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Care Orders at home, and abandoning search for missing children

This is a decision by MacDonald J

Manchester City Council v D (Application for Permission Withdraw Proceedings after Abduction) [2021] EWHC 1191 (Fam) (11 May 2021) (bailii.org)

It was a case where three children who were at home with the parents under Interim Care Orders were removed to Pakistan by their parents, and all efforts to find them have been unsuccessful.

The Local Authority applied for leave to withdraw the care proceedings, and to have the children instead made wards of Court.

The Court noted in passing (but helpfully for my purposes, because it sets out the current judicial thinking on Care Orders at home) that the Guardian in the case had recommended that the children be made the subjects of Care Orders under a care plan of them remaining with the parents.

  1. The Local Authority undertook a comprehensive programme of assessment of the parents. The father was assessed to continue to pose a significant risk to the children in the circumstances I have outlined in the foregoing paragraphs. The assessment of the mother however, was positive. In the circumstances, the local authority’s care plan approaching the conclusion of the care proceedings was for the three children to remain in their mother’s care under a court order, the nature of which was to be determined at the final hearing, the local authority contending that the order should be a supervision order under s.31(1)(b) of the Children Act 1989. Whilst the Children’s Guardian agreed that the children should remain in the care of the mother, she contended that this should be under the auspices of a final care order rather than a supervision order.
  2. I pause to note that the practice of placing children at home under final care orders has recently been the subject of some scrutiny by the Public Law Working Group chaired by Keehan J. That scrutiny has had added significance with respect to cases decided on the Northern Circuit in circumstances where it is said that this Circuit has a higher than average number cases in which the placement of children at home under a care order is the final welfare outcome endorsed by the court. In this context, I note the following important passage from the best practice guidance contained at Appendix F of the final report of the Public Law Working Group published with the imprimatur of the President of the Family Division at the beginning of March 2021:

“Care order on a care plan of the child remaining at home
[33] There may be good reason at the inception of care proceedings for a child to remain in the care of her parents/carers/family members and subject to an ICO pending the completion of assessments.
[34] The making of a care order on the basis of a plan for the child to remain in the care of her parents/carers is a different matter. There should be exceptional reasons for a court to make a care order on the basis of such a plan.
[35] If the making of a care order is intended to be used a vehicle for the provision of support and services, that is wrong. A means/route should be devised to provide these necessary support and services without the need to make a care order. Consideration should be given to the making of a supervision order, which may be an appropriate order to support the reunification of the family.
[36] The risks of significant harm to the child are either adjudged to be such that the child should be removed from the care of her parents/carers or some lesser legal order and regime is required. Any placement with parents under an interim or final order should be evidenced to comply with the statutory regulations for placement at home.
[37] It should be considered to be rare in the extreme that the risks of significant harm to the child are judged to be sufficient to merit the making of a care order but, nevertheless, the risks can be managed with a care order being made in favour of the local authority with the child remaining in the care of the parents/carers. A care order represents a serious intervention by the state in the life of the child and in the lives of the parents in terms of their respective ECHR, article 8 rights. This can only be justified if it is necessary and proportionate to the risks of harm of the child.”

I hadn’t seen this guidance, so it is helpful to have it set out

Message from the President of the Family Division: publication of the President’s Public Law Working Group report | Courts and Tribunals Judiciary

I’ve practiced family law all over the country, and the North West circuit is the only place where I’ve heard of Care Orders with the children at home being anything other than a 1 in every 5 or 6 years phenomenon. Everywhere else, its incredibly rare. I’m not sure why it sprang up as being a solution in the North West and really nowhere else. It leaves families with the threat of the child being removed at any time, and leaves Local Authorities with responsibility for the child and having the repeated issue of ‘is THIS the thing that tips the balance that means that the child is now removed’? (I think it is much better in these situations for it to be a Judge to decide whether or not the child should be placed in foster care)

Onto the broader issue of the case,

  1. in my judgment the chances of securing the return of the children to this jurisdiction in a timescale commensurate with the statutory timescale for proceedings of this nature as set out in s.32(1)(a)(ii) of the Children Act 1989 is low. Whilst the court is able to extend the statutory timescale for care proceedings where necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly pursuant s.32(5) of the Act, in deciding whether to do so the court is required pursuant to s.32(6) of the Act to take account of any the impact revision to the timetable both on the child and on the duration and conduct of the proceedings. In the current circumstances, any extension would be an extension of unknown duration, with little by way of reliable evidence before the court to suggest a realistic end date. Further, and within this context, whilst the children remain the subject of care proceedings, and the subject of interim care orders pursuant to s.38 of the Children Act 1989, the local authority has statutory duties with respect to them as looked after children pursuant to s.22(1) of the Children Act 1989 and the Care Planning, Placement and Review (England) Regulations 2010. Whilst the children remain outside the jurisdiction the local authority is precluded from discharging effectively those statutory obligations.
  2. It of course remains possible, particularly in light of the developments in the use of remote hearings that have taken place in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, to deal with the determination of these proceedings by way of remote hearing, at which hearing the parents could attend by video link from Pakistan and Italy respectively. However, whilst superficially attractive, in light of the position adopted by the parents with respect to co-operation with these proceedings I consider it unlikely that the parents would engage with a final hearing. Further, and more fundamentally, in light of the position set out above regarding the current paucity of directly effective reciprocal legal instruments between this jurisdiction and Pakistan, the court must also look to the situation that would pertain at the conclusion of such a remote final hearing. If that hearing resulted, in light of the developments in this case since 3 November 2020 evidencing the mother’s inability to safeguard the children from the risks the father has been assessed to present, in the court considering that the mother could not safely care for the children, the court would be left in the position of making orders that it could not readily enforce. Were the decision to be that the children should remain in the care of their mother, the court would not be able to rely on any plan for supporting the mother and addressing deficits in her capacity to protect the children being implemented. In addition, and importantly, continuing the care proceedings notwithstanding that the children are now in Pakistan, with the attendant focus on the return of the children to this jurisdiction, is likely in my judgment to leave children in state of considerable stress and uncertainty.

In the foregoing circumstances, and notwithstanding the answer that I am satisfied is returned by the applicable principles absent account being taken on the abduction of the children from this jurisdiction, the reality of the situation that now pertains in this case leads me back to the observation by Ward LJ in London Borough of Southwark v B that there is no advantage to any child in being maintained as the subject of proceedings that have become ineffective in result by keeping alive proceedings that have no current efficacy and have lost the momentum derived from the support of the local authority that initiated them. To refuse the application made by the local authority, and supported by the Children’s Guardian, would be to retain public law proceedings before the court during which the local authority could not discharge its statutory duty to the children and following which the court could not enforce any order it considered should be made to safeguard and promote the children’s best interests. Within this context, it is much more difficult to see the relevance of the potential result of continuing the proceedings to the future care plans for the children. Further, the court would be compelling the local authority to engage in proceedings that it no longer seeks to pursue. In these circumstances, it is also far less clear that the time the investigation would take and the likely cost to public funds could be justified.

  1. However, whilst I accept Ms Lennox’s submission that it would be inappropriate to make an order warding each of the children until they reach their respective ages of majority, it is my intention that the children shall remain wards of this court for a further period. The evidence before the court is that the GMP continue to investigate this case as a criminal offence of child abduction and are still working with Interpol and the authorities in Pakistan in that regard. Whilst satisfied that the timescales of that investigation are, on the evidence before the court, out with those of the care proceedings, I am satisfied that whilst these criminal investigations continue it is in each of the children’s best interests that they remain wards of this court, in order that the court can intervene quickly with respect to their welfare should the criminal investigation be brought to a successful conclusion. In light of the timescales contemplated by GMP I am satisfied that in the first instance the wardship proceedings should be listed for a further review in six months’ time. At that point, further consideration can be given by the court to whether those proceedings should continue or should also be brought to a conclusion, having regard to any further progress made by GMP in the criminal investigation in concert with Interpol and the authorities and the police in Pakistan.
  2. In conclusion, I grant the local authority permission to withdraw the care proceedings in respect of the children. The children will however, continue to be wards of this court. I will list the wardship proceedings for review in six months’ time, at which review the court will give further consideration to the progress of the criminal investigation by GMP, in concert with Interpol, into the parents abduction of the children from this jurisdiction and determine whether it is appropriate for the children to remain wards of court at that juncture.
  3. Finally, I wish to make abundantly clear that my decision in this case has been reached on its own very particular facts. My decision should in no way be taken to represent acquiescence by the court in the face of the actions taken by the parents in this case, as an acceptance of those actions or to suggests that parents involved in care proceedings can avoid those proceedings by removing their child from the jurisdiction of the court.
  4. To the contrary, parents who abduct children as a means of avoiding local authority involvement with those children or during the course of subsequent care proceedings can expect the court to bring to bear the full weight of the law in seeking the return of those children to this jurisdiction, and to continue in that effort until all legal avenues have been exhausted. A case in point is the decision of this court in Re K (Wardship: Without Notice Return Order) [2017] 2 FLR 901, in which this court ordered the return of the children to this jurisdiction some five years after they had been abducted by their mother as a means of avoiding local authority involvement with the children’s welfare. The courts of this jurisdiction will pursue all reasonable measures to ensure that subject children abducted by their parents or relatives during the course of care proceedings are returned to this jurisdiction.
  5. Within that context, I direct that a copy of this judgment be sent to the Greater Manchester Police and I give permission to the Greater Manchester Police to disclose the judgment to Interpol and to the authorities in Pakistan with whom the Greater Manchester Police are co-operating with respect to their ongoing criminal investigation into the abduction of the children.
  6. That is my judgment.

Special Guardianship Order AND a Care Order

This is going to be a bit niche. If you want to read a blog post with wider applicability, may I point you towards

Wellbeing fatigue / Pink Tape instead

This case is about a curious wrinkle in the Children Act 1989, where the making of a Special Guardianship Order automatically discharges a Care Order but not vice versa. That always led to the theoretical possibility that a Court could make an SGO, and then moments later make a Care Order. And the curious issue of just who has overriding Parental Responsibility in that situation.

Theoretical that is, until now.

F & G, Re (Discharge of Special Guardianship Order) [2021] EWCA Civ 622 (30 April 2021) (bailii.org)

  1. This is an appeal against a judge’s decision refusing to discharge a special guardianship order (“SGO”). The children who are the subject of the SGO are twin girls, F and G, now aged ten. Their special guardian is their former step-father, K. The appellant is the girls’ mother.
  2. The unusual – indeed almost unique – feature of this case is that the girls are subject not only to the SGO but also to a care order. The principal issues arising on this appeal are whether as a matter of law the two orders can coexist and, if they can, whether in the circumstances of this case the judge was wrong to allow the SGO to continue.

I note in passing the weird situation that allows for a step-father to have a Special Guardianship Order, which is perfectly permissable in the Act, but feels like it maybe shouldn’t be.

6. At a final hearing before HH Judge Sharpe on 9 April 2020, the care proceedings concluded with the making of an SGO in favour of K and a care order in favour of the local authority. No judgment was delivered setting out the reasons for this outcome. The order recorded that all parties agreed that the two orders should be made. It further recorded that the local authority had not yet filed final care plans, directed the authority to file the plans by 20 April, and recorded that the final orders would be made “administratively” assuming no party objected on receipt of the plan. A final plan was duly filed on 16 April and no party raised any objection at that stage.

Anyway, SGO was made on 9th April 2020. By the end of May 2020, the LA were giving notice that they intended to apply to remove the twins. The step-father applied for an injunction to prevent this. By 16th June, the twins were in foster care.

So step-father was the Special Guardian whilst actively caring for the twins for just over 2 months. They had been living with him as sole carer for about a year before that.

At a final hearing in November 2020, the mother made an application to discharge the Special Guardianship Order, which continued to give K, the step-father, parental responsibility for the twins and a greater parental responsibility than she had as their mother.

10. According to a chronology prepared for this appeal, on 27 November, three days before the “final” hearing, the mother filed a notice of application for discharge of the SGO. No copy of that application was included in any of the bundles filed in connection with this appeal. At that stage, the mother had not been granted leave to make the application. In the skeleton argument prepared for the hearing on 30 November, the mother’s counsel invited the court to grant permission for an application for discharge of the SGO to be made “in the face of the court”. It seems, however, that this application was either not pursued or not granted. There is no reference in the ultimate order to the mother being granted leave to apply and in paragraph 16 of the judgment the judge recorded that he was “content to regard the matter as being one which fell within s.14D(2), Children Act 1989 whereby the court of its own motion may vary or discharge existing SGOs even in the absence of an application by any party so entitled”.

At the hearing on 30 November, the mother was the only party seeking discharge of the SGO. By that stage, the local authority and the guardian had changed their positions and concluded that there was a positive benefit to the order continuing alongside the care order. Having heard legal argument, Judge Sharpe indicated that he would not discharge the SGO. The hearing was adjourned for the delivery of a judgment which was distributed in draft before a hearing on 22 December and then ultimately handed down in its final form on 12 February 2021 setting out the judge’s reasons for refusing to discharge the SGO, together with a supplemental judgment in which he gave reasons for attaching a condition to the SGO under s.11(7) of the Children Act and for refusing the mother permission to appeal. On this latter point, the judge stated that he was following convention in allowing this Court to decide whether to grant permission, and that, but for that convention, he would have been minded to grant permission “in order that the issues raised in this case could be considered at an authoritative level”,

The order made following the hearing did not fully reflect the judge’s decision. It referred to the father’s application to discharge the order (which had not been pursued) but made no reference to the mother’s application to discharge the SGO. It recorded that:

The mother immediately filed notice of appeal against the judge’s decision refusing to discharge the SGO. On 18 February 2021, I granted permission to appeal. On 25 February, the mother filed an application to amend the grounds of appeal to include an appeal against the condition attached to the SGO.

The appeal hearing took place on 5 March 2021. The mother’s appeal was opposed by the father, the local authority and the children’s guardian. At the outset of the hearing, we granted the mother permission to amend the grounds of appeal. At the conclusion of the hearing, judgment was reserved.

I’m already intrigued as to why the Local Authority would oppose the mother’s application. I stopped reading the judgment at this point and spent ten minutes trying to think of a reason why they would. The closest I got was ‘K is an important figure for the children and removing the SGO removes his PR and thus it should continue so that he can continue to play a part in their lives’ (which seems like it could be achieved by a recital that the LA would continue to involve him, or the Court granting him parental responsibility as a step-parent under section 4A of the Children Act 1989), but I couldn’t come up with anything else.

That does seem to be the nub of it (with counsel for mother also suggesting that the Court could use inherent jurisdiction to declare that K be treated as a ‘significant person’ for the children by the Local Authority).

K’s argument also included this point :-

37…. Although he is not at present the children’s carer, it cannot be said with any certainty that he will not resume care at some point in the future. In the event that he were to resume care under the SGO at some point in the future, he would be entitled to support at a level which would not be available if he was not a special guardian. The importance to the children of allowing K to continue to be their “father” and be recognised as a parent now and in the future was central to the decision.

The three questions for the appeal were these :-

  1. The mother advanced three grounds of appeal, recrafted in her skeleton argument in these terms:

(1) SGOs and care orders cannot coexist in law: Parliament never intended that they could or would coexist. The two are plainly and simply incompatible. Any formulation and/or crafting and/or interpretation of the legislative framework to reach a conclusion that they can coexist is wrong.
(2) In the alternative, if the orders are lawfully permitted to coexist, on the facts of this case the judge was wrong to allow the SGOs to continue.
(3) The imposition of the singular specified condition, on the facts of this case, was wrong both in principle and, in the alternative, in its content.

The Court of Appeal decided that

1.Yes, they could co-exist (provided they are the correct way round – SGO first, Care Order second can co-exist, Care Order first then SGO second can’t, because the SGO in statute automatically discharges the Care Order)

2. In the facts of this case, whilst the Court of Appeal felt that the Judge had considered things carefully, there were solutions to the difficulties that were not put before the trial Judge that had been explored at the appeal, and that a Care Order with a carefully worded care plan with how K was to be included and consulted and kept involved would have been the better solution.

So point 3 didn’t arise to be settled.

But the Court of Appeal also settle the ‘if there’s an SGO AND a Care Order, whose overriding PR overrides, if any?’ question that has been on nobody’s lips – I mean, it’s something I asked idly about 8 years ago in a post, but it was hardly a burning question.

Not like the burning question that I was presented with yesterday, which was “In the Blondie song, Hanging on the Telephone, is Debbie Harry’s character a stalker? And secondly, if she is, is that somehow okay if she looks like Debbie Harry?”

Blondie – Hanging On The Telephone – YouTube

To which the answers in my view are – yes, she kind of is, and that’s quite hard but yes it sort of is but no it can’t be because of the wider implications that throws up so no, no it isn’t okay. No .

Anyway, the Court of Appeal answer:-

Under s.14C(1)(b), a special guardian is entitled to exercise parental responsibility to the exclusion of any other person with parental responsibility, but only “subject to any other order in force with respect to the child” under the Act, including a care order. Under s.33(3)(b)(i), the local authority has the power to determine the extent to which a parent or special guardian may exercise parental responsibility, provided it is satisfied it is necessary to do so to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare. The consequence is that, once a care order is made, a special guardian’s power to exercise exclusive parental responsibility is overridden by the local authority’s power to determine the extent to which any person holding parental responsibility may exercise it

Half-time submissions (again)

This is a case where the Court was invited to consider at the close of the Local Authority case whether the Local Authority application should be dismissed without hearing from other witnesses.

It was decided by Mr Recorder Howe QC sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge.

BB (Care Proceedings) (Mid-Trial Dismissal and Withdrawal of Allegations) [2021] EWFC 20 (03 March 2021) (bailii.org)

Long-time readers may remember that Sir Mark Hedley considered this issue in

AA & 25 Ors (Children) (Rev 2) [2019] EWFC 64 (16 April 2019) (bailii.org)

which as it was pre-covid seems like a hundred years ago, but was actually just two years.

No case to answer in care proceedings | suesspiciousminds

In that case, the Court decided that the Court DOES have power to bring the case to a conclusion at a mid-way point, although declined to do so in that case.

In Re BB, the failures in the investigation process were awful but sadly familiar.

16. I have heard oral evidence from a number of professionals who received and recorded allegations made by the children. Those witnesses have included the 2 interviewing police officers, the supervising investigating officer, the foster carers for the children, 2 fostering agency supervising social workers, 2 local authority social workers and a fostering agency support worker. All of these witnesses, except the fostering agency support worker, have accepted that their meetings with the children, be they formal interviews or not, have breached the terms of the Achieving Best Evidence [ABE] Guidance. All of the witnesses, save the fostering support worker, accepted to a greater or lesser degree that their manner of questioning of the children either did or may have influenced the responses of the children. All of the witnesses accepted that they failed to take adequately detailed notes that included detail of the questions asked of the children. All of the witnesses, save the fostering support worker, accepted that they should, in hindsight, have behaved differently and all, other than the foster support worker, agreed that they would now behave differently.

18.The witnesses accepted that the children were given praise and attention when allegations were made. It has been accepted by all that they had questioned the children and not just listened and recorded the allegations made. All of the witnesses, save one interviewing officer, said that they believed the children’s allegations and as a result of that belief accepted that they had not kept an open mind. Both of the interviewing officers accepted that they conducted the interviews with the aim of having the children repeat the allegations they had made to the foster carers or to the fostering support worker.

19,All of the professionals receiving allegations from the children had received either no training concerning the application of the ABE guidelines, had attended training but many years ago that had not been repeated or had received training but could not adequately recall its content. Where some principles had been recalled from training received, all witnesses accepted that they had not applied those principles consistently, or at all, when interacting with the children.

20.It is these breaches of the ABE guidance that form the basis of the submissions made by the Respondents that no court could properly make findings of sexual abuse on the basis of the evidence this court has received. The Respondents have provided detailed schedules describing the breaches of guidance that they submit are present. These schedules particularise the breaches said to have occurred in the investigation of each allegation made by each child.

21. The Local Authority accepts there were very many breaches of the ABE guidance, although it has not in its response to the interim application engaged in any way with the particulars provided by the Respondents. The Local Authority accepts that the court may reach the conclusion that it cannot make the findings sought but it submits that the court cannot make that determination until it has heard all of the evidence in the case, including the evidence of the Respondents.

I think that every time I have written a blog post about a reported case involving Achieving Best Evidence interviews the judgment has always been critical and outlining the flaws in the process. I honestly cannot recall an example where the ABE interview is held up as being even competent, let alone praised for quality. It is so depressing that the lessons from many many cases just don’t seem to be learned. The guidance in Achieving Best Evidence are there to get the best quality evidence about an allegation – whether true or untrue, to help proper decisions to be made about criminal proceedings and about the welfare of children. Failure to properly conduct them leads to confusion, uncertainty, the parents and child being potentially wrongly separated and vast amounts of money and time being spent picking over a flawed interview to see what, if any, reliance can be placed on it.

PLEASE – if you are involved in the conduct of an Achieving Best Evidence interview or the planning of one, or are aware that one is planned to take place, take some time to ensure that the training is up to date, that the principles of Achieving Best Evidence are understood and that the planning of how the interview is to be conducted takes those principles properly into account. Two hours of planning before the interview can save many more hours of forensic dissection of the flaws that emerge, and it is not just the experience for the witness. Poorly planned ABE interviews LET CHILDREN DOWN.

The Court heard the representations from each of the parties as to whether the case should continue until each party had given evidence or be brought to a conclusion at this mid-way point.

The Judge decided:-

59.I have reached the clear conclusion that I cannot, until I have heard all of the available evidence including the evidence of the Respondents, determine the factual allegations pleaded by the Local Authority. In my judgment, there is an evidential purpose to hearing the evidence of the Respondents and I am unable to conclude that no court could properly make the findings sought by the Local Authority. I have reached these conclusions for the following reasons:

(a) I accept the Local Authority’s submission that, in family case, there is an expectation that the parents, and others who have voluntarily intervened, will give oral evidence to answer the allegations raised against them. In Re I-A (Children) [2012] EWCA Civ 582, Etherington LJ said there is a “need for a particularly conscientious and detailed examination of all the evidence” in cases involving allegations of sexual abuse, including the evidence of those accused and any evidence of previous dishonesty by the children making the allegations. At paragraph 22, Etherington LJ said “In my judgment, it would have been right and proper, in a case of this kind where there was a requirement for a detailed and conscientious assessment of all the evidence in relation to each specific allegation, for each specific allegation to be put to the witness so that there was a possibility of refuting it in whole or in part or at any event providing more details”. In my judgment, the need for conscientious examination of all the evidence does not just apply to those aspects of the evidence that might support those facing allegations. It also, in my judgment, applies to the consideration of the Local Authority’s case and the allegations made by the children.
(b) At the ‘half-time’ stage of a case, the Court has heard only part of the evidence. In my experience, the case of a Respondent can often be described as being at its height at the end of the Local Authority case as skilled cross-examination of the Local Authority’s witnesses can often appear to have undermined the reliability of the Local Authority’s evidence. However, save in exceptional circumstances, it is in my judgment the responsibility of the court to provide the Local Authority, and the children represented by the Guardian, with the same fair opportunity to cross-examine the Respondents as the Respondents have had to challenge the Local Authority’s evidence. This ensures the court is able to reach its conclusions on the basis of the best evidence. In my judgment the court should not readily reach a conclusion that cross-examination of a witness would serve no purpose. As described by Munby P in Re S-W [2015] EWCA Civ 27, at paragraphs 55 to 59:

“58. … I am not suggesting that a parent has an absolute right to cross-examine every witness or to ask unlimited questions of a witness merely with a view to ‘testing the evidence’ or in the hope, Micawber-like, that something may turn up. Case management judges have to strike the balance, ensuring that there is a fair trial, recognising that a fair trial does not entitle a parent, even in a care case, to explore every by-way, but also being alert to ensure that no parent is denied the right to put the essence of their case to witnesses on those parts of their evidence that may have a significant impact on the outcome.

  1. Quite apart from the fundamentally important points of principle which are here in play, there is great danger in jumping too quickly to the view that nothing is likely to be achieved by hearing evidence or allowing cross-examination, in concluding that the outcome is obvious. My Lord has referred to what Megarry J said in John v Rees. The forensic context there was far removed from the one with which are here concerned, but the point is equally apposite. As I said in Re TG, para 72:
    “Most family judges will have had the experience of watching a seemingly solid care case brought by a local authority being demolished, crumbling away, at the hands of skilled and determined counsel.”
    In my judgment, these same principles must also apply to the Local Authority as they do to the Respondents. If the court is informed by the Local Authority, in this case an authority represented by Queen’s Counsel, that it has legitimate and forensically necessary questions to put to the Respondents, the Court should be very slow indeed to deny the Local Authority the opportunity it seeks. Of course, the Local Authority’s questions need to be more than a fishing expedition and be addressed to issues that the court must determine. As with any cross-examination, the matters upon which the questions refer must have some basis in the evidence before the Court. If there is no evidence, the witnesses can simply deny the suggestion and the matter goes no further.
    (c) In my judgment, the investigation of inconsistency and dishonesty by the cross-examination of family members is an essential part of the process in public law care proceedings. Much of what the court has to examine takes place behind closed doors. The Court is most often in the dark about what actually took place and has to piece together a picture of what is most likely to have occurred from the jigsaw pieces of evidence, pieces that come from many different sources available and from the different perspectives of each participant in the events being considered. In my judgment, the court should only deprive itself of this otherwise essential source of evidence where it can be satisfied that there is nothing that can be said by the witnesses that will inform its conclusions.

(d) I accept the submission made by the Local Authority that the court will be assisted by hearing evidence from the Respondents, particularly from the parents concerning the sexual knowledge demonstrated by the children in the allegations that they have made. Asking the parents questions on these issues is not reversing the burden of proof. It is a legitimate enquiry to enable the court to understand what might be the sources of this knowledge. The parents may simply not know but, equally, the answers to such questions might provide the court with some insight into how this knowledge developed. The answers to this legitimate and necessary area of enquiry are as likely to assist the parents as the Local Authority.

(e) Similarly, I agree with Mr Thomas that an exploration of the views of one mother as expressed in her police interviews may provide evidence of particular relevance. Why this mother seemingly accepted that her husband had sexually abused the children and, during her interview, threated to kill him as a result of that belief has obvious relevance to the court’s determinations.

(f) In my judgment, the Court can only reach a conclusion that no court could safely make findings after having heard all the available evidence. The Respondents rely on the decision of the Court of Appeal in JB (A Child)(Sexual Abuse Allegations)[2021] EWCA Civ 46, and the decision by Baker LJ not to remit the case for a rehearing on the basis that the breaches of the ABE guidance were ‘on a scale that no court could properly make the findings of abuse’. The decision of Keehan J in Re EF, GH, IJ (Care Proceedings) [2019] EWFC 75 was also relied upon. At paragraph 286, Keehan J said “I am satisfied that the conduct of the police investigation by DC Andrews was so woeful and her conduct with the ABE interviews so seriously and serially breached the ABE Guidance that I can attach little or no weight to the allegations made by the boys and in those police interviews”. Both judgments are said to be illustrative of the likely outcome in this case, it being said that the breaches of guidance here are as bad, if not worse, than those in the aforementioned cases.

However, the conclusions in JB (A Child)(Sexual Abuse Allegations) were reached on an appeal following a first instance trial hearing during which all the evidence had been heard. In his judgment in Re EF, Keehan J describes in detail his impression of the family witnesses and how hearing that evidence supported his ultimate decision that the allegations of the children were unreliable.

There are other reported Court of Appeal decisions that do not order a retrial after a successful appeal (Re W, Re F [2015] EWCA Civ 1300 being just 1 example) on the basis that no court could reasonably have found the allegations proved on the basis of the evidence before the court but no party has drawn my attention to a reported case where such a serious, and determinative, conclusion has been reached without having heard from those accused of perpetrating abuse.

I remind myself that I am considering the evidence in this case and it is not my function to reach a conclusion that ‘no court’ could make the findings sought. My function is to examine the evidence in this case and decide if I find the Local Authority’s allegations proved to the required standard.

(g) I accept that a judicial evaluation of the evidence is required for the 2 examples given by Sir Mark Hedley in AA v 25 Others. However, in my judgment the evaluation of the evidence that is required in this case is much more detailed than is appropriate to undertake at this stage of the case. An expert witness informing the court that an image on an X ray is not, as was previously thought, a fracture may remove from consideration all evidence of an inflicted injury having occurred. There is very little judicial evaluation required. That is a very different situation to the court having to consider each of the breaches of guidance alleged to have taken place and then trace through the chronology to assess how that breach has affected the reliability of the evidence that has come later. In my judgment the number of breaches highlighted by the Respondents does not reduce or remove the need for the court to undertake a detailed evaluation of all the evidence. The number of breaches in this case is closely matched by the number of allegations. What connection one has with the other, if any, is a matter requiring close examination that should, in my judgment, occur only once all the evidence has been received.

60.In my experience, where there are blanket denials of allegations of sexual abuse, the hearing of the evidence from those facing allegations can be a surprisingly quick exercise. If it is said that these events did not happen and are a product of a child’s imagination, the answers to questions are often a simple ‘it did not happen’. However, I have reached the conclusion for the reasons given above that there is a clear forensic purpose to hearing that evidence. The Respondents were present in both homes at times when it is said that these events were taking place. It is, in my judgment, essential that the court hears from them in response to the allegations that are made.

It may well be that in reaching my final conclusions, having heard all the evidence, that I will agree with the submissions now made by the Respondents. I may not. As I said during the hearing of the evidence, I accept that Family Court judges are expressing views about the reliability of the evidence they hear on a daily basis, both at the case management stage of proceedings and during the hearing of the evidence in trial. A ‘judicial steer’ to the Local Authority is an integral part of the Family Justice system that helps to ensure the appropriate use of the court’s resources. In the circumstances of this case, I have required the Local Authority to keep its case under review but I take the view that any further ‘steer’ is unnecessary as Mr Thomas is aware of the difficulties now present in the case he advances on behalf of the Local Authority. I have reached the clear conclusion that it would be inappropriate for me to express any view concerning the consequences of the breaches of guidance on the ability of the Local Authority to prove its case. My conclusions can only be reached after a careful examination of all the evidence and for the reasons given above, I will not make any determinations until after the Local Authority has had an opportunity to ask questions of the Respondents.

Care proceedings where parent was adopted

I’ve not come across this question before, so that’s always attractive to me.

And then having seen a question to which I didn’t know the answer, I see that Cobb J is the Judge, so I’m going to get an answer that is clear and shows all the working but succinctly. I’m fairly redundant as someone who summarises and makes things shorter and simpler when I get a Cobb J judgment. I could just put up the link and call it quits.

Anyway, the question is – when a parent in care proceedings is adopted, and the birth family have come back into their life, do the LA have a duty to assess the BIRTH family as potential carers for the child?

F, Re (Assessment of Birth Family) [2021] EWFC 31 (12 April 2021) (bailii.org)

Within these public law proceedings, is there any obligation on the Local Authority to assess members of the ‘original family’[1] (i.e., the biological/birth family) of the mother of the subject infant child (F), where the mother herself was adopted as a child and raised by adoptive parents?

The arguments of the parties

Ms Persaud argues that it is incumbent on the Local Authority to assess members of the birth family; she essentially argues:
i) they are bound to the mother and to F by a relationship of consanguinity; the legal severance of the family relationship has been “socially undone” by their recent contact;

ii) they know of F’s existence;

iii) they are interested in F; at this stage, F’s ‘birth’ maternal grandmother has not indicated any wish to care for F, but wishes to have contact;

iv) the birth maternal grandmother apparently successfully cared for a child after the adoption of the mother and her brother;

v) the mother continues, even now, to maintain some relationship with her birth father by text and phone;

vi) there are members of the wider family in respect of whom it is understood there are no social work concerns and who appear to be caring adequately for their own children.

She further argues that I could not/should not make the decision now but should await further outline information from local authorities in which members of the birth family live (they are scattered around the country) in order to reach a more informed view.

Ms Anning on behalf of the mother strongly opposes this approach. She argues that the decision should be made now, and that there should be no assessment of her client’s birth family. She makes the following points:
i) The mother strongly opposes any assessment of the birth family; she sees her adoptive family who raised her since she was six as her ‘family’. The mother’s view must weigh heavily in the evaluation of the issue;

ii) The mother contends that the birth family would be wholly unsuited to care for F; she relies on their historical failure to care for her, and what she knows of their current lifestyles; her relatively brief re-engagement with them has adversely affected her;

iii) The mother has in fact currently ‘fallen out’ with her birth mother; the prospects of any family placement within the birth family being free from conflict or drama is small;

iv) The mother feels sufficiently strongly about the issue of assessment that were it to go ahead, she fears that it could destabilise her currently reasonable mental health, and jeopardise her own chance to care for F; she does not feel that she is in a psychologically strong place, and feels anxious about embarking on the next phase in which she will be assessed in the community with F with this ‘hanging over her head’; I have in mind the expert opinion which suggests that if the mother engages successfully in psychological therapies, she may well be in a position safely and appropriately to care for her daughter;

v) Any assessment of the birth family would create divisions within her family – her parents who adopted her many years ago; and with her foster parents;

vi) The birth family, as a matter of law, ceased to be legally the mother’s family when the mother was adopted; there are no recognisable enduring legal rights;

vii) The Article 8 ECHR rights of the birth family are non-existent, or at best highly tenuous, given the lack of legal rights and the limited relationship between the birth family and the mother and particularly F; Miss Anning understandably relied in this regard on the comments which I made in Re TJ (Relinquished Baby: Sibling Contact) [2017] EWFC 6, and those of Peter Jackson J as he then was in Seddon v Oldham MBC (Adoption: Human Rights) [2015] EWHC 2609 (Fam) at 2, to the effect that the making of an adoption order brings pre-existing Article 8 rights as between a birth parent and an adopted child to an end.

Ms Kelly, on behalf of the Children’s Guardian, is, first and foremost, critical of the Local Authority for the delay in bringing this issue to the court many months after it first accommodated F. She further contends that no obligation falls on the Local Authority to assess the birth family in this case, and indeed that given the mother’s opposition to this course, it would be counter-productive for it to do so. In this, she aligns herself with the position taken, and the arguments advanced, by Ms Anning on behalf of the mother. She makes the additional point that one of the key philosophies which underpins a family placement for a child who cannot be cared by his/her parents is to ensure the continuity for the child of blood ties within established networks, where a parent may be able to continue to play a normal/natural role; this, she submits, would not truly be available here for although blood ties would be restored/preserved, the current difficult and tenuous emotional ties between the mother and her birth family, and the absence of legal relationship which was of course dissolved by the adoption many years ago, would make any placement very problematic indeed.

My gut feeling on this, having read those arguments, is that I can see why the Local Authority wanted the Court to answer this question and that I agree with the arguments put forward by the mother that where the mother doesn’t want her birth family assessed, that is the end of it. If the mother were actively putting any of them forward, I’d say they should be assessed.

Conclusion

For the reasons articulated clearly and comprehensively by Ms Anning and Ms Kelly (summarised at [15] and [16] above), and further elaborated on in the section above addressing ‘legal principles’, I am satisfied that the Local Authority should not embark on any assessment of the birth family in this case.
I am satisfied that the mother’s birth family are her ‘original’ family (as per ACA 2002) but are not her current ‘family’ nor are they her ‘relatives’ as those terms are used in Part III of the CA 1989. In that respect, their status (if any) in relation to F is materially different from the status of the extended or wider family as discussed in the caselaw referred to above, namely Re A, B, C and Re H. Furthermore, the birth family’s limited experience of F during a short visit in March 2020 (which culminated in a section 47 investigation as a result of the serious injury to F) falls a long way short of supporting any finding that they had acquired Article 8 rights to a family life with F. This right is not established on the basis of biological kinship alone.
Even if the birth family could bring themselves within the definition of ‘family’ for the purposes of the statute/caselaw, this does not place upon the Local Authority any obligation under statute to inform, consult, assess, or otherwise consider them in circumstances such as these (see [21]/[22]/[23] above). In that regard, I have assessed what the mother says about her birth family and have done so objectively and critically. In this context, I have been able to undertake the necessary ‘analysis’ of their potential as ‘realistic options’ as long-term carers of F at this stage, without undertaking or commissioning a fully-fledged ‘assessment’ (see Re JL & AO at §92(2)). On the evidence presented, there are at least four clear pointers steering away from the birth family as a realistic option to care for F: (a) the fact of the mother’s adoption 14 years ago following her upbringing characterised by turbulence and significant neglect (see [6] above); (b) the events surrounding the injury to F in March 2020, and their failure to report the same (see [9] above); (c) the accepted fact that the mother and her birth mother have a difficult relationship (see [12] above), and (d) the current view of the professionals that the mother should avoid contact with her family (see [9] above).
Quite apart from those considerations, I accept that the mother has a strong opposition to the birth family being assessed; this carries significant weight in my assessment (see Re A, B, C at §89(6)(5), Re JL & AO at §50, Re H at §37). In this case, I am further satisfied that involving the birth family in assessment would be likely to have a deleterious effect on the mother’s fragile mental health, at a critical time when she herself is being assessed in the community as a long-term carer for her daughter. It would also, I am satisfied, cause unwelcome and avoidable division in the relationship between the mother and her parents (Mr M and Ms N).
I should add that I could see a situation in which a birth family could properly fall to be assessed in circumstances such as these, where for instance the previously adopted parent (the mother or father of the subject child) had re-connected successfully with his/her birth family, and this had been a wholesome and successful reunion. But that is plainly not the case here.
That is my judgment.

A judicial T-shirt cannon loaded with “whoop-ass” t-shirts

I occasionally make reference to judgments where the Judge opens a can of whoop-ass on one party, usually the Local Authority. This one goes so far beyond a can, and even beyond a supermarket trolley filled with cans of whoop-ass that only the title I’ve selected will suffice to show just how much whoop-ass was being thrown about. And rightly so.

IF you are from Herefordshire CC, you may want to skip this particular post. Or at least get a very strong coffee before reading.

I’ll open with the conclusion:-

  1. My strongest criticism must be directed at this local authority. In the whole of my professional life I have rarely encountered such egregious and long-standing failures by a local authority. The worst of it is, I cannot after the closest possible enquiry, understand why or what motivated the local authority to fail these children, this mother and the interveners as appallingly and for as extended a period of time. The whole history of the role of this local authority in the lives of these children is highly inexplicable. The only matter which is clear to me is that it did not have the welfare best interests of the children at the heart of its decision-making, such as it was.
  2. This must call into question whether this local authority’s children’s services department is fit for purpose. That is a question which is not for me to answer. I can say that they had failed these children in an extraordinary manner over a prolonged period of time.
  1. The local authority’s actions, omissions and failures in this case have been spread over a period in excess of eight years. Mr Baird readily accepted and described the conduct of the children’s services department in the lives of these children as appalling. He was plainly right to do so. He offered to write a personal letter of apology to Child A, Child B, Child D, the mother and the interveners and will ensure this course has been taken.
  2. Prior to receiving final closing submissions, I received a letter of apology to the court in respect of the local authority’s conduct in the light of these children from Herefordshire Council. The letter was signed by the Chief Executive of the council and by two of the deputy Chief Executives.
  3. I was told by Ms Meyer QC that the council had agreed to undertake an internal review of the council’s children services department and would commission an independent external review of the same.
  4. I gave permission for a copy of this judgement, once handed down, to be sent to named officers in Herefordshire Council in order to inform the reviews. Further, I was told that once an anonymised published version of this judgment was available, the Council proposed to call a full Council meeting at which the contents of this judgment would be discussed, and the way forward would be considered.
  5. I have directed that a copy of this judgment should be sent by the local authority to the following:

(i) The Secretary of State for Education

(ii) the Chief Social Worker

(iii) the Children’s Commmisioner; and

(iv) the Chief Inspector of Ofsted

There’s obviously a huge amount in this judgment and my summary of it is in no way a substitute for reading it. I’ll give a brief overview and then pick out some of the most serious complaints against the Local Authority

YY (Children: Conduct of the Local Authority) [2021] EWHC 749 (Fam) (26 March 2021) (bailii.org)

(You know it is going to be worth a read when the case name has that description)

Four children were made the subject of Care Orders to Herefordshire in 2014 and placed in foster care. At the final hearing, allegations were made that the children had been the victims of sexual abuse – the Court found threshold proved but in terms of sexual abuse the findings were exposure to sexual knowledge rather than direct abuse.

The case came back to Court in 2019 for three things- mother’s application for contact, an application to change the children’s surname and an application by the LA to discharge the care orders with an invitation to make Special Guardianship Orders in favour of the foster carers.

During the enquiries about these applications, it emerged that the children had continued to make allegations of sexual harm and abuse and that the foster carers had not been properly appraised of the decision of the Court at the fact finding.

Tragically, in the interim period, one of the children became extremely unwell and subsequently died.

This is the first of the big complaints. When the child became ill and was on life-support, the medical advice was to have the life-support turned off. The parents were not consulted. The Local Authority, on legal advice, decided that they could use their powers under section 33 of the Children Act 1989 to consent to the life-support being turned off.


  1. 116. At 10:40am Mr Baird sent a draft response to Dr Zafurallah to the local authority’s legal department for approval. At 10:43am Tim Marks one of the then local authority solicitors replied to Mr Baird as follows:

“discussed this with Liz and we agreed birth parents need to be informed about the medical advice. We need to consult with them but my legal advice is our duty as corporate parents is to accept the medical advice and avoid unnecessary suffering. If this is contrary to the parents wishes it is unfortunate but we need to take that course”

As I shall set out shortly this legal advice, as Mr Baird now accepts, was wrong.

It is hard to imagine a decision that the Local Authority can ever take when dealing with a child that is more serious than consenting to a course of action that ends the child’s life. It is astonishing to me that anyone at a Local Authority could contemplate doing so under s33 rather than placing the case before a Court. It is unclear whether they even considered the article 2 implications.

133. In Child C’s case, therefore, the profound life and death decision to consent to the withdrawal of life support ought to have been the subject of an application to the High Court either by BCH or by the local authority. It was wrong and an inappropriate use of its powers under s.33 of the 1989 Act for the local authority to have exercised its powers to consent to the withdrawal of Child C’s life support.

Both the mother and the father told Ms Leader on the morning of 6th June 2019 that they agreed with the decisions of the treating clinicians. The local authority has now accepted that given:

i) neither parent had had any contact with any of the children, including Child C, since late 2012;

ii) neither had been involved in any meeting or discussion with treating clinicians at BCH; and

iii) the circumstances in which they were told of the parlous state of their daughter on early morning of 6th June;

I could not accept or find that either parent had given informed consent to the withdrawal of Child C’s life support.

Next topic for me is disclosure – this was a case where there were a wealth of documents and material to be considered and for the Local Authority to consider very rigorously whether they should disclose into the proceedings – the Local Authority has duties to disclose material which not only supports its case but may weaken or undermine its case or potentially strengthen the case of any other party.

The Court notes that due to the delays in providing proper disclosure and it coming in piecemeal and thus one set of documents disclosed revealing the existence of others that then had to be asked for, the oral evidence in this 20 day hearing could not begin until day 9.

It seems that the important task of handling discovery was left to social workers rather than being undertaken by lawyers.

The circumstances of the case reached a point in December 2016 where the Designated Family Judge who had been hearing the case felt compelled to include a recital in extremely strong terms

185. In his order of 2nd December 2016 HHJ Plunkett, understandably and wholly reasonably given the history of this case, included the following recital in his order:
“[the court] is concerned about the surprising degree of resistance to accept the clear judgment from the fact finding hearing by the Foster Carers and raises the option to move the children to Foster Carers who understand and support the reality as letting the children grow up not knowing the truth is likely to cause them emotional harm”
What did the local authority do in response to this very serious expression of concern by a judge that the children were suffering emotional harm in their foster placement and that consideration should be given to moving them to an alternative foster placement? Very shockingly the answer is nothing.
Ms Cox confirmed this in her evidence.
Worse still, on day 14 of this fact-finding hearing a note was disclosed of a meeting held on 13th December 2016 between Ms Cox and Mr Scott, a then assistant director of children’s services. At point 12 of 12, I repeat point 12 of 12, the following is recorded:
“YY case. In court. Challenge from Judge P re contact for relatives, ‘brainwashing’ by social workers/foster carers. Cafcass to visit children soon. Children plan in overview which we support. GC to discuss with AC on her return.”
HHJ Plunkett is not just a senior and hugely experienced family judge, he is the Designated Family Judge for Hereford and Worcester. The lack of any response to, or action taken in respect of, the concerns expressed is truly woeful. The utterly contemptuous response of an assistant director of children’s services of this local authority is absolutely appalling and shocking. It is completely inexcusable. However, this demonstrates the skewed and wholly inappropriate response of this local authority to the desperate needs of the children and reveals a mindset which has ultimately caused them considerable possibly irreparable emotional and psychological harm. I sincerely hope it has not.

The case had had the involvement with an expert, Dr Asen. The LA mounted an attack on him in a position statement. Keehan J was not, it would be fair to say, taken with this:-

182. Dr Asen had from time to time, between 2013 and 2016, been instructed to advise on the way forward in this case. He is one of the most experienced and highly regarded child psychiatrists in the field of high conflict children’s cases in the country. In 2014 a social work professional had recorded on the social work files that Dr Asen had expressed a view that the judgment and order of HHJ Rundell in the fact-finding hearing of 2013 was wrong and it should have been appealed. If this had been Dr Asen’s view he would have expressed it in one of his reports. He did not. I do not understand the motive for this false recording, but it indicates that the same professional in the local authority was not supportive of Dr Asen’s involvement in this case or of the positive change he was seeking to achieve.
For the purposes of the hearing before HHJ Plunkett on 2nd December 2016 when he was hearing the maternal grandmother’s application for contact, the local authority filed and served a position statement which contained the following:
“The local authority’s position at the last hearing was that contact should not progress to direct contact at this stage and challenged Dr Asen’s assessment. Then local authority believes that there is significant use of emotive language in Dr Asen’s report, which unhelpful and can be taken out of context; this raises concerned over the impartiality of the report and the conclusions he has come to. The local authority believed that there should be some work undertaken to progress matters, but that this must be done at the children’s pace and taking into consideration their very strong wishes and feelings.”
“The local authority believes that it can progress contact via the LAC review process. The local authority has significant concerns around the impact of direct and indirect contact and the children at this time, which are set out in detail within the local authority evidence. The parents are against any contact taking place between the children and their extended family; this is supported by the local authority, who share parental responsibility at this time.”
“The local authority wishes to progress life story work, at a pace right for the children, and in line with their emotional needs. The local authority is committed to undertaking this work and sees this as a part of the social workers role, and not of a child psychiatrist. The local authority is committed to promoting contact between the children and the extended family, but this must be in line with their emotional needs.”

Two important points arise:
i) it is disgraceful that this local authority chose to impugn the professional integrity of a highly respected child psychiatrist on the flimsiest of evidence. There was no evidential basis upon which any reasonable person could or should have questioned Dr Asen’s impartiality; and

ii) life story work may well be within the ambit of the social worker rather than a child psychiatrist, but after a few months in early 2017 the local authority did no life story work with the children.

The Court, understandably, spent a lot of time dealing with the assessment of the foster carers which the Local Authority filed as a Special Guardianship assessment. The assessment was written by Kathryn Straughan. Her manager was Alison Foreshaw. Miss Cox is the Head of Service. Mr Baird is the Director of Children’s Services.

The body of the report had as was clear to any reader, an overall negative view of the foster carers becoming Special Guardians, yet the recommendation was that they should be Special Guardians.

Had pressure been applied?

145. Kathryn Straughan had been the interveners’ social worker but was reassigned in June 2019. After Child C’s death she was asked to update her May 2019 special guardianship assessment report by her team manager, Alison Forshaw. She had instructed her to undertake the update as a paper-based exercise and that she was not to visit the interveners.
Ms Straughan believed there were some positives about the children’s placement with the interveners: the children were settled and felt part of the family, the children, however, struggled with their sense of identity, with their views about their parents and wider family and with the issue of contact. These concerns and the concerns about the attitude and approach of the interveners towards the birth family escalated after Child C’s death. Ms Straughan did not consider that the interveners genuinely believed that contact with the parents and their wider family was in the best interests of the children.
She told me that she had real reservations about SGOs being made in favour of the interveners. She did not consider this order to be in the best interests of the children.
As foreshadowed in a supervision meeting with Ms Forshaw on 3rd October 2019, on 10th October Ms Straughan sent her updated assessment report to Ms Forshaw by email. The body of the report was largely negative about the interveners. She concluded with a recommendation that the children should remain the subject of care orders, not SGOs. She asked Ms Forshaw whether she could leave the alternative to the court of making SGOs on the basis of a comprehensive and detailed special guardianship support plan.
On 11th October 2019, Ms Forshaw emailed Ms Straughan in response and said she had to ‘make a recommendation’. Ms Straughan then resigned. Consequently, Ms Straughan, without materially changing the body of her first updating report, changed the recommendation of the report to one of supporting the making of SGOs. This was sent to Ms Forshaw on 28th October 2019.
She told me she had the clear impression that Ms Forshaw and Ms Cox supported the making of SGOs in favour of the interveners. She felt she had been directed to recommend SGOs to be the right solution and she had changed her recommendation so that it was aligned with the ‘local authority’s view’.
I note that when Ms Forshaw emailed the updated report on 23rd October to Ms Cox, she had replied that she was pleased that Ms Straughan had made a recommendation.
I further note that Ms Straughan told me that this was the first and only time she had been asked to prepare a paper-based special guardianship assessment report or an updated report.

(I note in passing that this was pre-Covid, so there were no public health reasons for not doing the assessment face to face)

153. Ms Forshaw stated that concerns about the children’s placement with the interveners were magnified after June 2019. In response to the question that these concerns were incompatible with an SGO she replied, ‘…it feels like that now!’ I do not understand why ‘it did not feel like that’ in October 2019.
She said she could not recall instructing Ms Straughan to confine her updating assessment report to a paper-based exercise. She continued that she had no view on what the ultimate recommendation should be and that she had not put pressure on Ms Straughan to make a recommendation in favour of SGOs. When pressed on this issue by Mr Goodwin QC, leading counsel for the mother, Ms Forshaw accepted that in her first updating report Ms Straughan had made a clear recommendation, namely that the children should remain the subject of care orders. So, Mr Goodwin QC asked why in her email of 11th October 2019 she had asked Ms Straughan to make a recommendation? The best Ms Forshaw could do was to say that now her request did not make sense, but she added she had not led Ms Straughan to make a recommendation in favour of the making of SGOs.
Ms Forshaw told me that she felt the first version of the updating report had been unfair to the children and the interveners. I struggled with understanding this answer because the only substantive change between the two versions was that the later supported the making of SGOs. When asked if she considered the second version fairer only because it supported the making of SGOs, Ms Forshaw could not give a satisfactory answer.
When it was suggested that save for the first updating report having been emailed to Ms Cox, Ms Forshaw had sought to suppress the first version, Ms Forshaw said she thought both the first and the second updated reports had been sent to the legal department. Only the second version was filed at court and served on the parties. I have not seen any evidence of the first version having been sent to the legal department. Indeed, the first the court and the other parties knew of the first version is when Ms Straughan’s statement of February 2021 was filed and served by the local authority.
When Ms Forshaw was asked if she had asked Ms Straughan how her visits to the interveners were progressing, she said she did not know if she had done so. When asked if she had raised with Ms Straughan why there was not a single reference to any visits to the interveners in either of the first or second versions of the report, she claimed she had. Unfortunately, she had not recorded a single one of these discussions.
Ms Forshaw agreed that on one view the first version was a really poor assessment report. When asked why then had she signed off the second version when it was not materially different to the first one save for its recommendation, she simply said she had been under pressure to file the report with the court.
Ms Forshaw was recalled to give evidence after Mr Baird had given evidence. She was asked again whether she had asked Ms Straughan about her visits to the interveners; she said she could not remember. When asked if she had asked about the interveners’ reactions to her visits, she first replied no and then said she could not remember.
She said she did not think that Ms Straughan had changed her recommendation to appease her or Ms Cox. She was asked why she had signed off the second version when the body of the report did not support the recommendation. Once again, the best Ms Forshaw could do was to reply that the report just had to go to the court.
Towards the end of her evidence Ms Forshaw was pressed again about whether she has spoken with Ms Straughan about her visits to the interveners. This time she said that maybe she just did not ask her.
Miss Cox could not recollect (an answer frequently used by this witness) whether she had seen the first version of the updating assessment report. She could not recollect whether Ms Forshaw had told her that this first updated report did not support the making of SGOs. She said she had not read the second version of report save for reading the recommendation. Having now read this report in full she did not invite the court to rely upon this report in support of making SGOs in favour of the interveners.
Ms Cox confirmed that prior to early 2017 no life story work had been undertaken in the preceding five years with any of the children. She said that after a few months the work of Janet Watkins, who undertook the work with the children, was paused to give the children a break. It never restarted.
No therapy was ever undertaken with the children. Ms Cox was asked what oversight she had given to this case. She replied that the case had fallen off her radar because of the breadth of her workload, although she conceded this was no excuse. I do not understand how this high profile and complex case which had caused serial concerns for many professionals working with the children and with the interveners could ‘fall off the radar’ of the Head of Service.
She conceded that the children, the mother and the interveners had been badly served by this local authority. She agreed that accordingly the children had suffered for which she had real regret.
Like Ms Forshaw, Ms Cox was recalled after Mr Baird had given evidence. She continued to assert that as the Head of Service, she had not needed to read either the first or second versions of the updated assessment reports because they had been signed off by the team manager. When Mr Baird’s dismay at this state of affairs was put to Ms Cox, she asserted that the director of children’s services did not know the usual practice adopted in Herefordshire.
When asked whether she should have read the entirety of both versions of the updated report she said that she wished she had. Ms Cox accepted that the ‘safety net’ oversight (i.e. the quality assurance check), which Ms Forshaw and herself should have provided, failed in this case.
In light of the observations of HHJ Plunkett recorded in the order of 2nd December 2016, Ms Cox was asked what consideration had been given to moving the children to an alternative foster placement. She gave the startling and deeply concerning one-word answer, ‘none’.

This is already painful reading, but it gets worse

177.If Ms Forshaw had not instructed Ms Straughan to undertake a paper-based updated assessment report, I cannot begin to understand why she did not ask Ms Straughan about how her sessions with the interveners were progressing. I cannot accept that Ms Forshaw had simply forgotten any of these alleged conversations.

Ms Forshaw’s evidence about why she had sent an email to Ms Straughan on 11th October 2019 asking her to make a recommendation when, as she accepted, Ms Straughan had made a very clear and strong recommendation in her first version of the updated report, was most unsatisfactory. Her evidence leads me to only one conclusion, namely that she was directing Ms Straughan to produce a report recommending the making of SGOs.

I am fortified in coming to that conclusion by the fact that despite knowing the substance of the body of the second version of the updating report which did not support the recommendation made, she submitted the report to the legal department for filing at the court. She did not raise this disjoint with Ms Straughan because she had the recommendation she wanted.

Likewise, the only credible reason for Ms Cox limiting her reading of the second version of the updating report to the recommendation is because she had got the answer she wanted, namely a recommendation in favour of the making of a SGO. Hence her subsequent email to Ms Forshaw that she was ‘pleased’ that Ms Straughan had been able to make a clear recommendation.

207. My findings of fact in relation to this issue are set out in paragraphs 177-180 above. In summary I found that:
i) Ms Straughan was instructed by Ms Forshaw to undertake a paper only exercise in order to update the special guardianship assessment report of May 2019;

ii) she was instructed by Ms Forshaw not to visit or contact the interveners and/or the children for the purposes of completing her updated report;

iii) Ms Straughan came under pressure from Ms Forshaw and Ms Cox to produce an update which recommended the making of a SGO in respect of the children in favour of the interveners;

iv) I do not find she was instructed to make such a recommendation, but she knew both of them supported the making of a SGO in favour of the interveners; and

v) Ms Forshaw signed off the 22nd October 2019 report and arranged for it to be filed at court and served on the parties when she knew that the observations, opinions and conclusions set out in section C of the report did not support or provide a rational basis for the recommendation in favour of the making of a SGO. Indeed, those matters of substance set out in section C only supported the dramatically opposite recommendation that a SGO should not be made.

The findings about the failure of the Local Authority to support the children and their foster placement and to properly and accurately reflect on the findings that were made and not made in the fact finding hearing (allowing the view to propagate that the children had been sexually abused when the Court had found that they had not) are set out in a detailed schedule of findings as an appendix to the judgment.

The children remained subject to Care Orders, with plans for therapy and reestablishing contact with the mother and very clear oversight by the Court of the next stages of the process.

Court of Appeal take stock of ‘domestic abuse’ cases

If I were a tabloid, my alternative heading might be ‘Top Judges blast Judge who treated attempted suffocation as a prank’

The Court of Appeal have just given a decision in four appeals linked by subject matter, all relating to private law cases where there was a dispute about whether one parent had been violent or abusive to the other, and the impact of this on contact.

The Court of Appeal are at pains to point out that the case establishes no new legal principles or new law, but of course it is an oversight as to how Practice Direction 12J about fact finding hearings in private family law is working and also an opportunity to look at how it is being applied on the ground.

As will be seen, our decisions on the various appeals very much turn on long-established principles of fairness or the ordinary approach to judicial fact-finding. None of the four appeal decisions purports to establish ‘new law’. They therefore do not establish any legally binding precedent.

Ten silks were involved in the case.

H-N And Others (Children) (Domestic Abuse: Finding of Fact Hearings) [2021] EWCA Civ 448 (30 March 2021)

H-N And Others (Children) (Domestic Abuse: Finding of Fact Hearings) [2021] EWCA Civ 448 (30 March 2021) (bailii.org)

It is valuable reading for anyone involved in these cases. The big picture is that the Court of Appeal consider that Practice Direction 12J as written, functions properly and does not need reworking but stresses the importance of it being followed and properly applied.

As readers will recall from a high-profile appeal from HHJ Tolson QC, there’s been some concern about whether the spirit of 12J is being properly recognised.

Two examples from the cases being appealed may illustrate the concerns :-

  1. This court has had an opportunity to listen to a recording of this hearing and it is undoubtedly the case that the judge was both frustrated and cross at the total ‘shambles’ in terms of case preparation. The judge said that he would deal with only three allegations ‘if I deal with anything’ and that he would ‘probably not deal with anything’. By reference to the schedule in which the father alleged that the mother drinks and took cocaine, the judge said that he would try that allegation, saying that ‘if both parties are taking drugs and that there was evidence that both parties took drugs’ he would make those findings. The judge accepted that the mother’s allegation of rape was one of the three allegations which may be tried.
  2. The judge went on to ask with whom ‘the child’ lives and was told that it was the mother. It was at this point that the judge said that ‘if this goes on the child will be taken into care and adopted’. Unsurprisingly, the mother became deeply distressed and can be heard crying on the tape.
  3. The judge asked if the mother accepted that she took drugs and asked whether she describes herself as an addict.
  4. In the subsequent exchanges counsel told the judge that the mother accepted taking drugs on only one occasion and then by coercion by the father. The mother can be heard in the background weeping and denying that she is an addict. The judge then said that it may be that he would have to report the matter to social services. The exchanges continued in similar vein with the judge saying that the parties were where they are ‘because of your own making’. He accepted that the matter would have to be adjourned as the father’s counsel had failed to attend.
  5. Counsel for the mother submitted to the judge that the case was not about drugs, but about the allegations made by the mother of abuse, to which the judge responded: ‘Well how’s that going to affect contact’. Further attempts by counsel to highlight aspects of the mother’s case were to no avail. The judge said that the parties should ‘sort it out’ and that ‘you should have had the riot act read to you months ago’. The parties were then sent out to see if they could reach an agreement as to contact.

and

  1. In November 2017 the allegation made by the mother was that the father ‘grabbed the mother by the throat and began strangling her’. The father, it was alleged, threatened the mother with death. The background to this incident was an argument during which the father began, allegedly, to choke the mother. The judge found that the: ‘mother asserted she was choking. However, in oral evidence she said that the strangulation lasted a few seconds, she coughed, and he let her go; there was no mention of any choking. Afterwards, there was no visible marks. The father denied the whole event.’
  2. The judge, whilst not satisfied that the father ever attempted to ‘strangle’ the mother, held that ‘the father probably held the mother in the vicinity of her neck’. She went on that he ‘may well have used words to the effect that he would kill the mother but, it seems to me, that these words are commonly used in anger which do not import any genuine threat to life’.
  3. A month or so later in December 2017, the ‘plastic bag’ incident occurred. The father came up behind the mother when she was sitting on the floor with T on her knee and, without warning, put a plastic bag over the mother’s head. The father said, ‘This is how you should die’. The father denied that any such incident took place.
  4. In contrast to her findings as to the mother’s evidence in relation to various of the other allegations, the judge said that, in relation to this incident, the mother spoke with ‘total clarity’ with ‘no inconsistencies’. The judge went on to find:

“52. I accept mother’s account of this incident…However, as there was no trigger to this event at all, I am not satisfied that it represented an attempt to kill, a threat to kill or that the mother felt threatened, given her oral evidence. It may be that it was some sort of prank by the father that he now denies because of the allegations made against him. Indeed, the mother told social workers that the father had called this incident a joke. That said, it was an unpleasant aggressive thing for the father to do and is not acceptable behaviour.”

  1. So far as to the cross allegations made by the father about the mother, the judge found that the mother had slapped the father in December 2017 and that the next day there was a further ‘unpleasant incident where there was pushing and slapping on both sides’. The judge did not accept that the mother had threatened the father’s elder daughter, but did find that the mother had been aggressive to the father and shouted at him and his daughter in a restaurant.
  2. The judge, having considered each allegation individually, concluded as follows:

“[59] While I have found that some of the mother’s allegations are true and some of the father’s allegations are true and I am satisfied that this was a mutually abusive relationship I am not satisfied that these represent anything more than the sad and bitter end of a relationship which met neither party’s expectations…… I am satisfied that this relationship was one of mutual verbal and minor physical abuse attributable to relationship conflict. … I am not satisfied that T would be at risk from her father….. I am not satisfied that the father is a violent man as portrayed by the mother. It seems to me more likely that he was, occasionally, driven to anger and loss of control in conflicts with the mother in situations where she was verbally and, occasionally, physically abusing him. This is not an excuse and I should not be taken as endorsing any abusive behaviour by either of the parties but, having separated, I cannot see that either poses a threat to the other or to T.”

Whilst recognising that the task of unpicking the truth about a serious allegation is a difficult one, and the Judge has the benefit of seeing and hearing the witnesses, it seems to the neutral observer difficult to conclude that putting a plastic bag over your partner’s head and telling them that this is how they will die is as characterised here. A prank or joke seems to be a strange way to categorise this conduct.

The Court of Appeal considered the same, that the findings that were made as to what had happened were not matched by the finding of the significance or otherwise of these.

The judge made three findings of physical violence against the father. In our view, the judge failed to acknowledge in particular the seriousness of the two incidents where the father made reference to dying or to killing. The judge did not acknowledge that whilst she, the judge, may have concluded that the father did not intend either to ‘strangle’ or to ‘suffocate’ the mother, that does not prevent the mother from having been the victim of two extremely frightening episodes. The judge failed to recognise the impact upon the mother and the child. For our part we do not accept that words which can be interpreted as threats to kill are words which are ‘commonly used in anger which do not import any genuine threat to life’. The impact on the mother was abundantly clear given that the judge accepted her evidence that when she was on the floor with the plastic bag over her head she was ‘feeling as though she wanted to die’. In short, the failure to stand back and to consider the impact of her findings prevented the judge from asking the key primary question, which was whether the evidence established a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour.

We are particularly troubled by the ‘plastic bag’ incident. Looking at the background history and the state of the parties’ relationship by December 2017, with the ‘strangling’ incident having taken place only the month before, we cannot see on what basis the judge could conclude that coming up behind the mother (who was on the floor holding their baby), and putting a plastic bag over her head before saying that ‘this was the way she would die’ could be regarded as a ‘prank’. This was, in our judgment, the second of two intimidating and highly abusive incidents of a similar type carried out within a few weeks of each other. We say that conscious of the findings the judge made about the mother’s own aggressive behaviour towards the father on occasion.

More broadly, the Court of Appeal introduce the topic of the important task of the Court in taking allegations of domestic abuse seriously, and of taking seriously the need to get to the truth of the allegations and properly assess the impact they have on the issues of where children live and whom they spend time with

  1. The task of reviewing the approach to domestic abuse is a complicated one in respect of which the understanding of society, those who work with victims, and politicians and professionals, is developing all the time. At present the Ministry of Justice is moving to implement their report: Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases: (‘The Harm Panel Report’). At the same time, the Domestic Abuse Bill is before Parliament. In addition, those within the judiciary, Cafcass and the legal and social work professions have contributed to the recommendations of the President of the Family Division’s ‘Private Law Working Group’ (‘PLWG’) (2nd report published April 2020)[1] which are beginning to be piloted in the courts.
  2. The Harm Panel in its recommendations said that they regard the adversarial system by which contact disputes are presently determined as a barrier to the Family Court’s ability to respond ‘consistently and effectively to domestic abuse’. The Harm Panel is now looking to implement an approach to domestic abuse in the courts which is ‘investigative and problem solving based on open enquiry into what is happening for the child and their family’ (Chapter 11.2). Following the publication of The Harm Panel, the Ministry of Justice has started work on how the proposed new approach can be effected and, as part of its recommendations, pilots of Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts (IDAC) are being designed.
  3. These various endeavours could not be more important in the context of improving our collective approach to issues of domestic abuse. The scope of each is wide and the substantive content is complex. It would be both impossible and inappropriate for us, as judges in the Court of Appeal, following a short hearing of four appeals, to lay down comprehensive guidance in this judgment aimed at resolving (or even identifying) the many difficulties that are said to exist and which are the very subject of these other more extensive endeavours.
  4. Our focus must therefore necessarily be limited to offering guidance on those matters which are most directly relevant to the court process.
  5. Over the past 40 years there have been significant developments in the understanding of domestic abuse. The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Homes Act 1976 (‘DVMA 1976’) introduced the concept of ‘domestic violence’; although ground breaking in its time, it is now wholly outdated and hard to comprehend an approach which required evidence of actual bodily harm to a victim before a power of arrest could be attached to an injunction (s 2 DVMA 1976).
  6. Obsolete too is the approach often seen in the 1980s where, although ‘domestic violence’ had been established and an injunction granted, judges regarded that violence as purely a matter as between the adults and not as a factor that would ordinarily be relevant to determining questions about the welfare of their children. Fortunately, there has been an ever-increasing understanding of the impact on children of living in an abusive environment. A seminal moment in the court’s approach to domestic violence (as it was still called) was the Court of Appeal judgment in four appeal cases that were, like the present appeals, heard together: Re L (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re V (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re M (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re H (Contact: Domestic Violence) [2000] 2 FCR 404[2000] 2 FLR 334. The central conclusion from Re L, which was based on the Court of Appeal’s acceptance of authoritative expert child psychiatric evidence, was that there needed to be a heightened awareness of the existence of, and the consequences for children of, exposure to ‘domestic violence’ between parents and other partners. In CA 1989 applications, where an allegation of ‘domestic violence’ was made which might have an effect on the outcome, the Court of Appeal held that it was plain that it should be adjudicated upon and found to be proved or not. In its time, 20 years ago, the messages from Re L led to a significant change in the approach to domestic abuse allegations in the context of child welfare proceedings.
  7. As the present appeals illustrate, there are many cases in which the allegations are not of violence, but of a pattern of behaviour which it is now understood is abusive. This has led to an increasing recognition of the need in many cases for the court to focus on a pattern of behaviour and this is reflected by (PD12J).
  8. PD12J paragraph 3 includes the following definitions each of which it should be noted, refer to a pattern of acts or incidents:
  9. The definition, which was expanded in 2017 and is the one currently to be used by judges in the Family Court, is plainly a far cry from the 1970s’ concept of ‘domestic violence’ with its focus on actual bodily harm. It is now accepted without reservation that it is possible to be a victim of controlling or coercive behaviour or threatening behaviour without ever sustaining a physical injury. Importantly it is now also understood that specific incidents, rather than being seen as free-standing matters, may be part of a wider pattern of abuse or controlling or coercive behaviour. It is of note that none of the submissions to this court suggested that the current definition of ‘domestic abuse’ in PD12J required substantial amendment. Although the structure of the definition of ‘domestic abuse’ in clause 1 of the Domestic Abuse Bill [‘DAB’] currently before Parliament differs from that in PD12J, the content is substantially the same. Thus, whilst PD12J will undoubtedly fall for review to ensure that it complies with the DAB once the Bill becomes an Act, it is unlikely that the substance of the core definitions will substantially change.
  10. We are therefore of the view that PD12J is and remains, fit for the purpose for which it was designed namely to provide the courts with a structure enabling the court first to recognise all forms of domestic abuse and thereafter on how to approach such allegations when made in private law proceedings. As was also recognised by The Harm Panel, we are satisfied that the structure properly reflects modern concepts and understanding of domestic abuse. The challenge relates to the proper implementation of PD12J.
  11. As can be seen at paragraph 27 above, central to the modern definitions of domestic abuse is the concept of coercive and/or controlling behaviour. Shortly before the hearing of these appeals, Mr Justice Hayden handed down judgment in F v M [2021] EWFC 4. The judgment followed a two-week fact-finding hearing of domestic abuse allegations centred on coercive and/or controlling behaviour. The arrival of Hayden J’s judgment was timely. All parties commended it to the court for its comprehensive and lucid analysis, and for the plea contained within it urging greater prominence to be given to coercive and controlling behaviour in Family Court proceedings. The parties’ endorsement of the judgment in F v M is, in our view, fully justified. It is helpful to set out one of the central paragraphs from Hayden J’s judgment here:
  12. Whilst the facts found in F v M may be towards the higher end of the spectrum of coercive or controlling behaviour, their essential character is not, and will be all too familiar to those who have been the victim of this form of domestic abuse, albeit to a lesser degree or for a shorter time. The judgment of Hayden J in F v M (which should be essential reading for the Family judiciary) is of value both because of the illustration that its facts provide of what is meant by coercive and controlling behaviour, but also because of the valuable exercise that the judge has undertaken in highlighting at paragraph 60 the statutory guidance published by the Home Office pursuant to Section 77 (1) of the Serious Crime Act 2015 which identified paradigm behaviours of controlling and coercive behaviour. That guidance is relevant to the evaluation of evidence in the Family Court.
  13. The circumstances encompassed by the definition of ‘domestic abuse’ in PD12J fully recognise that coercive and/or controlling behaviour by one party may cause serious emotional and psychological harm to the other members of the family unit, whether or not there has been any actual episode of violence or sexual abuse. In short, a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour can be as abusive as or more abusive than any particular factual incident that might be written down and included in a schedule in court proceedings (see ‘Scott Schedules’ at paragraph 42 -50). It follows that the harm to a child in an abusive household is not limited to cases of actual violence to the child or to the parent. A pattern of abusive behaviour is as relevant to the child as to the adult victim. The child can be harmed in any one or a combination of ways for example where the abusive behaviour:
  14. It is equally important to be clear that not all directive, assertive, stubborn or selfish behaviour, will be ‘abuse’ in the context of proceedings concerning the welfare of a child; much will turn on the intention of the perpetrator of the alleged abuse and on the harmful impact of the behaviour. We would endorse the approach taken by Peter Jackson LJ in Re L (Relocation: Second Appeal) [2017] EWCA Civ 2121 (paragraph 61):
  15. Having considered what is controlling and coercive behaviour and emphasised the damage which it can cause to children living in a household in which it is a feature of the adult dynamics, it is necessary to move on to consider the approach of the court where the question of whether there has been a ‘pattern’ of ‘coercive’ and/or ‘controlling’ behaviour by one or more of the adults in a family is raised. Although the principal focus in this judgment has been on controlling and coercive behaviour, it should be noted that the definition of domestic abuse makes reference to patterns of behaviour not only in respect of domestic abuse refers to a ‘pattern of incidents’ not only in relation to coercive and/or controlling behaviour but to all forms of abuse including physical and sexual violence. Our observations therefore apply equally to all forms of abuse.
  16. In our judgment there are a number of important issues which arise out of the submissions made by the parties to these appeals in relation to the proper approach of the court to such cases namely:
  1. Whether there should be a finding of fact hearing
  2. The challenges presented by Scott Schedules as a means of pleading a case
  3. If a finding of fact hearing is necessary and proportionate how should an allegation of domestic abuse be approached
  4. the relevance of criminal court concepts

I’ll tackle the last point first, as it is fairly simple and builds on the Court of Appeal views about this. In essence :-

The family Court should focus on the details of the conduct alleged and not worry excessively about what label it would be given in a criminal court and the ingredients of the criminal offence and the defences to it. Consider what is alleged and determine whether on the evidence the person making the allegation has proved that it is more likely than not to have occurred.

  1. Hickinbottom LJ observed during the hearing in Re R, ‘what matters in a fact-finding hearing are the findings of fact’ [paragraph 67]. The Family court should be concerned to determine how the parties behaved and what they did with respect to each other and their children, rather than whether that behaviour does, or does not, come within the strict definition of ‘rape’, ‘murder’, ‘manslaughter’ or other serious crimes. Behaviour which falls short of establishing ‘rape’, for example, may nevertheless be profoundly abusive and should certainly not be ignored or met with a finding akin to ‘not guilty’ in the family context. For example in the context of the Family Court considering whether there has been a pattern of abusive behaviour, the border line as between ‘consent’ and ‘submission’ may be less significant than it would be in the criminal trial of an allegation of rape or sexual assault.
  2. That is not to say that the Family courts and the parties who appear in them should shy away from using the word ‘rape’ in the manner that it is used generally in ordinary speech to describe penetrative sex without consent. Judges are not required to avoid using the word ‘rape’ in their judgments as a general label for non-consensual penetrative sexual assault; to do otherwise would produce a wholly artificial approach. The point made in Re R and now in this judgment is different; it is that Family courts should avoid analysing evidence of behaviour by the direct application of the criminal law to determine whether an allegation is proved or not proved. A further example can be drawn where the domestic abuse involves violence. The Family Court may well make a finding as to what injury was caused, but need not spend time analysing whether in a criminal case the charge would allege actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm.
  3. It follows therefore that a Family judge making a finding on the balance of probabilities is not required to decide, and does not decide, whether a criminal offence has been proved to the criminal standard. Any use of familiar terms should not give the impression that the abusive parent has been convicted by a criminal court. Equally where an abusive parent has in fact been convicted of a relevant offence (e.g. a sexual or violent offence against the other parent), the conviction is proof of the fact that he or she committed the offence ‘unless the contrary is proved’ (Civil Evidence Act 1968 s.11(1) and s11(2)). Where a party seeks to go behind a conviction, the burden of proof is on him to prove on the balance of probability that the conviction was erroneous (McCauley v Vine v Carryl [1999] 1 WLR 1977).
  4. The distinction between a court having an understanding of likely behaviour in certain highly abusive settings and the tightly structured requirements of the criminal law will not, of course, be clear cut. That is particularly so when the judge in the Family court must conduct their own analysis of issues such as consent, and must do so in the context of a fair hearing. In this regard the procedural manner in which the hearing is conducted and, in particular, the scope of cross-examination of an alleged victim as to their sexual history, past relationships or medical history, justify consideration separately from the general prohibition on family judges adopting criminal concepts in determining the substantive allegation. Nothing that is said in Re R, or endorsed in this judgment, should inhibit further consideration of such procedural matters. They are beyond the scope of this judgment and are more properly to be considered elsewhere.

Scott Schedules – a quick run-down. My understanding is that the term arose in building disputes, and were devised not by a Judge or a lawyer but by a surveyor, George Scott. The idea is that there is one document, in the form of a table that sets out each allegation with reference to where and when it was said to have occurred, with a column setting out what each party says about it, a column of where independent references and reports can be found and a column for judicial notes and conclusions.

The issue with them raised in this hearing is that obviously the more allegations that go into a Scott Schedule the more cumbersome and perhaps less useful it becomes. What has happened in effect piecemeal is that a practice has sprung up where the complainant is told to confine their allegations to ten or sometimes even three. The difficulty with that is in cases where the allegation is of coercive and controlling behaviour or a pattern of abuse which does not readily reduce to 3 clear allegations that on x date y happened.

  1. Concern about the utility of Scott Schedules was raised on two different bases: one of principle and the other more pragmatic. The principled concern arose from an asserted need for the court to focus on the wider context of whether there has been a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour, as opposed to a list of specific factual incidents that are tied to a particular date and time. Abusive, coercive and controlling behaviour is likely to have a cumulative impact upon its victims which would not be identified simply by separate and isolated consideration of individual incidents.
  2. The second, more pragmatic, criticism is not unrelated to the first. As an example in one of these four appeals, the parties were required to ‘limit’ the allegations to be tried to ten and the judge at trial further reduced the focus of the hearing by directing that only three would be tried. It was submitted that that very process of directed selection, produces a false portrayal of the couple’s relationship. If such an applicant succeeds in proving the three remaining allegations, there is a risk that the court will move forward on the basis that those three episodes are the only matters ‘proved’ and therefore the only facts upon which any adverse assessment of the perpetrator’s future risk falls to be made. By reducing and then further reducing its field of focus, the court is said to have robbed itself of a vantage point from which to view the quality of the alleged perpetrator’s behaviour as a whole and, importantly, removed consideration of whether there was a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour from its assessment.
  3. For our part, we see the force of these criticisms and consider that serious thought is now needed to develop a different way of summarising and organising the matters that are to be tried at a fact-finding hearing so that the case that a respondent has to meet is clearly spelled out, but the process of organisation and summary does not so distort the focus of the court proceedings that the question of whether there has been a pattern of behaviour or a course of abusive conduct is not before the court when it should be. This is an important point. Everyone agrees.
  4. The Harm Panel has expressed a similar view and noted that ‘reducing a long and complicated history of abuse into neat and discrete descriptions is challenging and can itself result in minimisation of the abuse’ (Chapter 5.4), and that by limiting the number of allegations the court is not exposed to ‘more subtle and persistent patterns of behaviour’ (Chapter 7.5.1). So too did Hayden J in F v M in his Post Script
  5. Quite how a move away from the use of Scott Schedules is to be achieved, and what form any replacement ‘pleading’ might take, does, however, raise difficult questions and was the subject of submissions to this court. A number of suggestions were made by the parties in submissions including; a ‘threshold’ type document, similar to that used in public law proceedings, formal pleadings by way of particulars of claim as seen in civil proceedings and a narrative statement in prescribed form. The particular advantage of a narrative statement was, it was submitted, that it would allow there to be a focus on the overall nature of the relationship and expressly whether a party says that she had been harmed as a result of the behaviour and, if so, in what manner. Such an approach would allow the court to identify at an early stage whether an allegation of controlling and coercive behaviour is in issue. Identifying the form of harm (which may be psychological) and only then looking back at the more granular detail, would, it was submitted, allow the court to determine what specific facts need to be determined at a fact-finding hearing.
  6. The process before this court has undoubtedly confirmed the need to move away from using Scott Schedules. This court is plainly not an appropriate vehicle to do more than describe the options suggested by the parties in their submissions during the course of the hearing. It will be for others, outside the crucible of an individual case or appeal, to develop these suggestions into new guidance or rule changes. In practice that work is likely, in the first instance, to be done through the Private Law Working Group together with The Harm Panel’s implementation group whose final recommendations may in turn lead to changes to the FPR or in the issuing of fresh guidance through the medium of a Practice Direction.

The Court of Appeal had this specific comment to make about coercive and controlling behaviour

Where one or both parents assert that a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour existed, and where a fact-finding hearing is necessary in the context of PD12J, paragraph 16, that assertion should be the primary issue for determination at the fact-finding hearing. Any other, more specific, factual allegations should be selected for trial because of their potential probative relevance to the alleged pattern of behaviour, and not otherwise, unless any particular factual allegation is so serious that it justifies determination irrespective of any alleged pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour (a likely example being an allegation of rape).

UNBREAKABLE

A Court of Protection case about whether one of the litigants was able to make their own tape-recordings, and what happens when the Court have finally had enough of volume and timbre of email correspondence.

Re TA Recording of hearings 2021

TA, Re (Recording of hearings; Communication with Court office) [2021] EWCOP 3 (22 January 2021) (bailii.org)

Cobb J dealt with this case, which involved more broadly a woman with Alzheimers and decisions about her future, but specifically with her son, TA, whom it would be fair to say had a difference of opinion with the local authority about these matters.

TA wished to tape record the Court hearings and sought permission to do so. (also raising within his application that he did not consider it reasonable for the Court to record him in the hearings if he were not able to do the same, thus raising the issue in law as to whether an individual has any powers under data protection legislation to prevent that without his consent)

  1. By a COP9 application dated 17 November 2020, TA seeks permission to record the court hearings concerning GA. He justifies this on the basis that he has a need, following each hearing, to be able to revisit the issues discussed in court, and that he cannot be expected to take handwritten notes alongside making full representation before the court as a litigant in person. In a further COP9 application purportedly issued on the morning of the hearing (15 January 2021), TA requested further and specific permission to audio and visually record the hearing before me. In the accompanying e-mail (15 January 2021), he said this:

“… under NO circumstances shall I be entering the jurisdiction of the Court and presenting myself before Mr Justice Cobb without making a private recording of the event.
Therefore, either permission is granted or I be prevented from entering the Court’s jurisdiction. I am under no legal obligation to enter the jurisdiction of the Court, unrepresented as a litigant in person, and to then have my voice recorded without my express permission and at the same time prevented from procuring a copy of said recording in clear contravention of the Data Protection Act 2018, and then forced to pay for a transcription of said recording, without access to the actual audio recording itself.
I will no longer be compromised on this matter.”

TA further developed an argument at the hearing based on the hearing being remote – in effect, he was not in the physical Court building, he was in his own home, and thus (a) he should be allowed to do what he wanted in his own home and (b) that the Court were in effect recording him in his own home, thus interfering with his article 8 rights.

At the hearing, and pending my decision on his application, TA advised me that he was not recording the hearing. He expanded his arguments on this application at some length during the hearing. He made the following points:
i) It is in breach of his human rights to be denied the right (“as a free person”) to record conversations; that he has a right to make recordings of anyone entering his “jurisdiction”, by which I understood he meant his home;

ii) He challenges the contention (see 10 below) that he has published recorded information relating to these proceedings in the past, and that by posting material from, or related to, these proceedings on to a private ‘YouTube’ channel he is not “publishing” information and the video clips are not therefore in the public domain;

iii) The Local Authority employees are “pathological liars”, and he has suffered “discrimination” from many judges (“bullied, intimidated and victimised”), and he needs the recordings in order to evidence this;

iv) He has experienced unnecessary delay in obtaining transcripts in the past; the transcripts have been costly, and in any event transcripts “do not capture the whole intonation and the silences in the court”;

v) There is an incongruity between the practices of different courts;

vi) Opposition to his application for the right to record has been driven by a wish to “censor” TA;

vii) He would wish the recording “for my own protection and benefit”.

In developing these points orally, at times TA appeared to suggest that as he was not ‘in court’ and was “outside the jurisdiction of the court”, he could record conversations as he wished. I reminded him that although he was not physically in a court building, he was every bit as much ‘in a court’ on the video platform.

At this point, whilst I can predict what the eventual answer might be, I’m not quite sure how the Judge is going to get there, but as it is a Cobb J judgment you know that we will get an explanation which is clear, succinct and right. Here we go:-

I would like to make three points about this application. First, as to the recording itself, the Court of Protection is not specifically included (see section 85D(2) Courts Act 2003) in the list of courts to which section 55 and schedule 25 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (‘the 2020 Act’) applies. The 2020 Act introduced new statutory provisions (sections 85A-85D) into the Courts Act 2003 which:
i) empower the court to direct that a recording of the proceedings be made (in the manner specified in the direction) for the purpose of enabling the court to keep an audio-visual record of the proceedings;

ii) create a criminal offence for a person to make, or attempt to make an unauthorised recording, or an unauthorised transmission, of an image or sound which is being broadcast in accordance with the law.

Nonetheless, as Hayden J, as Vice President of the Court of Protection, made clear in his guidance to which I have earlier referred (‘Remote Access to the Court of Protection’: 31.3.2020), the terms of the statutory criminal prohibitions (as adapted) were to be included in every standard order thereafter, accompanied by a penal notice and punishable by contempt proceedings. I have reviewed the orders made in this case since that time, and am satisfied that such orders have indeed from time to time been made and repeated. Furthermore, consistent with this approach, the Court Associate who called the case on before me, on 15 January 2021, made clear in her introduction to the hearing, that “under no circumstances” could the hearing be privately recorded.

Secondly, and in any event, (and as TA himself acknowledged at the hearing), it would be a contempt of court, punishable by imprisonment, for any party to record a hearing without the permission of the judge: see section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 (‘Use of Tape Recorders’). While I have a discretion under the civil law to permit recording (Practice Direction (Tape Recorders) [1981] 1 WLR 1526), I would need to be satisfied that the applicant had a reasonable need to make such a recording. I am far from persuaded that TA can demonstrate such a need; indeed, by contrast, I am wholly satisfied that TA has a very good (I would suggest an extraordinary), grasp of the procedures, the documents and the issues engaged in these proceedings.
I therefore advise, or more accurately remind, TA that while it may not be a statutory criminal offence to record the proceedings or any part of them unless he is authorised to do so, this would nonetheless be a civil contempt, punishable by imprisonment.

The application for TA to conduct his own tape recording was refused.

The secondary matter which arose was the nature and volume of TA’s email correspondence with the Court of Protection court office.

In the latter part of last year, it had come to the attention of HHJ Anderson (one of the two Regional Lead Court of Protection Judges in the North East, and previously the allocated judge for this case) that TA’s conduct towards, and correspondence with, the Court of Protection court office in Leeds had become excessive and may warrant some proscription. On 10 December 2020 HHJ Anderson directed of the court’s own motion that the issue of TA’s communication with the court office be considered specifically by the Court; she invited me to deal with this. HHJ Anderson made an order directing the preparation of a witness statement from the Operations Manager at the Court of Protection court office, and gave TA the opportunity to reply.
The Operations Manager has filed a statement (17.12.20); she records that the court received 150 e-mails from TA in 2019, 217 e-mails in 2020 (total 367 – approximately – 15 per month). Her statement goes on to reveal that the e-mail/correspondence traffic generated between TA, the judiciary, and the other parties, in a recent ‘snapshot’ of 3 months (September, October, November 2020) amounted to 392 separate pieces of mail/correspondence sent/received. This amounts to approx. 130 pieces of correspondence per month, or 4.5 per day.
The Operations Manager has further advised that TA has made 39 COP9 applications in the case over the 24-month period, 35 of these have been made in 2020 (i.e. approximately 3 per month in 2020). Pausing here, the sheer volume of applications might well suggest that consideration ought to be given, when determining any of the outstanding applications before the court, to the grounds on which the court may consider it appropriate to make a form of Civil Restraint Order under CPR 1998 rule 3.11 and PD3C. The Operations Manager goes on to report that TA telephones the court office regularly, usually when he issues an application (which he does regularly – see above), receives orders/replies from the court office or after a hearing; she estimates that the calls are made approximately twice per week and the staff report that the telephone calls average between 30 to 40 minutes in duration. The Operations Manager observes that TA routinely challenges the competence of HMCTS staff, and he is known often to accuse the staff of colluding with the Local Authority against him. She further observes, and from my reading of the material I agree, that his more abusive comments are primarily directed at the judiciary and the lawyers for the other parties to the litigation.
I have seen some of the e-mails which TA has sent to the court and the parties; his practice is to copy in many recipients of his e-mail (I counted well over 100 recipients to some of the recent e-mails sent to the Local Authority including his Member of Parliament). He signs himself off by his name, sometimes followed by an epithet including (from recent e-mails filed): “Diligent and persistent as ever”, “Not a Gentle Knight”, “WikiLeaks Wannabe”, “DPA [Data Protection Act] Pioneer”, or (in the case of his position statement – by e-mail – for the hearing before me) “Leviathan Terminator”. In e-mails sent following the 15 January 2021 hearing, “(a humble, disprivileged (sic.) persecuted informal carer. Mr Nobody)”, and in another “(UNBREAKABLE!)” (capitals in the original).
As mentioned above, since the hearing on 15 January 2021, TA has sent two further e-mails copied to the court (and again copying in significant number of others). The e-mail is addressed (as many of his e-mails are) to “Dear Coalition Of My Mother’s Persecutors (COMMP)”. In one, he states, and repeats a number of times, the following narrative:
“You can beat me to my knees, it only makes me stronger. I am unbreakable!! Did you hear me? DID YOU HEAR ME [Local Authority]! I am unbreakable. I am UNBREAKABLE, I AM UNBREAKABLE!!! The strength that lies in my heart is like no other. The determination that lives inside me is equal to no other. Every day, I wake up, I promise myself, I will make it, and I never break a promise I make to myself! I am unbreakable. I am Unbreakable.. I AM UNBREAKABLE!!!”
TA denies that his correspondence with the court has been excessive, inappropriate, or intemperate. He describes the Operations Manager’s written evidence as a “badly drafted pathetic attempt at a fraudulent witness statement”. He does not dispute the volume of his correspondence; he seeks to justify his correspondence, referring inter alia to the fact that there are five separate pieces of litigation in which he is involved, and specifically, further, that:
“HMCTS staff have deliberately destroyed my Court submitted evidence, of a year’s worth of unused medication is marginalised and ignored and refused to be addressed to date. This was a deliberate attempt by HMCTS staff to pervert the course of justice in collaboration with [the local authority] and the Official Solicitor and [the judge], and is a serious criminal offence in law of looking to pervert the course of justice, which no doubt [the Operations Manager] is looking to find ways to get out of by discredit my name in a scapegoating exercise”

It happens from time to time that a Local Authority reach a point with a lay person where the correspondence becomes of a volume or nature where the LA make a decision to stop engaging in it. I’ve never seen this happen with the Court, although of course there is the list of Vexatious Litigants, who are not allowed to commence Court proceedings where there’s some degree of overlap. Occasionally one sees a judgment where a High Court Judge makes polite but clearly wearied reference to the degree of correspondence that they are beseiged with from a particular party to the proceedings.

In my finding, there is no justification for the volume or indeed the tone of much of the e-mail correspondence from TA to the Court which has been presented to me. It is easy to see how those working in the Court of Proceedings court office could have felt easily overwhelmed by the communications from TA. His contact with the court office is and has been wholly disproportionate to the issues in the linked cases; the time taken for the hard-pressed staff to manage this correspondence (and his phone calls) will doubtless have materially distracted them from dealing with the many other Court of Protection cases which require their attention.
I have reminded myself of what King LJ said, albeit obiter, in Agarwala v Agarwala [2016] EWCA Civ 1252; in that case, she was concerned with a business dispute which had been running for almost seven years. In a postscript to her judgment ([71]/[72]), she said this:
“It has taken up countless court and judge hours as both parties, incapable of compromise, have bombarded the court with endless applications, such that [counsel for the appellant] now tells the court the judge has had to make orders that neither party may make an application without the leave of the court. The refusal of either party to accept any ruling or decision of the court has meant that the court staff and judge have been inundated with emails, which they have had to deal with as best they could, with limited time and even more limited resources. The inevitable consequence has been that matters have been dealt with “on the hoof” on occasion without formal applications or subsequent decisions being converted into formal rulings or orders.”
She added:

“Whilst every judge is sympathetic to the challenges faced by litigants in person, justice simply cannot be done through a torrent of informal, unfocussed emails, often sent directly to the judge and not to the other parties. Neither the judge nor the court staff can, or should, be expected to field communications of this type. In my view judges must be entitled, as part of their general case management powers, to put in place, where they feel it to be appropriate, strict directions regulating communications with the court and litigants should understand that failure to comply with such directions will mean that communications that they choose to send, notwithstanding those directions, will be neither responded to nor acted upon.” (emphasis added).
It seems to me that I can and should adopt here the approach suggested by King LJ, by making orders specifically designed to protect the administrative processes of the Court of Protection generally and to prevent its procedure from being abused. Support for this course is further located in the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Attorney-General v Ebert [2002] 2 All ER 789 where Brooke LJ made the following observations as to the scope of this jurisdiction at [35]:
“…the court’s supervisory role now extends beyond the mere regulation of litigation and of litigants who have submitted themselves to the compulsory jurisdiction of the court. It includes the regulation of the manner in which the court process may in general be utilised. It is of course well established that the High Court may, in appropriate circumstances, grant an injunction to restrain an anticipated interference with the administration of justice, amounting to a contempt (Attorney-General v Times Newspapers Ltd [1974] AC 273, 293G-294A, 306B). The advent of the Civil Procedure Rules only serves to bolster the principle that in the exercise of its inherent jurisdiction the court has the power to restrain litigants from wasting the time of court staff and disturbing the orderly conduct of court processes in a completely obsessive pursuit of their own litigation, taking it forward by one unmeritorious application after another and insisting that they should be afforded priority over other litigants.”
Taking my cue from these judgments, and for the reasons set out above, I propose to make an injunction, in the terms set out at the foot of this judgment, to restrain TA hereafter from communicating with the court office by e-mail and telephone. While this is undoubtedly an exceptional order, it is in my judgment entirely justified by the facts of the case; there is a substantial risk that the process of the court will continue to be seriously abused, and that the proper administration of justice in the future will be seriously impeded by TA unless I intervene now with appropriate injunctive relief. In my judgment the order represents a proportionate restriction on TA’s ability to communicate with the court office; he may continue (should he have the need to do so) by sending letters to the court office through the agency of Royal Mail. TA should note, however, my direction that he cannot expect a response from anyone in the court office (which may in fact be by e-mail from the court office if they choose) to his correspondence, if his correspondence with the court office is abusive. While Brooke LJ contemplated that this jurisdiction could or would be exercised by the High Court deploying its inherent jurisdiction, I propose to use the power invested in me by section 47(1) Mental Capacity Act 2005, given that the order is made “in connection with” the exercise of my wider jurisdiction within the Court of Protection. I propose to attach a penal notice to that injunction, so that it may be enforced, if a breach is proved to the required standard, by committal to prison if necessary.

Jolly hockey sticks, or “It’s not recusunal…”

I always love a case about recusal, it threw up for example the delicious joy that was a High Court Judge cross-examining counsel about the Judge’s own lost luggage Judicial baggage | suesspiciousminds

This one is private law. A District Judge (DJ Wylie) had conducted a finding of fact hearing (the mother had made allegations of violent behaviour against the father, the Court heard the evidence and made decisions about what had happened, called ‘findings of fact’)

W (Children: Reopening/recusal) [2020] EWCA Civ 1685 (15 December 2020) (bailii.org)

Two findings were made, and the other two allegations were not made out. The father was later convicted for one of the matters set out in the first finding made. The case would then move to evidence, arguments and decisions about contact and possibly where the children would live.

The father, however, made an application for a re-hearing. It was decided that this application for a re-hearing ought to be heard by District Judge Wylie, which would be the usual course of events.

What was less usual though, is that DJ Wylie recused herself from the hearing and it went before His Honour Judge Duggan

At that hearing, father was in person, and mother was represented (although she was paying privately for her lawyer, which becomes important later).

All that the mother and father knew of DJ Wylie’s situation was that she had recused herself for personal family reasons. It seemed, but one can’t be sure, that HHJ Duggan knew a little more than that.

The Judge raised the issue of recusal and its impact on the findings. There were two broad possibilities – one that DJ Wylie having had reason to recuse herself would not sit on the case in future, and the second that if there was something that meant that she shouldn’t or couldn’t hear the case in the FUTURE then didn’t it follow that the work she’d done up to that point should be redone?

The father’s application for a re-hearing had a very high legal bar to cross, but as the Judge explained to him, an application that DJ Wylie having recused herself from part 2 of the case ought not to have done part 1 and the case should be re-heard as a result of judicial bias was probably an easier argument to make and succeed with. For the mother’s part, counsel explained that having paid privately for her representation, she would be substantially financially affected by having to run the fact finding hearing all over again, and importantly that nobody really knew what DJ Wylie’s reasons were for withdrawing.

HHJ Duggan decided that there was no suggestion of actual bias, but that an independent observer would consider that if a Judge couldn’t hear part 2 of a case for some personal conflict, then what they had done at part 1 might also be under doubt, and that thus the finding of fact hearing should be re-heard before another Judge.

The mother appealed, and the case went before Jackson LJ.

In the meantime, the mother’s lawyers wrote to the Court asking three very proper questions:-

  1. What was the ‘family connection’?
  2. At the finding of fact hearing in February 2020, had the Judge been aware of it?
  3. If so, why wasn’t it raised with the parties?

The Court replied, though very very late in the day (The DJ gave the Court the reply in July, the Court sent it to the parties in NOVEMBER! just before the appeal)

  1. The Judge’s son, and the mother, are members of the same hockey club. On social media, the Judge’s son and the mother follow one another.
  2. The Judge had not realised this until June 2020, well after the finding of fact hearing
  3. if the Judge had realised, she would have raised it with the parties.

At the appeal, the mother’s case was that the process before HHJ Duggan was flawed (the mother and father had not known the reasons for recusal, or what had been known by DJ Wylie at the time) and that HHJ Duggan had applied the wrong test in law.

As to recusal for the appearance of bias, Ms Bentley submitted that the Judge framed the test wrongly. The question is not whether a reasonable observer would be concerned that justice has not been seen to be done; the question is whether the reasonable observer would conclude that there is a real possibility that the judge was biased

The Court of Appeal said this:-

n my view, once the District Judge decided to decline to hear the case on the basis of recusal, she should have ensured that the parties were formally notified of her reason for withdrawing from the case. This could have been done at the time of the hearing before the Recorder. Had he been in a position to inform the parties of the facts so that they were in a position to respond, they may well have been content for the case to continue in front of another judge, as had already been contemplated. But as it was, they were left in the dark and both parties asked the obvious question “Why?”, the father ahead of the hearing before the Judge and the mother afterwards.

t is understandable that the Judge was troubled by this odd position and clear that he was acting with the best of intentions. At the same time, it was necessary for him to approach the matter systematically. The starting point was that the listed application was the father’s application to reopen certain findings of fact. There had been no regular process of recusal by the District Judge and there was no appeal before the Judge. In these very unusual circumstances, the fact that a party had not appealed was not a bar to the Judge raising the issue himself, but in doing so he needed to acknowledge that a decision to set aside findings on the basis of apparent bias was one that could only be taken in an appellate capacity. Procedural steps could have been taken to achieve this, but the issue was not addressed and it is not clear what capacity the Judge was acting in.

That procedural difficulty might not be insuperable, but there are other reasons why the Judge’s unexpected decision to set aside all of the findings on the basis of apparent bias on the part of the District Judge was, I regret, both wrong and unfair:

(1) The Judge was not in a position to take a decision about apparent bias: the decision calls for an informed observer, which supposes knowledge of the basic facts. He should have put himself in a position to inform the parties about the District Judge’s reasons for wishing to recuse herself so that they were in a position to respond. He instead referred only to the existence of a family connection, which they were in no position to assess. Consequently, they were not only unable to put their case about the District Judge’s withdrawal but, more seriously, they had no meaningful way of addressing the new and radical proposal to set aside her findings altogether. This process was not fair to either party.

(2) As to the legal test for apparent bias, the Judge was right to say that one must put oneself in the position of a reasonable observer who is not involved in the case. However, he was mistaken in stating that the test is whether the observer would be concerned that justice had not been seen to be done, when the correct question is whether the observer would conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge was biased, which is a stronger thing

(3) Finally, the Judge’s conclusion that the District Judge’s findings were infected by apparent bias is not supported by any sound reasoning. This was the sort of happenstance community tie that should be disclosed to parties by a judge who is aware of it, but would not ordinarily lead the reasonable and informed observer to conclude that the judge could not try the case fairly. In this case the matter was put beyond argument by the fact that the District Judge did not discover that her son and the mother knew each other until months after she had made her decision.

HHJ Duggan’s decision was therefore overturned, and the findings made by DJ Wylie restored, father’s application to reopen them being refused.

Mayweather with the jab

Well, we all knew that the Covid vaccine would end up being litigated in the family Court, but I wasn’t expecting a published judgment on the issue a week after the first jabs were being given.

M v H (Private law : Vaccination) 2020

M v H (Private Law: Vaccination) [2020] EWFC 93 (15 December 2020) (bailii.org)

It seems that there was already litigation about whether two children should or should not have the MMR vaccine, and the Covid vaccine issue just got tacked on to it. Father said they should, mother said they should not.

The mother asserted that she had done six years of ‘extensive research’ into vaccination. However…

  1. As I have noted, the mother filed and served two detailed statements setting out in clear terms her objection to the father’s application. It is clear that those statements represent, in part, the product of what the mother described in evidence as six years’ worth of extensive “research” into the question of vaccination. In circumstances where the mother readily conceded during cross-examination by Mr Hunt that she had no scientific qualifications beyond school level biology, it was also clear that the mother used the term “research” to describe the process of information gathering online that had provided her with the material which underpinned her arguments against the vaccination of the children.
  2. The material relied on by the mother in her statements comprised a newspaper article, a document that purported to be the factsheet from an MMR vaccine, a flyer entitled “The Babies Aborted for Vaccines”, a list of papers which, and doctors who maintain that there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, a list entitled “Historical Data on Vaccines and Outbreaks” and, as I have mentioned, material from an American paediatrician called Larry Palevsky, who the mother described as “world renowned” but who also appears, from the information contained in the mother’s evidence and the online material she invited me to consider, to be a very vocal advocate against vaccination engaged in advancing a very specific anti-vaccine agenda. In her second statement the mother cited a paper said to demonstrate that refined sugar reduces a child’s immunity for up to five hours, a paper said to demonstrate the health outcomes for unvaccinated children are better than for vaccinated children and a YouTube link to a video from Dr Suzanne Humphries, an American nephrologist. Once again, it is apparent from this material that Dr Humphries is also very vocal advocate against vaccination engaged in advancing a very specific anti-vaccine agenda.

So whilst the mother was massively overqualified, having studied biology at school, to be an opinion writer on Covid 19 for the Daily Telegraph or the Spectator, she was somewhat underqualified to be giving expert evidence in the Court. (To stop being catty for a moment, the Court were very complimentary about the way that she presented her case, the questions she posed and how on top of the detail she was)

The Judge made it clear at the outset that it was premature to make any specific issue order about vaccination for Covid-19, but that this should NOT be taken to be an indication that the Court considered the vaccine unsafe or unwise or not in children’s interests, but that it was at such an early stage of the vaccination programme that it was impossible even to speculate as to when the NHS might begin making the vaccine available to children (and that of course at present, there are three approved vaccines and who knows which particular one might be administered in due course) :-

 I wish to make abundantly clear to anyone reading this judgment that my decision to defer reaching a conclusion regarding the administration to the children of the vaccine against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 does not signal any doubt on the part of this court regarding the probity or efficacy of that vaccine. Rather, it reflects the fact that, given the very early stage reached with respect to the COVID-19 vaccination programme, it remains unclear at present whether and when children will receive the vaccination, which vaccine or vaccines they will receive in circumstances where a number of vaccines are likely to be approved and what the official guidance will be regarding the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine to children. As I make clear at the conclusion of this judgment, having regard to the principles that I reiterate below it is very difficult to foresee a situation in which a vaccination against COVID-19 approved for use in children would not be endorsed by the court as being in a child’s best interests, absent peer-reviewed research evidence indicating significant concern for the efficacy and/or safety of one or more of the COVID-19 vaccines or a well evidenced contraindication specific to that subject child. However, given a degree of uncertainty that remains as to the precise position of children with respect to one or more of the COVID-19 vaccines consequent upon the dispute in this case having arisen at a point very early in the COVID-19 vaccination programme, I am satisfied it would be premature to determine the dispute that has arisen in this case regarding that vaccine.

On the other vaccinations, the Court followed the authorities that are now clear , and helpfully set out and summarised for anyone who may need them.

  1. In all the circumstances, holding P and T’s best interests as my paramount consideration and having regard to the matters I am required to consider under s. 1(3) of the Children Act 1989, I am satisfied that best interests of both P and T to be vaccinated in accordance with the NHS vaccination schedule. It is now clearly established on the basis of credible, peer reviewed scientific evidence that it is generally in the best interests of otherwise healthy children to be vaccinated with those vaccines recommended for children by Public Health England and set out in the routine immunisation schedule which is found in the Green Book published in 2013 and updated as necessary since. It is equally well established that the benefit in vaccinating a child in accordance with Public Health England guidance can be taken to outweigh the long-recognised and identified side effects. The mother has placed no evidence before the court to gainsay these conclusions in respect of P and T, either by way of a medical contra-indication specific to either child or new, credible evidence regarding the safety and efficacy of the vaccines set out in the NHS schedule of vaccinations. I am satisfied on the evidence before the court that there are no other welfare considerations that are contra-indicative to P and T to receiving those vaccinations having regard to s. 1(3) of the Children Act 1989.
  2. Having regard to the reasons set out above, I make a specific issue order pursuant to s. 8 of the Children Act 1989 requiring each of the children to be given each of the childhood vaccines that are currently specified on the NHS vaccination schedule with the father to be responsible for arranging the same and ensuring T and P are taken to the GP for scheduled immunisations for the remainder of their childhood. A copy of the order in this regard will be sent to the children’s GP by the solicitor for the children and placed on each of the children’s medical records. I will reserve to myself in the first instance any future applications with respect to vaccinations against the virus responsible for causing COVID-19 and vaccinations for the purposes of travel.
  3. Finally, whilst the Court of Appeal did not reach a definitive conclusion on the question of whether, in private law proceedings, the question of vaccination should or should not continue to require court adjudication where there is a dispute between holders of parental responsibility, the observations of the Court of Appeal in in Re H (A Child: Parental Responsibility: Vaccination) summarised at paragraph [40] of this judgment, whilst strictly obiter, make it very difficult now to foresee a case in which a vaccination approved for use in children, including vaccinations against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, would not be endorsed by the court as being in a child’s best interests, absent a credible development in medical science or peer-reviewed research evidence indicating significant concern for the efficacy and/or safety of the vaccine or a well evidenced medical contraindication specific to the subject child.

I’m sure this isn’t the last we will see of this sort of litigation and this case doesn’t provide a final answer, but it is a very helpful encapsulation of the key issues and the guidance provided by authorities.

Child-friendly judgment and end to alphabet soup?

I took a bit of time off the blog in the early part of lockdown, meaning to come back to writing once lockdown lifted, and it was only when I got an email from a friendly reader checking up on me that I realised it has been nearly nine months of radio silence. So sorry, and I’m back, sort of. Or at the very least, to quote both Mark Twain and Kerr Avon, “Rumours of my death have been much exagerrated”

I’ve long been a fan of Judges who produce child-friendly (and often adult-friendly) judgments. The sheer amount of “I must remind myself of” and “I take into account, as I must” that Re B-S forced us to insert into judgments purely to avoid appeal points has had the unintended consequence (another of this blog’s Grand Themes) of making them long and impenetrable to the people who most need to understand them.

This is a judgment that addresses the children directly, and in publishing it, the Judge allowed the children to select their own names. I think that’s an excellent idea, and so much better than the alphabet soup of “B” and “J”

As was pointed out to me on Twitter, you do presumably need some mechanism to prevent the more mischievous child from polluting Bailii with Boaty McBoatface and MySister Smellsofoldcheese 2020, but I’ll happily put that on the shoulders of the Guardian for now.

Anyway, here’s the judgment, which is written very nicely. It takes a lot of effort to speak plainly – back to Mark Twain again and apologising for the length of the letter because the author didn’t have enough time to make it shorter.

Take a bow Miss Recorder Henley, a judgment so nicely written that it forced me to shake off my torpor and scramble to find my log-in to the blog.

Robin-Simmers and Adrien (Children : Care Order) [2020] EWFC B52 (12 November 2020) (bailii.org)

Hope all of you are well, and I hope to see you on the other side of this most peculiar of years.