Next thing, she’s wearing my Rolex.
I wrote about Part 1 of the Pauffley J hearing about alleged radicalisation where all of the evidence that might prove whether threshold criteria existed or not was in the hands of the security services and they (having originally tipped off the LA that they should do something) decided they didn’t want to cough up the material.
I feel very very uncomfortable about this sort of thing. I fully understand that in order to protect the citizens of this country, the security services will watch individuals and don’t want those under suspicion to know exactly what the security services knows and how they know it. I get that. But by the same token, if a parent is being accused of being a risk to their child and faces the possibility of losing their child, they are entitled to see what the evidence against them is and to test it.
The alternative is that we end up with a set of care proceedings run along the lines that Christopher Booker imagines happens all the time, where the parents aren’t told what they are supposed to have done and don’t get to fight the allegations.
I’m not sure how you square that circle. My gut feeling is that the children probably stay with the family unless and until the security services either have enough to charge the parents with a criminal offence, decide there is no risk, or that the information known can be safely shared without putting others at risk.
Anyway, you may remember from Part 1, that it ended with the Security services telling the Court that they were going to get a Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificate signed by the Secretary of State about the documents.
This is what happened next.
C (A Child), Re (No 2) (Application for Public Interest Immunity)  EWHC 692 (Fam) (31 March 2017)
Those representing the Secretary of State asked for a CLOSED hearing. In basic terms (and I’m massively oversimplifying to make it possible for normal people to follow) that means that the lawyers for the Secretary of State would address the Judge about the documents and why they could not be shared, and nobody else would be in the room.
Discussion of procedural steps
- I quite accept that the courts and the SSHD are even now in the relatively early stages of grappling with the problems consequent upon proceedings of this kind. I would be the first to accept that I have been engaged in a learning exercise. I suspect the same may be true for those advocates who have not hitherto had much experience of dealing with cases where PII might be asserted in circumstances such as these.
- There have been several complicating factors leading to delay identified by Ms Wheeler in CLOSED session which are inappropriate for inclusion within this OPEN judgment.
- At all events, there are some obvious conclusions to be drawn from events in this case. The first is that where the SSHD is faced with disclosure orders relating to material which is or may be sensitive and where the likelihood is that PII will be asserted, it is incumbent upon the GLD to set up a process for early and definitive decision making.
- The spectre of a potential PII claim was manifest in this case from as far back as 3 November 2016. On that day, I received an urgent letter from the GLD, indicating there was material which for reasons of national security the SSHD was not at liberty to disclose. A further period of 28 days was requested to further consider the information with a view to either effecting disclosure, advancing a claim for PII or seeking a declaration under s.6 of the JSA 2013.
- By the time of the 2 December hearing, the indications were that if the SSHD was unsuccessful in her bid to revoke the 4 October 2016 disclosure order, she would claim PII. As I observed towards the end of the December judgment, until there was a PII Certificate containing the SSHD’s judgment as to the harm to the public interest that would be caused by disclosure and the weight to be given to competing public interests, there was no appropriate mechanism for action.
- It is disappointing to say the least that the PII Certificate was not issued until 7 March 2017, some three months later, and at a time when no fewer than four distinguished legal teams had spent a great deal of time and effort considering a landscape which did not comprise a claim for PII. Had the claim been made sooner, those endeavours would have been largely unnecessary.
- Doubtless the GLD is an over-stretched organisation with many competing calls upon the time of those who work within. However, with an eye to the future and other similar cases, it seems to me that there must be mechanisms for significantly swifter specialist advice and consequent action. Had there been an application for PII in the autumn of last year, it would have been resolved before Christmas; the hearing of 2 December would have been superfluous to requirements; and the care proceedings would not have been mired in procedural argument for more than three additional months pending resolution of these issues.
- As Mr Twomey suggests, delays, lack of clarity and inconsistency in the approach of the SSHD are unhelpful and tend to give rise naturally enough to scepticism and suspicion. The earlier there is (can be) precision the better. The stop / start approach of the last four to five months has been distinctly unhelpful. By some mechanism or another, strategies for avoiding anything similar should be devised as a matter of urgency.
Potential for conflict
- Arising out of events on 25 January 2017, there was the potential for unfairness which Mr Twomey was right to identify in his written submissions. As he correctly identifies, on 25 January I met briefly with two members of the GLD to take possession of a bundle of CLOSED material; and I concluded that a hearing in CLOSED would be required. Mr Twomey maintained that the parties were unaware of what was said on behalf of the SSHD on that occasion and what I was shown. In fact, as Ms Wheeler related in her submissions of 6 February 2017, the documents I had read were CLOSED submissions and a Sensitive Schedule (also known as a damage assessment) explaining why the SSHD contends material should be withheld, the nature of the damage were disclosure to be ordered and the reasons for delay in progressing a formal claim for PII. But I was not provided with the material over which a claim for PII is being considered.
- As for anything discussed between the GLD lawyers and me on 25 January, I can confirm that nothing of any substance was said. The sole purpose of the meeting was so as to comply with the necessary procedures for dealing with CLOSED material. My clerk, for example, is not able to handle CLOSED material. Thus it was necessary for me to meet with Mr Fitzgibbons and Mr da Silva to take possession of and later relinquish the CLOSED file.
- Mr Twomey asked me to confirm whether or not those documents form part of the PII application. If they did not, then it would be necessary to consider whether I could fairly determine the PII application and / or how those documents could be treated so as to ensure a fair hearing.
- In response to those submissions, I indicated that Ms Wheeler’s CLOSED submissions from late January had not been made available to me in readiness for the hearing on 15 March. Ms Wheeler’s initial view had been that there was no need for me to consider her earlier submissions afresh given that more pertinent material was now available in the form of the OPEN Certificate. Given the potential for a sense of unfairness if the January submissions were not once more made available, a copy was provided in advance of the CLOSED hearing.
- No party sought to suggest there was any reason associated with events on 25 January, materials read or discussions with the GLD, which could have prevented me from dealing with the claim for PII. Accordingly, satisfied as I was that there was no reason to recuse myself, I convened a CLOSED hearing at which I heard Ms Wheeler’s oral submissions and probed a number of issues.
- There was no judgment at the end of the CLOSED hearing. I indicated I would be preparing an OPEN judgment.
The Court considered the principles in deciding whether documents should be withheld from distribution under the Public Interest Immunity process
The three steps involved in making a PII claim – R v. Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police, ex parte Wiley  1 AC 274
- There are three required steps when the SSHD considers whether to make a claim for PII. First, whether the material is relevant and passes the threshold test for disclosure in the applicable proceedings – (Certificate §11). Second, if the threshold test is passed, whether the material identified as relevant and subject to disclosure attracts PII. The test is whether there is a real risk that disclosure would cause ‘real damage’ or ‘serious harm’ to the public interest – (Certificate §13 and 19). Third, if applying the ‘real damage’ test, the material attracts PII, the question arises as to whether the public interest in non-disclosure is outweighed by the public interest in disclosure for the purpose of doing justice in the proceedings. The factors in favour are set out in the Certificate at §18; those against between §§19 and 26.
Slightly disappointed that Pauffley J did not indicate that R v Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police, ex parte Wiley is a party guy and he knows it, but bigger fish to fry, no doubt.
Positions of the parties
- The local authority’s position is that it will await the outcome of the PII hearing and will then take stock. Ms Morgan understandably submits there is a limitation upon the assistance she can give in relation to the Wiley balancing exercise, given that she has no knowledge of the material over which the SSHD asserts her claim for PII. Ms Morgan does though make a number of observations particularly as to the sufficiency of primary evidence absent disclosure. Ms Morgan’s overarching observation is that I should approach the balancing exercise on the basis that if the care proceedings conclude for want of established threshold criteria, the likelihood of the local authority being in a position to safeguard the child – or justify interference in his life – in any effective way would be virtually non-existent.
- Mr Twomey suggests that the very significant delay in making the PII application calls for an explanation and raises a serious issue as to the merits of the claim. Mr Twomey suggested that when I considered the claim there were a number of issues which may be relevant but which might only be probed in CLOSED session. He cited eight matters and asked a number of associated questions – all of them useful to me during the CLOSED session.
- On behalf of the child’s guardian, Mr Parker suggests there are two points which undermine confidence in the SSHD’s evaluation. First, that the unwillingness to provide disclosure was a position arrived at long before the balancing exercise set out within the Certificate. There is a risk, accordingly, that the Certificate is simply an ex post facto justification of the SSHD’s position. Mr Parker’s second general point is that the premise for the balancing exercise is flawed in that the SSHD understands the local authority’s application is for a supervision order whereas the interim measure does not reflect the true nature of the proceedings.
- Mr Parker makes four points in relation to the Wiley balancing exercise which, he submits, increase the balance in favour of disclosure – the insufficiency of available primary evidence, the inappropriateness of the Channel programme as an alternative method of safeguarding, the current unavailability of the Desistence and Disengagement Programme and the unreasonableness of requiring the mother to surrender her travel documents permanently.
- The first question, as to relevance, is simply satisfied. The SSHD proceeds on the assumption that the material is relevant and, in principle, disclosable as the result of the 4 October 2016 orders for disclosure. That is clearly right.
2. Would disclosure damage the public interest?
- The second issue is confronted within the Certificate in this way. The SSHD identifies that the Government’s approach to PII requires her to focus specifically on the damage that would be caused by the disclosure of the particular material in issue and to assert PII only if satisfied that disclosure of that material would bring about a real risk of real damage to an important public interest. The SSHD expresses herself satisfied that the material referred to in the sensitive schedule would cause serious harm as it includes information of one or more of eleven specified kinds.
- Within her OPEN submissions, Ms Wheeler explained that the reasons include those relating to national security though it is not possible to be more specific in OPEN about the nature of the harm that would be caused by disclosure. The effect of the material engaging national security considerations was that disclosure would create a real and significant risk of damage to national security (§19 of the Certificate).
- I have sound reasons for agreeing with the SSHD’s evaluation based upon materials provided to me in CLOSED.
3. The Wiley balance – factors for and against disclosure
- The last part of the Wiley exercise involves balancing the factors in favour of and against disclosure. The SSHD when considering the impact of non-disclosure takes into account three specific points – the nature of the material, the open and available material and other powers to protect the child.
- The SSHD considers the factors in favour of disclosure to fall into two categories. First, the strong public interest in ensuring that children are protected from the risk of harm and that the material of potential relevance should be available to parties to family court proceedings. And second, that in general legal proceedings should be conducted openly; open justice principles are in play and are an important factor in protecting the rights of individuals and maintaining public confidence in the justice system.
- To my mind, the most significant, weighty and powerful of the factors militating against disclosure is that the material engages considerations of national security. The SSHD formed the view that disclosure would create a real and significant risk of damage to national security. I accord great respect to and share that assessment on the basis of the material made available to me in CLOSED session, namely Ms Wheeler’s CLOSED submissions and the Sensitive Schedule (or damage assessment).
- The conclusion of the SSHD that national security considerations are engaged, a judgment formed on the basis of comprehensive materials made available to her, in Ms Wheeler’s submission, should properly be accorded great deference. As Lord Templeman observed in R v. Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police, ex parte Wiley  1 AC 274 @ 281, “As a general rule the harm to the public interest of the disclosure of the whole or part of a document dealing with defence of national security or diplomatic secrets will be self-evident and preclude disclosure.“
Other available evidence
- Ms Wheeler urges me to consider the other factors put forward in favour of non-disclosure. Firstly, the existence of other available evidence from which the court may be able to draw inferences and find the threshold criteria satisfied. Second, in the event that the threshold criteria could not be satisfied and thus a public law order was unavailable, there could be recourse to other safeguarding measures such as the ‘Channel Programme’ and a new Home Office initiative, the ‘Desistence and Disengagement Programme.’ Thirdly, steps could be taken to disrupt travel plans involving flight to a war zone by continued passport restrictions.
- It is clear that the SSHD’s contention as to the availability (and sufficiency) of other evidence causes the local authority, in particular, very real anxiety. Unwittingly, I suspect that I have contributed to the problem by observations made in the December judgment which play into the argument that further disclosure from the Home Office was (or is) necessary: see §§ 35, 39 – 42.
- At that stage, however, I had not been required to consider the Wiley balancing exercise, I was not privy to Ms Wheeler’s CLOSED submissions and I had not considered the Sensitive Schedule. The landscape now is very different and disclosure questions call for a modified response.
- Ms Wheeler is right to draw my attention to the available evidence. It amounts to a mixture of established facts as well as matters which give rise to likely inferences. It is unnecessary to descend into the particulars beyond observing that both parents have been stopped at airports (father in June 2014 and February 2016; mother in January 2016) and questioned pursuant to Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. A police officer from the Safeguarding Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) has made a statement. So, too, other officers who conducted the port stops and interviews.
- More detail of available evidence is set out within paragraphs 3 to 8 of Ms Wheeler’s submissions dated 14 March 2017. Furthermore, Ms Wheeler makes the valid point that the letter from HM Passport Office dated 3 August 2016 refusing the father’s application for a replacement passport is of significance. It can and should be taken into account, argues Ms Wheeler, as part of the evidential picture.
- I agree with Ms Wheeler’s submission that the Home Secretary’s decision to exercise the Royal Prerogative so as to refuse to issue the father with a passport (based on the assessment that he is an Islamist extremist who seeks to travel to Syria for jihad) is ‘evidence.’ The Home Secretary’s decision is amenable to judicial review but there has been no challenge.
- I also agree with the suggestion that the denial of a replacement passport on the basis of the exercise of the Royal Prerogative would not be, of itself, sufficient to establish the threshold criteria. Clearly it is a factor of relevance which could be taken into account as part of the evidential picture though it is impossible to assess quite how much weight might be attached in advance of any hearing.
As I said earlier, these cases leave me uncomfortable. Yes, a flimsy and vague threshold could be constructed on the basis that the parents have been stopped at airports and questioned under the Terroism Act and that the Secretary of State has seen material such to persuade them to refuse to issue the father with a passport, but if the parents assert that these actions were wrong, mistaken or the result of some form of racial profiling without foundation in reality, how is an LA to prove likelihood of significant harm?
The Judge says something very important about the documents that have not been shared. In essence, they wouldn’t themselves establish threshold even if they could be seen and relied upon
Nature of the material – future progress of litigation
- With the future of these proceedings in mind, it is appropriate that I should discuss a matter which arose during the course of CLOSED session. It seems highly unlikely that the material upon which the SSHD has formed her assessment leading to the application for PII would advance the local authority’s case to any significant degree. On any view, the material could not be provided to (and therefore be used by) the local authority for the purpose of legal proceedings, whether to inform its assessment of risk or for the purpose of commissioning any expert intervention. Moreover, the material does not advance an understanding of the parental relationship or contact with or intentions towards the child.
The judgment and story rather fizzles out there. Perhaps there was an application to withdraw the proceedings, perhaps not. We may never know.