This is a Keehan J decision in the High Court.
It is pretty rare for a Judge to criticise a Guardian, and I can’t recall a case before where a Child’s Solicitor was criticised in a judgment. This is full on judicial dissection. And in my humble opinion, utterly warranted.
The case involved a child who was 13 and had learning difficulties. There was also a sibling, Y. There were serious allegations of abuse made by the child against the father. Achieving Best Evidence interviews had been conducted.
Most of the case is very fact specific, so I won’t go into it, (and the hearing lasted 20 days, so there was a LOT of it) but the part that has wider application is what happened towards the end of the case.
The father, understandably, made an application for the child X to give evidence. The Court set down a Re W hearing to decide whether the child should or should not give evidence. The Court directed the Guardian to meet with the child and to provide a report to the Court as to her view as to whether the child should or should not give evidence.
What actually happened was that the Guardian allowed the child’s solicitor to take the lead during that visit and that rather than exploring the Re W issues, the child’s solicitor actually cross examined the child AT LENGTH about the detail of the disclosures, leading her, challenging her, contradicting her. (In fact it also appears that some of the disclosures made were fresh disclosures not previously made, so it was not only emotionally abusive to the child but contaminated the evidence, and neither the Guardian nor the solicitor made referrals to the social work team about the fresh allegations)
(I’ve used ‘disclosures’ here as a synonym for ‘allegations’ and have rightly been corrected. We should all use allegations for things that are yet to be proved, and disclosures afterwards. Fixxored in edit)
None of this should have happened. Reading the case it appears that the Guardian is the subject of internal disciplinary proceedings through CAFCASS and that there is to be a hearing to decide whether this case should be referred to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority. It will be a very difficult thing for either of them to come back from, professionally. Readers can make up their own mind how sympathetic they are about that.
Wolverhampton City Council v JA and another 2017
The Former Children’s Guardian and the Former Solicitor for the Children
172.On 30 August 2016 the then children’s guardian, AB, and the children’s solicitor, Ms Noel, visited X in her foster placement for the purpose of speaking with her, ostensibly to gain her wishes and feelings about giving evidence at this hearing.
173.During the course of this interview X is recorded as having made a number of disclosures relating to her having been sexually abused.
174.On 6 September 2016 AB and Ms Noel paid a similar visit to Y.
175.At an advocates’ meeting the disclosures made by X in her interview on 30 August were revealed. It became apparent that no referral in respect of those disclosures had been made to the local authority nor to the police. The advocates’ meeting was immediately terminated and an urgent directions hearing was sought before the then allocated judge.
I’ve done at least a thousand advocates meetings and they are universally very dull. This one, however, wasn’t. There must have been an utterly deathly silence as this information came to light.
176.The children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor were ordered to disclose their notes on both interviews with the children and to file and serve witness statements.
177.On 30 September 2016 the appointment of the children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor were terminated and a new guardian and solicitor were appointed for the children. I am, understandably, asked to make clear in this judgment that the current children’s guardian, the current children’s solicitor and counsel instructed by him at this hearing had no part and no involvement, whatsoever, in the events of 30 August or 6 September 2016.
So a whole new team was appointed to represent the child, and that new team were untainted by these failures.
178.The guardian and solicitor’s interview of Y on 6 September 2016 could be the subject of considerable criticism, however, for the purposes of this judgment I focus on the interview with X on 30 August where the most egregious errors occurred.
179.X was subjected to an almost two hour cross examination conducted principally, if not exclusively, by Ms Noel: I stop short of categorising it as an interrogation. I have never seen the like of it before and I hope never to see a repetition of it again. X was asked leading questions on innumerable occasion, she was contradicted repeatedly by Ms Noel and when X denied a particular treatment or abuse by her father the question was put again and again, effectively denying the child the opportunity of being heard.
180.A particularly egregious question was asked by Ms Noel when she asked ‘Did your dad ever push the sponge or his fingers inside your private?’ X replied ‘no I don’t think so but it was painful’. The question was repeated and the answer was the same save hurt replaced painful. Ms Noel then asked ‘did dad ever get into bed with you’. Answer no. Prior to this interview and prior to these questions X had never asserted that the father had inserted his fingers into her vagina nor that he got into bed with her.
When you have a High Court Judge driven to say “I have never seen the like of it before and I hope never to see a repetition of it again” things are really bad. This is painful to read.
181.Prior to this ‘interview’ X had not said that she had told her mother of the father’s alleged sexual abuse of her.
182.At the time of both X’s and Y’s interviews the children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor knew that there was an ongoing police investigation into these allegations of sexual abuse and ongoing enquiries by the local authority.
183.Both AB and Ms Noel accepted their respective contemporaneous notes of the two interviews were not a verbatim transcript of the interviews. As the lead questioner Ms Noel’s notes were more comprehensive than AB’s but neither recorded all questions asked nor all the answers given.
The impact on the Guardian of these failings was so pronounced that the Judge was actually very concerned about her well-being when giving evidence.
184.AB is a very experienced children’s guardian of longstanding. I was very concerned about her welfare and well being when she came to give evidence.
185.My order of 6 December 2016 was received by Cafcass. She was the subject of internal disciplinary procedures of which it is not necessary for the purposes of this judgment to say any more. She has since been reinstated.
186.The guardian had just returned from holiday. She knew the purpose of the visit was at my request to establish X’s views about giving evidence. She met Ms Noel outside the foster carer’s home and there was a limited discussion about how the interview should proceed. She told me, and I accept, she agreed Ms Noel should take the lead in asking questions as she had not been present at the last court hearing. It was she said, and I accept, the one and only time she had allowed a children’s solicitor to take the lead in asking questions of a child. She had not, at that time, viewed the children’s ABE interviews nor had Ms Noel.
187.When asked why she had not referred the disclosures made by X to the police, she said Ms Noel advised her that she needed to consult with counsel then instructed on behalf of the children.
188.AB conceded her note taking of the interview was not as thorough as it should have been. She readily acknowledged that she should have stopped the questioning as soon as disclosures had been made. She candidly told me that X wanted to talk and because AB believed the children had not been listened to she was open to let X, and then Y on 6 September, talk. She said she was uneasy at some of the questions the girls were asked by Ms Noel and now realised she should have stopped it.
189.It was immediately obvious from the moment AB stepped into the witness box that she was racked with guilt and remorse. Only a few minutes into her evidence she became distressed and I adjourned for a short period to enable her to compose herself. She readily acknowledged the grave and serious professional errors she had committed in allowing these interviews to progress as they did – most especially in respect of X – and for not terminating them at an early stage.
190.I accept the guardian’s errors and professional misjudgement in this case were grave and serious. Nevertheless I accept her regret and remorse at her actions and omission are entirely genuine and sincere.
It is obviously very dreadful that a children’s solicitor would cross-examine a child with learning difficulties about sexual abuse allegations for 2 hours – that’s made worse still when you realise that she had not even seen the ABE interviews – so effectively cross-examining without properly looking at the source material.
If you think things were bad for the Guardian, they are about to get very much worse
191.I only wish I could make the same observations in respect of Ms Noel: I regret I cannot.
192.Ms Noel has been a solicitor for 11 years. She has been on the Children’s Panel for 6 years but this was the first case of sexual abuse in which she had acted for the children. I do not understand why a solicitor so inexperienced in acting for children should have come to be appointed in as complex and serious case as this one.
193.I was moved to comment during the course of Ms Noel’s evidence that by her actions during the interview with X she had run a coach and horses through 20 years plus of child abuse inquiries and of the approach to interviewing children in cases of alleged sexual abuse. I see no reason, on reflection, to withdraw those comments.
194.At the conclusion of Ms Noel’s evidence, in very marked contrast to that of the former children’s guardian, I had no sense that Ms Noel had any real appreciation of what she had done or of the extremely serious professional errors she had committed. She appeared to be almost a naïve innocent who had little or no idea of what she had done.
That’s the stuff of anxiety nightmares, having that sort of thing said about you.
195.It is right that I set out with particularity her evidence, most especially to highlight those matters which cause me to make the foregoing observations.
196.Ms Noel told me that her visit to X was the first time she had met X. She said that the language she used when asking questions of X and the length of the interview – some 2 hours – was “possibly” inappropriate for a child with learning difficulties. On repeated occasion Ms Noel had told X how brave she was being in answering the questions. On reflection, she said, such comments could have been seen by X as a clue as to what she was expected to say and to talk about. She said that ‘it may appear but was not my intention.’
197.Ms Noel had had no training in how to speak with children involved in court proceedings. She knew X had made disclosures to the police and to her foster carers. Why, therefore, she was asked did she embark on this lengthy questioning of X? She replied that at the time she wanted to clarify what X was saying. With the benefit of hindsight, she accepted she should not have done so and should have stopped asking questions. She said she did not know she had asked X directed or leading questions. When it was put to her that she was cross examining X, Ms Noel replied ‘I suppose so, yes’.
Now, perhaps it is an omission of Children Panel training that she did not have training in how to ask children questions, but as an ADVOCATE you really should know whether or not you are asking someone directed or leading questions – that’s a catastrophic failing to admit that you didn’t know whether you were or not. And note that this 2 hour cross-examination was the first time she had ever met the child.
198.She confirmed her notes were not a verbatim record and that she had not noted X’s demeanour during the course of the interview. She accepted she had probably got some questions and answers missing from her notes and in that sense her notes could be misleading.
199.Ms Noel asserted she had only seen the DVDs of the girls’ interviews after she had seen X on 30 August and Y on 6 September. She had not reported X’s disclosures to the local authority because counsel then instructed by her had advised her to wait until after counsel had met with her and the guardian in conference.
(The Judge doesn’t pass any comment as to whether counsel was right or wrong there. I might have my own view, but the Judge had all of the facts and was in a far better position to say so if there was fault)
200.Ms Noel accepted that in acting as she did she had badly let the children down. She accepted there was a risk of the children, especially X, being ‘set up’ to make fake allegations. She accepted there were not insignificant differences between her contemporaneous notes of her meetings with X and with Y and those set out in her statement which she had prepared and signed in December.
201.Ms Noel was specifically asked if she had approved and authorised the contents of a position statement provided to the court for hearing on 16 September 2016. She said she could not remember. When reminded that she had emailed the same to the court, she replied ‘I would have read it’. The position baldly states that in the interview with the guardian and the solicitor X had made disclosures of a sexual nature against her father and had made disclosures in relation to the state of knowledge of the mother and the maternal grandmother. At no point is any reference made to the circumstances in which X said these things, namely that she had been subjected to an intense and prolonged period of cross examination.
202.I am sorry to observe that Ms Noel’s many acknowledgments of error and of professional misjudgement were made, in my judgment, very begrudgingly.
203.In conclusion I find that in relation to interview undertaken with X on 30 August 2016:
a) she was inappropriately questioned by Ms Noel;
b) the interview lasted for a wholly excessive length of time;
c) the conduct of the interview took no account that X suffered from learning difficulties;
d) she was repeatedly asked leading questions;
e) frequently leading questions were repeated even after X had answered in the negative to the proposition implicit in the question;
f) there was absolutely no justification for embarking on this sustained questioning of X;
g) the exercise was wholly detrimental to X’s welfare and seriously imperilled a police investigation;
h) the conduct of the interview led to a real possibility that X would be led into making false allegations;
i) the conduct of the interview was wholly contrary to the intended purpose of the visit, namely to establish X’s wishes and feelings about giving evidence in this fact finding hearing; and
j) the record keeping of AB and Ms Noel was very poor. Not all questions and answers were recorded or accurately recorded. No reference is made to X’s demeanour during the interview or to any perceived change in her demeanour.
204.The breaches of good practice were so legion in the interview conducted with X that I have concluded that it would be unwise and unsafe for me to rely on any comments made by X. I will have to consider later in this judgment the extent, if at all, to which this interview with X on 30 August tainted the subsequent ABE interview undertaken by the police with X on 30 September 2016.
205.One of the worst examples of these very poorly conducted interviews arose in Y’s interview on 6 September. She alleged for the very first time that she told her grandmother of the sexual abuse she had suffered. For the reasons I have given in relation to X’s interview, I pay no regard to this comment at all. To the extent that I find, if at all, that the grandmother knew about the sexual abuse of both girls, I shall rely on the other evidence before me.
206.The issues of whether I should name Ms Noel in this judgment and/or she should be referred to her professional disciplinary body is to be determined at separate hearing. None of the parties to these proceedings wish to be heard on these issues: the matter is left to the court. I will, however, hear submissions on behalf of Ms Noel at that hearing. At the hearing on 18 August I read and heard submissions from counsel on behalf of Ms Noel. I was asked to show compassion to Ms Noel and not name her in the judgment. A number of personal and professional reasons were advanced. I do not propose to set them out in this judgment. I took account of all those submissions but concluded that the public interest and the need for transparency overwhelmingly required me to name Ms Noel. Accordingly her name appears in the published version of this judgment.