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Category Archives: timescales

And the office boy kicked the cat

You don’t often get law reports of Interim Care Order hearings, especially now that the senior Courts have finally stopped tinkering with the wording/putting a gloss on the statute / clarifying and refining the law. This one was a High Court decision, and the Judge (Keehan J) was investigating delay in issuing.

Big practice note for everyone – because this is High Court and we all need to follow it :-

 

The message must go out loud and clear that, save in the most exceptional and unusual of circumstances, local authorities must make applications for public law proceedings in respect of new born babies timeously and especially, where the circumstances arguably require the removal of the child from its parent(s), within at most 5 days of the child’s birth.

 

[If I may suggest – draft the bloody statement before the birth, and add to it, rather than start writing it after the baby is born. I know nobody wants to do that, just in case they win the lottery and are able to quit their job and avoid writing the statement, but seriously – have it ready in draft in advance. Babies have a nasty habit of arriving at a time that is least convenient]

 

Nottingham City Council v LW and Others 2016

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/11.html

You can get the tone of how this case is going to go from this very early paragraph.

A birth plan was prepared. It is not, however, worth the paper it is written on because, as it now transpires, it was ignored by everyone connected with the local authority

 

The mother had had a previous child who had been the subject of care proceedings. In fact, it looks as though those proceedings might have been ongoing into at least the late stages of pregnancy, because those proceedings were issued in May 2015. The judgment doesn’t say that the proceedings had actually ended by the time that the new baby was born in January 2016.  (It ought to have ended, on the 26 week rule, but to quote Neil Gaiman “Intent and outcome are rarely coincident”

 

 

  • The hospital, where LW was born on 16 January, notified the social workers of her birth on Monday 18 January.
  • It then took the social workers until 21 January to place the papers before the local authority’s solicitors for consideration of the issue of care proceedings. It took a local authority solicitor until 28 January to issue care proceedings and to apply for an ‘urgent’ interim care order.
  • The local authority’s application, interim threshold criteria and social work statements in support were not served on the parents’ respective solicitors nor on the children’s guardian and her solicitor until about 12.30pm on 28 January. The case was called on before me at 3pm, there being no justices, district judge or circuit judge available to hear the matter at such short notice.

 

It is hard to see an excuse for a hearing taking place in a rush on 2 1/2 hours notice when the baby had actually been born 12 days earlier.

It is not therefore a shock that the Judge wanted to hear from the Director of Children’s Services and the Head of the Legal Department as to why this had happened.  [For my part, I can’t say I’m happy that the legal department tried to throw one of the secretaries under the bus. I would NEVER EVER do that to any of the hard working people in my office who do so much to make things run smoothly and well.]

 

 

The Director of Children’s Services said this:-

 

 

“….I would like to offer my sincere apologies to the court for the delay in issuing proceedings. I understand this caused a number of challenges for those responsible for allocating court time and to all the parties involved who represent the parents and others involved in this case.

In this particular case, I understand however that there had been ongoing communication with the parties legal representatives about the Local Authority’s intention to issue proceedings.

I believe all parties worked on the premise that issuing should take place once all the paperwork including statements from health colleagues had been submitted and the social worker statement had been amended to include the new information from the hospital in relation to father’s alleged overdose, the withdrawal symptoms of baby and the anonymous referral received following LW’s birth. This contributed to the delay in issuing.

I fully accept that the ideal course of action would have been to issue proceedings as soon as possible after the first working day following the birth, namely the 18th January and the Local Authority could have filed a statement making it explicit that further information had come to light which required immediate investigation and seek the court’s permission to submit an updated statement once these investigations had taken place. Again, the social worker statement could have included information reported by health colleagues, making it clear that health colleagues would be required to submit statements as soon as possible following the lodging of the care application.

Furthermore, the Local Authority will ensure that team secure emails are checked on a frequent basis by the team’s Business Support Officer or the team’s duty social worker so they can alert managers when important documents have been received. This will prevent documents “sitting in the inbox” when social workers/ case holders are absent from work due to sickness or annual leave.

Again, please accept my apologies for this delay. The staff involved in this matter take their roles very seriously and did work hard to produce all the materials required by the court, as expeditiously as possible. However, we have all learnt from this experience and will ensure that issuing is done in a timely manner. The staff involved also offer their sincere apologies for the delay and did not wish to cause the court and parties any offence. They were working hard to gather all the necessary evidence and ensure all parties had full and up to date records of recent events. Again the team recognises the need to issue proceedings as soon as possible following the birth of the baby and will ensure this message is shared across their team…..

….LW’s half-brother is currently subject to care proceedings on the basis of concerns arising from domestic violence. The pre-birth assessment of LW concluded that the risks remained as the mother had not changed or accepted the concerns, but instead minimised the domestic abuse and impact this would have on her as yet unborn child’s development and safety.

A Legal Planning meeting was held on the 16th December 2015 chaired by a Children’s Social care service Manager with legal advice and support from the Team leader of the Local Authority’s Children and Adults Legal Team. The decision to issue proceedings was then ratified by me as Head of Service for Children’s Social Care.

It would be usual practice to issue proceedings on the day of birth and I have investigated this matter to try and ascertain why in this case, proceedings were not issued until the 27th January, 8 working days following LW’s birth. I met with the Team Manager, SD, and her covering Service Manager on Friday 29th January and with the Children and Adults Legal Team Leader on Monday 1st February in order to review events and determine reasons for this delay. I set out below the key events as they unfolded and which contributed to the delay in issuing proceedings….”

It isn’t great that the social work team took five days (less working days, obviously) to produce their statement, given that all concerned knew that the intention was to issue proceedings and that a baby would be born in January. Having said that though, having the statement ready on 21st January would still have allowed for a hearing on notice, and the delay of seven days to get the application issued once the statement was prepared is hard to understand.   [The longest and toughest part of issuing an application is of course the social worker writing the statement. The actual application is a horrible soul-crushing bout of tedium, but it really doesn’t take that long. In one dreadful day in December, I did three of these in a morning]

So what did the legal department have to say?  Well, as indicated earlier, they threw the lowest paid person in the room under the bus.

“On 19th January 2016, Legal Services were updated by the social worker following her hospital visit to see mother, father and the baby. The social worker advised there had also been an anonymous referral to the hospital made the previous evening stating that the mother had used opiates throughout her pregnancy. The hospital had also expressed concerns about the baby’s health and they would be undertaking a Rivers chart assessment as they were concerned the baby was experience withdrawal symptoms. I refer to the statement of TN for an explanation regarding what the Rivers Chart assessment is.

In light of the recent information, the social worker needed to update her statement and this was sent to Legal Services on 21st January 2016. By this point there were and had been some difficulties between the social worker and hospital in obtaining medical information regarding LW’s withdrawal and also the father’s overdose. Legal services confirmed that they would assist in seeking this information from the hospital.

On Friday 22 January the hospital emailed over a midwife’s report to the social worker’s team secure email. Unfortunately as the social worker was off sick on Monday 25th January, this statement was not picked up by the social worker until Tuesday 26th January, when it was forwarded on to Legal Services. Unfortunately the allocated solicitor was not in work on the 26th as she works part-time so the first that the solicitor saw of both the midwife’s report and the final paperwork from the Social Worker (the chronology) was on Wednesday 27th January, when the matter was issued. As the hospital was not pressing for discharge until the end of the week the Court were notified with the application that the matter could wait until Friday 29th January for listing if that would assist the Court…..

…the final updated social worker documents were received by Legal on 26th January and the case was issued with the court during the afternoon of 27th January and the court was advised that a hearing the following day was not necessarily needed and the matter could wait until the day afterwards, namely Friday 29 January if that would assist the Court. In the meantime the hospital emailed over further health evidence, a second midwife report and chronology, once again to the chronology, once again to the social worker until the morning of 28th January and then passed on to Legal Services.

The court duly issued the matter during the afternoon of 27th January and listed the case to be heard before a District Judge at 2pm on Thursday 28th January2016. The allocated solicitor left instructions with the team legal secretary to inform CAFCASS and also provide them with copies of the local authority application and also to counsel who would be representing the Local Authority on 28th January.

Unfortunately, the team secretary did not file and serve the Local Authority’s application on the Parent’s solicitors at the same time. I apologise on behalf of the Local Authority for their regrettable oversight. To give this error some context, due to an unexpected absence and vacancies within the secretarial team, the secretary was working on her own that day in a secretarial team which usually consists of four secretaries and was inundated with work. She is very sorry for the problems her oversight caused.

It is also further regrettable that it was not noted that the parents’ solicitors had not been served with the Local Authority’s application until late in the morning on 28th January. It was immediately rectified but unfortunately this was less than two hours before the hearing. Once again I apologise on behalf of the Local Authority for this delay. The Local Authority has been made fully aware of the dissatisfaction expressed by Mr Justice Keehan who heard the matter on 28th January and has not taken this matter lightly. There has been a full review into the circumstances surrounding the issue of this matter both by legal Services and also Children’s Services.

It is accepted that there has been a delay in the issuing of this matter and no disrespect was intended to the court and parties. It is hoped by providing a chronology in respect of what has happened in the conduct of the matter since the birth of LW that Mr Justice Keehan and the court can be reassured that this matter was continually worked and as a result of the critical new information and concerns around events that took place around the birth of LW involving the father’s suspected overdose and also the anonymous referral that the mother possibly had been using opiates through pregnancy that such concerns had to be rigorously investigated and also further evidence adduced in order for the Local Authority to rely on this, particularly, as the Local Authority’s Care Plan was to seek an Interim Care Order with removal of LW from her parents’ care.

In addition, the Parties solicitors were updated as regards progress with the matter. Sadly for LW the hospital had concerns that she maybe experiencing withdrawal symptoms and the hospital were obviously keen to keep her in hospital for monitoring. LW also suffered a seizure on 25th January. Therefore, any delay in the matter being heard before the court had thankfully not caused any inconvenience to the hospital.

Nevertheless in reviewing this matter I accept that should this scenario happen again in the future the appropriate course of action would be for the matter to be issued at the earliest possible opportunity following the baby’s birth. There would then be liaison with the court around further evidence being sought by the Local Authority to assist the court as to how urgently the matter needed to be listed, particularly as in this scenario the Local Authority were seeking an interim Care Order and removal which was and is still to be contested by the parents. The Team Leader for the Children and Adults legal team will ensure that the team is fully aware of the need to take this approach in future cases….”

Hmmm. I’m struggling with the Judge’s opening summary, where he says that the social work documents were with legal by 21st January, because the legal chronology here says 26th January.

The Judge accepted the apologies, but still felt that there was some egregiously poor practice here – and indicated that as there were some failings here which were not unique to this authority but things that happened too often in cases, it was worth highlighting them. In particular, he was concerned at the practice of delaying issuing an Interim Care Order application because a hospital was willing to keep a child for a longer period than would usually take place.  (It is fairly usual to seek an ICO in 4 or 5 days after birth, to allow the notice period and the hospital be asked to keep mother and baby together in the hospital with mother’s agreement.  The Court can’t always accommodate that, and this is particularly an issue where those 4 or 5 days would encompass a weekend, or worst still a Bank Holiday weekend)

I also note that having accepted the Local Authority apologies, the Judge did still take them to task for being a serial offender in late applications, and also ordered them to pay the costs.

[I can’t help but note that Keehan J was a lot harder on this authority than he was on the one in last week’s case who sought an injunction effectively labelling a man as a sexual exploiter of children having got the wrong man…]

Local Authority – Failings and Poor Practice

 

  • In my experience the errors made in this case are not an isolated example nor is the factual matrix of this case either unique nor even exceptional: on the contrary this case is fairly typical of the type of case in which local authorities propose or plan to seek the removal of a baby at birth. Thus, what principally concerns me is that such fundamental and egregious errors should be made in, what may colloquially be termed, ‘a run of the mill case’. In paragraph33 below, I consider what steps should be taken by a local authority when it plans to seek the removal of an unborn child immediately or shortly after his/her birth.
  • Before I do so, I wish to make certain observations on the flawed approach apparently endorsed by both the senior children’s services manager and the local authority’s senior lawyer in this case. First, both made reference to the willingness of the hospital to keep the baby as an in patient pending the issue of care proceedings. Plainly the period of time for which a hospital is prepared to keep a new born baby as an in-patient, either on medical or welfare grounds, maybe a material consideration for a local authority on the timing of the making of an application for an interim care order, but must not place too great a reliance on these indications or assurances. The fact that a hospital is prepared to keep a baby as an in-patient is not a reason to delay making an application for an interim care order. The following should always be borne in mind:

 

a) a hospital may not detain a baby in hospital against the wishes of the mother or a father with parental responsibility;

b) the capability of a maternity unit or a hospital to accommodate a healthy new born child may change within hours, whatever the good intentions of the unit or hospital, depending upon the challenging demands it may be presented with;

c) the ability to invite the police to exercise a Police Protection Order, pursuant to s 48 of the 1989 Act or for a local authority to apply for an Emergency Protection Order, pursuant to s.36 of the 1989, are, of course, available as emergency remedies,

d) but such procedures do not afford the parents nor, most importantly, the child, with the degree of participation, representation and protection as an on notice interim care order application;

e) the indication of a maternity unit as to the date of discharge of a new born baby should never, save in the most extraordinary of circumstances, set or lead the time for an application for an interim care order in respect of a new born child.

 

  • Second, where the pre birth plan provides for an application to be made for the removal of a child at or shortly after birth, it is neither “usual” nor “ideal” practice for an application for an interim care order to be made on the day of the child’s birth, rather it is essential and best practice for this to occur.
  • Third, once it is determined by a local authority that sufficient evidence is available to make an application for an interim care order, on the basis of the removal of a new born child, the availability of additional evidence from the maternity unit or elsewhere, must not then cause a delay in the issue of care proceedings; the provision of additional evidence may be envisaged in the application and/or provided subsequently.
  • The local authority should have adopted good practice and the following basic, but fundamental, steps should have been taken:

 

a) The birth plan should have been rigorously adhered to by all social work practitioners and managers and by the local authority’s legal department;

b) A risk assessment of the mother and the father should have been commenced immediately upon the social workers being made aware of the mother’s pregnancy. The assessment should have been completed at least 4 weeks before the mother’s expected date for delivery. The assessment should then have been updated to take account of relevant events immediately pre and post delivery which could potentially affect the initial conclusions on risk and care planning for the unborn child;

c) The assessment should have been disclosed, forthwith upon initial completion, to the parents and, if instructed, to their solicitors to give them an opportunity, if necessary, to challenge the assessment of risk and the proposed care plan;

d) The social work team should have provided all relevant documentation, necessary for the legal department to issue care proceedings and the application for an interim care order, no less than 7 days before the expected date of delivery. The legal department must issue the application on the day of birth and, in any event, no later than 24 hours after birth (or as the case may be, the date on which the local authority is notified of the birth);

e) Immediately upon issue, if not before, the local authority’s solicitors should have served the applications and supporting documents on the parents and, if instructed, upon their respective solicitors.

f) Immediately upon issue, the local authority should have sought from the court an initial hearing date, on the best time estimate that its solicitors could have provided.

 

  • If these steps had been followed in this case, unnecessary delay and procedural unfairness would have been avoided.

 

Conclusions

 

  • The local authority was inexcusably late in making an application for an interim care order. The consequences of this contumelious failure were that:

 

i) The parents’ legal representatives were served with the application and supporting, albeit deficient, documentation only some 2-3 hours before the hearing;

ii) The court was unable to accommodate a 1 day contested hearing for an interim care order before a circuit judge, a recorder or a district judge until some days hence;

iii) The parents legitimately wished to have a fully contested interim hearing with the benefit of oral evidence to cross examine the social worker and the guardian and to enable the parents to give oral evidence;

iv) The hospital was ready to discharge the child and, for wholly understandable reasons was unwilling and unable to care for the baby for a further prolonged period;

v) The stance of the hospital and the principal, but unchallenged, evidence of the local authority was that the baby would be at risk of suffering significant harm if she were discharged into the care of either the mother and/or the father;

vi) Accordingly and acting in the best welfare interests of the baby, as advised by the children’s guardian, the court had no choice but to make an interim care order in favour of the local authority on the basis of a plan to place the baby with foster carers; but

vii) On the basis that the local authority, at whatever cost and inconvenience to itself, would arrange contact to take place five times per week between the child and her parents.

 

  • I am in no doubt that the parents in this case have been done a great dis-service by this local authority. It may well be that the outcome would have been the same whatever the length of notice that they and their respective legal advisors had had of this application; that is not the point. It is all a question of perceived and procedural fairness.
  • The actions of this local authority, in issuing an application for an interim care order so late in the day, have resulted in an initial hearing before the court which, I very much regret, is procedurally unfair to the parents. Of equal importance, it is unfair to the children’s guardian who was only appointed on the morning of the issue of this application. The fault for this unfairness lies squarely at the door of this local authority.
  • I am in no doubt that if this application for an interim care order had been issued timeously by the local authority then the hearing before me on 28 January 2016 could have been an effective contested hearing.
  • In the premises I have no hesitation in concluding that the costs of this abortive hearing should be borne by the local authority. Accordingly I shall order the local authority to pay the costs of all of the respondents to be assessed if not agreed.
  • This local authority is, I am told and accept, a ‘serial offender’ in issuing late and ‘urgent’ applications for care proceedings and/or interim care orders in respect of new born babies. Save in respect of clandestine pregnancies and/or births, I simply do not understand why this local authority issues proceedings so late and so urgently. In this case it was a most spectacular and contumelious failure.
  • The message must go out loud and clear that, save in the most exceptional and unusual of circumstances, local authorities must make applications for public law proceedings in respect of new born babies timeously and especially, where the circumstances arguably require the removal of the child from its parent(s), within at most 5 days of the child’s birth.
  • Given that in the vast majority of cases a local authority will be actively involved with the family and/or aware of the pregnancy and the estimated date of delivery, I cannot conceive how such a requirement places an unreasonable and/or disproportionate duty upon a local authority. Further it is likely that a local authority’s failure to act fairly and/or timeously will be condemned in an order for costs.
  • In this case the local authority wholly and unreasonably failed the child, her parents and the children’s guardian.

 

 

The President’s decision in Re S (26 weeks and extensions) Part 2

 

The judgment is on the previous blog (I’m sure it will be on Bailii shortly)

This case really turns on the provisions of the Children and Family Act 2014 that come into force on Tuesday 22nd April. What we have here, somewhat unusually, is a leading Judge giving authority as to the interpretation of an Act which has not yet come into force.  Sentence first, verdict later, as it were.

At least it avoids any other Judge giving a judgment on Tuesday or afterwards which doesn’t accord with the President’s view of the test, so we all know where we stand.    [In fairness, because the decision that was being sought was to adjourn the case well beyond 22nd April, the future provisions would have kicked in by the time that the case fell to be determined, so it might have been hard to simply ignore them]

 

On the facts of the particular case, this was about a mother with a history of substance misuse problems, on child number four, with the previous three having been removed. There had been drug tests within the proceedings showing  “at worst very low levels of drugs in the mother’s hair”

The proceedings began in October, and we are now April. The mother’s application was for a residential assessment, that would last for a period of six to twelve weeks and if successful that would be followed by an assessment in the community. That would obviously take the case beyond the 26 week target of the PLO (and of course, given that the Children and Families Act provisions about timescales come into force next week, by the time of any final hearing, that would go beyond the new statutory requirement of 26 weeks). There were, however, three expert reports suggesting that the mother was making progress and that such an assessment might bear fruit.

The President was therefore considering whether to grant the adjournment and application for residential assessment, and doing so against the backdrop of the 26 week statutory position and the new provisions of the Children and Families Act as to exceptional circumstances that justify an adjournment of 8 weeks beyond that.

What was also in his mind was the new statutory provisions about expert evidence (which in effect incorporates into section 38 of the Children Act the current Rule 25 Family Procedure Rules tests and guidance)

 

21. For present purposes the key point is the use in common in section 38(7A) of the 1989 Act, section 13(6) of the 2014 Act and FPR 25.1 of the qualifying requirement that the court may direct the assessment or expert evidence only if it is “necessary” to assist the court to resolve the proceedings. This phrase must have the same meaning in both contexts. The addition of the word “justly” only makes explicit what was necessarily implicit, for it goes without saying that any court must always act justly rather than unjustly. So “necessary” in section 38(7A) has the same meaning as the same word in section 13(6), as to which see Re TG (Care Proceedings: Case Management: Expert Evidence) [2013] EWCA Civ 5, [2013] 1 FLR 1250, para 30, and In re H-L (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Expert Evidence) [2013] EWCA Civ 655, [2014] 1 WLR 1160, [2013] 2 FLR 1434, para 3.

 

This is what the President says about the statutory provision that care proceedings should be concluded within 26 weeks

24. Section 32(1)(a)(ii) does not describe some mere aspiration or target, nor does it prescribe an average. It defines, subject only to the qualification in section 32(5) and compliance with the requirements of sections 32(6) and (7), a mandatory limit which applies to all cases. It follows that there will be many cases that can, and therefore should, be concluded well within the 26 week limit. I repeat what I said in my first ‘View from the President’s Chambers: The process of reform’, [2013] Fam Law 548:

“My message is clear and uncompromising: this deadline can be met, it must be met, it will be met. And remember, 26 weeks is a deadline, not a target; it is a maximum, not an average or a mean. So many cases will need to be finished in less than 26 weeks.”

 

The issue then was the statutory provision in s32(5)

 

            A court in which an application under this Part is proceeding may extend the period that is for the time being allowed under subsection (1)(a)(ii) in the case of the application, but may do so only if the court considers that the extension is necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly.

and what factors the Court should consider when determining whether to grant such an adjournment.

One might think that those factors are already set out in the Act

s32 (6)        When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court must in particular have regard to –

(a)        the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the welfare of the child to whom the application relates, and

(b)        the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the duration and conduct of the proceedings;

and here “ensuing timetable revision” means any revision, of the timetable under subsection (1)(a) for the proceedings, which the court considers may ensue from the extension.

(7)        When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court is to take account of the following guidance: extensions are not to be granted routinely and are to be seen as requiring specific justification.

The President cites various authorities  (Re B-S and Re NL notably, as authorities for the principle that there will be cases where an extension of time IS necessary to resolve the proceedings justly)

31. In what circumstances may the qualification in section 32(5) apply?

32. This is not the occasion for any elaborate discussion of a question which, in the final analysis, can be determined only on a case by case basis. But some preliminary and necessarily tentative observations are appropriate

Let’s look at those preliminary and tentative observations

34. There will, as it seems to me, be three different forensic contexts in which an extension of the 26 week time limit in accordance with section 32(5) may be “necessary”:

i)                    The first is where the case can be identified from the outset, or at least very early on, as one which it may not be possible to resolve justly within 26 weeks. Experience will no doubt identify the kind of cases that may fall within this category. Four examples which readily spring to mind (no doubt others will emerge) are (a) very heavy cases involving the most complex medical evidence where a separate fact finding hearing is directed in accordance with Re S (Split Hearing) [2014] EWCA Civ 25, [2014] 2 FLR (forthcoming), para 29, (b) FDAC type cases (see further below), (c) cases with an international element where investigations or assessments have to be carried out abroad and (d) cases where the parent’s disabilities require recourse to special assessments or measures (as to which see Re C (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 128, para 34).

ii)                   The second is where, despite appropriately robust and vigorous judicial case management, something unexpectedly emerges to change the nature of the proceedings too late in the day to enable the case to be concluded justly within 26 weeks. Examples which come to mind are (a) cases proceeding on allegations of neglect or emotional harm where allegations of sexual abuse subsequently surface, (b) cases which are unexpectedly ‘derailed’ because of the death, serious illness or imprisonment of the proposed carer, and (c) cases where a realistic alternative family carer emerges late in the day.

iii)                 The third is where litigation failure on the part of one or more of the parties makes it impossible to complete the case justly within 26 weeks (the type of situation addressed in In re B-S, para 49).

34. I repeat, because the point is so important, that in no case can an extension beyond 26 weeks be authorised unless it is “necessary” to enable the court to resolve the proceedings “justly”. Only the imperative demands of justice – fair process – or of the child’s welfare will suffice.

 

So, to skip to the chorus  – three categories of case where an extension might be warranted  (forgive my short-hand mnemonic prompts, which Malcolm Tucker has helped me devise)

 

1. The case was always going to be super-complicated from the outset (heavy duty fact-finding, FDAC cases, heavy duty international element, parents with disabilities such that specialised assessments are necessary)

“This case was fucked from the beginning”

2.  Something massive emerges during the proceedings – (fresh allegations that need to be resolved, death or imprisonment of a key player, a realistic family member comes forward late in the day  – “Auntie Beryl alert! Finally an answer – adjournment is going to be permissable for an Auntie Beryl situation!”)

“This case got fucked in the middle”

 3. Litigation failure on the part of one of the parties means that it would not be fair to conclude the proceedings

“Some fucker has fucked up”

 

The Judge then goes on to praise FDAC but delivers this guidance (which probably has wider applicability)

 

38. Viewed from a judicial perspective a vital component of the FDAC approach has to be a robust and realistic appraisal at the outset of what is possible within the child’s timescale and an equally robust and realistic ongoing appraisal throughout of whether what is needed is indeed being achieved (or not) within the child’s timescale. These appraisals must be evidence based, with a solid foundation, not driven by sentiment or a hope that ‘something may turn up’.

Typically three questions will have to be addressed. First, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent is committed to making the necessary changes? If so, secondly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to maintain that commitment? If so, thirdly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to make the necessary changes within the child’s timescale

 

I think those principles have wider applicability, because the President goes on to use them in this case, which although the background is drugs and alcohol, is NOT a FDAC case.

For this particular case, this is what the President says (bear in mind that this is NOT a final hearing, but an application to adjourn the final hearing and seek a residential assessment. As far as I can tell from the judgment, no live evidence was heard.  The remarks don’t leave much room for manoeuvre at final hearing…)

44. there is no adequate justification, let alone the necessity which section 32(5) of the 1989 Act will shortly require, for an extension of the case so significantly beyond 26 weeks. Again, there are two aspects to this. Looking to the mother, there is, sadly, at present no solid, evidence based, reason to believe that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale. Even assuming that there is some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that she is committed to making the necessary changes, there is, sadly, not enough reason to believe that she will be able to maintain that commitment. In the light of her history, and all the evidence to hand, the assertion that she will seems to me to be founded more on hope than solid expectation, just as does any assertion that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale. Secondly, I have to have regard to the detrimental effects on S of further delay. Far from this being a case where the child’s welfare demands an extension of the 26 weeks time limit, S’s needs point if anything in the other direction. I accept the guardian’s analysis.

 

If you were thinking that this was all very peculiar, I haven’t even got to the best bit

 

I have been sitting at Bournemouth in the Bournemouth and Poole County Court hearing a care case. It is a very typical County Court case

[There is nothing in the history of the litigation set out in the judgment that ever shows that the case was transferred from the County Court to the High Court. So is this binding authority about provisions of an Act which weren’t in force at the time the judgment was given, actually a County Court judgment? ]

 

 

 

President’s judgment Re S (26 week and time extensions) Part One

 

 

This has come my way but is not yet on Bailii – so blog on it to follow, but first things first, the judgment, which the President himself has circulated to interested persons  (I’ve put it on here in full, as it is going to impact on all cases from our next working day)

Case No: DO13C00782

IN THE BOURNEMOUTH AND POOLE COUNTY COURT

(In Private)

 

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

 

Date: 16 April 2014

 

Before :

 

SIR JAMES MUNBY PRESIDENT OF THE FAMILY DIVISION

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In the matter of S (A Child)

 

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Mr Anthony Hand (instructed byTanya Hall, Bournemouth Borough Council legal services) for the local authority

Mr Andy Pitt (of Aldridge Brownlee Solicitors LLP) for the mother

Ms Nicola Preston (of Dutton Gregory) for the father

Mr Steven Howard (instructed by Pengillys) for the children’s guardian

 

Hearing date: 25 March 2014

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Approved Judgment

I direct that pursuant to CPR PD 39A para 6.1 no official shorthand note shall be taken of this Judgment and that copies of this version as handed down may be treated as authentic.

 

 

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SIR JAMES MUNBY PRESIDENT OF THE FAMILY DIVISION

 

This judgment was delivered in private.   The judge has given leave for this version of the judgment to be published on condition that (irrespective of what is contained in the judgment) in any published version of the judgment the anonymity of the children and members of their family must be strictly preserved.   All persons, including representatives of the media, must ensure that this condition is strictly complied with.   Failure to do so will be a contempt of court.

 

 

 

Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division :

 

  1. I have been sitting at Bournemouth in the Bournemouth and Poole County Court hearing a care case. It is a very typical County Court case but, as it happens, it raises a point on which it is desirable that I should give a judgment directed to a wider audience.

The background facts

  1. S, the child with whom I am concerned, was born in October 2013. She is the youngest of her mother’s four children. The three older children have all been taken into care. The mother, as is common ground, has a history of street prostitution and drug taking. Her third child was born with drug withdrawal symptoms.
  2. The proceedings in relation to S began in October 2013. An emergency protection order was granted on 21 October 2013, followed by an interim care order on 28 October 2013. The case was transferred to the County Court. It came before His Honour Judge Bond on 14 January 2014 for a further case management hearing. There was a formal application by the local authority for permission to instruct an expert, a psychiatrist, and an informal application by the mother for an assessment in accordance with section 38(6) of the Children Act 1989. Amongst the papers before Judge Bond was a parenting assessment by the local authority dated 20 December 2013, a further report from the local authority dated 6 January 2014, and reports dated 3, 4 and 30 December 2013 from Dr Menzies Schrader, a specialist psychiatrist with the local Mental Health Team who had been treating the mother. Judge Bond directed the filing by 14 February 2014 of a report by a consultant forensic psychiatrist, Dr Jane Ewbank. He adjourned the mother’s application pending receipt of Dr Ewbank’s report.
  3. The mother’s adjourned application came before me on 25 March 2014. By then Dr Ewbank had reported. Her report is dated 18 February 2014. Mr Andy Pitt on behalf of the mother renewed her application for an assessment under section 38(6). As refined before me, the proposal was that I should direct a residential assessment of S and her mother at Orchard House, a Family Assessment and Intervention Centre in Taunton, initially for a weekend and, if that proved successful, for a period of between six and twelve weeks. This residential assessment might then (see below) be followed by a further period of assessment in the community. The application was opposed both by Mr Anthony Hand on behalf of the local authority and by Mr Steven Howard appearing for S’s guardian, as well as by Ms Nicola Preston representing S’s father. There were reports from Orchard House dated 15 December 2013 and 20 March 2014 setting out what they could offer. There was also a report dated 20 March 2014 from the Dorset Working Women’s Project, a sexual health project working with women who sell sex, particularly those who misuse drugs and/or alcohol.
  4. I also had the results of various hair-strand drug tests which the mother had recently undergone. These results were not easy to interpret, though they showed at worst very low levels of drugs in the mother’s hair. Mr Pitt did not invite me to hear evidence from the mother, so on this point I cannot come to any conclusion. Nor do I express any views. There is in the event no need for me to do so. I am content for present purposes to proceed on the assumption, though without deciding, that the mother was ‘clean’ during the periods covered by the tests.
  5. Having reflected on the matter overnight, I informed the parties the following day that I had decided, for reasons which would be given in due course in a written judgment, to refuse the application. It was accordingly dismissed.  

The mother’s problems

  1. There are various strands to the mother’s problems. For present purposes they can be summarised as follows. The mother is a vulnerable woman who struggles to care for herself. She has mental health problems, an anxiety disorder (exemplified by fears of travelling on public transport and at times elective mutism) with intermittent depressive episodes and borderline low IQ. She has a long history of polysubstance drug misuse and street prostitution.
  2. In relation to this, Mr Howard took me to the notes of the mother’s supervised contact sessions with S. Two themes emerge. The first relates to the mother’s personal appearance and presentation. There is frequent reference to the mother arriving for contact unkempt, with dirty clothes and smelling of tobacco smoke and unpleasant body odour. She is recorded as being shaky, swaying and shuffling (though apparently not smelling of alcohol). The relevance of this, I assume, is that the mother’s inability to look after herself throws light on her ability to look after S. More important are the recordings of the interaction between S and her mother. There is quite frequent reference to the fact that S rarely makes eye contact with her mother but does with the workers, that the mother “has her vacant expression throughout contact” – what on one occasion is described as her “dreamy frozen stare” – and that there is very little interaction between S and her mother. The note of contact on 3 March 2014 comments that S “does not get much stimulation during her contacts.” The note of contact the following day records that when her foster carer arrived to collect her, S was “very happy and smiled at the foster carer.” The comment is added that “S is a very different child when she is with the foster carer S is a happy laughing child.”

The expert evidence

  1. The local authority’s parenting assessment dated 20 December 2013 contains an analysis of which the following are the most significant passages:

“[A report] evidenced some positives in the basic case of S provided by [the mother] during the parenting assessment sessions. [She] has also evidenced a high level of motivation during the assessment, and has engaged to a high level

[She] has remained stable on her methadone prescription as proven by her hair strand test. This is a positive step forward and indicates a desire and ability to remain clean even at times of stress such as current proceedings

The child protection risks are of concern and there are still considerable risks potentially posed to S.

However [the mother] has showed some positive insight into parenting and has showed potential for further growth and change.

[Her] mental health difficulties are complex and difficult to understand and I feel we require in depth support from her mental health professionals, to ascertain if there is further support that could be provided with regards to her mental health that may improve [her] position as good parent.

There is a possibility that a short term mother and baby placement tailored to [her] additional needs may be appropriate dependent on other professionals reports and professional opinions. This would be to further determine if she can parent in the whole when responsible for her child, or whether or not, she can merely manage basic parenting in a controlled environment such as FRC for 1½ hours.

It should be noted that since completion of the report, I have had access to case recordings from recent contacts from the start of December and there has been deterioration in [her] parenting skills and presentation.

There have been concerns raised by the contact worker regarding her physical support of S, her hygiene and nappy changing. It is unclear why this change in [her] skills has changed.

[She] has also expressed to contact workers she is experiencing panic attacks and cannot cope with the short journey by taxi to FRC. This contradicts the information she provided to me, and is concerning she is mentioning this now the assessment is complete.

The fundamental concern this raises is that since completion of the parenting assessment, [she] has been unable to sustain the level of parenting she previously was providing S. This could be due to instability in her mental health or an inability to maintain good level of parenting.

S requires a safe, nurturing and consistent upbringing to ensure she has the best possible opportunity for a health and happy life.

If [the mother] is unable to provide this in the confines of the FRC, it is questionable whether or not she could long term.”

  1. The further report dated 6 January 2014, which records a visit to the mother’s home on 4 December 2013, contains this comment:

“It was very evident during my visit that [the mother] is fully dependent on her sister … to fulfil her day to day needs which concerns me in respect of [her] ability to parent S independently.”

  1. The mother’s key worker at the Dorset Working Women’s Project describes working with the mother from 2001 until 2008, when “she appeared to have settled down and was stable.” She next saw the mother in December 2012, describing her then as being “clearly mentally unwell and extremely vulnerable.” She continues:

“[She] appeared to be making progress until she was befriended by a known perpetrator who has a history of violence and abuse towards vulnerable women … Unfortunately once the relationship began [he] had complete control over [her] … and she appeared to be working more.”

That man is S’s father. He has been in prison again since July 2013. Of the mother’s subsequent re-engagement with the Project and more recent presentation the key worker says that the mother’s presentation has “improved greatly” and that she “continues to make good progress”.

  1. Dr Schrader was supportive of a residential assessment to assess the mother’s parenting abilities. In his report dated 30 December 2013 he said that “Her presentation currently is vastly improved from how she presented in 2012 and in January of this year and I believe is primarily as she is having input and been abstinent from substances. This is the first time she has engaged to this extent”. On the other hand, he noted that she “continues to have difficulties with anxiety” and described her as “a complex lady who desperately would like to raise her daughter, but who has numerous issues which could impede this process.” He added, “Improvement in these areas of difficulty is going to take time.”
  2. Dr Ewbank accepted that the mother “appears to be demonstrating an increased capacity to engage in treatment with both the drug services and the CMHT”. Commenting that “Historically she has been a very poor engager, missing multiple mental health appointments and repeatedly disengaging from drugs services either by not attending or by using illicit drugs on top of her Methadone prescription,” Dr Ewbank continued, “There does appear to be evidence over recent months of sustained engagement with both services and she has clearly benefited from the support of … the Dorset Working Women’s Project.” Asked to indicate the prognosis for change, Dr Ewbank said:

“Given [her] long standing drug problems, dating back almost 20 years, it is likely that achieving and sustaining first stability and subsequently abstinence from illicit drugs may take some time and is likely to require on-going treatment and support for many years.”

She added, “there is still a very real risk that she may resort to buying other medication to help her sleep … and thus exacerbate her problems again.”

Orchard House

  1. Having reviewed the papers in the case, Dr Freda Gardner, a consultant clinical psychologist and the clinical director of Orchard House, expressed the view in her report dated 15 December 2013 that a residential assessment was appropriate and indicated. She described the regime:

“The high level of monitoring, 24-hours a day, afforded by a residential assessment would allow a thorough assessment of parenting to be undertaken whilst concurrently ensuring the safeguarding of S. This would include [the mother’s] parenting ability, and capacity for further change, and a consistent period of assessment regarding her current drug use.”

She continued:

“During assessment at Orchard House [she] would be provided with a tailored package of support and intervention to develop her capacity / potential capacity to meet the full range of S’s needs, including ‘Keep Safe’ work around prostitution, appropriate adults, and ongoing drug use.

The Social Work led Assessment Team and the Family Support Workers at Orchard House are highly experienced in working with a wide range of parents, and benefit from full integration of Clinical Psychologists experienced in a wide range of clinical presentations including personality disorder presentations and selective mutism. The staff support parents in developing skills and provide immediate verbal feedback, as well as written / pictorial feedback to improve parenting skills, which are based on research evidence. All staff at Orchard House aim to ensure that each family receives appropriate and consistent information The staff use a variety of techniques and specialist materials designed to help parents learn new skills, which may include formal instruction, modeling, breaking tasks down into small chunks, and giving lots of opportunities for rehearsal and repetition.

I am aware that any assessment will need to be within S’s timescales, and would therefore recommend that the residential assessment be kept as brief as possible, with regular reviews held to ensure the progression of the assessment. Typically, residential assessments are 6-12 weeks in length, though this depends on the specific needs of the family and the key issues of the assessment. Following a successful period of residential assessment, it may be appropriate for the assessment to move to the community or to the Orchard House community base. Orchard House are able and willing to provide carefully considered plans for transition.”

  1. In her further report dated 20 March 2014 Dr Gardner confirmed her opinion that Dr Ewbank’s report did not change her view.

Section 38(6) – the legal framework

  1. Section 38(6) of the Children Act 1989 provides so far as material that:

“Where the court makes an interim care order … , it may give such directions (if any) as it considers appropriate with regard to the medical or psychiatric examination or other assessment of the child …”

  1. The meaning of this provision is authoritatively explained by the House of Lords in two cases: In re C (A Minor) (Interim Care Order: Residential Assessment) [1997] AC 489, [1997] 1 FLR 1, and In re G (A Minor) (Interim Care Order: Residential Assessment) [2005] UKHL 68, [2006] 1 AC 576, [2006] 1 FLR 601. It suffices for present purposes to cite two brief passages from the speech of Baroness Hale of Richmond in In re G. In the first (para 69) she said:

“In short, what is directed under section 38(6) must clearly be an examination or assessment of the child, including where appropriate her relationship with her parents, the risk that her parents may present to her, and the ways in which those risks may be avoided or managed, all with a view to enabling the court to make the decisions which it has to make under the Act with the minimum of delay. Any services which are provided for the child and his family must be ancillary to that end. They must not be an end in themselves.”

Referring to the Protocol for Judicial Case Management in Public Law Children Act Cases [2003] 2 FLR 719, the precursor to the revised Public Law Outline (PLO), due to come into force in its final form later this month, she added (para 71):

“if the aims of the protocol are to be realised, it will always be necessary to think early and clearly about what assessments are indeed necessary to decide the case. In many cases, the local authority should be able to make its own core assessment and the child’s guardian to make an independent assessment in the interests of the child. Further or other assessments should only be commissioned if they can bring something important to the case which neither the local authority nor the guardian is able to bring.”

I draw attention to Lady Hale’s use of the word “necessary”.

  1. Two other authorities cited to me require brief mention. In Re J (Residential Assessment: Rights of Audience) [2009] EWCA Civ 1210, [2010] 1 FLR 1290, para 10, Wall LJ, as he then was, said:

“I think it important to remember when one is looking either at the independent assessments by social workers or at applications under section 38(6) of the Act that one needs to be child focused. It is not a question of the mother’s right to have a further assessment, it is: would the assessment assist the judge in reaching a conclusion or the right conclusion in relation to the child in question?”

Referring to this in Re T (Residential Parenting Assessment) [2011] EWCA Civ 812, [2012] 2 FLR 308, para 93, Black LJ rejected the proposition that “a parent facing the permanent removal of their child has a right in all cases to an assessment of their choice rather than one carried out or commissioned by the local authority.” She continued:

“Still less is there a principle such as that for which [counsel] contends, namely that parents must be given the chance to put forward a positive case to the judge determining the issue of whether a care order should be made’.”

Sir Nicholas Wall P, para 53, identified the “critical questions” as being:

“(1) does this child’s welfare warrant an assessment under section 38(6) of the Act? And (2) in looking at the timetable for the child, is there evidence that this mother will be able to care adequately for the child within the child’s timetable?”

  1. Later this month, the amendments to section 38 of the 1989 Act effected by the Children and Families Act 2014 will be brought into force. Sections 38(7A) and (7B), inserted by section 13(11) of the 2014 Act, provide as follows:

“(7A)   A direction under subsection (6) to the effect that there is to be a medical or psychiatric examination or other assessment of the child may be given only if the court is of the opinion that the examination or other assessment is necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings justly.

(7B)     When deciding whether to give a direction under subsection (6) to that effect the court is to have regard in particular to –

(a)        any impact which any examination or other assessment would be likely to have on the welfare of the child, and any other impact which giving the direction would be likely to have on the welfare of the child,

(b)        the issues with which the examination or other assessment would assist the court,

(c)        the questions which the examination or other assessment would enable the court to answer,

(d)        the evidence otherwise available,

(e)        the impact which the direction would be likely to have on the timetable, duration and conduct of the proceedings,

(f)         the cost of the examination or other assessment, and

(g)        any matters prescribed by Family Procedure Rules.”

  1. The language of section 38(7A) replicates, in all material respects verbatim, the more general provision in section 13(6) of the 2014 Act which applies to the calling of expert evidence (and which in turn replicates, with the addition of the word “justly”, the language of FPR 25.1). Likewise, the language of section 38(7B) is very similar to that of section 13(7) of the 2014 Act.
  2. For present purposes the key point is the use in common in section 38(7A) of the 1989 Act, section 13(6) of the 2014 Act and FPR 25.1 of the qualifying requirement that the court may direct the assessment or expert evidence only if it is “necessary” to assist the court to resolve the proceedings. This phrase must have the same meaning in both contexts. The addition of the word “justly” only makes explicit what was necessarily implicit, for it goes without saying that any court must always act justly rather than unjustly. So “necessary” in section 38(7A) has the same meaning as the same word in section 13(6), as to which see Re TG (Care Proceedings: Case Management: Expert Evidence) [2013] EWCA Civ 5, [2013] 1 FLR 1250, para 30, and In re H-L (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Expert Evidence) [2013] EWCA Civ 655, [2014] 1 WLR 1160, [2013] 2 FLR 1434, para 3.

The wider context

  1. By the time the case came before me on 25 March 2014, the proceedings had already been on foot for a little over five months. What was being proposed by Orchard House envisaged a process that might extend the proceedings well beyond six months, indeed possibly for as long as eight months or even longer. This requires consideration of the principle set out in the interim PLO – which applies to this case – and shortly to be reinforced by section 14 of the 2014 Act.
  2. Section 14 of the 2014 Act amends section 32 of the Children Act 1989 so that from later this month section 32 will in material part read as follows:

“(1)      A court hearing an application for an order under this Part shall …

(a)        draw up a timetable with a view to disposing of the application –

(i)     without delay, and

(ii)    in any event within twenty-six weeks beginning with the day on which the application was issued; and

(b)        give such directions as it considers appropriate for the purpose of ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, that that timetable is adhered to.

(5)        A court in which an application under this Part is proceeding may extend the period that is for the time being allowed under subsection (1)(a)(ii) in the case of the application, but may do so only if the court considers that the extension is necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly.

(6)        When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court must in particular have regard to –

(a)        the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the welfare of the child to whom the application relates, and

(b)        the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the duration and conduct of the proceedings;

and here “ensuing timetable revision” means any revision, of the timetable under subsection (1)(a) for the proceedings, which the court considers may ensue from the extension.

(7)        When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court is to take account of the following guidance: extensions are not to be granted routinely and are to be seen as requiring specific justification.

(10)      Rules of court may provide that a court –

(a)        when deciding whether to exercise the power under subsection (5), or

(b)        when deciding how to exercise that power,

must, or may or may not, have regard to matters specified in the rules, or must take account of any guidance set out in the rules.”

No rules have been made pursuant to section 32(10) and none are proposed to be made for the time being.

  1. Section 32(1)(a)(ii) does not describe some mere aspiration or target, nor does it prescribe an average. It defines, subject only to the qualification in section 32(5) and compliance with the requirements of sections 32(6) and (7), a mandatory limit which applies to all cases. It follows that there will be many cases that can, and therefore should, be concluded well within the 26 week limit. I repeat what I said in my first ‘View from the President’s Chambers: The process of reform’, [2013] Fam Law 548:

“My message is clear and uncompromising: this deadline can be met, it must be met, it will be met. And remember, 26 weeks is a deadline, not a target; it is a maximum, not an average or a mean. So many cases will need to be finished in less than 26 weeks.”

  1. What then of the qualification in section 32(5)?
  2. In In re B-S (Children) (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, [2014] 1 WLR 563, paras 32-46, the Court of Appeal spelt out the essentials which the law and good practice demand in all cases when the court is being asked to approve a care plan for adoption or being asked to make a non-consensual placement order or adoption order. Giving the judgment of the court, I said this (para 49):

“We do not envisage that proper compliance with what we are demanding, which may well impose a more onerous burden on practitioners and judges, will conflict with the requirement, soon to be imposed by statute, that care cases are to be concluded within a maximum of 26 weeks. Critical to the success of the reforms is robust judicial case management from the outset of every care case. Case management judges must be astute to ensure that the directions they give are apt to the task and also to ensure that their directions are complied with. Never is this more important than in cases where the local authority’s plan envisages adoption.”

I continued:

“If, despite all, the court does not have the kind of evidence we have identified, and is therefore not properly equipped to decide these issues, then an adjournment must be directed, even if this takes the case over 26 weeks. Where the proposal before the court is for non-consensual adoption, the issues are too grave, the stakes for all are too high, for the outcome to be determined by rigorous adherence to an inflexible timetable and justice thereby potentially denied.”

  1. That approach, which is entirely compatible with the requirements of section 32, applies not just in the particular context under consideration in In re B-S but more generally.
  2. In my seventh ‘View’, [2013] Fam Law 1394, I described the remarkable work being done by the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) under the inspirational leadership of District Judge (Magistrates’ Court) Nicholas Crichton. I touched on the question of how the FDAC model was to meet the challenge of the 26 week time limit and fit with the PLO. I said:

“ … we must see how best the PLO can accommodate the FDAC model (I put it this way, rather than the other way round). We must always remember that the PLO is a means of achieving justice and the best outcomes for children and, wherever possible, their families. It is not, and must never be allowed to become, a straightjacket, least of all if rigorous adherence to an inflexible timetable risks putting justice in jeopardy.”

  1. More recently, in Re NL (A child) (Appeal: Interim Care Order: Facts and Reasons) [2014] EWHC 270 (Fam), para 40, Pauffley J has expressed the point in words which I cannot improve upon and which I wholeheartedly endorse:

“Justice must never be sacrificed upon the altar of speed.”

  1. So despite the imperative demand of section 32(1)(a)(ii), there can be exceptions. But before going further it is vital to recall the equally imperative language of sections 32(5) and 32(7). An extension beyond 26 weeks is to be permitted only if it is “necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly”. This is precisely the same language as appears in section 38(7A) of the 1989 Act and section 13(6) of the 2014 Act, so it must mean the same. Specifically, the learning in Re TG and in In re H-L must, in my judgment, apply as much to section 32(5) of the 1989 Act as it does to section 38(7A) of the 1989 Act and section 13(6) of the 2014 Act. Moreover, extensions are “not to be granted routinely” and require “specific justification.”
  2. In what circumstances may the qualification in section 32(5) apply?
  3. This is not the occasion for any elaborate discussion of a question which, in the final analysis, can be determined only on a case by case basis. But some preliminary and necessarily tentative observations are appropriate.
  4. There will, as it seems to me, be three different forensic contexts in which an extension of the 26 week time limit in accordance with section 32(5) may be “necessary”:

i)                    The first is where the case can be identified from the outset, or at least very early on, as one which it may not be possible to resolve justly within 26 weeks. Experience will no doubt identify the kind of cases that may fall within this category. Four examples which readily spring to mind (no doubt others will emerge) are (a) very heavy cases involving the most complex medical evidence where a separate fact finding hearing is directed in accordance with Re S (Split Hearing) [2014] EWCA Civ 25, [2014] 2 FLR (forthcoming), para 29, (b) FDAC type cases (see further below), (c) cases with an international element where investigations or assessments have to be carried out abroad and (d) cases where the parent’s disabilities require recourse to special assessments or measures (as to which see Re C (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 128, para 34).

ii)                   The second is where, despite appropriately robust and vigorous judicial case management, something unexpectedly emerges to change the nature of the proceedings too late in the day to enable the case to be concluded justly within 26 weeks. Examples which come to mind are (a) cases proceeding on allegations of neglect or emotional harm where allegations of sexual abuse subsequently surface, (b) cases which are unexpectedly ‘derailed’ because of the death, serious illness or imprisonment of the proposed carer, and (c) cases where a realistic alternative family carer emerges late in the day.

iii)                 The third is where litigation failure on the part of one or more of the parties makes it impossible to complete the case justly within 26 weeks (the type of situation addressed in In re B-S, para 49).

  1. I repeat, because the point is so important, that in no case can an extension beyond 26 weeks be authorised unless it is “necessary” to enable the court to resolve the proceedings “justly”. Only the imperative demands of justice – fair process – or of the child’s welfare will suffice.
  2. I referred above to FDAC type cases. I have in mind cases of the type that might benefit from what I will call the FDAC approach. The approach (see the description in my seventh View, [2013] Fam Law 1394) is based on problem solving by a specialist, multi-disciplinary team supporting the parents in overcoming their problems where children have been put at risk, for example by parental substance misuse. The aim is to help to keep the family together, where possible. The team formulates an intervention plan to test whether the parents can overcome their problems and meet their child’s needs within the child’s timescale. Expectations are clear. The progress made by the parents is monitored regularly. If the parents cannot maintain the necessary progress the process is brought to an end.
  3. Originally, the FDAC approach was pioneered in the FDAC court created by DJ(MC) Crichton at Wells Street in London. Another FDAC is now running at Gloucester and others are planned elsewhere. But the FDAC approach does not necessarily require a FDAC. Similar principles are being applied, for example, in Plymouth, pre-proceedings in a community based model pioneered by Bath and North East Somerset Council, in Liverpool by the use of a pre-proceedings protocol and in a small number of specialist domestic abuse survivors’ projects. No doubt other models will emerge. Typically, a multi-disciplinary team approach is agreed with the designated family judge or judge in charge of the specialist court, so that the support network and assessment team are available and funded in accordance with an agreed model. Decisions in principle about the capability of the parents to care for their child are usually made within 26 weeks, leaving such longer implementation as may be within the child’s timescale to be achieved within an extended timetable for the proceedings.
  4. The FDAC approach is crucially important. The simple reality is that FDAC works. DJ(MC) Crichton has shown what can be achieved for children and their parents even in the most unpromising circumstances. FDAC is, it must be, a vital component in the new Family Court.
  5. Viewed from a judicial perspective a vital component of the FDAC approach has to be a robust and realistic appraisal at the outset of what is possible within the child’s timescale and an equally robust and realistic ongoing appraisal throughout of whether what is needed is indeed being achieved (or not) within the child’s timescale. These appraisals must be evidence based, with a solid foundation, not driven by sentiment or a hope that ‘something may turn up’. Typically three questions will have to be addressed. First, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent is committed to making the necessary changes? If so, secondly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to maintain that commitment? If so, thirdly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to make the necessary changes within the child’s timescale?

Discussion

  1. On behalf of the mother, Mr Pitt submits that she has complied with everything asked of her, is no longer taking drugs, has made progress in relation to her mental health – she is now talking freely – and continues to engage with the agencies and professionals who are in place to support and assist her.
  2. Mr Hand on behalf of the local authority accepts that, to her credit, the mother has been making improvements. But, he submits, she has a long way to go. There is, he says, no realistic way in which she could care, or be supported long term to care, for S. Given the range of expert material already before the court, further assessment will not, he submits, assist the court in discharging its responsibilities. The combined effect of all the material is, he says, that the mother will not be able to care for S long term. Moreover, given the poor quality of the mother’s contact with S he questions whether it is compatible with S’s welfare to expose her to a residential assessment with the mother in the absence of it having a good chance of success. On top of all that, he questions whether the inevitable delay can be justified unless there is a good chance of success.
  3. Mr Howard, for S, makes much the same points as Mr Hand. While the mother has made improvements they are insufficient and too late to indicate that she would be able to care for S within the child’s timescale. The assessment is not necessary. The guardian, moreover, is particularly concerned about the impact on S of the proposed assessment. The mother’s parenting of S during the assessment could undermine the secure attachment S currently has. Given the extensive assessments already undertaken, the mother’s poor prospects of success do not justify the “experiment” she is proposing, nor is it within the child’s timescale.
  4. After careful reflection I concluded that Mr Hand and Mr Howard were right, and essentially for the reasons they gave. I can summarise my conclusions quite shortly.
  5. In the first place I agree with them that the proposed assessment is not necessary, either in the sense described by Lady Hale in In re G or in the sense (the same sense) in which the word is used in FPR 25.1 and in section 38(7A) of the 1989 Act. There are two aspects to this. Further assessment is not going to add significantly to what the court already knows. Moreover, the kind of assessment proposed by Orchard House, although it may tell us something about the mother’s ability to parent S in a practical sense (though nothing important we do not already know) is not going to be able to tell us very much about the mother’s ability to address her many other difficulties, let alone her ability to sustain in the long term in the community whatever improvements may be noted in the short term in the supportive and controlled environment of Orchard House.
  6. Secondly, there is no adequate justification, let alone the necessity which section 32(5) of the 1989 Act will shortly require, for an extension of the case so significantly beyond 26 weeks. Again, there are two aspects to this. Looking to the mother, there is, sadly, at present no solid, evidence based, reason to believe that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale. Even assuming that there is some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that she is committed to making the necessary changes, there is, sadly, not enough reason to believe that she will be able to maintain that commitment. In the light of her history, and all the evidence to hand, the assertion that she will seems to me to be founded more on hope than solid expectation, just as does any assertion that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale. Secondly, I have to have regard to the detrimental effects on S of further delay. Far from this being a case where the child’s welfare demands an extension of the 26 weeks time limit, S’s needs point if anything in the other direction. I accept the guardian’s analysis.

 

Obtaining a fresh assessment late in proceedings

Re Z (A Child : Independent Social Work Assessment) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/729.html

My compliments to the Judge for giving this a meaningful case name that allows people to find it in the future.

This one was a judgment given in March 2014, for care proceedings arising out of injuries to a child that occurred in September and October 2012. The proceedings were into week 72.  The father applied for a fresh independent social work assessment, and also sought a fresh assessment of the paternal grandmother, challenging the negative viability.

If you are at the moment, thinking, meh, I know how this one ends up – I’ll give you a spoiler.  He gets the assessments.

Ah, now you want to know more…

    1. In any case in which a local authority applies to the court for a care order, the assessment of a parent is of critical importance. That assessment will be a key piece of the evidential jigsaw which informs the local authority’s decision-making, in particular with respect to the formulation of its final care plan. If the assessment is deficient then that is likely to undermine the reliability of the decision-making process. It follows, therefore, that any assessment of a parent must be, and must be seen to be, fair, robust and thorough.

 

    1. Was RD’s assessment of the father fair, robust and thorough? In my judgment it was not. In arriving at that conclusion I bear the following factors in mind. They are not ranked in any particular order:

 

(1) The assessment undertaken by RD was a social work assessment and not a parenting assessment. No parenting assessment of the father has been undertaken. His ability to acquire the skills needed to enable him to care for Z have not been assessed.

(2) To the extent that RD’s observation of contact and reading the contact supervisor’s notes have informed her assessment, the clear evidence is that that contact was positive and that the father was able to learn and apply new skills. He was cooperative and teachable. Despite this the local authority declined either to increase the level of contact or provide him with any form of training to enable him to meet Z’s care needs (unlike the foster carer for whom training has been provided).

(3) Not only has the local authority failed to undertake a parenting assessment it has also failed to give any consideration to the support the father would need in order to care for Z or what support and assistance the local authority is able to offer.

(4) The father is criticised for lack of understanding and insight yet his knowledge of Z’s injuries and prognosis comes not from copies of the relevant reports translated into Punjabi but from having some of those reports – or more likely some parts of those reports – read to him in Punjabi. To this must be added the local authority’s failure to give the father opportunity to meet with any of the health care professionals responsible for Z’s care.

(5) The local authority’s social work assessment proceeded on the assumption that the father wished to return to India and care for Z there. Whilst I acknowledge that some of the things the father said may reasonably have led the local authority to that belief, I am equally satisfied that that is not his position. This is not the only issue in this case in which something has been lost in translation.

(6) The local authority appears to have assumed that a care plan for adoption automatically means that post-adoption contact should be limited to letter-box contact only. It has not given any consideration either to the benefits for Z of contact continuing or, as part of its assessment of the father, what the father has to offer to Z through ongoing direct contact. Whereas the guardian has begun to reconsider her position on contact there is no evidence that the local authority has begun to do so.

  1. I am satisfied that the local authority’s assessment of this father falls short of the standard required.

 

Fair, robust and thorough seems like a good test in appraising the evidence – I expect to see others make use of this test   (whether this authority is binding or not is tricky – but it is a High Court case, so it is at least persuasive)

 

One major part of father’s case was this :-

 

108. As a result of the negative outcome of the social work assessment, on 31st January 2014 the father issued an application for permission to instruct an independent social worker to undertake a parenting assessment. The father complains that the social worker ‘failed to approach the assessment with an open mind’ for which submission he relies on the fact that the social worker informed the LAC review on 12th December 2013 that the outcome of her assessment was negative even though the assessment was still ongoing.

 

If father was able to establish that, which one would hope would be confirmed or refuted by the LAC review minutes, that is fatal to the LA’s opposition to an independent assessment. This is not announcing the outcome when all that is left is to finish dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in the written report , this was a final view of the outcome of the assessment given whilst it still had six weeks to run.

 

Unhelpfully

    1. The minutes of the LAC review held on 12th December note that,

 

‘Social Worker RD is carrying out 6 assessment sessions with [the father] 5 have been completed. The assessment is negative. He denies any knowledge of the injuries or reasons she was harmed, he has very limited understanding of her health and overall prognosis. He does not understand the impact of the brain damage. He has no clear plan – originally he said his mother would help out in India, then his sister. It is assessed he is not considering Z’s best interests. All professionals shared these concerns. Becky will inform [the father] of the outcome of the assessment and will file the statement by 8.1.14.’

    1. Although the father attended the LAC review he was not permitted to be present throughout the whole of the discussions. He was not present when RD told the meeting that her assessment of him was negative. He was not present when the decision was taken that the local authority’s plan for Z should be one of adoption.

 

    1. The minutes of the LAC review have little to say about contact: ‘Supervised contact takes place twice a week during the assessment period. Z has been fine before and after contact’. If that is an accurate reflection of the information given to the members of the LAC review then it is woefully lacking. The social worker said that she ‘was not asked’ to provide the Review with evidence relating to contact. Given that contact was extremely positive for Z one would have expected the LAC review to have been informed of this and that it would have considered how contact might develop. This is a requirement of the Care Planning Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 [‘the Regulations’]. Schedule 7 sets out the considerations to which the responsible authority must have regard when reviewing a child’s case. Schedule 7 paragraph 4 requires the LAC review to consider

 

‘The arrangements for contact and whether there is any need for changes to the arrangements in order to promote contact between [the child and her parents].’

  1. The social worker was asked whether the minutes of the LAC review provided an accurate summary of what was discussed. She confirmed that they do, though she went on to describe them as ‘brief’. The minutes have been signed by the Independent Reviewing Officer. There is space for them to be counter-signed by the social worker. In this case the social worker confirmed that the minutes had been sent to her for approval and signing. She had not responded. She has not signed them. She said that she does not routinely sign minutes of LAC meetings.

The Judge’s comments on LAC reviews, that arise from those failings, are also ones that I expect to see crop up in other cases

    1. LAC meetings are very important meetings. That that is so is made very clear by the Regulations. The records of such meetings are also important. Regulation 38 provides that,

 

“The responsible authority must ensure that a written record of the review is prepared, and that the information obtained in the course of the review, details of proceedings at the review meeting, and any decision made in the course of, or as a result, of the review are included in C’s case records.”

  1. It should be apparent from the minutes of a LAC meeting that the meeting has considered each of the matters which the Regulations require the meeting to consider. The minutes should be balanced. So far as the parents’ relationship with the child is concerned, they should identify any positive points as well as any negative points. Although there is no requirement in the regulations for minutes to be signed, as a matter of good practice it is clearly appropriate that they should be signed. They should be signed by the Independent Reviewing Officer and by the allocated social worker, if present at the meeting, and if not present then by the most senior social worker present at the meeting. Their signatures provide the assurance that the minutes give an accurate and balanced account of the matters discussed at the meeting.

 

Assessment of paternal grandmother next

    1. That leads me back, finally, to what the local authority describes as a viability assessment of PGM. For the reasons set out earlier in this judgment I regard that assessment as inadequate. The notion that a Punjabi speaking grandmother living in India, expressing a clear interest in being assessed as a long-term carer for her granddaughter, not having been provided with any of the background papers translated into Punjabi, can be ruled out on the basis of two telephone conversations one of which was conducted by a Hindi speaking English social worker, is in my judgment wholly unsupportable.

 

    1. Re M-H (Assessment: Father of Half-Brother) [2007] 2 FLR 1715 concerned an application for a viability assessment. The judge at first instance had described the local authority’s viability assessment of the father of the subject child’s half-brother as “wholly inadequate” and “flawed”. The judge nonetheless declined to order a full independent assessment. In the Court of Appeal, giving the leading judgment, Wall LJ (as he then was) said that,

 

‘the exercise of a judicial discretion in a care case is an amalgam of expertise from a number of disciplines, an essential part of which is or should be competent social work assessments which the judge can then appraise and accept or reject….Accordingly, in my judgment, to do proper justice to [the child’s] interests in the instant case, the judge required the thorough independent social work input by means of a viability assessment which [the appellant] had sought. The judge denied himself that input whilst at the same time recognising that the local authority had failed to provide it.’

  1. Z’s care needs require support from a multi-disciplinary team of health care professionals. Is there any possibility that a similar package of support could be available in India? If the answer to that question is ‘no’ then it seems to me that notwithstanding PGM’s offer to care for Z and the duty on the local authority pursuant to s.17 Children Act 1989 to promote the upbringing of Z by her family, it would be difficult to argue that a move to India would be in Z’s best welfare interests. However, making that point simply serves to highlight the fact that the court does not, at present, have sufficient evidence to enable it to make that judgment. There needs to be a proper assessment of PGM. Any such assessment also needs to identify and consider the services that would be available to meet Z’s care needs in India. These are now issues for further case management.

 

And the Judge wasn’t finished – given that the Local Authority care plan was for the current foster carers to adopt, he felt that their Re B-S analysis was badly flawed – it had not properly taken into account that such a placement could be under a Care Order (fostering) or a Special Guardianship Order and why those options should be discounted in favour of adoption. He made it plain that even if the independent assessments of father and grandmother weren’t positive, this case was a considerable distance from being “then adoption is the right plan”

136 My decision to allow the father’s application for leave to instruct an Independent Social Worker means that it is unnecessary and inappropriate, at this stage, to go on to consider the local authority’s final care plan. However, it is appropriate that I should make the point that it should not be assumed that if the assessment of the father is negative then that, without more, will lead to endorsement of the present final care plan. Even leaving to one side the local authority’s flawed assessment of the father, it is plain that the current final care plan is deficient. For example, it does not consider and analyse realistic alternatives to adoption (long term foster care, special guardianship); it does not consider whether it is appropriate for Z to remain in a placement in which there is a changing population of children in short term foster care; it assumes that post-adoption letter-box contact is appropriate without making any attempt to consider whether ongoing direct contact would better meet Z’s needs; it proposes by way of contingency plan that if the placement with FC breaks down it will search for an alternative adoptive placement even though it acknowledges that it is highly unlikely that an alternative adoptive placement could be found. These are all issues which must be addressed. The local authority has more work to do before this case can fairly be concluded.

 

I can’t quite find from the judgment what the timescales for the further assessment are, and obviously those assessments will need to be considered, final evidence filed from all parties and a final hearing take place. It probably amounts to a final hearing taking place at around week 90, or week 100.

 

But that is palpably and manifestly the right thing to do, to get the RIGHT answer.

I do worry that now that the Children and Families Act 2014 will lock Judges into 26 weeks, or an extension of 8 weeks, whether cases like this will get their proper determination.

relatives and 26 weeks – a reported Auntie Beryl case

 

It has been a vexed issue ever since the 26 week guillotine came in, heightened by the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal’s emphasis on adoption as ‘last resort’ where nothing else will do  – what is a Court actually going to do when a relative comes forward at week 20, week 22, week 24, and assessment of them would derail that all-important timetable?  This is something I dubbed the “Auntie Beryl” question, and it is one that crops up in these cases around the country.

We won’t really know until a Judge somewhere tells Auntie Beryl that she is too late, that she should have come forward sooner, that she can’t be assessed, and makes an adoption order. Then that will be appealed and the Court of Appeal will try to square that circle of “26 weeks” with “nothing else will do”

In this case, which is the first to touch on this point since it became a genuinely difficult issue  (since pre 26 weeks, the assessment would ordinarily be done), the High Court attempted to deal with it.

Re K (A minor) 2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/4580.html

The grandparents in the case put themselves forward as alernative carers really early on, just after the child was born. A “guardedly positive” viability assessment was prepared.  At a hearing in March 2013, the grandparents decided with a heavy heart that they weren’t able to offer a permanent home and withdrew.

However, by 6th March when the case came on at this court, grandmother and grandfather had come to the conclusion, I am sure with an extremely heavy heart and sadness and feelings of regret, that it was not right to pursue the application. The grandmother wrote on behalf of herself and her husband to the Circuit Judge. She wrote that that it was the hardest letter she had ever had to write, that they loved K and have a bond with him, but they want what is best for him. She said that although it broke their hearts, they had to put their feelings to one side and focus on K. She said that health issues which had not initially seemed significant enough to affect them caring for K, had come to the fore during the assessment process. She was having tests for Multiple Sclerosis, and the results so far were pointing towards an MS diagnosis. The grandfather, who had had a heart attack two and a half years previously, had started having chest pains. They had done a lot of soul searching, and after a lot of deliberation and tears, decided that it was unfair to K for them to put themselves forward as carers. They could not give him 100 per cent, which they believed he deserved. They wanted him to have the very best in life, and if they truly believed they could give him this, they would still be seeking special guardianship. But they had to be realistic, so that he could have a happy, loving, secure and stable upbringing. If their health deteriorated any more, it would be hard to meet all his needs. They would always have him in their hearts, and drew strength from knowing that he would have a happy loving childhood with a family that loves him. It would be unfair for him to live with them if he would then have to live with someone else because they were unable to care for him. They hoped that K would understand when he is older that they had done this for him, to give him the best possible life.

 

In due course, having completed assessments of the parents, the Local Authority’s plan was for adoption.

Today is 8th May 2013. Last Friday, the grandparents, through their solicitors, issued their application, returnable today. The grandmother wrote another letter to the court. She wrote that they had not expressed themselves correctly in her previous letter. They were 100 per cent committed. They had wanted to tell the judge the real reason that they were pulling out but could not, because they were scared that at a later date when K was older, he would read the letter and it would upset him. She said that they did have some health problems, but that the real reason for withdrawing was that they were terrified that if they were awarded special guardianship there was nothing to stop K’s mother or father seeking and obtaining custody of K. Then he would have been subjected to their lifestyle and would have been at risk. They have since learned that this could not happen because the parents’ legal aid funding had ceased and they would never be able to make an application. They had always thought and believed that K deserved to stay with and have the benefit of his loving, large, warm and close natural family, and this would be best for him emotionally.

 

The May hearing was pushing very close to the 26 week deadline. It certainly would not have been possible to undertake the Special Guardianship assessment within that period – in fact, the assessment would have required another 12 weeks, pushing the case from a six month case into a nine or ten month case.

The Court had a hearing to decide whether to grant the grandparents leave to apply for a Special Guardianship Order (i.e to delay the final hearing to obtain that assessment) and heard some limited evidence from the grandmother.  The Court referred to the case law in relation to applications for leave (although personally, I think the caselaw cited is somewhat out of date, and there is substantially more recent authority making it plain that it is a more nuanced procedure balancing all of the factors rather than Re M 1995’s rather ‘soundbite’ approach – the Court of Appeal in Re B (A child) 2012 [2012] EWCA Civ 737  – in fact, the Court of Appeal say that rather than s10(9) containing a ‘test’ or anything like a ‘test’ to be crossed it simply tells the Court to have ‘particular regard’ to certain factors, whilst other factors can by implication be weighed in the balance too)

The Judge concluded

    1. I am sure that this application is entirely well meant and good-hearted. But it is emotional, unconsidered, unrealistic, and not thought through, I suspect that the prospect of losing contact with K has been a very powerful factor here.

 

    1. No doubt in March the grandparents reached their considered but painful decision to agree to a firm plan for this little boy for adoption with difficulty, but focussing on the child. I am afraid that whatever the love that the grandparents have for K, that their approach at the moment is not child-focussed in the objective way required. The grandparents know very well that they cannot properly commit themselves to this task. This came through in the grandmother’s evidence, when she had to face up to reality. They know that their health problems are important. They are aware of the potential disruption which could be created for K, particularly by his father, but perhaps by the mother too when she is in a less sanguine state of mind, for the rest of K’s minority. Although Mr. Taylor quite rightly stresses the benefits of this warm and close family, that was available in March when they made their decision.

 

  1. I am satisfied that there is a very significant risk that the proposed application will disrupt K’s life to such an extent that he would be harmed by it. I am quite satisfied having had the opportunity to assess in sharp and painful focus what the problems are likely to be, that this application has no real prospect of success. So I do not simply bring the guillotine down on the basis of 26 weeks. This is a summary decision but it is welfare based nonetheless, and based on an evaluation of the facts. It is for me to factor in all these considerations in K’s interests. Therefore I refuse the application.

 

Not quite an Auntie Beryl case in that the Court felt that there was enough information to say in effect that the grandparents application was not going to be successful even if the proceedings were delayed – rather than there being a paucity of information about the family member due to late presentation.

Parker J then gave some general guidance

    1. Cases where relataives or friends come forward at the last minute are likely to present the greatest challenges to the court in complying with the 26 week limit. The Court has a duty to consider whether there are alternatives to a care order. But in my view the court is entitled to dismiss such an application without detailed assessment and must take into account delay.

 

    1. Some measures may assist the court to manage such applications :-

 

a. Orders must record that parents have been advised that failure to identify family members at an early stage is likely to preclude their assessment and that the case will not be adjourned.

b. Where a relative has come forward and then withdraws a court should record that that person understands that this is their final decision and is unlikely be revisited without the strongest justification.

c. Any application for further assessment or joinder by a relative or other person must be resolved very swiftly. Such applications will usually be able to be dealt with on paper. Oral evidence, to be adduced only if necessary and proportionate, should be short and focussed.

Voice of the child in pre-proceedings work

 

Work done with the Local Authority and parents before the case ever gets to Court (and ideally with the view of the case never needing to come to Court) has been important for a few years now, and will become even more important when the new PLO comes in, and there’s even more emphasis on what happened before the case got into the Court-room.

 

There have been many people saying for a number of years, that not having a Guardian, representing the child’s interests and being either the check-and-balance to a Local Authority who may be being zealous or oppressive OR an independent person who is able to impartially communicate to the parents that they are in a perilous situation if improvements are not made, is a major flaw in the pre-proceedings system.

 

It is for that reason that a pilot was set up in Coventy and Warwickshire, to have a Guardian involved in pre-proceedings meetings between the social worker and the parents.

 

The pilot is complete now, and the report is available here http://www.cafcass.gov.uk/media/167143/coventry_and_warwickshire_pre-proceedings_pilot_final_report_july_4_2013.pdf

 

{There was a third pilot area, Liverpool, and there will be a report on that in due course}

 

The positive aspects of the pilot was that the diversion rate of pre-proceedings cases where a Guardian was involved was fifty per cent   (by diversion rate, they mean, cases that ended up with the problems being sufficiently resolved by the parents that the case did not have to go to Court).  That’s a decent figure, comparing favourably to the existing Masson studies of pre-proceedings work generally diverting about 25% of cases, and the other cases in the samples in those Local Authorities where Guardians were not involved.

 

 

Of the cases that do go to Court, are they dealt with any faster? Well, the sample sizes are frankly very small to draw conclusions from – one or two “long runners” could skew the figures very badly, but they do claim that the Pre proceedings cases where there WAS a Guardian (CAFCASS Plus) finished more quickly than the ones where there was not

 

The overall average (mean) duration of the care proceedings for the Cafcass PLUS cases (excluding the complex cases) is 36.3 weeks (based on 11 cases). The duration of the comparator cases is 42.6 weeks (18 cases). There is a distinct differencebetween the Warwickshire Cafcass PLUS and comparator cases in respect of careproceedings duration. There are fewer longer running cases (more than 40 weeks) in the Cafcass PLUS sample as a whole.

 

I really think the sample size is far too small to get excited about that. And actually, is the over-arching aim of having a voice for the child in pre-proceedings work speed of resolution, as opposed to fairness and getting the work done right?

 

 

The positive diversion rates, the pilot considers largely due to two things – (1) galvanising extended family members to assist the parents, and this seems to me to be a very laudable aim and (2) parents engaging in reparative work.

 

It would have been interesting to know whether the involvement of a Guardian either increased the reach out to family members OR somehow made it more likely that the family members ‘stepped up to the plate’. And also whether the reparative work was either better focussed, or the parents more committed to making use of it.    That would be something I would hope is focussed on more, if the pilot is enhanced in numbers.

 

This bit is interesting

 

However, the pilot also provides clear evidence that where cases progressed to court on an unplanned basis and local authority work is

incomplete, then the FCA was not able overturn deficiencies in pre-­proceedings practice.

 

[i.e, where the pre-proceedings work hasn’t been done very well, having a Guardian on board didn’t fix that. That seems to me rather disappointing, that’s clearly what one would hope that a Guardian would be doing during this pre-proceedings work, making sure that the LA did the work properly and covered all of the bases, with the benefit of that fresh pair of eyes and an independent pair of eyes.]

 

 

The pilot report raises some very good questions about systemic causes of delay, two of the four of which rest on the shoulders of the Courts rather than other professionals

 

Systemic factors include:

 

1. the enduring problem of variability in the quality of social work

assessment but equally failure of courts to recognise good social work

practice which creates something of a ‘chicken and an egg’ situation;

 

2. that a number of cases appear to enter the pre-proceedings process too late, such that the window for further assessment and attempt to effect change is missed and cases then progress to court on an

unplanned/emergency basis;

 

3. the difficulty of making effective decisions about, and providing effective support to parents with fluctuating mental capacity who are not deemed to warrant the services of the Official Solicitor;

 

4. difficulties in timetabling contested final hearings due to insufficient court sitting time and problems of co-ordinating the diaries of very busy

professionals.

 

 

The Official Solicitor issue is a perennial one, and becoming even more important as we have a hard cap of 26 weeks – if you can’t fairly work with parents or ask them to make decisions/agree assessments/sign written agreements because they don’t have capacity to do so, and you can’t get the Official Solicitor representing them until you are in proceedings, it will mean that all parents who lack capacity will have less time to turn their problems round than ones who do have capacity. That seems to me to be a decent Disability Discrimination case to run at some point.

 

The pilot report echoes many of the issues already raised in the Masson report about pre-proceedings work, chiefly the overwhelming feeling of professionals involved that the Court didn’t really pay any attention to it and that Courts simply routinely commission fresh assessments with the view that any parenting or risk assessment only counts if it takes place within Court proceedings.

 

 

Independence is an important issue – there’s an obvious risk that a Guardian who participates in pre-proceedings work that culminates in care proceedings being issued might be felt by the parents to have come to the care proceedings with a view of the case already formed  (rather than being completely fresh and impartial at the time that proceedings are issued)

 

The FCA’s Independence: was it in question?

The question of whether pre-proceedings involvement of the FCA compromised the FCA’s independence was raised by a range of stakeholders encountered during the course of this project. A review of parents’ statements did not reveal any concerns about this from their representatives in the Cafcass PLUS sample. The FCAs themselves stated that they did not feel their independence was compromised by

earlier involvement, they felt able to assert an independent perspective regardless of when they became involved in a case. Of course, in a small number of cases, because the FCA who was involved in pre-­proceedings had left the service, in actual fact the

case was then allocated to another FCA as described above.

 

 

[If you’ll forgive me, I’ll continue to use the word “guardian” rather than Family Court Advisor or FCA, I just don’t like it… I still miss “Guardian ad Litem” to be frank]

 

The report overall is positive about the benefits to be achieved by involving Guardians in pre-proceedings work.  I am afraid that given the costs and resources that rolling it out nationally would require, the pilot study would have needed to be much more glowing and triumphant.  And that in particular, it would have needed to show that Guardian involvement pre-proceedings had a real bearing on the success of cases being concluded within 26 weeks.

 

I think in the current climate and the agendas that are being pursued, I don’t see this pilot being positive enough to be rolled out. But it is still an interesting report and the issues that it touches on of just how hard hitting those 26 week targets will be until there is genuine systemic change are important ones.

 

 

 

[Voting link for Suesspicious Minds in the Family Law awards – you can vote for me – or any of the other candidates, who incidentally are not offering to save your life at some unspecified point in the future, here

 

http://www.familylawawards.com/ShortlistedNominees2012   ]