This is a judgment by a circuit Judge, His Honour Judge Wood, sitting in Newcastle. It is not binding precedent, but I think that it illuminates some important issues.
The mother in the case was Angolan, born in 1977. The eldest child had been born and raised in her early life in a refugee camp in Angola. The family came to England in 2005. It was sadly and brutally apparent that this mother had seen and experienced things that you would wish on no human being, and that obviously as a result, she had severe and serious need of help that she did not receive.
Re N (Children) 2015
- I have found this case simultaneously to be very difficult, very sad and also to have made me very angry. In reverse order, the anger flows from the failure of this Local Authority to meet these children’s needs in a significant way. First, the gross, inexplicable and unjustifiable delay, the breach of statutory duty under section 1(3). Secondly, this is a family with, if not a unique background, a relatively unusual and extraordinarily difficult one, which until Mrs Louw reported does not seem to the court to have been really considered at all and even following her report I question the extent to which it was properly embraced. The search for suitable cultural support has come really very late indeed.
- Thirdly, the likelihood of the parenting course that the mother was sent on barely scratching the surface was evident before the mother even went on it. I do not say that she learned nothing from it, she was able to explain what she had learned and spoke to me in quite complimentary terms about it, but the real difficulty identified by Mrs Louw was completely beyond its scope. Fourthly, the delay in obtaining the evidence from Mrs Louw was caused entirely by the Local Authority not identifying that need until these proceedings were issued. It was ordered at the earliest point at the case management hearing but by then 17 months had elapsed since the children went into care.
- Fifthly, the Local Authority knows about this mother’s isolation. It is apparent on all of the evidence. She belongs to a church but does not mix with other families, at school or elsewhere. She has, on her account, maybe one or two visitors from her church to her home but she does not visit the homes of her visitors and she has no other family or friends, certainly locally. As an asylum seeker from a war-torn country but with children brought up in a western educational system, the potential for cultural issues and expectations to give rise to conflict ought to have been obvious. I do not underestimate the difficulty of finding appropriate help. Even at the end of this hearing it is not clear what does exist but no real attempt was made even to mount a search until much too late. To criticise the mother for not having learnt from five group sessions of an effective parenting course is really just not fair.
- Sixthly, the background of being a refugee, particularly from Angola, even with an elementary knowledge of recent Angolan history and absent that an enquiry just on the internet, should have alerted the Local Authority to the likelihood that this mother had experienced real trauma likely to be of a severe kind which should have set alarm bells ringing as to her likely needs. On all of these scores the President’s textbook example of how not to conduct a care case seems to the court to have been met.
The Judge was rightly scathing about the delay between the Local Authority taking these children into care and issuing proceedings, some 17 months. With all of the features of this case, it should have been apparent that section 20 would not be sufficient and that proper plans for the long-term future of these children was needed. Even worse than the delay was that the Local Authority took SEVEN MONTHS to issue the proceedings from the date that they wrote to mother’s solicitors saying that they were going to issue. As the Judge points out – if the LA had issued when they said they were going to, the proceedings would have been concluded a month earlier than when they were actually issued.
[Even worse than this, the children had been taken into Police Protection a year before the section 20 accommodation, as a result of a physical assault, and then returned home, so the LA were seized of the issues and concerns for some 29 MONTHS before care proceedings were issued]
5. I want to say at the outset that the course that this case has taken in the hands of this Local Authority has been deeply unsatisfactory. Following a precipitating event in the middle of June 2013 the children were accommodated with the mother’s consent under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. Despite taking a decision in January 2014 that the plan was to be long term foster care and the Local Authority writing to the mother’s solicitor in March of that year to the effect that proceedings would be issued within seven days, they were not issued for another seven months on 22nd October 2014. As I observed when Miss Woolrich on behalf of the Local Authority addressed me, had the proceedings been issued when the Local Authority said that they were going to issue, they should have been concluded before the date when they were, in fact, issued. That they were not is bad enough but that bald fact ignores the period of nine months that preceded that statement of intent. Thus, these children were voluntarily accommodated for 16 months prior to the issue of proceedings and can properly be said today to have been in limbo now for 21 months.
- It is difficult to avoid a direct application of the words of Sir James Munby P in the recent Darlington Borough Council case reported at  EWFC 11 in which he described that case as being, “Almost a textbook example of how not to embark upon and pursue a care case.” A specific criticism from that case that applies directly in this case is, “The misuse and abuse of section 20”, that the President said could no longer be tolerated endorsing, as he did, the observations of the Court of Appeal in Re W  EWCA Civ 1065 and Northampton County Council v AS  EWHC 199 quoting with approval the remarks of Keehan J recorded at paragraphs 36 and 37 of that latter judgment.
- This all lies entirely at the door of the Local Authority and requires addressing at the highest levels within Children’s Services and their legal advisors. That said, no parent in such circumstances is left without a remedy. Legal advice is available from the outset of notification of proceedings and it is a matter of both surprise and disappointment that the mother here was not encouraged to force the point as she was perfectly entitled, and I would say bound, to do in the circumstances of such gross delay by withdrawing her consent. I want to emphasise I do not blame this mother personally but it is the fact and a matter of regret that this did not happen long before the Local Authority belatedly got round to issuing proceedings. The effect of delay varies from case to case but in no sense could it here have been described, using the now disapproved term, as being purposeful. It served no identifiable purpose, it has delayed the outcome inordinately for young children wanting their futures decided and, as a matter of law, it has amounted to a complete and inexcusable breach of the statutory delay principle enshrined in section 1(2) of the Act.
The Judge sadly had to make Care Orders – one will never know whether if during those 17 months of drift the mother had been given the right help whether the outcome would have been different.
He decided that these failings were not solely those of the social worker but of the organisation and system as a whole, so followed the President’s decision in Darlington not to name and shame the individual workers
I make a disclosure order to the head of service and to the independent reviewing officer in respect of this judgment which will be transcribed as anonymised, the cost of which to be shared equally by all parties. I should say that for the avoidance of doubt for the reasons that the President gave in the Darlington case itself, I have also directed that the two social workers who have been involved should be anonymised as well because it seems to me entirely unfair that, whatever individual shortcomings may have arisen, the criticisms that have been levelled against the Local Authority should be laid at their door or that they should be identified as responsible.
It also seems to me that with all of the demonisation of asylum seekers that goes on in both political discourse and the media reporting, it is worth reading this little passage and remembering that asylum seeker ought not to be used a synonym for ‘sponger’
The mother was born on 23rd October 1977 in Angola. By then the brutal civil war that shocked the outside world had been underway for two years. G was born in a refugee camp in Zambia in 2002 just after that war ended. The psychologist who reported in this case makes the point that the mother grew up and came to maturity in a war-torn country. The central province where she lived is said to have been devastated. The mother herself reports that there came a day in 1999 or 2000 when they “all ran different ways” and she thereby lost contact both with her parents and her sister. She has no idea where they might be – that is to say, assuming they are still alive – and somehow she ended up following a convoy of complete strangers that took her to Zambia. Little more than that is known, albeit the expert assessment of her presentation was consistent with her affirmative nod in answer to a direct question as to whether she had been jailed and/or tortured. She is likely to have experienced first hand, or at least witnessed, extreme brutality that has traumatised her to this day.