Threshold criteria – the legal ‘key’ which allows a Court to make a Care or Supervision Order, is defined by section 31 of the Children Act 1989 and it usually relies on the child having suffered or there being a likelihood that the child will suffer significant harm, as a result of the parent behaving in a way that would be unreasonable to expect of a parent. There is, however, the much less frequently seen other limb which is that the child is ‘beyond parental control’.
There are volumes of reported cases about threshold on the first limb, but very little on the second, so even though this is a Circuit Judge decision and not binding precedent, it is worthy of discussion.
Re P (Permission to withdraw care proceedings) 2016
I’ve written at some length about one of the cases cited in this judgment, Re K, and the facts here are somewhat similar.
It relates to adoptive parents of a child, where the placement breaks down, and at much the same time, the relationship between the parents and the Local Authority similarly hits the buffers. (This was the second such breakdown – the child having been placed with different people previously, which makes things even sadder and harder)
In Re P, the Local Authority had issued care proceedings, but by the conclusion of the case were seeking leave to withdraw. That was agreed by everyone, but what was contentious was the basis of that withdrawal. The Local Authority contended that threshold was crossed but it was not in the child’s welfare interests to make an order, whereas the parents contended that threshold was not crossed.
It was common ground that as a result of her life experiences, the child was in a seriously bad way. She had been sectioned, diagnosed with an emotionally unstable personality disorder and had been self-harming. It was in no doubt that she had suffered significant harm. As a factual matter, she was probably beyond parental control. (Whether anyone could have exercised control with those particular difficulties is a considerable question)
The principal legal issue was whether you should approach threshold like this
- The child has suffered significant harm AND
- She is beyond parental control
Which was how the LA argued it
- The child has suffered significant harm AND
- She is beyond parental control AND
- There is some casual link, even if it is not the only or dominant cause, between the child being beyond parental control and the significant harm.
As the parents were arguing.
For clarity, in the first instance, there’s no sense of blame, and in the second, there’s at least some slight degree of blame or responsibility for at least some of the harm.
If the parents have done nothing wrong, and the child being beyond their control is a CONSEQUENCE of her difficulties and the harm she is experiencing, rather than her difficulties and the harm being at least in small part a CONSEQUENCE of her being beyond parental control, then should threshold be crossed? Can threshold be crossed if a parent has done nothing other than what any parent could have done in the circumstances?
It might have been quite easy for the parents in this case to say “Well, the LA aren’t seeking a finding that we did anything wrong, so let’s just agree threshold is crossed, and accept this plate of fudge” but I think that it raises an important point of principle and they were right to stand their ground.
As the transcript of judgment contains matters that are emboldened, I can’t use my usual approach of putting the judgment in bold, so bear with me. These are the relevant bits of the judgment
- S.31(2) of the children Act 1989 provides:-A court may only make a care order or supervision order if it satisfied (a) that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm and that harm or likelihood of harm is attributable to…….ii) the child’s being beyond parental control. Mr. Sinclair relies upon the judgment of H.H.J.Bellamy, sitting as a judge of the Family Division in Re:K(Post Adoption Placement Breakdown) 1FLR. where a child had suffered extreme damage in the care of her birth parents, resulting in an attachment disorder; expert evidence concluded that no blame could be attached to the adoptive parents for the child’s difficult behaviour and that the child was likely to suffer significant harm because of her reactive attachment disorder and not because she was beyond parental control.
- HHJ.Bellamy referred to the observations of Lord Nicholls in Lancashire v B  1FLR: ” ….the phrase “attributable” in S.31(2)(b) connotes a causal connection between the harm or likelihood of harm on the one hand and the care or likely care of the child’s being beyond parental control on the other….. the connection need not be that of a sole or dominant or direct cause and effect, a contributory causal connection suffices”. At para. 149 he concluded that if a child suffered significant harm as a result of a disorder which effected her behaviour and as a result of that behaviour the parent is unable to control the child, that lack of control was at the very least, a contributory cause of the likelihood of future harm. Accordingly he made a care order, in the belief that it was not open to him to ward the child. Subsequently the Court of Appeal discharged the care order and made her a ward of court.
- Mr. Sinclair urges me to take a similar approach in this case and conclude that the harm caused to T. or likely to be caused to her whilst a result of her mental health diagnosis was/is attributable to her being beyond parental control – at least in part. He has also referred to para.3.1 to the 2008 guidance to the Children Act for the use of local authorities that the court is required to determine as a matter of fact whether a child is beyond parental control and if he/she is it is immaterial who, if anyone is to blame. This paragraph has been omitted from the current guidance.
- Conversely , Mr. Parker on behalf of the parents argues that the comments of Lord Nicholls make it clear that the inclusion of the word “attributable” results in the need to make a causal connection between harm and being beyond parental control, albeit it need not be the only or dominant cause; that on the facts of this case, whilst there is overwhelming evidence that T. has suffered and is likely to continue to suffer significant harm, there is no evidence that this is attributable in any way to the fact that T is beyond parental control. He refers to the authorities of Re: O [a minor] (care proceedings: education) 1992 4 All ER 905 and M v Birmingham City Council  2 FLR 141 Stuart-White as authority for the proposition that lack of control involved parental culpability. Having read these two judgments in my view both learned judges assumed this proposition to be the case. I have also considered Re:L (a minor) Court of Appeal 18.3.1997
- Ms. Jones on behalf of T. (who visited me this morning in the company of two members of staff from the hospital, where she is an in-patient), and Ms.Jones pointed out that the guardian (and her predecessor) seriously questioned the actions of the local authority in issuing these proceedings. I voiced that opinion at an early CM hearing and I urged the local authority to consider at a senior level whether these proceedings should continue. Despite the views of the previously allocated social worker in her first and second statements that the parents were not a protective factor for T. and the assertion that the local authority needed to share parental responsibility for T, T’s previous treating psychiatrist was quite clear in the professionals’ meetings that the parents had only ever had T’s interests at heart and were indefatigable in supporting her and trying to obtain the best treatment. At paragraph 30 of Ms.Jones’ skeleton argument she says “It should be made very clear in the judgment that the parents are not culpable in any way, that there is no evidence to support inadequate parenting and that they have shown themselves to be committed parents and advocates for their daughter.”
- Under the Children and Young persons Act 1969 the courts had the power to remove a child from the care of his/her parents if it was satisfied that the child in question was beyond parental control. It was not necessary to show serious harm, or likelihood of harm. The Children Act 1989 changed the law and required harm/likelihood of harm to be proved and for it to be attributable to either the care given by the parents, or the child being beyond parental control. In my judgment the ordinary grammatical construction of the section requires the establishment of a causal connection by evidence, however slight. That is lacking in the documents filed in this case and with respect I cannot agree with Paragraph 149 of HHJ Bellamy’s judgment in Re:K (see above). Therefore I give the local authority permission to withdraw these proceedings on the basis that it is unlikely on the current evidence to be able to prove threshold.
- There is no evidence of any kind that either the mother or the father are culpable in any way for the behaviour of their daughter and the harm she has suffered or is at risk of suffering in the future. They have fought tirelessly for her to receive the treatment she needs and in my judgment these proceedings should never have been issued. [underlining mine on this paragraph]
There is a broader issue and that was highlighted considerably in the Selwyn 2014 research on adoption breakdowns https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/04/10/adoption-breakdown-research/ which showed that once adopters came to local authorities with problems or the placement was beginning to show cracks, the supportive element seemed to be frequently replaced with a combative and blaming approach. I don’t know the background and facts of this particular case other than what is in the judgment, but it does seem to me that blame was the last thing that was needed. I wish this young woman, and her parents, well for the future and hope that she can get the help that she clearly needs and that after this hearing, everyone involved in her life will be able to pull together and work with each other.