A Christmas dash through Re B (A child) 2012 (and when WILL the Court of Appeal revert to giving cases helpful names inside the brackets?)
This is a private law case with the usual cavalcade of allegations and cross-allegations. In major part, the most serious allegations related to whether the mother had continued a relationship with a man, Mr C, who was suspected of having been very violent towards his own children.
The father hired a private investigator to observe the mother, to see whether Mr C continued to be a visitor to (or indeed a guest at) the children’s family home.
- The hearing started on Monday 1 October. It is now clear that there had been a flurry of activity immediately preceding it.
- On the weekend of 14 – 16 September, when S was staying with her father, she had said various things to him which suggested that far from the mother and Mr C having separated, Mr C was still part of day to day life. S said that:
i) Mr C had cooked her tea the night before she came to stay with her father; she came to stay on Friday 14 September so that would have been on Thursday 13 September.
ii) She had been swimming with her mother, E and A, and Mr C; A was born on 23 August 2012 so if she was right, that must have been a recent occurrence.
iii) She sometimes had to sleep with E because Mr C was sleeping in her mother’s bed with A; again, given the presence of A in the account, that must have been a recent occurrence.
- The father instructed a private investigator to observe the mother’s house. Mr Preece was that private investigator. He observed the premises over the back fence from 18 September to 24 September. A report by him was produced, stating that he had observed Mr C coming out of the back door of the mother’s house on Tuesday 18 September at 08.06 and on Thursday 20 September at 08.05. On Monday 24 September at 15.00, he saw Mr C leave the property and get into a car and drive away. Mr Preece’s report was appended to a statement from the father dated 27 September which was served on the mother just after midday on 28 September, that is the Friday before the hearing was due to start on the Monday.
- Also on 28 September, James Green, S’s allocated social worker, visited S at school and talked to her. There is an email from him in which he set out what happened [E11]. It reads:
“S said she has been ill and off school. She said she has been up in the night when sick. I asked her who was in the house. She said Mummy and that A and E were in mummy’s bed. I asked what about [Mr C]. She told me [Mr C] was also there. Also that he was helping her when she was ill last night.
I asked S about swimming. I asked her who goes swimming with her. She told me A, E and [Mr C]. She said [Mr C] has to stay out the pool and watch to look after A [sic].”
- The mother was then visited by Mr Green who discussed with her the evidence pointing towards Mr C having been in contact with S. Mr C was there too. Apart from admitting that Mr C was at the house at 15.00 on 24 September, both he and the mother denied the information that emerged from the investigator and from S.
- These last minute developments obviously placed all the parties in a difficult position. The judge had to decide what to do in response to them. It was clear that the matter was of great significance because the guardian made plain that if it was established that there had been unofficial association between the mother and Mr C, she would be recommending an immediate transfer of residence from the mother to the father.
The mother disputed that Mr C had been at the home, other than on the admitted occasion and wished to call a number of witnesses to that effect. In particular,
In relation to 18 September, she also wanted to produce documentary evidence in support. Her case was that on that day, Mr C was in Glen Parva near Leicester meeting his son who was being released from the Young Offender Institution there that morning. She was able to produce a form showing that Mr C’s son was being released that day. She also produced a copy of a bank statement of Mr C’s which showed that his Advantage Gold card had been used for a purchase in McDonalds in Leicester that day. However the bank statement did not record a precise time for the transaction. A telephone call to McDonalds had indicated that the transaction was at 9.19 a.m. but documentary proof of that could not be obtained at such short notice. It was common ground that if Mr C had been in Leicester then, the private investigator could not have been seen him at the mother’s property.
And the credit card transactions could, therefore, have become alibi evidence for Mr C, putting him in another town at the time that the private investigator claimed to have seen him at the mother’s home.
[Interestingly, neither the trial judge nor the Court of Appeal seem to me to have criticised the father for taking this step of placing mother under surveillance, which would seem to me to have been a breach of mother’s article 8 right to private and family life]
The nub of the case therefore became, as the Court of Appeal succinctly put it, how the Judge was to manage to fit what would have been four days of litigation into the two days available.
- It is always difficult for a judge faced, as this judge was, with an urgent decision to take and insufficient time in which to take it. It is a dilemma which family judges regularly have to confront. How they resolve it will depend upon the precise circumstances of the individual case. As this court has often observed, a judge making case management decisions has a very wide discretion and anyone seeking to appeal against such a decision has an uphill task.
- However, in this case, I am very clearly of the view that the judge’s case management decisions not only deprived the mother of the opportunity to answer the case against her but also deprived the court of evidence that was necessary to enable it to make reliable findings of fact. It is therefore necessary, in my judgment, for the judge’s finding of fact and his consequential orders to be overturned and for the matter to be reheard in front of a different judge
The Court of Appeal considered that whilst it is open to a Judge to robustly case manage, and determine what evidence is to be called and heard, and to place time restrictions on cross-examination, the way it was done in this case effectively prevented the mother from placing her defence before the Court.
They were particularly troubled in the Judge’s decision not to bring Mr C into the proceedings or to obtain his credit card transactions.
- It appears that the judge considered that he could determine the truth or otherwise of the allegations about Mr C’s presence in the mother’s house through the prism of the evidence of Mr Preece and the mother. He said (§16):
“it seems to me that I have got to grasp the nettle of whether I accept Mr Preece’s evidence or whether I accept mother’s evidence.”
- Judges do sometimes have to decide, almost in a vacuum, whether or not to believe a witness. However, this was not such a case.
- This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the position in relation to Mr C’s credit card. The combination of the bank statement and the preliminary enquiries that had been made of McDonalds suggested that there was a realistic possibility that documentary evidence would be forthcoming that Mr C’s credit card was used in Leicester McDonalds in circumstances which, if Mr C was the user of the card, would make it impossible for him to have been seen by Mr Preece on 18 September. The judge was of course correct in saying that the fact that Mr C’s credit card was in Leicester did not necessarily mean that Mr C was. However, if more detailed bank records did in fact support the presence of the credit card there at the material time, it would have been an important piece of evidence for the judge to include in his evaluation of the totality of the evidence and not one, I think, that could be dismissed as robustly as the judge dismissed it. There would have needed to be consideration of how the credit card got there, if not with Mr C. Mr C’s own evidence would have been particularly important in that regard. And assuming that Mr C did not concede that he had not used the card in Leicester himself, counsel would no doubt also have wished to challenge Mr Preece with the evidence of its use and the impossibility of Mr C being in two places at once, endeavouring thereby to shake Mr Preece’s evidence that he saw him at the mother’s house.
- I am troubled by the judge’s comment that he would have been “unwilling to admit Mr C to these proceedings”. It is understandable that the judge wished to keep the focus on S and those immediately responsible for her care. He may well also have had in mind that, as we were told by counsel for the father, Mr C had earlier been involved in the proceedings but ceased to be so when he failed to provide his solicitor with any instructions. However, when it comes to making findings of fact, the court’s focus should be firmly on an analysis of what evidence is necessary to enable proper findings to be made. Of course, the urgency of the court’s decision can sometimes make it imperative that there be limitations on the evidence that is called, however relevant it would be. Similarly, the judge may find himself unable to permit a witness’s evidence to be adduced because it has been produced too late in the day or without regard to earlier case management directions or he may determine that it is disproportionate to the issues to permit reliance on it. However, matters such as those are different from a decision to decline to hear evidence from a material witness because, for some reason not related to their evidence, the witness is not thought to be an appropriate person to participate in the proceedings; such a decision is much more difficult to justify. Here Mr C was a material witness, indeed a central witness, not only on the issue of the bank card but also generally in addressing the allegations that he was present at the mother’s home when he should not have been. Subject to the need to decline to hear Mr C for reasons of urgency (to which I return below), I do not see how the judge’s decision to refuse to consider evidence from him and about the use of his credit card can be supported.
The Court of Appeal made a suggestion for how the Court could have proceeded in the time available without curtailing mother’s opportunity to present her case against the allegations.
- The judge was rightly anxious to protect S and conscious of the need to do so without delay. The father submits that the risk to S had increased if the mother was lying about Mr C’s presence in the household and that once evidence came to light to suggest this, the judge had to act. However, it seems to me that the judge needed to consider whether, rather than holding an immediate truncated hearing, there was any other way in which he could safeguard S’s welfare. I got the impression that in fact no one had suggested any alternative to him but a possibility which occurs to me is that he could have ordered that S stayed with her father, possibly under an extended contact order or alternatively a short interim residence order, for whatever limited time was sufficient to enable a fuller hearing to be arranged (see for example Re K (Procedure: Family Proceedings Rules)  EWCA Civ 1827  1 FLR 764 as to the circumstances in which interim transfers of residence may be made), either adjourning the case entirely to another day or, if feasible, making a start on the evidence with a view to resuming it at a later date.
- Given the option of an extended stay with the father by way of protection for S, I do not therefore see the judge’s choice as a stark one between running such risk as there was to her safety in the care of the mother or determining the factual issues on the material that could be produced and fitted into the two days of court time that were available. It may well be that the anxiety provoked by the impression that those were the only options led the judge to give too much weight to the urgency of the situation and the need to get on with the hearing. The decisions that he took in relation to the material evidence that the mother wished to adduce were no doubt the product of that anxiety but I am persuaded that they were not decisions that were properly open to him in this particular case, even making allowance for the breadth of his case management discretion.
The Court of Appeal conclude by stating that the case turns on its own facts, but emphasising that there is a balance in using the powers under Rule 22, and that a fair trial is still essential when using those powers.
I should say in conclusion that this appeal turns very much upon its own facts. Rule 22 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 entitles the court to control the evidence in a case by giving directions. This is a wide power and can be used to exclude evidence which would otherwise be admissible. Robust case management therefore very much has its place in family proceedings but it also has its limits.