As Bob Dylan sang ‘But they got a lot of forks and knives, and they got to cut something”
As far as I know, there has never been a reported case about a Child Assessment Order. In fact, up until this case, there had only been three reported cases that mention one in passing in a case where one was made, and another three that just mention them by way of illustration. In 26 years of practice, I’ve only applied for one ever. They are so niche, I couldn’t even find how many have been made from the Family Court statistics. (I was told, anecdotally, that the one I applied for 8 years ago was the 14th ever)
They are very rare. I’ve never heard of one being contested. But here we are with not only a contested one, but an appeal about a contested one, with five silks in it to boot.
I write this post therefore in the knowledge that it is extraordinarily unlikely that any of the issues in the case will ever emerge again, but hey, if they do, the answers are here.
Re I (Children : Child Assessment Order) 2020
Quick info-dump, a Child Assessment Order is pretty much what the title suggests – it is an order by a Court authorising an assessment to be carried out on a child. It covers a similar function to section 38(6) where the Court controls what assessments are carried out on children who are within court proceedings, but is a stand-alone application.
You might, for example, use it in a case where you want to do an X-ray of a child whose sibling has a suspicious fracture and you are wanting to check whether the other child has any injuries and the parents say no, but you don’t want at that point to seek an Emergency Protection Order or Interim Care Order.
Why was one sought here, why was it controversial, why on earth are five silks involved, in an application generally considered to be niche and fairly trivial ? Note that the assessment lasts for seven days, the application was made in October 2019, decided in December 2019, and appealed by February 2019, so the court process lasted for five months, or approximately twenty times the duration of the order under dispute. You’ll see why there are broader issues in a moment, assuming you are still here…
Lord Justice Peter Jackson sets it all out very clearly, but the tl;dr is “Suspicions of radicalisation”
Ah, you say, now I get why everyone got silked up. And why the case has wider-ranging issues that warranted all of this furore.
- This appeal concerns the court’s power to make a child assessment order under s.43 of the Children Act 1989. It arises in relation to a family with five children. The children, whose ages range between 18 and 9, are making excellent progress and have impressed everyone who has met them. Why then are they the subject of proceedings? The answer lies in their father’s conviction under the Terrorism Act 2000, for which he received a substantial prison sentence. His offences consisted of addressing meetings to encourage support for or further the activities of Islamic State. He had for many years been associated with extremist beliefs and has a previous conviction for violent disorder arising from a sectarian assault, for which he served a term of imprisonment in 2014. In January 2015 he was made the subject of an ASBO arising from earlier violent demonstrations. In December 2015 he was arrested for the terrorist offences.
- Following the father’s arrest, there was concern about the impact of his beliefs and activities on the family. It was found that one or more of the children had been taken to meetings at which the father had spoken, and an image of a beheading was found on one of the children’s phones. More recently, evidence emerged showing one or more of the children holding placards at a demonstration in support of the Caliphate. In early 2017 the local authority in whose area the family lives therefore carried out an investigation under s.47. At that stage the mother was assessed as recognising the risks and acting protectively. There was no evidence of her being implicated in the father’s views and activities. The local authority’s plan was for further assessment when the father was due to be released from prison.
- The father was released on licence in late 2018, and was placed in a hostel. A further s.47 assessment was undertaken by the local authority. By contrast with the earlier assessment, this raised considerable concerns about the mother’s protectiveness. She said that the father had strong views but that they were not criminal. She referred to the undercover officer whose evidence had led to the father’s conviction as a “snitch”. The assessment, completed on 13 March 2019, concluded that: a Child in Need plan was required (as the father wanted to go home); the Probation risk assessment should be obtained to identify the father’s current view of his offending; the father should be interviewed; an Intervention Provider should be instructed to talk to the children; fuller work should be carried out to provide the children with clear information about their father’s offending; the father’s interaction with the children should be observed.
- The mother opposed these interventions, describing them as a collective punishment driven by religion and not genuine concern. The local authority convened a Child Protection Case Conference on 20 May and the children became subject to Child Protection Plans. A referral was made to Prevent so that the case could be discussed within the Channel Panel, a multi-agency panel designed to safeguard individuals at risk. In June, the parents consented to direct work being done with the children but later that month they withdrew that consent. The mother declined to meet a representative from Prevent or engage with a parenting assessment. As a result, the Probation Service advised that the father’s licence conditions had been changed so that the mother was no longer approved to supervise contact. At the Channel Panel meeting on 5 July it was decided that the children should be assessed by an Intervention Provider to establish whether they required mentoring with the aim of increasing theological understanding and challenging extremist ideas that may be used to legitimise terrorism. The parents declined to consent to this assessment.
- These events added to the local authority’s concerns. On 22 July, it initiated the process leading to public law proceedings (the PLO process) by sending formal letters to the parents, as a result of which they qualified for legal representation. Then, on 20 August, the father’s licence was revoked due to a breach of his licence conditions. He remains in custody and his release date is not known.
- A PLO meeting took place on 5 September. The mother attended on her own. She refused to consent to unannounced visits, a parenting assessment, direct work with the children, or to work being carried out by an Intervention Provider. Further details of the parenting assessment and the direct work proposed were provided to the mother by letter but on 23 September she responded by saying that she did not consent to any work being carried out.
- On 7 October, the local authority decided to apply for a child assessment order, with a view to an assessment being carried out by an Intervention Provider. It issued its application on 4 November. Directions were given by Newton J on 13 November and the final hearing took place on 4 December. The application was opposed by both parents and by the four older children, who were separately represented (the eldest has since turned 18 and is no longer the subject of proceedings). It was however supported by the Children’s Guardian. He considered that it is not known whether the children have been exposed to the risk of radicalisation by their father’s actions and beliefs, or whether their mother is fully protective. The family’s unwillingness to work with the local authority has prevented it from assessing either the level of risk or what support can be offered.
The Judge at first instance, declined to make the Child Assessment Order AND ruled that he in fact had no jurisdiction to make one.
Here are the statutory provisions (bits in red are mine for emphasis)
“43 Child assessment orders.
(1) On the application of a local authority or authorised person for an order to be made under this section with respect to a child, the court may make the order if, but only if, it is satisfied that—
(a) the applicant has reasonable cause to suspect that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm;
(b) an assessment of the state of the child’s health or development, or of the way in which he has been treated, is required to enable the applicant to determine whether or not the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and
(c) it is unlikely that such an assessment will be made, or be satisfactory, in the absence of an order under this section.
(2) In this Act “a child assessment order” means an order under this section.
(3) A court may treat an application under this section as an application for an emergency protection order.
(4) No court shall make a child assessment order if it is satisfied—
(a) that there are grounds for making an emergency protection order with respect to the child; and
(b) that it ought to make such an order rather than a child assessment order.
(5) A child assessment order shall—
(a) specify the date by which the assessment is to begin; and
(b) have effect for such period, not exceeding 7 days beginning with that date, as may be specified in the order.
(6) Where a child assessment order is in force with respect to a child it shall be the duty of any person who is in a position to produce the child—
(a) to produce him to such person as may be named in the order; and
(b) to comply with such directions relating to the assessment of the child as the court thinks fit to specify in the order.
(7) A child assessment order authorises any person carrying out the assessment, or any part of the assessment, to do so in accordance with the terms of the order.
(8) Regardless of subsection (7), if the child is of sufficient understanding to make an informed decision he may refuse to submit to a medical or psychiatric examination or other assessment.
(9) The child may only be kept away from home—
(a) in accordance with directions specified in the order;
(b) if it is necessary for the purposes of the assessment; and
(c) for such period or periods as may be specified in the order.
(10) Where the child is to be kept away from home, the order shall contain such directions as the court thinks fit with regard to the contact that he must be allowed to have with other persons while away from home.
(11) Any person making an application for a child assessment order shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that notice of the application is given to—
(a) the child’s parents;
(b) any person who is not a parent of his but who has parental responsibility for him;
(c) any other person caring for the child;
(d) any person named in a child arrangements order as a person with whom the child is to spend time or otherwise have contact;
(e) any person who is allowed to have contact with the child by virtue of an order under section 34; and
(f) the child,
before the hearing of the application.
Let’s deal with the jurisdiction point first, which might be classified as a ‘smarty-pants lawyer argument’. I mean, I wouldn’t categorise it that way myself, but other less kind people might. Naughty other fictitious people.
The judge’s conclusion on jurisdiction
- The challenge to the court’s powers was pursued by both parents before the judge. However, on the appeal neither the mother (following a change of leading counsel) nor the children sought to uphold the judge’s decision in this respect and it was left to Mr Twomey QC and Mr Barnes to pursue it. The argument runs like this. The effect of ss. (1)(a) and (b) is that the local authority must have reasonable cause to suspect harm or likelihood of harm and the assessment must be required to enable it to determine whether harm or likelihood of harm exists. The local authority must, they say, demonstrate that it has “a suspicion (and no more)”. In this case, the local authority could only have decided to place the children on child protection plans and to activate the PLO process if it had already judged there to be the existence or likelihood of harm: Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018, page 45. Its state of mind was therefore one of belief, not suspicion, and accordingly the test under (a) is not satisfied. Nor, for the same reason, can the local authority meet the test under (b) because the assessment is not required to enable it to determine whether or not the children are suffering or likely to suffer significant harm: it already believes that they are. Even though as a matter of normal statutory interpretation, the greater includes the lesser (so here belief includes suspicion), that approach does not apply as this provision concerns the state of mind of the local authority.
- In oral argument, Mr Twomey asserted that as a matter of law the consequence of any one of local authority’s actions in calling the child protection conference, making child protection plans, or initiating the PLO process was to make an order under s.43 unavailable to the local authority and the court. It would not be open to the case conference to decide that an application under s.43 was an appropriate course to safeguard the children. Put another way, if the local authority wanted to seek an order under s.43, it was obliged to go to court before calling a child protection conference. Once it had reached the stage of ‘belief’ the only options open to it were (a) doing nothing, (b) continuing to seek the parents’ consent, or (c) issuing care proceedings. These outcomes are, he said, mandated by the plain words of ss.(1), but he was unable to suggest any good sense to this interpretation, either in terms of child welfare or good social work practice. In particular, he was unable to rebut the local authority’s argument that it would be fundamentally contrary to good social work practice and to statutory guidance for a local authority to apply for a court order before seeking to work with the parents by less interventionist means.
- The judge set out these and other arguments at some length, before stating his conclusion in a single paragraph:
- “36. Generally, as a matter of construction, the greater includes the lesser. In looking at the Act however, there is a gradual proportionate and cumulative incline in what is required to permit interference in a family’s life by the state. Section 43 is founded on a reasonable cause to suspect. Section 38(2) is founded on reasonable grounds for believing. Section 31(2) is founded on the court being satisfied. Each tier has available to it a raft of supporting powers proportionate to the level of inquiry and a possible conclusion. For that reason, it seems to me that the submissions made in respect of this point (the lesser not being included in the greater) are well founded, since I examining the local authority’s state of mind.”
In short – because the LA had held a case conference and registered the children, they had crossed a test of ‘reasonable grounds to believe they were at risk of significant harm’, whereas the test for a Child Assessment Order is ‘suspicion that they are at risk of significant harm’. You may well be saying, but the test for a Child Assessment Order is LOWER, so if they met the former, the latter must be met too. And you would underestimate the smartness and ability of a silk to make what seems like a bad point into an argument. The argument here is that in over-shooting the test, it is no longer a ‘suspicion’ but a ‘reasonable belief’ and thus it is not open to the LA to seek a Child Assessment Order because their evidence is TOO GOOD.
You can see that the Court of Appeal were sceptical, because the natural end point of this is that the LA ought to dash into Court to seek an order rather than to seek to work with the parents under a PLO or a Case Conference, which flies in the face of the way things are supposed to work.
Fascinating though the suggestion that an examination of the local authority’s state of mind is needed is, the Court of Appeal were not convinced.
- With respect to the judge, I consider that he was wrong to reach this conclusion for these reasons:
- (1) Section 43 must be read in the context of the legislation as a whole. As Mr Samuels QC and Mr Lefteri submit, the scheme of the Act points to the child assessment order as forming part of the initial stages of investigation and assessment. As Ms Howe QC and Ms Chaudhry say, the purpose of the section is to enable proper assessment to establish whether there is a need and justification for any further action. This is also the effect of the statutory guidance quoted above.
(2) The condition at ss.(1)(a) provides a relatively low threshold of reasonable suspicion. This is a threshold to be crossed, not a target to be hit. The normal rule of statutory construction applies to this provision as to any other. The reason given for departing from it, namely that the court is examining the local authority’s state of mind, has no logical foundation.
(3) The only restriction on the use of s.43 where the threshold is crossed is that provided by ss.(4) which prevents the making of a child assessment order when an emergency protection order should instead be made.
(4) The condition in ss.(1)(b) plainly exists to ensure that an assessment can only be ordered if it is required, i.e. necessary. However, a determination of whether a child is suffering or likely to suffer harm is not confined to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. The assessment is designed to provide a range of information, identifying not only whether harm may exist, but also describing its nature and extent. Nothing less will allow the local authority to understand the child’s situation and determine how best to proceed. The narrow interpretation of the provision accepted by the judge overlooks the essential qualitative character of the assessment process. It also fails to connect with his own description of the underlying question as being “under what circumstances might the parents’ religious views and activities result in harm to the children’s physical and emotional health and wellbeing?” That was the question to which the assessment would be directed.
(5) The suggested interpretation does not provide “the sensible approach to child protection” spoken of by Baroness Hale. It conflicts with good social work practice and needlessly limits the flexibility with which the powers under the Act should be exercised. It is clear from the guidance that it is not the intention of the legislation to push the local authority into making an application under Part IV in order to obtain an assessment. That might then lead to substantial litigation and an application for the proceedings to be withdrawn, as happened in the radicalisation cases A Local Authority v A Mother and others  EWHC 3741 (Fam) and In re A and others (Children)(Withdrawal of Care Proceedings: Costs)  EWHC 1841 Fam;  4 WLR 146. This would fly in the face of the principle of proportionality and if it were correct it would effectively render s.43 redundant.
- For these reasons I would unhesitatingly conclude that as a matter of law the court had the power to make a child assessment order in this case.
Of course, the parents could make use of the argument in section 43(4) that the Court can’t make a Child Assessment Order if the Court considers that it should make an Emergency Protection Order instead, but you can easily see why that would not be an attractive argument to deploy on behalf of a parent.
So, having ruled that the Court COULD make a Child Assessment Order, the Court of Appeal then considered whether in the circumstances of the case, the Judge was wrong to decide not to make one.
- The judge then concluded:
- “48. The evidence and legal principle in this, as in other such cases, is complex and has to be considered on a case by case basis. Applying well established principles to the evidence that has been available to the Court, I am satisfied that the authority in this case has not satisfied the provisions of s.43.
49. Once the absent evidence has been obtained, even at this belated stage, further urgent decision making will be required about whether or not it is appropriate that there needs to be intervention and of what sort. The approach of the family will obviously be an important part of that analysis.”
- Because the judge did not express himself with reference to the terms of the statute, it is not easy to be precise about his reasons for refusing the local authority’s application, but they would seem to be these:
- (1) He had no power (as above).
(2) It is too late. There were probably reasonable grounds for suspicion in 2015, and the local authority should have acted then. After “4 uneventful years” now is not the time to assess the risk.
(3) (Though not said in terms) the local authority does not have reasonable grounds for suspicion. The application needed more than a “historic” foundation. The failure to gather available evidence about the father from the probation and prison service means that there is no current evidence of the children having been affected by their father’s views.
(4) Alternatively, and for the same reasons, the assessment is not required.
(5) In any case, an order would be disproportionate.
(6) It is unlikely that the older children will participate in an assessment. Endeavouring to compel them to be assessed would be heavy-handed, disproportionate and possibly unfair.
(7) Given the children’s stance, an assessment would not be likely to produce better information than is presently available.
(8) The local authority can think again once it has more information.
The Court of Appeal set out the arguments of the LA and Guardian urging a Child Assessment Order and the parents urging that the initial decision should stand.
- This aspect of the appeal is from an evaluative decision of a trial judge and it can only succeed if the decision is one that the judge could not reasonably have reached on the evidence before him. That is a high hurdle, but I conclude that it has been cleared in this case for these reasons:
- (1) The judge’s approach to the two questions that faced him was inherently inconsistent. Having decided the question of law on the supposition that the local authority was overprovided with information, he based his evaluative decision on the conclusion that it had insufficient evidence for its concerns.
(2) The circumstances of this case present a clear basis for serious concern about the welfare of these children, which their good progress alone could not dispel. Risk of this kind can never be regarded as “historic” until it has been positively shown not to exist, but the judge gave little or no weight to the obvious risks inherent in the father’s long-held views, which were only magnified by the family’s more recent withdrawal of cooperation. The alignment of position between the parents was a further troubling development.
(3) In contrast the judge gave disproportionate weight to his view of the local authority’s approach. In effect he substituted for the requirement for reasonable suspicion a test of whether the local authority had acted reasonably. And even if it was appropriate to criticise the decision to await the father’s release before refreshing its assessment (and for my part I can see no reason to regard that approach as unreasonable) the court was obliged to deal with the case on the facts as they were, not as they might have been.
(4) The judge was plainly unimpressed by the inter-agency working in this case. He considered that information about the father’s current mindset was necessary and should have been obtained before assessing the children. But even if dependable information about that could be obtained from other agencies, it would only fill in part of the picture and an assessment of the children was likely to be necessary in any event. The argument that an assessment should not be ordered because there are gaps in the evidence is circular.
(5) In any event, the judge appears to have accepted that all the information was needed (see paragraph 49 of his judgment). If he considered more information about the father was a precondition to an assessment of the children, he could have given directions for that information to be obtained. The absence of evidence from the parents is also something that should have been noted. Having taken the position that the judge did, the appropriate response was not to dismiss the application but to adjourn it.
(6) The level of past cooperation by the mother or children could not be of much significance if they have withdrawn cooperation before the local authority has the information that it needs to plan its child protection strategy.
(7) The proportionality exercise in this case went awry. The description of the assessment proposal as heavy-handed, disproportionate and overbearing cannot be sustained. High-performing, law-abiding children are not immune from the insidious lure of extremism. The proposed assessment was by no stretch of the imagination disproportionate to the risk in this case. The submission that the children would be left in a vulnerable position without legal representation or that they might be placed in a situation that was unfair is a misreading of the nature of the child protection and litigation processes. Social workers and intervention providers are not threats from whom the children must be protected, but public servants who are seeking to protect these children by means of the least intrusive intervention. The children’s committed lawyers (both those they instruct directly and those representing the Children’s Guardian) will surely not become unavailable to them at the moment the order is made, in the face of an imminent brief assessment.
(8) Even if the reasons for refusing an order in the case of the older children could be sustained on the basis of their views, that would not warrant a refusal to make an order with respect to the youngest child.
- A yet further argument was presented by Mr Twomey. He suggests that s.43 does not permit an assessment of the children’s religious faith as that is not a facet of their health, development or treatment by their parents. That argument is self-evidently unsound. What is being assessed is not the children’s religious faith but their vulnerability and resilience in the face of extremist propaganda masquerading as religious faith.
- I would however hold that the judge was right to find that the opposition of the older children was not an obstacle to the making of an order. In this respect, his approach is to be preferred to the dicta in Re Q (see paragraph 30 above). As can be seen from the statutory guidance, it is not strictly correct to characterise a child assessment order as an emergency intervention. Nor as a matter of principle is it unlikely that a child assessment order will be made with respect to a competent child who may refuse to submit to assessment: it will depend on the circumstances.
[Whilst the statute says that a competent child who says no, is not compelled to participate in the assessment, that does not stop the Court making an order, it just means that at the point of arranging the assessment itself, the objection of a competent child will stop the assessment of that child and override the order, pace section 43 (8)
- Drawing matters together, a child assessment order allows for a brief, focussed assessment of the state of a child’s health or development, or the way in which he or she has been treated, where that is required to enable the local authority to determine whether or not the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm and to establish whether there is a need and justification for any further action. The purpose of the assessment is to provide a range of information, identifying not only whether harm may exist, but also describing its nature and extent. It is part of the process of gathering information so that any child protection measures can be appropriately calibrated. It is the least interventionist of the court’s child protection powers and is designed to enable information that cannot be obtained by other means to be gathered without the need to remove the child from home. It is not an emergency power and it may be particularly apt where the suspected harm to the child may be longer-term and cumulative rather than sudden and severe. The order is compulsory in relation to parents but not for a competent child who refuses to participate. The views of an older child are an important consideration when a decision is taken about making an order, but it cannot be said that opposition makes an order unlikely: it depends on the facts of the case and the nature of the risk and the assessment.
- Seen in this light, the circumstances of this case might be seen as a paradigm example of a case for which s.43 was intended. More than that, I would conclude that the evidence so clearly pointed to the making of a child assessment order that the judge’s contrary conclusion cannot stand. The outcome, by which the local authority was told to go away and think again after a process that had already hung over the family for a full year since the father’s release, fails to address obvious risks that now require careful assessment. The only remaining way in which the assessment can be made without the issuing of care proceedings is by means of a child assessment order. There is no purpose in remitting the decision, and I would therefore allow the appeal and make the child assessment order in the terms now helpfully drawn up by the parties.
- Finally, we would like to address the young people at centre of this case. We know that you will give the same serious attention to this order and the reasons for it that you showed when three of you, one now being an adult, attended the appeal hearing. Our order has only one purpose: to help to keep you safe. We know that the order is not what you wanted, but we believe that it is the very best way of resolving the present situation and of allowing you to get back to the things that you have been doing so well. Three of you have the right to say no, but we hope that you will allow the assessment to take place, as it will do for the youngest one of you, and that you will all do your best.