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Discharge of care order (IRO takes a kicking)

 

One of my commentators asked me this week whether there were many authorities on discharge of Care Orders. I can’t claim any credit for the fact that a case has now turned up.

This is a case decided by a Circuit Judge, so it is not binding authority, but it throws up some interesting issues.  Particularly for, and about, Independent Reviewing Officers.  The judgment is critical of the Local Authority (but more about the systems than the individual worker concerned, though she is named)

 

Re X (Discharge of Care Order) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B217.html

 

This was the mother’s application to discharge the care order on her son X, who is now 14. That order was made in 2001. Very peculiarly, X was at home with his mother under a Care Order until 2010 (and the removal appeared to have happened following mother’s application to discharge the Care Order then).  X then came into foster care and has been there since then.

 

The mother had care proceedings on two younger siblings of X, concluding with no order in 2012. So those children live with her, there are no statutory orders and they are not open cases to social workers.

In the period since the court made its orders of June and December 2012, D’s two youngest daughters have remained in her care. There has been no statutory involvement from Social Services; it is therefore reasonable for the court to assume that the Local Authority has no concerns about the care provided to them. D, very sadly, has been involved on the periphery of proceedings relating to a number of her grandchildren, at least two of whom have been permanently removed. Her losses have continued, therefore, to be many and great.

 

X has autism, so has significant needs of his own.

 

I’ll do the law Geek bit first.

 

Geek point 1 – scrutiny of care plan

When the Children and Families Act 2014 was a twinkle in the drafter’s eye, there was much talk about changing the Court’s relationship with care plans, reducing the scrutiny of them down to the essential matters – no doubt with the hope that the time spent in Court proceedings micro-managing every aspect of the care plan and litigating about every tiny aspect could be cut out and that would speed things up. The Act duly did include a clause to the effect that the Court was only REQUIRED to look at

section 31 (3B) Children Act 1989

…such of the plans provisions setting out the long-term plan for the upbringing of the child concerned as provide for any of the following

(a)the child to live with any parent of the child’s or with any other member of, or any friend of, the child’s family;

(b)adoption;

(c)long-term care not within paragraph (a) or (b).

 

i.e just a flat-out ‘where is the child going to live under this plan’.

 

I haven’t seen that really happen, and also I haven’t seen it appear in any law reports. Until this one

 

Section 31(3)(A) further makes clear that the court must limit its consideration of the prescribed elements of the care plan as to placement, and as the commentary in the Red Book suggests that must necessarily be limited to the form of placement, not the detail of it. I am, however, nonetheless satisfied that, in this case, the court can and must look at the implementation of the plan and its effect on the child in order to complete the welfare evaluation.

 

Which is a really elegant way of saying “The Act says that I’m not REQUIRED to look at the detail of the plan, but to decide the case fairly, I still need to”

 

Geek point 2 – Court keeping hold of the case to hold the LA to account

 

The Guardian in this case told the Court that she did not support the mother’s application to discharge the Care Order, but wanted the Court to adjourn the application, because the LA had made such a mess of things there was little confidence that if left to their own devices without Court scrutiny they would fix things.

It is submitted on the guardian’s behalf that the Local Authority has so failed in its duty as corporate parent to implement the final care plan approved by the court that it should be held to account and its future planning overseen by the court. The guardian urges the court to require the Local Authority to produce an updated plan that is coherent, choate and capable of implementation. The guardian supports the discharge of the Section 34(4) contact order. She does not support the making of a defined contact order in substitution, but invites the court to direct the Local Authority to confirm its commitment to contact at the level of six times a year in its revised plan

 

The Local Authority argued that the Court had no jurisdiction to do that. And if they didn’t use the words ‘smacks of starred care plan’ in their argument, I’d be highly surprised.

The Court accepted that there was no jurisdiction to adjourn the proceedings just to monitor the LA. But did decide that there were some material bits of evidence that were needed before mother’s application could be properly determined.  (so a half-way house). The Judge also ordered, that that evidence should be obtained through an independent social work assessment.

 

Geek point 3 – the legal approach to a discharge of care order

 

The Judge points out that the burden is on the applicant (i.e mother) to show that the order should be discharged

It is for Mother to satisfy the court that there has been a material change of circumstances and X’s welfare requires discharge of the care order.

But then goes on to say that in considering article 8, the Court would have to consider whether it was necessary for the Care Order to remain and to only continue the order if it was proportionate.

 

The court is mindful that Article 6 and Article 8 of the Convention Rights are engaged and that when the court considers the application to discharge the care order, it can only continue the care order if satisfied that the Local Authority’s continued intervention is proportionate

 

Those two things involve some degree of conflict – it seems that the burden is on mother to show that the Care Order should be discharged and simultaneously on the LA to show that it is proportionate for it to continue.

I’ve never seen that argument advanced. It seems in keeping with the spirit of Re B-S (where even if the Court has approved the plan of adoption by making a Placement Order, when the Court is considering making an adoption order, it still has consider whether the plan already approved is necessary and proportionate). But it jibes with a fundamental principle of English law that the burden falls upon the applicant.

I don’t want to say that the Judge is wrong here, and I’m not even sure that she is. I think it is a natural consequence of the need to apply article 8 to any decision made by the Court in family proceedings that the Court need to be satisfied that the interference (even continued interference) by the State in private and family life is proportionate.  I think that she has spotted something clever that I had overlooked.  It made my temples throb a bit to think about it.  I wonder if we will see this revisited.

 

Judicial criticism – LAC reviews

There were major issues in this case. One was that despite the child having been in care since 2010/2011 with a plan of long-term fostering, he was still waiting for a placement. Another was that the therapy and work that he obviously needed still hadn’t materialised.  (And if you are thinking “I bet they made a referral to CAMHS and that was the end of it”, then you are both a hard-bitten cynic and right. )

There was also the issue of contact, particularly contact with his siblings.  And the issue that the LA had basically stopped working with the mother altogether.

She is described as being ‘challenging and forthright’  (which is a bit like those obituaries you see of famous people that say ‘fun loving and gregarious’ when they mean ‘an alcoholic who was exhausting to be around’ or ‘was not one to suffer fools gladly’ to mean ‘was obnoxious and vile to everyone who worked with him’. )

 

 

But let’s quickly look at how little involvement the LA were having with this mother (who lets not forget was SHARING PR for this 14 year old)

It is unusual to come across a case where a mother who continues to share parental responsibility is excluded from the LAC reviews, is not provided with the name of the social worker working directly with the child, is not provided with information about the child’s school, receives no updates of his medical condition and no updates of his work with the therapeutic services. As far as I understand it, she was not even provided with redacted copies of the school reports.

 

Yes, you read that correctly. The LA weren’t even telling the mother the name of the social worker.

The bigger issue, however, with all of these things was, where was the Independent Reviewing Officer in all of this?

I mentioned ‘starred care plans’ earlier – if you are not one of my more breathtakingly beautiful and vivacious readers [translation :- older]  you may not know about starred care plans.  They were a short-lived invention of the Court of Appeal, to deal with the concern that where the Court approves a care plan and makes a Care Order, the LA then go off and run their Care Order and there’s no mechanism to get the case back before the Court to say “hey, they aren’t doing what they promised”.  The House of Lords squashed that mechanism but did say that there ought to be some form of mechanism created by Parliament to address the issue. As a result, Independent Reviewing Officers were created by Parliament – to scrutinise performance of a care plan and also giving them the ability to refer any breach to CAFCASS who could in turn apply to Court.   (Last time I checked, nationally there had been 8 referrrals and 0 court applications, so that’s working well)

 

29. The LAC reviews, whilst being required to consider the plan for permanence, appear to play lip service to the need to achieve this. There is no record of reasoned debate and discussion about the child’s need for permanence or how the plan for permanence might be reviewed and achieved. It is fortuitous that X has been able to remain where he is to date. It may be that he will remain there until he achieves independence. Nonetheless it is regrettable that the Local Authority failed to rigorously pursue suitable alternative long term placements for X or demonstrate a determination and clarity of thought in the allocation of their resources. The LAC review minutes do not demonstrate clear and strategic planning in the search for a family even during the period when the Local Authority knew of the equivocation of the current carers.

  1. It is generally acknowledged that the earlier a child achieves permanence the better. It is all the more important for a child like X, whose needs are necessarily heightened by his family history and his autism. I am advised by the IRO that there are significant resource issues for family finding, and finding long-term foster homes for boys is more difficult than for girls. I note the evidence of the independent reviewing officer, Mr Moore, who indicated that 75% of the children he was responsible for with a plan for long-term fostering were still waiting for a permanent placement more than two years after final order.

 

 

 

and later

  1. At this point, it seems to me appropriate to consider the role of the independent reviewing officer in X’s case. Mr Moore has been the independent reviewing officer for X since July 2012. Graham Moore provided a statement and gave evidence to this court. He is an experienced IRO, having been engaged in that role for the last five years. Before that worked as a Cafcass guardian. The IRO accepted that his role meant that he had responsibility for

    i) providing independent oversight of the Local Authority’s care planii) ensuring that the child’s interests were protected through the care planning process;

    iii) establishing the child’s wishes and feelings.

    The IRO accepted the statutory requirements of the LAC review process and that as IRO he was responsible for setting a remedial timescales where necessary.

  2. Whilst parents do not always attend LAC reviews, a system is generally devised to enable meaningful sharing of information following LAC reviews. Mr Moore told me that he had endeavoured to meet D in order to achieve this, but they had not been able to meet. Regrettably, no other practical system was implemented to enable the sharing of the outcome of the LAC reviews.
  3. The IRO accepted that the statutory guidance is clear; that where a matter is outside the control of a Local Authority, but is impacting on the ability of that Authority to meet the child’s needs the IRO should escalate the issue to ensure the child’s welfare needs are met. In this case the Access to Resources Team (family finding) failed to find a permanent placement for X in circumstances where his carers were clearly equivocal about whether they could offer him permanence. Yet the IRO did not escalate the issue. The IRO’s monitoring of the Local Authority search for a permanent placement principally rested on information provided by the social worker. The Access to resources team did not provide regular updates on the outcome of its searches.
  4. The IRO confirmed in evidence that he could not recall another case where a parent had been totally excluded from the LAC process for two and a half years. He accepted that Mother should have been receiving information from the school and had not received it.
  5. Criticism is made of the IRO for failing to robustly manage the Local Authority’s implementation of the care plan or pursue the requirement for permanence. I have no doubt that Mr Moore is an extremely hardworking and dedicated member of the Independent Review Team and I am saddened to reach the conclusion that, in this case, he failed to bring independent, robust and effective overview of the Local Authority management of the X’s plan.
  6. The independent reviewing officer is intended to be a robust mechanism designed to hold a Local Authority to account in the management of a child’s plan. In this case, the opportunities to impose remedial timescales and to escalate inaction and delay were not taken.

 

 

The ISW

As the LA had not been engaging with mother since X came into care, the Judge had no real evidence about a key facet of the case.  The Judge could see that mother was managing her two children at home with no concerns, she could see that X was still a challenging child with many difficulties, but there was nothing to show whether mother would be able to work with professionals in such a way that X could be cared for at home.

 

Most unusually in this case, however, I have no information at all as to Mother’s engagement with the Authority in consequence of the way in which the Local Authority have managed the plan, and no means of determining Mother’s insight and understanding of X’s changing needs.

 

  1. The court is mindful that Article 6 and Article 8 of the Convention Rights are engaged and that when the court considers the application to discharge the care order, it can only continue the care order if satisfied that the Local Authority’s continued intervention is proportionate. I am concerned that in the context of this application there is a lack of relevant information as to the nature, significance and degree of change made by Mother, and that it will be difficult to conduct the courts assessment fairly and appropriately unless that gap is filled.
  2. In my view, it will be necessary for the court, therefore, to receive some further evidence as to Mother’s ability to engage and work constructively with and to understand and demonstrate insight of the needs of X. Furthermore, the court requires an update from the Local Authority as to:

    i) the implementation of their care plan as to placement, therapy and contact and

    ii) the detail of the services the Local Authority would provide or could provide to support X if he were to return to the mother’s care.

    It is noteworthy that the court directed the Local Authority to provide details of the support services it would put in place if X were to return home by its directions of 4 November 2014. To date the Local Authority has failed to provide the details of those services.

    It seems to me that, absent this evidence, the court will be unable to complete the welfare evaluation. Counsel will need to address me as to the form of the additional evidence. I would be minded to direct the instruction of an independent social worker to complete a piece of work with D within four to six weeks. I am conscious that delay is inimical to X’s welfare and that this court needs to make a determination of the application for discharge as soon as is practicable.

  3. I consider that such an assessment will be necessary to enable the court to complete the welfare evaluation. I am conscious that no Part 25 application was issued, but it is clear to me, having heard the evidence of the mother, of the Local Authority, of the IRO, and of the guardian, that a gap remains.

 

Last minute evidence

 

Just as the parties were about to go into Court on this one, bearing in mind that a major issue was whether X could be found a permanent foster home (and his current carers having been saying that they wanted to foster three children, but if they offered a permanent home for X they could only look after him alone, because of his needs), news came that X’s current carers were willing to offer him a permanent home.

  1. In evidence on Monday, Ms Allen said she had just received confirmation from the team charged with family finding for X, that the carers had now made a firm decision to offer a permanent home to X. I was further told that the Local Authority have made a firm commitment to put resources in place to enable X to remain with his carers permanently as the sole child in their care.
  2. This change in the Local Authority’s case caused some consternation in the mother’s legal team. There had been insufficient time to share this change with the mother or with the children’s guardian before coming into court. I quite appreciate how difficult it is to share updating information in the scramble to get it into court, particularly where you have a judge who requires everyone to be in promptly, but it is most unfortunate that the team charged with family finding left matters so late as to create this difficulty. The mother and the children’s guardian are now perhaps understandably cynical about this new information. For the mother, it appears too little too late, and for the children’s guardian it raises questions about the carer’s motivation.
  3. Ms Little for the Local Authority reassures the court and the parties that the issue is not one of finance for the carers but rather their genuine desire to offer a home for three children rather than limiting themselves to one. The question of their motivation and the basis on which they are now able to offer themselves as permanent carer will no doubt be under review in the days following this hearing.
  4. It is nonetheless clear that, since at least December 2012, the Local Authority have been aware that the current carers were at best equivocal about X remaining with them on a long-term basis. What is not clear is what efforts the Local Authority’s Access to Resources Team made to find a permanent placement for X I am told that two referrals were made to the team, the first being the principal referral and the second an updating referral. Moreover I am told that Ms Allen spoke to the team from time to time and was satisfied that they were alive to his need for placement and knew of X’s placement needs. The searches appear to have been limited to two geographical areas in line with the wishes of X and the location of his current placement and school
  5. I am advised that no financial restraints were imposed on family finding. I am further told that it is, and was, reasonable for the Social Work Team to rely on the Access to Resources Team to progress the search for a long term placement on the basis of the two referrals and that no further prompting or enquiry from the Social Work Team was required.

 

 

There are two other Circuit Judge judmgnets published today in which the LA sought Care Orders with a plan of adoption and the Court instead made orders that the children were returned to the birth families. Not of any great legal significance because they turn on their facts, but I know that many of my readers may be interested in such cases and they may also be a useful mental exercise of whether these cases would have had these outcomes in 2011.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B218.html

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B78.html

 

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MN (adult) 2015 – Court of Appeal pronouncements

Re MN (an adult) 2015 is a Court of Protection case, heard in the Court of Appeal, which spends nearly half of its length talking about care proceedings, housing and practice directions.

It is very very dense, and in all conscience, I couldn’t ask you to read this unless you are a lawyer or are particularly fascinated by Court of Protection work.  (There’s a brief bit in there of relevance to family lawyers – about whether Courts have the final say on care plans. If you’re pushed for time – despite Neath Port Talbot, they don’t)

Lots of big stuff in there though, including important bit for children cases.  There’s care plans, court power to make Local Authority change their plans, whether declarations are valid, costs and timescales in Court of Protection cases and our old friend bundle sizes.

If you are a lawyer working in the Court of Protection, brace yourself for a huge pile of standardised orders, case summaries, and practice directions, all of which will be carefully and thoughtfully designed to make every aspect of your working life more awkward and time consuming than it was before.  Flaubert once said that writing his novels was like having ones flesh torn off with red hot pincers, but he never had to complete a standardised Case Management Order. He would have considerably softened his view of how hard it was to write his novels, if he had this broader experience of life’s miseries.

If you see an announcement of the Court of Protection Outline being launched, quit your job, and take up gainful employment as someone who tests the sharpness of porcupine quills by bungee jumping onto them face first – you will be much happier in the long run.

[Editor note – somewhat over-selling that, Suesspicious Minds? Perhaps a smidge. ]

The actual point of the appeal is an important one,  and in deciding it, the Court of Appeal say some useful things about care cases and specifically care plans.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/411.html

Let’s deal with the care plan bit first (sorry Court of Protection folks, but actually explaining this will help explain what’s going on later on in the judgment)

 

Historically this has been the deal – the LA submit their care plan (what will they do if the Court grant their order?) and the Court decide whether to grant the order. We then got into something of a tangle in cases where the Court wanted to grant the order, but not on the plan put before them. There have been various stages of that arm-wrestling, but where we got up to recently was Re W (or the Neath Port Talbot case) in which the Court of Appeal (principally Ryder LJ) tried to put the power in the hands of the Court.  [I personally think that flies in the face of Supreme Court authority, but ho-hum]

The President here clarifies the law, and takes a step backwards from the more bullish aspects of the Neath Port Talbot judgment. Underlining mine for emphasis.

  1. Finally, I need to consider the position where the court – that is, in relation to a child the subject of care proceedings, the family court, or, in relation to an adult the subject of personal welfare proceedings, the Court of Protection – is being asked to approve the care plan put forward by the local or other public authority which has brought the proceedings. I start with care proceedings under Part IV of the 1989 Act.
  2. It is the duty of any court hearing an application for a care order carefully to scrutinise the local authority’s care plan and to satisfy itself that the care plan is in the child’s interests. If the court is not satisfied that the care plan is in the best interests of the child, it may refuse to make a care order: see Re T (A Minor) (Care Order: Conditions) [1994] 2 FLR 423. It is important, however, to appreciate the limit of the court’s powers: the only power of the court is either to approve or refuse to approve the care plan put forward by the local authority. The court cannot dictate to the local authority what the care plan is to say. Nor, for reasons already explained, does the High Court have any greater power when exercising its inherent jurisdiction. Thus the court, if it seeks to alter the local authority’s care plan, must achieve its objective by persuasion rather than by compulsion.
  3. That said, the court is not obliged to retreat at the first rebuff. It can invite the local authority to reconsider its care plan and, if need be, more than once: see Re X; Barnet London Borough Council v Y and X [2006] 2 FLR 998. How far the court can properly go down this road is a matter of some delicacy and difficulty. There are no fixed and immutable rules. It is impossible to define in the abstract or even to identify with any precision in the particular case the point to which the court can properly press matters but beyond which it cannot properly go. The issue is always one for fine judgment, reflecting sensitivity, realism and an appropriate degree of judicial understanding of what can and cannot sensibly be expected of the local authority.
  4. In an appropriate case the court can and must (see In re B-S (Children) (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, [2014] 1 WLR 563, para 29):

    “be rigorous in exploring and probing local authority thinking in cases where there is any reason to suspect that resource issues may be affecting the local authority’s thinking.”

    Rigorous probing, searching questions and persuasion are permissible; pressure is not.

  5. I should add that the court has the power to direct the local authority to file evidence or to prepare and file a further plan, including, if the court directs, a description of the services that are available and practicable for each placement option being considered by the court. The local authority is obliged to do so even though the plan’s contents may not or do not reflect its formal position, for it is not for the local authority (or indeed any other party) to decide whether it is going to restrict or limit the evidence that it presents: see Re W (Care Proceedings: Functions of Court and Local Authority) [2013] EWCA Civ 1227, [2014] 2 FLR 431. As Ryder LJ said (para 79):

    “It is part of the case management process that a judge may require a local authority to give evidence about what services would be provided to support the strategy set out in its care plan … That may include evidence about more than one different possible resolution so the court might know the benefits and detriments of each option and what the local authority would or would not do. That may also include requiring the local authority to set out a care plan to meet a particular formulation or assessment of risk, even if the local authority does not agree with that risk.”

Where Ryder LJ was suggesting that at this point, the Court can mutter darkly about judicial review and invite a party to make such an application  (in effect compelling the Local Authority to either give in or incur horrendous costs in judicial review proceedings with no prospect of recovering those costs from the other side, who will be ‘men of straw’), the President considers that after those attempts at persuasion have failed, the Court has to choose the lesser of two evils.

  1. Despite its best efforts, the court may, nonetheless, find itself faced with a situation where it has to choose the lesser of two evils. As Balcombe LJ said in Re S and D (Children: Powers of Court) [1995] 2 FLR 456, 464, the judge may, despite all his endeavours, be faced with a dilemma:

    “if he makes a care order, the local authority may implement a care plan which he or she may take the view is not in the child or children’s best interests. On the other hand, if he makes no order, he may be leaving the child in the care of an irresponsible, and indeed wholly inappropriate parent.”

    Balcombe LJ continued:

    “It seems to me that, regrettable though it may seem, the only course he may take is to choose what he considers to be the lesser of two evils. If he has no other route open to him … then that is the unfortunate position he has to face.”

  2. In practice courts are not very often faced with this dilemma. Wilson J, as he then was, recognised in Re C (Adoption: Religious Observance) [2002] 1 FLR 1119, para 51, that “a damaging impasse can develop between a court which declines to approve their care plan and the authority which decline to amend it.” But, as he went on to observe:

    “The impasse is more theoretical than real: the last reported example is Re S and D (Children: Powers of Court) [1995] 2 FLR 456. For good reason, there are often, as in this case, polarised views about the optimum solution for the child: in the end, however, assuming that they feel that the judicial processing of them has worked adequately, the parties will be likely to accept the court’s determination and, in particular, the local authority will be likely to amend their proposals for the child so as to accord with it … In the normal case let there be – in the natural forum of the family court – argument, decision and, sometimes no doubt with hesitation, acceptance: in other words, between all of us a partnership, for the sake of the child.”

 

It would remain an unwise Local Authority who continued to disagree with judicial persuasion at that point, but if they do, the Court simply has to choose.  [It is worth noting that the issue that Ryder LJ went to war on – the ability to force a Local Authority to have a care order with a plan of the child being at home, is exactly the situation which is wreaking havoc in Re D – since if it all goes wrong, the parents get no legal aid to argue the case and there’s no easy application to be made to fix things]

 

Moving on, (come back Court of Protection people) , the Court of Protection say that the same provisions apply. The Court can try to persuade a Local Authority to alter their plan, but they can’t compel them to.

In my judgment exactly the same principles as apply to care cases involving children apply also to personal welfare cases involving incapacitated adults, whether the case is proceeding in the Family Division under the inherent jurisdiction or, as here, in the Court of Protection under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. The fact that a care plan is now part of the statutory process in relation to care cases involving children, whereas there is no corresponding statutory requirement for a care plan in an adult personal welfare case is neither here nor there. Care plans are a routine part of the process in adult cases.

 

That’s important, because the fundamental issue in MN was that MN’s family disagreed with the plan that the Local Authority had for him, and wanted the Court to decide that this plan was not in his best interests.

  1. MN, born in 1993, is a young man who suffers from profound disabilities and lacks capacity to make relevant decisions for himself. When MN was 8 years old he was made the subject of a care order on the application of the local authority, ACC. Shortly before his 18th birthday the court approved MN’s move from his residential children’s placement to an adult residential placement, RCH, where he continues to live. The clinical commissioning group, ACCG, took over responsibility from ACC for the funding of MN’s placement at RCH when he turned 18. The present proceedings were brought by ACC and commenced on 25 August 2011. MN’s parents, Mr N and Mrs N, accept, reluctantly, that MN should live at RCH, where they have regular contact with him, but their aspiration remains that he should return to live with them at home.
  2. By the time the matter came on for hearing before Eleanor King J, the issues had narrowed to disputes (i) as to whether Mrs N should be permitted to assist in MN’s intimate care when visiting him at RCH and (ii) as to whether contact should also take place at Mr and Mrs N’s home. As to (i), RCH was not willing for this to be done. As to (ii), ACCG was not willing to provide the necessary funding for the additional carers who would be needed if MN was to have home contact.

You can see from the lead-in that the Court of Appeal weren’t terribly taken with the idea that by deciding that X plan wasn’t in MN’s best interests, the Local Authority could be compelled to redesign the plan for MN.  The Court has to choose from the options which are realistically before it – they have to choose from what’s on the menu, rather than demanding that the chef cook something more to their liking.

 

If the family really think that the LA are unreasonable, then the remedy is judicial review, not getting the Court of Protection to twist the Local Authority’s arm (or make declarations whose value is merely to lay the foundations for a good judicial review case)

 

  1. In my judgment the judge was right in all respects and essentially for the reasons she gave.
  2. The function of the Court of Protection is to take, on behalf of adults who lack capacity, the decisions which, if they had capacity, they would take themselves. The Court of Protection has no more power, just because it is acting on behalf of an adult who lacks capacity, to obtain resources or facilities from a third party, whether a private individual or a public authority, than the adult if he had capacity would be able to obtain himself. The A v Liverpool principle applies as much to the Court of Protection as it applies to the family court or the Family Division. The analyses in A v A Health Authority and in Holmes-Moorhouse likewise apply as much in the Court of Protection as in the family court or the Family Division. The Court of Protection is thus confined to choosing between available options, including those which there is good reason to believe will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future.
  3. The Court of Protection, like the family court and the Family Division, can explore the care plan being put forward by a public authority and, where appropriate, require the authority to go away and think again. Rigorous probing, searching questions and persuasion are permissible; pressure is not. And in the final analysis the Court of Protection cannot compel a public authority to agree to a care plan which the authority is unwilling to implement. I agree with the point Eleanor King J made in her judgment (para 57):

    “In my judgment, such discussions and judicial encouragement for flexibility and negotiation in respect of a care package are actively to be encouraged. Such negotiations are however a far cry from the court embarking on a ‘best interests’ trial with a view to determining whether or not an option which has been said by care provider (in the exercise of their statutory duties) not to be available, is nevertheless in the patient’s best interest.”

  4. Back of the specific authorities to which I have referred there are, in my judgment, four reasons why the Court of Protection should not embark upon the kind of process for which Ms Bretherton and Ms Weereratne contend. First, it is not a proper function of the Court of Protection (nor, indeed, of the family court or the Family Division in analogous situations), to embark upon a factual inquiry into some abstract issue the answer to which cannot affect the outcome of the proceedings before it. Secondly, it is not a proper function of the Court of Protection (nor of the family court or the Family Division) to embark upon a factual inquiry designed to create a platform or springboard for possible future proceedings in the Administrative Court. Thirdly, such an exercise runs the risk of confusing the very different perspectives and principles which govern the exercise by the Court of Protection of its functions and those which govern the exercise by the public authority of its functions – and, in consequence, the very different issues which arise for determination in the Court of Protection in contrast to those which arise for determination in the Administrative Court. Fourthly, such an exercise runs the risk of exposing the public authority to impermissible pressure. Eleanor King J rightly identified (para 59) the need to:

    avoid a situation arising where the already vastly overstretched Court of Protection would be routinely asked to make hypothetical decisions in relation to ‘best interests’, with the consequence that CCGs are driven to fund such packages or be faced with the threat of expensive and lengthy judicial review proceedings.”

    Precisely so.

  5. The present case, it might be thought, illustrates the point to perfection. The proposal was that the judge should spend three days, poring over more than 2,000 pages of evidence, to come to a ‘best interests’ interest on an abstract question, and all for what?

 

That last point segueways into all of the Practice pronouncements.

Let’s start with bundles.

  1. We were told that the trial bundle in the present case ran to five lever arch files and also, which did not surprise me, that this was not atypical in this kind of case. I confess, however, to being surprised – and that is a pretty anaemic word – when told that the bundle contained no fewer than 2,029 pages of evidence. That, I have to say, is an indictment of the culture which has been allowed to develop in the Court of Protection. It must stop. In the family court, the relevant Practice Direction in relation to bundles provides that the bundle must not exceed one lever arch containing no more than 350 pages unless a larger bundle has been specifically authorised by a judge: FPR 2010 PD27A, para 5.1. It might be thought that the corresponding Practice Direction in the Court of Protection, PD13B, should be brought into line. In the meantime, proper compliance with PD13B is essential and should be rigorously enforced by Court of Protection judges. In particular, proper compliance with PD13B, paras 4.2, 4.3, 4.6 and 4.7, which judges must insist upon, will go a very long way to meeting the concerns identified by Charles J in A Local Authority v PB and P [2011] EWHC 502 (COP), [2011] COPLR Con Vol 166.
  2. In the Court of Protection, the use of expert evidence is restricted by Rule 121 to “that which is reasonably required to resolve the proceedings.” One of the most salutary and effective of the recent reforms to family justice has been the imposition of a significantly more demanding test by section 13(6) of the Children and Families Act 2014 – “necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings justly.” Here, as I have already noted, the bundle contained an astonishing 1,289 pages of expert evidence. The profligate expenditure of public resources on litigation conducted in such an unrestrainedly luxurious manner is something that can no longer be tolerated. As I recently observed in relation to the family court (Re L (A Child) [2015] EWFC 15, para 38):

    “I end with yet another plea for restraint in the expenditure of public funds. Public funds, whether those under the control of the LAA or those under the control of other public bodies, are limited, and likely in future to reduce rather than increase. It is essential that such public funds as are available for funding litigation in the Family Court and the Family Division are carefully husbanded and properly applied. It is no good complaining that public funds are available only for X and not for Y if money available for X is being squandered. Money should be spent only on what is “necessary” to enable the court to deal with the proceedings “justly”. If a task is not “necessary” – if it is unnecessary – why should litigants or their professional advisers expect public money to be made available? They cannot and they should not. Proper compliance with PD27A and, in particular, strict adherence to the bundle page limit, is an essential tool in the struggle to control the costs of family litigation.”

    Consideration requires to be given to the early amendment of Rule 121 to bring it into line with section 13(6).

 

Get ready for 350 page bundles and rigorous scrutiny over expert evidence. If the experience in family proceedings is anything to go by, expect to be spending 10% of your working day f***ing about with bundles.

What else?

 

Timescales

  1. That takes me on to the other point. The time these proceedings took to reach a final hearing was depressingly long. I am very conscious that one must not push too far the analogy between personal welfare proceedings in the Court of Protection and care proceedings in the family court, but they do share a number of common forensic characteristics. Even allowing for the fact – not that it arose in this particular case – that cases in the Court of Protection may involve disputes about capacity which, in the nature of things, do not feature in care cases, there is a striking contrast between the time some personal welfare cases in the Court of Protection take to reach finality and the six-month time limit applicable in care proceedings by virtue of section 32(1)(a)(ii) of the 1989 Act. The present case, it might be thought, is a bad example of what I fear is still an all-too prevalent problem.
  2. We invited counsel to make any comments on this aspect of the matter which they thought might assist. Their historical accounts of the litigation are illuminating and need not be rehearsed but demonstrate that the delays were not caused by any one party nor by any one factor. The truth is that this case, like too many other ‘heavy’ personal welfare cases in the Court of Protection, demonstrates systemic failures which have contributed to a culture in which unacceptable delay is far too readily tolerated.
  3. In the family court the handling of care cases has been radically improved, and the previously endemic problem of delay has been brought under control, by the procedures set out in the Public Law Outline, contained in the Family Procedure Rules 2010, PD12A. Key elements of the PLO are judicial continuity, robust judicial case management, the early identification of issues by the case management judge, and the fixing at the outset by the case management judge of a timetable, departure from which is not readily permitted. Failure to comply with the timetable set by the judge and failure to comply, meticulously and on time, with court orders is no longer tolerated, as defaulters have discovered to their cost (for the applicability of this to the Court of Protection see Re G (Adult); London Borough of Redbridge v G, C and F [2014] EWCOP 1361, [2014] COPLR 416, para 12). Moreover, the parties are not permitted to agree any adjustment of the timetable or any extensions of time without the prior approval of the court: see Re W (Children) [2014] EWFC 22, paras 17-19. In the family court there has been a cultural revolution, from which the Court of Protection needs to learn.

 

[Of course, the best revolutions to learn from are those that actually worked, but I suppose you can learn from an unholy mess of a cultural revolution too]

What else?

Lack of rigour in defining the argument

  1. The first relates to the need, rightly identified by Charles J in A Local Authority v PB and P [2011] EWHC 502 (COP), [2011] COPLR Con Vol 166, paras 31-33, to identify, flag up and address, well before a personal welfare case comes on for hearing in the Court of Protection, (i) any jurisdictional issues and the legal arguments relating to them and, more generally, (ii) the issues, the nature of each party’s case, the facts that need to be established and the evidence to be given. The purpose, of course, is to ensure that each party knows the cases being advanced by the others. Charles J went on (paras 34-46) to elaborate how all this might be achieved.
  2. That judgment was handed down on 26 January 2011. It is depressing to have to note how little of what Charles J had said seems to have percolated through to those involved in the present case.
  3. The proceedings began, as I have said, on 25 August 2011. The hearing before Eleanor King J commenced on 18 November 2013, over two years later. The issues with which Eleanor King J and subsequently this court have been concerned had, to use Ms Bretherton’s phrase, been “bubbling under the surface for some time.” The case was listed for three days. As Eleanor King J described it in her judgment (para 46):

    “[Mr and Mrs N] had anticipated until the morning of the trial that, whilst they make a concession in relation to MN’s residence, there would still be consideration by the Court of Protection of the contact issue. Their expectation was that, over 3 days, witnesses would be called and cross-examined and submissions made prior to the court reaching a ‘best interests’ decision as to whether or not MN should have contact at the home of his parents as the first stage of a gradual progression to either living or spending lengthy periods of time with them there. I understand that they may feel that the ground has been cut from under their feet by what Ms Bretherton referred to as the public authorities’ ‘knock out blow’.”

  4. As the judge records in her judgment (para 18), counsel for ACC in a position statement dated 14 August 2013 had flagged up one issue in the case as being the interface between the Court of Protection and the Administrative Court, and had made it clear that her case was that the Court of Protection is limited to choosing between the available options and making decisions that MN is unable to make by virtue of his incapacity. However, directions were given at a hearing on 28 August 2013 for the filing of further evidence and thereafter, we were told, the parties prepared for a three day trial of the contested issues of fact.
  5. ACC’s stance on the jurisdictional issue was clarified in an email (to which copies of various authorities were attached) sent by ACC’s counsel to the other counsel in the case at 23.02 the night before the hearing was due to start. The judge recorded what followed (paras 22-23):

    “[22] … When the court sat it was told, for the first time, that a jurisdictional issue arose as to whether … the court should, or should not, now embark on a contested ‘best interests’ trial in relation to home contact and of personal care of MN by Mrs N.

    [23] No skeleton arguments on the law had been prepared and none of the position statements filed directly addressed, or even identified this legal argument.”

    The judge (para 47) appropriately paid tribute to Ms Bretherton for being both able and willing to deal with the argument then and there.

[Suesspicious Minds note – never mind credit – Ms Bretherton deserves a 21 gun salute and a parade for being able to walk a Court through all of this complexity without a substantial written document]

 

  1. The judge was rightly critical of how this state of affairs had come about and (para 46) “wholeheartedly endorse[d]” the observations Charles J had made in A Local Authority v PB and P [2011] EWHC 502 (COP), [2011] COPLR Con Vol 166.
  2. Steps need to be taken to ensure, as best can be, that there is no repetition of this kind of problem.

 

The quest for perfection

  1. This is not the first time that practice in the Court of Protection has attracted judicial criticism: see the judgments of Parker J in NCC v PB and TB [2014] EWCOP 14, [2015] COPLR 118, paras 126-148, and of Peter Jackson J in A & B (Court of Protection: Delay and Costs) [2014] EWCOP 48, [2015] COPLR 1. A & B related to two cases. In one case the proceedings in the Court of Protection had lasted for 18 months, in the other for five years. In his judgment, Peter Jackson J described (para 11) how:

    “the consequence of delay has been protracted stress – described by one parent as “the human misery” – for the young men and their families, with years being lost while solutions were sought.”

  2. He rightly drew attention (para 14) to a particular problem:

    “Another common driver of delay and expense is the search for the ideal solution, leading to decent but imperfect outcomes being rejected. People with mental capacity do not expect perfect solutions in life, and the requirement in s 1(5) of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 that ‘An act done, or decision made, under this Act for or on behalf of a person who lacks capacity must be done, or made, in his best interests’ calls for a sensible decision, not the pursuit of perfection.”

    I agree, and wish to emphasise the point. He went on (para 15) to deprecate, as Parker J had done, “a developing practice in these cases of addressing every conceivable legal or factual issue, rather than concentrating on the issues that really need to be resolved.” Again, I wholeheartedly agree.

 

Declarations

Unless the declaratory order sought comes squarely within the statute, it ought not to be used, says the Court of Appeal. It is a hangover from the inherent jurisdiction days, but the Court of Protection is not in that ‘theoretically limitless powers’ kingdom any longer-  it has the powers that Statute provides it, and no other.

 

  1. There was a certain amount of debate before us as to the use of declaratory orders in the Court of Protection. This is not the occasion for any definitive pronouncement but three observations are, I think, in order.
  2. First, the still inveterate use of orders in the form of declaratory relief might be thought to be in significant part both anachronistic and inappropriate. It originated at a time when, following the decision of the House of Lords in In re F (Mental Patient: Sterilisation) [1990] 2 AC 1, it was believed that the inherent jurisdiction of the Family Division in relation to incapacitated adults was confined to a jurisdiction to declare something either lawful or unlawful. Even before the Mental Capacity Act 2005 was brought into force, that view of the inherent jurisdiction had been shown to be unduly narrow: see St Helens Borough Council v PE [2006] EWHC 3460 (Fam), [2007] 1 FLR 1115. Moreover, the Court of Protection has, in addition to the declaratory jurisdiction referred to in section 15 of the 2005 Act, the more extensive powers conferred by section 16.
  3. Secondly, the Court of Protection is a creature of statute, having the powers conferred on it by the 2005 Act. Section 15 is very precise as to the power of the Court of Protection to grant declarations. Sections 15(1)(a) and (b) empower the Court of Protection to make declarations that “a person has or lacks capacity” to make certain decisions. Section 15(1)(c) empowers the Court of Protection to make declarations as to “the lawfulness or otherwise of any act done, or yet to be done.” Given the very precise terms in which section 15 is drafted, it is not at all clear that the general powers conferred on the Court of Protection by section 47(1) of the 2005 Act extend to the granting of declarations in a form not provided for by section 15. Indeed, the better view is that probably they do not: consider XCC v AA and others [2012] EWHC 2183 (COP), [2012] COPLR 730, para 48. Moreover, it is to be noted that section 15(1)(c) does not confer any general power to make bare declarations as to best interests; it is very precise in defining the power in terms of declarations as to “lawfulness.” The distinction is important: see the analysis in St Helens Borough Council v PE [2006] EWHC 3460 (Fam), [2007] 1 FLR 1115, paras 11-18.
  4. Thirdly, a declaration has no coercive effect and cannot be enforced by committal: see A v A Health Authority, paras 118-128 and, most recently, MASM v MMAM and others [2015] EWCOP 3.
  5. All in all, it might be thought that, unless the desired order clearly falls within the ambit of section 15, orders are better framed in terms of relief under section 16 and that, if non-compliance or interference with the arrangements put in place by the Court of Protection is thought to be a risk, that risk should be met by extracting appropriate undertakings or, if suitable undertakings are not forthcoming, granting an injunction

“The peril of Auntie Beryl”

As the 26 week time limit comes upon us (being introduced by Parliament, the President’s revised PLO guidance and behind the scenes pressure on Courts and Local Authorities via the “Stick of Statistics” TM   – not necessarily in that order), I have been musing about the elephant in the room, of what happens when late in the proceedings, the Court is presented with a suitable relative, Auntie Beryl.

 For what it is worth, I think delays in court proceedings are caused by one or more of these things :-

 (a)   Parties (including the LA) being late in filing documents and this having a domino effect

(b)   The expert report being late, and the whole carefully built timetable collapses round people’s ears

(c)   There is a material change in circumstances  (an unexpected dad emerges, or a relationship ends or begins, or someone you thought was going to be fine relapses into drug misuse, or falls pregnant, or has some sort of unpredictable illness or disease)

(d)   A relative comes forward at the eleventh hour and has to be assessed

(e)   The evidence is all ready, but the combination of accommodating social worker, Guardian, expert and more importantly Court time, means that you have to wait 3 months for a hearing

 I think the intention of the revised PLO  (which you can find here http://www.adcs.org.uk/news/revisedplo.html  )   is to try, as much as one can, to eliminate (a) and (b), and the hope is clearly that if you have much crisper and tighter and fewer Court hearings, there will be less backlog and more judicial availability for (e)    – though it would have been nice to see something spelling out exactly what the Court service is going to do about (e)  – save for having Listings offices run by Capita…

 (c )  is probably the stuff that ends up coming into the bracket of exceptional cases that get an extension to the 26 week limit, or at least where this is actively considered.

 So that leaves the elephant in the room, where it looks as though a child MIGHT be able to be placed with a family member, but doing that assessment will take the proceedings outside of the 26 weeks, because the family member has been put forward late on.

 I suspect, and am already seeing this, that the Courts will try to tackle this by very robust directions at early Court hearings, along these lines :-

“The parents shall, by no later than                       , identify in writing to the Local Authority (to be copied to all parties) the names and contact details of any person that they put forward as a potential permanent carer of the child. Any person put forward after that date will ONLY be considered with the leave of the Court and the parent would need to apply to Court for leave for such assessment evidence to be filed and would need to provide VERY cogent reasons as to why they were not put forward within the deadline period set out in this paragraph”

 

 That looks pretty strong, and will no doubt be backed up by the Court leaning forward and stressing to the parents just how important it is to focus their minds right NOW on who might be able to care for the children, if the assessments of them are not positive.

 But, human nature being what it is, at some point, lawyers and parents and Judges will be faced with an Auntie Beryl coming forward at week 18 or 19, when the LA have announced that they won’t be rehabilitating to parents and will be seeking an adoptive placement. Auntie Beryl, on the face of it, seems like she might be suitable – she doesn’t have any convictions, or history of children being removed, or any major health issues, she has a house in which the child could live, and so forth. So there is a positive viability assessment, but still a lot to be done – more than could be done in the time we have left.

 The six million dollar question, which the Court of Appeal will be grappling with pretty quickly after the revised PLO comes into force I suspect, is

 When a parent puts forward a family member late, and the assessment of that family member would push the case outside 26 weeks, what does the Court do?

 

The immediate “26 weeks or bust” approach suggests that the Court will say, “too late, you had your chance, you had the stern warning on day 12 to cough up the names, you can’t leave it until the assessments are in and the LA are talking about adoption”

 So, what happens if they do that?

 For these purposes, we will assume that the assessment of the parents is negative (since if it were positive, there would be no need to delay matters to assess Auntie Beryl) and that we are dealing with a child under six.

 The alternative care plan is therefore adoption. 

Can an application for a Placement Order be made when there is a viable carer who has not been assessed?

 

The Local Authority have a duty, pursuant to section 22(6) of the Children Act 1989

 s22 (6)  Subject to any regulations made by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this subsection, any local authority looking after a child shall make arrangements to enable him to live with—

 (a)  a person falling within subsection(4); or

 (b)  a relative, friend or other person connected with him,

unless that would not be reasonably practicable or consistent with his welfare.

 

The LA can’t, it seems to me, determine that placement with Auntie Beryl isn’t consistent with the child’s welfare if all they have is a positive viability assessment, they have to go on to do something more, EVEN IF the Court has made a Care Order.

 Before the adoption agency can decide that adoption is the plan for the child, and thus make the application for a Placement Order, they have this duty under the Adoption and Children Act 2002

 Section 1 Considerations applying to the exercise of powers

 (4)The court or adoption agency must have regard to the following matters (among others)—

 (f)the relationship which the child has with relatives, and with any other person in relation to whom the court or agency considers the relationship to be relevant, including—

(i)the likelihood of any such relationship continuing and the value to the child of its doing so,

(ii)the ability and willingness of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, to provide the child with a secure environment in which the child can develop, and otherwise to meet the child’s needs,

(iii)the wishes and feelings of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, regarding the child.

 

And again, how can the adoption agency decide that Auntie Beryl can’t provide the child with a secure environment if all they have is a positive viability assessment? They have to have a full assessment.

 Thus, even if the Court determined that they were not going to allow time for Auntie Beryl to be assessed, because she has come late into the proceedings, that won’t allow the LA to simply discount her and issue a Placement Order application.

 Unless they have done sufficient to satisfy themselves that Auntie Beryl is NOT suitable, they can’t commit to a plan of adoption and no such plan could be put before the Court. Neither can they commit to “Placement with Auntie Beryl” until they have sufficient information to be satisfied that this has good prospects of success.

 Therefore, the Court cannot have a hearing by week 26 at which a Placement Order could be made.

 

 If the Court can’t consider a Placement Order application, what can it do?

 

The Court would be left, I think, with these three options :-

1. Taking the information that is available about Auntie Beryl and taking a punt on her, by making a Residence Order (or an SGO – but bear in mind that the Court cannot make a Special Guardianship Order without a Special Guardianship report   – and the Court won’t have one of those between week 18 and 26    RE S (A CHILD) NO.2 (2007) [2007] EWCA Civ 90 )

 

2. Adjourning the proceedings in order for a Special Guardianship report to be filed and served, which will push the proceedings outside of 26 weeks.  

 

3. Determining that the Court is in a position to make a Care Order, with the care plan being that the Local Authority will assess Auntie Beryl and the child will remain in foster care pending that assessment.

 

[And of course option 4 of placement with parents, but we are dealing here with those cases where the Court has the material to determine the issue of rehabilitation to parents, since in those cases Auntie Beryl isn’t important]

 

My concern is that option 3, in a post PLO world (and more importantly a world where the Judges know that their performance on timescales is being gathered and measured), becomes superficially attractive. The case concludes, it concludes in time, the Care Order is made, and Auntie Beryl becomes the Local Authority’s problem.

 Of course, it doesn’t actually resolve the future for the child, or end the proceedings with the parents knowing what will happen, and it almost invariably will lead to satellite litigation   (either the assessment of Auntie Beryl is positive, whereupon the LA will want to shed the Care Order and get an SGO or residence order made, OR it is negative, in which case the LA will put the case before their Agency Decision Maker and in due course make an application for a Placement Order)

 The only advantage option 3 has over option 2 is determining the proceedings within a 26 week timetable. There might have to be a judgment that works hard to say that the no delay principle is more important than the no order principle  – but that isn’t the only problem.

 

Get your inchoate, you’ve pulled

 

Is a care plan which at heart is “either this child will be placed with a family member OR adopted, and we don’t yet know which”  actually a legitimate care plan? Is it in fact, an inchoate care plan?

 Inchoate care plans are bad, m’kay? Not good for the Court to hand over the keys to that sparkling vintage E-type Jag to the Local Authority without having a clear idea of where they intend to drive it.

It seems so to me, even on the new Children and Families Bill reworking of care plans as being  “don’t sweat the small stuff”    model

 Section 15 of the draft Children and Families Bill

 

(1) For section 31(3A) of the Children Act 1989 (no care order to be made until court has considered section 31A care plan) substitute—

“(3A) A court deciding whether to make a care order—

(a) is required to consider the permanence provisions of the section  31A plan for the child concerned, but

(b) is not required to consider the remainder of the section 31A  plan, subject to section 34(11).

(3B) For the purposes of subsection (3A), the permanence provisions of a section 31A plan are such of the plan’s provisions setting out the long- term plan for the upbringing of the child concerned as provide for any of the following—

(a) the child to live with any parent of the child’s or with any other  member of, or any friend of, the child’s family;

(b) adoption;

(c) long-term care not within paragraph (a) or (b).

 

And it does not seem to me that even with that more limited scrutiny, a care plan which doesn’t identify whether the plan for the child is to live with a family member or in an adoptive parent, is sufficiently clear.

 Let’s see what the law says about inchoate care plans (underlining mine) and from Re S and others 2002:-

 99. Despite all the inevitable uncertainties, when deciding whether to make a care order the court should normally have before it a care plan which is sufficiently firm and particularised for all concerned to have a reasonably clear picture of the likely way ahead for the child for the foreseeable future. The degree of firmness to be expected, as well as the amount of detail in the plan, will vary from case to case depending on how far the local authority can foresee what will be best for the child at that time. This is necessarily so. But making a care order is always a serious interference in the lives of the child and his parents. Although article 8 contains no explicit procedural requirements, the decision making process leading to a care order must be fair and such as to afford due respect to the interests safeguarded by article 8: seeTP and KM v United Kingdom [2001] 2 FLR 549, 569, paragraph 72. If the parents and the child’s guardian are to have a fair and adequate opportunity to make representations to the court on whether a care order should be made, the care plan must be appropriately specific.

    100. Cases vary so widely that it is impossible to be more precise about the test to be applied by a court when deciding whether to continue interim relief rather than proceed to make a care order. It would be foolish to attempt to be more precise. One further general point may be noted. When postponing a decision on whether to make a care order a court will need to have in mind the general statutory principle that any delay in determining issues relating to a child’s upbringing is likely to prejudice the child’s welfare: section 1(2) of the Children Act.

    101. In the Court of Appeal Thorpe LJ, at paragraph 29, expressed the view that in certain circumstances the judge at the trial should have a ‘wider discretion’ to make an interim care order: ‘where the care plan seems inchoate or where the passage of a relatively brief period seems bound to see the fulfilment of some event or process vital to planning and deciding the future’. In an appropriate case, a judge must be free to defer making a care order until he is satisfied that the way ahead ‘is no longer obscured by an uncertainty that is neither inevitable nor chronic’.

    102. As I see it, the analysis I have set out above adheres faithfully to the scheme of the Children Act and conforms to the procedural requirements of article 8 of the Convention. At the same time it affords trial judges the degree of flexibility Thorpe LJ is rightly concerned they should have. Whether this represents a small shift in emphasis from the existing case law may be a moot point. What is more important is that, in the words of Wall J in Re J, the court must always maintain a proper balance between the need to satisfy itself about the appropriateness of the care plan and the avoidance of ‘over-zealous investigation into matters which are properly within the administrative discretion of the local authority’. This balance is a matter for the good sense of the tribunal, assisted by the advocates appearing before it: see [1994] 1 FLR 253, 262.

 

 It seems very clear to me, that waiting for the assessment of Auntie Beryl removes that obscurity and uncertainty in the case, and that this uncertainty is NEITHER inevitable or chronic – it can be resolved by making a direction for the filing of the report.

So, the revised PLO doesn’t erode this, nor would the introduction of the Children and Families Bill as currently drafted – the Court still have a duty to look at the ‘placement’ aspect of care plans, and it appears very strongly that a care plan that is “either Auntie Beryl OR adoption” is inchoate.

 Well that’s fine, we can just overturn the decision about inchoate care plans, and say that it is fine to have “either or” care plans.  Just let’s not worry about inchoate care plans anymore, we’ll just airbrush the whole concept out. The slight stumbling block there is that the passages above are from the House of Lords, and thus it isn’t open to lower Courts to overturn it.

 Oh-kay, so we are just going to interpret Re S very widely, to mean that a Court can and should think about whether it is right to make a Care Order rather than an interim care order where the care plan is inchoate, BUT it is not a prohibition on making a Care Order where the plan is inchoate, they don’t go that far.

 And, you know, before Re S, the former President (Wall LJ) had made Care Orders in a case where he declared the care plans to be inchoate but still decided that making care orders was the right course of action RE R (MINORS) (CARE PROCEEDINGS: CARE PLAN) (1993) [1994] 2 FCR 136 

 

Although that predates Re S, it was specifically referred to by the House of Lords (though they call it Re J, it is the same case) and endorsed, so it is good law for the proposition that a Court is not BARRED from making a Care Order with an inchoate care plan.   [Or is it? The House of Lords seem to draw a slight distinction between inchoate care plans, and care plans where the future is not certain because there are things which can only be resolved after the care order is made]

 

This is what the House of Lords say about Re R/Re J

 

  97. Frequently the case is on the other side of this somewhat imprecise line. Frequently the uncertainties involved in a care plan will have to be worked out after a care order has been made and while the plan is being implemented. This was so in the case which is the locus classicus on this subject: In re J (Minors)(Care: Care Plan) [1994] 1 FLR 253. There the care plan envisaged placing the children in short-term foster placements for up to a year. Then a final decision would be made on whether to place the children permanently away from the mother. Rehabilitation was not ruled out if the mother showed herself amenable to treatment. Wall J said, at page 265:

‘there are cases (of which this is one) in which the action which requires to be taken in the interests of children necessarily involves steps into the unknown … provided the court is satisfied that the local authority is alert to the difficulties which may arise in the execution of the care plan, the function of the court is not to seek to oversee the plan but to entrust its execution to the local authority.’

In that case the uncertain outcome of the treatment was a matter to be worked out after a care order was made, not before.

 I suspect there may be dancing on the head of a pin to try to make ‘auntie beryl cases’ the Re J style of uncertainty, rather than the Re W style of uncertainty that is neither inevitable nor chronic.

It seems then, that it is POSSIBLE for a Court to make a Care Order, even where the care plan is “either Auntie Beryl OR adoption”  and even though it achieves nothing of value for the child  (since the uncertainty is there, the timing of the assessment and any applications will be no longer controlled by the Court, there will be the inevitable delay of reissuing and listing for the second wave of litigation  – whether that be for SGO or Placement Order application.

 But even more importantly, and from an article 6 point of view – how certain is the Court that the parents  (who would be represented and able to challenge the making of SGO or Placement Orders if the care proceedings continued, under their existing certificates) would get public funding in “stand-alone” applications for an SGO or a Placement Order?

 My reading of the Funding Code  (and I am not a “legal aid” lawyer) suggests that it might well not be a “non-means, non-merits” certificate for a parent faced with an application for Special Guardianship or Placement Order that is a “stand alone” application, rather than one taking place within ongoing care proceedings  -where the public funding, or “legal aid”  is covered by non-means non-merits certificates  – for the uninitiated, “non-means, non-merits” means that a person gets free legal representation in care proceedings by virtue of the sort of proceedings they are NOT based on what money they have (means) or the chances of them being successful (merits) 

 Again, underlining to assist with clarity, mine

 

20.28 Other Public Law Children Cases

1. Other public law children cases are defined in s.2.2 of the Funding Code Criteria. The definition of these proceedings excludes Special Children Act Proceedings and related proceedings. The fact that proceedings involve a local authority and concern the welfare of children will not, of itself justify the grant of Legal Representation. The Standard Criteria and General Funding Code (as varied by s.11 of the Code and including criterion 5.4.5) will apply. The proceedings include:

a) appeals (whether against interim or final orders) made in Special Children Act Proceedings;

b) representation for parties or potential parties to public law Children Act proceedings who do not come within the definition of Special Children Act proceedings in section 2.2 of the Funding Code – this includes a local authority application to extend a supervision order (which is made under Sch.3 of the Children Act 1989);

c)other proceedings under Pt IV or V of the Children Act 1989 (Care and Supervision and Protection of Children);

d) adoption proceedings (including applications for placement orders, unless in the particular circumstances they are related proceedings); and

e) proceedings under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court in relation to children.

 

(d) seems to me to cover stand alone Placement Order applications, and they would be a matter for the discretion of the Legal Aid Agency  (oh, also, they wouldn’t be a devolved powers application, where the lawyer can just say “yes” and get on with it, it would need to be a full-blown application and waiting for the Legal Aid Agency to say yes or no)

 

Special Guardianship orders as stand-alone would be classed now as private law proceedings, and I think you can guess how the parents funding on that would go

 20.36 A special guardianship order is a private law order and the principles in s.1 of the Children Act 1989 will apply as will the Funding Code criteria in 11.11. This includes the no order principle which will be taken into account when considering prospects of success. Regard will also be had to the report of the local authority prepared in accordance with s.14A of the Children Act 1989 when considering an application for funding. When considering an application for funding to oppose the making of a special guardianship order, the way in which the proposed respondent currently exercises their parental responsibility and how this will be affected by the making of an order will also be considered.

 

 To quickly sum up then :-

 (a ) Declining to extend the timetable to assess Auntie Beryl won’t let the Court go on to determine a Placement Order application

(b) The Local Authority would be legally obliged to assess Auntie Beryl before they could even ask their Agency Decision Maker to make a decision about adoption

(c)  Making a care order with a care plan of “Auntie Beryl OR adoption” is almost certainly inchoate

(d) It almost certainly opens the door to parents to challenge that decision, given what the House of Lords say about inchoate care plans and  specifically “If the parents and the child’s guardian are to have a fair and adequate opportunity to make representations to the court on whether a care order should be made, the care plan must be appropriately specific.”

 

(e) There seems to be a very foreseeable chance that if the Court make the Care Order, the parents may not get the public funding to be represented to subsequently challenge or test any application for SGO or Placement Order, funding that they would have had as of right if the Court had made Interim Care Orders and had the assessment of Auntie Beryl before considering those orders  

 (f) There must be scope for an article 6 claim that losing the ability to be legally represented to challenge whether your child might be adopted PURELY so that the Court could make a care order (on an inchoate care plan) just to satisfy the 26 week criteria is, you know, slightly unfair.

 (g)     Changing this so that it is workable only requires changes to  – a House of Lords decision,  two pieces of Primary legislation (maybe 3, if you just want to allow Courts to make SGOS in cases where they feel it is right without having a full blown SGO report), the private law funding code and the public law funding code. 

 So, job’s a good un.

 [If you are representing someone in a case where the Auntie Beryl issue crops up, “you’re welcome!”  I think the answer for the Court is to identify what issues it would need the LA to deal with in a report on the carer and to get this done as swiftly as is fair and reasonable]