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appeal – no contact, section 91(14) and judicial conciliation

 

Re T (A child) (Suspension of Contact) (Section 91(14) 2015 has some peculiar quirks, and one point which is probably important. It is a Court of Appeal decision, written by Cobb J.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/719.html

 

When I give you this little extract about the father

We have read the e-mail from the director of Contact Centre A (dated 29 May 2014) to the child’s solicitor which describes the conversations thus:

“… [the father] has obsessively / repeatedly called our organisation in the last couple of weeks. On each occasion he was extremely abusive, consistently making racist remarks, intimidating and threatening staff …. It is evident that centre staff are scared by the experience of dealing with [the father] and further dealings or contact arrangements at [the contact centre] are likely to pose significant risks to both his child and the centre staff. For the above reasons, [the contact centre] is not in a position to facilitate supervised contact sessions between [the father] and his daughter”.

 

You might be somewhat surprised that, doing this appeal in person, he bowls four balls of appeal  (well, he actually put in 19 in his grounds, but the Court of Appeal kindly found him his best four) and three of them hit middle and off and get the result. One is considered wide, but that’s a strike rate to be proud of.   [Taking three wickets out of 19 balls is still pretty decent]

 

The litigation history here is dreadful

 

8. The multiple court hearings, and judgments and orders which have flowed from them, reflect an extraordinarily high degree of conflict in the parental separation. By the time the proceedings were listed before HHJ Hayward Smith QC on 12 December 2011, he expressed a concern that the case was “in danger of spiralling out of control”, a fear which has in our view regrettably all too obviously come to pass. Not only have the parents been in relentless conflict with each other, but the father has also raised repeated and serious allegations of professional misconduct against E’s court-appointed Guardian, against counsel instructed in the case at various times, and against some of the judges. Family related litigation was at one time unacceptably being conducted simultaneously in three family court centres in different parts of the country, and even when co-ordinated in one location, there has been a regrettable lack of judicial continuity (even though it had been explicitly acknowledged by many of the judges involved to have been “essential” to maintain firm and consistent management of the case).

  1. In our own review of the background history we recognised that there was a risk, by which in our view this experienced Judge allowed herself to be distracted, that the truly dreadful chronology of litigation, and the behaviours of the adults towards each other and the professionals, would divert attention from, and ultimately eclipse, the essential issue, namely E’s relationship with both her parents

 

 

Here are the four grounds of appeal, as polished up by Cobb J

 

i) Did judicially-assisted conciliation between the parties in respect of child arrangements for E (specifically E’s living arrangements and contact) at a hearing on 13 May 2014, disqualify the Judge from conducting a subsequent contested hearing on 3 July 2014?

ii) Did the Judge err in making substantive orders on 3 July 2014 (including a section 91(14) order restricting any application under section 8 CA 1989):

a) In the absence of the father?

b) On the basis of factual findings made without forensic testing of the documentary material, of some of which the father had no knowledge?

And/or

c) Having indicated to the parties that she would not conduct any hearing in relation to residence issues?

iii) In ordering the indefinite suspension of contact, did the Judge pay proper regard to section 1(1) CA 1989 and the statutory list of welfare factors (section 1(3) ibid.), and to the Article 8 rights of the father and the child, all of which were engaged in such a decision?

iv) Was the order under section 91(14) CA 1989 appropriate in principle, and/or proportionate?

 

We shall take these in turn

i) Did judicially-assisted conciliation between the parties in respect of child arrangements for E (specifically E’s living arrangements and contact) at a hearing on 13 May 2014, disqualify the Judge from conducting a subsequent contested hearing on 3 July 2014?

 

This arose because at a hearing where the issue was intended to be about whether the child could or could not go to a family wedding, but  father was advancing a case of a change of residence for the child (which was an argument with no prospect of success) the Judge moved into conciliation mode with a view to trying to broker an agreement.  This is an accepted model now, but what hasn’t been previously determined was whether a Judge who undertakes that conciliation approach (of trying to move the parties towards an agreement) is able to then make decisions in the case where agreement is not reached.

  1. The father’s application in relation to the wedding celebration was heard by HHJ Hughes QC on 13 May 2014; she refused the application. At the hearing, the Judge, entirely appropriately in our judgment, took an opportunity to conduct some in-court conciliation between the parties in an effort to break the deadlock on residence and contact. At that hearing, the following exchange took place between the Judge and the father (as recorded by the father, but which we do not believe to be challenged):

    Father: “Your Honour, can I ask that this is heard….? If you are going to hear this as a conciliation attempt then you cannot hear the hearing”

    Judge: “That is absolutely fine with me. I will not hear the hearing. I am trying to deal with this now.”

    At the conclusion of the 3 July 2014 hearing in delivering judgment (para [2]), the Judge characterised this exchange thus:

    “During the hearing the father accused (sic.) me of attempting to conciliate and suggested that I should therefore recuse myself”.

    The description of the manner in which the father challenged the Judge (an ‘accusation’) may reveal a little of the father’s tone of lay advocacy not revealed by a transcript.

  2. The father does not currently challenge the Judge’s assessment of the prospects of his case on residence, or her stance in advising him of them. She later described her conciliation attempt thus:

    “I suggested to him that an application for residence of [E] was actually not going to be very successful because he had not seen [E] for ten months, and he accepted that at the time.” (see transcript of the hearing on 3 July 2014).

    His account is similar:

    “It was agreed by all parties before HHJ Hughes on 13 May that the hearing regarding residence should be adjourned with liberty to the father to restore if and when he believed it appropriate to [E]’s interests … I accept that there are no realistic prospects of a Court allowing [a change of residence] at the present when there is no contact taking place. I accept that [E]’s residence in the immediate future is likely to be with her mother” (see father’s letter to the Court 2 July 2014).

 

This Judge did, however later go on to make an order that the father should have no contact with his child at all, and make a section 91(14) order that he be barred from making any other applications without leave of the Court.  Grounds 1 and 2 of the appeal therefore raise the questions  (1) COULD the Judge do this and (2) SHOULD the Judge have done this?

 

The Court of Appeal ruled that the Judge COULD conduct a conciliation style hearing AND then go on to conduct a traditional hearing resolving a dispute.

  1. We wish to emphasise that the facilitation of in-court conciliation at a FHDRA (or indeed at any other hearing in a private law children case) does not of itself disqualify judges from continuing involvement with the case, particularly as information shared at such a hearing is expressly not regarded as privileged (PD12B FPR 2010 para.14.9). Were it otherwise, the “objective” of judicial continuity from the FHDRA (where, as indicated above, conciliation may have been attempted in accordance with the rules) to the making of a final order (see PD12B FPR 2010 para.10) would be defeated. The current arrangement should therefore be distinguished from:

    i) Old-style conciliation appointments, which operated prior to the implementation of the ‘Private Law Programme’ in 2004, the predecessor to the CAP (see Practice Direction [1982] 3 FLR 448; Practice Direction: Conciliation – children: [1992] 1 FLR 228: i.e. “If the conciliation proves unsuccessful the district judge will give directions (including timetabling) with a view to the early hearing and disposal of the application. In such cases that district judge and court welfare officer will not be further involved in that application”.);ii) Non-court dispute resolution (by way of mediation / conciliation) conducted by professionals outside of the court setting: see Re D (Minors) (Conciliation: Privilege [1993] 1 FLR 932, Farm Assist Ltd (in liquidation) –v- DEFRA (No 2) [2009] EWHC 1102 (TCC)), and the Family Mediation Council Code of Practice for family mediators, paras 5.6.1 and 5.6.4;

    iii) A Financial Dispute Resolution (FDR) Appointment in a financial remedy case; the judge conducting such a hearing is not permitted to have any further involvement with the application, save for giving directions: see rule 9.17(2) FPR 2010. In a financial case, of course, the Judge is likely to have been armed to conciliate with the provision of all the privileged communications between the parties.

  2. Private law proceedings in the family court have become more than ever “inquisitorial in nature” (Re C (Due Process) [2013] EWCA Civ 1412[2014] 1 FLR 1239 at [47]) in large measure attributable to the overwhelming number of unrepresented parties who require and deserve more than just neutral arbitration; in such cases, particularly at a FHDRA or a Dispute Resolution Appointment, there is presented to the judge “a real opportunity for dispute resolution in the same way that an Issues Resolution Hearing provides that facility in public law children proceedings” (per Ryder LJ at [47] in Re C (Due Process)). We recognise that in exceptional cases, it is possible that a judge may express a view in the context of judicially-assisted conciliation which may render it inappropriate for that judge to go on to determine contested issues at a substantive hearing. Recusal would only be justified, we emphasise exceptionally, if to proceed to hear the substantive case would cause “the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, …[to]… conclude that there was a real possibility that the tribunal was biased”: see Porter v Magill, Weeks v Magill [2001] UKHL 67, [2002] AC 357, [2002] 2 WLR 37, [2002] 1 All ER 465, [2002] LGR 51.
  3. As we indicated at [18] above at the 13 May hearing the Judge enabled the father to recognise that his residence application was not currently likely to succeed; the father, for his part, appears to have accepted the judicial steer. We do not see why that indication on its own should at that stage of the case have caused the Judge to disqualify herself from maintaining case responsibility. It is not apparent that the parties took any position or made any other offer of compromise which would have given rise to any other potential conflict for the judge.

 

However, ground 2, the father immediately triumphs on the third part – the Judge having said at the conciliation style hearing that she would not go on to decide any contested matters ought not to have later done so.

ii) Did the Judge err in making substantive orders on 3 July 2014 (including a section 91(14) order restricting any application under section 8 CA 1989):

a) In the absence of the father?

b) On the basis of factual findings made without forensic testing of the documentary material, of some of which the father had no knowledge?

And/or

c) Having indicated to the parties that she would not conduct any hearing in relation to residence issues?

 

Starting with (c)

 The father was entitled to the view that the Judge had earlier given the impression that she would not herself deal with such issues, giving him ‘liberty to apply’ at the earlier (13 May 14) hearing. In short, in making these substantive orders (which directly impacted upon the father’s prospective residence claim), the Judge did, in our judgment, precisely that which she had told the parties she would not do. In this respect we have reluctantly concluded that the Judge materially fell into error, leaving the father with an understandable sense of grievance, and reaching a conclusion which is in the circumstances unsustainable.

 

On the other aspects of this ground, the Court of Appeal were content that father had had notice of the hearing and it had not been improper to proceed in his absence (a),  but that it had been wrong to proceed to make serious orders that he had not been put on notice about and to do it on ‘evidence’ which he had not been able to challenge

  1. However, the father’s absence was a significant factor which contributed to two material errors which in our judgment fundamentally undermine the integrity of the Judge’s conclusions:

    i) She made findings of fact on documentary material of which the father had no notice, and on which he had had no chance to make representations;ii) She made substantive orders fundamentally affecting his relationship with his daughter, and his access to the court, having previously told the father that she would not ‘hear the hearing’ of any such substantive application.

    In [39-41] and [42] we enlarge on these points.

  2. The judgment of 3 July 2014, and orders which flow from it, is predicated upon findings of fact which the Judge reached on written documentation (e-mails and position statements) which was not in conventional form (see rule 22 FPR 2010). We make no criticism of that per se, but consider that the judge should have cautioned herself about the possible deficiencies inherent in making findings in these circumstances, particularly where the evidence was not tested. She found that the father’s conversations with Contact Centre A displayed “a truly monstrous display of manipulation” yet the father’s written representations (dated 19 June and 2 July 2014), which she had apparently considered in reaching that conclusion, do not address this evidence in detail; indeed the father makes no specific reference at all in his submission to the e-mail from Contact Centre A (see [22] above). We cannot be certain that the father had even seen it.
  3. Of more concern, the Judge refers to, and appears to rely on as evidence of the father’s generally disruptive and belligerent conduct, an e-mail from a solicitor (unconnected with the case) who is reported to have overheard a heated conversation (“raised voices”) between the father and the Children’s Guardian following the 13 May 2014 hearing. The Judge at the 3 July 2014 hearing told those present that she “has no reason to distrust” the author of the e-mail, which she describes as “quite shocking”. Again, the father, so far as we can tell, was unaware of this evidence and had no opportunity to challenge it; the father had as it happens separately written to the Court complaining that after the 13 May 2014 hearing the Guardian had threatened to report the father to his local social services department, but the Judge does not bring in to her reckoning the father’s complaint.
  4. It also appears that the father had not received the Guardian’s report prior to the 3 July 2014 hearing; certainly he claims not to have seen it at the time he sent in his written representations to the court on the day prior to the hearing. We found no evidence that he had had seen the position statement of the child’s solicitor which (by admission) “went a little further” than the Guardian’s report/recommendation. The father had had no opportunity to comment on any of this material which rendered the judge’s conclusions, in our judgment, highly vulnerable.
  5. More significantly, at the hearing on 3 July 2014 the Judge made orders which went further than had previously been intimated, bringing to a formal end the father’s relationship with his daughter for the foreseeable future, and curbing his ability to pursue an application under section 8 CA 1989 in relation to her for many years.

 

So the appeal would be granted on this basis and sent for re-hearing.  The other two grounds were comfortably made out, that the judicial analysis of the circumstances that would warrant making an order that would mean father having no contact fell far short of what the law requires, and that the legal and procedural protections for a party when making a section 91(14) order had not been met.

 

In final summary, the Court of Appeal had this to say

 

  1. Conclusion
  2. No one should underestimate the challenges to family judges of dealing with cases of this kind. A number of experienced family judges have laudably tried different methods, alternately robust and cautious, to achieve the best outcome for E, but appear to have failed. While we are conscious that the case has presented significant management issues, largely attributable it appears to the conduct of the father, regrettably judicial continuity has not been achieved and this may have added to the faltering process.
  3. By allowing this appeal, we are conscious that we are consigning these parties to a further round of litigation concerning E; this is particularly unfortunate given the history of this case, and the inevitable toll which it is taking on all of the parties, evident from our own assessment of them in court.
  4. In remitting the case for re-hearing, we do not intend to signal any view as to the merits of the mother’s applications, or the likely outcome of the same. We are conscious that E has had virtually no relationship with her father for over half of her life; the Judge could not be criticised for observing, as she did, that a contact regime has thus far proved impossible to sustain. Our own summary of the relevant history above may demonstrate this sufficiently. However, given the life-long implications for E, her parents and family, of the orders which have been successfully challenged by this application and appeal, it is imperative that a proper determination is achieved, as soon as practicable, in order that fully-informed welfare-based decisions can properly be made in the interests of E.

 

 

 

 

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About suesspiciousminds

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

7 responses

  1. Re The Case you called (in our view offensively) the “Steptoe and Son Wall Case” i Re S (Children) [2014] EWFC 9 Russell J is in the Court of Appeal on 2 September 2015 after the father disabled and diagnosed as dangerously ill and unfit to travel has been told by Lady Justice Macur to be at the Court or withdraw the Appeals. The Court of Appeal will be told a tale of corruption in Lancashire County Council, lying Social Workers, false and fabricated evidence, admissions of false evidence admitted on covert recordings of Social Workers, rape of a 12 years old in an LCC Foster Home, sexual abuse of a 3 years old by a Foster Parent, all in the past 12 months, biassed judges in the Court of Appeal, the murder by Social Workers of a 21 years old mother Katrina Rose Black in 2013. Your post about Steptoe and Son was the “cherry on the cake” of a family torn apart by a corrupt Family Justice system. Former Judge Mark Hedley has written to the parents to express his grave concerns after LCC removed the children in 2013 after he ordered the LCC to return the children and said there was no Threshold. LCC waited until he retired and went back and removed them without Court Orders on the evidence he rejected. We daresay you will not publish these facts.

  2. ashamedtobebritish

    I don’t know whether to feel sorry for this judge or outraged. What an extremely difficult position !
    Having to deal with a man who I at first thought this was written about, I know how extremely difficult and dangerous it is for the child and the contact workers, therefore I agree with her decision of no contact, but …

    Decision makers must know the law they are bound by and she clearly didn’t

  3. Pingback: appeal – no contact, section 91(14) and j...

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