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The importance of being formal

 

 

A discussion of the private law case of Re K (A child) 2012 EWCA Civ 1306.

 

 

The judgment of the Court of Appeal can be found here

 

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed102441

 

 

Normally I start with – the facts of this case are quite straightforward, but in this one, they aren’t.

 

There are four children, A, S, G and B.  The children were all the biological children of one woman, the mother.  A and S were the children of the father.  G and B were, the mother says, fathered by two different men who had raped her, years apart.

 

A, S, G and B all lived with the father, who although not being the biological parent of G and B was a father figure to them.

 

A younger child from another relationship, D, lived with the mother.

 

There were serious allegations that mother had emotionally mistreated the children, and the section 7 report was clearly in favour of the children residing with the father, and indeed had gone further in saying that if there was a shift in residence, the Local Authority would commence care proceedings to protect the children from the risk they considered mother to pose.

 

The appeal arose as a result of a review hearing in residence and contact dispute.  At the review hearing, set up by a previous directions hearing ordering the author of the section 7 report to attend and be cross-examined, the positions of the parties were this :-

 

Mother invited the Court to appoint a Guardian and a child psychologist, so that the issues in relation to the children’s wishes and feelings could be explored.

 

Father invited the Court to make final Residence Orders and conclude the case.

 

 

An odd feature of this appeal was that the tape machine had not been working, and thus neither the judgment, nor the hearing itself had been recorded.  Therefore, any criticisms I make of those representing mother are with the caveat that the matters which seem to be omissions might well have been dealt with and just not recorded. And they arise from the criticisms made by the Court of Appeal.

 

The Judge dismissed the applications for a Guardian or a child psychologist to be appointed, made Residence Orders and made an order for contact which was  “as directed by the Local Authority”, making it plain that the orders were not “set in stone” and that mother could bring a fresh application if things were not working.

 

The mother appealed on these grounds :-

 

 

  1. That the decision to refuse a child psychologist or a Guardian was plainly wrong.
  2. That the Judge had effectively abdicated decision-making about frequency and duration of contact to the Local Authority
  3. That he had made a final order at a review hearing and had not heard evidence from either parent (although he had heard evidence from the social worker)
  4. That the allegations made against mother, and the cross-allegations of domestic violence were not determined at a finding of fact hearing.

 

 

 

 

The Court of Appeal rejected the mother’s arguments about instruction of a Guardian or child psychologist, considering the judge’s reasoning on this to be solid and it being a valid case management decision.

 

The lead judgment was delivered by Lady Justice Black.

 

35. I can deal robustly and swiftly with the question of the appointment of a guardian and/or a psychologist.  I am not persuaded by the mother’s arguments in this respect.  The judge had the benefit of input from the local authority, who had been very much involved in the case over a period of time.  They were not abandoning the case but were intending to continue their attempts to persuade G to see his mother and would continue to enable B to do so.  It was certainly open to the judge to take the view that it was difficult to see what more another expert could offer and that this was not the moment to take the course of involving another person in the children’s lives.  Furthermore, appointing a guardian or instructing a psychologist would inevitably take time and he was entitled to put into the balance in this respect that the children needed to be settled and to return to normality.  Protracted court proceedings would not help with that.

 

The Court of Appeal also considered the Judge’s position on contact to be acceptable.

 

36. I am not persuaded by the mother’s argument that the judge abdicated responsibility for solving the contact issue either.  He determined that contact should be taking place and he made the decision to continue to entrust the furtherance of it to social services because he thought that G would come round.  He made clear that this was not a final decision and that the mother could bring the matter back to court if it did not progress.  Keeping the proceedings open for a further year and expressly providing for liberty to apply, which was not necessary in law and must therefore have been included as a deliberate message that the decision was not as the judge said “set in stone”, underlined this.  The judge was entitled to take the view that this was the course that was in G’s best interests for the moment.

 

 

But it was the summary disposal of the case that concerned them.

 

The Court of Appeal note that from the notes of the hearing that they had been supplied with, those representing the mother had focussed on their application for adjournment and had not addressed the Court specifically on the mother giving evidence, or the need for a finding of fact hearing, or the reasons not to make final orders in accordance with father’s case.

 

[As indicated earlier, it may be that all of those things were done, but it was not recorded on the notes of hearing that the Court of Appeal were supplied with. I don’t want to cast aspersions on those representing mother, as that would be unfair given that I wasn’t there, and haven’t seen a full transcript]

 

40. I can well understand how it was that the judge took the approach that he did, that is not hearing from the parents.  He was anxious, rightly, that the proceedings should not be drawn out any longer, and no doubt he was influenced by the weight of the evidence in support of the factual case put forward by the father and supported by the local authority’s investigations, and also by the practical difficulties in the way of the mother’s application for residence.  Time had run out for the hearing, almost certainly because of the pressure of work in the court and it was already late in the day, and perhaps most importantly the judge was not asked by counsel for the mother to hear evidence from her or to permit cross-examination of the father.  Counsel for the mother seems to have been taken by surprise by the judge’s final determination of matters.  He was, as I have said, concentrating on persuading the judge that the matter should be adjourned for the intervention of a guardian or a psychological report and he did not expect that the judge would not only dismiss that application but also proceed to make final orders. 

 41. There are certain situations in which it is correct for a court to deal with applications summarily or on very limited evidence, but if that is to occur it is normally necessary for there to be some argument as to whether that is an appropriate course and a determination by the judge that it is for reasons which he articulates. 

42. In this case the course that was taken does not seem to have been the subject of such a process.  I am driven to the view, in all the circumstances, that the procedure adopted by the judge was rather too pragmatic and resulted in a hearing that was not entirely fair to the mother. 

 

 

So the Appeal was allowed.  Between the initial decision and the appeal hearing, there were some extraordinary developments. That is a massive understatement.

 

 

43. A few days ago the father’s solicitors wrote to the mother’s solicitors saying that contact with B, the only child who had been seeing the mother without problems, was going to be suspended.  This was said to be because of a series of incidents which had given rise to concern about B’s safety and the father’s. They included the following.  A man who called himself Stuart had turned up at B’s school claiming to be B’s father.  A man who gave a different name had turned up at the contact centre wanting to join in contact with B.  A third incident involved a man trying to snatch B from the father on a tube station platform. 

44. The mother’s solicitors replied to the father’s solicitors saying that in mid-July, when at Homebase, the mother had recognised the man who raped her and had approached him and told him that B had been born as a result of the rape.  The man (Stuart), had subsequently attended at B’s school and at the contact centre.  Stuart told the mother that the father was behind the rape, having instructed Stuart to beat the mother up and rape her, and said that if he did not do so he would be paid a visit in relation to money that he owed the father for drugs and could not afford to pay. 

45. Both parties concede that, in the light of this new and presently untested material and the suspension of contact with B, the case will have to return to the county court judge in any event now and that findings will have to be made about factual allegations

 Now that will be an interesting finding of fact hearing. Given that as we know, the Court findings are binary (a thing either is proved to have happened, or it is proved to have not happened; there is no ‘not proven’ or ‘not sure’)  either the father recruited and paid a man to rape the mother, or the mother has made the most scandalous and false allegations about the father. Either eventuality has huge implications for the children and their relationship with both parents. It is hard to see how they could go on to have a meaningful and full relationship with both parents after the determination of which of these two possibilities is true.

It is worth noting that the two other Appeal Court judges, whilst granting the appeal, expressed quite a bit of sympathy with the trial judge, and the Court as a whole communicated the need for all court hearings to be properly set up with clear and recorded ambit for the hearing , and for the formalities to be observed.

 

50. I would just add one short postscript.  Family practitioners and judges have become adept at dealing with situations that are continually developing, which are not straightforward, and which require speedy decisions for which there is often insufficient court time.  Conscious that children await their decisions they respond valiantly by getting on with the job without insisting on too many formalities.  However, it is important that everyone understands the issues that are to be determined at each hearing and addresses the form that the hearing will take, ensuring that the process is robust enough, not too robust. The mother in this case had not filed a formal application for residence and contact and it would have assisted in an understanding of the matters that had to be determined had she done so.  Indeed, it may be helpful generally if rather greater attention is paid to the formalities in family proceedings. 

51. Secondly, a word about review hearings.  Hearings at which there is to be a “review” of a case are not at all uncommon, but they do carry a risk that there is a misunderstanding as to what will be addressed by the court.  It is important that in advance of such a hearing, there is as much clarity as possible about its form and ambit, the issues that will be addressed, whether evidence is contemplated and whether the orders that result will be case management orders or orders of substance and, if the latter, whether interim or final

 

 

And

 

Lord Justice Aikens

 

53. I would just wish to add two comments, however.  First, I can well understand why in the circumstances the judge took the robust and pragmatic course that he did.  In particular I would note that the judge’s course should be seen against the fact that the mother, represented by counsel, did not apply for the mother to be heard or for the father to be cross-examined; she did not submit that there should be an interim residence order and did not seek an adjournment.

54. My second comment is this. I entirely agree with what my Lady has said about the need for requisite formalities in family cases.  If those formalities had been observed in this case, it is possible, to put it no higher, that the current position could have been avoided

 

 

I think it would be unlikely that someone appealing in the future on the grounds that a Judge had not heard from their client would be likely to succeed if they hadn’t made representations before the Court that their client should give evidence, for example.

 

No matter how confident one might be that your application for an adjournment will be granted, it is absolutely necessary to make sure that you deal with the counter applications that are being made, to ensure that the Court know that you resist those and the reasons why.  Likewise, if a finding of fact hearing is sought, a schedule of allegations ought to be drawn up and lodged and a formal request made for such a determination.

 

 

The comments about review hearings are, I think, very sensible. The term is so widely drawn that it covers everything from a quick look to see that everything is on track, to interlocutory arguments about experts and evidence, to “well, it might be possible to conclude the case”  and it is better to record clearly on the face of the order what the issues to be reviewed are, and what is envisaged might be achieved at such a hearing.

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About suesspiciousminds

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

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