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More heat than light – appeal on recusal

This is an appeal from a decision of Keehan J not to recuse himself for future hearings following what was on any description a very challenging interaction between Judge and counsel.

When I first thought about writing this post my intention was to try to be studiously neutral – I obviously wasn’t in Court, I didn’t hear the evidence, I haven’t read the full transcripts or heard them, and these matters were clearly highly contentious. Also, because both Judge and counsel are named, I did not want to be disrespectful to either of them on what was clearly a situation that was heated and became even more heated as things went on.

I have reconsidered slightly, and I think that I will just give my quick view that I think things got badly out of hand and that there were faults on both sides but with the benefit of being removed from the case in time, stakes and no connection to it I think the Judge reacted badly to some provocative remarks both orally and in writing BUT that as one of the episodes of counsel/Judge conflict did lead to the evidence given by a witness being potentially affected, I think the Court of Appeal COULD have allowed the appeal, but weren’t wrong to refuse it.

Deep breath.

Re AZ (A Child: Recusal) 2022

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2022/911.html

The background of this case is complex and difficult. Effectively, the mother and father entered into a surrogacy arrangement and a child, A resulted from that. The clinic had kept some of father’s gametes, and it was later found that by way of deception on the mother’s part, those gametes had been released to her in order to enter a second surrogacy arrangement unknown to the father, which produced twins.

There had been quite a lot of litigation, and serious findings had been made against the mother in relation to the conception of the twins and her honesty whilst giving evidence in those proceedings. The mother made allegations of domestic abuse against the father which the Judge found not to be true and that she had been dishonest in her evidence about these matters.

The parents had separated and a decision was made by the Court that A was to live with his father. The mother then made an application for Child Arrangement Orders for the twins, not mentioning in her application the adverse findings made by Keehan J in A’s proceedings.

The mother made complaints to the police about the domestic abuse (subsequent to the findings that they were not proven, and not mentioning those findings) and similarly about the father who was a doctor to the General Medical Council.

A five day hearing took place in August 2021. The mother sought at the outset an adjournment of the hearing on medical grounds. It was finally agreed that she would give evidence remotely.

Counsel instructed for the mother, Mr Uddin, had prepared a position statement in support of her application to withdraw.

In the course of summarising the circumstances in which his client’s medical condition had come to the court’s attention, counsel included the following observations:
“The application for an adjournment is made by the respondent mother with some trepidation. The mother feels that this court will use against her any application for an adjournment.”
“It is apparent that the court due to issues at previous hearings has a distrust of the mother and to put it bluntly prima facie disregard for the mother’s position.”
“It is one thing for the court to deny the mother to vary an interim contact order but another to disregard her application for an adjournment.”
” …she had ignored her own health conditions to avoid a delay in these proceedings and her weariness of this court due to her previous experience before this court.”
“The subsequent treatment of the mother by the court after her cancer disclosure has solidified mother’s weariness of this court.”
“It is true the mother has raised questions about the conduct of the court at previous hearings, but it would be unfair and unjust for the court to use this against the mother which the mother feels the court is doing.”

In the early stages of the hearing, the Judge made some remarks in relation to this document.

The transcript of the hearing shows that almost immediately after the start of the hearing, the following exchange took place:
“Judge: Yes, Mr Uddin?
Counsel: May it please you Lordship, my Lord —
Judge: It does not please me, actually, because I consider your position statement to have been impertinent and impudent and I should tell you now that if you ever dare file a position statement like that before me again, I will consider reporting you to the Bar Standards Board. Do you understand?
Counsel: Thank you, my Lord. My Lord, the position statement was done on instructions from my client
Judge: Yes, I am sure it was.”

The second most serious matter occurred during the Guardian’s evidence.

This instance is described as “bullying and threatening the Appellant’s counsel with the Bar Standards Board on the 27th August 2021”. As all parties recognised, this was the most troubling incident during this difficult hearing. In argument before us, Ms Ancliffe placed particular weight on it in support of the appeal.
The background to this incident is a passage in the evidence given by the children’s guardian at the end of the previous day’s hearing. During questions from Mr Wilson on behalf of the father in which he was challenging the need for a family assistance order, the guardian had described the relationship between the mother and A as “so special and so close” and continued:
“I think we’re looking hopefully at a new chapter in this little boy’s life, one where he can resume a positive relationship with his mother and learn about his siblings. All of these things are really important for A, for his sense of identity. He must have suffered trauma and loss losing his mother out of his life and all of his extended family, to whom he was very close and, again, I’ve observed that personally on more than one occasion. So, to have that back in his life would just be so good for him and I think the CAFCASS officer could assist with that.”
On the following morning, shortly after Mr Uddin started his examination of the guardian, the following exchange took place:
“Counsel: Now, yesterday in evidence you said, and please correct me if you find me to (inaudible) in any way, that A did suffer trauma when he was moved away from [the mother] to the care of [the father] leaving behind—-
Judge: If [the guardian] said that, I did not hear it.
Counsel: Well, I did– I prefaced it, my Lord, with the “If I have misquoted you, please correct me.”
Judge: Yes. All I am saying is I do not recall her saying that.
Counsel: Well, my Lord, she (inaudible). My Lord, I am asking a question but I did preface it and said, “If I misquote you.” What would you like my Lord to do, not– for me not to even ask the question because your Lordship has not heard it?
Judge: Well, she did not say it.
Counsel: Well, let us hear what she says then, my Lord.
Judge: Do not talk to me like that.
Counsel: My Lord –
Judge: You carry on and do what you want.
Counsel: Well, my Lord, how could I do anything I want? I am in your Lordship’s court.
Judge: Yes. It would be helpful if you could remind yourself of that. Now ask the question.
Counsel: Well, no, my Lord. I—-
Judge: Ask the question.
Counsel: Well, I want– I think we need a five-minute break because I do not like being spoken to like this. I am an officer of this court. I deserve respect. Your Lordship comes into this court and we all stand up because we show respect and I am an officer of the court. I will not—-
Judge: No you are not —
Counsel: (inaudible)
Judge: –an officer of the court. You are not a solicitor. You are a member of the Bar.
Counsel: Well, my Lord, I—
Judge: I am not wasting any more time. Get on with your cross-examination.
Counsel: My Lord, I will make one further point. This is my workplace. This is my workplace, just like your clerks and—-
Judge: Will you please just get on with asking your question?
Counsel: I will but can I have it affirmed from you that you will not talk to me in that way?
Judge: If you speak to me respectfully, I will speak to you respectfully.
Counsel: My Lord, I apologise if I have come across in any way disrespectful but this is my place of employment and I will not be spoken to in that way by anybody. When I have employees, I never speak to them in that way.
Judge: You are getting yourself close to being reported to the Bar Standards Board. Now please just get on with your cross-examination.
Counsel: May I ask that same question again or not?
Judge: Certainly.
Counsel: Yesterday – please correct me if I misquote you in any way – my understanding was that A suffered trauma when he was moved away from [the mother], away from the extended family and her. Am I quoting you right or am I misquoting you?
Witness: I think you’re probably misquoting me. I don’t remember using the word “trauma”. I’m not saying A wouldn’t have suffered trauma but I don’t recall saying that in evidence yesterday.
Counsel: Okay. Well, I did say– I said in fact– I had a note of “trauma” and I will– I stand to be corrected. Did you use the word “traumatic” then or– can you recollect?
Witness: I can’t recollect, I’m sorry.
Counsel: All right then. Well, then, in that case, in relation to the upheaval, how do you think that has affected A?
Witness: I think A because of his age would have been confused about the changes that took place moving from one residence to another residence. He already had formed a good relationship with his father so it wasn’t as though he was going some– with someone he didn’t know. The environment would have been slightly different but, yes, I think it– because he’s preverbal and explanations couldn’t really be given to him as to what was happening in his little life, you know, I think he would have been confused.”
The guardian’s evidence continued. A little later in the morning, following a short adjournment for unconnected reasons, Mr Uddin addressed the judge in these terms:
“My Lord, if I may be permitted to make this personal statement which is recorded here, in these proceedings today was the second time your Lordship has threatened me with the Bar Standards Board and I am concerned whether my client is losing confidence in me and whether I can continue. However, having spoken to my client, she has not lost confidence in me. I will continue with this case but, my Lord, I totally appreciate these kind of cases are not easy for anyone concerned, even your Lordship. These are dealing with the souls of people and, my Lord, I am also a human being with blood and salt running through my veins and if there is another threat, my Lord, I am going to have to consider– I totally accept, if I am in any way inappropriate, then your Lordship should admonish me so, on that basis of that understanding, my Lord, I am going to continue. I feel my client has not lost confidence in me and I can carry on. I just wanted to put this marker down, my Lord. May I continue?”
The judge did not respond to this statement. Counsel resumed his examination of the guardian. There were no further episodes of conflict between him and the judge.

It was submitted on behalf of the mother that this incident would lead a fair-minded and informed observer to consider that there was a real possibility of bias for several reasons. First, the judge’s initial intervention was wrong and unfair. Counsel’s recollection of the guardian’s evidence the previous evening was correct: she had referred to trauma. Secondly, the judge lost his temper with counsel and addressed him in a way that amounted to bullying. Thirdly, counsel was clearly unsettled by the way in which the judge addressed him and asked for an adjournment, which the judge refused. Fourthly, the judge’s renewed threat to report him to the BSB was unjustified and wrong. Finally, the effect of the intervention was that the guardian wrongly said that counsel had misquoted her. The judge’s intervention therefore materially undermined the evidence.
In response, Mr Wilson acknowledged that the judge’s comments during this exchange may be the most troubling. He pointed out that counsel’s summary of the guardian’s evidence the previous day was not precisely accurate. He did not seek to defend the judge’s reference to the BSB. He added, however, that, following this exchange, Mr Uddin had continued to cross-examine the guardian for an extended period recorded over a further 21 pages of transcript, during which there were further respectful and productive exchanges between judge and counsel. This was one incident over a five-day hearing and, in evaluating the question of apparent bias, a fair-minded and informed observer would have regard not just to this moment but to the whole hearing in the context of the overall proceedings.
In his written submissions to this Court, Mr Bowe informed us that, having carefully considered the transcript, the guardian could see that counsel’s question did not strictly reflect the evidence that she had given the day before in that she had not said that A had suffered trauma “when he was moved away” from the mother to the father but rather that A must have suffered trauma having lost the mother and his extended family. He added, however, that the guardian’s perception was that the judge unexpectedly shouted at counsel when telling him not to talk like that, causing counsel to request a five-minute break and that the style of the intervention, taken in combination with the previous admonition and reference to the BSB on 25 March, resulted in what Mr Bowe called a somewhat freezing effect on counsel. He also noted that the effect of the intervention was to cause the guardian to doubt her previous evidence and potentially deprive counsel of the opportunity to explore the issue of “trauma” more fully on the mother’s behalf. For those reasons, it was his submission that a fair-minded observer would consider that instances (3) and (8) together do amount to apparent bias.

The Court of Appeal had to consider whether the judicial tests for recusal (i.e that this Judge would not hear this case again) were met and whether the Judge had been wrong to refuse the application to recuse himself.

Obviously, any application for recusal is very difficult. You are, on instructions, having to apply to the Court to say to them that your client does not consider that they have been fair and that they cannot decide the case fairly in the future. Nobody really wants to say that to a Judge, and probably no Judge really wants to hear it. There is a balance to be struck between the duties to fearlessly represent your client but also to have respect towards the Court, and it can be a very difficult tightrope to walk.

The Court of Appeal said this

In this part of the case we are concerned with alleged bullying of counsel by a judge. Where it occurs, judicial bullying is wholly unacceptable. It brings the litigation process into disrepute and affects public confidence in the administration of justice. However, it inevitably remains the case that situations of conflict between bar and bench will sometimes arise. In that connection we make the following points.
First, counsel are sometimes obliged to object to, or be critical of, something said or done by the judge in the course of a hearing. Judges should, and almost always do, appreciate that this is a fundamental part of the advocate’s role and should entertain the objection with respect, even if they regard it as ill-founded. However, respect goes both ways. It is important that any such objection or criticism is expressed, however firmly, in a professional way. Most judges nowadays conduct hearings in a less formal manner than may have been usual in earlier generations, but that is not a licence to disregard the particular position of authority which they necessarily enjoy.

Second, trials are a very intense environment. Even the best counsel may in the pressure of the moment express themselves in ways which they did not really intend or say things which they would not have said if they had had time for reflection – whether in the context of an exchange with the judge of the kind discussed above or more generally. Judges should, and almost always do, recognise this. Many such lapses can simply be overlooked or corrected with a light touch.
Third, there will nevertheless be occasions when counsel’s conduct requires explicit correction or admonishment. In such a case the judge should try to ensure that any rebuke is proportionate and delivered in measured terms, without showing personal resentment or anger. Even a merited rebuke may be unsettling for counsel; and it may also, even if unjustifiably, have an impact on the confidence of their client in the fairness of the hearing. That said, some such impact may be unavoidable, in which case it has to be accepted as a consequence of counsel’s behaviour.
Fourth, a statement by the judge that they are considering referring counsel to the BSB is a particularly strong form of admonition and is accordingly particularly liable to have an adverse impact of the kind referred to above. For that reason, we believe that it will rarely be appropriate for a judge to raise the possibility of referring counsel to the BSB in the middle of a hearing. In the great majority of cases, the better course will be to wait until the end of the hearing, which will avoid raising the temperature more than is necessary and will also mean that the judge can evaluate counsel’s conduct in the overall context of the hearing. In the rare case where an allegation of professional misconduct does have to be raised in the course of a hearing, the situation will require sensitive handling and the judge will be well advised to take time to consider carefully when and how to raise the matter.
Finally, since judges are human, and (as Black LJ observed in Re G, supra) hearings can be challenging for them as well as for counsel, they will sometimes lapse from these high standards, and incidents will occur which the judge should have handled better. But such lapses do not necessarily amount to bullying; still less does it necessarily follow that in such a case the hearing will have been unfair or that the judge should recuse themselves from any further involvement. On the contrary, it is fundamental to the culture and training of a professional judge that they will decide each case according to its objective merits. If judge and counsel rub each other up the wrong way, whether or not it is the fault of either or both, that can be, and almost always is, put to one side in the decision-making process. Likewise, the professional training and experience of counsel should enable them to deal with criticism from the bench, even if they may believe it to be unjustified.
We should add that although the mother’s reference to bullying requires us to consider the judge’s conduct, the dispositive question on this application is not whether he was guilty of misconduct in relation to either instance but whether his conduct would give rise to a reasonable apprehension that he was biased against the mother, because of her counsel’s behaviour.

They went on

In his third judgment handed down on 15 November 2021 the judge said that parts of the position statement filed for the hearing on 25 March 2021 were “rude and impertinent”: the phrase he used at the hearing itself was “impudent and impertinent”. We might not have used those precise terms, but we agree that the passages that we have quoted from the position statement are objectionable. Although, as we have acknowledged above, there are occasions where it is counsel’s duty to accuse a judge of unfairness, in the context of the adjournment application the accusation was not only unfounded but gratuitous. It did not advance the substance of the application to say that the mother feared that it would be unfairly “disregarded” because of the judge’s previous findings, still less that she feared that he would use it against her. Those assertions did no more than vent the mother’s personal feelings about the judge’s findings (which findings were unappealed). We recognise that this may not have been an easy position statement for Mr Uddin to draft but if his response to the judge that it was drafted “on [the mother’s] instructions” meant that he thought he was obliged to make offensive imputations of this kind merely because his client wanted him to do so, that was a serious misunderstanding of his duty.
It was in our view appropriate for the judge to admonish counsel about the tone of the position statement. He also acted appropriately by doing so succinctly, and in a way that drew a line before he moved on to the substance of the application. We have to say, however, that we do not think that his rebuke was well expressed. Although it is never easy to assess how things are said from a written transcript, the words used by the judge convey the impression that he felt personally affronted: that was not appropriate. As for his mention of the BSB, it is fair to say that the judge did not say that Mr Uddin’s conduct merited a report (and we do not believe that it did) but only that he would report him if he did the same again. But it was, for the reasons set out above, inadvisable for him to mention a possible reference to the BSB in the course of the hearing.

Although we believe that the incident could have been handled better, we consider it to have been a limited incident, best characterised as an over-reaction to what was in our view a gratuitously offensive position statement.

and in relation to the cross-examination of the Guardian

As we have seen, the parties before us were agreed that instance (8) was the most serious of the instances on which the mother relied. It is important to start by analysing exactly what went wrong.
The starting point is the judge’s querying of whether in his question to the guardian Mr Uddin had accurately summarised an earlier answer she had given. The question began:
“Now, yesterday in evidence you said, and please correct me if you find me to (inaudible) in any way, that A did suffer trauma when he was moved away from [the mother] to the care of [the father] leaving behind …”
It was at that point that the judge intervened to say that he had not heard the guardian say that, though a little way into the exchange he said in terms that she had not done s
o.

Because of the way things developed, the judge did not specify exactly what it was in Mr Uddin’s formulation that he believed was wrong. When Mr Uddin eventually put the question again the guardian said that she did not believe that she had used the word “trauma”. As the transcript shows, she was wrong about that, and to that extent Mr Uddin’s question accurately reflected her evidence. But it is not clear to us that that was the judge’s point. Mr Uddin’s formulation was in fact inaccurate in a different way, because it suggested that the guardian had attributed the trauma to A being moved “to the care of [the father]” whereas she had referred only to it being caused by the loss of his mother and extended family. The difference is only slight, and it is fair to say that Mr Uddin had not finished his question when the judge intervened and he may well have been going on to refer to that aspect too (as he did when he eventually put the question again); but even if so his introduction of a reference to the father arguably carried the implication that the guardian had said there was something about the father’s care that caused trauma. It may well have been this perceived inaccuracy that the judge was objecting to. In any event, at this stage there was no more than a possible misunderstanding of a kind which sometimes occurs in the course of cross-examination, and no-one is to be criticised.
Mr Uddin responded to the judge’s intervention by saying:
“What would you like my Lord to do, not– for me not to even ask the question because your Lordship has not heard it?”
That was in our view disrespectful and impertinent. The correct response from an advocate when his recollection of the evidence is questioned by the judge is to seek to clarify the position, most obviously by establishing exactly what the issue is and asking that the judge’s note be compared with those of counsel and solicitors. His further response “Well, let us hear what she says then, my Lord” also has a confrontational ring, at least as it appears in the transcript.

Thus far the criticism is entirely of Mr Uddin. But it is clear that his disrespectful response (or responses) caused the judge momentarily to lose his temper. Even without the tape, it is plain that his response (“Do not talk to me like that”) was angry – and that is confirmed by the guardian’s recollection recorded at paragraph 121 – and his replies in the course of the following exchange, culminating in the observation that Mr Uddin was coming close to being reported to the BSB, show that he did not immediately recover his poise. That exchange in its turn clearly unsettled Mr Uddin and caused him too to become heated – “I deserve respect”, “can I have it affirmed that you will not talk to me in that way?”, “I will not be spoken to in that way by anybody”. Although the judge tried to close the incident down and return to the evidence, Mr Uddin would not at first do as the judge asked. He requested a break, which the judge refused. Although Mr Uddin resumed his questions to the witness, he obviously remained troubled, hence his “personal statement” a few minutes later.
This was clearly a regrettable incident. It was started by Mr Uddin’s disrespectful response or responses, for which the judge was fully entitled to admonish him. However, the way that the judge did so raised the temperature and clearly unsettled Mr Uddin. With the benefit of hindsight, we believe that he should have taken up the suggestion of a short break for “cooling-off”. Instead, he warned Mr Uddin that he was getting close to being reported to the BSB. We have already observed that it is generally inadvisable to warn of the possibility of a reference to the BSB in the course of the hearing, and that was particularly so here when feelings were running high.
Miss Ancliffe submitted that the judge’s intervention had led the guardian to wrongly disavow her earlier reference to A having suffered trauma by having been moved from her mother’s care. That may be the case, even though the judge himself did not focus on that word, but it is in truth impossible now to know. Ultimately, it does not matter. We are not concerned as such with the effect of the judge’s intervention but whether the incident to which it led gives rise to a reasonable suspicion of bias on his part. However, we should say that we do not consider that the guardian’s revisiting of the issue had a material impact on the outcome. She was a professional witness well able to express her considered opinion and her subsequent answer, set out at the end of paragraph 117 above, described in more precise terms how A had been affected by the move from the mother.

CONCLUSION ON INSTANCES (3) & (8)

It will be seen that we have some criticisms of the judge’s response in relation to both these instances, and in particular instance (8). However, the question on this appeal is whether what he said on those occasions would lead a fair-minded and informed observer to consider that there was a real possibility that he was biased against the mother. We do not believe that it would. In neither case was his conduct gratuitous: on the contrary, he was reacting, albeit inappropriately, to disrespectful conduct on the part of Mr Uddin. These were two short-lived and isolated episodes in separate hearings, the second of which lasted several days. They are just the kind of incident which may arise in the course of highly-charged proceedings but which, as we have said above, a professional judge will put to one side when assessing the merits of the case. As noted at paragraph 47 above, in his eventual judgment the judge said that the exchanges between him and Mr Uddin had had no effect on his decision-making. Of course that statement itself cannot be conclusive, but it is consistent with what the fair-minded and informed observer would expect of a professionally trained judge and there is nothing to suggest that it was not the case here. There is no complaint of any other inappropriate interchange between the judge and Mr Uddin. We refer also to paragraph 95 above. The mother and her legal representative were given a fair opportunity to put her case, and the mother was allowed to adduce extra evidence. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge handed down a judgment in which he rejected a number of the proposals put forward by the father. All the evidence is that the judge reached his conclusions following the August 2021 hearing in a fair and balanced way, and there is no reason to suppose that he would not do so in the remaining stages of the case.
Having been critical of some of Mr Uddin’s comments, we should record our impression that, despite the evident professional difficulties he was facing, he represented his client tenaciously and effectively.
OVERALL CONCLUSION

In relation to both groups of instances, we have concluded that they would not lead the fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge was biased against the mother. For the avoidance of doubt, that remains our view if all seven instances are considered cumulatively. It is for those reasons that we concluded that there was no basis on which the judge should have recused himself and that this appeal should be dismissed.

(As a sidebar to the case, one of the grounds of appeal which did not particularly cause the Court of Appeal trouble was the claim that the Judge’s remarks during mother’s evidence of “I am writing that down” were indicative of bias, and the Court of Appeal said this:-

There is no substance in the complaint about the judge’s taking of notes or his references to his notebook during the hearing. It is entirely a matter for a judge to decide what notes to take of the evidence. Neither counsel nor anyone else in court is in any position to assess what a judge is writing down. It is not unknown for a judge to indicate to counsel that his line of questioning is not helpful by putting down his pen. This is an example of the disclosure of judicial thinking which, as Sir Thomas Bingham MR observed, is sanctioned in the English tradition. Criticising a witness’s answer, and recording the criticism in his notebook, is a legitimate expression of scepticism which, to use Sir Thomas’s words, “is not suggestive of bias unless the judge conveys an unwillingness to be persuaded of a factual proposition whatever the evidence may be”. In this case, the judge’s references to the notebook during the mother’s evidence were made in the course of appropriate challenges about her reasons for reporting allegations to the police which he had found to be fabricated.

About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

One response

  1. The Counsel in the above case should have taken a few lessons from the TV performances of the fictional but famous Rumpole of the Bailey !
    No matter how rude or bullying the judge Rumpole dealt with all such situations with aplomb and exaggerated courtesy and that surely is always how counsel should deal with such matters.
    I do not believe the Counsel in question helped his client one bit by refusing clear offers from the judge to proceed with his case.;
    In my opinion the Counsel was a pompous twit who did not have the good sense to make peace with the judge in court when given a clear chance to do so.

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