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Category Archives: assessment of risk

Watching the detectives

This is a quirky little case. I should tell you at the outset that we don’t get a conclusion and all of the answers. Half of the answer, with perhaps another half to come at a later stage.

The question arose in care proceedings. One of the issues in the case was whether the mother had genuinely separated from the father, or whether they were simply pretending to have done so and carrying on the relationship in secret. This happens from time to time in care proceedings.

The Local Authority paid a private investigator to watch the father, and the private investigator produced evidence that the father was staying overnight at the mother’s home, for about a week. (However, the evidence did not show whether or not the mother was also there, allowing the parents to run a defence that the father had been staying at that property but that mother and the children had not been)

Two legal issues arose in the case.

1. Whether the LA had obtained the proper consents under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to conduct covert surveillance of a person, whether this was a breach of article 8 of the Human Rights Act and thus whether damages should flow from it. (which is the really interesting bit of the case and which SPOILERS doesn’t get answered)

and

2. If there was a failure to obtain the proper RIPA consents, is the evidence inadmissible?

The latter is of interest, because it may impact on other scenarios where evidence is improperly obtained (and of course, we are thinking here of clandestine recordings whether audio or video, done without the knowledge of those being filmed)

We DO get an answer to that.

This is a decision of a circuit Judge, so it is not binding case law, but it is an interesting overview of the law (and I agree with the conclusions)

Re E and N (no2) 2017

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2017/B27.html

2. In the course of the hearing before me the applicant local authority sought to rely on surveillance evidence which covered the period of 28 and 29 April 2017. The evidence showed that the father had stayed at the mother’s address in circumstances where the parents had maintained that they have been separated since November 2016. The local authority accepted that the evidence did not show that the mother was present during the aforementioned period. The local authority relied on this evidence as part of a wider canvas to prove an allegation that the parents have remained in a relationship despite their maintained assertion that they have separated.

3. Both parents agreed that due to the father’s difficult personal circumstances at that time, with the mother’s permission, he stayed at the mother’s address. The mother was staying at her own mother’s property and she was not present when the father stayed at her address.

4. At the conclusion of the hearing the parties made detailed submissions. This included submissions about the surveillance evidence and the local authority’s asserted overzealous approach to the parents in attempting to prove its case. The parents invited me to make a number of findings in this regard. I decided to give a separate judgment on these issues so as not to jeopardise an expeditious resolution to the last hearing before me.

5. The local authority in its written submissions dated 7 June 2017 and refined in its written replies to the parents’ submissions dated the same, invites me to;

a. Endorse the decision to conduct such surveillance as reasonable, or to make no findings in circumstances where the court has not received any evidence on this issue, or

b. Make no comment about it (given that it does not go to the central issue of the disputed findings), or

c. Find that it would be inappropriate to make any findings on the mother’s submissions that go to or are capable of going to the issues of alleged breaches of her Article 8 rights, or

d. Transfer the decision on this issue to a different tier of the judiciary, and

e. Confine my judgment to the issues arising out of the hearing.
6. The mother having taken the lead on these submissions and supported by the father, invites me to find that;

a. The actions of the local authority were misjudged and deeply unfortunate given the duty on the local authority to act in a fair way within litigation against individuals,

b. The authorisation for the surveillance (if any) and the surveillance itself were not fair, reasonable or proportionate,

c. The local authority has not complied with the terms of the Act (below),

d. The mother has been unlawfully subjected to surveillance;

e. This is an example of an over-zealous prosecution of the local authority’s case against her,

f. The directed surveillance is a breach of her rights under Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950).

The father further submitted that there is no justifiable reason or purpose for the surveillance to have extended to following the father to the reception area at the contact centre and at the father’s solicitors’ offices.

The Judge looked at the safeguards about agencies of the State carrying out covert surveillance of members of the public, that are set out within RIPA – the surveillance needs to be properly authorised under s28, and the officer authorising it must be approved under s30 to do so. (Here, what seems to have happened is that a senior manager of Children’s Services authorised it, which is not RIPA compliant)

28 Authorisation of directed surveillance.

(1)Subject to the following provisions of this Part, the persons designated for the purposes of this section shall each have power to grant authorisations for the carrying out of directed surveillance.

(2)A person shall not grant an authorisation for the carrying out of directed surveillance unless he believes—

(a)that the authorisation is necessary on grounds falling within subsection (3); and

(b)that the authorised surveillance is proportionate to what is sought to be achieved by carrying it out.

(3)An authorisation is necessary on grounds falling within this subsection if it is necessary—

(a)in the interests of national security;

(b)for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder;

(c)in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom;

(d)in the interests of public safety;

(e)for the purpose of protecting public health;…

(4)The conduct that is authorised by an authorisation for the carrying out of directed surveillance is any conduct that—

(a)consists in the carrying out of directed surveillance of any such description as is specified in the authorisation; and

(b)is carried out in the circumstances described in the authorisation and for the purposes of the investigation or operation specified or described in the authorisation

The real point of this is that the authorisation of covert surveillance is firstly not a rubber stamp, and secondly, the decision about whether or not to authorise is taken by a RIPA officer someone who is trained in the application of the Act and the principles within it and not have a stake in the outcome of the investigation – i.e to scrutinise whether cover surveillance is really appropriate and proportionate.

The Judge did not reach a conclusion on whether the LA had failed to comply with RIPA or whether the parents article 8 rights had been breached – they would have to issue a claim and have proper evidence about this issue before a Court could rule on it. However, from what is said, I don’t think that what the LA did complied with RIPA (That doesn’t mean that they DIDN’T – they may have got a RIPA authorisation and not put that before the Court – though that seems a strange decision if so…)

In addition to the surveillance report, the only direct evidence in this connection is a document entitled “REQUEST FOR AUTHORISATION TO COMMISSION A PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR”. This documents was signed on 26 April 2017 by the “Director of Children and Learning Skills”. It is far from clear if the signature is that of the person making the application or the person authorising the request. On the face of it, the form does not appear to be a form authorising surveillance. This illustrates the evidential difficulties in the relief that the parents are seeking. These are exacerbated by further fundamental difficulties which include the lack of any formal application and the consequential lack of any formal reply. Therefore, having regard to the guidance that I have detailed above and the evidential difficulties that I have identified, in my judgment it would be entirely inappropriate for me to make any findings in respect of the local authority’s conduct, decision making processes and any alleged breaches of the parents’ Article 8 rights. Similarly, in my judgment it would also be entirely inappropriate for me to endorse the local authority’s actions. If there is to be such an enquiry into these issues, it must be undertaken in accordance with the guidance that I have set out above and by way of a formal application following which the court will give the necessary directions. Inevitably this will include the filing and service of appropriate evidence.

Anyhow, that whole issue will have to wait for part 3, if there is to be a part 3.

What we are left with is whether evidence that may have been obtained improperly is capable of being admissible, or whether it should not even get before the Court if it was obtained improperly.

15. However it is clear that the surveillance evidence is relevant to the issues in the case. Goddard LJ in the Court of Appeal decision in Hollington v. F. Hewthorn and Company Limited, and Another [1943] KB 587, at 593 and 594 explained the test in the following terms;

“Before dealing with the authorities, let us consider the question in the light of modern law relating to evidence … We say “modern law” because in former days, it is fair to say, the law paid more attention to competency of the witnesses that to the relevance of testimony …

It was not till the Evidence Act. 1843, that interested witnesses, other than the parties, their husbands and wives were rendered competent, and by the Evidence Act, 1851, the parties, and by the Evidence Act, 1853, their spouses, were at last enabled to give evidence …

But, nowadays, it is relevance and not competency that is the main consideration, and, generally speaking, all evidence that is relevant to an issue is admissible, while all that is irrelevant is excluded”.

Furthermore, the test for deciding “relevance” was succinctly expressed in the House of Lords decision by Simon LJ Director of Public Prosecution v Kilbourne [1973] 1 All ER 440, at 460 J in the following terms;

“Your Lordships have been concerned with four concept in the law of evidence: (i) relevance; (ii) admissibility; (iii) corroboration; (iv) weight. The first two terms are frequently, and in many circumstances legitimately, used interchangeably; but I think it makes for clarity if they are kept separate, since some relevant evidence is inadmissible and some admissible evidence is irrelevant in the sense that I shall shortly submit). Evidence is relevant if it is logically probative or disprobative of some matter which requires proof.”
16. Keeping the concepts of “relevance” and “admissibility” separate, I will first deal with the issue of relevance before turning to consider the issue of admissibility. The factual matters that the local authority sought to prove included an allegation that the parents remain in a relationship. Therefore on a cursory analysis of the facts that remained in issue and required the court’s determination, it is clear that the surveillance evidence was relevant to this allegation. Indeed no party has sought to submit that it was not.

17. As to the question of admissibility, I have made it clear earlier in this judgment I am not making any findings in respect of the local authority’s conduct or whether the surveillance is compliant with the provisions of the Act. However the questions of compliance and legality have a close connection to the question of admissibility. There is no automatic bar to admissibility of evidence that has been improperly or illegally obtained. In the context of family law, this was considered and illustrated in the Court of Appeal decision in Imerman v Tchenguiz and others [2011] 1 All ER 555where at paragraph 177 Lord Neuberger MR concluded that;

“Accordingly, we consider that, in ancillary relief proceedings, while the court can admit such evidence, it has power to exclude it if unlawfully obtained, including power to exclude documents whose existence has only been established by unlawful means. In exercising that power, the court will be guided by what is “necessary for disposing fairly of the application for ancillary relief or for saving costs”, and will take into account the importance of the evidence, “the conduct of the parties”, and any other relevant factors, including the normal case management aspects. Ultimately, this requires the court to carry out a balancing exercise, something which, we are well aware, is easy to say in general terms but is often very difficult to effect in individual cases in practice.”

A Local Authority v J [2008] EWHC 1484 (Fam) is an example where surveillance evidence was admitted by the court, although Hogg J in this case was not asked to consider the provisions of the Act.

Furthermore, Re DH (A MINOR) (CHILD ABUSE) [1994] 1 FLR 679 whilst predating the Act and concerning an individual, Wall J admitted the covert recording of a child by the child’s father.
18. In these circumstances I have assessed the surveillance evidence to be relevant and admissible. Accordingly I have admitted the same as evidence in the case. I made the relevant findings in my first judgment after considering the surveillance evidence together with a number of other pieces of evidence and have considered it in the context of the totality of the evidence that was before me. However the issue of admissibility of evidence is entirely separate to the requirements of public authorities and public bodies to comply with statutory provisions that regulate their conduct and their duties to the public. In circumstances where a public authority or public body has acted in breach of statutory provisions and where any evidence that is adduced as a consequences of those actions is admitted by the court, this will not absolve the public authority or body from its duties under any relevant enactment

Evidence, if it is relevant, can still be admissible even if it was obtained unlawfully. I have wondered for a long time whether Re DH’s principle survived the HRA. As this is not precedent, and of course, a Circuit Judge can’t overrule the principle that Wall J set down in a superior Court, but it is an interesting debate that might be had at a later stage.

The Judge draws the interesting distinction that whilst the evidence itself might be admissible, that doesn’t stop a Court taking action about the improper or unlawful conduct – just because they got to use the evidence, doesn’t mean that they get away scot-free if they behaved badly in obtaining it.

Morocco Mole too…. inspired by my trip to Marrakech

That’s when I start promising the world to a brand new girl I don’t even know yet

 

Next thing, she’s wearing my Rolex.

 

I wrote about Part 1 of the Pauffley J hearing about alleged radicalisation where all of the evidence that might prove whether threshold criteria existed or not was in the hands of the security services and they (having originally tipped off the LA that they should do something) decided they didn’t want to cough up the material.

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2016/12/28/cloak-and-dagger-threshold/

I feel very very uncomfortable about this sort of thing.  I fully understand that in order to protect the citizens of this country, the security services will watch individuals and don’t want those under suspicion to know exactly what the security services knows and how they know it. I get that. But by the same token, if a parent is being accused of being a risk to their child and faces the possibility of losing their child, they are entitled to see what the evidence against them is and to test it.

The alternative is that we end up with a set of care proceedings run along the lines that Christopher Booker imagines happens all the time, where the parents aren’t told what they are supposed to have done and don’t get to fight the allegations.

I’m not sure how you square that circle. My gut feeling is that the children probably stay with the family unless and until the security services either have enough to charge the parents with a criminal offence, decide there is no risk, or that the information known can be safely shared without putting others at risk.

Anyway, you may remember from Part 1, that it ended with the Security services telling the Court that they were going to get a Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificate signed by the Secretary of State about the documents.

This is what happened next.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2017/692.html

C (A Child), Re (No 2) (Application for Public Interest Immunity) [2017] EWHC 692 (Fam) (31 March 2017)

 

Those representing the Secretary of State asked for a CLOSED hearing. In basic terms (and I’m massively oversimplifying to make it possible for normal people to follow) that means that the lawyers for the Secretary of State would address the Judge about the documents and why they could not be shared, and nobody else would be in the room.

 

 

Discussion of procedural steps

 

  • I quite accept that the courts and the SSHD are even now in the relatively early stages of grappling with the problems consequent upon proceedings of this kind. I would be the first to accept that I have been engaged in a learning exercise. I suspect the same may be true for those advocates who have not hitherto had much experience of dealing with cases where PII might be asserted in circumstances such as these.
  • There have been several complicating factors leading to delay identified by Ms Wheeler in CLOSED session which are inappropriate for inclusion within this OPEN judgment.
  • At all events, there are some obvious conclusions to be drawn from events in this case. The first is that where the SSHD is faced with disclosure orders relating to material which is or may be sensitive and where the likelihood is that PII will be asserted, it is incumbent upon the GLD to set up a process for early and definitive decision making.
  • The spectre of a potential PII claim was manifest in this case from as far back as 3 November 2016. On that day, I received an urgent letter from the GLD, indicating there was material which for reasons of national security the SSHD was not at liberty to disclose. A further period of 28 days was requested to further consider the information with a view to either effecting disclosure, advancing a claim for PII or seeking a declaration under s.6 of the JSA 2013.
  • By the time of the 2 December hearing, the indications were that if the SSHD was unsuccessful in her bid to revoke the 4 October 2016 disclosure order, she would claim PII. As I observed towards the end of the December judgment, until there was a PII Certificate containing the SSHD’s judgment as to the harm to the public interest that would be caused by disclosure and the weight to be given to competing public interests, there was no appropriate mechanism for action.
  • It is disappointing to say the least that the PII Certificate was not issued until 7 March 2017, some three months later, and at a time when no fewer than four distinguished legal teams had spent a great deal of time and effort considering a landscape which did not comprise a claim for PII. Had the claim been made sooner, those endeavours would have been largely unnecessary.
  • Doubtless the GLD is an over-stretched organisation with many competing calls upon the time of those who work within. However, with an eye to the future and other similar cases, it seems to me that there must be mechanisms for significantly swifter specialist advice and consequent action. Had there been an application for PII in the autumn of last year, it would have been resolved before Christmas; the hearing of 2 December would have been superfluous to requirements; and the care proceedings would not have been mired in procedural argument for more than three additional months pending resolution of these issues.
  • As Mr Twomey suggests, delays, lack of clarity and inconsistency in the approach of the SSHD are unhelpful and tend to give rise naturally enough to scepticism and suspicion. The earlier there is (can be) precision the better. The stop / start approach of the last four to five months has been distinctly unhelpful. By some mechanism or another, strategies for avoiding anything similar should be devised as a matter of urgency.

 

Potential for conflict

 

  • Arising out of events on 25 January 2017, there was the potential for unfairness which Mr Twomey was right to identify in his written submissions. As he correctly identifies, on 25 January I met briefly with two members of the GLD to take possession of a bundle of CLOSED material; and I concluded that a hearing in CLOSED would be required. Mr Twomey maintained that the parties were unaware of what was said on behalf of the SSHD on that occasion and what I was shown. In fact, as Ms Wheeler related in her submissions of 6 February 2017, the documents I had read were CLOSED submissions and a Sensitive Schedule (also known as a damage assessment) explaining why the SSHD contends material should be withheld, the nature of the damage were disclosure to be ordered and the reasons for delay in progressing a formal claim for PII. But I was not provided with the material over which a claim for PII is being considered.
  • As for anything discussed between the GLD lawyers and me on 25 January, I can confirm that nothing of any substance was said. The sole purpose of the meeting was so as to comply with the necessary procedures for dealing with CLOSED material. My clerk, for example, is not able to handle CLOSED material. Thus it was necessary for me to meet with Mr Fitzgibbons and Mr da Silva to take possession of and later relinquish the CLOSED file.
  • Mr Twomey asked me to confirm whether or not those documents form part of the PII application. If they did not, then it would be necessary to consider whether I could fairly determine the PII application and / or how those documents could be treated so as to ensure a fair hearing.
  • In response to those submissions, I indicated that Ms Wheeler’s CLOSED submissions from late January had not been made available to me in readiness for the hearing on 15 March. Ms Wheeler’s initial view had been that there was no need for me to consider her earlier submissions afresh given that more pertinent material was now available in the form of the OPEN Certificate. Given the potential for a sense of unfairness if the January submissions were not once more made available, a copy was provided in advance of the CLOSED hearing.
  • No party sought to suggest there was any reason associated with events on 25 January, materials read or discussions with the GLD, which could have prevented me from dealing with the claim for PII. Accordingly, satisfied as I was that there was no reason to recuse myself, I convened a CLOSED hearing at which I heard Ms Wheeler’s oral submissions and probed a number of issues.
  • There was no judgment at the end of the CLOSED hearing. I indicated I would be preparing an OPEN judgment.

 

 

 

The Court considered the principles in deciding whether documents should be withheld from distribution under the Public Interest Immunity process

 

 

 

The three steps involved in making a PII claim – R v. Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police, ex parte Wiley [1995] 1 AC 274

 

  • There are three required steps when the SSHD considers whether to make a claim for PII. First, whether the material is relevant and passes the threshold test for disclosure in the applicable proceedings – (Certificate §11). Second, if the threshold test is passed, whether the material identified as relevant and subject to disclosure attracts PII. The test is whether there is a real risk that disclosure would cause ‘real damage’ or ‘serious harm’ to the public interest – (Certificate §13 and 19). Third, if applying the ‘real damage’ test, the material attracts PII, the question arises as to whether the public interest in non-disclosure is outweighed by the public interest in disclosure for the purpose of doing justice in the proceedings. The factors in favour are set out in the Certificate at §18; those against between §§19 and 26.

 

 

Slightly disappointed that Pauffley J did not indicate that R v Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police, ex parte Wiley is a party guy and he knows it, but bigger fish to fry, no doubt.

 

 

 

Positions of the parties

 

  • The local authority’s position is that it will await the outcome of the PII hearing and will then take stock. Ms Morgan understandably submits there is a limitation upon the assistance she can give in relation to the Wiley balancing exercise, given that she has no knowledge of the material over which the SSHD asserts her claim for PII. Ms Morgan does though make a number of observations particularly as to the sufficiency of primary evidence absent disclosure. Ms Morgan’s overarching observation is that I should approach the balancing exercise on the basis that if the care proceedings conclude for want of established threshold criteria, the likelihood of the local authority being in a position to safeguard the child – or justify interference in his life – in any effective way would be virtually non-existent.
  • Mr Twomey suggests that the very significant delay in making the PII application calls for an explanation and raises a serious issue as to the merits of the claim. Mr Twomey suggested that when I considered the claim there were a number of issues which may be relevant but which might only be probed in CLOSED session. He cited eight matters and asked a number of associated questions – all of them useful to me during the CLOSED session.
  • On behalf of the child’s guardian, Mr Parker suggests there are two points which undermine confidence in the SSHD’s evaluation. First, that the unwillingness to provide disclosure was a position arrived at long before the balancing exercise set out within the Certificate. There is a risk, accordingly, that the Certificate is simply an ex post facto justification of the SSHD’s position. Mr Parker’s second general point is that the premise for the balancing exercise is flawed in that the SSHD understands the local authority’s application is for a supervision order whereas the interim measure does not reflect the true nature of the proceedings.
  • Mr Parker makes four points in relation to the Wiley balancing exercise which, he submits, increase the balance in favour of disclosure – the insufficiency of available primary evidence, the inappropriateness of the Channel programme as an alternative method of safeguarding, the current unavailability of the Desistence and Disengagement Programme and the unreasonableness of requiring the mother to surrender her travel documents permanently.

 

1. Relevance

 

  • The first question, as to relevance, is simply satisfied. The SSHD proceeds on the assumption that the material is relevant and, in principle, disclosable as the result of the 4 October 2016 orders for disclosure. That is clearly right.

 

2. Would disclosure damage the public interest?

 

  • The second issue is confronted within the Certificate in this way. The SSHD identifies that the Government’s approach to PII requires her to focus specifically on the damage that would be caused by the disclosure of the particular material in issue and to assert PII only if satisfied that disclosure of that material would bring about a real risk of real damage to an important public interest. The SSHD expresses herself satisfied that the material referred to in the sensitive schedule would cause serious harm as it includes information of one or more of eleven specified kinds.
  • Within her OPEN submissions, Ms Wheeler explained that the reasons include those relating to national security though it is not possible to be more specific in OPEN about the nature of the harm that would be caused by disclosure. The effect of the material engaging national security considerations was that disclosure would create a real and significant risk of damage to national security (§19 of the Certificate).
  • I have sound reasons for agreeing with the SSHD’s evaluation based upon materials provided to me in CLOSED.

 

3. The Wiley balance – factors for and against disclosure

 

  • The last part of the Wiley exercise involves balancing the factors in favour of and against disclosure. The SSHD when considering the impact of non-disclosure takes into account three specific points – the nature of the material, the open and available material and other powers to protect the child.
  • The SSHD considers the factors in favour of disclosure to fall into two categories. First, the strong public interest in ensuring that children are protected from the risk of harm and that the material of potential relevance should be available to parties to family court proceedings. And second, that in general legal proceedings should be conducted openly; open justice principles are in play and are an important factor in protecting the rights of individuals and maintaining public confidence in the justice system.
  • To my mind, the most significant, weighty and powerful of the factors militating against disclosure is that the material engages considerations of national security. The SSHD formed the view that disclosure would create a real and significant risk of damage to national security. I accord great respect to and share that assessment on the basis of the material made available to me in CLOSED session, namely Ms Wheeler’s CLOSED submissions and the Sensitive Schedule (or damage assessment).
  • The conclusion of the SSHD that national security considerations are engaged, a judgment formed on the basis of comprehensive materials made available to her, in Ms Wheeler’s submission, should properly be accorded great deference. As Lord Templeman observed in R v. Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police, ex parte Wiley [1995] 1 AC 274 @ 281, “As a general rule the harm to the public interest of the disclosure of the whole or part of a document dealing with defence of national security or diplomatic secrets will be self-evident and preclude disclosure.

 

Other available evidence

 

  • Ms Wheeler urges me to consider the other factors put forward in favour of non-disclosure. Firstly, the existence of other available evidence from which the court may be able to draw inferences and find the threshold criteria satisfied. Second, in the event that the threshold criteria could not be satisfied and thus a public law order was unavailable, there could be recourse to other safeguarding measures such as the ‘Channel Programme’ and a new Home Office initiative, the ‘Desistence and Disengagement Programme.’ Thirdly, steps could be taken to disrupt travel plans involving flight to a war zone by continued passport restrictions.
  • It is clear that the SSHD’s contention as to the availability (and sufficiency) of other evidence causes the local authority, in particular, very real anxiety. Unwittingly, I suspect that I have contributed to the problem by observations made in the December judgment which play into the argument that further disclosure from the Home Office was (or is) necessary: see §§ 35, 39 – 42.
  • At that stage, however, I had not been required to consider the Wiley balancing exercise, I was not privy to Ms Wheeler’s CLOSED submissions and I had not considered the Sensitive Schedule. The landscape now is very different and disclosure questions call for a modified response.
  • Ms Wheeler is right to draw my attention to the available evidence. It amounts to a mixture of established facts as well as matters which give rise to likely inferences. It is unnecessary to descend into the particulars beyond observing that both parents have been stopped at airports (father in June 2014 and February 2016; mother in January 2016) and questioned pursuant to Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. A police officer from the Safeguarding Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) has made a statement. So, too, other officers who conducted the port stops and interviews.
  • More detail of available evidence is set out within paragraphs 3 to 8 of Ms Wheeler’s submissions dated 14 March 2017. Furthermore, Ms Wheeler makes the valid point that the letter from HM Passport Office dated 3 August 2016 refusing the father’s application for a replacement passport is of significance. It can and should be taken into account, argues Ms Wheeler, as part of the evidential picture.
  • I agree with Ms Wheeler’s submission that the Home Secretary’s decision to exercise the Royal Prerogative so as to refuse to issue the father with a passport (based on the assessment that he is an Islamist extremist who seeks to travel to Syria for jihad) is ‘evidence.’ The Home Secretary’s decision is amenable to judicial review but there has been no challenge.
  • I also agree with the suggestion that the denial of a replacement passport on the basis of the exercise of the Royal Prerogative would not be, of itself, sufficient to establish the threshold criteria. Clearly it is a factor of relevance which could be taken into account as part of the evidential picture though it is impossible to assess quite how much weight might be attached in advance of any hearing.

 

As I said earlier, these cases leave me uncomfortable. Yes, a flimsy and vague threshold could be constructed on the basis that the parents have been stopped at airports and questioned under the Terroism Act and that the Secretary of State has seen material such to persuade them to refuse to issue the father with a passport, but if the parents assert that these actions were wrong, mistaken or the result of some form of racial profiling without foundation in reality, how is an LA to prove likelihood of significant harm?

 

The Judge says something very important about the documents that have not been shared. In essence, they wouldn’t themselves establish threshold even if they could be seen and relied upon

Nature of the material – future progress of litigation

 

  • With the future of these proceedings in mind, it is appropriate that I should discuss a matter which arose during the course of CLOSED session. It seems highly unlikely that the material upon which the SSHD has formed her assessment leading to the application for PII would advance the local authority’s case to any significant degree. On any view, the material could not be provided to (and therefore be used by) the local authority for the purpose of legal proceedings, whether to inform its assessment of risk or for the purpose of commissioning any expert intervention. Moreover, the material does not advance an understanding of the parental relationship or contact with or intentions towards the child.

 

 

The judgment and story rather fizzles out there. Perhaps there was an application to withdraw the proceedings, perhaps not. We may never know.

 

 

 

Jack Russell and lackadaisical assessments

In which a Judge describes family placement assessments as ‘lackadaisical’  and orders fresh assessments with the LA to pay for them. And in which I try, but fail, to avoid the pun of “ruff justice”

Cheshire East Borough Council v PN & Ors (Flawed Local Authority Assessments) [2017] EWFC 20 (03 March 2017)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2017/20.html

 

it is a matter of very considerable dismay to the court that it has been necessary, on the second day of this final hearing and having heard the evidence presented by the local authority in support of its case, not only to grant the maternal aunt’s application for a further assessment of her and her partner by an independent social worker, but to direct a further assessment of the paternal great aunt and her husband by an independent social worker, in order to remedy patent defects in the local authority’s assessments caused by social work that has, at best, been lackadaisical and, at worst, is in plain contravention of the applicable statutory guidance and long established good practice.

 

Let us explore further

 

 

There were two assessments – one  was of maternal aunt and her partner, and one of paternal great aunt to care for a baby where there had been findings that the parents had caused him significant head injuries.

 

Problem 1  – although the assessment was of the aunt and her partner, the assessor hadn’t in fact met the partner – she had one short phone conversation with him, whilst he was at work.  AND she just ended the assessment once she knew of the findings, unilaterally.

 

 

 

 

 

19.The assessment conducted by Ms Fallows makes it plain that the assessment was intended to be of both the maternal aunt and her partner, CS (at times incorrectly referred, as I have already noted, to as ‘CN’ in the assessment). Notwithstanding this, Ms Fallows was forced to concede in cross-examination that, apart from a very brief conversation with him on the telephone whilst he was at work, she had not spoken to CS as part of her assessment. It would appear that whilst Ms Fallows had planned to speak to CS (and indeed had cancelled a number of appointments with him) she changed her mind after becoming aware of the outcome of the finding of fact hearing, apparently concluding without discussing the findings with CS (and possibly before she had discussed the findings with the maternal aunt) that the findings made by the court were simply fatal to any proposed placement of PN with the maternal aunt and CS.

 

 

20.Having listened to the evidence of Ms Fallows, I was left entirely unclear why she considered she was justified in drawing such a definitive conclusion without first speaking to CS to establish the extent to which he constituted a protective factor and, accordingly, the extent to which his presence in the household mitigated any concerns Ms Fallows had regarding the maternal aunt’s capacity to protect PN from the identified risk of harm presented by the mother and the father. Whilst it might be the case that CS does not constitute a protective factor, it might also be the case that he does. The point is that Ms Fallows made no professional effort whatsoever to assess the position before reaching her conclusion that the assessment of the maternal aunt and her partner was negative.

 

 

21.In particular, Ms Fallows took no time to explore with CS his understanding of the findings made by the court, his acceptance of those findings, his attitude towards those findings and, in light of the information provided by him, the nature and extent of his ability to protect PN from the identified risk of harm consequent upon the findings of the court, including those in respect of the maternal aunt. This despite the fact that Ms Fallows’ task was to assess the capacity of the maternal aunt and CS to protect PN from harm, including from any person who presents a risk of harm to her. In the circumstances, Ms Fallows assessment of the maternal aunt and her partner contains a patent lacuna and is fundamentally flawed.

 


Call me old-school, but it is rather tricky to assess someone without meeting them.

 

Problem 2  – the key issue in the assessment of great aunt was obviously going to be her  ability to keep the baby safe from the parents. That wasn’t covered in the assessment at all.  The section on risk dealt solely with stair guards, the green cross code and a Jack Russell.   (I am not even kidding)

 

22.The assessment of the paternal great aunt and her partner by Mr Twigger gives the court even more cause for concern and is of extremely poor quality. It comprises little more than a collection of bare statements of fact with virtually no evaluation or analysis, leading to conclusions that are so simplistic and anodyne as to be little more than a statement that the paternal great aunt and her husband have successfully raised children before and would be able to promote PN’s identity.

 

 

23.However, of most concern is the manner in which the purported assessment deals with the key issue when assessing the viability of the placement, namely the ability of the paternal great aunt and her partner to protect PN against the identified risk of harm presented by the mother and the father. In this respect, the relevant part of the initial assessment in November 2016 and the same part of the updated assessment completed following the finding of fact hearing read in the following identical terms:

 

 

 

“Ensuring safety (Describe the applicant’s capacity to protect the child from harm and danger, including any person who presents a risk to them.)

 

[NM] and [HM] would wish to ensure that PN is taught age appropriate life and safety skills as she grows older and matures in their care. From an early age this would include issues such as safety around the home and they would of course ensure that they had the necessary safety equipment in place once PN became mobile. This would incorporate such items as stair gates and plug guards etc. As PN grows older she would be taught basic road safety and personal safety e.g. not talking to strangers and always telling someone where she is going which is what the couple have taught their own children and then grandchildren.

 

The couple have a dog that is a Jack Russell dog. As stated elsewhere in this report [NM] and [HM] have stated that they are aware that PN becomes alarmed by sudden noises and for this reason if their application were to be successful they have suggested that they would be willing to re-home the dog to their nephew who also has a Jack Russell”

 

24.Despite the Form C prompting the need to include harm and danger from any person who presents a risk to them, there is no reference at all in the updated assessment to the plainly identified risk of harm presented by the parents or to any engagement with the paternal great aunt and her husband regarding their response to that identified risk of harm and the manner in which they would propose to ensure PN is protected from such risk. Indeed, the courts detailed findings of fact do not appear to be set out anywhere within the body of the updated assessment.

 

 

25.Of further concern is that the relevant part of the initial assessment in November 2016 and the same part of the updated assessment completed following the finding of fact hearing are in identical terms. Indeed, it is plain that the latter has simply been ‘cut and pasted’ from the former. Within this context, the concern engendered by Mr Twigger’s assessment is heightened still further by Mr Bolt confirming during his oral evidence that the paternal aunt and her husband have not been shown the finding of fact judgment of this court, are not aware of the precise terms of the court’s findings against the mother and the father and that the same have not been discussed with them by the local authority.

 

 

26.In the circumstances, Mr Twigger’s assessment of the paternal great aunt and her husband is wholly inadequate and fundamentally flawed. Whilst Mr Twigger deals with road safety, stairgates and a loud Jack Russell, there is no assessment or evaluation whatsoever of the central question of the ability of the paternal great aunt and her husband to protect PN against the clearly identified risk of harm presented by the mother and the father, nor does any attempt at all appear to have been made to undertake such an assessment. The inevitable result is that there is no assessment of this cardinal issue before the court in relation to those proposed carers.

 

 

See, I told you I wasn’t kidding…

An unmanageable risk

 

 

27.Finally, there were also very real difficulties with the evidence of Mr Bolt when it came to the question of the capacity of the paternal great aunt and her husband to protect PN against the identified risk of harm presented by the mother and the father.

 

 

28.Despite the fact that he claimed to have considered the assessments of both Ms Fallows and Mr Twigger when arriving at his final care plan, Mr Bolt demonstrated a marked inability to recall even basic elements of the contents of those assessments relevant to the question of capacity to protect. In particular, he had apparently not identified the patent and obvious deficiencies in each of those assessments that I have outlined above. Further, he was not able to assist the court with even the most basic information concerning other matters highly relevant to the question of the capacity of the paternal aunt and her husband to protect PN from harm. For example, having revealed that the father had, between his release from a recent custodial sentence and until last Thursday, been permitted by the paternal great aunt and her husband to sleep at their property because the paternal great aunt was not prepared to see the father sleep on the streets, and that the father had not disclosed this information, Mr Bolt was unable to assist the court with answers to the very obvious questions that flowed from that information and which the court would have expected an allocated social worker to investigate.

 

 

29.In particular, Mr Bolt was entirely unable to assist the court with how long the father had stayed with the paternal great aunt and her husband for, whether the paternal great aunt and her husband had volunteered the information that the father had been staying with them or had been discovered allowing him to do so and whether the paternal great aunt and her husband considered it appropriate to allow the father to reside with them when they were putting themselves forward as carers for PN. Mr Bolt’s evidence reached a remarkable nadir when he claimed, in answer to questions put by the maternal aunt regarding number of contacts the paternal great aunt had had with PN (in the context of the paternal great aunt having only recently commenced contact with PN and her husband having had only one contact with PN despite the fact he is retired and does not have work commitments), that it was “not necessary” for him to know the details of how many times the paternal great aunt had had contact with PN since the very recent commencement of that contact.

 

 

30.Accepted good practice in respect of assessments is plainly established by statutory guidance and longstanding good practice. The statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children (HM Government March 2015) sets out at [35] the principles and parameters of good assessment.

 

 

31.These principles and parameters include the need for such assessments to be rooted in child development and informed by evidence, to involve children and families, to adopt an integrated approach, to be a continuing process and not an event and to be transparent and open to challenge. It is self-evident that the need for the assessment to involve children and families and to be informed by evidence will require information to be gathered from all of those adults in the child’s household or in the household it is proposed the child should live.

 

 

32.The three domains of the assessment specified at paragraph [36] of the guidance should be the child’s developmental needs, the parents’ or carers’ capacity to respond to those needs and the impact and influence of wider family, community and environmental circumstances. Once again, it must be self-evident that an assessment of the carers capacity to respond to the child’s needs (including their capacity to respond to the child’s need for protection against an identified risk of harm) must involve contact and communication with each of the carers who are, or it is proposed will be, responsible for meeting the child’s needs.

 

 

33.At [37] the guidance makes clear that the interaction of these domains requires careful investigation during the assessment and that it is important that (a) information is gathered and recorded systematically, (b) information is checked and discussed with the child and their parents/carers where appropriate, (c) differences in views about information are recorded and (d) the impact of what is happening to the child is clearly identified. With respect to the assessment and management of risk, at [47] the guidance further provides that in order to manage risks, social workers and other professionals should make decisions with the best interests of the child in mind, informed by the evidence available and underpinned by knowledge of child development. Overall, Working Together makes clear that the aim of an assessment is to use all the information to identify difficulties and risk factors as well as developing a picture of strengths and protective factors.

 

 

34.Within this context, when undertaking an assessment concerned with establishing capacity to protect against an established risk of harm, in addition to ensuring that an assessment of the carers capacity to respond to the child’s need for protection against an identified risk of harm involves discussions with each of the carers who are, or it is proposed will be, involved in meeting the child’s needs, it is also surely self-evident that the assessment must include a process that ensures that those who are the subject of the assessment of their capacity to protect from risk of harm are aware of what the precise nature of the risk of harm is. Further, it must likewise be self-evident that having been made aware of the precise nature of the risk of harm, each of those being assessed must be the subject of a comprehensive evaluation of their understanding of and attitude towards that risk in order to establish the extent to which they have, or do not have, that capacity.

 

 

35.Having regard to the summary of the deficiencies set out above in respect of each of the assessments, and to the summary of the applicable statutory guidance also set out above, I am entirely satisfied that the assessments completed by Ms Fallows and by Mr Twigger are inadequate and fundamentally flawed. I am further satisfied that, in the circumstances, the assessments do not permit the court to reach a properly informed or fair decision at this final hearing as to which of the placement options before the court best meets PN’s identified welfare needs or, indeed, whether either is capable of doing do. The patent deficiencies in the assessments are such that, the court having heard Ms Fallows and Mr Bolt give evidence and be cross-examined, Mr Haggis on behalf of the local authority has been compelled to concede that the assessments were each insufficient to allow the court to reach a properly informed and fair decision. Notwithstanding the concession made by the local authority I make clear that this is my conclusion in any event having read the assessments and heard the oral evidence to which I have referred.

 

 

36.With respect to the assessment of the paternal aunt and her partner it is plain that the local authority simply decided, unilaterally, that the finding of fact judgment justified it terminating the assessment notwithstanding that that assessment of the couple was plainly incomplete and failed properly to address the key issue with which the court would be concerned at the final hearing. With respect to the assessment of the paternal great aunt and her husband, the assessment is entirely cursory and fails to engage in any meaningful way with the key issue that the court is required to resolve in determining whether the placement can meet PN’s identified welfare needs. It is apparent that, following the outcome of the fact finding hearing, the local authority felt that it could simply take a short cut by terminating prematurely the assessment of the maternal aunt and her partner and by undertaking the most cursory of updating assessments of the paternal great aunt and her partner. That is an entirely impermissible approach in circumstances where the process of assessment must not only constitute a comprehensive assessment of the child’s identified welfare needs and how those needs are best met in accordance with the statutory guidance, but also must be fair and be seen to be fair.

 

 

37.Before the court takes a final decision as to the welfare of a child it must be astute to ensure that the case has been fully and properly investigated and that all the relevant evidence necessary for the decision is in place, both to ensure that the court makes a fully informed decision as to the child’s welfare and to ensure that the proceedings are fair, the former being an aspect of the latter. Having regard to the matters set out above, I am wholly satisfied that the court is not in a position to conclude that the central question of respective capacities of the maternal aunt and her partner and of the paternal great aunt and her husband to protect PN from the identified risk of harm from the mother and father has been full and properly investigated and that all relevant evidence necessary to determine that issue is in place before the court.

 

 

38.Within this context, and with much regret, I am entirely satisfied that it is not possible to conclude the final hearing fairly without further assessment of the maternal aunt and her partner and the paternal great aunt and her husband, in particular as to the central question of their respective capacities to protect PN from the identified risk of harm from the mother and father. In the circumstances I have set out above, those additional assessments are plainly necessary for the court to deal with this case justly. I am further satisfied that the additional assessments should be conducted by an Independent Social Worker and should be funded by the local authority. In light of the patent omissions in the assessments of the local authority as identified above, those who are to again be assessed cannot reasonably be expected to have any confidence in a further local authority assessment. Further, in circumstances where the further assessments are required solely by reason of the local authority having comprehensively failed to discharge its duties I am entirely satisfied that it should pay for the additional assessments that are require in consequence of that default.

 

Cloak and dagger threshold

 

The word Kafka-esque crops up a lot when you talk about the family Courts, but here’s one where it is actually apt. Whatever the evidence was against the parents, not only could they not see it, but the social worker wasn’t able to see it either. And nor was the Judge.

 

Re C a child 2016

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/3171.html

S015,  Counter Terrorism Command notified the Local Authority that a man who was a father of children was considered to be a significant risk of terrorism activities, radicalisation and possible flight to Syria (possibly with his children).  The Local Authority issued care proceedings.  To make this perfectly plain, if it had not been for the notification from S015, the Local Authority would not have issued care proceedings. They had no evidence, concerns or suspicions of their own. They were reacting to that notification from an organisation who they understood to have credible evidence for that belief.

 

 

"You can't TAKE Command. Command takes YOU"   Okay, so this is B6-13 not SO-15, but you get the idea

“You can’t TAKE Command. Command takes YOU” Okay, so this is B6-13 not SO-15, but you get the idea

This is what S015 told them

 

 

  • Two pieces of material led to the initiation of the application for a care order. The first stemmed from the assessment of HM Passport Office that the father is “an Islamist extremist who has previously travelled to Syria and engaged in terrorism-related activities” and that he is “likely to travel overseas to Syria in the near future … to engage in further terrorism-related activity, including fighting alongside an Islamist terrorist group.”
  • A very similar form of words was provided to the local authority on behalf of SO15 – “information suggests that (the father) holds an Islamist extremist mind-set. Information suggests that (the father) travelled to Syria in 2013 and 2015 where, it is assessed, he was fighting with an Islamist extremist group.

 

That’s sufficient to meet threshold – it is a good concluding paragraph to a threshold document on radicalisation.  The issue of course is that it works as a concluding paragraph, after the preceding paragraphs set out WHY those things are true and WHAT the evidence is to prove it.

 

However, SO15 didn’t provide that. And they didn’t provide it after the Court made an order for disclosure.   They applied to discharge the disclosure orders. At first they said that the order hadn’t been particular enough or that it was necessary to disclose anything at all.  That was a bold claim, given that the Judge who made the order was the one hearing that argument.

 

The arguments advanced on behalf of the SSHD

1. Failure to adhere to the Guidance – inappropriately wide request; insufficient notification as to issues; order made without notice

 

  • Ms Wheeler seeks to argue that the local authority’s approach to disclosure does not accord with the President’s Guidance, particularly paragraphs 10 – 12. She suggests there has been insufficient regard to the highly sensitive nature of the material sought and a failure to respect the differing roles of the public bodies identified within the Guidance. Ms Wheeler submits that the local authority should have informed the body from whom information is sought about the proceedings, including the matters in issue and what material it is minded to seek. In the first instance there should be discussion and if a hearing is required it should be on notice. Here, says Ms Wheeler, there would appear to have been no sound reason why the hearing was not on notice.
  • In relation to the last point, it would have been better, obviously, if the SSHD had been represented at the hearing on 4 October. But, as the terms of the order reflected, there was a need to make progress in the proceedings; and over the following 4 weeks there was no application to discharge or vary the order. At the hearing on 2 November, the indications were that consideration was being given to an application for a closed material procedure.
  • Ms Wheeler emphasises the need for a “coordinated strategy, predicated on open and respectful cooperation between all the safeguarding agencies involved” – see paragraph 10 of the Guidance.
  • I pause to reiterate that had it not been for information properly conveyed to the local authority by SO15, the strong likelihood is that local authority would have had no basis for instituting proceedings of any kind. For the SSHD to now contend that the local authority should have identified in discussions what the proceedings were about, the matters in issue and the information it was minded to seek, defies logic. It is a circular argument of the most bewildering kind.
  • In any event, read as a whole the order of 4 October is transparently clear and amply substantiates the requirement for disclosure. Recital 3 identifies that the court is faced with “an application for a care or supervision order;” and the reason the disclosure order has been sought is to “assist the court in determining (that) application.” Critically, recital 4 states that “(t)he court needs information about any extremist or radicalised conduct by adults in the family.” To suggest that the issues in the proceedings were imperfectly or inadequately defined is simply wrong.
  • The local authority was in no position to specify precisely what information is sought (beyond the provisions of paragraph 1 of the order) for the obvious reason that it does not know what is held. Whilst I quite accept that requests for disclosure should be approached with, as Ms Wheeler suggests, “particular care and circumspection” it is difficult to identify what more this local authority could have done in terms of specificity or definition. Whether in this instance it would have been of real benefit to the SSHD to have case summaries and draft threshold documents is extremely dubious. Once more I reiterate that had it not been for the “tip off” from SO15, there would have been no reason for this local authority to initiate proceedings. The notion that the SSHD has insufficient information to respond, other than by seeking discharge of the disclosure order, is to my mind fallacious.

 

2. Failure to comply with FPR r.21.2(3) or have regard to the Guidance – necessity

 

  • The second complaint made on behalf of the SSHD about the disclosure order of 4 October 2016 is closely related to the first. Ms Wheeler relies upon the terms of r.21.2(3) of the Family Procedure Rules 1991 – “disclosure against a third party is only permitted where it is necessary in order to dispose of the proceedings fairly” and paragraph 7(e) of the President’s Guidance – “the need (for judges) to avoid seeking disclosure from the police or other agencies of information or material which may be subject to PII, or the disclosure of which would damage the public interest or put lives at risk, unless the judge is satisfied that such disclosure is ‘necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly’.”
  • Ms Wheeler contends that the SSHD and the Passport Office “are almost entirely in the dark about the nature of the local authority’s case and the allegations of significant harm.” She maintains that disclosure was sought on an erroneous basis, namely that it would “assist” the court.
  • I cannot accept that the wrong test was applied to the disclosure request. The face of the 4 October order (recital 4) records that the court “needs” the information. I reject the suggestion that I would have sanctioned a disclosure order against the SSHD, or any other third party, unless satisfied there was a genuine necessity.

 

 

However, SO15, and the SSHD (Secretary of State for the Home Department, or the Home Secretary) had an ace up their sleeve. Counsel representing the SSHD made it clear that if the Court wanted to press ahead with an order for disclosure, the Home Secretary would sign a Public Interest Immunity certificate which would prevent the disclosure of any material.  There’s a process for the PII certificate to be reviewed by the Court, but none of the parties would see the basis on which it was asserted that disclosure would be against the national interest.

 

Rock, I’d like you to meet Hardplace, Hardplace, this is the Rock.  I’ll just stand between the both of you.

 

In a game of Rock Paper Scissors, the Rock wins every round

In a game of Rock Paper Scissors, the Rock wins every round

 

Obviously the family Court don’t want to trample on national security and of course security services don’t want to cough up in detail why they happen to be watching the father and what led them to do so and what they have found out about who he is talking to, because that could jeopardise all sorts of other important and sensitive and possibly life-threatening/life-saving operations.   And given that the family Courts have so far ended all of the radicalisation cases with the children remaining with the parents, one can see why SO15 don’t consider that it is worth taking those risks with sensitive information given the likely final resolution of any individual case.   (At present it rather seems as though you are better off  in care proceedings as a parent being in contact with ISIS members than letting your ten year old child shoot terrorists on Call of Duty, but that’s just my cynical jaded take on it)

On the other hand, there are children here and the Local Authority can’t obtain orders to protect them without having evidence to show why they need to be protected and the parents can’t refute the allegations about them without knowing what they are.

 

The Judge left the disclosure orders in place, indicating that when and if the Home Secretary issued a PII certificate, that would be the time for consideration of whether the reasons on the PII certificate outweighed the need for disclosure.  If there is no disclosure, presumably the application will have to be withdrawn, as the LA have no evidence that could prove threshold.

 

This was always going to be the difficult issue in radicalisation cases and whilst the President’s guidance works very hard to find a solution, I’m just not sure that there is one. If you are a Local Authority who receives that sort of tip-off, what the hell are you supposed to do with it?  If you issue, you’ll hit this road-block and the proceedings will be dropped, and if you don’t and something happens, the Daily Mail will be eating you alive.  It’s a complete hospital pass by the Security Services.

 

What’s the alternative? Amend the Children Act 1989 to allow SO15 to issue care proceedings of their own? Run a family Court equivalent of the Closed Material Procedure Courts that operate in alleged terrorism offences in the criminal Courts?  They are hugely controversial in crime  (and if you’re interested in more about them I recommend Ian Cobain’s book “The History Thieves”  where he describes the AB and CD case, with the jury being told that if they ever discussed any of the evidence in the case they could themselves be punished by two years imprisonment and the incredible stipulations on journalists whose notebooks were taken each day, were prohibited from writing notes outside the Courtroom after hearing the evidence and not being able to tell their readers any of the important details in the case)

 

I certainly can’t claim to have a solution, but it is an obvious problem.

 

 

 

“The father is to have no contact while the investigation is ongoing”

 

This is an interesting case, decided by Recorder Baker.  It was a private law case, which had considerable Local Authority involvement.  Many of the issues may seem familiar to practitioners, but the Recorder has grabbed the facts and issues and put them together in a very pleasing and digestible way.  And produced some useful guidance for other similar cases.

 

Re V (A child) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2016/58.html

 

The facts are painfully familiar.  [Not how ALL cases go, by any stretch of the imagination, but we’ve all seen ones pretty much like this before.]

Man and woman meet each other. Love each other very much. When a man and a woman love each other very much they have a special cuddle, and lo a baby is born. Man and woman fall out of love.  Man and woman stop living together.  Quarrels ensue. Woman makes allegation about man. Man’s contact with child stops.

Here the allegation was that the man had been ‘massaging’ the child, who was about six.  Eueeww, creepy, you’re all thinking. Massaging a child. Creepy.

Well not so much when you know that the child has a medical condition that requires massage as a treatment and the dad is a physician. Not quite so creepy.

 

Let’s make it very plain at the start that the Judge in this case did not find that the father had done ANYTHING wrong to the child. Nor did he find that the mother had made up the allegations or been malicious or deliberate in any way.  It is just a series of events that got out of control, and a series of failings from professionals to look at the evidence for the mother’s suspicions and tell her frankly and plainly that there was nothing in them.  As a result of which, a father lost contact with his son for 42 weeks.

 

 

  • On a day in January 2016 the mother and V were at home with a family friend who was visiting. The family friend heard V make some comments about the time he lived with his father including comments about massages that he and his father had given each other. The family friend, who asserts experience in child protection matters, spoke to the mother on the telephone after her visit and informed the mother that she was going to make enquiries with respect to “intervention” with V on the basis that she was concerned by what she had heard. On the same day she telephoned the child’s school and told them about her concerns.
  • The school initiated safeguarding procedures and 6 days later V was seen in school by the Investigating Police Officer and a Social Worker. Prior to speaking to V they spoke to V’s school teacher. Amongst other things the teacher told them the school did not have any particular concern about V, that they had witnessed a good relationship between V and his father and that they had observed him to look forward to his father picking him up from school. The school were aware that V was awaiting a corrective medical procedure and that they were aware that V’s father, a medical professional, did massage V in connection with this condition. They confirmed that V had made no allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour to them.
  • When the Investigating Police Officer and the Social Worker spoke to V, he made no allegations against his father and told them that there were no bad things about living with his dad or mum. When asked if his father ever did anything that makes him feel confused, upset or angry, he said that his father did not.
  • The Social Worker and the Investigating Police Officer communicated the contents of their conversation with V. It is recorded that the mother was not happy and was asking about stopping “contact” between V and his father. V was due to return to live with his father in the next few days. At that time it is recorded that she was advised that she would “struggle” to justify preventing V seeing his father and would be in breach of the extant court order. It is recorded that the mother was advised that she should not question V further.
  • The following day the mother attended at the local police station with a relative. She was initially spoken to by a police officer who was staffing the front desk. That police officer made a record of her attendance and sent a note to the Investigating Police Officer relating the encounter. It records that the mother was asking V to tell the police officer what he had told her. It records that the mother was asking V leading questions to elicit answers from V. She was asked to return later in the day when the Investigating Police Officer (who had attended the school the day before) would be on duty.
  • When the relative, mother and V returned to the police station the same day the Investigating Police Officer spoke to them. The Investigating Police Officer’s note records that during discussions with the mother, she reported that she had been undertaking research on the internet about how to speak to a child and that she had been asking V questions about what his dad had done. It is noted that it appeared to the Investigating Police Officer that the mother had been asking leading questions of V but when this was raised with the mother the relative became angry and aggressive and was asked to leave.
  • V was then video interviewed. I will return to the contents of that interview below.
  • After the interview the Investigating Police Officer noted that the mother “was keen to contact her solicitor and appeared to be checking that [V] had stated everything he needed to”. Thereafter the Investigating Police Officer advised the mother that the matter would be passed to a different police station for further investigation.
  • The transcript of the video interview of V makes for interesting reading. It can be asserted that he makes a number of allegations about his father massaging him, possibly involving the child and the father’s private parts. However, in a letter from a Detective Inspector written to the father’s solicitors 6 months later the contents of the interview are described thus:

 

“[V] did provide an account on video interview, and it was noted by officers that he did present in a very different manner compared to the previous [the school visit]. His account changed numerous times and he failed to make any clear or concise disclosures.”

 

  • That brief description is accurate and encapsulates the fact that the interview of V, even taking into account his age, is muddled and inconsistent. It does not provide a strong foundation for assertions of sexually inappropriate behaviour by the father. In the end it was the only evidence that could possibly have been taken as any evidence of inappropriate behaviour by the father.
  • On the same day (i.e. the day that the mother attended the police station in the morning and those events summarised at paragraphs 13 and 14 above occurred) the mother applied to court for a prohibited steps order preventing the father from removing V from her care. That application was made without notice to the father and was granted.

 

Despite there being not a grain of truth in the allegations, and pretty much every professional who looked at the evidence reaching that conclusion, it still took 43 weeks for this father, who had been having shared care of this child, to have any contact with his son again.

 

Here is the bit that is troubling, yet still sadly familiar

 

  • At some time after Day 6 and before the completion of the section 47 investigation the local authority had presented the mother with a written agreement. That was not in the Court Bundle so when I invited the local authority to attend the final hearing I also asked them to bring a copy of the written agreement. It is undated so it is only possible to estimate when it was signed by the mother. It asks the mother to ensure that:

 

“[The Father] is to have no contact with [V] whilst the investigation is ongoing.”

 

The Judge notes that of course the mother placed reliance on that written agreement – even if I WANTED to allow contact, I can’t, because the social workers have made me sign a written agreement not to allow any contact.

 

Even after both the Local Authority AND the police had closed their case, nobody tore up that Written Agreement, so it was being relied upon by mother months after any investigation was done and dusted. There being no evidence whatsoever of abuse, of course the investigation was going to fizzle out. Nobody took steps to revoke it though.  (And cynically, one might say that its existence rather suited the mother)

 

 

  • The decision to have an Initial Child Protection Case Conference having been rescinded, the local authority continued a ‘Child and Families Single Continuous Assessment’ as it is referred to in the document. The use of the word ‘continuous’ is ironic in the circumstances, because it turned out to be anything but. The assessment document itself makes it difficult to determine when it actually concluded, however I suspect it was within 3 ½ weeks of the initial phone call to the school. The decision to close the case was reviewed and ratified by a social worker manager one month after its’ conclusion.
  • The assessment recounts a number of things. It repeats the account of V’s video interview in the same terms as identified at paragraph 25 above. It notes however that when V is seen by the social worker 2 ½ weeks after his video interview, he again expresses no concern about being in the care of either parent. It records some of the things I have related above that might have at least alerted the writer or the manager to the possibility that this was not simply a case of child sexual abuse and that there were other risk factors to consider. However, it recommends no further action is taken by the local authority. When that decision is ratified by the Social Work Manager it is recorded in the following terms:

 

“I agree with the social workers (sic) recommendations to close this case… From the information collated during the assessment process, it is considered that the likelihood of significant harm posed to [V] is considerably reduced given that [the mother] has obtained a Prohibited Steps Order as well as agreed via a working agreement to ensure that he does not maintain contact with his father… if [the mother] were to breach this agreement such would undoubtedly increase the risk posed to [V] and, in turn, impact upon his developmental needs.”

 

  • It is difficult to read that paragraph as anything other than a conclusion that (i) in the view of the local authority V had been sexually abused by his father and (ii) that if he were to have contact with his father he would be at risk.

 

The Judge is quite right – of course you can’t read that as being anything other than a professional assessment that this child was safe because mum had agreed to stop contact and would be at risk if contact resumed.  Which would be a solid assessment IF it were based on an analysis that was supported by the actual evidence in the case. But it wasn’t.

 

 

  • The local authority did not become involved with V again until the Court made a section 37 direction, some 7 months later. That section 37 report, which was completed by a social worker who had not previously been involved, concluded that there was little or no evidence to substantiate any allegations of sexual abuse. The writer also observed that there was considerable evidence of a hardening of V’s views against the father, contrary to the situation that existed when he was living with the father and mother jointly and indeed contrary to the situation when his relationship with his father had only been interrupted for a few weeks. The writer concludes that V has suffered significant harm but that harm emanates from the acrimonious dispute between the parents rather than any form of direct sexual or physical abuse. The analysis of the factual matrix is compelling and thorough. Whilst neither I nor the parties entirely accepted all of the recommendations made within the report, that does not detract from the value of the work undertaken. It is right that I acknowledge that the author was employed by the same local authority that this judgment criticises.

 

The Judge goes on to discuss the role of Local Authorities in private law proceedings.  And it is right that when I receive notification that I myself am dragged (as an LA lawyer) into private law proceedings my reaction is much like THIS

 

Why God, why? Why have you forsaken me?

Why God, why? Why have you forsaken me?

 

 

  • I have every sympathy for and understand only too well the limited resources available to local authorities. Some local authorities, in my experience, display considerable reluctance to become involved in private law disputes and it is possible that there is an instinctive wish to withdraw from meaningful involvement as soon as possible, believing that private law disputes will ultimately be resolved by the courts. Local authorities do, after all, have many children whose welfare they are charged with protecting. However, local authorities have statutory duties and the way in which those duties are carried out have significant and lasting ramifications even if they do not become directly involved in any court proceedings that follow.

 

The Judge then goes on to give some very careful, thoughtful, measured and helpful guidance for Local Authorities in this situation, and decries the approach of “Allegation against dad >  get mum to stop contact > so no risk = close the case”  without a proper consideration of the allegation.

 

 

  • In any dispute between two parents where an allegation of abuse of any nature is made, instigated or supported by one parent against the other it is, in my view, incumbent upon a local authority receiving a referral to have in mind all the possible risks that may be inherent in any such allegation.
  • There is of course the risk that the allegation, whatever its nature, is true. There is the risk that that the allegation is not true. There are also the risks that the allegation is in some way mistaken, mistakenly encouraged or deliberately fabricated.
  • There are of course very serious welfare consequences for a child if allegations of, for example, sexual abuse are true. However, there are also serious welfare consequences if the allegations are not true. Those consequences include the possible temporary or permanent cessation of a relationship between a child and a parent. They include the inculcation of false events within a child’s memory and belief system. They include one parent portraying a negative and inaccurate view of another parent, with possible long term consequential psychological damage to a child who is led to believe that part of his or her genetic make-up is in some way ‘bad’ or unworthy.
  • It strikes me that in circumstances where the backdrop is a dispute between parents, the words of Baroness Hale in Re B [2008] UKHL 35 at [29] should be at the forefront not only of the Court’s mind but also of any investigative authority:

 

“…there are specific risks to which the court must be alive. Allegations of abuse are not being made by a neutral and expert Local Authority which has nothing to gain by making them, but by a parent who is seeking to gain an advantage in the battle against the other parent. This does not mean that they are false but it does increase the risk of misinterpretation, exaggeration or downright fabrication.”

 

  • It is notable that Baroness Hale refers to the local authority as being “neutral and expert”. In my view and with respect, in this context it seems to me that ‘neutral and expert’ implies a professional detachment that is alive to all the risks and weighs all the evidence in a balanced way bearing in mind all the reasonable possibilities. It does not imply an abandonment of a precautionary approach to child protection but acknowledges that ‘child protection’ encompasses protection for children from mistaken and false allegations as well as those that may be true.
  • It also occurs to me that where local authorities act in a way that purports to restrict the relationship between a parent and a child, under pain of legal action (as in this case, condensed into the written agreement) they must bear in mind that they may be interfering as a public body in a relationship that has, for want of a better term, special status. That ‘special status’ is reflected in the following observations about this case, which I doubt are exhaustive:

 

a. This father had parental responsibility for V;

b. This father had a court order that ensured that V lived with him and the mother;

c. This father had an ongoing relationship with his son about which there was ample evidence of a positive nature;

d. V had an Article 8 right to family life with his father that should only be interfered with if justified and proportionate; and

e. The father had an Article 8 right to family life with his son that should only be interfered with if justified and proportionate.

 

  • When interfering with such powerful imperatives it, in my view, behoves the local authority to record the situation carefully and accurately, formulating an assessment of the risks on all the evidence reasonably available, even if that assessment still concludes that for the time being the child should not see the accused parent. Simply to say ‘the child will not see the alleged perpetrating parent and is therefore safe’ and thereafter close the case, is an abrogation of the responsibility placed on local authorities by Parliament.
  • Failure to assess the circumstances properly has far reaching effects, even if the local authority do not themselves initiate protective court proceedings. In this case alone there are two obvious examples. First, when a private law case comes before the court Cafcass complete a ‘Safeguarding’ letter, a process that involves a Family Court Reporter quite literally telephoning the local authority to find out if they have had any involvement with the child or their family. Someone at the local authority looks on the computer and relates the contents of the information contained therein. The conclusions and nuance of that information informs the contents of the Safeguarding Letter which then informs the judge at a First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment. Decisions taken at the early stages of a case are of vital importance and can determine the direction of travel for the court process. Re-visiting the conclusion of the local authority assessment set out at paragraphs 33 and 34 above, it is not difficult to imagine the message that would be conveyed to the court by such a conclusion. Neither is it difficult to imagine the different approach that might have been taken by a court had that conclusion recorded a more balanced examination of the risks in this case.
  • Secondly, I have already alluded to the possible effect of the Written Agreement entered into between the mother and the local authority (paragraph 31). Again it is not difficult to imagine how a court, bereft of the complete picture, would approach a situation where it is informed that the local authority have told the mother that she must not allow the child to see his father. The impact was doubtless magnified by the lack of an end or review date in the agreement, allowing it to be said quite accurately that the agreement apparently still applied.
  • In addition, an approach that lacks balance and objectivity allows a parent who is more than willing to believe, subjectively and possibly inappropriately, that the other parent has sexually abused their child, to invest in that belief. It prevents them coming to terms with the possibility that the other parent may not have sexually abused their child. It reinforces both parents’ negative belief about the other parent which in turn is likely to impact adversely upon the child. Ultimately it increases the difficulty of putting the situation right and allows parents to get ‘stuck’ in a conflict that could have been defused much earlier.

 

You know that bit in figure skating competitions where bouquets of flowers get thrown onto the ice?  The extract above is deserving of similar treatment. It is important, fair and easy to follow.  If someone had given this passage to me and said “Which Judge wrote that?”  I’d have said unhesitatingly Mr Justice Peter Jackson. This Recorder is one to watch.

 

If you work in a social work team, particularly a duty team or one that does section 7 or 37 investigations, please share this judgment. If you represent parents, print it out and put a big post it note on it that says  “Helpful stuff”

 

Don't skate over them!

Don’t skate over them!

 

 

 

 

 

Ellie Butler drawing together some strands and discussion

This post is a collaboration between myself, Lucy Reed of Pink Tape, Sarah Philimore of Child Protection Resource and Louise Tickle who is a freelance journalist – you have probably seen her pieces on family Justice in the Guardian.

 

You can also read it here

Ellie Butler – drawing together some strands and discussion

 

Several family lawyers have been discussing this case on Twitter, and it was suggested to us that it might be helpful to draw together a document with some important questions and our answers. We won’t necessarily agree on everything, but even our disagreements might help with the debate.

This post is a collaborative post to which a number of people have contributed. We would welcome others responses to the specific questions we’ve set – email info@transparencyproject.org.uk with your replies.

We are Lucy Reed (barrister and author of the Pink Tape website www.pinktape.co.uk)  Sarah Phillimore (barrister and author of the Child Protection Resource website – for a discussion of the principles the courts must apply when trying to find out in family cases how a child has been hurt, see this post), Andrew Pack  (local authority lawyer and author of the Suesspicious Minds website www.suesspiciousminds.com) and Louise Tickle, freelance journalist writing for the Guardian newspaper.

On the evidence that Hogg J heard at the time, what do we think about the finding that the father didn’t cause the shaking injury to Ellie?

Andrew Pack:

When I read the judgment about the shaking injury at the time, it looked to me like a solid and fair analysis of very complicated medical evidence. What causes that sort of head injury in infants is very complex and very controversial, and medical science is moving on all the time. Doctors in this field are talking about it all the time – a decade ago, the medical consensus was that these injuries could NEVER be caused by birth trauma and now we now that birth causes these bleeds on the brain (albeit to a lesser extent) in 50% of births. Reading the Court of Appeal decision in the criminal case, where the conviction was overturned, they highlighted some really unusual aspects about this particular case which would have given more doubt than is usual even in this very controversial field – Hogg J then had added to that the fresh medical evidence about the cyst, and whether that would have been a causing or contributory factor.  I think that the Court had the benefit of the best experts around, arguing both sides, and all of the evidence, and making the finding that the LA had not proved that it was more likely than not that father shook the child was the only safe one to make.  One might argue that the Judge did not give sufficient weight to father’s criminal history of violent behaviour and whether that might have tipped the balance if it was very finely balanced. Reading her analysis, I don’t think that she viewed the evidence as that finely balanced.  She was, on the evidence, confident that father had not done this.

Sarah Phillimore:

I agree with this. I don’t think the Judge can be faulted for how she treated this evidence.

Lucy Reed:

I also agree. The judge heard a large number of the most eminent experts in their respective fields, in some cases several from a single discipline – ophthalmologist, ENT, paediatrician, radiology, neuro-radiology, neuro-surgery…She also heard the evidence of the parents, which she took a particular view on – she thought the father convincing. The law is : if, having heard all the evidence, she was unpersuaded that it was more likely than not that the injuries were inflicted she should determine the infliction not proved – and exonerate the father of those acts.

What do we think about the exoneration speech and letter?

Andrew Pack:

As a matter of law, once the Judge has found that the LA didn’t prove their case about the shaking injury the legal finding is that father did NOT do it. Professionals working with the family would have been told of that legal finding and that the father could not be treated as a risk as a result of the head injury/shaking injury. The Judge clearly felt that father HAD been exonerated and that he had NOT caused the head injury, and her language reflected, I think, her view that the removal of Ellie and his imprisonment had been a miscarriage of justice. From the Serious Case Review, I think you can see that the strength of language that she used made professionals feel that they were being given the message of ‘back off’ and the parents felt that they were bullet-proof. That may have made professionals feel that when they were encountering behaviour that they found concerning they were powerless to act. I think it was a bit too strong at the time but not wildly out of order, and of course with the benefit of hindsight, it was far too strong and could have been couched more carefully – that there were other residual issues about the father that still presented a risk.

Sarah Phillimore:

This is the issue that troubles me. Yes, if there was no evidence that he caused the injuries in 2007 on either the civil or the criminal standard of proof, then as a matter of fact, no one could say that he did. But this was a man with – as I understand it – a clearly documented history of violence, who had served a three year prison term? ( I think – I have not been able to re-read the 2012 judgment as I understand it was removed from publication on line and has not been returned.). I do not know how that history was presented or what weight the Judge put on it. But, in the light of that history, and that the LA were clearly justified in being worried about the initial injuries caused to Ellie when she was a baby, I do not understand why the Judge thought it was appropriate to remove the LA from further oversight of this case and require that a letter setting out Butler’s ‘exoneration’ was sent to other agencies. The Judge found he had NOT hurt Ellie when she was a baby. She did not make findings about his propensity for violence and his criminal history. It may not have been appropriate to do that, particularly if the LA had not relied on these issues to prove their case. BUT. They were clearly part of the background and should, in my view, have given pause for thought before going down any route of widely publicised ‘exoneration’.

This issue also brings into focus some more general concerns about the standard of proof in care proceedings being the ‘balance of probabilities’. I appreciate the arguments that it is not always compatible with the need to protect children, if we insist on proof beyond a reasonable doubt. However, my concerns arise about the subsequent status achieved by a ‘finding of fact’ on the balance of probabilities. The courts are clear that a binary system operates; something is true or it is not. Therefore a finding of fact against a parent can determine the whole course of the proceedings. Parents are required to ‘accept’ the findings with little time for reflection, or risk the LA – and the court – ruling them out entirely as lacking ‘insight’. On serious and life changing matters, I do not feel comfortable with ‘truth’ being established as 51% more likely than not. As the Judge was operating in Butler’s case on the ‘balance of probabilities’ this also should have given some pause for reflection before being keen to ‘exonerate’ him and establish him as an entirely safe and responsible parent.

Lucy Reed:

There is a question as to how the exoneration letter came to be drafted and how it came to be expressed more broadly than the judgment itself. I’ve raised this in my blog post on Pink Tape here. The main issue for me though is the interpretation / response to the exoneration. Ben Butler was exonerated of the physical injuries. The LA elected not to appeal or to argue that he was culpable in any other way. The suggestion in the SCR is that professionals were paralysed by the exoneration. Some time passed before the LA conceded the balance of the threshold, and decided not to pursue findings on any broader threshold risks – from the judgment it is easy to infer that the LA took the reasonable view that to pursue such findings would have served no purpose, partly because the subsequent assessment of the parents was positive and this made it unlikely that the judge would find the threshold crossed on the basis of behaviours that on one view were attributable to the parents being wrongly accused and unlikely (based on the assessment) to endure. The more I consider this point the more I think it would be very illuminating to see the assessment report itself.

I don’t fully understand why, after proceedings had concluded and Ellie returned home, the exoneration should have made professionals feel like the couldn’t / shouldn’t pursue matters of concern. In any event, it appears (based on the SCR) that that subsequent events and information were assessed as not being sufficient to cross the threshold to move into child protection / proceedings, so I’d query what ongoing impact the exoneration had.

Louise Tickle:

I agree with Sarah on this. The psychological impact on on professionals working with Ellie of that letter could not have been anything but one of profound reluctance and fear of stepping in, and being torn to shreds by their own managers and in court if Butler and Gray had protested – which of course they would have done, and I believe in the case of the school raising concerns, did. This was a very senior judge, the LA had fought very hard, and lost. Where, really, were they to go at that point, without fresh evidence of harm reaching a high threshold – and how were they to be able to make assessments given total lack of access, and fear of what would be forthcoming if they were to seek such access?

Were the other issues that could have amounted to threshold properly dealt with, or did the non finding on shaking dominate?

Andrew Pack:

I think this really is the million dollar question. In the first fact finding hearing before Hogg J, the case was all about the head injury, and all of the evidence called and 95% of the documents looked at would have been about that. Having failed to prove that, there was of course still the convictions for violence to consider. Those offences were not against children, so they would not automatically mean that father would have posed a risk to a child, but it was material which needed to be considered in detail in an assessment and could have satisfied threshold.  That, coupled with the child’s presentation around father and the grandparents evidence COULD, have led to a decision that despite the finding on the head injury, Ellie wasn’t going to be moved from grandparents.  I would like to see the threshold document with the findings sought, and to have more clarity about which ones the Judge was specifically asked to make findings on and heard evidence about, and which were simply not put to her as a result of her very clear finding on the head injury and the direction of travel.

Sarah Phillimore:

I agree with this. If this was presented as a ‘single issue’ case – i.e. did he hurt Ellie as a baby, that would seem – with hindsight – to be a mistake. But of course, Judges can only decide the cases before them.

Lucy Reed:

The press coverage at the time focused heavily on the physical injuries but other matters of concern were known about and before the court, but were not the subject of findings. It is arguable that the other matters could have potentially amounted to threshold but the fact and force of the exoneration may have affected decision making about whether it was going to be a good idea to pursue them. The critical question is whether the other matters were presented and pursued and if not why not – and whether any thought was given to reframing threshold after the exoneration. Following the ISW assessment the balance of threshold was crossed. Although we don’t have the threshold document itself it appears from the judgments that the fact of the fathers convictions was not pleaded as a threshold risk in itself. The question of suspected domestic violence / control in the parents relationship was raised and evidence was heard – but the judge made no ruling on this evidence and adjourned off for further assessment. By the time the matter returned to court the LA were not pursuing findings and nobody seems to have asked the judge to record or make findings in respect of this evidence. The first judgment records that evidence was heard but does not record its extent or cogency. It is reasonable to assume that if the evidence was compelling and of high concern this would not have been dropped and would have been the subject of judicial comment or findings. But we don’t actually know.

Was the decision to have Independent Social Workers (ISWs) deal with not just the assessment of whether Ellie should move from her grandparents but the actual social work of the move unusual, and did this make a difference?

Andrew Pack:

The Judge was clearly taking into account that during the earlier hearing, the parents had been substantially criticised by the Local Authority for not accepting that father had injured Ellie and the working relationship was very strained. Having made the finding that father was exonerated, it was put to her, and she agreed, that any assessment by the Council would be ‘doomed to failure’.  That’s strong, but I think it wasn’t unreasonable to ask for the assessment as to whether Ellie should go home to be done by Independent Social Workers. What is much harder to understand is why those ISWs were also charged with doing all of the direct social work with grandparents, Ellie and parents, to prepare Ellie for the move and do the social work visits. The Serious Case Review shows that that agency were not given clear background information and essentially just had the judgment exonerating father – was it clear enough to them that this man had a history of violent offending? Might that have made them more concerned about the visits where they now report that he had been angry and unable to calm down for 10-15 minutes for some of these visits? Or, in the absence of knowing about his convictions for violence, did they assume that this was justifiable frustration about the process from a man who on that judgment had lost his child and been wrongly sent to prison and was still not reunited with his child?  I think that consideration should have been given to a fresh social work team within London Borough of Sutton doing the social work (ISW to do the assessment is fine) or if that wasn’t possible, perhaps a neighbouring authority.  ISW assessment work and direct social work with a family are very different. I think that the Judge got that wrong. At the time, I’d score that decision a 4 out of 10 (it was unusual and a bit strange at the time) and obviously in retrospect it was a major factor to the Court not having the proper evidence about Ellie after the fact finding judgment.

Lucy Reed:

I agree with Andrew. There is a big difference between an independent social work assessment and an independent agency taking over social work responsibility. I’m not sure whether the court intended them to perform this broader role or whether this got mixed up in the process of instruction or at some later stage – perhaps the LA / professionals took the view that they were being ousted for all purposes. It’s unclear whether the ISWs considered themselves to hold this broader responsibility (I’d say doubtful). It’s concerning to learn that over this period the Guardian was off sick and no cover provided. This may well have had a significant impact on the way in which the assessment was carried out and monitored.

Why did grandparents have to pay £70k for legal costs, can anything be done?

Andrew Pack:

The grandparents had parental responsibility by virtue of the Special Guardianship Order, so if these had been care proceedings (the Local Authority wanting to take Ellie away from them) they would have had free legal representation. Because instead this started as a rehearing of a fact finding, and then proceedings primarily regarding a younger sibling not cared for by the grandparents, the grandparents didn’t get legal aid, had to pay their own costs and eventually ran out of money. Grandparents representing themselves, up against two of the best family law Silks around, and a Judge who was viewing Ellie’s case as a miscarriage of justice to be put right – it certainly wasn’t a level playing field. I would strenuously argue for reform of the law here – these grandparents had been caring for Ellie for a long time and doing it well, and if they were to lose her against their will and what their eyes and ears were telling them was right, then they should have had lawyers to fight the case.  A starting point would be for the Ministry of Justice to write the grandfather a cheque for the full amount of his costs – it is bad enough that he lost Ellie, he shouldn’t have lost his life savings too.

Sarah Phillimore:

I agree with this. Ellie had lived with them since she was a very small baby. It is simply wrong in a civilised society that they were left in this position. It wasn’t a level playing field.

Lucy Reed:

This is a problem for grandparents AND parents – even where a parent or other adult has care of a child, public funding is means and merits tested for anything other than the main care proceedings. So, applications to discharge care or placement orders, to appeal or to apply to revoke placement orders or oppose adoption orders, standalone applications about special guardianship or any other private law application – no matter how complex – are means and merits tested. The threshold to be ruled out on means grounds is low so it is easy to be ineligible whilst still being unable to pay.

Judicial accountability and unwillingness to participate in the serious case review (SCR).

Andrew Pack:

I don’t think that the judiciary should routinely participate in Serious Case Reviews. Judicial independence is very important, and the way that SCR’s are conducted, with all parties being very honest about what happened, what could have happened differently, what lessons can be learned, don’t sit entirely comfortably with the judicial role, and the need for them to be independent and to NOT be a part of the professional agencies charged with child protection. However, in a case like this, where the child dies in a placement that the Court have not only sanctioned, but sanctioned in the teeth of opposition from grandparents and social workers, I think that it was unwise for the Judge not to at the very least have spoken with the authors of the Serious Case Review. There needs to be some mechanism for the most exceptional cases of this kind. Likewise, the family judiciary knew of this case 2 years before the verdict – yet the Judge was still given difficult family cases to decide, and they had no press statement or comment. It gives the distinct impression that the judiciary aren’t scrutinising this decision and accepting any part in this tragedy, and that’s a bad impression to give to the Press and public.

Sarah Phillimore:

I agree with this.

Lucy Reed:

On a human level it would be immensely helpful to hear the judge’s view in hindsight, and an explanation of what was going through her mind. But I agree that there are sound constitutional reasons why that should not happen. It’s really important that a judgment is an authoritative and final explanation of a decision or a set of findings. That’s an important protection for adults and children and I think that if alongside a judgment there is a public rumination about what might have been wrong about a judgment then the judgment loses its specialness and the authority of the court is lost. I think it’s right that where a judgment is wrong it can be appealed, and where material new evidence arises a finding can be revisited. That happened in this case when new medical evidence pointed towards a miscarriage of justice against Ben Butler, and of course with hindsight many people are now reappraising the exoneration finding.

For me though the corollary of saying that a judge should not participate in an SCR is that there must be meaningful transparency in terms of the judgments and process. We don’t have that in this case because the judgments have been pulled and the public can’t appraise the judgments or case documents against the SCR. Having seen some of the judgments in this case it seems to me that there is some tension between some of the accounts given and views expressed in the SCR and in media reports and the content of the judgments themselves. I think that constitutionally the public need to have access to this material.

Louise Tickle:

I don’t agree with this. I cannot see why the judiciary should have zero accountability when every other actor in the case has had to answer for their decision making and judgement calls. I think, in response to Lucy’s point, that the authority of the court is only as good as the public’s confidence in it. I do not think public confidence in the judiciary has been increased by this case, but worse, I think it has been even further damaged by the position taken by the President that a judge simply will not enter into the processes of examination as to why she acted in ways that went, in some people’s view, far further than was required, on a standard of proof that can be hardly said to truly exonerate anyone. Particularly anyone with the previous, safe, criminal convictions for violence that Ben Butler had. Overall, I cannot see why any part of our society’s agencies should be above questioning and scrutiny. A child has died. The ‘specialness’ of the judiciary is an irrelevance and an abuse of privilege in this extreme circumstance, if there is something to be learnt by other judges and indeed the rest of us. It is not about demanding heads on plates – it about Hogg’s thought processes and levels of risk aversion and judgement relating to facts and evidence she was appraising that could, if it were to be known, be reflected upon, considered, discussed and learned from. We do not get better understanding of failures by refusing to look at what let up to them. And judges have vast powers. The more power you have, the more accountable you should be when something very terrible goes wrong.

What pieces of information are we still lacking? Should for example suitably anonymised medical reports be in the public domain so press and public can see how complex and difficult the medical evidence is?

Andrew Pack:

I think we need the judgments available to the public and put in one easily accessible place – the Court of Appeal criminal judgment, the fact finding judgment from Hogg J, the second judgment from Hogg J where she decided that Ellie would live with Jennie and  Ben, and very vitally the judgments from King J about Ellie’s sibling after Ellie had died. At the moment, we don’t know whether King J reconsidered Hogg J’s exoneration at all, or whether it proceeded just on the evidence about Ellie’s death. Nor do we know what the outcome was for Ellie’s sibling– of course we shouldn’t have name or details of the sibling’s address, but I think there’s public interest in whether the child was placed with the grandparents and if not why that was decided. I think that unusually in this case, there is justification for the entire court bundle to be available to be seen. Obviously one has to be careful about any photographs and we don’t want prurient rubber-necking, but there is such public unhappiness about this decision that seeing the medical reports would, I think be justified.

Sarah Phillimore:

I agree with this.

Lucy Reed:

I agree also. I would in particular like to see skeleton arguments or written opening / submissions presented to the court at the rehearing, threshold documents filed at particular times, position statements and orders.

FGM and future risk

The Independent recently reported that there had been more than 1,200 reported cases of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in 3 months. More than 2 per cent – about 24 cases, were on children.

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/more-than-1200-cases-of-fgm-recorded-in-england-in-just-three-months-a7069901.html

 

I don’t think the caption under the photograph is correct – I think they could accurately say “no successful prosecution” because we already know about THIS

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/04/first-female-genital-mutilation-prosecution-dhanuson-dharmasena-fgm

 

 

In the High Court, Holman J had to deal with an application to make 3 children wards of Court and for orders under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.

Buckinghamshire County Council v MA and Another 2016

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/1338.html

 

 

  • The parents are both Somali who were brought up in Somalia. The father travelled to Britain as a refugee in 2002 and has lived here ever since. The mother, as his wife, was enabled to join him here in 2005. She also has lived here ever since then. The parents have altogether seven children, of whom five are daughters and two are sons. Three of those children were born here in England after the mother arrived here in 2005. The eldest four were all born in Somalia.
  • It is a fact that the two eldest daughters have been subjected to female genital mutilation in Somalia. That must necessarily have been over ten years ago. The father says that it took place without his knowledge, let alone his consent, in the period after he had travelled to Britain, whilst the mother and the four eldest children were still living in Somalia.

 

That leaves three daughters who have not been subject to FGM, and of course everyone wants to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Given that it happened in Somalia to their two older sisters, there’s some sort of risk there.

 

If the family were intending to visit Somalia on holiday, that’s going to make professionals anxious. Of course one has to properly take into account that (a) The father says the FGM to his two eldest daughters took place without his knowledge or consent, and in fact whilst he was in England, (b) The family were living in Somalia at the time, where FGM does happen and is not viewed in anything like the same way that it is in the UK and (c) It was at least eleven years ago, and the family have been living in the UK since that time and have probably acquired a greater understanding of the cultural norms of the UK and why FGM is considered to be not only abusive but a criminal act.

 

 

  • Over the last several years the family have lived in the area of several different local authorities. There is clearly a history here of different local authorities at various times having acute concerns that the youngest three daughters might similarly become the victims of female genital mutilation. As a result, there were proceedings in 2012 and 2014 and again this year. It is said that the consequence of a rather last minute application by another local authority in 2014 was that the mother and children were unable at the last minute to travel on a planned holiday to Somalia. If that was the necessary and inevitable consequence, it is obviously a matter of the utmost regret; the more so as, before the actual booked date of travel, a judge sitting as a High Court Judge had given permission to go.
  • What gave rise to the current proceedings was that in early April 2016 Buckinghamshire County Council learned that the mother and two of the daughters, together with one of the sons, had travelled to Somalia without their prior knowledge, even though at that time there was quite considerable engagement between the family and that local authority. This resulted in a without notice order being made on 8th April 2016 and these proceedings ultimately coming before myself on notice here today.
  • Later in April the mother and children did duly return from Somalia. The two daughters who had been there were medically examined, and there was no evidence or indication of any genital mutilation or other interference with their genitalia. The result is that today Buckinghamshire County Council have proposed and sought that all the proceedings which they commenced last month should be dismissed or otherwise discontinued or brought to an end, and all current orders of a continuing nature discharged. I have been expressly told today by Ms. Mehvish Chaudhry, who appears on behalf of Buckinghamshire County Council, that in the opinion of Buckinghamshire County Council there is currently a low risk of any of the three youngest daughters being subjected to female genital mutilation.

 

So, what happens the next time the family want to go to Somalia? Are they stopped by Court orders, as happened in 2014? Or do they go without the knowledge of the Local Authority, as happened in 2016 (with no adverse consequences)?

 

Counsel for the parents was keen for the Court to deliver a judgment on what the future risk of FGM for this family was. Having travelled to Somalia with no incident, was it right for the prospect of Court applications every time they wanted to visit Somalia to see family to be hanging over them? Or conversely, given that two children in the family have been mutilated in Somalia, is it right that the three daughters should have that protection of only going to Somalia if a Court seized of all the facts felt it was safe for them to do so?

 

 

  • Mr Alistair Perkins, who appears on behalf of both parents today, has urged that there should nevertheless be a “fact finding” hearing at which the court should consider and give a suitably detailed and analytical judgment as to whether there is any future risk of any of these three daughters being subjected to female genital mutilation. He stresses that this is now the third set of proceedings in relation to this issue, and that the proceedings in 2014, in particular, had the undesirable consequence (it is claimed) that the planned travel of the mother and children to Somalia was aborted. He submits that unless there is a fully reasoned judgment after hearing oral evidence there is a risk that there will be yet further future sets of proceedings of this kind. Whilst I do have considerable sympathy with these parents and with that argument and submission of Mr Perkins, it seems to me that a so-called “fact finding” hearing cannot really achieve the finality from any future legal proceedings that Mr Perkins seeks.
  • The issue in this case does not relate essentially to past facts, but to future risk. The headline past facts can be very shortly stated. The two eldest daughters did undergo female genital mutilation in Somalia. The three youngest daughters have now travelled on one occasion to Somalia for a fortnight last month and have not ever been subjected to genital mutilation. It would, of course, be open to a court to hear at a little length from each parent about their attitudes to female genital mutilation and their future intentions. A court might indeed conclude, as the local authority already have done, that there is only “low risk” of future female genital mutilation. But it seems to me that no court could ever responsibly, on the facts and in the circumstances of this case, rule out altogether any risk of female genital mutilation. The inescapable fact is that, whilst in Somalia, two of the daughters in this family were genitally mutilated. So it does not seem to me that the parents could realistically ever achieve some fact finding judgment that rules out altogether any future risk of genital mutilation.
  • The inescapable fact is that if, on some future date, on some future facts, a local authority with a proper interest in these children (essentially the local authority for the area in which they are from time to time living) had concerns that one or more of these children was at risk of being genitally mutilated, it would be the duty of that local authority to take whatever action seemed to them to be appropriate. It seems to me, therefore, that the proposed future so-called fact finding hearing that Mr Perkins seeks could not achieve the finality or certainty that he and his clients aspire to; and it would, frankly, be a considerable further waste of court time and public money, all parties in these proceedings being publicly funded. For those reasons, I decline to give directions for a future so-called fact finding hearing.
  • However, as I have already stated, Buckinghamshire County Council, who have clearly displayed proper concern for the wellbeing of these children, are now currently satisfied that there is, at most, a low risk of any of these children being subjected to female genital mutilation. The trigger to the present applications and round of proceedings was, as I have already said, Buckinghamshire learning that two of these daughters had already travelled to Somalia with their mother.
  • The father himself has said in paragraph 29 of his recent statement in these proceedings that:

 

“I confirm to the court at this stage that I did not inform Buckinghamshire County Council of the trip as I did not think that I had to. There were no orders in place that required me to inform them of any planned holidays. Further, it had never been discussed during child protection meetings or child in need meetings in either Surrey or Buckinghamshire that they would have to be informed. At no stage did I try to keep the holiday secret from the local authority and if it had been made clear to me that they had to be informed of all trips abroad, I would have shared this information and avoided the need for this matter to come before the court once again.”

 

  • Pausing there, one can see from that paragraph that the father himself has said that if he had appreciated the importance of giving to the local authority due warning or notice of a proposed trip abroad, and in particular one to Somalia, then he would have told them in good time. As I understand it, having learned the hard way of the importance of keeping an involved and concerned local authority well aware in good time of a trip of this kind, the father will do so in the future.

 

 

The Judge concluded that it was not possible to tie the hands of either Buckinghamshire, or any future Local Authority deciding that the children were at risk of FGM, but did his best to put a clear scheme in place so that the parents would know what was expected of them

 

  • That being so, I am very content to record on the face of the order which I will make today:

 

(1) In the opinion of Buckinghamshire County Council, there is currently a low risk of any of the daughters being subjected to female genital mutilation; and

(2) On the evidence currently available to the court, I (the court) am not satisfied that the parents (whether separately or together) present or are likely to present a risk of female genital mutilation to the youngest three daughters during their minority, or that the parents will fail to prevent others from causing them to undergo female genital mutilation.

I couple that with stating (although it cannot be the subject of any undertaking or order since all proceedings are now coming to an end) that, before any of the children travel again to the continent of Africa, the parents should give to the local authority for the area in which they then reside not less than twelve clear weeks’ notice of the proposed trip, and permit a social worker or similar professional to discuss the risks of female genital mutilation with the parents at that time.

 

  • I am further very content to state on the face of the order that if, in the future, the relevant local authority (whose duty and discretion must remain unfettered) consider that there is a risk of female genital mutilation such that they must seek a legal remedy, they should do so without delay and as long as possible in advance of the proposed trip. The words “whose duty and discretion must remain unfettered” in that formulation are very important. I must, and do, make quite clear that if, at some future date, some local authority – whether Buckinghamshire County Council or any other local authority – do have a current concern that any of these children are at risk of female genital mutilation, they are under a very high duty to take whatever steps then appear to them to be necessary and appropriate to protect the child or children concerned.
  • Equally, it is obviously highly undesirable if there are late or last minute applications, particularly if made without notice, for orders shortly before a proposed trip or, as in this case, whilst a planned holiday is already under way and the children are already abroad. So there is a very clear tie in between the expectation, on the one hand, that the parents will be open and up front with any relevant local authority and give to them very good notice (i.e. not less than twelve clear weeks) of any proposed trip by any of the children to the continent of Africa; and, on the other hand, an expectation that if, having been given that notice, the local authority are sufficiently concerned, they really must bring legal proceedings very promptly and not leave it to the last minute.
  • I make clear that I simply cannot give a judgment in terms, or to the effect, that there is no risk of these children being genitally mutilated. As two of their older siblings already have been, it is impossible to exclude all future risk. But Buckinghamshire County Council, who have recently been very concerned about these children, have satisfied themselves that any risk now is a low one. I am not myself aware of any evidence or material to suggest that the risk, such as it is, is any higher than that which Buckinghamshire County Council have assessed it to be.

 

 

That seems to me a very sensible form of order for such cases, where there is not likely to be a risk of the FGM happening in this country (though it does happen, the procedure is much more likely to happen in an overseas country where the practice is culturally accepted and not illegal).  It strikes a good balance of the risks being assessed and the family knowing in advance whether they are able to take the holiday.  (Let’s not forget that telling people that they can’t take their children to their country of birth or to see relatives is a significant interference with their family life)