A peculiar little case, considered by the High Court, and not just a cheap opportunity to quote from The Lost Boys, honest. [But come on, when would Suesspicious Minds ever pass up an opportunity to reference the Lost Boys? “Burn rubber, does not mean warp speed!”]
Re AMV and MV 2012
It isn’t an important case, save for those involved, nor does it say anything vital about the law, but it is one of those interesting ones that I collect and write about where the mind boggles at how cases sometimes end up being conducted.
The Judgment is very short. Here is the nub of it.
A private law dispute where the mother and the children were living sometimes at her own home and sometimes with the maternal grandparents. The father alleged that the mother was living full-time with the grandparents, in an unsuitable property and not living at her own address at all.
The District Judge decided that the best way to assess that was to go out and see for herself.
So the mother was asked to agree to that site visit, there and then, and given 15 minutes to decide. [I like to imagine that the Judge was also loudly humming the Countdown theme tune, but this did not actually happen]
Obviously, saying no might have given the impression that there was something to hide, so with some confusion, she agreed.
It hadn’t been possible to contact the grandparents to forewarn them / ask them, so the Judge, accompanied by the mother, father, counsel and the CAFCASS officer set out on the journey.
All parties duly arrived at the mother’s house, were permitted entry and apparently combed the premises, opening doors, looking in cupboards and fridges, even looking in wastepaper baskets. I was told that the District Judge had specifically looked into a dustbin and, as a result, made an express finding, arising from this as to the likely occupancy of the house.
6 On completion of this outing, the parties (still in the two separate cars) drove to the maternal grandparents’ property. On arrival they were given admittance. The maternal grandparents were to an extent taken by surprise. They did not have independent legal advice. The process of investigation, as already described, then took place in their home, with doors being opened, the contents of drawers being investigated and the like.
7 The parties returned to court. The entire outing took about one and a half hours. The District Judge made findings in reliance upon what had been seen – indeed, a great deal of cross-examination of the CAFCASS officer took place on the basis of counsel’s perception of the state of the two homes.
It is not going to take a genius to work out that the Court having made decisions based on these site visits, the mother was going to appeal those decisions, and that she was going to succeed in that appeal.
To my mind, this entire procedure was wholly unacceptable. In the first place, it was a suggestion which came within or shortly after the opening of the case and did not permit time for proper consideration of the implications. In reality it gave the mother and her adviser little effective choice but to agree for fear that a negative response would draw an adverse inference from the court. It was, in effect, litigation by ambush.
9 Although I have not been addressed in detail by either counsel, it would also seem to me it was, prima facie, a breach of the mother’s Article 6 rights to a fair trial. It is not the role of a judge in such a situation to play detective and enter a person’s home. 10. More importantly this Judge entered the home of a third party in order to elicit evidence. Prima facie, that was a breach of the maternal grandparents’ Article 8 rights.
To my mind, a judge’s job is to consider the facts presented, weigh up that evidence after cross-examination, make findings and a determination. If the methodology adopted by this District Judge was correct, it would lead inevitably to breaches under the ECHR. A Judge cannot seek to determine who is telling the truth by a surprise or unannounced visit in relation to disputed facts. That is not an appropriate way to litigate.
Moreover, the method of approaching third parties and seeking entrance into their home in those circumstances as I have stated left them with effectively no choice. I doubt that they felt that they had any alternative but to open their front door and make the Judge, counsel, their daughter and their former son-in-law welcome in their flat.
The District Judge found their home was cramped, dirty and untidy. Hardly a matter which was appropriate in all the circumstances.
10 I consider that it is inappropriate for any District Judge to seek to deal with a case in this manner. Especially as the site visit came at the Courts suggestion without any or any sufficient time for mature reflection let alone legal advice.
If there are real concerns that children are not being cared for properly (and that was not an issue in this case) it is a matter that can be dealt with by social services who are entitled to, and do make, regular unannounced visits.
I deprecate the method used by the District Judge and would urge that nothing similar occurs in the future.
I suppose the process of the District Judge effectively making an unannounced visit and looking in dustbins, and the parents counsel cross-examining the CAFCASS officer about a home visit to which not only they, but also the Judge had also been present (and thus technically witnesses about) was slightly more scientific and forensic than the Judge starting the judgment with “Ip dip sky blue, it is not you” , but not all that much more.
Please, judges and counsel of the land, keep making such extraordinary and peculiar decisions, it brightens up my day.
[The usual tangent – it seems that the lore that a vampire must be invited into your home comes from Bram Stoker, in “Dracula” “He may not enter anywhere at the first, Unless there be some of the household who bid him to come; though afterwards he can come as he please.” – where Van Helsing is recounting the powers and limitations of the vampire, and wasn’t around as a myth before then]