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what can the past of section 31 tell us about the future and the Family Justice Review?



No plan ever survives contact with the enemy



                                      Helmuth von Moltke the elder




I’m fairly sure that I’ll be writing about the Family Justice Review and their proposals on many occasions, but I just wanted to set aside any ideas for a moment about the merits of the ideas within it, or how practical they are to implement, and just to take the main headline idea and imagine how it will be once exposed to lawyers in the field; using the history of the threshold criteria and the litigation around that as an example.


I’m sure everyone who has done any public children work knows that the test for whether the Court can consider making orders that give the State (in the form of Social Services/the Local Authority) powers about children,  is the ‘threshold criteria’ set out in section 31 of the Children Act 1989.  (It is worth noting that the threshold criteria being met doesn’t mean that an order will be made or what it would be, but rather that it allows to proceed to the next stage of considering what is in the child’s welfare – no threshold means the State has to go away)


Section 31 (2) says “A Court may only make a care order or a supervision order if it is satisfied  –


(a)  that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and

(b)  that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to –

(i)            the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or

(ii)          the child’s being beyond parental control  “



That appears to me to be a solid piece of drafting– positively wonderful by modern standards (where half of the relevant bits would be defined in Schedule 2 and another key element being with reference to other sections). It is self-contained – everything you need to know is set out in that one section, rather than cross-referring, and using everyday language and concepts.  [You can see, for example, that paraphrasing it as ‘the State have to prove that you’ve caused your child harm, or will probably cause them harm in the future, by not doing what the State expects of you as a parent’  distils the essence of it, without getting too far away from the concepts as stated]


Now, following contact with lawyers and thirty years of cases which have unpicked within it every single word other than ‘child’, the actual unspoken and unwritten, but legal meaning of the section is as follows, [original in bold, additions in italics]



A Court may only make a care order or a supervision order if it is satisfied [on the balance of probabilities, with the burden of proof falling upon the applicant Local Authority]   –


(a)  that the child concerned is suffering [at the time of the hearing of the application for the care or supervision order, or at the time when the local authority initiated the procedure for the protection of the child concerned provided those arrangements have been continuously in place until the time of the hearing – to cover the situation where a child is voluntarily accommodated before the application is made and would no longer be currently suffering significant harm at the time the application were made, it is possible to consider later acquired information as to that state of affairs at the relevant date but not evidence of later events unless these events can be used to show the state of affairs at the relevant date ] , or is likely to suffer [likely meaning having a real possibility, a possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored having regard to the nature and gravity of the feared harm in the particular case, the seriousness of the allegations or the consequences having no impact upon the standard of proof to be satisfied,  and the facts upon which that prediction of likelihood is based having been proven to the balance of probabilities to have actually occurred, it not being sufficient that those facts may have occurred or that there is a real possibility that they did, and establishing that one child did suffer significant harm does not automatically establish that another child of the same family is likely to suffer significant harm, note also that the Court is not limited to looking at the present and immediate future but may look at the long-term future], significant harm [the harm must be significant enough to justify the intervention of the State and disturb the autonomy of the parents to bring up their children by themselves in the way they choose. It must be significant enough to enable the court to make a care order or a supervision order if the welfare of the child demands it; society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent, it is not the province of the State to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting; the harm must be more than commonplace human failure or inadequacy, where considering whether a child’s health or development has been significantly harmed one has to compare with that which could be reasonably expected of a similar child; and

(b)  that the harm, or likelihood of harm [see everything above], is attributable to

  1.     the care given [which can go beyond physical care and includes emotional care] to the child, or likely  to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him [it is not necessary that there be culpability on the parents part who may be trying their hardest yet failing to reach the required standard of care and thereby causing significant harm, also this test can be met in a circumstances where one parent has caused significant harm and the other has not, or where a parent and a person other than a parent, such as a childminder, cannot be excluded from having perpetrated an injury to the child where the identify of the perpetrator cannot be established on the balance of probabilities even where there is only a possibility that the parents themselves were responsible for injuries that the child had sustained,  regard may also be had to whether the failure of a local authority to provide the necessary statutory support has contributed to this]; or
  2. the child’s being beyond parental control [this must have caused the significant harm or created the risk of such harm, there is no requirement to show some failure on the part of the parent in order to establish that a child is beyond parental control, and parental control is something which will no doubt vary with the age of the child]



and we have gone from an 87 word definition to nearly 700  words, nearly an eightfold increase; and from a definition of a vital concept which could be read (albeit with some throbbing about the temples) by an ordinary person  to one which is to all extents and purposes unintelligible.



The point is, that these were all ‘clarifications’ or glosses to the existing statute that were required, and which arose in the context of individual cases where those shades of meaning were vitally important.


I have particularly fond memories, having lived through it of the changes to “likely” where there was a period when one couldn’t tell from one month to the next whether a sexual abuse allegation was capable of meeting the threshold or not. Frustrating for the day to day job, but fascinating for the inner-law-geek.


This was largely through the H&R case which changed tack at various stages of the process until the House of Lords delivered a final decision in 1996.  During that lengthy process, the sands were shifting as to whether the law was going to import an additional test in accordance with David Hume’s philosophy that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof;  or in the gloss put on it by lawyers ‘that where the allegations are very serious, a higher standard of proof is required’, this eventually morphing into ‘for very serious allegations, the difference between the criminal standard of proof and the civil standard is, in truth,  largely illusory this last commonly asserted maxim, derived from some judicial remarks in firstly a sex offender order, and secondly an ASBO case took a second House of Lords case in Re B  2008 to finally resolve once and for all  that neither the seriousness of the allegation nor the seriousness of the consequences should make any difference to the standard of proof to be applied.



So, and here is the million-dollar question, how robust can a six month cap on the duration of care proceedings be, even if it is put into statute?  The fact that the FJR and the Government response both talk about there being a need for Judges to be able to make exceptions to the six month cap where the welfare of the child requires it, means that a  clause that says :-


Section 1   “The duration of care proceedings shall not, under any circumstances, exceed six months, the duration being calculated as being from the date that the proceedings are issued to the making of a final order”


cannot be what is being considered, and anything with more fluidity than that is just going to be litigated with vigour, to try to expand the definitions and categories and terminology that applies to the exceptions, and in the meantime, there will be a temptation to instead fudge the 6 month cap by saying that in the circumstances of this particular case, the child’s welfare requires additional time for the issues to be determined.


We are, after all, a group of professionals who spent from 1989 to 2008 arguing about what the word ‘likely’ meant, and aren’t necessarily done with it quite yet.

About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

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