A discussion of the Court of Appeal decision in Re L (A Child) 2013
I will begin this discussion by being frank. I do not like this decision. I do not like it on a train, I do not like it on a plane. I do not LIKE green eggs and ham.
I feel deeply uncomfortable with it, and hope sincerely that it is not used as precedent for any future decisions. I hope that it rests with the peculiarly unusual facts of this case only.
In very brief terms, the central issue was this. The Court had profound concerns over a number of months about a child and had a wealth of information about difficulties in the parenting provided to the child. The Court, faced with a shift in the Local Authority stance that the time had come to remove the child, used the powers under section 37 of the Children Act 1989 to make an Interim Care Order, which allowed the Local Authority to remove the child.
So far, nothing terribly questionable. The facts of the case justified the making of an Interim Care Order, they probably justified removal, and the Court had the power to make an ICO under section 37 of the Children Act 1989 although no application had been made.
My issue with the case is that what actually happened was the Local Authority deciding that if they placed the mother on notice that they intended to make an application for a Care Order / Interim Care Order, that the child would not be safe. They obtained a hearing before the Judge, to which the other parties were not invited and did not attend and had no knowledge of.
The Court looked at the section 7 report prepared by the Local Authority, which made plain their escalation of concerns, their intention to issue care proceedings and their fear of what mother might do if given notice of that intention, heard from those representing the LA and made a section 37 direction and an Interim Care Order, with a view to a hearing being listed at which the parents could challenge that ICO.
- On 22nd January 2013 I granted Mr and Mrs S permission to appeal. At that time the understanding that they had, together with their counsel, was that at the without notice hearing the judge had, then and there, made the full 8 week interim care order. In the absence of a transcript of all save for the judge’s final “on notice” judgment, the understanding was that the “on notice” hearing that followed was relatively short, concluding in a judgment in which the judge sought to justify the steps that had already been taken at the “without notice” hearing.
- For the purposes of the present hearing we now have a full transcript of the without notice hearing and the on notice hearing together with a short memorandum from counsel, Miss Anna McKenna for the local authority, who appeared before Parker J on 14th December and again before us at this hearing. The greater clarity that those materials provide indicate that some time between 1 p.m. and 1.15 p.m. the s 7 report was handed in for the judge to read in her chambers. At about 1.50 p.m. the local authority team went into court for the “without notice” hearing. Miss McKenna’s recollection, which is confirmed by the transcript of the hearing which runs to just over two sides, is that this hearing lasted a matter of no more than 5 minutes. The judge stated that she had read the s 7 report and was contemplating making an interim care order but questioned the power to do it at a without notice hearing. The potential to utilise s 37 is raised by the judge and the scheme that was apparently adopted is encapsulated in one short exchange:
“Miss McKenna: You can make a s 37 placing the child into our care, take the matter immediately and hear inter partes arguments.
Mrs Justice Parker: Including an application for discharge. Could I discharge the care order on that basis?”
- There is then a short discussion about security arrangements and the decision that the local authority have taken. The judge then twice states that she is keen to get “everyone in”. At the conclusion Miss McKenna says “may I take it that a s 37 direction has been made?” to which the judge replies “yes, a s 37 direction and a care order, and for the purposes of the transcript I am satisfied that there is a real risk of significant harm to this child if I do not make an interim care order prior to Mrs S understanding that this local authority is wishing to take care proceedings. There is no doubt about that.”
And the Court of Appeal felt that this was permissible and justified
In circumstances where, as I have held, the judge was justified in holding that this child’s safety required immediate protection by means of compulsory removal from her home, a submission that the procedural path chosen by the judge was technically not available to her is only likely to succeed if there is no escaping the procedural points that are made. This is not such a case. The course adopted by the judge is not excluded by any provision in the CA 1989, the FPR 2010 or elsewhere.
Mr Tolson accepts that, in an emergency, the court is not required to follow the pre-proceedings protocol in PD12A. He accepts that if an application had been made either for an emergency protection order or an interim care order it would either be commenced in, or transferred immediately up to Parker J in, the High Court where these long running proceedings were pending (Allocation and Transfer of Proceedings Order 2008, Art 5(3)). Given that M was a ward of the High Court, the local authority would in any event require Parker J’s permission before making an application for an emergency protection order or an interim care order and, before such an order was granted, Parker J would have to order the discharge of the wardship.
Whilst in another case, of course, the alternative steps that I have described could be taken, the fact that an alternative route exists does not mean that the s 37 route chosen by the judge was impermissible. To my mind, the legal requirement for the case to come before Parker J before any application for a public law order could be made, demonstrates the arid nature of the appellants’ technical challenge. Mr Tolson does not submit that Parker J could not have made an interim care order on 14th December or that, if the situation was properly regarded as an emergency, she could not have done so despite non-compliance with PD12A; his submission is simply that a different route should have been followed. It would, in my view, have been permissible for Parker J simply to have made the interim care order upon the local authority undertaking to issue their application that afternoon or the following morning. Finally, if the October s 7 direction had been made under s 37 (as a number of previous directions had been) no jurisdictional issue would exist.
In the unusual circumstances of this case, I am entirely satisfied that Parker J, who had concluded that M’s safety required an immediate order, was justified in using s 37 to achieve that outcome.
This is my problem, in a nutshell. Where a Local Authority wish to initiate care proceedings and they think that the risks of doing so on notice are too great, there is a mechanism for making an application ex parte and having it heard before a Judge.
The mechanism is to make an ex parte Emergency Protection Order application.
And because the nature of such an order is draconian, and because the risks of making an order without the parents being there and represented are so serious and risk a breach of article 6, there are incredibly stringent requirements of the Local Authority, who have to demonstrate extraordinarily compelling evidence to do so, pace RE X (A CHILD) sub nom RE X (EMERGENCY PROTECTION ORDERS) (2006)  EWHC 510 (Fam)
It sits extremely badly with me that in private law proceedings (albeit ones that are about to become public law proceedings) a Local Authority can go in and see the Judge ex parte [not least because they have no locus standi to make any sort of such application] and that a decision can be made which is in practice an ex parte Emergency Protection Order using section 37 of the Children Act, without any of the protective mechanisms of Re X.
I also think, for me, there is a wealth of difference between a Judge weighing up the facts of a case and reaching for section 37, and a Local Authority effectively asking the Judge to exercise the section 37 power to make an ICO without there being an application on the table.
I’ll make it plain, on the facts of this case, which the Court was extremely familiar with, there was a considerable argument that the removal was the right thing to do. There was some very peculiar stuff happening with this poor child, and the watershed moment had been reached.
And I suppose one takes into account that unlike a traditional EPO application where the Court knows nothing of the case but what the applicant tells them, the Court here had a wealth of knowledge. I have pretty little doubt that HAD the application been framed as an ex-parte Emergency Protection Order application [there’s sadly quite a bit of song and dance to how you get that heard by the High Court Judge who knows the case, rather than in the Family Proceedings Court] it would have been given and a judgment delivered that would have been safe from appeal. BUT it would have had to have had the Re X safeguards.
Or if the Court of Appeal had said, it is acceptable to use section 37 in this way, but the applicant should have the same duties as set out in Re X and the Court should approach the section 37 request in the same way, where the application is made ex parte.
I really don’t like this decision, and for me, this is the second recent time that the Court of Appeal have looked at the ability of the Court to make an Interim Care Order (sanctioning removal of a child from parents without the parents having had sight in advance of the Local Authority case and a threshold document) using section 37 as the hook, and have taken a very permissive “the law doesn’t prevent this, so go ahead” stance, rather than focussing on the issues of natural justice and saying that it is a tool to be used with extreme care.
I probably would not have allowed the appeal, since the decision to remove was probably the right one, but would have made it plain that a Court in future faced with any such ex-parte consideration of using section 37, should have firmly in mind the principles of Re X.
The Court of Appeal don’t, for me, seem to have contemplated that it was never envisaged that the Court would make a section 37 order and ICO without the parents being present or represented at a hearing, because it would TAKE PLACE IN PRIVATE LAW PROCEEDINGS to which they are parties. It was never envisaged that a Local Authority would be having an ex parte hearing in proceedings where they had no locus (having been asked to compile a section 7 report).