Re F v H and Another 2017
This was a knotty and horrendous private law case in which parents separated and mother made a series of grave and utterly unfounded allegations that the father had sexually abused the child. She persuaded a series of doctors to undertake intimate examinations of the child and later left the country with the child when the Court hearings were going against her. The Family Court then placed the child with the father and directed that there should be a psychiatric evaluation of the mother to see if there was any prospect of contact taking place.
The judge said that “the court cannot envisage a situation whereby it could be considering looking at direct contact again other than where she has received extensive psychological therapeutic help.” The decision of the judge in respect of the need for the 1st Respondent to receive treatment prior to contact taking place or to any reintroduction of her mother was based on the welfare of B and the evidence of the 1st Respondent’s behaviour. It was wholly justified.
During the period where mother was awaiting criminal trial for the child abduction, she continued to make a series of allegations about father to professional agencies, all unfounded. Mother received a four month sentence for the child abduction offence, suspended for six months.
When the psychiatric report finally emerged, it wasn’t terribly useful, since the psychiatrist had decided to do the report without reading the judgment from the family Court about her behaviour that had led to the need for the report… And he believed everything that the mother said and recommended strongly that the FATHER was the one who needed a psychiatric assessment.
Safe to say that Ms Justice Russell was unimpressed by that approach.
28.There was no psychiatric assessment of the 1st Respondent so that on the 20th March 2017 when there is a further hearing before the judge this issue remained outstanding as the reports ordered by the court on 29th February 2016 and 25th May 2016 have not been produced. In March 2017, the Court again “made it clear” that this is 1st Respondent’s last opportunity to cooperate with a psychiatric assessment and she did not attend the next appointment arranged for her, her application would be dismissed and a s91(14) (CA) order would be made for a period of two years.
29.Finally, on 25th May 2017 the 1st Respondent was seen by a psychiatrist, Dr Oyebode, who filed a report on 5th June 2017. For reason that are far from clear to this court and to the court below Dr Oyebode conducted his assessment of the 1st Respondent without reading the court documents provided to him, including the judgments; instead he read and relied on the documents given to him by the 1st Respondent and the report of Dr Beider (who had not seen the documents or had access to them at all). Thus, his assessment was partisan, based on the 1st Respondents version of the history of events and on psychiatric evidence obtained outside the family court proceedings and without the permission of the judge.
30.Moreover, not only had Dr Oyebode had not challenged the 1st Respondent on the basis of the court documents or judgement (because he had failed to read them) he also accepted her assertion that the 1st Respondent had made no further allegations since 2014; this was patently untrue as she had made allegations in 2016 and sought to defend the criminal case on the basis of duress and necessity. He neither referred to or considered the 1st Respondent’s behaviour which led the court to make non-molestation injunctions against her. In direct contradiction of the judgment of the court he reached the conclusion that the 1st Respondent was a capable mother who had genuine concerns for her daughter’s welfare. He suggested that the Appellant undergo psychiatric treatment, having accepted the 1st Respondent’s version of events. Quite rightly the judge, at the hearing on the 9th August 2017, described Dr Oyebode’s report as offering the court no assistance and as being “completely flawed”.
That psychiatric assessment being worthless, the case then took a significantly wrong turn.
31.At a further hearing before the judge on 21st June 2017 B was joined as a party to the proceedings and on 5th July 2017 Catherine Callaghan (a Cafcass officer) was appointed as her guardian. Ms Callaghan was provided with some limited papers, consisting of parents’ last statements and Dr Oyebode’s report on 7th July 2017. She met the Appellant and B briefly on 19th July 2017. The guardian spent some two hours with the 1st Respondent on 26th July 2017. She did not receive the court papers, which include the judgments, until 28th July 2017. She could not have been, and was not in, a position to challenge the 1st Respondent’s version of events when she met her; and her views at the time would have be based on what she knew then, which included the flawed and inadequate report of Dr Oyebode. The Guardian did not see the parties or the child again. Although she had had sight of the case papers before preparation of her position statement this was not until after she had seen the parties and her meetings with them to place in ignorance of the circumstances of this case.
32.At six o’clock in the evening of 8th August 2017 the guardian’s solicitor sent her position statement to parties which included the recommendation that there should be direct supervised contact for the 1st Respondent with B. I shall return to her position below; but she had not prepared any analysis or report for the court, which considered the welfare of the child with reference to the statutory provisions contained in s1 of the CA 1989; nor did she explain to the court what form the contact would take; any details of the explanation of what was to happen, and by whom, would be given to the child. She did not proffer any advice to the court as to what would happen if, on the receipt of competent psychiatric assessment of the 1st Respondent, it was found that the risks to B of further harm was considered to be high, without some prior professional intervention. The judge did not hear any oral evidence.
33.The next day on 9th August 2017 the judge, in what she described as a finely balanced decision, which from her judgment, was a decision based largely on the oral submissions made on behalf of the guardian, acceded to the application made on the instructions of Ms Callaghan and made an order which provides for direct contact between B and the 1st Respondent supervised by the guardian herself. The judge stayed the order for direct contact until 30th August to allow for the application for permission to appeal to go before the High Court. In her short judgement, the judge set out her reasons for reaching the decision that some supervised contact should go ahead which, as previously observed were based largely, if not wholly, on the guardian’s recommendations.
34.The precondition for any reintroduction of contact, which the judge had repeatedly reiterated, was not only that the 1st Respondent’s mental health had to be assessed, but also that there should be some treatment with her commenced to avoid repetition of her previous harmful behaviour towards B. Following the oral submission of the guardian (who is not qualified to assess the 1st Respondent’s likely psychiatric or psychological response to any reintroduction to B) the judge reversed the decisions she had made previously. The decisions she had previously made were properly based on the evidence before the court that there should be prior assessment and treatment (as set out above) there was no evidence before the court which supported a reversal of that decision. Moreover, as a result of the inadequacies of the psychiatric report, on 10th August 2017 an agreed letter of instruction was sent to Dr Datta to carry out a further assessment of the 1st Respondent. This letter, agreed by the parties, contained the instruction that the “Mother continues to be of the view that [B] is not safe in her father’s care.”
Ms Justice Russell sets out in detail why the Judge was wrong to have resiled from her earlier position that contact could not be countenanced until there had been a proper psychiatric evaluation of the mother, and largely blames the Guardian for persuading the Judge to do so, and moreover, to have fallen into much the same trap as the psychiatrist – in conducting investigations and reaching conclusions without having properly engaged with the source material.
The father, obviously, appealed and that is how the case came before Ms Justice Russell.
37.The history of this case has been set out at some length as it forms the background to the decision the judge made on 9th August 2017. When viewed as a whole the harm caused to this child by her mother was significant. Not only was she found to have repeatedly subjected to intimate examinations, solely at the behest of her mother, she was prevented from having uninhibited relationship with her father as an infant. On any view, the repeated invasive intimate examination, as found by the judge and set out in her judgment, were in themselves abusive and any long-term effects on B, along with any emotional trauma that may have been at the time, has never been investigated or assessed.
38.The guardian has seen this child on one occasion for a brief period yet she has seen fit to reach conclusions as to the child’s resilience and current psychological and emotional status and ability to deal not only with the re-introduction of her mother but also with the possible, if not probable, cessation of contact should that prove to be necessary. There is no analysis of how she reaches these conclusions, no details of her qualifications to do so and no application of the welfare checklist in reaching her conclusions. Consequently, the judge was wrong to rely on them and to effectively reverse her previous decisions on what amounts to flimsy evidence.
39.The emphasis and assumptions of the guardian are apparently based on the need to reintroduce contact with the child’s mother. If so this is a misinterpretation of the law; although that the amendments to section 8 of the CA and section 1(2A), introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014 emphasised the presumption that unless the contrary is shown, involvement of a parent in the life of a child will further the child’s welfare, this presumption is subject to the requirement that the parent concerned may be involved in the child’s life in a way that does not put the child at risk of suffering harm. This case includes findings of abusive behaviour towards B by her mother, which, if repeated would compromise the child’s safety and reintroduce the possibility of further harm, both physical and emotional.
40.B is a young and vulnerable child whose first few years of life were blighted by her mother’s irrational, abusive and harmful behaviour culminating in an B’s unlawful abduction. The courts can and should consider ordering no contact when the child’s welfare and safety demand it
(illuminating to compare and contrast with the Court of Appeal stance on the transgender father v ultra-Orthodox jewish community case earlier this month…)
Get ready for the pain
47.While it is understandable that the judge acceded to the guardian’s application, it is the decision of this court that she was wrong to do so. The guardian was quite simply not qualified or equipped to reach the conclusions that she did in respect of this child’s psychological and emotional resilience. She was even less qualified to assess the 1st Respondent’s mental state and her ability to conduct herself appropriately when B spent time with her. She had carried out anything other than a cursory consideration of the history, evidence and court documents before she briefly met the child with her father; little wonder failed adequately to explain the basis of her conclusions.
48.In a case such as this with a protracted, complex and convoluted history it is incumbent on the professionals who are called on to proffer advice and recommendations to the court, be they Cafcass officers or others concerned with child welfare, to fully inform themselves about the case and, at the very least, read through the judgments before they commence their investigations. Nor should they consider experimenting or trying out with contact for the child or children concerned against a background of previous harmful behaviour and abduction; in this case the guardian even accepted that contact may prove to be unsuccessful and be terminated or suspended again. Any contact that took place would have provided little or no useful evidence for the court as the guardian is unqualified properly to assess this mother’s ability to deal with and contain her behaviour. For that reason, and for those set out above this appeal will be allowed.
That’s a serious burn. Is it fair and justified? Well, I will leave that to the reader to decide.
The bit that interested me was this, however.
In relation to the position statement filed on behalf of the Child’s Solicitor (bear in mind that the child in question is 4 1/2, so absolutely no prospect of the child being competent to give instructions or even to give their views to the solicitor independently) the Court said :-
There was and are no submissions on behalf of the guardian as to why and on what basis she purported to have reached this conclusion on behalf of this child. A child who as, on any view, be subjected to repeated intimate physical intrusion, flight to Israel and had been fed misinformation about her father throughout her infancy. The solicitor for the child has, apparently, acted solely on the instructions of guardian and failed to include any separate analysis of the child’s position in her position statement.
I’ll give you the last bit again
The solicitor for the child has, apparently, acted solely on the instructions of guardian and failed to include any separate analysis of the child’s position in her position statement
I suspect there are many solicitors for children saying to themselves, well of course the solicitor acted solely on the instructions of the guardian. The child was 4 1/2.
Is it the place of the solicitor for the child to disagree with the instructions of her professional client (where the lay client is not in a position to give instructions?) – is it the place of the solicitor for the child to lay out in a position statement a case wholly in the alternative to that the Guardian is instructing should be pursued?
That seems a stretch to me. I think it is acceptable that the solicitor for the child ask the Guardian to address some of the consequences of the course recommended and provide analysis as to why, despite any adverse consequences it is the preferred option. But if the Guardian sticks by her course, I don’t think the solicitor for the child can advance in a position statement an argument contrary to her instructions.
(Of course, if the Guardian is making a mistake in law, or there is authority contrary to the position being advanced the solicitor for the child has to draw this to the Court’s attention, but I’m not sure that’s the case here. That possibility is raised earlier, so I may be misreading. It seems to me though that this is an issue not as to law and principle but a welfare and risk analysis by the Guardian. If the child’s solicitor and the Guardian disagree about welfare and risk analysis then they should thrash it out in discussions, sure, but ultimately it is the view of the Guardian that goes into the position statement and is advanced at Court, not the view of the child’s solicitor. )
I shall keep an eye out as to whether this theme recurs.