The Tower Hamlets case attracted quite a bit of media attention, and the judgment is now out. It contains quite a bit of practical guidance for all agencies where there is a concern that a child is going to be sent or going under their own volition to a country such as Syria with an intention that they join a terrorist organisation such as ISIS.
Tower Hamlets v M and Others 2015
The case was heard, alongside another one mentioned in paragraph 6, by Mr Justice Hayden.
The Judge recognised that the seizure of the children’s passports did not require any evolution or extension of the law, but could be done under existing provisions, but did set out some practical recommendations to be followed.
- This course, though it arises in circumstances which do not have recent precedent, did not in any way require an evolution in the law itself. For example, the jurisdiction was recognised in Re A-K (Foreign Passport: Jurisdiction)  2 FLR 569.
- Both cases came before me last week on ex parte application. I was satisfied, on the evidence presented to me, both that the measures sought were proportionate and that there were strong grounds for believing the situation was urgent. I remain convinced of both.
- The removal of an individual’s passport, even on a temporary basis, be that of an adult or child, is a very significant incursion into the individual’s freedom and personal autonomy. It is never an order that can be made lightly. Where only the State, in this case through the arm of the local authority, appears in court, it must never be forgotten that the court requires a very high degree of candour on the part of all of those involved.
The Judge went on to explain that by candour, he did not just mean honesty and that this was a given, but that the evidence presented to the Court for such an application must be the fullest possible, and that even evidence that would seem to be harmful or hinder the application must be shared with the Court.
- Rather, I wish to emphasise that the fullest possible information must be placed before the court in an entirely unpartisan way. Both the evidence which supports the application and that which runs counter to its objectives. Nothing less than that will suffice.
- This duty, in such an application, extends not merely to counsel and solicitors but to all involved: police; social services; whichever professional capacity.
- Moreover, the lawyers involved must take great care to emphasise and reinforce this obligation to their lay and professional clients in clear and unambiguous terms. This very high degree of candour must also be accompanied by careful consideration as to whether the facts present a real degree of urgency, which of themselves necessitate an application being made on an ex parte basis.
There were a couple of points in the Tower Hamlets case that prompted that – the first being that the orders made necessarily required the police to take a number of actions – the Court had understood that the police were aware and supportive, only to learn at a later stage that the police were unhappy about some of the things they had been asked to do.
This was very serious. Counsel for the Local Authority had specifically addressed the Court on this, and his instructions had been plain that the police supported the Local Authority applications and said so unequivocally to the Court twice. [I will make it really plain that the Judge was satisfied that Counsel had been sold a pup, rather than was intentionally misleading the Court]
- I had been told by Mr Barnes, counsel who appears on behalf of Tower Hamlets, at the first hearing, on 20 March, when the Local Authority appeared alone, that the police supported the Local Authority’s actions. In fact, I twice asked whether that was the case, and twice Mr Barnes reassured me, unequivocally, that it was. I have no doubt at all that those were his instructions.
Hoerver, after the orders were made, it had become obvious that the police had not been as involved in the process as the Court had been led to understand. To the point that the police had been liaising with the High Court tipstaff about wanting to see if the passports could be handed over voluntarily by the families, and the Judge suspended his orders.
- However, on Saturday afternoon, I received a telephone call from the High Court Tipstaff to inform me that the police considered that they had not had proper chance to evaluate the risk identified in the Local Authority’s application. And insofar as they had, they considered that enforcement of the orders might not be required.
- In essence, I was told, they wished to see if it might be possible to secure the surrender of the passports, as contemplated by the orders, by cooperation with the families.
- In view of the fact that this information, given to the High Court Tipstaff, came from a team specialist in counter terrorism, and I have been told authorised at very senior level, I ordered the immediate suspension of my earlier order.
That is obviously extremely serious, and the Judge rightly explored it further on the return date.
- However, during the course of that hearing, Mr Barnes confirmed that a misleading impression had indeed been given by the Local Authority to the court on 20 March.
- Whilst it is correct to say that the police had been informed of the applications, as I was told, investigation of how and when they were told, undertaken at my insistence, revealed that they had only been notified of the application at around 2 o’clock on 20 March by email and had, therefore, no real chance to consider their response.
- I pause to say that by 3.30 that afternoon the Local Authority were already before me.
- I regret to say that I have concluded that the Local Authority consciously misrepresented the extent of the police awareness of this application. I do not reach that conclusion lightly. It is for this reason that I have felt it necessary to restate that which, to my mind, ought properly to be instinctive to every professional in this field, that is to say the very high degree of candour required in applications of this kind.
Very serious indeed.
The second was that there had been an issue over whether one of the children’s passports was (a) missing and (b) whether it was expired in any event. This was obviously a very critical point, given that what was being sought was orders to prevent the children leaving the country. The Court had been given information about this, in good faith, that later turned out not to be accurate. (It is all set out at the end of the judgment if you want to know more)
(i) The lawyers should take care to draft, at very least in outline, the scope and ambit of the orders they seek and in respect of whom they seek it. This should be undertaken before coming to court. That will not only expedite the subsequent service of the orders on those concerned, it is also a crucial forensic discipline, compelling the lawyers to think in a properly focused manner about the specific orders they seek;
(ii) Thought should be given, from the very outset, as to how quickly the case can be restored on notice. This is the essential requisite of fairness in the process, now buttressed by article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights;
(iii) Even though these cases will, of necessity, be brought before the court in circumstances of urgency, they nonetheless require the instruction of senior and experienced lawyers. The issues have profound consequences, not limited to the individuals concerned, and will frequently require a delicate balancing of competing and potentially conflicting rights and interests;
(iv) All involved must recognise that in this particular process it is the interest of the individual child that is paramount. This cannot be eclipsed by wider considerations of counter terrorism policy or operations, but it must be recognised that the decision the court is being asked to take can only be arrived at against an informed understanding of that wider canvas. It is essential that the court be provided with that material in appropriate detail;
(v) It will never be satisfactory, in applications of this kind, merely to offer verbal assurance, through counsel or any other individual, that the police, security forces or those involved in counter terrorism, are aware of and support the application. There must in future always be ‘hard’ evidence, i.e evidence which is cogent and coherent, placed before the court and capable of being subject to appropriate scrutiny. The format of the evidence may vary from case to case. It may require a police presence in court. There may be the need for police/counter terrorism officers to be represented, written and sworn statements may sometimes suffice. On occasion evidence may be received by secure telephone or video link;
(vi) Justified interference with the article 8 rights of a minor will always require public scrutiny at some stage in the process. In both cases this week, the press attended. It was only necessary for them to withdraw on one occasion, at the request of a very senior police officer present in court, supported by the local authority. The request was made because sensitive issues of policy and national security arose. Transparency, that is to say the attendance of accredited press officials in court, remains the presumption here, as it now is in all aspects of the work of the family justice system;
(vii) Recognising that there will be an urgency to these applications, careful attention, in advance of the hearing, should be given to the framework of reporting restrictions required to protect the child from publicity. In this exercise, it should be remembered that some of the families involved may already have excited a degree of press coverage. Indeed, they may, on occasion, have sought it out. There is a risk that identification of the children might be revealed by piecing together information already in the public domain, i.e. the ‘jigsaw effect’. As, in paragraph 1 above, and for similar reasons, the restrictions contended for should be drafted before coming to court;
(viii) Though it may appear trite to say so, an evaluation of the reporting restrictions, as I have been reminded by the press this morning, should always have at the forefront of the exercise the reality that publicity is not confined to the conventional or recognised media outlets, but extends, with inevitably greater challenges, to the wide range of social media likely to be the primary sources of information for these children, their peers and those with whom they interact more generally;
(ix) The importance of coordinated strategy, predicated on open and respectful cooperation between all the safeguarding agencies involved, simply cannot be overstated. An ongoing dialogue in which each party respects, and I make no apology for repeating the word respect, the contribution of the other, is most likely to achieve good and informed decision making.