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Parents refusing to participate

 

 

This decision of the Family Division of His Honour Judge Bellamy, sitting as a Deputy High Court case has a lot of unusual features.

Ian, you’re going to love this one.

 

O (A Child : Fact Finding Hearing – Parents Refusing to Participate) [2018] EWFC 48 (29 June 2018)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2018/48.html

 

At risk of spoilers, I’ll give the conclusion of the case, because that sums up why this case has unusual elements

 

 I find that O’s injuries are non-accidental injuries caused by either the mother or the father. In making that finding I acknowledge that had the parents engaged with these proceedings, including giving evidence at this finding of fact hearing, and had they taken advantage of their entitlement to specialist legal representation provided at no cost to themselves, the outcome of this hearing could conceivably have been different. However, the court can only arrive at its conclusions on the basis of the evidence before it. I am satisfied that the decision I have arrived at is the correct decision on the basis of the totality of the evidence before me.

O was less than 6 months old when he was admitted to hospital in Derby. He was found to have suffered bilateral parietal skull fractures with associated swelling of his scalp. The doctors considered this to be a skull fracture caused non-accidentally. Care proceedings were issued and an Interim Care Order made, placing O in foster care.

 

The parents decided not to instruct solicitors, despite being told that they could have solicitors of their choice without paying a penny for them and the difficulties of representing themselves in hearings that would involve complex medical evidence – and of course because they didn’t have lawyers or legal aid, they were not able to seek their own second opinion of the medical evidence.

 

During the course of those hearings the parents have attended, for the most part the mother has remained silent. She has spoken when spoken to. She has been monosyllabic. I formed the view that the decision that both parents should be unrepresented was a decision taken by the father and that it was a decision the mother has felt obliged to accept. Although she may understand that her interests would be better served by being legally represented, the father’s domination of her has meant that she has been unable to act in her own best interests.

 

The parents also, unsuccessfully, issued judicial review proceedings against the Hospital and the Local Authority, naming the Court as an interested party.

 

They also sought an injunction quashing the interim care order, deploying the unusual argument that once the care proceedings went beyond 26 weeks (someone having forgotten to formally extend them), they were over and the interim care order would cease and there could be no final hearing. That was refused and they appealed that refusal.

 

 

 

  1.        Section 32 of the Children Act 1989 requires the court to draw up a timetable ‘with a view to disposing of the application…within 26 weeks’. The section also gives the court the power, in certain circumstances, to extend the 26 weeks. In this case, as a result of an oversight, notwithstanding that the case has exceed the statutory 26 weeks no order of the court was made authorising that extension. The parents contended that as a result of that oversight the proceedings automatically came to an end when the 26 weeks expired and that as a consequence the interim care order also came to an end. It followed, submitted the parents, that since the 26 weeks had ended the local authority had wrongfully and unlawfully continued to place O in local authority foster care. The sought O’s return to their care immediately.

 

  1. I heard the parents’ submissions on 13th March. I concluded that the failure to make an order extending the 26 weeks did not have the effect of bringing the proceedings to an end and that the interim care order therefore remained in force. The parents have not attended any hearing since 13th March.

 

  1. The parents applied to the Court of Appeal for permission to appeal against my decision of 13th March. On 18th May, on consideration of the papers, McFarlane LJ refused the parents’ application on the basis that it was ‘wholly misconceived and is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of Children Act 1989, s 32’. He concluded that,

 

‘It follows that neither the fact that the proceedings have lasted well beyond the 26 week deadline nor the fact that, for a period, no advance extension order had been granted, invalidate the current interim care order or mean that the case can no longer proceed to a final hearing.’

 

 

There was then a curious interlude when O’s social worker, in visiting the family inadvertently left his notebook behind, said notebook including details of other families and having tucked within it a draft statement, heavily annotated, relating to another family. The father returned the notebook, having read it. He was asked to sign an agreement not to distribute the information he had received from reading it and refused to do so.

 

 

 

  1.    Ms Walker [Social work manager] contacted the father. He confirmed that he had read the documents. She sought to persuade him to sign a written undertaking not to breach the confidentiality of the material he had read. Ms Walker says that the father,

 

‘21. …informed us that he was not willing to sign a written undertaking. He confirmed that he had taken copies of the court report and refused to delete the images stating: “I am not condoning this. The information is of public interest. I am a victim of the same situations as that victim. A child is in the system for no reason. There is significant public interest here, it appears to be a pattern.”’

 

 

 

  1. On 21st May the local authority issued proceedings seeking an injunction against the father to restrain him from publishing the material he had wrongly copied. An injunction was granted by Her Honour Judge Coe QC on 29th May

 

The parents played a very limited role in the care proceedings

 

27…..I called on the care case. Although the father was still in the court building at that point, and was well aware that the court was about to hear evidence from Dr Keillor, he left the building. The mother was not present at court.

 

  1. The father did not attend either of the two hearings listed on 18th June. In the civil proceedings I made a final order. In the care proceedings I continued the hearing in the absence of both parents.

 

  1. Not only have the parents failed to attend hearings they have also refused to accept documents served upon them. In a statement dated 14th June 2018 a local authority solicitor sets out the difficulties she has encountered in her attempts to serve documents on the parents. For example, she says that on 5th June she sent letters to both parents enclosing copies of the hearing bundle for use at this finding of fact hearing. The letters were sent by special delivery, guaranteeing delivery the next day and requiring the recipient to sign to acknowledge receipt. The solicitor say that the letter sent to the mother was returned to the local authority with the words ‘return to sender’ written on the package. This is not an isolated occurrence. The father has been equally difficult.

 

  1. The parents have also engaged in public protests relating to the actions taken by the local authority. In a second statement the local authority solicitor records that on 14th May she,

 

‘observed the Respondent Mother standing outside the Council House at the bottom of the steps on Corporation Street holding a placard which read “The Derby City Council and Royal Derby Hospital tortured me and stole my baby for adoption”. She wandered quietly up and down the pavement…Later that day the Respondent Father joined the Respondent Mother.’

 

 

 

  1. The solicitor observed the mother walking up and down outside the Council House again on 23rd May. Following liaison between herself and staff at Derby Royal Hospital she believes that the parents have undertaken similar protests at the entrance to the hospital.

 

  1. The solicitor goes on to say that the parents’ protest was reported on the website of the Derby Telegraph. She exhibits a copy. The article appears under the headline ‘Protesters with placards vow to stay outside Derby City Council’s HQ all week’. The article names the parents but goes on to say that, ‘The Derby Telegraph has decided not to reveal the exact details of the complaint for legal reasons’.

 

  1. On Monday 18th June, effectively the second day of the finding of fact hearing, the father attended at the council offices and returned the hearing bundle for this hearing.

 

  1. The hearing on18th and 19th June was in Derby. The final two days of the hearing took place in Chesterfield. This was a late change of venue. The allocated social worker met with the parents on 20th June. He provided them both with travel warrants to enable them to attend the hearing in Chesterfield. Neither of them attended.

 

 

HOWEVER, within the care proceedings, there was not unanimity between the instructed experts as to whether the account given by the parents for the injury (O falling off a bed onto the floor from about 2 ½ feet whilst father was bending down to get a nappy) was inconsistent with the injuries, or potentially consistent with them if the Court was satisfied that the account was truthful.

 

The authorities are very plain that the Court is allowed to take account of the medical evidence and has to give reasons for disagreeing with it, but is not bound to follow the medical evidence slavishly and can take into account the broader factual matrix including the Court’s assessment of the parents and their evidence. That’s even more important where there is a disagreement between the experts as to the explanation given.

 

Dr Kalepu’s conclusion was unequivocal. In a written report dated 30th May she opines that,

 

‘The changing history from the father and the history of fall from a 2½ feet high bed onto a carpeted floor is not compatible with the swelling identified with an underlying bilateral parietal fractures…

 

The finding on the CT scan with bilateral parietal skull fractures and associated small subdural haemorrhage on the right is not compatible with the history of falling off a bed onto a carpeted floor. As the impact of such a fall from a small height would not be enough to sustain bilateral skull fractures in an immobile infant with normal bone density.

 

Though he has low vitamin D levels, this does not cause bilateral skull fractures in this child, because the bone density is normal. Hence it is consistent with non-accidental injury.’

 

 

 

  1. In a subsequent report dated 14th June 2017, Dr Kalepu remained equally unequivocal. She says,

 

‘I would like to clarify that I have not asserted that the injuries were caused by one event in my medical report. The history given by father of O falling off the bed on to carpeted floor was inconsistent with the bilateral parietal skull fractures. To sustain bilateral skull fractures it would need a significant amount of force. A fall on one side of the head would not cause skull fracture on the opposite side. Although a call would involve more than one impact, the force on the second impact during a fall would not be enough to cause a skull fracture.

 

The skeletal survey did not show any other bone injuries other than the bilateral parietal skull fractures.’

 

 

 

  1. The expert medical evidence does not support the robust and unequivocal conclusions arrived at by Dr Kalepu.

 

 

  1. Dr Stoodley said that in his view a fall from the bed as described is a possible cause for the fractures, ‘albeit unusual to see such injuries (particularly bilateral skull fractures) as a result of such domestic type trauma’. He agreed that it is possible for a single impact event to give rise to bilateral skull fractures. Though unusual, ‘such an outcome is a recognised outcome of a single impact event’. Dr Stoodley is unable to exclude the explanation given by the father as a reasonable, as opposed to a fanciful or merely theoretical, possible explanation.

 

  1. In his oral evidence Dr Stoodley said that the causative event is likely to have occurred during a window beginning 7 to 10 days prior to the date of the CT scan. In other words, the causative event did not necessarily occur on the day of O’s admission to hospital. It could have occurred earlier.

 

  1. Dr Stoodley considers the father’s explanation to be a reasonable explanation though in his opinion for that event to cause bilateral parietal fractures would be very unusual. He conceded that doctors do not know all the answers. He referred to an unpublished study undertaken by the biomechanical laboratory at Cardiff University. The study, undertaken using computer modelling, suggests that impact at certain points on the head can create forces within the skull which lead to bilateral parietal fractures.

 

 

Dr Ward

 

  1. Dr Ward’s report is thorough and detailed. Having reviewed the evidence, including Dr Stoodley’s report, and having referred extensively to relevant research literature, Dr Ward opines that,

 

‘A history of a fall is common in a child presenting with a skull fracture. In this case although there was some initial variation in the history offered (falling off the bed versus being dropped by the father) it was consistently stated that the child fell in the course of changing a nappy. The father stated on one occasion that he dropped the baby but at other times in his statement he said that the child who was on the edge of the bed fell to the floor when he bent down to get a nappy from the floor. The preponderance of literature on childhood falls indicate that short falls rarely result in serious or life-threatening head injuries despite their frequency. Each credible study supports the conclusion that severe head injuries reported to be accidental unless related to a moving vehicle accident or fall from a very significant height are very likely to be the result of abuse particularly if the injuries are ascribed to falls from short heights that occur at home unwitnessed by objective observers. However, fractures may rarely result from short falls onto carpeted floors.’

 

 

 

  1. Dr Ward later goes on to say that,

 

‘The clinical findings in O suggested impact more than one would expect as a result of a simple fall onto a carpeted floor. Nevertheless there are examples of fractures resulting from low level falls and the scenario of bilateral skull fractures has been described as a result of a single impact.’

 

 

 

  1. Research suggests only 1 to 2% of falls from a low height, such as falling off a bed, cause skull fractures. The figure is even lower for such an event causing bilateral parietal skull fractures. For the incident described by the father to have caused these injuries would, therefore, be a highly unusual occurrence. However, as the research indicates, such events do occur. The father’s explanation is, therefore, plausible.

 

  1. As I have noted, Dr Stoodley’s opinion is that the window within which these fractures were sustained is during the period between the date of the CT scan and a date between 7 and 10 days before that scan was undertaken. Dr Ward’s evidence on timing is that,

 

‘It is not possible to accurately date skull fractures on the basis of the radiological appearance of the fractures; skull fractures do not go through the changes associated with callus formation seen in long bone and rib fractures. If one accepts that the soft tissue swelling to the scalp was associated with the fractures this would suggest that the fractures are recent. Soft tissue scalp swelling associated with fractures usually occurs over a period of hours or days after the injury and resolves within around 7-10 days. Therefore in this case it is likely that the fractures occurred no more than around 10 days before presentation. However there is no scientific basis for dating fractures on the basis of scalp swelling and it is not possible to use this as an indicator as to whether the two fractures occurred simultaneously or at different times within the timeframe.’

 

 

 

  1. Dr Ward highlighted a number of positive ‘red flags’ that support the father’s explanation. O had no other injuries. On admission to hospital he appeared to be a healthy, well-cared for baby who was developmentally normal. There were no intra-cranial injuries. There were no retinal haemorrhages. There was no evidence of a shaking injury. There were no rib fractures and no metaphyseal fractures. To Dr Ward’s list it would also be appropriate to add that if the father’s account is true then he sought medical advice promptly and acted immediately on the advice received, taking O to hospital straight away.

 

  1. Dr Ward sets out the results of the various tests carried out when O was in hospital. She notes that at the relevant time O had a biochemical deficiency of vitamin D. She says:

 

‘Biochemical vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency in the absence of radiological features of rickets has not been found to be associated with increased risk of fractures. However biochemical vitamin D deficiency in the presence of radiological changes of rickets is considered to be associated with an increased risk of fracture therefore I would recommend expert paediatric radiological review of O’s skeletal survey.’

 

Vitamin D deficiency does raise a red flag in a case of suspected non accidental injury, and an expert was instructed to look at that.

As I have just noted, O was found to have a Vitamin D deficiency. That raises a question about the possibility of him suffering from an underlying condition leading to easy fracture. Having examined the imaging, Dr Landes says that, the bone density appears radiographically normal and there are no features to suggest an underlying bone fragility disorder. In particular, Dr Landes is clear that there are no radiological features of rickets or of osteogenesis imperfecta.

 

  1. Agreeing with Dr Stoodley, Dr Landes goes on to say that,

 

‘these fractures may have occurred as a result of a fall from the height of a bed. I agree that it is also possible that these fractures may have occurred as a result of one or more than one other event.

 

It is not possible to determine, from the imaging alone, which of these possible scenarios is the more likely.

 

In the absence of a clear and satisfactory account of the mechanism of trauma or a medical explanation for the fracture, the most likely explanation for the presence of bilateral skull fractures in an infant of this age is non accidental injury,

 

My quick and dirty analysis of the medical evidence is that a fall from a bed is an UNLIKELY but POSSIBLE cause for the skull fracture.

 

Of course, the parents not being represented (so that the experts could be challenged and perhaps increase the level of possibility of it being an accidental injury, or consider the clinical features that could support that or diminish the counter proposition of it being inflicted) and not giving evidence (so that the Court could assess their credibility and whether they were consistent and honest) makes the Courts task harder.

 

What we end up with here is the Court making findings that the child on the balance of probabilities suffered non-accidental injury BUT accepting that the outcome might have been different if the parents approach to the care proceedings had been different. That’s very hard to swallow, but I think it is a realistic appraisal. Had these parents been represented by Paul Storey QC or Jo Delahunty QC or John Vater QC or a handful of other top NAI family law experts, I don’t think the findings would have been made.

 

 

 

 

  1.        Before I consider each of those proposed findings, it is necessary to say something about the way the parents have approached these proceedings. At the hearing on 2nd June 2017, at which the court made an interim care order, the parents, were legally represented. Since that hearing (and, as it would appear, as a result of the outcome of that hearing) the parents have represented themselves. That was an unwise decision. Worse was to come. At the end of the hearing on 13th March 2018 the father indicated that the parents did not intend to take any further part in the court proceedings. The justification for that decision is unclear though according to the ‘Grounds of Claim’ prepared in support of the parents’ application for judicial review it would seem probable that their decision is based upon their conviction that these proceedings (including my oversight of the proceedings as the allocated case management judge) have been unfair and that O has been unlawfully removed from their care.

 

  1. Notwithstanding my own efforts and those of O’s social worker, the parents now steadfastly refuse to engage in these proceedings. I echo the sentiment of the social worker, Gideon Zeti, who in his statement dated 30th April 2018 said,

 

‘While I can see such lovely parent to child interaction via contact, it makes me sad and frustrated that I cannot support these parents to engage with me, so that we can work together to ensure O’s needs are met’

 

 

 

  1. The parents’ failure to engage defies all logic. The effect of their failure to engage could prove to be catastrophic for them and for the son whom they clearly love very much indeed. I share Mr Zeti’s sense of sadness.

 

  1. I turn now to the findings sought by the local authority. It is appropriate to deal with the first and second findings together:

 

‘1. O suffered a single impact event or alternative mechanism such as separate impact events on both sides of the head or a crush injury, by an application of force which would suggest that trivial head trauma is unlikely, in the care of the Mother and/or Father.

 

  1. As a result of the assault(s) at 1 above, O suffered serious inflicted injury including:

 

  1. Soft tissue scalp swelling in both parietal regions which is more extensive on the right.

 

  1. Bilateral parietal lucencies consistent with linear fractures in both parietal bones.

 

  1. Very small collection of extra-axial acute blood on the right-side swelling.’

 

 

 

  1. These two paragraphs require the court to answer two questions, First, has O sustained any injuries? Second, if he has sustained injuries, are those injuries accidental or non-accidental in origin? In using the expression ‘non-accidental injury’ I have well in mind the cautionary words of Ryder LJ in Re S (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 25 at §19 concerning the use of that expression, to which I referred earlier.

 

  1. Has O suffered an injury? More particularly, has he sustained bilateral parietal fractures? In light of the medical evidence referred to earlier in this judgment the answer may seem to be obvious. However, it appears to be the parents’ primary position that O has not sustained any skull fractures.

 

  1. Two of the treating clinicians and two of the medical experts have given oral evidence at this hearing. Notwithstanding the absence of the parents, that evidence has been appropriately tested in cross-examination by the solicitor for the child. In my judgment, the medical evidence makes it plain that O has indeed sustained bilateral parietal skull fractures with associated swelling to his scalp and a very small collection of extra-axial acute blood beneath the right-side swelling. I am satisfied on the simple balance of probabilities that that is indeed the case.

 

  1. The parents’ secondary position is that the skull fractures are birth-related. Once again, there is nothing in the medical evidence before me to support a finding that these injuries are birth-related. On the contrary, Dr Stoodley is very clear that they are not birth-related. I am satisfied on the simple balance of probabilities that these injuries are not birth-related.

 

  1. Either O’s injuries have been caused accidentally or they are non-accidental. The parents’ position appears to be that if the court does not accept their primary and secondary positions (i.e. that O has not sustained bilateral skull fractures or if he has then they are birth-related) then the only other explanation is that they were caused when he accidentally fell onto the floor on 27th May 2017. The mother says that she was downstairs when this incident occurred. She did not witness it. The only witness is the father.

 

  1. Were the injuries caused as a result of an accident? There are a number of factors that support the parents’ contention that O’s injuries are the result of the low-level fall described by the father. The positive factors which appear to make the parents’ explanation credible are that,

 

(i)                There is research evidence that between 1% and 2% of falls from a low height cause skull fractures. That evidence also suggests that low-level falls have on occasion caused bilateral skull fractures, though the incidence of bilateral fractures is lower than the figure for single fractures. Dr Stoodley and Dr Ward are both agreed that although the parents’ explanation is an unlikely mechanism for the causation of O’s injuries, their explanation provides a possible and not merely a fanciful explanation.

 

(ii)               A skeletal survey did not disclose any other fractures.

 

(iii)             At the time of O’s admission to hospital he was noted to be well-cared for, well-nourished, putting on weight at an adequate rate (he was on the 25th to 50th centile) and developmentally normal. Save in respect of the head injuries, there was nothing in O’s presentation that gave cause for concern.

 

(iv)             Both in hospital and subsequently during contact, both parents have been observed to be loving, caring and capable of meeting O’s needs. It is clear that O is the apple of his parents’ eyes.

 

(v)               Whatever may have happened on 27th May and whether or not they did, in fact, call 999, it is clear that the parents contacted the hospital for advice, that they did so promptly and that they acted on the advice they were given by taking O to hospital immediately.

 

  1. Against those points, there are other issues which raise concerns about the parents’ explanation and their reliability as witnesses.

 

(i)                 The father’s account of O falling onto the floor is not consistent. When he telephoned the hospital he told Staff Nurse Young that he had dropped O. When he gave a history to Dr Keillor, initially he said that O had fallen off the bed. Given that O was a wholly immobile child, that would appear to be an unlikely explanation. Later in that same interview the father said to Dr Keillor ‘actually I dropped him’. Later, when giving a history to Dr Kalepu, he said that O had fallen from the bed onto the floor.

 

(ii)               The parents say that they called 999 but the East Midlands Ambulance Service has no record of the call. Production of the parents’ mobile phone records may have confirmed their account. Despite being ordered to do so the parents have failed to produce those records.

 

(iii)             The parents were not wholly cooperative at the hospital. They were asked to give their consent to a skeletal survey being undertaken. Initially they refused. They later consented.

 

(iv)             The father was not open with the police when interviewed. During his interview the father repeatedly said, ‘I choose not to answer that question at the moment’.

 

(v)               Notwithstanding their entitlement to non—means and non-merits tested legal aid (i.e. they were entitled to free legal aid) the parents chose to act as litigants in person, a decision that was irrational and counter-productive in equal measure.

 

(vi)             I have earlier expressed concern that the mother’s decision to act as a litigant in person was a decision imposed upon her by the father and not a decision that was freely made.

 

(vii)           In issuing proceedings for judicial review and in taking, copying and threatening to publish confidential information which he had obtained in circumstances which bordered on the dishonest, the father demonstrated that he is not focussed on the needs of his child. This impacts on my assessment of his credibility.

 

(viii)         The expert medical evidence is to the effect that there is a window of time within which these injuries may have occurred and that window began 7 to 10 days before the CT scan was carried out on 27th May. Dr Ward’s evidence is that the swelling to the scalp ‘usually occurs over a period of hours or days after the injury’. The parents have not provided any account of the events of the days leading up to O’s admission to hospital.

 

  1. In addition to all of the factors outlined in the last two paragraphs is the fact that the parents’ have chosen not to give oral evidence at this hearing. Although the burden of proof rests upon the local authority and although the parents do not have to prove (whether on the simple balance of probability or otherwise) that their account of a low-level fall is the causative event, their failure to give evidence means that their credibility simply cannot be tested.

 

  1. As Baker J aid in Re L and M (Children) [2013] EWHC 1569 (Fam), the evidence of the parents and any other carers is of the utmost importance. It is essential that the court forms a clear assessment of their credibility and reliability. In this case the court has been denied that opportunity. What is the consequence of that failure?

 

  1. In Re O (Care Proceedings: Evidence) [2003] EWHC 2011 (Fam). Johnson J was very clear. He said, that ‘As a general rule, and clearly every case will depend on its own particular facts, where a parent declines to answer questions or, as here, give evidence, the court ought usually to draw the inference that the allegations are true.’

 

  1. I have come to the conclusion that I am satisfied on the simple balance of probabilities that O’s injuries are non-accidental injuries. The expression non-accidental injuries covers a spectrum from the negligence to the deliberate infliction of injuries. Although the parents have not given evidence at this hearing, the totality of the evidence before me leads me to the conclusion that I am satisfied that these injuries are the result of an incident that falls at the lower end of that spectrum.

 

  1. I turn next to the third finding sought by the local authority:

 

‘3. The assaults and injuries were inflicted by:

 

  1. The Mother, or

 

  1. The Father, or

 

  1. The Mother and the Father, or

 

  1. The Mother and/or the Father’

 

 

 

  1. The window of time within which these injuries were sustained commences 7 to 10 days before the CT scan. The parents do not live together. The mother is O’s primary carer. For most of the time during that window O was in her sole care. The father only had care of the child on the days when he visited the mother from his home in Liverpool. Much of that care will have been in the presence of the mother, though it is clear that during those short contact periods there were times when O was in the father’s sole care. The father describes such an occasion on 27th May 2017.

 

  1. I have come to the conclusion that it is not possible, on the simple balance of probabilities, to identify the perpetrator. The perpetrator is the mother or the father. The evidence, and not least the parents’ failure to give oral evidence, does not enable me to go further.

 

I think it is very likely that there will be an appeal of this decision, and it will be very interesting to see how the Court of Appeal approach it. To borrow from criminal law, it seems that this has the hallmarks of an ‘unsafe conviction’ yet the reason for that is the parents unwillingness to participate in the process. That poses a massive and difficult question for the Court of Appeal – do they approach it on the basis that the parents made their bed and must lie in it – which runs the risk of unfairness and the incorrect conclusion OR overturn the decision and send it for re-hearing, which opens the door for any parent to have a second bite of the cherry by stymieing the process by non-engagement, which surely the Court of Appeal would be wary of doing.

 

It’s a very tricky one. If I knew these parents, I’d be telling them to get lawyered up as soon as possible.

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Rapidly crumbling – Bruzas v Saxton

 

 

This is an ancillary relief case, but one that (when it is finally decided) could have massive implications for lawyers in all fields.

 

Bruzas v Saxton 2018

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2018/1619.html

 

I’ll try to give a quick and dirty explanation of the key concept – legal professional privilege. (I’m doing this because not all of my beloved readers are lawyers). Basically, what you say to your lawyer is secret, and the lawyer can only share it with other people with your permission. Whilst you can be asked by a Judge to produce documents, you can’t be asked to provide copies of your legal advice (generally, there are some very very unusual exceptions – one particular one is where what has gone on between you and your lawyer is fraudulent or malpractice – what normally gets bundled together as the concept of ‘iniquity’ https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice-points/exception-to-the-privilege-rule/5046185.article ) and you can’t be asked questions about the legal advice that you’ve been given. The only time that the legal advice that you’ve been given comes before the Court is when you agree – that’s called waiving privilege.

 

This is a really important principle of law – it allows the client to be really honest and frank with their lawyer and in turn allows the lawyer to give very honest and robust advice without worrying that the other side will see it and turn it to their advantage.

In this case, a husband and wife were divorcing and arguing about their financial affairs. A paralegal at the law firm instructed by the husband was working on the case (a paralegal means someone doing some form of law work, but is not a qualified solicitor or legal executive – it can mean doing very complex and involved work, or it can be being a photocopying monkey or anything in between. Paralegals, as in all professions, can include incredibly able and talented people, or people who are less so)

The paralegal took it upon themselves to send lots of documents from the lawyer’s file (which were secret) to the Court (who should not have had them).

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.During January 2018, Parker J received through the post a quantity of documents or “material” from a person who was employed during 2017 as a paralegal in the firm of solicitors who had been acting, both in 2013/2014 and still in 2017, on behalf of the husband. I stress that I have not personally seen any of those documents or material at all. I understand, however, that they contain, or include, some account of things allegedly said between the husband, as client, and his solicitor (by whose firm the informant was employed) and junior counsel during the course of 2017. It provisionally appears, as I understand it, that the paralegal was acting in some way as what is colloquially known as a “whistle blower”. The wife herself has said several times today that she does not know that person and has never met her and has never communicated directly with her.

 

Sadly we don’t have any details as to whether there was a covering letter, or post-it note, or anything from the paralegal that explained why he or she was sending the material, but there appears to have been something to show that it was a ‘whistleblowing’ activity, rather than say a mistake (copying those documents to send to the husband who was the client, but wrongly sending them to the Court)

 

Parker J did something curious here, in that the Court being in possession of documents which appeared to be covered by legal professional privilege did not do what I would recommend (recuse yourself from the case, send the documents back to the husband’s firm saying that they had not been read or copied but that Parker J wouldn’t do the case any more) but instead sent them to the wife’s team.

At that point, the cat is out of the bag. The wife has those documents, and has not come by them by any underhand or duplicitious means – she was sent them by the Court. It is hard for her, or those advising her not to give them any thought.

 

(We don’t know what was in the documents, and it would be wrong to speculate – particularly since that might be accusing the husband or his legal firm of sharp practice. I have my own ideas on what they might be, but it would be a guess, not an informed view)

 

 

5.This clearly created a most unusual and difficult situation for Parker J, who decided of her own motion to set up a further hearing, which took place on 22 February 2018, to consider what should happen in relation to these documents and material. Parker J had, however, already supplied copies of all the documents and material to both parties, who then had and still do have them in their possession. At the further hearing, the wife again appeared in person and Mr Philip Marshall QC, who had appeared on behalf of the husband at the hearing in December 2017, again appeared on behalf of the husband. In advance of that hearing, the wife had sent to the solicitors then acting on behalf of the husband (who were not the solicitors who had previously acted on his behalf, and are not the solicitors acting for him now) a formal but unissued application notice in Form N244. That application notice is dated 16 February 2018 and an unissued and unsealed copy of it is indeed already on the court file. Under paragraph 3 of the application notice, in answer to the question, “What order are you asking the court to make and why?” the wife wrote, “To overturn judgment made on 11 December 2017 that dismissed application for setting aside consent order. Grounds are perjury and perverting the course of justice committed by respondent and his legal team.” After the hearing on 11 December 2017, the wife had expressly indicated that she did not have any intention to seek to appeal from the decision and order of Parker J of that date. It does seem that her unissued application in Form N244 and its reference to “perjury and perverting the course of justice” was triggered by the contents of the documents and material that the paralegal had sent to Parker J and Parker J had, in turn, sent to both parties.

 

 

 

 

6.At the hearing on 22 February 2018, there was an application that Parker J should now recuse herself from further involvement in this case, effectively on the grounds that she had already seen the material sent by the paralegal which, in the submission on behalf of the husband, is protected by legal professional privilege. Accordingly, she made an order on 22 February 2018, the gist of which was, and is, that this case should now be allocated to a different judge and that there should be a further hearing (in the event, today’s hearing) at which the new judge would “consider the future conduct of this matter, to include the process by which the court shall determine the admissibility or inadmissibility of the information provided by [the paralegal]”. All that was done on an assurance recited in the order of 22 February 2018 by the wife that she would issue the application to set aside the order of 11 December 2017, of which she had already sent an unissued copy to the husband’s then solicitors under cover of a letter dated 16 February 2018.

 

 

 

 

7.So, we come to today. There is a number of reasons why I feel quite unable in any substantive way to begin to resolve any of these issues of admissibility today. They are, in no particular order, first that, unfortunately, the official transcripts of judgments given by Parker J on each of 11 December 2017 and 22 February 2018 are not yet available, so I do not know at all what her reasons were for dismissing the application to set aside the underlying consent order made in March 2014, nor do I know any reasons or observations made by her during the course of the hearing of 22 February 2018. Second, and I do not intend the least reproach or disrespect by this comment, I do not feel today sufficiently informed as to the relevant legal framework. The law in relation to legal professional privilege is complex and still developing and evolving, and quite intense consideration may require to be given to it. Third, very provisionally, I feel today that sooner or later a judge is likely to have to read these documents and information and material before ruling on their admissibility, unless Mr Marshall is able to persuade the court that the rules in relation to legal professional privilege are so impregnable that, on the facts and in the circumstances of this case, the material simply cannot be seen by the court, even if (as to which I could only speculate) they were to reveal blatant fraud or other malpractice. Fourth, although somewhat technically, the fact is that despite the assurance which she gave to Parker J on 22 February 2018 the wife, in fact, has still not issued her application and so, at least formally, there is simply no application or matter before me at all today. So, for a combination of those reasons, I limit my consideration of this case today to the giving of directions only.

 

 

 

8.Clearly, this matter can and should only proceed further at all if the wife does now formally issue her application in Form N244, which she prepared in the correct form and dated 16 February 2018, but has simply failed, or neglected, or overlooked issuing. She gives me, after due explanation by me, a solemn undertaking and promise to the court that she will, by 4.00 p.m. on Friday, 29 June 2018 (just over a week), formally issue that application with the court and pay any required court fee and thereafter serve it forthwith upon the husband’s current new solicitors. The order will make crystal clear that the whole of the order which follows will only come into effect if and when the wife has so issued that application and served a sealed copy of the issued application upon the husband’s solicitors. There will then be some directions as to obtaining as soon as possible the outstanding transcripts of the judgments of Parker J, and also a full verbatim official transcript of the whole of the hearing of 22 February 2018. That hearing was apparently short, but an issue has already arisen today as to things which the judge is alleged by one side and denied by the other side to have said during the course of it.

 

 

 

 

9.Provided that the wife does issue her formal application as described, then I propose to list this matter before the President of the Family Division himself during the Michaelmas Term 2018 for a ruling as to whether or not the information and material supplied by the paralegal should be admitted into evidence. I will require Mr Marshall QC to file and serve in good time before that hearing a detailed skeleton argument, and bundle of all relevant authorities, dealing with the circumstances, if any, in which legal professional privilege can be breached and his submission as to whether in any circumstances, and if so what, the court should look at the disputed documents in this case.

 

 

 

 

10.It seems to me that the particular facts and circumstances of this case raise a novel and very serious point. The law is already familiar with situations such as the inadvertent or accidental supplying to another party to litigation of some privileged document. There is either a decided case, or, at any rate, a much discussed example, of a solicitor inadvertently enclosing with a letter to the other side some document such as his client’s own proof or an attendance note. The law in relation to such circumstances as between two firms of solicitors is probably now fairly clear. Then there are circumstances in which accidentally a document may actually come into the hands of the litigant himself or herself on the other side, and that situation is already the subject of some consideration and rulings.

 

 

 

 

11.In the present case, however, there does not appear to have been any accident. Rather, an employee (but not, apparently, a qualified solicitor or legal executive) of a firm of solicitors has, with deliberation, disclosed what, as I understand it, is prima facie privileged information. She did not, in fact, disclose it directly to the party on the other side. She disclosed it to the court itself. It was then the judge herself who, also with deliberation, disclosed it actually to the parties. The wife does not now possess this material as a result of an accident or mistake, or any underhand action by herself. She possesses it because the judge deliberately sent it to her. Further, we live in an era in which so-called “whistle blowing” is less frowned upon than it once was and in which, indeed, in many circumstances whistle blowing is now encouraged. But it is not difficult to see that if some employee of a firm of a solicitors can disclose what is otherwise prima facie privileged material, whether to the court or to the other side, the whole edifice of legal professional privilege might rapidly crumble. On the other hand, fraud is fraud, and my current understanding is that legal professional privilege cannot, in the end, withstand the unravelling of fraud or similar malpractices if (I stress if) they have taken place.

 

 

 

 

12.So, on my brief encounter with this case today, it provisionally seems to me that it raises new and grave issues in relation to one of the most cardinal areas of our law, namely legal professional privilege. For that reason, it seems to me, since, in any event, I cannot rule upon these issues today but must adjourn for the reasons which I have already given, that I should now direct that this difficult and interesting case is now considered at the highest possible level, namely that of the President of the Family Division.

 

Whilst, as referred to earlier, a Court can explore whether the legal professional privilege does not protect documents or information where there has been iniquity, if that’s something that can merely be taken into the hands of a whistle-blower, rather than following a judicial determination with argument and if need be evidence, then the issue of legal professional privilege becomes only as strong as the confidence a client has in those employees of the law firm working on the case.

Social worker on the naughty step


 

 

 

This is a decision of a Circuit Judge, so not binding, but illuminating as heck.

M and N (Children : Local authority gathering, preserving and disclosing evidence) [2018] EWFC 40 (1 June 2018)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2018/40.html

 

It revolves around an investigation into a child who was two months old and how they sustained bruising to the neck and a fracture to the clavicle.

The social worker interviewed the parents, took handwritten notes and later produced a typed note. The LA case was that neither of the explanations for the injury offered by a parent (a trip and fall whilst carrying the child, or a bump in a car) accounted for the injuries, and the experts agreed.

 

On later enquiry within the care proceedings it emerged that the handwritten notes were used to produce that typed note two weeks later

 

 

  1. Social worker, (SW1), was charged with investigating the matter on behalf of the local authority. SW1 spoke with the mother on 22nd September when she was given the seatbelt explanation. On 25th September, the Monday, SW1 visited the parents’ home and met with the mother and the maternal grandmother. At this meeting, she was given specific details of the fall explanation. On 26th September, the following day, SW1 visited M at her school. Each of these meetings need further expansion but before doing so, I must comment on the way the meetings were recorded.

 

  1. During her evidence SW1 referred to her formal recording of the meetings which was set out in case notes and notes prepared for the purpose of the local authority section 47 report. Both sets are very similar as there was clearly a lot of copying and pasting from one to the other. Significantly, the formal notes were largely made up on 9th October, some two weeks after the meetings took place. When questioned by Miss Mallon about the potential for these notes being inaccurate because of the delay, the social worker was adamant that they were accurate as she relied on her memory, supported by her handwritten notes taken at the time. The cross-examination was highly relevant as there was a material dispute as to what was said during the meeting on the 25th.

 

The handwritten notes were duly requested and produced. Were they good? My good friends, they were not. Did they show an accurate record mapping clearly onto the typed version? My good friends, they did not.

 

 

  1. The handwritten notes had not previously been disclosed by the local authority and did not form part of the bundle. At the conclusion of SW1’s evidence, the court asked her if the notes existed and if they could be produced. It transpired the notes did exist and they were produced the following day and circulated. The contemporaneous notes comprised seven pages of handwritten material. It is difficult to overstate how unprofessionally prepared these notes were. They were largely undated, they failed accurately to recall who was present, much of the handwriting is illegible, they were in large part disjointed and had to be translated by SW1 who gave further evidence but despite their unsatisfactory condition, the notes were illuminating.

 

  1. Until the notes appeared, no plan of the living room of the family home had been prepared. The notes, however, contained a sketch plan of the room with a faint line which the social worker confirmed denoted the path M was taking when it was alleged that she had tripped falling on to N. The path is clearly towards N’s head and right shoulder. It is entirely consistent with the evidence given by the mother and the grandmother and suggests a graphic explanation for how M could have placed her knee on N’s right shoulder causing bruising to her neck but not to the remainder of her torso.

 

  1. The significance of this is twofold. Firstly, the fact that the mother was denied this crucial contemporaneous recording of what she said four days after the event was to deny her the opportunity of supporting her version of events with crucial evidence and left her to rely on her memory many weeks after the event. Secondly, it deprived the experts of corroborative evidence to explain how the neck could have been bruised but not the body.

 

  1. 16.             The handwritten notes contained a record of SW1’s meeting with M. They are as illegible and disjointed as the other notes but start with the words, “Naughty step”. SW1 was unable to explain why these words appear and could only speculate. The note contains a record of the child saying something and then correcting herself and concludes with the words, “Said never tripped/fell on to N/mat”.

 

  1. 17.             As a result of this meeting, it is claimed there is formal record supporting the local authority’s case that M has denied falling on to N. This has been taken up by the experts who have used this in support of their opinion that the event did not happen. This is not a criticism of the experts as they are entitled to assume M was interviewed in a professional manner. Unfortunately, she was not. During the social worker’s evidence she said that she had been ABE trained. If this is the case, I have grave reservations as to the quality and effectiveness of that training.

 

Ticket for one to the Burns unit please. Oh, that’s a deep burn.

 

 

Two tickets to the gun show

 

 

 

  1. On the third day of the five day hearing the local authority took stock of the evidence and, quite rightly, concluded that there was an unrealistic prospect of establishing threshold and asked the court for permission to withdraw its application. The court ordered the local authority to make its application formally by way of C2, supported by a child-in-need care plan. These have been filed and the children’s guardian has had the opportunity to consider the way forward.

 

 

 

  1. My analysis is as follows. If N had been injured by her seatbelt, she would have woken up and cried. She did not. It is medically implausible that this event caused the injury and, in my judgment, it did not.

 

  1. There is unanimity between the experts who attended court that N could have been injured in the way she was by M’s knee landing on her clavicle. I accept the evidence of the mother and the grandmother that this event occurred precisely as they say it did, that M was walking back to N who was lying on her changing mat, that M tripped, that M’s knee was the first part of her body to make contact with N and it did so directly on to her right clavicle. The break was caused by this mechanism. I am entirely satisfied that this was an unfortunate accident and that neither parent was in any way responsible for its occurrence.

 

  1. The local authority was right to apply for leave to withdraw its application but we now have a dreadful situation where both children have been separated from their mother and in N’s case her father’s unsupervised care for over six months. The parents have separated and it is unknown how much the stress of these proceedings has contributed to that. M, who we are told cannot understand why she has to live with her great grandmother, must now be told at some point and in the most sensitive way possible that the reason was because her parents had been accused of harming her sister when, in fact, the injury was actually caused by M herself. There is a significant amount of work to do to put this family back together again.

 

  1. The local authority has prepared a care plan and I am content that the care plan meets the children’s needs. Having considered the children’s welfare and in doing so having had regard to the welfare checklist, I am satisfied that it is in the best interests of both children for the proceedings to be withdrawn and give leave accordingly.

 

That’s all desperately sad – what a cost this family has paid for the failure of the social worker to properly record her notes, transcribe them accurately and grasp the importance of what was in them.

 

Judicial comment on gathering, preserving and disclosing evidence

 

  1. I cannot leave this case without making comment on the manner in which the local authority has conducted itself. I have three main areas of concern. Firstly, the gathering and recording of evidence by the social worker was, in my view, wholly inappropriate. The local authority was investigating an allegation of serious child abuse where it was thought possible that an 8-week-old baby had been seriously injured by one or other of the parents.

 

  1. 34.             In discharging its duties, the local authority could and should, in my view, have kept proper notes in a professional way which would have served as a coherent, contemporaneous record and this did not happen. To compound the problem, the notes were not made up into formal case notes until several weeks after the event, leaving much room for error caused by the inadequate contemporaneous notes and failing memory. If the local authority thought it appropriate to obtain evidence from a 4-year-old child, and it clearly did, it should have followed the ABE guidelines. Failure to do so renders any evidence obtained from the child to be of no value.

 

  1. Secondly, I have concerns over the failure of the local authority to present a full picture to the experts. If Dr. Elias-Jones had known the explanation given by the parents days after the event in the manner that it was given to the social worker, this would have changed his opinion. This is clear because when he did understand it, his opinion changed but unfortunately this was four and a half months after he filed his report. Dr. De Soysa in his report dated 27th September, which will have been read by the other experts, reports:

 

“SW1 had interviewed M with regard to this incident. SW1 informed me that M had no recollection of this event.”

 

  1. There is reasonable scepticism as to whether a 4-year-old should have been interviewed at all. However, if she had been interviewed appropriately, and by that I mean in accordance with the ABE guidelines, the outcome may have been very different. It may be that she would have given an accurate account of events which would have meant this whole case could have lasted days rather than six months. One can only speculate. In any event, to have given an account of events of what M said was, in my judgment, irresponsible as the experts could not be expected to question the basis upon which this information had been obtained.

 

  1. My third and final area of concern is on the matter as to whether the parents and the children have had the benefit of natural justice in this case and thereby whether their Article 6 rights have been breached by a local authority which is, of course, an instrument of the State. These proceedings are borne out of a serious allegation of child abuse which, if found, would have had a profound effect upon the parents and the way they would be able to care for their children in the future.

 

  1. 38.             I have already given my comment upon my interpretation of the local authority’s duty of care on gathering evidence but I feel obliged to comment on the local authority’s failure to disclose material evidence in advance of being required to do so during the final hearing. It is clear that the content of the social worker’s contemporaneous notes was material in securing the sea‑change in the professional opinion of Dr. Elias-Jones. The parents should not be expected to have to go on a search to obtain such important evidence which supports their case.

 

  1. 39.             The local authority should have made this evidence available to the parents and their advisors at the earliest opportunity. It is again speculation as to what effect this would have had on the length these proceedings have taken but it is, in my judgment, worth speculating. For the future, the comments I have made highlight, in my view, that there may be significant areas for improvement in the training the local authority gives to its social workers, particularly in the areas of gathering, preserving and disclosing evidence in care proceedings

 

If you’re a social worker, now would be a very good time to find your handwritten notes, and have a serious hard look at whether the typed ones capture everything.  If you’re a local authority lawyer, ask your social worker on any NAI/CSA case to let you have their handwritten notes. If you’re a parent solicitor or representing a Guardian, ask for those notes.

 

Making Special Guardianship Order before child has lived with prospective carers

This Court of Appeal decision raises a number of interesting and important issues.

(It doesn’t have anything amusing in it or any 80s references, but you can’t have it all.  If you want, you can momentarily imagine that this is some litigation involving Barry Chuckle and Jimmy Krankie having a dispute as to who gets custody of a tiny hedgehog in a hat and that the key pieces of evidence involve (i) Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits in the witness box (ii) how many ferrets Fred Dineage can pop down his trousers and (iii) the enduring mystery of exactly how much smack Zammo Maguire hoped to obtain by stealing and pawning Roland Browning’s alarm clock, thus making Roland late for an exam.  It  has none of this.  I remain on the lookout for such a case)

 

P-S (Children) [2018] EWCA Civ 1407 (18 June 2018)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/1407.html

 

Essentially, the Court at first instance, was invited by the LA and the Guardian to make Special Guardianship Orders to grandparents for two children – S aged 2 and P aged 5. The parents were seeking the return of the children to their care – it had been a FDAC (Family Drug and Alcohol Court) case and the parents had withdrawn from that process – the judgment does not deal much with the parents case, as it was not the subject of the appeal.

 

[The parents had withdrawn from the Court process, thus at final hearing it was only the Local Authority and the Guardian playing an active part, both of whom supported the making of SGOs]

 

The Court declined to make Special Guardianship Orders, in part relying on a letter circulated by Keehan J to Judges on the Midlands Circuit to the effect that

“a special guardianship order should not be made, absent compelling and cogent reasons, until the child has lived for an appreciable period with the prospective special guardians.”

 

The Court instead made a full Care Order – in effect deciding that the Local Authority, in consultation with the grandparents, should decide the point at which the case should come back before the Court with an application for a Special Guardianship Order. That also, in effect, envisaged the Care Order being a short-term order, rather than the permanent or long-term order that it is commonly viewed as.

 

The Court of Appeal judgment deals with a number of issues :-

 

  1. The need for solid evidence-based research about whether SGOs being made before a trial placement are a beneficial or adverse approach
  2. The status of the guidance given by Keehan J – and the representations made to the effect that it was being followed by the Courts in the Midlands circuit as though it were binding upon them
  3. What role prospective Special Guardians should play in the Court process
  4. What approach the Court should take, where potential suitable carers come forward late in the process.

 

All of this is useful.

 

 

 

  1. There are three strands to the errors that all represented parties before this court identify in the family court’s decision: a) the lack of any adequate reasoning for making care orders rather than interim care orders or special guardianship orders, b) the reliance of the judge on informal guidance that was neither approved guidance nor peer reviewed research capable of being scrutinised or challenged by the parties and c) procedural unfairness. I shall take each in turn. The court is mindful of the fact that each of the represented parties before it (except S’s father) have taken the same position in respect of each issue and accordingly the court has tested with the interveners each of the propositions in respect of which they would otherwise have reached a consensus.

 

 

 

  1. The propositions about which there is a large measure of agreement are as follows:

 

 

 

 

  1. The judge was wrong to make care orders: no party who was present supported the making of the same and on the merits and in particular having regard to the un-contradicted special guardianship assessments, the care orders were disproportionate;

 

  1. b. The judge’s characterisation of the care orders that were made as ‘short term care orders’ was wrong in principle given that there is no statutory mechanism for the making of time limited care orders or orders that will be discharged on the happening of an event, including the expiration of time;

 

  1. The judge was wrong to rely upon the extra-judicial guidance of Keehan J to the effect that children should live with proposed special guardians for a period of time before a court entertains an application for an SGO;

 

  1. The judge was wrong not to make provision for effective access to justice for the grandparents by their joinder, the disclosure of documents to them, time for advice to be taken by them, the facility for them to take a proper part in the proceedings, an adjournment or otherwise.

 

  1. It is helpful to trace the judge’s reasoning by setting out how he came to his conclusion in his judgment. The following extracts are sufficient:

 

 

 

 

 

“1….It is not a case in which I must consider rival realistic options in terms of the children’s future placements. Instead, the main question for me to resolve is the appropriate legal order which should govern a placement with the children’s respective paternal grandparents……

 

 

7.…the local authority and the Guardian contend that the children’s placements should take place under special guardianship orders………During the trial it has largely been left to me to raise concerns as to whether special guardianship orders in favour of the two sets of grandparents would be premature…….

 

 

  1. In this case the children might be placed with the paternal grandparents under either a care order, a special guardianship order, or a child arrangements order. These are very different orders. A care order creates parental responsibility in the local authority which, under section 33(4) of the Act may be exercised by the local authority if they are “satisfied that it is necessary to do so in order to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare”…….

 

 

  1. Section 14A provides for those who may make an application for a special guardianship order…….the grandparents come within the definition of those who may apply for a special guardianship order.

 

 

  1. There is also a power for a court to make a special guardianship order of the court’s own motion. That power is found at section 14A(6)(b).

 

 

  1. ……It suffices to say that during my time as designated family judge here at the Central Family Court I must have made upwards of 30 special guardianship orders. I have, however, yet to encounter an application for such an order. On every occasion I have been invited by the local authority, whether opposed by another party or unopposed, to make the order of my own motion. That is not just the default position, but it appears to be the universal practice amongst authorities who use this court centre. This is the largest family court centre in England…….My purely personal impression is that the practice has changed in recent times.

 

 

  1. Whilst I do not suggest that these children should be the subject of care orders for their minority, the real balance in the case is in my judgment between special guardianship orders now and care orders (although not interim orders). The care plan under such care orders would be that if all goes well, then applications for special guardianship orders should follow in due course. By the expression ‘in due course’ I mean ‘when the new placements are regarded as settled and working well for the children’. In this case that might perhaps be in about a year from now…….

 

 

  1. ……both sets of grandparents have been assessed in accordance with the Statute and the accompanying Regulations. The assessments are positive……

 

 

  1. My first concern is, however, that neither child is currently living with the proposed special guardians. During the course of argument, I mentioned that, last year, a letter had been written to interested parties by Keehan J, the Family Division Liaison Judge for the Midlands Circuit. It discussed the use of special guardianship orders. The view promulgated by Keehan J, as a result of a meeting with the chairs of the Circuit’s Local Family Justice Boards, was that “a special guardianship order should not be made, absent compelling and cogent reasons, until the child has lived for an appreciable period with the prospective special guardians.” Such guidance is not, of course, binding upon me but in passing I observe, with some deference, that it appears to amount to sound common sense……

 

 

  1. All this leads me to believe that someone has to be in charge of a process which oversees not just the move of the children to a new home, and their settling in, but also the implementation and progression of a closely controlled contact regime in circumstances where it is unclear what the parents’ reaction will be to the children’s move and equally unclear as to how they will handle time with the children in the very different circumstances which would apply……

 

 

  1. 30. The next matter which concerns me is the position of the grandparents – within these proceedings as well as towards the children. As I listened to the case being developed, I did so in the complete absence of the grandparents – of the proposed special guardians. They were not parties. They were not represented. They were not present. They were not intended to be witnesses. Had an application been made – properly sponsored by the local authority which after all is the prime mover in this change to the children’s lives – then the grandparents would have been parties, represented, present and witnesses……

 

 

31 ….I have had the conduct of this case since the IRH on 3 February 2017. I could then have (i) made the grandparents parties (although that would not necessarily have secured representation for them); (ii) asked them to file a statement; (iii) invited them to give evidence; (iv) encouraged a special guardianship application at that stage. I did not take any of these steps, nor was I invited to do so……In truth, however, with the exception of my concerns surrounding their lack of participation in the process, the grounds on which I propose to reject the local authority case for special guardianship orders would have remained whatever step had been taken at the IRH. I know a great deal about the grandparents. I am not making special guardianship orders, but it is not because I lack information about the proposed special guardians.

 

 

  1. I invited the grandparents into court before they spoke to the professionals (all of whom were of course advocating special guardianship) so that at least they could hear the guardian, the representatives and myself debating the issues as the guardian gave evidence. They spoke with professionals afterwards. The result of this exercise was that they confirmed their wish to be special guardians immediately and for the children not to be subject to care orders…….I remain concerned, however, as to the process here. I am not convinced that the grandparents have been sufficiently involved. It is stating the obvious to observe that the effect of making an application to a court is to involve the applicants closely in the process.

 

 

  1. A short-term care order meets many of the concerns expressed in the previous paragraphs…..It is common ground that the transfer of the children to the grandparents, which is happening as I write this judgment, will not be delayed for want of special guardianship orders, or by any further assessment process.

 

 

  1. ……There would remain untested placements.

 

 

  1. ……the Guardian…….emphasised that “there was enough of a relationship that it is not an impediment to a special guardianship order…….”

 

 

The Court of Appeal considered this carefully

 

 

 

16.It is evident that the judge recognised that the only realistic placement options that he had were with the paternal grandparents. His concern was the viability of those placements: not because they were unassessed but because they were untested in the specific context of the possible interference with them by the children’s mother and the father of S. It was in that context that on the merits the judge wanted to be assured that the control and parental responsibility which vests in special guardians would be sufficient to manage the relationship with the parents. The alternative was control and parental responsibility being vested in the local authority through care orders. The problem to be solved was whether the relationships and capabilities of the grandparents were strong enough or needed to be supported and tested before SGOs were made.

 

 

 

  1. The solution to the problem was in the choice of order: SGO, care order or interim care order and an adjournment. The route to the solution lay in an evaluation of the evidence including oral evidence from professional witnesses, the parents and the proposed carers i.e. the paternal grandparents. It is clear from the judgment and from a transcript of the judge’s discussions with the advocates during the hearing that the judge had the problem and the solutions in mind. What was missing was a route to the preferred solution. Having identified the problem and the range of solutions the judge did not go on to evaluate that evidence. That necessarily meant that the propositions advanced in the discussion and the conclusions reached in the judgment take the form of assumptions that were not reasoned and which are now challenged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. As I remarked at [16] and [17] it was the absence of any testing of the assumptions raised in discussion which created the problem with which this court now has to grapple. The judge was concerned about the relationship between the grandparents and each of the children in the context of continuing discord with the mother and the father of S. It is also right to note that it was not until the commencement of the appeal before this court that the special guardianship support plans were agreed between the local authority and the grandparents. The judge identified what were potentially adverse factors to balance against the positive factors in the special guardianship assessments which might lead to the conclusion that a trial placement of the children was required before vesting parental responsibility and control in the grandparents. That deserved more than a cursory analysis not least because the local authority and the children’s guardian had come to a clear and agreed contrary opinion on the basis of rigorous assessment material that apparently demonstrated that the positives outweighed the negatives.

 

 

 

  1. In order to test the assumptions the judge had described in his discussion with the advocates, he could have heard evidence about them and from that drawn conclusions. The judge records in his judgment that he heard some oral evidence but it is plain from his judgment that such evidence as there was either did not touch on the issues that he was raising or was unhelpful. That may be unsurprising given that the local authority and the children’s guardian disagreed with the judge and were agreed among themselves and also that no advocate was pursuing the issues the judge wanted to pursue. In that circumstance, as inquisitorial tribunals know, there must be an enhanced caution in a judge not to ‘simply’ rely on his or her own pre-conceptions or opinions and to ensure that as provisional conclusions are formed in judgment they are adequately tested so that they are soundly based on evidential conclusions.

 

 

 

  1. It would also have been legitimate, if properly reasoned, for the judge to conclude that he needed more evidence with the consequence that the time for the proceedings might need to have been extended. In order to come to either conclusion the judge needed to identify the risk that he sought to protect the children against and reason the options that were open to him on the evidence. He ought to have tested his own assumptions and the opinions of the professional witnesses in oral evidence and by hearing evidence from the paternal grandparents. He would have been assisted by evidence from the mother and the father of S but, as has sadly been the case more than once in these proceedings, they had absented themselves and the judge was left with a history from which only inferences could be drawn. Had the judge reasoned his concerns on the evidence he would have had a proper basis for conducting an evaluation of the benefits and detriments of each order that was available to him.

 

 

 

  1. In that context, it is not surprising that the judge’s evaluation of the merits of each option and the available orders was incomplete. The judge agreed with the parties that a child arrangements order was not in the interests of either child and he was right to do so on the merits. No-one pursues that option before this court. That left SGOs, full care orders and interim care orders with an adjournment.

 

 

 

  1. I agree with the paternal grandparents of S that if and in so far as the judge needed more time to ensure that the relationship of the grandparents with the child and the parents was such that it was in the interests of each child to make an SGO, that could, if reasoned, have been an appropriate basis upon which to adjourn the proceedings

 

 

 

Is, Was and Ever Will Be

 

 

This is a Court of Appeal decision in relation to significant harm in care proceedings, where the harm was said to be emotional harm. And this is always a hot-button topic.

 

Re S & H-S Children 2018

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/1282.html

 

It also deals with the grammatical weirdness that is in the Children Act at section 31, which we all tend to forget to an extent. The Act never talks about whether the child  ‘has suffered’ significant harm, although that’s the language that we all use.  Instead it says “Is suffering” and the law has subsequently developed to say that you are looking at the past, to when protective measures were taken as the relevant date.   (That was a solution derived because care proceedings were being issued where a child had suffered significant harm and then gone into foster care or been placed with a relative – so on the day of issue, it would be inaccurate to say that the child ‘is suffering’ significant harm. So we routinely use the present tense of the Act to talk about the past tense of the relevant date)

 

In these proceedings, they were initiated on the basis of allegations about the children being physically harmed by father, and the LA accepted freely that at the time the proceedings started, they had no intention of issuing proceedings in relation to mother’s care.  The allegations about father fell away – the Court found that he had physically chastised them, but left no marks, and that they had not suffered significant harm as a result of his chastisement and it was not over-chastisement.

However, within the proceedings, the assessments that took place highlighted emotional harm, and in particular the children’s poor attachment to their mother.  The Court found that the children had suffered emotional harm.

The appeal was brought on the following points

  1. The mother’s grounds for appeal represent a root and branch challenge to the judge’s conclusion with respect to the threshold criteria relating to the child L. In summary, the following points are made:
    1. a) The proceedings were commenced in response to allegations of physical harm to the older two children perpetrated by their father. Those allegations were, in the event, not found proved in the terms of the threshold. The stress of the proceedings, however, triggered a marked deterioration in the mother’s mental well-being to the extent that, by the end of the proceedings, she conceded that she could not at that time provide a home for any of the children. The judge is criticised for failing to distinguish between the mother’s presentation and her parenting prior to the relevant threshold date of 9th March 2015, and the compromised state that she descended into thereafter during the proceedings.

b) Evidence from social workers, community support workers and health visitors prior to 9 March, insofar as it mentioned the mother and L, was positive and gave no cause for concern.

c) It was conceded by the local authority that no social worker was contemplating issuing care proceedings with respect to the mother’s care of the children as at 9 March 2017.

d) The judge wrongly equated a perceived lack of attachment between the mother and L with the establishment of “significant harm”.

e) A failure to follow the guidance given by the Supreme Court in Re B to the effect that it is necessary for a judge to identify a precisely as possible the nature of the harm that L was suffering or likely to suffer as at 9 March 2017.

 

So you can see that timing is important. At the time proceedings were issued, one could not now say that the children ‘is suffering significant harm’ (I know, the tenses make me feel queasy too. I wish the Act just said ‘has suffered’ but it doesn’t.)  Any harm actually occurred within the proceedings. So the first limb isn’t met, and the LA would have to rely on the second limb, that there’s a likelihood of harm in the future.

 

The other bit I’m interested in is

d) The judge wrongly equated a perceived lack of attachment between the mother and L with the establishment of “significant harm”.

 

We hear a lot about attachment in care proceedings, and an awful lot of what we hear is misusing terminology and confusing quality of relationship or emotional closeness with attachment, which is not something you can assess by reading some contact notes or watching mum play with a toddler.  We also hear a lot about  attachment problems without ever giving the context of how prevalent poor attachment is in the general population. Trust me, I’m not saying that flawed attachment has no impact on a child’s childhood and later life (seriously, trust me, I’m well aware of how many of my own problems are due to exactly this issue), but one needs to be careful if pathologising something which is not that unusual.  Remember, the wording of the Act says that the harm has to be attributable to the parent not providing care which it would be reasonable for a parent to provide – if a third of parents in the general population have difficult attachment styles, whilst that may be harming the child, is the parent culpable and behaving unreasonably?

 

The Court of Appeal said this :-

 

  1. Before this court Mr Taylor has advanced the mother’s case with force and clarity both in his skeleton argument and at the oral hearing. He seeks to establish five basic submissions:
      1. i) The lack of clear and bright reasoning within the judgment falls so far short of what is required so as to amount to an unfair process.

ii) The judgment confuses evidence as to the state of affairs prior to 9 March with evidence of what consequently occurred as a result of the mother’s mental collapse during the proceedings.

iii) The necessary process of evaluation of the threshold criteria, as required by Re B, has not been undertaken.

iv) The findings made by the judge as to the mother’s character are insufficient of themselves to support a finding on the threshold criteria.

v) Various findings made by the judge with respect to other aspects of the case are insufficient to support a finding of threshold with respect to L.

  1. The appeal is opposed by the local authority and the children’s guardian. L’s father takes a neutral stance.
  2. Looking at the mother’s appeal in more detail, it is, unfortunately, correct that both the judgment and the court order lack clarity with respect to the judge’s findings as to threshold relating to L. The following points are, in my view, established in the appellant’s favour:
    1. a) The judgment makes no reference to the judge’s previous findings as to the mother’s psychological well being set out in her judgments of 11 November 2015 and 4 July 2016.

b) The judge’s finding (paragraph 106) that “the attachment difficulties seen in the children…are evidence of emotional harm” does not expressly amount to a finding of “significant” harm as required by s 31.

c) Paragraph 107, which is lengthy, includes reference to material arising both prior to 9 March and, thereafter, during the proceedings. Again, the finding in that paragraph relates to “emotional harm” and not “significant harm”.

d) Although the phrase “significant harm” appears in paragraph 109, the judge there refers to “the other factor relevant to whether the children have suffered significant harm as a result of the mother’s presentation” and describes the emotional impact on the children of the mother raising the allegations of physical chastisement which, in turn, led to the institution of proceedings. Paragraph 109 does not make a finding that the children did suffer “significant harm” in this respect. The finding is that the mother’s past behaviour “cause(s) me to think she will continue to have anxieties about the care of her children and therefore potentially undermine any placement of the children away from her care”.

e) Paragraph 110 does include a finding that the mother’s emotional stability and her presentation are such that “the children have suffered from significant emotional harm”. The finding is not, in that paragraph, tied to the period prior to 9 March and there is no finding with respect to likely future significant harm.

f) As Miss Gillian Irving QC and Mr Zimran Samuel for the local authority before this court who did not appear below, reluctantly concede, the judge’s statement of “threshold findings” posted at the end of the judgment cannot, as a matter of law, be said to satisfy the requirements of s 31. The paragraph is confined to a summary of the judge’s findings as to the mother’s mental well being both now and in the future. The paragraph does not contain any explanation for the judge’s finding that as a result of the mother’s condition the children have suffered significant harm.

g) The court order, which simply records the making of care orders, fails to include any recital as to the court’s findings with respect to the threshold criteria.

The Court of Appeal were critical of the Judge’s failings in the judgment, particularly the conflation of emotional harm and significant harm, and linking the comments on harm to the wording of the Act.

However

  1. As the extracts that I have set out from Dr Hall’s written and oral evidence demonstrate, the attachment that these children, including L, had with their mother was compromised to a significant degree so that it was on the borderline of being characterised as disordered. Dr Hall’s opinion was that without secure attachment the children would suffer significant detriment, not only to their emotional and psychological functioning, but to the very development of their brain during infancy.
  2. The attachment, or lack of it, formed between L and her mother must relate to the period when L was in her mother’s care prior to 9 March 2017. It arose from core intrinsic elements in the mother’s psychological makeup, rather than arising from the recent collapse in the mother’s mental health. Dr Hall’s description of the mother being unable to control her emotional reaction to relationships and events with unpredictable and regular oscillation between the extremes of hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal, accords entirely, as she herself said it did, with the mother’s presentation as recorded by the previous expert in 2014.
  3. It is clear that the evidence upon which the judge relied, and her findings, relate to the mother’s long-standing condition and its impact on the children, rather than any deterioration that occurred during the proceedings.
  4. This material amply supports a finding that L was suffering significant emotional harm as at 9 March 2017 and would be likely to suffer significant emotional harm in the future as a result of the care provided by her mother were she to return to the mother’s home. Although, for the reasons that I have given, the judge’s judgment lacks precision and clarity, there is in my view, sufficient in paragraphs 106 to 110 of the judgment to identify the threshold findings made by the judge in this regard.

 

 

  1. In the circumstances, whilst accepting, as I do, the validity of the criticisms that Mr Taylor makes as to the lack of clarity and focus in the judge’s analysis, Dr Hall’s evidence and the judge’s previous findings as to the mother’s behaviour provided a very solid basis for finding the threshold established and it is plain that the judge adopted that analysis, which was in part based upon her own findings made two years earlier, in concluding that the threshold was crossed with respect to L in this case.
  2. For the reasons I have given, I would, therefore, dismiss this appeal and uphold the judge’s finding that the threshold criteria in CA 1989 s 31 was established as at 9 March 2017 with respect to L as a result of the care given by her mother on the basis that, at that date, L was suffering significant emotional harm and was likely to suffer significant emotional harm.

Note that even though the Court of Appeal are telling the Judge off for not using ‘is suffering’ as the test, they themselves slip readily into the language ‘was suffering’.  It is almost impossible not to do it.

 

(I was somewhat surprised that this appeal didn’t succeed – on my reading there were enough failings in the judgment to overturn it, but the Court of Appeal felt that there was sufficient cogency to the judgment in full that they could apply a little bit of Polyfilla to the cracks, rather than declaring that it was so flawed it had to be reheard. I can see that they considered that it was slightly loose use of language rather than a failure to identify whether the children met the s31 test)

 

The Court of Appeal gave a coda of lessons to be learned (whilst not noting that they’d not followed their own lessons in the very same judgment, cough)

 

Lessons for the Future?

  1. Before leaving this case, and with Lady Hale’s more detailed judgment in Re B in mind, I hope it is helpful to make the following observations as to how the difficulties that have led to this appeal could have been avoided in practice.
  2. In the course of a necessarily long judgment covering a range of issues and a substantial body of evidence, where the threshold criteria are in issue, it is good practice to distil the findings that may have been made in previous paragraphs into one or two short and carefully structured paragraphs which spell out the court’s finding on threshold identifying whether the finding is that the child ‘is suffering’ and/or ‘is likely to suffer’ significant harm, specifying the category of harm and the basic finding(s) as to causation.
  3. When making a finding of harm, it is important to identify whether the finding is of ‘significant harm’ or simply ‘harm’.
  4. A finding that the child ‘has suffered significant harm’ is not a relevant finding for s 31, which looks to the ‘relevant date’ and the need to determine whether the child ‘is suffering’ or ‘is likely to suffer’ significant harm.
  5. Where findings have been made in previous proceedings, either before the same judge or a different tribunal, a judgment in subsequent proceedings should make reference to any relevant earlier findings and identify which, if any, are specifically relied upon in support of a finding that the threshold criteria are satisfied in the later proceedings as at the ‘relevant date’.
  6. At the conclusion of the hearing, after judgment has been given, there is a duty on counsel for the local authority and for the child, together with the judge, to ensure that any findings as to the threshold criteria are sufficiently clear.
  7. The court order that records the making of a care order should include within it, or have annexed to it, a clear statement of the basis upon which the s 31 threshold criteria have been established. In the present case, during the oral appeal hearing, counsel for the guardian explained that, following the judgment, she had submitted a detailed draft order to the court by email for the judge’s approval. We were shown the draft which, whilst in need of fine tuning, does provide a template account of the court’s threshold findings. It is most unfortunate that counsel’s email, which may not have been seen by the judge, did not result in further consideration of the form of the order and statement of threshold findings. Had it done so, the need for the present appeal may not have arisen.

 

 

Application to not disclose a CAFCASS report

 

This is a bit of a weird set of circumstances, although the nature of the facts behind it are not that uncommon.

Basically, in private law proceedings, a CAFCASS officer was about to share their report.  A final hearing was listed for 3 weeks time, so everyone understandably wants to know what the CAFCASS report is going to say.

However, before the CAFCASS officer finished the report, they became aware via the police that there was a child protection investigation taking place about the father, the investigation being done by both English police  in Dorset and New Zealand police – that’s obviously quite a logistical challenge, because of both the time zones and the accents.  The police weren’t ready to as the Judge described ‘go over the parapet and confront the father and interview him’ and didn’t want him tipped off as to the nature of the allegations before doing so.

Obviously the CAFCASS officer can’t simply ignore that they’re now aware of an allegation that father has committed sexual offences against a child and that there’s a police investigation, but doesn’t want to jeopardise that investigation by tipping father off.

 

So, an application was made to Court for the report not to be shared, yet.

 

I don’t actually know what CAFCASS are supposed to say when they are chased up by the parents solicitors, since I don’t think they can actually say ‘there’s a court order that says we don’t have to share it yet’ because the obvious next question will be ‘why?’

 

(I did immediately wonder why the parents wouldn’t twig that ‘hey, I live in Dorset and father lives in New Zealand, and we’ve got a private law hearing at the end of May, is this about us?’, but the judgment was published AFTER the CAFCASS report was ordered to be disclosed)

This particular set of circs is unusual, but the whole ‘police know something but they don’t want it shared yet’ is not that unusual.

 

So, here’s a High Court authority if you want it.

 

G v G and Another 2018

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2018/1100.html

 

And obviously you should buy my book, which is out now, and being reviewed (over charitably as ‘more enjoyable than Harry Potter’  and ‘From Dusk till Dawn meets Tracy Beaker’ – fair, I think)

 

 

BUT if you want a chance at winning a copy, come up with a good Suesspicious Minds type headline for this piece. I sat down assuming something with Kiwi or Dorset would come to me readily, but it didn’t happen.  A signed copy to the answer I like best.  Poor puns, pop culture references are the way to my heart.  Or frankly, just tweet me at @suesspiciousmin with really good pictures of Natalie Dormer.

 

If you’ve read the book, please take five minutes to pop a review on Amazon. Because of the way their robot algorithms work, the more reviews I get, the more the book pops up on other people’s “Hey you might like this” bit. Also, I genuinely want to know what people think of it.

Incompatible

 

I think during one of the many Writers Guild Strikes in America, the hit TV series Moonlighting, which was built around the ridiculous chemistry between its two leads, David Addison (played by a Bruce Willis so young that he had hair and had never got any shards of glass in his feet) and Madelyn Hayes (a never better Cybil Shepherd), instead ran with a whole season without those two in it, and trying to base the show around two minor cast members Herbert Viola and Agnes DiPesto.

 

It did not really fly.  In the words of Douglas Adams ‘it hung in the air in the same way that bricks don’t’

 

It occasionally still makes me wince to think of that dreadful error of thinking.

That portion of Moonlighting, I would be prepared to give a declaration of incompatibility for.

 

All of which is a sprawling and ramshackle opening to Coulibaly v Coulibaly 2018  (which joyously has a “Rev no 1” in its full title, implying that there’s more to come, yes please!)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2018/936.html

 

As far as one can tell, this case began as a private law dispute with the mother becoming very concerned that the father would abduct the children. It is not clear whether that has any basis (we know he DIDN’T, but not whether it was a rational fear that he MIGHT), or what it was that led to a Local Authority obtaining an interim care order and removing the child.

In any event, the bundles for the Court were delivered via wheelbarrow, if not actual dumper truck.  (And yes, I did hover over google images of Big Trak for this moment… )

 

  1. There was listed today, with one day allowed, a number of wide-ranging applications for declarations pursuant to section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998 that a number of sections of the Children Act 1989, and also the whole of the Child Abduction Act 1984, are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
  2. There were delivered to my room yesterday afternoon 7 lever arch files of material. I have not counted up the number of pages, but if one were to assume about 300 to 400 pages on average per bundle, then somewhere between about 2,100 and 2,500 pages are involved. Frankly, the bundles are not coherently arranged and presented, and I could not even readily identify the skeleton arguments for this hearing. In any event, the applicant’s series of written submissions themselves total about 70 pages.

 

A number of sections of the Children Act and the whole of the Child Abduction Act? Tell me more, tell me more

 

 

  1. The proposition that certain provisions of the Children Act 1989 are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights was first formally raised in the High Court by an appellant’s notice issued by Mrs Coulibaly on 2 May 2017. Since then she has, at various times, filed a considerable number of supplementary documents and submissions, the most recent of which was earlier this week. That procedural history, of course, creates a somewhat confusing moving target, in particular for the Lord Chancellor, who has been named as the respondent to these applications, to meet. However during the oral submissions of Mr Duke this morning it was clarified and confirmed and agreed that, by a combination of her appellant’s notice dated 2 May 2017 and her various subsequent written skeleton arguments or written submissions to the court, and the oral submissions made today, the totality and scope of all the applications for declarations of incompatibility is as follows.
  2. First, that section 2 of the Children Act 1989 is incompatible with Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); second, that section 8 of the Children Act 1989 is incompatible with Article 3 of the ECHR; third, that section 38 of the Children Act 1989 is incompatible with Articles 3, 5, 8, 9 and 10 of the ECHR; fourth, that section 50 of the Children Act 1989 is incompatible with Article 3 of the ECHR; fifth, that section 97 of the Children Act 1989 is incompatible with Article 3, read with Article 10, and also with Article 6 of the ECHR; sixth, that section 1 of the Child Abduction Act 1984, and also the whole of that Act, are incompatible with Article 3 of the ECHR.

 

 

Well, if Mrs Coulibaly succeeds in this application and the High Court declare sections 2, 9, 38, 50 and 97 of the Children Act 1989 incompatible with the HRA, there will be champagne corks flying in the household of Ian from Forced Adoption.  But perhaps let’s not get the ice buckets out just yet.

 

Let’s be honest, if I was writing up a law report that junked an entire Act and large chunks of another, I’m burying the lede under all that Moonlighting stuff….

Mrs Coulibaly was not represented and her brother Mr Duke spoke on her behalf as a McKenzie Friend.

We shall observe with interest how he develops this wide-ranging submissions.

 

  1. I now come in turn to the sections of the Children Act 1989 which it is alleged are incompatible with one or more of those various rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, and I will briefly describe and address the arguments. It will emerge that some points and themes, particularly in relation to international child abduction, recur several times in relation to a number of the statutory provisions under challenge. The fundamental and essential point is an assertion by, and on behalf of, Mrs Coulibaly that the statutory provisions simply are not strong enough and effective enough to prevent international child abduction which, she submits, may amount to “inhuman or degrading treatment” within the meaning of Article 3 of the Convention. Without so holding, may I make quite clear for the purposes of this case and this judgment that I fully accept that international child abduction, whether it takes the form of unlawful removal from this country, or unlawful retention of the child abroad after a lawful removal, does, or may, expose the child concerned to a form of inhuman or degrading treatment. So, insofar as child abduction is the fear of Mrs Coulibaly, and insofar as her argument focuses on child abduction, I readily accept, but need not keep on repeating, that Article 3 is engaged.
  2. During the course of his submissions, Mr Duke said that “the Children Act is useless” and that “the entire Act needs to be rewritten.” Part of the context of his argument is that circumstances have changed in the almost 30 years since that Act was enacted. International child abduction has become more prevalent, and some of the safeguards such as strict border controls on exit have tended to be removed or relaxed. Another phrase used a number of times by Mr Duke during the course of his submissions is that “the Children Act is incomplete.” Those points and submissions indicate, to my mind, the flaw or fallacy in the whole, or much, of the argument on these applications. The issue for the court on an application under section 4 of the Human Rights Act is whether or not a provision of the primary, or any subordinate, legislation in point “is compatible” with a Convention right, or whether it “is incompatible” with a Convention right. That is a wholly different question from whether there are gaps in a particular statute, or the whole corpus of legislation generally, and whether or not an Act of Parliament is “incomplete”. I readily accept, for the purposes of this hearing and this judgment, that mechanisms for preventing the scourge of international child abduction may be able to be strengthened; but that is a world apart from saying that such provisions as there are in the legislation, whether specifically directed to child abduction or more generally, are themselves incompatible with Article 3.

 

 

I think the best argument (and I use best in fairly loose sense) is in relation to section 38 – which is interim care orders. Mr Duke argued that the power to remove a child under s38 is a restriction of the child’s liberty (in that the State in the form of the LA get to decide where the child lives), so unless any of the criteria in Article 5 are made out, that’s incompatible with Article 5

 

1Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be deprived of his liberty save in the following cases and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law

(a)the lawful detention of a person after conviction by a competent court;

(b)the lawful arrest or detention of a person for non-compliance with the lawful order of a court or in order to secure the fulfilment of any obligation prescribed by law;

(c)the lawful arrest or detention of a person effected for the purpose of bringing him before the competent legal authority on reasonable suspicion of having committed an offence or when it is reasonably considered necessary to prevent his committing an offence or fleeing after having done so;

(d)the detention of a minor by lawful order for the purpose of educational supervision or his lawful detention for the purpose of bringing him before the competent legal authority;

(e)the lawful detention of persons for the prevention of the spreading of infectious diseases, of persons of unsound mind, alcoholics or drug addicts or vagrants;

(f)the lawful arrest or detention of a person to prevent his effecting an unauthorised entry into the country or of a person against whom action is being taken with a view to deportation or extradition.

 

I would agree with Mr Dukes that none of those criteria apply to an interim care order – but the problem in his argument is that Article 5 only applies if the Court agree with him that an interim care order is depriving a child of their liberty  [Spoiler alert – the Court do not]

 

  1. I turn, next, to the argument that section 38 of the Children Act 1989 is incompatible with Articles 3, 5, 8, 9 and 10 of the Convention. Section 38 of the Children Act falls within Part IV of the Act, which deals with care and supervision. Section 31 of the Act makes provision for what I will call “full” care or supervision orders. Section 38 makes provision for the making of interim care or supervision orders. Again, it is not necessary to cite any of the express provisions of section 38, for much of the argument of Mr Duke is directed not to what section 38 does contain, but, rather, to what it fails to contain. There is, however, one overarching submission in relation to section 38, namely that it is incompatible with Article 5 of the Convention. I have already quoted the opening words of Article 5 above. The submission is that when an interim care order is made and implemented, it has the effect of depriving the child or young person concerned of his liberty. By Article 5 no one shall be deprived of their liberty save in the cases then listed at paragraphs (a) to (f), and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law. Clearly, when an interim care order is made there is a procedure prescribed by law, namely the provisions of section 38 itself, but the thrust of the submission of Mr Duke is that the circumstances in which an interim care order is made do not fall within any of paragraphs (a) to (f). I do accept that most of those subparagraphs are clearly not in point at all, but, as Mr Neil Sheldon submits on behalf of the Lord Chancellor, one has to have regard to the content of the subparagraphs in order to understand what is contemplated by the words “deprived of his liberty”, which is proscribed by Article 5, save in the permitted circumstances.
  2. I accept the submission of Mr Sheldon that when a child is taken into care pursuant to the making of an interim care order, he is not thereby “deprived of his liberty” in the manner which Article 5, read as a whole, contemplates. Further, I accept the submission of Mr Sheldon that if, in the particular circumstances of an individual case, there is a deprivation of liberty, then that deprivation of liberty can be the subject of case-specific challenge under the provisions of section 7 of the Human Rights Act. This indeed ties in with an important overarching point. The express effect of section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 is that “It is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right.” That section is binding on all public authorities, including, indeed courts. The provisions of the Children Act 1989, wherever they confer a discretionary power, always have to be read and applied with regard to section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and any relevant provision of the Convention. If Mr Duke is correct in his argument that the making of an interim care order necessarily infringes a right guaranteed by Article 5, then the argument would apply no less to the making of a “full” care order under section 31 of the Children Act 1989. Frankly, carried to its logical conclusion, the argument and submission of Mr Duke is that every care order, whether an interim order or a full order, that has ever been made since the Children Act 1989 came into force has been contrary to Article 5 of the Convention, and has been unlawful since the Human Rights Act came into force. I admire Mr Duke for his courage and boldness in making that submission, but, at any rate at the level of the High Court, I reject it as being unarguable.
  3. Other reasons why it is said that section 38 is incompatible with a range of Articles of the Convention are the following. First, Mr Duke argues that there is nothing in section 38 itself which compels a local authority to provide medical assistance to a child whom they have taken into their care pursuant to an interim care order. This, he says, may involve a breach of Article 3 of the Convention. Just to understand the context in which the submission is made, I have been told (I stress that I have absolutely no independent evidence whatsoever with regard to this) that on 7 February 2018 Mrs Coulibaly’s son was “forcibly removed” from her care by the police. She says that her son later reported that the police had hurt his arms, and they were really painful. The complaint is that it was apparently not for 13 days that the local authority arranged for her son to be seen by a doctor. Mr Duke submits that there should be an added provision within section 38, or elsewhere in the Children Act 1989, to compel a local authority to undertake an immediate, or very early medical examination of every child whom they take into their interim care, both to check that he or she has not been harmed during the process of removal, if forcible, and also to check for such matters as allergies. He submits that the absence of some such express duty in section 38 or elsewhere in the Act infringes the positive obligation on a state to ensure that no one is subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment, as Article 3 of the Convention requires. Again, I make absolutely clear that I express no view whatsoever on whether or not it should be made mandatory for a local authority immediately to arrange a medical examination of a child taken into their care. That, again, is a matter for government and Parliament. But at its highest, in my view, this is another example of the Act being “incomplete”. There is nothing in this regard that renders the Act incompatible with the Convention.
  4. Mr Duke argues also that section 38 of the Act is incompatible with Article 8 of the Convention.  He says, in particular, that in order that the important rights under Article 8 of the Convention are respected (which is what Article 8 requires), there should be express statutory provision for what he calls “a transfer plan” before any child is taken into care. He submits that a local authority can at the moment “just come and grab a child, which disrupts the child’s private life” and that unless there is an express statutory requirement of “a transfer plan”, section 38 is incompatible with Article 8. He further says that often, when a child is taken into care, the child is not enabled immediately to take his own personal belongings with him, and that in order for the Act to be compatible with Article 8 there must be express statutory provision for a child to be able to do so. Again, in my view, these are, at best, matters of good practice, or examples of the legislation being “incomplete”, but the absence of express statutory provisions of the kind that Mr Duke contends for does not render section 38 itself incompatible.

 

I say, that ‘transfer plan’ is a good idea, I wonder if we could call it by a shorter name and have it be a mandatory requirement before the making of an interim care order. We could call it, oh, I don’t know – a care plan?

 

Let us just enjoy the fine work of Holman J once again

 

If Mr Duke is correct in his argument that the making of an interim care order necessarily infringes a right guaranteed by Article 5, then the argument would apply no less to the making of a “full” care order under section 31 of the Children Act 1989. Frankly, carried to its logical conclusion, the argument and submission of Mr Duke is that every care order, whether an interim order or a full order, that has ever been made since the Children Act 1989 came into force has been contrary to Article 5 of the Convention, and has been unlawful since the Human Rights Act came into force. I admire Mr Duke for his courage and boldness in making that submission, but, at any rate at the level of the High Court, I reject it as being unarguable. 

 

As I’ve suggested above, the article 5 v s38 is very much Mr Duke’s best point.  If you think that this dissection of his best point doesn’t augur well for his less good ones, you are correct.

Surprisingly, Holman J does not grasp the opportunity offered to him by Mr Duke to overturn huge chunks of statute that have been running for thirty odd years.

 

  1. For the reasons I have given, I am crystal clear, even at this short summary hearing today, that none of these applications for declarations of incompatibility are, in the least, arguable. I will accordingly make an order which, first, recites by list all the applications that Mrs Coulibaly has made for declarations of incompatibility as I listed them at the outset of this judgment, and then orders that all the applications for declarations of incompatibility listed under that recital are summarily dismissed.

 

So the law remains intact.  Well, at least until Coulibaly v Coulibaly Rev no 2, which I’m looking forward to. I shall be immensely disappointed if the Act of Union, Magna Carta and  the Licensing Act 1872 (which makes it a criminal offence to be drunk in a pub)

 

 

I’m sorry if the raw charisma and chemistry  of Hubert and Agnes has just burned a hole initially through your screen and now through your retinas.