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Sibling rivalry

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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]

 

 

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