Appeals, adoption, writing a cheque for costs and ‘informal discussions’
Re C (A Child) 2014
It is no longer any great surprise when the Court of Appeal overturn a Placement Order, but just when I was getting jaded with this new spirit, along comes something to raise an eyebrow. In this one, the Court of Appeal overturned the Placement Order AND made an order for costs, in the sum of £22,000 against the LA.
It also raises a couple of important issues of principle.
The first is the need for a Judge to take care on an appeal – in this case, the whole thing started with a DJ refusing a placement order and the Local Authority appealing it to Keehan J.
Keehan J found all five grounds of their appeal met, granted the appeal (fine) but then went on to make the Placement Order.
As the Court of Appeal pointed out, Keehan J therefore made a Placement Order whilst only seeing the documents in the appeal bundle (which were of course very limited) and had not seen all of the documents that would be necessary to properly consider whether or not a Placement Order was the right order.
It is quite obvious that Keehan J was concerned at the delay in planning for S’s future care needs, which delay is statutorily recognised as inimical to the welfare of the child (Children Act 1989, s 1(2)). Unfortunately, his understandable desire to move the matter forward appears to have blinded him to the significantly defective appeal bundle created and provided by the appellant which actually rendered him incapable of proceeding with the hearing on the notice of appeal filed, let alone providing the necessary evidence to support the making of a placement order. Put shortly, there were no transcripts of evidence and some of the documents before the district judge had been removed from the bundle….
There was an obvious lacuna in the materials presented to Keehan J in his appellate capacity to dispose of the appeal, still less to subrogate his own assessment of the facts in making a placement order. (See paragraph 8 above). I know that he would now only too readily acknowledge that his expressed reasoning in deciding that it was right to do so is insufficient and does not comply with the subsequently reported Re B-S (CHILDREN) 2013, EWCA Civ 1146.
The Court of Appeal raise an interesting point, which may well come back to bite them, about transcripts of evidence rather than just the judgment. I happen to agree with them, but it is still something of a hostage to fortune.
Keehan J’s judgment was that the district judge “misconstrue[d] the evidence of Dr Bourne”, “was wrong to conclude that [an option] was viable or available…because the social worker gave evidence to him…”; reached “a conclusion which…he was [not] entitled to reach on the totality of the evidence before him”; and, that in relation to the care plan “was plainly wrong to come to that judgment and assessment”. He concluded that “The care plan of the local authority was entirely clear”. In my judgment, these findings and conclusions simply cannot subsist in the absence of a critical appraisal of all the evidence that was before the district judge (rather than relying on such statements as he had and the summary within the district judge’s judgment. Oral evidence will necessarily colour the picture otherwise presented by the statements and reports prepared before hearing. As is obvious from the judgments of District Judge Simmonds, that is precisely what happened in this case.
- In challenging Counsel for the Respondent local authority as to the absence of any transcript of evidence before Keehan J when hearing the appeal, her response clearly reflected the position taken by the local authority in the first appeal. That is, that transcripts were unnecessary since the district judge had specifically summarised the oral evidence as was obviously relevant to the judgment.
- This submission reflects an inability to recognise the failures of the local authority in the first appeal process which I would otherwise have hoped may have occurred to its legal advisers after reflection upon the contents of the present appellant’s notice and recourse to notes of evidence. It also flies in the face of paragraph 9 of District Judge Simmonds’ first judgment, vis:
“The fact that I do not mention something in this judgment does not mean that I have not fully considered it, but it is impossible to set out in this judgment everything that I have heard and read. My analysis of the evidence and findings, although made after each witness, are on the basis of hearing and reading the entire evidence and analysing the evidence in its totality.”
- This observation is entirely consistent with the well established principle derived from the speech of Lord Hoffmann in Piglowska v Piglowski  1 WLR 1360 at p 1372:
“The appellate court must bear in mind the advantage which the first instance judge had in seeing the parties and the other witnesses. This is well understood on questions of credibility and findings of primary fact. But it goes further than that. It applies also to the judge’s evaluation of those facts. If I may quote what I said in Biogen Inc v Medeva plc  RPC 1 , 45:
The need for appellate caution in reversing the trial judge’s evaluation of the facts is based upon much more solid grounds than professional courtesy. It is because specific findings of fact, even by the most meticulous judge, are inherently an incomplete statement of the impression which was made upon him by the primary evidence. His expressed findings are always surrounded by a penumbra of imprecision as to emphasis, relative weight, minor qualification and nuance … of which time and language do not permit exact expression, but which may play an important part in the judge’s overall evaluation.”
- Over time, inevitably and regrettably, this conspicuously articulated wisdom is diminished by familiarity and may often, as in Keehan J’s judgment, become eroded by a concisely expressed but imprecise phrase. Lord Wilson’s judgment, endorsed in this respect by Lord Neuberger in RE B (A CHILD) (CARE PROCEEDINGS:THRESHOLD CRITERIA) above is a potent reminder of the need for all appellate courts to do more than pay lip service to the doctrine. At paragraph 42, after quoting Lord Hoffmann in Piglowska he said:
“Lord Hoffmann’s remarks apply all the more strongly to an appeal against a decision about the future of a child. In the Biogen case the issue was whether the subject of a claim to a patent was obvious and so did not amount to a patentable invention. Resolution of the issue required no regard to the future. The Piglowska case concerned financial remedies following divorce and the issue related to the weight which the district judge had given to the respective needs of the parties for accommodation. In his assessment of such needs there was no doubt an element of regard to the future. But it would have been as nothing in comparison with the need for a judge in a child case to look to the future. The function of the family judge in a child case transcends the need to decide issues of fact; and so his (or her) advantage over the appellate court transcends the conventional advantage of the fact-finder who has seen and heard the witnesses of fact. In a child case the judge develops a face-to-face, bench-to-witness-box, acquaintanceship with each of the candidates for the care of the child. Throughout their evidence his function is to ask himself not just “is this true?” or “is this sincere?” but “what does this evidence tell me about any future parenting of the child by this witness?” and, in a public law case, when always hoping to be able to answer his question negatively, to ask “are the local authority’s concerns about the future parenting of the child by this witness justified?” The function demands a high degree of wisdom on the part of the family judge; focussed training; and the allowance to him by the justice system of time to reflect and to choose the optimum expression of the reasons for his decision. But the corollary is the difficulty of mounting a successful appeal against a judge’s decision about the future arrangements for a child. In In re B (A Minor) (Adoption: Natural Parent)  UKHL 70,  1 WLR 258 , Lord Nicholls said:
“16 …There is no objectively certain answer on which of two or more possible courses is in the best interests of a child. In all save the most straightforward cases, there are competing factors, some pointing one way and some another. There is no means of demonstrating that one answer is clearly right and another clearly wrong. There are too many uncertainties involved in what, after all, is an attempt to peer into the future and assess the advantages and disadvantages which this or that course will or may have for the child.……Cases relating to the welfare of children tend to be towards the edge of the spectrum where an appellate court is particularly reluctant to interfere with the judge’s decision.”
Is that authority for “in an appeal, a transcript of the entireity of the evidence should be obtained?” – well, not quite, but I would certainly say that attention should be paid as to whether it should be obtained, and advocates be prepared to defend their decision about it either way. (Frankly, I would cover my back and include within the appeal notice a position as to whether the oral evidence given is intrinsic to the appeal and the Court is invited to direct whether a transcript be obtained)
A major issue in the case was whether in the original hearing, the oral evidence developed to a point where an alternative to adoption (namely the child continuing to be fostered by the existing foster carers) emerged as a credible alternate plan. That plan was the one that the District Judge approved – hence him making a Care Order but no Placement Order. At the appeal before Keehan J (who of course saw the written evidence and submissions that this was not an option on the table) what appeared to be the case was that the DJ had refused the LA plan and tried to foist upon them a plan that did not in truth exist as an option, which would of course have been wrong in law. The Court of Appeal, having seen the transcripts of the oral evidence, felt that the option that the DJ selected was in fact an option open to him based on the evidence, and that thus not only was Keehan J wrong in granting the appeal but the LA had been wrong in issuing it.
An interesting aspect of the case was the Court of Appeal’s take on the ‘informal discussions’ that took place between counsel for the LA and the original District Judge. There is obviously a fine line between the duty to raise points of clarifications before an appeal and back-door pressure, and the Court of Appeal felt that this was wrong side of the line territory.
- Counsel for the local authority e-mailed the district judge timed at 3.33 am on 25 February seeking to “clear misunderstandings” as to the thrust of her closing submissions which had apparently not been accepted. The district judge responded at 9.07 in short order restating the pertinent bases of the decision reached and indicating that the order would follow. Remarkably, and with great temerity in my view, Counsel then responded “with the greatest of respect, I do not agree with your analysis”. Having re-iterated shortly the basis of his decision the district judge quite properly made clear that he was “not prepared and [would] not deal with this matter in e-mail correspondence.”
- Whilst other advocates were copied into the second e-mail and the first e-mails disclosed to them subsequently, apparently have made no complaint and may well regard it to be orthodox procedure, I regard this to be an entirely inappropriate, unacceptable and unsatisfactory practice. Not only was this an unwarranted ex parte approach by unconventional medium but it is a practice that lends itself to accusations of taint, bias, closed door justice and “stitch up” in the absence of an adequate and reliable method of recording what transpired. In the circumstances, the district judge was extraordinarily restrained in his responses.…
I agree with the reasons given by Macur LJ for allowing this appeal and I agree with the order proposed. I would particularly like to associate myself with the remarks that Macur LJ has made at paragraphs 11 and 16 of her judgment. The attempt to get the District Judge to change his judgment and order after the he had delivered his judgment was quite unjustified and inappropriate. Counsel should know better than to attempt such an inappropriate exercise, even if the client urges it. (I do not say that happened in this case; I do not know).
- I agree with both judgments. Having seen the judgments in draft, Ms van der Leij has expressed concern about the comments at paragraphs 10-11 of Macur LJ and paragraph 36 of Aikens LJ dealing with the e-mail exchanges subsequent to the hearing. She observes that “it is by no means unusual for practitioners in the Principal Registry to e mail district judges directly seeking clarification of matters raised in a hearing”. It is one thing, if invited, to make submissions in relation to the terms of an order provided that every communication is copied to every party; it is another to express dissent and seek to engage in further argument. If that is not unusual, it is important that the problems which it generates should be recognised and that the practice should cease. First, it suggests (even if it is not the case) that advocates can go behind the scenes to resolve issues in favour of their clients and, as Macur LJ observes, will give rise to allegations of ‘stitch up’. Secondly, it will encourage litigants in person (who do not have the same understanding of the law or practice) to adopt a similar approach thereby disrupting the finality of the judgment of the court and generating continued uncertainty.
I completely agree with all of this – it is hard to know what was going on here, but the best way to deal with this sort of thing is transparently, where everyone (including and particularly the parents) sees exactly what is being said to the Judge and has an opportunity to comment.
On to costs.
The Court of Appeal point out, with a degree of acidity, that if the parents had been legally represented at the first appeal, to the circuit judge, it would have emerged that the oral evidence had been markedly different to the papers that Keehan J had seen and that the DJ had been within his rights to view that oral evidence as being that an alternative plan than adoption – namely long term fostering with the existing foster carers, was not only an option that he could chose, but one that he should.
They point out that in saving a very small amount of costs in legal aid for that hearing, substantially greater costs, and delay for the child have been incurred because that appeal itself had to be appealed.
The fact that the parents were faced with an appeal before Keehan J without any professional representation because their legal aid had been withdrawn must have been a factor which unfortunately led the judge to be persuaded to act as he did, despite the fundamental procedural failure of the respondents’ lawyers. This was, of course, their failure to produce on appeal the transcripts of the very oral evidence which the appellant alleged that the first instance judge had misconstrued/misunderstood. As Macur LJ has commented, if the parents had been represented by competent counsel this failure would doubtless have been pointed out and the appeal may never have seen the light of day. As it is, further public expense has been incurred because of the need for a further appeal to this court. What might have been saved in legal aid fund costs has been lost by incurring public expense on another (but related) part of the public purse.
They did refute the parents claim that because they had not been represented at the original appeal their article 6 rights had been breached – i.e this would not be a ground for appeal in and of itself, although it provided context as to why the original appeal had gone awry and needed to be appealed
The fact that parents comprise the vastly increased number of litigants in person which appear before the courts in child public law cases since they do not qualify for non means tested legal aid is all too apparent and unavoidable as a consequence of the present regime. As here, non represented parents will often be ranged against legally qualified advocates opposing them. They have access to justice in accordance with their “Article 6 rights” but are often daunted by the process and feel understandably outgunned. In itself, this fact does not found a meritorious ground of appeal but necessarily it comprises a context for the other complaints that are raised in this application. I have every reason to expect that, if they had been legally represented by a competent advocate, this appeal may never have seen the light of day.
An application for costs was made. As readers will know, costs in care proceedings are fairly unusual, although possible,
- The mother is now legally aided. However, during the preparation for this appeal it appears that there were periods when it was withdrawn. In any event, the mother apparently is at risk of future recoupment from the Legal Aid Agency. She applies for costs of the appeal. Written submissions and revised cost schedules have been submitted.
- The local authority relies on Re T (Costs: Care Proceedings: Serious allegation not proved)  UKSC 36 to resist the application. It argues that it has not adopted an unreasonable stance or been guilty of reprehensible behaviour. For the reasons above I believe that the position that it has taken to have been unreasonable. In the alternative, it cites London Borough of Sutton v Davis (Costs) (No 2)  1 WLR 1317 as authority to the effect that this court should not make an assessment but should order costs to be paid in a sum assessed by the director of the LAA. This proposition is based upon the obiter dicta remarks of Wilson J, as he then was. He urged reform of the then current legal aid regulations. They do not endure in the light of the 2010 Standard Civil Contract entered into between the mother’s solicitors and the Legal Aid Agency, section 1, General Provisions 1.50B of which provides: “This paragraph represents our authority pursuant to section 28(2)(b) of the Act, for you to receive payment from another party….and to recover those costs at rates in excess of those provided for in this Contract or any other contract with us. This court must address the claim for costs with a view to the context in which it arises. The director of the LAA is not in a position to assess whether the same have been unreasonably incurred.
- The necessity for this appeal emanates from the local authority’s failures to address the issues correctly in front of Keehan J. I would order them to pay the costs of the mother claimed in the sum of £22,756.68
The Court of Appeal don’t formally say that the informal approaches by counsel to the DJ played any part in this decision, but they hardly take pains to point out that they played no part. Those might have been very expensive emails.
[I am grateful to one of my readers for politely, judiciously and correctly letting me know that Keehan J is of course not a Circuit Judge, as I had been wrongly designating him – I have now edited out those incorrect references. ]