RSS Feed

Tag Archives: bias

Application to dismiss a Guardian for bias

Very rare application this, and one that should interest both professionals and parents alike.  It also raises important issues about the fine detail in the construction of a Position Statement at an interim hearing, particularly for lawyers representing the child.

 

QS v RS & Another 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/1443.html

 

This was a case in the High Court before MacDonald J  involving international adoption – two people had adopted a child in Nepal, the girl now being ten years old and her ‘parents’ were British citizens. (I’ll drop the air-quotes from here on to keep it simple).  Her parents moved with her to Dubai, and applied for British Citizenship and obtained that for her.  The parents later split up and there was an argument as to whether the child should stay in Dubai with father, or be in England with mother. So it isn’t a run-of-the-mill care case, but some of the general principles applied by the Court and the issues it throws up are relevant.

The Court appointed a Guardian to make enquiries into the case and to represent the child in the proceedings.

As part of the process, the Court had directed the Guardian (who was a replacement for the initial Guardian who left the service) to file and serve a Position Statement commenting on the outcome of a meeting with T, the child.  This wasn’t the final hearing, nor the final Guardian’s report.

The Guardian’s position statement included the following :-

 

The children’s guardian takes the view from talking to T and interpreting her wishes and feelings captured in her ‘How it looks to me’ submission annexed as MH1 that her family life is firmly rooted in Dubai and up until now this appears to have worked for her, even in the absence of M for three years

Now, not all of the evidence had been received by that point, and it seems that some of the material which had also been directed to be produced by the parents and their representatives had not yet made its way to the Guardian.  In fact, looking at the end of the judgment, it seems that the Guardian’s Position Statement was drafted and filed BEFORE the due date, and thus ahead of the father’s evidence.  The Judge criticised that decision to file early and hence out of sequence.

The mother took the view that the Guardian, who would be in a powerful position to make final recommendations, had by giving that clear view of the case reached a decision and conclusion before seeing all of the evidence and that there was a perception of bias.

 

[I must briefly comment that in a EVERY set of private law proceedings I ever did for parents, my client always told me without fail having met the CAFCASS officer that the CAFCASS officer had taken against them and was siding with the other parent. Fifty per cent of times, when we got the report and it didn’t recommend what my client wanted, they would say “See, told you?” – the other fifty per cent they would say either “well, that surprised me” or “It just goes to show how strong my case is that even a biased CAFCASS officer didn’t dare go against me”.   Sometimes, there are valid reasons for being unhappy with a CAFCASS report – but actual evidence of bias is pretty rare.  When it is flawed, it is more likely to be as a result of shoddiness, lack of care, failure to double-check assertions or being rushed. Those things absolutely do happen, I’m afraid. ]

 

So mother applied to the Court to discharge the Guardian on the grounds of bias or apparent bias.

What’s the application in those circumstances?

 

  • FPR 2010 r 16.25 provides as follows in respect of the power of the court to terminate the appointment of a children’s guardian appointed under FPR 2010 r 16.4:

 

16.25 Court’s power to change children’s guardian and prevent person acting as children’s guardian

(1) The court may –

(a) direct that a person may not act as a children’s guardian;

(b) terminate the appointment of a children’s guardian;

(c) appoint a new children’s guardian in substitution for an existing one.

(2) An application for an order or direction under paragraph (1) must be supported by evidence.

(3) Subject to rule 16.24(6), the court may not appoint a children’s guardian under this rule unless it is satisfied that the person to be appointed complies with the conditions specified in rule 16.24(5).

 

  • FPR 2010 PD16A para 7.17 makes clear that where an application is made for an order under FPR 2010 r 16.25 the applicant must set out the reasons for seeking it and that the application must be supported by evidence.

 

 

The FPR (Family Procedure Rules) don’t go on to advise the Court on what criteria to apply when considering the application.

 

The Court therefore looked for guidance in the case law, to see what principles if any could be drawn from cases where Courts HAD removed Guardian’s or refused such an application.

 

When examining the almost identical provision in CPR 1998 r 21.7 dealing with the power to terminate the appointment of a litigation friend, Foskett J observed in Bradbury v Paterson [2015] COPLR 425 at [31] that the court’s discretion is a full one

 

[That’s a posh way of saying “It’s basically up to you Judge. Use the Force…”]

.

 

  • There are few authorities concerning the termination of the appointment of the children’s guardian. In Oxfordshire County Council v P [1995] 1 WLR 543, [1995] 1 FLR 552 Ward J (as he then was) allowed the application to terminate the appointment of the children’s guardian in circumstances where the mother had disclosed to the guardian that she had caused injuries to the child and the guardian was thereafter interviewed by the Police to obtain a witness statement from her to prove criminal charges arising out of the injuries, during which interview she disclosed the mother’s admissions without the leave of the court. Ward J concluded in respect of the guardian that “To encourage frankness on the part of the parents, she must be replaced even though her work in all other respects has been wholly admirable and my criticism of her is technical not substantial.”
  • In Re J (Adoption: Appointment of Guardian ad Litem) [1999] 2 FLR 86 the Court of Appeal refused an application to terminate a guardian’s appointment (made within the context of an application for permission to appeal an order appointing a guardian in adoption proceedings) notwithstanding that at a meeting following the cessation of her appointment in the care proceedings, but prior to her appointment in the adoption proceedings the guardian had expressed agreement to the proposal that the child be placed for adoption. In Re J Ward LJ held that it is untenable to assert that there is bias or the appearance of bias based simply on adverse views expressed in the course of long proceedings.
  • Further, in Re J Ward LJ agreed with the observation of the judge at first instance that, frequently, a children’s guardian holding a certain view can be persuaded under cross-examination to change their minds, that the “flexibility, rigidity, competence, balance, wisdom or other aspects of her conduct of the case are matters which the court will be invited to take into account when deciding whether to accept her evidence or recommendations” and that “Only in very rare circumstances can such factors disqualify a Guardian from acting at all“. Within this context I also note the observation of Sir Nicholas Wall in A County Council v K, C and T [2011] 2 FLR 817 at [117] that:

 

“The reasoning of the Cafcass guardian, whether given orally or in writing is always open to challenge in cross-examination, which can always go to method. Added to which, of course, where the report is in writing, good practice requires the investigative and reasoning processes to be set out. Once again, the decision is for the court, which is heavily dependent upon the quality of the advice it receives.”

 

  • Finally, in respect of Re J, at 88 Ward LJ agreed with the observations of the judge at first instance that the guardian’s function is not a judicial function. In short, and once again, the court and not the children’s guardian is the final arbiter of what is in the child’s best interests. Within the context of this latter point, it is important, once again, to note the observations of Macur LJ in MW v Hertfordshire County Council [2014] EWCA Civ 405 at [32] that the children’s guardian is a witness subject to the same judicial scrutiny as any other witness and starts with no special advantage in proceedings as compared with other witnesses.
  • Finally, in relation to the authorities, in Re A (Conjoined Twins: Medical Treatment)(No 2) [2001] 1 FLR 267 Ward LJ held that the court can terminate the appointment of a Children’s Guardian where he or she has acted manifestly contrary to the best interests of the child, observing as follows:

 

“It was not necessary for the President, in order to dispose of the application, to attempt any comprehensive statement of the circumstances in which it might be expedient to remove a guardian ad litem, and the President wisely did not embark on that course. Neither r 4.10(9) of the Family Proceedings Rules 1991 nor the corresponding provision of the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 (r 21.7(1)) specifies any limit on the court’s power to terminate the appointment of a guardian ad litem or litigation friend. The President focused on the particular situation in which the court is asked to replace a guardian ad litem because the guardian has in the conduct of litigation taken a course of action (in which we include an omission), or is about to take a course of action, which is manifestly contrary to the best interests of the child whose interests it is the guardian’s duty to safeguard. If the guardian (or litigation friend) does act manifestly contrary to the child’s best interests, the court will remove him even though neither his good faith nor his diligence is in issue.”

 

  • Overall, it would appear that whilst the court’s discretion to terminate the appointment of a children’s guardian under FPR 2010 r 16.25(1)(b) is a full one, it is nonetheless a discretion that should be exercised sparingly, taking into account the imperative of the overriding objective in FPR 2010 r 1.1 to deal with the case justly having regard to the welfare issues involved. Within this context, where the grounds relied on in support of an application to terminate the appointment of the children’s guardian concern the methodology adopted by the guardian, the court may terminate the appointment where the guardian acts manifestly contrary to the child’s best interests or, but only in very rare circumstances, where the guardian has engaged in conduct that the court would ordinarily be invited simply to take into account when deciding whether to accept or reject the guardian’s evidence or recommendations.

 

The Court also considered the authorities on judicial bias  (our old friend Porter v Magill)

 

 

  • Where an allegation of apparent bias is made the test set out in Porter v McGill [2002] 2 AC 357 falls to be considered, namely “whether the fair-minded observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the tribunal was biased“. There is there is no difference between the common law test of bias and the requirement for impartiality contained in Art 6 of the ECHR (Lawal v Northern Spirit [2003] ICR 856).
  • As the terminology used in the test in Porter v McGill suggests, the question of apparent bias is ordinarily considered in the context of the conduct of a person or persons occupying a judicial or quasi-judicial role. Where the person whose conduct is in question is not acting in a judicial or quasi-judicial capacity it is inappropriate for the case to be approached in the same way as one would approach a person performing a normal judicial role or quasi-judicial role; a situation where the person is making a determination (R v Secretary of State for Trade and others ex parte Perestrello and another [1981] 1 QB 19 at 35). In such circumstances, the position of the person whose conduct is the subject of criticism is better considered by reference to whether the person in question was under a duty to act fairly, the ambit of that duty, and whether they have acted with the requisite degree of fairness, rather than by reference to the concept of apparent bias (R v Secretary of State for Trade and others ex parte Perestrello and another [1981] 1 QB 19 at 34). I pause to note that, pursuant to FPR 2010 r 16.27(1)(b) and PD 16A para 7.6, a children’s guardian appointed pursuant to FPR 2010 r 16.4 is required to conduct the proceedings on behalf of child fairly.
  • Art 6 of the ECHR enshrines the right to a fair hearing. When considering whether a hearing has been fair, the court will look at the proceedings as a whole as well as any alleged individual deficiencies (Barberá, Messegué and Jarbado v Spain (1988) 11 EHRR 360 at [68]). The right to a fair trial guaranteed by Art 6 is not confined to the ‘purely judicial’ part of the proceedings. Unfairness at any stage of the litigation process may involve a breach of Art 6 (Re L (Care: Assessment: Fair Trial) [2002] 2 FLR 730).
  • Where it is said that biased or unfair conduct on the part of person under a duty to advise the court will lead to bias or unfairness in the proceedings, such a causal link must be demonstrated. In R v Gough [1993] AC 646 at 664C the House of Lords held that it must be shown that by reason of the adviser participating in the decision making process there is a real likelihood that he or she would impose his or her influence on the tribunal (see also R (Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust) v Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts and Another [2012] EWCA Civ 472 at [132]).
  • In this case the children’s guardian has been appointed pursuant to FPR 2010 r 16.4. Within this context, the role and duties of the children’s guardian are set out in FPR 2010 PD 16A. As I have already noted, pursuant to paragraph 7.6 of that Practice Direction it is the duty of a children’s guardian appointed under FPR 2010 r 16.4 to “fairly and competently to conduct proceedings on behalf of the child”. Further, pursuant to FPR 2010 PD 16A paragraph 7.7 the children’s guardian must advise the court on, inter alia, the child’s wishes and feelings and the options available to the court in respect of the child and the suitability of each such option, including what order should be made in determining the application. Pursuant to FPR 2010 PD 16A paragraph 6.1 the children’s guardian must make such investigations as are necessary to carry out his or her duties.
  • Within this context, it is important to note the observations of Macur LJ in MW v Hertfordshire County Council [2014] EWCA Civ 405 (a case in which the children’s guardian was appointed pursuant to FPR 2010 r 16.3) at [21] and [32] respectively that the children’s guardian is not a “neutral” party or participant in proceedings and that the children’s guardian does not have a “special” status within proceedings. Whilst the children’s guardian is required to proffer advice to the court, in doing so the guardian becomes a witness subject to the same judicial scrutiny as any other witness. The children’s guardian starts with no special advantage in proceedings as compared with other witnesses.
  • When the court is reaching its decision with respect to the welfare of a child it must consider all the evidence in the case including, but not limited to, the evidence of the children’s guardian. The court is the decision maker and must reach its decision by reference to the matters set out in the Children Act 1989 s 1 having regard to the totality of the evidence before the court.

 

I will pause there. MW v Hertfordshire 2014 says something very important – that the Guardian is just a witness like any other, and their evidence can be tested by cross-examination and they don’t start with any additional Brownie Points or judicial weight given to their evidence over and above any other witness. To which I would say that that’s a very fine notion, and I believe that it ought to be true, but it absolutely isn’t true in practice.  I’ll give you all a specific counter to that.

In the form given for Facts and Reasons, which is what Magistrates have to fill out when they are making a decision about a child, there is a specific section that says “Views of the Guardian and the reasons for the Court departing from those views if they do so”.   There isn’t a similar specific section asking the Court to specifically justify why they didn’t do what the mother asked, or the father, or even the Local Authority.  Every single social worker will tell you stories of how they got to the end of a case with a happy outcome where the child remains at home with parents and the Court were all over the Guardian  “I’d like to thank the Guardian for all of her hard work in this case” and the social worker doesn’t get a mention.  If Guardians who were previously social workers are honest, they will tell you how the experience of Court moved from being looked at as though you were something nasty on the sole of a shoe to being more or less the next living incarnation of the Dali Lama when they just move offices and become a Guardian.  This isn’t me having a go at Guardians – I think there are very good ones, and very bad ones and most of them fall on a spectrum well between those points, just as social workers. But MW v Hertfordshire’s lofty claim that a Guardian has no preferential treatment from the Court is a crock, I’m afraid.

 

I wrote about the Hertfordshire case at the time, here   (it was a Court of Appeal judgment that had LOADS of important stuff in it. It was like a selection box for law geeks. I’m afraid that I see the ‘no special treatment for Guardians’ being the bar of Turkish Delight in said selection box, that doesn’t get eaten or even taken out of the box because it looks inedible. Well, here, MacDonald J takes it out of the box and tucks into it, proclaiming it to be delicious.)

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/04/04/guardians-are-not-a-neutral-party-and-dont-get-brownie-points/

 

The Court’s decision on this issue, looking at the test for judicial bias and considering whether a Guardian is in the same sort of position or whether (as MW v Hertforshire suggests) they are just  a witness like any other and any issues of bias are simply to be taken up in cross-examination was this :-

 

DISCUSSION

 

  • I have decided that the mother’s oral application for an order terminating the appointment of Mr Power as T’s children’s guardian should be dismissed. My reasons for so deciding are as follows.
  • The mother’s allegation of “apparent bias” against the children’s guardian (as distinct from the court) as a ground for terminating the appointment of the guardian is in my judgment misconceived. The question of apparent bias falls to be considered in the context of the conduct of a person or persons occupying a judicial or quasi-judicial role. The role of the children’s guardian is not a judicial or quasi-judicial role. Whilst he is under a statutory duty to advise the court he is not the decision maker in these proceedings. In the circumstances, it is inappropriate for the mother to seek to approach actions of the children’s guardian in the same way as one would approach a person performing a normal judicial role or quasi-judicial role (R v Secretary of State for Trade and others ex parte Perestrello and another [1981] 1 QB 19 at 35 A-C).
  • Notwithstanding that the mother’s primary contended ground of termination is, in my judgment, misconceived, in circumstances where, pursuant to FPR 2010 r 16.27(1)(b) and PD 16A para 7.6, the children’s guardian must conduct the proceedings on behalf of T fairly when, inter alia, advising the court on the T’s wishes and feelings, the options available to the court in respect of the T and the suitability of each such option, including what order should be made in determining the application, it is nonetheless necessary in my judgment to consider whether the children’s guardian has failed to act with the requisite degree of fairness such that the termination of his appointment is justified in accordance with the legal principles I have outlined above.
  • Turning first to the specific passages of the Position Statement in issue, I am not able to accept Mr Perkins’ submission that the passage in the Position Statement lodged on behalf of the children’s guardian set out at Paragraph 11(i) above setting out his analysis of T’s wishes and feelings evidences a lack of impartiality on the part of the guardian. The views of the guardian are plainly grounded in statements made to him by T. The missing statement of the father could only have acted reinforce the conclusion reached by the guardian. The matters which Ms Hamade has been asked to consider do not go to interpreting the nature or significance of T’s wishes and feelings. The child’s guardian makes clear in his report that he spoke to T after she had met with her mother specifically to check whether her views had changed.
  • The position in respect of the passage in the Position Statement lodged on behalf of the children’s guardian set out at Paragraph 11(ii) above is, I accept, of greater concern. It is clear that in coming to his views the children’s guardian considered the position of the mother, both in terms of the quality of T’s attachment to her and her travel difficulties with respect to the United Arab Emirates and appreciated that the matter remained subject to final determination by the court. However, statement that “The children’s guardian takes the view that T has suffered enough change and suggests a formula of arrangements that add, expand and compliment the advantages that accrue to her living with F in Dubai” does have the appearance of a recommendation regarding the final outcome of this matter and both parents appear to have taken it as such. Further, it is beyond dispute that the guardian reached his conclusion without seeing the totality of the evidence he had been directed to consider. Whilst, once again, the missing evidence of the father may well only have reinforced this conclusion, the report of Ms Hamade was potentially relevant to it in circumstances where it bore on the question of how easy ongoing contact between mother and daughter would be to maintain in light of the nature and extent of any continuing issues regarding the mother’s ability to enter and leave the United Arab Emirates.
  • In circumstances where, pursuant to FPR 2010 r 16.27(1)(b) and PD 16A para 7.6, the children’s guardian must conduct the proceedings on behalf of T fairly, it is unfortunate that the Position Statement lodged on behalf of the children’s guardian is expressed what appeared to be a settled recommendation prior to the children’s guardian having had sight of all of the evidence and without the Position Statement making clear on its face that the children’s guardian acknowledged that his “suggested formula of arrangements” had been arrived at in that context. Whilst I accept that the Position Statement is a document drafted on behalf of the children’s guardian and not by him and that the document evidences his understanding that the matter remained subject to final determination by the court, I also accept that concern as to the impartiality of the guardian and, accordingly, the fairness of the proceedings has been generated in the mother in circumstances where the children’s guardian reached his conclusion without considering all of the evidence he was directed to.
  • However, having considered the position carefully and acknowledging the concerns of the mother, I am not able to accept, having regard to the respective roles of the Guardian and the court, that there is a real likelihood that the approach of the children’s guardian will lead to unfairness in the proceedings as a whole such that the criticisms of the methodology of the children’s guardian require the termination of his appointment pursuant to FPR 2010 r 16.25(1)(b).
  • As I have already noted, it is the court that is the decision maker in this case and not the children’s guardian. The court is required to consider fully and fairly all of the evidence before it when reaching its final decision on the welfare of T, having regard to the matters set out in the Children Act 1989 s 1. Within the context of that process, two matters are of particular importance when considering the mother’s application to terminate the appointment of the children’s guardian.
  • First, during the course of that process the children’s guardian enjoys no special status relative to other witnesses before the court (MW v Hertfordshire County Council [2014] EWCA Civ 405 at [21] and [32]). The fact that the children’s guardian is under a duty to advise the court the options available to it to make recommend what order should be made does not mean that the advice and recommendation of the children’s guardian carries with it preferential, let alone determinative weight in the proceedings. The views of guardian, even when set out in a final analysis and recommendations report, are not binding on the court. At all times it is the application of the principles and factors set out in the Children Act 1989 s 1 to the totality of the evidence before the court that drives the court’s conclusion as to what is in the child’s best interests. There would be more force in mother’s application if the court was bound to follow recommendations of the children’s guardian or if the recommendations of the guardian carried preferential weight in the proceedings. However, neither of these propositions is sound.
  • Second, within the context of this legal framework the evidence of the children’s guardian falls to be evaluated by the court in the same way as any other witness having regard to factors including its credibility, internal consistency and fairness, with the results of that evaluation being applied in reaching a final determination. Specifically, the evidence of the children’s guardian will be the subject to forensic scrutiny by the court through the medium of cross-examination. Within this context the mother will be able to test the aspects of the guardian’s methodology that concern her and make submissions to the court on the consequences of any challenges she makes good. In particular, she will be able to put to the children’s guardian that he has pre-judged the issue of T’s living arrangements and the court can consider whether the guardian’s recommendation is thereby undermined. The court is well used to hearing and considering challenges mounted in cross examination by way of an allegation of prejudgment against social workers and children’s guardians.
  • In the foregoing circumstances, and with these procedural protections in place, in my judgment the matters recorded in the Position Statement of the guardian that cause the mother concern do not amount to grounds for terminating the appointment of that guardian on the basis of unfairness. Whilst it is unfortunate that this position has arisen, I am satisfied that the trial process as a whole will allow the mother a fair opportunity at the final hearing to challenge the methodology and reasoning process of the children’s guardian, which challenges will be taken into account by the court when deciding what weight to attach to his views. Within this context, I am satisfied that the parties can remain on an equal footing and that the court can deal with the case fairly notwithstanding the statements included in the Position Statement drafted on behalf of the children’s guardian.
  • I of course acknowledge the principle that it is not only important that justice is done but that it is seen to be done. However, once again, I am satisfied that the fact that it is the court who is the decision maker in this case, coupled with the opportunity the mother has to challenge the methodology and conclusions of the children’s guardian prior to the court reaching its decision, meets the requirements of this cardinal principle. I also bear in mind that the children’s guardian has yet to file and serve his final analysis and recommendations report and that he will do so having had sight of all of the evidence that has been placed before the court.
  • In reaching my decision I have also had regard to the delay that will be engendered in these proceedings if the appointment of the current children’s guardian were to be terminated and the matter adjourned for a new guardian to commence work. I have also borne in mind that such a course of action would necessitate T having another meeting with a different professional to talk once again about her wishes and feelings. Having regard to the statutory principle that delay is ordinarily inimical to the welfare of the child, and whilst not determinative, this in my judgment is a further reason for refusing the application to terminate the appointment of the current children’s guardian.
  • Finally, and again whilst not determinative of my decision on the mother’s application, as I have already observed the mother made her application to terminate the appointment of the children’s guardian pursuant to FPR 2010 r 16.25(1)(b) orally (without even having given notice of the intention to make such an application in her Position Statement) and absent any written or oral evidence in support of that application, contrary to the requirements of FPR 2010 r 16.25(2). In the circumstances, I also note that the court has not been taken to evidence in support of the mother’s application as mandated by the rules of court when pursuing an application to terminate the appointment of the children’s guardian.

 

 

I don’t think that this was the strongest application on bias, it was fairly clear that the Guardian’s views about the child’s wishes and future were as a result of the Guardian’s discussions with the child, who was ten years old. The position statement was somewhat clumsy in not making the position more explicit that there was no final decision but rather an interim view.

Finally the Court said this :-

 

CONCLUSION

 

  • There will, in very rare circumstances, be cases where the court accedes to an application to terminate the appointment of the children’s guardian where the guardian has adopted a methodology that the court would ordinarily be invited simply to take into account at a final hearing when deciding what weight to attach to the guardian’s evidence or recommendations. This, however, is not such a case. For the reasons given above I am satisfied that the mother’s application to terminate the appointment of Mr Power should be dismissed, and I so dismiss it.
  • As I have already observed, in Re J Ward LJ endeavoured to reassure the mother that the judge in that case was confident about the impartiality of the children’s guardian, was alive to the issues in the case, and that it was the judge who would have the very difficult task of resolving those issues. I reassure the mother in the same terms in this case.
  • Finally, the need for the court to consider the issues set out in this judgment stems, in large part, from the failure by CAFCASS Legal to adhere to the directions made by this court on 5 April 2016. Mr Hinchliffe’s decision to complete his Position Statement on 2 June 2016 ahead of the receipt of evidence due to be filed on 10 May 2016 in respect of the report of Ms Hamade and on 3 June 2016 in respect of the statement of the father, which evidence the court required the guardian to consider before the lodging of a Position Statement, together with the terms in which the Position Statement was drafted in those circumstances, have caused the mother unnecessary worry and concern and the court additional work. That worry and work could have been avoided had CAFCASS Legal complied with the directions made by the court or applied to vary the same. I hope that CAFCASS Legal will reflect on this.
  • That is my judgment.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Over-egging the pudding

I seem to be jumping the gun on the Christmassy theme, it still (just) being November and having done a Santa Claus is coming to town post yesterday and a pudding one today.

 

[Quick tangent – I am myself surprised to learn that in the phrase ‘over-egging the pudding’ one is not talking about the sort of eggs that have yolks and whites. It seemed immediately obvious that it was about putting too many eggs in the pudding, but no – it means in this sense the ancient Anglo-Saxon use of ‘egg’ as in excite. So it means not whipping something up too much. Also ‘pudding’ here means sausage, not a dessert. So literally “don’t over-excite the sausage”   – apologies to anyone who typed “over-excite the sausage” into Google – this really isn’t the sort of site you were after. Just move on.   The metaphor works much better as ‘don’t put too many eggs into your pudding mixture’ than ‘don’t over-excite the sausage’  *]

 

Anyway, this case is about social workers over-egging the pudding when giving their evidence and presenting their arguments.

 

This is a County Court case (feel free to read that as being “Family Court sitting in a building which is called a County Court” if you are in the Ministry of Justice ) so it is not precedent, but it contains some important lessons and it is well worth a read.

 

Sanchia Berg of the BBC has written a good piece on it here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-30227974

 

 

The case is North East Lincolnshire v G and L 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCC/Fam/2014/B77.html

 

It was a case involving a three year old child called J. His mother had been unable to care for him due to substance misuse problems and she sadly died within the course of the proceedings. The two options that came before the Court were placement with grandparents, or adoption.

 

The Local Authority and the Guardian were recommending adoption and considered that the grandparents could not meet the child’s needs. It was said that the grandparents had had a history of alcohol misuse and domestic violence.

 

The Judge disagreed, but more than that, criticised the Local Authority witnesses for taking a biased approach and not being fair.

 

 

I heard evidence over two days. I heard in particular from Neil Swaby who had been the social worker for a substantial period, and also from Rachel Olley. During the course of that evidence the local authority’s case was severely undermined. Neil Swaby seemed very reluctant to accept that anything positive could be said about either set of grandparents. When he was referred to positive things said in the papers about them, he would say things like, “Well, I suppose you could say that”. He was very begrudging indeed in his evidence and I had the clear impression that he was, for whatever reason, whether it was his own inclination or instructions from above, that he was intent on saying only things which supported the local authority’s case and was very reluctant to make any concessions which would undermine that case.

 

           I then heard evidence from Rachel Olley whose evidence was totally discredited in my view. She sought to make it a substantial plank of her evidence that J was a child who had real behavioural problems, and had had them throughout his placement with foster carers. That, unfortunately, conflicted very strongly with not only what she had said in her own statement but what was said in the adoption social worker’s statement. Again I had the very strong impression that the local authority witnesses were intent on playing up any factors which were unfavourable to the grandparents and playing down any factors which might be favourable. In those circumstances I found it very difficult to give any weight at all to their evidence.

 

 

From time to time, I provide social workers with training, and a key part of that training is letting them know that a major thing that the Court is looking for is fairness. The power of the State is substantial and it is essential that when the State is making decisions and recommendations that can have such a devastating effect on people that they are being fair. That means giving credit for things that parents do well, seeing the positives, looking for the positives – it means saying sorry when the State have made a mistake or got something wrong, and it means not cherry picking in your evidence so that you focus entirely on the bad points and ignore the good points.

 

Things like this :-

 

When he was referred to positive things said in the papers about them, he would say things like, “Well, I suppose you could say that”

 

Can only persuade a Court that the worker is not fair and reasonable.

 

{I don’t mean in this piece to have a go at the individual workers concerned – firstly, anyone can have a bad day or a bad case, and secondly, I think the mistakes that these workers made are sadly not unique to them and are symptomatic of a culture of defensive practice and a preoccupation with ‘winning’ and ‘child rescue’. What these two workers did is not unique – it is rare for a Judge to nail someone for it so vividly and name them, but it does happen. Yes, a social worker has to present their professional opinion, yes they have to make a decision, yes sometimes that decision will be very painful for the family – but within all of that, the social worker should still be alive to the other side of the argument – to see how else it could be looked at, to acknowledge the real positives that the family have to offer}.

 

The Judge did say that he had rarely encountered this sort of behaviour in evidence from social workers, but that it made it very difficult if not impossible to rely on their evidence

 

Having heard the evidence of Neil Swaby and Rachel Olley I took the view, as I have already indicated, that the local authority’s case was wholly undermined. Their concerns appeared to be grossly overstated in order to try and achieve their ends. I have never, in over ten years of hearing care cases taken the view, as I did in this case, that the local authority’s witnesses were visibly biased in their attempts to support the local authority’s case. It is very unfortunate and I hope I shall never see that again.

 

 

 

The Judge looked at the particular criticisms of the grandparents, and set those into context. (The Judge doesn’t quote Hedley J’s masterful analysis in Re L, but the spirit of it is clear to see)

 

So far as Mr. and Mrs. C are concerned, may I say, I deplore any form of domestic violence and I deplore parents who care for children when they are significantly under the influence of drink. But so far as Mr. and Mrs. C are concerned there is no evidence that I am aware of that any domestic violence between them or any drinking has had an adverse effect on any children who were in their care at the time when it took place. The reality is that in this country there must be tens of thousands of children who are cared for in homes where there is a degree of domestic violence (now very widely defined) and where parents on occasion drink more than they should, I am not condoning that for a moment, but the Courts are not in the business of social engineering. The courts are not in the business of providing children with perfect homes. If we took into care and placed for adoption every child whose parents had had a domestic spat and every child whose parents on occasion had drunk too much then the care system would be overwhelmed and there would not be enough adoptive parents. So we have to have a degree of realism about prospective carers who come before the Courts

 

 

There was a new social worker brought into the case, a Mr Nelson. The Judge was critical of one portion of Mr Nelson’s evidence – and this will no doubt strike a chord with anyone who does children cases regularly – it is a hint that things are probably untoward but that we simply don’t know yet to what extent – a technique that is really easy to assert but because it is so nebulous and flimsy really difficult to analyse.

 

Dealing with Mr. Nelson’s report I find it is significant that Mr. Nelson seems to try to revive at least one aspect of the local authority’s case which had been discredited. For example, in relation to I who from the papers I had read, appears, despite his problems, to be a nice lad, Mr. Nelson sets out the history of the problems that I has had and concludes in paragraph 3.5 by saying, “At the time of writing this report I’s problematic behaviour is not known”. There is the clear implication in that sentence that there must be some problematic behaviour from I but Mr. Nelson does not know what it is. That smacks to me of the same bias that I regrettably have to say I saw from Neil Swaby and Rachel Olley

 

 

Another criticism of the grandparents was that if J were placed with them, he would not have his own bedroom and would need to share a room – what the Judge says here is telling

 

 

Mr. Nelson also raises issues which it seems to me are not serious issues. For example he raises an issue about the sleeping arrangements. Now, I accept, of course, that in an ideal world each child would have his own – his or her own bedroom and certainly you would not have children of different sexes sharing at least beyond a certain age. But we live in fact in a world where probably the majority of families all sleep in the same bedroom and so it cannot be said that the fact that a child may have to share a room is a significant problem

 

 

The case is not decisive of anything other than the result for the individual family and individual child, but it does raise some wider issues about the importance of being fair, the importance of not setting the bar too high for family members and the importance of being realistic about your expectations and seeing things in the round.

 

 

Have a good weekend everyone and don’t over-excite any sausages.

 

 

*[As with any Etymology, you have to take these explanations with a pinch of salt.  And oh God, looking at the eytomological explanation of “take it with a pinch of salt” opens up a whole new can of worms… and so the long day wears on]

“How’s that?”

When does judicial intervention cross the line into being improper and showing bias?

I recently read a very good piece on Lawtel  [other law reporting websites are available]  written by Stephen Gerlis, reporting on the Court of Appeal case ofHadi Jemaldeen v A-Z Law Solicitors 2012

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1431.html 

 As the piece is behind a paywall, and about a civil case, the issues probably won’t have come to everyone, so I thought it was worthy of a discussion in the family law context – with a nod of the hat to Mr Gerlis for his originating piece.

 The importance of the case is that the appeal hinged on whether the Judge who had heard the case had overstepped the mark when exercising control of the questions and posing his own questions, such that the appellant considered him to have been biased.

This led the Court of Appeal to run through the authorities on judicial interventions, and as we are about to embark on a brave new world of litigants in person (whether they wish to be or not) this may be an issue that crops up from time to time. It is that consideration of where the line is drawn that is potentially of interest.

I liked this quotation from Lord Denning (hence the title)

 “The Judge is not a mere umpire to answer the question “How’s that?” His object, above all, is to find out the truth, and to do justice according to law”.

 

 That authority is from Jones v National Coal Board [1957] 2 QB 55.  and the temptation to be able to quote a case about the National Coal Board AND Lord Denning in any family case is almost overwhelming.  We don’t get much opportunity to crowbar Lord Denning into family law cases.

 

[The only thing I am more tempted to say in Court, which I duly resist every time is “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain? ” ]

 The Court of Appeal set out that the test, when looking at how the Judge managed the trial/hearing is

 

  1. 20.   “The question is whether the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the tribunal was biased.”

Which principle is derived from the House of Lords in Magill v Porter [2001]UKHL 67, [2002] 2 AC 357.

 Going back to the Coal Board case (and why wouldn’t we?)

 

  1. In pursuit of that fundamental objective the judge is not required to sit silent as the sphinx. Appropriate intervention while a witness is giving evidence, even while the witness is being cross-examined, is not merely permissible but may be vital. As Denning LJ put it (page 63):

“No one can doubt that the judge, in intervening as he did, was actuated by the best motives. He was anxious to understand the details of this complicated case, and asked questions to get them clear in his mind. He was anxious that the witnesses should not be harassed unduly in cross-examination, and intervened to protect them when he thought necessary. He was anxious to investigate all the various criticisms that had been made against the board, and to see whether they were well founded or not. Hence, he took them up himself with the witnesses from time to time. He was anxious that the case should not be dragged on too long, and intimated clearly when he thought that a point had been sufficiently explored. All those are worthy motives on which judges daily intervene in the conduct of cases, and have done for centuries.”

He continued (page 64):

“The judge’s part in all this is to hearken to the evidence, only himself asking questions of witnesses when it is necessary to clear up any point that has been overlooked or left obscure; to see that the advocates behave themselves seemly and keep to the rules laid down by law; to exclude irrelevancies and discourage repetition; to make sure by wise intervention that he follows the points that the advocates are making and can assess their worth; and at the end to make up his mind where the truth lies. If he goes beyond this, he drops the mantle of a judge and assumes the robe of an advocate”.

  1. So there is nothing objectionable, for example, in a judge intervening from time to time to make sure that he has understood what the witness is saying, to clear up points that have been left obscure, to make sure that he has correctly understood the technical detail, to see that the advocates behave themselves, to protect a witness from misleading or harassing questions, or to move the trial along at an appropriate pace by excluding irrelevancies and discouraging repetition. Indeed, it is, as Denning LJ recognised (page 65) his duty to do so.

 

 

So the Judge can appropriately ask questions to clarify, or to check that she has understood, she can prevent inappropriate questions being asked, and she can tell everyone to get a move on once the point has been explored sufficiently.

 

What CAN’T the Judge do? She must not ‘descend into the arena’

 

  1. But there is, of course, a difficult and delicate balance to be held. The judge must not, as it is often put, descend into the arena. Denning LJ referred (page 63) to Lord Greene MR, who in Yuill v Yuill [1945] P 15, 20, had:

“explained that justice is best done by a judge who holds the balance between the contending parties without himself taking part in their disputations? If a judge, said Lord Greene, should himself conduct the examination of witnesses, “he, so to speak, descends into the arena and is liable to have his vision clouded by the dust of conflict”.

Denning LJ continued (page 64) that it is for the advocate to make his case;

“as fairly and strongly as he can, without undue interruption, lest the sequence of his argument be lost.”

 

 

Where the interventions can potentially overstep the mark is during cross-examination.   [Back to the Coal Board again  – underlining my own]

 

Now, it cannot, of course, be doubted that a judge is not only entitled but is, indeed, bound to intervene at any stage of a witness’s evidence if he feels that, by reason of the technical nature of the evidence or otherwise, it is only by putting questions of his own that he can properly follow and appreciate what the witness is saying. Nevertheless, it is obvious for more than one reason that such interventions should be as infrequent as possible when the witness is under cross-examination. It is only by cross-examination that a witness’s evidence can be properly tested, and it loses much of its effectiveness in counsel’s hands if the witness is given time to think out the answer to awkward questions; the very gist of cross-examination lies in the unbroken sequence of question and answer. Further than this, cross-examining counsel is at a grave disadvantage if he is prevented from following a preconceived line of inquiry which is, in his view, most likely to elicit admissions from the witness or qualifications of the evidence which he has given in chief. Excessive judicial interruption inevitably weakens the effectiveness of cross-examination in relation to both the aspects which we have mentioned, for at one and the same time it gives a witness valuable time for thought before answering a difficult question, and diverts cross-examining counsel from the course which he had intended to pursue, and to which it is by no means easy sometimes to return .”

 

And as, much like Marty McFly, we are no longer in the Fifties, the Court of Appeal added this

one of the changes in civil litigation since 1957, when Jones v National Coal Board was decided, is that more attention is now given to the criteria of proportionality, expedition and the allocation of an appropriate share of the court’s resources to any individual case: CPR Part 1.1. An advocate can no longer expect to have unlimited time in which to conduct his cross-examination

 

[And towards the end, the Court of Appeal refer to a recent family case Re J (A child) [2012] EWCA Civ 1231  in which the Judge’s interventions and curbing of cross-examination prevented the matters which went to the very heart of the case being put, and which did end up overturning the original decision]

 As this was a civil case, the decision eventually reached on the case before the Court of Appeal isn’t that important, but you can probably guess from this brief extract from the original trial transcript (Professor Rees being the appellant saying that the Judge had unfairly interrupted him) what the end result of the Appeal was 

THE RECORDER: I am interrupting your cross-examination.

PROFESSOR REES: No, it is very welcome, your Honour.

THE RECORDER: You had better ask the questions you want to ask.

PROFESSOR REES: Okay. Thank you, your Honour. But it is helpful to have these interventions, if I may say so, because ultimately your Honour has to decide this case and …

THE RECORDER: Well, if you put a document in which nobody has opened on, the witness has never see before, it is fairer for him and for me to try and work out what this document is supposed to be telling us all.

PROFESSOR REES: Absolutely, yes …”

 

[Hint, if you are going to claim in an appeal that a Judge unfairly interrupted you, don’t at the time, tell the Judge that the interventions are helpful and very welcome]