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Category Archives: fact finding

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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“I completely forgot”

 

This is a successful appeal (indeed fairly unusually it was an appeal that by the time the Court of Appeal came to look at it, all four parties were in agreement should be granted) about a decision in the High Court to make a finding of sexual abuse against a child, T, who had just turned 16 when the High Court considered the case. T had been the subject of a Care Order and Placement Order when she was six, then placed for adoption.

 

(Bit nervous about this one, as I know that 75% of the silks in the case read the blog… and I have a mental crush on all three of them. And because I also have a lot of respect for the High Court Judge who gets monstered in the appeal judgment)

 

The adoption got into difficulties, and T went into respite care for a short time in May 2014. She went back to her adopted family at the end of May and that carried on until the end of August 2014, at which point the adopters agreed a section 20 arrangement – the social work team wishing to remove T as a result of her allegation to a CAMHS worker. The allegation was that during that period from May 2014-August 2014 when she was with her adopted family, the adoptive father had sexually assaulted her, including one allegation of rape.

P (A Child), Re [2018] EWCA Civ 720 (11 April 2018)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/720.html

 

The section 20 arrangement continued. It was obvious to all that T would not be going back to the adopters. (Listen, I know that at this point, the adopters are legally her parents and I don’t seek to diminish that, but I think to understand the case it is easier to say adoptive parents and birth parents). The s20 continued until the Local Authority issued proceedings in April 2016. By that time, T had given an ABE interview, made further allegations and declined a second ABE interview and made partial retractions of the allegations. Her behaviour had deteriorated and by the time of the Court case, had been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. (which is rare for a child)

 

The first question the case raises then, is why this child was under a section 20 arrangement for so long, rather than proceedings having been issued?   I’ll preface this by saying that obviously a case involving an allegation of rape against a child – particularly rape where the alleged perpetrator is an adopter and someone still approved to adopt children, ought to have been placed before the Court. Very quickly after those allegations were made – perhaps allowing a short period of time for the investigation to take place.

(I can’t lay my hands on the authority at the moment, and Hershman McFarlane is being uncooperative, but I’m fairly sure that there is a mid 1990s authority that says where the LA believe the child has been the subject of serious sexual or physical abuse, they ought to place it before the Court by issuing proceedings… I wish I could find the authority. Perhaps one of my illustrious silk readers can illuminate us.  The Act itself just says that the LA can’t issue proceedings unless they believe the threshold criteria to be met – so it says that there are situations where they shouldn’t, it is silent about the circumstances in which they should. The LA don’t have to issue proceedings on every child where the threshold is met. )

 

So what follows is not a justification or excuse for the delay, but an attempt to consider the context.

 

Here are some possible reasons why proceedings were not issued :-

 

  1. It just never got considered (prior to April 2016), and it wasn’t a conscious decision not to, so much as just nobody thinking about it.
  2. The adoptive parents were not asking for T back, T didn’t want to go back, T was in what was considered to be a safe place, and so there was a thought process that nothing was to be gained by going to Court. T wasn’t going to be adopted by anyone else and a Care Order would add nothing to the situation on the ground. Perhaps people even actively thought about the ‘no order principle’ and considered that it wasn’t possible to make out a case that the making of a Care Order (as needed by article 8) would be ‘proportionate and necessary’
  3. This was happening BEFORE the s20 drift was coming to judicial attention and prominence as an issue, and when those s20 cases did emerge, that’s when the LA did take action.
  4. Perhaps everyone was caught up in the day to day management of T and what she needed in terms of placement and stability, and overlooked the bigger picture.
  5. Let’s be quite honest – there’s the potential that the parents in this case were treated differently (because they were adopters) to the way they would have been treated as birth parents.

 

However, ALL of those issues are hard to excuse the fact that T’s sister, X, remained with the adoptive parents. So the LA had an allegation of rape by T, known about for over 18 months, and knowing that a younger sister was still living with the adopters.

 

(So either they didn’t believe T’s allegations OR they thought for some reason that X was safe, but the point is they couldn’t know for sure either way)

Anyway, the Court of Appeal were critical of the delay

 

12.Unfortunately, and to my mind inexplicably, the state of affairs whereby T was accommodated under CA 1989, s.20 was maintained from August 2014 until the institution of care proceedings in April 2016, notwithstanding the clear and stark issue of fact created by T’s allegations and the father’s wholesale denial. Irrespective of the fact that T’s mental health and presenting behaviour may have rendered it impossible for her placement in the family home to be maintained, the need to protect and have regard to the welfare of the younger sibling, X, who remained in the family home, required this significant factual issue to be determined

 

The next issue in the case is that the adoptive parents agreed that the threshold was met for T, because she was beyond parental control. The LA, however, sought a finding about the sexual abuse allegations (five findings in all). That obviously makes sense given that X wasn’t beyond parental control, and there was a need to establish what happened to T, to decide if X was at risk of sexual harm. That makes sense to me. (I can’t, so far, make sense of why it appears that the proceedings were about T, and not T AND X – and the Court of Appeal say that

 

 

50.So far as X is concerned, although she has been the subject of arrangements made under the Pre-commencement Procedure operated within the Public Law Outline, no proceedings have ever been issued with respect to her since the making of the adoption order )

 

The High Court heard from 16 witnesses at the finding of fact hearing. Things went wrong when Parker J came into Court to deliver her judgment

 

 

 

 

The judgment

17.The oral evidence had been concluded on 18 November 2016 and closing submissions were delivered on 18 and 25 November. The case was then adjourned to 8 December 2016 for the delivery of judgment. On that occasion, however, the Judge explained that she had been occupied with other cases and had been unable to prepare a written judgment. She had, however, reached “some conclusions” and, with the parties’ agreement, she stated what those were in the course of a short judgment which runs to some 6 pages in the agreed note that has been prepared by the parties. In short terms, the Judge rehearsed a number of the significant points in the case, for example, T’s mental health, the recording of her allegations and the ABE interview process, any evidence of inconsistency and T’s overall reliability, and an assessment of the father’s credibility before announcing her conclusion in the following terms:

 

 

 

“I have come to the conclusion therefore, and I am sorry to have to do so as I thought the mother and the father were the most likeable people, but during the course of 2014, there was an attempt at least, it may have been more, of sexual congress between the father and T.”

18.The case was then adjourned to 30 January 2017 for the delivery of a full judgment. A note of what had been said in court on 8 December was agreed between the parties and submitted to the Judge. On 30 January the Judge again indicated that, due to pressure on her time as a result of other cases, she had not been able to prepare a full judgment. Instead the Judge gave a lengthy oral judgment, seemingly based on prepared notes.

 

 

19.On 30 January, when the Judge had concluded her judgment, counsel for the father immediately identified a number of aspects in which, it was submitted, the judgment was deficient. The Judge directed that an agreed note of what she had said should be prepared and submitted to her within 7 days, together with requests from each party identifying any suggested corrections or requests for clarification.

 

 

20.The parties, in particular those acting for the parents, complied with the tight 7-day timetable. The Judge was provided with an agreed note of judgment which runs to some 115 paragraphs covering 42 pages. In addition, counsel submitted an annotated version of the note indicating possible corrections, together with a list of more substantial matters which, it was claimed, required clarification. In doing so those acting for each of the parties were complying precisely with the process originally described by this court in the case of English v Emery Reimbold and Strick Ltd [2002] EWCA Civ 605 and subsequently endorsed in the family law context by this court on many occasions.

 

 

All of this was compounded then, because despite knowing that the case was going to be appealed, following the judgment in January 2017, the transcript of the judgment wasn’t made available. The transcribers sent it to the Judge on 18th March 2017 – the Judge sent an approved copy back to them SIX MONTHS later, September 2017, but that approved copy never got sent to the parties or the Court of Appeal.

 

The Court of Appeal (at the time of hearing the appeal) were therefore working from an agreed note of the judgment rather than the transcript

The Judge’s decision

26.Early in the judgment of 30 January the Judge records the decision that she had already announced at the December hearing in the following terms (paragraph 17):

 

 

 

“I have decided that she has been sexually interfered with by her father and that she has been caused significant emotional harm by reason of her mother’s disbelief in telling her so, although my criticism of the mother was highly muted in the circumstances for reasons I will come back to.”

27.After a summary of the evidence the Judge stated (paragraph 58):

 

 

 

“It is against that background that I need to assess the threshold.”

 

She then set out the content of the local authority fact-finding Schedule introducing it with the following words:

 

“I am asked to make findings in terms of:”

 

Unfortunately, the judgment does not record the Judge’s decision on any of the five specific findings of sexually abusive behaviour alleged in the local authority Schedule save that, at paragraph 71, the Judge stated “I also find that the description T gives of her father attempting to penetrate her is wholly believable”. Whether that statement amounts to a finding is, however, not entirely clear as it simply appears as a statement in the 8th paragraph of a 40 paragraph section in which the Judge reviews a wide range of evidence.

28.The basis of the appeal is that the Judge’s judgment fails sufficiently to identify what (the local authority would submit, if any) findings of fact the Judge made.

 

 

29.Before leaving the 30 January judgment, it is necessary to point to 2 or 3 other subsidiary matters that are relied upon by the appellants as indicating that the judgment, substantial though it may be in size, is inchoate:

 

 

 

  1. a) Prior to listing the witnesses who gave oral evidence the Judge states “I think I heard the following witnesses”. The list of 13 witnesses is said to omit 3 other individuals who also gave oral evidence.

 

  1. b) In the closing stages of the judgment the Judge makes one additional point which is introduced by the phrase “one thing I forgot to say” and a second which is introduced by “also one thing I have not so far mentioned, and I should have done”.

 

  1. c) At the very end of the judgment, and after the Judge has gone on to deal with procedural matters unrelated to the findings of fact there appears a four paragraph section dealing with case law related to the court’s approach to ABE interviews where it is asserted there has been a breach of the ABE guidelines. That section is preceded by the phrase “I completely forgot”.

 

There are of course, all sorts of different styles and approaches one can adopt to delivering a judgment and the Court of Appeal are not trying to be prescriptive or to fetter a Judge’s discretion of   stylistic delivery. Having said all that, if the immediate comparator that comes to mind is Columbo talking to Roddy McDowell, that’s not a good thing.

 

Have I ever been happier to be able to get a particular picture into the blog? Maybe Kite-Man, but I am VERY pleased about this one

 

The appeal itself

30.Two notices of appeal issued on behalf of the father and mother respectively were issued in August 2017. Although this was many months after the making of the care order and the delivery of the oral judgment in January 2017, I accept that the delay arose because the parties were waiting for the Judge to engage in the process of clarification that she had directed should take place and, thereafter, the production of a final version of the judgment. There were also considerable difficulties in securing legal aid, caused at least in part by the absence of a judgment. At various stages the Judge’s clerk had given the parties some hope that a final judgment might be produced. The notices of appeal were only issued once the parties were forced to conclude that a final version of the judgment was unlikely to be forthcoming. Following the failure of the efforts made by the Court of Appeal to obtain a judgment, I granted permission to appeal on 16 November 2017.

 

 

31.The grounds of appeal and skeleton arguments that argue the cases of the father and of the mother from their respective positions engage fully with the underlying facts in the case in addition to arguing that the process as a whole has been fatally compromised by the court’s inability to produce adequately precise findings and to do so in a judgment which sufficiently engages with the significant features of the evidence. As it is on this latter basis that the appeal has preceded by consent, my Lords and I have not engaged in the deeper level, granular analysis of the evidence that would otherwise be required.

 

 

32.In terms of the English v Emery Rheimbold process, those acting for each of the two parents submitted short (in the mother’s case 3 pages, in the father’s case 5 pages) requests for clarification on specific issues. Each of those requests is, on my reading of the papers, reasonable and, even if a specific request were unreasonable, it was open to the Judge to say so.

 

 

33.The resulting state of affairs where the only record of the Judge’s determination is imprecise as to its specific findings and silent upon the approach taken to significant elements of the evidence is as regrettable as it is untenable.

 

 

34.That the state of affairs that I have just described exists, is made plain by the stance of the local authority before this court. Rather than simply “not opposing” the appeal, the local authority skeleton argument, as I will demonstrate, specifically endorses the main thrust of the appellant’s case. Further, we were told by Miss Hannah Markham QC, leading counsel before this court, but who did not appear below, that the local authority’s position on the appeal has been approved at every layer of management within the authority’s children services department. For one organ of the state, the local authority, to conclude that the positive outcome (in terms of the findings that it sought) of a highly expensive, time and resource consuming, judicial process is insupportable is a clear indication that the judicial system has, regrettably, failed badly in the present case.

 

 

35.Against that background it is helpful to quote directly from the skeleton argument prepared by Miss Markham and Miss Grieve on behalf of the local authority:

 

 

 

“5 At the heart of the appeal are findings that (father) behaved in a sexually inappropriate way towards his daughter T. The findings are set out in this way, as it is accepted by the respondent local authority that the judgment given by Mrs Justice Parker does not particularise the findings made nor does it cross refer findings to the local authority Schedule of findings. As such the findings have not been accurately recorded or set out.

 

….

 

“14 The local authority does not oppose the appeal for reasons set out below.

 

15 However the local authority does not accept that all grounds as pleaded would be matters or arguments which the local authority would either not oppose or indeed agree, if taken in isolation. The focus in approaching this appeal has been to stand back and have regard to the fairness and integrity of the judgment and the process taken by the parties to try to clarify the judgment and in particular the findings made.

 

16 It is submitted that it must be right and fair that a party against whom findings are made should know the actual findings made and the reasons for them. It is submitted that reasons on reasons are not necessary, but clarity as to findings and a clear basis for them is a primary requirement of a Judge.

 

17 It is significant that the learned Judge has resisted requests of her to clarify her judgment and that in particular she has not taken opportunities to set out the findings she has in fact made.

 

18 Dovetailing into that error is the argument that flows from that omission; absent clear findings it is impossible to see, understand and argue that the Judge formulated her findings on clear, understandable and right reasoning.

 

 

21 In this instant case it is submitted on behalf of the parents that the judge did not even set out the findings, not least allow them to see whether she fairly and with significant detail set out her reasoning for coming to the findings she then made. Further requests of the Judge were properly made and the learned Judge has neither responded to them nor clarified why she is not engaging in the requests of her

 

 

23 (Having listed the short specific findings made by the Judge) It is acknowledged that these matters are the most detail (the Judge) gives to her findings. Whilst it is asserted by the local authority that the learned Judge was able, within the ambit of her wide discretion to make findings, it was incumbent upon her to set out with clarity what those findings were and how she came to make them.

 

24 It will be apparent from the matters set out above that she failed in this task and that she failed to cross refer back to paragraph 59 (where the Judge listed the content of the local authority Schedule of findings) and set out what she had or had not found proved.”

36.The local authority identified two specific grounds relied upon on behalf of the father, one asserting that the Judge rejected the father’s case on the deficits on the ABE interview, against, it is said, the weight of the evidence, but provides no analysis for coming to that conclusion. Secondly the local authority accepts that there were many examples of inconsistency within the accounts that T had given. In both respects the local authority expressly acknowledged that the Judge failed to engage with these two important aspects of the case and failed to set out her findings in respect of each.

 

 

37.The local authority, rightly, argue that a Judge has a wide discretion to accept or reject evidence in a case such as this and that the Judge does not have to refer expressly to each and every detail of the evidence in the course of their judgment. The local authority’s skeleton argument, however, accepts “that a fair and balanced assessment of the cases advanced and evidence for and against said cases is necessary, proportionate and fair and has not occurred sufficiently in this complex case.”

 

 

38.Miss Kate Branigan QC, leading Miss Lianne Murphy, both of whom appeared below for T, acting on the instructions of the children’s guardian adopt a similar stance to that taken by the local authority. In their skeleton argument (paragraph 10) they state:

 

 

 

“Albeit T maintains that the allegations made against her father are true, the children’s guardian has had to conclude that the judgment as given by the court on 30 January 2017 is not sustainable on appeal and that inevitably the appeals on behalf of both appellants must succeed.”

 

Later (paragraph 14) it is said:

 

“Regrettably we accept that it is not possible from the judgment to identify what findings the court has made. At paragraph 59 of the judgment note, the court sets out the detail of the findings it is invited to make, but at no stage thereafter does the learned Judge indicate which of the findings she has found established to the requisite standard nor does she attempt to link what she is saying about the evidence to the specific findings sought….On this basis alone the judgment is arguably fatally flawed.”

 

And at paragraph 15:

 

“We further recognise in certain key respects the court has failed to engage with the totality of the evidence to the extent that any findings the court has purported to make are unsustainable in any event. In particular, we accept the arguments advanced on behalf of the appellant father… that the court failed to undertake a sufficiently detailed analysis of the context in which T’s allegations came to be made, failed to engage with the professional evidence which called into question the reliability of those allegations and did not weigh appropriately in the balance the inconsistencies which were clearly laid out on the evidence in relation to T’s accounts.”

39.In the light of the parties’ positions, the oral hearing for this appeal was short. All were agreed that the appeal must be allowed with the result that, at the end of a process which started with allegations made in August 2014, and in included a substantial trial before a High Court Judge, any findings of fact made by the Judge and recorded in her oral determinations made in December 2016 and on 30 January 2017 must be set aside and must be disregarded in any future dealings with this family.

 

 

40.For our part, my Lords and I, rather than simply endorsing the agreed position of the parties, had, reluctantly but very clearly formed the same view having read the note of the 30 January judgment and having regard to the subsequent failure by the court to engage with the legitimate process of clarification that the Judge had, herself, set in train

           41.Before turning to the question of what lessons might be learned for the future and offering some guidance in that regard, a formal apology is owed to all those who have been adversely affected by the failure of the Family Justice system to produce an adequate and supportable determination of the important factual allegations in this case. In particular, such an apology is owed to T, her father and her mother and her younger sister X, whose own everyday life has been adversely affected as a result of professionals justifiably putting in place an intrusive regime to protect her from her father as a result of the statement of the Judge’s conclusions 16 months ago.      

 

    

The Court of Appeal were asked to give some clarifying guidance in relation to the issue of what happens where the parties ask (as they must) for the Judge to clarify flaws in the judgment and after a period of time the Judge has not done so. For a start, when does the clock for the appeal start to tick? After judgment, or after the request for clarification, or after receipt of such clarification?

 

 

 

42.Whilst it is, fortunately, rare for parties to encounter a situation such as that which has arisen in the present case, such circumstances do, however, occur and we have been invited to offer some limited advice or guidance.

 

 

43.The window in which a notice of appeal may be issued under Civil Procedure Rules 1998, r 52.12(2) is tight and is, in ordinary circumstances, limited to 21 days. It is often impossible to obtain a transcript of a judgment that has been delivered orally within the 21 day period. Unfortunately, it is also the experience of this court that not infrequently problems occur in the five or six stages in the administrative chain through which a request for transcripts must proceed and it may often be months before an approved transcript is provided. Whilst it is plainly more satisfactory for the judges of this court to work on an approved transcript, and that will normally be a pre-requisite for any full appeal hearing, the Lord or Lady Justices of Appeal undertaking evaluation of permissions to appeal in family cases are now more willing to accept a note of judgment (if possible agreed) taken by a lawyer or lawyers present in court in order to determine an application for permission to appeal rather than await delivery of an approved transcript of the judgment. It is therefore important for advocates attending court on an occasion when judgment is given to do their best to make a full note of the judgment so that, if it is needed, that note can be provided promptly to the Court of Appeal when a notice of appeal is filed.

 

 

44.The observation set out above requires adaptation when a party seeks clarification of the Judge’s judgment. In such a case, it must be reasonable for the party to await the conclusion of the process of clarification before being obliged to issue a notice of appeal, unless the clarification that is sought is limited to marginal issues which stand separately to the substantive grounds of appeal that may be relied upon.

 

 

45.Where, as here, the process of clarification fails to achieve finality within a reasonable time, it is not in the interests of justice, let alone those of the respective parties, for time to run on without a notice of appeal being issued. What is a reasonable time for the process of post judgement clarification? The answer to that question may vary from case to case, but, for my part, I find it hard to contemplate a case where a period of more than 4 weeks from the delivery of the request for clarification could be justified. After that time, the notice of appeal, if an appeal is to be pursued, should be issued. The issue of a notice of appeal does not, of itself, prevent the process of clarification continuing if it has not otherwise been completed. Indeed, in some case the Court of Appeal at the final appeal hearing may itself send the case back to the Judge for clarification. The benefit of issuing a notice of appeal, apart from the obvious avoidance of further delay, is that the Court of Appeal may itself directly engage with the Judge in the hope of finalising any further outstanding matters.

 

 

Whilst the Court of Appeal say that because of the administrative nightmare that is obtaining an approved transcript, they will accept an agreed note from the lawyers I wonder how on earth that is going to work with cases involving only litigants in person (eg about 90% of private law proceedings)

Radical mountaineering in Leicestershire

A family with their three adult children and three minor children were stopped at Harwich port, we don’t know the reasons  (but can probably guess).  The father’s home was searched as a result and some significant things found as a result.

(The LA involved is not named to assist in anonymity, so please don’t assume that it is Leicester or Leicestershire because of the title of the post. You will see why I gave it that title later, be patient!)

 

The family’s version of events was that all of them were travelling to Holland, with the intention of visiting a children’s play park for the day, to sleep in their rented car overnight and travel back the next day.  That made the authorities query why it was that the father had been to a camping store the day before, spending six hundred pounds.  This was not a wealthy family.

One of the adult siblings gave evidence that the camping and outdoors equipment was for a later trip planned to Scotland, where they would be climbing mountains.

 

  1. Then there is B’s evidence about the equipment. She told me that the planned trip was to Scotland at Easter. The father had talked about his pleasure in going to Aviemore as a teenager. She appeared never to have heard of the Cairngorms when she was asked but perhaps that is not absolutely fatal to her case. More importantly, Aviemore is a ski resort, is at elevation, and there was likely to be still snow up there. To suggest that this family planned to sleep in a tent in potentially harsh weather conditions is absolutely fanciful. The father has diabetes and other health conditions. He needs to relieve himself frequently. B told me it was planned that she and the other children would go for long walks and climb a mountain. There was no suggestion as to what was going to happen to the father, and how he was going to keep up, or how the younger children would cope if they were tired or wet or cold. I may be wrong in having detected an inconsistency in B’s evidence as to whether or not they were intending to sleep in different camp sites taking their equipment with them, or whether they were going to stay at the same (unidentified) campsite every night and go for walks during the day. It is inconceivable that the father either would have subjected himself to such conditions or that he would have been left shivering in a tent whilst the family went on without him.
  2. I asked B whether she had ever climbed a mountain and she said she thought she had in Wales. She then said she had climbed one in Leicester recently. It had been very high and very steep. Leicester is an extremely flat part of the country. It is obvious to me that B was making up her evidence as she went along and I am quite satisfied that the Aviemore trip was a smokescreen. The family cannot even agree for when it was planned.
  3. I am satisfied that I have been told a series of untruths by the adults about the background to the Holland trip, what was intended, and the surrounding circumstances, and that in itself is probably one of the most important features of my findings

 

Indeed, Leicestershire is not known for its  mountains. Taking my lead from the Hugh Grant movie, I have established that there is one summit in Leicestershire which squeaks into being classified as a mountain, being (just) over 2000 meters in height.  Preparation for the Cairgorms it is not.

 

Perhaps the family were misinformed

 

Humphrey Bogus, sorry Bogart

 

Re Y children (findings as to radicalisation) 2018

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/3826.html

 

  1. Radicalisation cases have only come to the forefront of the court’s attention during the last two and a half years, particularly since the escalation of troubles in the Middle East with the Syrian conflict and the rise of the Islamic State, called as well by various other different names. Radicalisation is not new.
  2. I stress that the courts see cases where religion is said to be harmfully impressed on children, or provides a harmful environment or lifestyle for them, as in cases of other religions as well. I have professional experience of childcare litigation concerning fundamentalist Christian sects and certain Hindu and Jewish groups, for example. I recognise also that the UK has not been immune from sectarian Christian violence both historically and recently.
  3. I repeat, as I have said to the parties, that not only do I realise how sensitive is this case, but how difficult are issues which concern freedom of thought, religion and expression; and personal autonomy. At the same time I have to look at s.31 of the Children Act in respect of care proceedings now presently in being in respect of the three index children. This case is about significant harm or the risk thereof and child welfare in respect of young people who cannot truly decide on their political and religious beliefs, and crucially, activities stemming therefrom.

 

The Judge heard evidence as to some of the matters found within the families purchases/packing, which was compared to the instruction list prepared by Isis and circulated to people who were intending to join up with them in Syria. In a peculiar set of circumstances, possession of this list is a criminal offence (don’t google the list, it will almost certainly flag you up with people / agencies you don’t want to be flagged up with), so even the Judge having temporary possession of it was potentially placing her in breach of the criminal law.

 

  1. There are a number of other matters which give rise to concern. They had an itinerary with them which Mr. Poole submits is written in stilted and unusual terms. It is not the kind of list of activities that one might expect to see, and has detail, particularly in relation to timings, which seems, objectively, unnecessary for this sort of trip. It is suggested that this is a kind of decoy document, intended to distract the authorities from the real purpose and to support the case that this was a weekend jaunt. Isis documentation online giving guidance about a planned journey to Syria via northern Europe suggests that such documentation might be useful and also suggests obtaining return tickets, so the existence of returns does not help. The father does not have very much money. The passports had been obtained in contemplation of this trip many months before, costing over £200. Yet the journey had not been booked. There are various other expenses, such as the ferry, which cost over £400. The suggestion is that this was a very unusually expensive trip to make for what was going to be just a day and a morning in Holland, for the purposes of a trip to the play park. The necessity or desirability of visiting that venue has not really been established.
  2. Further the father was unable to give a convincing reason for the presence of a Turkish phrase book in the property since the family had never been to Turkey. In the father’s house there was found a list signed with the signature of R and there was another list obtained made by B, headed “Things to get”. The day before the trip was made the father went to two branches of a camping shop, one in Area T and one in Area S, and spent over £600 on equipment. That equipment has considerable correspondence with a “suggested equipment list” in another document called “Hijrah (emigration) to the Islamic State”, emanating from supporters of Islamic State which is to be found online, the possession of which is a criminal offence. I have been given a copy of that document in the hope that I am not transgressing by its being in my possession. I have tried to protect the parties and they have accepted this by ensuring that the document’s copies are numbered and are retained, will be returned, and are viewed only within the courtroom.

 

 

For the same reasons, the Court has to be careful in stipulating the commonalities between the family’s camping shopping/packing for Holland and the Isis list.

The father was a member of a prescribed organisation, ALM and had involved the children in their activities

  1. I am satisfied on all the evidence that the father is closely associated with ALM. I accept that he was not charged along with those recently convicted. I accept that there is no evidence that he has spoken or written in public on its behalf. However he has supported it online, and it has a significant online presence which I accept is important for the promotion of its ideas. I do not know whether he is a member, I do not know whether one can be a member of an organisation such as ALM, I doubt very much whether it has a list of members, or whether it has a joining fee or anything of that kind. Z told me that the father is well known to the membership. He is not part of the management or governance insofar as there is one – the ‘inner echelons’ as it was termed in the hearing- and, therefore, not one of the decision makers, but he is intimately known within and loosely part of the organisation.
  2. Sub-question (b) is whether ALM is a proscribed organisation, which it is accepted it is.
  3. The next sub-question is “(c) Did the father take the children to inappropriate ALM demonstrations?” There were two particular demonstrations. He took J (then aged 9) and F (then aged 7) to one in 2009 in London attended by HA. The second was a demonstration outside the Pakistani Embassy after the Pakistan Army had become involved with students in “The Red Mosque” incident. I have seen photographs of the father standing next to HA, outside the Embassy with F and L. The two boys were holding a placard of which the father said he was not able to tell me the origin, which refers to the Pakistan Army as, essentially, “the devil”. There are other placards next to the boys. I note one, relevant to another issue, supporting the introduction of Sharia law for Pakistan, because, the father told me, the students in the Red Mosque had called for Sharia law in Pakistan.
  4. I recognise that some people take children on political demonstrations (although not usually to events where violence might be predicted) and persuade their children to carry placards. Sometimes children are too young even to take persuading, sometimes the placards are put in the child’s pram. It could be said that the children, who probably do not understand in the least the point of the demonstration, are being used in order to put over and support adult views, in a way which could be seen as manipulative and even abusive. I recognise that this is not in any way an activity which is limited to any particular social or religious group. What the father involved the boys in was not illegal, and as a one-off would have been unlikely to have led to any child welfare intervention. However, the demonstration was linked with ALM, and it was not appropriate, in my view, for the boys to be actively involved in such a demonstration or such an organisation, knowing the views expressed by members and the possible consequences of the expression of those views: a public disturbance over which the father had no control, or the expression of harmful views. The father said these were peaceful protests but he was not to know that they would be so. Most importantly it demonstrates the influences to which he has wished to or at least been prepared to expose the boys. It is part of the overall picture.
  5. The next sub -question therefore is (d),
    1. “Did the father expose the boys to harmful views at ALM- inspired talks and take them to talks given by individuals later convicted and/or charged with terrorism offences?”
  1. The father was an attendee at Da’wah (proselytization or outreach) stalls. These are booths displaying literature in public areas, and not confined to ALM. Z told me that from his knowledge someone who attended such a stall who showed a particular interest in extremist themes might, after several visits, be invited to attend an evening meeting, once a degree of familiarity and common ground had been established between the stall minder and the enquirer. That was how he had come to be invited to evening events. The father told me that all were welcome at the stalls, of whatever age or religion, men or women, and this demonstrated how innocuous they were. He also said that Z had been welcome when it was thought that he was genuine, but would not have been had it been known that he was an undercover policemen. The father could not explain why this would be, if there was nothing wrong with the stalls. Z told me, and I accept, that the Da’wah stall attended by the father, to which at one time he took the boys, linked with ALM. At one time he took the boys, but stopped doing so. Z does not know why he stopped taking the boys, but it was at about the time ALM had spread the news that supporters were at risk of care proceedings.
  2. I conclude that the stalls were used as recruitment tools where people were given literature supporting ALM’s aims, and tested out, from which they were drawn into the inner circle as and when it was thought appropriate.
  3. Photographs of the father with ALM affiliates have been recovered from telephones of those persons. I accept that the father attended other protests with London ALM affiliates with many senior associates.
  4. Z told me that the father had been to a number of meetings with the boys, probably about five, at a local church hall. These were small meetings, 30 people only, where theological matters were discussed. The father is devoutly religious and it seems to me to be well within the acceptable spectrum of behaviour for the children to go to meetings – even if they may not be terribly interested and may not actually understand what is going on – which may express views about religious practices, even though they may be of more interest to the adults than the children. Those attendances do not seem to me to be of serious significance in themselves, but ALM members, later convicted of terrorist offences were present, and the father could not have predicted exactly what views would be expressed. It is all part of a pattern.

 

The police also found a letter in the family home from Lee Rigby’s killer.  If there’s an innocent reason to be in correspondence with him, I can’t think of it.

 

  1. Related also to this evidence and the conclusions that I have drawn is another reference to the killer of Lee Rigby, Michael Adebolajo. When the father’s home was first searched a letter was found from this gentleman from prison; whether it was an original or whether it was a copy does not matter. I suspect that, in the circumstances, it may very well have been a document made available to a number of people within this circle. It is a letter which is covered by r.39 of the Prison Regulations, which is intended to go to the legal representative. It is, in fact, quite a strongly worded letter making various strong comments about religious matters. It is both assertive and rambling and is quite closely written. It makes reference to a number of religious concepts, using a number of Arabic words, and also it makes various aggressive comments as to the role of various people in English political life, generally, and those who are connected with the Islamic religion. The father accepts that it was found in his house. He told RX that he did not know how he had come by it. He at first told me the same thing. Then he said that he had been given it, but could not remember who by. When asked again, he said that it had been a man. He could not remember who or the circumstances, just that he had been told or encouraged to read it. He said that he had not read it himself. He could not remember any conversation with the donor, such as, “Why are you giving this to me; what this is about; what am I going to get from this; what is its importance?” and so on. He cannot say why he kept this document, although he says that he did not read it and never gave it any thought afterwards. I do not accept this explanation. He must have known about the contents of and welcomed this letter in order to both have and retain it.

 

The police inspected all of the family’s electronic devices.  (Which, by the way, is the common denominator between cases where the LA have been able to prove radicalisation and the ones where the electronic devices are not explored are the ones where findings don’t get made)

 

  1. Various photographs emerged from the search of the family devices. I have a number of separate photographs of the children and the father, dressed in what looks like Middle Eastern style red-and-white headgear, in the case of both the children and father, with their faces partly obscured by the cloth and holding what I am told are ornamental swords. The adult children said these had been purchased by the family as a set at a boot fair, or similar outlet, and to be ornamental only. The two younger children were very little when these photographs were taken and I suppose they may not have been aware of the significance, as it is asserted by Mr. Poole to be, of this style of dress. The father says also that this cannot be connected with Islamic State because it was not then in existence. Mr Poole submits that that this is a style of dress associated very much with Islamic fighters, and has been for some time, and that posing with weapons is very much a radicalised style. Mr. de Burgos accepts that this style of dress and presentation would be regarded, and rightly so, as extremely culturally offensive if worn at a fancy-dress show or party, as to many people’s eyes it will have very significant associations with terrorism and with politically and religiously motivated violence.
  2. I cannot go so far as to say that the photographs of the two younger children, in themselves, would have caused them harm at the time, but it is quite possible that viewing them online later as older children might have done so and have given them expectations as to how they are expected to behave, what beliefs they are supposed to have and how they are supposed to treat other people. There are pictures of the older children, including J, when much younger, also in similar poses, in similar attire and with similar weapons. There are pictures of A with a gun, which he says was taken when he was working on someone’s home and he simply asked whether he could pose with that particular gun, an air rifle, as a joke. There are photographs of the father with a BB gun, also in a very similar pose. These are strongly reminiscent of the poses in photographs of ALM members posted online, referred to above. There are photographs of other weapons, the significance of which, the family has not been able to explain. RX told me that he perceived a clear association with the graphic execution scenes online, and so, independently, do I.

  1. Some of the material found, particularly on R’s telephone, is very shocking and very disturbing indeed. It does not come from normal news sites. Father says that they might have come from Fox News, but I find it very difficult to imagine or to accept that heads in buckets, details of crucifixions, the process of execution, dead bodies and dead fighters showing, it is asserted, the joy with which they died, material relating to bombings, a man with a knife to his throat, execution quads, would be shown on normal news channels. It is not my experience of the mainstream press. I cannot say where this material came from, but the evidence that I had from RT, the technical expert relied on by the police, and his overall view, was that there had been a lot of internet searching for this kind of horrific image, particularly relating to the process of decapitation. There was particular footage, which has nothing to do with Islam or the Islamic State at all, which relates to horrors in South America. He told me that that was an indication of the kind of search that was going on and that someone in the home had had a pre-occupation with looking for this material. No-one in the family has been able to tell me who that might be. The father tells me, and I accept, of course, that, as a Muslim whose family emanates from South Asia, although via East Africa, he has an interest and a passionate commitment to finding out what is going on in the Islamic world and I quite understand that, but the material which has been downloaded does not fit with what the father told me about his focus of interest, or with the pre-occupation with terrorism, demonstrated also by books removed from the home.

 

(I mean, there’s a lot wrong with Fox News, but I don’t feel I can hold them responsible for this)

 

 

  1. I cannot say who in the family has downloaded this material, but it is most likely that it has been a number of them. There were images found not only on R’s phone and other material on other devices as well. There is a very strong theme of there being someone in this family, or perhaps more than one someone, who has an interest in painful things being done to other people. This is not just related to terrorism. I saw a video retrieved from one of the family phones of the youngest child, who must have been seven or eight, perhaps younger, it is difficult to see. It is footage, apparently, taken by J, the child who is now nearly 16, of her younger brother being made to eat a raw chilli by his older sister, R. The young people around him seem to be totally unconcerned about the pain which it is causing him and the distress that he is showing. Anyone who has inadvertently bitten into a piece of raw chilli in a meal knows that it causes intense pain to the mouth, a very sensitive area. There is laughing in the background. It is not just that this was done, and it is a wholly inappropriate form of punishment, but that it does not seem to have evoked any form of sympathy or empathy at all. RX suggested that this might have been a punishment for some kind of religious transgression, but I cannot say. I am, of course, conscious that children used to have their mouths washed out with soap for swearing in the old days and I appreciate that treatment of children, which we would regard now as barbaric, was considered to be appropriate in the past. Nonetheless, the combination of features, lack of feeling for the victim, group participation in this punishment and it being filmed, no doubt for some form of record or enjoyment, gives rise to a very uncomfortable feeling indeed. It chimes with my sensation that there a nastiness about some of the attitudes in this family.
  2. I am also very struck by the father’s reaction to the discovery of this material. According to the father he has scarcely asked R why she has had this material on the phone, and took some time to even state that he had. The point is made by Mr. de Burgos that she is an adult and is entitled to do what she wants, but I would have thought that the father would want to enquire as to why his daughter had such interests, particularly because he is a loving father and the children have always been closely tied to the home and also, obviously, feel a high degree of responsibility for him. He does not seem to have tackled this issue at all, and the most likely explanation is that access to these kinds of images and their sharing was part of the norm. Furthermore, he told me that his little son had never told him about the chilli incident. He had not spoken to R or, indeed, any of the other children about why the video had been taken or what had been going on, or why she had punished L in this way. If that is true, it shows at the least a remarkable derogation of parental responsibility and lack of interest in what has been happening. His lack of interest strongly suggests that this was a form of punishment that was part of the norm within this family.
  3. DS has told me that all the electronic devices in the family were open to all members of the family. The father said that they were password protected. RT told me that he overrode one password. I am not prepared to accept that the children did not have access to this kind of material. I cannot say for certain whether they had. There is no actual evidence that they did. It may be unlikely that they would try to break into password protected material, but it may have been very easily available.
  4. It is highly likely that the children were shown it. I say that in particular because, during the family’s Eid celebration, there is a video of the family in front of the cake and a particular film being shown on the television. There are photographs of the family living room decorated with the Black flag bearing the Arabic word ‘shahada’. The father says that this was just part of a continuous streaming through YouTube or music that he wanted to listen to. Whether that is so, I am not going to decide, but let us assume that it is. It showed the ISIS flag and a black-clad figure against a desert background. It is very similar to some of the photographs found online and a very obvious approbation of the ISIS regime. Pro-Caliphate speeches can be heard in the background. The flag, the father accepts, which pictures the seal of the Prophet, is, as far as he knows, and as any of us know, only used by ISIS and not by any other group. So although it may incorporate a perfectly acceptable and holy image, it has very obvious connotations if shown on the screen. The children seemed to me to be looking at the screen in the photograph. The father says they were interested in the cake, but this video was very obviously there, right in front of their faces, and available to be watched. The father says that he was not interested in the background; he was merely interested in the “Nasheed”, the religious songs which accompany it. I do not find that an acceptable explanation. At the very least, the father was extremely careless about what he exposed his children to, but it is far more likely that this was a form of entertainment which the family wanted to look at and was available to the younger children as well.

 

 

We learn even that during the care proceedings, the father was posting pro Islamic State material on his Twitter feed, which he claimed was in protest at the way the English Courts were treating him and his family.

 

In case you are wondering, the later judgment

 

Re Y Children Radicalisation 2018

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/3825.html

 

shows that all three of the younger children were made the subjects of Care Orders and placed in care.

Cross-examining alleged victim without a lawyer

 

Readers may remember a long-running issue about the fact that in crime, an alleged perpetrator of rape is banned from cross-examining the alleged victim whereas we have ended up in private family law of that being something that is not only not banned but cropping up more and more as an issue, because the Government cut legal aid.  Readers might also remember that following a campaign in the Guardian, the Lord Chancellor at that time declared that legislation would be introduced to fix that problem. The draft legislation was drawn up, and then the Government decided to embark on the Greatest Political Idea of All Time TM, in which in order to increase their working majority, they held an election years early and converted said working majority into a hung Parliament.

I’m afraid that I can’t see the draft legislation now for all of the long grass that it is hiding within. Anyone in the Press want to remind the Government that they promised to fix this mess and haven’t?

 

Apologies in advance for pedants – the law report uses McKenzie Friend and MacKenzie Friend completely interchangeably and nobody in the Court of Appeal seems to have corrected this.  It should be Mc, NOT Mac.  /Furiously checks document

This is an appeal where the father in a set of private law proceedings was accused of having raped the mother and he denied it. He did not have a lawyer, but did have a McKenzie Friend. Should the McKenzie Friend have been given rights of audience and allowed to cross-examine the mother?

 

 

Panini McKenzie Friend stickers album – “Got, got, need, got, oh NEEED”

 

(actually, the sticker should have been one of Duncan’s friends, not Mr McKenzie himself….)

 

Re J (Children) 2018

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/115.html

  1. There was no objection to the father having the assistance of a Mackenzie Friend and no objection to the identity of the particular Mackenzie Friend involved who, indeed, the judge described as “obviously a very experienced Mackenzie Friend”. The issue related to what, if any, rights of audience the Mackenzie Friend might be afforded.
  2. It is now well known that difficulties exist where challenge is made by a litigant in person, who is identified as the perpetrator of serious abuse, and that challenge falls to be put in cross-examination to the key witnesses who support those allegations. The case law on this topic was developing during the currency of the present proceedings and, by July 2015, this court had given judgment in the case of Re K and H (Children) [2015] EWCA Civ 543 which rejected the suggestion that there was jurisdiction in the court to direct that HMCTS, or indeed any other agency, should provide public funding for limited legal representation. HHJ Allweis noted that decision and rehearsed the key details of it in his short judgment. He noted that ‘the case is a difficult one in which, in extremely broad terms, the parents make serious allegations against each other’. He focused upon the application for rights of audience for his McKenzie Friend made by this father in these proceedings at paragraph 15 of that judgment in these terms:
    1. “15. The idea of a McKenzie Friend, however articulate and experienced, either cross-examining a parent accusing a partner of serious sexual violence or indeed serious physical violence, or even of cross-examining the parties’ 16 year old child if in due course X gives evidence against his father, is highly unpalatable and this court would be very disturbed by that prospect. [The McKenzie Friend] has suggested that he has been given rights of audience frequently by judges and I pressed him as to whether this had ever happened in Greater Manchester. In effect he said that it had not and that there may be geographical differences. I told him in no uncertain terms that I have never come across it in Greater Manchester and this court, of course, is one of the busiest, if not the busiest, family court in the country.”
  3. The judge then reminded himself of the relevant practice guidance on McKenzie Friends ([2010] 2 FLR 962), in which the President, at paragraph 4, states that McKenzie Friends may not, inter alia, “address the court, make oral submissions or examine witnesses”.
  4. The judge refused the application saying:
    1. “19. At the end of the day, for the reasons I have given, the application is refused. I contemplate with profound disquiet, and that is putting it pretty mildly if I may say so, the prospect of a McKenzie Friend, in effect with rights of audience, cross-examining a mother in relation to serious and complex allegations, let alone a teenage child of the parties if and when X gives evidence so the application is refused.”

 

 

What ended up happening in the case is that the finding of fact hearing never took place, because of the anxieties the Court had about how the mother could be questioned about these events. By the conclusion of the private law proceedings, the children were expressing very strong views about their father

 

  1. The judge provided an extensive summary of the NYAS worker’s report which recorded that the children were “extremely loyal to their mother” and adamantly against contact. So far as A is concerned the judge said:
    1. ‘A gave [NYAS worker] a statement he had prepared and said no-one had read. He would be delighted to give evidence against his father. Despite what he said, it appeared later in the report that the children, which really means A and B, had written at the suggestion of their mother acting on advice from her solicitor. … What I do note is that A’s statement … even assuming that what A was saying factually was true, is a very disturbing document to read. It has the imprint of his mother’ accusations. However, even allowing for the possibility of him imbibing unquestioningly all his mother had said, he nevertheless presents as an intelligent and fiercely independent young man’.

The judgment continues by describing the content of the statement the force of A’s negative opinion of the father that is expressed within it, before recording the judge’s overall opinion that the statement

‘is an extremely distressing read – I am not sure I have seen such a vitriolic condemnation of a parent by a teenager for many a long year.’

  1. The judge’s detailed summary of the children’s wishes and feelings, as described by the NYAS worker, continued by setting out B’s wishes, which were in line with his older brother. The youngest child, C, was also ‘clear that she did not want to see’ her father. The judge’s account of her wishes includes the following:
    1. ‘She wrote that she wanted all the bad things dad had caused to go away. She wished they had never gone to the refuge and she wished she did not have nightmares about dad. She did not want to see him EVER (ever in capital letters). No-one could drag her kicking and screaming to see her father. On the second visit she was even more emotional and angry.’

 

At the Court of Appeal, the father had the assistance of his McKenzie Friend and the Court of Appeal were complimentary about the help that the McKenzie Friend had given to the Court.

 

  1. For some time now the Court of Appeal has normally granted rights of audience to a bona fide McKenzie Friend. The experience of doing so has been very largely positive in that those McKenzie Friends who have taken on the role of advocate have done so in a manner which has assisted both the court and the individual litigant, as, indeed, was the case in the present appeal. Although it may have become the norm at this appellate level to grant rights of audience, that should not greatly impact upon the altogether different issue of rights of audience at first instance, particularly in a fully contested hearing. Assisting a litigant to marshal and present arguments on appeal is a wholly different task from acting in the role of counsel in a trial.

 

The Court of Appeal recognised the vexed issues that this case threw up.

 

  1. Direct questioning of an alleged victim by the alleged perpetrator has long been considered to be a highly undesirable prospect by family judges. It was contemplation of that process which led Roderic Wood J to flag the problem up in the first place in H v L & R. In Q v Q and in Re K and H, the need to look for alternative acceptable means for cross examination led to the court sanctioning orders against HMCTS. It is clear that the experience of those judges who have felt forced to permit direct questioning from an alleged abuser is extremely negative. In very recent times Hayden J, in Re A (above) has concluded that, following his experience in that case, he is not prepared to contemplate repeating the process in any subsequent case. Hayden J’s clear and eloquent observations deserve wide publication:
    1. ’57. As I have made clear above it was necessary, in this case, to permit F to conduct cross examination of M directly. A number of points need to be highlighted. Firstly, F was not present in the Courtroom but cross examined by video link. Secondly, M requested and I granted permission for her to have her back to the video screen in order that she did not have to engage face to face with F. Thirdly, F barely engaged with M’s allegations of violence, choosing to conduct a case which concentrated on undermining M’s credibility (which as emerges above was largely unsuccessful).

58. Despite these features of the case, I have found it extremely disturbing to have been required to watch this woman cross examined about a period of her life that has been so obviously unhappy and by a man who was the direct cause of her unhappiness. M is articulate, educated and highly motivated to provide a decent life for herself and her son. She was represented at this hearing by leading and junior counsel and was prepared to submit to cross examination by her husband in order that the case could be concluded. She was faced with an invidious choice.

59. Nothing of what I have said above has masked the impact that this ordeal has had on her. She has at times looked both exhausted and extremely distressed. M was desperate to have the case concluded in order that she and A could effect some closure on this period of their lives and leave behind the anxiety of what has been protracted litigation.

60. It is a stain on the reputation of our Family Justice system that a Judge can still not prevent a victim being cross examined by an alleged perpetrator. This may not have been the worst or most extreme example but it serves only to underscore that the process is inherently and profoundly unfair. I would go further it is, in itself, abusive. For my part, I am simply not prepared to hear a case in this way again. I cannot regard it as consistent with my judicial oath and my responsibility to ensure fairness between the parties.’

  1. Hayden J’s words demand respect, both because they come for a highly experienced family lawyer and judge, but also because of the force with which they were expressed following immediately upon first-hand experience of observing an alleged victim being directly cross examined by her alleged perpetrator and despite the significant degree of protection the court had sought to provide for her.

 

 

In deciding whether the Judge was wrong to refuse the McKenzie Friend rights of audience to conduct the cross-examination of the mother, the Court of Appeal decided that he was not

 

  1. In between the option of direct questioning from the alleged abuser and the alternative of questioning by the judge sits the possibility of affording rights of audience to an alleged abuser’s McKenzie Friend so that he or she may conduct the necessary cross examination. The possibility of a McKenzie Friend acting as an advocate is not referred to in PD12J and, as has already been noted, the guidance on McKenzie Friends advises that, generally, courts should be slow to afford rights of audience. For my part, in terms of the spectrum of tasks that may be undertaken by an advocate, cross examination of a witness in the circumstances upon which this judgment is focussed must be at the top end in terms of sensitivity and importance; it is a forensic process which requires both skill and experience of a high order. Whilst it will be a matter for individual judges in particular cases to determine an application by a McKenzie Friend for rights of audience in order to cross examine in these circumstances, I anticipate that it will be extremely rare for such an application to be granted.

  1. For the reasons that were given earlier, if the complaint in Ground ‘B’ is that the McKenzie Friend should have been permitted rights of audience in order to cross examine the mother and A, I do not consider that the judge’s decision is open to challenge on any basis. Such an application should rarely, if ever, be granted. The material before us falls short of establishing that there was a blanket policy in place in Manchester prohibiting the grant of rights of audience to McKenzie Friends to cross examine key witnesses. If the judge’s observations are no more than a report that, from his knowledge, such an application had never been granted in Manchester, then, on the basis of the view that I have expressed, that would not be surprising.
  2. If, on the other hand, the judge can be taken to have refused any rights of audience to the McKenzie Friend, on the basis that the local practice was never to grant any form of rights of audience, then, again for the reasons that I have given, the judge was in error. Each application for rights of audience should be determined on the basis of the specific factors that are in play in the individual case. Rights of audience may be granted for a particular hearing, or for a discrete part of a particular hearing, and a blanket policy of never granting such rights is not supported by the Practice Guidance or generally. Whilst it will be rare for full advocacy rights to be granted at a sensitive fact-finding trial, it may be an altogether different matter to permit a McKenzie Friend to address the court at a directions hearing.

 

The Court of Appeal did, however, find that the Court was wrong not to have resolved the factual dispute between the parties at a finding of fact hearing.  The appeal succeeded on that basis.

 

However, it was a pyrrhic victory, because the Court of Appeal ruled that because the children were still of the same strong views about contact as they had been 18 months earlier they saw no prospect of father re-establishing any contact (the children were now 16 and 11) and did not order a re-hearing.

Words fail me. (But I spend a long time telling you, via words, why) #verywellthenIcontradictmyself

Apply the handkerchief or scarf as directed by these fine gentlemen

Before you start this piece, could you briefly find some cloth? A scarf, or a clean tea-towel or anything of that ilk will do. Please tie it so that the bottom rests under your jaw and there is a knot at the top of your head – much like a cartoon character who is suffering from a toothache.

 

 

 

Why?

 

Because this case is so jaw-dropping I want to be sure that your jaw bone doesn’t actually leave your head.

 

Ready?

 

Here we go.

 

It is the original judgment from the case that went to the Court of Appeal because the social worker and police officer involved considered that the findings made against them by the Judge were career-threatening and that the process of making those findings was unfair.

 

The Court of Appeal said that the social worker and police officer needed to have been placed on notice that such strong findings were going to be made and have the chance to make representations about them beforehand, so THOSE findings were overturned. The social worker later made an application to sue the Lord Chancellor for judicial failings on the basis of vicarious liability.

 

On that basis, and in short, the complaint relates to the judge’s finding that SW and PO, together with other professionals and the foster carer, were involved in a joint enterprise to obtain evidence to prove the sexual abuse allegations irrespective of any underlying truth and irrespective of the relevant professional guidelines. The judge found that SW was the principal instigator of this joint enterprise and that SW had drawn the other professionals in. The judge found that both SW and PO had lied to the court with respect to an important aspect of the child sexual abuse investigation. The judge found that the local authority and the police generally, but SW and PO in particular, had subjected C to a high level of emotional abuse over a sustained period as a result of their professional interaction with her

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2016/11/20/judge-making-findings-about-a-witness-fair-trial/

 

 

This is the judgment, with the most dreadful findings about the social worker and police officer snipped out. Do not for one second think that this makes the judgment dull or removed of any controversy. There’s so much in it, it makes the mind boggle as to what was taken out.

Re W (fact-finding) [2014] EWHC 4347 (Fam) (17 October 2014)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/4347.html

 

(I’m not sure why it has taken 3 years to publish this – it was certainly held up until 2016 pending the appeal – I do understand that the Judge has passed away, which probably caused difficulties in editing the previous judgment, since normally the Judge who wrote it would do that)

 

 I thus hope that no court ever again has to see and hear what this court has seen and heard during the past weeks.

 

This was a care case involving five children, the main subject was C, who was a teenager. C had made serious sexual abuse allegations against three of the adults in the family.

 

There was a finding of fact hearing, and the evidence in the finding of fact hearing lasted 19 days. There were ten parties to that hearing, nine of whom were represented by silk and junior counsel.

 

 

 

 

  1. From a conventional beginning in front of HHJ Davies at the Luton County Court, the case has taken unprecedented twists and turns with the intervention of the Court of Appeal, a re-hearing in front of myself, and the collapse of that re-hearing after three days in the most dramatic manner. This occurred when a key social worker in the case contacted me directly by email through the court office to allege ‘corruption and malpractice’ within the local authority in relation to this particular case as well as other cases.

 

Is your jaw bandage still in place? I worry about you all, you know.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Following what was effectively a whistle-blower email sent to myself, the local authority sought to abandon the fact finding hearing and withdraw all allegations, saying that it could no longer rely on the key social worker as a witness of truth. The local authority’s counsel, Mr. Bain, withdrew from the case for professional reasons. Fresh counsel were then instructed; they withdrew the application by the local authority to abandon the proceedings, and thus these have continued ever since.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. The proceedings have been surrounded by suspicion and mistrust, for reasons which have become obvious. These emotions have been shared, it must be said, at times by the court, and have been exacerbated by serious problems about disclosure. Despite strict orders made by the court for full disclosure by the local authority, these have not been complied with in full. Indeed, more than 1,300 pages of important material were disclosed to the court during the current hearing, and 1,000 pages of these were disclosed only in the second week of this hearing, after Mr Geekie for the local authority organised a search of its premises following a social work assistant’s evidence. This failure to disclose added some three days to the case. Disclosure continued even into the fourth week of this hearing. Furthermore, many important documents have been shredded or are still missing.

 

 

 

  1. According to the lead social worker there were six, not four, ABE interviews of the child, C, as contended by the police and the local authority. Indeed, there is even the suggestion that an alleged meeting on the 30th September 2013, reported by social workers to have happened, may not have taken place at all. The court therefore has the unenviable task – unparalleled in the history of this particular tribunal – of deciding how many ABE interviews there were, and whether one meeting ever occurred.

 

I’ve seen many cases where Courts had to decide whether an ABE interview was conducted properly, where they had to decide whether leading questions were asked, whether it is reliable. I’ve never before heard of a Court having to decide HOW MANY ABE’s there were.

 

So much has gone wrong in this case. In fact, almost everything that could have gone wrong has, almost to the point of defying credulity. In consequence the court has no choice but to undertake the arduous task of scrutinising all aspects of the case very carefully. This judgment will therefore be longer than would normally be the case. This is for several reasons:

 

 

 

  1. a) Reaching the complex truth requires a detailed analysis of all that happened;

 

  1. b) In view of what they have suffered, those accused of serious abuse deserve nothing less;

 

  1. c) The consequences for individuals beyond the parties in the case, for example within the local authority and the police, may be profound;

 

  1. d) It is unlikely that any other will have the time or resources to trawl through the immense body of papers in the way the court has done, and thus what has been uncovered must be recorded fully;

 

  1. e) Lessons need to be learned so that what happened in this case never happens again.

 

  1. I am most grateful for the assistance given by all counsel in the case, both leading and junior, who have ably assisted the court in its unenviable task. I include in this commendation not only all those who appeared in front of me during the current hearing but also Mr. Giles Bain, who appeared for the local authority during the earlier part of these proceedings.

 

 

C had made allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Findings of fact were made by HH J Davies and those were overturned on appeal.

 

The Judge notes, dryly

 

 

 

  1. The reasons for the successful appeal are not relevant in this hearing save in one respect which I shall address shortly. Suffice it to say that the learned judge had before her four ring binders of documents when she heard the case. I have 18 ring binders. More importantly, relevant evidence was not placed before the learned judge and such evidence as was placed in front of her, as I shall determine in due course in this judgment, was highly incomplete and wholly inadequate.

 

So there was then a re-hearing, before His Honour Judge Arthur, sitting in the High Court. Here’s where it begins to go spectacularly wrong (as opposed to merely disastrously wrong)

 

 

33……On 31st January 2014 SW left the local authority employment. In the four months that followed I, who was now seized with the case, was asked by the local authority to give various directions, including directions for SW to provide a statement.

 

 

 

  1. By April, 2014 it became obvious to all that SW was reluctant to give a statement. On 14th May the court asked Mr. Bain, counsel for the local authority, to take instructions as to why that was, and in particular to inform the court whether there was anything in the circumstances in which she had left the local authority employment which had a bearing on the proceedings, and which might affect her credibility. Counsel faithfully relayed his instructions from the social work assistant sitting behind him, namely that SW had left in entirely amicable circumstances. ‘They were all sad to see her go, and asked her to stay working for the local authority.’

 

 

 

  1. In April 2014 the court permitted fresh matters to be included in the schedule of allegations to be proved. These related to evidence not before the court in June 2013. The first was that the mother had hit C with a rolling pin. The second listed general allegations of neglect by the parents of the younger children.

 

 

 

  1. On 27th May 2014 the final hearing began. On the third day of that hearing, on 29th May, the court suddenly received a ‘whistle-blower’ email from SW, directed to myself personally, in which she alleged corruption, malpractice and bad work practices by the local authority in respect of both C and T, and in respect of other matters too.

 

 

 

  1. On 30th May, having taken instructions, counsel for the local authority confirmed that the local authority no longer relied on SW as a witness of truth. It would robustly challenge some of her assertions in her email, and in the circumstances was no longer seeking further findings. It sought leave to withdraw their application for such findings to be determined. Unsurprisingly, the parents consented to this course of action, but the guardian for the younger children, who was absent from court, was not able to give instructions himself. In due course the guardian objected to the course proposed by the local authority.

 

 

The hearing collapsed on day 3 with LA counsel having to withdraw for professional reasons.

Something peculiar happened late (in week four) into the second attempt at it (this actually being the third attempt at the fact finding overall, as HH J Davies had already done one, overturned on appeal)

 

 

 

 

 

  1. In September 2014, in the fourth week of the hearing, to the surprise of all, counsel for the local authority suddenly put two very serious, entirely new allegations to the father in cross-examination. The first was that the father had been grooming “another child” A for sex, and secondly that C had conceived two babies while living at home. As the determination of these allegations would add little or no extra time to the proceedings, because they were so serious, and because the court believed they might assist in the assessment of the credibility of the witnesses, the court insisted the allegations should be articulated in the correct form and added formally to the schedule of allegations to be proved.

 

 

 

  1. At the conclusion of the evidence I invited all parties to set out, prior to written submissions, any concessions made by any party in relation to the evidence. In respect of the local authority, I asked them to set out any concessions about whether allegations were being pursued or not. The local authority was the only party to respond and did so with the following concessions:

 

 

 

  1. a) The local authority no longer sought to rely on any statement made by C in the three ABE interviews held in January 2014. This was subsequently clarified to include anything she said at the police station before or after the interviews, or in breaks, save, astonishingly, for comments about pregnancies and babies she may have made during a break in, or after, the interview on the 31st January, 2014.

 

  1. b) The local authority no longer pursued the allegations that the mother was aware of the abuse of T and chose to ignore it, and that the mother remonstrated with T on the 13th March, 2013. The local authority also abandoned the allegations of neglect of the three younger children.

 

  1. c) The local authority had already put in train preparations for a Serious Case Review of their conduct of the case. This would take place regardless of what findings were made.

 

I have not seen that Serious Case Review. I imagine that Luton are going to be receiving many many telephone calls from the Press wanting to see it.

 

There had been retractions from another child, T about the allegations. A LOT of retractions. Ten in all.

 

The Court of Appeal (in the appeal from HH J Davies) had given this advice about retractions

 

Re W (Fact-Finding Hearing: Hearsay Evidence) (2013) EWCA Civ 1374, (2014) 2FLR 703 at paragraph 25.

 

  1. Furthermore:

“The retraction of a complaint normally requires careful and specific consideration and this case was no exception. Obviously the fact that a complaint is subsequently retracted does not prevent a judge from accepting that it is in fact true but it gives rise to questions which must be addressed sufficiently fully and directly in the judge’s reasons so that one can be confident that the fact of the retraction has been given proper weight in the judge’s conclusions about the subject matter of the retracted allegation” [para 28].

 

 

The Judge comments on the SW evidence about the retractions (including the retractions made by another child, T)

 

 

 

  1. She was reminded that by 8th March T had retracted her supposed allegation. SW’s response was instant and dismissive, “It’s perfectly normal for victims to retract. We know it is common from victims”. Later she said, “I agree with the Court of Appeal that we should take retractions seriously”. From her demeanour, however, the court did not infer that she was in any way convinced by what she was saying. She further accepted that she had asked C whether she was worried about what had happened to T also happening to her. She saw nothing wrong with this question:

 

 

 

 

“It was in accordance with social worker practice… It is a practice all good social workers use… The fact that the court sometimes does not catch up with research is very unfortunate.”

 

 

The Court made these general comments about the SW evidence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Credibility of SW – court’s findings

 

  1. She was at times truculent and downright rude to counsel and to the court and sometimes quite threatening and menacing. She variously accused counsel for B of raising his eyebrows at her in an inappropriate manner (he was in fact doing no such thing), loudly demanded to know the names of all the counsel in court, said that she had ‘clocked what you lot are up to’, and accused the court and counsel of trying to prevent her having her say when, in fact, wholly proper efforts were being made to curtail seemingly unquenchable outpourings. She was dismissive and disdainful of correct social work practice and the way the court operated. She was liberal in blaming others for things that had gone wrong. Apart from blaming the court (by inference both HHJ Davies and the Court of Appeal), she blamed the police, other members of the local authority, teachers at C’s school, the school itself for obstructing her, (this was wholly unfounded), counsel for the parents and counsel for the guardian.

 

In the light of that, it is rather commendable that counsel for B was able to control his eyebrows. Mine would have been on the ceiling.

 

SW’s evidence – general matters

 

 

Her current memory of events

 

  1. She explained that she had been very reluctant to give evidence. In her tenth and last statement she had said that she could not trust the local authority case notes in view of the time lapse. She had resisted making that statement as she did not think she could usefully add anything, for now she could no longer recollect any details but, as the case had progressed, some matters had come back to her as she was questioned and shown documents, and so things had become more alive for her. Even so, she said that all the events with which the court was concerned took place over two years ago and she had not retained memories of the case in the same way she would have done if she was still the social worker. This is something she repeated many times during her evidence.

 

 

 

 

 

Disclosure of her own notes

 

  1. She was referred to the email of the local authority’s in-house counsel, Miss Manassi, on 28th February of this year which asked for her notes and said that a comprehensive statement would be needed from her. She was referred to the current President of the Family Division’s words twelve years ago, “Professionals should keep comprehensive notes. Social workers should routinely exhibit notes to statements”. SW said that, contrary to this, she had shredded all her notes. In fact, she had tried to shred all her notes on a daily basis when she worked for the local authority. She could not keep them because they might be stolen from her car or lost and she had no desk in the office where they could be kept. “I shredded notes because I did not need them”.

 

 

 

  1. Furthermore, in February 2014, Dawn Smith, her supervisor at Luton Borough Council, had told her to delete all her own records including all texts and emails from T. She deleted, she thought in all, about 500 texts to and from T. She was ordered to delete or shred all this material. She did so, she accepted, knowing that the proceedings were still underway and that a retrial of the sexual abuse allegation for C had been ordered, and that in relation to these T’s own allegations of sexual abuse against the father were relevant.

 

 

 

  1. She was reminded of one text in particular. T had alleged that SW had sent her a text telling her not to be in denial. Ms Lynne Jackson, the psychologist, had reported that this text had, in fact, been read out to her by T. SW said this:

 

 

 

 

“I knew all about this allegation of unprofessionalism and that T was saying this and other things too. I remember thinking whether I should delete this trail but I was told to”.

 

  1. In any event, she said she had never sent T this text.

 

 

 

  1. We have not heard from Dawn Smith. So whether or not SW was generally ordered to delete all her records, texts and emails still remains to be decided. Further investigation is needed. But the court notes that it seems very surprising that SW should have deleted a trail of texts which would have exculpated her from this particular accusation. (For the avoidance of doubt, I make no findings that any member of staff obstructed the Local Authority.)

 

[So I should make it clear that SW was alleging that she had destroyed all her emails and texts because the manager had told her to, but the Court didn’t hear evidence from the manager about this and didn’t make any findings. I have a little bit of sympathy about the handwritten notes- social workers don’t have paper files any more, and most of them don’t have their own desks any longer. Everything is on computer and workers hot-desk. Whilst the President did say 12 years ago that handwritten notes should routinely be exhibited to SW statements, there are not many Judges who would thank social workers for doing that. There’s no way that one can do that and comply with the 350 page limit. I would suggest that handwritten notes, particularly of conversations with children or adults about allegations ought to be scanned and kept, if they are not contemporaneously typed up]

 

Interviewing a child

 

  1. She was aware that, with a child who has learning difficulties, the interviewer has to be very careful of suggestibility. She said she herself would have been outraged if anyone had asked C leading questions, “One should be sensitive of this” she said emphatically. She was reminded that, according to Miss G, she had hundreds of conversations with C, some of which referred to sexual abuse or abuse allegations. SW assumed that Miss G would have had the appropriate training about how to talk to children who had made allegations. The school should have given her advice about this. The social workers were quite disappointed with the school about a lack of training and had to discuss giving general training to the staff at the school or arranging for that to take place.

 

 

 

  1. SW was very strident when giving evidence about how allegations of child abuse should be dealt with. She said, “Research shows that we must be more direct with children in abuse cases”. This was accepted in her social work team at the local authority. Dr. Van Rooyen, a psychiatrist in the instant case, too had said they have to be ‘more direct’ with the child. She said, “I suspected that she meant we had to talk to C and perhaps initiate conversations”. She then seemed to contradict this by saying, “We had to wait for C to speak, we know”.

 

 

 

  1. She repeatedly referred to research by Keir Starmer, a former Director of Public Prosecutions. “His work should be accepted by the court”, she said. Her tone and demeanour made it clear that she was very critical of the courts. Later she said the social worker should keep an open mind in investigations like this. She hoped that she herself had kept an open mind. When asked whether it was her working hypothesis that C and T were sexually abused, she said that C’s behaviour especially was indicative of abuse but she repeated, she hoped she had kept an open mind. Her actual words which follow are important. Her tone was distinctly barbed as she uttered them:

 

 

 

 

“I do not know whether C was abused or not. As her voice in social care I am directed by our research at the local authority even though the court may not be… C’s behaviour led to a very strong correlation with sexual abuse. The first time she presented as a victim of sexual abuse was on 17th December.”

 

  1. When asked what was indicative of sexual abuse on that occasion she answered:

 

 

 

 

“C’s behaviour. I was hearing all sorts of things from the school and what she had done… It’s the skill of a social worker to ascertain what is the likely cause of her behaviours.’

 

 

 

Use of the word “disclosure”

 

  1. She said:

 

 

 

 

“I was told this judge doesn’t like the use of the word ‘disclosure’ for allegations by children. I understand that courts in general don’t like the use of the word ‘disclosure’.” She had not read the Cleveland report of 1987 and did not know if it criticised the use of the word “disclosure” by professionals.

 

(It does disappoint me that a social worker dealing with a sexual abuse investigation would never have read the Cleveland report, but I can’t say hand on heart that I’m astounded by it. I do think there’s a general lack of understanding that ‘allegation’ should be used instead of ‘disclosure’ and why that is – broadly that disclosure as a word is perjorative – it implies truth. I can disclose that I ate your Jaffa Cakes (because it is true), I can’t disclose that I walked on the surface of Mars. So if I say that Mr X punched me, you don’t know whether it is true until the Court have decided it – it is an allegation at that point, not a disclosure. )

 

There was a very peculiar exchange about SW’s first meeting with C.

17th December 2012

 

  1. I must examine the events of this day very carefully, for they set the tone for what was to follow and go to heart of the case. This was the day of SW’s first meeting with C. The case had been closed by the local authority a couple of weeks before following earlier complaints by C. On the 14th December, as we know, the school told the local authority that C was still unhappy and did not want to go home. When she was allocated the case, probably on Friday 14th, SW skimmed through the electronic file provided to her by the local authority. She would have done this as quickly as possible, she said. (The court notes that this file was in fact just seven pages – a very short file indeed, and would not have taken long to read fully.) Part of this short file comprised the handover notes of Fiona Johnson, the previous social worker. These were reported as follows:

 

 

 

 

  1. a) C had alleged being hit, though the school believed there were no marks ever left on her. According to her, everyone seemed to cause her upset. The family upset her and all the family hurt her, except for D. Her brothers, especially B, beat her up.

 

  1. b) Other children had all been spoken to and all had said that they had never been hit by the parents.

 

  1. c) C had reported no major health issues.

 

  1. d) There were no concerns about A.

 

  1. e) All the other children were happy at home.

 

  1. SW appears not to have accepted this. ‘I wondered if C was unhappy, did it mean that the other children were unhappy.’ On skim-reading the notes, ‘I wondered if something was going on.’ Although, she accepted that there was nothing in the notes to this effect, it was her impression on reading them that this was Mrs Johnson’s impression too. So she had gone to the meeting believing that there was more she needed to understand about C’s self-harm, and about the pictures and drawings which she had drawn and made at the school. She had no idea of what this might be. She was asked whether she had any suspicions and there was a noticeable pause before she answered, “No” but she then added, “But we can partner certain behaviours with certain types of abuse”.

 

 

 

  1. On the second page of the seven pages of files notes handed on from Mrs Johnson, there is mention that, “The child has a bit of a fixation with Miss G”. The note also referred to Facebook entries which needed to be dealt with. SW said she did not recall this entry or how she had dealt with it. At any rate she had not known whether the fixation comment was correct or not. She was quite dismissive in giving evidence about this topic, the court noted from her demeanour. It is obvious that she did not think, and has never thought, it to be of any relevance whatsoever.

 

 

 

  1. SW duly met C at school in the presence of Miss Z on the 17th December, 2012. The child was anxious and ‘difficult to engage in so many ways”, she elaborated. She found the meeting very difficult. Sometimes her head was down, she was kicking the chair, her head was behind her ‘hoodie’, she was challenging and unwilling to talk about anything. Most of the time she was ‘a shrinking violet’. She seemed frightened and anxious and unwilling to talk and engage. There were very long silences. Nonetheless SW that she wanted to engage. In spite of this, the meeting took what the court considers a quite extraordinarily long time. According to SW, it started at 12 noon and ended at 3:30 or 4 p.m. (The note she wrote in her car afterwards was timed at 3:30 p.m.) During those 3½ hours she had left the room to contact the child abuse unit at Luton Borough Council and in particular Mr Graham Cole, the head of legal services there. And of course a lot of time, she repeated, there was, silence. As her evidence progressed, the court’s impression was that she trying to row back from her original time estimate. Eventually she said that the interview was perhaps ‘1½ hours, maybe shorter, maybe longer’. C had been given the chance to leave the meeting several times. Once she did leave but returned of her own volition. In this meeting it was difficult to understand what C said. Miss Z would say what C had said and C would either nod or shake her head. She soon realised that C hated to be asked to repeat what she had said. Neither she nor Miss Z took a note during the meeting, “It would be an abnormal thing for a social worker to take notes when interviewing a child other than during an ABE interview.’

 

 

 

  1. At 3.30pm, in her car, she made notes of the meeting. It was her practice to note down as soon as possible the important points of an interview note, which appears to two pages, is one of the few handwritten notes by her before the court:

 

 

 

 

“Very difficult meeting”, “Comes in when no one is there”, “Does stuff, bad stuff”, “Really bad things”, “Secrets”, “Where’s mum? Downstairs, out”, “Have you tried to talk to her about it? No point”, “Not allowed to talk about it”, “Couldn’t expand”, “Hits me. Kicks”, “Notice leg was sore, limping a little. Said dad had kicked/hit her last Sunday”, “Wouldn’t show me”, “Appeared very frightened/frozen”, “Didn’t want anyone to know what she’d said”, “Wanted to go into foster care”, “Hate family, hate mum, hate him”, “Gets beaten up at home – brothers, dad”, “Doesn’t feel safe at home”, “Does not feel there is anyone she could turn/talk to at home”, “Said she wanted to die”, “Does stuff he shouldn’t”, “Happened more than once”.

 

  1. A crucial element in this case revolves around what SW said in her statement of 20th December, 2012 about the interview three days before. The relevant part of the statement reads as follows:

 

 

 

 

“[C] disclosed sexual abuse by her father during this meeting. She told me that her father comes up to her room and does really bad things. Through discussion it was established that she clearly understood that there were areas of her body that no one should touch and this is where her father touched her. [C] found it extremely hard to expand on this although did manage to share that her father told her that she must not tell anyone and that the bad things would happen if she did. It was also established that [C] knew about her body, her sexual organs and other people’s. After ensuring I was confident [C] knew what sexual abuse was, she confirmed that this is what had been happening to her.”

 

  1. When it was pointed out to her that the handwritten notes make no mention of sexual abuse, SW caused, it must be said, considerable consternation in court in all quarters by asserting that there was a page missing from her notes. There was definitely a third page, she remembered. She remembered the Local Authority solicitor, Ms Abana Sarma’s collecting this document. She was most concerned that this page was missing because this page dealt with the sexual abuse allegations made by C on 17th December. Furthermore, this page had been before HHJ Davies at her fact finding hearing in June, 2013.

 

 

 

  1. She was referred to a number of documents from the court bundle. First was a police note of 17th December which states, ” [C] did not disclose sexual abuse”. Then she was referred to the transcript of HHJ Davies’s judgment at the end of the 13th June, 2013 hearing, which made mention of the content of the two pages long since disclosed, but none of the contents of the apparently now missing third page. Furthermore, the transcript of that hearing shows that the father’s counsel cross-examined SW on the discrepancy between the note of 17th December interview which did not record sexual abuse being mentioned and her later assertion that C had alleged sexual abuse at the interview. Indeed, when SW was specifically questioned about the fact that her notes did not include any mention of sexual abuse, she did not refer to any missing page. She was again referred to the transcript of evidence given at the earlier hearing when she was specifically herself asked under oath whether in the discussion of 17th December C had elaborated on “bad things” and she had answered, “No, not at this point”. Nonetheless, she said, she would not agree that C only went as far as saying “bad things”, although she did not recall what other words C had used. It was two years ago.

 

 

 

  1. Mr. Geekie, for the local authority now rose and said that the local authority was totally unaware of any missing third page of notes. Indeed, he said the whole of the fact finding trial was conducted on the basis of the two pages of notes only. This accorded with the memory of all those counsel for the other parties who had been present at that earlier hearing. If that was not enough, it was pointed out by the Local Authority’s solicitor, and agreed by counsel who had been present at the earlier hearing before HHJ Davies, that the bundles that the court was using at the current hearing were those used then, merely brought up to date by the addition of further documents. The court bundles then and now, did and do not include any third page of notes.

 

 

 

  1. In spite of being faced with what might have been thought an especially daunting body of evidence, SW was not to be budged. She repeated that she had given the third page of notes to Ms Abana Sarma of the local authority, that it was definitely referred to during HHJ Davies’s hearing, and that the missing page had stated that C had alleged sexual abuse. She could see the second page in her mind’s eye. There were several entries on it. Furthermore, it was shown to the police at the strategy meeting shortly after 17th December 2012, even though the police record of what happened on that date says that no sexual abuse was alleged by the child.

 

 

 

  1. When further questioned, she accepted that pages one and two of the notes before the court were consecutive, and were a complete document, so the third page could not have been the middle page of the three. The missing page was, she said, a second note written at a different time in the interview. This was despite her earlier evidence that she had not taken notes during the interview, and that it was her practice never to do so during interviews. She said she had discussed the contents of the third page with the police and her team manager. She then said belligerently, “I want to know why the second page is missing”.

 

 

 

  1. She then added that, apart from words, she relied on the non-verbal signals from C; the self-harm, the fact that she walked out of the interview, the hiding behind the hoodie, the fact that she started and stopped saying things and the fact that she wanted to go into care. She said this:

 

 

 

 

“Because of her words, in my professional opinion I felt she was the victim or at risk of sexual abuse. It is important that a social worker should be brave enough to say this.”

 

  1. She was then rude to counsel saying, “I’ve clocked where you’re going a long time ago” and then to me, “I hope this court does this case justice”.

 

 

The Judge had to make findings about this

 

Findings about the 17th December interview

 

  1. As for SW’s contention that C alleged sexual abuse to a total stranger on this occasion, this is plainly mistaken. The police note of the same date specifically records that no sexual abuse was alleged. The application for an Emergency Protection Order dated the 20th December and signed by the Local Authority’s Head of Legal services does not say that sexual abuse was actually alleged, only that C’s remarks ‘were suggestive of sexual abuse’. The notes made by SW after the conversation make no mention of sexual abuse. Her contention that a page of notes is missing, and that this page was before HHJ Davies in the earlier hearing, is simply ludicrous, for this would have meant that all counsel and solicitors, not to mention HHJ Davies, must have, unless through quite startling collective amnesia, willfully colluded in ignoring vital evidence during the hearing, and that the learned judge deliberately omitted mention of it in her judgment. It is also ludicrous to suppose that, when writing her notes in her car, SW wrote down relatively trivial allegations, but omitted to record the infinitely more serious accusation of sexual abuse.

 

 

 

  1. The reality is that when one stands back and looks at what happened, one can see just how serious this situation was and is. Based in part on, the Local Authority now sought and obtained the peremptory removal of C from her family on the 20th December 2012, and the following day sought and obtained an Interim Care Order. In each case the tribunal notes show that the decision was made, in part, on the basis that C had alleged sexual abuse. The removal of children from their parents, especially without notice, is one of the most draconian actions any court can take. It strikes right at the heart of basic human rights, on family life; it is frightening and traumatic for the children involved, and profoundly distressing for parents and other family. Sadly, the courts are required from time to time to sanction such removal, but only when safety and urgency requires it. In making such urgent orders, the courts must rely on the accuracy of Local Authority evidence. Whilst they cannot know whether any allegation is true or false, the courts are entitled to be told the truth by Local Authorities as to whether such an allegation has been made at all. The Family Court and the child-care justice system cannot function if Local Authorities do not tell the truth about this, for justice will inevitably be perverted.

 

 

 

  1. Responsibility for this cannot be laid wholly at the feet of one social worker. Others in the Local Authority must share responsibility, although, as I have said, on the evidence before it, the Court cannot and will not apportion this to particular individuals. The court freely acknowledges that all Local Authorities’ resources are over-stretched, and that social-work professionals are often alarmingly over-worked and under time pressures. Nonetheless, there should have been proper, efficient supervision of SW. Furthermore, the application for an EPO did not record an actual allegation of sexual abuse, whilst an application of the same date for an ICO did. With proper supervision and scrutiny this discrepancy should surely have been picked up by senior professionals at Luton Borough Council

 

 

After the first finding of fact hearing, and knowing that there was an appeal pending, the SW went to see the child to talk about the findings that had been made. It gets worse

 

Telling C about HHJ Davies’s findings of the 22nd June 2013

 

  1. SW visited C immediately afterwards to tell her of the findings. This was on the advice of CAMHS. C said that ‘he did it to A too’. SW had known then that there was going to be an appeal, but C was desperate to know what had happened and she was worried that C was at risk of suicide. The note of that meeting reads as follows:

 

 

 

 

“I then began by telling her that the local authority, us, had, as she knew, concerns about a number of things but we had asked the court to make a judgment/decision on these. I asked C whether she knew what those concerns were, she nodded but I decided to go through these. I said from what you have told me so far and from what I have learned from working with you and your family, I have been concerned that you are a victim and have suffered sexual abuse. C looked at me eyes moist but intently listening, she nodded. I said the concerns were also that the person who caused this to you was your father. C starred very intently at me nodding again and I carried on. I said the judge decided that after hearing all of the information that it was mostly likely to have been him. C remained staring at me, eyes a little more moist and said, ‘It was’. I then said the judge also found/decided that this had happened to T. I clarified this and said that the judge decided it was more likely than not that your father had also sexually abused T. C remained looking intently at me. C then said, ‘He did it to A too. She told me and I promised to keep it a secret, you need to talk to A. I said that we would and could she tell me a bit more. C said, ‘I promised I would keep it a secret'”.

 

 

  1. She herself has always been adamant that it never happened. The court is wholly satisfied that she was never abused by her father. It follows, therefore, that either C herself was making up the allegation to please SW in the light of the learned judge’s findings, or SW was making it up. On the balance of probabilities, the court is satisfied that SW was, as usual, putting words in the child’s mouth and then pretending they had come from the child.

 

That’s an incredibly damning finding, and one that clearly survived the Court of Appeal decision. The SW was, as usual, putting words in the child’s mouth and then pretending they had come from the child. Incredibly damning.

 

On the total number of ABEs

How many ABE interviews were there in January 2014?

 

  1. SW’s initial evidence was that there were six ABE interviews of C in all. One was on 4th October when “C said nothing” and another five in January 2014. When she returned to complete her evidence a few days later, she disclosed further documentation she said she had found at home, as well as her mobile phone she brought to court her 2014 diary and some loose sheets of paper she said she had found in the 2013 diary. She had not brought her 2013 diary with her to court as she did not think it was necessary.

 

 

 

  1. It was interesting that some of the loose pages of typed notes do not appear in or are cross-referenced to the documents previously disclosed by the local authority. She was asked how she had typed these notes. She said she would ‘audibly’ type notes on the local authority’s Care First system and sometimes this would go down and so she would type the notes on a standard word document format and transfer them later onto the system. Many times she was asked by the local authority to type up her documents on her own computer. She complained about being required to do this by the local authority to their legal department. When she did type documents at home, she never saved them. She would scan them and then ask someone else to scan them into the system back in the office. She would have expected all the loose pages found by her to be on the local authority’s Care First system. She typed up the notes of every substantial meeting with C and would expect them all to be on the system. She did not know why these notes were not on the system.

 

 

 

  1. She referred to her 2014 diary and to a number of entries in it. These contain the words, “C ABE on…” and then five dates …’ 23rd 27th, 28th, 29th and 31st January’. There are question marks next to the 27th, 28th and 29th January. She explained that the question marks were because the social workers were not sure whether C wanted to go through with the interviews. She still believed that C had done five ABE interviews in January, and six in all if the October ABE interview was counted, for that was what her records showed. She said, “My memory was that it went on for several days in January… I am ‘sure’ it was six interviews in all”. For the avoidance of doubt, there were no times when they took C to a police station and an interview did not take place.

 

 

 

  1. She later was referred in due course to her a file note of 12th December, 2013 which reads as follows, “C has now completed five ABE interviews, disclosed rape by father and V. She has also said she has been pregnant twice”. The date of 12th December 2013 does not make sense in the context of the timescale, the court notes. As to the substance of the note, SW commented that the reference here to five ABE interviews, “accords with my recollection. I recall five that week”. She then changed her evidence, something she did very frequently whenever she was in the witness box, saying that there had been, in fact, one attempted ABE interview that week in January and one aborted ABE interview. Added to those ABE interviews for which we have recordings and transcripts, that made six ABE interviews in all.

 

 

 

  1. It shows the extraordinary nature of this case that the court has had to consider whether C was ABE interviewed three or five times in January 2014. The evidence of the police officers, SWA ‘Y’ and Miss G collectively suggest that were but three. SW believes there were five. I prefer their collective memory. Accordingly I find that there were four ABE interviews only

 

It won’t surprise any reader to know that that the ABEs were very flawed – with leading questions, pressure, questions about things that weren’t alleged, the child being praised for giving answers that the questioners wanted to hear, disappointment from professionals where the child wasn’t making allegations (those being described as ‘failed ABEs)

 

And on the number of times C was interviewed about her allegations

Findings about the January ABE Interviews

 

  1. Save with one exception, the local authority does not rely on anything said in these interviews.

 

 

 

  1. It is submitted by Mr. Storey that C underwent literally hundreds of interviews. This is partly based on Miss G’s agreement that she had hundreds of interviews/discussions herself with C. The court is satisfied that this is, in fact, an exaggeration. The court must be cautious not to confuse spontaneous remarks made by a child or short informal chats with formal questioning. Nonetheless, doing its best, the court is satisfied that the child has had no fewer than 33 interviews about abuse with one or other social worker between 17th December 2012 and 31st January 2014. By “interviews” I mean either formal interviews or detailed question and answer discussions which went beyond the odd throwaway mark, or the odd question and reply. In addition, there appear to have been five similar discussions of a detailed nature with school teachers, seven with a foster carer and, of course, with Dr. van Rooyen and one with PO. On top of this, there were four ABE interviews. This makes, if the court’s mathematics is correct, an alarming total of 51. 12 of them were conducted wholly by untrained interlocutors in the form of the foster carer and the school teachers, and the rest were professionals whose ability to follow guidelines seems to have been non-existent. In addition, there can be no doubt that there were many, many other informal unreported conversations at school, in the foster home and when social workers brought C to and from school, which happened ’99 per cent of the time’.

 

 

 

  1. Furthermore, the court’s criticism is directed not only to those who conducted the interviews, but to those who sat outside and saw and listened to what happened: the social workers and teachers in the room next door. As professionals working in the field of childcare, they should have intervened to stop the 28th and 31st January interviews. They did not.

 

 

 

  1. Quite apart from the content of the interviews which were recorded, it is thoroughly reprehensible what was said before, during breaks and after the recorded parts was either inadequately noted, or not noted at all. The court is wholly satisfied that relevant matters were discussed at the police station at these times. All the professionals seemed to have operated on the false premise that what was said outside the interview room did not count.

 

 

As has been mentioned earlier, at around week four of the finding of fact hearing, an allegation was made that C had been pregnant twice. By the end of the hearing, the Local Authority were not relying on anything said by C in her ABE or other interviews other than this.

 

Findings about the 31st January pregnancy allegations

 

  1. It is incomprehensible to the court that the local authority, having conceded that no reliance should be placed on what was said by C during the three January ABE interviews, in the talks before it, in breaks or afterwards, should seek to rely on one short interchange about pregnancies, which took place during or immediately after the 31st January interview. How can a few words only, during or at the end of one of them, be exempted? It seems to the court illogical and perverse.

 

 

 

 

  1. The evidence about this episode is far from complete. Nonetheless, the court is satisfied that either during a break or at the end of the 31st January ABE interview, C made drawings and said things which led the police and the social workers to believe that she was alleging that she had been pregnant twice when she was much younger, and had either born two babies or lost them for one reason or another. Their names were Jack and Rose. She had also been given the morning-after pill. We do not know precisely what C said because the note-taking was hopelessly inadequate. The allegations were and have been taken seriously, for allegations that C conceived twice were added to the schedule of findings to be sought during the currency of the present hearing. Yet these allegations seemed, as was put to IO ‘W’, to have disappeared into the ether until they were unearthed late in the day.

 

 

 

  1. These allegations were very, very serious. So why was it that the first the court and the parties knew of this issue was during the hearing? Why did no social worker or police officer ever mention it? Why does it appear in no statements? The answer, regrettably, must be, not because the allegations were made outside a formal ABE interview, but because the local authority and the police realised only too well that they were ludicrous. They simply could not be true. They did not fit in with C’s medical records or the age when she attained puberty.

 

One of the other children, T, gave evidence

 

 

 

 

  1. T in her oral evidence disputed much of SW’s evidence about this meeting. She was particularly adamant that on 1st February 2013 she had never mentioned sexual abuse by the father. They had not really talked about this at all. Furthermore, she had never told SW that she had reported the abuse to her mother. “This was wrong!” Nor had she ever said that her mother had sent her off to live with her Aunt B, because of the abuse, nor was SW’s note accurate when it recorded that T had said that Aunt B had not believed her until she caught it out actually happening. “I did not say these things”.

 

 

 

  1. T then denied that she had ever told SW that the sexual abuse was the reason why she did not get on with her parents and why she would not leave her children with them. The reason she did not get on with her parents was, “because they always have a go at me’. She clarified this by explaining that her parents had not approved of her sleeping with a boyfriend from school. When she had left home she did it not because she was forced to and because she wanted to. Furthermore, she had, indeed, left her children in the mother and father’s care on many occasions. Indeed, she had not had a conversation with SW about her own children at all.

 

 

 

  1. During this part of her evidence, the court noted that T spoke with particular conviction. The court accepts her version of what was said, not least because the pattern here is similar to what happened on the 17th December.

 

 

 

  1. T did not like this. SW was aware of that. On 5th February 2013 she rang T, “To tell her that she did not have to do anything she did not want to”. This was in response to a telephone call from the mother to the Local Authority earlier that day. The next day, 6th February, the Local Authority received a typed letter signed by T. The key passage of that letter is as follows:

 

 

 

 

“SW from the children’s social services department in Luton keeps ringing me and keeps trying to contact me regarding me to make a statement about my dad, F, saying he had molested me at a young age to which of my knowledge none of this has happened. I am not willing to make a statement as it would be a false allegation. In my eye SW is dealing with my sister’s case, C, as she has no success in that one she is trying to manipulate and intimidate me to make a statement which I will not do. I would like SW to have no contact with me.”

 

  1. For reasons I shall give later, I am satisfied that this letter did genuinely reflect T’s feelings. Furthermore, I am wholly satisfied that T did not make any allegations of sexual abuse on the 1st February 2013.

 

 

 

I could do an entire post about the flaws in the ABEs, to be honest, but there’s just so much in this judgment. I will end with the concluding remarks

 

 

 

 

Concluding observations

 

  1. One can only pray that the adults, and children, may recover from their unimaginable ordeal, though I fear that they will carry the scars of their suffering for the rest of their lives. As for C, with her underlying problems, the damage may well be irreparable. So much now needs to be done to see what damage can be repaired and how family relationships can be restored.

 

 

 

  1. This court has no jurisdiction over C beyond this fact-finding. But that cannot prevent my emphasising how urgent it is that her case be re-opened. The existing care order was made on the basis of incomplete evidence. The parents’ approach in not opposing the order was adopted in ignorance of the true facts. This injustice must be rectified.

 

 

 

  1. The court cannot entrust the care of children to those who abuse or fail to protect them. That applies to local authorities as much as to family members. Parties must have faith in those who care for their children.

 

 

 

  1. The local authority have already undertaken to commence forthwith a Serious Case Review, and rightly so. But it must go further.

 

 

 

  1. This situation poses grave dangers for family justice. Valuable court time is taken up weighing such breaches against the evidence and of course, there is the risk that not only may false information be garnered in interview, but that genuine allegations may be so contaminated that they cannot be relied upon. Those who permit their employees to question children and vulnerable witness must therefore be certain that not only have they received the standard training but they understand what it means in practice.

 

 

 

  1. This case has taken up an inordinate amount of the court’s time, but rightly so in the circumstances. Yet the cost to the public purse in one form or another will be immense. There has been a significant disruption of court lists, with other cases being delayed. Family justice cannot perform the vital task it does in protecting children without honesty, objectivity, transparency and fairness. I thus hope that no court ever again has to see and hear what this court has seen and heard during the past weeks.

 

 

Guardian and Child’s Solicitor get strong (and justified) bashing from High Court

This is a Keehan J decision in the High Court.

It is pretty rare for a Judge to criticise a Guardian, and I can’t recall a case before where a Child’s Solicitor was criticised in a judgment. This is full on judicial dissection. And in my humble opinion, utterly warranted.

The case involved a child who was 13 and had learning difficulties. There was also a sibling, Y. There were serious allegations of abuse made by the child against the father. Achieving Best Evidence interviews had been conducted.

Most of the case is very fact specific, so I won’t go into it, (and the hearing lasted 20 days, so there was a LOT of it) but the part that has wider application is what happened towards the end of the case.

The father, understandably, made an application for the child X to give evidence. The Court set down a Re W hearing to decide whether the child should or should not give evidence. The Court directed the Guardian to meet with the child and to provide a report to the Court as to her view as to whether the child should or should not give evidence.

What actually happened was that the Guardian allowed the child’s solicitor to take the lead during that visit and that rather than exploring the Re W issues, the child’s solicitor actually cross examined the child AT LENGTH about the detail of the disclosures, leading her, challenging her, contradicting her. (In fact it also appears that some of the disclosures made were fresh disclosures not previously made, so it was not only emotionally abusive to the child but contaminated the evidence, and neither the Guardian nor the solicitor made referrals to the social work team about the fresh allegations)
(I’ve used ‘disclosures’ here as a synonym for ‘allegations’ and have rightly been corrected. We should all use allegations for things that are yet to be proved, and disclosures afterwards. Fixxored in edit)

None of this should have happened. Reading the case it appears that the Guardian is the subject of internal disciplinary proceedings through CAFCASS and that there is to be a hearing to decide whether this case should be referred to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority. It will be a very difficult thing for either of them to come back from, professionally. Readers can make up their own mind how sympathetic they are about that.

Wolverhampton City Council v JA and another 2017

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2017/62.html

The Former Children’s Guardian and the Former Solicitor for the Children
172.On 30 August 2016 the then children’s guardian, AB, and the children’s solicitor, Ms Noel, visited X in her foster placement for the purpose of speaking with her, ostensibly to gain her wishes and feelings about giving evidence at this hearing.

173.During the course of this interview X is recorded as having made a number of disclosures relating to her having been sexually abused.

174.On 6 September 2016 AB and Ms Noel paid a similar visit to Y.

175.At an advocates’ meeting the disclosures made by X in her interview on 30 August were revealed. It became apparent that no referral in respect of those disclosures had been made to the local authority nor to the police. The advocates’ meeting was immediately terminated and an urgent directions hearing was sought before the then allocated judge.

I’ve done at least a thousand advocates meetings and they are universally very dull. This one, however, wasn’t. There must have been an utterly deathly silence as this information came to light.

176.The children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor were ordered to disclose their notes on both interviews with the children and to file and serve witness statements.


177.On 30 September 2016 the appointment of the children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor were terminated and a new guardian and solicitor were appointed for the children. I am, understandably, asked to make clear in this judgment that the current children’s guardian, the current children’s solicitor and counsel instructed by him at this hearing had no part and no involvement, whatsoever, in the events of 30 August or 6 September 2016.

So a whole new team was appointed to represent the child, and that new team were untainted by these failures.

178.The guardian and solicitor’s interview of Y on 6 September 2016 could be the subject of considerable criticism, however, for the purposes of this judgment I focus on the interview with X on 30 August where the most egregious errors occurred.

179.X was subjected to an almost two hour cross examination conducted principally, if not exclusively, by Ms Noel: I stop short of categorising it as an interrogation. I have never seen the like of it before and I hope never to see a repetition of it again. X was asked leading questions on innumerable occasion, she was contradicted repeatedly by Ms Noel and when X denied a particular treatment or abuse by her father the question was put again and again, effectively denying the child the opportunity of being heard.

180.A particularly egregious question was asked by Ms Noel when she asked ‘Did your dad ever push the sponge or his fingers inside your private?’ X replied ‘no I don’t think so but it was painful’. The question was repeated and the answer was the same save hurt replaced painful. Ms Noel then asked ‘did dad ever get into bed with you’. Answer no. Prior to this interview and prior to these questions X had never asserted that the father had inserted his fingers into her vagina nor that he got into bed with her.

When you have a High Court Judge driven to say “I have never seen the like of it before and I hope never to see a repetition of it again” things are really bad. This is painful to read.

181.Prior to this ‘interview’ X had not said that she had told her mother of the father’s alleged sexual abuse of her.

182.At the time of both X’s and Y’s interviews the children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor knew that there was an ongoing police investigation into these allegations of sexual abuse and ongoing enquiries by the local authority.

183.Both AB and Ms Noel accepted their respective contemporaneous notes of the two interviews were not a verbatim transcript of the interviews. As the lead questioner Ms Noel’s notes were more comprehensive than AB’s but neither recorded all questions asked nor all the answers given.

The impact on the Guardian of these failings was so pronounced that the Judge was actually very concerned about her well-being when giving evidence.

184.AB is a very experienced children’s guardian of longstanding. I was very concerned about her welfare and well being when she came to give evidence.

185.My order of 6 December 2016 was received by Cafcass. She was the subject of internal disciplinary procedures of which it is not necessary for the purposes of this judgment to say any more. She has since been reinstated.

186.The guardian had just returned from holiday. She knew the purpose of the visit was at my request to establish X’s views about giving evidence. She met Ms Noel outside the foster carer’s home and there was a limited discussion about how the interview should proceed. She told me, and I accept, she agreed Ms Noel should take the lead in asking questions as she had not been present at the last court hearing. It was she said, and I accept, the one and only time she had allowed a children’s solicitor to take the lead in asking questions of a child. She had not, at that time, viewed the children’s ABE interviews nor had Ms Noel.

187.When asked why she had not referred the disclosures made by X to the police, she said Ms Noel advised her that she needed to consult with counsel then instructed on behalf of the children.

188.AB conceded her note taking of the interview was not as thorough as it should have been. She readily acknowledged that she should have stopped the questioning as soon as disclosures had been made. She candidly told me that X wanted to talk and because AB believed the children had not been listened to she was open to let X, and then Y on 6 September, talk. She said she was uneasy at some of the questions the girls were asked by Ms Noel and now realised she should have stopped it.

189.It was immediately obvious from the moment AB stepped into the witness box that she was racked with guilt and remorse. Only a few minutes into her evidence she became distressed and I adjourned for a short period to enable her to compose herself. She readily acknowledged the grave and serious professional errors she had committed in allowing these interviews to progress as they did – most especially in respect of X – and for not terminating them at an early stage.

190.I accept the guardian’s errors and professional misjudgement in this case were grave and serious. Nevertheless I accept her regret and remorse at her actions and omission are entirely genuine and sincere.

It is obviously very dreadful that a children’s solicitor would cross-examine a child with learning difficulties about sexual abuse allegations for 2 hours – that’s made worse still when you realise that she had not even seen the ABE interviews – so effectively cross-examining without properly looking at the source material.

If you think things were bad for the Guardian, they are about to get very much worse

191.I only wish I could make the same observations in respect of Ms Noel: I regret I cannot.

192.Ms Noel has been a solicitor for 11 years. She has been on the Children’s Panel for 6 years but this was the first case of sexual abuse in which she had acted for the children. I do not understand why a solicitor so inexperienced in acting for children should have come to be appointed in as complex and serious case as this one.

193.I was moved to comment during the course of Ms Noel’s evidence that by her actions during the interview with X she had run a coach and horses through 20 years plus of child abuse inquiries and of the approach to interviewing children in cases of alleged sexual abuse. I see no reason, on reflection, to withdraw those comments.

194.At the conclusion of Ms Noel’s evidence, in very marked contrast to that of the former children’s guardian, I had no sense that Ms Noel had any real appreciation of what she had done or of the extremely serious professional errors she had committed. She appeared to be almost a naïve innocent who had little or no idea of what she had done.

That’s the stuff of anxiety nightmares, having that sort of thing said about you.

195.It is right that I set out with particularity her evidence, most especially to highlight those matters which cause me to make the foregoing observations.


196.Ms Noel told me that her visit to X was the first time she had met X.
She said that the language she used when asking questions of X and the length of the interview – some 2 hours – was “possibly” inappropriate for a child with learning difficulties. On repeated occasion Ms Noel had told X how brave she was being in answering the questions. On reflection, she said, such comments could have been seen by X as a clue as to what she was expected to say and to talk about. She said that ‘it may appear but was not my intention.’

197.Ms Noel had had no training in how to speak with children involved in court proceedings. She knew X had made disclosures to the police and to her foster carers. Why, therefore, she was asked did she embark on this lengthy questioning of X? She replied that at the time she wanted to clarify what X was saying. With the benefit of hindsight, she accepted she should not have done so and should have stopped asking questions. She said she did not know she had asked X directed or leading questions. When it was put to her that she was cross examining X, Ms Noel replied ‘I suppose so, yes’.

Now, perhaps it is an omission of Children Panel training that she did not have training in how to ask children questions, but as an ADVOCATE you really should know whether or not you are asking someone directed or leading questions – that’s a catastrophic failing to admit that you didn’t know whether you were or not. And note that this 2 hour cross-examination was the first time she had ever met the child.


198.She confirmed her notes were not a verbatim record and that she had not noted X’s demeanour during the course of the interview. She accepted she had probably got some questions and answers missing from her notes and in that sense her notes could be misleading.


199.Ms Noel asserted she had only seen the DVDs of the girls’ interviews after she had seen X on 30 August and Y on 6 September. She had not reported X’s disclosures to the local authority because counsel then instructed by her had advised her to wait until after counsel had met with her and the guardian in conference.

(The Judge doesn’t pass any comment as to whether counsel was right or wrong there. I might have my own view, but the Judge had all of the facts and was in a far better position to say so if there was fault)

200.Ms Noel accepted that in acting as she did she had badly let the children down. She accepted there was a risk of the children, especially X, being ‘set up’ to make fake allegations. She accepted there were not insignificant differences between her contemporaneous notes of her meetings with X and with Y and those set out in her statement which she had prepared and signed in December.


201.Ms Noel was specifically asked if she had approved and authorised the contents of a position statement provided to the court for hearing on 16 September 2016. She said she could not remember. When reminded that she had emailed the same to the court, she replied ‘I would have read it’. The position baldly states that in the interview with the guardian and the solicitor X had made disclosures of a sexual nature against her father and had made disclosures in relation to the state of knowledge of the mother and the maternal grandmother. At no point is any reference made to the circumstances in which X said these things, namely that she had been subjected to an intense and prolonged period of cross examination.


202.I am sorry to observe that Ms Noel’s many acknowledgments of error and of professional misjudgement were made, in my judgment, very begrudgingly.


203.In conclusion I find that in relation to interview undertaken with X on 30 August 2016:

a) she was inappropriately questioned by Ms Noel;

b) the interview lasted for a wholly excessive length of time;

c) the conduct of the interview took no account that X suffered from learning difficulties;

d) she was repeatedly asked leading questions;

e) frequently leading questions were repeated even after X had answered in the negative to the proposition implicit in the question;

f) there was absolutely no justification for embarking on this sustained questioning of X;

g) the exercise was wholly detrimental to X’s welfare and seriously imperilled a police investigation;

h) the conduct of the interview led to a real possibility that X would be led into making false allegations;

i) the conduct of the interview was wholly contrary to the intended purpose of the visit, namely to establish X’s wishes and feelings about giving evidence in this fact finding hearing; and

j) the record keeping of AB and Ms Noel was very poor. Not all questions and answers were recorded or accurately recorded. No reference is made to X’s demeanour during the interview or to any perceived change in her demeanour.

204.The breaches of good practice were so legion in the interview conducted with X that I have concluded that it would be unwise and unsafe for me to rely on any comments made by X
. I will have to consider later in this judgment the extent, if at all, to which this interview with X on 30 August tainted the subsequent ABE interview undertaken by the police with X on 30 September 2016.


205.One of the worst examples of these very poorly conducted interviews arose in Y’s interview on 6 September. She alleged for the very first time that she told her grandmother of the sexual abuse she had suffered. For the reasons I have given in relation to X’s interview, I pay no regard to this comment at all. To the extent that I find, if at all, that the grandmother knew about the sexual abuse of both girls, I shall rely on the other evidence before me.


206.The issues of whether I should name Ms Noel in this judgment and/or she should be referred to her professional disciplinary body is to be determined at separate hearing. None of the parties to these proceedings wish to be heard on these issues: the matter is left to the court. I will, however, hear submissions on behalf of Ms Noel at that hearing. At the hearing on 18 August I read and heard submissions from counsel on behalf of Ms Noel. I was asked to show compassion to Ms Noel and not name her in the judgment. A number of personal and professional reasons were advanced. I do not propose to set them out in this judgment. I took account of all those submissions but concluded that the public interest and the need for transparency overwhelmingly required me to name Ms Noel. Accordingly her name appears in the published version of this judgment.

Now wash your hands

 

The thing that makes family law worthwhile is that every time you think you’ve seen everything, a case comes along and makes you go “nope, not yet.”

This is one of those.

 

 

East Sussex v AG (Finding of Fact) 2017

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2017/536.html

 

This involved an infant, now aged 13 months old, but only a couple of months old when the strange things occurred. He spent time at three different hospitals, and in each of these, he was observed to have very high levels of alcohol in his system – high enough to be potentially life-threatening, and also high levels of anti-histamine.

How did the alcohol get there?

Well, the defence deployed by the parents (chiefly the mother) is that it must have happened through the application of sterilising hand-wash, which contains alcohol. He was in a hospital, parents wanted to make sure he didn’t get any germs, so hand-wash was liberally applied. It must have been that.

 

Mother’s case ended up being that she was rubbing hand-sanitiser into the baby’s arms thirty or forty times per day. That sounds like a hell of a lot – could a baby end up with alcohol levels like these as a result?

Here’s what the expert had to say about it:-

 

  • Whilst considerable time was spent on the validity of Dr McKinnon’s calculations of the amount of alcohol by volume that would be required to cause the levels of alcohol that were found in AG’s system (he having undertaken such calculations in response to being requested to provide an opinion on the likely doses given to AG), the central point made by Dr McKinnon, both in his report and in his oral evidence, is that, absent any evidence to suggest that the analysis of AG’s samples was compromised (and Dr McKinnon was clear that he had no reason to believe that the tests had not been performed satisfactorily), the samples taken from AG showed that he had very high levels of alcohol in his system on three occasions and a level of antihistamine in his system on one occasion.
  • Within this context Dr McKinnon was at pains to emphasise that, with respect to alcohol, the actual readings from the samples taken from AG indicated clearly that AG had been administered significant amounts of alcohol independent of the calculations that attempted to work out the precise doses of alcohol in milligrams required to cause those readings. Dr McKinnon repeatedly emphasised that the alcohol readings obtained from the samples were “extremely” high and, on occasion, the highest he had ever seen, or heard of, in an infant. Indeed, he was aware of no reported cases in which the readings had been higher. Dr McKinnon was clear that this indicated AG had ingested a large amount of alcohol.
  • Dr McKinnon was pressed extensively on the mother’s contention that the explanation for the high levels of alcohol in AG’s system were the result of her alleged use of high levels of hand sanitiser on AG. Accepting that calculations can only be approximate in circumstances where the physiology of individuals varies and the physiology of adult skin is different to that of infant skin, Dr McKinnon was nonetheless very clear that even had the mother used the hand sanitiser at a higher level than she claims, this would still not have been enough to produce the levels of alcohol seen in AG, even assuming a generous level of absorption of alcohol through the skin of an infant of 10% (the level of absorption in adults being between 2.5% and 5%). Within this context, Dr McKinnon also emphasised that the mother states that she used the hand sanitiser over the course of a day and that, accordingly, any alcohol that was absorbed would have begun to be eliminated between applications, further negating the possibility of alcohol from the hand sanitiser accumulating in AG’s blood to the levels seen. Dr McKinnon further stated that for the blood alcohol levels to be caused by AG ingesting hand sanitiser he would have needed to have ingested the equivalent of 44 “squirts” of that substance to reach the highest blood alcohol concentrations seen, ruling out, in his view, accidental ingestion from hands or toys as cause of the levels seen.
  • With respect to the anti-histamine, whilst conceding that anti-histamine can be passed from mother to infant in breast milk, Dr McKinnon noted that the mother had not been breast feeding for a considerable period of time prior to the antihistamine being detected in AG’s system, negating as a possibility that route of administration.

 

 

 

Note the ‘ingested the equivalent of 44 squirts of the hand-sanitiser above” – that’s not had it put on him, that’s ingesting it – swallowing it or such.

 

The Judge considered that possibility very carefully

 

 

  • I am further satisfied that the alcohol and anti-histamine that I have concluded was present in AG’s system and that caused each of the then unexplained episodes was deliberately administered to AG on repeated occasions as opposed to entering his system by way of some species of accidental or inadvertent administration.

 

(i) Hand Sanitiser

 

  • By the conclusion of their oral evidence, both parents appeared to be moving towards accepting that the levels of alcohol found in AG could not have been caused by the application of hand sanitiser to his hands and arms, the father being, ultimately, perhaps more accepting of this than the mother. In any event, I am satisfied that the levels of alcohol found in AG’s system were not caused by the use of hand sanitiser containing alcohol. I have reached this conclusion for two reasons.
  • First, I am not satisfied that the mother is telling the truth in respect of the levels at which she used hand sanitiser on AG whilst he was an in-patient having regard to the following matters:

 

i) The use of hand sanitiser assumed no significance at all in either of the police interviews of the parents conducted immediately after their arrest in May 2016. The mother claims that this was because she was not aware at the time of the interview that the hand sanitiser contained alcohol.ii) The mother’s first statement, directed by the court specifically to address the question of hand sanitiser and dated 14 August 2016, details lower rates of application than those for which the mother now contends, she stating that she first used hand sanitiser on AG on 26 April 2016, using two doses. Specifically, the mother stated “I also put 2 pumps into my hand and wiped it over both of AG’s hands and arms” (my emphasis). She states that she did the same on 28 April 2016. At the Evelina Children’s hospital the mother states that she used hand sanitiser on AG 30 to 40 times per day “at the highest”. Dr McKinnon’s report ruling out the use of hand sanitiser as the cause of the levels of alcohol found in AG is dated 4 November 2016. The mother thereafter filed a second statement dated 25 January 2017 in which she said of her first statement “what I mean is that I used two pumps on the left hand and arm and two pumps on the right hand and arm”, amounting to between 120 and 160 pumps per day. The mother denied that she inflated her account in her second statement to match the emerging medical evidence. However, given the size of the discrepancy between the two descriptions and the fact that the second statement followed the report of Dr McKinnon, I am satisfied that this is evidence of the mother having changed her account of the level of use in response to the conclusions reached by Dr McKinnon.

iii) In circumstances where the mother contends that her use of hand sanitiser on AG continued in the PICU the local authority sought confirmation as to whether members of staff saw the mother use hand sanitiser at the levels she claims whilst AG was on the PICU. By an email dated 25 August 2016, Professor Ian Murdoch, Professor of Paediatric Intensive Care at the Evelina confirmed that medical staff had not witnessed the mother use hand sanitiser on AG. Whilst that confirmation is in the form of an email rather than a statement in the proper form, it is corroborated to an extent by the evidence of the father who stated in his written and oral evidence that he saw the mother use hand sanitiser on only two occasions, stating in cross examination by Mr Bennett that he did not see the mother apply it with the frequency she claimed and did not himself see excessive use. In the circumstances, no person who came regularly into contact with the mother and AG whilst at hospital appears to have seen her using hand sanitiser on AG at the levels she claims.

iv) The clarification contained in her second statement is to the effect that the mother was using high levels of sanitiser from the outset, commencing that use on 26 April 2016. However, this appears to be at odds with a text exchange between the parents in respect of “hand gel” on 28 April 2016. On that date the father texted the mother stating “The reason I told you to use the gel stuff is cos there’s at least four kids in here with pneumonia including rose (sic) in front of us and her mum gave you a cuddle”). The mother replied “Oh ok I’ll make sure I use it a lot then”. In my judgment this exchange is inconsistent with the mother’s evidence to the effect that she was using between 120 and 160 doses a day on AG from 26 April 2016.

 

  • In the circumstances, I am satisfied that the evidence before the court suggests strongly that the mother has sought to construct, after the fact, an account of excessive use of hand sanitiser to seek to explain the high levels of alcohol found in AG’s system. This conclusion is of course also relevant to the question of whether the court can identify who administered alcohol to AG and I deal with this further later in this judgment.
  • Second, and in any event, I accept the expert evidence of Dr McKinnon that even on the revised figures for dosage provided by the mother in her second statement, the level of use suggested by the mother would not result in the levels of alcohol found in AG even if administered all at once and assuming a generous figure for absorption of ten percent to account for an infant’s skin being more porous than the skin of an adult. More importantly, I note again that Dr McKinnon was clear that the manner in which the mother contends she in fact administered the hand sanitiser, namely repeatedly over the course of the day, would not have been able to result in the levels seen because AG would have begun eliminating each dose over time after it was applied, meaning it could not accumulate to the levels seen. On this basis, even assuming a greater absorption than in adults, the use of hand sanitiser at the level contended for by the mother could not result in very high concentrations of alcohol seen. Dr McKinnon was equally clear that the father’s contention that AG might have ingested alcohol by means of hand sanitiser on his (AG’s) hands and toys was not a plausible explanation for the levels of alcohol seen in AG.
  • In the foregoing circumstances, I am satisfied that the high levels of alcohol in AG were not caused by the use of hand sanitiser on him

 

 

 

The Court found that the alcohol and anti-histamine at high levels in the baby’s test results were as a result of him having been administered those substances by one of his parents.

(ii) Human Agency

 

  • There is no evidence before the court of any other accidental or inadvertent mechanism for the administration of alcohol to AG whilst he was an in-patient. There is no suggestion of an organic cause for the levels of alcohol found in AG. In the circumstances, and being satisfied that the levels were not the result of the use of hand sanitiser, I am satisfied that there is no explanation for the administration of alcohol to AG other than human agency.
  • Whilst the father posits the possibility of negligent administration by medical staff or the use of antihistamine as part of AG’s treatment regime that medical staff subsequently failed to record, neither parent seeks to suggest that antihistamine came to be in AG’s system other than by way of the same being administered to him by somebody. On the evidence of Dr McKinnon, it is clear that fact that the mother in the past took antihistamine does not explain its presence in AG in May 2016 in circumstances where the mother had not been breast feeding for a month prior to the antihistamine being detected. There is no explanation before the court for the levels of antihistamine found in AG on 17 May 2016 beyond administration by human agency. I accept the evidence of Dr Ward that the presence of antihistamine in AG’s system indicates that someone administered that substance to him.

 

Perpetrator(s)

 

  • Satisfied as I am for the reasons set out in the foregoing paragraphs that the alcohol and antihistamine found in AG’s system whilst he was in hospital was administered to him at that time by human agency, I turn now to consider the question of who administered those substances to AG. In summary, I am satisfied that the alcohol and antihistamine were deliberately and covertly administered to AG by one or other of his parents or both of them.
  • There is no evidence before the court that alcohol and antihistamine were administered to AG by one of his treating doctors or nurses. As I have already observed, neither parent has sought to suggest explicitly that the alcohol and antihistamine found in AG’s system was administered by a member of medical staff. Further, in my judgment, there is evidence before the court that positively points away from a conclusion that it was one of AG’s treating doctors or nurses who was responsible. Namely, that AG suffered unexplained episodes that I am satisfied were caused by the administration of alcohol and/or antihistamine in three different medical locations that do not share common staff. In my judgment this undisputed fact militates against the possibility that a member of staff was responsible. This conclusion is in my judgment reinforced by the fact that AG’s unexplained episodes ceased immediately upon the parents being arrested notwithstanding that AG remained an in-patient in hospital for a period of time thereafter. Neither parent has sought to allege it was another family member who administered alcohol and anti-histamine to AG and there is no evidence to that effect before the court.

 

 

 

The Judge carefully explained to the parents that it would be in their best interests now to be honest about what had happened.

 

parents who fail to be frank with the court regarding how their child came to suffer harm may often believe that they thereby put themselves at an advantage. In fact, the very opposite is true. The family courts are not concerned with punishment but with the welfare of the child. An early and frank admission by a parent who has harmed their child allows the court to establish accurately what occurred, to direct a fully informed assessment of risk and, in an appropriate case, to formulate and approve a plan for the safe return of the child to the parent, if necessary with a tailored package of support to address the deficits that first led to the harm. Conversely, where a parent or parents make a conscious decision to hide the truth, the court is much more likely to be left in a position where it will be unable to conclude that the parent can safely parent the child in the future. This is especially the case where the court is compelled to conclude (as it is entitled to do) that the harm was caused by one or other or both of the parents but that it is not possible to tell which. In such a situation, additionally, the parent who did not inflict the harm is materially prejudiced by the failure to be frank of the parent who did.

 

CONCLUSION

 

  • In conclusion, I make the findings set out in the Schedule appended to this judgment. I will allow a short period for the parents to consider the findings made by the court and to respond by way of a further statement to those findings. I will then give directions for the welfare stage of this hearing.
  • Finally, for the reasons I have set out, I am satisfied that neither of the parents has been entirely frank with the court. I am satisfied that they have each made a conscious choice to withhold certain matters rather than giving an account of all that they know about the circumstances in which AG came to have extremely high levels of alcohol and levels of antihistamine in his system. Within this context I have had to try and divine what happened to AG in circumstances where his parents have chosen not to assist the court fully with that task. This judgment represents my considered attempt to discharge the duty of the court in those circumstances on the evidence available to me at this hearing. In so far as the mother and the father consider that this judgment does not represent the full picture of what befell AG, the responsibility for that lies solely at their respective doors.
  • There now comes a very important decision for the parents. To adopt the words of Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead in Lancashire CC v B at 588, in the present case AG is proved to have sustained significant harm at the hands of one or other or both of his parents. Within this context, the parents have a choice. They can consider the findings of the court and choose now to provide the information that I am satisfied that they have thus far withheld from the court to ensure that the local authority assessment that will follow this hearing constitutes a fully informed assessment of risk and allows the court the best possible opportunity to determine whether AG can be safely returned to their care. Conversely, they can continue to withhold information from the court and from professionals and increase thereby the risk of the court of having ultimately to conclude that AG cannot be safely returned to their care.
  • That is my judgment.

 

SCHEDULE OF FINDINGS 

  • Whilst an in-patient at the local hospital and the Evelina Children’s Hospital in London, AG experienced repeated unexplained episodes of unusual limb movements, apnoea, unconsciousness and coma, some of which incidents were life threatening and required intubation and ventilation.
  • No medical explanation for AG’s episodes was found despite extensive testing being undertaken.
  • Specialist blood tests undertaken on 17 May 2016 identified high levels of alcohol in samples of AG’s blood taken on 27 April 2016, 10 May 2016 and 17 May 2016.
  • Specialist urine analysis undertaken on 17 May 2016 identified high levels of alcohol and levels of antihistamine in AG’s urine.
  • Analysis of a sample of AG’s gastric aspirate taken on 17 May 2016 identified high levels of alcohol and levels of antihistamine in his gastric aspirate on that date.
  • The levels of alcohol found in the samples taken from AG were extremely high and would have caused serious toxicity and could have been potentially fatal to him but for the emergency treatment he received as an in-patient.
  • Each of the unexplained episodes experienced by AG at the local hospital and the Evelina Children’s Hospital in London were caused by AG being administered alcohol and / or antihistamine, including those episodes in respect of which blood and urine testing was not undertaken.
  • Each of the unexplained episodes was caused by the mother or the father or both of them deliberately and covertly administering alcohol and /or antihistamine to AG.
  • In deliberately and covertly administering alcohol and /or antihistamine to AG, the mother or the father or both of them caused AG to be subjected to extensive, unnecessary, uncomfortable and painful invasive tests to try and ascertain the cause of the episodes (including but not limited to MRI imaging, electrophysiology, two lumbar punctures, genetic and metabolic testing and video telemetry) and extensive, unnecessary uncomfortable and painful treatments (including, but not limited to, extensive blood testing, catheterisation, intravenous and arterial cannulation, intubation, mechanical ventilation and the administration of antibiotic, anticonvulsant and anti-reflux medication).

 

 

 

 

Extraordinary case – I’ve never come across anything like it.  Luckily, when it comes to matters of hand-washing within a hospital setting, we have the Marx Brothers to give us a visual demonstration.   (In this scene, Groucho has been pretending to be a physician, Dr Hackenbush. He is about to be unmasked by a real doctor, Dr Steinberg. What follows is a masterclass in stalling for time)