The Supreme Court decide that a Judge CAN change their mind after delivering a Judgment.
I blogged about the case in the Court of Appeal here :-
In brief, a Judge heard a finding of fact hearing about an injury to a child, gave a judgment that the father was the sole perpetrator. After judgment, father’s representative sent in some aspects for clarification (i.e things that they considered had not been properly considered in the judgment) and some months later, at another hearing, the Judge announced that she had changed her view of the case and that it was not possible to exclude mother from having caused the injuries, and stopped short therefore of a positive finding that father had caused the injuries.
The mother, who had of course, been off the hook, in the initial judgment, appealed.
The Court of Appeal decided, two to one, that the Judge could not change her mind about the judgment she had given (save for if some fresh evidence had come to light) and that she was bound by her first judgment.
The father, understandably, having been all the way in, then half-way out, then all the way in again, appealed that.
The Supreme Court determined the issue in Re L and B (Children) 2013
One of the things that troubled me about the Court of Appeal decision was the unspoken but inexorable consequence that although an advocate unhappy with a judgment is told to raise points that needed clarification or exploration with the judge prior to any appeal, if doing so cannot lead to a Judge changing their mind, it seems a rather fruitless exercise. I think for that reason, the Supreme Court were right in giving the Judge power to change the findings made if the representations swayed her.
The Supreme Court concluded here that what had happened in reality, was the Judge reconsidering the conclusions reached in the light of the representations made by father’s counsel, and had changed her mind accordingly.
- Thus one can see the Court of Appeal struggling to reconcile the apparent statement of principle in Barrell  1 WLR 19, coupled with the very proper desire to discourage the parties from applying for the judge to reconsider, with the desire to do justice in the particular circumstances of the case. This court is not bound by Barrell or by any of the previous cases to hold that there is any such limitation upon the acknowledged jurisdiction of the judge to revisit his own decision at any time up until his resulting order is perfected. I would agree with Clarke LJ in Stewart v Engel  1 WLR 2268, 2282 that his overriding objective must be to deal with the case justly. A relevant factor must be whether any party has acted upon the decision to his detriment, especially in a case where it is expected that they may do so before the order is formally drawn up. On the other hand, in In re Blenheim Leisure (Restaurants) Ltd, Neuberger J gave some examples of cases where it might be just to revisit the earlier decision. But these are only examples. A carefully considered change of mind can be sufficient. Every case is going to depend upon its particular circumstances.
Exercising the discretion in this case
- If that be the correct approach, was this judge entitled to exercise her discretion as she did? Thorpe LJ concluded (at para 56) that she was bound to adhere to the conclusion in her December judgment, having recited (at para 55) the clarity of the conclusion reached, the general assumption that the order had been perfected, the general implementation of her conclusion, her adherence to it at the hearing on 23 January, and the absence of any change in the circumstances and the “general slackness” that left the order unsealed. He was also somewhat puzzled as to why the result of her change of mind was “seemingly to elevate the father from low to first consideration as the primary carer, albeit the rationality of that elevation is not clear to me, given that he remained a suspected perpetrator” (para 56). Sir Stephen Sedley held that something more than a change in the judge’s mind was required, because “it will only be exceptionally that the interests of finality are required to give way to the larger interests of justice” (paras 79, 80). Rimer LJ, on the other hand, held that the judge was “honouring her judicial oath by correcting what she had come to realise was a fundamental error on her part. . . . the judge would be presented with real difficulty in her future conduct of this case were she required to proceed with it on the basis of a factual substratum that she now believes to be wrong. The court should not be required to make welfare decisions concerning a child on such a false factual basis”. It could not be in the interests of the child to require a judge to shut his eyes to the reality of the case and embrace a fiction.
- The Court of Appeal were, of course, applying an exceptionality test which in my view is not the correct approach. They were, of course, right to consider the extent to which the December decision had been relied upon by the parties, but in my view Rimer LJ was also correct to doubt whether anyone had irretrievably changed their position as a result. The care plan may have been developed (we do not have the details of this) but the child’s placement had yet to be decided and she had remained where she was for the time being. The majority were, of course, also right to stress the importance of finality, but the final decision had yet to be taken. I agree with Rimer LJ that no judge should be required to decide the future placement of a child upon what he or she believes to be a false basis. Section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989 provides that where a court determines any question with respect to the upbringing of a child the welfare of the child shall be its paramount consideration. While that provision does not apply to procedural decisions made along the way, it has to govern the final decision in the case.
- Mr Charles Geekie QC, on behalf of the mother, argues that even if the judge was entitled to change her mind, she was not entitled to proceed in the way that she did, without giving the parties notice of her intention and a further opportunity of addressing submissions to her. As the court pointed out in Re Harrison‘s Share Under a Settlement  Ch 260, 284, the discretion must be exercised “judicially and not capriciously”. This may entail offering the parties the opportunity of addressing the judge on whether she should or should not change her decision. The longer the interval between the two decisions the more likely it is that it would not be fair to do otherwise. In this particular case, however, there had been the usual mass of documentary material, the long drawn-out process of hearing the oral evidence, and very full written submissions after the evidence was completed. It is difficult to see what any further submissions could have done, other than to re-iterate what had already been said.
- For those reasons, therefore, we ordered that the father’s appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal be allowed. No party had sought to appeal against the judge’s decision of 15 February 2012, so the welfare hearing should proceed on the basis of the findings in the judgment of that date. We were pleased subsequently to learn that agreement has now been reached that Susan should be placed with her half-brother and maternal grandparents under a care order and, after a settling-in period, have visiting and staying contact with her father and her paternal family. The local authority plan to work with both families with a view to both mother and father having unsupervised contact in the future and it is hoped that the care order will be discharged after a period of one to two years.
The Supreme Court then took a look at the issue of whether a Judge could change her mind post the order being sealed. (In this case, the sealing of the order had taken place long after the judgment had been given, or maybe it did, and there is authority to suggest that a judgment cannot be changed after the order is sealed or maybe there isn’t)
- On the particular facts of this case, that is all that need be said. But what would have been the position if, as everyone thought was the case, the order made by the judge on 15 December 2011 had been formally drawn up and sealed? Whatever may be the case in other jurisdictions, can this really make all the difference in a care case?
- The Court of Appeal, despite having themselves raised the point, do not appear to have thought that it did. Sir Stephen Sedley said that it seemed to be of little or no consequence that the order recording the first judgment had not been sealed or that a final order in the case remained to be made (para 74). Both Thorpe and Rimer LJJ held that the relevant order in care proceedings is the final care order made at the end of the hearing. They expressly agreed with Munby LJ in In re A (Children: Judgment: Adequacy of Reasoning)  EWCA Civ 1205,  1 WLR 595, para 21. This was a case in which the mother challenged the adequacy of the judge’s reasons for finding her complicit in the sexual abuse of her daughter in a fact-finding hearing in care proceedings. Having quoted my observation in In re B (Children: Care Proceedings: Standard of Proof) (CAFCASS intervening)  AC 11, para 76, that a split hearing is merely part of the whole process of trying the case and once completed the case is part-heard, Munby LJ continued, at para 21:
“Consistently with this, the findings at a fact-finding hearing are not set in stone so as to be incapable of being revisited in the light of subsequent developments as, for example, if further material emerges during the final hearing: see In re M and MC (Care: Issues of Fact: Drawing of Orders)  1 FLR 461, paras 14, 24.”
- This court has since agreed with that proposition. In Re S-B (Children)(Care Proceedings: Standard of Proof)  UKSC 17,  1 AC 678, all seven justices agreed that:
“It is now well-settled that a judge in care proceedings is entitled to revisit an earlier identification of the perpetrator if fresh evidence warrants this (and this court saw an example of this in the recent case In re I (A Child) (Contact Application: Jurisdiction) (Centre for Family Law and Practice intervening)  1 AC 319).” (para 46)
- There are many good reasons for this, both in principle and in practice. There are two legal issues in care proceedings. First, has the threshold set by section 31(2) of the 1989 Act been crossed? Secondly, what does the paramount consideration of the child’s welfare require to be done about it? Much of the evidence will be relevant to both parts of the inquiry. It may be very helpful to separate out some factual issues for early determination, but these do not always neatly coincide with the legal issues. In this case, for example, there was no dispute that the threshold had been crossed. Nevertheless, it was convenient to attempt to identify who was responsible for the child’s injuries before moving on to decide where her best interests lay. In such a composite enquiry, the judge must be able to keep an open mind until the final decision is made, at least if fresh evidence or further developments indicate that an earlier decision was wrong. It would be detrimental to the interests of all concerned, but particularly to the children, if the only way to correct such an error were by an appeal.
- This is reinforced by the procedural position. As Munby LJ pointed out in In re A  1 WLR 595, para 20, in the context of a fact-finding hearing there may not be an immediate order at all. It was held in In re B (A Minor) (Split Hearings: Jurisdiction)  1 WLR 790 that the absence of an order is no bar to an appeal. Nevertheless, it would be very surprising these days if there were no order. In Re M and MC (Care: Issues of Fact: Drawing of Orders)  EWCA Civ 499,  1 FLR 461, the Court of Appeal ruled that the central findings of fact made at a fact finding hearing should be the subject of recitals to an order issued there and then. But this is merely a recital in what is, on any view, an interlocutory order.
- Both the Civil Procedure Rules and the Family Procedure Rules make it clear that the court’s wide case management powers include the power to vary or revoke their previous case management orders: see CPR r 3.1(7) and rule 4.1(6) of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 (SI 2010/2955). This may be done either on application or of the court’s own motion: CPR r 3.3(1), rule 4.3(1). It was the absence of any power in the judge to vary his own (or anyone else’s) orders which led to the decisions in In re St Nazaire 12 Ch D 88 and In re Suffield and Watts, Ex p Brown 20 QBD 693. Where there is a power to vary or revoke, there is no magic in the sealing of the order being varied or revoked. The question becomes whether or not it is proper to vary the order.
- Clearly, that power does not enable a free-for-all in which previous orders may be revisited at will. It must be exercised “judicially and not capriciously”. It must be exercised in accordance with the over-riding objective. In family proceedings, the overriding objective is “enabling the court to deal with cases justly, having regard to any welfare issues involved”: rule 1.1(1) of the Family Procedure Rules. It would, for the reasons indicated earlier, be inconsistent with that objective if the court could not revisit factual findings in the light of later developments. The facts of in In re M and MC  1 FLR 461 are a good example. At the fact finding hearing, the judge had found that Mr C, and not the mother, had inflicted the child’s injuries. But after that, the mother told a social worker, whether accurately or otherwise, that she had inflicted some of them. The Court of Appeal ruled that, at the next hearing, the judge should subject the mother’s apparent confession to rigorous scrutiny but that, if he concluded that it was true, he should alter his findings.
- The question is whether it makes any difference if the later development is simply a judicial change of mind. This is a difficult issue upon which the arguments are finely balanced, not least because the difference between a change of circumstances and a change of mind may not be clear-cut.
- On the one hand, given that the basis of the general rule was the lack of a power to vary the original order and there undoubtedly is power to vary these orders, why should it make any difference in principle if the reason for varying it is that, on mature reflection, the judge has reached a different conclusion from the one he reached earlier? As Rimer LJ said in the current case at para 71, it cannot be in the best interests of the child to require the judge to conduct the welfare proceedings on the basis of a false substratum of fact. That would have been just as true if the December order had been sealed as it was when it had not.
- In this respect, children cases may be different from other civil proceedings, because the consequences are so momentous for the child and for the whole family. Once made, a care order is indeed final unless and until it is discharged. When making the order, the welfare of the child is the court’s paramount consideration. The court has to get it right for the child. This is greatly helped if the judge is able to make findings as to who was responsible for any injuries which the child has suffered. It would be difficult for any judge to get his final decision right for the child, if, after careful reflection, he was no longer satisfied that his earlier findings of fact were correct.
- Mr Geekie, on behalf of the mother, also argued that the sealing of the order could not invariably be the cut-off point. If a judge is asked, in accordance with the guidance given in English v Emery Reimbold & Strick Ltd (Practice Note)  EWCA Civ 605  1 WLR 2409, as applied to family cases in In re A  1 WLR 595, to elaborate his reasoning and in doing so realises that his original decision was wrong, should he not, as part of that process, be entitled or even required to say so? The answer to this point may very well be that the judge should indeed have the courage to admit to the Court of Appeal that he has changed his mind, but that is not the same as changing his order. That is a matter for the Court of Appeal. One argument for allowing a judicial change of mind in care cases is to avoid the delay inevitably involved if an appeal is the only way to correct what the judge believes to be an error.
- On the other hand, the disconcerting truth is that, as judges, we can never actually know what happened: we were not there when whatever happened did happen. We can only do our best on the balance of probabilities, after which what we decide is taken to be the fact: In re B (Children) (Care Proceedings: Standard of Proof)  UKHL 35,  AC 11, para 2. If a judge in care proceedings is entitled simply to change his mind, it would destabilise the platform of established facts which it was the very purpose of the split hearing to construct; it would undermine the reports, other evidence and submissions prepared on the basis of the earlier findings; it would throw the hearing at the second stage into disarray; and it would probably result in delay.
They then realise that this is really really really difficult, and sidestep the question in a way that any rugby fan would admire.
The arguments outlined above are so finely balanced that we shall refrain from expressing even a provisional view upon it. In our view the preferable solution would be to avoid the situation arising in the first place.
That, for my mischievous mind, raises the interesting question of what happens if a Judge delivers a finding of fact judgment, and instantly in front of the parties, produces an order that she has prepared setting out the findings that were made and stamps it.
It seems that the judgment is then frozen, and can’t be altered, and that she would not be entitled to change her mind despite any representations, and is simply inviting the wounded parties to put up and appeal, or shut up. That’s probably grounds for appeal in itself.
Probably good practice is for a short window of opportunity (say the appeal window) to be given, before the order is then stamped, and the Judge considers only representations made within that window.
But, what if, as happened here, father makes representations, and the judgment changes? Does mother then get a second window to make her own representations, to try to change the judge’s mind a second time? Her window of appeal must, it seems to me, start from the time that the Judge settles an order arising from the judgment (you appeal orders, not findings).
And if mother succeeds, is that the end of it, or does father get another crack at it?
Could we end up with an interminable oscillation between judgment and representations to alter that judgment?