Much as Patrick Swayze and his gang wearing masks and brandishing shooters might proclaim when busting into a bank dragging a hapless Johnny Utah in their wake, “We are the Ex-Presidents” this is a judgment from the Ex-President. (He was still the President at the time of the judgment)
Re H (Children) 2018
Our former President is good at a punchy opening. He doesn’t do enough pop-culture references for my own idiosyncratic tastes, but punchy nonetheless
1.In this care case, which came before me at Newcastle on 12 July 2018 pursuant to an order made by His Honour Judge Simon Wood on 19 June 2018, the mother’s position statement, prepared on her behalf by Mr Dorian Day, began with these arresting words: “These proceedings are entering Week 109.”
The case involved an alleged deliberate injury to a girl, aged five weeks, who in April 2016 was admitted to hospital with very serious life-threatening injuries. The Local Authority issued proceedings in May 2016. By November, so within 26 weeks, the Court had held a finding of fact hearing and found that (a) the injuries had been inflicted by the father and (b) there was no fault or blame attributed to the mother who knew nothing about it.
Both parents had been charged by the police. The direction of travel in the case ought to have been a rehabilitation to the care of the mother (assuming that the parents would separate and this would be sustained – the judgment isn’t explicit about that, but it is a reasonable inference).
However, the police and CPS were adamant that the criminal charges on both mother and father would stand and go before a jury. They were invited to change the bail conditions (that were restricting mother’s ability to be with the girl and the older brother of the girl) on several occasions and refused to do so.
The criminal trial was delayed and took place in October 2017, nearly a year after the mother had been exonerated by the family Court. The Crown Court judge directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty on the mother, which they did. The jury retired to consider their verdict on the father and delivered a verdict of not guilty.
5.The effect of the protracted criminal proceedings was not merely that the best part of a year had been lost since Judge Wood’s fact finding judgment. There were three other consequences:
- i) First, the mother’s bail conditions seriously hindered the necessary process of assessing the mother’s capacity to look after both children, one of whom, unhappily, has significant ongoing disabilities and extremely complex needs. I am told that, despite this, applications to vary her bail conditions were opposed by the prosecution and refused by the Crown Court.
- ii) Secondly, the mother lost her accommodation.
iii) Thirdly, the entire process subjected both the mother and the wider family to very considerable stress.
It is unsurprising that Mr Day, on her behalf, goes on in his position statement to say that the delay has exasperated the mother, the social work team, the children’s guardian and at times the court, and has also contributed to family tensions
As a result of those problems, a brand new problem arose, which was finding some accommodation for the mother and children to live in. The girl had special needs as a result of her injuries, and therefore had specific requirements for her accommodation.
6… Despite much endeavour on the part of the local authority, it was not until the last week in May 2018 that what turned out to be a suitable property was found. It was in that state of play that Judge Wood, who had earlier voiced his concerns at a directions hearing on 23 April 2018, at a further hearing on 19 June 2018 made the order to which I have already referred.
7.As I have said, the hearing before me which Judge Wood had directed was fixed for 12 July 2018. By the week commencing 2 July 2018 there was reason to believe that the property which had been identified in May would be both suitable (subject to certain work being done) and available for the mother and her children. On 10 July 2018, two days before the hearing, the mother was given the keys to the property.
8.In these circumstances, the primary purpose of the hearing before me had fallen away. Indeed, the parties were agreed that no directions were needed in relation to the accommodation issue. I directed that the final hearing of the care proceedings be listed before Judge Wood on 13 August 2018. My order recited that the local authority “wishes to do everything possible to support [the mother] in moving into her new home.” It was common ground that various works required to be done to the property, including the installation of a lift. My order went on to record the local authority’s indication that the installation of the lift would take approximately four months, and my “hope … that the lift … could be installed by the next hearing.”
9.I made an order that the local authority was to serve, by 17 July 2018, “an action plan in a tabular format setting out explicitly the timeline for works to be carried out in order to allow the plan of rehabilitation to commence at mother’s new property.” The action plan, dated 17 July 2018 and displaying an appropriate sense of urgency, spelt out with commendable precision, in tabular form under the headings “Objective/Task”, “Responsibility (name and job role)”, “Start Date” and “Completion Date”, a comprehensive list of all the works required to be done to the property, including but not limited to the installation of the lift, and of the furniture (some specialist) and equipment to be provided for the mother and the children.
10.To bring that part of the story to its conclusion, on 14 August 2018, Judge Wood made a supervision order, as proposed by the local authority and supported by both parents, thereby bringing the care proceedings finally to an end in week 116.
11.In a position statement and more particularly in a detailed and carefully argued skeleton argument circulated to the other advocates on the morning of an advocates’ meeting on 9 July 2018, Mr Day raised a wider issue. Although by then it seemed that the accommodation issue was well on the way to being resolved, Mr Day indicated that he wished to retain the hearing before me for a rather different purpose, namely to “look at the wider ramifications of delay in proceedings in the family court” and, specifically, to address two questions:
- i) What can the family court do to avoid delay which is engendered by concurrent criminal proceedings?
- ii) What can the family court do when the delay to proceedings is engendered by the acts and omissions of other government departments or agencies?
Referring to the present case, he asserted that “Progress to permit a child to come home to a mother has been paralysed by the unnecessary and disproportionate delay and approach in the criminal proceedings”, compounded by the fact that there has been “very slow progress by the relevant housing authority to find a property for the mother that is suitable for [her daughter].” The delay here, he says, has thus been caused by factors external to the care proceedings.
As one would expect from the Ex-President, the judgment contains a careful and thorough analysis of all of the case law and the legal principles as to the extent to which the Family Court can seek to influence or control the actions of public authorities (over and above the influence and control that they may have over the social work department of the Local Authority bringing the care proceedings)
20.The starting point is the fundamental point of principle articulated and elaborated in a well-known series of cases in the House of Lords and, more recently, the Supreme Court: A v Liverpool City Council  AC 363, In re W (A Minor) (Wardship: Jurisdiction)  AC 791, Holmes-Moorhouse v Richmond upon Thames London Borough Council  UKHL 7,  1 WLR 413, Aintree University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust v James  UKSC 67,  AC 591, and, most recently, N v A Clinical Commissioning Group and others  UKSC 22,  AC 549 (dismissing the appeal from the decision of the Court of Appeal in In re N (An Adult) (Court of Protection: Jurisdiction)  EWCA Civ 411,  Fam 87). That principle, as explained by Lord Scarman in A v Liverpool City Council, is that:
“The High Court cannot exercise its powers, however wide they may be, so as to intervene on the merits in an area of concern entrusted by Parliament to another public authority.”
21.Authorities which there is no need for me to refer to (see my judgment in In re N, para 19) demonstrate the application of this principle in many contexts where a family court is involved, for example, where the child or the parents are subject to immigration control, where the child or the parents are the subject of a police investigation or criminal proceedings, or where there is dispute as to the provision of statutory services by other agencies, for example, in the provision of health care by the NHS or the provision of social housing by a local authority.
22.For present purposes, this fundamental principle has two corollaries. First, that a family court cannot dictate to another court or agency how that court or agency is to exercise its powers. It follows, secondly, that, absent statutory provision to the contrary, the ambit of family court judicial decision-making is constrained by the extent of the resources made available by other public bodies. So, the family court cannot direct that resources be made available or that services be provided; it can merely seek to persuade. How far can persuasion go? The answer is that the family court can seek to persuade but must not apply pressure: Holmes-Moorhouse v Richmond upon Thames London Borough Council  UKHL 7,  1 WLR 413, paras 38-39 (Baroness Hale of Richmond).
23.I have referred to a family court. I emphasise, what is quite clear on the authorities, that, in this respect, exactly the same principles apply whether the case is in the Family Court or the Family Division of the High Court (or, for that matter, in the Court of Protection), and whether it is a private or a public law case. The High Court has no greater powers in this respect than the Family Court, even if the child is a ward of court: see In re N, paras 13, 14.
24.How then, while remaining loyal to these principles, is a family court to engage with another court or agency which is also involved in the family’s life. This, as it happens, is an issue I had to address almost exactly ten years ago in Re M and N (Parallel Family and Immigration Proceedings)  EWHC 2281 (Fam),  2 FLR 2030. I said this (para 31):
“In all such situations the family court will need the fullest and most up-to-date information. And where the outcome is dependent upon or is likely to be affected by the decision of some third party, whether, for example, a local authority housing department, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Crown Prosecution Service, or a NHS Primary Care Trust, or whoever, the family court will also need the fullest and most up-to-date information as to where exactly that decision-making process has got to, what the decision is, if it has been given, or when it is expected if it is still awaited. Consideration will also need to be given – and at the earliest possible stage – as to whether and if so how that third party decision maker should be brought into some appropriate form of direct engagement with the family proceedings.”
25.It will be noticed that in Re M and N I referred (paras 6, 30) to the then recent decision of the Court of Appeal in Holmes-Moorhouse v Richmond-upon-Thames London Borough Council  EWCA Civ 970,  1 FLR 1061. The decision of the Court of Appeal was subsequently reversed by the House of Lords: Holmes-Moorhouse v Richmond upon Thames London Borough Council  UKHL 7,  1 WLR 413.
26.For present purposes what is important is what Lord Hoffmann (para 17):
“In my opinion the Court of Appeal was wrong to suggest that a housing authority should intervene in family proceedings to argue against the court making a shared residence order. It will obviously be helpful to a court, in dealing with the question of where the children should reside, to know what accommodation, if any, the housing authority is likely to provide. It should not make a shared residence order unless it appears reasonably likely that both parties will have accommodation in which the children can reside. But the provision of such accommodation is outside the control of the court. It has no power to decide whether the reasons why the housing authority declines to provide such accommodation are good or bad. That is a matter for the housing authority and, if necessary, the county court on appeal. Likewise, it is relevant for the housing authority to know that the court considers that the children should reside with both parents. But the housing authority is not concerned to argue that the court should not make an order to this effect. The order, if made, will only be part of the material which the housing authority takes into account in coming to its decision. The two procedures for deciding different questions must not be allowed to become entangled with each other.”
In saying this, Lord Hoffman was, in substance, adopting exactly the same approach as the one he had explained in the Court of Appeal in R v Secretary of State for Home Department ex parte T  1 FLR 293, a case involving the interface between family and immigration proceedings.
27.Nothing in what Lord Hoffmann said affects, in my judgment, either the general thrust or most of the detail of what I said in Re M and N. Given the decision of the House of Lords, what I said in Re M and N at para 30 is best ignored; but this does not affect the continuing validity of what I said (para 31) in the passage quoted above.
It had been suggested in this case that witness summons be issued to compel the key decision-makers in the criminal proceedings and housing department to come to Court and account for their actions, perhaps even be cross-examined.
28.In this context, the question is what, to use my terminology, is an “appropriate form of direct engagement with the family proceedings” for the third party decision maker? In relation to this, Lord Hoffmann’s observations are of great importance: the third party decision maker should not be made an intervenor in the family proceedings and should not be required to “argue” its case.
29.On the other hand, the family court can properly seek from the third party decision maker information – information both as to what has happened and as to what it is anticipated will or may happen – and, where necessary, documents. Moreover, if this is necessary to enable the family court to perform its task and to come to a decision on the matter before it, the family court can legitimately ask the third party decision maker to explain why it has come to its decision and, if this is necessary for the family court properly to understand the decision, to probe the proffered explanation, if need be by asking searching questions. What, in contrast, the family court cannot legitimately do, is to require the third party decision maker to justify its decision, let alone with a view to putting it under pressure to change its decision.
[To use an analogy, the Family Court could ask Madonna to EXPLAIN why she chose to make the film Swept Away, but she doesn’t have to JUSTIFY her love – just as Jay-Z doesn’t have to justify his thug.]
30.Where, in any particular case, one draws the line between explanation and justification may be difficult; but the principle is clear. It is not for a family court to require a third party decision maker to justify its decision; that is a matter, if at all, for the Administrative Court exercising its powers of judicial review. And, as I pointed out in In re N, para 82,
“it is not a proper function of … the family court or the Family Division … to embark upon a factual inquiry designed to create a platform or springboard for possible future proceedings in the Administrative Court.”
31.It is also clear that the family court can, if this is necessary to enable it to dispose of the proceedings before it justly and fairly, make an order requiring the third party decision maker, or an individual specified by the family court for the purpose, to disclose relevant documents or to give evidence (see further, paragraph 38 below). The jurisdiction to make such an order is quite plainly conferred by section 31G of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984, to which Mr Day referred me, and there is nothing, whether in section 31G itself, or in the provisions of the Family Procedure Rules, or in the case-law or in principle, to exonerate the police, the CPS or any other public agency or authority from the reach of section 31G. Section 31G goes to the power of the court to make an order for the disclosure of documents or the giving of evidence; it does not, I emphasise, empower the court to disregard the principle that although the court can demand an explanation it cannot require the third party to justify its decision.
32.It follows from the principle in A v Liverpool City Council that a family court cannot dictate the contents of its care plan to a local authority: see In re N, paras 34-36:
“34 It is the duty of any court hearing an application for a care order carefully to scrutinise the local authority’s care plan and to satisfy itself that the care plan is in the child’s interests. If the court is not satisfied that the care plan is in the best interests of the child, it may refuse to make a care order: see In re T (A Minor) (Care Order: Conditions)  2 FLR 423. It is important, however, to appreciate the limit of the court’s powers: the only power of the court is either to approve or refuse to approve the care plan put forward by the local authority. The court cannot dictate to the local authority what the care plan is to say. Nor … does the High Court have any greater power when exercising its inherent jurisdiction. Thus the court, if it seeks to alter the local authority’s care plan, must achieve its objective by persuasion rather than by compulsion.
35 That said, the court is not obliged to retreat at the first rebuff. It can invite the local authority to reconsider its care plan and, if need be, more than once: see In re X; Barnet London Borough Council v Y and X  2 FLR 998. How far the court can properly go down this road is a matter of some delicacy and difficulty. There are no fixed and immutable rules. It is impossible to define in the abstract or even to identify with any precision in the particular case the point to which the court can properly press matters but beyond which it cannot properly go. The issue is always one for fine judgment, reflecting sensitivity, realism and an appropriate degree of judicial understanding of what can and cannot sensibly be expected of the local authority.
36 In an appropriate case the court can and must “be rigorous in exploring and probing local authority thinking in cases where there is any reason to suspect that resource issues may be affecting the local authority’s thinking”: see In re B-S (Children) (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose)  1 WLR 563, para 29. Rigorous probing, searching questions and persuasion are permissible; pressure is not.”
33.Not infrequently, an important component of the appropriate care plan will be input from – services to be provided by – another public authority, for example, health care to be provided by the NHS as part of a holistic care plan, or social housing to be provided by another local authority. In such a case the family court can engage with the third party decision maker both indirectly and/or directly: indirectly, by requiring the local authority, as part of its consideration or reconsideration of its care plan, to discuss and negotiate with the third party; directly by the court making orders against the third party of the kind referred to in paragraphs 29, 31, above.
The Court went on to consider the position of orders for police disclosure that were not being followed. It ought to go without saying that the police should obey such Court orders, but it clearly doesn’t in all cases, and thus having this chapter and verse is handy
38.Part A, para 7, provides in terms for the making by the family court of orders for disclosure against the police and/or the CPS. Para 7.4 states that:
“The police and the CPS will comply with any court order.”
39.It might be thought that this statement is otiose, for it is, after all, as Romer LJ said in Hadkinson v Hadkinson  P 285, 288, in a passage endorsed by the Privy Council in Isaacs v Robertson  AC 97, 101:
“… the plain and unqualified obligation of every person against, or in respect of whom, an order is made by a court of competent jurisdiction, to obey it unless and until that order is discharged. The uncompromising nature of this obligation is shown by the fact that it extends even to cases where the person affected by an order believes it to be irregular or even void.”
40.In Re W (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose); Re H (Adoption Order: Application for Permission for Leave to Oppose)  EWCA Civ 1177,  1 FLR 1266, para 51, I referred to:
“the slapdash, lackadaisical and on occasions almost contumelious attitude which still far too frequently characterises the response to orders made by family courts.”
I went on:
“There is simply no excuse for this. Orders, including interlocutory orders, must be obeyed and complied with to the letter and on time. Too often they are not. They are not preferences, requests or mere indications; they are orders.”
I added (para 54):
“Non-compliance with an order, any order, by anyone is bad enough. It is a particularly serious matter if the defaulter is a public body such as a local authority.”
The same, it ought to be needless to say, obviously applies also where the order is directed to the police.
41.I make no apologies if I seem to be labouring a point which ought to require no emphasis. However, I was recently confronted, in a care case that came before me on circuit, with a letter, written by the legal department of a police force one really might have thought would have known better, which, responding to an order made by a Circuit Judge sitting in the Family Court for disclosure by the police of certain documents, sought to explain why it was proposed by the police not to comply with this “request” (as it was described) because, in the view of the writer, it was inappropriate. Without having thought it necessary to require the hapless writer of this astonishing missive to be brought to court to provide an explanation, it would not be fair to assume that this was impertinence or defiance rather than simple ignorance and incompetence; but either way it is deeply troubling that any police force can have thought that this was an appropriate response to an order of the court, even if it was a family and not a criminal court.
42.The point is very simple: if a public authority to whom an order is directed by a family court wishes to challenge the order rather than comply with it, the authority must, and, moreover, before the time for compliance has expired, either appeal the order or if, as will often be the case, the order was made without notice to and in the absence of the authority, apply to the court which made the order for it be discharged or varied. Otherwise, the authority may find itself on the wrong end of proceedings for contempt of court.