This is a decision by MacDonald J
It was a case where three children who were at home with the parents under Interim Care Orders were removed to Pakistan by their parents, and all efforts to find them have been unsuccessful.
The Local Authority applied for leave to withdraw the care proceedings, and to have the children instead made wards of Court.
The Court noted in passing (but helpfully for my purposes, because it sets out the current judicial thinking on Care Orders at home) that the Guardian in the case had recommended that the children be made the subjects of Care Orders under a care plan of them remaining with the parents.
- The Local Authority undertook a comprehensive programme of assessment of the parents. The father was assessed to continue to pose a significant risk to the children in the circumstances I have outlined in the foregoing paragraphs. The assessment of the mother however, was positive. In the circumstances, the local authority’s care plan approaching the conclusion of the care proceedings was for the three children to remain in their mother’s care under a court order, the nature of which was to be determined at the final hearing, the local authority contending that the order should be a supervision order under s.31(1)(b) of the Children Act 1989. Whilst the Children’s Guardian agreed that the children should remain in the care of the mother, she contended that this should be under the auspices of a final care order rather than a supervision order.
- I pause to note that the practice of placing children at home under final care orders has recently been the subject of some scrutiny by the Public Law Working Group chaired by Keehan J. That scrutiny has had added significance with respect to cases decided on the Northern Circuit in circumstances where it is said that this Circuit has a higher than average number cases in which the placement of children at home under a care order is the final welfare outcome endorsed by the court. In this context, I note the following important passage from the best practice guidance contained at Appendix F of the final report of the Public Law Working Group published with the imprimatur of the President of the Family Division at the beginning of March 2021:
“Care order on a care plan of the child remaining at home
 There may be good reason at the inception of care proceedings for a child to remain in the care of her parents/carers/family members and subject to an ICO pending the completion of assessments.
 The making of a care order on the basis of a plan for the child to remain in the care of her parents/carers is a different matter. There should be exceptional reasons for a court to make a care order on the basis of such a plan.
 If the making of a care order is intended to be used a vehicle for the provision of support and services, that is wrong. A means/route should be devised to provide these necessary support and services without the need to make a care order. Consideration should be given to the making of a supervision order, which may be an appropriate order to support the reunification of the family.
 The risks of significant harm to the child are either adjudged to be such that the child should be removed from the care of her parents/carers or some lesser legal order and regime is required. Any placement with parents under an interim or final order should be evidenced to comply with the statutory regulations for placement at home.
 It should be considered to be rare in the extreme that the risks of significant harm to the child are judged to be sufficient to merit the making of a care order but, nevertheless, the risks can be managed with a care order being made in favour of the local authority with the child remaining in the care of the parents/carers. A care order represents a serious intervention by the state in the life of the child and in the lives of the parents in terms of their respective ECHR, article 8 rights. This can only be justified if it is necessary and proportionate to the risks of harm of the child.”
I hadn’t seen this guidance, so it is helpful to have it set out
I’ve practiced family law all over the country, and the North West circuit is the only place where I’ve heard of Care Orders with the children at home being anything other than a 1 in every 5 or 6 years phenomenon. Everywhere else, its incredibly rare. I’m not sure why it sprang up as being a solution in the North West and really nowhere else. It leaves families with the threat of the child being removed at any time, and leaves Local Authorities with responsibility for the child and having the repeated issue of ‘is THIS the thing that tips the balance that means that the child is now removed’? (I think it is much better in these situations for it to be a Judge to decide whether or not the child should be placed in foster care)
Onto the broader issue of the case,
- in my judgment the chances of securing the return of the children to this jurisdiction in a timescale commensurate with the statutory timescale for proceedings of this nature as set out in s.32(1)(a)(ii) of the Children Act 1989 is low. Whilst the court is able to extend the statutory timescale for care proceedings where necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly pursuant s.32(5) of the Act, in deciding whether to do so the court is required pursuant to s.32(6) of the Act to take account of any the impact revision to the timetable both on the child and on the duration and conduct of the proceedings. In the current circumstances, any extension would be an extension of unknown duration, with little by way of reliable evidence before the court to suggest a realistic end date. Further, and within this context, whilst the children remain the subject of care proceedings, and the subject of interim care orders pursuant to s.38 of the Children Act 1989, the local authority has statutory duties with respect to them as looked after children pursuant to s.22(1) of the Children Act 1989 and the Care Planning, Placement and Review (England) Regulations 2010. Whilst the children remain outside the jurisdiction the local authority is precluded from discharging effectively those statutory obligations.
- It of course remains possible, particularly in light of the developments in the use of remote hearings that have taken place in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, to deal with the determination of these proceedings by way of remote hearing, at which hearing the parents could attend by video link from Pakistan and Italy respectively. However, whilst superficially attractive, in light of the position adopted by the parents with respect to co-operation with these proceedings I consider it unlikely that the parents would engage with a final hearing. Further, and more fundamentally, in light of the position set out above regarding the current paucity of directly effective reciprocal legal instruments between this jurisdiction and Pakistan, the court must also look to the situation that would pertain at the conclusion of such a remote final hearing. If that hearing resulted, in light of the developments in this case since 3 November 2020 evidencing the mother’s inability to safeguard the children from the risks the father has been assessed to present, in the court considering that the mother could not safely care for the children, the court would be left in the position of making orders that it could not readily enforce. Were the decision to be that the children should remain in the care of their mother, the court would not be able to rely on any plan for supporting the mother and addressing deficits in her capacity to protect the children being implemented. In addition, and importantly, continuing the care proceedings notwithstanding that the children are now in Pakistan, with the attendant focus on the return of the children to this jurisdiction, is likely in my judgment to leave children in state of considerable stress and uncertainty.
In the foregoing circumstances, and notwithstanding the answer that I am satisfied is returned by the applicable principles absent account being taken on the abduction of the children from this jurisdiction, the reality of the situation that now pertains in this case leads me back to the observation by Ward LJ in London Borough of Southwark v B that there is no advantage to any child in being maintained as the subject of proceedings that have become ineffective in result by keeping alive proceedings that have no current efficacy and have lost the momentum derived from the support of the local authority that initiated them. To refuse the application made by the local authority, and supported by the Children’s Guardian, would be to retain public law proceedings before the court during which the local authority could not discharge its statutory duty to the children and following which the court could not enforce any order it considered should be made to safeguard and promote the children’s best interests. Within this context, it is much more difficult to see the relevance of the potential result of continuing the proceedings to the future care plans for the children. Further, the court would be compelling the local authority to engage in proceedings that it no longer seeks to pursue. In these circumstances, it is also far less clear that the time the investigation would take and the likely cost to public funds could be justified.
- However, whilst I accept Ms Lennox’s submission that it would be inappropriate to make an order warding each of the children until they reach their respective ages of majority, it is my intention that the children shall remain wards of this court for a further period. The evidence before the court is that the GMP continue to investigate this case as a criminal offence of child abduction and are still working with Interpol and the authorities in Pakistan in that regard. Whilst satisfied that the timescales of that investigation are, on the evidence before the court, out with those of the care proceedings, I am satisfied that whilst these criminal investigations continue it is in each of the children’s best interests that they remain wards of this court, in order that the court can intervene quickly with respect to their welfare should the criminal investigation be brought to a successful conclusion. In light of the timescales contemplated by GMP I am satisfied that in the first instance the wardship proceedings should be listed for a further review in six months’ time. At that point, further consideration can be given by the court to whether those proceedings should continue or should also be brought to a conclusion, having regard to any further progress made by GMP in the criminal investigation in concert with Interpol and the authorities and the police in Pakistan.
- In conclusion, I grant the local authority permission to withdraw the care proceedings in respect of the children. The children will however, continue to be wards of this court. I will list the wardship proceedings for review in six months’ time, at which review the court will give further consideration to the progress of the criminal investigation by GMP, in concert with Interpol, into the parents abduction of the children from this jurisdiction and determine whether it is appropriate for the children to remain wards of court at that juncture.
- Finally, I wish to make abundantly clear that my decision in this case has been reached on its own very particular facts. My decision should in no way be taken to represent acquiescence by the court in the face of the actions taken by the parents in this case, as an acceptance of those actions or to suggests that parents involved in care proceedings can avoid those proceedings by removing their child from the jurisdiction of the court.
- To the contrary, parents who abduct children as a means of avoiding local authority involvement with those children or during the course of subsequent care proceedings can expect the court to bring to bear the full weight of the law in seeking the return of those children to this jurisdiction, and to continue in that effort until all legal avenues have been exhausted. A case in point is the decision of this court in Re K (Wardship: Without Notice Return Order)  2 FLR 901, in which this court ordered the return of the children to this jurisdiction some five years after they had been abducted by their mother as a means of avoiding local authority involvement with the children’s welfare. The courts of this jurisdiction will pursue all reasonable measures to ensure that subject children abducted by their parents or relatives during the course of care proceedings are returned to this jurisdiction.
- Within that context, I direct that a copy of this judgment be sent to the Greater Manchester Police and I give permission to the Greater Manchester Police to disclose the judgment to Interpol and to the authorities in Pakistan with whom the Greater Manchester Police are co-operating with respect to their ongoing criminal investigation into the abduction of the children.
- That is my judgment.