summary, to persuade you that this case is worth reading

 

  1. 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)
  2. Confirmation that for “findings of fact” the appeal test is PLAINLY WRONG, not wrong.
  3. 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

 

  1. If a parent is accused of injuring a child and it can be proved that they didn’t, the sooner that happens the better
  2. 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”
  3. 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
  4. 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

 

 

  1. 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.
  1. 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) [2009] 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.
  1. 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) [1996] 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.
  1. Social work assessments are not contingent on facts being identified and found to the civil standard (see, for example Oldham MBC v GW & PW [2007] EWHC 136 (Fam), [2007] 2 FLR 597 and Re S (Sexual Abuse Allegations: Local Authority Response) [2001] EWHC Admin 334, [2001] 2 FLR 776 per Scott-Baker J at [34] and [35]). That is the function of the court not a social worker (Dingley v Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police [2000] UKHC 14 per Lord Hope of Craighead at [120] and [122]). 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) [2009] EWCA Civ 644 at [33]).
  1. 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;

[…]; and

(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 [5] of pilot PD12A; and

iii) in accordance with the timetable for proceedings within the meaning of that concept in para [5] pilot PD12A.

  1. 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?

 

Probably not.

 

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?

 

 

 

Non-accidental injury

 

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?

 

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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]

 

  1. 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”

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 [1981] 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.

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