Oh, this is a DOOZY.
An application to terminate the appointment of a Guardian. Always interesting these, but always doomed to failure and the Court make sympathetic noises and assure everyone that no matter what they think the Guardian is independent and fair-minded and that perhaps a gentle smack on the wrist is all that is needed but the Guardian
Hold on, what?
The application was granted?
Now we’re in. Load up your sitting back and eating popcorn gif of choice (RIP Stephen E Wilihite), I like Jessica Fletcher myself. Let’s crack into it.
Care proceedings – there needs to be a sexual risk assessment of dad, LA propose that a social worker will do it. Dad’s lawyers email the LA and ask for details about the social worker’s experience in doing such an assessment. An answer was received. The father applied for an ISW, that application was adjourned.
So far, pretty normal. Dad was represented by a solicitor called Mr S. A senior partner at Mr S’s firm, Mr T also does care work. He does a lot of Guardian work, he represents the Guardian in other cases. The Guardian also has a surname beginning with T, so I’m going to just call him “Guardian” throughout. (all of the names are in the judgment, but that’s my scheme)
This again, is pretty normal.
After the hearing, the Guardian writes to Mr T. About this case. Which is not Mr T’s case. It is Mr S’s case, and Mr T is a senior partner at the firm.
That is NOT normal.
What does the Guardian say?
“further concerned that following the making of such application, father’s solicitor wrote to the Local Authority seeking to ascertain the professional competency of the Local Authority social worker, what skills and qualifications they had, what tools they would be using to assess father and whether they had the necessary acumen and experience to undertake a task which they considered to be sufficiently complex that only an ISW would have the necessary skills required to complete the report”
- GUARDIAN goes on to say that having considered the papers carefully himself he could not see the necessity for an independent social worker to assess the father in this matter.
He sets out his view that this is ‘the bread and butter work that social workers are specifically trained for’. He goes on to say:
“Therefore, I was very surprised that father’s solicitor should seek to undermine the competence of the social worker and argue that only someone with a significant level of experience in assessing sex offenders could undertake such a task.”
- GUARDIAN goes on to set out and expand his argument, in addition to the specific criticisms of the solicitor for the father and pointed out to Mr T the importance of accepting that social workers have significant expertise in relation to these matters.
- GUARDIAN then turns to his second point. This he says relates to “the actions of the solicitor”.
“I understand they sit on the Children’s panel and are deemed qualified to advocate on behalf of children. Like undertaking a parenting assessment is the bread and butter of social work, advocating in the Courts, presenting coherent arguments on behalf of those they represent and cross examining witnesses should be the staple diet of any practising solicitor. Further, any practising family law solicitor who is a member of the children’s panel should have that additional level of skill commensurate with the qualifications of the role. I was therefore rather concerned that having made a part 25 application to the Court for an Independent Social Work assessment, and further questioning the competence of the social worker undertaking an assessment of the father, the solicitor instructed Counsel to undertake this task on their behalf. It again concerns me that having questioned the competence of the social worker to undertake their role the solicitor appears to have abdicated their own role in this matter and asked someone else to present an argument to the Court for them”
- As can be seen, GUARDIAN is being critical of the solicitor instructed by the father for having briefed counsel. GUARDIAN suggests that was inappropriate, particularly, as in his view, the solicitor had questioned the competence of the social worker, but then had not argued that case himself at the hearing.
- GUARDIAN then elaborates on that by saying:
“This action by the solicitor reminds me somewhat of the old proverb “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. I don’t know the solicitor personally and cannot offer comment on their character. All I can do is observe their practise and comment on this if required. Given their qualifications and experience I would have expected that presenting an argument to support their case would have been nothing more than a run of the mill task for them. However, given their reluctance to undertake this task, and willingness to place that task into the hands of others, and their recent criticisms about the practise and expertise of the allocated social worker, I can’t help but think that in demonstrating an inability to undertake fundamental tasks relating to their own practise they are in no position to offer comment on the competence or ability of other professionals to do theirs.
WOW. Just wow.
Remember, this is the GUARDIAN, writing not to his own lawyer, but to a lawyer at the firm instructed by father, and not even to the father’s own lawyer but to someone senior at the firm. There is not a single bit of this that is okay.
Credit to Mr T, he immediately alerted the Guardian that he would have to share the email with the father.
The Guardian, instead of backtracking, doubles down with a further email to Mr T.
He set out that he accepted that it was the father’s right to make an application to the court for an independent social work assessment. He said that was not the issue that concerned him, but the issues:
“were in regard to criticisms made by his advocate regarding the qualifications and experience of the Local Authority social worker to complete a fair and balanced assessment without any supporting evidence, and my concern that whilst making such criticisms of others the advocate, who is a member of the Children’s panel, appeared to lack the competency to present their own argument to the Court. At the same time, I also recognise that in certain circumstances it is not possible for individuals to present matters to the Court on their own and occasionally they need to instruct others to act on their behalf”.
- He goes on to say that he accepted that the members of Mr Tamber’s team were all suitably qualified, but that “the competence of this particular individual, in my opinion, was questionable”.
- In his next paragraph he sets out that he will “continue to raise concerns of any advocate if they unfairly criticised the practice of others, including local authority social workers without good cause or justification”.
Now of course, if the Guardian doesn’t like Mr S and doesn’t rate him, he’s entitled to have that view, he’s entitled to not instruct Mr S, and if Mr T says “I’m too busy for the case i’ve just sent you, but Mr S can do it” the Guardian is entitled to say ‘no thanks, i’ll go elsewhere’. That would be fine.
What is NOT fine, SO not fine, is to be unhappy about the job a parent’s solicitor does, and write to their ‘boss’ to complain about it.
The father, understandably, felt that the Guardian’s view of him and his case was bound to be coloured by this very visceral reaction to what seems on the face of it to have been perfectly normal conduct by his solicitor – his solicitor quite properly asked the LA about the experience of their proposed assessor, took a view that an independent expert was needed and made the application. Mr S is totally blameless here.
So the application was made to terminate the appointment of the Guardian.
This ordinarily, would be the point at which, with the benefit of reflection and legal advice, the Guardian files a statement saying ‘sorry, it seemed appropriate at the time, but I now see that I wrote an email in haste and possibly ill-temper and I regret it, let’s all move past it and sing Kum-bye-ar together’ or words to that effect.
- In his statement filed for the court, in paragraph 20 GUARDIAN says, “I was surprised by this line of questioning by Mr S of the professional competence of the social worker without any supporting evidence about her practice”. In paragraph 30, he sets out that he makes no criticism of the barrister’s submissions at the hearing, but says this “my criticism was of the earlier action of father’s solicitor, Mr S, in his email to the local authority questioning the skills and competency of ND to undertake an assessment of father without any evidence to support his claims”.
- Later in that statement he also refers to Mr S having sought “to undermine the skills and competence of the allocated social worker”, and then at paragraph 38 refers to feeling that his actions were justified “in raising concerns about Mr S’s unfair criticism of the social worker which in my opinion needs to be addressed”.
- He does go on to say that “on reflection I realised that my criticism of Mr S may have been too harsh”, but then later in the same document at paragraph 44 states that in relation to this application it was brought because “I privately questioned the actions of Mr S with his senior in relation to his unfounded concerns about the professionalism and competency of the social worker to undertake an assessment of father. In doing so, Mr S sought to undermine confidence in the social work profession and the professionalism within it”.
Within GUARDIAN’s witness statement, he then says this “I also raised questions that given Mr S’s own level of experience, as he is a member of the children’s panel of solicitors, I was surprised that while seeking to undermine the skills and competence of the allocated social worker he had instructed an advocate to pursue his argument and make submissions to court rather than undertake this task himself”.
- At the conclusion of his witness statement he says “while seeking to undermine the competence of the social worker, Mr S demonstrated weaknesses in his own professional skill by not presenting his own case before the court and abdicating this responsibility to others”.
Although in the hearing, counsel for the Guardian attempted to row back from this statement and soften the position, the Judge pressed very hard as to what the Guardian’s specific instructions were, and ‘may have been too harsh’ was as far as it went.
My favourite moment is when the Local Authority, who were in full popcorn mode, suddenly find themselves pressed by the Judge to come off the fence from ‘well, it is all very troubling but…’ and into well, what do you say should the Guardian be terminated or not?
Very tricky – on the history of such allegations, the Guardian is probably going to stay in the case and then you have to deal with a Guardian who you supported in being thrown out of the case. As Omar Little says, “you come for the King, you best not miss”
They understandably when their feet were held to the fire by the Judge, went with the safe option of not supporting the termination of the Guardian.
The Judge decided otherwise (and good on them, I say)
In my view, on the facts of this particular case, the Guardian’s actions have fallen short of the degree of fairness required of him and have created unfairness for the father. They have also been manifestly contrary to the child’s best interests. His actions require the termination of his appointment. My reasons are as follows:
a)GUARDIAN is not only clearly and obviously wrong in the assertions that he makes in relation to the email, and against Mr S, but he has not been able to accept that he is wrong in relation to those. The fact that, in the face of overwhelming factual evidence showing that he is wrong, he maintains his views, and repeats them, inevitably has a significant impact not only upon the father’s views of the Guardian’ s action and analysis in this case, but upon all the other professionals working within this case, and the mother.
Despite the other ways in which the Guardian has undoubtedly acted quite properly in this case, and in many other cases, and I have balanced that, it does not appear to me that that mitigates the impact of the fact that not only is he wrong, but he does not accept that he is wrong. In my view, if GUARDIAN had been able to admit to the court that he had been in error in sending that first email, and the second email, in his witness statement or of course before that, there may have been a very different perspective to be placed upon his actions. Even if within the court hearing of this application, I had been told that he had been able to reflect and accepted he should not have acted in that way, it seems to me that there would probably have been a different view to be taken.
Professionals within these courts are currently acting under simply enormous pressure. Each of the advocates addressed me on the issue that people make mistakes, people send emails that they later regret, people reflect with the benefit of time and perhaps less pressure. That is however simply not the situation here. That fact goes to the ultimate confidence that the court and the other parties can have in the guardian’s ability to make fair and sound judgments and recommendations in this case.
b) GUARDIAN has not only made these inaccurate and unfair criticisms of Mr S, but he also made them in an inappropriate way by asserting and maintaining that he can do that by way of ‘private’ emails. As above, it appears that even having had the benefit of legal advice, GUARDIAN again does not accept he was in error in acting in that way. In my view that aspect creates an inevitable belief for both the mother and particularly for the father, that this is a Guardian who does not consider that the normal rules apply to him. Put simply, in these court proceedings, brought by the state to separate them (in their view) from their child, how could it be that a guardian acted in that way, and remained the guardian for their child. I can think of no way to rationalise that such that the parents could believe in the fairness of this process if this Guardian remained the person representing the interests of their son.
c) Just as in the Oxfordshire case, it also appears to me it would be impossible for the parents to be able to be open and straightforward in future discussions with the Guardian, as they could not possibly view his actions as other than worrying at best, or blatantly wrong at worst. To further the welfare interests of N , this Guardian must be able to build a relationship with the parents, engage them, and for them to believe that he will act fairly in representing their son. I cannot see how these parents could possibly believe that, or how this court could suggest to them they could build that sort of relationship with him. Such a relationship of openness and respect it appears to me is extremely important in these proceedings. Indeed, that was reason for the guardian to be removed in the Oxfordshire case, to encourage frankness on the part of the parents. GUARDIANS’s actions therefore again are manifestly not in the interests of the child given the situation that it seems to me must result.
d) I have considered the realities of what would happen in other respects if GUARDIAN remains the Guardian. I agree with Ms Lakin that this issue would permeate and impact upon every decision made going forwards in this case, and in my view that would inevitably be contrary to the child’s welfare. Given the findings that I have had to make in this case, every decision and recommendation that GUARDIAN makes in this case will be questioned not only by the parents, but the social work team may do so as well if he disagreed with them. That in my view once again shows a direct causal link between his actions, leading to potential unfairness in these proceedings. It shows how his actions have been manifestly contrary to the best interests of the child. In the event that the Guardian takes a stance at any final hearing contrary to the wishes of the parents, or even potentially the local authority, a substantial amount of time would be taken up cross-examining GUARDIAN about these issues. I accept that it may be by that point that GUARDIAN is prepared to concede that his actions were wrong, but he may not given his stance to date. Whichever it may be, it creates confusion, significant worry for the parents, and a real possibility of delay in the future. In my view it also creates a significant diversion of the proceedings from the welfare interests of the child, and again a causal link is shown.
e) If GUARDIAN remains the court appointed guardian, there is another significant factor. Given what has happened, if the court considers he should remain the guardian for N, the reality must be the father would surely believe that an extremely important person in these proceedings views his solicitor as not being competent. That places the father in a most unhelpful state of uncertainty of how that could come about. I cannot see how that is fair to him. I have considered how that could be explained to the father and concluded that there would simply be no logical way to do so, particularly as GUARDIAN has not resiled from his view. Again, that impacts directly upon the fairness of these proceedings, due to the father’s inevitable concerns about what or who is right.
f) Connected with that concern in relation to the father, if GUARDIAN remains N’s guardian, the father will consider in my view that he has been placed in the middle of a substantial argument between his solicitors and the guardian. As he puts in his statement, his concern would be that the guardian was not going to be fair to him and his case because of his representation. It is easy to see how a parent would struggle to draw a distinction. That cannot possibly be fair to the father. That leads to unfairness in these proceedings.
g) These aspects that I set out above are not the type of issue that can be remedied by cross examination at a final hearing.
h) I therefore conclude for all the reasons set out above that there is a real likelihood that the actions of the guardian will lead to unfairness in these proceedings as a whole
RE N (A Child) (Termination of Children’s Guardian) 2022