In Re D (Children) 2015 , Mr Justice Holman made some very important observations about the importance of judicial continuity, particularly in cases where there are intractable difficulties about contact. He also expressed some exasperation that cases often reach a point where the Judges just give up trying and transfer the case to the High Court in the hope that somehow the High Court can magically fix everything.
- Cases concerning intractable contact, probably more than any other case within the field of family law, require judicial continuity. There tends to be a need for a number of hearings, and it is of the utmost importance that one single judge deals with such a case from first to last so that he or she becomes very familiar with the dynamics of the a case, and the parties, in turn, become familiar with the judge who is dealing with their case. This makes it particularly inappropriate and unsuitable that a case of this kind is ever listed before an occasional visiting High Court judge unless that judge is known to be making repeated return visits to the area in question.
- I myself am currently sitting here in Leeds for about three weeks. I am not scheduled to be sitting again in Leeds or anywhere in Yorkshire throughout 2016, and I have no idea where I will be sitting after that. In other words, I cannot give to this case any judicial continuity whatsoever. I am merely, as it were, passing through it. For the reasons I have indicated, that is highly undesirable, and listing officers should take great care to ensure that it does not happen in relation to a case of this kind.
- I am aware that in some cases involving intractable contact judges of a lower tier sometimes believe that in some way a High Court judge can bring a new insight to the case, or bring about change which the lower tier judge has been unable to achieve. The fact of the matter is that I do not have any power in relation to this case which is not possessed also by a local circuit judge. I have no “magic wand”, and any advantage in the case being heard by a High Court judge is more than outweighed by the disadvantage that there can be no judicial continuity.
This case bizarrely turned on an alleged telephone conversation between mother and the CAFCASS officer, who records in the very short “initial safeguarding enquiries”
“[The mother] stated that whilst she was in a relationship with [the father] he once threw [the elder son] across the bedroom on to a mattress whilst he was angry. She stated that he had never been physically violent towards her or the children but he had bullied her through verbal taunts during their relationship. [The mother] stated that [the father] has sleep problems and this has led to him on occasions wrapping blankets around [the elder son’s] head whilst they shared a bed. She also stated that [the father] has also made unwanted sexual advances towards her whilst he has been asleep and she fears that the children would be at risk if he were to be in the sole care of the children at night time.”
The mother instead says that she did not say that the father had not been violent to herself or the children and that there were very substantial allegations of domestic violence to be determined.
She had contacted four solicitors, each of whom she says told her that she would be unable to get legal aid because the CAFCASS report said that there was no violence. [I think there might be more to this than meets the eye, as I’d expect at least one of them to have said “But if you dispute that you said that, and you do say there was Domestic violence, lets have a look at how you evidence it”, but the Judge was satisfied that this is what had happened]
When she raised the issues before the Family Court in person, the Judge there relied substantially on the passage quoted above to show that there was no violence, but did not contact the CAFCASS officer to ask for clarification as to why the report says that but mother disputed it, or call the CAFCASS officer to give evidence. Instead, the passage was rather taken as gospel. Also rather oddly, when hearing the disputed evidence, rather than having the parents in the witness box giving evidence and cross-examining each other, it proceeded more on the basis of a conversation going backwards and forward.
- The reality of the matter is that the mother makes very considerable allegations of serious aggression and violence by the father towards her, and separately the children, including her daughter. This case is a very serious one. There are very serious allegations and issues at stake; and, subject to means (but she says she is entirely dependent on state benefits), this mother desperately needs proper legal representation and the court desperately needs the mother (and ideally also the father) to be properly legally represented if it is to get to the bottom of the truth of the matter. To date, however, neither parent has had any legal representation.
- So it came about that the case was listed for a fact finding hearing before a district judge which took place on 30th and 31st March 2015. Both parents represented themselves. I wish to make crystal clear that in what I am about to say I do not intend any criticism whatsoever of the district judge concerned (whom I do not know) who obviously did his very best in a difficult situation.
- The unsatisfactory nature of the hearing perhaps emerges from paragraph 15 of the transcript of his ex tempore judgment in which he says:
“Because both parties were unrepresented, as opposed to cross-examination I allowed both parties to have their say and move the matter backwards and forwards and I heard at length from both the parties who confirmed the contents of their written documentation and gave oral evidence. I am satisfied I heard sufficient yesterday to enable me to reach some conclusions.”
Importantly, he went on to say:
“I do not doubt that mother genuinely wants what is best for her children and the views she expresses are her genuinely held views.”
- However, I have to say that the judgment as a whole contains little account of the detail or content of the evidence that was given, or any real analysis of it. The judge said at the end of paragraph 16 of his judgment:
“At the end of the day what this court has to grapple with is whether this father is a risk to his children.”
He then referred to that initial safeguarding report by CAFCASS and the fact that within it the mother is reported as having:
“…stated that he had never been physically violent towards her or the children…”
Shortly after that he says in his judgment:
“I cannot ignore the fact that that is what it is said that mother is reporting, but other than those matters specifically referred to he had never been physically violent towards her or the children.”
- I have been told by the mother yesterday, and this was confirmed by the CAFCASS officer who is now the children’s guardian and was present at the hearing on 30th March 2015, that the mother strongly said then, as she says now, that she did not say to that first CAFCASS officer what he recorded her as having said. Deeply regrettably, the officer was never contacted. He was never asked to come to court. Whatever notes he may have made of the telephone conversation have never been produced or examined.
- The upshot is that this case has been very decisively affected by a few challenged lines in that initial safeguarding report, which are themselves based purely on a single telephone conversation of which no original record has been produced. They appear to have had the effect that the solicitors whom the mother approached thought that it was forlorn even to apply for legal aid. They appear clearly to have decisively influenced the district judge in the decisions that he reached on the facts.
- The upshot is that so far as any allegations of aggressive or violent behaviour towards the children are concerned, the district judge was not satisfied that anything had happened except for one incident, which became known as the “bedroom incident”, in which he concluded that the facts lay somewhere in the middle of what the mother alleged and the father admitted.
- In relation to the mother’s allegations of aggression and violence towards herself, the district judge simply said at paragraph 28:
“Insofar as allegations of behaviour directed against the mother are concerned, again I hear what mother says. I make no specific findings one way or the other, but these are allegations relating to the mother. Mother is not suggesting to her credit that the behaviour was such that she is living in fear of father. They are now separated. If there had been incidents, they are not going to re-occur because the parties are not together. Again, I am not satisfied that anything I have heard satisfies me that this father is a risk to his children.”
When I say that the allegations made by the mother (I stress very clearly that I have no position whatsoever as to the truth or otherwise of them) include an allegation of raping her, it can be seen that that particular paragraph fails adequately to analyse the evidence and reach conclusions in a situation where conclusions were required.
- At all events, the thrust of the judgment and decision of the district judge was that there was nothing in the past behaviour or attitudes of the father which represented any risk to the two boys in having contact, including unsupervised and ultimately staying contact with him. The district judge then made an order dated 31st March 2015 which provided that the children shall live with their mother and should have specified periods of contact with their father, initially supervised and later unsupervised but based on a specified contact centre.
Holman J determined that the only real approach here was to treat the mother’s case as application for permission to appeal, he granted that permission, and he set the findings aside and directed that there must be a re-hearing of the evidence. That wasn’t to say that he was ruling that mother’s allegations were correct, rather that they needed to be properly heard and tested, and not to simply place reliance on one sentence of a CAFCASS officer’s recollection of a telephone conversation when that recollection was disputed.
- For those reasons I have concluded, however unusually, that I should treat the mother’s strongly stated position that the district judge made mistaken findings, as representing an oral application for permission to appeal and permission to appeal out of time from those findings of fact. I propose to grant her permission to appeal. I propose to allow the appeal and set aside the findings of fact reached by the district judge. I will give detailed orders and directions, in terms that have already been fully discussed, for this whole matter to be allocated with a fresh start to a local circuit judge who must now deal with the case with maximum judicial continuity. There will be directions designed to achieve that there is a satisfactory complete re-consideration of the true facts.
- I strongly hope that the mother, who in my view is clearly entitled to it in view of the serious allegations she makes, can obtain legal aid. I regret that the father is unlikely himself to be able to obtain legal aid, both because he is the respondent rather than the maker of the allegations of violence and abuse, and because his income may make him financially ineligible. The rest of the detailed orders and directions are, I think, self-explanatory and do not require further reference in this judgment.
Even without his wand, Holman J can still work magic and ‘get busy’ …