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Settlement Conferences

Settlement Conferences are a new idea in English (and Welsh) family law, though they have been used in other jurisidictions, including Northern Ireland. The thinking is rather like the Financial Dispute Resolution in ancillary relief – you get all of the evidence together, the parties go in front of a Judge who will NOT be hearing any contested hearing and together as a group they try to see if there is a way of agreeing the case that everyone can live with. If they really can’t agree, everything discussed at that hearing is locked away and isn’t used by anyone at the final hearing which will be before an entirely different Judge and all they will know is that agreement wasn’t reached (they won’t be told what the first Judge suggested or indicated, or who gave ground and who didn’t, or what the sticking points were)

The idea is to settle the case by agreement, instead of having the stressful, time-consuming and (for the State/taxpayer) expensive final hearing.

In a money case, that’s always a live possibility – since going to a final hearing costs each side money (even if they are legally aided, their legal costs have to be paid back at some point out of the money they recover) and you know, money has loads of different ways of being divided and some of those ways can result in each side getting something they are happy with.  In a Children Act case where the social work plan is adoption and the parents want the child home, there’s rather less room for compromise – it’s not easy to come up with a way where everyone leaves happy. So it can feel a bit more like a Settlement Conference is one side being told that they are LIKELY to lose at final hearing and to give up.

 

Sarah Philimore sums it all up very well here

 

Guidance from the Ministry of Justice about ‘Settlement Conferences’

 

The Association of Lawyers for Children have published guidance to their members and it is strong, punchy stuff

 

http://alc.org.uk/uploads/ALC_Guidance_to_Members_on_Settlement_Conferences_July_1st_2016.pdf

 

For example

Care and adoption proceedings are a grave interference in family life by a public authority. They can have consequences for several generations.
We believe the scheme may be in breach of the ECHR Article 6 and 8 rights of both parents and children.
The right of individuals to communicate privately with their legal representatives is a cornerstone of access to justice.
The right to professional advocacy is wholly undermined if lawyers are expected to remain silent.
A child cannot have a fair hearing if his parents have not.

 

and

 

5…. The essential difference between a conventional IRH and the settlement conference lies in the judge seeking directly to persuade the parties to agree
with his or her view of the likely outcome , and expecting the parent or other parties to speak directly to the judge, without the protection of professional
advocacy and legally privileged advice.
6. The judge taking the settlement conference will not be the allocated judge,and therefore the scheme undermines judicial continuity, which has been a central
aim of the family justice system for many years. The settlement conference judge will not have the depth of knowledge and nuance of the case and may
therefore arrive at the wrong conclusion about the merits.
Apart from the issue of further delay, there is a risk, particularly in the smaller court centres, that the judge who deemed the case suitable for a settlement conference will
communicate their disappointment to the trial judge if the conference fails to produce a settlement.
7.Lawyers are to be present at settlement conferences, but they are discouraged from speaking, and therefore their presence provides only a semblance
of legal representation and due process.
The judge may ask a question directly of the lay client which the lawyer objects to, but the client may answer before the objection
can be made. The judge may attempt to restrict the lawyer’s interventions as an undermining of the process.
The passive presence of lawyers will not best serve the parents’ or child’s interests, but will serve to make appeals from “consent” decisions more difficult
to launch. We believe it will be very difficult if not impossible for our members to discharge their overriding professional duty to
promote the interests of their clients in such an environment.
8.The parents in care cases are usually vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals, a disproportionate number of who have learning disabilities and mental
health problems. They find it difficult to articulate their experiences and present their views effectively in a court room setting. They are inevitably under considerable
emotional stress when attending court about their children. Being directly addressed by the judge and expected to reply is likely to be experienced by the
parent as a form of pressure to make concessions, no matter how tactful and skilled the judge may be. The scheme is intended to produce settlement by
bypassing lawyers and using the judge’s authority and personality toproduce concessions. If it were not, it is difficult to see why the settlement
conference should produce a better rate of settlement than a properly conducted IRH.
9.The scheme will seriously undermine public confidence in the fairness and transparency of judicial decision-making in the family courts.Public confidence in the
“secret” family justice system is shaky.
Final decisions for the permanent removal of children from their parents made “by consent”, without parents having the benefit of legal representation and
privileged advice, will be highly suspect.
This will further damage public trust in family justice.
It would be fair to say that there are still some kinks to work out. Shame that there wasn’t a consultation and dialogue before launch of the pilot to let these issues be ventilated. Whilst the pilot only covers a few local authorities, these are real families and real children who are undergoing a pilot scheme to make these life-changing decisions in a way that is critiqued as savagely as this.
Perhaps the pilots should cease whilst the MOJ get round a table with the ALC to discuss things.
I’d say the ALC response is a takedown that Brock Lesnar would be proud of.
Who is Brock Lesnar?
Only The Beast Incarnate, that’s who.
"My client, BRRRROCK Lesnar"

“My client, BRRRROCK Lesnar”

Achieving best evidence – a very critical examination

 

The Court of Appeal in Re E (A Child) 2016  were addressing an appeal from findings of fact that the father had sexually abused all of the children, including making them have sex with a dog, and of having taken them to hotels given them drugs and pills and allowed other men to abuse them or watch them. (I apologise for that graphic opening, I will try to keep the graphic content out of the rest of the post)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2016/473.html

 

Quick history lesson – ABE, or Achieving Best Evidence, is the guidelines that were drawn up (and occasionally refreshed and honed) as to the police interviewing of children where allegations of abuse are being investigated. They came about as a result of the Cleveland scandal, where many children were removed into care for allegations of sexual abuse and the investigation process was flawed and nearly all of those children had been wrongly removed. When you think of the “Show us on this dolly where daddy touched you?” style of interviewing, that’s what ABE was aimed to stamp out.  The interviews are video-recorded and can be used as evidence in criminal proceedings and care proceedings – with the idea being that if the guidance is followed in spirit and to the letter, the chance of the child’s evidence having been contaminated or influenced by the person asking questions is reduced to a minimum. It’s really important.  I’m glad that the Court of Appeal are looking at this.

 

Let us start with  the delay between the allegations being made and an ABE interview being conducted.

  1. On 20th May 2015 the youngest child, D, then aged 7 years, made allegations to her foster carer implicating both Mr E and young A as having sexually abused her and her brothers. Further allegations were made to the foster carer by D on 25th May and these were in part supported by allegations subsequently made by her older brothers.
  2. All three complainant children were ABE interviewed by police on 27th May 2015. The reason for the delay between the initial complaint and the ABE interview was that the foster carer took the children away on a pre-arranged holiday during the intervening days. The process adopted by the foster carer, social workers and police, together with the content of the ABE interviews themselves, have been the subject of sustained challenge by the Appellant and those supporting the appeal before this court.

 

I have scoured the remainder of the judgment, but it does not seem to me that the delay forms part of the Court of Appeal’s criticism – there are MANY many others. It might, as a practitioner, have been helpful for the Court of Appeal to have been firm about the passage of time that ABE’s are taking – this one, in my experience, proceeded at rocket-lightning pace compared to the average ABE.  Sometimes, that passage of time reduces the chances of an accurate and reliable account being obtained – sometimes that account would rightly exonerate a parent and remove restrictions that are impacting on their family life, sometimes it would point strongly that there’s a case to be answered.

 

When should the Judge in the case see the ABE interviews?

 

In this case, the Judge had not watched the ABE interviews prior to the trial beginning. That, the Court of Appeal suggest, made the decisions she made at the start of the trial less solid (whether police officers should be called, whether the children should be called etc)

Standing back from the details of this specific case, Mr Tyler submitted that in any case the question of children giving live evidence should only be considered once the judge has viewed the ABE material. He suggested that it may be good practice for a judge to identify at an early stage whether he or she would attach weight to the ABE interviews if they stood alone. He told the court that, in his experience, the culture of the Family Court with respect to oral evidence from children was really unchanged from the position that had existed prior to the Supreme Court decision in Re W. Mr Tyler readily accepted a suggestion made by Macur LJ to the effect that a child’s welfare may in fact require a determination in favour of them giving evidence, notwithstanding any immediate adverse impact on the child from the process of coming to court, where the future placement of the child could depend upon findings of fact to which his or her oral evidence might relate.

 

  1. It is apparent from the transcript and from the fact that the first day of the main hearing was spent in viewing the ABE material, that the judge had not viewed the videos prior to determining the Re W application on 3rd November. Although it may onerous to do so, it is necessary, before reaching a conclusion on an application for children to be called, for the court to gain a considered view as to the strength of the existing evidence. Sub-paragraphs 9(f) to (j) are plain on this point and require to the court to have regard to:
      1. ‘(f) whether the case depends on the child’s allegations alone;

(g) corroborative evidence;

(h) the quality and reliability of the existing evidence;

(i) the quality and reliability of any ABE interview.’

So the Judge needs to see the ABE interviews before the trial, in order to have a properly informed view as to whether the children should give evidence.

Fast-track interviews

Within this police investigation, the police officers went to see the children AFTER the ABE interviews were made, and conducted interviews with them to obtain more detail / to check their account. Those fast-track interviews were not recorded.

In early June the police log records that the officer in the case “has since the ABE-s in an attempt to get some clarity from the child[ren] about their disclosure, been to the home address and completed a series of fast track questions with the three children to assist in forming a chronology.”

  1. Although not formally part of the ABE interviews themselves, Mr Tyler also submits that the judge should have been extremely concerned that the same police officer had subsequently visited the three children to conduct a ‘fast-track’ interview with them. The concept of a ‘fast-track’ interview involving child complainants in a sexual abuse inquiry has not been encountered before by any of the very experienced counsel in this appeal or by any of the members of the court. Brief notes of the fast-track interviews are contained in the police computer log. B had compiled a handwritten note following his ABE interview and the officer ‘went through’ each point in the note with him, subsequently making a brief summary record on the computer log of what B may have said. Such a process is wholly at odds with the ABE guidance. The record contains the officer’s subjective summary of what the child may have said in response to direct questioning. There is no record of the questions that were asked or of the child’s actual responses. With C the officer ‘went through what C had disclosed to [the foster carer]’; again there is simply a short summary made by the officer of what C may have said.
  2. Mr Tyler’s case is that the fact that the ‘fast-track’ interview took place, without any apparent regard for due process or the potential effect on the ability of the evidence of any of these children to be relied upon in any subsequent criminal proceedings, indicates a need for great caution in placing any reliance on the validity of the earlier process conducted by the same officer(s).

 

(Whilst I haven’t come across “fast-track interviews” taking place AFTER the ABEs, it has become common and in my view sloppy practice, that they happen beforehand, often as a sifting or viability assessment to see if the child will make any disclosures at the ABE.  They are often labelled as Q and A’s. And I think that they are wrong, for all of the reasons above)

  1. However, Mr Tyler has succeeded in demonstrating the following significant departures from recognised good practice by those undertaking the ABE interviews:

c) The children were subsequently seen at their home by the interviewing officer for a process of fast-track questioning.

d) The short summary note of what each child may have said during the fast track process is wholly inadequate.

[We’ll come back to the many other flaws. Again, I wish that the Court of Appeal had condemned the process of police interviewing children either before OR after the ABE process, but one can read between the lines]

Phase one of the interview not being filmed

Phase one is of course a very critical part of the interview – it is where rapport is built, and any observer can see how it established that the child understands things and understands the difference between truth and lies.  I have never heard of this not being filmed before.

Mr William Tyler QC, leading Ms Jennifer Steele who appeared for the appellant before the judge, has identified a number of potential flaws in the ABE process. The first relates to “Phase 1” as described in the ABE guidance in each of the three interviews. “Phase 1” is the preliminary part of the interview in which the interviewer establishes a rapport with the child through the discussion of neutral, non-relevant topics after a preliminary description of the room and the identity of each of those present. Phase 1 should also include a discussion of the “ground rules” and an attempt to establish the degree to which the child understands the importance of telling the truth and the difference between truth and lies. It is apparent that, whatever process was undertaken with each of these three children with respect to the Phase 1 matters, it occurred off camera. The absence of recorded information as to this important early stage is compounded by the fact that no written record was kept of these interviews, as is normally required within the ABE scheme or, if any written record was maintained, it has not been disclosed into the family proceedings. It is therefore plain that the interviewer had some discussion with each child before entering the video suite, but there is no evidence of what was said. Mr Tyler submits that this gap in the evidence is important and can only reduce the potential for a judge to rely upon the answers given by the children in the subsequent stages of each interview which were recorded. 

The Court of Appeal add that to the list of findings about flaws in the ABE process.

a) The introduction and ‘truth and lies’ aspects of Phase One were not undertaken on camera. There is no note or other record of what was said to each child, and the circumstances in which it was said, prior to entering the video suite.

What came across as the purpose of the ABE

  1. Moving on, Mr Tyler submits that each of the three interviews is of a very poor quality in that the interviewing officer, with each child, uses blatantly leading questions during which elements of the narrative, not previously referred to by the child, are introduced. A most striking example of this is at the very start of the taped part of D’s interview, less than one page into the transcript where the officer says:
    1. ‘Okay I think that’s about it for me isn’t it we’ve done the intros. So obviously we know why you’re here today about what we’re going to talk to you about, yes, and I think it’s something you told [foster carer]. Okay can you just tell me, go from the start as much as you can about what’s been happening, do you remember what you told [foster carer], do you remember talking to her last week about something that had been happening with you and your brothers?’

D is unresponsive to this and similar requests, which then leads the interviewer to add:

‘[Foster carer] told us a little bit about what you said last week and it was to do with [Mr E’s first name given] and [incorrect name for A given], do you remember that now?’

This is but one example of the approach to questioning adopted by this interviewer throughout each of the three interviews.

  1. Mr Tyler took us to TW v A City Council [2011] EWCA Civ 17; [2011] 1 FLR 1597 in which this court was highly critical of the ABE process that had been undertaken in that case. At paragraph 52 Sir Nicholas Wall P said:
      1. ‘As we have already pointed out, the [ABE] Guidance makes it clear that the interviewer has to keep an open mind and that the object of the exercise is not simply to get the child to repeat on camera what she has said earlier to somebody else. We regret to say that we are left with the clear impression from the interview that the officer was using it purely for what she perceived to be an evidence gathering exercise and, in particular, to make LR repeat on camera what she had said to her mother. That emphatically is not what ABE interviews are about and we have come to the view that we can place no evidential weight on it.’ [Emphasis in original]

It is a very easy trap to fall into during an ABE interview, which is precisely why there is so much guidance in Achieving Best Evidence, and why it requires specific training to be able to do it properly, and why sloppiness and deviation from the Achieving Best Evidence guidelines is so important. This is classic Cleveland Enquiry stuff.

I am not attacking these individual officers, I think it is a national malaise that Achieving Best Evidence isn’t as integral to the process as it needs to be.  And of course, police officers are fundamentally trained to investigate a crime and get the evidence of it happening. In an ABE, the fact that there may have been no crime and there may be evidence from the children of that, is just as important.

 

The hour-long break in the interview

 

For one of the children, the interview paused in the middle for an hour. When it resumed, the child was substantially more forthcoming. The obvious question is, what EXACTLY happened in the interim?

 

As I have already indicated, the interview with D was interrupted at that point for approximately one hour during which time the child was elsewhere in the police station. On returning to the interview room her demeanour is markedly different from the unresponsive presentation previously demonstrated. Again, no written record has been provided of what transpired during this interval. Mr Tyler submits that the judge should have permitted the police officer to be called to explain events during the missing hour. The only evidence available came from the foster carer who claimed that she said no more to D than “you need to say all the things while you are here, D”.

 

The Court of Appeal accepted this as a significant flaw

b) No note was kept of what transpired with D in the police station during the hour that she was out of the interview room.

 

The Judge’s refusal to call the police officer

 

Given the identified flaws, the Court of Appeal felt that the Judge was wrong to have refused the application by the parents to have the police officer attend Court to give evidence. And of course she made that decision not having seen the ABE interviews themselves.

The absence of information as to the Phase One process, the need to understand from the police officers what, if anything, they had said to D during her one hour absence and the need to understand in greater detail than the computer log provided what occurred during the fast-track interviews, made it necessary, in my view, for the police officer to be called. In the context of an 8 day hearing, the judge’s refusal of the application to call the officer on the basis that it was too late was, on the information given to this court, wrong in the absence of clear evidence that it would not be possible to call the officer at some stage in the hearing (either in person or over a video or telephone link).

 

Judicial analysis of the ABE interviews

  1. The conclusion that I have reached to the effect that it was not open to the judge to hold that the ABE interview material was reliable in the absence of a full and thorough evaluation of the potential impact of the numerous breaches of procedure, renders it unnecessary to undertake a full description of the various criticisms that Mr Tyler makes of the judge’s evaluation of the children’s evidence. The key matters raised are, however, important and are as follows:
    1. a) The judgment opens, after four short introductory paragraphs, with the judge’s summary of the ABE interviews of each child. These summaries, which are not set into any context and are not preceded by any account of what the children are reported as having said when the allegations were initially made to the foster carer, elide description with selective evaluation and then findings.

b) No consideration is given to the potential for the manner in which the allegations were first made to impact upon the reliability of what was subsequently said by the children.

c) In the absence of any direct corroborating evidence, the judge failed to evaluate the various factors which militated against the truth of the allegations.

d) There is a failure to take account of the fact that C had twice made, and later withdrawn, false allegations of sexual abuse against other individuals.

e) The judge wrongly reached the conclusion that the evidence of each child corroborated that of the others. There was inadequate analysis of inconsistencies in the accounts, both internally for each child and between the three children.

  1. Although I consider that there is some validity in each of the grounds of challenge that Mr Tyler has raised, the most significant, in my view, is the first relating to the judge’s analysis of the content of the ABE interviews and the last relating to inconsistencies. I do not propose to say anything more as to the content of the ABE material and I will deal with the point about inconsistency very shortly.
  2. Mr Tyler’s skeleton argument plainly establishes the following propositions on the available evidence:
  1. i) each child gave a different account to that given by his or her siblings;

ii) each child made a number of significant factual allegations to the foster carer which were not repeated in their ABE interviews; and

iii) B effectively made no allegations of sexual abuse in his ABE interview.

  1. The judge’s approach to inconsistencies is seen at paragraph 16 of the judgment:
    1. ‘D’s account is different from her brothers. There are inconsistencies in the accounts between the three children which is said undermines the veracity of the accounts but the very same inconsistencies are also evidence that the children have not colluded or rehearsed their evidence. I am satisfied that this is not a prepared script.

Later, at paragraph 28, she states:

‘There is consistency from all three in the ABE interviews, which, although different, each corroborate different aspects of the primary disclosure.’

Finally, in response to a request for clarification after the draft judgment had been circulated, the judge added:

‘The inconsistencies in the children’s ABE interviews are addressed.’

  1. I am afraid that I consider that the judge’s approach to the many inconsistencies within the children’s accounts falls well short of the level of analysis that this evidence required. Without descending to detail, three short points can be made. Firstly, whilst it is correct that the inconsistencies did not demonstrate that the children were trotting out a script, that observation could not, at a stroke and without more, obviate the need for the judge to evaluate the inconsistencies in more detail. Secondly, it is simply not possible to hold that each child giving a different account in his or her ABE interview in some manner corroborates the account given by one or both of the others. As the judge observed, D’s account in her ABE interview was different to her brothers. B’s ABE interview was effectively devoid of any positive allegation being made at all by him. That is not corroboration. Thirdly, this broad brush and superficial approach to the inconsistencies was carried forward by the judge when making her detailed findings which include a number of specific allegations which were only made by one of the children on one occasion and neither repeated by them subsequently nor supported by a similar account from either of the other two children.

 

 

The children giving oral evidence – the Judge’s decision

 

  1. The question of whether or not any of the children should be called to give live evidence was considered by the judge at the IRH on 3rd November 2015. Prior to that hearing Ms Steele, on behalf of the Appellant, had filed a six page position statement in support of the formal Re W application that had been made on behalf of her client. In her document Ms Steele makes detailed submissions relating to the evidence in these proceedings under the various headings identified by Baroness Hale in Re W and supplemented by guidelines issued by the Family Justice Council Working Party on Children Giving Evidence (set out at [2012] Family Law 79).
  2. The transcript of the hearing on 3rd November 2015 did not become available to the court and the parties until the morning of the oral hearing of this appeal. Prior to that stage each party had referred to the judge giving a very brief judgment prior to dismissing the Re W application. The transcript, however, shows that, in fact, no judgment of any sort was given by the judge on that day. During the course of the ordinary business of the IRH the judge made the following references to the topic:
    1. “[the presence in court of the Guardians in the F Children’s case during the fact finding hearing would enable the Guardians/court]… to keep under review whether or not, for example, if I decided against hearing the evidence from the children, I do not know whether I will or not, I have not decided that, but that might be something which will need to be kept under review, because it is possible that the way the evidence comes out suddenly an issue becomes very, very clear which needs to be resolved factually and it would be therefore helpful to the Court, if the Guardians relevant to all the children were able to give guidance, help, recommendations in respect of whether or not I should for example revisit the decision that I made earlier.” (Transcript page 7).

“Well I think at some point a determination is going to have to be made in respect of the evidence of the children and it is probably better to do that in isolation at an earlier stage…”

Ms Steele relied upon the detailed submissions made in the context of Re W in her position statement. The transcript then continues:

“JUDGE WATSON: Well Ms Steele I am very pleased to see how you have set out it. You have set it out very clearly the concerns and the difficulties and indeed the contradiction in terms of the evidence. What I am struggling to see is how calling the children is actually going to improve his position. All of these matters can be dealt with in a written position statement as you have done, in oral submissions, because the one question that you cannot put to the child witnesses, is, ‘You’re lying aren’t you’.

MS STEELE: I accept that. However, the Local Authority are reliant on the evidence given to a number of different sources of the truthfulness of that.

JUDGE WATSON: Yes.

MS STEELE: My client or me on my client’s behalf have to be able to, in my submission, not put to them that they’re lying but be given the opportunity to put to them the contradictions in their evidence.

JUDGE WATSON: Well I would not allow you to put the contradictions. You have got to bear in mind the age of the children-

MS STEELE: I of course-

JUDGE WATSON: -and their ability to deal with that sort of complex questioning. It is, the type of questioning which the, I am sure you are very familiar with the advocates tool kits and the gateway rules that apply in criminal proceedings that would apply in a case like this, and they set it out very clearly. I have just, for my own benefit, just summarised them as no repetitive questions, short questioning, no need to put the case, no tag questions, no comments. So all of the matters which you have properly put out, set out in this [inaudible], could not be put to the child witnesses.

MS STEELE: What, my understanding is that of course I can try and clarify the evidence they have given. Yes, I can’t put certain things and I fully accept that but I can put to them certain inconsistencies or certainly ask them to clarify which they say is correct. That kind of thing. Excuse me.

JUDGE WATSON: Well and to what end that you have confused the witnesses, that is not going to help the Court in deciding where the veracity in truth is. The truth is by looking at the careful submissions that you have made and weighing those into the balance. I do not necessarily have to accept what a child says on an ABE interview.

MS STEELE: No.

JUDGE WATSON: I need to look robustly at what is said in the light of all the other evidence that I hear.

MS STEELE: My Lady I don’t think there’s very much else that I can add-

JUDGE WATSON: No.

MS STEELE: -with what I’ve already said in there and what I’ve said to you.

JUDGE WATSON: Yes.

MS STEELE: There’s really nothing else I can add.

JUDGE WATSON: No.

MS STEELE: Unless you would like me to attempt to-

JUDGE WATSON: No, I, you have set it out extremely fully and I have very much in mind the need for a fair hearing but unlike in criminal proceedings, where the, it is assumed that children will give evidence. They give their evidence in a very, very truncated way and for example the ABE interview only such elements as are agreed are put before the jury. Whereas I will see the entirety of the ABE, I will see it warts and all if I can use that expression. So I will be much more susceptible to any suggestion that there are contradictions that are unclear, that it is [inaudible], I do not need that to be put to a seven year old or a nine year old or indeed a 14 year old who has the difficulties that B has.”

 

I found the underlined exchange quite extraordinary. Of course a great deal of care needs to be taken in asking questions of a young child and of course a “gloves-off” attack on inconsistencies that just muddles and mixes up the child is going to be abusive and not advance the case, but the judicial suggestion here that this would be counsel’s agenda is extraordinary. Just my personal view.

 

The Court of Appeal’s view

  1. Having considered the transcript of the hearing of 3rd November, Mr Tyler made the following submissions:
    1. a) The judge had not viewed the ABE interviews prior to the IRH and she was therefore not in a position to form a concluded view upon the issue of oral evidence from the children;

b) Despite the detailed submissions made by Ms Steele referring specifically to the various elements identified by Baroness Hale, the judge made no reference to those submissions (save to acknowledge their existence) and did not refer to Re W at all during the hearing;

c) In the circumstances the judge’s consideration of the important question of the children giving evidence was wholly inadequate and could not be supported.

  1. Standing back from the details of this specific case, Mr Tyler submitted that in any case the question of children giving live evidence should only be considered once the judge has viewed the ABE material. He suggested that it may be good practice for a judge to identify at an early stage whether he or she would attach weight to the ABE interviews if they stood alone. He told the court that, in his experience, the culture of the Family Court with respect to oral evidence from children was really unchanged from the position that had existed prior to the Supreme Court decision in Re W. Mr Tyler readily accepted a suggestion made by Macur LJ to the effect that a child’s welfare may in fact require a determination in favour of them giving evidence, notwithstanding any immediate adverse impact on the child from the process of coming to court, where the future placement of the child could depend upon findings of fact to which his or her oral evidence might relate.

 

Note particularly this paragraph of the judgment

 

It is of note that, despite the passage of some six years since the Supreme Court decision in Re W, this court has been told that the previous culture and practice of the family courts remains largely unchanged with the previous presumption against children giving evidence remaining intact. That state of affairs is plainly contrary to the binding decision of the Supreme Court which was that such a presumption is contrary to Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

 

  1. In any case where the issue of children giving oral evidence is raised it is necessary for the court to engage with the factors identified by Baroness Hale in Re W, together with any other factors that are relevant to the particular child or the individual case, before coming to a reasoned and considered conclusion on the issue.
  2. It is crucial that any issue as to a child giving evidence is raised and determined at the earliest stage, and in any event well before the planned trial date. The court will not, however, be in a position to come to a conclusion on that issue unless it has undertaken an evaluation of the evidence which is otherwise available. Where there has been an ABE interview, and the quality and/or content of that interview are to be challenged, it is likely that the judge will have to view the DVD before being in a position to decide the Re W issue.
  3. The court should also have regard to the Working Party of the Family Justice Council Guidelines on the issue of Children Giving Evidence in Family Proceedings issued in December 2011 [2012] Fam Law 79. The Guidelines, which were specifically developed to assist courts following the decision in Re W, contain a list of no less than 21 factors to which the court should have regard when determining whether a child should give oral evidence in the context of the principal objective of achieving a fair trial [paragraph 9(a) to (v)]. The Guidelines require the court to carry out a balancing exercise ‘between the following primary considerations:
    1. i) the possible advantages that the child being called will bring to the determination of truth balanced against;

ii) the possible damage to the child’s welfare from giving evidence i.e. the risk of harm to the child from giving evidence.’

  1. Whilst not all of the elements described by Baroness Hale in Re W or in paragraph 9 of the Guidelines will be relevant in every case, it is plain that the court undertaking a Re W determination will need to engage in a relatively full and sophisticated evaluation of the relevant factors; simply paying lip-service to Re W is not acceptable. By ‘full’ I do not wish to suggest that a lengthy judgment is required, but simply that the judge must consider each of the relevant points with that process recorded in short-form in a judgment. Such a detailed process is in my view justified given the importance of the decision for the welfare of the child and for the fairness of hearing.
  2. It is plainly good practice for the court to be furnished with a written report from the children’s guardian and submissions on behalf of the child before deciding whether that child should be called as a witness. This court understands that it is, however, common-place for guardians to advise that the child should not be called to give evidence on the basis that they will or may suffer emotional harm as a result of doing so. Where such advice is based upon the consideration of harm alone, it is unlikely to be of great assistance to the court which is required to consider not only ‘harm’ but also the other side of the balance described in the Guidelines, namely the possible advantages that the child’s testimony will bring to the determination of truth.
  3. Part of any consideration of the overall welfare of a child must be that decisions as to his or her future, or the future of other children, are based, so far as is possible, upon a true understanding of important past events. Whilst the process of giving oral evidence in relation to allegations of past harmful experiences will almost always be an unwelcome one for any child, and for some that process itself may be positively harmful, those negative factors, to which full and proper weight should be given, are but one half of the balancing equation. In some cases, despite the negative factors, it may nevertheless be in accordance with the wider welfare interests of the child for him or her to be called to give evidence. Each case will be different, but even where the child may suffer some emotional harm from the process, if such harm is likely to be temporary and where the quality and potential reliability of the other evidence in the case is weak, it may (in addition to any fair trial issues) nevertheless be in the child’s best interests to give oral evidence. If the ABE interview process is poor, and there is little or no other evidence, then it may be that no findings of fact in accordance with allegations made by a child can properly be made unless the child is called to give evidence. The Re W exercise must plainly take account of such a situation.
  4. The observations made in the previous paragraph are intended only to make the point there made; they are not intended to establish any new test or template for decision making over and above what is said in Re W and the Guidelines to which recourse should be had as a matter of routine in every case where there is a Re W application.
  5. Turning to the present appeal, it is unfortunately plain that the consideration given to the Appellant’s Re W application by the judge fell well short of what was required. I have set out the relevant passages from the transcript in full (paragraph 50 above). No formal judgment was given. At no stage in the hearing did the judge even refer to the factors set out by Baroness Hale in Re W or to those listed in the Guidelines.
  6. It is of concern that the judge suggested, during submissions, that the court, assisted by the guardians, would keep the issue of oral evidence under review during the main hearing itself. The question of whether or not a child is to give oral evidence should be determined well in advance of the hearing at which she or he may be called. To contemplate deciding, at a later stage and once the hearing itself has started, to call them is likely to increase the potential for the process to impact upon the child in a harmful manner and would allow little or no time to prepare the child and those caring for them.

 

 

Child’s article 6 rights

 

In this case, one of the children, A was 15 although with some learning difficulties – he was not capable of instructing a solicitor and was so represented by the Guardian and the child’s solicitor. When the Guardian and solicitor met with him, the allegations were discussed. The Judge directed that a note of those discussions be filed and served.

  1. A has never made any allegation of sexual abuse against his father or of being incited or encouraged by his father to abuse others. He did not admit that he had himself committed any act of sexual abuse on others. On 29th May 2015 he was interviewed by the police. This was not an ABE interview, but an interview under caution which took place after he had been arrested on suspicion of having committed rape. The interview lasted for one hour. A engaged with the process throughout by answering factual questions. When sexual allegations were put to him he was clear and plain in his complete denial of being involved in any sexual behaviour. An audio recording of this interview is apparently available, but no party invited the judge to listen to it.
  2. On 27th October A’s social worker visited him in order to ascertain his ‘wishes and feelings in respect of the upcoming fact finding hearing’. The social worker’s statement records that A asked what a fact finding hearing was and that she explained that the allegations that had been made against him and his parents would be put to the judge, along with other matters that concerned the local authority. She states, ‘A nodded as I spoke, suggesting that he understood’. He was then told that the judge would consider the evidence and make a decision on the likelihood of the allegations being true or not. A’s question following this explanation was about the options for his placement in the event that the allegations were found proved or not proved. The social worker records that when she explained that if no facts were proved she would work with A and his parents to determine how best to move him back home at a pace that he was comfortable with, ‘again A acknowledged this and nodded as I spoke’.
  3. The social worker went on to record that she discussed the allegations that had been made against A and that throughout this discussion he maintained eye contact with her and had open body language. When she explained to A that, with regard to allegations made by D against him, there were only two people who are aware of what, if anything, took place, ‘A nodded at this statement, however did not offer any discussion around this.’ When the social worker asked if A had ever seen behaviour such as that which had been alleged, A’s body language was said to change in that he responded with short answers and began to fidget with his hands, he was, however, still engaging with the conversation. A worker from the unit then joined the conversation and, after trying to explain to A what ‘learned behaviour’ was, he asked A if ‘there was anything he wanted to share at this point’ to which A replied ‘not right now’. When asked whether he might do so later, A said ‘yes, I think so’.
  4. On the 2nd November 2015 A’s CAFCASS guardian and his solicitor visited him in the unit in which he is now accommodated. On the day following the visit HHJ Watson made an order requiring the guardian to file a statement setting out what had occurred during that visit. The guardian complied with that direction by filing a statement on 8th November in which she described meeting A (together with his solicitor and a worker from the unit, ‘G’). A was told by his solicitor that the purpose of the visit was to meet him in order to go through the evidence that had been filed against him. It is not clear whether or not A was told that the meeting was or was not confidential on the usual solicitor/client basis. The statement describes A being given a broad description of the material that had been filed with the court and it records that A either remained silent or gave monosyllabic answers to any questions put to him.
  5. The statement goes on to state that the solicitor explained to A that only A knew if anything sexual had happened involving him and that the solicitor and guardian needed a ‘steer’ from A as to whether there had been anything sexually inappropriate which had happened to him in the past or not. A did not respond to this request and the statement describes time passing with breaks for tea and others matters being discussed before continuing:
    1. “I then suggested that A had a further break and suggested a simple YES (indicating there had been sexually inappropriate behaviour involving A) or NO (there had not). I wrote the two words on a piece of A4 paper and left the room.

When I returned A and G had gone for a further break. They later returned with the A4 paper folded in half. On opening the paper, the word YES was ticked. …

G then explained that A sat with him on a bench outside during the break. G felt that A was so tense that he was physically unable to take the pen and make the mark himself. G held the pen above one answer and then the other and asked A which answer A wanted G to tick. A indicated YES and G ticked it.

[Solicitor] and I did not question A or G further. G stated he would inform A’s key worker when he took over at 3pm.

I was aware that A’s information would be disclosed to his parents on 3.11.15. A was due to have contact on 5.11.15. I agreed to phone the unit later to inform them that Mr and Mrs E will be aware of events following court on 3.11.15. …”

 

The Court of Appeal point out that A had legal professional privilege relating to that visit and had not been asked to waive it. His lawyer was present, rather than just the Guardian.

 

  1. The first relates to the professional responsibilities of A’s solicitor and guardian during the process of trying to obtain his instructions on the allegations that were to be made against him in the proceedings. A, as a party to the proceedings who is represented by his own solicitor, must be entitled to the same protection afforded to all other individuals who undertake communications with their lawyers. No suggestion was made in the hearing of this appeal that any different standard or approach should be taken to A either because he is a child or because he may lack the capacity to instruct his solicitor directly. The importance of legal professional privilege was plainly stated by Lord Taylor in the House of Lords decision of R v Derby Magistrates’ Court, ex parte B [1996] AC 487:
    1. ‘The principle which runs through all these cases, and the many other cases which were cited, is that a man must be able to consult his lawyer in confidence, since otherwise he might hold back half the truth. The client must be sure that what he tells his lawyer in confidence will never be revealed without his consent. Legal professional privilege is thus much more than an ordinary rule of evidence, limited in its application to the facts of a particular case. It is a fundamental condition on which the administration of justice as a whole rests.’
  2. The express purpose of A’s solicitor and guardian visiting him on 2nd November was to go through the evidence against him for the purposes of the forthcoming hearing. It is not apparent from the guardian’s statement or any other material that we have seen that the question of legal professional privilege was considered or discussed with A. The following day the fact that the visit had occurred was made known to the court and the judge directed the guardian to file a statement giving an account of it. There is no indication that that direction was contested or that the solicitor and guardian expressly purported to waive A’s legal professional privilege on his behalf. At the hearing of this appeal Miss Meyer did not argue that the issue had been addressed at all. The result was that the full details of A’s meeting with his solicitor to discuss these allegations, such as it was, became fully known to the court. In the event A had said very little of note during this meeting, but in another case the situation may be very different. It is obviously most important that, in the case of a vulnerable young person, those who are instructed to act on his behalf where he or she is facing serious factual allegations are utterly clear as to their professional responsibilities and astute to ensure that their young client’s rights are properly acknowledged and protected.

 

[This all VERY important for children’s solicitors]  The Court of Appeal actually found that A’s article 6 rights had been breached by this procedure.

 

Obviously with all of these flaws, the findings were overturned, and the case sent back for re-hearing.

  1. In conclusion, I am satisfied that this appeal must succeed on the following broad bases:
  1. i) The judgment wholly fails to acknowledge and then analyse the numerous and substantial deviations from good or acceptable practice which are evident at every stage of the police interaction with the three complainant children, both during the ABE interviews and by undertaking the ‘fast-track’ interviews thereafter.

ii) The application for the police officer to be called to give oral evidence should not have been refused (unless, on investigation, it was impossible to call the officer at any stage and on any basis during the hearing).

iii) The judge’s analysis of the children’s evidence is open to the valid criticisms made in support of the appeal. In particular the judge’s approach to, and use of, the inconsistencies within the evidence of the three children fell well short of what was required.

iv) The judicial analysis of the formal and properly presented Re W application made by the appellant was so wholly inadequate and, in effect, simply was not undertaken. This, of itself, is an error of sufficient materiality to justify setting the fact finding decision aside.

v) A’s right under ECHR, Article 6 to a fair trial and his right to the protection of legal professional privilege were breached to a substantial degree.

vi) The judge’s analysis of the evidence of what A had said, together with his presentation, when being invited to address sexual matters was both confused and inadequate. There is a real risk that every aspect of what is recorded by the social worker, guardian and key worker in October, November and December 2015 relates entirely to his complaint of abuse by two uncles five years earlier. The potential for that to be the case was not taken into account by the judge and, in any event, the judge wrongly conflated evidence about that past abuse with the entirely separate recent allegations at a number of stages in her judgment.

Given that all of the police investigations came up with no corroborative evidence and the case was based almost entirely on the children’s allegations and the ABE interviews, the LA will have an uphill struggle at that re-hearing.

Something something oranges something part 2

 

You may recall the recent Holman J case in which a 16 year old subject of care proceedings had told the social worker and Guardian something personal which he did not want his parents to know, and the social worker and Guardian were divided as to whether this was something which could legitimately be kept from the parents

 

Something something oranges something

The application, this time with the parents represented, was decided by Mrs Justice Roberts.

Local Authority X v HI and Others 2016

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/1123.html

It raises some interesting questions.

The Court was aware of what the information was, as were the social worker and the Guardian. The mother and father did not know what it was. All of the barristers knew the information, having agreed (upon instructions from their clients) that they would know it but not share it with them.  It is almost impossible to fathom what the parents counsel were supposed to do if the parents were making guesses as to what it might be – save for just being plummy and saying “I can’t indulge in speculation”

The parents, who were the only people in the room who didn’t know what their son’s personal information was,  really then had to work on the basis of Holman J’s categorisation of the information

  1. As to the substance of the information which I has shared, it was described by Holman J in an earlier judgment[1] in this way:-
    1. “Relatively recently, the child concerned imparted some information to a social worker, which he has repeated also to the guardian. I stress that the information does not relate or pertain at all to either of his parents or his stepmother, but relates and pertains essentially to himself. Nothing in the information is in any way critical of anything done or not done, or said or not said, by either of his parents or his stepmother. The child himself has said very strongly that he does not wish either of his parents or his stepmother to know the information in question. The guardian considers that that confidentiality should be respected and that the information should not be disclosed or revealed to either of the parents or the stepmother. The local authority are very mindful and respectful of the confidentiality of a 15-year old child who is in their care, They do not consider that, realistically and objectively, the information could or should affect any issue at the forthcoming final hearing of the care proceedings. But they do consider that if one or other or both parents did know the information, one or other or both of them might wish to seek to deploy it in some way as part of their case in the care proceedings.” (The emphasis is mine.)

The argument came into these two camps

A) The Guardian arguing that just as a doctor has a duty of confidentiality to a young person who has capacity (see Gillick) so do a social worker and Guardian have a similar duty if a young capacitous person tells them something and says that they want it to go no further.  (also relying on the  PD v SD, JD and X County Council [2015] EWHC 4103 (Fam).  which was the young person who wanted to undergo gender reassignment and did not want his adoptive parents to have any detailed information)

Thus, on the Guardian’s case as advanced by Dr Bainham, the duty of confidentiality which was found to exist as between a Gillick competent child and a doctor or other medical professional advising on, or offering, medical treatment would necessarily be extended so as to cover social workers and other professionals engaged with the young person concerned.

B) The Local Authority and the parents arguing that that was correct IF the case was not in Court, but once there were Court proceedings, the Article 6 right to fair trail would outweigh such a right to confidentiality, unless there were compelling circumstances.

  1. Specific guidance in relation to the obligations on a local authority in care proceedings was provided by Lord Mustill in the leading case of Re D (Minors)(Adoption Reports: Confidentiality) [1996] AC 593. At page 615 D to H, his Lordship set out five principles with which the members of the full court were in agreement.
    1. “1. It is a fundamental principle of fairness that a party is entitled to the disclosure of all materials which may be taken into account by the court when reaching a decision adverse to that party. This principle applies with particular force to proceedings designed to lead to an order for adoption, since the consequences of such an order are so lasting and far-reaching.

2. When deciding whether to direct that notwithstanding rule 53(2) of the Adoption Rules 1984 a party referred to in a confidential report supplied by an adoption agency, a local authority, a reporting officer or a guardian ad litem shall not be entitled to inspect the part of the report which refers to him or her, the court should first consider whether disclosure of the material would involve a real possibility of significant harm to the child.

3. If it would, the court should next consider whether the overall interests of the child would benefit from non-disclosure, weighing on the one hand the interest of the child in having the material properly tested, and on the other both the magnitude of the risk that harm will occur and the gravity of the harm if it does occur.

4. If the court is satisfied that the interests of the child point towards non-disclosure, the next and final step is for the court to weigh that consideration, and its strength in the circumstances of the case, against the interest of the parent or other party in having an opportunity to see and respond to the material. In the latter regard the court should take into account the importance of the material to the issues in the case.

5. Non-disclosure should be the exception and not the rule. The court should be rigorous in its examination of the risk and gravity of the feared harm to the child, and should order non-disclosure only when the case for doing so is compelling.”

 

Obviously an important issue to resolve – young people do tell social workers and Guardians things, and sometimes they would prefer that their parents did not know. If the Guardian is right here that the approach should be in line with Gillick, then the decision would be made by the individual social worker and Guardian, and if not, the decision would be made by the Court, with non-disclosure being the exception and not the rule.

 

In the context of the present application, it is important to state that the information in respect of which I seeks to maintain privacy is not information which will have a bearing on any evaluation undertaken by the court in relation to the issue of whether or not the care which the second and fourth respondents have given, or may give in future, to I is likely to cause him to suffer significant harm such as to justify the making of a final care order. In my judgment, it will have no bearing whatsoever on any judicial investigation into the quality of the care they have provided in the past or the care they are likely to offer to I in the future in terms of the sort of care it would be reasonable to expect a parent to provide. Further, the local authority accepts that the information has not, and will not, affect or influence their decision-making for I in terms of the final care plan which is now before the court.

 

It would be very difficult to withhold from the parents information which went to whether a particular allegation in the case was true or false, or where the child was expressing a view about where his future home should be, but in this case, the Court was saying that the information was personal and not something that would have any bearing on the outcome of the case.

Father’s counsel disagreed,

  1. In his written skeleton (para 117), Mr Day on behalf of I’s father says that his client wishes to utilise the material at the forthcoming final hearing. He raises concerns that I “will become involved [in] gang culture and criminality and that corporate care will not be in his best interests. The sensitive information very much supports and grounds that contention and is required for there to be a fair trial.”
  2. With respect to Mr Day (who knows the nature of the confidential information), I can see no correlation at all between the information which I has imparted and the likelihood of his becoming involved in gang culture or the sort of criminality which is sometimes associated with such involvement or membership. The link between the two is not even tenuous in my judgment. Furthermore, the statement of intent to use the information at the forthcoming trial is made in an evidential vacuum. As matters stand, I’s father does not know anything about the information and he will not know unless and until the court authorises its disclosure. Mr Day seeks to widen the ambit of his assault on confidentiality by asserting that the material is relevant to that part of his client’s case which relates to an allegation that the local authority will not provide appropriate care for I if a final order is made. It seems to me that this is a matter for the trial judge who will be responsible for scrutinising with the utmost care the final plan advanced by the local authority.

 

What was the right test? And was the information relevant?  The Judge decided this

 

Analysis and Discussion

  1. The local authority was absolutely right to make this application. In my judgment, Holman J was also absolutely right to rule that the matter must come back to be dealt with on notice to the respondents.
  2. In terms of the correct approach to the issue of disclosure, I do not accept that I can consider issues flowing from I’s ‘personal autonomy’ in a vacuum. In my judgment, Mr Day is correct on this point. Gillick and Axon were both cases which did not involve any consideration of the engagement of Article 6 rights. In each, the applicant was seeking declaratory relief but no more. In this case, both Article 6 and Article 8 rights are engaged and accordingly the Re D test must form a part of the overall balancing exercise which I have to perform. However, it seems to me that the principles to emerge from Gillick and Axon become relevant at the stage of the balancing exercise where judicial focus is on the welfare of the child or young person. Respect for his or her views and the consequences of overriding those views where they are genuinely and strongly held must, in my judgment, form part of those welfare considerations.
  3. Dr Bainham makes the valid point on behalf of the Guardian that if Gillick principles are not accorded priority, any ‘looked after’ child in these circumstances would be at a disadvantage since his views would be accorded less respect because of the fact that he is at the centre of contested care proceedings. Whilst I can see the force of that submission, it does not in my judgment mean that I can disregard the equally important considerations which flow from the engagement of the respondents’ Article 6 rights. I’s views are important. They are entitled to considerable respect but they are one aspect of the overall balance which has to be achieved in this case. In my judgment, they are not determinative of outcome. Further, the fact that neither of his parents is currently exercising day to day parental care for I does not dilute the parental responsibility which they currently share with the local authority.
  4. The first question which must be addressed is that of relevance. Nothing which was said by I impinges upon, or affects in any way, the local authority’s case in relation to the respondents’ allegedly deficient parenting. On behalf of the local authority, Mr Krumins submits that it is important to distinguish in this context between the relevance of the information and the weight which can properly be attached to it. In relation to relevance, he contends that the threshold is low. Nevertheless, he concedes that the information is unlikely to assist the trial judge and will ultimately make no difference to outcome. I bear in mind the observation of Thorpe LJ in Re M (Disclosure) that if there is anything within the local authority’s care plan which gives rise to concerns, that may well be adverse to the respondents’ case should disclosure be withheld. However, where the principal challenge to, and defence of, the care proceedings amounts to a denial by the second and fourth respondents of the poor parenting which gives rise to the perceived risk of significant harm to I, it is difficult to see how a care plan which involves removal from that harmful environment can be said to raise independent concerns. That will be the central issue for the trial judge to determine.
  5. I have significant concerns about whether or not the information for which protection is sought is truly relevant to these proceedings. Whatever subjective views Mr Day may seek to advance on behalf of I’s father, it is difficult to see how any objective analysis of the information could lead to the conclusion that it has any relevance to the issues to be determined later this month. However, for the purposes of my judgment and on the basis that Mr Day is right and it has some tangential (or greater) relevance, I must go on to apply the balancing test set out in Re D.

 

Having decided to approach the matter on the Re D principles, the Judge went on to consider whether disclosure would present some risk of significant harm to the child

 

  1. Thus, the next question to be answered is whether disclosure of this information would involve a real possibility of significant harm to I.
  2. The Guardian and the local authority are not agreed on this aspect of the case. The local authority accepts that disclosure would be likely to expose I to an awkward and embarrassing situation, but no more. Within the material which has been put before the court is a statement prepared by a social worker on behalf of the local authority. It is dated 8 April 2016. In that statement, the social worker, AB, expresses the view that I may be embarrassed or ashamed as a result of disclosure. However, she acknowledges, too, that he may in future be reluctant to share information with professionals if the information is revealed to his parents against his wishes. Her statement also raises an issue as to whether what he said was true in any event.
  3. The concerns of the social worker find strong reflection in the Guardian’s evidence. She tells me that, knowing what she does about I’s father and step-mother, she believes neither ‘would … be able to respond to the information in a child-centred way at all, and that this could have emotionally devastating consequences for [I]’. She sets out in her evidence a report which she had received from a colleague who was present at a recent LAC review which was attended by I’s father and step-mother. One of the issues for discussion on that occasion was their willingness to engage in some work with an appropriate professional in order to assist their understanding of I’s needs. Their presentation on that occasion was said to be “extremely oppositional, even in [I’s] presence”. The report which emanated from that meeting is recorded in the body of the Guardian’s statement in this way.
    1. “It was appalling … [I’s father] totally took over, attempting to intimidate the professionals, leading to … [I] putting on the hood of his jacket and pressing his forehead onto the table in what appeared to be a combination of anxiety, frustration and sheer embarrassment. His wife [I’s step-mother] then started a wholly inappropriate and crass attack on the social worker – how can she do the job at her age, not having children. Basically, following father’s continued ranting and finger-pointing at me, I had no choice but to prematurely bring the review to an end. I’m far from convinced that the LA should be promoting contact for [I] with them. Before there can/should be any relationship work undertaken, perhaps father in particular should be advised to see his GP regarding having anger management and/or counselling. He certainly won’t be invited to the next review unless he makes some radical changes.”
  4. The Guardian expresses her very real concerns that the good relationship which I has managed to establish with his social worker and foster carer may be damaged by disclosure of the information which he wishes to keep private. Those relationships are important to him because they enable him to confide in these professional carers and, in turn, to receive appropriate support and guidance. To override his express wishes may undermine his trust in professionals making it difficult for them to offer the level of help and support from which he has so clearly benefitted to date. This would be entirely counter-productive and inimical to his best interests. She has no confidence in either the father’s or step-mother’s ability to respond appropriately or sensitively to something which I regards as a personal and embarrassing episode and she regards the prospects of disclosure as being ‘highly detrimental’ to his welfare.
  5. Thus, it seems to be common ground that disclosure to the parents will cause I emotional upset and some distress. The disagreement centres on the level of emotional harm and whether or not this is likely to be “significant”.
  6. On behalf of the father, Mr Day submits that “the worst reaction could be that the father is dismayed, disappointed and at worst may remonstrate with his son”. On behalf of I’s step-mother, Mr Fletcher reminds me that I has been told by his social worker that it is not possible for her to provide him with a guarantee that anything he tells her will remain private as between them. He points to the absence of any direct statements by I himself as to his fear of his parents’ reaction. He invites me to consider whether any perceived harm could be mitigated by putting in place safeguards so as to ensure that I was protected from any such reaction from his father and step-mother as that anticipated by the Guardian.
  7. I have to bear in mind that I is a very vulnerable young man. He is not yet 16 years old and has already been the subject of two separate sets of care proceedings. He has been found to have suffered neglectful and abusive parenting at the hands of his mother. His experience of life was fractured when he left his home with her to live in a completely different part of the country with his father and step-mother. His unhappiness and distress in that placement is reflected in his attempts to abscond and his absolute resistance to any return to that household and any form of continuing relationship with his father and/or his present wife. Whilst I accept that it is an untested account, I regard the record of what transpired at the recent LAC review as providing a valuable insight into what I is likely to be experiencing at the present time in terms of the conflict which appears to exist between his family and the professionals who are currently caring for him. The picture of I which emerges from the record of that meeting is one of a young man who has few, if any, coping strategies for dealing with that conflict. I do not accept that the absence of a specific reference by I to fear of his father’s reaction should lead me to a conclusion that he has no such fear. On behalf of the mother, Miss Bartholomew supports the Guardian’s position that there is a real risk of further significant harm to I in the event of disclosure. She records in her written submissions the mother’s historic and ongoing concerns about the aggressive and inflexible behaviour demonstrated by his father. She is concerned that his reaction to the information may well place I at risk of significant harm.
  8. In my judgment, whether one applies the label of “significant” or “real” harm to the question, there is indeed a real possibility of significant and detrimental harm to I if this information is disclosed. In his evidence in response to the local authority’s case, I’s father has denied entirely that his son is suffering, or has suffered, from any significant emotional harm. He accepts that he has shouted at I but justifies this on the basis that, “If you don’t stand up as a parent, the children are going to walk on you”. It is said that he referred to I in highly derogatory terms because of his educational difficulties. He does not admit using any such inflammatory terms but still refers to I in his statement as “this little boy”. I am satisfied that there is a clear risk that the consequences of disclosure of this material may well result in I’s disengagement from the professionals who have provided him with guidance and support since his reception into care. He has been damaged by his experience of family life in recent years and findings in relation to threshold have already been made in the context of the interim care order which sanctioned his removal from his father’s home. If his current support structure were to be put at risk for any reason, he may well withdraw and internalise issues thereby putting his happiness and future wellbeing at significant risk.
  9. I bear in mind, too, that whether or not the trial judge makes a final care order at the conclusion of these proceedings later this month, any prospect of repairing the relationship between I and his father will inevitably have to involve some form of therapeutic input from an appropriate professional or professionals. In this respect, it is essential that I believes that he can repose trust and confidence in those professionals and the care and support they will be providing. It would be harmful to him, and significantly so, if the chance to restore some form of relationship between parent and son in future were jeopardised because of a disclosure now of information which he regards as confidential.

 

The next step was to balance the article 6 rights and article 8 rights.

 

  1. In these circumstances, the final step is to weigh the interests of the respondents in having the opportunity to see and respond to the material. This involves a rigorous consideration of the engagement of their Article 6 and Article 8 rights.
  2. Given what I have already said in my judgment, I can dispose of the issue in relation to their Article 8 rights in fairly short order. These rights, whilst engaged, cannot take precedence over I’s Article 8 rights and he is clearly expressing a wish for no communication with his father or step-mother at the present time. As Yousef makes clear, the child’s rights are the paramount consideration in any balancing of competing Article 8 rights.
  3. As to the respondents’ Article 6 rights, the relevance of the information to outcome has already been addressed. In my judgment, it is of tangential or minimally indirect relevance at its highest and is completely irrelevant at its lowest. The local authority accepts that it will not impact upon outcome or future planning for I. The respondents’ rights to a fair trial are, of course, absolute but, as Lady Justice Hale acknowledged in Re X, in deciding how to conduct a fair trial, it is perfectly reasonable to take account of the facts and circumstances of the particular case with which the court is dealing. The concept of a fair trial is inviolable but the content (including the evidence) which is placed before the court is flexible and depends upon context and the issues with which the court is dealing. Whilst I accept that any departure from the usual requirements in relation to the disclosure of evidence in an adversarial trial must be for a legitimate aim and proportionate to that aim, the Court of Appeal has held that protecting the welfare of vulnerable young persons is a specific and undoubtedly a legitimate aim.
  4. In my judgment, the harm which would be caused by disclosure of information which has very little, if any, relevance to the issues which need to be determined by the court would be wholly disproportionate to any legitimate forensic purposes served. I am entirely satisfied that depriving the respondents of the opportunity to have this information will not deny to any of them a fair trial. Disclosure would, however, be a breach of I’s Article 8 rights.
  5. Considering all these matters in the round, I have reached the clear conclusion that the case for non-disclosure of the information which is the subject of the Guardian’s current application is compelling. The circumstances of this case, looked at in the round, do make it exceptional and I regard it as entirely necessary that I’s confidence and privacy in this information is maintained. I cannot overlook the fact that, as a Gillick competent young person, he has expressed in the clearest terms his wish that the family should not have access to the information. Those wishes deserve the court’s respect, albeit in the context of the overall balancing exercise which I have conducted

 

This particular passage has some broader significance – the right to a fair trial does not mean that a person gets to run the case exactly as they please, the Court controls the content and nature of the hearing whilst still having the duty to secure that the trial is FAIR

 

The concept of a fair trial is inviolable but the content (including the evidence) which is placed before the court is flexible and depends upon context and the issues with which the court is dealing

 

Finally, the Judge recognised that the parents knowing that something was being kept from them (even if most of us can guess what it might be) was difficult

 

Finally, I would conclude by echoing the words of Holman J which are exquisitely apt in this case. I, too, am deeply conscious that whenever disclosure issues of this kind arise, there is inevitably a problem once parents or other interested respondents are put on notice that there exists some information in respect of which the court has supported an application for non-disclosure. As Holman J observed, ‘”conspiracy theory” and imaginings may inevitably take over’. The parents and step-mother may well be concerned that the information is graver than it actually is. I would hope to reassure them by my finding in relation to the likely relevance of the information to the issues which are at stake.

The ‘evidence of domestic violence within 2 years’ Regulation found unlawful

I am struggling to think of a piece of legislation that has had as many successful challenges to the legality of Regulations issued under it as the much-beloved LASPO  (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Prosecution of Offencers Act 2012)

The particular Regulations here are Regulation 33 of the Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) Regulations 2012

LASPO sets out that being a victim of domestic violence can be a reason for the provision of free legal representation.  The sense of this is that where someone has been the victim of domestic violence, it would be abusive and damaging for the State to make them face the perpetrator in Court without a lawyer to represent them.  [Note that this provision still only applies within financial limits – below a specified income and capital the State should pay for that, above that and the individual would have to pay for it themselves, regardless of whether the legal representation is actually genuinely affordable on that income]

There is, of course, an entirely separate debate about whether someone who is accused of perpetrating domestic violence should be entitled to free legal representation to defend the allegations (at least until the Court has determined the truth of the allegations), but that’s beyond the scope of this case.  [For my part, I think that LASPO should have provided for that, but it doesn’t]

Regulation 33 sets out that in order to show that you are a victim of domestic violence, you need some documentary evidence of that to get legal aid, and that the evidence must be within the last 24 months.

This 24 month rule was challenged.  [Note that although the application was brought by a group lobbying for women’s rights, men of course can also be the victims of domestic violence and abuse, and this case applies to men as well]

Rights of Women, R (on the application of) v The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice [2016] EWCA Civ 91

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2016/91.html

 

Whilst the judgment is fairly long and involves some rather nuanced discussions about Padfield unfairness versus Wednesbury unreasonableness, the case can be condensed into these short passages

 

  1. Ms Lieven submitted that the evidence shows (as practitioners in the Family Division know from their own experience) that there are many situations in which victims of domestic violence find themselves at the receiving end of legal proceedings not merely more than 24 months after incidents of domestic violence have occurred but more than 24 months after it is practical to obtain the kind of verification required by regulation 33. Examples of such cases are:-

    i) the perpetrator may have been in prison; once he (it is almost always he) is released, he may initiate proceedings for child contact or divorce and financial settlement; regulation 33(2)(a) can only be relied on if the conviction preceding the prison sentence is a relevant conviction for a domestic violence offence and if it is unspent; if the sentence is a fine or a community order, the conviction will be spent after only 12 months from the date of conviction or from the last day the order is to have effect;ii) there may have been a non-molestation order (or other form of injunction) which has kept the parties apart for 2 years but has expired before legal proceedings are begun;

    iii) a similar period of separation may have occurred for other reasons such as the receipt of a police caution or other police involvement; criminal proceedings may have been instituted which do not result in a conviction; such non-convictions occur for many reasons other than that the alleged perpetrator is innocent;

    iv) there is no time limit for the initiation of proceedings for child contact; a refusal of child contact does not prevent a re-initiation of proceedings which can therefore be served again on the victim of domestic abuse after the expiry of the two year period. Additionally, the court can direct, pursuant to section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989, that no such proceedings shall be begun without permission of the court for a period until the expiry of the two year period in which domestic abuse could be verified in accordance with the Regulations; if the Court also directs that any application for permission is not to be served on the respondent, a victim of domestic abuse may receive no notice of prospective proceedings within the relevant period in which she may otherwise take steps to obtain verification;

    v) The main priority of any victim of domestic violence will be to make immediate arrangements for her personal safety and that of her children; this may take a considerable time particularly if the abuse was prolonged or the marriage was originally a forced one; any proceedings sought to be brought by the victim for divorce or financial relief may well be more than 24 months after any practical ability to obtain verification has passed;

    vi) although the definition of domestic violence extends beyond physical abuse to psychological or emotional abuse, the verifications required by regulation 33 are much more easily satisfied where there has been physical abuse than where there has been psychological or emotional abuse. This means that even though signs of psychological or emotional abuse may persist longer than sign of physical abuse, there is considerable difficulty for the victim in obtaining the necessary verification after any lapse of time; and

    vii) victims of financial abuse will not be able to obtain any of the verifications required by regulation 33 at all. (The only answer Mr Sheldon could give to this last point was the inadequate one that victims of financial abuse could always be expected to show evidence of psychological abuse).

  2. This is a formidable catalogue of areas of domestic violence not reached by a statute whose purpose is to reach just such cases. But does it go so far as to show that the 24 month requirement has no rational connection with the statutory purpose?
  3. In my judgment it does. There is, as Ms Lieven submits, no obvious correlation between the passage of such a comparatively short period of time as 24 months and the harm to the victim of domestic violence disappearing or even significantly diminishing. No doubt the 24 month requirement serves the purposes of the statute as the Divisional Court considered them to be but as I have said those purposes are not the only purposes of the statute. Once it is accepted that part of the statutory purpose is to ensure that legal aid is available to (at any rate the great majority of) sufferers from domestic violence, one has to ask why it is that so many of them are excluded by virtue of the 24 month rule. Mr Parsons’ assertion that “the time limit provides a test of the on-going relevance of the abuse” does not justify the many excluded instances or the lack of any opportunity for victims of domestic violence to explain why it would be unjust to apply the time limit to their particular case. It operates in a completely arbitrary manner

 

And then

 

I would therefore allow this appeal and, subject to any further argument about the detail of the form of order, in principle declare that regulation 33 is invalid insofar as it

a) requires verifications of domestic violence to be given within a 24 month period before any application for legal aid; and

b) does not cater for victims of domestic violence who have suffered from financial abuse.

A cynical person might say about LASPO that Parliament when considering this Act were rightly very troubled by the original legislation and the lack of protection for certain vulnerable groups, which was why some safeguards were inserted into the final version of the Act, and that the Legal Aid Agency and Ministry of Justice have systematically attempted to erode those safeguards by Regulations (which have been successfully challenged) and guidance on implementation (which has also been successfully challenged).

In effect, Parliament agreed to trade in the car that they owned for a greatly inferior but still safe model to save cash, and agreed to let the Minister have a copy of the car keys, in case he or she needed to tune up the car or valet the inside at any time (the power to make Regulations).

 Then the Minister snuck off in the night, used the keys and removed the brakes, seatbelts, speedometer, and airbags that would make the inferior car still safe to drive.

The Courts have ordered these safety measures to be reinstalled. But so far, each individual bit of ministerial pilfering has had to be dealt with one at a time. I hope that MPs are keeping up to date with the bad-faith approach to LASPO and will approach any future legislation with a much more cynical eye on giving Ministers the car keys in the future.

Can you compel a child to give evidence?

 

The Court of Appeal in Re S (children) 2016 consider this point of law, and whilst they say that they are explicitly not ruling on it, they do give the answer

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2016/83.html

During the appeal hearing, the question arose as to whether the judge could have compelled K to give evidence if she remained unwilling to do so. I am grateful to counsel for efficiently providing an agreed note of the legal position immediately following the hearing. As that note recognised, the question of whether a court can/should use its powers to issue a witness summons in relation to a reluctant child in family proceedings has not been considered by the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court since the Supreme Court’s decision in Re W (supra). The present case was not one in which we needed to hear oral argument on the subject and I would not wish to be thought to be expressing any view about it. However, it may be helpful to record that counsel agreed that a competent child is a compellable witness in civil proceedings and that a witness summons could have been issued under section 31G of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 if appropriate. Theoretically, the penalties for failing to attend in answer to a witness summons are committal to custody and/or a fine. However, there can be no detention for contempt of a person under the age of 18, see sections 89 and 108 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000.

 

So

  1. If the child is competent  (rule of thumb here is going to be functioning at about the level of an average 13 year old, but there may be other factors which make an older child not competent or a younger one competent), then they are a compellable witness.
  2. A compellable witness can be made to attend Court to give evidence under a witness summons
  3. The protection against self-incrimination in s98 Children Act 1989  doesn’t apply to a child – so they would have to be warned about the risk of possible criminal proceedings arising from their evidence.
  4. However, the punishment for a person not obeying a witness summons (i.e what you do if they don’t turn up) are imprisonment or a fine.
  5. You can’t imprison a witness under 18 for not obeying a witness summons.
  6. That leaves you with a fine.  Unless the child witness is Richie Rich or Mustafa Millions, that doesn’t really help.
  7. So you CAN compel them, but you can’t actually do anything if they call your bluff.

 

That’s the legal interest in the case. Other than that, it is always worthy of note when the Court of Appeal split. The main issue here was that a 15 year old K, made allegations of sexual abuse and reported them to the police. There was then something of a backtracking when the police wanted to press charges. K did not want to press charges, she had wanted the abuse to stop. She said to the police that she was not retracting the allegations, but didn’t want charges to be pressed.  However, one police note of a conversation with K recorded that K said she had made the allegations up.  K then wrote two letters saying that she had made the allegations up and that things had got out of hand.

Those representing the alleged perpetrator in the family Court proceedings about K and her siblings understandably wanted K to be produced as a witness. A judicial decision was taken not to compel her attendance, and the Judge went on to make findings (including one which was supported by a medical but was explicitly not an allegation that K had ever made herself).  The findings and the case management decision were appealed.

All three of the Court of Appeal Judges said that the finding which was suggested by medical examination but had never been a claim that K had made had to be overturned. Two of the Judges held that the other findings were safe and should not be overturned. The third took the opposite view.

 

I will set out the minority view, which was not the decision of the Court of Appeal, because I think it contains some powerful arguments (even though they were not successful). For my part, I think it is very difficult to make findings of such a serious nature as sexual abuse when there are changes of position by the complainant, and letters of retraction, without hearing some direct evidence from the complainant. I think that the Judge worked very hard to make it as fair and balanced a judgment as possible, but I would have been with Lady Justice Gloster on this, I just don’t think that the findings can be considered safe in this context. The burden of proof is on the LA to prove that the abuse happened, not on the accused person to prove their innocence.  [Sometimes you do end up with cases where there are very strong suspicions but also doubts, and what tips the balance either way is the credibility of the complainant. If the accused person cannot properly test the complainant’s evidence, the right to fair trial is questionable, for me.]

 

Lady Justice Gloster:

 

  • It is with considerable diffidence that I disagree with views expressed by such experienced family judges as Lady Justice Black and HHJ Moir. This court is rightly very cautious about interfering with case management decisions and second-guessing findings of fact made at first instance by careful family judges. However this case has left me with a deep sense of unease, both in relation to the initial decision of HHJ Moir dated 16 September 2014 that K was not to give oral evidence in the finding of fact hearing and the judge’s subsequent fact-finding judgment dated 15 October 2014 (the order in relation to which is inappropriately described as a “case management order”) in which she held that the Appellant had indeed sexually abused his sister, K. That concern is aggravated by the fact that, as my Lady, Lady Justice Black, has held (and as I agree) there was no basis for HHJ Moir’s finding that the Appellant had anally abused K.
  • The critical features of this case may, in my judgment, be summarised as follows:

 

i) The single issue was whether the Appellant had abused K.ii) The case against the Appellant depended entirely on the veracity of K’s allegations.

iii) The burden of proof at all times was on the Local Authority to establish on the balance of probabilities that the abuse had occurred.

iv) There was no medical evidence of vaginal penetration, despite K’s repeated allegations that she had had full penetrative sex and that she was “no longer a virgin”. In this context the judge appears to have relied on what I regard as the somewhat ambivalent evidence of Dr Jones that “penetration through the hymen can occur without leaving any physical signs”; see paragraph 30 of the judgment.

v) The ABE video interviews of K, upon which the judge heavily relied in reaching her conclusions, had taken place in March and April 2013, at a time well before K had started to attempt to halt the criminal process (July 2013) or had begun, albeit somewhat equivocally, to retract her allegations in their entirety on the grounds that she had made them up (16 September 2013); see paragraphs 9 –13 above for the chronology. So those interviews contained no evidence about the reasons for her retractions.

vi) K frequently changed her mind as to whether she was prepared to give evidence. She informed her guardian that her allegations were untrue and that she wished to give evidence. Subsequently it appears that she changed her view and that she did not want to give evidence. Her guardian assessed her as a “mature young person who had the capacity and competence to give instructions.” The social worker who assessed described her as a “determined and strong willed individual who speaks her mind”, and also observed K as being “quite fragile in her presentation and lacking in self-esteem.”

vii) In deciding whether K should give evidence, the judge relied upon the opinion of K’s guardian and the social worker to the effect that:

“I do not feel that [K] is able to recognise any links to her self-reported frustration and anger with the coping strategies she may have adopted to deal with how she was feeling with her experiences of the current situation. I feel that she seeks to display a certain persona in order to ease her emotions while having built up a barrier up to others to cover how she is feeling.

….

I would not be in support of [K] giving direct evidence at the fact-finding hearing due to the concerns outlined above. I do not feel that she is emotionally able to deal with the impact that this could have on her. I feel [K] would struggle to manage in-depth questioning on the basis that giving direct evidence is to have her say and [inaudible]”.

viii) On any basis, the evidence of K’s guardian and the social worker as to K’s wish or ability to give evidence at trial was highly unsatisfactory and vague opinion evidence. It could not replace an assessment of K’s evidence by the judge.

ix) As a result of the judge’s ruling that K would not be required to give evidence, or otherwise be subjected to any questioning as to why she had changed her mind, because of her so-called “vulnerability, a fragile presentation and her lack of self-esteem”, the reality was that the Appellant was deprived of any effective opportunity to challenge the veracity of K’s case.

x) The case was one of huge importance for the future life of the Appellant and his relationship with his two infant sons and his partner, their mother. It clearly raised serious issues, so far as he was concerned, in relation to his rights under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights (“the ECHR”) to a fair trial, and, so far as he, and his children were concerned, in relation to his rights under Article 8 to a family life.

 

  • In my judgment HHJ Moir’s case management decision dated 15 October 2014, in which she decided that K should not be called as a witness, failed in any adequate way to weigh up the two relevant considerations set out in Re W (Children) [2010] UKSC 12 namely: the advantages that a child giving evidence will bring to the determination of the truth; and the damage which it might do to the welfare of the child witness. In my judgment, there was no adequate medical, or indeed other, evidence, apart from the vague and dubious views of K’s guardian and the social worker, to support the conclusion that it would be so harmful for K to give evidence that she should not be asked to do so. Nor was there any adequate analysis by the judge as to why those concerns trumped the entitlement of the Appellant to question why she had retracted, or, at the least, to some extent resiled from, her previous allegations.
  • As to the first consideration, K was at the time of the fact-finding hearing 13 years and 10 months old and had no cognitive impairment. There was no reason on age and maturity grounds why she should not have been called as a witness. She had displayed as a person who was at least to some extent prepared to exert pressure on the authorities to force the outcome of the criminal proceedings. She clearly had differing attitudes at different times as to whether she wanted, or was prepared, to give evidence. She was a mature young person who had been described as a “determined and strong willed individual who speaks her mind”; see above. Her allegations were extremely serious. There was, in my judgment, no adequate consideration by the judge as to whether K should be required – and indeed whether it would be in K’s interests for her to be required – to give evidence, which either stood by her previous allegations, or which explained the circumstances in which she had resiled from them. Whilst, whether her allegations were true or false, it might well have been distressing or demanding for her to have given evidence, there was no psychiatric or psychological evidence to support the idea that it would have been mentally damaging for her to have given evidence. There was no consideration by the judge as to the advantages to K personally of facing up to the consequences of the allegations which she had made, whether they were true or false, or as to the disadvantages to her of being allowed to avoid responsibility for the consequences of her allegations by not being required to attend trial.
  • Moreover, it was extremely unclear whether K was an unwilling witness or not. She changed her mind frequently about wishing to give evidence in the months leading up to the judge’s ruling and had not been asked in the weeks prior to the ruling whether she would, in fact be prepared to give evidence (whether with or without special measures). Indeed it is significant that the final order dated 8 December 2014 recites the fact that K “would like to meet with the judge”, although the judge ruled that this could not take place until the proceedings were over.
  • In my view the judge was also wrong not to explore other ways in which K could have given evidence, apart from being subjected to cross-examination in open court in front of the Appellant and others. The fact that counsel for the Appellant did not raise the possibility of the judge questioning K in the presence of counsel, but in the absence of the parties, by reference to questions agreed in advance, does not seem to me to be a reason why the judge should not have given consideration to such an option or other alternative options. This was a case that cried out for special measures so as to ensure that the judge received direct evidence from K in relation to the allegations, and, in particular, her retraction of them, and was not forced to rely on the very unsatisfactory secondary evidence of the social worker and the Guardian as to their interpretation of K’s evidence. In my judgment some sort of measure should have been in place to ensure that the judge heard directly from K on the fact-finding hearing.
  • As to the second consideration, in my judgment there was no adequate consideration by the judge of the impact on the Appellant’s case of the inability of his counsel to cross-examine K as to the allegations and her retraction of, or unwillingness to proceed with, them. The consequences for the Appellant, and his infant children, leaving aside his relationship with his partner, were monumentally serious if K’s allegations against him were accepted. On any basis, in my judgment, he could not have had a fair trial in circumstances where the judge was able, in effect, to rely so heavily, if not exclusively, on the ABE interviews conducted before K sought to retract, or sought not to proceed with, her allegations.
  • For the above reasons, I would have allowed the appeal against the judge’s case management decision dated 16 September 2014. In my judgment the judge failed to appreciate that the critical issue was whether or not the Appellant could have had a fair trial without the ability of challenging K’s evidence in any realistic way. In my judgment the judge failed properly to apply the guidelines set down in Re W, which reflect the paramount consideration that a party should have a fair trial.
  • I should say that, so far as the evidence of the K’s two friends are concerned, such evidence was clearly hearsay and should have been afforded very little evidential weight, since, in all the circumstances, it could have provided very little corroborative support for K’s own evidence.
  • Likewise, for the above reasons, it seems to me that the judge’s conclusions in her fact-finding judgment dated 15 October 2014 are clearly open to serious doubt. I do not see how, in the absence of up-to-date evidence directly from K herself, as to the retraction and/or reluctance to proceed with her allegations, the judge was able to conclude that she could rely so heavily on the ABE interviews, or come to the conclusion, as set out in paragraphs 38-39 of the judgment, that K’s allegations were true and that her retraction had arisen partly because of pressure from her family, but largely because of her own feeling of responsibility for breaking up her family and her own strong desire to see her nephews. The inferences which the judge drew from the documentary evidence in my judgment cannot be supported in the absence of up-to-date direct evidence from K herself.
  • I also regard the judge’s analysis of the evidence of the Appellant as inadequate. There is no, or no adequate, explanation by the judge as to why she felt able to reject his evidence that the alleged abuse never took place.
  • In my judgment the judge failed to give proper consideration to the fact that the burden of proof lay on the Local Authority. She had no basis for concluding on the balance of probabilities that K’s serious allegations against the Appellant had been proved. In the absence of any opportunity afforded to the Appellant to challenge K’s evidence that was not a conclusion which I consider she was entitled to reach. In my judgment, the Appellant did not have a fair trial in accordance with his rights under Article 6 of the ECHR and, as a result, his Article 8 rights and those of his infant sons, have been seriously infringed.
  • I would allow the appeal and set aside the findings of HHJ Moir. I would rule that no findings adverse to the Appellant in relation to the allegations of sexual abuse could properly be made on the evidence available to the judge. But since Black and Vos LJJ consider that the appeal should be dismissed, that will be the order of this court.

 

Social workers slammed for lying on oath

 

I know the title seems pure clickbait, since it is the sort of thing that is alleged quite often, but this is a case where the Judge did actually make that conclusion.  It involves social workers and managers who set out to change the parenting assessment conducted by another worker (who the Judge found to be blameless) so that it reached different conclusions and painted a wholly different and negative picture and then lied to the Court about it. This is social workers interfering with the parents right to a fair trial. It really is deeply shocking stuff.

 

A, B, C, D and E (Final Hearing) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B186.html

 

The case was decided by His Honour Judge Horton, and involved Hampshire County Council. Some of the workers involved no longer work at Hampshire and they are not spared.

 

 

12. This is I hope an unusual case. I certainly have not previously come across one quite like it either at the Bar or as a judge.

 

13. My previous judgments explain these comments but in my experience it is exceptional to find a case in which there has been deliberate and calculated alteration of a report prepared by one social worker in order to make that assessment seem less favourable, by another social worker and the Team Manager; the withholding of the original report when it was ordered to be disclosed and the parties to the alterations lying on oath one of them twice, in order to try to cover up the existence of the original report. Those people are referred to and named in my December judgment but given the enormity of what they did and the fact they still work as social workers it is right that I should name them again so that practitioners and members of the public coming across them are aware of their shortcomings in this case.

  1. Sarah Walker Smart the children’s Social Worker lied twice to me on oath. I was told during this hearing that she has been promoted to Team Manager within this authority.
  2. Kim Goode, Sarah Walker Smart’s then Manager, was the person who initiated the wholesale alteration of the original report and who attempted to keep the truth from the parties and me. At the time of the last hearing she was District Manager for the Isle of Wight. I was told during this hearing that she is still in post.
  3. Lisa Humphreys was Kim Goode’s Manager. Her evidence was deeply unimpressive. She made a ‘hollow’ apology to the parents during her evidence; she regarded a social worker lying on oath as “foolish” and she failed to accept any personal responsibility for what had gone on under her management. At the date of the last hearing she was Assistant Director of Children’s Social Care with Lambeth Borough Council.
  4. In my December judgment I concluded that the parents’ and children’s Article 6 and 8 Rights had been breached. The children had been removed illegally and the parents had not had a fair parenting assessment carried out due amongst other things to all professionals both childcare and legal, failing to identify M’s communication difficulties and the need for a psychological assessment. I therefore at the parents’ suggestion, directed that Symbol a parenting assessment organisation which specialises in people with learning and communication difficulties, should carry out a full parenting assessment. This was to be coupled with individual therapy for both parents. This ‘dual’ approach had been suggested by Dr Halari a highly qualified adult clinical psychologist who had seen each parent, prepared reports and who gave evidence. The plan was for the therapists and assessors to work together in order to give the parents the best possible chance of making the agreed and much needed changes to their parenting.

 

 

 

The December judgment had escaped my attention, so here it is

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B227.html

 

The portions setting out the failings of the Local Authority are long, but because they are so powerful, I will set them down in full   (I really can’t believe that I missed this judgment first time around).  Underlining, as ever, mine for emphasis (though I could almost underline every word). Apologies that the paragraph numbering goes all over the place.

 

  1. The factual matrix underpinning the breaches
  2. Removal
  3. Social worker Ms X was allocated to these children on 27 October 2011 and remained their social worker until Sarah Walker Smart was allocated the case in June 2013. During this time she formed a working relationship with the family.
  4. She was clearly concerned at A and B’s lack of schooling, failure to engage fully with health professionals and issues of basic neglect. Such was her concern that she initiated the PLO process on 12 April 2012. The PLO letter was clear and Ms X spelt out what was required. See Mrs Randall’s comments at D131.
  5. As early as 11 May 2012 Ms X had identified that the parents were unsure how to work with professionals and that the parents become aggressive and hostile.
  6. By April 2013 Mrs Randall’s opinion based on the recordings of Ms X was that little had really been achieved during 18 months of PLO process. D133
  7. In late Spring early summer 2013 Ms X obtained a new post within the authority. She made her last visit to the family on 4 June 2013. By this time Ms X had begun compiling information for Core Assessments on all the children and it was made a condition of her leaving that she completed Comprehensive Core Assessments. I heard evidence that I accept that Lisa Humphreys and Kim Goode were exasperated by Ms X’s failure to complete them.
  8. The new social worker allocated to the children was Sarah Walker Smart. She was new to this team and relatively inexperienced in child protection work. Her manager remained Kim Goode who was and is extremely experienced in such work having been in it for 18 years.
  9. Kim Goode and Sarah Walker Smart carried out an introductory joint visit on 20 June 2013. I am satisfied that Kim Goode and Sarah Walker Smart found a situation that they had not been fully prepared for by Ms X’s case recordings. This was not only in relation to the condition of the home and children but also the attitude of the parents. The mother in particular was difficult and hostile. I pause there to record that whilst I make criticism of the parents it must be seen in the context of their then unidentified difficulties and the attitude of Kim Goode who I am quite sure did nothing to calm the situation. I have seen and heard Ms Goode. She is a strong willed, forceful, opinionated person who it would be difficult to challenge effectively or at all. Her manner of answering during cross examination amply demonstrated this.
  10. As a result of what they saw and as a result of there having been 18 months without sustained change Ms Goode and Ms Walker Smart decided that the case should be taken to a legal strategy meeting. This took place on 24 June 2013. see K136.
  11. It was decided that the Comprehensive Core Assessment “with concerns” should be concluded as soon as possible, that care proceedings should be instigated and that a new PLO letter would be written. This was delivered to the parents on 27 June which was the same date as Sarah Walker Smart’s first statement.
  12. On 11 July Ms Walker Smart visited the home and found things largely the same as before but that the children’s presentation was “Ok”.
  13. On 12 July Care Proceedings were issued and on the 15 July directions given including a direction for the LA to file and serve the “current assessments to which the Social Work statement refers”. A21
  14. Also on this date the Housing Officer visited the home. He was clearly concerned by the condition of the property; a number of problems with the condition of the property that had not been reported and the overcrowding but I am satisfied he does not “condemn” it or say that it is dangerous. He did believe that the family should be temporarily or permanently re-housed.
  15. On 15 July the court made directions including giving a hearing date for a contested ICO.
  16. On 16 July Ms Walker Smart spoke to the Housing Officer. She purportedly interpreted what he said as the house was condemned, dangerous and unfit for the family to remain in. It is clear from Ms Walker Smart’s e mail of the same date that she was trying to get Mr Sibley to say that the property was unsafe and dilapidated due to the parents’ neglect and makes it clear that “we are planning to remove the children” and “need as much evidence as possible based on the home conditions being unsafe”.
  17. I am satisfied that by this date Kim Goode and Sarah Walker Smart had decided that the children should be removed from their parents care and that they intended to bolster their case by involving the housing department. This is clear from the wording of the e mail and I interpret the e mail as pressure being put on the Housing Officer. It was clear from his evidence to me that he was not prepared to do so.
  18. Lisa Humphreys told me that she had approved the cost of B&B and that she had not approved the removal of the children from their parents. This does not fit in with the content of the e mail and I have trouble believing that Kim Goode would construct a plan for removal without the approval of her DSM.
  19. On 17 July at 09:00 Sarah Walker Smart made a visit to the home. It was she said her view that the children were “no longer safe in the home and that if they remained they could experience significant harm”. In reality I doubt that anything was very much different from before and I am certain that the grounds for immediate separation were not there. She reported on what she saw to Kim Goode.
  20. At 11:17 that day Kim Goode set out an action plan. That action plan clearly expected the police to use their administrative powers to remove the children. She does record that if the police won’t agree to do so then the mother is to be asked to go to B&B with the children. Ms Walker Smart never offered this option to the mother and I am satisfied from the video footage and her evidence that this option was never in her mind. It is probable that Kim Goode never discussed this option with her.
  21. At 15:30 that day a joint police and social services visit took place. The LA accepts that the visit and removal was unlawful and breached the family’s Human Rights. The details of the breaches are set out later in this judgment.
  22. I have viewed the Body Worn Camera footage. I can well see why the LA makes the admissions it does. The removal was a flagrant breach of this family’s Human Rights. There were insufficient grounds for such action and it is clear the police felt that too as they did not try to use their administrative powers; the correct procedure was not followed; no true consent was obtained, and that which was obtained came from F under duress. Further he did not have power to give consent for the older two children as he did not have parental responsibility a fact Ms Walker Smart should have known.
  23. I am asked by F to find that the use of the police was a manipulation to coerce the parents. I am not satisfied that the social workers were deliberately trying to manipulate the police although I am satisfied that the effect on the parents was to coerce them. The parents, mother in particular could be verbally aggressive and had been so to Ms Goode. In circumstances where it had been decided to remove the children from their parents and it could reasonably be anticipated that the parents could be hostile, it would be appropriate to involve the police to avoid there being a breach of the peace. However, the video footage shows that the situation was badly handled with 8 police officers and two social workers descending on the parents and presenting them with no choice but to relinquish their children. There were no grounds for such removal, there was no discussion, no alternatives offered and it was clearly the intention of Ms Walker Smart to remove the children from their parents’ care come what may by asking for consent to s20 accommodation if the police did not act.

 

  1. Factual matrix underpinning the failure to disclose material evidence
  2. This relates to the Comprehensive Core Assessment that Ms X completed and sent to Kim Goode for what has been described “Quality Assurance”.
  3. Ms X completed writing her CCA on 18 June 2013. See P125. The Assessment contained both positives and negatives. It was therefore a balanced report. She e mailed it to Kim Goode.
  4. On 27 June 2013 Sarah Walker Smart swore her first statement asking the Court to read her statement along with the ” Core Assessment (July 2013) completed by Ms X” (my emphasis).
  5. On 10 July Ms Melanie Kingsley asked Kim Goode to forward Ms X’s core Assessment. Kim Goode replied saying she just wanted to “pad out the conclusion before it goes off”.
  6. On 15 July the court directed the LA to file and serve the “current assessments to which the Social Work statement refers”.
  7. On 16 July Kim Goode made substantial changes to Ms X’s Comprehensive Core Assessment (CCA) which are recorded by the word processing programme by way of tracked changes. All the substantive changes made are negative. The changes change the tenor and conclusions of the report completely. The picture painted by it is now wholly negative and would if accepted, have the effect of substantially improving the LA’s case for removal of the children, probably permanently. In my judgment these changes amounted to a wholesale rewrite and were not a proper use of the Quality Assurance system.
  8. Ms X never approved the changes.
  9. Kim Goode sent the track changed document to Sarah Walker Smart on 17 July at 13:02 who made few if any and no substantial changes. She could not make many changes as she had little knowledge of the family due to her brief involvement. She signed the assessment as if it were her own and it was served on 6 August.
  10. Ms X’s CCA was not filed in accordance with the court order.
  11. An order was made for the CCA to be filed by 30 July. Ms X’s version was never filed.
  12. Solicitors for the parents asked on numerous occasions for the disclosure of the document referred to in Ms Walker Smart’s statement and for any documents prepared by Ms X.
  13. On 22 August 2013 Melanie Kingsley in response stated in an e mail: “an assessment was started by Ms X but not concluded. The decision was taken that because Ms X no longer works for the department, the new social worker SW would compile an entirely new assessment, as it would not be appropriate for her to complete another person’s partially completed piece of work. Accordingly Sarah Walker-Smart wrote and filed a new Core Assessment which is in this bundle. There is nothing outstanding from Ms X which may be filed with the parties”
  14. I am satisfied that this e mail gave a deliberate and entirely false impression. Kim Goode and Sarah Walker Smart knew that Ms X had completed her assessment. The problem was that Kim Goode did not like it. In her opinion it did not fit in with her assessment of the family’s circumstances. Kim Goode knew Ms X had completed it because she had changed it. Ms Walker Smart knew Ms X had completed it as she had seen the tracked changed document which was obviously based on Ms X’s completed work.
  15. I am also satisfied that the legal department knew of the existence of the Ms X piece of work as Ms Kingsley had referred to it in her e mail of 10 July.

 

[A quick break here to say “Holy F**ing s**t!”]

 

  1. Twice more did Ms Coates ask for Ms X’s “draft” to be filed and served. Ms Kingsley replied on 13 November 2013 “there is nothing that can be filed”. Again this was patently untrue.
  2. On 31 March 2014 Sarah Walker Smart commenced giving evidence before me. A transcript of her evidence is at 72.1 of the transcript section.
  3. She was asked in chief: “Have you ever seen a core assessment completed by Ms X? “No” “Can you explain the reference to one in your statement?” “.. there was an assumption that Ms X had completed a Core Assessment..so I relied upon an assessment that did not exist. That’s completely my error.” I then asked: “You have given the date of July 2013 which rather implies that you had some basis to believe that there had been a Core Assessment carried out. What was your factual basis for that?” Answer:” The team manager” Kim Goode, “assumed that Ms X had written one”.
  4. I asked whether Kim Goode had checked for the Core Assessment. I was told that she had and that she could not find it.
  5. Sarah Walker Smart went onto to say that she had not checked. She said: “I’ve never seen a Core Assessment in Ms X’s name.”
  6. I have considered this evidence very carefully and been mindful of the two fold test in the R v Lucas direction that I must give myself when encountering lies.
  7. I am satisfied that her evidence that she had never seen a completed Core Assessment by Ms X was a lie. Sarah Walker Smart had seen a completed Core Assessment by Ms X. She had seen the tracked changed version e mailed to her by Kim Goode. I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that this was a deliberate lie to try to deflect attention from the existence of that document. I do not make this finding lightly or willingly but the evidence drives me to it. This lie was repeated in her evidence given to me on 25 November 2014.
  8. I am also satisfied that she lied when she said that the reference to such an assessment in her statement was a “mistake” based on an “assumption”. I am satisfied that the reason she mentioned it was because she had seen Ms X’s Core Assessment and she did not think there was anything wrong in referring to it. It was only afterwards that the import of what she had done became clear. In my judgment this is the only logical reason why she would have mentioned it. Her attempts to say it was a wrong “assumption” on the part of herself and Kim Goode was a fabrication. Again I do not reach this conclusion lightly but it is an inevitable one. Again she repeated this lie in evidence in November.
  9. Ms Walker Smart had the opportunity to disclose the existence of the Ms X assessment during the April part of this final hearing but did not take it. She chose to try to get away with the deception she had practised. I made it clear at the end of that hearing that I was worried about this issue and that I required full enquiries to be made to see if such a document existed. See 72.45 line 30 of the transcript of Ms Walker Smart’s evidence.
  10. Lisa Humphreys was also at court during the April hearing. She knew that the parents’ advocates wanted Ms X’s assessment disclosed and she knew of its existence yet she did not then or afterwards bring its existence to the attention of the court, the new social work team or the legal department. She could have accessed it easily as it was located in her ‘Outlook’ programme on her computer.
  11. The completed Ms X Comprehensive Core Assessment was eventually disclosed inadvertently as part of the disciplinary proceedings’ file in relation to Ms X in early August 2014. Kim Goode had initiated disciplinary proceedings against Ms X as a result of what she saw were serious failings in her work. As a result Ms X was dismissed from her employment. Her health is now so poor that she was unable to give evidence. I do not know whether her poor health and the disciplinary proceedings are linked but they cannot have helped her. This is not the place to comment on the appropriateness of that investigation, its fairness or its conclusions but I do ask the LA to robustly review their conclusions and decision in the light of this judgment and all that is now known about this case.
  12. Kim Goode’s involvement in this deception was examined in the November hearing.
  13. I am satisfied she knew of Ms X’s completed CCA as she had changed it. I am also satisfied she knew that the parties and court wanted it disclosed and she had decided that she would not.
  14. At one point I asked her: “So it was a deliberate decision by yourself not to let the court and the parents have” the Ms X Comprehensive Core Assessment and the guardian. Is that right?” “Yes” she answered.

 

A second break to say again “Holy f**ing s**t!”

 

 

  1. Whilst she tried to persuade me that she did this out of concern for the children as she felt the assessment was not accurate, I find this suggestion breathtaking. This is a manager with 18 years experience deliberately flouting the lawful request of the parents for disclosure of information and more to the point flouting court orders for such disclosure. At one point she tried to suggest that she was unaware of the duty to disclose, which I find as Mr Ker-Reid put it “incredible” in both senses of the word.
  2. There was a particularly telling piece of cross examination by Mr Ker-Reid when he put this question to her: “You were overtly, determinedly, seeking to deceive courts of justice, put your head together with other professionals in your department, whether legal or social workers, to tell judges of the Family Court that there was not an assessment by Ms X which you knew there was? That is right is it not?” Answer: “It is but I..” Q: “It is”. Answer: … “gave the explanation”. Q: “We have your answer, done”.
  3. I am satisfied that this question and answer perfectly sums up the thinking of Kim Goode and her approach to this case. I heard Kim Goode’s “explanation” and I am not satisfied by it. Her perception of whether the assessment was correct or not was not a reason for non-disclosure particularly in the face of a Court order. It was as she conceded dishonest to have said that there was no assessment from Ms X. I am satisfied that this “explanation” was in fact an attempt to deflect blame away from herself.
  4. I have already commented on my impression of Ms Kim Goode from my observation of her in the witness box and from her work on this case. She is a strong personality and I am satisfied that those subordinate to her would find it hard to challenge her. This atmosphere is probably what led Ms Walker Smart into such grave error. Whilst this may be an isolated incident in her career I have very grave concerns as to Kim Goode’s working practises in this case and in my judgment a thorough review of her work and management style should be undertaken by the LA.
  5. I have made some comments about the involvement of Lisa Humphreys in this case. I found her to be a very strong and forceful personality. Whether her management style fed into or off Kim Goode I cannot say but I am clear that they are similar in management style. Subordinates would find it hard to say no to or challenge her.
  6. Her response to hearing of Ms Walker Smart’s lies to me was astounding. She thought it was “foolish”. I am afraid that is not the way I see it and it is not the way she should have seen it. Such a comment makes the lies seem like minor misdemeanours which they are not.
  7. I also found her failure to accept personal responsibility for what has happened in this case depressing. Whilst of course managers cannot be responsible for rogue employees and their decisions are only as good as the information they are given by their subordinates, they should at least sound as if they mean any apologies they give. The one she gave the parents during her evidence did not sound heartfelt and I noted that there was no apology to the Court for the lies that had been told or the unnecessary delay that had occurred by those under her. It is probable that she saw no harm in withholding the Ms X CCA as she seemed to me to be fully in support of withholding it, because in her view it was not an accurate piece of work.

 

 

Wow. Just wow.

 

 

  1. Conclusions and Findings on Human Rights breaches
  2. It follows from my conclusions above that this family’s Human Rights have been breached. The parties have produced one combined document for me to consider covering the breaches that the parents, A, B and the Guardian allege have occurred and the LA’s response to each of them. In short the LA has albeit late in the day, conceded all of the general breaches alleged and most of the specific facts that go towards those general conclusions. I have amalgamated the various breaches from this composite document and my findings and condensed them into a manageable form. My findings are as follows.
  3. Removal of the children on 17 July 2013
  4. The LA accepts and I find that it acted unlawfully and disproportionately by removing the children from the care of the parents on 17.7.13 purportedly pursuant to section 20 of the Children Act 1989. I am satisfied that it did this by:
  1. a) Taking a decision to pursue police protection in preference to the provision of alternative accommodation;
  2. b) Failing to consider making an application for an EPO or short notice ICO;
  3. c) Failing to consider whether any family placements were available;
  4. d) Failing to inform the parents of the available options such as B&B
  5. e) Failing to encourage the parents to seek legal advice or the advice of family or friends;
  6. f) Acting without the Father’s informed consent to the removal;
  7. g) Acting without the consent (informed or otherwise) of the Mother;
  8. h) Acting without the consent of any person with parental responsibility for A and B;
  9. i) Purporting to act under section 20 of the Children Act by seeking the consent of the parents in the presence of 8 uniformed police officers presenting an overt threat of police protection;
  10. j) Acting in knowledge of the Father’s expressed belief that the police would act to remove the children in any event;
  11. k) Removing the children in circumstances which did not reach the test for an emergency removal;
  12. l) Purportedly justifying the removal at the time and subsequently by way of reasons which were incorrect and/or known to be untrue by the Social Worker namely that the home had been condemned; and
  13. m) Failing to obtain the wishes and feelings of the children contrary to section 20(6) of the Children Act 1989.
  14. n) Failing to have in place a policy document guiding procedures when social workers attend a family with police, such document having been directed by HHJ Levey DFJ to be produced in or about January 2013;
  15. o) Upon it becoming known to the Team Manager and/or District Service Manager that the Social Worker had acted disproportionately by removing the children from the care of the parents on 17.7.13 the LA should have taken steps to rectify matters by offering to reunite the children and parents in alternative accommodation but failed to do so.
  1. Failure to disclose material evidence
  1. The LA accepts and I find that it acted unlawfully by materially failing to comply with its duty to disclose documents which modified and/or cast doubt on its case and/or supported the case of the parents by:
  2. Failing to disclose the Comprehensive Core Assessment of Ms X as directed as early as 15 July 2013 or at all prior to its inadvertent disclosure pursuant to a court order on 11.8.14 relating to disclosure of disciplinary proceedings concerning Ms X;
  3. Failing to disclose the ICS Core Assessments of Ms X as directed or prior to 1.4.14;
  4. Failing to disclose ICS notes with the District Service Manager’s comments due to inconsistent practices in recording information by her;
  5. Failing to disclose case recordings until directed to do so by the court on 3.3.14; and
  6. Failing to inform the parties of the existence of the video of the children’s removal and/or disclose the video itself until directed to do so by the court in May 2014. This video was in the possession of Kim Goode and viewed by her within weeks of the unlawful removal. She knew that the removal was unlawful but failed to do anything about it.
  7. The non-disclosure of the Comprehensive Core Assessment of Ms X in the face of repeated requests from the parties and directions of the court was deliberate and the decision not to disclose the document was known to Sarah Walker-Smart, Kim Goode, Lisa Humphreys and the Legal Department.
  8. The LA misled the court and the parties as to the existence of a Comprehensive Core Assessment undertaken by Ms X.
  9. In particular the LA does not dispute and I find that Sarah Walker Smart lied on oath on 31 March 2014 when she said she had never seen a core assessment completed by Ms X; that Kim Goode had looked for one and had not found one and that the reference in her first statement to such an assessment was therefore an error.
  10. Further, Sarah Walker-Smart repeated the lies on oath on 25 November 2014.
  11. The LA’s failure to comply with its duty of disclosure caused an incomplete picture to be presented to the Guardian and to the court within the LA’s evidence filed before 7.4.14.

 

  1. Denial of fair opportunity to participate in decision making
  2. I make the following findings in relation to this head.
  3. The parents were not consulted about the removal of the children.
  4. Neither the Court nor the parents were provided with the investigations and recordings which precipitated the applications to separate C from A and B or to apply for a section 34 order to “terminate” contact;
  5. In respect of the application to terminate contact, Hampshire County Council relied upon reports from foster carers upon which they did not seek the parents’ instructions. The foster carers’ reports were inconsistent with Hampshire’s own evidence such as contact supervisor recordings;
  6. Hampshire County Council undertook sibling assessments without discussing the children and their attachments with their parents, or indeed observing the children together;
  7. Hampshire County Council failed to convene a Family Group Conference or take any steps to explore potential family support, which led to their overlooking the Gs and issuing placement applications although the parents did not bring the existence of the Gs or their willingness to offer care to the attention of HCC until August 2014;
  8. It is alleged that the parents have been excluded from LAC and PEP reviews and all medical appointments for all of the children. I have not been addressed in submissions on this point and so can make no findings. If it is thought significant I will hear further submissions on this point;
  9. Hampshire County Council failed to provide the parents with contact notes and foster carer records in accordance with the Court’s direction or on a regular basis. This has deprived the parents of the ability to address any identified issues and effect change.
  10. Hampshire County Council had been “put on notice” of their Human Rights breaches by the order of 07.04.14 (A121); further order on 08.05.14 and Mother’s detailed skeleton argument setting out both limbs of her argument which was filed and served on 17.06.14. However, they continued to deny any wrongdoing until:
    1. On or about 10.11.14 in respect of the unlawful removal;
    2. On or about 14.11.14 in respect of the material non-disclosure. Indeed this was described by Hampshire on 29.07.14 as a ” last minute fishing expedition speculatively raised” [135].
  11. Failure to promote family life
  12. The LA breached the children’s right to family life by failing to set up or maintain regular family or inter-sibling contact during proceedings up until 31 March 2014.
  1. I am also satisfied that FC2 particularly Mrs FC2 became inappropriately attached to the children she was looking after. She allowed herself to become emotionally involved so that she tried to “claim” them for herself. This was not picked up upon by the social workers quickly enough. They were getting reports from FC2 that conflicted with the reports of their own contact supervisors yet this was not properly or timeously investigated. It was this failure to control FC2 that led to no proper inter-sibling contact taking place and E not seeing his parents for a considerable period of time.
  2. As a result of the failures of Hampshire County Council to provide all relevant material and to conduct the matter in an open and fair way, the care plans for A and B as presented to the court for the hearing commencing 31 st March 2014 were particularly distressing in that they provided not only for separation of the siblings but that for B he was to have very restricted contact with his parents and siblings; such care plans were wholly unjustified and were changed by the then Service Manager Lisa Humphreys on or about 1 st April 2014 it being noted that this was without the court or any party having heard any evidence on this issue.
  1. Other failures
  1. The evidence presented to the court in the statement of Sarah Walker-Smart dated 27.6.13 upon issue of the LA’s application and in support of its application for interim care orders was unfair in that it was unbalanced and in parts inaccurate.
  2. As conceded immediately in evidence by Ms Gibson the LA purported to but failed to undertake a full and fair assessment of the parents’ ability to care for the children by way of the assessment by the family centre worker and the social work assessment of Sarah Walker-Smart.
  3. The LA purported to but failed to undertake a full and fair sibling assessment in particular because they were undertaken without sibling contact being observed.

 

 

I have read law reports where Local Authorities have got things wrong. I have read law reports where Local Authorities have got things badly wrong. I have read law reports where they have been unfair, or stupid, or failed to act promptly, or acted in a knee-jerk way. I have read law reports where the Court disagreed with their recommendation and told them that they had badly misunderstood the law. But I’ve never read anything like this. It is utterly astonishing.  It is every conspiracy theory about what social workers do, come to life.

It is shocking, it is appalling. It is a damn scandal. It brings the profession into disrepute. The only tiny crumb of saving grace in the whole affair is that those involved were caught and that His Honour Judge Horton has shone a light into this scandal. I can only do my small part by telling my readers about it.

 

Back to this November 2015 judgment.  (I haven’t read the end of it yet, but I hope it ends in a whacking big cheque being written, or indeed the judgment being sent to the Attorney General)

The Judge had sent everyone away in December to conduct fresh assessments and also for the parents to be given therapy – there were problems with their parenting, but clearly in light of everything above, they had not been given a fair assessment.

There is a bit in the judgment about the mother clandestinely recording meetings with professionals (it is rather hard to blame her for doing that)

 

During the mother’s evidence she mentioned that she and F had covertly recorded a meeting with the Guardian and some contacts. The M had used her phone and F a digital recorder that looked like a slightly fat pen. He produced the pen recorder and 4 recordings. As the Court security staff had not come across such a device before I took steps to inform HMCTS of the existence of such devices. The recordings provided by F were not listened to by me and no one sought to rely on their contents.

 

 

Sadly, the assessment work with Symbol – an independent specialist assessment service had not gone as well as one might have hoped.  Against the backdrop of everything above, it is perhaps no surprise that the parents found it difficult to trust professionals.

 

         She [The Symbol worker] told me that it became clear that the parents have an absolute antipathy towards the LA and social workers to the extent that they even objected to Ms Hinton being involved in the assessment. In her and Symbol’s opinion it was an impossible task for the parents to work with or trust any professional which was a significant barrier to moving on. She said that whilst professionals were not challenging or agreeing goals, things went fine but when they tried to work with the parents the situation broke down “sharply, remarkably and quickly”. Anyone who attempted to monitor or change their parenting behaviour would she opined, meet great hostility.

116. She was criticised by the parents for not acknowledging properly or at all the enormity of the emotional toll and distress on the parents and the children caused by the events of the summer of 2013. In particular Symbol were criticised for not going through the judgment with the parents and not recording any discussion about these topics. If they had it was submitted, the parents could have ‘moved on’ and the assessment would not have stopped

The Judge spends several pages discussing the assessments and the evidence, and that I’m afraid would make an already long article too long. Sadly, he reaches this conclusion

 In my judgment it has not been evidenced that the parents have made the necessary changes that could allow them to make sustained improvements to their parenting styles or allow them to co-operate with professionals. Whilst they have demonstrated some ability to engage with therapy and have attended a parenting course they have not demonstrated that their fundamental attitude towards professionals has changed. Indeed I saw evidence during their oral evidence of their continued, deep seated mistrust and their tendency to accuse professionals of lying when challenged or disagreed with. Furthermore, I am satisfied that the failure of the Symbol assessment has reinforced in their minds that professionals cannot be trusted and this will make it even more difficult than before for professionals to work with them.

One can quite see how it would be extremely difficult for any parent to trust professionals after that December hearing – even with wholly fresh professionals to work with and therapeutic help, there was just too much damage done for the relationship to be repaired.

406. I am therefore satisfied that I must make care orders with respect to all five children to Hampshire County Council. I approve the plans for their placements as they are the plans that will promote the children’s welfare throughout their minority and protect them from significant harm. I am satisfied that no lesser intervention or order can achieve this aim due to the parents’ inability to work with professionals, in particular the LA.

It is very hard to feel comfortable about this. The Judge was clearly a Judge who was prepared to take on the Local Authority when they had been unfair and dishonest and who set up fresh and independent assessments and ensured that the parents got therapeutic help. So the parents got a fair hearing from the Court. But weren’t they just screwed by a system that says “you’ve got to work with professionals” and condemned them for not being able to, even though almost anyone in the same position would not have been able to trust again after the most shocking breaches of trust?  Very hard.

Even though I’ve had nothing at all to do with this case, or any of the sort of things that have happened in it and I never would, today is one of those days where I feel ashamed to even be part of the Family Justice system.

The damages bit hasn’t yet been dealt with. When I see the report of that, I will share it.

I was reminded by the parties that the parents and children have outstanding damages claims for the breaches of their Human Rights. As I indicated at the beginning of the hearing I have agreed with Hampshire’s DFJ that he should hear this part of the case. I will direct as part of the order arising from my judgment that a directions hearing be listed before him at his convenience.

417. I was concerned to learn that the three social workers who I previously criticised had not apparently been subject to disciplinary proceedings. I direct that my December judgment and this one be sent by the Director for Children’s Services to the Director of Social Services, Ofsted and those social workers’ supervisory bodies with a view to them considering whether further action against them is required.

I know that my commenters will want to talk about this case, and will probably be very cross about it. Please try to stay away from defamatory remarks (what the workers did in this case and what you think about it is fair game, what you think of them as people is for somewhere else, not here)

I also know that some of you will be wondering about perjury.  It is true that lying under oath is a criminal offence.  The police aren’t able to investigate perjury unless directed to do so by a Judge and a prosecution for perjury can only take place if the Attorney General authorises it

The Perjury Act 1911

1 (1)If any person lawfully sworn as a witness or as an interpreter in a judicial proceeding wilfully makes a statement material in that proceeding, which he knows to be false or does not believe to be true, he shall be guilty of perjury, and shall, on conviction thereof on indictment, be liable to penal servitude for a term not exceeding seven years, or to imprisonment . . . F1 for a term not exceeding two years, or to a fine or to both such penal servitude or imprisonment and fine

section 13 of the Perjury Act 1911, which sets out the corroboration needed to prove perjury can sometimes be difficult

A person shall not be liable to be convicted of any offence against this Act, or of any offence declared by any other Act to be perjury or subornation of perjury, or to be punishable as perjury or subornation of perjury, solely upon the evidence of one witness as to the falsity of any statement alleged to be false.

 

[I.e Victoria saying that Colin is lying is not sufficient, there needs to be something more. Here of course, there were the computer records and emails in addition. The criminal standard of proof is high, and perjury prosecutions are very rare. And I am no expert in criminal law, so the furthest I can go is to say that it is a possible case where the Atttorney General might have a decision to make if asked]

 

Misfeasance in a public office is the other one that comes up from time to time. Not a criminal offence, but a civil tort.  That’s probably not much use because the compensation for that would be something that could be awarded under the Human Rights Act for the breaches already found in any event.  Though it is possible that the damages would be higher.

[Watkins v Home Office 2006

There is great force in the respondent’s submission that if a public officer knowingly and deliberately acts in breach of his lawful duty he should be amenable to civil action at the suit of anyone who suffers at his hands. There is an obvious public interest in bringing public servants guilty of outrageous conduct to book. Those who act in such a way should not be free to do so with impunity.[1]

[1] [2006] UKHL 17, paragraph 8.  ]

 

And there’s the social work regulatory bodies who could be asked to take action. Social workers can and have been disciplined for bad conduct.

Totally radical, dude

"Put them in the Iron Maiden"

“Put them in the Iron Maiden”

 

The President has published guidance on radicalisation cases within the family Court, which you can find here:-

 

https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/pfd-guidance-radicalisation-cases.pdf

 

The Guidance says that ALL radicalisation cases are to be heard in the High Court, and that this specifically excludes Circuit Judges who have a section 9 ticket allowing them to sit as a High Court Judge. [UNLESS an actual High Court Judge explicitly releases an individual case to them]  The cases will purely be in the High Court.

To address the fact that this means that say, the family Judges in Luton would be oblivious to there being a major radicalisation problem in Luton because they won’t see any of the cases, the Designated Family Judge in each area must be notified of each application when they are made.

 

The guidance goes on

Judges hearing cases falling within the description in paragraph 1 above will wish to be alert to:

(a) the need to protect the Article 6 rights of all the parties;

(b) the fact that much of the information gathered by the police and other gencies will not be relevant to the issues before the court;

(c) the fact that some of the information gathered by the police and other gencies is highly sensitive and such that its disclosure may damage the public interest or even put lives at risk;

(d) the need to avoid inappropriately wide or inadequately defined requests for disclosure of information or documents by the police or other agencies;

(e) the need to avoid seeking disclosure from the police or other agencies of information or material which may be subject to PII, or the disclosure of which might compromise ongoing investigations, damage the public interest or put lives at risk, unless the judge is satisfied that such disclosure is “necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly” within the meaning given to those words when used in, for example, sections 32(5) and 38(7A) of the Children Act 1989 and section 13(6) of the Children and Families Act 2014;

(f) the need to safeguard the custody of, and in appropriate cases limit access to, any sensitive materials provided to the court  by the police or other agencies;

(g) the need to consider any PII issues and whether there is a need for a closed hearing or use of a special advocate;

(h) the need to safeguard the custody of, and in appropriate cases limit access to, (i) the tape or digital recordings of the proceedings or (ii) any transcripts;

(i) the need to ensure that the operational requirements of the police and other agencies are not inadvertently compromised or inhibited either because a child is a ward of court or because of any order made by the court;

(j) the assistance that may be gained if the police or other agencies are represented in court, including, in appropriate cases, by suitably expert counsel.

 

 

 

 

This is a major issue, or potential issue.  Imagine for a moment that the X family come to the attention of the Police or the intelligence services. They are believed to be radicalising their child. That would, when shared with the Local Authority, give rise to the need for care proceedings being initiated, and possibly that an application be made for the removal of that child.  But imagine that the REASON the police or intelligence services have that concern is that they are monitoring the phone calls, text messages or emails of Mr Y, someone who is recruiting for ISIS.  They may very well prefer that the X family don’t learn that Mr Y’s emails are compromised, and that hence Mr Y is alerted and changes his phone, and email account.   Suppose that the REASON is not monitoring emails but that Mr Y has a colleague in the terrorist cell,  Mr Z who is actually clandestinely working with the intelligence services – that really could be a matter of life and death if the X family learned that Mr Z was a spy. Both for Mr Z and for the future intelligence that might save lives whilst he remains undetected. This is big stuff.

 

[If you ever watched The Wire, you’ll be familiar of the constant battle with the police and drug dealers to get the information from the phone taps but without tipping the drug dealers hand to the fact that their communications are compromised, and thus that the drug dealers would ‘change up’ their systems. And if you have never watched The Wire, then I recommend that you remedy that. ]

 

"Omar comin' ! "

“Omar comin’ ! “

 

This puts the debate into really clear terms – if there’s information that is relevant to the proceedings – for example those representing the parents are likely to want to know exactly why the parents are suspected of radicalisation and what the evidence-base is, but it might impact on national security, then the Judge is going to have to ensure that the disclosure requests are very focussed, and that if there’s to be an argument that the documents should not be disclosed, that a proper Public Interest Immunity hearing takes place which balances the article 6 arguments in favour of disclosure with the national security PII arguments.

 

Because let’s not foreget, that parents in this situation are entitled to a fair trial. The allegations or information might be a mistake, or malicious, or mistaken identity.  We can’t lose sight of the fact that it is the State who have to prove that these parents have radicalised the child, not for the parents to prove their innocence.

Where this happens in crime, the Judge generally sees the documents in order to conduct what is called an “Air Canada” exercise, to consider them on a line by line basis to see what can be disclosed and what might have to be withheld. You cannot assume that article 6 will trump national security always or vice versa, it will be very case and fact specific.   Might this procedure even eventually extend to police or intelligence witnesses giving evidence behind closed doors, with the parents not hearing it?  How do we feel about that?

 

It is worth noting that in this guidance, when the phrase “Special Advocate” is used, it may not be simply meaning a ‘specialised’ or ‘specialist’ advocate, but rather that at the hearing where the documents are considered and arguments deployed, that the Court would appoint a barrister specifically to make those arguments on the parents behalf – NOT the ones representing the parents in care proceedings, and ones who would not have a duty to share that information with the parents.  That would be a very big deal in care proceedings. It is somewhat controversial generally, but as far as I’m aware, we haven’t done it in care proceedings before.  [I’m not absolutely sure that we can even do it without a statutory basis or a strong precedent that it can be done. But I’m no expert on the Special Advocate jurisprudence]

 

The guidance continues

 

11 This is a two-way process. The court can expect to continue to receive the assistance it has hitherto been given in these cases by the police and by other agencies. But there must be reciprocity.

12 The police and other agencies recognise the point made by Hayden J  that “in

this particular process it is the interest of the individual child that is paramount. This

cannot be eclipsed by wider considerations of counter terrorism policy or operations.”

The police and other agencies also recognise the point made by Bodey J that “it is no part of the functions of the Courts to act as investigators, or otherwise, on behalf of prosecuting authorities … or other public bodies.” But subject to those qualifications, it is important that the family justice system works together in cooperation with the criminal justice system to achieve the proper administration of justice in both jurisdictions, for the interests of the child are not the sole consideration. So the family courts should extend all proper assistance to those involved in the criminal justice system, for example, by disclosing materials from the family court proceedings into the criminal process.

13 In the same way, the police and other agencies will wish to be alert to the need of the court for early access to information, for example, information derived from examination of seized electronic equipment, so far as such information is relevant to the issues in the family proceedings. Accordingly, the court should be careful to identify with as much precision as possible in any order directed to the police or other agencies: the issues which arise in the family proceedings; the types of information it seeks; and the timetable set by the court for the family proceedings.

 

I have been worried about the balance between confidentiality and national security on the one hand and fairness and article 6 on the other for a long while in relation to radicalisation. I think that it is helpful to have published guidance as to the very difficult issues that Judges dealing with these cases are faced with.  How they will be dealt with in practice is something I’ll be very interested to read about (assuming that I’m allowed to)

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