A quick discussion on the Court of Appeal decision in Re J-L (Children) 2012
The Court of Appeal sat in a very short hearing to determine a case where a Judge, when dealing with a fact-finding hearing in care proceedings, made a particular set of findings that deviated from the schedule of proposed findings drawn up by the Local Authority and found that the children had witnessed inappropriate sexual behaviour whilst in the care of their mother.
I blogged about this one prior to the full transcript being up, here:-
based on the family law week summary that suggested that the Court of Appeal had ruled that it was not open to a Judge to make findings that were not on the menu / schedule of findings placed before him.
Reading the full transcript, I don’t think the Court of Appeal go that far at all. There is not, in my view, such a principle established by this case.
In fact, although it is a short one page judgment, I can’t find a single sentence that hints at the Court of Appeal determining whether or not a Judge can go “off-menu” – it simply didn’t fall to be determined as a result of matters I set out below.
[What they do say is that on the EVIDENCE before the Court, the particular finding made wasn’t one open to the Judge to find.
It does seem plain to me that the judge understandably was very concerned about these three very young children living in the mother’s care for those two or three months in early 2008 and was concerned about the general adult behaviour that they will have been exposed to. But it is plain from the material available to the judge that it was not open to him to go further and explicitly find, albeit on the balance of probabilities, that the children had actually been exposed to and witnessed sexual acts between the young people and adults attending the property
[It being fairly pertinent that there was no material or allegation or disclosure before the Court that the children had witnessed this sort of thing. There is nothing unusual about the Court of Appeal saying that a Judge couldn’t make findings on the evidence before them, nothing new to see there. But wait around, because the next bit is good]
By the time of the hearing, each of the parties had reached a decision that the finding the Judge made in relation to those matters was a step too far, and that it would be appropriate for that particular finding to be struck out. Indeed, the Local Authority had been in liaison with the other parties to try to formulate some wording which would be acceptable to all.
The Court of Appeal were rightly pretty irascible about the need for an Appeal hearing at all, given that all parties were of the view that the findings needed to be adjusted and the offending paragraphs struck out
6. The outcome of that is that there is effectively no opposition to the appeal and I, having read the judgment and the documents that have been filed, readily accede to that position. It does seem plain to me that the judge understandably was very concerned about these three very young children living in the mother’s care for those two or three months in early 2008 and was concerned about the general adult behaviour that they will have been exposed to. But it is plain from the material available to the judge that it was not open to him to go further and explicitly find, albeit on the balance of probabilities, that the children had actually been exposed to and witnessed sexual acts between the young people and adults attending the property.
7. Why is it, I would ask rhetorically, that the court has had to sit this morning and counsel and those who attend them for the mother and the local authority have come from the north of England to London for a hearing which has taken a very short time and which is effectively not contested? We were told that attempts were made to find an alternative form of words that all parties would accept in place of the words that this order from this court will now strike out. That has not been possible and we were told by Mrs Clark for the local authority that the principal hurdle preventing that being accomplished was that the father’s legal team had failed to engage in the process in a way that either indicated total opposition or came up with a formula that they would have agreed to. I understand what is said. It is regrettable that nobody communicated with this court at an earlier stage to identify the fact that the appeal was not contested. This court could have directed compliance if necessary from the other parties in a process of drawing up an agreed order.
8. That said, it seems to me that if any words are now to be put back into the gap that has opened up through the excision of the quoted words we are going to delete today, that is a matter for the parties and the lower court and not for the Court of Appeal, in the absence of any agreement.
I think it would be a risk, in any future appeal where some of the parties are seeking to avoid the need for an appeal by reaching a consensus to be the one lone wolf not engaging in that process. (Of course, it is different if the party has a different view to the attempted consensus and there is a chasm which can’t be bridged, even following attempts, but here, it seems as though father’s team just sat out those discussions)
The Court of Appeal don’t really address what would actually happen in this situation on the ground. There’s almost an implication that an appeal hearing isn’t needed if all of the parties could agree a form of wording on the finding in dispute.
Now, imagine that the Judge makes a string of findings, lets say 8 in all, and the parties then write to her after the Judgment and say “None of us agree with you on finding 7, and we think you should say X”
There’s a bit of a difference in the parties doing that of their own accord, and the Court of Appeal having approved that. In the latter case, the Judge has been told that finding 7 won’t wash, and needs to be sorted out.
In the former, I can think of many Judges who would say “Well, thank you for your kind interest in my judgment, and contribution to it after the event”, and then in tones similar to Miranda Richardson in Blackadder, add “Who’s Judge?”
[If the Court of Appeal instead mean that the parties in this sort of situation in the future could have lodged their revised wording to finding 7 and the Court of Appeal could have just agreed it without a hearing, that also seems iffy to me. A Judge wasn’t necessarily wrong, let alone plainly wrong, just because all four advocates think they were, and a determination as to whether they were ought to be for the Appeal Court, not just to rubber stamp an agreeement between the parties as to what the judgment OUGHT to have said. But I am, perhaps, old-fashioned in that regard. ]