Re G (a child) 2015
The mother was appealing a refusal to grant her leave to apply to revoke a Placement Order (i.e to get her child back). She was in person in the Court of Appeal (and did a very good job) and won her appeal.
There are few big points from this appeal which have wider application.
1. Change doesn’t have to be recent
(I think what the Court of Appeal say here rather destroys Mostyn J’s declaration that change has to be ‘unexpected’ because they are explicit that one shouldn’t read words into the statute that aren’t there)
I do not accept Mr Tughan’s submission that the nature and degree of the change of circumstances which a parent does successfully establish, is demoted by it being a recent change. This does add gloss to the words of the statute and should be resisted
2. Change doesn’t have to be change in the parent – it can be change in the life of the child, or in the life of the child’s carers.
[This one interests me, because as far as I know, Mrs Suesspicious Minds was the first counsel to persuade a Court of that, so it is nice to see that she was right – as usual]
The “change in circumstances” specified in section 24(3) of the 2002 Act is not confined to the parent’s own circumstances. Depending upon the facts of the case, the child/ren’s circumstances may themselves have changed in the interim, not least by reason of the thwarted ambitions on the part of the local authority to place them for adoption in a timely fashion. I would regard it as unlikely for there to be many situations where the change in the child’s circumstances alone would be sufficient to open the gateway under section 24(2) and (3) and I do not suggest that there needs to be an in-depth analysis of the child/ren’s welfare needs at the first stage, which are more aptly considered at the second , but I cannot see how a court is able to disregard any changes in the child/ren’s circumstances, good or bad, if it is charged with evaluating the sufficiency of the nature and degree of the parent’s change of circumstances.
3. Take care in using a note of judgment as if it were a transcript
In this case, the Care Order and Placement Order had been made by a District Judge, and the leave to oppose hearing was heard by a Circuit Judge. The CJ had been given counsel’s note of the hearing / judgment, but read it into the judgment on leave to oppose as though quoting the District Judge directly.
The only document that assists is Counsel’s “note of final hearing” prepared by Mr Hepher on 20 August 2012 for his Instructing Solicitor. It has not been approved by the DDJ Johns.
Contrary to what HHJ Levy said in her judgment, the note does not pretend to be a note of the judgment; rather it is the subjective assessment of the hearing and its outcome, giving a potted version of the judge’s conclusions. Counsel who appeared for the Local Authority could have no idea or intention that it would be referred to in any future proceedings or appellate jurisdiction. However, HHJ Levy placed reliance upon it and, it seems to me, elevated Counsel’s written opinion that “the evidence did not go well for [the mother]. She became upset and gave loud, aggressive and frequent inconsistent and confrontational answers when challenged” into findings made by the first instance judge and thereafter cited Counsel’s summary of a part of the judgment in quotation marks, giving the appearance that the same were spoken by the DDJ Johns.
The fact of its quotation by HHJ Levy leads me to conclude that it was instrumental in her decision and I therefore refer to it in full. HHJ Levy said that “[t]he judge had concluded by summing up the mother as: ‘…angry, resentful and accusatory of professionals…blaming of others, was unable to explain the impact of domestic violence and undesirability of drug use, and had a casual disregard to telling the truth. She had no insight into the magnitude of the risks the father might pose, nor the impact of her own behaviour. She was not able to sustain motivation for any meaningful change”.
…Quite apart from the issues raised in the grounds of appeal, I would express my great concern at other aspects of the procedure that was adopted at first instance and which are capable of further infecting the outcome. That is, HHJ Levy was disadvantaged in the absence of DDJ John’s judgment and “agreed threshold criteria” and was wrong to accept counsel’s unapproved “note of the hearing” as a sufficient substitute, even though I am sure she was well intentioned in seeking to avoid delay. She could not possibly establish the true base line in the absence of the “agreed threshold criteria” document, which itself recorded some issues of fact and differing interpretation of others, without reconstructing the evidence that had been available in the court below. In doing so she appeared to rely entirely upon the reports submitted by the social worker and guardian.
4. You need to be quite careful about ruling that a parent had not satisfied the first limb of the two stage test (has there been a change in circumstances?)
The Court of Appeal here sent the case back for re-hearing, but were very plain that their view was that the first limb had been crossed and quite comfortably.
5. Fresh evidence
The Local Authority had brought to the Court of Appeal a statement that gave information about family finding – in effect, providing evidence that an adoptive placement was on the cards. The Court of Appeal deprecated this practice. This was really a request to introduce fresh evidence to the appeal, and if so, a proper application needed to be made, with all of the Ladd v Marshall principles argued (it is REALLY hard to get fresh evidence in on appeal, other than in criminal proceedings where the fresh evidence is something like an alibi, or CCTV footage or some sort of CSI test which would undermine the conviction)
- Shortly before coming into court, a statement prepared by Ms Faith Connell, J’s social worker, unsigned but dated 9 January, 2015 was sent through uninvited. There is no application to admit fresh evidence. I am told by Mr Tughan that it is intended to update the court on ‘family finding’ for J. This practice is becoming increasingly common and I think it entirely inappropriate. If the statement contains fresh evidence which is pertinent to the appeal then leave should be sought in accordance with normal procedure to admit it. If it does not, it may appear as an attempt to influence the outcome of the appeal. Mr Tughan assures me that that is not intended, but that it was submitted with a view to assisting the court if it wished to substitute its own order for that of the court below.
- As it is, this is not a court of first instance and is not in a position to determine the disputed factual issues raised in the mother’s application before HHJ Levy, let alone fresh facts on the unilateral presentation of what may be challenged evidence and opinion going to inform the discretion stage. I have refused to read the statement in those circumstances and particularly since the mother is unrepresented.
6. You can only ‘shore up’ a judgment so far
In discussion, Mr Tughan was obliged to concede that he was attempting to “shore up” the judgment of HHJ Levy. He accepted the absence of any findings in the judgment that were directly relevant to the adverse findings apparently made against the mother by DDJ Johns and upon which HHJ Levy relied. He argued that some issues that were recorded in the judgment had been ‘resolved’ during the course of the proceedings – entirely, I observe, in favour of the mother’s contentions – and that it was unnecessary to make certain other findings, including whether the mother’s relationship with her previous partner had ended, the extent if any of her drug use, and whether she had threatened the current social worker with violence. He accepted that the Court would “struggle to piece together” HHJ Levy’s thought processes, but that they could be “pieced together” when analysed in the round. He argued that the bar had been set at a high level by reason of the findings made in the original care proceedings and that the self reported changes by a mother, whose credibility had been doubted in the past and, implicitly I think he was suggesting, was in any event so emotionally compromised in relation to an objective consideration of J’s best interests, had inevitably led the judge to conclude that she still had a “long way to go”.
The mother was of course appealing the judgment that was made, not the shored up version that counsel for the Local Authority was skilfully presenting. She won her case, and that was the right decision. Nobody knows how the re-hearing will go.
6. Threshold post Re A
The Court of Appeal here accepted that the threshold were ‘more than satisfied’ and that they had no doubt about that.
Let’s have a look at the threshold then.
A document headed “Agreed Threshold Criteria – 17.7.12” gives some indication of the circumstances of J’s removal. In summary, J’s father has previous convictions for serious drugs and violence. In June 2009, the mother attempted to prevent his arrest for the offence of armed robbery. The father was subsequently jailed. The mother commenced a new relationship. Her new partner also had previous convictions and was a serial offender. Regrettably he was violent to the mother. She continued with the relationship and was said to prioritise her relationship with her partner over her own and J’s safety. The mother disagreed but there is objective evidence that she found it difficult to separate from her partner, refusing an injunction and visiting him in prison whilst he was serving a sentence for assaulting her. The mother was said to continue to “minimise and excuse the extent and impact of the domestic violence and conflict to which J had been exposed”. She herself smoked cannabis but denied that she had used class A drugs. It is clear that she was not co-operative with social services and would routinely deceive them about her home circumstances.
A lot of this looks like the sort of thing that the President threw out on its ear last week. This isn’t a case where the mother herself posed a risk. At best, or worst, her partner might have. But he seemed to be in prison. Cannabis – gone. Not co-operative with social services – gone. Assisting father three years earlier to resist arrest – what’s the risk to the child? gone. . Violence from former partner – well, the President seemed to be suggesting that there are people who have had dv in their relationships who would not cross threshold – it would depend on the extent and nature of it. Minimising dv – gone. Visiting former partner in prison – well, if he wasn’t established to be a risk of harm to the child, so be it.
Too early to say whether the Court of Appeal are going to take a different view to the President on Re A, but if you apply the Re A principles the threshold here is either not crossed or it just limps over the line. Yet the Court of Appeal consider that there is no doubt that it was more than satisfied. Hmmm.