A very peculiar case and one in which leading counsel puts self in harms way in order to demonstrate breach of article 6 and succeed in appeal.
Re R (Children) 2018
In this case, the central issue related to
On the evening of 2 June 2016 the mother of two young children died in the kitchen of their family home as a result of a single fatal knife wound to her neck; the wound had been inflicted by their father
The father was arrested and the two children were removed into foster care. The father faced criminal trial and was acquitted of all charges. There was a finding of fact hearing in the High Court and the father was made the subject of a finding that “he had used unreasonable force and unlawfully killed the mother”
He appealed that finding, successfully.
5.The mother’s death occurred in the context of an acrimonious relationship between the parents following the father’s discovery, in December 2015, that the mother was having an affair. The parties had separated and at the time of the killing the mother was living away from the family home where the two children still lived with their father. The mother returned to the house regularly to have contact with the children; the evening of 2 June 2016 was one such occasion. During the course of an argument between the couple in the kitchen of the property, the mother picked up a kitchen knife and slashed out with it so as to cause significant injury to the child A’s arm and to the back of the father’s head.
6.The father was able to usher A out of the immediate vicinity. He then struggled with the mother and at some stage gained possession of the knife. It was at that stage that the mother sustained the fatal wound to her neck. The knife caused a single but very substantial wound which severed most of the internal structures of the centre and right side of the neck including a complete transection of the right common carotid artery and internal jugular vein. As a result the mother experienced an immediate very substantial loss of blood causing her to collapse and die shortly thereafter. Cause of death was exsanguination due to the severity of the neck wound.
7.The father’s account, both during his criminal trial and before Theis J, was that he had done no more than was reasonable in the circumstances to protect himself and the children.
8.Although it is not my intention to descend to detail it is necessary, for the purposes of understanding an aspect of the father’s Article 6 appeal, to set out the terms of an account presented by his criminal defence solicitors to the experts in the criminal trial in a letter dated 2 December 2016 which reads as follows:
“He was holding the knife in his right hand by the handle. (Mother) came at him and he swung in a circular motion with the knife which connected with the left side of (mother’s) neck. The knife entered the neck at this point and went straight through the neck to the other side and in fact the tip was pointing through. The skin on the front of the neck was intact. The blade of the knife was facing [the father]. [The father] was still holding the knife in this position as the movement continued and he pushed (the mother) backwards whereby the knife was cut out of the throat as the blade was facing [the father]. The knife has come out of the neck/throat as (the mother) has fallen away. “
9.Again in very short terms, the significance of that account was, on the unanimous evidence of the expert pathologists called in the proceedings, that for the knife to go into the neck and be followed by the action of pushing the mother backwards causing the knife to slice forward and exit the neck, involved two planes of motion, whereas the shape of the wound on the mother’s body indicated a single continuous movement rather than two.
The father’s appeal was based on two major facets. Firstly, that the High Court had become very bogged down in criminal terminology when conducting the fact finding hearing (as a result of the word ‘unlawfully’ in the threshold finding sought, the defences to lawful killing – self-defence and loss of control, played a significant part in the case) and secondly that the timescales set down by the High Court for the preparation of father’s case were so short and unrealistic that it put the father in the position of having his very skilled and experienced representative feeling that she was not in a position to properly put his case.
(Being fair to the LA here – because threshold requires that a parent’s behaviour which caused the harm was ‘not being what it would be reasonable to expect’, they may well have concluded that the father if asserting that he acted in self-defence which was reasonable might have a basis for concluding threshold was not met and felt that they needed to establish a higher level of culpability on his part. It is very very tricky drafting threshold in a set of circumstances like this. I think I might have tested the water to see if something along the lines of “The children were exposed to an extreme incident of violence leading to the violent death of the mother, which would have been extremely frightening and distressing and which will be likely to have lifelong implications for their mental and emotional wellbeing” might have been accepted, but it is a lot easier to make that call in the benefit of hindsight)
The criminal bit first
31.For the appellant, Miss Venters’ response to the court’s interjection was to state firmly and clearly that the Family Court should not involve itself in analysis based upon the criminal jurisprudence. In particular, by reference to this case, she submitted that it was unnecessary and impermissible for the Family Court to make findings of “unreasonable force” or “unlawful killing”.
32.Miss Janet Bazley QC, leading Miss Catherine Jenkins, who both appeared below, pointed to the terms of the local authority’s pleaded case as set out in a “final threshold document and schedule of findings” dated 26 June 2017:
“On 2 June 2016, the father killed the mother by cutting her throat…he used unreasonable force or, alternatively, his actions were reckless in all the circumstances.”
Miss Bazley informed the court that the local authority had not intended to establish a link between the findings that it sought and any test within the context of criminal law. Miss Bazley pointed to the formal response to the proposed findings made on behalf of the father which asserted that he had used “reasonable force” and, for the first time, brought in criminal law concepts which, as the trial progressed, lead all the parties to address the issues in the case by reference to the relevant criminal case law.
33.However, in the local authority Opening Note the following appears:
“The local authority’s current position is that the preponderance of the relevant evidence is that the father was behind the mother when he caused the fatal injury. If the court concludes that this is more likely than not to have been the case, the local authority will invite the court to conclude that the father killed the mother deliberately.”
Miss Bazley submitted that it is permissible for the Family Court to make a finding that killing was “deliberate”. She is explained that at no time did the local authority seek a finding of “murder”. However, Miss Bazley later accepted that the local authority’s “closing submissions” document includes the following under the heading “conclusion in relation to the other findings sought”:
“In relation to the mother’s death, the local authority invites the court to conclude on all the evidence, that this was an unlawful killing, probably pre-meditated or otherwise carr[ied] out in anger. The court is respectfully invited to firmly reject the father’s assertion that he acted either instinctively (an accident), or in self defence, using reasonable force.”
34.More generally, and in response to this court questioning why it was necessary for the Family Court to establish precisely how the mother was killed, Miss Bazley submitted that detailed findings were important because of the difference they might make to the welfare determination that the court would have to make at the end of the family proceedings.
35.Miss Bazley submitted that it was appropriate for the Family Court to use the word “reasonable” in a non-legal manner. She also asserted that the local authority had not sought a finding that the mother’s killing had been “unlawful”. Such a finding, she submitted, was not necessary in the context of the family proceedings.
36.On the facts of this case, as found by the judge, any reference to the father acting in “self defence” evaporated as the judge rejected his account. Thus, whilst the local authority accepted their part in the collective error by the advocates in encouraging the judge to consider the criminal case law as to self defence, and accepted that the judge should not have made a finding of “unlawful” killing in the family proceedings, Miss Bazley submitted that the detailed factual findings of the judge should stand. She submitted that the references to criminal law, “unreasonable force” and “unlawful killing” were extraneous for the purposes of the Family Court process and they could be struck out from the judge’s judgment and findings without the need for a re-trial of the factual evidence.
37.For the children’s guardian Mr Malcolm Chisholm, who also appeared below, argued that, as the father’s case was that he was defending himself from an attack by the mother, a finding as to the degree of force used was important and would heavily influence the determinations about the children’s welfare that the Family Court would, in due course make. Mr Chisholm accepted that it was neither necessary nor helpful for the Family Court to analyse these issues by reference to parallel provisions in the criminal law, or, for that matter, the civil law (as for example in Ashley v Chief Constable of Sussex Police)  UK HL 25). Mr Chisholm accepted the court’s observation that, in contrast to criminal or civil proceedings, the focus of the Family Court is not on the adult, or the need to establish a finding of culpability against him; the Family Court’s focus is upon the children and their future welfare. Put shortly, Mr Chisholm said that the question for the Family Court is “is he safe or is he unsafe?” Detailed findings of fact are therefore necessary to determine, for example, whether an individual has over reacted or whether they have been honest and are reliable.
38.Like Miss Bazley, Mr Chisholm urged this court to strip out the judge’s extraneous references to criminal law and the attribution of criminal law labels to her specific findings, whilst leaving the detailed findings themselves standing. Mr Chisholm submitted that there was a real integrity to the judge’s fact finding judgment as a whole. The factual findings are supported by a wealth of reliable evidence and were, in his words, “absolutely rock solid”.
39.In response, Miss Venters submitted that the whole trial before the judge and the resulting judgment were tainted by reference at every point to the need to conduct the analysis of the factual evidence and make findings in a manner compatible with the criminal law. All parties now accept that that approach was wrong and, as a consequence, the judgment as a whole cannot stand.
Conclusions on that aspect
61.Although the father’s grounds of appeal implicitly accepted that the judge had been obliged to apply the relevant elements of the criminal law directly within her analysis of the evidence and in drawing factual conclusions, at an early stage of the oral appeal hearing the court questioned whether the criminal law should have any place in a fact-finding determination made in the Family Court. As a result of our intervention, all parties before the court readily accepted that the structure and substance of criminal law should not be applied in the Family Court and, to the extent that that had occurred in the present case, the court process and the judge’s evaluation had been conducted in error.
62.The parties were right to concede the point, and to do so without argument, as they did. The focus and purpose of a fact-finding investigation in the context of a case concerning the future welfare of children in the Family Court are wholly different to those applicable to the prosecution by the State of an individual before a criminal court. The latter is concerned with the culpability and, if guilty, punishment for a specific criminal offence, whereas the former involves the determination facts, across a wide canvas, relating to past events in order to evaluate which of a range of options for the future care of a child best meets the requirements of his or her welfare. Similarly, where facts fall to be determined in the course of ordinary civil litigation, the purpose of the exercise, which is to establish liability, operates in a wholly different context to a fact-finding process in family proceedings. Reduced to simple basics, in both criminal and civil proceedings the ultimate outcome of the litigation will be binary, either ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’, or ‘liable’ or ‘not liable’. In family proceedings, the outcome of a fact-finding hearing will normally be a narrative account of what the court has determined (on the balance of probabilities) has happened in the lives of a number of people and, often, over a significant period of time. The primary purpose of the family process is to determine, as best that may be done, what has gone on in the past, so that that knowledge may inform the ultimate welfare evaluation where the court will choose which option is best for a child with the court’s eyes open to such risks as the factual determination may have established.
65.The extracts from the judgments of Butler-Sloss P and Hedley J helpfully, and accurately, point to the crucial differences between the distinct roles and focus of the criminal court, on the one hand, and the Family Court, on the other, albeit that each may be considering the same event or events within their separate proceedings. Against that background, it must be clear that criminal law concepts, such as the elements needed to establish guilt of a particular crime or a defence, have neither relevance nor function within a process of fact-finding in the Family Court. Given the wider range of evidence that is admissible in family proceedings and, importantly, the lower standard of proof, it is at best meaningless for the Family Court to make a finding of ‘murder’ or ‘manslaughter’ or ‘unlawful killing’. How is such a finding to be understood, both by the professionals and the individual family members in the case itself, and by those outside who may be told of it, for example the Police? The potential for such a finding to be misunderstood and to cause profound upset and harm is, to me, all too clear.
66.Looked at from another angle, if the Family Court were required to deploy the criminal law directly into its analysis of the evidence at a fact-finding hearing such as this, the potential for the process to become unnecessarily bogged down in legal technicality is also plain to see. In the present case, the judge’s detailed self-direction on the law of self-defence, and the resulting appeal asserting that it was misapplied, together with Miss Venters’ late but sound observations about the statutory defence of ‘loss of self-control’, are but two examples of the manner in which proceedings could easily become over-complicated and side-tracked from the central task of simply deciding what has happened and what is the best future course for a child. It is also likely that the judges chosen to sit on such cases in the Family Court would inevitably need to be competent to sit in the criminal jurisdiction.
67.There is no need to labour this point further. For the reasons that I have shortly rehearsed, as a matter of principle, it is fundamentally wrong for the Family Court to be drawn into an analysis of factual evidence in proceedings relating to the welfare of children based upon criminal law principles and concepts. As my Lord, Hickinbottom LJ, observed during submissions, ‘what matters in a fact-finding hearing are the findings of fact’. Whilst it may not infrequently be the case that the Family Court may be called upon to re-hear evidence that has already been considered in the different context of a criminal prosecution, that evidence comes to the court simply as evidence and it falls to be evaluated, in accordance with the civil standard of proof, and set against whatever other evidence there may be (whether heard by the criminal court or not) for the sole purpose of determining the relevant facts.
68.That the Family Court process in the present case fell into error in the manner that I have described is now conceded and is not in doubt. That it did so is a matter of both surprise and regret in circumstances where the highly experienced advocates for all three parties jointly advised the judge that it was necessary to rely directly on the criminal law and, so far as the local authority are concerned, where a specific finding of ‘unlawful killing, probably pre-mediated or otherwise carried out in anger’ was sought.
69.What is the impact of this error on the overall integrity of the process before Theis J and the judge’s detailed underlying findings? Miss Venters submits that the whole hearing was irrevocably tainted by focus on the criminal law and the need to achieve a finding of ‘unlawful killing’ against the father. The local authority and the guardian, conversely, argue that the high-level findings of ‘unreasonable force’, ‘unlawful killing’ and ‘loss of control’ are extraneous and can be struck out leaving the judge’s discrete factual findings intact.
70.Given the scale of the hearing before Theis J, in terms of time, endeavour and cost, any rehearing should only be contemplated if there is no alternative available course. As will be apparent from this judgment, this court has not begun to evaluate the soundness of the judge’s underlying findings and, for these purposes, I am prepared to accept that each of the 17 detailed findings made at paragraph 141 may be, as Mr Chisholm cast them, ‘absolutely rock solid’. It remains the case, however, that the court was led into fundamental error in relation to a matter of legal principle. It is clear from the local authority opening statement and from its closing submissions that it was presenting its case on the killing in the terms of the criminal law; that was the case that the father understood he had to meet and that was plainly the mindset of all three legal teams and of the judge. The fact that this appeal was being run, and responded to, as a detailed debate conducted within the criminal law of self-defence is proof enough that the fundamental error that has now been identified (and accepted) was not understood by any of the parties prior to the hearing in this court.
71.Given the importance, in terms of its scale and the potential impact upon him, I regard the fact that the court was wrongly drawn into making a finding of ‘unlawful killing’ within these family proceedings, and given the manner in which the proceedings were wrongly focused from the start on establishing culpability in the context of the criminal law, I would be minded to accept Miss Venters’ submission that the case as a whole was tainted to such an extent that it is insufficient simply to strike out certain offending words from the judgment. But, before reaching a conclusion on this all-important question, I propose to consider the father’s case more generally in relation to ‘fair trial’.
The fair trial point
The father was acquitted on 30th May 2017. The family Court had a directions hearing on 9th June 2017 setting the case down for a finding of fact hearing. The LA produced its schedule of findings sought on 26th June 2017 seeking (for the first time) a finding of ‘unlawful killing’ – the fact finding hearing was due to begin on 11th July – eleven working days later.
Eleven working days to effectively prepare a murder trial is obviously compressing realistic timescales considerably. Under protest from the father’s team, the Court granted a five day adjournment, giving effectively three working weeks for father to prepare. For a fact finding hearing involving 42 witnesses, from a standing start.
44.In relation to the appellant’s case under Article 6, Miss Venters makes one overarching submission and one very specific submission each pointing to the overall unfairness of the process.
45.The overarching submission can be recorded shortly. It is that, despite their very best endeavours, the father’s legal team were simply not able adequately to prepare for the fact finding hearing. Although the “criminal bundle” had been disclosed and copied to the father’s legal team in the family proceedings as the criminal process went on, it had not been read by them because the material in it was not, at that time, relevant to any factual issues that were to be litigated before the Family Court. Miss Venters, understandably, states that any time spent working on the criminal papers would, in any event, not have been covered by the father’s Family legal aid certificate at that stage.
46.In relation to equality of arms, Miss Venters points out that the local authority had taken three weeks after the conclusion of the criminal trial to consider the criminal material before disclosing, for the first time, that they intended to seek findings upon it. Thereafter, in contrast, the father was given just 7 days to file his response.
47.The specific point relied upon by the appellant under Article 6 which was, again, unfortunately, raised for the first time in oral argument, relates to the reliance placed upon the letter from the father’s criminal defence solicitors dated 2 December 2016 (set out at paragraph 8 above) during the Family Court trial.
48.I have already explained the significance placed on the 2 December account by the experts, it being the unanimous expert view that the mechanism described in that letter would involve two planes of motion, whereas the injury to the mother was likely to have resulted from one single movement of the blade.
49.Miss Venters told this court that the 2 December 2016 letter was not provided by the father’s criminal team to the advocates in the family proceedings until 1 August, a week prior to the second part of the hearing when the experts were due to attend and, thereafter, the father was due to give his evidence. During the hearing the terms of the December 2016 letter were taken by all parties, including Miss Venters, as being the father’s account. It is only, Miss Venters reports, as a result of consideration she has been able to give to the case since the conclusion of the Family Court trial, and after the judge’s judgment, that she now understands that the second part of the December 2016 account, namely that the father pushed the mother backwards, has never been an account given by him in police interviews, during the criminal trial or during the family proceedings. The December 2016 letter was put to the father in the witness box before Theis J and he simply accepted that that account had been given.
50.Miss Venters submits that the fact that she failed to notice that the pushing element in the December 2016 account was not, in fact, a description that her client had ever actually given in evidence, is but one example, albeit a very significant one, of her overall inability to be on top of her client’s case as a result of the wholly unrealistic time afforded to the father’s team for preparation.
51.Miss Venters offered as a further example, the lack of sufficient time for her to consider whether or not the eldest child, A, should be called to give oral evidence within the family proceedings.
52.Candidly, Miss Venters told the court that she is not now able to identify other specific aspects of the father’s case which, as a result of the pressure of work, were not presented to the court. Her position was, however, that, as an experienced professional she “simply did not have a grip on the evidence” in order to identify what issues should be raised in cross-examination or otherwise.
53.Miss Venters reports that, despite expressly raising in detail the many difficulties she faced, and despite taking up a dozen or so pages of her opening Position Statement at the start of the hearing listing the difficulties that were still outstanding, the court pressed on with the hearing with the result that Miss Venters told this court that she felt that she simply “wasn’t being heard in anyway” on these points by the other parties or by the judge.
And in conclusion
72.Having set out the key elements in the appellant’s case in relation to the ability of his legal team to meet the case against him in a manner that was fair and proportionate, it is possible to deal with this aspect of the appeal shortly.
73.An advocate as experienced and robust as Miss Venters deserves to be taken seriously when she tells an appellate court that, in consequence of the difficulties that she has explained, she ‘simply did not have a grip on the evidence’ and that, despite giving a clear and specific account of her professional difficulties, her client’s case in that regard was not heard. When the factual finding that the court has made is of the magnitude and, in terms of its impact in the family proceedings and elsewhere, importance as the one reached by the judge here, the need to take what is said seriously is particularly acute.
74.Although we have not drilled down to detail, or examined the trial documents and other material, there is no real dispute about the scale of the task facing the father’s lawyers when, for the first time on 26th June, they understood that the criminal evidence was all to be re-heard within the family proceedings. They had, initially, 11 working days to prepare and, although that was subsequently extended to 15 and the experts were not called until 3 weeks after that, it seems likely to me that the timetable imposed by the court on the father’s team was, in the circumstances, untenable.
75.It is of particular note that it was only in the local authority Opening Note, dated 11th July, that the father will have read for the first time that a finding of ‘deliberate’ killing was being sought against him in the Family Court.
76.Although no specific example of the father’s case not being correctly or fairly presented to the judge is pleaded in the Grounds or Skeleton Argument, Miss Venters’ late reference to the importance of the 2nd December 2016 criminal solicitor’s letter is of significance. She, as the advocate who was in charge of the father’s case, has told this court that what is said in the second part of the account in that letter has never actually been directly given in evidence by her client. It has simply been taken as read as being his account and, then, dismissed as tenable by the experts in a manner which the judge, understandably, found to be of importance. For my part I did not regard the five references to which we were taken by Miss Bazley as being conclusively against the point that is now being made; they may be or they may not be. Equally, the extract from the transcript of the father’s cross examination, rather than being reassuring that what was said in 2 December document was his accurate memory, seemed to bring the issue yet further into doubt.
77.The importance of the father’s account on whether there was one motion or two movements with the knife is plainly high. In terms of determining the issue of ‘fair trial’, it is neither necessary nor wise for this court to analyse the matter further. For my part, the fact that the father’s advocate has now raised the issue, and has told this court that, because of the speed of preparation (and the document’s late delivery), she only appreciated its significance after the end of the proceedings, may well establish that, as a result of the undue pressure of time, an important aspect of the father’s case may not have been presented fairly to the court.
78.The hearing of this appeal took an unusual course. As a result of the intervention of the court, we have not heard the full appeal. Instead, the advocates responded to and conceded the point of principle raised by the court concerning the relevance of criminal law and we then heard shortly on the ‘fair trial’ issues before adjourning to take stock of the appeal in the light of those submissions.
79.Having now undertaken the stock-taking exercise, and for the reasons that I have expressed thus far, it is clear, firstly, that a serious error occurred in the trial in relation to the relevance of the criminal law. Secondly, that error may not, of itself, justify ordering a rehearing, but the option of simply striking the offending words from the judgment may not be an adequate remedy given the significance of what had been, wrongly, said. Thirdly, whilst, again, the points made about a lack of a fair process may not establish, as night follows day, that only a rehearing will provide a remedy, what is said about the 2nd December letter, given its importance in the case, is of real concern.
80.Although an error of law may not necessarily lead to a finding that there has not been a ‘fair trial’, in the present case, when that error goes to the very focus of the fact-finding process and the judge’s analysis, I consider that the point sits squarely within the rights protected by Article 6. The two matters that I have thus far considered separately in this judgment should therefore, properly, be drawn together. If that is done then, albeit with a heavy heart, I am fully persuaded that in combination, looking at the matter overall, and taking both elements into account, this appellant has not been afforded a sufficiently fair trial in the Family Court
The Court of Appeal then give some specific guidance in relation to family Courts hearing allegations which have been tried in the criminal Court.
81.Moving beyond the circumstances of the present appeal, and building upon what is said at paragraphs 61 to 67 above, the following general observations as to the approach of a family court when trying, or re-trying, factual issues which could also be framed as a criminal charge are intended to be of assistance to all levels within the Family Court, where the need to undertake such a fact-finding exercise is by no means unusual.
82.By way of summary, the following points are, in my judgment, clear:
- a) The focus and purpose of a fact-finding investigation in the context of a case concerning the future welfare of children in the Family Court are wholly different to those applicable to the prosecution by the State of an individual before a criminal court [paragraph 62 above];
- b) The primary purpose of the family process is to determine what has gone on in the past, so that those findings may inform the ultimate welfare evaluation as to the child’s future with the court’s eyes open to such risks as the factual determination may have established [paragraph 62];
- c) Criminal law concepts, such as the elements needed to establish guilt of a particular crime or a defence, have neither relevance nor function within a process of fact-finding in the Family Court [paragraph 65];
- d) As a matter of principle, it is fundamentally wrong for the Family Court to be drawn into an analysis of factual evidence in proceedings relating to the welfare of children based upon criminal law principles and concepts [paragraph 67].
83.Where there has been, or may be, a criminal prosecution in relation to the actions of a parent or other person connected with a child whose future welfare is the subject of public or private law proceedings before the Family Court, the question of whether the factual matters that may support such a prosecution should also be litigated within the family proceedings falls to be determined by the Family Court on a case-by-case basis.
84.The Family Court should only embark upon a fact-finding process where it is necessary to do so. The recently updated Practice Direction FPR 2010, PD12J ‘Child Arrangements and Contact Orders: Domestic Abuse and Harm’, relating to private law proceedings includes the following guidance which is of more general application to all proceedings relating to the welfare of children where ‘domestic abuse’ or other potentially criminal activity is alleged:
‘Directions for a fact-finding hearing
- The court should determine as soon as possible whether it is necessary to conduct a fact-finding hearing in relation to any disputed allegation of domestic abuse –
(a) in order to provide a factual basis for any welfare report or for assessment of the factors set out in paragraphs 36 and 37 below;
(b) in order to provide a basis for an accurate assessment of risk;
(c) before it can consider any final welfare-based order(s) in relation to child arrangements; or
(d) before it considers the need for a domestic abuse-related Activity (such as a Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programme (DVPP)).
- In determining whether it is necessary to conduct a fact-finding hearing, the court should consider –
(a) the views of the parties and of Cafcass or CAFCASS Cymru;
(b) whether there are admissions by a party which provide a sufficient factual basis on which to proceed;
(c) if a party is in receipt of legal aid, whether the evidence required to be provided to obtain legal aid provides a sufficient factual basis on which to proceed;
(d) whether there is other evidence available to the court that provides a sufficient factual basis on which to proceed;
(e) whether the factors set out in paragraphs 36 and 37 below can be determined without a fact-finding hearing;
(f) the nature of the evidence required to resolve disputed allegations;
(g) whether the nature and extent of the allegations, if proved, would be relevant to the issue before the court; and
(h) whether a separate fact-finding hearing would be necessary and proportionate in all the circumstances of the case.’
85.In addition the factors listed at paragraphs 36 and 37 of PD12J are also likely to be relevant in deciding whether to conduct a fact-finding process in relation to ‘domestic abuse’ or any other potentially criminal activity in any proceedings relating to the welfare of a child:
’36. In the light of any findings of fact or admissions or where domestic abuse is otherwise established, the court should apply the individual matters in the welfare checklist with reference to the domestic abuse which has occurred and any expert risk assessment obtained. In particular, the court should in every case consider any harm which the child and the parent with whom the child is living has suffered as a consequence of that domestic abuse, and any harm which the child and the parent with whom the child is living is at risk of suffering, if a child arrangements order is made. The court should make an order for contact only if it is satisfied that the physical and emotional safety of the child and the parent with whom the child is living can, as far as possible, be secured before during and after contact, and that the parent with whom the child is living will not be subjected to further domestic abuse by the other parent.
- In every case where a finding or admission of domestic abuse is made, or where domestic abuse is otherwise established, the court should consider the conduct of both parents towards each other and towards the child and the impact of the same. In particular, the court should consider –
(a) the effect of the domestic abuse on the child and on the arrangements for where the child is living;
(b) the effect of the domestic abuse on the child and its effect on the child’s relationship with the parents;
(c) whether the parent is motivated by a desire to promote the best interests of the child or is using the process to continue a form of domestic abuse against the other parent;
(d) the likely behaviour during contact of the parent against whom findings are made and its effect on the child; and
(e) the capacity of the parents to appreciate the effect of past domestic abuse and the potential for future domestic abuse.’
86.On the basis of the guidance in PD12J, and on the basis of general principles, a family court should only embark upon a fact-finding investigation where it is both necessary and proportionate to do so, having regard to the overarching purpose of public law proceedings of (a) establishing whether the CA 1989, s 31 threshold criteria are satisfied and (b) determining the future plan for the child’s care by affording paramount consideration to his or her welfare.
87.Where, as is in the present case under appeal, one of the parents has died in the course of an altercation with the other parent, it may well be necessary to investigate the broad context of the relationships within the family and the behaviour of the parents over a period of time, but it does not follow that it will also be necessary for the court to determine precisely how the death occurred and the role, if any, that the surviving parent played in it. In each case, it will be a matter for the judge in the Family Court to decide, in the circumstance of each individual case, whether some or all of the issues that relate directly to the death need to be investigated in the family proceedings and, if possible, determined.
88.For my part, and from experience of a number of such cases over the years, the importance, in some cases, of the court and the children knowing whether or not the surviving parent’s actions were reasonable or not in relation to the circumstances of the death itself is likely to render a fact-finding hearing necessary, but this, it must be stressed, is a matter for the trial judge to determine in each case. That general observation is in line with the judgment of this court [Wall LJ and Neuberger LJ] in Re K (Non-accidental Injuries: Perpetrator: New Evidence)  EWCA Civ 1181;  1 FLR 285 at paragraph 56:
‘… we are also of the view that it is in the public interest that children have the right, as they grow up into adulthood, to know the truth about who injured them when they were children, and why. Children who are removed from their parents as a result of non-accidental injuries have in due course to come to terms with the fact that one or both of their parents injured them. This is a heavy burden for any child to bear. In principle, children need to know the truth if the truth can be ascertained.’
89.The potential for future harm to a child where one parent has been directly involved in the circumstances that have led to the death of the other parent, is by no means limited to the risk that the surviving parent may physically injure the child. Indeed, future physical injury may be low on the spectrum of future potential harm. It is the potential for future emotional and psychological harm arising, either directly from the ‘fact’, if fact it be, that the surviving parent caused the death of the other, or indirectly from the way in which the parent will conduct him/herself in the future as a consequence, which is likely to be of far more importance.
90.Lastly, I would mention the specific matter of the use of language. The potential for the court to become drawn into reliance upon criminal law principles is demonstrated by the present appeal. Even where the family court succeeds in avoiding direct reference to the criminal law, it is important that, so far as it is possible to do so, the language of the judgment (and in particular any findings) is expressed in terms which avoid specific words or phrases which may have a bespoke meaning in the context of the criminal jurisdiction, for example ‘self-defence’, ‘reasonable force’ or ‘the loss of self-control’. Phrases such as ‘inappropriate force’ or ‘proportionate force’ may reflect the judge’s findings in a particular case, and avoid the risk that the judge’s words may be misunderstood as expressing a finding based directly upon criminal law principles.
91.At the end of the day, the often very difficult role of a judge once it has been determined that a finding of fact hearing is necessary can be reduced to the short statement that the family judge’s task in such cases is simply to find the facts. Once any facts are found, they will then form the basis of a more wide-ranging assessment of any consequent risks to the child whose future welfare needs will then fall to be determined
The Court of Appeal did disagree as to whether a finding of fact hearing would be necessary at all (in a minority judgment) and how the Court at a re-hearing was to determine whether father’s actions were or were not reasonable (again, in a minority judgment). We may not have had the final word on this sort of thing. (The minority judgment was suggesting that threshold akin to my earlier formulation – that regardless of culpability for the death of the mother, the emotional harm suffered by the children by witnessing her violent death was the real issue and thus a finding of fact as to culpability for death would not always be necessary. )