Readers may remember the London Borough of Redbridge getting a hard time recently in this case
And you might remember that the case hadn’t finished there – MacDonald J had effectively put the Local Authority in special measures, with them having to write to him each and every week to say if the case was still on track to an adjourned final hearing. So this is the judgment from the final hearing, and if Redbridge’s bruises were healing up, they just got some new ones.
But first, here’s photo of a muppet. (this is foreshadowing, y’all… )
Re E (A child : Care proceedings) 2016
The final hearing was conducted by Mr Justice Moor, and he opened with this King Punch
- Following the Family Justice Review, it was recognised that care proceedings were taking far too long. At the time, the average length of a care case was around 57 weeks. This was unacceptable. The Review recommended a maximum of 26 weeks. The Government accepted the recommendation and the Children and Families Act 2014 was enacted. Section 14 imposes a statutory limit on care proceedings of 26 weeks, albeit that the period can be extended but only if it is necessary to resolve the proceedings justly. Extensions are not to be granted routinely and each extension is to be for no more than eight weeks.
- The care proceedings in relation to E. commenced on 12th January 2014. By my calculations, that is some 148 weeks ago. I am dismayed by this. It is completely wrong. E. has been let down in a quite unacceptable way. The strain on E.’s mother has been huge. She has been let down as well. Everything that could go wrong in this case has gone wrong. E. and her family are due an apology for this unacceptable state of affairs.
Awful situation. When I look at the history of litigation set out by the Judge though, I see SEVEN different Judges have dealt with substantive matters where issues were contested and determined, and who knows how many others have done directions hearing. What price judicial continuity? The Courts have to look at themselves for some of this. The case could not have got up to 148 weeks if the Courts weren’t granting extensions, and though many of them were due to faults from the parties, there was still a failure to properly grip the case right up until Mr Justice MacDonald’s fearsome judgment.
Having said that, it was still quite astonishing that a case with the history of this one (two appeals, case falling apart at final hearing, the LA within a short space of time going from a plan of no order, to Supervision Order to Care Order to Care Order and removal) that the LA got to the final hearing with a social worker who seemed very nice, but for whom this was their second ever case in Court. It also wasn’t ideal that his first ever interaction with the mother was one where he had to tell her that the LA care plan was adoption.
The Judge did make some criticisms of the LA (though compared to the withering and blistering MacDonald J judgment, these criticisms must have almost felt like praise)
- I have already dealt with the failures of the Local Authority to comply with the directions of this court in the run up to this hearing as set out in the judgment of MacDonald J dated 17th October 2016. In the context of what had happened before, I am of the view that this case should have been given absolute priority. It was not.
- I am equally satisfied that there have been many operational failings by the Local Authority in performing its duties as to its social work function. These have occurred at a significant number of points in the case but were particularly evident at the time that rehabilitation to the Mother was ordered by Mr Recorder Bedingfield. For example, the order of the Recorder dated 20th November 2015 required the Local Authority to convene a professionals meeting by 4pm on 7th December 2015. It did not do so. It did attempt to arrange a meeting but gave Ms CT such little notice that she could not attend. The Local Authority did not, therefore, comply with the next order, namely to file a new care plan setting out the detail of the rehabilitation plan within seven days of the meeting.
- The Mother’s benefits had been stopped. Whilst the Mother may have carried some of the responsibly for this, I am satisfied that the Local Authority did not assist in the way that it should. Correspondence from the Mother’s solicitors was not responded to such that judicial review had to be threatened. Eventually, the Local Authority agreed to provide the Mother with £234.31 per week in a recital to an order dated 25th January 2016 but I am satisfied that even that did not go smoothly. Moreover, there was difficulty with the Mother getting her travel warrants to attend KCA for her drug and anger management therapy. Later, she was unable to attend this therapy as only one hour of child care was provided via PKS. As the KCA appointment was also for one-hour and she had to travel to and from the venue, it made it virtually impossible for her to continue with the work.
- I further accept that the Mother did not find her leaving care worker, Ms T to be remotely supportive of her. The Local Authority knew that. Mr Recorder Bedingfield had made criticisms of Ms T in his judgment. I accept Ms Maclachlan’s submission that Ms T should not have been invited to the contact review meeting in January 2016, although I do not accept that this was a deliberate attempt by the Local Authority to get the Mother to lose her cool. I do recognise that, for example, the issue of the Mother’s leaving care grant, which I have been told is some £2,000, was very much in issue and needed to be dealt with. However, given the Mother’s opposition, the Local Authority should have respected that. It was another unnecessary failing.
- Finally, the position of the Local Authority throughout this period left much to be desired. At one point in February/March 2016, it was inviting the court to make no order at all. At another, it sought only a supervision order. It then changed tack completely in later March 2016 to ask for a full care order. On 14th March 2016, it had been indicating it would be withdrawing the PKS workers. I accept that they could not continue to go into the home for ever, let alone daily but it is in stark contrast to a care plan only eight days later for removal. The way in which the Mother was told of the change in the care plan in the child protection conference on 22nd March 2016 was very insensitive, particularly as E. was present in the building, albeit with a PKS worker. I accept that it was always going to be difficult to tell the Mother. Is it better to do it in her home or with her solicitor or in the Local Authority offices? It was not, however, right to do it in the meeting. It was bound to distress the Mother enormously.
Very sadly, and despite an independent social worker lobbying very hard on her behalf, the Court concluded that the mother was not able to care for her child and the Care Order and Placement Orders were made. Her representatives asked the Court to make human rights declarations but the Court declined to do so. (I have seen reported cases with far less failings than this one which ended up with HRA declarations and claims, but of course, I didn’t hear or see the evidence)
But why the picture of the muppet earlier?
Well, part of the evidence involved whether the mother had been smoking cannabis, and one word rather leapt off the page at me when I was reading it
- Another real and genuine concern is the Mother’s increased use of cannabis since March 2016. She has gone from one zoot per day to three zoots. This is a clear indication of her increased anxiety and fragility. She told the Guardian that she had ceased taking cannabis on 10th October 2016 but it lasted one day, as the Guardian predicted. She has told me she has reduced her cannabis intake recently but I am not satisfied as to this without far more information. She told the Guardian that she was using skunk, which is a significantly stronger version of the drug. She told me that she did not know the difference between ordinary cannabis and skunk, which I did find surprising although she seemed to be genuine when she told me. Having said that, she did accept that it was skunk she was buying and the Guardian told me that this is now the normal way in which cannabis is sold.
- The use of cannabis can be very serious for the mental health of the user. I accept that different people react in different ways. This Mother has been using cannabis since she was aged thirteen. It does not appear to have affected her as badly as some. It has not prevented her getting to contact on time even early in the morning. It has not stopped her providing a good level of care for her daughter but I simply do not know what damage it is really doing. I strongly suspect that, in the long term, it is making her anxiety worse rather than better even though it does deal with the symptoms at the time. Moreover, the Mother accepts that the cost is some £10 per day or £70 per week. Given the enormous squeeze on benefits, I simply do not know how someone can spend that amount of money without a really serious effect on their standard of living. All this would have a real effect on E. too if it was to continue notwithstanding what the Mother said about prioritising E.
- Ms CT appeared to accept the seriousness of this in her evidence. She said to me on more than one occasion that this did concern her, particularly if the Mother was taking skunk. She said she did not know of the increase in usage and there was no disagreement as to the seriousness of the risk if she was using three zoots per day. She accepted that the Mother would have to deal with this before E. could be safely returned and she was not advocating an immediate return to that Mother’s care. She reminded me that the Mother had managed to achieve periods of abstinence in the past (on one occasion of some four months) but she has always returned to the drug. I find that, without professional help, there is no chance of her being able to cease its use. In due course, it may start to have severely adverse effects upon her mental health.
Urban dictionary confirms that ‘zoot’ as we would take from the context, is indeed a joint or a spliff, and as the first time it appears in the judgment it is in quotes, it must be the term that mother herself used
We’ve all rightly praised Mr Justice Peter Jackson for his judgment where he wrote directly for the children, using language that they would follow. So we should also commend this Judge for using the language that the mother herself was using. And after all, joint and spliff are both slang words (and if the Judge had said ‘reefer’ it would have seemed very dated. So I think it is a good thing. I just wonder how it sounded, coming from a High Court Judge.
If you do wonder what it is like when someone wearing a tie is talking very street language, you might be glad to know that Chicken Connoisseur has dropped a new review. (And yes, I’ve been wanting an excuse to crowbar in a reference to the Pengest Munch. Enjoy. The burger was not peng at all, it was just hench)