Withholding documents in Court proceedings from a party, and documents being shown to that party’s lawyer
RC v CC and Another 2014
This is a Court of Protection case, but has wider implications (in fact, it imports a lot of the principles established in care proceedings into Court of Protection cases)
It does sometimes (but only very rarely) happen within court proceedings that there is a document, or something within a document that might be problematic for one of the parties to see. In those circumstances, the Court have to decide whether the reason for keeping it from that party are sufficiently strong to interfere with the usual principle that a party gets to see all of the evidence against them.
It is absolutely right that the test for keeping evidence secret from one party is a very very very high one. It does very little good for the perception of fairness and equality in Courts if things are kept away from a party.
This is a very rare course of events – I’ve come across it twice in nearly twenty years of practice. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the parent is entitled to see all of the evidence, and to ask for whatever documents or disclosure that they or their lawyers think is fit. It is also worth noting that even in these rare cases where a piece of evidence is determined by a Judge that the parent should NOT see it, the process itself ought to be transparent (i.e that the parent knows that SOMETHING is being kept back, they just don’t know what it is).
In this case, which was an appeal heard by the President, a birth mother had been applying for contact with her daughter who had been adopted. There were circumstances that led to that being a Court of Protection case. There were three pieces of social work evidence which the Local Authority had argued ought not to be seen by the mother (though they were seen by the Judge) and the Judge ordered that they were not to be disclosed.
The President accepted the appeal, for reasons set out below, and sent the case back to the original judge for reconsideration. The President was able to confirm that the principles which govern non-disclosure of documents to a party in care proceedings applied equally to Court of Protection cases.
The original Court had properly identified the tests to be followed (and they are all helpfully set out within the judgment)
- How is the jurisdiction to be exercised? I return to what Lord Mustill said in In re D (Minors) (Adoption Reports: Confidentiality)  AC 593, page 615:
“Non-disclosure should be the exception and not the rule. The court should be rigorous in its examination of the risk and gravity of the feared harm to the child, and should order nondisclosure only when the case for doing so is compelling.”
- In Re B (Disclosure to Other Parties)  2 FLR 1017, having examined a number of both domestic and Strasbourg authorities, I concluded my judgment as follows (para 89):
“Although, as I have acknowledged, the class of cases in which it may be appropriate to restrict a litigant’s access to documents is somewhat wider than has hitherto been recognised, it remains the fact, in my judgment, that such cases will remain very much the exception and not the rule. It remains the fact that all such cases require the most anxious, rigorous and vigilant scrutiny. It is for those who seek to restrain the disclosure of papers to a litigant to make good their claim and to demonstrate with precision exactly which documents or classes of documents require to be withheld. The burden on them is a heavy one. Only if the case for non-disclosure is convincingly and compellingly demonstrated will an order be made. No such order should be made unless the situation imperatively demands it. No such order should extend any further than is necessary. The test, at the end of the day, is one of strict necessity. In most cases the needs of a fair trial will demand that there be no restrictions on disclosure. Even if a case for restrictions is made out, the restrictions must go no further than is strictly necessary.”
- Dunn v Durham County Council is in fact clear authority (see paras 23, 24 and 26) that the test is, indeed, one of “strict necessity”, what is “strictly necessary”.
- In a case such as this the crucial factor is, as we have seen from the passage in the speech of Lord Mustill in In re D, page 615, which I have already quoted, the potential harm to the child. Lord Mustill summarised the proper approach as follows:
“the court should first consider whether disclosure of the material would involve a real possibility of significant harm to the child.
… If it would, the court should next consider whether the overall interests of the child would benefit from non-disclosure, weighing on the one hand the interest of the child in having the material properly tested, and on the other both the magnitude of the risk that harm will occur and the gravity of the harm if it does occur.
… If the court is satisfied that the interests of the child point towards non-disclosure, the next and final step is for the court to weigh that consideration, and its strength in the circumstances of the case, against the interest of the parent or other party in having an opportunity to see and respond to the material. In the latter regard the court should take into account the importance of the material to the issues in the case.”
- Before leaving this part of the case, there are two further points to be noted. The first is that, as I put it in Dunn v Durham County Council (para 50):
“disclosure is never a simply binary question: yes or no. There may be circumstances … where a proper evaluation and weighing of the various interests will lead to the conclusion that (i) there should be disclosure but (ii) the disclosure needs to be subject to safeguards. For example, safeguards limiting the use that may be made of the documents and, in particular, safeguards designed to ensure that the release into the public domain of intensely personal information about third parties is strictly limited and permitted only if it has first been anonymised.”
To the same effect, Maurice Kay LJ said (para 23) that:
“in some cases the balance may need to be struck by a limited or restricted order which respects a protected interest by such things as redaction, confidentiality rings, anonymity in the proceedings or other such order. Again, the limitation or restriction must satisfy the test of strict necessity.”
- A related point, often commented on in the authorities, is that the position initially arrived at is never set in stone and that it may be appropriate to proceed one step at a time. This is not the occasion to discuss this in any detail. I merely draw attention, as examples, to what was said by Hale LJ, as she then was, in Re X (Adoption: Confidential Procedure)  EWCA Civ 828,  2 FLR 476, para 28, and, most recently, by Baroness Hale JSC in In re A (A Child) (Family Proceedings: Disclosure of Information)  UKSC 60,  3 WLR 1484, para 36.
- Thus far, as will be appreciated, the authorities to which I have referred have mainly related to children. Do the same principles apply in cases in the Court of Protection relating to adults? To that question there can, in my judgment, be only one sensible answer: they do.
Part of the appeal was that although the original judge had drawn his attention to those authorities and the test, in the discussion passages of his judgment it appeared that he had reversed the test and begun talking of there being no strong reason why the mother needed to see the documents (as can be seen from the above guidance, the test is the opposite – it has to be demonstrated why it is necessary that she SHOULD NOT see them)
- First, Mr Fullwood submits that Judge Cardinal misdirected himself, failing in fact to apply the law as he had summarised it. He points to the passages I have set out in paragraph 34 above where Judge Cardinal says “I do not consider that RC needs to see the social work evidence” and, again, “I do not take the view at this stage that it is necessary for the … social worker’s evidence … to be disclosed”, submitting that this is to put the point the wrong way round. The question, he submits, and I agree, is not, is it necessary for RC to see the documents? The question is whether it is necessary (in CC’s interests) that RC does not see the documents. Now particular phrases in a judgment are not to be torn out of context. The judgment must be read as a whole, giving it a fair and sensible reading, not a pedantic or nit-picking reading. Are these particular passages on which Mr Fullwood fastens, passages which taken on their own are wrong, saved by the rest of the judgment and, in particular, by Judge Cardinal’s concluding summary quoted in paragraph 25 above? I cannot be confident.
- Second, Mr Fullwood submits that in any event Judge Cardinal has given inadequate and unsustainable reasons to justify his conclusion. There are a number of points here. There is no differentiation between the obvious necessity to prevent the disclosure of anything that might lead to CC being identified or traced by RC and the far less obvious necessity to restrict RC’s access to other personal information about CC. It is surprising, even allowing for what Judge Cardinal says are the difficulties in redacting the material, that it is necessary that nothing in the three witness statements should be disclosed. After all, a large amount of sensitive personal information about CC was disclosed to RC in the redacted psychologist’s report. What is it about all the information that makes it necessary not to disclose it? And how does this square with the fact that Judge Cardinal thought that RC’s counsel should be able to see it? It may be that, with fuller explanation, Judge Cardinal’s decision could be sustained, but as it stands it provides inadequate justification for such a drastic restriction of what RC can see.
- Mr Fullwood’s third complaint is that Judge Cardinal has in effect introduced a closed material procedure, which, he says, was inappropriate in this particular case and is in any event, as a matter of general principle, inappropriate in the Court of Protection. I am not sure that it is helpful to categorise what Judge Cardinal did here as a closed material procedure as that expression is more generally understood. I take him to have been doing no more than has been hallowed by long practice in these cases and now has the weighty imprimatur of Baroness Hale. Whether, on the other hand, it was appropriate in this case is another matter. I have already alluded to the deficiencies in Judge Cardinal’s reasoning. But there is another point. As Moses LJ made clear, this is a process dependent upon counsel’s agreement – an agreement which counsel for the reasons given by Moses LJ may feel unable to give and which in any event the instructions from his lay client may prevent him giving. Judge Cardinal does not seem to have explored these aspects of the matter. Nor, for that matter, does he consider other possible solutions: allowing RC to read, but not to borrow or copy, suitably redacted copies of the documents, or directing that there be disclosure to her of a document setting out the gist of what is being said by the social workers.
- In the circumstances I am persuaded that the appeal should be allowed to the extent of setting aside those parts of Judge Cardinal’s order which relate to the three social worker statements. Counsel were agreed that in this event the matter should be returned to Judge Cardinal to reconsider his decision and judgment in the light of this judgment
The other matter of interest was that the original Court had ordered that the documents in question could be seen by mother’s legal team (presumably to reassure themselves that there was not a “smoking gun” being kept back from them) but on the basis that the documents or their contents were not to be shared with the mother.
That puts the lawyers in a difficult spot, and the President makes it plain that such an arrangement
(a) can only happen with the agreement of the legal team and not be imposed upon them, and
(b) they can only agree if they have instructions to do so, and
(c) They can only agree if they are satisfied that they can do so without any damage to their client’s interests (which is, of course, bloody difficult when they don’t know what might be contained in those documents)
- It is apparent from Official Solicitor to the Supreme Court v K and Another  AC 201 that disclosure limited to a party’s legal representatives was already by then a recognised practice in wardship. It is mentioned by Sir Nicholas Wall P in A County Council v SB, MA and AA  EWHC 2528 (Fam) ,  1 FLR 651, para 37. There can be no doubt as to the legality of the practice: see, for example, R (Mohammed) v The Secretary of State for Defence  EWHC 3454 (Admin). But there are obviously potential difficulties, some identified in a characteristically thoughtful discussion in the June 2013 issue of the Thirty Nine Essex Street Court of Protection Newsletter of Judge Cardinal’s judgment in this case.
- Importantly, such disclosure cannot take place without the consent of the lawyers to whom the disclosure is to be made; and they may find themselves, for reasons they may be unable to communicate to the court, unable to give such consent. Moreover, they cannot consent unless satisfied that they can do so without damage to their client’s interests. As Moses LJ said in Mohammed (para 28):
“The free and unencumbered ability to give and receive instructions is an important facet of open and fair trials. That ability is hampered if in some respects the lawyer is unable to disclose all the relevant evidence and material and, in that respect, the client is deprived of the opportunity to give informed instructions. But the degree to which that is of importance will vary from case to case. No lawyers should consent to such a ring unless they are satisfied they can do so without harming their client’s case. But provided the legal advisers are satisfied they can safely continue to act under a restriction, the inability to communicate fully with the client will not in such circumstances undermine the fundamental principles on which a fair application for judicial review depends.”