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Is there truly such a thing as an ‘anonymous’ referral?

 

 A discussion of Re J (A Child:Disclosure) 2012

The case can be found here :-

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1204.html

 

 

This was an appeal arising from private law proceedings, but the principles are likely to apply (if not be even more apposite) to public law proceedings.

 

Effectively, within the time that private law proceedings were going on, an allegation of sexual misconduct was raised against the father.  The allegations were made to the Local Authority, who then alerted the mother that allegations of a serious kind, that they had some confidence in, had been made.

 

The referrer had requested anonymity.

 

(We go back here to D v NSPCC 1978 AC 171  which established that a principle called  Public Interest Immunity applied to information provided to a child protection agency – like NSPCC or Social Services,  and that there was a broad public interest in individuals being able to know that they could make those referrals in confidence.    In particular that they wouldn’t face threats, violence or harassment as a result of having made that referral.

 

There’s a larger public debate here, which can easily be understood if you switch the word ‘referral’ with ‘allegation’   – it’s appropriate for someone to be able to make a referral in confidence, but if you put yourself in the place of a parent who is the subject of an anonymous allegation, you would feel entirely differently)

 

 

As the father, understandably, was disputing that he had behaved in a sexually inappropriate way, and the issue was going to the heart of whether he was a risky person to have contact with his children, or a safe person, the Court had to have a finding of fact hearing to determine the allegations.

 

Given that the referrer, who wished to remain anonymous, had become known to the mother, the issue then became twofold :-

 

  1. Should her identity be formally revealed and the detail of the referral be made known by disclosing the documents
  2. At the finding of fact hearing, should the referrer attend Court and be available to be cross-examined?

 

 

The Judge at first instance, who was Mr Justice Peter Jackson  analysed the issue in this way :-

 

  1. a. The father denied sexually abusing anybody. He had not been informed of X’s identity and knew nothing of the substance of her allegations. He asserted that the mother had colluded with X to generate these allegations for the purpose of obstructing contact with his daughter. He argued that for the court not to insist on testing the allegations would be fundamentally unjust and the situation would effectively encourage mothers to make outrageous allegations as a means of alienating fathers and children from each other. The interests of A must come first and there must be a trial attended by X.

b. The mother described herself being torn between the need to protect A and the reluctance to add to the pressure on X. She supported disclosure if it is the only means by which A can be protected, but is concerned about the consequences for X if disclosure takes place.

c. X strongly resisted disclosure of her identity and of the substance of her allegations. She would oppose any attempt to summons her as a witness and would not be able to speak about her allegations if she were brought to court. She was acutely distressed by the effect of the proceedings on her already fragile state of health.

d. A’s guardian asserted that she was unable to represent A’s interests in the proceedings without knowing the detail of the allegations and forming an assessment of them. She submitted that the issue of disclosure was a discrete issue and should be determined separately from any question of X being compelled to attend court to give evidence.

e. The local authority took a neutral stance, but assisted the court by presenting arguments for and against disclosure.

  1. In analysing the competing factors, the judge referred to the following articles of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950 (‘ECHR’) as being relevant:

ARTICLE 3

No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

ARTICLE 6

1. In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.

ARTICLE 8

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

  1. Having considered the decision of this court in A Local Authority v A [2009] EWCA Civ 1057; [2010] 2 FLR 1757, the judge concluded that the fundamental objective of the balancing exercise is to strike a fair balance between the various rights and interests within the context of achieving a fair trial. In this context he held (at paragraph 29) the following ECHR articles were engaged so far as the court and the local authority as public bodies are concerned:
    • Article 6, entitling A and her parents to a fair hearing of X’s allegations;
    • Article 8, guaranteeing respect for the family life of A and her parents;
    • Article 8, guaranteeing respect for the private life of X; and
    • Article 3, prohibiting inhuman or degrading treatment of A and of X.
  1. Peter Jackson J concluded (paragraph 34) that X’s wish not to speak further about her alleged experience of sexual abuse and the risks to her mental and physical health were each aspects of her ‘private life’ within Article 8.
  1. Within the Article 3 considerations fell not only the protection of vulnerable individuals such as A and X, in particular from sexual abuse, but also the protection of X from inhuman treatment by forcing her to give evidence about these matters in the context of her precarious state of health.

 

The Judge at first instance decided that balancing those competing interests meant that it was right, in the circumstances of this particular case, not to compel X to give evidence, or to disclose the information  (he approached it in that order, which becomes relevant later)

 

48. I have nevertheless concluded that in this highly unusual situation it is not possible for information about X’s identity and allegations to be disclosed to the parties. My reasons are these:

1) I accept the medical evidence about the potentially serious effect of disclosure on X’s health.

2) The information once disclosed, cannot be controlled. X could not be assured that her identity as an alleged victim of sexual abuse would remain confidential within the proceedings.

3) X’s identity and her allegations are inextricably intertwined.

4) For the court to order disclosure when it is not prepared to order X to give evidence would risk harming X without achieving anything valuable for A and her parents. The nature and extent of X’s allegations mean that they could not readily be proved or disproved by reference to third parties or independent sources. It is therefore unlikely that any outcome achieved in X’s absence would clear the air between the parties or provide a solid foundation for future arrangements for A.

5) The court must have regard to the nature of the interests being balanced, namely contact on one hand and physical and mental health on the other.

 

49. I realise that the existence of this unresolved allegation creates real difficulties in relation to future contact between A and her father. Once the parties have considered this judgment, there will be a short hearing to identify the issues that now arise. For the present, I will only repeat the observation that I made during the Guardian’s submissions, namely that this outcome will not automatically lead to the court making an order for unsupervised contact. That question must be resolved taking account of all factors bearing on A’s welfare

The father’s case, again understandably was, that without having the opportunity to properly test the very grave allegations that had been made against him  (and not even knowing who it was he was alleged to have abused)  would make it impossible to conduct a finding of fact hearing, and even if the allegations were effectively set to one side with a decision that they couldn’t be proved, they would hang over him and inevitably colour any later decision about his contact.  

 

(The Judge seemed to be saying that X’s allegations wouldn’t be the subject of a finding of fact hearing, but that on its own did not mean that father’s contact would automatically revert to pre-allegation position. And a strand that emerged was that without the allegations being determined one way or another, was it reasonable for mother – who believed them – to be opposed to direct contact?)

 

The Court of Appeal considered the issue of the trial judge having seen the source material which was not disclosed to the parties , with the long and the short of it being that a Judge who saw such pertinent evidence and decided it was not to be disclosed was really in a position where he had to recuse himself from determining the matter, no matter how hard he would strive to put it out of his mind, ‘justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done’ :-

 

 

  1. Having now had the benefit of looking at these potentially ambiguous passages with the assistance of counsel’s submissions, I am fully satisfied that the judge has no intention of relying directly upon the undisclosed material to support some form of finding on the issue of sexual abuse. His latter comment about the outcome not automatically leading to unsupervised contact would seem simply to be a sensible and proper judicial indication that all substantive welfare options remain open and that all he has dealt with thus far is the application for disclosure.
  1. Despite accepting that the judge’s indication is, within its own context, unremarkable, there is a need to step back to consider how a fair final hearing can be seen to take place if it is conducted by a judge who has read the detail of X’s undisclosed allegations. This is not a topic that is addressed expressly in the judgment, yet to my mind it justifies careful consideration. From the perspective of an insider within the family justice system, I have no difficulty in accepting that any judge of the High Court Family Division would have the necessary intellectual and professional rigour to conduct the final hearing by putting the undisclosed material out of his or her contemplation when considering A’s welfare. That, however, is not the test, or, at least, not the complete test. Justice not only has to be done, but it must be manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be done. How is the final hearing to be viewed by the father if his contact to A is reduced from its pre-2010 level or terminated, when he knows that the judge who has determined the case has read details of serious, but untried and untested allegations against him? The father has already referred to ‘a kangaroo court’ and such a characterisation could only gain prominence in his mind were the case to proceed in the manner contemplated by the current orders.
  1. Often when Public Interest Immunity (‘PII’) is raised the matter to which the PII relates may not be directly relevant to the primary issue in the case and there can be a fair trial of the central issue notwithstanding the fact that material known to the judge remains undisclosed to some or all of the parties. Here the undisclosed information is at the core of the case and represents the entirety of the material relating to the only issue that has generated the mother’s application to vary the contact regime. The father, or an impartial bystander, is entitled to question how there could be a fair trial of the contact issue when the judge is privy to this core material yet the father and those representing A are not. I stress again that I readily accept that if Peter Jackson J were the trial judge he would have approached the matters before him with intellectual and judicial rigour; my concern relates to how matters are, or may be, perceived by the parties and others.
  1. Drawing these observations together, in my view an outcome on the facts of this case whereby the key material has been read in full by the judge but is not to be disclosed to the parties, yet the same judge is going on to preside over the welfare determination is an untenable one in terms of justice being seen to be done. In failing both to consider this aspect of the case and in arriving at that outcome the judge was plainly wrong

 

 

There is, as always with Lord Justice MacFarlane’s judgments, a helpful drawing together of the history of decisions on both Public Interest Immunity and balancing of competing Human Rights, and it would be a good starting point for any research on these issues.

 

 

The Court of Appeal then determined whether the Court at first instance had gone awry in balancing those matters, and specifically whether in determining that X was not going to give evidence and thus disclosure was of no purpose, that decision had been made the wrong way around (i.e that disclosure was a separate issue to X giving live evidence)

 

  1. Moving from legal principle to the circumstances of this case, whilst the judge’s characterisation of the probative value of X’s allegations as being unlikely to lead to a resolution of the issue that they raise may be correct on our present state of knowledge, that state of knowledge is based entirely on what X is reported to have said. Because of X’s stipulation that no person is to be told of her allegations, the local authority has not undertaken any investigation of them whatsoever. In so far as X may give a factual context which places X and the father together and within which the alleged abusive behaviour took place, it has not been possible to ask any of the adults who were then responsible for X’s care whether or not that factual context has validity. A’s mother knows only of the label attached to the alleged behaviour, she too may readily be able to validate or challenge what is said about the factual context and the father’s opportunity to interact abusively with X as X alleges. Plainly the father too will be able to give his own account of matters if disclosure takes place. I do not therefore accept Peter Jackson J’s assertion that ‘the nature and extent of X’s allegations mean that they could not readily be proved or disproved by reference to third parties or independent sources’; the position is that, unless or until the relevant adults are told of the allegations, it is simply too early to come to a conclusion on that issue. There is merit in the disclosure of this core material, so that it may properly be evaluated by A’s mother, A’s father and A’s professional representatives, that merit is freestanding and has value irrespective of whether or not in due course X could be called to give oral evidence.
  1. For the reasons I have given, I conclude that the judge was in error in conflating the issues of disclosure and X being required to give oral evidence in due course. In turning to the latter issue first, and concluding that compelling X to give evidence would be oppressive and wrong, the judge unfortunately allowed that conclusion to dominate his consideration of the disclosure question in a manner which is unsupported by authority. The judge was further in error in failing to identify the freestanding value of disclosure which would enable the key adults to understand and give their own factual account of the circumstances within which X alleges that the abusive behaviour took place

And then moved on to make the decision about disclosure :-

 

  1. In answer to the questions posed within structure established by Lord Mustill in Re D:

a) there is a real possibility that disclosure will cause significant harm to X’s mental and physical health;

b) the interests of X would benefit from non-disclosure, but the interests of A favour disclosure. It is in A’s interests that the material is known to her parents and is properly tested. There is a balance to be struck between the adverse impact on X’s interest and the benefit to be gained by A;

c) If that balance favoured non-disclosure, I would in any event evaluate the importance of the undisclosed material as being central to the whole issue of contact and the life-long structure of the relationships within A’s family. In fact, X’s allegations represent the entirety of the ‘issue’ in the family proceedings. There is therefore a high priority to be put upon both parents having the opportunity to see and respond to this material.

  1. For the reasons that I have given, and approaching the matter in way that I have described, I am clear that the balance of rights comes down in favour of the disclosure of X’s identity and of the records of the substance of her sexual abuse allegations to the mother, the father and A’s children’s guardian.

 

 

The Court of Appeal did make it plain during the judgment, that they were considering this on the basis of the individual case and the individual judgment, rather than attempting to pull out some general principles for all cases, and say so explicitly here:-

 

40         I repeat and stress that this conclusion is specific to the facts of this case where the PII material relates entirely to the core issue in the case. It is not my intention to lay down a blanket approach to all cases, which will fall to be determined by the application of general principles to the individual facts that are in play.

 

And of course, the key issue in this case is that the referrer X, was not someone who was saying  “I have seen father do such and such to a child” or “I believe father has done such and such to a child”  but that “when I was a child, this man did such and such to me”     (i.e that the referrer was not claiming to have witnessed abuse, but to have been a victim of it)

 

But the principle remains – in the light of this authority, and the ones cited within the judgment  (notably Re D (Minors) (Adoption Reports: Confidentiality) [1996] AC 593)  )   http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/1995/17.html  

 

Can someone who makes a referral or allegation to a Local Authority, who wishes to remain anonymous, have confidence that they would remain so?

 

The reality is, that if the referral or allegation is relied upon – i.e that a party to the case seeks to convert that allegation into proven fact (as opposed to ‘it is true that an anonymous referrer said this, but the Court is not asked to determine that what was alleged is true’)   then it is hard to see a Court being persuaded that the parents article 6 rights to see the allegation and challenge it are outweighed by the interests of confidentiality to the anonymous referrer.

 

The deck was stacked pretty heavily in favour of the referrer here  –  she had been a ‘child victim’, there was psychological evidence about the consequences of disclosure being very detrimental to her, and still the material was disclosed.

 

There’s the possibility, perhaps long-distant, of a referrer who was told by the Local Authority when they rang up and asked if they could remain anonymous that they could, bringing a claim against the LA when their details were disclosed. 

 

It might well be the case that the only true way to make an anonymous referral is the obvious one – don’t give your name to anyone.  If you tell the person on the other end of the phone your real name, they might well have to cough it up at some point in the future.

 

[If it hasn’t been clear in the discussion above, I am very sympathetic to both sides of the debate – I think it is important that people are able to genuinely alert the right authorities to suspected child abuse without having to have fear of reprisals, but I can also see that where there is suspicion and doubt that such referrals are genuine and might instead be false malicious allegations, there’s a serious interest in the victim of such allegations being able to properly contest them.  

 

It is one of those difficult areas where the overarching public interest in cases generally might well be anonymity, but in any particular case the right thing is more likely to be transparency]

 

 

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About suesspiciousminds

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

2 responses

  1. Disclosure is often overlooked by litigants – Munby’s decision in Re L (Care Assessment : Fair Trial) (2002) EWHC 1379 (Fam) was very clear yet CAFCASS and social workers have a tendency to not dislose – the submission below might assist parents…..and also the decision of Mr Justice baker on the role of the LA in disclosing documents without parents needing to ask that might assist in rebutting allegations, yet from experience this is ‘overlooked’ by the LA party in cases.

    The law in relation to disclosure of social service records in the context of wardship proceedings received consideration in Re M (A Minor) (Disclosure of Material) (1990) 2 FLR 36 where the Court of Appeal held :

    (i) that social work records are prima facie subject to public interest immunity ;

    (ii) that there is no absolute rule against disclosure ;

    (iii) that there is a public interest in the due administration of justice ;

    (iv) where the interests under (i) and (iii) are in conflict the judge is under a duty to weigh up the competing interests (if necessary by inspecting the disputed documents) and decide whether the public interest in protecting social work records overrides the public interest that the party to the proceedings should obtain the information he is seeking to obtain legal redress ;

    (v) it is for the party seeking discovery to establish that the interests of justice decisively outweigh those under the competing interest.

    The issue of disclosure has been revisited since Re M , at first instance, following the passing of the Human Rights Act 1998 in the cases of Re B (Disclosure To Other Parties) (2001) 2 FLR, 1017,Re R (Care Disclosure : Nature of Proceedings) (2002) 1 FLR, 755 and Re L (Care Assessment : Fair Trial) (2002) EWHC 1379 (Fam). The latter two authorities rely on R v Chief Constable of West Midlands Police ex parte Wiley ; R v Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire Police ex parte Sunderland (1995) 1 AC 274 in re-examining the principles and procedures in relation to disclosure in the light of the obligations placed on public bodies and the courts by the Human Rights Act 1998. It is submitted that the effect of these later authorities is that where the issue of disclosure falls to be considered in respect of proceedings under the Children Act 1989

    (i) a partie’s article 6 right to a fair trial are absolute but the rights consequent on that right (eg to see the documents before the court) are capable of limitation eg in relation to the article 8 rights of other parties within the proceedings or eg. where disclosure might involve harm to the child. The right to see documents filed within proceedings is not itself absolute. (Re B (2001) ).

    (ii) In deciding whether to order disclosure of documents within proceedings under the Children Act 1989 the court must first ask itself whether the material passes the relevant threshold test for disclosure ie is disclosure necessary for the fair disposal of the proceedings eg does the document adversely affect one party’s case or support another party’s case.(Re R (2002) 775E) ;

    (iii) there is no class of public interest immune documents per se and anyone asserting public interest immunity in respect of material held by a local authority should set out with particularity the harm alleged that would be caused to the public interest eg the proper conduct of the duties of a local authority in respect of the protection of children if the material were disclosed.

    (iv) in most cases the need for a fair trial will demand that no restrictions are made on disclosure and even if the case for restrictions is made out the restrictions should go no further than is strictly necessary.

    (v) both LA’s and Guardians should be more willing to exhibit their notes of relevant conversations and incidents that are relied upon as evidence for findings at the welfare or threshold stage of proceedings.

    (vi) the LA at an early stage of proceedings make full and frank disclosure of all key documents in its possession or available to it including in particular contact recordings, attendance notes of meetings and conversations and minutes of case conferences, core group meetings and similar meetings.

    (vii) social workers should routinely exhibit to their reports and statements notes of relevant meetings, conversations and incidents.

    (viii) general discovery has never been the practice in children’s cases and automatic or routine general discovery by list is neither a necessary nor desirable. (Re L (2002) [160] ).

  2. I was involved in a similar situation with Master Roberts in the high Court, it was a very discrete issue we raised in that once a Judge was privy to the questionable information the information in question withheld from a party (ies) then that its self places the courts in a position of breaching article 6 HRA, the Judge would read the information then decide whether to disclose the information, thus placing the judge in a higher position than the rest of the parties, throwing out the balance of equality, If the Judge does not disclose the information but then makes findings and rulings on that information then obviously the aggrieved party would be in the position as disclosed above.

    I am sure that we used the DPA act to over come our discrete issue which eventually cumulated in having medical records corrected

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