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Haranguing Haringey

The case of  AB and Another v London Borough of Haringey 2013 and the valuable lessons that can be learned from it.

  The case itself can be found here:-

 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2013/416.html

And there’s an exceptionally good piece on it here, written by Celtic Knot, [@Celticknottweet]  a fellow blogger, who was involved in the case and thus has both first hand knowledge and a very good perspective on it.

 

http://notsobigsociety.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/data-gathering-damned-if-we-do-damned-if-we-dont/

 

 

The issue was broadly this. Haringey social workers became concerned about the children of a family and sought information from other professionals about those children. They did not seek the consent of the parents to obtain that information. The parents, who were professionals working in the child protection sphere (one a social worker, one not) considered that, with their knowledge of procedures, that the procedures had not been properly followed and that their confidentiality had been breached and sought to challenge matters.

The nub of the case was this – was Haringey’s decision to conduct a section 47 investigation a fair and reasonable one, following proper processes?  There are two distinct categories of social work involvement at this early stage – one is the initial assessment, and one is a section 47 investigation. The Court were looking at what needs to be in place before one crosses from initial assessment and investigation and information gathering to a formal child protection investigation under section 47.

 The Court sum up the law on section 47 investigations very neatly

 

  1. Section 47 of the Children Act 1989, in Part 5 of the Act entitled Child Protection, provides as follows:

“47 Local authority’s duty to investigate.

(1) Where a local authority— …

(a) are informed that a child who lives, or is found, in their area—

(b) have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm,

the authority shall make, or cause to be made, such enquiries as they consider necessary to enable them to decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare … .”

  1. Section 47 enquiries are one of the principal measures available to a local authority to enable it to exercise its child protection functions to protect children who are at risk of suffering or are suffering significant harm whether it be physical, emotional or psychological harm. Such harm and such risks are often very difficult to ascertain and root out and the purpose of section 47 is to provide a readily available means whereby a local authority can ascertain the facts and risks that a child is running and then to identify and implement necessary protective, supportive and developmental measures to safeguard and to promote that child’s welfare. The objective of a section 47 enquiry is to protect children who are suffering from or are threatened with significant harm and the threshold for its operation in any given case is the need for the local authority concerned to have reasonable cause to suspect that that child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm.
  1. The use of section 47 and the measures that may be taken by a local authority following its use are predominantly aimed at securing the best interests of children. Its use is intended to be child-focused and to take account of the child’s views and wishes without unduly and unfairly disrupting her family life. The use of section 47 should also take account of the personal and family rights of a child’s parents or carers so long as that does not interfere with the overriding duty of child protection and development.
  1. Section 47 enquiries are multi-agency in their scope and they will usually include such agencies as the child’s school, medical practitioner, social workers and the police. The police have an important role to play given the likelihood that in most cases where a child is suffering or is at risk of suffering significant harm, the perpetrator or perpetrators of that risk or that harm will have committed or will still be committing serious criminal offences whose victim is a child.
  1. A section 47 enquiry involves an in-depth child-centred assessment of a child’s developmental needs, of the harm she is suffering or may suffer, of the capacity of the child’s parents or carers to respond to the child’s needs and of the family and environmental factors that are playing a role in the harm she is suffering or may suffer. This intrusive assessment should take account of the views of the different agencies involved with and the external influences on the child and it must also directly involve both the parents and the child unless this will endanger the child. The necessary fact-gathering should include sessions with the child without her parents or carers present and it should ascertain that child’s wishes and aspirations wherever possible. The assessment, known as a core assessment, must be concluded so that a holistic view may be taken of the child’s needs, of the significant harm that the child is being or is at risk of being subjected to and the steps that can be implemented for the eradication of negative influences on the child and the promotion of favourable ones on her.
  1. A section 47 enquiry has in recent years become very damaging for the life, career and family relationships of many who are parenting or caring for the child being assessed. There are now extensive statutory checks that must be made about adults who are caring for or working with children or who are coming into contact with them in an educational, health, pastoral or care context. Thus, involvement in a section 47 enquiry may often result in the ending of a career involving contact with children. This will usually be for good reason but this is not always so and there will rarely be a means for those unfairly marked out by involvement in a section 47 enquiry to eradicate that stain on their professional and personal reputation.
  1. A section 47 enquiry can of course prove to be very damaging for a child, for her parents and for their mutual relationships. In particular, the lives of parents can be badly affected if and when adverse conclusions are made about the harm that they have inflicted on their child. These can include criminal prosecution, the loss or their child, intrusive involvement in their family and private lives, loss of employment or being barred from working with children and an adverse entry on their records held by reporting authorities such as the police and various regulatory bodies. A particular trigger for any of these adverse effects is the fact that a section 47 enquiry was undertaken in relation to their child at all since its threshold is that significant harm has occurred or that there is a risk of it occurring. Thus, a section 47 enquiry, which will often be reportable by the parents concerned, can blight their lives irrespective of the nature and extent of the significant harm or of their involvement in it or of the reasonableness of the suspicion that generated the enquiry in the first place.
  1. For all these reasons, the simple and apparently straightforward terms of section 47 mask a myriad of problems and to help deal with these, a plethora of rules, procedures and guidance have been produced. These are largely found in the statutory guidance issued by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and by statutory authorities such as the London Safeguarding Board. Statutory guidance is issued with statutory authority and it must therefore be complied with unless local circumstances indicate exceptional reasons to justify a departure from it in a specific case. This body of guidance is intended, if followed, to enable the very difficult decisions and exercises of professional judgment to be made satisfactorily on a case by case basis. These judgments are taken so that the substantial harm affecting the child may be investigated, her best interests may be protected and the rights of parents and carers are taken into account.

 

If you want it even shorter than that, it is that section 47 investigations are an important tool to protect children, but using them has consequences for the parents and the State must be careful that they are used in accordance with the guidance given, to avoid abuses.

 

The threshold for deciding whether a set of circumstances triggers section 47 is as below  (underlining mine)

 

18. The relevant service has a statutory duty to initiate a section 47 enquiry but only if it has decided that it has reasonable cause to suspect that the child is suffering significant harm or is at risk of suffering such harm. That reasonable suspicion must arise in and be tested by the initial assessment process which may only be short-circuited in exceptional circumstances. The objectives of the resulting core section 47 enquiry are essentially to determine what is likely to happen if nothing changes in the child’s present situation and what the likely consequences for the child are.

 

 

Of course, the section 47 investigation process might well either develop those concerns about the risk that the child is exposed to, or reveal that the concerns held are either baseless or that the risk is comfortably managed or has dissipated; but the crux is that in order to embark upon a section 47 investigation, the LA MUST have reasonable cause to suspect that the child is suffering significant harm.

 

That’s the reason why social workers can’t just knock on a persons door and ask to come in and snoop for some evidence of harm – they have to have reasonable cause to suspect (or what, if you want to borrow from American cop shows, you might call “Probable cause”)  that the child is at risk of harm in order to commence an investigation.

 

This is what prompted the Haringey s47 investigation

 

 

  1. An unsigned letter dated 11 March 2011 addressed to LBH’s “Social Services Child abuse Department” was received by SFR on 15 April 2011. There is no record of when it was sent by the anonymous author or first received by LBH. The letter read:

“Dear Social Workers

Worried about the family living at [full postal address given].

I am a neighbour of the family living at the above address and I have some very big worries about how they are looking after the young girl in the house. I think the little girl is about 7 years old and there (sic) girl. The mother is always screaming at the little girl shouting and screaming. I have seen the mother pulling the little girl along by her arm and slapping her. The little girl looks so unhappy she is not allowed to speak to anyone and when you see her in the street the little girl looks very sad and never raises her head to look at you. There is often shouting late at night from the house. The man in the house is much older and could be granddad or a lodger.

I am worried to talk to the family because they don’t speak but I know they have been rude to other people in the street. Please could you make sure that the little girl is alright.”

 

 As a result, Haringey social workers made what are called ‘background checks’, contacting the police, GP and school to see if there was anything known about the family.

 It was only after these checks were conducted, that Haringey contacted the parents to notify them of the concerns, and to begin their investigation/assessment.  [AB and CD are the parents in this case, LBH refers to the London Borough of Haringey, EF is the child]

 

 

  1. AB reacted strongly to this call for a number of related reasons. These were:

(1) It seemed to AB, with her knowledge of child protection procedures, that LBH had made several serious errors in the way it had dealt with her daughter’s case.

(2) LBH should have obtained her or CD’s permission before making any contact EF’s GP and school but had in fact approached those agencies without even attempting to obtain it.

(3) LBH appeared to have embarked on an initial assessment of her daughter without first evaluating her risk to satisfy itself that one was needed. In her view, a risk assessment was particularly necessary since the referral had been made by an anonymous member of the public so that it could not be tested or evaluated.

(4) Before deciding on an initial assessment, a social worker should have seen EF on her own to assess whether it was possible that she had been subjected to a significant risk of being seriously harmed.

(5) The threshold for the decision to start an initial assessment had not objectively been reached in this case.

(6) Even if it turned out that it was wholly unjustified to carry out an initial assessment, the fact that it had taken place could ruin the careers of both her and CD as professionals involved in child protection work.

(7) None of the appropriate steps had been taken that would have enabled an objective and fair decision to be taken that it was necessary to embark on an initial assessment of her and her family.

AB had grounds for legitimate complaint about each of these features of the decision-making process leading to the initiation of an initial assessment process.

 

 

At the end of the s47 process, the conclusion was that EF was not at any risk and the referral had been malicious

 

 

  1. 54. On 10 May, Ms Mawdsley noted the following about the investigations and assessments that he had carried out:

“Following the home visit to [EF] and her parents and having considered information shared from other agencies, it is my opinion that it is highly likely that the referral received was malicious. It is my assessment that [EF] is not at risk of significant harm in the care of her parents.”

 

The key issue in dispute therefore was whether Haringey were able to legitimately commence a s47 investigation on the family BASED on the referral, and thus seek the background checks without parent consent, or whether a s47 investigation could not legitimately begin until the workers had actually talked to the parents  (this not being a case where there would be a difficulty in finding them).

 

The Court broke this down into four questions

 

 

  1. These grounds require these issues to be addressed:

(1) Was a section 47 enquiry decided upon?

(2) If so, was it unlawful?

(3) Was the data-gathering exercise before and during the initial assessment process unlawful?

(4) What remedies are the claimants entitled to?

 

The Court concluded that at the time, there had not been a formal decision to move this consideration of the anonymous referral from an initial assessment to a section 47 investigation (looking specifically at the failure to have any record of such a decision, there being no approval by a manager of that decision and

(5) Particularly significantly, the family were visited and AB and CD were interviewed separately from EF. These interviews were not in structure or content part of a core assessment but were part of, indeed the principal component part of, an initial assessment.

(6) Whereas it is perfectly possible to terminate and abort an initial assessment, the guidance provides that a core assessment should be completed even if it emerges that the criteria for a section 47 assessment are not in fact present. In such a case, the outcome resulting from the completed core assessment will be that the child is not subject to significant harm and any recommendations for future interventions or that no future interventions are needed will be recorded.

(7) The guidance also makes it clear that the section 47 decision must be taken at a strategy meeting, held if necessary, if the situation is one of extreme emergency, over the telephone. Such meetings were held and both decided upon there being no further action and that decision was recorded by Mr Baker, albeit long after the fact in the core assessment document.

(8) Ms Chew appears to have taken the section 47 decision after Mr Baker had left her and, it now seems from an analysis of the evidence, only after she had sight of AB’s email to the Head of Service dated 4 May 2011. She then appears to have reacted hastily and as a direct response to seeing that email and only communicated her decision to AB and CD in her letter dated 5 May 2011 which was delivered on 7 May 2011. That cannot be regarded as a final and conclusive section 47 decision given all the shortcomings that I have described.

 

 

They went further, to say that IF a section 47 investigation had been decided upon before meeting with the parents and seeing the child, that would have been unlawful.  The only circumstance in which a s47 investigation can be triggered without seeing the parents and the child, would be where there was extreme urgency or an assessment  (based on evidence) that a home visit would put the child at risk of harm, neither of which were present.

The Court’s decision that Haringey had not been in fact conducting a section 47 investigation was critical, because it would be the fact of a s47 investigation that would allow the obtaining of information from third parties without the direct express consent of the parents

 

 

  1. The initial data-gathering exercise was unlawful in two respects:

(1) The initial request for data was sent to EF’s GP accompanied by the erroneous information that LBH was currently working with the family, that LBH was already undertaking a CYPS assessment and that confidential details including the possible presence of risk indicators of physical abuse, should be provided. In addition to these statements or implications being erroneous, no consent had been obtained from EF’s parents and it was not a justification to seek the information without consent that their identity was not at that time known since this statement was also untrue.

(2) The consent of the parents had not been obtained before the school was approached. Moreover, it was impermissible to post details of the referral on RIO to enable the school nurse to read them prior to obtaining the parents’ consent.

  1. These were serious departures from permissible practice and these actions were unlawful.

 

 

The Court then moved on to remedies

 

 

77.   Issue 4: What remedies are the claimants entitled to?

  1. The claimants are entitled to a quashing order quashing the purported section 47 enquiry decision and to declarations that there never was a section 47 enquiry decision, that the initial assessment was terminated because EF was not at risk of significant harm and because it was highly likely that the anonymous referral was malicious. In consequence, the Manager and the Practice Manager decided to close the case. They are also entitled to declarations that LBH acted unlawfully in not seeking AB and CD’s consent before approaching EF’s GP and school and seeking information from them.
  1. That leaves over for further argument what steps should be ordered to be taken to ensure that all references to AB and CD having been subject to a section 47 enquiry are removed from all data bases and that all appropriate persons who should be notified of this are notified and what the terms of that notification should be. Furthermore, it leaves over a claim for damages on which I need further argument as to both entitlement and amount.

 

 

The relevance of this decision is therefore this :-

 

    1. That unless there is urgency, or an assessment based on evidence that a home visit would endanger the child, it is unlawful to commence a section 47 investigation without visiting the child and speaking with the parents  (that process would instead be an initial assessment)
    2. Seeking background checks without parental consent would be unlawful UNLESS a legitimate s47 investigation had been formally convened and was taking place (and frankly, even then, one ought to try to get parental consent)
    3. A breach of (1) or (2) above, can result in financial compensation.

 

 

There’s big discussion over at the blog I referenced initially as to whether the parents in this case got a better outcome because they were social workers. It is certainly the case that knowing the procedures and guidance led them to know that the procedures and guidance hadn’t been followed, and of course, the consequences for them of a malicious referral had professional consequences for them as well as for their family. But the principles here apply to all families and all investigations.

Is there truly such a thing as an ‘anonymous’ referral?

 

 A discussion of Re J (A Child:Disclosure) 2012

The case can be found here :-

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1204.html

 

 

This was an appeal arising from private law proceedings, but the principles are likely to apply (if not be even more apposite) to public law proceedings.

 

Effectively, within the time that private law proceedings were going on, an allegation of sexual misconduct was raised against the father.  The allegations were made to the Local Authority, who then alerted the mother that allegations of a serious kind, that they had some confidence in, had been made.

 

The referrer had requested anonymity.

 

(We go back here to D v NSPCC 1978 AC 171  which established that a principle called  Public Interest Immunity applied to information provided to a child protection agency – like NSPCC or Social Services,  and that there was a broad public interest in individuals being able to know that they could make those referrals in confidence.    In particular that they wouldn’t face threats, violence or harassment as a result of having made that referral.

 

There’s a larger public debate here, which can easily be understood if you switch the word ‘referral’ with ‘allegation’   – it’s appropriate for someone to be able to make a referral in confidence, but if you put yourself in the place of a parent who is the subject of an anonymous allegation, you would feel entirely differently)

 

 

As the father, understandably, was disputing that he had behaved in a sexually inappropriate way, and the issue was going to the heart of whether he was a risky person to have contact with his children, or a safe person, the Court had to have a finding of fact hearing to determine the allegations.

 

Given that the referrer, who wished to remain anonymous, had become known to the mother, the issue then became twofold :-

 

  1. Should her identity be formally revealed and the detail of the referral be made known by disclosing the documents
  2. At the finding of fact hearing, should the referrer attend Court and be available to be cross-examined?

 

 

The Judge at first instance, who was Mr Justice Peter Jackson  analysed the issue in this way :-

 

  1. a. The father denied sexually abusing anybody. He had not been informed of X’s identity and knew nothing of the substance of her allegations. He asserted that the mother had colluded with X to generate these allegations for the purpose of obstructing contact with his daughter. He argued that for the court not to insist on testing the allegations would be fundamentally unjust and the situation would effectively encourage mothers to make outrageous allegations as a means of alienating fathers and children from each other. The interests of A must come first and there must be a trial attended by X.

b. The mother described herself being torn between the need to protect A and the reluctance to add to the pressure on X. She supported disclosure if it is the only means by which A can be protected, but is concerned about the consequences for X if disclosure takes place.

c. X strongly resisted disclosure of her identity and of the substance of her allegations. She would oppose any attempt to summons her as a witness and would not be able to speak about her allegations if she were brought to court. She was acutely distressed by the effect of the proceedings on her already fragile state of health.

d. A’s guardian asserted that she was unable to represent A’s interests in the proceedings without knowing the detail of the allegations and forming an assessment of them. She submitted that the issue of disclosure was a discrete issue and should be determined separately from any question of X being compelled to attend court to give evidence.

e. The local authority took a neutral stance, but assisted the court by presenting arguments for and against disclosure.

  1. In analysing the competing factors, the judge referred to the following articles of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950 (‘ECHR’) as being relevant:

ARTICLE 3

No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

ARTICLE 6

1. In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.

ARTICLE 8

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

  1. Having considered the decision of this court in A Local Authority v A [2009] EWCA Civ 1057; [2010] 2 FLR 1757, the judge concluded that the fundamental objective of the balancing exercise is to strike a fair balance between the various rights and interests within the context of achieving a fair trial. In this context he held (at paragraph 29) the following ECHR articles were engaged so far as the court and the local authority as public bodies are concerned:
    • Article 6, entitling A and her parents to a fair hearing of X’s allegations;
    • Article 8, guaranteeing respect for the family life of A and her parents;
    • Article 8, guaranteeing respect for the private life of X; and
    • Article 3, prohibiting inhuman or degrading treatment of A and of X.
  1. Peter Jackson J concluded (paragraph 34) that X’s wish not to speak further about her alleged experience of sexual abuse and the risks to her mental and physical health were each aspects of her ‘private life’ within Article 8.
  1. Within the Article 3 considerations fell not only the protection of vulnerable individuals such as A and X, in particular from sexual abuse, but also the protection of X from inhuman treatment by forcing her to give evidence about these matters in the context of her precarious state of health.

 

The Judge at first instance decided that balancing those competing interests meant that it was right, in the circumstances of this particular case, not to compel X to give evidence, or to disclose the information  (he approached it in that order, which becomes relevant later)

 

48. I have nevertheless concluded that in this highly unusual situation it is not possible for information about X’s identity and allegations to be disclosed to the parties. My reasons are these:

1) I accept the medical evidence about the potentially serious effect of disclosure on X’s health.

2) The information once disclosed, cannot be controlled. X could not be assured that her identity as an alleged victim of sexual abuse would remain confidential within the proceedings.

3) X’s identity and her allegations are inextricably intertwined.

4) For the court to order disclosure when it is not prepared to order X to give evidence would risk harming X without achieving anything valuable for A and her parents. The nature and extent of X’s allegations mean that they could not readily be proved or disproved by reference to third parties or independent sources. It is therefore unlikely that any outcome achieved in X’s absence would clear the air between the parties or provide a solid foundation for future arrangements for A.

5) The court must have regard to the nature of the interests being balanced, namely contact on one hand and physical and mental health on the other.

 

49. I realise that the existence of this unresolved allegation creates real difficulties in relation to future contact between A and her father. Once the parties have considered this judgment, there will be a short hearing to identify the issues that now arise. For the present, I will only repeat the observation that I made during the Guardian’s submissions, namely that this outcome will not automatically lead to the court making an order for unsupervised contact. That question must be resolved taking account of all factors bearing on A’s welfare

The father’s case, again understandably was, that without having the opportunity to properly test the very grave allegations that had been made against him  (and not even knowing who it was he was alleged to have abused)  would make it impossible to conduct a finding of fact hearing, and even if the allegations were effectively set to one side with a decision that they couldn’t be proved, they would hang over him and inevitably colour any later decision about his contact.  

 

(The Judge seemed to be saying that X’s allegations wouldn’t be the subject of a finding of fact hearing, but that on its own did not mean that father’s contact would automatically revert to pre-allegation position. And a strand that emerged was that without the allegations being determined one way or another, was it reasonable for mother – who believed them – to be opposed to direct contact?)

 

The Court of Appeal considered the issue of the trial judge having seen the source material which was not disclosed to the parties , with the long and the short of it being that a Judge who saw such pertinent evidence and decided it was not to be disclosed was really in a position where he had to recuse himself from determining the matter, no matter how hard he would strive to put it out of his mind, ‘justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done’ :-

 

 

  1. Having now had the benefit of looking at these potentially ambiguous passages with the assistance of counsel’s submissions, I am fully satisfied that the judge has no intention of relying directly upon the undisclosed material to support some form of finding on the issue of sexual abuse. His latter comment about the outcome not automatically leading to unsupervised contact would seem simply to be a sensible and proper judicial indication that all substantive welfare options remain open and that all he has dealt with thus far is the application for disclosure.
  1. Despite accepting that the judge’s indication is, within its own context, unremarkable, there is a need to step back to consider how a fair final hearing can be seen to take place if it is conducted by a judge who has read the detail of X’s undisclosed allegations. This is not a topic that is addressed expressly in the judgment, yet to my mind it justifies careful consideration. From the perspective of an insider within the family justice system, I have no difficulty in accepting that any judge of the High Court Family Division would have the necessary intellectual and professional rigour to conduct the final hearing by putting the undisclosed material out of his or her contemplation when considering A’s welfare. That, however, is not the test, or, at least, not the complete test. Justice not only has to be done, but it must be manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be done. How is the final hearing to be viewed by the father if his contact to A is reduced from its pre-2010 level or terminated, when he knows that the judge who has determined the case has read details of serious, but untried and untested allegations against him? The father has already referred to ‘a kangaroo court’ and such a characterisation could only gain prominence in his mind were the case to proceed in the manner contemplated by the current orders.
  1. Often when Public Interest Immunity (‘PII’) is raised the matter to which the PII relates may not be directly relevant to the primary issue in the case and there can be a fair trial of the central issue notwithstanding the fact that material known to the judge remains undisclosed to some or all of the parties. Here the undisclosed information is at the core of the case and represents the entirety of the material relating to the only issue that has generated the mother’s application to vary the contact regime. The father, or an impartial bystander, is entitled to question how there could be a fair trial of the contact issue when the judge is privy to this core material yet the father and those representing A are not. I stress again that I readily accept that if Peter Jackson J were the trial judge he would have approached the matters before him with intellectual and judicial rigour; my concern relates to how matters are, or may be, perceived by the parties and others.
  1. Drawing these observations together, in my view an outcome on the facts of this case whereby the key material has been read in full by the judge but is not to be disclosed to the parties, yet the same judge is going on to preside over the welfare determination is an untenable one in terms of justice being seen to be done. In failing both to consider this aspect of the case and in arriving at that outcome the judge was plainly wrong

 

 

There is, as always with Lord Justice MacFarlane’s judgments, a helpful drawing together of the history of decisions on both Public Interest Immunity and balancing of competing Human Rights, and it would be a good starting point for any research on these issues.

 

 

The Court of Appeal then determined whether the Court at first instance had gone awry in balancing those matters, and specifically whether in determining that X was not going to give evidence and thus disclosure was of no purpose, that decision had been made the wrong way around (i.e that disclosure was a separate issue to X giving live evidence)

 

  1. Moving from legal principle to the circumstances of this case, whilst the judge’s characterisation of the probative value of X’s allegations as being unlikely to lead to a resolution of the issue that they raise may be correct on our present state of knowledge, that state of knowledge is based entirely on what X is reported to have said. Because of X’s stipulation that no person is to be told of her allegations, the local authority has not undertaken any investigation of them whatsoever. In so far as X may give a factual context which places X and the father together and within which the alleged abusive behaviour took place, it has not been possible to ask any of the adults who were then responsible for X’s care whether or not that factual context has validity. A’s mother knows only of the label attached to the alleged behaviour, she too may readily be able to validate or challenge what is said about the factual context and the father’s opportunity to interact abusively with X as X alleges. Plainly the father too will be able to give his own account of matters if disclosure takes place. I do not therefore accept Peter Jackson J’s assertion that ‘the nature and extent of X’s allegations mean that they could not readily be proved or disproved by reference to third parties or independent sources’; the position is that, unless or until the relevant adults are told of the allegations, it is simply too early to come to a conclusion on that issue. There is merit in the disclosure of this core material, so that it may properly be evaluated by A’s mother, A’s father and A’s professional representatives, that merit is freestanding and has value irrespective of whether or not in due course X could be called to give oral evidence.
  1. For the reasons I have given, I conclude that the judge was in error in conflating the issues of disclosure and X being required to give oral evidence in due course. In turning to the latter issue first, and concluding that compelling X to give evidence would be oppressive and wrong, the judge unfortunately allowed that conclusion to dominate his consideration of the disclosure question in a manner which is unsupported by authority. The judge was further in error in failing to identify the freestanding value of disclosure which would enable the key adults to understand and give their own factual account of the circumstances within which X alleges that the abusive behaviour took place

And then moved on to make the decision about disclosure :-

 

  1. In answer to the questions posed within structure established by Lord Mustill in Re D:

a) there is a real possibility that disclosure will cause significant harm to X’s mental and physical health;

b) the interests of X would benefit from non-disclosure, but the interests of A favour disclosure. It is in A’s interests that the material is known to her parents and is properly tested. There is a balance to be struck between the adverse impact on X’s interest and the benefit to be gained by A;

c) If that balance favoured non-disclosure, I would in any event evaluate the importance of the undisclosed material as being central to the whole issue of contact and the life-long structure of the relationships within A’s family. In fact, X’s allegations represent the entirety of the ‘issue’ in the family proceedings. There is therefore a high priority to be put upon both parents having the opportunity to see and respond to this material.

  1. For the reasons that I have given, and approaching the matter in way that I have described, I am clear that the balance of rights comes down in favour of the disclosure of X’s identity and of the records of the substance of her sexual abuse allegations to the mother, the father and A’s children’s guardian.

 

 

The Court of Appeal did make it plain during the judgment, that they were considering this on the basis of the individual case and the individual judgment, rather than attempting to pull out some general principles for all cases, and say so explicitly here:-

 

40         I repeat and stress that this conclusion is specific to the facts of this case where the PII material relates entirely to the core issue in the case. It is not my intention to lay down a blanket approach to all cases, which will fall to be determined by the application of general principles to the individual facts that are in play.

 

And of course, the key issue in this case is that the referrer X, was not someone who was saying  “I have seen father do such and such to a child” or “I believe father has done such and such to a child”  but that “when I was a child, this man did such and such to me”     (i.e that the referrer was not claiming to have witnessed abuse, but to have been a victim of it)

 

But the principle remains – in the light of this authority, and the ones cited within the judgment  (notably Re D (Minors) (Adoption Reports: Confidentiality) [1996] AC 593)  )   http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/1995/17.html  

 

Can someone who makes a referral or allegation to a Local Authority, who wishes to remain anonymous, have confidence that they would remain so?

 

The reality is, that if the referral or allegation is relied upon – i.e that a party to the case seeks to convert that allegation into proven fact (as opposed to ‘it is true that an anonymous referrer said this, but the Court is not asked to determine that what was alleged is true’)   then it is hard to see a Court being persuaded that the parents article 6 rights to see the allegation and challenge it are outweighed by the interests of confidentiality to the anonymous referrer.

 

The deck was stacked pretty heavily in favour of the referrer here  –  she had been a ‘child victim’, there was psychological evidence about the consequences of disclosure being very detrimental to her, and still the material was disclosed.

 

There’s the possibility, perhaps long-distant, of a referrer who was told by the Local Authority when they rang up and asked if they could remain anonymous that they could, bringing a claim against the LA when their details were disclosed. 

 

It might well be the case that the only true way to make an anonymous referral is the obvious one – don’t give your name to anyone.  If you tell the person on the other end of the phone your real name, they might well have to cough it up at some point in the future.

 

[If it hasn’t been clear in the discussion above, I am very sympathetic to both sides of the debate – I think it is important that people are able to genuinely alert the right authorities to suspected child abuse without having to have fear of reprisals, but I can also see that where there is suspicion and doubt that such referrals are genuine and might instead be false malicious allegations, there’s a serious interest in the victim of such allegations being able to properly contest them.  

 

It is one of those difficult areas where the overarching public interest in cases generally might well be anonymity, but in any particular case the right thing is more likely to be transparency]