Couldn’t decide between my two titles here, so you get a job lot.
I do like a case name that tells you something about the nature of the case, so G (Children: Fair Hearing), Re  EWCA Civ 126 (07 February 2019) told me it was probably going to be worth a read.
It involves an appeal from Sheffield Family Court about the decision to make Interim Care Orders involving two children (both said to be young, and one specified as being four). The children had been removed into Police Protection following an alleged fracas where mother had gone to the father’s house after father had reportedly kept the four year old for longer after his week’s holiday contact than had been agreed. The police had arrested mother and members of her family.
There was said to have been some history of domestic abuse between the parents, both making allegations against the other.
The interim threshold statement referred to the incident on 21 January, the children having been taken into police protection, the reports of past violence between the parents, the father’s lack of cooperation with previous assessments, alleged violence between the mother and her present partner, and a school referral to social services arising from M’s poor attendance. The papers consisted of a statement from the social worker, who had no previous knowledge of the family, and the police protection authorisation record, which described the events of 21 January
The case was listed for an Interim Care Order hearing, against the backdrop of the Police Protection period ending that day and thus a decision needing to be made. The Court called the case in, asked for people’s positions, gave some views, allowed a brief period for instructions to be taken, and the mother did not contest the making of the Interim Care Orders.
[In fact, she consented, but it is now permissible to appeal against a consent order – that did not used to be the case, but the law changed following some high profile big money ancillary relief cases – ie CS v ACS 2015 ]
My summary above doesn’t quite capture what happened though, hence the appeal. The appeal was on the basis that the views expressed by the Court went beyond robust case management and into undue pressure and that the mother’s decision not to contest the making of Interim Care Orders was as a result of feeling that she would not get a fair hearing.
(I note that mother’s counsel, Mr C, is said to be 2016 call, which means that he was relatively junior and might also mean that he was in his early twenties, although of course some people join the Bar later in life. Part of the argument at appeal was whether he was in any way to blame, which he was not. I point those things out merely because they MAY wrongly have given the impression that he could be steam-rolled in a way that a barrister with 20 years call would not have been. )
Here is a flavour of it – the judgment gives a pretty thorough blow by blow account if people want to read it
JUDGE: Yes. Mr [C], what evidence do you what to hear?
Mr C: Certainly the – the social worker as a – is a starting-point, depending if the application is to be heard today or on a – on a different day.
JUDGE: Oh, it’s got to be heard today. As you know, the PPO runs out.
Mr C: Well —
JUDGE: — and if it is heard today I shall certainly make findings that your client will be stuck with.
JUDGE: I should ask, but it’s bound to be supported by the Guardian. If I go ahead and make findings – which inevitably I will, because something happened at the house on the 21st of January – she is stuck with those, and it could impact on how the police look at it and everything. Potentially, the situation is – is very risky for her and I – I say that so that no-one’s left in any doubt that if I hear the evidence, which I’m more than willing to do – my list is empty for this afternoon – I shall make findings and she’ll be stuck with them.
Mr C: Well, in light of that indication, your Honour, I will probably have a further word.
JUDGE: Well, you can turn your back and just check if she wants to. She is in a very very precarious position because she undoubtedly went to the house that belongs to the father, she undoubtedly retrieved, late at night, her daughter. It may well be that [he] kept the child when he shouldn’t have done. but I don’t know about that yet. It may be something I have to make a finding about – that – what caused her to act in this manner, but this is a case where, inevitably, I’m going to make findings, and it doesn’t take rocket science to realise that if you grab a child in the – late at night when that child should have been in bed asleep – that that is significant harm. I don’t think there’s any question about it.
Mr C: Well, your Honour, mother’s position would be that it was a – a choice between two difficult decisions that evening —
JUDGE: Oh, nonsense.
Mr C: — and that she had to take steps to safeguard the welfare of her daughter.
JUDGE: No, that’s not the way that you go around it, Mr [C], If that is the preposterous proposition you’re putting to me, it’ll fall on deaf ears.
JUDGE: Yes. Mr [C], I’m doing this to try and assist your client, not for any other reason, so it’s up to her.
Mr C: Well, I do ask your Honour for the matter to be stood down so that I can take proper instructions rather than rushing the mother into a – into a decision on that.
JUDGE: Yes. Well, I must say, father’s taken the only decision, in my view, that he should take, particularly now I know the girls are placed together. I would have had quite a lot to say if they weren’t and it would have impacted on my decision, but father’s taken the only standpoint – obviously I’m not making any findings against him because he’s accepted the inevitable.
It’s quarter-past now. I’m very willing to hear this but I want your client to be very much aware that I shall probably send my findings, if I make any, to the police and require it goes to CPS and – and see what happens. This is not the sort of situation that it seems to me, Mr [C], should be permitted to happen without some consequences.
MR [C]: Yes, your Honour.
JUDGE: Right, it’s quarter-past now, I’ll give you – no later than 25 past.
I don’t know if mum could possibly have persuaded the Court that her actions in going round to father’s house to get her child back late at night were justified and that in any event, it would not be proportionate to put two children in foster carer as a result of that, but it is an argument that she was strongly pressured into not making.
At the appeal, the mother’s case was
14.Ms Helen Compton’s distilled submission to us is that the mother was deprived of a meaningful opportunity to oppose the making of the orders. The judge gave the impression of having prejudged the threshold and the outcome and she exerted undue influence on the mother in a number of ways, including by repeatedly warning her that she would be ‘stuck’ with adverse findings and by threatening to refer the matter to the police and the CPS, something that was bound to place the mother under extreme pressure. Overall, the judge’s approach overbore the mother’s will.
At the appeal, the Local Authority put the case in this way
“Following her discretionary case management powers and with a clear view on the Overriding Objective the learned judge informed the Mother and her Counsel that there was time for the Court to hear the matter as a contested hearing that afternoon and of the possibility of threshold findings being made against her.
However firm the learned judge may have been, it did not amount to duress and it was incumbent upon the Mother’s legal representatives to raise these issues with the judge. In the event that judge refused to hear the case at all a judgment should have been requested. In the event that there had been a contested hearing, the Court would have provided a judgment (probably ex tempore) and clarification could and hopefully would have been requested. This matter was agreed and no judgment requested.
The learned Judge did state a view on the initial application but this was within her discretion to do. The Learned Judge also provided the Mother with time over lunch to take instructions, further time when Mr C asked for it and stressed that she was willing to hear the case that afternoon. No application was made by the Appellant Mother to seek an adjournment or agree an Interim Order pending listing this matter for a contested interim hearing. This exercising of the Judge’s case management powers did not amount to a breach of the Mother’s Article 6 and 8 Rights.
Both parents attended at court represented, the Mother by both Counsel and instructing solicitor. It is perhaps surprising that neither of the Mother’s fully qualified legal team sought to challenge the Judge in the event that they felt the Judge was being intimidating or exerting duress and express their views to that effect at the time.”
17.In her submissions to us, Ms Ford accepts that the transcript shows the judge to have been bullish, but distinguishes this from bullying. She does not accept that the mother was under duress. Professionals are used to judges expressing firm views and they should be able to deal with it, and where necessary stand up to pressure from the bench. There is nothing improper in a judge advising a party of the consequences for them of adverse findings being made at an interim hearing. Ms Ford accepted that one interpretation of the transcript supported the complaints now made; in the end she was not able to suggest any other possible interpretation.
The Court of Appeal weren’t very taken with the Guardian’s stance on appeal
20.Written submissions on behalf of the Guardian merely observe that the mother consented to the order. They do not attempt to address the criticisms of the conduct of the hearing. I find that surprising, as one of the functions of a Children’s Guardian is to take an interest in whether the process that leads to orders affecting the children is a fair and valid one
22.The overriding objective in family proceedings is to deal with cases justly, having regard to any welfare issues involved. The court is under a duty to deal with cases expeditiously and fairly and to manage them actively in ways that include “helping the parties to settle the whole or part of a case”. See FPR 2010 1.1(1), 1.1(2)(a) and 1.4(2)(g).
23.Judges can, and frequently do, indicate a provisional view to the parties. This is entirely proper and may lead to parties changing their positions. Provided they do so freely (even if reluctantly), there is nothing objectionable about this. However, judges must not place unreasonable pressure on a party to change position or appear to have prejudged the matter. As Stuart-Smith LJ said in Re R (above) at 130:
“A judge may often have a laudable desire that the parties should resolve disputes, particularly family disputes, by agreement. I would not wish to say anything to discourage a court from doing so, but great care must be taken not to exert improper or undue pressure on a party to settle when they are unwilling to do so.”
24.Measured against these principles, and making every allowance for the realities of practice in a busy family court, I regret that what occurred in this case fell well outside the proper exercise of the court’s powers.
25.This was an urgent application, which the judge rightly appreciated had to be decided that day. As she said, she had time available. It was a matter for her, given the practical constraints, as to whether to hear oral evidence: if she had been considering making a short-term holding order I would not have criticised her for not doing so, with any evidence needed to justify a longer-term order being taken on a later date.
26.However, that is not what happened. The judge was hearing an application issued that day, with the parents arriving at court for the first time, the social worker and the Guardian knowing little of the fraught family history, and the mother being represented by inexperienced counsel. Before Mr C could even manage to tell the judge that his instructions were to contest the order she told him that “… if it is heard today I shall certainly make findings that your client will be stuck with.” The only conclusion that the mother and her advisers could draw from this and similar statements (“very risky for her”; “a very very precarious position”; “inevitably, I’m going to make findings… – that that is significant harm. I don’t think there’s any question about it.”; “not… without some consequences.”) is that the judge had made up her mind and was sure to make adverse findings that would be damaging to her in the long run. The judge then isolated the mother by saying, before learning the position of the Guardian, that “this application is bound to be supported by the Guardian”. When Mr C attempted to put a small part of his client’s factual case, he was met with derision: “Oh, nonsense”; “preposterous proposition you’re putting to me, it’ll fall on deaf ears.” Counsel for the local authority then intervened to say that her social worker couldn’t be questioned about events before she was allocated and that she would question the mother about why she waited until 36 hours after reporting matters to the police before going to the father’s house. Before adjourning at Mr C’s request, the judge further isolated the mother by saying that “the father’s taken the only decision, in my view, that he should take, … obviously I’m not making any findings against him because he’s accepted the inevitable.” Finally, she made an entirely gratuitous statement that “I shall probably send my findings, if I make any, to the police and require it goes to CPS and – see what happens.” Whether or not that was an empty threat is beside the point.
27.This material amply substantiates the appellant’s case that her consent or non-opposition to the interim care order was not freely given, but was secured by oppressive behaviour on the part of the judge in the form of inappropriate warnings and inducements. Regardless of the fact that the mother was legally represented, she did not get a fair hearing. There has been a serious procedural irregularity. This ground of appeal succeeds. It is unnecessary to go on to consider the other grounds.
28.I also regret that the submissions made by the local authority, either supported or not challenged by the other respondents, show a failure to understand the nature of the overriding objective or the requirements of a fair hearing. The judge’s approach went far beyond “firmness” and cannot possibly be described as “assisting” the mother. Similarly, I would reject the suggestion that the fundamental unfairness of the hearing could have been cured by a more assertive response by the mother’s legal representatives. After what happened in the first part of the hearing, it is difficult to see how a fair hearing could have taken place even if the mother had maintained her opposition. The submissions we have received from the respondents show why the appeal needed to be heard. The consequence will be that the local authority’s application for interim care orders will be heard afresh, and not as an application by the mother for the discharge of existing orders.
29.A further matter, which arose during submissions, requires comment. The judge’s repeated references to the mother being ‘stuck’ with findings is to my mind one of the causes of concern. However, both Ms Compton and Ms Ford told us that this was a warning that in their experience is often given by judges at interim hearings. Neither sought to argue that there is anything improper about this. I do not share that view and I agree with the observations of Moor J on this point.
Mr Justice Moor, the second Court of Appeal Judge, reminded us that judicial decisions about matters at interim care order stage are not findings of fact, but decisions that on the section 38 standard that there are reasonable grounds to believe (at that stage) that such and such has occurred. That argument of course cuts both ways – it is a lower standard of proof that the Local Authority have to reach (on the balance of probabilities are there reasonable grounds to believe that this happened versus on the balance of probabilities is it more likely than not that this happened) but on the other hand such judicial decisions and views are not set in stone and should not be used in this way to discourage a parent from testing the evidence.
Mr Justice Moor:
31.I agree, and add the following in relation to one aspect of the matter.
32.During the course of the hearing, we were told that it was commonplace in certain courts to warn parents that, if the application for an interim care order was opposed, the court may have to make findings as to facts in dispute. The implication was that these findings would then stand for all time. Indeed, Ms Ford, on behalf of the Local Authority told us that this would be done “to prevent the need to go over the same ground again” later in the proceedings.
33.It is important to remember that there is a fundamental difference between sections 31 and 38 of the Children Act 1989. Section 31 sets out what needs to be established before a court can make a full care order. Section 38(2) is in very different terms:-
“A court shall not make an interim care order or supervision order under this section unless it is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the circumstances with respect to the child are as mentioned in section 31(2)”.
34.Section 38(2) does not require the court to make findings of fact to the civil standard, nor to be satisfied that the main threshold document is proved. Instead, the section requires the court to be satisfied that “there are reasonable grounds” for believing that the threshold in section 31 is made out. It follows that, at an interim hearing, rarely, if ever, will findings of fact be made that will have the effect of establishing the threshold at a final hearing. Accordingly, we consider that courts, if they do it at all, should be very cautious before making reference to the significance of conclusions drawn at the interim stage as such comments may appear to the parents to be a form of pressure.
35.If the court is satisfied that there are “reasonable grounds” for believing the threshold is made out, it will say so, but, in doing so, the court is not making final findings pursuant to section 31 on matters that must be proved to the requisite standard in due course.
[If I recall correctly, the Courts have confirmed that this is the case even at a finding of fact hearing, that the findings made are effectively a section 38 finding and that it is vital at the conclusion of the case for the Court to actively consider and determine whether to make the same findings to the section 31 standard. Don’t quote me on that though, because I can’t locate the source authority – I just remember having been surprised to read it at the time. Fact findings always FEEL like a section 31 exercise, not an ‘are there reasonable grounds to believe this?’ exercise]
The Court of Appeal continued the interim care orders pending the case being reheard by a different Judge.