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The President’s decision in Re S (26 weeks and extensions) Part 2

 

The judgment is on the previous blog (I’m sure it will be on Bailii shortly)

This case really turns on the provisions of the Children and Family Act 2014 that come into force on Tuesday 22nd April. What we have here, somewhat unusually, is a leading Judge giving authority as to the interpretation of an Act which has not yet come into force.  Sentence first, verdict later, as it were.

At least it avoids any other Judge giving a judgment on Tuesday or afterwards which doesn’t accord with the President’s view of the test, so we all know where we stand.    [In fairness, because the decision that was being sought was to adjourn the case well beyond 22nd April, the future provisions would have kicked in by the time that the case fell to be determined, so it might have been hard to simply ignore them]

 

On the facts of the particular case, this was about a mother with a history of substance misuse problems, on child number four, with the previous three having been removed. There had been drug tests within the proceedings showing  “at worst very low levels of drugs in the mother’s hair”

The proceedings began in October, and we are now April. The mother’s application was for a residential assessment, that would last for a period of six to twelve weeks and if successful that would be followed by an assessment in the community. That would obviously take the case beyond the 26 week target of the PLO (and of course, given that the Children and Families Act provisions about timescales come into force next week, by the time of any final hearing, that would go beyond the new statutory requirement of 26 weeks). There were, however, three expert reports suggesting that the mother was making progress and that such an assessment might bear fruit.

The President was therefore considering whether to grant the adjournment and application for residential assessment, and doing so against the backdrop of the 26 week statutory position and the new provisions of the Children and Families Act as to exceptional circumstances that justify an adjournment of 8 weeks beyond that.

What was also in his mind was the new statutory provisions about expert evidence (which in effect incorporates into section 38 of the Children Act the current Rule 25 Family Procedure Rules tests and guidance)

 

21. For present purposes the key point is the use in common in section 38(7A) of the 1989 Act, section 13(6) of the 2014 Act and FPR 25.1 of the qualifying requirement that the court may direct the assessment or expert evidence only if it is “necessary” to assist the court to resolve the proceedings. This phrase must have the same meaning in both contexts. The addition of the word “justly” only makes explicit what was necessarily implicit, for it goes without saying that any court must always act justly rather than unjustly. So “necessary” in section 38(7A) has the same meaning as the same word in section 13(6), as to which see Re TG (Care Proceedings: Case Management: Expert Evidence) [2013] EWCA Civ 5, [2013] 1 FLR 1250, para 30, and In re H-L (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Expert Evidence) [2013] EWCA Civ 655, [2014] 1 WLR 1160, [2013] 2 FLR 1434, para 3.

 

This is what the President says about the statutory provision that care proceedings should be concluded within 26 weeks

24. Section 32(1)(a)(ii) does not describe some mere aspiration or target, nor does it prescribe an average. It defines, subject only to the qualification in section 32(5) and compliance with the requirements of sections 32(6) and (7), a mandatory limit which applies to all cases. It follows that there will be many cases that can, and therefore should, be concluded well within the 26 week limit. I repeat what I said in my first ‘View from the President’s Chambers: The process of reform’, [2013] Fam Law 548:

“My message is clear and uncompromising: this deadline can be met, it must be met, it will be met. And remember, 26 weeks is a deadline, not a target; it is a maximum, not an average or a mean. So many cases will need to be finished in less than 26 weeks.”

 

The issue then was the statutory provision in s32(5)

 

            A court in which an application under this Part is proceeding may extend the period that is for the time being allowed under subsection (1)(a)(ii) in the case of the application, but may do so only if the court considers that the extension is necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly.

and what factors the Court should consider when determining whether to grant such an adjournment.

One might think that those factors are already set out in the Act

s32 (6)        When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court must in particular have regard to –

(a)        the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the welfare of the child to whom the application relates, and

(b)        the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the duration and conduct of the proceedings;

and here “ensuing timetable revision” means any revision, of the timetable under subsection (1)(a) for the proceedings, which the court considers may ensue from the extension.

(7)        When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court is to take account of the following guidance: extensions are not to be granted routinely and are to be seen as requiring specific justification.

The President cites various authorities  (Re B-S and Re NL notably, as authorities for the principle that there will be cases where an extension of time IS necessary to resolve the proceedings justly)

31. In what circumstances may the qualification in section 32(5) apply?

32. This is not the occasion for any elaborate discussion of a question which, in the final analysis, can be determined only on a case by case basis. But some preliminary and necessarily tentative observations are appropriate

Let’s look at those preliminary and tentative observations

34. There will, as it seems to me, be three different forensic contexts in which an extension of the 26 week time limit in accordance with section 32(5) may be “necessary”:

i)                    The first is where the case can be identified from the outset, or at least very early on, as one which it may not be possible to resolve justly within 26 weeks. Experience will no doubt identify the kind of cases that may fall within this category. Four examples which readily spring to mind (no doubt others will emerge) are (a) very heavy cases involving the most complex medical evidence where a separate fact finding hearing is directed in accordance with Re S (Split Hearing) [2014] EWCA Civ 25, [2014] 2 FLR (forthcoming), para 29, (b) FDAC type cases (see further below), (c) cases with an international element where investigations or assessments have to be carried out abroad and (d) cases where the parent’s disabilities require recourse to special assessments or measures (as to which see Re C (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 128, para 34).

ii)                   The second is where, despite appropriately robust and vigorous judicial case management, something unexpectedly emerges to change the nature of the proceedings too late in the day to enable the case to be concluded justly within 26 weeks. Examples which come to mind are (a) cases proceeding on allegations of neglect or emotional harm where allegations of sexual abuse subsequently surface, (b) cases which are unexpectedly ‘derailed’ because of the death, serious illness or imprisonment of the proposed carer, and (c) cases where a realistic alternative family carer emerges late in the day.

iii)                 The third is where litigation failure on the part of one or more of the parties makes it impossible to complete the case justly within 26 weeks (the type of situation addressed in In re B-S, para 49).

34. I repeat, because the point is so important, that in no case can an extension beyond 26 weeks be authorised unless it is “necessary” to enable the court to resolve the proceedings “justly”. Only the imperative demands of justice – fair process – or of the child’s welfare will suffice.

 

So, to skip to the chorus  – three categories of case where an extension might be warranted  (forgive my short-hand mnemonic prompts, which Malcolm Tucker has helped me devise)

 

1. The case was always going to be super-complicated from the outset (heavy duty fact-finding, FDAC cases, heavy duty international element, parents with disabilities such that specialised assessments are necessary)

“This case was fucked from the beginning”

2.  Something massive emerges during the proceedings – (fresh allegations that need to be resolved, death or imprisonment of a key player, a realistic family member comes forward late in the day  – “Auntie Beryl alert! Finally an answer – adjournment is going to be permissable for an Auntie Beryl situation!”)

“This case got fucked in the middle”

 3. Litigation failure on the part of one of the parties means that it would not be fair to conclude the proceedings

“Some fucker has fucked up”

 

The Judge then goes on to praise FDAC but delivers this guidance (which probably has wider applicability)

 

38. Viewed from a judicial perspective a vital component of the FDAC approach has to be a robust and realistic appraisal at the outset of what is possible within the child’s timescale and an equally robust and realistic ongoing appraisal throughout of whether what is needed is indeed being achieved (or not) within the child’s timescale. These appraisals must be evidence based, with a solid foundation, not driven by sentiment or a hope that ‘something may turn up’.

Typically three questions will have to be addressed. First, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent is committed to making the necessary changes? If so, secondly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to maintain that commitment? If so, thirdly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to make the necessary changes within the child’s timescale

 

I think those principles have wider applicability, because the President goes on to use them in this case, which although the background is drugs and alcohol, is NOT a FDAC case.

For this particular case, this is what the President says (bear in mind that this is NOT a final hearing, but an application to adjourn the final hearing and seek a residential assessment. As far as I can tell from the judgment, no live evidence was heard.  The remarks don’t leave much room for manoeuvre at final hearing…)

44. there is no adequate justification, let alone the necessity which section 32(5) of the 1989 Act will shortly require, for an extension of the case so significantly beyond 26 weeks. Again, there are two aspects to this. Looking to the mother, there is, sadly, at present no solid, evidence based, reason to believe that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale. Even assuming that there is some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that she is committed to making the necessary changes, there is, sadly, not enough reason to believe that she will be able to maintain that commitment. In the light of her history, and all the evidence to hand, the assertion that she will seems to me to be founded more on hope than solid expectation, just as does any assertion that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale. Secondly, I have to have regard to the detrimental effects on S of further delay. Far from this being a case where the child’s welfare demands an extension of the 26 weeks time limit, S’s needs point if anything in the other direction. I accept the guardian’s analysis.

 

If you were thinking that this was all very peculiar, I haven’t even got to the best bit

 

I have been sitting at Bournemouth in the Bournemouth and Poole County Court hearing a care case. It is a very typical County Court case

[There is nothing in the history of the litigation set out in the judgment that ever shows that the case was transferred from the County Court to the High Court. So is this binding authority about provisions of an Act which weren’t in force at the time the judgment was given, actually a County Court judgment? ]

 

 

 

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About suesspiciousminds

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

One response

  1. It does seem to be a county court case so not binding, as you say, but merely ‘some preliminary and necessarily tentative observations’. Presumably to be oft repeated so my guess is: strong hint to start obeying now.

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