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“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)

 

 

 

Disguised compliance

 

This is a case where a Judge was critical of the Local Authority’s use of the phrase “disguised compliance”.  I know that it is a phrase that sometimes puts hackles up

Pink Tape sums up very well just how annoying some people find the phrase  – though her particular issue is that it should be “disguised non-compliance”

http://www.pinktape.co.uk/rants/mini-vent/

(I’m going to suggest in this piece that the problem is not the phrase or the concept, it is throwing the label around when there’s no evidence that it is happening. It is when people just assert that it has happened without going to the bother of proving it with evidence.   It is a similar sort of effect when people describe a child’s description of abuse as a “disclosure” rather than an “allegation” – because the former implies that the child must be telling you something true, and the latter is a more accurate description of the account of abuse until such time as a Court makes decisions about whether it happened)

 

 

Disguised compliance is a recognised phenomenon in child protection, and one that frequently comes up in Serious Case Reviews , it is generally defined thus:-

 

Disguised compliance involves parents giving the appearance of co-operating with child welfare agencies to avoid raising suspicions and allay concerns. Published case reviews highlight that professionals sometimes delay or avoid interventions due to parental disguised compliance.

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/information-service/factsheet-disguised-compliance1.pdf

 

So it can be a real thing, and it can be a real problem that professionals need to be aware of.  Professionals failing to spot the difference between a parent who has genuinely changed and is trying their best and one who is trying it on, have ended up with children who were seriously harmed or worse.  It was, for example, a major feature in the Victoria Climbie Serious Case Review, also in the Peter Connolly one.

A sceptical enquiring mind is appropriate – the mind should be open to both possibilities and assess the evidence.

The difficulty, of course, is the differential diagnosis – a situation could be disguised compliance, or it could be a parent genuinely doing everything that they are being asked to do.

If for example, a Local Authority say to a mother, we want you to separate from father and not have contact with him, and allow us to make unannounced visits and improve the home conditions, there are instances where this is exactly what the mother does and that’s positive evidence of change and a good indicator for the future. However, there are cases where the parents pretend to have separated and see each other secretly and everything on the surface looks the same as the mother who has really made those changes. The latter would be disguised compliance. Someone pretending to have changed, but not having really done it.

The issue, of course, is that simply looking at a parent and labelling what they are doing as “disguised compliance” is an allegation – that the parent is not really changed and is not trustworthy. And if you are as the State making an allegation, then the burden is on you to prove it, and you have to provide evidence to that effect. Simply labelling someone’s behaviour as “disguised compliance” is not sufficient.

If a parent is doing everything that you have asked them to do, then you can’t simply undermine that by saying “Ah, but it is just disguised compliance”    – that’s like having your cake and eating it. The LA seem to be in a position of being able to criticise someone for not doing what they were asked to, but also being able to criticise them for doing it.  Obviously, if there’s evidence that someone’s attitude and insight has not changed, or that they are not actually doing what they claim to be, that’s a different matter – depending on the evidence.

It may well be very sensible to have in mind that a given set of facts could be genuine change or it could be disguised compliance, and to assess the situation and check how you are monitoring, but if you can’t provide the evidence that what the mother is doing is disguised compliance, you cannot just write all of the observed changes off by saying that’s what it is. The law, and the Courts, work on evidence, not mere suspicion or speculation.

DV (Adoption or Rehabilitation) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2016/B12.html

 

The Local Authority repeatedly use a phrase critical of the mother when they say that she has engaged in ‘disguised compliance’. It may be that their terminology is loose, but I find that it is not supported by any recent evidence. Indeed, the social worker is happy to praise the mother’s engagement and was positively enthusiastic about the counselling which was underway. Certainly, the children’s guardian was rejecting of the criticism implicit in the phrase ‘disguised compliance’. The guardian told me that the mother now recognised the need for change, she wanted to change, she had fully engaged with everything that had been offered, and she was in the process of change. 

 

 

The Judge, having heard all of the evidence in the case was satisfied that the mother genuinely had separated from the father, and had learned from her mistakes and was working genuinely to make and sustain changes, and therefore refused the plan for adoption – the child was returned to the mother’s care.

It’s time… for Pig to say sorry to Hartley

 

In my youth, there was a TV show called Pipkins, in which Hartley, a moth-bitten hare with a personality disorder lived in a house with a Brummie pig, a monkey called Topov, a creepy tortoise who slept in a shop till and a Zsa-Zsa Gabor type ostrich. There would always be a section in the show where the human presenter would tell one of the characters to say sorry to another – with the “It’s time…. for Pig to say sorry to Hartley”

(There would be a montage of clocks and the noise of clocks striking during the “Time” bit)

 

This looks like the stuff of some sort of fevered Shock-Headed Peter nightmare, not a children's entertainment.  (I am not even showing you the evil tortoise)

This looks like the stuff of some sort of fevered Shock-Headed Peter nightmare, not a children’s entertainment. (I am not even showing you the evil tortoise)

 

That pig looks as though he’s going to lunge at me and eat me from the soles of the feet up.

Besides being largely responsible for my life-long aversion to tortoises (seriously, I have to leave the room or look away if I see one on television, they give me the Fear), that expression always stayed with me.

In the case of Re K (children) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2016/99.html

The Court of Appeal were considering the father’s appeal against a decision that he have no contact with his children, there having been domestic violence between the father and mother and the children having been exposed to some of this. The Court of Appeal granted the appeal, ruling that the Judge had not gone far enough in the duty to exhaust the reasonable avenues of getting contact re-established.

The interesting feature of the case is that both the Judge and the Guardian had become quite fixed on the idea that the father needed to apologise to the mother for his behaviour.

Vos LJ firmly rejected this and it may have a bearing on other cases.

 

I agree, and would only add a few words on one aspect of this case that I found somewhat disturbing. As Lady Justice King has recorded, the recorder seems to have taken the view that the father’s failure to make a genuine and heartfelt apology to the mother precluded him from seeing his children. I cannot accept such a starting point. It may well be that a repentant father would offer a reduced risk of harm to the children, but it is that risk and the welfare of the children generally that are important in contact cases, not any moral judgment of either parent. As has been often pointed out, parents are of all kinds and demonstrate all levels of moral virtue. It is not the court’s job to judge a wrongdoing parent for the sake of doing so, because it will, in all but the most exceptional circumstances, be in the children’s best interests to see their parents. If the failure to apologise posed a risk to the children, that might have been a different matter, but that does not seem to have been the case here. The recorder was wrong to impose a pre-condition of repentance and apology. Those matters were relevant, but only insofar as they had a bearing on the welfare of the children.

 

 

And if you want some more nightmare fuel, there were Pipkins episodes where Hartley (to my mind a cross between a really annoyed Kenneth Williams and Al Pacino at the end of Scarface) had his own puppet, which was even more malevolent.

 

Will I ever sleep again?

Will I ever sleep again?

Can you compel a child to give evidence?

 

The Court of Appeal in Re S (children) 2016 consider this point of law, and whilst they say that they are explicitly not ruling on it, they do give the answer

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2016/83.html

During the appeal hearing, the question arose as to whether the judge could have compelled K to give evidence if she remained unwilling to do so. I am grateful to counsel for efficiently providing an agreed note of the legal position immediately following the hearing. As that note recognised, the question of whether a court can/should use its powers to issue a witness summons in relation to a reluctant child in family proceedings has not been considered by the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court since the Supreme Court’s decision in Re W (supra). The present case was not one in which we needed to hear oral argument on the subject and I would not wish to be thought to be expressing any view about it. However, it may be helpful to record that counsel agreed that a competent child is a compellable witness in civil proceedings and that a witness summons could have been issued under section 31G of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 if appropriate. Theoretically, the penalties for failing to attend in answer to a witness summons are committal to custody and/or a fine. However, there can be no detention for contempt of a person under the age of 18, see sections 89 and 108 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000.

 

So

  1. If the child is competent  (rule of thumb here is going to be functioning at about the level of an average 13 year old, but there may be other factors which make an older child not competent or a younger one competent), then they are a compellable witness.
  2. A compellable witness can be made to attend Court to give evidence under a witness summons
  3. The protection against self-incrimination in s98 Children Act 1989  doesn’t apply to a child – so they would have to be warned about the risk of possible criminal proceedings arising from their evidence.
  4. However, the punishment for a person not obeying a witness summons (i.e what you do if they don’t turn up) are imprisonment or a fine.
  5. You can’t imprison a witness under 18 for not obeying a witness summons.
  6. That leaves you with a fine.  Unless the child witness is Richie Rich or Mustafa Millions, that doesn’t really help.
  7. So you CAN compel them, but you can’t actually do anything if they call your bluff.

 

That’s the legal interest in the case. Other than that, it is always worthy of note when the Court of Appeal split. The main issue here was that a 15 year old K, made allegations of sexual abuse and reported them to the police. There was then something of a backtracking when the police wanted to press charges. K did not want to press charges, she had wanted the abuse to stop. She said to the police that she was not retracting the allegations, but didn’t want charges to be pressed.  However, one police note of a conversation with K recorded that K said she had made the allegations up.  K then wrote two letters saying that she had made the allegations up and that things had got out of hand.

Those representing the alleged perpetrator in the family Court proceedings about K and her siblings understandably wanted K to be produced as a witness. A judicial decision was taken not to compel her attendance, and the Judge went on to make findings (including one which was supported by a medical but was explicitly not an allegation that K had ever made herself).  The findings and the case management decision were appealed.

All three of the Court of Appeal Judges said that the finding which was suggested by medical examination but had never been a claim that K had made had to be overturned. Two of the Judges held that the other findings were safe and should not be overturned. The third took the opposite view.

 

I will set out the minority view, which was not the decision of the Court of Appeal, because I think it contains some powerful arguments (even though they were not successful). For my part, I think it is very difficult to make findings of such a serious nature as sexual abuse when there are changes of position by the complainant, and letters of retraction, without hearing some direct evidence from the complainant. I think that the Judge worked very hard to make it as fair and balanced a judgment as possible, but I would have been with Lady Justice Gloster on this, I just don’t think that the findings can be considered safe in this context. The burden of proof is on the LA to prove that the abuse happened, not on the accused person to prove their innocence.  [Sometimes you do end up with cases where there are very strong suspicions but also doubts, and what tips the balance either way is the credibility of the complainant. If the accused person cannot properly test the complainant’s evidence, the right to fair trial is questionable, for me.]

 

Lady Justice Gloster:

 

  • It is with considerable diffidence that I disagree with views expressed by such experienced family judges as Lady Justice Black and HHJ Moir. This court is rightly very cautious about interfering with case management decisions and second-guessing findings of fact made at first instance by careful family judges. However this case has left me with a deep sense of unease, both in relation to the initial decision of HHJ Moir dated 16 September 2014 that K was not to give oral evidence in the finding of fact hearing and the judge’s subsequent fact-finding judgment dated 15 October 2014 (the order in relation to which is inappropriately described as a “case management order”) in which she held that the Appellant had indeed sexually abused his sister, K. That concern is aggravated by the fact that, as my Lady, Lady Justice Black, has held (and as I agree) there was no basis for HHJ Moir’s finding that the Appellant had anally abused K.
  • The critical features of this case may, in my judgment, be summarised as follows:

 

i) The single issue was whether the Appellant had abused K.ii) The case against the Appellant depended entirely on the veracity of K’s allegations.

iii) The burden of proof at all times was on the Local Authority to establish on the balance of probabilities that the abuse had occurred.

iv) There was no medical evidence of vaginal penetration, despite K’s repeated allegations that she had had full penetrative sex and that she was “no longer a virgin”. In this context the judge appears to have relied on what I regard as the somewhat ambivalent evidence of Dr Jones that “penetration through the hymen can occur without leaving any physical signs”; see paragraph 30 of the judgment.

v) The ABE video interviews of K, upon which the judge heavily relied in reaching her conclusions, had taken place in March and April 2013, at a time well before K had started to attempt to halt the criminal process (July 2013) or had begun, albeit somewhat equivocally, to retract her allegations in their entirety on the grounds that she had made them up (16 September 2013); see paragraphs 9 –13 above for the chronology. So those interviews contained no evidence about the reasons for her retractions.

vi) K frequently changed her mind as to whether she was prepared to give evidence. She informed her guardian that her allegations were untrue and that she wished to give evidence. Subsequently it appears that she changed her view and that she did not want to give evidence. Her guardian assessed her as a “mature young person who had the capacity and competence to give instructions.” The social worker who assessed described her as a “determined and strong willed individual who speaks her mind”, and also observed K as being “quite fragile in her presentation and lacking in self-esteem.”

vii) In deciding whether K should give evidence, the judge relied upon the opinion of K’s guardian and the social worker to the effect that:

“I do not feel that [K] is able to recognise any links to her self-reported frustration and anger with the coping strategies she may have adopted to deal with how she was feeling with her experiences of the current situation. I feel that she seeks to display a certain persona in order to ease her emotions while having built up a barrier up to others to cover how she is feeling.

….

I would not be in support of [K] giving direct evidence at the fact-finding hearing due to the concerns outlined above. I do not feel that she is emotionally able to deal with the impact that this could have on her. I feel [K] would struggle to manage in-depth questioning on the basis that giving direct evidence is to have her say and [inaudible]”.

viii) On any basis, the evidence of K’s guardian and the social worker as to K’s wish or ability to give evidence at trial was highly unsatisfactory and vague opinion evidence. It could not replace an assessment of K’s evidence by the judge.

ix) As a result of the judge’s ruling that K would not be required to give evidence, or otherwise be subjected to any questioning as to why she had changed her mind, because of her so-called “vulnerability, a fragile presentation and her lack of self-esteem”, the reality was that the Appellant was deprived of any effective opportunity to challenge the veracity of K’s case.

x) The case was one of huge importance for the future life of the Appellant and his relationship with his two infant sons and his partner, their mother. It clearly raised serious issues, so far as he was concerned, in relation to his rights under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights (“the ECHR”) to a fair trial, and, so far as he, and his children were concerned, in relation to his rights under Article 8 to a family life.

 

  • In my judgment HHJ Moir’s case management decision dated 15 October 2014, in which she decided that K should not be called as a witness, failed in any adequate way to weigh up the two relevant considerations set out in Re W (Children) [2010] UKSC 12 namely: the advantages that a child giving evidence will bring to the determination of the truth; and the damage which it might do to the welfare of the child witness. In my judgment, there was no adequate medical, or indeed other, evidence, apart from the vague and dubious views of K’s guardian and the social worker, to support the conclusion that it would be so harmful for K to give evidence that she should not be asked to do so. Nor was there any adequate analysis by the judge as to why those concerns trumped the entitlement of the Appellant to question why she had retracted, or, at the least, to some extent resiled from, her previous allegations.
  • As to the first consideration, K was at the time of the fact-finding hearing 13 years and 10 months old and had no cognitive impairment. There was no reason on age and maturity grounds why she should not have been called as a witness. She had displayed as a person who was at least to some extent prepared to exert pressure on the authorities to force the outcome of the criminal proceedings. She clearly had differing attitudes at different times as to whether she wanted, or was prepared, to give evidence. She was a mature young person who had been described as a “determined and strong willed individual who speaks her mind”; see above. Her allegations were extremely serious. There was, in my judgment, no adequate consideration by the judge as to whether K should be required – and indeed whether it would be in K’s interests for her to be required – to give evidence, which either stood by her previous allegations, or which explained the circumstances in which she had resiled from them. Whilst, whether her allegations were true or false, it might well have been distressing or demanding for her to have given evidence, there was no psychiatric or psychological evidence to support the idea that it would have been mentally damaging for her to have given evidence. There was no consideration by the judge as to the advantages to K personally of facing up to the consequences of the allegations which she had made, whether they were true or false, or as to the disadvantages to her of being allowed to avoid responsibility for the consequences of her allegations by not being required to attend trial.
  • Moreover, it was extremely unclear whether K was an unwilling witness or not. She changed her mind frequently about wishing to give evidence in the months leading up to the judge’s ruling and had not been asked in the weeks prior to the ruling whether she would, in fact be prepared to give evidence (whether with or without special measures). Indeed it is significant that the final order dated 8 December 2014 recites the fact that K “would like to meet with the judge”, although the judge ruled that this could not take place until the proceedings were over.
  • In my view the judge was also wrong not to explore other ways in which K could have given evidence, apart from being subjected to cross-examination in open court in front of the Appellant and others. The fact that counsel for the Appellant did not raise the possibility of the judge questioning K in the presence of counsel, but in the absence of the parties, by reference to questions agreed in advance, does not seem to me to be a reason why the judge should not have given consideration to such an option or other alternative options. This was a case that cried out for special measures so as to ensure that the judge received direct evidence from K in relation to the allegations, and, in particular, her retraction of them, and was not forced to rely on the very unsatisfactory secondary evidence of the social worker and the Guardian as to their interpretation of K’s evidence. In my judgment some sort of measure should have been in place to ensure that the judge heard directly from K on the fact-finding hearing.
  • As to the second consideration, in my judgment there was no adequate consideration by the judge of the impact on the Appellant’s case of the inability of his counsel to cross-examine K as to the allegations and her retraction of, or unwillingness to proceed with, them. The consequences for the Appellant, and his infant children, leaving aside his relationship with his partner, were monumentally serious if K’s allegations against him were accepted. On any basis, in my judgment, he could not have had a fair trial in circumstances where the judge was able, in effect, to rely so heavily, if not exclusively, on the ABE interviews conducted before K sought to retract, or sought not to proceed with, her allegations.
  • For the above reasons, I would have allowed the appeal against the judge’s case management decision dated 16 September 2014. In my judgment the judge failed to appreciate that the critical issue was whether or not the Appellant could have had a fair trial without the ability of challenging K’s evidence in any realistic way. In my judgment the judge failed properly to apply the guidelines set down in Re W, which reflect the paramount consideration that a party should have a fair trial.
  • I should say that, so far as the evidence of the K’s two friends are concerned, such evidence was clearly hearsay and should have been afforded very little evidential weight, since, in all the circumstances, it could have provided very little corroborative support for K’s own evidence.
  • Likewise, for the above reasons, it seems to me that the judge’s conclusions in her fact-finding judgment dated 15 October 2014 are clearly open to serious doubt. I do not see how, in the absence of up-to-date evidence directly from K herself, as to the retraction and/or reluctance to proceed with her allegations, the judge was able to conclude that she could rely so heavily on the ABE interviews, or come to the conclusion, as set out in paragraphs 38-39 of the judgment, that K’s allegations were true and that her retraction had arisen partly because of pressure from her family, but largely because of her own feeling of responsibility for breaking up her family and her own strong desire to see her nephews. The inferences which the judge drew from the documentary evidence in my judgment cannot be supported in the absence of up-to-date direct evidence from K herself.
  • I also regard the judge’s analysis of the evidence of the Appellant as inadequate. There is no, or no adequate, explanation by the judge as to why she felt able to reject his evidence that the alleged abuse never took place.
  • In my judgment the judge failed to give proper consideration to the fact that the burden of proof lay on the Local Authority. She had no basis for concluding on the balance of probabilities that K’s serious allegations against the Appellant had been proved. In the absence of any opportunity afforded to the Appellant to challenge K’s evidence that was not a conclusion which I consider she was entitled to reach. In my judgment, the Appellant did not have a fair trial in accordance with his rights under Article 6 of the ECHR and, as a result, his Article 8 rights and those of his infant sons, have been seriously infringed.
  • I would allow the appeal and set aside the findings of HHJ Moir. I would rule that no findings adverse to the Appellant in relation to the allegations of sexual abuse could properly be made on the evidence available to the judge. But since Black and Vos LJJ consider that the appeal should be dismissed, that will be the order of this court.

 

Guardian neutrality at fact finding hearing – is it right, wrong, or are you neutral about that?

A twitter follower, @dilettantevoice put this one in front of me.

Cumbria County Council v KW 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/26.html

It is a case of a suspected head injury, with the usual classic triumvirate signs.  The case is interesting, from a legal perspective, because of paragraph 58

Having considered the legal framework and surveyed the broad landscape of the evidence I turn now to my findings. I record that the Guardian has thought it appropriate not to advance any submissions on the findings sought by the Local Authority. This is a wide spread practice which I would, for my part, strongly deprecate, in most cases. The importance of strong, intellectually rigorous representation on behalf of the child’s lawyer and his Guardian, has been emphasised regularly see: GW and PW v Oldham MBC [2005] EWCA Civ 1247; Re U (A Child) [2005] 2 FLR 444; Islington LBC v Al-Alas and Rway [2012] 2 FLR 1239. These principles apply just as vigorously, in my judgement, to the fact finding process. A position of neutrality motivated solely by desire to appear independent and objective in the eyes of the parents loses sight of the primary professional obligation to the child. I am aware that others take a different view

 

That isn’t part of the ratio, so isn’t a binding proposition, and you can see that Hayden J even says at the end that he knows that others take a different view.  It is a tricky issue. I’m firmly of the view that the Guardian has an important part to play in a fact-finding hearing, and it isn’t (as some think) a “Deckchair brief” – the Guardian and their representatives have to make sure that they do whatever they can to assist the Court in establishing the truth of what happened to the child – to make sure that the right documents are obtained, that the right experts are asked the right questions, and that all of the proper issues are investigated by the Court. It can, therefore, be a very tough brief, since rather than having a set of questions prepared in advance, the lawyer has to be flexible and fluid and extremely on top of all the detail and attentive to how the evidence develops.

It is vitally important for the child, and their siblings, that the Court comes to the right conclusion – either because the child has been harmed and needs to be kept safe OR because the allegations are not correct and the parents don’t pose a risk and there’s a danger of the child being wrongly separated from a parent. In representing the child, you obviously want that decision to be right and for all the important evidence to be drawn out.

Whether at the conclusion of all of the evidence and in making submissions,  as the Guardian here felt the Guardian should stay neutral, or whether as Hayden J thought the Guardian should pin their colours to the mast, is very difficult.

Looking at things logically, if the Guardian hasn’t played a part in the direct collection of evidence (i.e is not a witness of fact, but of opinion), then is his or her view actually significant? On causation, I mean. Clearly on what risks flow if the allegation is proven, and what should happen next, the Guardian’s opinion is vital. But if all the Guardian is doing is saying, having heard all of the evidence, I believe that mother didn’t do it, or that mother did it, how does that really help the Judge?  So, I’d tend to agree with the Guardian here. I’m sure if the Guardian had very strong views either way and wanted to put them in submissions, that would be okay too, but just of limited evidential value.  Is it wrong to remain neutral though, if that’s the Guardian’s preference?   At a fact finding stage, I’d say that it isn’t wrong.  You can follow the professional obligation to be the voice of the child without making your own quasi-judicial view of the evidence.

 

[If the Guardian is a witness of fact – i.e he or she has some factual information to provide about parental presentation or the relationship observed between parent and child or inconsistencies in accounts they gave to the Guardian, then I think it is more incumbent to come off the fence]

 

In broader terms, this is a case where the medical opinion was that the medical evidence alone would not determine the case. The medical evidence alone could not rule out non-accidental injury, nor could it rule out a benign explanation.  (As the Judge later explained, that did not mean that each of those possibilities was equally possible just that neither was impossible)

 

“All counsel agree that the Court should approach any findings it may make in this case by having regard to the broad canvass of the evidence i.e. the medical evidence; the lay evidence; the social work assessments etc.

In this exercise the Court is entitled to conclude that the medical evidence from each of the disciplines involved may, both individually or collectively, support either of the findings contended for by the parties ( i.e. accident or non accidental head injury).”

There have been quite a few reported cases where the medical evidence points to non-accidental injury but the Court is satisfied from the parents explanation that the parents did not injure the child and makes no finding of abuse. This one is the other way, where the parental evidence  particularly the mother’s evidence and the text messages that she was sending, led the Judge to conclude that the child had been injured by the mother.

An unusual element is the raising of the Japanese Aoki research on head injuries. This is research suggesting that the classic triumvirate can present in an accidental fall from a fairly small height and is thus generally accidental.  This research is not accepted by experts outside of Japan (even the many doctors who suggest that shaking injuries are caused by less trauma than commonly supposed don’t subscribe to it.)

  • as the medical profession has also impressed upon me in the past, if low level falls in infants were associated with SDH, retinal haemorrhages and/or transient cerebral irritation or encephalothopy then such might be seen clinically, they are not. This is the primary basis, as I understand it, upon which the medical profession considers it unlikely that low level falls cause fresh subdural and retinal haemorrhaging. Moreover, as Mr Richards identifies, the scanning of children following relatively minor trauma supports the opposite view, i.e. that such is unlikely to cause retinal or subdural bleeding. Mr Richards develops his analysis thus:

“On the basis of the appearances of the subdural haemorrhage, the acute traumatic effusion and, although I would defer to an ophthalmologist, the retinal haemorrhages, I do not from a neurosurgical perspective think it is possible to determine which is the correct answer. Infants cannot be experimented on in laboratories to determine what forces are required to cause subdural haemorrhaging, acute traumatic effusion and retinal haemorrhaging. Studies where infants are routinely scanned even if there is no clinical indication to do so have not been carried out. It is therefore possible that acute subdural haemorrhage and retinal haemorrhaging following very minor trauma is more common than we think. Nobody knows. On the basis of those children who are scanned following relatively minor trauma it is thought unlikely to cause fresh subdural bleeding, acute traumatic effusion and retinal haemorrhages. However, we do not know this with scientific certainty.

2.8 There has been some publications from Japan where children who are alleged to have fallen backwards from Japanese floor-based changing mats have suffered significant head injury with severe brain disturbance, seizures, subdural haemorrhages and retinal haemorrhages being identified (Aoki 1984). Many outside of Japan consider these publications as indicative of a cultural resistance to accepting the concept of non-accidental inflicted injury and that the cases described as occurring as a result of low level falls were, in fact, missed cases of non-accidental injury. However, the Japanese authors maintain their position that the significant injuries were caused by low level falls. Similar publications have not been generated outside of Japan.”

  • It is my understanding that the Aoki (1984) research is regarded by mainstream medical practitioners as deficient in its technique, methodology and professional objectivity. I can think of no case in the last 20 years (in the UK) where this research has been relied on. Mr Richards articulates the central criticism made of the research as a cultural resistance, in Japan, to the very concept of non accidental injury. He does not, however, directly associate himself with those criticisms. Indeed he asserts that the Japanese authors maintain their position. I am surprised that this paragraph has been included within the report neither can I understand what it is intended to establish by scientific reasoning.

 

I haven’t seen the Aoki research cited in any shaking injury or head injury case either, so it was new to me.  It didn’t go down very well.

 

Whilst there is undoubtedly a place to stimulate dialectical argument on these challenging issues, it is not in an expert report, in proceedings where the welfare of children is the paramount consideration. Whilst the Court must review the differential diagnostic process in order to reach its own conclusion i.e. ‘diagnosis by exclusion’ based on ‘the complete clinical scenario and all the evidence’ (see Dr. Newman, para 14 above) and though it is important to recognise the inevitable ‘unknowns’ in professional understanding, these important points are weakened, not reinforced, by elliptical references to controversial research. In addition, there is a danger that social work professionals and others might misinterpret the information in such a way as to grant it greater significance than it can support. Ms. Heaton QC, on behalf of the mother, distances herself from this paragraph entirely and places no reliance on it. She is right to do so.

 

 

Though the Judge made the findings of fact against mother, he declined to make final orders in this case, allowing instead a window of opportunity for work to be done with the parents and specifically for mother to have the chance to reflect and potentially make admissions that would reduce the risks to a manageable level. I think that’s the right approach – I worry about the rigidity of 26 week limits being applied in these cases, just as I worry about Judges rigidly following Ryder LJ’s Court of Appeal line about not having fact finding hearings separately to final decision in all but the most serious of injuries. A reflective space can make a significant difference for families in such cases.