It has been a very long while since we had a piece of case law on age assessment. If you are already saying “I bet it involves Croydon”, then gold star for robot boy, well done!
London Borough of Croydon v Y 2016
Y turned up in this country from Nigeria. He claimed to have been born in 1999, and that he had been trafficked here. If true, that would mean that he was a child and entitled to accommodation via Croydon’s social work department and services and would be able to stay until 18. If not true, he would be an adult, and would probably be liable for deportation. [In this case, he absolutely would have been deported, it was the age argument that was putting that process on hold]
There’s therefore quite a vested interest in people who are not under 18 claiming that they are.
A number of individuals arrive in this country seeking asylum and claiming to be under 18. Most are males and have entered or have sought to enter by clandestine means. They are referred to as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC). That description includes those who assert that they are under 18. Many who travel from countries where they allege they are being persecuted such as Afghanistan or Iraq will have been assisted by agents and in any event the advantages of persuading the authorities that they are under 18 are well-known. Those advantages include the automatic grant of leave to remain until aged 18 coupled with the inability to return to Member States of the European Union if the individual would otherwise be returnable in accordance with the Dublin Regulations. In addition, as children they will usually be entitled to the care and accommodation which a local authority is obliged to provide to children in need. Thus the assessment of their age is most important.
[Collins J in A v London Borough of Croydon  EWHC 939 (Admin), ]
In this case, Croydon’s age assessment was based largely on Y’s physical appearance (as it was in a case I once had where the alleged 16 year old had a beard that Captain Birdseye would have been proud of). Y judicially reviewed that decision.
The Court gave some directions
5.On 1 September 2015, UT Judge Allen gave directions in the age assessment challenge proceedings. These included (i) that the matter be listed for a 4 day fact-finding hearing in order to determine Y’s date of birth; and (ii) that Y be granted permission to rely on reports by Dr Juliet Cohen, a forensic physician, Dr Susannah Fairweather, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and Ms Christine Beddoe, specialist adviser on human trafficking and child exploitation.
Croydon then made an application to strike out the claim
On 20 November 2015, Croydon applied to the Upper Tribunal Asylum and Immigration Chamber for an order that the challenge to the age assessment should be struck out (or stayed) unless Y consented to and co-operated fully with (i) a dental examination (including a dental X-ray) by Professor Roberts, (ii) a psychiatric examination and (iii) an age assessment by two Croydon social workers. In support of this application, Croydon relied inter alia on the decision of this court in Starr v National Coal Board  1 WLR 63 to which I shall refer in some detail later in this judgment
[I’m not QUITE sure why that was an application to the Upper Tribunal Asylum and Immigration Chamber, rather than to the Judge who had given case management directions in the judicial review. It rather seems to me that those were applications for case management directions /orders in the judicial review fact finding, but the Court of Appeal don’t take up that point, so perhaps it is just a bad one on my behalf]
You’ll have seen the reference to Starr v National Coal Board 1977. It is not the same National Coal Board that comes up very infrequently (in judicial bias cases or recusal cases, citing Lord Denning’s remark that the Judge had intervened too much and ‘descended into the arena’)
The Starr principles
- The case of Starr concerned a claim in negligence for damages for personal injury, namely ulnar nerve compression. It was conceded by the plaintiff that it was necessary for the defendant, in preparing its defence, to be advised by a consultant neurologist who had had the opportunity of examining him. The defendant had nominated Dr X for that purpose. The plaintiff objected to examination by Dr X without stating his reasons. But he said that he was willing to be examined by any other consultant neurologist of similar qualification and experience to Dr X. The defendant applied for a stay of all further proceedings until the plaintiff submitted to an examination by Dr X. This court upheld the stay that had been granted by the judge.
- At p 70H, Scarman LJ said that in the exercise of its discretion in this class of case, the court has to recognise that in the balance there are “two fundamental rights, which are cherished by the common law and to which attention has to be directed by the court”. The first is the plaintiff’s right to personal liberty. The second is an equally fundamental right, namely the defendant’s right to defend itself as it and its advisers think fit, including the freedom to choose the witnesses that it will call. It is particularly important that a defendant should be able to choose its own expert witnesses, if the case is one in which expert testimony is significant. He went on to say that, if a defendant in a personal injuries case made a reasonable request for the plaintiff to be medically examined by a doctor chosen by the defendant, the plaintiff should accede to the request unless he had reasonable grounds for objecting to the particular doctor chosen by the defendant. Applying these principles to the facts of the case, Scarman LJ said at p 72H:
- “I have, therefore, come to the conclusion that the request for medical examination of the plaintiff by this particular consultant neurologist was a reasonable one; that, notwithstanding the matters that have been developed in argument, the plaintiff was unreasonable in refusing to submit himself to examination and that there is, in the matters that have been adduced to this court, no indication that justice to the plaintiff is liable to be imperilled if this doctor examines him, reports and ultimately gives evidence.”
- At p 75H, Geoffrey Lane LJ said:
- “…the defendants are not lightly to be deprived of the right to have the medical examination carried out by the doctor who, they are advised, would be the best doctor in the circumstances to carry out that examination.”
- Cairns LJ said much the same at p 77C.
It is a damn clever argument, and ’nuff respeck to whoever at Croydon came up with it. Essentially, relying on these Starr principles to say “If we are having to defend a case, but the person bringing it refuses to cooperate with assessments that we reasonably ask him to participate in, the case should be thrown out”
The Tribunal disagreed, and hence Croydon went to the Court of Appeal.
The decision at first instance
- The application was refused by UT Judge McGeachy on 8 December. He gave a short ex tempore judgment which included the following:
- “My decision is this. Although I have some considerable sympathy with the application made and I think it is most unfortunate that the applicant’s representatives have come to the conclusion that they will not cooperate I consider that the order sought is too draconian for me to either stay the proceedings or to dismiss the proceedings at this stage.
2. I consider that the fact that the applicant’s representatives have decided that he should not cooperate with a dental examination, which I consider might well have been useful, let alone the further age assessment to be carried out by Croydon is a matter on which it may well be that you would wish to address me at the hearing. I presume that is what you would want to do but I am not prepared to bring the proceedings to a halt now.”
- Further light is shed on the judge’s thinking by his decision of 16 December in which he explained why he refused permission to appeal to this court. He said:
- “(2) The grounds of appeal assert that I had failed to give reasons for not granting the application given the terms of the judgment in Starr v NCB  1 WLR 63. In my oral judgment I gave reasons for my decision. While I did not specifically refer to the judgment in Starr the reality is that that case can be distinguished from the present. It is of note that in Starr it had been conceded that it was necessary for the defendants, in preparing their defence to have the opinion of a consultant neurologist who had had the opportunity of examining the plaintiff. That is different from a case such as the present in which there is a challenge to a decision which has already been made. Moreover, while the case in Starr was a private law matter this is an action in public law where there is a public interest in the efficient disposal of the application, particularly as it relates to the age of the applicant who claims to be a child.
(3) I was entitled to take into account the efficient disposal of that application and that is why I stated that staying the proceedings at this stage was a decision which was too draconian: staying the proceedings would not resolve the issue before me. Given that the matter was to proceed to trial at the beginning of February 2016 it was appropriate that satellite litigation should be discouraged.
(4) I consider that my decision was an appropriate use of my case management powers in that it is a clear aim of those powers to ensure the efficient disposal of an application.”
The grounds of appeal
- Mr Holbrook submits that the judge erred in holding that the Starr principles did not apply in respect of Y’s refusal to consent to (i) an age assessment by two social workers employed by Croydon, (ii) a dental age assessment by Professor Roberts and (iii) a psychiatric assessment by Dr Tony Davies. He should have held that the Starr principles did apply and that, on a proper application of them, he should have acceded to Croydon’s application to stay or strike out Y’s claim unless he consented to each of the three assessments sought.
The Court of Appeal concluded that the Starr principles DID apply (this was something of a shock to me when I was reading the case, though not an unpleasant shock) and that thus the appeal must succeed
- It is unclear whether the judge addressed the Starr principles or not. It would have been surprising if he had not considered them, because they had been the subject of full argument before him. Paras 1 and 2 of the judgment might suggest that he accepted that they did apply, but that he was not willing in the exercise of his discretion to strike out the claim or order a stay because such a remedy was too “draconian” or in modern parlance “disproportionate”. On the other hand, in his reasons for refusing permission to appeal, he sought to distinguish Starr on the grounds that (i) it had been conceded in Starr that it was necessary for the defendant to have the opinion of a consultant neurologist who had had the opportunity of examining the plaintiff; and (ii) Starr was a private law claim, whereas the present claim was a public law claim.
- On balance, I incline to the view that the judge did address the Starr principles, but held that they did not apply for the three reasons that he identified when refusing permission to appeal. First, in Starr the plaintiff had conceded that it was necessary for the defence to have the opportunity for their expert to examine the plaintiff. Secondly, Starr was a private law claim, whereas the present case concerned a public law claim. Thirdly, refusal of Croydon’s application was an appropriate use of his case management powers to ensure the efficient disposal of the application.
- I would reject these reasons and substantially accept the submissions advanced by Mr Holbrook. As regards the first reason, the fact that the plaintiff in Starr conceded that it was necessary for the defendant to be advised by a consultant neurologist who had had the opportunity of examining the plaintiff was not essential to the reasoning of the court. The concession meant that the court could proceed on the basis that the medical examination was necessary for the proper conduct of the defence. If that had not been conceded, the court would have had to decide for itself whether the examination was necessary. The concession is a basis for distinguishing Starr from the present case on the facts. It cannot, however, be a reason for holding that the Starr principles only apply where there is such a concession. In the absence of such a concession in the present case, the judge had to decide whether all or any of the three examinations sought were reasonably necessary for the proper conduct of Croydon’s defence. It would seem that the judge was probably satisfied that the dental examination and the examination by the two social workers were reasonably necessary because he said in his judgment that he had “considerable sympathy with the application”; he thought that it was “most unfortunate that [Y’s] representatives have come to the conclusion that they will not cooperate”; and he considered that a dental examination “might well have been useful, let alone the further age assessment to be carried out by Croydon”.
- As regards the second reason, there is no basis in principle for confining the Starr principles to private law litigation. I accept that there are important differences between private and public law litigation. These differences are, for example, recognised by the fact that they are subject to different procedural regimes. In most judicial review litigation, the court does not hear oral evidence or make findings on disputed questions of fact. That is why there is little scope for the application of the Starr principles in public law cases. But in judicial review claims where the court does hear oral evidence and is required to make findings of fact, there is no reason in principle why Starr should not be applied in an appropriate case. The fundamental common law right of a defendant to defend itself in litigation to which Scarman LJ referred applies in any litigation. In a case where one party wishes to have an examination of the other party, the other fundamental common law principle identified by Scarman LJ comes into play. That is so whether the case involves a private law or a public law claim. Although the age assessment issue in the present case arises in judicial review proceedings, it is common ground that the issue is one of fact for the court to determine on the evidence adduced before it: see R (A) v Croydon London Borough Council  UKSC 8,  1 WLR 2537. It follows that there is no reason to hold that the Starr principles do not apply merely because the issue arises in public law proceedings.
- The third reason is quite difficult to pin down. Mr Berry makes much of the point that this was a case management decision involving an exercise of discretion in respect of which this court should allow the judge a generous ambit: see, for example, Royal and Sun Alliance v T & N Ltd  EWCA Civ 1964 at para 38 per Chadwick LJ and Walbrook Trust (Jersey) Ltd v Fattal  EWCA Civ 427 at para 33 per Lawrence Collins LJ.
Given what is said here, the door is at least ajar for people arguing that the Starr principles that a person is entitled to insist on another party being assessed by an expert of their choice should apply to private law family cases, where two parents are arguing about who is suitable to look after their child and how much time the child should spend with the other. I think that it is more of a stretch for care proceedings (the Local Authority, who want the parent to undertake an assessment, are the applicant, not the defendant)
This part of the Starr principles though, I can see being deployed
The second is an equally fundamental right, namely the defendant’s right to defend itself as it and its advisers think fit, including the freedom to choose the witnesses that it will call. It is particularly important that a defendant should be able to choose its own expert witnesses, if the case is one in which expert testimony is significant.
Not perhaps so much with whether there should be an expert assessment at all, since that is rather covered by the Children and Families Act 2014 which sets out the ‘necessary to resolve the proceedings justly’ test, and Starr as case law can’t override later statute. But in a case where a Local Authority want the father to be assessed by Dr Leighton Buzzard, and the father would prefer Dr Ashby De-la-Zouch, then Starr (and this case) might be usefully deployed. The strong suggestion is that the witness should be of the defendant’s own choosing.
[I can also immediately sense that Ian from Forced Adoption will be wanting to deploy Starr and this case to say that a parent should be entitled to call evidence at a final hearing from whatever witnesses they choose – usually character witnesses, and it will be interesting to see how the Courts deal with that sort of argument]
Many of you who are familiar with age assessment cases are pondering the use of dental X-rays, which are pretty controversial in age assessment determination (in terms of reliability, efficacy and ethics of undertaking an X-ray when there is nothing medically wrong with a person for purely forensic purposes many dentists are unhappy about it). The Court of Appeal acknowledged those issues, but concluded that it wasn’t a reason for refusing to undertake the assessment.
it is said that the method of assessing age using mean data taken from dental x-rays is controversial and unreliable. But it is impossible for the court to reach a conclusion on whether this is correct or not. In my view, it cannot be a reason for refusing the order. No doubt, the reliability of the assessment based on dental x-rays will be investigated at the hearing.