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Being late to the party (turns out Auntie Beryl was Grandma Beryl…)

 

KS v Neath Port Talbot 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/941.html

 

This was an appeal by the grandmother who was refused her application to be joined as a party to care proceedings, which resulted in Placement Orders. She put herself forward in a formal application five days before the final hearing.

 

The Judge arrived at a sort of half-way house, refusing party status for the grandmother, but allowing her to be in Court, to give evidence and to ask the father’s representatives to put questions on her behalf. This unusual position was not helped by the Judge believing when judgment was delivered that the grandmother’s primary application had been dismissed by the Judge on day one of the final hearing (it hadn’t, it had been adjourned for decision until the end of the case)

 

 

 

  • Some five days before, on 9 October 2013, the child’s paternal grandmother had made a formal application to be made a party to the proceedings and for an expert assessment concerning her capability to care for the child. The application was adjourned at the beginning of the hearing and refused at the end. The effect of the adjournment was, however, to refuse the grandmother party status for the hearing that was taking place. Despite this, the judge permitted the grandmother to remain in court during the hearing and to give oral evidence. He records in his judgment that the grandmother:

 

 

“… opposes the applications and has played a part in these proceedings in as much as she has given evidence and has put herself forward as a potential carer for her grandchild”

 

  • There was a real issue before this court about what the judge intended to decide by his case management ruling. Although it is clear from the words he used that he adjourned the grandmother’s application until the end of the hearing on the merits, when he refused it, he later recollected (erroneously) that he had refused her application at the beginning of the hearing. Furthermore, although he failed to grant to the grandmother some important due process protections that a party would have, in particular notice of the issues in the case and knowledge of the evidence filed relating to those issues, he afforded the grandmother a partial opportunity to participate in a hearing which decided those issues.

 

 

The trial judge’s determination of the grandmother’s case was fairly short, and viewed criticially by the Court of Appeal

 

 

  • The terms in which the judge dealt with the grandmother’s application at the beginning of the hearing are as follows:

 

 

“This is an application for leave to make an application under section 8 of the Children Act. I bear in mind that this is a very late application and I bear in mind the Family Proceedings (sic) Rules and the overriding principle that I have just referred to. Although this is a late application, it has the potential for disruption not only of these proceedings but the interests of this child.

I am not going to shut the grandmother out of these proceedings at this stage. She can stay and hear the evidence, she can stay during all the proceedings, she can find her seat comfortably with other parties and she will be able to give evidence and through the solicitor for the father she can cross examine the author of the assessment that was made of her which was negative. I, therefore, adjourn her application to a stage in the proceedings after all the evidence has been completed. I do so in balancing the fairness to all the parties here and to the child.

There will be no ostensible delay of these proceedings by doing this, I allow her interests at least to be considered and for her to hear all the evidence as it potentially may interest the third party.”

 

  • At the end of the hearing the judge refused the application for five reasons that involved no analysis of the evidence, no analysis of the content of the assessment of the grandmother or the potential merits of her case, as follows:

 

 

i) the late nature of the application and the delay that an additional expert would occasion;

ii) the nature of the grandmother’s proposed application, namely for a residence order which the judge described as lacking in detail;

iii) the limited connection with the child: the judge accepted that there was an emotional attachment but erroneously described the continuous and significant contact arrangements as being “some ad hoc inter-familial arrangement for contact”;

iv) the real disruption that the application would cause to decision making about the child’s immediate future; and

v) the fact that the grandmother did “not fall within the remit of the local authority’s plans”.

 

  • As to the merits of the grandmother’s case, the judge was brief. The analysis in his full judgment was limited to the following words:

 

 

“The original assessment of the grandmother on 12th July of 2012 was negative. There is scope to believe that things have not so fundamentally changed that that report should stand to be considered as being valid. Any contribution as sought by the grandmother would require considerable analysis of the family dynamics, including of course an exploration of the father’s upbringing which itself has been the subject of various explanations, and also the management of contact. That was the view of the Guardian and I accept it. There is no merit in the application for the grandmother to care for the child. I appreciate that she may well have a kind heart and show commendable maturity as a grandparent herself in conceding that the time is now right for a decision to be made in respect of [the child].”

 

 

On the other side of the coin was the grandmother’s case, and the Court of Appeal felt that she had a better case than the Judge had recognised

 

 

  • The grandmother’s case was that she has a meaningful connection with the child who had regular contact including staying contact with her. That contact had existed before the child’s placement with the great grandparents, had continued after that placement had ended and was still taking place during the proceedings on a twice weekly basis. In addition, the July 2012 assessment acknowledged that the paternal grandmother and her husband displayed genuine emotion for and were clearly concerned about the child’s future. They were assessed as being fully aware of the local authority’s concerns about the parents and the child’s care needs. There was a significant attachment between the child and her grandparents that would be severed by the adoptive plan. By the time of the final hearing, the child’s parents supported the grandmother’s application.

 

 

 

  • The assessment also described the manifestly good care that was provided by the grandparents for a 14 year old boy and a 12 year old girl within what was evidently a long term stable relationship. There were no concerns about their parenting abilities in respect of these children and there had been no involvement of children’s services.

 

 

 

  • The local authority response to this court about the merits of the grandmother’s case was that the positives in the assessment were outweighed by the negatives which included the paternal grandmother’s partner having significant mobility problems such that he might not be able to assist with his granddaughter’s care. There were also fears about the impact the parents might have in undermining a placement with the grandparents, the appropriateness of the grandparents’ accommodation and the grandparents’ commitment to the children already cared for by them and whether that would be compromised by another child in the household.

 

 

 

  • In my judgment, the analysis of the negatives in the local authority’s evidence and by the guardian did not exclude the grandparents as a realistic option. To put it another way, the grandparents’ prima facie case on paper was stronger than that of the local authority relating to them. It is difficult to conclude other than that the grandparents’ case was arguable on any basis. It went to the critical proportionality evaluation of whether ‘nothing else would do’ than adoption. The grandmother’s application accordingly demanded rigorous scrutiny of the factors set out in section 10(9) of the Children Act 1989 in the context of the reasons for the late application.

 

 

Decision

 

  • The paternal grandmother submits and I agree that the case management decision that the judge made was plainly wrong because it was procedurally unfair. If, by his case management decision, it was the judge’s intention to exclude the grandparents from the care of the child, then he did not have regard to evidence relating to the section 10(9) factors or to the potential merits of her case which he would have found in the content of the assessment to which I have referred. His reasons lacked sufficient or any analysis. Case management decisions that have the character of deciding a substantive issue must be treated with particular care: hence the nature and extent of the enquiry that is made necessary by section 10(9) of the Act and its associated case law.

 

 

 

 

 

  • The purpose of section 10(9) of the 1989 Act and the case law that supports it is defeated if there is no analysis of the benefits and detriments inherent in the application and the arguability of the case. The section provides a framework for decisions of this kind to be made so that there is an appropriate balance between case management principles and the substantive issues in the proceedings. Furthermore, the lack of attention to detail and in particular the lack of analysis of what had been happening during the proceedings in particular as between the local authority and the grandmother and the child, including the timetable for the child and for the proceedings, deprived the decision of the character of individual and collective proportionality that application of the overriding objective would have provided. In simple terms, the decision was too superficial and un-reasoned to stand scrutiny.

 

 

 

  • If it was the judge’s intention to consider or re-consider the grandmother’s case at the end of the evidence, in what would then have been an holistic overview of the options to which a welfare analysis and proportionality evaluation were applied, then he failed to put in place any procedural protections for a person whose case was distinct from the other parties. In particular, his decision at the beginning of the hearing had the effect of refusing to make the grandmother a party, thereby denying her access to the documents so that she could challenge matters relating to her own case and condemned her to giving evidence without knowledge of the relevant evidence in the case. The essential due process protections of notice of the issues and an opportunity to challenge evidence relating to those issues was missing and in my judgment that was also procedurally unfair.

 

 

 

  • By reason of the manner in which the case management decision was made, the evidence relating to whether grandmother was a realistic option was not identified and tested. It was neither tested by reference to applicable case management principles nor substantively as one of the options in the case about which the court was hearing evidence with the usual due process protections. The judge allowed the issues raised by the grandmother to fall between two stools. That was plainly wrong and as a consequence the process was procedurally unfair.

 

 

 

  • At the end of the hearing, the case management decision made by the judge was re-iterated as a substantive decision to exclude the grandparents from the care of their granddaughter. Whether or not the grandmother as a non-party to that decision has the locus to challenge that aspect of the case, the mother does. She submits that as an exercise of value judgment it was wrong and in any event the judge failed to conduct a non linear, holistic welfare analysis and proportionality evaluation of all of the care and placement options and that was an error of law. The judge did not reason why the grandparents were to be excluded, there is no comparative welfare analysis of the benefits and detriments of each option and a proportionality evaluation is entirely missing from the judgment. Further and better reasons of the judgment were requested but they do not assist in any of these respects. That has the effect that there is no consideration in judgment of the effect on the child of breaking family ties, in particular her attachment to her grandparents and whether nothing else would do other than adoption.

 

 

 

  • In summary, the grandmother supported by the mother submit that the judge failed to address that which is required by the Supreme Court in Re B (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Threshold Criteria) [2013] UKSC 33, [2013] 1 WLR 1911 in analysing whether ‘nothing else will do’ and the subsequent Court of Appeal cases of Re P (A Child) (Care and Placement: Evidential Basis of Local Authority Case) [2013] EWCA Civ 963, Re G (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Welfare Evaluation) [2013] EWCA Civ 965 and Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146. I agree. There was no overt analysis of the child’s welfare throughout her life nor the likely effect on her of having ceased to be a member of her original family in accordance with section 1(2) and 1(4)(c) of the 2002 Act. The distinctions between the factors in the welfare checklists in the 1989 Act and the 2002 Act were not explored. The essence of the recent case law and of the statutory tests was not sufficiently demonstrated.

 

 

 

  • The local authority concede that the judge’s approach to the welfare analysis and proportionality evaluation was not in accordance with the authorities. Their case rests on the ability to exclude the grandmother from that exercise. That would have involved an analysis by the judge of the timetable for the child and the timetable for the proceedings as part of the overriding objective, the section 10(9) factors and the arguability of the grandmother’s case. That analysis was missing with the consequence that neither the grandmother’s case nor the local authority’s case was properly considered during case management and the grandmother’s case was not considered on the merits. It is fortunate that the child’s interests can be protected by an expedited re-hearing before the Designated Family Judge for Swansea.

 

This does seem to be the right decision for the child, but it raises real questions about the 26 week timetable.  It has been a long-standing question as to what the Court of Appeal would do with a Judge that refused in an adoption case to allow a delay to assess a relative who came forward last minute, and now we know. If the Judge is robust and looking at the new wording of the Act and the principles of the Act in relation to delay and achieving finality, they run the risk of being successfully appealed.

 

There’s another Court of Appeal decision forthcoming which does much the same in relation to giving a parent more time to demonstrate the ability to provide good enough care (even when the proceedings had reached 64 weeks http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/991.html  ), so the message here is somewhat muddled.

In speeches, it is 26 weeks can happen, it must happen, it will happen.

 

In the cases that hit the Court of Appeal it seems to me more – 26 weeks can happen, it must happen, it will happen – but to those other cases, not the ones we’re looking at.

So can a Judge who delivers that sort of robust judgment, refusing delay, be confident that the Court of Appeal will back them?  That’s exactly what happened with the ‘robust case management’ that was supposed to be the underpinning of the Protocol and PLO Mark One.  If the Court of Appeal aren’t really behind the 26 weeks, and the appeal process takes forever (as presently), then won’ t Judges cut out the middle man, save time and just allow the adjournment requested knowing that the Court of Appeal will probably grant it eventually anyway?

 

 

*To be scrupulously fair, this Court of Appeal decision, though only now released, was decided in March BEFORE the Children and Families Act 2014 came into force. But hardly in ignorance of the culture, and the main judgment was delivered by Ryder LJ, a major architect of the revised PLO.

 

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relatives and 26 weeks – a reported Auntie Beryl case

 

It has been a vexed issue ever since the 26 week guillotine came in, heightened by the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal’s emphasis on adoption as ‘last resort’ where nothing else will do  – what is a Court actually going to do when a relative comes forward at week 20, week 22, week 24, and assessment of them would derail that all-important timetable?  This is something I dubbed the “Auntie Beryl” question, and it is one that crops up in these cases around the country.

We won’t really know until a Judge somewhere tells Auntie Beryl that she is too late, that she should have come forward sooner, that she can’t be assessed, and makes an adoption order. Then that will be appealed and the Court of Appeal will try to square that circle of “26 weeks” with “nothing else will do”

In this case, which is the first to touch on this point since it became a genuinely difficult issue  (since pre 26 weeks, the assessment would ordinarily be done), the High Court attempted to deal with it.

Re K (A minor) 2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/4580.html

The grandparents in the case put themselves forward as alernative carers really early on, just after the child was born. A “guardedly positive” viability assessment was prepared.  At a hearing in March 2013, the grandparents decided with a heavy heart that they weren’t able to offer a permanent home and withdrew.

However, by 6th March when the case came on at this court, grandmother and grandfather had come to the conclusion, I am sure with an extremely heavy heart and sadness and feelings of regret, that it was not right to pursue the application. The grandmother wrote on behalf of herself and her husband to the Circuit Judge. She wrote that that it was the hardest letter she had ever had to write, that they loved K and have a bond with him, but they want what is best for him. She said that although it broke their hearts, they had to put their feelings to one side and focus on K. She said that health issues which had not initially seemed significant enough to affect them caring for K, had come to the fore during the assessment process. She was having tests for Multiple Sclerosis, and the results so far were pointing towards an MS diagnosis. The grandfather, who had had a heart attack two and a half years previously, had started having chest pains. They had done a lot of soul searching, and after a lot of deliberation and tears, decided that it was unfair to K for them to put themselves forward as carers. They could not give him 100 per cent, which they believed he deserved. They wanted him to have the very best in life, and if they truly believed they could give him this, they would still be seeking special guardianship. But they had to be realistic, so that he could have a happy, loving, secure and stable upbringing. If their health deteriorated any more, it would be hard to meet all his needs. They would always have him in their hearts, and drew strength from knowing that he would have a happy loving childhood with a family that loves him. It would be unfair for him to live with them if he would then have to live with someone else because they were unable to care for him. They hoped that K would understand when he is older that they had done this for him, to give him the best possible life.

 

In due course, having completed assessments of the parents, the Local Authority’s plan was for adoption.

Today is 8th May 2013. Last Friday, the grandparents, through their solicitors, issued their application, returnable today. The grandmother wrote another letter to the court. She wrote that they had not expressed themselves correctly in her previous letter. They were 100 per cent committed. They had wanted to tell the judge the real reason that they were pulling out but could not, because they were scared that at a later date when K was older, he would read the letter and it would upset him. She said that they did have some health problems, but that the real reason for withdrawing was that they were terrified that if they were awarded special guardianship there was nothing to stop K’s mother or father seeking and obtaining custody of K. Then he would have been subjected to their lifestyle and would have been at risk. They have since learned that this could not happen because the parents’ legal aid funding had ceased and they would never be able to make an application. They had always thought and believed that K deserved to stay with and have the benefit of his loving, large, warm and close natural family, and this would be best for him emotionally.

 

The May hearing was pushing very close to the 26 week deadline. It certainly would not have been possible to undertake the Special Guardianship assessment within that period – in fact, the assessment would have required another 12 weeks, pushing the case from a six month case into a nine or ten month case.

The Court had a hearing to decide whether to grant the grandparents leave to apply for a Special Guardianship Order (i.e to delay the final hearing to obtain that assessment) and heard some limited evidence from the grandmother.  The Court referred to the case law in relation to applications for leave (although personally, I think the caselaw cited is somewhat out of date, and there is substantially more recent authority making it plain that it is a more nuanced procedure balancing all of the factors rather than Re M 1995’s rather ‘soundbite’ approach – the Court of Appeal in Re B (A child) 2012 [2012] EWCA Civ 737  – in fact, the Court of Appeal say that rather than s10(9) containing a ‘test’ or anything like a ‘test’ to be crossed it simply tells the Court to have ‘particular regard’ to certain factors, whilst other factors can by implication be weighed in the balance too)

The Judge concluded

    1. I am sure that this application is entirely well meant and good-hearted. But it is emotional, unconsidered, unrealistic, and not thought through, I suspect that the prospect of losing contact with K has been a very powerful factor here.

 

    1. No doubt in March the grandparents reached their considered but painful decision to agree to a firm plan for this little boy for adoption with difficulty, but focussing on the child. I am afraid that whatever the love that the grandparents have for K, that their approach at the moment is not child-focussed in the objective way required. The grandparents know very well that they cannot properly commit themselves to this task. This came through in the grandmother’s evidence, when she had to face up to reality. They know that their health problems are important. They are aware of the potential disruption which could be created for K, particularly by his father, but perhaps by the mother too when she is in a less sanguine state of mind, for the rest of K’s minority. Although Mr. Taylor quite rightly stresses the benefits of this warm and close family, that was available in March when they made their decision.

 

  1. I am satisfied that there is a very significant risk that the proposed application will disrupt K’s life to such an extent that he would be harmed by it. I am quite satisfied having had the opportunity to assess in sharp and painful focus what the problems are likely to be, that this application has no real prospect of success. So I do not simply bring the guillotine down on the basis of 26 weeks. This is a summary decision but it is welfare based nonetheless, and based on an evaluation of the facts. It is for me to factor in all these considerations in K’s interests. Therefore I refuse the application.

 

Not quite an Auntie Beryl case in that the Court felt that there was enough information to say in effect that the grandparents application was not going to be successful even if the proceedings were delayed – rather than there being a paucity of information about the family member due to late presentation.

Parker J then gave some general guidance

    1. Cases where relataives or friends come forward at the last minute are likely to present the greatest challenges to the court in complying with the 26 week limit. The Court has a duty to consider whether there are alternatives to a care order. But in my view the court is entitled to dismiss such an application without detailed assessment and must take into account delay.

 

    1. Some measures may assist the court to manage such applications :-

 

a. Orders must record that parents have been advised that failure to identify family members at an early stage is likely to preclude their assessment and that the case will not be adjourned.

b. Where a relative has come forward and then withdraws a court should record that that person understands that this is their final decision and is unlikely be revisited without the strongest justification.

c. Any application for further assessment or joinder by a relative or other person must be resolved very swiftly. Such applications will usually be able to be dealt with on paper. Oral evidence, to be adduced only if necessary and proportionate, should be short and focussed.