I have to say that when I first read Re P (A child) 2018 I thought it was of limited interest and value and incredibly fact-specific, but I am aware that this is not how it is being viewed by some, and therefore felt it might warrant a blog post.
This is a Court of Appeal decision from an original decision from Her Honour Judge Probyn (who used to sit in my local area, and whom I like)
At the time of the final hearing, the child was 7 months old. There were two older children who had been removed as a result of mother’s alcoholism and findings that the mother had told significant lies during those proceedings.
The mother, who had been a long-standing alcoholic, was seeking an extension of the proceedings for six months. HHJ Probyn refused that and made a Placement Order, mother appealed. It is a very unusual set of facts, in that by the time of the final hearing, the mother had been abstinent for 13 months (i.e she had got dry when she learned of the pregnancy and was still dry at the time of the final hearing. The expert in the case had spoken about having a reasonable degree of confidence that abstinence could endure after an 18 month period (which is not that uncommon, and hence why mother was seeking a further 6 months to show that she could continue to maintain abstinence)
My immediate ball-park feeling is that the right outcome in the care proceedings would have been to make a Supervision Order, with further testing, and the case to be brought back to Court if mother relapsed, rather than continue with ICOs for a further 6 months. I can’t think of a case I’ve ever had where a parent had 13 months of abstinence where a plan of adoption would have been granted.
(Hence my original view that the case was so fact-specific that it would be of no wider value)
By the time the appeal was heard, the 6 months had passed (of course) and mother had maintained her abstinence, so the appeal was always likely to succeed (and appealing on ‘give me more time’ became rather nugatory).
In terms of the adjournment
- For the purposes of considering whether or not the mother could make the necessary changes within the child’s timescale, the period in question is a delay of six months in relation to a baby of seven months of age.
- The courts are often faced with cases where the judge is told that some sort of therapy may result in a mother being able to parent her child, which therapy has not yet begun and will take an indeterminate period, often 18 months to 3 years. I accept that in such a case a plea for ‘more time’ by a mother serves no purpose but to put off the inevitable, to the detriment of the child in question.
- This court was faced with a very different situation. Not only had the mother been abstinent for 13 months but, in contrast to her earlier period of abstinence, she was, even on the local authority’s own case, now energetically cooperating with the follow-up. More importantly, there was an a new, and genuine, acceptance by her and insight on her part into both her alcoholism and its impact upon her child’s welfare.
- This proposed adjournment therefore not only tests out the mother’s ability to remain sober for the further six months, but also to judge her continued commitment to AA and the specialist rehabilitation service and to see whether the personality stability which had come with sobriety would be maintained. Most importantly from the local authority’s point of view, the adjournment would give the local authority and Dr Hallstrom an opportunity to see if the developing insight shown by the mother was capable of developing into an honest working relationship with the local authority such that, in the event that the mother has a “setback”, (which is by no means to be ruled out) she could be trusted to seek help in the interests of L.
- In my judgment there was a clear purpose in the adjournment, namely whether, within L’s reasonable timescales, the mother could capitalise on the considerable progress she had made such as to allow L to live with her mother. The outcome at the end of a further six months was not as the judge believed, inevitable and I am satisfied that, on the evidence before the court, there was a sufficient prospect of the court being in a position to decide that L could be safely placed with her mother to justify the adjournment.
The Court of Appeal considered that given the progress mother had made, a Placement Order was not the right order.
- That therefore leaves the question (Question 3) as to whether there was a “solid” evidence based reason to believe that the parent would be able to make the necessary changes within L’s timescale. It goes without saying that one “necessary change” would be the ability of the mother to satisfy the court that the combination of sobriety and further insight would allow the court to be satisfied that the risk to L, in the event that the mother has a relapse is manageable, and that the mother would be honest with the local authority and in such circumstances seek help at the earliest possible opportunity. In my judgment there is indeed ‘some solid evidence based reason to believe that the mother will be able to make the necessary changes within the child’s time scale”.
- In my judgment, had the judge, even in a couple of paragraphs, once she had rejected the application for an adjournment, gone on to consider all circumstances of the case by reference to the law in relation to placement orders that she had so carefully set out earlier in her judgment, she may well have hesitated again before concluding that L’s welfare “required” the severing of her relationship with her mother without more ado.
- I for my part, whilst fully accepting the legitimate concerns and doubts expressed by the local authority and the Children’s Guardian, cannot see how at that stage, L’s welfare required the breaking off of all L’s ties to her mother and full sister and in my judgment, the making of a placement order was a disproportionate outcome in all the circumstances of the case.
The wider point is made by the Court of Appeal at the end, being critical that the LA went ahead and reduced contact from four times per week to once per month and ended their support and assessment – the Court of Appeal suggest that once permission to appeal had been granted, the LA would have been wiser to have been active in the case and engaged with the mother.
- In conclusion, I note that by the time the appeal came on last week, the six month period sought by the mother had been and gone. The mother has remained sober throughout. The local authority, as already noted, has provided no support to the mother in the interim period and more particularly has not carried out any form of updating assessment of her because, Ms Connell told the court, their case remains that the mother cannot be trusted to be open and honest and the risk to L in the event of a relapse is therefore too great to allow them to reconsider their position, even now. They have, they said, shown good faith in reducing contact from four times a week to once a week rather than once a month which had been their original plan pending placement.
- I hope that the local authority may, on reflection, regret that approach and on reviewing the case conclude that in the interests of L, once Moylan LJ had granted permission to appeal, the better way would have been once again to have become active in the case, and to have engaged with the mother in order to see whether, their worst fears about the mother continued to be justified such that in the best interests of L the last resort of adoption remained the only option.
Now, I shall come to the passages which are attracting some attention beyond the very fact-specific elements of this case. It is obviously unusual to seek a 6 month extension to care proceedings, particularly post the Children and Families Act 2014 (I still think making a Supervision Order was the right approach, rather than adjourning for 6 months), but there are passages here dealing with that, and which some might suggest have broad applicabililty. (I think not, but we shall watch and see)
- It is undoubtedly the case that all this was very recent, but it is important to note that the judge did not find that the mother was simply saying what the judge wanted to hear. The judge  accepted that the mother was showing insight and that there were ‘green shoots’. One can quite see that had the only options facing the judge been immediate rehabilitation or a placement order, then she may well have been driven to conclude that it was too little too late. It is however hard to see how, given that sobriety and honesty are inevitably intrinsically woven in together, a period of six months would have done other than to allow the local authority and Dr Hallstrom not only to see if she remained sober, but also whether the “green shoots “and developing insight could now lead to the sort of working relationship, co-operation, and therefore trust, that the local authority rightly regard as essential if the risk of a future relapse is properly to be managed.
- In my judgment the appellant is correct in her submission that whilst the history is of considerable importance, too much emphasis was placed on the historic lies to the extent that the judge seemed to regard this feature alone as determinative of the case. There was, as a consequence, a failure properly to set those undoubted and serious concerns against the genuine and significant progress made by the mother. If this progress was maintained the mother’s likely future level of honesty could be assessed in the context of sobriety and with a developing understanding and insight as against her historic drunkenness and lack of insight.
- Similarly in  the judge factored in, without more:
- (i) the “risk of serious emotional and physical harm to L,” but the risk of emotional and physical harm would only arise in the event that L was rehabilitated to the mother. It was therefore not a factor at this stage, namely the consideration of the application to adjourn, but would become important only at final care order and placement order stage.
(ii) the “risk of further damage to her attachment needs” The evidence in relation to attachment is recorded by the judge in her judgment at  namely that:
“…L is a baby of some six months and who over the coming months will be at a crucial stage in terms of her attachment development”
- Contrary to the judge’s judgment, there was no evidence that L had suffered attachment damage. On the contrary, the Children’s Guardian had observed L to be well attached to the foster carer and therefore able to make secure attachments in the future. Whilst delay is always inimical to a child’s interests, there is nothing in L’s history or life experiences to date to suggest that her position is any different to any other child of 6 months. The sooner L (in common with all children in her position) is settled with a permanent primary carer the better. However, the generally accepted critical period for forming long term secure attachments would not have been be fatally compromised in L’s case to such that delay had, in her interests to be, to all intents and purposes, the determining factor. This was particularly so in circumstances where it was common ground that adopters could be identified quickly following the making of a placement order (and indeed following the making of the placement order now challenged, prospective adopters were identified within a matter of weeks).
- In weighing up the issue of attachment the judge in my judgment fell into error in that she did not mention the fact that the mother was having good quality contact 4 times a week, or to the high praise given to her by L’s very experienced foster carer, evidence in my judgment of considerable significance when considering L’s timescales and that the alternative was adoption
There is some school of thought that paragraph 47 opens the door wide for extensions of care proceedings beyond 26 weeks when dealing with an infant, because unless there is specific evidence of attachment problems, the crucial window of attachment development is not fatally compromised by extending proceedings. And thus, delay arguments are greatly diminished.
I instead read that to be that when balancing the two factors, in this fact specific case of a mother who had been abstinent for 13 months, a delay of 6 months was better for this child and a realistic option to be preferred to the most dramatic and permanent order of adoption. Delay in this case was not and should not have been the determining factor. I don’t think that Re P bears that weight that some might put upon it , that it is carte blanche for extensions of proceedings if the child is under 1 and showing no attachment damage. Both of the Acts still stand. Delay generally is harmful to children and must be justified and extensions beyond 26 weeks must only take place if to resolve the proceedings justly.
Expect, however, to see Re P wending its way into skeletons and position statements, and there being yet more boilerplate passages in judgments.
(I hope I’ve made it plain that my view is that Placement Order was not the right order in this case – I just don’t think paragraph 47 can be lifted wholesale into other cases where the facts are so different. It clearly has very direct application to a case where a parent has a substantial period of abstinence under their belt pre-dating the proceedings and it is being argued that because more time is needed to be sure the abstinence will last the child should not wait.