This is a case where the High Court were looking into what had caused the death of X, an 8 day old baby, and what that might mean for where Z her 22 month old sister would live. Understandably, there was a police investigation into the death of X running in tandem to the care proceedings, and the police had a lot of material within their possession. Various court orders were made for the disclosure of police material, which ended up coming into the possession of the parties to the care proceedings in dribs and drabs, and every batch of documentation alerted them to the presence of more material.
I’m afraid that if you are a Local Authority lawyer, this case is about to place a lot of additional responsibilities on you. Sorry for that. You may want to nip out and buy a packet of chocolate Hobnobs to nibble on during the post, because you will need some comfort and calories.
- The fact-finding hearing was beset by problems arising from the late disclosure of material held by Lancashire Constabulary [“the police”]. It was not evident until day five of the hearing that the police held material of potential relevance to the issues I had to determine. With the assistance of counsel and the officers assigned to the investigation into X’s death, the court was provided by day nine of the hearing with an additional 900 pages of material. The hearing itself was significantly extended by both the process of disclosure undertaken at court and by the need to allow counsel time to digest and take instructions on this material.
- It will be obvious that the non-disclosure by the police of potentially relevant material could have both prejudiced the right of X’s parents to a fair hearing and deprived the court of information which might have shed light on what happened to X whilst in the care of her parents. That this could have happened in a case of such seriousness was bad enough but, in this case, the potential unfairness was magnified by the vulnerability of X’s mother who had been assessed as requiring the assistance of an intermediary throughout the hearing. Had it not been for the diligence of counsel and the time I allowed for instructions to be taken, the entire hearing might have been fundamentally compromised on fairness grounds.
This judgment, of Knowles J, considered the representations made by the Local Authority and the police about how this had emerged and what could be learned for the future. I think its a beautiful judgment, and it captures a lot of important issues.
Lancashire County Council v A, B and Z (A Child : Fact Finding Hearing: Police Disclosure)  EWHC 1819 (Fam) (02 July 2018)
For example, this is the best summary of the fundamental problem in police disclosure that I’ve seen
Simply put, disclosure is requested by those who don’t know what there is from those who don’t know what is needed. Thus, the parties to family proceedings don’t know what material is held by the police and so draft orders as widely as possible, imposing a significant burden on police disclosure officers. Conversely, the police have a poor understanding of the wide evidential canvas upon which the family court makes decisions and inevitably view the question of relevance through the narrow prism of criminal proceedings. In good faith the police provide what they think the family court needs but the reality is that they are ill placed to judge.
And that’s why we end up with orders asking for ALL MATERIAL held by the police, and why the system grinds to a halt. We don’t know what they HAVE, and they don’t know what we WANT
There are some other good judicial remarks about the role of the Local Authority in care proceedings, and I think these are really important, and it is helpful to have them all set out in one place.
As is required of crown prosecutors in criminal proceedings, local authorities must ensure that the law is properly applied; that relevant evidence is put before the court; and that the obligations of disclosure are complied with. Like crown prosecutors, the local authority must be fair, independent and objective and should always act in the interests of justice and not solely for the purpose of obtaining the order it may seek in public law proceedings. If it be thought that all the local authority requires from the police is material that will assist its case, that would represent a profound misunderstanding of the local authority’s duties to the court.
In the Court process, the Local Authority aren’t able to approach the case simply in terms of ‘winning it’, they have the duty to play fair as well. I’m sure that this will attract comment, but it has always been my understanding that this is what a Local Authority has to do, and perhaps it was overdue a reminder.
The Judge notes at the outset that there is no cost-neutral way of solving these problems, and if you don’t already know that in such a scenario this cost burden is about to fall on the Local Authority then I wish I had your innocence.
- The other reason the existence of undisclosed material might not have been apparent is that the necessary forensic analysis of what had been disclosed was not carried out by the parties to these proceedings prior to the start of the fact-finding hearing. This might have made apparent some of the omissions in disclosure which emerged at the hearing itself. The current arrangements for public funding do not encourage advocates in the family justice system, who are often under considerable pressure, to analyse vast swathes of material in advance, for example, of a directions hearing. They simply do not get paid to do so. It is regrettably often only when the actual hearing is being prepared that anomalies in disclosure become obvious. To their credit, Miss Taylor QC and Mr Rothery both conceded that some of the evidential anomalies in this case would have been apparent from a close reading of the evidence as and when it was disclosed by the police.
- There is no simple cost-neutral solution to these problems. However, the applicant in public law proceedings – the local authority – must prove its case and, in so doing, must be alive to the strengths and weaknesses of all the evidence before the court. I regard that statement as supportive of the dicta of Ryder LJ in paragraph 36 of Re W (Care Proceedings: Functions of the court and the local authority)  EWCA Civ 1227 namely, that proceedings under the Children Act 1989 are quasi inquisitorial in that the judge has to decide both whether threshold is crossed and the basis upon which that is so, whether or not the local authority or any other party agrees. It seems to me obvious that a local authority, with the greater resources available to it, will bear the lion’s share of the burden of assisting the court to determine not only its application but also any other pertinent issues in a case. It does so by ensuring that the evidence – from whatever source – is complete and in order and it takes the lead in ensuring that case management directions have been complied with. For a local authority to act in that impartial manner in public law proceedings is to facilitate the court’s quasi inquisitorial role in a process which is fair to all parties. In saying this, I make it plain that the other parties to proceedings are not absolved from their duties to cooperate with the court and comply with the court’s directions. Rather, the onus on the local authority, as the state agent in care proceedings, to conduct itself fairly and to assist the court is necessarily greater.
- None of the above is novel. As is required of crown prosecutors in criminal proceedings, local authorities must ensure that the law is properly applied; that relevant evidence is put before the court; and that the obligations of disclosure are complied with. Like crown prosecutors, the local authority must be fair, independent and objective and should always act in the interests of justice and not solely for the purpose of obtaining the order it may seek in public law proceedings. If it be thought that all the local authority requires from the police is material that will assist its case, that would represent a profound misunderstanding of the local authority’s duties to the court.
- To place these observations in context, the case law relating to the disclosure of local authority records in care proceedings has long emphasised the duties of local authorities to be open in the disclosure of all relevant material in their possession. The analysis of the relevant case law by Munby LJ (as he then was) in Durham County Council v Dunn  EWCA Civ 1654 traces the judicial formulation and refinement of those duties [see paragraphs 37-43 in particular]. It bears repetition in the light of the observations I have made about the duty of a local authority to take an active role in preparing a case for determination by the court. What follows draws on Munby LJ’s analysis in the Durham case.
- In November 1989, the Court of Appeal had to consider the disclosure of local authority records in the context of care proceedings where allegations of sexual abuse were being made against a parent [R v Hampshire County Council ex parte K and Another  1 FLR 330]. The interest of the child was emphasised [page 336]:
- “… as part and parcel of its general welfare, not only in having its own voice sympathetically heard and its own needs sensitively considered but also in ensuring that its parents are given every proper opportunity of having the evidence fairly tested and preparing themselves in advance to meet the grave charges against them…”
The Court went on to state in the clearest of terms what the local authority’s duties were:
“…Local authorities therefore have a high duty in law, not only on grounds of general fairness but also in the direct interest of a child whose welfare they serve, to be open in the disclosure of all relevant material affecting that child in their possession or power (excluding documents protected on established grounds of public interest immunity) which may be of assistance to the natural parent or parents in rebutting charges against one or both of them of in any way ill-treating the child”.
The practical application of that duty was explained by Cazalet J in Re C (Expert Evidence: Disclosure: Practice)  1 FLR 204 (FD) held at 209-G-210A as follows:
“In R v Hampshire County Council ex parte K and Another  1 FLR 330 it was held that a local authority who brought care proceedings has a duty to disclose all relevant information in its possession or power which might assist parents to rebut allegations being made against them, save for that which is protected by public interest immunity…
… In my view it is the responsibility of the local authority actively to consider what documents it has in its possession which are or may be relevant to the issues as they affect the child, its family and any other person who is relevant in regard to an allegation of significant harm, and to the care and upbringing of the child in the context of the welfare checklist issues. The local authority should not content itself with disclosing the documents which support its case but must consider itself under a duty to disclose in the interests of the child and of justice documents which may modify or cast doubt on its case. The particular concern should relate to those documents which actually help the case of an opposing party. If there is any doubt about whether the information is relevant, consideration should be given to notifying the affected parties of the existence of the material. Whilst the temptation to invite costly, intrusive and pointless fishing expeditions should be avoided, there should be a presumption in favour of disclosure of potentially helpful information. If documents are obviously relevant and not protected from disclosure by public interest immunity, then the local authority should initiate disclosure.”
- Those duties have been underscored by the Strasbourg jurisprudence. In McMichael v United Kingdom (1995) 20 EHRR 205, the court was concerned with care proceedings in which social services and medical reports had been given to the court but not disclosed to the parents though the contents were made known to them. The court held that there had been violations of both Article 6 and Article 8, and in paragraph 80 held that the lack of disclosure of such vital documents was capable of affecting the ability of the parents not only to influence the outcome of the proceedings but also to pursue an appeal. Indeed, Article 8 imposes positive obligations of disclosure on a local authority involved in care proceedings. In TP and KM v United Kingdom  2 FLR 549 [paragraph 82] the court said:
- “The positive obligation of the Contracting State to protect the interests of the family requires that this material be made available to the parent concerned, even in the absence of any request by a parent. If there were doubts as to whether this posed a risk to the welfare of the child, the matter should have been submitted to the court by the local authority at the earliest stage in the proceedings possible for it to resolve the issues involved.”
Together with the dicta of Munby J (as he then was) in paragraphs 140-151 of Re L (Care: Assessment: Fair Trial) [2002 EWHC 1379 (Fam),  2 FLR 730, the principles of fairness embedded in the case law relating to the disclosure of records are directly relevant to the positive duties and responsibilities of local authorities I have outlined in paragraphs 40 and 41 above. There is nothing startling or new about any of this.
- All the above requires, in my view, that a local authority should take responsibility for ensuring that disclosure provided by the police in proceedings such as these is complete. Anomalies in the disclosure should be brought to the court’s attention as soon as possible. To do this properly takes time and time taken has a financial cost. That cannot be avoided given the seriousness of what is at stake for the children and the adults involved in these proceedings. I, like all of those involved in the family justice system, am acutely aware of the financial pressures on local authorities, but I venture to suggest that time taken to resolve any issues about police disclosure prior to the start of the hearing is likely to save local authorities time and ultimately money.
Para 45 immediately above is where the bus gets firmly parked in the LA parking space.
There you go – it is the duty of the LA to ensure that the police disclosure is full and complete and that material which assists the parents is included within it.
para 40 It seems to me obvious that a local authority, with the greater resources available to it, will bear the lion’s share of the burden of assisting the court to determine not only its application but also any other pertinent issues in a case. It does so by ensuring that the evidence – from whatever source – is complete and in order and it takes the lead in ensuring that case management directions have been complied with. For a local authority to act in that impartial manner in public law proceedings is to facilitate the court’s quasi inquisitorial role in a process which is fair to all parties
Reading all of those passages, I think it would be a risk for a Local Authority lawyer to assume that police disclosure will be mopped up by Counsel instructed for final hearing. There needs to be an analysis of the disclosure BEFORE that.
The Judge makes a practical proposal for all LA lawyers (and being one, I truly am sorry for ruining your day if you are one too)
- First, I repeat what I said in paragraphs 33 and 34. It would be advisable if all the police forces in England and Wales checked their own data management systems immediately to ensure that the problem evident in this case is not present in their own organisation. Local authority lawyers should also check with their local police force which data management system is being used to record and collate information any case where disclosure into family proceedings is required and to confirm that the disclosure team in that force has access to the relevant system.
I like the suggestions regarding the order though.
- I make the following suggestions by reference to paragraph 110 of the judgment of Francis J in the London Borough of Southwark case [see paragraph 5 above] in which he made a number of suggestions to assist parties in family proceedings where it appeared that the police were not cooperating with their disclosure obligations. Paragraph 110 reads as follows:
- “(i) The local authority will make a protocol request to the police at least 14 days prior to the issue of s.31 proceedings. In cases where the issue of s.31 proceedings is immediately preceded by an application for an emergency protection order or the s.31 proceedings are listed upon short notice, the protocol request shall be made upon issue of the s.31 proceedings.
(ii) Not later than seven days prior to the case management hearing, the local authority will issue an application for disclosure against the relevant police authority. The local authority will invite the court to list the application for disclosure on the same day as the case management hearing. The local authority will serve a copy of the application upon the police at least seven days prior to the case management hearing. The senior investigating police officer in the case should be invited to attend the case management hearing and be legally represented.
(iii) In the event that the police wish to withhold any disclosure from the parties, any application should be made by them not less than two days prior to the case management hearing. The application should set out clearly the reasons why disclosure is being opposed and why a redacted version cannot be provided.
(iv) Upon receipt of a protocol request or an application for disclosure, the police will provide a list or schedule of all the evidence and material they have within their possession that is relevant to the central issues in the Family Court case. This list shall address the following:
a) A short description of the evidence/material;
b) Whether the police agree to disclose that particular piece of evidence or material to the parties; and
c) In the event the police oppose disclosure of a particular piece of evidence or material clear reasons must be provided.
(v) At the case management hearing the police will provide the court with the following:
(a) details of any offences;
(b) whether any suspect(s) have been charged or not;
(c) custody status of any defendants;
(d) what bail conditions are applicable;
(e) any criminal court timescales.
(vi) In the event that the police seek to oppose disclosure on the basis that they consider the evidence to be irrelevant to the family proceedings the police will provide a copy of the documents to the court for the court to determine whether or not the evidence is relevant to the family proceedings.
(vii) The local authority will, throughout the course of the family proceedings, continue to liaise with the police as to whether any new evidence is obtained following the case management hearing. The local authority will update the parties and the court on a regular basis as to the outcomes of their liaison with the police.
(viii) Prior to any fact-finding hearing and/or final hearing the police will confirm which, if any, new evidence has been secured following the case management hearing and provide a further list or schedule addressing the issues set out above.
(ix) If the police object to any new evidence or material being disclosed the police must make a PII application as soon as practicable and, in any event, within seven days of that objection.
(x) The recording of any directions made in connection with police disclosure on case management orders should be sufficiently clear so as to enable the reader to have the ability to understand the key decision-making timetable in connection with this issue and the pro forma disclosure order contained within the protocol should be used.
(xi) It shall be the responsibility of the police and local authority to ensure that the police evidence is either disclosed to the other parties or that the court has the opportunity to determine any issue as to its relevance and/or PII application, sufficiently in advance of any fixture so as to enable the fact-finding or main hearing to proceed effectively.”
Knowles J gives some further guidance
- An additional step which should take place 5 days prior to any IRH or directions hearing before a fact-finding hearing is for a meeting to take place between the local authority solicitor (with preferably the advocate conducting the local authority’s case) and the police disclosure team. The purpose of that meeting should be to check that the police disclosure is complete and to provide an update to the family court as to the progress of the criminal investigation and the prospect of charge and/or criminal trial. It is not primarily a meeting to provide to the police information about the family proceedings and I suggest that the parties must agree prior to this meeting what the police are to know about the family proceedings. This meeting should be authorised by the court as part of the directions at the case management hearing. If that meeting is unnecessary because full police disclosure has taken place, it can be cancelled with the agreement of the other parties to the proceedings. The meeting should be recorded in the interests of transparency.
- Ideally, such a meeting should involve all the parties to the proceedings, but I recognise that those advocates who are publicly funded will be unable to claim payment to attend. In those circumstances, the safeguards I have proposed – such as agreement as to what can be said to the police about the family proceedings and recording the meeting so as not to compromise the advocates acting for the local authority – should be adequate to ensure that the process of police disclosure remains fair and transparent. It follows that, in preparing for this meeting, the local authority should be mindful of its duties to ensure that full disclosure of relevant material takes place even if it considers that a particular piece of evidence requested on behalf of a parent is of little evidential value. It should come to the meeting having read and considered what has already been disclosed and having identified any anomalies or problems in the police disclosure.
- At the IRH or directions hearing before a fact-finding hearing, the police – via the suitable senior officer – should provide to the court a signed declaration that the court’s order for disclosure has been complied with.