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Category Archives: threshold criteria

Tense – nervous, headache

 

This is a case in which the Court of Appeal unpicked a decision of a Circuit Judge, where the tenses that were applicable to the threshold criteria became confused.

 

I don’t myself much care for the way that the constructors of section 31 brought tenses into the definition, particularly because they involve some semantic dancing on the head of a pin to the way that people actually consider the threshold in practice. I wrote earlier this year about the Court of Appeal decision that largely turned on the common conflation of ‘is suffering’ (which is what the statute says) and ‘has suffered’ (which is what everyone in Court always says, largely because you are talking about something that inevitably happened in the past but having to do so in the present tense) . In that case, having lectured everyone on the need to stick to the language of the statute ‘is suffering’, the Court of Appeal forgot its own advice and talked frequently about ‘has suffered’

 

Hence the title, and by now, you could probably do with an Anadin yourself

 

 

 

Re K (A child : Threshold findings) 2018

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/2044.html

 

  1. On 18 May 2018 HHJ Tolson QC sitting at the Central Family Court dismissed an application for a care order and instead made a private law order that a little girl, then aged six months, to whom I shall refer as K, should live with her mother. The basis for this outcome was that the judge found that the threshold for intervention under section 31 of the Children Act 1989 had not been made out. This appeal by K’s children’s guardian, for which I gave permission on 17 July, is supported by the local authority but opposed by the mother.
  2. Events since the making of the judge’s order have led to this appeal becoming historic. The local authority issued further proceedings on 14 August, and on 23 August K was removed from her mother’s care and placed in foster care under an interim care order. The outcome of these earlier proceedings is nevertheless of some significance as providing a baseline for future decisions. In the circumstances I describe the background in only the broadest detail and avoid making any observations that might bear on welfare decisions yet to be taken by the Family Court.

 

One might well think that a Judge who had decided that there was no likelihood of future harm for a child is on thin ice before the Court of Appeal when the appeal arrives and the likelihood of future harm has developed into actual harm leading the child to have to be removed.  That could just be bad luck, of course.

 

  1. The evidence that the judge heard showed that the mother had done reasonably well in the foster placement and that no harm had come to K since her birth. Nonetheless, when the matter came before the court for final hearing on 23 April, all parties invited the judge to adjourn to allow for further expert evidence and the assessment of other potential carers. The judge refused this application as well as other adjournment applications made during the hearing. He said in effect that he would “see where we go”. His approach led to uncertainty in the minds of the parties as to what was and what was not within the scope of the hearing. That approach is challenged in the grounds of appeal, but the parties are agreed, rightly in my view, that it is no longer necessary to investigate that aspect of the matter.
  2. In the course of his judgment the judge described the mother as having been a deeply troubled teenager. He considered the report of an independent social worker who had acknowledged the mother’s ability to look after K’s basic care in a highly supported environment but gave the opinion that her volatility would prevent her from giving safe, consistent and nurturing care in the community. That was also the opinion of the allocated social worker and of the guardian, who advised that K would not be safe if placed in her mother’s independent care. The psychiatric expert initially expressed cautious optimism but tempered this when she received the other professional opinions. The judge however did not accept this evidence, essentially on the basis of the mother’s performance since K was born. He emphasised that the language of “risks” and “concerns” was not good enough. He was impressed by the mother’s presentation in court. The judge found and was entitled to find that the mother had not been volatile around or towards K. He posed this question to himself:
    1. “Accordingly in my judgment the question whether, when the mother was first placed in the mother and baby foster placement, she was likely to be volatile around her own child has to be judged in large manner by her actual behaviour around [K]. There is no evidence that she is anything other than calm when around [K]. There have been no incidents with the foster carer despite the latter’s, as the professionals say, too-intrusive approach.”

He concluded that while there was reason to believe that the threshold was crossed at an interim stage when the proceedings began, “My judgment on this evidence is that there neither is nor was a likelihood of significant harm to this child”. He continued:

“The possibility, which I acknowledge exists, that the mother will be so volatile in future that he daughter suffers significant emotional harm is one in my judgment which can sensibly be ignored in the context of the threshold justifying state intervention. This, I emphasise, is not to say that the professionals are wrong. I can of course acknowledge that we may be back in court in months’ or even years’ time with the professionals telling me that I was the one who got it wrong. I hope I can profoundly respect their opinion. It is simply the case that on this evidence I cannot be satisfied that the ‘risks’ and ‘ concerns’ which they identify establish the necessary likelihood.”

 

 

The judicial conclusion that the case did not warrant or justify adoption or separation was not the subject of the appeal. The appeal focussed on whether the Judge was wrong in law to conclude that threshold was not crossed and whether he made two separate errors – the first, in considering the likelihood of significant harm to be based on the facts as they were at the time of the final hearing rather than at the date of issue/intervention, and second in tying together the issue of whether threshold was crossed and what the welfare decisions for the child should be.  (In effect, whilst a Judge HAS to take the harm into account when deciding the right order, he or she ought not to take into account what the plans for the child might be when making the factual decision as to whether threshold is met)

 

The first of these is interesting. It does seem to fly in the face of common sense – if a Court is deciding whether to make an order on the basis of future harm, surely they look at the facts as they present at the time of making the order? Well, yes and no.  That’s massively relevant when deciding whether to MAKE the order, but not at all relevant in deciding whether the threshold criteria were met at the time of issue.  The threshold issue is a purely factual analysis, and the welfare issue is balancing up all of the facts and deciding whether an order is proportionate, necessary and better for the child than making no order.

 

In bald terms – if a mother is misusing heroin before the baby is born, then that is a fact which can satisfy the threshold at the time of issue and meet the threshold criteria for making a final order. But the mother being abstinent for six months of the proceedings, having insight into the problems heroin caused her and working hard with support groups is a massive factor in whether an order is needed at all, and if so, what sort of order should be made.

 

(Think of threshold as being whether you get into a nightclub at all, and welfare as being the range of options available to you once you are in there – you can get drunk, dance, flirt with people, get into a quarrel, or leave having had an uneventful evening)

 

  1. On behalf of K’s guardian, Ms Porter argues that the judge was wrong to limit his consideration of the threshold to the mother’s direct behaviour towards K. Instead he should have looked at the wider context, as required by section 31. She next argues that he paid insufficient attention to the relevant date for consideration of the threshold, namely the time when protective action was taken. Lastly, he allowed the issues of threshold and welfare outcome to become entangled, repeatedly referring while considering the issue of threshold to the need for rigorous scrutiny of the option of what he described as “state-sponsored adoption”. These submissions are echoed by Ms Rahman for the local authority. In response, Ms Hibbard, who appeared below for the mother also, argues that the judge did not misdirect himself in any way. She points out that he gave reasons for disagreeing with the professional assessments of risk based upon the mother’s actual care for K.
  2. We are grateful for the clear and precise way in which the arguments have been presented. Having considered them, I am in no doubt that the judge’s decision that the threshold for the making of a public law order was not met in this case was wrong for the following reasons.
  3. Firstly, the case put by the local authority and the guardian was based on the whole of the history, which covered not only events during K’s short lifetime but all the evidence, including incontrovertible evidence concerning events that took place before she was born and while her mother was pregnant with her. By limiting his consideration to the way in which the mother had behaved with K, the judge excluded from his consideration the solid wall of evidence relating to the mother and father’s personal histories. Had he taken a full overview of the matter, it would have been overwhelmingly apparent that at the time proceedings were taken in November 2017, there was a likelihood of harm to K as a result of her being born to two very young and volatile parents. The professional evidence did not consist of expressions of “risks” and “concerns” with no basis in fact. Here the facts were plain, and the likelihood of harm arose from them. Those facts undoubtedly disclosed risks of significant harm that could not sensibly be ignored. In this case the threshold under section 31(2) of the Children Act 1989 was not only met, it was obviously met.
  4. Secondly, the judge misdirected himself by failing to focus on the relevant date of his assessment, namely whether, at the time when protective measures were put in place and using the statutory tense, K “is likely” to suffer significant harm. Instead he became distracted by the mother’s performance in the mother and baby foster placement. That evidence could only influence the assessment of whether the threshold had been crossed insofar as it might shed light on the significance of the evidence as it stood at the relevant date: see G (Children) [2001] EWCA Civ 968 at paragraph 23. Here, however, there was no suggestion that the later evidence cast new light on the earlier evidence in a way that lessened its significance, and that is certainly not how the judge approached the matter. Had he asked himself the right question – was the threshold satisfied at the date proceedings were issued? – there could only have been one answer.
  5. Thirdly, the judge entangled questions relating to the welfare outcome with the question of whether the threshold had been met. The judge’s role is to find the facts, apply the threshold test to them and, where appropriate, make welfare and proportionality evaluations. These are separate exercises, one leading to the next. It is quite possible to reason that the threshold has been crossed but that welfare does not require separation of parent and child. It is not possible to reason that, because the child and parent should not be separated, the threshold has not been crossed.
  6. For these reasons, if my Lord agrees, this appeal must be allowed to the extent that the judge’s finding that the threshold of likelihood of significant harm had not been crossed must be set aside

 

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Is, Was and Ever Will Be

 

 

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

 

Re S & H-S Children 2018

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

 

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

 

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

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

The appeal was brought on the following points

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The other bit I’m interested in is

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

 

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

 

The Court of Appeal said this :-

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Lessons for the Future?

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

 

 

composite threshold – a living example

 

I wrote about the difficulties of composite thresholds here https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/05/28/composite-threshold-documents-in-which-a-tightrope-is-walked/  particularly where a document is produced that sets out what everyone says but doesn’t end up with clarity as the precise way that threshold is said to be met.

 

This judgment by Her Honour Judge Owens  http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B73.html  OCC v B and T 2015 is a really good example of that.

Particularly since the Judge includes a suitably anonymised version of the threshold at the end of the judgment. I commend that, I think it makes far more sense when considering what decisions was made by a Court to see the factual background set out.  I really like it.

The version provided is a composite document, set out in tablular form (and again, I like the way that this is produced, it is really helpful in terms of seeing what the allegation is, where the evidence is for it and what the parents say).

 

But it is a composite document. It doesn’t end up by setting out the findings that the Court was either making by agreement or was asked to adjudicate upon. So it isn’t a final threshold.

And then, there’s this bit in the judgment itself

Threshold is no longer in issue in this case. A composite threshold document has been agreed and the Local Authority accepts that the concessions recorded in that document are sufficient for threshold purposes. They do not therefore seek findings in relation to the issues not accepted on that document and I adopt that threshold document as my threshold findings in this case and make no findings in relation to items 1 (e), 3(a) and (b) on that schedule. A copy of that schedule, suitably redacted in relation to the identities of the parties, is appended to this Judgement

 

All very sensible and practical – the LA deciding not to push for additional findings where there is agreement and the concessions are sufficient.

However, when I look at the composite document, I see that whilst mother accepts all of the matters that remain (3 a) and (3b) were the only bits that she disputed, father was disputing just about EVERYTHING.  And the LA were accepting that they did not seek any findings in relation to matters that were disputed, so effectively all of those matters are just crossed out of the threshold.

Here is what father actually concedes, in totality

 

1(b) I accept arguing which can be seen as verbally abusive but not aggressive.  [Really hard to see in the light of Re A and Re J – and even before then, that this amounts to threshold]

1(c) The mother made allegations of domestic abuse against father but then withdrew them.   [Well, that’s not threshold unless the assertion is that the allegations were true OR that the making of false allegations caused emotional harm to the child, neither of which are asserted]

1(d) Both parents sent abusive text messages and Facebook messages to each other

2 The father had an argument with the Health Visitor because she came to the home for an important meeting without a sign language intepreter  (again, that’s not threshold)

4. The father accepts that he had some convictions, the most recent of which was ten years ago.

 

5. The father accepts that his other children were placed on the Child Protection Register but disputes that this was the right decision.

 

As we’ve previously discussed, it is possible that on a line by line basis, each individual allegation in and of itself would not amount to threshold, but that taken as a totality, it would. But that’s also not the case here. [Given that para 5 as drafted by the LA contains reference to his two older children being adopted, the Court could have been asked to find that the threshold relied upon and found in those proceedings was sufficient to establish a risk of harm from father, depending upon what was in it and how historical it was, but that didn’t happen]

 

Given what the Judge says about threshold  – LA don’t invite Court to make findings on any matters in dispute and that those matters which are accepted are how threshold is established, then those are the only concessions that are agreed by both parents.  The Local Authority could have invited the Court to find that the threshold was met on the basis of the mother’s concessions, and the Judge would then have had to rule on the matters that father disputed, but that’s not what happened. The LA invited the Court to make a finding that threshold was met on the basis of father’s concessions.

Now, just imagine for a moment, drafting a threshold that contains only those matters set out above. As a stand alone document, saying that this is why the children are at risk of significant harm.  It appears to me that this would be very short of threshold.

 

[There are 3 matters that relate chiefly to mother that father does not dispute, so we could add those in. She wasn’t always honest with professionals, she went to a refuge and then went back to father, and refused to go into a refuge just before the Court proceedings were issued.  IF the Court established that father was domestically violent, then those are matters which could add to the threshold, but there isn’t such a finding.  On the threshold that the case has ended up with, the very high point of the findings made is that harsh words were exchanged between mother and father (both verbally and via text messages/facebook) ]

 

I’ll be clear,

(a) The allegations set out by the Local Authority in their original document (the first two columns of the composite document) were more than capable of meeting threshold

(b) From reading the judgment, I would be confident that most, and perhaps all of them, would have been found had the LA pushed for this – the evidence was there to do so

(c) I’m fairly sure that all involved were approaching the case on the basis that it was not in dispute that there had been DV between father and mother and that he posed a risk to the children

(d) But actually there was. Father’s response to threshold disputed this. And that became a live issue as to whether his admissions were sufficient or whether the Court needed to deal with the disputed issues on threshold

(e) In my opinion, the actual concessions made and accepted, are way short of threshold  (particularly threshold for deciding that the children should be permanently separated from their mother – whilst there is only one section 31 threshold criteria it is plain from the Supreme Court in Re B that the Court’s final orders have to be proportionate to the harm suffered or a risk of being suffered.  )

 

I think there was ample evidence for the Court to find that father was a risk to the children and that mother had been subjected to domestic violence and had not been able to protect. And reading the totality of the judgment, I think that’s the basis on which the Court approached the case. Additionally, there were three significant  findings made which could properly go into a finalised threshold, and given that the Judge set these out in passages of her judgment that were explictly considering ‘risk of harm’ I would legitimately be putting them into a final threshold document.  BUT that would have been dependent on the Judge’s paragraph about threshold adding ‘and the specific matters that I found in my judgment in relation to risks of harm to the children’ or something similar.

 

  If they return to the care of their mother, however, I find that the likelihood is that this placement would breakdown due to her inability to apply the required parenting skills to a good enough standard

I find and the only conclusion I can draw is that she is simply not capable of working openly and honestly with the local authority in the best interests of her children.

The stakes are therefore very high indeed for them and the risk of them suffering further disruption and emotional harm is, as I have found, high

 

The Judge also makes comment that mother failed to understand the risk that father poses (and that’s very important, but it is equally important to remember that the Court hasn’t actually made findings about the level of risk father poses, and the adverse findings against him relate to mutual exchanges of harsh words between him and mother. )

 

There is also reference to what was probably the most important incident

On the 9th December 2014 RB moved to a place of safety following an alleged assault on her by ST on 8th December 2014. This assault was witnessed by a member of the public and ST was arrested. The Police records of this assault are at F110-112 and F129 – 144 and I have also seen the DVD recordings of ST’s Police interview and RB’s statement to the Police about this incident.

 

Although that is in the LA threshold document, at 1(d),  it is disputed by the father, and because of the formulation of words in the judgment about threshold (which I’ll repeat here) it is NOT a finding made. The Judge had done sufficient to make a decision about that allegation, and would probably have made the finding if asked, but was not in fact asked to do so.

 

Threshold is no longer in issue in this case. A composite threshold document has been agreed and the Local Authority accepts that the concessions recorded in that document are sufficient for threshold purposes. They do not therefore seek findings in relation to the issues not accepted on that document and I adopt that threshold document as my threshold findings in this case and make no findings in relation to items 1 (e), 3(a) and (b) on that schedule.

 

It is really obvious that the Court is proceeding throughout on the basis that it is established that father is a risk to the children and indeed to the mother.

BUT the threshold findings that were actually made by the Court were astonishingly low – far lower than I suspect anyone involved really grasped. And if there had been a second threshold document, one that went beyond just setting out a Scott Schedule  (we say,she says, he says) and into just setting out the precise allegations that were actually agreed i.e a final threshold, looking at that on a piece of paper would have made it clear that the concessions given were not sufficient to cross threshold and that the Judge would have to be invited to make findings.

IF this father were to be involved in future Court proceedings, someone picking up this judgment might consider that the Court had made findings that he posed a risk to his children and that he had been domestically violent to the mother   (and I’m sure that’s what those involved thought had happened) BUT as a matter of law, the findings against dad that were made were only those things that he admitted to – which amount to an exchange of harsh words with mother and an argument with a Health Visitor.  Would the actual findings that were made by this Court be sufficient to establish a likelihood of harm with future children?

 

I don’t mean to be critical of anyone involved – this is just an illustration of how a composite style threshold can pose a problem. Had a second document that sets out, taking into account just those matters that were accepted, it would have been really plain that the LA needed to go above and beyond just the accepted matters and into asking the Court to make findings on the central issue (was father domestically violent towards the mother and was he a risk to the children?).   I am sure that all involved took those matters as a given – I’m sure that if father had been fighting the allegations he would not have succeeded, but the approach that the concessions themselves were sufficient to meet the threshold doesn’t seem to stack up when you look at it with fresh eyes.

 

There’s a lot of other stuff to praise in this judgment, it is just a shame about that one element.

 

 

 

 

Smokey and the Bandit – “boy adopted due to smoky house”

 

This story appeared in the Guardian yesterday.  Two year old boy from smoky house to be placed for adoption.

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/01/two-year-old-boy-adoption-cigarette-smoke

 

It relates to a case decided by a Circuit Judge (in Hull)- so the case is not binding authority for later cases*, but it is still of public interest.  (* the reason it is not binding is because it was decided by a Circuit Judge, not because it was decided in Hull)

Re AB 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B58.html

 

The author of the Guardian story had clearly read the judgment, and read it carefully, because it draws out all of the many, many references to the smoky atmostphere in the house being a concern. This is a continuing theme throughout the judgment.

  the most graphic testimony came from health visitor Julie Allen, who told the judge that the family’s living room was “so smoke entrenched that I had difficulty breathing”.

“On entering the living room Allen described being able to see a visible cloud of smoke surrounding the father and [the boy],” said the judge. “[The boy] was asleep on the sofa and had been unwell for some time by this point.

“Ms Allen described the room as ‘so smoke-entrenched that I had difficulty breathing’. She immediately expressed concern to the parents as to the impact of such smoke on [the boy], who had already been prescribed an inhaler within the previous month to help his breathing.

 

That’s obviously the public interest debate, because it raises a spectre that a parent doing something lawful (smoking) can find themselves in care proceedings, and could ultimately find the child being adopted. If that was right, it would obviously worry people, and be thin end of the wedge material.

Remember that in establishing threshold, one has to not only show that X event happened and that the child suffered significant harm as a result (or is likely to) but that X is a type of behaviour that one wouldn’t expect from a reasonable parent or care that it would not be reasonable to expect a parent to provide for him.

 

Of course, reasonable is always a difficult concept. It ties into the Illusory Superiority concept – just as everyone considers that they are above average (in terms of intelligence, sense of humour, looks, driving ability), everyone considers that THEY are reasonable, and they assess other people’s behaviour as reasonable or unreasonable based on their own standards.

A non-smoker, or anti-smoker might hold that no reasonable parent would smoke within the same building as their child. Someone who smokes twenty a day might hold that a reasonable parent would smoke, but try not to blow smoke into the child’s face.  Someone else might think that a reasonable parent would try to smoke in a different room to the child, and so on.  What consitutes reasonable parenting is a really subjective issue.  (And it may well be part of the problem of care proceedings, since a social worker assessing reasonable parenting does so from the mindset of  (a) someone who was concerned enough about children to go into a profession aimed at safeguarding their welfare (b) has a degree and (c) is working in a culture where protection of children is the paramount concern)

I personally would prefer that a parent smoked outside, but I wouldn’t consider it unreasonable if they decided to smoke in their own home, or to give up entirely and insist that no visitors to their home smoked whilst there. I have a pretty broad spectrum of what is reasonable in terms of smoking near children. I know others who would have a much narrower band of what’s okay and what is unreasonable.

 

{My experience may be coloured by the fact that (a) I was able as a child to go to my ice cream van and buy cigarettes for my grandmother, something you can’t imagine today and that (b) when I was about twelve, our sweet shop sold a product called Skoal Bandits – sachets of tobacco that you would put in your mouth and suck, till they were banned  – I see that you can still buy them in America and other places and I suppose (c) that I began my childhood smoking on cigars, so I never ended up becoming a regular smoker}

 

"Smokey and the Bandit Two - Smokey IS the Bandit!"

“Smokey and the Bandit Two – Smokey IS the Bandit!”

When looking at smoking, and a smoky atmosphere, I would argue that it would need to be a very very high level of smoking to amount to threshold – since smoking, even heavy smoking in your own home is a type of behaviour that some parents would think was abhorrent and some would think was normal. It would be hard, I think,  to categorise even a sixty-a-day habit as behaviour that would amount to threshold.   (There might be exceptions – for example, if your child has a lung disease and has to breathe with the assistance of an oxygen tank, or suffers with life-threatening asthma attacks then a reasonable parent would take steps to prevent him being exposed to smoke)

 

So if the smoky house was the sole, or main reason for the decision, the decision would be very questionable and probably wrong.  We need to see if that WAS the sole, or main reason.

 

The Guardian piece does say several times that smoking was one of a number of concerns, and touches on some of the others during the article.

To provide some of that context, the Judge sets them all out as bullet points

  • potential drug paraphernalia observed at the parents property on 2 occasions
  • Mother failing to engage with DVAP and the freedom programme
  • the lack of involvement of the father in AB’s care
  • outstanding therapy for the father
  • concerns re the father’s mental health
  • parents responding aggressively/defensively to challenge
  • a decline in the parents engagement with agencies whose role was to support them in their care of AB
  • the amount of smoke in the home of the parents and AB
  • risks within the household including objects left in AB’s reach and electric wires being within his reach
  • dirty, smelly and unhygienic home conditions
  • the parents and AB presenting as dirty and with an unpleasant odour
  • father testing positive for cocaine in October 2014 and subsequently failing to fully engage with hair strand testing

 

So it is certainly true that the smoky atmosphere was part of the Local Authority case, but there were other matters – probably the most serious one being the use of drugs.

 

The Guardian piece doesn’t cover this much, but actually the electrical wires were put as a high concern by the Health Visitor

A further risk that Ms Allen documents is the issue of trailing wires which she described as being a strangulations risk, running across the room directly over AB’s toybox. It was put to her in cross-examination that she was perhaps exaggerating in describing this as a strangulation risk but she was very clear on this point. She showed clear frustration and exasperation as to why the parents did not address and rectify this issue, describing that it took them some 8 weeks to remove this risk. She described how they were clearly capable of addressing risks when they were identified as they had dealt with a similar concern in their previous home. She described that all it would have taken to make the wires safe was to buy some inexpensive tacks to secure the wires to the wall.

 

That’s one of those common bugbears. Yes, wires running over  over a child’s toybox have a strangulation risk, but what effort is made to quantify that risk?  Risk isn’t binary – something is either completely safe, or there’s a risk that X could happen which is not worth taking.  Human beings take risks every day. Every time they cross a road, or put food in their mouths, there’s a risk that this activity could lead to serious injury or death. But we weigh up that the risks are very very small, and the consequences of trying to lead a risk free life (by avoiding say, the risk of choking on some food, by not eating, or liquidising all your meals in a blender) are more problematic than taking a slight risk.

I’ve no doubt that seeing electrical wires dangling over a toybox doesn’t feel nice, that you’d feel much more comfortable if it was fixed and it seems a small thing to ask, but when you describe it as a strangulation risk without quantifying that the risk there is very very small, for me, it is over-stated.  For example, if I let a pet python sleep in a baby’s cot, that is a strangulation risk, and one that most people would think was more risky than overhead wires.  You lose sense of risk and risk management if you describe both the wires and the python scenarios as ‘risk of strangulation’

[It is a not unreasonable point to respond by saying ‘it would be very easy and relatively painless to remove that small risk entirely, so why not do it in this case?’ ]

 

A lot of the evidence about home conditions was contested and challenged, so the Judge had to reach conclusions.

 

  1. I find that I prefer the evidence of the health visitor, Julie Allen and the support workers, Emma green and Janine Potts in terms of their observations of the home conditions and I find that the recordings of Laura Gill provide further corroboration of these matters. I find that the home conditions were sometimes extremely dirty, unhygienic, and placed AB at risk of exposure to germs and contracting illness. I further find that he was at risk of sustaining serious injury or possible strangulation through clutter in the home and the failure to deal with unsecured wires. AB himself was exposed to these conditions and his personal care was sometimes inadequate with him being dirty and on occasions smelling of smoke. I find that there were numerous occasion when AB was exposed to excessive levels of smoke in the home that will have had an impact on his health and wellbeing.
  2. I find that his weight plateaued when he returned to the care of his parents and that he dropped by one centile on the growth charts. I find that his diarrhoea and general unwellness is likely to have been impacted on by the lack of cleanliness and unhygienic home conditions. When a child is suffering as AB was and there are simultaneous concerns about his lack of weight gain, the advice of the health visitor to maintain hygienic and clean home conditions should have been prioritised.
  3. As a general observation, I find that the parents do not accept or follow advice if they do not agree with the advice (both parents disputing the strangulation risk identified by Julie Allen and the risk from cigarette smoke identified by several professionals).
  4. I also find that the parents failed to engage fully with the support services that were available and provided for them, in particular the family links programme, the safety workshops, the children’s play sessions and freedom programme for the mother. I am afraid that whilst I accept that these parents had a lot going on, these courses and programmes were important and needed to be prioritised, if the mother was to attend, the father had a responsibility to ensure that she was supported and encouraged by him in attending. Even if he was working long hours, he needed to be staying on top of the housework when he returned if the mother had been unable to attend to it during the day. This plan for AB to be cared for by his parents needed these parents to work together and support each other to ensure that AB’s needs were fully met.
  5. I find that the father struggles in managing his levels of anxiety and that sometimes this can manifest itself in him presenting as aggressive or confrontational, as recorded by the health visitor and the social worker. Whilst I am pleased that the father is now receiving some appropriative assistance with this, it is clear that this is at an early stage of what will be a long therapeutic process. I also find that as a way of managing stress the father has reverted to illicit drug use on at least one occasion and I find that this is an ongoing risk for the future. I find that the communication between the parents was extremely poor with the mother not knowing about the father’s heightened stress levels and the fact that he reports he was reducing his anti anxiety medication (I cannot understand why he would be doing that just after AB had been removed from his care) and the father not knowing that the mother was failing to attend the courses and groups that were expected of her.
  6. When considering the evidence in relation to the care that AB has received and is likely to receive, I have found it helpful to consider in some detail the documents from the care proceedings and in particular the assessments. I also find that is of real significance that the parents, having achieved their aim of a plan for AB to be placed in their care, were then unable to motivate themselves sufficiently to ensure that the home conditions were suitable for him to be placed. The standard that was needed was simply good enough, I would have thought it would not have been too much of a sacrifice for the parents to stop smoking (or at least to stop smoking in the home) and to ensure that the home was clean and tidy. In addition, I accept that the parents delay in seeking the courses that had been recommended and were to some extent part of the plan for AB to be placed in their care, demonstrates a lack of organisational skills and lack of commitment. Following the court approving a plan for AB to be cared for by his parents, I would have expected the parents’ commitment and motivation to be at its very highest.

 

The Judge had to analyse both harm, and whether the parents were able to meet the child’s needs to a ‘good enough’ standard, and if not whether they could be supported to do so.

  1. Has he suffered harm? I am afraid that I find that he has. Those changes in placement will themselves have been harmful and I think it will have been harmful to him that his return to his parents care was delayed by 4 months, a significant contributory factor to that delay was the parents’ lack of action and motivation. In addition he has been placed at real risk of injury to his health and wellbeing by his exposure to hazards in the home, lack of appropriate supervision and unsuitable and dirty living conditions. The impact on a child’s self esteem as they get older of being dirty and smelly should not be underestimated. They can be isolated from their peers and struggle to form friendships.
  2. The father still has some issues with managing his moods and with a risk of reverting to illicit drug use when he is under stress. The mother on her own, without significant support from the father cannot consistently meet AB’s needs. Dr Parsons found that and there is no evidence that this has changed since his assessment. Therefore the father’s difficulties are all the more significant. He has not been able to compensate for the mother’s own limitations and indeed some of the recent issues in relation to his mental health and anger issues and drug use actually heighten the risks. I do not accept that the issue is as simple as him now being available as he in no longer working.
  3. Are the parents capable of meeting his needs? Yes they are. At times it is clear that they are able to recognise and prioritise his needs. They have shown that they can maintain a clean and suitable home; they can show commitment to AB by attendance at contact and consistent care within contact. However, I must consider the evidence in relation to their actual care of AB when he was living with them and was due to be living with them. Sadly, I find that this fell well below the level that I would say is good enough. I really don’t know why this was.
  4. The parents are entitled to support in their parenting. Having considered the evidence of all parties I consider that the level of support offered to the parents was extremely high (indeed the mother reported the support worker visiting “every day”). Not all of the support that was available was taken up. Given the significant concerns that then arose, it is apparent that support from the LA or other services unable to redress the parents’ difficulties in meeting AB’s needs. It is hard to see what other or further services could have been offered. The level of support offered through Janine Potts visiting all day and every day is simply unsustainable in the longer term and ceases to be “support” and instead becomes substituted parenting.
  5. I think that the mother is right when she recognises that some of the problems that the couple experienced were due to immaturity. This couple needs to be able to care for themselves and maintain an appropriate home, manage their finances and address the issues in their relationship in respect of communication and The father needs to be much further on with this therapeutic work before they would be in a position to take on the care of a dependant child. In my view they still have some way to go with this.
  6. I am afraid that all of these matters lead me to an unavoidable and difficult conclusion that the risks to AB in being placed once again with his parents are far too high. The parents have given me no confidence in their written or oral evidence that they have sufficient understanding and awareness in relation to the processionals concerns to ensure that such concerns would not arise again in the future. Adoption really is the only option now available to AB, in my view, nothing else will do. I therefore refuse the parents application for discharge of the care order and make a placement order authorities n the LA to place AB for adoption.
  7. I want AB to know that in my judgement his parents loved him very much and tried very hard but due to their own difficulties and difficult backgrounds, they were simply not able to meet his needs.

 

 

This is a difficult one – it isn’t the most overwhelming case for adoption that I’ve seen, but the Judge does do what the Court of Appeal have commanded – to grapple with the issues and weigh up both sides of the argument, and the Judge makes conclusions. I don’t think that it is a judgment that is vulnerable to appeal (which is not to say that the Court of Appeal might view that differently if asked) but there are no obvious flaws in the decision making.

If the case had been solely on the basis of the smoking and smokey atmosphere, then I don’t think it would have had this result, and if it had, it would have been successfully appealed.  As part of the large number of issues, its evidential importance becomes less significant.

 

I think that there’s an argument or debate about whether too much emphasis appears in the judgment on the smoking, but looking at the analytical portion of the judgment (as opposed to the passages where the Judge is quoting what the witnesses said), I don’t think that the Judge puts particular emphasis on the smoking – it is mentioned, but not disproportionately so.

Does this bit of the findings go too far?

I find that there were numerous occasion when AB was exposed to excessive levels of smoke in the home that will have had an impact on his health and wellbeing.

 

He probably was exposed to excessive levels of smoke on the evidence. It is whether there was evidence that this exposure caused him harm, that might be more problematic. There is the evidence that the child had been prescribed an inhaler to help with his breathing a month earlier, so if the evidence before the Court was that the child had breathing difficulties, which would be causing him harm or discomfort, there could be a caustive link that the cigarette smoke, if excessive, was impacting adversely on his well being.  (In light of the President’s comments on Re A, I think that if there is to be a finding that the parents smoking caused him significant harm, the link needs to be very explicit)

Nor do I think that the report in the Guardian was misleading or distorted – its a very good summary of the case and certainly when you read the judgment, it is possible to see it being largely about smoking, too much so on first reading.  It was only when I read the analytical sections with close inspection that the case became more balanced than first appeared.

 

It is also worth noting that the Judge was critical of the Local Authority – when this case was first listed for final hearing,  it was only really in the mother’s evidence, that it became apparent that there were pfoessionals who had been frequently visiting the home for whom the Court had no records and no statements.The records were produced the next day. .  The parents wanted time to prepare their case and also wanted these witnesses to be called. In the event, those witnesses turned out to be key witnesses. The adjournment had to be granted. The Judge criticised the Local Authority for not having addressed their mind to the case that they were trying to prove and that these witnesses should have had statements prepared and served much earlier.

It was a shame that the Guardian (and the other advocates) had not grasped the significance that there was valuable evidence in the knowledge of potential witnesses who had not been called.  This case highlights that Guardians now very rarely read the primary evidence – the social work files and records, and are urged by CAFCASS not to do so – on the basis of ‘proportionate working’   (I’d sarcastically comment that where the order sought or contemplated is one that leads to adoption, that it would be proportionate for the independent representative of the child to look at the files, but that would be beneath me)

 

25. I queried whether the Guardian had considered the LA records and seen the significant involvement of these other workers. I was told that the guidance from Cafcass, in line with proportionate working, is that LA files will only be inspected if it is necessary. Sadly, in this case I think it was. I also made it clear to the LA that in my view the Presidents guidance, whilst helpfully sending out a clear message, is not new law. It is always for the LA to prove its case and it must do so on the best evidence available. It is unfortunate that no-one within the LA took a step back to assess what case it was trying to prove and what evidence there was to support such a case and then what witnesses could give that evidence. For example, a large plank of the LA case is that the home conditions were frequently dirty and cluttered and that the home was very smoky and smelly. Ms Tomblin had only visited on one occasion prior to AB’s removal and what she observed on that date whilst raising some issues, was not the picture that had been recorded by others of a home situation that was unsafe and unsuitable. Thought should have been given to what evidence she would actually be able to assist the court with and whether there were others who were able to give more direct evidence of the matters that the LA was seeking to prove.

  1. This became even more stark when I was told at the resumed hearing of this matter that the LA had actually obtained a statement from Emma Green who was heavily involved with the family at the relevant time and who’s evidence was highly relevant, but for some inexplicable reason this had not formed part of the bundle, nor had it been served on the other parties.
  2. I reminded all of the representatives, that I saw a collective responsibility between them to consider the evidence that it was proposed the court would be asked to consider and whether further evidence was needed, whether to support a party’s case or to enable an effective challenge and to alert the Judge to the fact that there may be evidential difficulties. Applications can be made on short notice and consideration could have been given to whether further witness evidence was necessary. It is disappointing that the parties have held a number of advocates meeting and as I have already said, the case has been listed for final hearing previously, yet these matters have never been raised. Nevertheless, the parents’ right to a fair trial undoubtedly required them to have the opportunity to see direct evidence and to have the ability to challenge such evidence. Inevitably therefore a further adjournment was necessary. I was also concerned that there should be no abuse of process and that the matter needed to be heard as soon as possible and therefore directed that the final hearing would be adjourned to commence afresh. I directed that the LA file evidence from those professionals who had been involved with the family during the rehabilitation period, specifically the Family Support workers and the Health Visitor. These documents have now been filed and all parties have had the chance to consider and respond to them. The parents have filed a further statement in which they perhaps go a little further in acknowledging some of the concerns.

 

 

 

Composite threshold documents – in which, a tightrope is walked

 

Two nightmares of legal blogging this week. The first was the McKenzie Friend case in which I had to write an account of the Court roasting a person for bad behaviour when that person was not just a name on a page but someone that was in my mind a real flesh and blood person.  And now this one, where the judgment is written by my local Designated Family Judge.

That’s something that I dread seeing, because it puts me in an ethical quandary. If I praise it to the skies, I’m a suck-up. If I take a red pen to it and dissect its flaws – well, I’m stupid but I’m not THAT stupid.  So if I see one, I hope that it has nothing of wider relevance and I can ignore it. That avoids the need for me to walk a tightrope.

 

Damn. This one does have some wider relevance. It says things that have been said before and emphasises them, but it also says some things that haven’t been said before and that have been worth saying.

Behold, Suesspicious Minds walks a tightrope, without a safety net. GASP as he wobbles. WONDER if he will plummet to his certain demise?  PUZZLE as to why he has thought up too late that he could have put at the start that this particular article was a Guest post…

 

Why am I going to walk the tightrope for this case?

Firstly, it is the DFJ identifying several flaws in practice and I know that many of my readers practice in Sussex and will come before this DFJ. Forewarned is forearmed, and actually many of these practice issues would, if fixed, make for smoother running of Court hearings. What the Judge has to say about practice issues is important to read.  The less time that the Court has to spend in a hearing on fixing practice issues, the more that everyone can concentrate on the child and the child’s future, and we all want that.

 

Secondly, the DFJ says things about composite threshold documents which have wider implications for practitioners in all parts of the country.  What the DFJ says about composite threshold documents is, in my opinion, very long overdue, and I can’t think of an authority which sets out just how problematic they have become.

So I’d recommend that all Sussex practitioners put this judgment high on their “to-read” pile, and I have little doubt that these issues are troubling other Judges across the country and that similar judgments will be following, so it should go on everyone’s “to-read” pile, which will for many of you involve getting a stepladder and sliding the authority in the ever-decreasing gap between the top of the pile and the aertexed ceiling of the office.  (Top tip – avoid starting the pile directly under a ceiling fan)

 

East Sussex County Council v BH and Others 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B57.html

 

A quick note, for readers who aren’t lawyers. (Ah, how I envy you all).

The threshold document is a 2 page document prepared by the Local Authority setting out the harm that the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering and the allegations/facts that lead to that. The parents both respond to that, with the help of their lawyers. The Local Authority then prepare a final, or composite threshold document that sets out exactly what is agreed.

The problem is, and this isn’t a Sussex problem – I’ve seen it all over the county, and it has always irked me,  that often what you end up with is a “He said, she said” document, that doesn’t set out what the parties agree happened, so much as just squash the parents responses in next to the Local Authority allegation.

 

I’ll give you an example.  We are going to work on the basis of a single sentence within the LA threshold, and for illustrative purposes it is going to be  “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”

[Pedantic note – I originally used ‘jumps’ as in the typist sentence, but because the threshold is in the past tense, it made me wince every time, so I had to go back and change it. Also, because my father was a speed typist and taught me with the sentence  “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’s back”  to put a punctuation mark into the mix, I felt guilty for not using that version. ]

[That is NOT real threshold, before anyone rings the Daily Mail and claims that children are taken into care as a result of athletic foxes]

 

Mother’s response is “It is accepted by the mother that she does own a dog, it is accepted that on occasions the dog does enjoy a sleep but on other occasions he leads a full and active life. On the morning in question, the mother does not recall the state of the dog’s alertness. It is accepted that a fox did jump over the dog. The mother considers that the fox was orange.  The mother had been meaning to shut the back door, which would have prevented the fox entering the house, but at that moment the postman rang the bell at the front-door and she had to attend to that.”

 

Father’s response is  “It is accepted by the father that on one occasion, a fox entered the home. This was through a window that had been broken the night before by a gang of youths, father did a week later report that criminal damage to the police. The fox did move swiftly and it was a brownish-orange colour.  The fox did leap over a member of the household, though father tried to prevent it, he was holding a jar of Branston pickle at the time and his grip was impaired. What was leapt over, however, was not the dog, but the cat”

 

And the composite threshold document then becomes.

 

Paragraph 7.  The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog

Mother’s response is “It is accepted by the mother that she does own a dog, it is accepted that on occasions the dog does enjoy a sleep but on other occasions he leads a full and active life. On the morning in question, the mother does not recall the state of the dog’s alertness. It is accepted that a fox did jump over the dog. The mother considers that the fox was orange.  The mother had been meaning to shut the back door, which would have prevented the fox entering the house, but at that moment the postman rang the bell at the front-door and she had to attend to that.”

Father’s response is  “It is accepted by the father that on one occasion, a fox entered the home. This was through a window that had been broken the night before by a gang of youths, father did a week later report that criminal damage to the police. The fox did move swiftly and it was a brownish-orange colour.  The fox did leap over a member of the household, though father tried to prevent it, he was holding a jar of Branston pickle at the time and his grip was impaired. What was leapt over, however, was not the dog, but the cat”

 

Not only is that cumbersome and unwieldy, but it doesn’t actually tell you anything about what actually happened.  It could instead be put like this.

 

Paragraph 7.  Something happened. Nobody agrees what, but they all agree that something happened.

And you can end up with two pages of long-winded “Something happened. Nobody agrees what” as being apparently the factual basis on which the Court is invited to make final orders – serious final orders.

When a Judge comes to hear the case, and considers what the risk of a future episode of a lazy dog being jumped over by a fox might be, how on earth does that composite threshold help anyone?

 

This is a problem on two fronts. Firstly, there’s a tendency in responses to threshold to put in extraneous detail and mitigation, when that could be in a statement instead. If the response focussed on – is the allegation accepted in full, accepted in part or denied?  And if accepted in part, provide a form of words which would be acceptable to your client, we would avoid much of the superfluous detail that clouds the issues.  In this case – was there a dog, was there a fox, did the dog jump over the fox?

Secondly, there’s a failure by the person drafting the final composite threshold (that’s someone like me, and even though I hate it, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it) to not be able to strip away all the superfluous detail and mitigation, to be able to get to the core of what form of wording would be agreed.

 

For example, here are three acceptable composite documents.

 

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog   – this is accepted

The fox jumped over the dog and the dog showed no later ill-effects – this is accepted

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog – this is denied by the parents and the Court is asked to make a finding

 

(and a fourth, which the allegation is disputed, and the Local Authority agree to remove it from the document.   There are some important issues about whether you’d go for option 3 or option 4 and whether a parents concessions are sufficient – I’ve written about it here  http://www.jordanpublishing.co.uk/practice-areas/family/news_and_comment/view-from-the-foot-of-the-tower-horse-trading-and-threshold-concessions#.VWa9FEY1Ouc)

 

So, for parents lawyers, please please please stop your documents being pleas of mitigation, and hone in on the task of ‘is this agreed, partially agreed and here’s my form of words, or denied’ .  It’s a response to threshold, not a plea of mitigation.  And for me, and those like me – produce a final threshold document that actually sets out for the Judge (and those to read it in years to come), what the AGREED basis for the order is, and where there is not agreement, set out what finding is sought from the Court.

 

The Judge deals with this without the need for fox and dog imagery.

 

  • As frequently happens, a “composite threshold document” had been completed in a cut-and-paste fashion. By that I mean the document set out the evidence relied upon by the local authority, together with the responses and explanations of each parent in turn. However, whilst it was clear from the document that the threshold was met to the requisite standard, the replies when examined clearly revealed that a number of facts relied upon were not accepted, and not capable of being resolved. There was no indication to me, even at the eleventh hour, as to what I was being expected to determine from the outstanding facts and matters which were in dispute. Threshold must be thought out, and any issues in need of determination identified at the earliest possible stage and the PLO applies. It is entirely unsatisfactory to present a court at the start of a final hearing with matters relied upon which have not been either agreed or identified for determination. Precious time was therefore taken up on this issue alone. Either a threshold is agreed or it is not at the earliest possible stage, in which case the court takes a view. In the event the parties managed to agree threshold at the start of the hearing.

 

Finally, the judgment makes a point about judicial reading time. There is never enough of it allocated, but the parties don’t help by not estimating it properly. We are obliged to put in the case summary how much judicial reading time is needed.  That bit is never nice to fill in – if you are realistic, and put that for an IRH the Court ought to read everything, and have a grasp and knowledge of it, then for a 350 page bundle, a minute a page gives you a 6 hour reading time.  A minute a page might be breezy for some parts of the bundle but others might take much longer than that.  Handwritten medical notes for example… Or a page of heavy analysis or cross-references – you might have to slow down to check that the quotations from other documents are fair and representative rather than cherry picked and misleading.

 

Do you think any Judge is going to thank you for putting a 6 hour – or a cut-down slightly unrealistic 3 hour (30 seconds per page) time estimate for a hearing that is listed for an hour?  So we all fudge and put 2 hours…

If judicial reading time is included, advocates might consider how long it took them to prepare the case for hearing in terms of reading time and allocate judicial reading time accordingly.

 

Of course, if we had the old days of special prep SIPS forms, a Judge could tackle this by saying that the reading time that counsel would get paid for would not exceed the reading time allocated to the Judge. That would have made for more accurate estimates of judicial reading time…

 

 

 

Crime and care

 

This was an appeal decision, which really arose from the Court in care proceedings making findings that sexual abuse allegations against a father were proven (and then making Care Orders and Placement Orders) and the criminal trial then going down the route that the allegations were concocted and the jury unanimously acquitting the father.

The father applied for a re-hearing of the care proceedings.  As part of that re-hearing, it was vital to see exactly what the Judge in the criminal proceedings had said as part of his summing up to the jury before their acquittal. That information was very slow in coming forward and the Judge in the care proceedings refused father’s application for an adjournment to get that evidence.

 

Thus resulting in the summary of this case being :-

Appeal against refusal of an application for an adjournment of an application made by the appellant father for a re-hearing of care proceedings. Appeal dismissed.   {via Family Lore}

John Bolch at Family Lore managed to compress the nub of the appeal into a very short space, with remarkable economy.

Re U (Children) 2015  http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/334.html

 

[I have to say that I don’t entirely agree with the Court of Appeal on this one. I’m not saying that I would necessarily have overturned the original findings, but I would have wanted to see exactly what the Judge in the criminal Court directed the jury, and probably the transcripts of evidence in the criminal case before deciding whether this was important fresh evidence]

In the care proceedings, there had been a number of allegations including of physical abuse, but the allegation in question was of a sexual nature.  The parents case was that these allegations were false and had been put into the child’s mind by a community worker named Raj.

 

  1. The final category of allegation made by ZU alone, was that she had been sexually abused by her father. The judge made findings set out in the schedule in relation to 4 occasions of attempted rape or sexual abuse. In addition to evidence of ZU and the parents, the court also heard evidence in relation to the sexual abuse allegations from a Miss Y and also from a community worker known as Raj.
  2. Raj was a community worker who became involved with the family around the 25 May 2013. It was a short lived connection as Raj and the parents fell out and he was no longer welcome in the family home by the 7 June 2013. It was to Raj that ZU made her first allegation on the 11 June 2013 and it was Raj who supported ZU when she reported the matter to the Social Services and thereafter to the police on the 21 June 2013. This was the extent of his involvement, he gave no evidence in relation to the events surrounding the physical abuse, nor could he.
  3. The focus in both the care proceedings (in relation to ZU’s allegations of sexual abuse) and the subsequent criminal proceedings, was as to whether Raj was a malign and dishonest influence, who encouraged a vulnerable girl to make false allegations against her father in revenge for his having been slighted by them. The reason it was said that ZU would have been susceptible to such influence, was her own desire to see her parents separate and to punish her father for being too strict and not allowing her enough freedom.
  4. In the care proceedings the judge concluded that Raj was an honest and hardworking member of the Tamil community. He regarded Raj’s evidence as much more reliable than that of the parents in relation to the circumstances in which their relationship broke down. In this, he said, he was supported by the evidence of the social worker in relation to issues of timing and ZU in relation to the influence that he exerted over her. The judge found as a fact that Raj did not use his position, such as it was, to persuade ZU to tell lies because the family had slighted him.
  1. Evidence was given by Miss Y on behalf of the parents; Miss Y alleged that Raj had shown photos of young girls of a sexual nature, and that she had heard that Raj had acted towards the mother in a sexual way. The judge regarded Miss Y as “utterly unconvincing witness” clearly “partial and biased”. He did not accept her evidence and believed it likely that she had been “put up to it by the father or someone on the father’s behalf”.
  2. Accordingly the judge, having analysed various inconsistencies that he had identified in the girls’ evidence and considered reasons why ZU might have made up the allegations, concluded that they were true and accordingly made the findings.

The Judge in the care proceedings thus went on to make findings of fact that ZU had been sexually abused by the father.

There were, as I said earlier, other issues that went to threshold, including a finding that the children had been hit

 

The judge heard extensive oral evidence including (via video-link), evidence from ZU and AU. At the conclusion of the trial the judge made findings of physical and emotional abuse, and domestic violence. The findings of physical abuse made by the judge are summarised in a schedule presented to the court for the purposes of this hearing and include ZU and BU being assaulted by their father, he having beaten them with a wooden implement on 23 April 2013. This beating left ZU with, amongst other injuries, an area of severe bruising of 17 cm x 8 cm on her left forearm. Overall the judge concluded:

“Prior to the incident on the 23 April 2013, all members of the household (including all of the children, the mother and the paternal grandmother) had frequently been subjected to physical abuse by the father. The abuse against ZU, AU, the mother and the paternal grandmother was sometimes very serious. The abuse against ZU, AU and the grandmother included the use of implements at times. The physical abuse against BU was less serious and not very often, the abuse against the twins including them being smacked on their bottoms and on a few occasions they were hit when the father was hitting the mother or other members of the family who were then holding the children.”

The judge also found that the mother would on occasion, physically chastise the children, sometimes on the father’s instruction. The judge made the inevitable finding that the mother had failed to protect the children.

 

But, staying with ZU’s allegations of sexual abuse, the Judge in the care proceedings had concluded that the parents explanation that Raj had concocted these allegations and put them in ZU’s mind was not correct.

 

By the time the criminal proceedings took place, two months later, the mother, father, ZU and Raj all gave evidence and the father was acquitted of the sexual abuse allegations.

He then made an application for a re-hearing of the care proceedings, on the basis of what had happened during the criminal proceedings.

“5. It is understood that at the criminal trial of the father before HHJ Saggerson sitting with the jury ZU admitted under cross examination that she had only made allegations of sexual abuse against her father after she had met Raj and commenced a relationship with him. It is understood that she accepted her motivation had been to take revenge on her father as she desired that her parents separate. HHJ Saggerson directed the jury on the basis that there were many inconsistencies in the evidence given by ZU and that further the evidence of Raj could not be relied upon. The jury returned a unanimous verdict of “not guilty” and the father was acquitted.”

Remember that the criminal court is applying a higher standard of proof   [What most people still think of as ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ but is actually now to convict the juror must be persuaded ‘so that they are sure’ in percentage terms probably high 80s, if not 90s]  rather than the civil standard of proof in care proceedings [more likely than not – i.e 50.01% or more]

 

But this seemed to be more than a Judge just indicating that it was impossible to be sure, and verging towards an indication that the evidence of Raj and ZU was such that it would be unsafe to rely on it due to the flaws in it.

When considering the father’s application for re-hearing then, the substance of what the criminal Judge had said was vital.

  1. The local authority did not accept the accuracy of this summary in the absence of a transcript of the evidence or summing up. Accordingly when the matter came back before HHJ Wilding on the 27 October 2014, the application was adjourned by consent until 12 December 2014 to allow a transcript to be obtained. The order made by the judge on the 27 October 2014 contained a number of recitals including:

    And the court expresses the view that a transcript of the summing up by HHJ Saggerson in the trial of R v KU would assist the court in determining the issues.

  2. The matter came on before the judge on 12 December 2014, when unhappily, but perhaps predictably, the transcript remained unavailable notwithstanding that the requisite application form had been sent to the Crown Court by the proposed appellant’s solicitors some weeks previously.

 

On 12th December then, the father asked for an adjourment to get this evidence. The Court refused the adjournment and went on to consider the father’s application for a re-hearing in the absence of that evidence.

  1. The inevitable application for a further adjournment was made on behalf of the appellant in order for the transcript to be obtained. The application was opposed by both the local authority and the guardian, although supported by the mother. The judge refused the application for a further adjournment and set out his reasons in an extempore judgment. He then went on to hear the substantive application for a rehearing, which he refused for reasons to be given at a later date.

    The Refusal of the Adjournment

  2. The judge, as he identified in his extempore judgement, was faced with balancing two rival issues saying:

    “[8] Clearly there are a number of competing issues here. There is the need to ensure justice to the father and the mother and the children. There is a need to have finality in respect of the proceedings generally, but in relation to children particularly and to avoid delay. It is not I confess, an easy decision to make weighing up each of those factors.”

  3. The judge then weighed up, on the one hand the detriment to the welfare of the children in the event of further delay and on the other, the prejudice to the father if his ability to make an effective application for a rehearing was undermined by the denial of a further adjournment.

 

Of course, in a practical sense, the delay for the children still occurred, since the decision was appealed, and the appeal Court didn’t hear the case until mid March. It might have been a far less disruptive delay to have waited until mid January to actually get the transcript of the Judge’s summing up…

 

The Court of Appeal accepted that any decision made by the Judge hearing that application would be imperfect.

  1. When the judge heard the application for an adjournment on 12 December 2014, it was already 19 months since proceedings had been issued and over 5 months since the placement orders had been made. Had the judge allowed the adjournment, it was anticipated that it would be something in the region of 5 months from the date of the making of the application, until the next case management hearing, (just a little under the statutory time limit for the whole of a care case from beginning to end). It was accepted by Counsel that if he were to succeed in his ultimate goal to set aside the findings of sexual abuse, there would thereafter be further substantial delay for these children; the summing up when obtained would not be evidence in itself but would provide a pointer as to which, if any, transcripts of evidence from the criminal proceedings should be obtained for consideration by the court in determining the father’s application.
  2. In the event that the judge, having examined the transcripts of evidence ultimately allowed the case to be reopened, further delay would ensue as many months would inevitably pass before a retrial of the sexual abuse allegations could be accommodated. The judge was only too well aware that the two younger children, settled in their adoptive placement, were developing the attachments vital to their future well being, and that their prospective adoptive parents would be living with the near intolerable strain brought about by the protracted uncertainty as to the children’s future; strain which would necessarily impact on the family environment to the detriment of the children.
  3. The older children too were, and would be, further affected by delay. They were in foster care, still connected to their family and living with the uncertainty of whether the case had come to an end or whether, in AU’s case, she might have to give evidence again.
  4. If delay sat heavily on one side of the scales, on the other side was the prejudice to the father if he were unable to draw upon what he asserted to be the evidence in the criminal proceedings; evidence which it was submitted on his behalf, had led to an acquittal and which notwithstanding the differing standard of proof applicable in the two jurisdictions, significantly undermined the findings made in the care proceedings. The care judge recognised that there was little the father could do to further his application without more than the assertions he was putting forward as to the content of the summing up.
  5. The judge frankly recognised the difficulties inherent in whichever decision he reached, but a decision had to be made. This was a classic example of a case where any decision made by the judge would be “imperfect”.

 

With that in mind, the Court of Appeal considered that there had been a proper balancing exercise about the pros and cons of the father’s application for an adjournment and the Judge was right to refuse it

  1. In my judgment the judge was entitled to conclude that the balance lay in favour of refusing the application for a further adjournment. He properly identified the competing arguments and weighed each one up briefly but with care. He clearly had at the forefront of his mind the importance of the application and the potential prejudice to the father’s case which would result from a refusal. The judge had had the advantage of conducting a lengthy trial and of making his own assessment of the parties prior to making the findings of fact to the civil standard of proof. He appropriately considered the father’s case at its highest and properly bore in mind the other extensive findings, which were unaffected by the criminal trial and which were in themselves serious, before concluding that the further substantial delay which would be occasioned by a further adjournment could not be countenanced in the interests of the children.
  2. In my judgment the judge conducted the appropriate balancing exercise and reached a conclusion which cannot be categorised as wrong and accordingly I would dismiss Grounds 1–3 of the Grounds of Appeal which relate to the refusal to adjourn.

 

[It is really hard for me to put out of my mind that the reason father’s case was prejudiced here was not due to any inaction on his part or those acting for him, but on the delays in the Court process of obtaining a transcript that was so vitally important. The Court of Appeal have remarked many times on how slow the transcription of judgments for appeals has been and how the system gets bogged down. Here, that transcript was not just an informative document but a piece of evidence that the father was deprived of making use of, because the system is so unfit for purpose. That leaves a very bad taste in my mouth]

 

Having lost the argument that the application for an adjournment should have been granted rather than refused, the father was inevitably going to lose the second part of his appeal that the re-hearing should have been ordered.

  1. Application for a rehearing
  2. By Ground 5 the father seeks to appeal the judge’s dismissal of the substantive application for a rehearing pursuant to s31F(6) Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984.
  3. In considering this application the judge made his decision by reference to the test found in Re ZZ, (Children)(Care Proceedings: Review of Findings) [2014] EWFC 9;[2015] 1WLR 95, an approach which was not resisted by any of the parties. Re ZZ adopts a three part test first propounded by Charles J in Birmingham City Council v H and Others and adopted by the President in Re ZZ at [12] as:

    …Firstly the court considers whether it will permit any reconsideration or review of or challenge to the earlier finding…If it does the second and third stages relate to its approach to the exercise. The second stage relates to, and determines, the extent of the investigations and evidence concerning the review. The third stage is the hearing of the review and thus it is at this stage that the court decides the extent to which the earlier finding stands by applying the relevant tests to the circumstances then found to exist

  4. In considering the first stage the President said [33]

    ……one does not get beyond the first stage unless there is some real reason to believe that the earlier findings require revisiting. Mere speculation and hope are not enough. There must be solid grounds for challenge. But for my part I would be disinclined to set the test any higher.

  5. The judge explained that there was no evidence to support the father’s submission other than his own assertions about what had happened at the trial The judge’s decision to refuse to permit a reconsideration of the findings of sexual abuse did not rely exclusively on the absence of the availability of the summary of evidence that the father had hoped would be found within the summing up. The judge concluded there were no grounds, let alone solid grounds, for revisiting his findings. The judge pointed to the fact that he had seen and heard all the witnesses and that he was alert to the father’s case that ZU had ulterior motives for making the allegations. In relation to the criminal trial, the judge observed that even had the judge conducting the criminal trial said that which the father alleged he had in the summing up, care proceedings are conducted to a different standard of proof. The judge alluded also to the likelihood there was significantly more surrounding evidence available to the him as the judge in the care proceedings than that put before the jury in the criminal proceedings; an observation accepted on behalf of the father.
  6. Not only did the judge unequivocally conclude that the first limb of the test was not satisfied, but he referred to the other serious findings of physical and emotional abuse and domestic violence saying There is no suggestion… that those findings would not stand against the father, and indeed the mother. Finally the judge concluded that even had the father passed the first test in Re ZZ, there would be no reason for further investigation as there was more than adequate material which is unchallenged, to found the making of the orders that have been made in respect of each of the children.
  7. I agree with the analysis of the judge, who was well aware that his decision meant that the father would be unable to challenge the findings of sexual abuse. Given the totality of the unimpeachable findings and the need for finality in the interest of these four damaged children, I cannot see upon what basis the court could conclude that the earlier findings need revisiting in order for a court to reach the right decision in the interests of the children.
  8. I would accordingly dismiss the father’s appeal in relation to the substantive application for a rehearing of the finding of fact hearing.

 

I personally think that if the father had been able to obtain a transcript from the criminal trial showing that an experienced Judge had seen ZU and Raj crumble under forensic examination and shown themselves to be unreliable witnesses who had concocted this story and more importantly that ZU had accepted in her evidence that she HAD fabricated the allegations, that would have been enough to meet the test.

Of course, it might be that the transcript would, if obtained, fall substantially short of that. Perhaps father was over-stating it. Perhaps he was completely right. We will never know. It doesn’t seem that it even materialised for the Court of Appeal hearing.

Have the Courts here really upheld the father’s article 6 right to fair trial? Given that father was deprived of the key piece of evidence not because he was dilatory or hapless, but because the Court system for getting a vital transcript was so hopeless.

Well, they have upheld his Article 6 rights , because the Court of Appeal say so. But I haven’t read many Court of Appeal decisions that made me feel so squirmy and uncomfortable  (Cheshire West in Court of Appeal  was the last one I felt like this about)

Only just over the threshold

 

I am tending to think that there’s a repositioning of the threshold criteria going on at the moment. It is a little hard to call, since there’s always been the unspoken background that what constitutes threshold in Liverpool doesn’t necessarily be the same things that consitute threshold in Torquay. But it feels that Re A and Re J are a subtle raising of the bar.

When a bar is raised, it can be tricky to work out exactly where that bar now is. We know that on the facts of Re A, threshold was not made out, but we don’t know if it was miles short or inches short.

Which is why when the President decides a case and says that the threshold criteria was satisfied but only just, it gives us some potentially useful information.

 

Leeds City Council v M and others 2015   http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/27.html  is the follow-up to the President’s judgment on Female Genital Mutilation (you may remember, this was the case where that was alleged, and the President had to decide (a) if it had happened (no) (b) whether it could amount to threshold (yes) (c) Would it amount to risk of harm to a male child (no) and (d) if it had happened, would it by itself justify adoption (no)

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/01/14/fgm-an-important-authority/

The President’s first judgment pre-dated Re A, which is what makes me think that there’s a shift in thinking. The President here didn’t seem to be struggling with the idea that domestic violence, even if not of the most serious nature could amount to significant harm:-

 

“(i) The local authority is unable on the evidence to establish that G (as I shall refer to her) either has been or is at risk of being subjected to any form of female genital mutilation.

(ii) There was a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F (as I shall refer to them) was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety.

(iii) Given all the facts as I find them, including but not limited to (i) and (ii) above, threshold is established.

The President had said in the first case that adoption, the LA’s plan, was not proportionate, and was seeking an alternative resolution. This case is that resolution.

In giving his final judgment, the President identified four key areas where the LA contended threshold was met:-

1. Mother’s mental health

2. Domestic violence

3. Neglect and physical abuse

4. Lack of cooperation / engagement

Remember, the President concluded that threshold WAS met, but only just.

I am prepared to accept, in the light of my findings, that threshold is established, though not by a very large margin.

So, looking at things in detail

 

1. Mother’s mental health

The psychiatrist, Dr T, made the diagnosis that mother had ‘schizo-affective disorder’, currently in remission, but a lifelong condition vulnerable to relapse caused by stress. Dr T said at least 12 months’ stability in M’s condition was essential if B and G were to be safe in her care and that the necessary period had not yet elapsed. If stability and compliance could not be maintained over that length of time, it would be “very risky” for them to be returned to her care

The Judge accepted Dr T’s evidence and opinion.

 

  • I accept that there has been improvement in M’s mental health. But Dr T’s evidence, which I accept, is clear, compelling and withstood all challenge. It would be irresponsible not to heed and give effect to it. In my judgment, M is not at present able to look after B and G.

[You might look at that and say that this in and of itself is sufficient to cross the threshold – there’s a factual matrix which allows the Court to establish that there is a risk of significant harm – remember that if a factual matrix is established, the risk itself does not have to be more likely than not, it is sufficient to be a risk which cannot sensibly be ignored, as decided by the House of Lords in H and R 1996. ]

 

2. Domestic violence

 

The mother had made allegations of domestic violence against the father, but later retracted them. The Court had heard evidence from mother and father.

My conclusion, having carefully considered the mass of material put to me and the helpfully detailed submissions from counsel, is that there was, as I have said, a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety. It was, as Mr Ekaney submits, at the lower end of the scale. Beyond that it would not be right to go.

 

Remembering that the definition of ‘harm’ was expanded in the Children Act 1989  to include the words in bold  “harm” means ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development [including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another];     – the words being added in the Adoption and Children Act 2002. So a child being exposed to domestic violence, or at risk of being so exposed can be considered to have suffered harm, or risk of such harm – the issue really being whether it is significant.  The President does not, in his judgment, specify whether his conclusion about domestic violence here amounted to significant harm or the risk thereof.  The best we can do is go back to this bit

“(i) The local authority is unable on the evidence to establish that G (as I shall refer to her) either has been or is at risk of being subjected to any form of female genital mutilation.

(ii) There was a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F (as I shall refer to them) was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety.

(iii) Given all the facts as I find them, including but not limited to (i) and (ii) above, threshold is established.

 

 

and suggest that domestic violence was part of the factual matrix that led the President to conclude that threshold was crossed, though not by a very large margin.

 

3. Neglect and physical abuse

 

This is the section where you get to see the Re A dynamics play out. There are facts established to show what happened to the children

There were two very specific allegations of neglect, amongst more general complaints

in October 2013, G was taken to nursery with spare clothes that were damp, soiled and smelled of urine; much more significant, on 7 November 2013 M, it is said, abandoned G in an alleyway in the city centre, where she was found cold, wet and very distressed. 

[The mother accepted the abandonment. G was born in July 2011, remember]

 

There is no doubt that B and G experienced instability and inconsistency of care, brought about by M’s recurrent mental health difficulties and F’s limited ability to cope with them. There were the specific instances of neglect I have already referred to.  To the extent that there was marital discord between F and M, B and G were exposed to it. I think it is probable that on a few occasions B and G were exposed to mild chastisement – but nothing more serious.

 

But as Re A showed us, establishing a contested (or accepted fact) as being proven is only half of the story. The next stage is for the Local Authority to satisfy the Court that what happened caused the children harm.

In this case, the Guardian considered that the children did not present as having been damaged by their experiences

“Without exception these two children have been described in very positive ways; it is clear they are delightful and endearing children who make a good impression on anyone who meets them. It is also clear that the first impressions of these children did not signify children who had been exposed to neglect, or an abusive home environment. They appeared to have been protected from the worst excesses of the mother’s mental health challenges. They have experienced positive parenting.”

 

The President says

I entirely agree. The guardian’s analysis accords with everything I have read and heard.

What is important, however, is the fact that, as I have already found, none of this seems to have had any significant or prolonged impact on either B or G – so nothing they have been exposed to can have been that serious.

 

The President doesn’t say so explicitly (which is somewhat vexing for those of us who are trying to decipher the Delphic offerings), but I think that that final remark can be read to mean that he did not accept that the threshold was made out on the basis of the neglect aspects.

Frankly, I think abandoning a 2 1/2 year old child in an alleyway is significant harm, but it appears that I am wrong about that.

 

Firstly, this troubles me because that sort of thing also feeds into risk of future harm, and of course a child isn’t yet showing the ill-effects of future harm. This approach seems to ignore future harm entirely.

The other thing that concerns me about this approach is that I can forsee that we are ending up with a different threshold criteria for a resilient child, who is exposed to poor parenting but has inner qualities that allow them to cope, and a fragile child whose reaction to the same parenting is marked and plain to see.  And it also requires that the child is showing the effects of the harm that they have suffered in a very visible and measurable way – I know that the neuroscience is controversial, but there is at least some evidence to suggest that neglect has much longer repercussions than the immediate visible impact.

 

4. Lack of cooperation / engagement

 

Here the parents made concessions

 

 

  • M admits poor engagement with professionals due to her mental health problems.
  • F accepts that, prior to the children being taken into care, he failed to engage and co-operate with the local authority and that this led to him adopting what was understandably perceived as a controlling attitude towards M. This, I accept, was driven by the two factors to which Mr Ekaney drew attention. The first was F’s perplexity about the family situation, largely caused by his failure to recognise the nature and extent of and inability to understand M’s mental health difficulties. The other was F’s desire to protect his family and his fear, from his perspective well-founded fear, that B and G would be removed from their care. Since B and G were taken into care, F’s attitude has changed. There has been, as Mr Ekaney puts it, a high level of co-operation and engagement with the local authority, coupled with a high level of commitment to B and G. And, as I accept, this is not due to any compulsion; it reflects F’s growing realisation and acceptance of the underlying realities.
  • Given M’s and F’s concessions, which appropriately reflect the reality of what was going on, there is no need for me to make any further findings.

 

[Well, there is a slight need – again, I am assuming that this was not found to have amounted to significant harm or the risk of significant harm, but it is rather difficult to say for certain, because the judgment doesn’t outline it.  To be honest, I do not envy the Local Authority advocate who had to draw up a final settled threshold based on this judgment. I THINK that the totality of the judgment suggests that findings of fact were made across points 1-4, but only those in points 1 and 2 amounted also to findings of significant harm. But I would not race to Paddy Power with bundles* of fivers to back that conclusion. My actual bet would be that over the next year, the number of cases where threshold is agreed rather than fought out will dramatically reduce. And as we can’t have fact finding hearings any more, thresholds will be fought out at final hearings. How’s that going to work out for 26 weeks, I wonder?]

 

 

The President ruled that whilst mother could not care for the children now or within their timescales, the father could and should be given that opportunity, and the children would be placed with him under Supervision Orders.

So there we have it, on these facts, the case crossed the threshold, but not by a very large margin.

 

 

*IF I did happen to be going to the bookies with bundles of fivers, I would ensure that in accordance with Practice Direction 27 there were (a) no more than 350 of them (b) They were A4 sized  and (c) that they were printed only on one side. Which explains why Paddy Power doesn’t want me going in there any more.