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Last night a Re J saved my life… (I am so, so sorry)

 I could not resist, once it came into my mind. And those of you with a classical education are muttering, that the shabby pun doesn’t even work if you pronounce it “Ray J”  – so a double apologies to the Brothers of Boris.  

 

A discussion of the decision of the Court of Appeal in Re J (A child) 2012, and where the bright line falls in a Judge allowing a case to be put and curtailing cross-examination that they aren’t finding helpful.

 

The case can be found here:- http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1231.html

It is, sadly, once again, one of those private law cases that have gone on for nine years, without very much being resolved in any of that time.

 

I was counting the number of different judges that had dealt with interlocutory hearings, and reached ten.

It is little wonder, with such lack of judicial continuity, that the scale of the litigation and the need to grip it and reach a proper final conclusion wriggles away.

 

The point of appeal is interesting – the father’s case was in effect, that as we so often see, the pace of movement and progress on contact is dictated by the mother, who makes a series of objections that are never resolved in litigation but the case inches forward, bit by bit, always at the pace the mother is able to get away with. [I am not saying that this happens in all cases, or even a lot of cases, but I am certainly familiar with it happening in some. To avoid sexism, it is the person who has day to day care who tends to take this approach, I don’t think it is gender specific per se]

On cross-examining the mother about her various shifts in position and historical objections to contact – with a view to establishing that her current position was unreasonable, the father’s counsel was stopped by the Judge.

 

25. Realistically, if I may say so, Ms Thain did not press the first of the father’s two complaints on this part of his appeal. The key point, which she understandably put at the forefront of her submissions, was that the Recorder wrongly limited the ambit of the factual investigation upon which, as she would have it, Ms Holmes properly wished to embark in her cross-examination of the mother.

26. The matter arose in this way. In her application filed in October 2011 the mother, as we have seen, was opposed to anything other than supervised contact. By the time of the hearing in March 2011 the mother was expressing herself as being “happy” with unsupervised contact: this was the word she used (Transcript p 46) in answer to questions from the Recorder. Indeed, it seemed from her answers to the Recorder (see Transcript p 51) that she had no objection in principle to overnight contact. When Ms Holmes tried to put this change in her stance to the mother (Transcript p 61) she was stopped by the Recorder (Transcript p 62): “Do not answer this question … I say do not answer it because I do not see where it is going.”

When Ms Holmes tried to explain, the Recorder broke in: “do you really want the witness to rake over all her earlier concerns and worries?”

27. Ms Holmes persisted: “Your Honour the problem is … that repeatedly what the mother does is she makes allegations that stops contact, she then comes to court and makes … concessions in court that lead to a small step forward. The point I’m making is … that if we are going to have a stable regime of contact… that is going to last I think we need to get to the bottom of what the problems are because otherwise the worry the father has is we go away from here, two months down the line all the same allegations, and we come back to court again and we’re back to where we were, square one.”

The Recorder responded: “Well I think you will find that the court, at least this court, will want to move forward rather than to linger … I have to approach the case as it is today, the witness has said, and I am sure your client would want to move forward from where it is today rather than, as it were, have a kneejerk reaction … to kick it back to the order of District Judge Chandler in 2008.”

Ms Holmes then made a very pertinent point (Transcript p 63): “But Your Honour the reality is … that what she is proposing is that she dictates the way in which it moves forward. That she is saying it should move forward in this particular way only … when we have never actually established why the previous arrangements were wrong.”

She added: “But we’re now in a situation where the mother is determining that there should be a vast reduction from that level of contact. I’m trying to get to the bottom of why she feels that that is necessary.”

The Recorder then made his position very clear (Transcript p 62): “Well let me reassure you, you are not going to gain any mileage from this line of cross-examination and I am interested in looking forward and with that in mind do you have any further questions?”

28. Ms Holmes soldiered on for a while. As the short adjournment approached the Recorder said this (Transcript p 68): “I am going to curtail your cross-examination unless you want to investigate what would be more acceptable to [mother] otherwise we shall move straight to your client.”

Ms Holmes made clear (Transcript p 69) that: “if I am not able to explore [the allegations being made by the mother] then it does hamper my ability to be able to put my client’s case.” The Recorder was unmoved: “Well that may be but it seems to me we are where we are”.

29. In his judgment the Recorder acknowledged (Transcript para [3]) that he had not permitted cross-examination, as he put it, “going back into the mists of time”. He explained why: “it seemed to me … and it still seems to me, that the proper starting point for the hearing today is today.”

30. The point made by Ms Holmes in her skeleton argument and elaborated by Ms Thain in her oral submissions is simple and compelling. The Recorder concentrated on how things might move forward without questioning, or allowing counsel to question, how or why the current state of affairs had come about and whether the mother’s reasons for unilaterally varying the previous court order were justified. This, it is said, was particularly alarming given what Dr Little and Ms Coatalen had said in their earlier reports – material suggesting that there could be a pattern to the mother’s behaviour requiring investigation of the kind the Recorder refused to permit. In short, it is said, by restricting cross-examination of the mother the Recorder ensured that it would be impossible for him to carry out the task required of him and denied the father a fair hearing.

If I may say, I  very much like the cut of Ms Holmes’ jib here.

The Court of Appeal, unsurprisingly, took a dim view of the Judge’s view that the past was of no interest to him in making decisions about the future.

31. In my judgment the father’s appeal must be allowed on this ground alone.

32. The point is really quite short and simple. Of course the Recorder was right in saying that one had to look to the future: after all, his task was to determine J’s future living arrangements. And of course, in one sense, the Recorder was right to look at how matters stood on the day of the hearing: after all, things were as they were. But his error – and in my judgment he here fell into plain and obvious error – was in rejecting Ms Holmes’ entirely justified desire to explore the crucial question of why it was that things were as they were at the date of the hearing. The investigation – the cross-examination – that Ms Holmes wished to undertake was not something she wished to pursue Micawber-like in the speculative hope, absent any reason to believe so, that something might turn up. On the contrary, and as she explained to the Recorder, there were at least two things she wished to explore, and which in my judgment cried out for investigation: first, why the mother’s attitude had changed between October 2011 and March 2012; second, and even more important, why the arrangements agreed in January 2008 had not worked out and why the mother believed they needed to be changed.

 

33. The Recorder may have been right in doubting the utility of an investigation “back into the mists of time”, but this was not what Ms Holmes was suggesting and it was no answer to the need for a more focused investigation of the kind she wanted to undertake. As my analysis of the litigation shows, there was a very clear point in the past which was the obvious initial starting point for such an investigation: the order made by District Judge Chandler on 7 January 2008. Two things about that order are striking: first, it was made against the background of the concerning matters identified and considered by Dr Little and Ms Coatalen, and taking into account Ms Coatalen’s recommendations; second, it was an order made by consent and moreover, as the order itself makes clear, on an occasion when the mother was represented by counsel. Now of course in a case such as this a consent order does not have the same status as a consent order made in ordinary civil proceedings, but it was nevertheless entirely understandable that Ms Holmes should wish to probe with the mother why she no longer saw the order she had agreed to as being appropriate. Moreover, given what Dr Little and Ms Coatalen had said, Ms Holmes had every justification for wishing to explore whether the explanation for the mother’s change of view since January 2008 lay in those matters which had caused Dr Little and Ms Coatalen concern rather than in the explanations now being offered by the mother.

34. Whether it would have been appropriate for Ms Holmes to seek to push the investigation farther back into the past – even assuming she would have wanted to – was, I should add, not a matter calling for a ruling at the outset. It was a matter to be considered, if the need arose, in the light of how the preceding cross-examination had gone.

35. Of course, and even in a family case, a judge should stop irrelevant or time-wasting cross-examination. But a judge should always bear in mind that, however carefully he has read the papers beforehand, counsel is likely to have a better grasp of the inner forensic realities of the case. And a judge does well to think twice if, as here, his intervention is met by counsel standing her ground and carefully explaining why she wishes to cross-examine in a particular way, especially if, as here, counsel’s reasons have obviously been carefully considered and are not just ‘off-the-cuff’. Ms Holmes is to be congratulated for doing her duty, politely but firmly standing her ground and telling the Recorder plainly that his ruling was preventing her putting her client’s case. It is a pity that the Recorder did not, even at that point, see any reason to change his mind.

36. In my judgment, the effect of this was indeed, as submitted to us, to disable the Recorder from carrying out the task required of him and to deny the father a fair hearing. But I go further. To deny the father a fair hearing and a proper opportunity to put his case was also, of course, to deny J a fair hearing. And for the reasons given by McFarlane LJ it may also have meant that the mother’s case was not properly considered.

37. There is no way in which we can remedy things except by allowing the appeal and directing a re-trial at which those matters which the Recorder refused to consider can be properly investigated. In the circumstances the re-trial must be in front of a different judge.

 

The telling point here is that father’s counsel was able to set out the purpose of her cross-examination and that it had a relevant and pertinent aim and intention, and was not just a string of questions in the hope that something good might come out of it. Judges wishing to curtail cross-examination will need, as a result, to hear what underpins the questions; and counsel faced with potentially irascible tribunals will need to have at their fingertips an explanation of the strategic thrust of the topic and why it goes to the live issues in the case. [If they are not able to produce an answer to that readily, they perhaps shouldn’t be embarking on that line of questioning…]

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About suesspiciousminds

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

One response

  1. What about disputes between parents over the custody of their children?(Private law)Only too often the “SS” and Cafcass are brought in,and the consequences are drastic indeed !Judges tend to take the same side and adopt the same attitudes as the “SS”. Consequently, the punishment meted out to the losing parent is nothing short of disgraceful…..

    The real disgrace however, is not so much the initial conduct of the courts dealing with parents disputes, or disputes by parents with the local authority, as the “aftermath”.Vindictive injuctions are granted forbidding the losing parent( whether mother or father) from all contact with their child or children until those children are 18 year of age. This happens to my personal knowledge to drug and alcohol free parents with no criminal records who have never been accused let alone charged with any criminal act against their children.
    Parents have been jailed for sending a birthday card,leaving an Xmas present on a doorstep,waving at children as they passed by in a car, and of course 3 years for Vicky Haig for talking to her daughter at a petrol station even though she had not seen her for a year !
    These judges belong to the Victorian age except that instead of hanging thieves they now pick on desperate defenceless non criminal parents who they dislike but who should always be allowed some form of supervised contact no matter what the circumstances .What about “Baby P” you cry??Well believe it or not his witch of a mother has been allowed contact with her surviving children whilst still serving time in jail !

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