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Tag Archives: children and families act 2014

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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Fifty-fifty – equal parenting time

 

 

 

As far as I know, Re M (A Child) 2014 is the first time the Court of Appeal have dealt with a case involving equal parenting time since the Children and Families Act with its controversial clause came into being.

 

http://familylawhub.co.uk/default.aspx?i=ce4491

 

This case has some other remarkable features, but just focussing on what the Court of Appeal say about equal parenting time – that being the order that the trial Judge made.

 

 

There is no longer any need, because of the change in the legislation, to impose a “shared” order under section 8. Both parents have equal status. So a division of time 50/50 will remain, in my view, a rare order and only to be contemplated where there is some confidence that it will not work to the disadvantage of the child, albeit that the aim is to give good quality and substantial time with each parent.

 

If you are one of the campaign groups representing fathers, the Court of Appeal saying that a 50-50 split will be a “rare order” “only to be contemplated where there is confidence it will not work to the disadvantage of the child” is not something you wanted to hear.   So all parents are equal, but some are more equal than others.

 

Anyway, the meat of this appeal was more on the issue of whether a Court can impose a condition on WHERE a parent will live when making an order that says that the child will live with them (residence order, in old money)

 

 

In this case, the boy is 5 ½ .

 

The circumstances as they were before the judge was that for some time the mother had set up home with W in Newcastle whereas the father lived in London with his two older children, half siblings of W, and it was impracticable to consider the father moving from London, given his commitments there and, in particular, his longstanding employment.

 

 

There were a series of findings about the father’s conduct that had led the mother to move out of the family home in London and move to Newcastle, the atmosphere in the family home having become ‘toxic’

 

So far as allegations that the mother made against the father, the judge made a greater number of findings. They all, in one aspect or another, relate to the degree of control that the father sought to assert over the family as a whole, but in particular over the mother.

 

One aspect that understandably had prominence was the unfortunate fact that the father was confirmed, as time went on, to be HIV positive. The question arose as to when he knew or must have known that that was the case and whether he told the mother promptly about that and, if not, why not. In short terms, the judge found that there did come a time when the father will have known that it was highly likely that he was HIV positive, but it was not for some year or more after that time that he told the mother about this, despite some active continuing sexual contact between them. The judge describes her finding in this regard as: “Appalling behaviour on behalf of the father. The mother was understandably terrified with this news.” The judge, in short, found the mother’s allegation proved.

 

The mother’s case was that the boy should live with her in Newcastle and spend some time with his father.

 

Father was saying that the boy should live with him in London and spend some time with his mother.

 

 

 

The Judge made an order which seemed utterly bizarre on the face of it, particularly given the findings made, which was that the boy would live with father in London and IF mother moved to London, there would then be a 50-50 split of time.

 

The judge, in the event, made an order that provided for W to be returned from Newcastle to live with his father in London and provided in the interim for arrangements for the mother to have contact. The order further provided that if the mother moved back to the London area herself, she would have substantial contact with her son. Indeed, we have seen a draft order, which counsel have explained to us is more than simply a suggestion of an order as a result of negotiation between counsel, but arose as a result of direct invention from the judge at two or three hearings up to and including 8 July 2014. The basis of the order is that if the mother moves to London, W: “shall live with his father and mother with the principle of equal shared time to include half of all school holidays.” In the meantime, or if the mother does not move to London, the provision was for holidays to be split into equal shares. For each alternate fortnight, so that is once every four weeks, W would travel with the father up to Newcastle to spend most of Saturday and half of Sunday with the mother, and, on another fortnight on each four week cycle, the mother would travel to London to have a similar amount of time with him

 

The mother appealed, on the basis that (a) given the findings and facts a decision to split the time equally was perverse (b) the evidence was that mother did not want to move back to London and would have considerable difficulty in doing so and (c) this stipulation amounted to attaching a condition to residence – something which is only to be done in exceptional circumstances which this was not.

 

 

Let us be fair to the Judge – this ‘third way’ compromise had been suggested by the CAFCASS officer.

 

“42.The recommendation of Mr Power is that W should be returned to the father and it is the hope from Mr Power that the mother will feel able to relocate back to London and therefore there can be come shared care arrangement. The mother says that it is quite impractical; she does not have a job, she does not have income, she does not know where she could afford to live and it is of note that neither party have initiated court proceedings so there are no financial provision proceedings in being. So at the moment the position is that the mother has no known resources such that she can obtain from her family or from by finding a job. She says that if she has to come back to London she does not know that she can find accommodation. She looked into the possibility of finding accommodation and a refuge is one possibility but the problem about that is that at the time she requested alternative accommodation she was told the only then available refuge was in Manchester. 43. Mr Power was of the view that, biding her time while she remains in Newcastle, that a London refuge would eventually be available to a suitable place and that in his experience people are satisfactorily re‑housed, usually within a period of six months, and that whereas living in a refuge is not something one would necessarily wish to do it was perfectly adequate if W were to live with the mother in the refuge. It is fair to say that, looking at the large amount of documentation produced for this hearing, that the mother in the past has been able to potentially find herself accommodation; at one stage she has through her brother I think paid for four months worth of rent in a flat if the father would co‑operate to allow for some further finance of that in the future but the father refused so she has looked into the possibility and obtained money from her brother. Her brother, also I think, is in medicine or science and lives on the continent and he has helped her financially in the past.”

 

 

 

The Court of Appeal give me a lovely new phrase to use – referring to key passages of the judgment, they say that these are the “engine room” of the judgment. Stealing that!

 

In paragraph 46, the judge, looking at W’s best interests, said this: “46.It is vital for him that he should have the continued love and care from his mother in the future as he has had in the past. 47. So looking at those two options, those are really the only two options. Either W stays in Newcastle with the mother under the regime she puts forward or some other workable contact arrangement, what these days are child arrangement and sharing of care, or she comes down to London and she with the father, together, care for W. Mr Power, when asked about what he had in mind with a shared care arrangement, said that he would hope that the mother would have at least half the care of W and possibly more than half the care of W depending upon her commitments, but he could not be more definite about the arrangements because at the moment the plans are inchoate.

 

  1. The father’s proposal if W was returned to London would be that W would see his mother very little indeed. Having heard the evidence he said that he would support what Mr Power recommended. Therefore if the mother can remove herself back to London then she should be able to have a substantial part of the care of W depending upon where in London she is able to live. Of course the court cannot force the mother to move back to London; it will have to be a decision for to make but looking at all the options. The court must make the decision which is the least destructive of family life, must make no order unless an order is necessary and must make a proportionate order. It is a difficult balancing exercise but the balancing exercise must be carried out in what is in this little boy’s best interest. I have no doubt it would be in the mother’s best interest that she should remain in Newcastle. She is happy there and she has a very nice home and there are suitable arrangements for W but this case sadly cannot be decided upon what is in the mother’s best interests; it has to be decided on what is in W’s best interest. I am well aware that she in a difficult predicament because of at the moment she has no income, she has no job and her immigration status is questionable but she is, I find, a resourceful woman and she has been able to achieve that which she wanted, within reason, in her circumstances whilst she was living with the father. Although I have found father was controlling, nevertheless she did go out, she went to courses, she had a job, she left when she chose to to take W to see family or friends. She says she has no friends now but she obtained friends over Facebook and in the past she went to stay with one friend, S, and at one stage she was able to be friendly with her brother’s fiancée but that too has come to an end. So she is a woman who is capable of making friends, who is capable of arranging life as best she may even when in that toxic atmosphere. Therefore I am satisfied that if she decides she wants to move back to London then she will be able to find one way or another that will enable her to do so. As I say, at the moment, there are no financial proceedings so I know not how they may work out if such applications were made; that is not for this court and it is certainly not for this court today.

 

  1. Therefore, carrying out that balancing exercise and looking at what is in the best interests of W, I have come to the conclusion that it is in the best interest of W that he now should be returned to the father’s home and that he should live there under a shared care arrangement; a child arrangement where, in principle, the mother should have a substantial part of the care of W but that of course cannot be put in place until and unless the mother is willing and able to move back to London. If she is not, and in the meantime whilst she remains in Newcastle, sensible arrangements will need to be made so that she can see W and I will leave the parties to see if they can, by agreement, work out a sensible regime. There needs to be a date when W is moved back here; clearly he needs to be back in time for the start of school in September and consideration needs to be given to what happens in the meantime and no doubt arrangements will have to be made but in my judgment, for this little boy, the familiarity of school and the church that he has been going to is, I agree with Mr Power, what is the most stable part of W’s life in the light of the fact that his parents are separated. Therefore, in my judgment, W should return to live with the father. The order should reflect the fact that, in principle, the mother should have part of the care of W when and if she is able to come and live in the proximity to the father and to W’s school and until such time as that happens, what used to be described as contact arrangements will have to be worked out.”

 

Those paragraphs are the engine room of the judge’s judgment and have been the focus of the appeal before us

 

 

So, the Court of Appeal had to consider whether what the Judge had done did amount to attaching a condition on residence and whether that was justified.

 

The law on that really emerges from Re E (Residence : Imposition of Conditions) 1997 2 FLR 638 – “where the parent is entirely suitable and the court intends to make a residence order in favour of that parent, a condition of residence is in my view an unwarranted imposition upon the right of the parent to chose where he/she will live within the United Kingdom or with whom. There may be exceptional cases, for instance, where the court, in the private law context, has concerns about the ability of the parent to be granted a residence order to be a satisfactory carer but there is no better solution than to place the child with that parent. The court might consider it necessary to keep some control over the parent by way of conditions which include a condition of residence”

 

The Court do have the legal power to make conditions under s11(7), but unless there are exceptional circumstances, they ought to have decided which of the two competing plans (with mum in Newcastle or with dad in London) was the right plan, rather than imposing an order which effectively compelled mother to move to London against her wishes.

 

 

In my view, the judge should have made a clear choice, hard though it would have been, between W remaining living in the care of the mother in Newcastle or living in the care of the father in London and she should not have endorsed the halfway house arrangement that she did, which, for the reasons I have given, was, first of all, in my view, impermissible as a back door condition, but secondly, and perhaps more importantly, was simply not justified on the evidence and hard to understand as a concept that would be compatible with the child’s welfare. For those reasons, I would allow the appeal and set aside the judge’s order.

The President’s decision in Re S (26 weeks and extensions) Part 2

 

The judgment is on the previous blog (I’m sure it will be on Bailii shortly)

This case really turns on the provisions of the Children and Family Act 2014 that come into force on Tuesday 22nd April. What we have here, somewhat unusually, is a leading Judge giving authority as to the interpretation of an Act which has not yet come into force.  Sentence first, verdict later, as it were.

At least it avoids any other Judge giving a judgment on Tuesday or afterwards which doesn’t accord with the President’s view of the test, so we all know where we stand.    [In fairness, because the decision that was being sought was to adjourn the case well beyond 22nd April, the future provisions would have kicked in by the time that the case fell to be determined, so it might have been hard to simply ignore them]

 

On the facts of the particular case, this was about a mother with a history of substance misuse problems, on child number four, with the previous three having been removed. There had been drug tests within the proceedings showing  “at worst very low levels of drugs in the mother’s hair”

The proceedings began in October, and we are now April. The mother’s application was for a residential assessment, that would last for a period of six to twelve weeks and if successful that would be followed by an assessment in the community. That would obviously take the case beyond the 26 week target of the PLO (and of course, given that the Children and Families Act provisions about timescales come into force next week, by the time of any final hearing, that would go beyond the new statutory requirement of 26 weeks). There were, however, three expert reports suggesting that the mother was making progress and that such an assessment might bear fruit.

The President was therefore considering whether to grant the adjournment and application for residential assessment, and doing so against the backdrop of the 26 week statutory position and the new provisions of the Children and Families Act as to exceptional circumstances that justify an adjournment of 8 weeks beyond that.

What was also in his mind was the new statutory provisions about expert evidence (which in effect incorporates into section 38 of the Children Act the current Rule 25 Family Procedure Rules tests and guidance)

 

21. For present purposes the key point is the use in common in section 38(7A) of the 1989 Act, section 13(6) of the 2014 Act and FPR 25.1 of the qualifying requirement that the court may direct the assessment or expert evidence only if it is “necessary” to assist the court to resolve the proceedings. This phrase must have the same meaning in both contexts. The addition of the word “justly” only makes explicit what was necessarily implicit, for it goes without saying that any court must always act justly rather than unjustly. So “necessary” in section 38(7A) has the same meaning as the same word in section 13(6), as to which see Re TG (Care Proceedings: Case Management: Expert Evidence) [2013] EWCA Civ 5, [2013] 1 FLR 1250, para 30, and In re H-L (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Expert Evidence) [2013] EWCA Civ 655, [2014] 1 WLR 1160, [2013] 2 FLR 1434, para 3.

 

This is what the President says about the statutory provision that care proceedings should be concluded within 26 weeks

24. Section 32(1)(a)(ii) does not describe some mere aspiration or target, nor does it prescribe an average. It defines, subject only to the qualification in section 32(5) and compliance with the requirements of sections 32(6) and (7), a mandatory limit which applies to all cases. It follows that there will be many cases that can, and therefore should, be concluded well within the 26 week limit. I repeat what I said in my first ‘View from the President’s Chambers: The process of reform’, [2013] Fam Law 548:

“My message is clear and uncompromising: this deadline can be met, it must be met, it will be met. And remember, 26 weeks is a deadline, not a target; it is a maximum, not an average or a mean. So many cases will need to be finished in less than 26 weeks.”

 

The issue then was the statutory provision in s32(5)

 

            A court in which an application under this Part is proceeding may extend the period that is for the time being allowed under subsection (1)(a)(ii) in the case of the application, but may do so only if the court considers that the extension is necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly.

and what factors the Court should consider when determining whether to grant such an adjournment.

One might think that those factors are already set out in the Act

s32 (6)        When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court must in particular have regard to –

(a)        the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the welfare of the child to whom the application relates, and

(b)        the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the duration and conduct of the proceedings;

and here “ensuing timetable revision” means any revision, of the timetable under subsection (1)(a) for the proceedings, which the court considers may ensue from the extension.

(7)        When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court is to take account of the following guidance: extensions are not to be granted routinely and are to be seen as requiring specific justification.

The President cites various authorities  (Re B-S and Re NL notably, as authorities for the principle that there will be cases where an extension of time IS necessary to resolve the proceedings justly)

31. In what circumstances may the qualification in section 32(5) apply?

32. This is not the occasion for any elaborate discussion of a question which, in the final analysis, can be determined only on a case by case basis. But some preliminary and necessarily tentative observations are appropriate

Let’s look at those preliminary and tentative observations

34. There will, as it seems to me, be three different forensic contexts in which an extension of the 26 week time limit in accordance with section 32(5) may be “necessary”:

i)                    The first is where the case can be identified from the outset, or at least very early on, as one which it may not be possible to resolve justly within 26 weeks. Experience will no doubt identify the kind of cases that may fall within this category. Four examples which readily spring to mind (no doubt others will emerge) are (a) very heavy cases involving the most complex medical evidence where a separate fact finding hearing is directed in accordance with Re S (Split Hearing) [2014] EWCA Civ 25, [2014] 2 FLR (forthcoming), para 29, (b) FDAC type cases (see further below), (c) cases with an international element where investigations or assessments have to be carried out abroad and (d) cases where the parent’s disabilities require recourse to special assessments or measures (as to which see Re C (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 128, para 34).

ii)                   The second is where, despite appropriately robust and vigorous judicial case management, something unexpectedly emerges to change the nature of the proceedings too late in the day to enable the case to be concluded justly within 26 weeks. Examples which come to mind are (a) cases proceeding on allegations of neglect or emotional harm where allegations of sexual abuse subsequently surface, (b) cases which are unexpectedly ‘derailed’ because of the death, serious illness or imprisonment of the proposed carer, and (c) cases where a realistic alternative family carer emerges late in the day.

iii)                 The third is where litigation failure on the part of one or more of the parties makes it impossible to complete the case justly within 26 weeks (the type of situation addressed in In re B-S, para 49).

34. I repeat, because the point is so important, that in no case can an extension beyond 26 weeks be authorised unless it is “necessary” to enable the court to resolve the proceedings “justly”. Only the imperative demands of justice – fair process – or of the child’s welfare will suffice.

 

So, to skip to the chorus  – three categories of case where an extension might be warranted  (forgive my short-hand mnemonic prompts, which Malcolm Tucker has helped me devise)

 

1. The case was always going to be super-complicated from the outset (heavy duty fact-finding, FDAC cases, heavy duty international element, parents with disabilities such that specialised assessments are necessary)

“This case was fucked from the beginning”

2.  Something massive emerges during the proceedings – (fresh allegations that need to be resolved, death or imprisonment of a key player, a realistic family member comes forward late in the day  – “Auntie Beryl alert! Finally an answer – adjournment is going to be permissable for an Auntie Beryl situation!”)

“This case got fucked in the middle”

 3. Litigation failure on the part of one of the parties means that it would not be fair to conclude the proceedings

“Some fucker has fucked up”

 

The Judge then goes on to praise FDAC but delivers this guidance (which probably has wider applicability)

 

38. Viewed from a judicial perspective a vital component of the FDAC approach has to be a robust and realistic appraisal at the outset of what is possible within the child’s timescale and an equally robust and realistic ongoing appraisal throughout of whether what is needed is indeed being achieved (or not) within the child’s timescale. These appraisals must be evidence based, with a solid foundation, not driven by sentiment or a hope that ‘something may turn up’.

Typically three questions will have to be addressed. First, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent is committed to making the necessary changes? If so, secondly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to maintain that commitment? If so, thirdly, is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that the parent will be able to make the necessary changes within the child’s timescale

 

I think those principles have wider applicability, because the President goes on to use them in this case, which although the background is drugs and alcohol, is NOT a FDAC case.

For this particular case, this is what the President says (bear in mind that this is NOT a final hearing, but an application to adjourn the final hearing and seek a residential assessment. As far as I can tell from the judgment, no live evidence was heard.  The remarks don’t leave much room for manoeuvre at final hearing…)

44. there is no adequate justification, let alone the necessity which section 32(5) of the 1989 Act will shortly require, for an extension of the case so significantly beyond 26 weeks. Again, there are two aspects to this. Looking to the mother, there is, sadly, at present no solid, evidence based, reason to believe that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale. Even assuming that there is some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that she is committed to making the necessary changes, there is, sadly, not enough reason to believe that she will be able to maintain that commitment. In the light of her history, and all the evidence to hand, the assertion that she will seems to me to be founded more on hope than solid expectation, just as does any assertion that she will be able to make the necessary changes within S’s timescale. Secondly, I have to have regard to the detrimental effects on S of further delay. Far from this being a case where the child’s welfare demands an extension of the 26 weeks time limit, S’s needs point if anything in the other direction. I accept the guardian’s analysis.

 

If you were thinking that this was all very peculiar, I haven’t even got to the best bit

 

I have been sitting at Bournemouth in the Bournemouth and Poole County Court hearing a care case. It is a very typical County Court case

[There is nothing in the history of the litigation set out in the judgment that ever shows that the case was transferred from the County Court to the High Court. So is this binding authority about provisions of an Act which weren’t in force at the time the judgment was given, actually a County Court judgment? ]