The Court of Appeal in Re S (children) 2016 consider this point of law, and whilst they say that they are explicitly not ruling on it, they do give the answer
During the appeal hearing, the question arose as to whether the judge could have compelled K to give evidence if she remained unwilling to do so. I am grateful to counsel for efficiently providing an agreed note of the legal position immediately following the hearing. As that note recognised, the question of whether a court can/should use its powers to issue a witness summons in relation to a reluctant child in family proceedings has not been considered by the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court since the Supreme Court’s decision in Re W (supra). The present case was not one in which we needed to hear oral argument on the subject and I would not wish to be thought to be expressing any view about it. However, it may be helpful to record that counsel agreed that a competent child is a compellable witness in civil proceedings and that a witness summons could have been issued under section 31G of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 if appropriate. Theoretically, the penalties for failing to attend in answer to a witness summons are committal to custody and/or a fine. However, there can be no detention for contempt of a person under the age of 18, see sections 89 and 108 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000.
- If the child is competent (rule of thumb here is going to be functioning at about the level of an average 13 year old, but there may be other factors which make an older child not competent or a younger one competent), then they are a compellable witness.
- A compellable witness can be made to attend Court to give evidence under a witness summons
- The protection against self-incrimination in s98 Children Act 1989 doesn’t apply to a child – so they would have to be warned about the risk of possible criminal proceedings arising from their evidence.
- However, the punishment for a person not obeying a witness summons (i.e what you do if they don’t turn up) are imprisonment or a fine.
- You can’t imprison a witness under 18 for not obeying a witness summons.
- That leaves you with a fine. Unless the child witness is Richie Rich or Mustafa Millions, that doesn’t really help.
- So you CAN compel them, but you can’t actually do anything if they call your bluff.
That’s the legal interest in the case. Other than that, it is always worthy of note when the Court of Appeal split. The main issue here was that a 15 year old K, made allegations of sexual abuse and reported them to the police. There was then something of a backtracking when the police wanted to press charges. K did not want to press charges, she had wanted the abuse to stop. She said to the police that she was not retracting the allegations, but didn’t want charges to be pressed. However, one police note of a conversation with K recorded that K said she had made the allegations up. K then wrote two letters saying that she had made the allegations up and that things had got out of hand.
Those representing the alleged perpetrator in the family Court proceedings about K and her siblings understandably wanted K to be produced as a witness. A judicial decision was taken not to compel her attendance, and the Judge went on to make findings (including one which was supported by a medical but was explicitly not an allegation that K had ever made herself). The findings and the case management decision were appealed.
All three of the Court of Appeal Judges said that the finding which was suggested by medical examination but had never been a claim that K had made had to be overturned. Two of the Judges held that the other findings were safe and should not be overturned. The third took the opposite view.
I will set out the minority view, which was not the decision of the Court of Appeal, because I think it contains some powerful arguments (even though they were not successful). For my part, I think it is very difficult to make findings of such a serious nature as sexual abuse when there are changes of position by the complainant, and letters of retraction, without hearing some direct evidence from the complainant. I think that the Judge worked very hard to make it as fair and balanced a judgment as possible, but I would have been with Lady Justice Gloster on this, I just don’t think that the findings can be considered safe in this context. The burden of proof is on the LA to prove that the abuse happened, not on the accused person to prove their innocence. [Sometimes you do end up with cases where there are very strong suspicions but also doubts, and what tips the balance either way is the credibility of the complainant. If the accused person cannot properly test the complainant’s evidence, the right to fair trial is questionable, for me.]
Lady Justice Gloster:
- It is with considerable diffidence that I disagree with views expressed by such experienced family judges as Lady Justice Black and HHJ Moir. This court is rightly very cautious about interfering with case management decisions and second-guessing findings of fact made at first instance by careful family judges. However this case has left me with a deep sense of unease, both in relation to the initial decision of HHJ Moir dated 16 September 2014 that K was not to give oral evidence in the finding of fact hearing and the judge’s subsequent fact-finding judgment dated 15 October 2014 (the order in relation to which is inappropriately described as a “case management order”) in which she held that the Appellant had indeed sexually abused his sister, K. That concern is aggravated by the fact that, as my Lady, Lady Justice Black, has held (and as I agree) there was no basis for HHJ Moir’s finding that the Appellant had anally abused K.
- The critical features of this case may, in my judgment, be summarised as follows:
i) The single issue was whether the Appellant had abused K.ii) The case against the Appellant depended entirely on the veracity of K’s allegations.
iii) The burden of proof at all times was on the Local Authority to establish on the balance of probabilities that the abuse had occurred.
iv) There was no medical evidence of vaginal penetration, despite K’s repeated allegations that she had had full penetrative sex and that she was “no longer a virgin”. In this context the judge appears to have relied on what I regard as the somewhat ambivalent evidence of Dr Jones that “penetration through the hymen can occur without leaving any physical signs”; see paragraph 30 of the judgment.
v) The ABE video interviews of K, upon which the judge heavily relied in reaching her conclusions, had taken place in March and April 2013, at a time well before K had started to attempt to halt the criminal process (July 2013) or had begun, albeit somewhat equivocally, to retract her allegations in their entirety on the grounds that she had made them up (16 September 2013); see paragraphs 9 –13 above for the chronology. So those interviews contained no evidence about the reasons for her retractions.
vi) K frequently changed her mind as to whether she was prepared to give evidence. She informed her guardian that her allegations were untrue and that she wished to give evidence. Subsequently it appears that she changed her view and that she did not want to give evidence. Her guardian assessed her as a “mature young person who had the capacity and competence to give instructions.” The social worker who assessed described her as a “determined and strong willed individual who speaks her mind”, and also observed K as being “quite fragile in her presentation and lacking in self-esteem.”
vii) In deciding whether K should give evidence, the judge relied upon the opinion of K’s guardian and the social worker to the effect that:
“I do not feel that [K] is able to recognise any links to her self-reported frustration and anger with the coping strategies she may have adopted to deal with how she was feeling with her experiences of the current situation. I feel that she seeks to display a certain persona in order to ease her emotions while having built up a barrier up to others to cover how she is feeling.
I would not be in support of [K] giving direct evidence at the fact-finding hearing due to the concerns outlined above. I do not feel that she is emotionally able to deal with the impact that this could have on her. I feel [K] would struggle to manage in-depth questioning on the basis that giving direct evidence is to have her say and [inaudible]”.
viii) On any basis, the evidence of K’s guardian and the social worker as to K’s wish or ability to give evidence at trial was highly unsatisfactory and vague opinion evidence. It could not replace an assessment of K’s evidence by the judge.
ix) As a result of the judge’s ruling that K would not be required to give evidence, or otherwise be subjected to any questioning as to why she had changed her mind, because of her so-called “vulnerability, a fragile presentation and her lack of self-esteem”, the reality was that the Appellant was deprived of any effective opportunity to challenge the veracity of K’s case.
x) The case was one of huge importance for the future life of the Appellant and his relationship with his two infant sons and his partner, their mother. It clearly raised serious issues, so far as he was concerned, in relation to his rights under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights (“the ECHR”) to a fair trial, and, so far as he, and his children were concerned, in relation to his rights under Article 8 to a family life.
- In my judgment HHJ Moir’s case management decision dated 15 October 2014, in which she decided that K should not be called as a witness, failed in any adequate way to weigh up the two relevant considerations set out in Re W (Children)  UKSC 12 namely: the advantages that a child giving evidence will bring to the determination of the truth; and the damage which it might do to the welfare of the child witness. In my judgment, there was no adequate medical, or indeed other, evidence, apart from the vague and dubious views of K’s guardian and the social worker, to support the conclusion that it would be so harmful for K to give evidence that she should not be asked to do so. Nor was there any adequate analysis by the judge as to why those concerns trumped the entitlement of the Appellant to question why she had retracted, or, at the least, to some extent resiled from, her previous allegations.
- As to the first consideration, K was at the time of the fact-finding hearing 13 years and 10 months old and had no cognitive impairment. There was no reason on age and maturity grounds why she should not have been called as a witness. She had displayed as a person who was at least to some extent prepared to exert pressure on the authorities to force the outcome of the criminal proceedings. She clearly had differing attitudes at different times as to whether she wanted, or was prepared, to give evidence. She was a mature young person who had been described as a “determined and strong willed individual who speaks her mind”; see above. Her allegations were extremely serious. There was, in my judgment, no adequate consideration by the judge as to whether K should be required – and indeed whether it would be in K’s interests for her to be required – to give evidence, which either stood by her previous allegations, or which explained the circumstances in which she had resiled from them. Whilst, whether her allegations were true or false, it might well have been distressing or demanding for her to have given evidence, there was no psychiatric or psychological evidence to support the idea that it would have been mentally damaging for her to have given evidence. There was no consideration by the judge as to the advantages to K personally of facing up to the consequences of the allegations which she had made, whether they were true or false, or as to the disadvantages to her of being allowed to avoid responsibility for the consequences of her allegations by not being required to attend trial.
- Moreover, it was extremely unclear whether K was an unwilling witness or not. She changed her mind frequently about wishing to give evidence in the months leading up to the judge’s ruling and had not been asked in the weeks prior to the ruling whether she would, in fact be prepared to give evidence (whether with or without special measures). Indeed it is significant that the final order dated 8 December 2014 recites the fact that K “would like to meet with the judge”, although the judge ruled that this could not take place until the proceedings were over.
- In my view the judge was also wrong not to explore other ways in which K could have given evidence, apart from being subjected to cross-examination in open court in front of the Appellant and others. The fact that counsel for the Appellant did not raise the possibility of the judge questioning K in the presence of counsel, but in the absence of the parties, by reference to questions agreed in advance, does not seem to me to be a reason why the judge should not have given consideration to such an option or other alternative options. This was a case that cried out for special measures so as to ensure that the judge received direct evidence from K in relation to the allegations, and, in particular, her retraction of them, and was not forced to rely on the very unsatisfactory secondary evidence of the social worker and the Guardian as to their interpretation of K’s evidence. In my judgment some sort of measure should have been in place to ensure that the judge heard directly from K on the fact-finding hearing.
- As to the second consideration, in my judgment there was no adequate consideration by the judge of the impact on the Appellant’s case of the inability of his counsel to cross-examine K as to the allegations and her retraction of, or unwillingness to proceed with, them. The consequences for the Appellant, and his infant children, leaving aside his relationship with his partner, were monumentally serious if K’s allegations against him were accepted. On any basis, in my judgment, he could not have had a fair trial in circumstances where the judge was able, in effect, to rely so heavily, if not exclusively, on the ABE interviews conducted before K sought to retract, or sought not to proceed with, her allegations.
- For the above reasons, I would have allowed the appeal against the judge’s case management decision dated 16 September 2014. In my judgment the judge failed to appreciate that the critical issue was whether or not the Appellant could have had a fair trial without the ability of challenging K’s evidence in any realistic way. In my judgment the judge failed properly to apply the guidelines set down in Re W, which reflect the paramount consideration that a party should have a fair trial.
- I should say that, so far as the evidence of the K’s two friends are concerned, such evidence was clearly hearsay and should have been afforded very little evidential weight, since, in all the circumstances, it could have provided very little corroborative support for K’s own evidence.
- Likewise, for the above reasons, it seems to me that the judge’s conclusions in her fact-finding judgment dated 15 October 2014 are clearly open to serious doubt. I do not see how, in the absence of up-to-date evidence directly from K herself, as to the retraction and/or reluctance to proceed with her allegations, the judge was able to conclude that she could rely so heavily on the ABE interviews, or come to the conclusion, as set out in paragraphs 38-39 of the judgment, that K’s allegations were true and that her retraction had arisen partly because of pressure from her family, but largely because of her own feeling of responsibility for breaking up her family and her own strong desire to see her nephews. The inferences which the judge drew from the documentary evidence in my judgment cannot be supported in the absence of up-to-date direct evidence from K herself.
- I also regard the judge’s analysis of the evidence of the Appellant as inadequate. There is no, or no adequate, explanation by the judge as to why she felt able to reject his evidence that the alleged abuse never took place.
- In my judgment the judge failed to give proper consideration to the fact that the burden of proof lay on the Local Authority. She had no basis for concluding on the balance of probabilities that K’s serious allegations against the Appellant had been proved. In the absence of any opportunity afforded to the Appellant to challenge K’s evidence that was not a conclusion which I consider she was entitled to reach. In my judgment, the Appellant did not have a fair trial in accordance with his rights under Article 6 of the ECHR and, as a result, his Article 8 rights and those of his infant sons, have been seriously infringed.
- I would allow the appeal and set aside the findings of HHJ Moir. I would rule that no findings adverse to the Appellant in relation to the allegations of sexual abuse could properly be made on the evidence available to the judge. But since Black and Vos LJJ consider that the appeal should be dismissed, that will be the order of this court.