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Category Archives: assessment of risk

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.

Click to access 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.

Poppi Worthington – the Judge publishes his decision about what happened to her

 

I think I’ve written nearly as many blog posts about Poppi Worthington’s case as I have about Re D, yesterday’s case.

The most recent Poppi Worthington piece is here

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/11/26/poppi-worthington-the-long-awaited-judgment/

 

For those who don’t know, Poppi died in December 2012.  The Judge in care proceedings made findings about the causation of her injuries, and what also raised media attention was the Guardian’s list of lessons that ought to be learned or failings by professionals.  Those were all finally aired in the judgment above.  The Coroner  considered the case  in October 2014 and left the causes of the child’s death blank. The police decided not to charge anyone. Father as a result of some of the medical evidence obtained in the police investigation asked the family Court to reopen their findings and look at it again.  And all the way through this, the Press have been asking to be able to publish the judgments, and have had to wait until this.

I have to say that the November judgment contained a peculiar line, that the police took a forensic swab from father’s penis, which led to some obvious worries about what it might have been suspected had happened to poor Poppi, but I didn’t want to speculate about it given that the family were going through a re-run of the family Court fact finding hearing.

The father had obviously hoped and believed that the re-run of the finding of fact hearing would clear his name.

I’m afraid that for me, the detail of the case is too grim for me to want to rake over here. For those who want to read it, it is here.

F v Cumbria County Council and M (fact-finding no 2) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/14.html

 

The conclusion of the fact finding was this:-

  1. For the court to conduct a further hearing in a case of this kind is highly unusual. It does not do so simply because others hold different views to those of a witness whose evidence has been accepted. This further hearing took place because it was asserted that there was evidence capable of establishing an alternative plausible hypothesis for the bleeding, namely that it may have come from congested blood vessels that had been affected by a viral infection. But even before the hearing began, that assertion had vanished like frost in May.
  2. In conclusion, stepping back and reviewing the evidence as a whole, I arrive at the same view as I expressed at paragraph 142 of the previous judgment: Shorn to its essentials, the situation is one in which a healthy child with no medical condition or illness was put to bed by her mother one evening and brought downstairs eight hours later by her father in a lifeless state and with troubling injuries, most obviously significant bleeding from the anus. Careful assessment of the meticulous pathological and paediatric evidence has clearly established that the injuries were the result of trauma from outside the body.
  3. My finding at paragraph 152 was that the father perpetrated a penetrative anal assault on Poppi, either using his penis or some other unidentified object. That remains my conclusion. Some witnesses at this hearing have expressed the view that penetration with a penis would have been expected to cause more obvious injuries. That may be so, but the evidence does not exclude any one of a number of distressing possibilities. As I said before, it is not possible to reconstruct the exact sequence of events that led to Poppi’s collapse without a truthful account from the father.

 

Reporting restrictions still apply on naming Poppi’s siblings. The Press access to this particular hearing was unprecedented, giving them access to documents and reports and even allowing for daily reporting and tweeting about the ongoing case provided it was done after the end of the Court day. The Judge thanked the Press for their responsible behaviour.

 

  1. The ability of the media to report a hearing of this kind on a day-to-day basis is unusual and the arrangements here are probably unprecedented. At the outset, ground rules were discussed and established, as follows:

    1. The reporting restriction order made on 11 July 2014 and varied on 14 January 2015 remains in effect. Copies have been provided.

    2. The hearing is taking place in private. Accredited media representatives may attend and are asked to sign in on a daily basis.

    3. Any media representative who attends will be provided with the full 2014 judgment, the medical reports, the minutes of the experts’ meetings, the schedules of agreement and disagreement and the summary of medical evidence. These documents are for information, to assist with understanding the course of the hearing, and they are not for publication. They can be removed from court but they are to be kept safe and are not to be copied or given to others.

    4. The media may report daily on the proceedings on these conditions:

    (1) Such reporting is subject to any further directions given by the court concerning what can and cannot be published if an issue arises during the course of the hearing.

    (2) Reporting (whether by live reporting, Twitter or otherwise) may not take place until after the court proceedings have concluded on any given day, so that the court has had an opportunity to consider whether any additional directions are required.

    (3) Until the publication of the final judgment, nothing is to be reported that might directly or indirectly indicate the findings that the court made in March 2014.

    5. The final judgment, when available, will be published. At that point the full 2014 judgment will also be published.

    6. Any queries about the ground rules should be addressed to court staff who will consult with the parties and with the court as necessary.

  2. A copy of these rules was placed in the civil jury box where, as it happens, the media sat during the hearing. On the first two days, eight media representatives attended, with the number reducing on subsequent days. On a few occasions, issues about what could or could not be published were raised by a party or a journalist, and these were easily resolved. The opening of the hearing was extensively reported, with less coverage thereafter.
  3. I repeat what I said at the outset of the hearing:“I would like to emphasise that the unusual package of arrangements for this hearing arises from the application of existing law to the exceptionally unusual circumstances of this case. These arrangements do not establish new law or practice in the Family Court and they are not intended to set a precedent for other family cases.”
  4. I nonetheless record that the conduct of the journalists in court was entirely professional and their presence did not adversely affect the hearing; on the contrary, their attendance may be said to have reflected the seriousness of the occasion. The media’s ability to observe the court going about its work in this particular case, and to report and comment on the outcome and the process, has in my view been a valid exercise.

 

Where does that leave things (assuming there’s no appeal)?  Well, almost all of the national press are reporting that the Judge found that Poppi died having been molested in a vile way, and that the person who molested her was her father.

The police have made a decision not to prosecute  (that could potentially be reviewed by the CPS  – though given the press reporting, there might be issues of fair trial now, and of course there are the flaws identified in the last judgment about the process. ).

This particular father, because the child’s full and real  name is in the public domain and the Press took such an interest in the case, is probably now known to everyone in his local community and all of them will have a view about the case, yet he has not been convicted in a criminal court or even charged.  His name is actually within the judgment and naming him is not prohibited.

It is hard, of course, to have any sympathy for someone found to have done what this father was found to have done. It is a very tough test of transparency though – it does feel right that the Press were able to dig into this case and report it accurately and properly, but we do end up with a father who the police did not think it was right to charge being named and shamed in the Press as having done something that every person reading it would think was truly monstrous.

 

The Reporting Restriction Order is plain, and will apply to this blog and commentators. Don’t put anything in your comments that would breach it.

A REPORTING RESTRICTION ORDER IS IN FORCE. IT PROHIBITS THE IDENTIFICATION OF THE SURVIVING CHILDREN OR THE MOTHER, OR THEIR HOMES, SCHOOLS OR NURSERIES. IT DOES NOT PREVENT THE NAMING OF POPPI, OR HER FATHER, OR THE REPORTING OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF HER DEATH. THE JUDGE HAS GIVEN PERMISSION FOR THE JUDGMENT (AND ANY OF THE FACTS AND MATTERS CONTAINED IN IT) TO BE PUBLISHED ON CONDITION THAT ALL PERSONS, INCLUDING REPRESENTATIVES OF THE MEDIA, MUST ENSURE THAT THE REPORTING RESTRICTION ORDER IS STRICTLY COMPLIED WITH. FAILURE TO DO SO MAY BE A CONTEMPT OF COURT.

 

Important case regarding learning difficulties

 

It is a Presidential pronouncement, and a long one. So expect it to be cascaded to all Judges and Courts in the next few days.

To be honest, a case that makes the President say this:-

 

  • This is by some margin the most difficult and unusual care case I have ever had to try.

 

is going to be worth a read. It is really difficult.  Just as when many of us read Re B, we felt that the circumstances described by the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court didn’t seem to justify a finding that threshold was met and that adoption was the correct outcome, this one made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I don’t think that I agree with the eventual conclusion, though to have decided the case otherwise would have caused a huge shift in the legal approach to such cases.

 

I’m afraid that it is long. And I am also afraid that in my attempts to condense what is a very long judgment into manageable size, some of the nuance and detail will be lost. There is no real substitute for reading the whole thing.

Re D (A child) (No 3) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2016/1.html

 

This case has appeared in the blog many times.  It is the one where a child was placed at home with parents, who had some learning difficulties, under a Care Order in 2012. The Local Authority then removed that child and placed the child in foster care. So initially it was key case law about the principles in law that apply to a removal of a child under a full Care Order. The LA then decided that their plan was adoption and made an application for a Placement Order. It then took many months of arguing about the lack of availability of legal aid for the parents (and lawyers not only working for free but signing indemnities that if cost orders were made against the Official Solicitor that they would guarantee to pay them out of their own pocket. Doesn’t quite fit with the conspiracy narrative that parents lawyers don’t try…)

It is the plaintive case where the mother cried out during one hearing that nobody seemed to be talking about her child at all, that all of the attention was on regulations and LASPO and fripperies, when what was surely important was the child. Quite so.

Anyway, this is the decision about whether the child should live with the parents, or be made subject to a Placement Order and hence go on to be adopted.

It raises some really challenging philosophical questions – and not ones of idle curiousity but ones that go to the heart of how such cases should be run.

 

  1. Were the things that happened to this child a result of parental deficiency, or were they frankly things that could happen to any child and any parent, but they were pathologised because of the parents known issues?
  2.  Were the failings here attributable to the parents, or the support provided?
  3. Is there such a thing in law as reparative care, or is insisting that a child needs higher than good enough care simply a social engineering argument in disguise (topical, given the proposed reforms to adoption)
  4. Is a parent with learning difficulties treated differently (or discriminated against) than a parent with physical disabilities?
  5. Is a plan that involves extensive professional support and carers really harmful to a child, or is it the sort of thing that happens all the time with children whose parents are very rich?

 

I’m going to steal the arguments in relation to each of these from the submissions of Deidre Fottrell QC  and Sarah Morgan QC contained in the judgment, because the day that I can write something that is better than the way Deidre or Sarah puts it is the day that I’ll be closing up the blog to spend quality time with my Pulitzer Prize.

 

 

  • Ms Fottrell, who it must be remembered acts on behalf of the father but also takes instructions from the Official Solicitor, expresses their deep concerns about what, with every justification, she calls the “notable deficit” in the support being given to the family by the local authority in relation to its failure to provide the father with the adult support services to which, as it eventually conceded, the father was entitled. As she submits, this impacted on the family in two ways: first, the father has not had the support he required, and thus continued to struggle with day to day tasks for himself; and, secondly, this meant that the mother was overburdened by being required to support him – which must have impacted on her ability to look after D. This is not, Ms Fottrell says, a small point, for it undermines the local authority’s case that the parents were fully supported when D was living at home. It is not enough for the local authority to assert that it was committed to D remaining at home and that it provided support. The key issues, she says, are (i) whether the local authority offered the right support and (ii) whether it was entitled to expect, as it did, that the support could be reduced and eventually withdrawn. Her answer to each is clear: No.
  • Ms Fottrell identifies what she suggests are two fundamental flaws at the heart of the local authority’s case. First, she says, there is an inherent contradiction given that the nature of the parents’ learning disabilities is, as she puts it, inherent and unchanging, a fact known to everyone when the original order was made: so the need for ongoing support on an indefinite basis underpinned the care plan approved the court in November 2012. It is therefore, she submits, unfortunate and somewhat harsh for the local authority and the guardian now to be saying that the parents have failed to ‘improve’ their parenting. She suggests that this goes to demonstrate either that the support envisaged was not provided to the extent required or that the local authority’s expectations of the parents were either unclear or unrealistic.
  • Secondly, she challenges the assertion that D needs better than good enough parenting: it is, she says, circular and dangerous and runs the risk of a parent with learning difficulties being held to a different and more onerous standard. It would, she suggests, exclude a parent with learning difficulties who requires support from being able to parent their child if the child also has learning difficulties. She points to what Gillen J said in Re G and A and observes, correctly, that the court has to comply with both Article 8 and Article 14 of the Convention. It cannot be right, she says, for the court to sanction a local authority’s intervention in the family life of a parent with disability in a way which would be discriminatory under Article 14. Moreover, as she points out, there is a positive obligation on the State under Article 8 and that, she submits, in a case such as this, imposes a broad obligation to provide such support as will enable the child to remain with his parents.
  • More generally, Ms Fottrell aligns herself with the submissions put forward on behalf of the mother, to which I now turn. Before doing so, I should mention two other important points made by Ms Fottrell. She challenges the assertion that the parents need support round the clock – a proposition, she submits, not made out on the evidence. And she points out that D has never suffered any physical injuries. Insofar as there are said to have been what can be characterised as ‘near misses’, she poses the question: Are these the kind of incidents, familiar to every parent, where the reaction is ‘there but by the grace of God …? Or were they, in truth, disasters waiting to happen where by some miracle nothing did happen?
  • In conclusion, Ms Fottrell submits that, with the right package of extensive support provided by a combination of Mrs P and the professionals, the parents will be able to care for D safely and appropriately, as the court had intended in November 2012

 

 

  • Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz acknowledge that the mother has had her difficulties with MB and the foster carers and they do not shy away from some of the things the mother has said about professionals. But they urge me to remember the context. What after all is a parent likely to think about the social worker who has advocated the removal of her child or about the foster carer who is doing what the parent herself wants to do? And they urge me to accept TG’s appraisal of the mother as someone who can – and, they say, will – work with professionals if they are there to assist, support and advise, rather than to assess and monitor, and who treat her as an adult and a mother rather than, as she perceived it, as if she is “stupid.”
  • Moving to the heart of the case, Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz challenge the assertion that the level of support the parents need carries with it the danger that people other than the parents will in truth be bringing D up and acting as his parents. There are, they suggest, two aspects to this: Is this really the case? And, even if it is, to what extent does it matter? In relation to the second point they caution against the risk of making a value judgment (as opposed to coming to a judgment) if it is, in truth, based upon no more than the circumstances in which the particular parent – these parents – come to need help. They submit that what matters is that the child has a clear and secure knowledge of who his or her parents are. The fact that some parents either need or choose to have assistance with the way in which their children are brought up does not, they say, alter that.
  • Here, as they rightly say, the parents need help. But how, they ask, do these parents, with their particular difficulties, differ from the parent physically disabled by Thalidomide, or the parent who is blind, or a parent with a brain injury as distinct from a learning disability, who may not be able to see or to react quickly to some risk to which their child is exposed. What such parents need, they submit, is that a reasonable adjustment is made for the deficits in their parenting which arise from their own inherent difficulties rather than from neglect or failure or indifference. The fact that such adjustments are made, and that such parents may be receiving a high level of help and support, does not, they say, mean that they are not bringing up their children. Why, they ask rhetorically, should it be any different for these parents with their difficulties?
  • They suggest that the true approach is best illustrated by those parents who choose to have assistance, for example, parents working long hours who employ a live-in nanny not merely to look after the children while their parents are at work but also to help with the daily beginning and end-of-day routines, or parents who send their children away to boarding school (and will therefore not see their children for days or possibly weeks on end), or the parents moving in circles where, even today, there is a domestic staff cooking the meals and where the children may eat separately from their parents. No doubt, they say, in all these cases the parents hope for continuity throughout the child’s childhood, but, as they point out, that is not the real world. Nannies move on, staff change, teachers leave, so the children are exposed to differing professionals providing care for them at differing stages during their childhood.
  • The point, they say, is that if one steps back and considers not the circumstances which bring about this help with or delegation of parental care but the experience of the child in these various examples it does not differ markedly, if at all, from what D’s experience would be under his parents’ proposals – except that he would probably have rather more parental care. They stress that these are not flippant points. They are made to underline the submission that it is easy to criticise, easy to buy into the notion that there is a way in which parents in care proceedings are expected to take sole unassisted responsibility for parenting and that if they do not or cannot then it is not good enough.
  • Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz conclude with two further submissions. They reject the guardian’s approach that the parents will need 24 hour wrap-around support. That is not what the mother is seeking, nor is it what she, or the father or D need. Finally, they suggest that there has been an undue emphasis on risk, particularly in relation to D’s safety. Quite apart from the fact that all the incidents relied upon predated the local authority’s volte face, they point out that risk cannot be eradicated from children’s lives, although of course it can and should be reduced. They urge a sense of proportion: of course, a child can fall and poke himself in the eye with a dinner knife, but so too with a pencil, a crayon or a toy. The parents can learn to manage by modelling, which the mother, they say, will accept and learn from. Moreover, as they point out, risks change through time: road safety with a small child becomes internet safety with an older child; bath-time is hazardous for a very small baby but the risk diminishes over time to nothing for the older child. The parents, they urge, with proper training and support will be able to manage the changing risks. The mother, as they point out, has changed in her view of D’s needs and limitations. Earlier on, she was unwilling to accept that there was anything wrong or that he had any difficulties; in her evidence, she was able to acknowledge that that this was not so, saying that “it’s on both sides of his family, so it’s not that surprising.”
  • With proper support, they submit, D’s parents will be able to care for and look after him adequately. They point out that whoever looks after D will need help and support. They urge me to be rigorous in my Re B-S analysis, carefully evaluating and balancing the benefits to D of returning to his home to be looked after by devoted parents who love him very much and who have done and always will do their very best to care for him, accepting him and loving him as he is, against what they suggest are the unknowns and perils of adoption, particularly for a child with D’s characteristics. My assessment of what the parents propose for D must, they submit, be based upon the full support package proposed, that is, with input from A+bility, the local authority, other professionals and Mr and Mrs P. Adoption, they say, is not a panacea. I should be cautious about accepting the local authority’s rather sanguine view as to the ease with which suitable adoptive parents will be found – a view based, they suggest, on a limited understanding by that part of the local authority of D’s particular needs and complexities. They urge me to feed into my evaluation the risk that D may not be adopted and thus end up remaining in foster care.
  • At the end of the day, as they rightly observe, it is not my task to find a ‘better’ family for D if, in truth, his parents, with proper support and assistance, can provide him with good enough parenting. I must be vigilant not to countenance social engineering.

 

 

Okay, to be fair, I have not also quoted from the counter submissions from the Local Authority and the Guardian, who make a series of very good points also. But the argument is challenging nonetheless.

I felt when I was reading the judgment that the President was very drawn to the spirit of these arguments, and there’s a passage where he makes it explicit that he was striving to reach a conclusion that would have returned D to his parents care.

 

 

  • Ms Fottrell, Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz join in submitting that, with the benefit of the right package of extensive – what they accept will need to be very extensive and intensive – support, with all the right input from A+bility, from the local authority and other professionals and from Mr and Mrs P, the parents will be able to provide D with adequate care, today, tomorrow and well into the future, indeed throughout the remainder of his childhood.
  • In response, the local authority and the guardian make three essential points, with each of which I am, sadly, at the end of the day, driven to agree:

 

i) The first is that the proposed package will simply not work, is simply not sustainable for as long as it would have to be maintained in place to meet D’s needs. Despite the best intentions of the parents, they have, the mother in particular, great difficulty in accepting guidance, advice or support when it does not fit in with their own views. The experience of what happened between November 2013 and March 2014 is, unhappily, an all too likely predictor of what will happen again. I am driven to conclude that the parents – through absolutely no fault of their own – will simply not be able to maintain over the ‘long haul’ the effective working partnership with the support team which is essential if the package is not to collapse.

ii) The second is that, even if the package can somehow be maintained, the gap between what the parents can offer D and what he needs is very large indeed and, sadly, in my judgment, simply too large to be capable of being bridged by even the most extensive support package. I refer, without further citation, to what I have already set out (paragraphs 145-149). I am driven to this conclusion after the most careful consideration of all the evidence, including, of course, the important evidence of Mrs P, which points in the other direction.

iii) The third is that even if a sustainable package could be devised which was in one sense capable of bridging the gap, it would not in fact be promoting D’s best interests. His parenting would, in reality, become parenting by his professional and other carers, rather than by his parents, with all the adverse consequences for his emotional development and future welfare identified by MB, by Ms Randall and by the guardian.

 

  • In relation to this last point I must, of course, address the powerful and perceptive submissions of Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz (paragraphs 116-119). There is much in what they say with which I agree. And in many cases their analysis would indeed point in the direction to which they would have me go. But at the end of the day the outcome will always be case specific, dependent upon the particular, and often, as here, unusual, facts of the particular case. In the present case there are, in essence, two reasons why on this point I am unable to follow Ms Morgan and Ms Sprinz. The first is that this is only one of three quite separate reasons why, as I have said, no sustainable and effective package can be devised – so this particular point is not, in fact, decisive. The second reason flows from their submission (paragraph 116) that what matters is that the child has a clear and secure knowledge of who his parents are. But that, in the light of what MB, Ms Randall and the guardian have all told me, would at best be very questionable here.
  • I confess that I have struggled hard to try and find some proper basis upon which I could conscientiously have come to a different conclusion. But at the end of the day, and for all the reasons I have given, I am driven, however reluctantly and sadly, to the conclusion that D must be adopted. I am satisfied that ‘nothing else will do’; that D’s welfare throughout his life requires that he be adopted; and that his parents’ very understandable refusal to consent to his adoption must be dispensed with.

 

In effect, the President’s decision was that adoption was the right outcome for the child because it was not possible to devise any plan that would work to keep the child at home with the parents and have his needs met, partially because of the scale or what was needed and partly because the parents understandable issues with professionals would cause any such plan to break down.

 

On the reparative care point (for a particular child can the LA say that the parenting required is higher than ‘good enough’ because of the child’s needs) the President says this:-

 

 

  • Finally, the question of whether D needs ‘good enough’ parenting or ‘better than good enough’ parenting. There is, I think, a risk of this becoming mired in semantics. The reality is clear and simple. As Ms Randall put it, D has complex special needs (paragraph 76). The guardian expressed the same view when she said that D’s care needs are over and above those of other children of his age (paragraph 95) and said that, because of his own difficulties, D will need additional support both through childhood and as a young adult (paragraph 100). I agree with those assessments.
  • Ms Randall went on to express the view that in these circumstances D will require ‘better than good enough’ parenting in order to achieve his potential (paragraphs 76, 82). Although this is a conventional way of expressing it, the real point surely is this. What is required is parenting which is ‘good enough’, not for some hypothetical average, typical or ‘normal’ child, whatever that means, but for the particular child and having regard to that child’s needs and requirements. Where, as with D, the child has needs over and above those of other children of his age, then what is ‘good enough’ for him may well require a greater level of input. D, in my judgment, plainly will. That is the point, and that is what is relevant, and in this case highly relevant. The descriptive label is merely that, a convenient form of professional shorthand. I make clear that in coming to this conclusion and in expressing myself in this way I have very much had in mind and taken into account Ms Fottrell’s submissions.

Somewhat side-stepped so as to preserve the principles of “good enough” parenting, but stressing that it must be “good enough” for this particular child with these particular needs.

 

 

  • Standing back, I return to the questions I posed at the outset: Given that these are parents who the local authority, the guardian and the court agreed in November 2012 were able to provide their son D with good enough parenting, given that that conclusion was endorsed by the local authority on 3 February 2014 after careful evaluation and in the light of a very careful core assessment completed as recently as 29 January 2014, What has happened? What has changed? Why is the local authority now proposing, and why am I agreeing to, something so radically different?
  • The answer, in my judgment, is to be found in a telling phrase used by the guardian and a question posed by Ms Fottrell. As long ago as November 2012 the guardian had described the local authority’s plan as “courageous”. The sad reality is that it turned out to be too courageous. Ms Fottrell, as we have seen, posed the question of whether the reason D was removed in March 2014 was because the necessary support had not been provided by the local authority or because the local authority’s expectations of the parents had turned out to be unrealistic. In my judgment it was the latter. Despite the very intensive support provided by the local authority, it gradually became apparent, contrary to everyone’s hopes and expectations, that the parents were not able to manage. Matters came to a head in March 2014 when, in effect, if one wants to put it this way, MB admitted defeat and realised that her, and her colleagues’, hopes and expectations were not going to be, in reality could not be, achieved.
  • This, as I said at the outset, is a desperately, indeed, a wrenchingly, sad case. D’s parents are devoted to him and have always wanted to do, and have done, their very best for him. They would never harm him, and have never done so. They are not in any way to blame. They are not to be criticised. It is not in any sense their fault. They have struggled against great odds to be, as they would want to be, the best possible parents for D. But ultimately it has proved too much for them. Their own difficulties are simply too great. My heart goes out to them.

 

 

The President also imports some new principles / approaches into English law, by borrowing from a decision in an Irish Court.

 

 

  • This leads on to the profoundly important of observations of Gillen J, as he then was, sitting in the Family Division of the High Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, in Re G and A (Care Order: Freeing Order: Parents with a Learning Disability) [2006] NIFam 8, para 5. So far as I am aware, his decision has never been reported, but the transcript is freely available on the BAILII website.
  • Gillen J referred to a number of papers and reports, including “Finding the Right Support”, a research paper from Bristol University’s Norah Fry Research Centre funded and published by the Baring Foundation in 2006. He continued:

 

“A reading of these documents leads me to set out a number of matters which I feel must be taken into account by courts when determining cases such as this involving parents with a learning disability particularly where they parent children who also have a learning disability.”

He then set those matters out in eight numbered paragraphs. Although lengthy, they are so important that they require quotation in full. Accordingly, I set them out in an Annex to this judgment. I respectfully agree with everything said by Gillen J. I commend his powerful words to every family judge, to every local authority and to every family justice professional in this jurisdiction.

 

David Burrows and I will probably ponder for aeons as to whether this is actually binding on anyone, and whether it actually forms part of the decision or is simply part of the President’s stylistic approach to judgments whereby they are part judgment, part speech, part policy initiative and part a Practice Direction without a consultation process. But for non geeks, it is a pretty simple message. Follow this stuff, or else.

 

 

  • Extract from the judgment of Gillen J in Re G and A (Care Order: Freeing Order: Parents with a Learning Disability) [2006] NIFam 8, para 5:

 

“(1) An increasing number of adults with learning difficulties are becoming parents. The Baring Foundation report records that whilst there are no precise figures on the number of parents with learning difficulties in the population, the most recent statistics come from the First National Survey of Adults with Learning Difficulties in England, where one in fifteen of the adults interviewed had children. Whatever the figure it is generally recognised that their number is steadily rising and that they represent a sizable population whose special needs require to be adequately addressed. The Baring Foundation report refers to national policy in England and Scotland committing government to “supporting parents with learning disabilities in order to help them, wherever possible, to ensure their children gain maximum life chance benefits.” Nonetheless the courts must be aware that surveys show that parents with learning disabilities are apparently more likely than other parents to have their children removed them and permanently placed outside the family home. In multidisciplinary jurisdiction such as the Family Division, it is important that the court is aware of such reports at least for the purposes of comment. It is important to appreciate these currents because the Children Order (Northern Ireland) 1995 places an emphasis on supporting the family so that children can remain with them and obligations under disability discrimination legislation make public services accessible to disabled people (including parents with learning difficulties). Moreover the advent of the Human Rights Act 1998 plays an important role in highlighting the need to ensure the rights of such parents under Articles 6 and 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”).

(2) People with a learning disability are individuals first and foremost and each has a right to be treated as an equal citizen. Government policy emphasises the importance of people with a learning disability being supported to be fully engaged playing a role in civic society and their ability to exercise their rights and responsibilities needs to be strengthened. They are valued citizens and must be enabled to use mainstream services and be fully included in the life of the community as far as possible. The courts must reflect this and recognise their need for individual support and the necessity to remove barriers to inclusion that create disadvantage and discrimination. To that extent courts must take all steps possible to ensure that people with a learning disability are able to actively participate in decisions affecting their lives. They must be supported in ways that take account of their individual needs and to help them to be as independent as possible.

(3) It is important that a court approaches these cases with a recognition of the possible barriers to the provision of appropriate support to parents including negative or stereotypical attitudes about parents with learning difficulties possibly on the part of staff in some Trusts or services. An extract from the Baring Foundation report provides a cautionary warning:

“For example, it was felt that some staff in services whose primary focus was not learning difficulties (eg in children and family teams) did not fully understand the impact of having learning difficulties on individual parents’ lives; had fixed ideas about what would happen to the children of parents with learning difficulties and wanted an outcome that did not involve any risks (which might mean them being placed away from their family); expected parents with learning difficulties to be ‘perfect parents’ and had extremely high expectations of them. Different professionals often had different concepts of parenting against which parents were assessed. Parents’ disengagement with services, because they felt that staff had a negative view of them and ‘wanted to take their children away’ was also an issue, as were referrals to support services which were too late to be of optimum use to the family – often because workers lacked awareness of parents’ learning difficulties or because parents had not previously been known to services”.

(4) This court fully accepts that parents with learning difficulties can often be “good enough” parents when provided with the ongoing emotional and practical support they need. The concept of “parenting with support” must underpin the way in which the courts and professionals approach wherever possible parents with learning difficulties. The extended family can be a valuable source of support to parents and their children and the courts must anxiously scrutinize the possibilities of assistance from the extended family. Moreover the court must also view multi-agency working as critical if parents are to be supported effectively. Courts should carefully examine the approach of Trusts to ensure this is being done in appropriate cases. In particular judges must make absolutely certain that parents with learning difficulties are not at risk of having their parental responsibilities terminated on the basis of evidence that would not hold up against normal parents. Their competences must not be judged against stricter criteria or harsher standards than other parents. Courts must be acutely aware of the distinction between direct and indirect discrimination and how this might be relevant to the treatment of parents with learning difficulties in care proceedings. In particular careful consideration must be given to the assessment phase by a Trust and in the application of the threshold test.

(5) Parents must be advised by social workers about their legal rights, where to obtain advice, how to find a solicitor and what help might be available to them once a decision has been taken to pursue a care application. Too narrow a focus must not be placed exclusively on the child’s welfare with an accompanying failure to address parents’ needs arising from their disability which might impact adversely on their parenting capacity. Parents with learning disabilities should be advised of the possibility of using an advocate during their case eg from the Trust itself or from Mencap and clear explanations and easy to understand information about the process and the roles of the different professionals involved must be disclosed to them periodically. Written information should be provided to such parents to enable them to consider these matters at leisure and with their advocate or advisers. Moreover Trusts should give careful consideration to providing child protection training to staff working in services for adults with learning disabilities. Similarly those in children’s services need training about adults with learning disabilities. In other words there is a strong case to be made for new guidelines to be drawn up for such services working together with a joint training programme. I endorse entirely the views of the Guardian ad Litem in this case when she responded to the “Finding the Right Support” paper by stating:

“As far as I am aware there are no ‘family teams’ in the Trusts designated to support parents with a learning disability. In my opinion this would be a positive development. The research also suggests that a learning disability specialist could be designated to work within family and childcare teams and a child protection specialist could be designated to work within learning disability teams. If such professionals were to be placed in the Trusts in Northern Ireland they could be involved in drawing up a protocol for joint working, developing guidelines, developing expertise in research, awareness of resources and stimulating positive practice. They could also assist in developing a province-wide forum that could build links between the Trusts, the voluntary sector and the national and international learning disability community.”

(6) The court must also take steps to ensure there are no barriers to justice within the process itself. Judges and magistrates must recognise that parents with learning disabilities need extra time with solicitors so that everything can be carefully explained to them. Advocates can play a vital role in supporting parents with learning difficulties particularly when they are involved in child protection or judicial processes. In the current case, the court periodically stopped (approximately after each hour), to allow the Mencap representative to explain to the parents what was happening and to ensure that an appropriate attention span was not being exceeded. The process necessarily has to be slowed down to give such parents a better chance to understand and participate. This approach should be echoed throughout the whole system including LAC reviews. All parts of the Family justice system should take care as to the language and vocabulary that is utilised. In this case I was concerned that some of the letters written by the Trust may not have been understood by these parents although it was clear to me that exhortations had been given to the parents to obtain the assistance of their solicitors (which in fact was done). In terms therefore the courts must be careful to ensure that the supposed inability of parents to change might itself be an artefact of professionals ineffectiveness in engaging with the parents in appropriate terms. Courts must not rush to judge, but must gather all the evidence within a reasonable time before making a determination. Steps must be taken to ensure that parents have a meaningful and informed access to reports, time to discuss the reports and an opportunity to put forward their own views. Not only should the hearing involve special measures, including a break in sessions, but it might also include permission that parents need not enter the court until they are required if they so wish. Moreover the judges should be scrupulous to ensure that an opportunity is given to parents with learning disabilities to indicate to the court that something is occurring which is beyond their comprehension and that measures must be taken to deal with that. Steps should also be taken throughout the process to ensure that parents with learning disabilities are not overwhelmed by unnecessarily large numbers of persons being present at meetings or hearings.

(7) Children of parents with learning difficulties often do not enter the child protection system as the result of abuse by their parents. More regularly the prevailing concerns centre on a perceived risk of neglect, both as the result of the parents’ intellectual impairments, and the impact of the social and economic deprivation commonly faced by adults with learning difficulties. It is in this context that a shift must be made from the old assumption that adults with learning difficulties could not parent to a process of questioning why appropriate levels of support are not provided to them so that they can parent successfully and why their children should often be taken into care. At its simplest, this means a court carefully inquiring as to what support is needed to enable parents to show whether or not they can become good enough parents rather than automatically assuming that they are destined to fail. The concept of “parenting with support” must move from the margins to the mainstream in court determinations.

(8) Courts must ensure that careful consideration is given to ensuring that any decision or judgment is fully explained to such parents. In this case I caused a copy of the judgment to be provided to the parties at least one day before I handed it down to facilitate it being explained in detail before the attendance at court where confusion and consternation could be caused by a lengthy judgment being read which the parents could not follow at the time.”

[I’m rather struck by the underlined words in paragraph 4   In particular judges must make absolutely certain that parents with learning difficulties are not at risk of having their parental responsibilities terminated on the basis of evidence that would not hold up against normal parents

Although threshold had already been established in this case when the original Care Orders were made, it does appear that the worst thing that happened to D whilst he lived with his parents before being removed and a plan of adoption approved was that there was an occasion when mother closed a kitchen drawer not knowing that D’s finger was in the way, giving him a swollen and no doubt quite painful finger.  Hmmmm.

The Judge had this to say about that

  • First, the question of D’s physical safety. It is important both to keep this in perspective but at the same time also to understand the real focus of the local authority’s concerns. I start with two obvious but important points. The parents have never done nor, I am satisfied, would they ever dream of doing anything to harm D. And the fact is that, with the sole exception of the occasion when his finger was trapped in the drawer – something that could happen to any child in the care of the most attentive and careful if momentarily distracted parent – D has never suffered any physical harm while in their care. Moreover, the specific incidents to which the local authority understandably draws attention are none of them, viewed in isolation, anything particularly out of the normal; indeed, probably familiar, if we are honest about it, to any parent. On occasions, children do escape. On occasions they find things which may cause them injury if they fall over. On occasions they make more or less perilous journeys up or down potentially dangerous staircases. On occasions parents, in exasperation, throw things.*
  • I should add that I reject any suggestion that the parents have ever been other than caring and diligent in making sure that D receives appropriate medical treatment whenever the need arises. I accept the mother’s explanations as to why, and in my judgment quite reasonably, she took the view that D did not need medical attention after his finger was trapped in the drawer. Whatever she may have said to TG, and the words TG reports are capable of more than one meaning, I reject any suggestion that this was a deliberate attempt by the mother to cover up. She would, I am confident, always have put her child’s safety first. That is simply the kind of mother she is.

[*Expect to see Re D a child No 3 2016 turn up in responses to thresholds for all manner of similar issues over the next few months. This seems to be judicial authority for it being okay to throw things in exasperation and will no doubt be pleaded as such]

He does, however, say that the evidence was that the parents could not properly anticipate risks

 

  • So what is the real focus of the local authority’s concern in relation to safety? Looking to the various views expressed by A+bility (paragraph 52 above), by MB (paragraph 61), by TG (paragraphs 67-70), and by Ms Randall (paragraphs 78-79, 81), all of which are to much the same effect and point in the same direction, and which I have no hesitation in accepting, the problem is a group of difficulties the mother has: in anticipating possible risks (particularly if they are novel); knowing how to react quickly and effectively in the face of potential hazard; not always being able to anticipate or control D’s actions; not being able to transfer past experiences or training into practical precautions next time round (as TG put it, progress ‘in the moment’ tended not to be carried through over time); not being able to bring her theoretical awareness of risk to bear effectively when confronted with a live situation; and not being able to multitask in situations where she might be distracted from her focus on D. TG’s description (paragraph 67) of the contrast between the mother’s fluent explanations and her inability to translate this into practical terms is striking and illuminating, as indeed is the whole of TG’s evidence on the issue of danger.
  • In my judgment, these are very real and very worrying concerns. The cumulative weight of all the professional opinion on the point is compelling in identifying and evidencing just why the professionals are, and in my judgment rightly, so concerned. Not just for the here and now but also for the future, as D, who Ms Randall describes as a child with little sense of danger, becomes more challenging and finds himself exposed to new and different forms of danger.

 

Again, hmmm. In all the time that D lived with the parents (and remember, against a backdrop of the LA REDUCING the practical support to the family), this failure to anticpate risk led to just one injury, a pretty innocuous one.  Have we really here ensured that:-

In particular judges must make absolutely certain that parents with learning difficulties are not at risk of having their parental responsibilities terminated on the basis of evidence that would not hold up against normal parents

And I have to ask myself, rhetorically, whether the Judge who decided Re A, would have countenanced within a threshold that a child’s finger was accidentally caught in a drawer that mother was closing IF THE MOTHER DID NOT HAVE LEARNING DIFFICULTIES and that was being used as evidence that her difficulties made her a poor parent?

 

 

 

 

Judge describes police investigation as “cack-handed”

 

The High Court  (Justice Peter Jackson) has just published a judgment (one that was actually delivered a year ago) which has some significant lessons for practitioners.

Wigan Council v M and Others 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/6.html

 

The opening is as clear and cogent a distillation of the pernicious nature of sexual abuse that I’ve ever seen.

 

  • The perpetrators of sexual abuse are inadequate individuals who control weaker people, often children, for their own gratification. Their behaviour is always an abuse of power and usually a breach of trust. They destroy families and blight childhoods. They create dread in their victims by convincing them that the consequences of speaking out will be worse than the consequences of silence. They create guilt in their victims by persuading them that they have somehow willingly participated in their own abuse. They burden their victims with secrets. They poison normal relationships, trade on feelings of affection, drive a wedge between their victims and others, and make family and friends take sides. They count on the failure or inability of responsible adults, both relatives and professionals, to protect and support the victims. Faced with exposure, they commonly turn on their victims, try to assassinate their characters, and get others to do the same. Most often, their selfishness is so deep-rooted that they ignore other people’s feelings and are only capable of feeling pity for themselves.
  • The effects of sexual abuse on the victim can be lifelong, but because of the way perpetrators operate, most abuse goes undetected. It takes courage to ask for help. Victims are beset by feelings of shame, guilt and fear. They should be able to have confidence that their accounts will be adequately investigated and that they will be appropriately supported. Instead, experience shows that the abuse is often compounded by sceptical or inadequate reactions within the family and beyond. It is not always possible to establish where the truth lies, but where it is possible to investigate, there must be a good reason not to do so. The position of a complainant whose allegation is described as ‘unsubstantiated’ is extraordinarily difficult, but sometimes ‘unsubstantiated’ is no more than a euphemism for ‘uninvestigated’.

 

In this particular case, G was 15 years old and made very serious allegations of sexual abuse against her step-father, Mr C.  Although these were reported to the police and social workers, what actually happened was that G was removed from the family home and Mr C remained there with other children, who we now sadly know he went on to abuse.  Dreadfully, one of the siblings that had been abused, B, had been very outspoken during the investigation into G’s allegations that G was lying.

 

 

  • In this case, a 15-year-old girl (who I will call G) told the police and social services that she had been subject to years of gross sexual and physical abuse by her stepfather, who I will call Mr C. Having done this, she was promptly banished from the family home by her mother and forbidden from having any contact with her four younger siblings. She then found a home with a kindly neighbour who looked after her for a year, largely at her own expense. Although the investigating police officer and the girl’s social worker regarded her allegation as credible, she was treated as a child in need and no child protection procedures were invoked; instead, after five months’ absence, it was Mr C who returned to the family home, while G herself remained outside the family. It might well be asked: what was in it for this young person to confide in the authorities if these were to be the consequences?
  • Two months after Mr C’s return, the second child in the family, a now 15-year-old boy who I will call B, told the police and social services that he too had been the victim of exactly the same kind of sexual and physical abuse (though during the earlier investigation he had denied it). He now corroborated his sister’s account and added that Mr C had also made him engage in extreme sexual activity with her, something she then confirmed. High among the distressing aspects of the matter, B described how the abuse continued after Mr C was allowed back into the home.

 

I won’t go into the details of what happened to the children, because it is too distressing and unpalatable for most readers. The judgment is very clear as to why the children’s allegations were true and why Mr C had been proven to have done these dreadful things, and of the failures of the mother to react properly (though she did accept by the time of the hearing that Mr C had abused the children).

Instead, I’ll focus on some of the issues that the Judge identified as failings in the investigative process.

 

 

After the ABE and medical examination of G  (she having alleged that C had been abusing her physically and sexually in unspeakable ways)

 

 

  • On 4 October, a Child and Family Assessment undertaken by the social worker, Ms W, concluded with the decision that the family would be supported via a Child In Need Plan pending the outcome of the police investigation. As part of the assessment G was spoken to, as were the other children. G said that she felt happy and safe living with Mrs D. B said that there was no truth in G’s allegations. The younger children were also spoken to and at a series of meetings work was done to understand their wishes and feelings and to give them keep-safe work.
  • During this period, B wrote a number of fulsome tributes about and to Mr C: for example “I love you more than the world”. In answer to a question “What is the worst thing about my family?”, he wrote “Nothing. Having [G] near him [Mr C] makes me feel uncomfortable in case she says anything else in relation to rumours/allegations about any of my family.” At the same time, B told the social workers that G was a liar and that she was “sick in the head and needs to see a doctor.”
  • The mother told the social workers that G was a liar. She flatly denied that G had told her that Mr C was sexually abusing her or that she had ever seen him hit any of the children.
  • During the preparation of the local authority’s assessment, a meeting took place on 3 October, attended by the mother and by G and B. G was confronted by her mother and brother calling her a liar, while she insisted that she had told the truth. She was very distressed.
  • On 5 November, the police concluded their investigation and determined that no further action would be taken. They did not refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service. Mr C’s bail conditions were rescinded and he gradually returned to live with the mother and the younger four children in December after the keep-safe work had been completed.
  • On 20 December, the local authority closed the case. It referred G to its lowest level of support: Gateway Services. She was not even considered to be a child in need.

 

It is almost impossible to read this and not conclude that a decision had been taken that G was a liar and had made up the allegations, which awfully we now know not to be the case. She was telling the truth and if she had been believed, her siblings could have escaped further abuse and harm.

 

It was only really when B made serious allegations of the same sort, and importantly that some photographic evidence was found, that things actually moved forward.

Amazingly, it was not until 13 March 2014 — some nine months after G’s initial allegations — that the local authority lawyers were consulted. Even then, it took another eight weeks for proceedings to be started. There were then a large number of case management hearings, largely directed to extracting information from the police. I agree with the conclusion reached by the local authority and the officer in the case that there should have been an early meeting between the local authority lawyers and the police so that the latter’s files could be inspected. As it was, police disclosure was still arriving on the eve of the hearing.

 

 

These conclusions are tragic and also contain some recommendations as to best practice.

 

 

  • (4) Despite clear warning signs, the statutory agencies did not protect these children. Further significant harm thereby came to G by being excluded from the home and to B by remaining there.
  • The following is a non-exclusive list of the practice issues raised by the evidence:

 

(i) The actions of the police in August 2011 and on 1 June 2013 can only be described as cack-handed. By twice being confronted unexpectedly in the presence of the adults, G was effectively dropped in it. Instead of protecting her, these actions made her situation at home even worse and made it even harder for her to speak about what was happening to her.(ii) Against a background of chronic concerns and previous sexual abuse allegations, the social work assessment of the allegations that G made in July 2013 was superficial and inadequate. As a result, the decision to treat these children as children in need, and subsequently to downgrade their status even further, was plainly wrong. There was no risk assessment whatever. There was no analysis of the issues, merely a recital of facts with no conclusions being drawn – see C270. There was no thinking. There was clear evidence in the form of G’s allegations and the family’s striking response that demanded the invocation of child protection procedures. Instead, G’s emotional needs were forgotten while Mr C returned to the home and in the mother’s telling words “everything settled down”. Had a Child Protection Case Conference been called, it would have been an opportunity for an experienced multidisciplinary assessment of this abnormal situation. Proper consideration could have been given to the real needs of this sibling group. G’s anomalous situation in living without contact with her family in an unregulated private fostering arrangement could have been improved. B could have been protected.

(iii) It is disturbing to consider G’s situation at meetings such as the one that took place on 3 October 2013, where she was made to face the hostility of her family. It is no wonder that she was so distressed.

(iv) It is entirely unsatisfactory that no social worker viewed any of the ABE interviews until October 2014. It is a serious imposition on children to record them speaking about such sensitive matters. The least that they can expect is that their social worker will watch and listen to what they have had to say. If crucial evidence of this kind is not absorbed, it is not surprising if misjudgments follow.

(v) The social workers should certainly have asked for legal advice in 2013, well before the case was closed.

(vi) Although Ms H became the children’s social worker back in October 2013, I am in no way critical of the way that she has carried out her responsibilities. This demanding case was the first to be allocated to her as a newly qualified social worker. She was entitled to rely on her manager for supervision and guidance. The local authority has had the opportunity to present evidence showing what that amounted to, but it has not done so. Having heard Ms H give evidence, the first time that she has done so in any case, I was impressed by her grasp of the issues and her willingness to learn from experience. She inherited a case that had already taken the wrong path and she is not personally or professionally responsible for the consequences.

 

 

 

 

 

The ISIS flag is apparently not a red flag

 

 

The President has published his judgment in one of the “are parents taking children to join up with ISIS?” cases

 

This one he has previously given judgment on, and ruled that at an interim stage the children should return home to parents with the parents wearing electronic tags. The mother, and two other adult relatives, were arrested when attempting to board a flight to Turkey with their four children.

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/07/30/syria-children-and-electronic-tagging/

 

This one is the fact finding hearing, as to what the mother’s motivation was.

Re X (Children) (No3) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/2358.html

 

First, let me recount the mother’s position at previous hearings  (underlining mine for emphasis)

 

  1. The mother’s case
  2. An order made by Peter Jackson J on 22 April 2015 recorded the mother’s position as follows:

    “The mother disputes that the threshold criteria is crossed. She says that she was intending to travel to Turkey with the children for the purposes of a legitimate family holiday. She says that although she understands why the Local Authority has intervened, her wish is for the children to be returned to her care as quickly as possible or for them to be placed with a member of their family. Once the children have settled in their current placement, she would also like to have increased contact with them so that this takes place more than twice per week.”

  3. The mother disputed the local authority’s case as set out in the original Scott Schedule. Her position, as encapsulated in her response to the local authority’s allegation in paragraph 69 (paragraph 78 in the final Scott Schedule), was that “I am a practising Muslim. I do not regard myself as a radical fundamentalist and have no links or contacts with ISIS militants.”
  4. The finding of fact hearing was at that stage listed to start before me on 29 June 2015. Shortly before, the mother’s counsel, Mr Karl Rowley QC, circulated a position statement on her behalf. This set out her position in relation to the findings sought by the local authority as being that:

    “she does not seek to oppose the making of a finding that she was intending to attempt to enter Syria and live in territory governed by the Islamic State. That is not to say that she accepts the truth of the allegations but she does not wish to resist the making of findings on the balance of probability. In these circumstances she does not require cross examination of the local authority witnesses and does not wish to give evidence herself.”

  5. That radical shift in her position gave rise to a certain amount of discussion in court when the hearing began on 29 June 2015. It was left that she would prepare and file a statement. The statement was circulated the next day, 30 June 2015. It represented another radical shift in her position. She acknowledged that she had not been fully open with the court and professionals. Her case now, in short, was (judgment, para 13) that:

    “she had travelled to Turkey to meet up again with, and possibly marry, a man” – I shall refer to him as H – “she had met in this country collecting money for Syrian refugees and whom she understood to be a doctor in Turkey. She denied any intention of travelling to Syria and said “I do not agree with or support or favour anything ISIS do … and have no wish to be involved with ISIS in any way.””

  6. That remains her stance.

 

 

The Local Authority therefore had to seek findings  [again, underlining mine for emphasis]

 

  1. The local authority’s case
  2. As I have mentioned, the final version of the Scott Schedule is dated 17 October 2015 and now runs to 80 numbered paragraphs. Much of this sets out the “agreed context”. Paragraphs 13, 16-20, 22, 24-27, 32, 34b, 36-37, 39-44, 46-48, 51-53, 55, 57-76 and 78-80 contained the findings sought by the local authority which were disputed by the mother. In his final submissions, Mr Simon Crabtree on behalf of the local authority made clear that it no longer sought findings in relation to paragraphs 13-18.
  3. The local authority’s case has seven strands, which can be summarised as follows. In support of its overarching case, the local authority relies upon what it asserts were:

    i) The mother’s acquaintanceship with various individuals who, it is alleged, had travelled via Turkey to Syria in 2014 to take up arms with ISIS militants (paragraphs 19-27).

    ii) Lies the mother told the children’s schools on 27 February 2015 about the reasons for their forthcoming absence from school (paragraphs 28-33).

    iii) The fact that when stopped at the airport on 2 March 2015 the mother gave a false address (paragraphs 36-37).

    iv) The fact that the family’s luggage, when searched at the airport, was found to contain a number of suspect items (paragraphs 39-48); as it is put (paragraph 39), “a large number of items[1] not normally associated with any family holiday.”[2] It is asserted (paragraph 48) that “There is a striking similarity between the items contained in the … luggage and a list of items a known ISIS operative asked a British recruit to bring to Syria with him (and in connection with the same the said recruit was found guilty of possessing items of use to terrorists).”

    v) The fact that, when her house was searched, the items found included (paragraphs 76-77) “ISIS flags” and ‘to do’ lists, written by the mother, “which indicated that the writer of the list was moving and not intending to return.”

    vi) The fact that the mother lied to the police when being asked the purpose of their trip (paragraphs 49-55). She described (paragraph 51) “a multi-faceted trip involving a combination of an adventure holiday, culture, sight-seeing and relaxation.”[3]

    vii) The fact that the mother’s most recent account, as I have summarised it in paragraph 10 above, is a lie (paragraphs 56-65).

  4. This last part of the local authority’s case is further elaborated as follows:

    i) It is said that she met no man in the circumstances she described or at all (paragraph 62). She has (paragraph 63) “manifestly failed to provide any tangible evidence as to his existence and cannot even produce a photograph of him, any contact details or even one of the electronic communications which she claims passed between them.” Furthermore (paragraph 64), “In so far as that man is not a point of contact she had in Turkey for another reason, he is a figment of her imagination.”

    ii) As a separate point, it is said (paragraph 59) that, if her account was true, “it would reveal a mother who was unable to place her children’s needs before her own and that she was prepared to sacrifice her children’s stability, all they knew and their relationship with their father so that she could fulfil her own desire for a relationship with a man she hardly knew.” Furthermore (paragraph 60), if it was true “the extent of her intended folly is revealed by the fact that this man has literally disappeared without trace and left the mother unsupported at a time she needed it most.”

    iii) It is alleged (paragraph 65) that “She has in essence, weaved this account around the notes secreted in the children’s underwear to try to explain away the manifest inherent improbabilities in her first version of events at the eleventh hour and in the face of a growing realisation that no Judge would on the totality of the evidence believe that first account.”

  5. The local authority’s case is summarised as follows (paragraphs 66-74):

    “The reality is, the mother, her own mother and her brother had no intentions of remaining in Turkey.

    They intended to travel with the children from Istanbul to the Turkish border with Syria.

    Once they crossed the border into Syria, they intended to join up with ISIS militants and to supply them with items of use to the group’s combative activities.

    In all probability, they also intended to meet up with those … who had already travelled … to Syria via Turkey.

    In essence, the mother’s plan was to take these children to a war zone.

    As such, she knowingly and intended to place the children at risk of significant harm.

    The sole purpose and intention was … to cross the border into Syria and take up arms with ISIS militants and/or live in the Islamic caliphate ISIS claims to have established in the region for the foreseeable future.

    [Neither] she nor [her brother] had any intention of returning to [her house].

    That is why she suddenly found the money to buy the above electronic equipment which with one exception she financed on credit in February 2015 and why [her brother] paid for the trip using a £12,000.00 loan.”

  6. In conclusion, the local authority asserts (paragraphs 78-80) that:

    “In short, the mother is a radical fundamentalist with links and contacts with ISIS militants and those who seek to recruit others to their cause.

    Although she is arguably entitled to have whatever view she chooses, she is not however entitled to place her children at risk of significant harm or even death in furtherance of such a cause.

    In furtherance of her aims and objectives, [she] is and was prepared so to do and to lie with impunity to conceal her real intentions and motives.”

 

Bearing in mind the two underlined passages, you may be surprised to learn that the President ruled that the threshold was not met, and the children are now living with mother under no statutory orders at all.

 

I have to say that mum’s counsel did a blinding job, but it is still a surprising outcome, on my reading.

 

What about the ISIS flag though?

Thirdly, he submits that the local authority has failed to show that the material recovered from the mother’s home was indicative of her holding such views or being sympathetic to ISIS. The flag is one that has been adopted by ISIS, but it contains the shahada and seal of the Prophet Mohammed, both of which, he says, are important symbols which all Muslims share. The local authority, he correctly points out, has failed to adduce any evidence to disprove the proposition that the flag predated the al-Baghdadi Caliphate, and the mother’s case that she received it from a bookshop some 12 years ago as a gift has not been seriously challenged.

 

[See, I’m NOT a Neo-Nazi, I’m just a collector of flags designed by dentists…]

 

Although the President was not satisfied with mother’s account, the burden of proof was on the LA and he was not satisfied that they had made out their allegations

 

  1. The first point to be made is that, on her own admission, she is, even if she cavilled at the appropriateness of the label, a liar. The contrast between her original case, as I have summarised it in paragraph 7 above, and her revised case, set out in paragraph 10 above is obvious. If elements of her first story have been carried forward into the second, the two are nonetheless so fundamentally different that one or other must be essentially untrue. This is not mere suggestio falsi et suppressio veri; it is simply the telling of untruths, in plain terms lying. The notes to the schools were, on any basis, and wherever the ultimate truth in relation to the trip may lie, false to the mother’s knowledge. Mr Rowley characterises them (paragraph 66) as “ill-advised”. I cannot, with respect, agree. They involved the deliberate uttering of falsehoods. I am also satisfied, and find as a fact, that the mother did indeed give a false address when questioned by DS SH. And the allegations she made in the witness-box against the police were, in my judgment, and I so find, utterly groundless. On matters of fact I accept the evidence of each of the police officers. I cannot accept Mr Rowley’s submissions on the point (paragraph 68).
  2. As we have seen, the mother put herself forward at the hearing as now being completely open, honest and frank. Was she? I am not satisfied that she was. I am unable to accept what she is now saying merely because she is saying it. Some of it may be true. About much of it I am very suspicious. Some of it may well be, in some cases probably is, untrue. But the fact that I am not satisfied that the mother was telling the truth, the fact that I am very suspicious, does not mean that I find everything she said to be a lie. And, as I have already explained, the fact, to the extent it is a fact, that the mother has in the past told, and is still telling, lies, does not of itself mean that the local authority has proved its case.
  3. Be all that as it may, the plain fact is that the mother has not, in the past, been frank and honest either with the local authority, the guardian or the court and I am not satisfied that she is being now.

 

 

 

….

 

 

  1. So where, at the end of the day, am I left? There are four key matters, in my judgment, which preponderate when everything is weighed in the balance, as it must be:

    i) The mother is a proven liar. The mother has not, in the past, been frank and honest either with the local authority, the guardian or the court and I not satisfied that she is being now.

    ii) H (if that is his true name) is someone known to the mother and who has some connection with Turkey. The mother has wholly failed to persuade me, however, either that she met H in the circumstances she describes, or that their relationship was as she asserts, or that the role (if any) he was to play in Turkey was as she says. I am unable to accept her as being either a reliable or indeed a truthful witness. The mother, in my judgment, has not proved her case in relation to H.

    iii) The mother is an observant Muslim, but the local authority has been unable to prove either that the materials found at her home have the significance which was suggested or, more generally, that she is a radical or extremist.

    iv) The luggage contained a significant number of items which cry out for explanation in circumstances where the only explanation proffered by the mother is tied to her story about H which, as I have already explained, I am unable to accept.

  2. It is for the local authority to prove its case. The fact that the mother has failed to persuade me of the truth of her case, in particular in relation to H, does not, as I have already explained, absolve the local authority of the requirement that it prove its case. And, for reasons I have explained and which Mr Rowley appropriately relied on, I must be careful to remember the Lucas point when I come to consider the inferences I can properly draw from the fact, to the extent I have found as a fact, that the mother has lied. The fact, to the extent it is a fact, that the mother has in the past told, and is still telling, lies, does not of itself mean that the local authority has proved its case.
  3. There are, as I have noted, many matters on which I am suspicious, but suspicion is not enough, nor is surmise, speculation or assertion. At the end of the day the question is whether in relation to each discrete part of its case, the local authority has established on a balance of probabilities, applying that concept with common sense, the proposition for which it contends.
  4. Standing back from all the detail, and all the arguments, there are, at the end of the day, two factors of particular importance and which, unhappily, point in opposite directions. The mother, for her part, has not proved her case in relation to H, with the consequence that the only explanation she has proffered for the presence of various significant items in her luggage falls away. The local authority, for its part, has not proved either that the materials found at her home have the significance which was suggested or, more generally, that she is a radical or extremist. Weighing these and all the other matters I have referred to in the balance, I am left suspicious of what the mother was really up to but I am unable to conclude that the local authority has proved any part of its case as set out in paragraphs 66-73 and 78-80 of the Scott Schedule.

 

 

It is very difficult to successfully appeal a finding of fact  (the Court of Appeal vacillate from time to time as to whether you even CAN – because technically you appeal an order, not a judgment. In this case, the President did make an order – because he made NO order on the care proceedings or Wardship application, so the LA can appeal that).  The Court of Appeal are very mindful that on a finding of fact hearing the Judge has the advantage of hearing all of the evidence and seeing the demeanour of the witnesses, so are reluctant to interfere.

 

Having said that, I’d appeal the hell out of this one.  The order (which one presumes would have the effect of removing the electronic tags) is stayed until 18th December (oh, today), so we will soon find out whether an appeal has been lodged.

 

 

There’s a lot in the judgment about the contents of the luggage – the President kindly sets out the matters in a footnote.  As indicated above, the President was not satisfied with either the mother’s account (of either a holiday, or that her new boyfirend H had wanted these things) or that the LA had proved that these matters amounted to evidence that mother intended to join up with ISIS

 

Note 1 Including, it is alleged, 9 battery powered or other powered torches, 4 hand-wound torches, 3 solar charger units or power-packs, 4 emergency blankets, 3 new and 2 used rucksacks, 5 mobile phones in excess of the 3 mobile phones chargers carried by the group as a whole, unused computer equipment comprising 6 machines (including 3 identical Samsung devices) and 5 chargers, 3 unused sim cards, 5 Multi-tools devices and power converters etc, what is described as “a large quantity of substantially if not entirely new size ‘large’ and ‘extra-large’ outdoor clothing including coats, waterproof bottoms, breathable t-shirts, gloves and so on”, what is described as “a large amount of medication and panty-liners and tampons”, and “telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and passwords … found on pieces of paper secreted in the children’s underwear in one of the suitcases.”

Note 2 It is further said (paragraph 42) that “By contrast, the luggage did not contain outdoor clothing of a sort which might have been associated with an adventure or camping holiday for (amongst others) 4 children”, (paragraph 43) that “Although there was a large quantity of large and extra-large outdoor clothing there was bar one piece, an absence of such clothing in sizes that would fit any of the children and in particular, X1”, and (paragraph 44) that “Those and most of the other supposedly camping equipment was or appears to be completely new.”