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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.

“But so what?” diplomatic immunity part 3 – smokey IS the bandit

 

You might remember, just before everyone’s world changed forever, that there was a case about alleged child abuse where the father had diplomatic immunity and the Court decided that the legal provisions in relation to that meant that an Interim Care Order to remove the children could not be made.

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2020/03/19/diplomatic-immunity-and-care-proceedings-take-2/

 

Well, things have developed.

 

A Local Authority v AG 2020

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2020/1346.html

 

The cast list in this is impressive. If you were doing a family law version of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, you couldn’t go far wrong with this list.  (A few honourable exceptions are missing, of course, but it is a sparkling list of extremely good lawyers.  If I’d been there, I’d have taken my autograph book…)

 

Basically, since the 20th March judgment, the Secretary of State invited the diplomats home country to withdraw his diplomatic status, they refused, but said that they all had to come home as soon as lockdown allowed it.

 

On 2 April 2020 D (18) sent an email to the local authority social worker attaching a photograph of a bloody wound to the back of his head. He explained that his father inflicted this with a shoe. He sent a further email attaching a video of the wound. In that video an adult can be heard shouting in the background.

iv) On 6 April 2020 the Secretary of State informed the foreign government that, in accordance with article 9(1) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (“VCDR”), the father and his dependent family members (including the mother and all of their six children) were personae non gratae and were required to leave the UK at the first opportunity. That first opportunity was on 18 April 2020 via the outbound leg of a charter flight arranged for the purpose of bringing British nationals home from the foreign country.

v) On 7 April 2020 the local authority social worker was able to speak to D who said that it was horrible living at home with his parents as they are both verbally and physically abusive; that he had decided to leave the home soon with his sister E; and that they planned to seek asylum.

vi) On 8 April 2020 I transferred the care proceedings and the claim for a declaration of incompatibility to the High Court and joined the Secretary of State as a party to the proceedings.

vii) On 9 April 2020 D and E (18) left the family home and sought asylum.

viii) On 11 April 2020 N (17) and A (14) also left the family home and sought asylum.

ix) On 14 April 2020 I held that by virtue of article 9(2) of the VCDR the family was to be given a reasonable period of time to leave the country; that period had not yet elapsed; and that accordingly diplomatic immunity continued to endure.

x) On 16 April 2020 a certificate pursuant to section 4 of the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964 was issued by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office recording the diplomatic exchanges mentioned above.

xi) On 18 April 2020 the parents, together with G (9) and S (5), returned to their homeland on a repatriation flight.

xii) On 20 April 2020 I made an interim care order in respect of A and gave directions for the hearing of the permission issue.

xiii) On 18 May 2020 I heard the permission issue and reserved judgment. I granted the local authority permission to withdraw the care proceedings in respect of G and S. I gave directions for the final disposal of the care proceedings in respect of A.

 

The issues in this particular case were resolved – the children are all out and safe, but there was an application to declare the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964 as incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998 (in relation to the inability to protect children whose parents are diplomats).

 

This case doesn’t resolve that, but it does decide the pre-fight – should there even be a fight on the principle given that it isn’t necessary in the individual case.

 

It being a Mostyn J judgment, it gathers up the relevant law on ‘academic’ claims and sets it out clearly and briskly.  If you could afford him, Mostyn J would be a very good author for “Insane Legal Complexities Made Simple”

  1. Up until 1999 the law set its face against hearing any academic claim: see the decisions of the House of Lords in Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada v Jervis [1944] AC 111, 113-114; and Ainsbury v Millington (Note) [1987] 1 WLR 379, 381. In the latter case Lord Bridge stated that it was a fundamental feature of the judicial system that the courts decide disputes between the parties before them; they do not pronounce on abstract questions of law when there is no dispute to be resolved.
  2. However, in R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex p Salem [1999] 1 AC 450, the House of Lords stipulated an exception to this absolute rule. Lord Slynn of Hadley stated at 456-457:
    1.  “My Lords, I accept, as both counsel agree, that in a cause where there is an issue involving a public authority as to a question of public law, your Lordships have a discretion to hear the appeal, even if by the time the appeal reaches the House there is no longer a lis to be decided which will directly affect the rights and obligations of the parties inter se. The decisions in the Sun Life case and Ainsbury v. Millington (and the reference to the latter in Rule 42 of the Practice Directions Applicable to Civil Appeals (January 1996) of your Lordships’ House) must be read accordingly as limited to disputes concerning private law rights between the parties to the case.

The discretion to hear disputes, even in the area of public law, must, however, be exercised with caution and appeals which are academic between the parties should not be heard unless there is a good reason in the public interest for doing so, as for example (but only by way of example) when a discrete point of statutory construction arises which does not involve detailed consideration of facts and where a large number of similar cases exist or are anticipated so that the issue will most likely need to be resolved in the near future.”

  1. Although I have had cited to me many subsequent authorities, all of them seem to me to be no more than illustrations of the Salem principle. This is straightforward. The court should exercise its discretion to hear an academic application in the public law field with caution. It should only hear such an application where there is a good reason in the public interest to do so.

 

  1. Lord Slynn gives as an example the situation where a discrete point of statutory interpretation arises which does not involve detailed consideration of facts and where a large number of similar cases are anticipated. In such circumstances there will be little difficulty in deciding that there is a good reason in the public interest to hear the academic claim. That seems obvious. However, I do not deduce from that illustration a rule that a good reason in the public interest for hearing the claim can only be shown if a large number of cases would be thereby affected. It all depends on the context.
  2. In this case it is certainly true that there have not been many reported cases of proceedings under Part IV of the Children Act 1989 involving the children of serving diplomats. But so what? If the resolution of the academic issue helps to protect even one such child in peril, then that surely is a good reason in the public interest to hear it.

 

That’s stirring stuff, and if my chair wasn’t a swivel one with wheels, I’d be climbing on it to punch the air and shout “Captain My Captain” like Dead Poets Society.

 

So, there will be a hearing about whether the provisions are incompatible with the HRA.  Nobody knows how that will go.  The Secretary of State has been joined, and there’s a significant Government interest in not futzing with the provisions of what diplomatic immunity mean  (they have to think about their own overseas diplomats, international relations and all sorts of things that I absolutely don’t think are as important as making sure children aren’t beaten, but we have different jobs and different hats)

 

Wait and see how the argument goes.

 

Vaccination

 

This is a Court of Appeal case which follows up from the Hayden J decision in the cestui que vie case (remember, all of us are legally dead because we’re all lost at sea) about vaccination.

As a super-quick bullet point, we had a MacDonald J decision that if a parent disagreed with the child being vaccinated then the LA should NOT use their powers under a Care Order to agree to it and should instead come to Court, and then this later decision from Hayden J that the LA SHOULD use their powers and should NOT come to Court.  (Legally up until this Court of Appeal hearing that meant legally that the LA SHOULD use their powers but any High Court Judge could overrule that)

Re H (A Child : Parental Responsibility : Vaccination) 2020

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2020/664.html

 

Whilst this decision was about the MMR vaccine (which in the minds of some people is controversial because of the now discredited Andrew Wakefield ‘research’ linking it to autism), it has wider application and of course it is entirely possible that whether or not children be given a vaccine for COVID-19 if one is found will become a very hot issue.

 

The Court of Appeal run through all of the relevant research and science on vaccinations and say definitively that the practice of getting an expert to report each and every time this arise is no longer needed – unless there are specific issues or vulnerabilities for the SPECIFIC child, the Court should approach the science as settled that vaccines are safe.

(On the one hand, oh god my comments on this are going to be lively, on the other, I might get Jenny McCarthy talking to me, which my 20 year old self would be very jealous about.  Let’s say, to keep it simple, that I have ABSOLUTELY NO views on this myself and have no interest in discussing the Wakefield stuff or anti-vaxx generally, I’m just reporting the case)

 

  1. It follows that, no matter what legitimate concerns parents may have had following the publication of Dr Wakefield’s discredited paper, there is now no evidence base for concerns about any connection between MMR and autism. On the contrary the evidence, as set out in the unchallenged report of Dr Douglas in this case, overwhelmingly identifies the benefits to a child of being vaccinated as part of the public health initiative to drive down the incidence of serious childhood and other diseases.
  2. I have, in (relatively) short form, rehearsed the history in relation to the MMR controversy and summarised Dr Douglas’ mainstream analysis in relation to the other vaccinations which are habitually given to children. I do so as it is my hope that it will serve to bring to an end the approach which seems to have grown up in every case concerning vaccinations, whereby an order is made for the instruction of an expert to report on the intrinsic safety and or efficacy of vaccinations as being “necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings” (FPR 2010 r.25.4(3)).
  3. In my judgment, subject to any credible development in medical science or peer-reviewed research to the opposite effect, the proper approach to be taken by a local authority or a court is 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. Any expert evidence should ordinarily, therefore, be limited to case where a child has an unusual medical history and to consideration of whether his or her own circumstances throw up any contra-indications, as was the case in relation to one specific vaccine in Re C and F (Children) [2003] EWHC 1376 (Fam) (Re C and F) (see paragraph [320]).
  4. I should be clear that I am here dealing with the purely medical issues which may arise in any specific case, and am not seeking to narrow the broader scope of a child’s welfare and of any other relevant considerations which it may be appropriate for a local authority or a court to take into account when considering his or her best interests when considering the question of vaccination.

 

 

On the issue of whether the LA should seek permission from the Court or use their s33 powers

 

  1. I cannot agree that the giving of a vaccination is a grave issue (regardless of whether it is described as medical treatment or not). In my judgment it cannot be said that the vaccination of children under the UK public health programme is in itself a ‘grave’ issue in circumstances where there is no contra-indication in relation to the child in question and when the alleged link between MMR and autism has been definitively disproved.

 

(The Court of Appeal say that in private law cases – i.e mum says no vaccine, dad says vaccine or vice versa, there’s a place for the Court in resolving those disputes)

  1. Regardless of whether immunisations should or should not continue to require court adjudication where there is a dispute between holders of parental responsibility, there is in my judgment a fundamental difference as between a private law case and a case concerning a child in care. In private law, by s.2(7) CA 1989, where more than one person has parental responsibility, each of them may act alone and without the other. Section 2(7) does not however give one party dominance or priority over the other in the exercise of parental responsibility. Each parent has equal parental responsibility, even though the day to day realities of life mean that each frequently acts alone. This applies particularly where the parties live in separate households and one parent is the primary carer. As Theis J put it in F v F at paragraph [21],in most circumstances [the way parental responsibility is exercised] is negotiated between the parents and their decision put into effect.”  As neither parent has primacy over the other, the parties have no option but to come to court to seek a resolution when they cannot agree.
  2. The situation is, in my view, different in the public law sphere when a care order is in place. A care order is only made if the welfare of a child requires such an order to be made, it having been determined or conceded that pursuant to s.31(2) CA 1989, the child has suffered or is likely to suffer significant harm attributable “to the care given to him or her not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give him”. In other words, the child in question has suffered (or was likely to suffer) harm as a consequence of the care given to him or her by a person with parental responsibility. It is against that backdrop that the parent of a child in care holds parental responsibility. Parliament has specifically, and necessarily, given the local authority that holds the care order, the power under s.33(3)(b) to override the views of a parent holding parental responsibility. The local authority’s view prevails in respect of all matters save those found in the statutory exceptions or where, as I identified in Re C, the decision to be made is of such magnitude that it properly falls within the provisions of s.100.
  3. The situation of a child in care is therefore a far cry from those cases which arise in private law proceedings where parents who share parental responsibility cannot agree on what is best for their child.
  4. For these reasons, I prefer the judge’s analysis in the present case to the analysis in Re SL.
  5. Proportionality
  6. It has not been argued by Mr Bailey on behalf of the parents that allowing the local authority to consent to the immunisation would represent a disproportionate breach of their Article 8 ECHR rights. I merely say for completeness that if such an action on behalf of the local authority does represent an infringement of the parents’ or child’s rights under Art 8 ECHR, I am satisfied that, when considered through the prism of Bank Mellat v HM Treasury (No 2) [2013] 3 WLR 179 (as endorsed in a family context in Re K (Forced Marriage: Passport Order) [2020] EWCA Civ 190 at paragraph [44]), any interference is proportionate.
  7. The position of parents
  8. It is axiomatic that any local authority must involve parents in decision-making and take their views into account. Section 33 CA 1989 is not an invitation to local authorities to ride roughshod over the wishes of parents whose children are in care. As was recognised by the judge at paragraph [17], in the event that a local authority proposes to have a child vaccinated against the wishes of the parents, those parents can make an application to invoke the inherent jurisdiction and may, if necessary, apply for an injunction under section 8 Human Rights Act 1998 to prevent the child being vaccinated before the matter comes before a court for adjudication.
  9. The conclusion I have reached in relation to routine immunisations does not in any way diminish the importance of parental views where there is a real issue about what decision will best serve the welfare of a child

 

The LA can use their powers under a Care Order to vaccinate, even if the parents object. If the parents feel strongly enough, they can make an application under the magical sparkle powers  – inherent jurisdiction.

 

The Court go on to say that deciding this doesn’t give cate blanchett (yeah, I just really want my comments to blow up today) to a Local Authority where the parents are objecting to more serious medical treatment and looks at a case involving whether a child should or should not have a liver transplant.

 

 

  1. The distinction drawn here between parental views that are inconsistent with the child’s welfare and highly problematic cases where there is genuine scope for a difference of view remains a valuable one. It is a reminder that, while the views of parents must always be taken into account, the weight that is given to them depends not upon the vehemence with which they are expressed but upon their substance.
  2. As must have become clear, I do not share the inhibition felt by the judges in some of the decided cases in expressing the view that the scientific evidence now establishes that it is generally in the best interests of otherwise healthy children to be vaccinated. As Theis J said in F v F:
      1. “With due consideration for established contraindications to vaccination in an individual case, it is otherwise in every child’s interest to be protected’

It follows therefore that in my judgment, an application to invoke the inherent jurisdiction or to seek an injunction with a view to preventing the vaccination of a child in care is unlikely to succeed unless there is put before the court in support of that application cogent, objective medical and/or welfare evidence demonstrating a genuine contra-indication to the administration of one or all of the routine vaccinations.

 

In the analysis of all of the legal cases, the Court of Appeal note that for all the sound and fury expended on the MMR vaccine issue, there isn’t a reported case where the Court ruled against the vaccination.

Conclusion

  1. Pulling together the threads of this judgment, I have concluded that:
  2. i) Although vaccinations are not compulsory, the scientific evidence now clearly establishes that it is in the best medical interests of children to be vaccinated in accordance with Public Health England’s guidance unless there is a specific contra-indication in an individual case.

ii) Under s.33(3)(b) CA 1989 a local authority with a care order can arrange and consent to a child in its care being vaccinated where it is satisfied that it is in the best interests of that individual child, notwithstanding the objections of parents.

iii) The administration of standard or routine vaccinations cannot be regarded as being a ‘serious’ or ‘grave’ matter. Except where there are significant features which suggest that, unusually, it may not be in the best interests of a child to be vaccinated, it is neither necessary nor appropriate for a local authority to refer the matter to the High Court in every case where a parent opposes the proposed vaccination of their child. To do so involves the expenditure of scarce time and resources by the local authority, the unnecessary instruction of expert medical evidence and the use of High Court time which could be better spent dealing with one of the urgent and serious matters which are always awaiting determination in the Family Division.

iv) Parental views regarding immunisation must always be taken into account but the matter is not to be determined by the strength of the parental view unless the view has a real bearing on the child’s welfare.

  1. It follows that the appeal will be dismissed and that the declaration made by the judge that the local authority has lawful authority, pursuant to s.33(3) CA 1989, to consent to and make arrangements for the vaccination of T, notwithstanding the objection of the parents, will stand.

Court of Appeal two decisions about remote hearings

The Court of Appeal had decided two cases about remote hearings in light of the Covid 19 public health emergency.

 

The first is Re A (Children) (Remote Hearings) 2020

 

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2020/583.html

 

Where a Judge had decided that because the parents in the case could not really participate in a remote hearing, the parents should attend Court for the hearing in a physical building, whilst others attended via video-link  (what lawyers are calling a ‘hybrid’ hearing)

 

The Court of Appeal decided that on the facts of the case, the Judge was wrong to order a hybrid hearing and granted the appeal.  The Court of Appeal point out in painstaking detail that they do not intend in this case to give the impression that hearings in other cases should be remote, should be hybrid or should be adjourned, it is a fact specific case, not intending to give general guidance.

 

  1. It follows from all that we have said above that our judgment on this appeal should be seen as being limited to the determination of the individual case to which it relates. Each case is different and must be determined in the light of its own specific mixture of factors. The import of the decision in this case, in which we have held that the appeal must be allowed against a judge’s decision to conduct a remote hearing of proceedings which include applications for placement for adoption orders, is that, on the facts of this case, the judge’s decision was wrong. As will be seen, one important and potentially determinative factor was the ability of the father, as a result of his personality, intellect and diagnosis of dyslexia, to engage sufficiently in the process to render the hearing fair. Such a factor will, almost by definition, be case-specific. Another element, and one that is likely to be important in every case, is the age of the children and the degree of urgency that applies to the particular decision before the court. The impact of this factor on the decision whether to hold a remote hearing will, as with all others, vary from child to child and from case to case.
  2. It also follows that the decision on this appeal must not be taken as an authority that is generically applicable to one or more category of children cases. We wish to state with total clarity that our decision does not mean that there can be no remote final hearings on an application for a care order or a placement for adoption order. Neither is our decision to be taken as holding that there should be no ‘hybrid’ hearings, where one or more party physically attends at a courtroom in front of a judge. The appropriateness of proceeding with a particular form of hearing must be individually assessed, applying the principles and guidance indicated above to the unique circumstances of the case.
  3. Finally, in addition to the need for there to be a fair and just process for all parties, there is a separate need, particularly where the plan is for adoption, for the child to be able to know and understand in later years that such a life-changing decision was only made after a thorough, regular and fair hearing.

They do say this:-

Finally, and more generally, we would draw attention to, and endorse, the steer given in the LCJ’s message of 9 April at sub paragraph (a): ‘If all parties oppose a remotely conducted final hearing, this is a very powerful factor in not proceeding with a remote hearing’. Whilst in the present case it is true that the Children’s Guardian did not oppose proceeding with the planned hearing, all of the other parties, including the local authority, did. In such circumstances, when the applicant local authority itself does not support a remote contested final hearing, a court will require clear and cogent reasons for taking the contrary view and proceeding to hold one.

 

 

The other appeal is, to my mind, more interesting. It deals with a remote hearing for an Interim Care Order and separation.  Those are hearings where the option of waiting for the end of lockdown isn’t necessarily available.

 

Re B (Children) (Remote Hearing : Interim Care Order) 2020

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2020/584.html

 

I have to say, even ignoring the fact that the hearing took place by telephone, this case is a breakfast that would be suitable for dogs.

 

It involved  a case where a boy Sam (not his real name) aged 9 was living with his grandmother. The LA made an application for a Care Order – on the papers they had filed they were not seeking removal.

  1. Accompanying the application was a substantial amount of documentation arising from the local authority’s knowledge of the family down the years, including a fully pleaded interim threshold document, a comprehensive chronology (16 pages) and a thorough template statement from the children’s social worker (34 pages). Of note, this described a close relationship between the children and their grandmother, with plenty of mutual love and affection being shown. Given the local authority’s position, the removal of Sam from home did not even feature in the social work analysis as a realistic option, let alone a preferred one. The case for an interim supervision order was put in this way:
    1. “Whilst [Sam] is not considered to be at immediate risk of physical harm, there have been historical allegations against his Maternal Uncle… who is known to still to be attending the home despite being prohibited by written agreements in place. [Sam] has suffered and remains at risk of suffering emotional harm due to the concerns [about] treatment of him by Maternal Uncle… and Maternal Grandmother.”

 

Lawyers will very quickly spot that the LA evidence was “Sam is not considered to be at immediate risk of harm”  (which is an essential ingredient if they are to seek and obtain an Interim Care Order.

The case was listed for hearing.   Just before the hearing began, the Guardian filed a position statement indicating that she thought Sam should come into care, and the LA changed their position to recommending that. There was no updating interim care plan, and no statement explaining the change in position.

Those representing the parents learned of the change in plan an hour before the hearing. Very understandably, they made an application for the case to be adjourned and set down for a proper contested ICO hearing with the parents having opportunity to respond to the LA case.

The Recorder dealing with the case was getting all of this evidence as a stream of updating emails, whilst wrestling with the other cases in his list. By the time this case came before him, he had been working all morning, and by the time he gave judgment he had been working for 10 1/2 hours, on hearings which were taking place by telephone.

Between 17.20 and 17.41 he gave an extempore judgment. At 17.52 he refused Mr Lue’s application for permission to appeal and scheduled a further hearing for 21 April. At 17.57 the hearing concluded. By that time the Recorder had been working, almost continuously and mainly on the telephone, for 10½ hours. Our observation is that, although we have found the decision in this case to have been unquestionably wrong, the nature of the workload faced by the Recorder, experienced as he is, was surely a contributory factor.

 

  1. We next mention the position of the Children’s Guardian. Her solicitor, having evidently carried out a lot of work in a short time, filed a six-page position statement at 10.49 that morning. We quote the concluding paragraphs in full because, as Mr Squire, who did not appear below, frankly asserted, “the Guardian has driven this in terms of immediacy” and because they represent the whole reason why an interim care order was made for Sam.
    1. “Guardian’s Position

25. The Guardian is very concerned with respect to the safety of both children given their cumulative previous experiences and the lack of emotional stability that they seemed to have experienced under a Special Guardianship Order. She is concerned that the maternal grandmother is prioritising the needs of the maternal uncle and aunt over that of the children, or is at least unable to protect them from abusive situations. Most concerningly, the children seem to be blamed when their behaviours are likely to be expression of the experiences they had, and/or additional needs that their care giver/s should be attuned to identify and respond to; [Samantha] being compared to her mother in derogatory manner and [Sam] being called names are particularly emotionally abusive behaviours in the context of the children’s own experiences.

26. There are concerns that maternal grandmother does not appear to be working openly and honestly with professionals since 2014 and it is noted that the written agreements have been breached on a number of occasions and allegedly the uncle reported that he was prompted by the grandmother to breach or ignore such agreements, and not talk to professionals. It appears as if the maternal uncle continues to be a frequent visitor to the family home and is reported to have been involved with the police 3 times this year in relation to drug offences [C25]. It is also not clear where the Mother is presently residing since her release from prison; the local authority statement refers to the children having had unsupervised contact with her.

27. The Guardian is concerned that both children are at risk of ongoing physical and emotional abuse. She is very concerned with the proposal by the Local Authority that [Sam] remain in the family home under an interim supervision order under the current circumstances, when there are severe limitations in what visits and intervention can be provided and uncertainty around how long pandemic-related measures will need to continue. It is not clear how his safety will be monitored as there are very little, if any, direct social work visits being undertaken at present; the presenting concerns cannot be effectively monitored via virtual visits. Schools often provide an oversight into a child’s wellbeing – however the schools are now closed and it is not known when they will re-open; they also often provide an outlet for both children and carers; being constantly at home can greatly escalate the current risks for [Sam], and limits his ability to reach out to professionals or safe adults outside the house for help. The Guardian is concerned that given these exceptional times it will be very difficult to monitor [Sam]’s safety.

28. It may be that [Sam] will be placed at more risk of emotional and physical harm if he is left alone in the family home. [Sam] has already stated that his family matters are confidential and it is therefore not clear whether he will actually disclose any concerns should they arise at the home; [Sam] may also internalise that violence is acceptable and risk perpetrating violence himself, or take matters in his own hands to protect himself or others, such as, for example, his grandmother if she is also subject to abuse from the uncle. The Guardian believes that both children need to be placed in a place of safety whilst assessments are ongoing.

29. The Guardian therefore supports interim care orders for both children. If the Court agrees that an interim care order is appropriate for both children, the Guardian would strongly prefer for both children to be placed in the same foster placement, if possible. A together and apart assessment to look at the sibling relationship and potential split arrangements for them in the longer term needs to be considered. There are also indication of severely distressed behaviours from the children, emotional regulation and ongoing attachment difficulties, which may require psychological assessment to ensure that the parenting they need to meet their individual needs is fully considered in care planning.”

  1. Once a Children’s Guardian has been appointed, he or she is obliged to exercise professional judgment, whatever the circumstances of the appointment. The court relies on Guardians to be independent in promoting and protecting the interests of the children in the litigation, and they may take, and not infrequently do take, a different position to that of the local authority. We acknowledge that, as commonly happens when an interim application is made at the outset of proceedings, this Guardian was having to absorb a mass of information at very short notice. She had no time to make inquiries, beyond reading the papers and having one conversation with the social worker at about 9 am. In cases of real urgency that may be unavoidable, but in this case it is, to put it at its lowest, surprising that she and the children’s solicitor felt it appropriate to make such a bold recommendation from such a low knowledge base. Neither of them had met or spoken to Sam or to his grandmother or his grandmother’s solicitor, nor did they have any information at all coming from that quarter. We also note that the Guardian was not available for the hearing in the afternoon. Her solicitor was said to be fully instructed, but the Guardian’s absence left her unaware of such arguments as Mr Lue was able to put to the court in response to her recommendation and deprived her of the opportunity to reflect.
  2. We are also troubled by the lack of any balanced analysis in the case for removal that was put by the Guardian, and also by the local authority. There is no reference to the emotional detriment to Sam in being removed from his only parental figure without notice or preparation. There was no reference to Sam’s wishes and feelings about immediate removal, nor any reminder to the court that these were not known. There was no credible explanation for why there had to be an emergency decision. Mr Squire fairly accepted at no less than three points in his appeal skeleton argument that the outcome was “harsh”, though he defended it as not being unfair or unjust. When we asked him about the above matters he described them as a consequence of this being “an emergency application” in which child protection imperatives had to prevail. We reject that argument. The pressured way in which the proceedings developed may have felt like an emergency to the professionals, but it was not an emergency for Sam. We also firmly dismiss the proposition that the current ‘lockdown’ provides a reason for the removal of a child where none would otherwise exist. It is possible to envisage a case at the margins where face-to-face supervision is so important that a child would not be safe without it, but this case and most others like it fall nowhere near that category. Our overall observation in this respect is that unfortunately Sam’s voice was not heard at a critical moment in the proceedings and his interests were not protected by his Guardian, whose recommendation set in train the sequence of events that followed.
  3. The local authority had in our view taken a sensible position in seeking an interim supervision order, as reflected in its position statement at 10.37. Yet within the hour it had moved to seeking Sam’s immediate removal. Nothing relevant had happened to Sam in the fortnight between Samantha’s departure and the hearing. The only basis for the volte-face was the intervention of the Guardian. We asked Mr Melsa, for the local authority, about the process leading to the changed decision, which came to him in an email instruction when he was in the middle of an advocates’ meeting. We learned that the decision was undocumented and the change of plan unreasoned. There was no evidence about it and no care plan to underpin it. Not surprisingly that led to confusion. At 12.48 the other parties were informed that removal would not take place until Monday 6 April because Sam had a cough that might be virus-related. The social workers then tried to investigate testing, but were unsuccessful. Despite that, at 13.43 the local authority announced that its plan was again one for immediate removal.
  4. Our observation is that it is hard to describe this process as anything other than arbitrary. A local authority must always be responsive to the stance of a Children’s Guardian, but there was no good reason for the plan to have been changed in this case. The consequence was to wrong-foot the grandmother, with whom it was going to share parental responsibility for Samantha, at least in the short term, without any discussion with her. Mr Lue was, as he put it, unable to understand the decision-making process and was having to take instructions by telephone on a constantly moving picture. He gave us examples of matters concerning Sam in the social work statement and the Guardian’s position statement that he has since the hearing been able to establish that the grandmother simply did not accept (for example concerning the arrival of the uncle on 20 March). We were entirely convinced by his account of feeling, in his words, hopelessly unable to represent his client in the way he would normally be able to do. It says a lot that throughout the whole process not one page emanating from the grandmother could be placed before the court. She had no opportunity to file evidence in relation to this serious matter, nor was Mr Lue in a position to marshal a position statement. In cases of exceptional urgency that may be unavoidable, but here it was unfair.

 

 

In terms of the remote nature of the hearing itself

 

  1. The Recorder made some reference to these principles but he did not apply them. Our observation is that this was a case where the central concern related to emotional harm stretching back for years. On the information then before the court it could not in our view be plausibly argued that something had now happened to make Sam’s removal that evening necessary. The circumstances in which Samantha had been taken into foster care showed the need for Sam’s situation to be carefully assessed. The evidence did not remotely justify his peremptory removal and there is nothing in the judgment that is capable of persuading us that it did. Our further observation is that, no doubt partly because of the exigencies of the remote process, there was a loss of perspective in relation to the need for an immediate decision about Sam. This was a classic case for an adjournment so that a considered decision could be taken about removal, if indeed that option was going to be pursued after reflection. An adjournment would have enabled the parties and the court to have all the necessary information. As it was, crucial information was lacking and its absence was overlooked by the court.
  2. There is a qualitative difference between a remote hearing conducted over the telephone and one undertaken via a video platform. If the application for an interim care order for Sam had been adjourned, it may well have been possible for the adjourned hearing to have been conducted over a video link and that single factor might, of itself, have justified an adjournment in a case which, in our view, plainly was not so urgent that it needed to be determined on 3 April. Whilst it may have been the case that the provision of video facilities was limited at the particular court at the time of the hearing, it is now the case that the option of using a video link is much more widely available. Where that is the case, a video link is likely at this time to be the default option in urgent cases.