The High Court case of West Sussex CC v H and Others 2015 throws up an interesting issue.
This was a fact finding hearing, where the central allegation was that either mother or her boyfriend W, had caused a brain injury to a child who was two years old. The injury had at the time been life-threatening.
This is one of the most serious sorts of cases that come before the family Court. A finding that mother had caused that injury or failed to protect the child would have serious consequences for this mother’s prospects of keeping the children and possibly of any future children she might have. Also, the process itself would involve a lot of documents, some complicated issues and really forensic dissection of the events that happened that night, in a lot of detail.
The mother had undergone a cognitive assessment by Dr Nigel North, and he had concluded that she would need the assistance of an intermediary when giving evidence.
Intermediaries are used in criminal proceedings, and they play a very important part in making sure that a vulnerable witness can give the best evidence that they are able to.
The Registered Intermediary, having taken the intermediary oath, assists during the giving of evidence. They sit alongside the witness in the live link room (or stand next to them if they are giving evidence in court) in order to monitor communication. They intervene during questioning when appropriate and as often as appropriate in accordance with the ground rules and the recommendations in their report. [taken from http://www.theadvocatesgateway.org/intermediaries ]
However, though that was a clear recommendation and not challenged by anyone, she had to give evidence without an intermediary as the Legal Aid Agency had refused to fund one.
- The case was before me for case management on the 24th April 2015 and following the orders made on that day it was listed to be heard in July 2015. In addition to the complexity of the medical evidence there were concerns about the ability of M to fully participate in, and understand the proceedings because of a report by Dr Nigel North (a psychologist) dated the 6th March 2015 which recommended the use of an intermediary. The solicitors for M had applied for public funding for an intermediary assessment which was refused by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). There followed attempts by the solicitors to appeal against this decision which were unsuccessful. By the time the solicitors approached the court for approval for funding an intermediary without a further assessment to support M during the trial in July there were none available to come to court.
- Given her history, which was never in dispute, it is not clear to me why it was considered necessary to have a further assessment by qualified intermediary except that Dr North is not an intermediary himself; the stance of the LAA did not assist when coupled with the insistence by Communicourt that they carry out an assessment separately from supporting Y at court. This led to the refusal of funding for that initial assessment. There is undoubtedly a pressing need for clear guidance and rules similar to those in criminal proceedings when it comes to the treatment of vulnerable witnesses. It is to be hoped that the proposed addition to the Family Procedure rules will come in to force sooner rather than later.
There would not have been a problem obtaining an intermediary in a criminal court*, but in a family court if the Legal Aid Agency say no, that’s the end of it. [*I’m not a criminal lawyer, so I might be utterly wrong here and if someone more knowledgeable tells me otherwise, I’ll amend. Of course in a criminal case, the Judge could throw the trial out for abuse of process if the LAA refused to provide an intermediary where one was necessary, and that’s a bit more difficult in family proceedings. You don’t want to decide family cases and the safety and future of children on a ‘technicality’]
Those involved in the case worked with the Judge, Russell J, to come up with the fairest solution that they could.
- On the first day of the fact finding trial I heard a ground rules hearing to decide how the case could progress without the assistance of an intermediary taking into account the recommendations which had been made by Dr North. It was agreed that the trial could go ahead with frequent breaks to allow M to have time to consider the evidence broken up into shorter more manageable sections. There were to be breaks every 30 minutes or more often if needed. M’s evidence was to be similarly divided; she was to be asked short questions and cross-examined by one counsel only, who would agree the area of questioning with other counsel. Counsel for the local authority undertook this task with the assistance of the guidance provide by the ATC in their toolkit for family proceedings. As there were seven files of evidence the documents that M was to be referred to during her evidence were placed in one file; in addition it was agreed that she would be supported by someone she knew from her solicitor’s firm to find pages or if she needed any other assistance.
- M’s own mother L is a respondent to these proceedings as she had originally been named as a possible perpetrator and is closely concerned with the local authority’s future plans for the care of Y and X. She was able to offer M additional support throughout the hearing.
[The outcome of the case was that the Judge found that mother’s boyfriend W, had caused the injury but more out of carelessness or recklessness than by any intention to hurt the child :- I do not consider that there is evidence to support any suggestion that the impact was deliberately inflicted and consider it more likely that it was a reckless and foolish action taken by a young man who has no experience as a parent, primary or main carer of a child who is still very young. There was no finding that the mother had done anything wrong M’s conduct since that night has been congruent with a parent seeking an answer to what has happened to her child and has not been self-serving or defensive. ]