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Terminating parental responsibility – the appeal

Re D (A Child) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/315.html

 

In this case, the Court of Appeal were hearing father’s appeal against Baker J’s decision to use the power in s4(2A) of the Children Act 1989 that a father’s parental responsibility can be removed from him by order of the Court.

 

John Bolch over at Family Lore has done a good piece on this.

http://www.familylore.co.uk/2014/03/d-child-fathers-appeal-against-order.html

 

The legal power is

4(2A) A person who has acquired parental responsibility under subsection (1) shall cease to have that responsibility only if the court so orders.

 

The father in this case was not the most edifying man. He is serving a prison sentence for sexual offences against women. The mother, having ended that relationship wanted nothing to do with him, but from prison the father was making applications for contact with their child.

There are two big arguments in this case  (a) If that s4(2A) power exists, then there must be circumstances in which the Court can use that power, and why not in a case like this?   OR (b) the power in the Act is draconian AND discriminatory, since it presently allows for a mother to ask the Court to discharge father’s PR for bad behaviour, but a father can never do the same against the mother.

[It is for the latter reason that I find myself on father’s side as a matter of law, although my sympathies in this case all lie with the mother]

 

The problem for dad’s team was that the nub of that argument, that s4(2A) is discriminatory to men has already been shot down by the European Court of Human Rights

 

The question of the differential treatment of married and unmarried fathers by the statutory scheme is not before this court for consideration. Neither mothers nor married fathers can have their parental responsibility removed. That was the issue in Smallwood v UK (29779/96) (1999) 27 EHRR CD 155, an admissibility decision of the Commission in which it was held that the difference in treatment between mothers, married and unmarried fathers in the context of the jurisdiction of the court to make an order which removes an unmarried father’s parental responsibility is not a violation of article 8 ECHR [the Convention] taken in conjunction with article 14. On that basis the father in this case was refused permission to appeal on the question of whether the differential treatment was proportionate and whether section 4(2A) CA 1989 was incompatible with the rights set out in articles 8 and 14 of the Convention.

 

Damn. So dad’s team had to take a different tack

 

 

  • The grounds of appeal upon which permission was granted are that:

 

 

 

i) the judge failed to distinguish Re P to have regard to the principles set out in the Human Rights Act 1998 [HRA 1998], the ACA 2002 and the changing social norms over the 18 years since Re P; 

ii) the judge failed to consider whether the mother had discharged the burden of proof so as to establish the allegation that the father was “a sexual recidivist”; and

iii) the judge failed to make a proportionate order or take into account the asserted policy consideration that applications of this kind should not be allowed to become “a weapon in the hands of a dissatisfied mother”.

 

[i.e that “there might be some cases in which it is proportionate and necessary to terminate father’s PR but (a) they should be very very rare and (b) this isn’t it”]

 

Having had to fight, as a result of Smallwood v UK, with one hand tied behind their back, it is not surprising that dad’s team did not succeed.

On the final point, the ‘this could open the floodgates’ one, the Court of Appeal archly point out that two such orders in 25 years doesn’t suggest that the family Courts are about to be besieged by s4(2A) applications.

 

The burden of proof thing is an unusual and intricate argument – in effect it is that the burden of proof falls on the person making the allegation (they have to prove it, the subject of the allegations doesn’t have to disprove it  – a concept that seems entirely lost in LASPO…).

These are the facts that Baker J found, having heard all of the evidence (the important thing here is that some of these findings were his own conclusion rather than mum making allegations and the Court finding them proven)

 

  • The second ground of appeal relates to the judge’s findings of fact and the value judgments he came to upon which he based his ultimate conclusion. So far as the former is concerned this court would have to be satisfied that the judge was plainly wrong in the factual determinations to which he came, that is that there is no objective basis for the same on the evidence that he heard and read, otherwise they will be immune from review. The judge had the benefit “of reading and hearing all of the evidence, of assessing not only the credibility and reliability of the witnesses but also their characters and personalities and the professionalism of the professional witnesses, of living and breathing the case over so many days …” (Re B above at [205]). This court will be very hesitant indeed to interfere in that process.

 

 

 

  • It is plain from the transcript that Baker J carefully considered the factual and opinion evidence in coming to his conclusions. It cannot be said that he was wrong to reject the expert evidence that he heard from the jointly instructed psychologist having found that his evidence was naive, complacent, unreliable and at times misleading. He made the following findings about the father:

 

 

 

i) the nature and extent of the facts associated with the father’s criminal convictions included penetrative sexual abuse, inciting a child to engage in penetrative sexual activity, engaging in sexual acts with a child, causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity and three sexual assaults; 

ii) he had vacillated over the years between accepting the truth of those facts and asserting his innocence and was presently again asserting that he had been wrongly convicted;

iii) his account of what he called a false confession was wholly unconvincing with the consequence that he had not satisfied the burden under section 11(2) of the Civil Evidence Act 1968 of proving that he had not committed the offences for which he was convicted;

iv) his persistent denials of the validity of the convictions meant that he had repeatedly lied to professionals and to the court (and by implication to his family including his son as that was the factual basis upon which he presented himself to the court);

v) he had lied when he denied giving a previous account to the respondent when he told her that he had been abused in the past by his brother;

vi) having regard to the Lucas direction which the judge gave himself, the father’s lies called into question his reliability as a witness (see R v Lucas [1981] QB 720).

 

  • On the facts that he found, the judge was entitled to conclude (at [51]) that:

 

 

“as he continues to deny his culpability for the devastating acts of abuse he perpetrated on the family, I think it highly unlikely that he appreciates the damage he has caused to every member of the family, or the danger of further damage should he have any further involvement with the family”

 

In this case, it was Baker J who made the finding that father was a sexual recidivist, and the argument was thus that mum (who benefited from the finding) hadn’t had the burden of proof in establishing it.  It would be fair to say that the Court of Appeal didn’t care for that submission.

 

  • It is superficial to say that in this case D’s father has not inflicted harm directly on his child and that therein lies a distinction with Re P which ought to have led to a different conclusion. D’s father inflicted devastating emotional harm on the whole family including D which he continues to deny. It is difficult to see how in that circumstance and in the absence of any other positive factors, the father can be said to be capable of exercising ‘with responsibility’ his parental rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority.

 

  • It is likewise wrong to say that the mother has failed to satisfy the burden of proof of facts relating to father’s alleged sexual recidivism. That is a submission that is becoming ever more prevalent in this court with the advent of parties who are not represented at first instance and who can be excused for not understanding the significance of either the burden or standard of proof. So the submission goes, if a party who has the benefit of a finding from the court has not been put to the obligation of proving it, what the court has done is to subtly reverse the burden of proof. I make it clear this is a distinct submission from one which calls into question whether someone has not had the benefit of procedural protections to which they are entitled.

 

  • Provided that procedural protections are identified and used by the court, the process of fact finding in family proceedings is quasi-inquisitorial. The welfare of a child may sometimes require a judge to make decisions about facts and/or value judgments that are not asked for by either party. A judge cannot shrink from doing so. That is his function. He must identify such questions and where necessary decide them. Although identified in relation to a different supervisory jurisdiction, the quasi-inquisitorial process to which I have referred was considered and approved in its use by the family courts in public law children proceedings and must as a matter of good practice be available to the same inquiry in private law children proceedings: In the Matter of W (A Child) [2013] EWCA Civ 1227 at [36]:

 

“Although it is conventional to speak of facts having to be proved on the balance of probabilities by the party who makes the allegation, proceedings under the 1989 Act are quasi-inquisitorial (quasi-inquisitorial in the classic sense that the court does not issue the process of its own motion). The judge has to decide whether sufficient facts exist to satisfy the threshold (the jurisdictional facts) whether or not the local authority or any other party agree. Furthermore, the basis upon which the threshold is satisfied is a matter for the judge, not the parties. To that end, if the judge directs that an issue be settled for determination, then absent an appeal, the issue will be tried whatever any party may think about that. As Pitchford LJ said in R (CJ) v Cardiff City Council [2012] 2 All ER:

[21] … The nature of the court’s enquiry under the 1989 Act was inquisitorial. To speak in terms of a burden of establishing precedent or jurisdictional fact was inappropriate.

[22] … I am persuaded that the nature of the inquiry in which the court is engaged is itself a strong reason for departure from the common law rule which applies a burden to one or other of the parties … The court in its inquisitorial role, must ask whether the precedent fact existed on a balance of probability.”

 

Interesting – the suggestion there is that if mum had alleged that father was a sexual recidivist, the burden of proof would be on her, but where as here, the Judge makes the finding of his own motion arising from the evidence heard, there is no burden of proof – it is just the STANDARD of proof that we are concerned with. Was it more likely than not to be the case, and the Court of Appeal saw no reason to deviate from this.  [It is such a narrow technical point that I don’t see it coming up very often, but the Court of Appeal have slammed that door shut]

 

Of course, the sort of circumstances (Father injured a child, father is a sexual offender) found here in the two cases where PR was removed don’t come up all that often in private law, but they are rather more common in care proceedings – where of course the mother is represented, will have the powers of s4(2A) explained to her and might be under pressure from professionals to distance herself from father. Might we see that more often in care proceedings?

 

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

9 responses

  1. Pingback: Terminating parental responsibility - the appea...

  2. “Might we see that more often in care proceedings?”

    With the new transparency guidelines in the family courts I would give it a year and come back to the rhetorical question. I would imagine being convicted of sexual predator somewhat tarnishes their image, though in truth I would have my own misgivings if you you were to ask me to judge a known sex offender. Sometimes objectivity is difficult to achieve.

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  3. In the poor law 1601 the courts were given the power to flog the reputed “fathers”(no DNA tests in those days) of “illegitimate” children and to make maintenance orders against them, but no PR has ever been given automatically outside of marriage, even 400 years later its still only automatic in marriage for a father, which is discrimination by gender and marital status.

    Although a father that is not married to the mother can gain PR by jointly registering the birth of the child with the mother or by a parental responsibility agreement with the mother or getting a parental responsibility order from a court,these are not good enough it needs to be automatic and not determined by the mother or the court.

    MPs are considering passing legislation in the future that would put unmarried cohabiting couples on par with married couples legally but no mention of automatic PR for the unmarried fathers, this keeps the status quo and leaves unmarried fathers in the position of cash cows just as they were 400 years ago and needing to go cap in hand to either the mother or court to acquire PR (which can be terminated).

    About 50% of children are now born outside of marriage, its about time things changed for unmarried fathers.

    • I would agree with you Ben – it seems downright odd to me that an unmarried father can be liable to pay maintenance via the Child Support Agency, but has no automatic Parental Responsibility. I might be cynical, but I suspect Smallwood would have been decided differently had the gender roles been reversed.

      • yes, I think Smallwood would have had a different outcome too.

        I think the issue needs to be approached from the opposite direction though, by a father that is unable to register the birth or where a father takes the state to court on human rights grounds for equality of parental responsibility (where a court/mother is not terminating his PR).

        I know of a father, where the mother had serious complications in labour and the DRs induced her into a coma (which she was in for several months), the father had to obtain a parental responsibility order from the court to enable him to register the child’s birth (he had enough on his plate though without thinking about taking the state on, it would have been a good case to have approached the inequality and discrimination on).

        The present situation is a relic of the enmeshed relationship of the state and church, which was used to structure and control society for the benefit of the establishment. What is appalling is the states use of the word legitimated, if the parents marry after the child’s birth and reregister the birth.

  4. Hello, I am composing a piece about Baroness Hale`s `nothing else will do` comment and I wondered if you would give me permission to quote from your blog please?

  5. This might be worth an article http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/999.html . It relates to that favorite subject of yours complex jurisdictional issues. At any rate it may be interesting to see if this sets a precedence in how such cases are handled.

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