I often kvetch about the President’s burning desire to make the welfare of the bundle paramount (which on the ground is resulting in me spending hours of precious time removing actual EVIDENCE that the Court has ordered be filed from bundles, negotiating with other sides about what statements should be removed, and bracing myself for the inevitable complaints at the final hearing that the whole case is now going to turn on that document), but I do think that His Honour Judge Wildblood QC has a point here.
Re A and B (children : fact finding) 2015
[Of course, when the Judge reads the next blog post, about Ryder LJ’s further pronouncement in the Court of Appeal on fact-finding, he will observe that fact finding hearings are still effectively banned and thus the hearing ought to have never happened, but that’s by the by]
i) The bundles. To deliver eight lever arch files to a judge on a Thursday evening for him to start a case on Monday morning is unrealistic where the summarising documentation is inadequate. To those who did so I pose this question: ‘How long would it take you to read that amount of material?’ During the hearing I asked what the advocates’ expectations were of me in relation to enclosures M, N, P and Q which extend to over 1,250 pages which had not been adequately summarised (medical records, Local Authority records etc) and the discussion ended with me understanding that I was asked to read them and summarise them myself during the hearing. That would have been manifestly unfair because the advocates and parties would not then know what I was taking into account when reaching a decision before I did so and would not have an opportunity to comment on things that I discovered. In the end I required a list of pages to be given to me from enclosures M and N and read those. I read the whole of enclosures P and Q over two nights (a total of 542 pages). If I had attempted to read 1,250 pages and each page had taken an average of one minute to read and summarise it would have involved over twenty hours of reading mid-case on part only of the documentation that was filed.
ii) The case was given a three day time estimate which was never realistic, particularly if I was going to be expected to read that amount of material during it. As it is I have dealt with the case in five days and have typed this judgment during the fifth day.
iii) The bundles that were produced were in disarray. Many pages were blank. Many reports were repeated. Some pages were upside down. The medical records were not in chronological order and switched between years randomly. Important documents were not included.
Even the purpose of this hearing was somewhat hard to fathom – there were two children A (aged 10) and his half-brother B (aged 7 months). A was in care for other reasons and B was living happily with his mother, about whom no complaint was made. The allegations related solely to the father – there was no proposal that the father move back in with the mother, and his contact was supervised twice per week. There were a wide range of allegations made against the father by the Local Authority (most having emerged from A himself).
- In this judgment I am critical of the Local Authority. I list the main reasons why at the end of the judgment. I consider that it has approached this hearing without any adequate consideration of the quality of the evidence that it could place before the court. Its approach has been unrealistic and lacking in analysis. As a consequence, scarce resources have been wasted.
- This has been a five day hearing which came into my list two working days before it started, bearing eight lever arch files. On the working day before the case started I held a telephone directions hearing in which Advocate B, Counsel for M2, rightly questioned the proportionality of it proceeding but was told by the Local Authority that it thought the hearing to be necessary; I had not been able to read enough of the papers overnight to intervene. I regret that.
- Given the outcome of this hearing I think that very little has been achieved from it. He oldest child, A, is in care and, by mutual agreement, does not have contact with his father, his mother or M2. There is very clear evidence that B’s mother cares for B well. She and B have lived together in a residential placement since 19th December 2014. Within the parenting assessment undertaken by the Local Authority at E106 the following is stated at E125 : ‘I do consider that B’s mother can care for him adequately in the community at this stage…[E126]…She has been unfailingly polite, patient, co operative and compliant throughout this assessment. She has responded to advice and guidance with polite interest but [we] have not been entirely convinced that she welcomed it…[E131] …there have been no concerns about her care and he is a healthy, happy baby who is thriving’. B’s mother has been assessed over a long period of time. The father, from whom she is now separated, has contact with B twice a week under supervision. The Local Authority’s position is that B’s mother has been assessed whilst in her current placement and that ‘no concerns have been raised with regards to her basic care of B’.
- As will be plain I have rejected most of the allegations that the Local Authority has made. Much of the Local Authority’s case rested on things that A has said against the father. In the telephone directions hearing that I held before the case started I enquired whether the Local Authority regarded A as a reliable source of evidence. I was told that it did; as the evidence (both expert and factual) shows, that was totally unrealistic. When I asked the child’s solicitor what the guardian’s assessment was of the reliability of A I was told that the guardian was away (and has remained away during this hearing) and so it was not possible to answer my question, a response that does not require further comment.
[Although that response does not require further comment, I must remark that there is considerable restraint being exercised there. On a case that turns largely on the reliability of A as a complainant, it is astonishing for the Guardian or those representing her not to have a view as to that reliability.]
The Judge was also rightly unhappy that the chronology provided was wholly inadequate. The absence of a full chronology meant that several vital questions were unanswered and could only be established by a trawl through the eight bundles of evidence.
- Chronology – As I state at the end of this judgment when I deal with matters of practice, there was no adequate chronology in this case to summarise the evidence and put matters in context. As Lady Hale observed in a case relating to another area of family law (home ownership), context is everything. For instance (and this is an abbreviated list) i) What preceded the ABE interviews? ii) When did the child make the first allegations against the father? iii) When was the firebell incident (when A says in interview the father began to abuse him physically)? iv) What sexualised behaviour did the child exhibit and when? v) What other false allegations had the child made and when? vi) What state was the child in when he came from Portugal? vii) What happened in the first set of proceedings which ended in August 2013? viii) What was A’s weight loss (see above)? ix) When did A make the first allegation against M2? x) What role did M2 play in A’s care? xi) What does the information from the school demonstrate when it is put into a schedule (I had to require production of the school / home books and the ‘SF’ file was handed in at the start of the hearing)?
- It has been left to me to put the evidence in order (and I say more about this at the end of the judgment). That being so I think that it is essential to put the case into its chronological perspective if any sense is to be made of it and I have done that by putting the evidence into chronological order. The result is a judgment of much greater length than I would have liked which has taken me a very long time to produce. I have typed it within the five day listing that I have had to allow for this case
The judicially composed chronology is excellent, and completely necessary to make proper sense of the case. Of course, whilst it is excellent and necessary, it breaches the President’s guidance on chronologies, by first going back further than 2 years in time, and second it is far longer than the President’s mandate.
I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of a Judge having to produce their own chronology, however. That is not an activity that is likely to make him warm to the applicant’s case.
The Judge also felt that none of the professionals involved – either the professional clients or the lawyers had properly attempted to analyse the evidence. With eight bundles having been produced, everyone had clearly been very dilligent in identifying bits of paper that needed to be collected up and distributed, but somewhat lacking in the process of analysing where all this evidence would take the Court.
v) The advocates themselves had not seen relevant material. The papers from the previous proceedings were produced late and omitted important material, such as the threshold document from the 2013 proceedings. Nobody knew, when the case started, what had happened about the January 2013 allegations within those proceedings. There was no mention of the parenting assessment, the psychological report or the guardian’s report in the chronology. I had to call for the threshold document from those proceedings. The chronology jumps from 21/01/13 to 01/05/2013 then to 10/10/2013 and therefore somersaults over the 2013 proceedings. That is just not sensible.
vi) It was perfectly plain to me that there had been no realistic assessment of the evidence that was being placed before me by the Local Authority, upon whom the burden of proof rests. The Local Authority is the prosecuting authority and has the burden and responsibility of proving the case that it brings. There are many examples of this. A particularly obvious one is that A says that his father started to hit him after the firebell incident in July 2013 – what impact did that have on the January 2013 allegations against the father? The sexual allegations against M2 should have been put in the context of the other material, not least the similar and false allegations that A had made against others. The chronology that I have put together (which can be compared with the Local Authority chronology) speaks for itself. Huge parts of relevant and important evidence had been omitted in the Local Authority’s analysis.
vii) There has been no overview by the Local Authority or by the guardian (and I deliberately include the guardian and the child’s solicitor in this) about the reliability of the child’s evidence. That is not the fault of this child. But it does mean that before presenting a case that is so heavily dependent upon what the child has said it is of obvious importance to consider the reliability of the child as a source of evidence. I held a telephone conference hearing on the Friday before the case started and I asked for the Local Authority’s assessment of the child’s reliability. The guardian’s solicitor told me that the guardian was not available and she could not take instructions on that issue. The Local Authority counsel told me that the Local Authority viewed A as a reliable source of evidence. It was plain that there had been no proper assessment of this issue and that there had been no proper thought given to the many untrue allegations that this child had also made. That is not just unfair to the parties but it is unfair on the child whose future should not be subject to such a process.
viii) The important evidence relating to A’s weight and the condition of his feet and hands was not summarised or analysed before the case started. I created the weight chart which I extracted from the papers. Other than that the important job of seeing what the child’s weight had been had been covered by Dr GR in his report. If the point was to be made and proved it needed to be supported by evidence from the medical records. The child’s solicitor tried to cross examine on this point without any information from or reference to those records and, in doing so, sought to make a point that was wholly invalid. As to the state of A’s feet in January 2014 it was necessary for me to require an analysis of the level of pain that the child would have felt at the time that the blisters etc were developing (would it have been obvious to his carers that he was so injured?); I very nearly made a totally false assumption that the child would have been in obvious pain (as to which see Q10).
ix) Despite the abundance of evidence about the psychological difficulties that A has, there is no evidence that any consideration was given to how A should be interviewed in the light of his very specific difficulties. The questioning that I saw gave no demonstration at all of questioning being crafted by reference to those difficulties or in a way that reflected the very large amount of medical information that was available in relation to him.
x) There was a wrongful absence of enquiry into the interview that took place on 15th January 2013 [the M10 interview]. There was no recording of it or any evidence of an investigation arising from what A said in it. There is no point in me expressing my opinion about the standard of practice that those absences demonstrate because the points are too obvious.
None of the findings sought by the Local Authority (and supported by the Guardian) were made. It is therefore theoretically possible that either of them could appeal. I really wouldn’t….
The spine was white like snowflakes
No one could ever stain
But lifting all these bundles
Could only bring me pain
Hours go by, I’m flicking through, I’m reading J nineteen
But there’s no hint of threshold, on the pages in between
My blood runs wild
I can’t believe this crap they’ve filed
My blood runs cold
The chronology is not that old
Chronology is not that old
(Apologies to the J-Geils band)