RSS Feed

Tag Archives: cognitive assessment

Car crash, Hot Tub, (wish they had a) Time Machine

 

 

I’m sure there are boring cases that come into the list of Her Honour Judge Lazarus, but I’m yet to read one.

 

She opens this cracker with the line

 

 

 

  • “ I likened it to arriving at the scene of a car crash, and wondered what one could do about it. This situation should never have arisen. It’s caused huge tension, including within any recommendation, and I’ve tried to keep X at the centre of it. ” This evidence from the independent social worker effectively summarises the key issues in this case.

 

 

Which, you’ll agree, is a belter.

 

Perhaps this opener is better

“Once upon a time, in a place now known as Montana, dinosaurs roamed the land. On a fateful day, some 66 million years ago, two such creatures, a 22-foot-long theropod and a 28-foot-long ceratopsian, engaged in mortal combat.”

http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2018/11/06/16-35506.pdf

 

 

 And this might be my favourite line in any judgment

Dr Muir Wood asked her in cross-examination why she did not simply Google the word “prick” and she answered with admirable succinctness: “Because it would have shown me porn and penises

Martinez (t/a Prick) & Anor v Prick Me Baby One More Time Ltd (t/a Prick) & Anor [2018] EWHC 776 (IPEC) (11 April 2018)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/IPEC/2018/776.html

 

But the opener here is indupitably a cracker.

 

 

Z v Kent County Council (Revocation of placement order – Failure to assess Mother’s capacity and Grandparents) [2018] EWFC B65 (18 October 2018)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2018/B65.html

 

I’ll try to capture the background quickly and simply.

 

In December 2017, a different Judge made a Care Order and Placement Order in relation to a child, Z.

 

Z’s mother had some significant mental health problems and had spent time (including during the proceedings) in a psychiatric unit.

 

Early on in the 2017 case, people became concerned that mother might not have capacity to instruct a solicitor (i.e didn’t understand enough about what was going on in the case or what Courts were etc to be able to tell their solicitor what to do. If you have capacity, you can instruct your solicitor to ask for what you want – even if it doesn’t have much chance of success, that’s your right. If you don’t have capacity, someone else – often the Official Solicitor, will decide what the solicitor should ask for on your behalf)

 

The Court gave directions for mother to be assessed to see if she had that capacity. The mother was also insistent that her parents (Z’s maternal grandparents) should not be assessed as carers. She did not attend that assessment. The Court (not HHJ Lazarus, the initial Judge) made a series of orders basically saying that UNLESS mum attended a cognitive assessment she would be deemed to have capacity by the Court. She did not.

Mum told her solicitors, just before the final hearing, that she agreed to Z being adopted, and a Care Order and Placement Order were made.

 

(That’s important, because the Court didn’t ever actually resolve whether mum had capacity to instruct her solicitor to agree to adoption. Agreeing to adoption is very rare in care proceedings – sometimes parents decide not to oppose the plan, but in 25 years, I’ve only seen one parent actually consent to adoption in care proceedings. It ought to have rung some alarm bells about whether mum really understood what she was doing)

 

To make matters worse, as Z’s maternal grandparents had been shut out of the case in accordance with their daughter’s wishes, they did not find out that Z existed until FOUR DAYS AFTER the Placement Order was made. Z had been placed, 3 weeks before that, with foster to adopt carers who wished later to adopt Z.

 

When the maternal grandparents put themselves forward as carers for Z, everyone accepted that they were capable of caring for Z, AND IF they had been considered within the care proceedings, the Court would almost certainly have placed Z with them under a Special Guardianship Order and not gone the adoption route.

 

The grandparents applied to revoke the Placement Order and for the Court to make a Special Guardianship Order for Z, placing her with the grandparents.

What HHJ Lazarus was faced with was then a competing argument between the maternal grandparents, and the prospective adopters (who had been caring for Z for 11 months, with the intention always of adopting her)

 

The prospective adopters, Q and R, gave evidence together in the witness box :-

 

 

 

  1. Q and R were sworn and gave evidence together, in a process known colloquially as ‘hot-tubbing’. This was proposed by me and agreed to by all parties as a sensible and effective time-saving device, and I consider that in the process I gained a good impression of each of them and of them together as a couple.

 

[See, although my titles are madness, yet there is method in’t. I know a hawk from a hand-saw.]

 

Oh, by the way, R was the step-aunt of the child’s older siblings, so it was a quasi family placement, so not just a straight fight between family v adopters.

 

The case, as well as the nightmarishly difficult task of deciding what was best for Z, raised two important issues of law

 

  1. What happens when a parent is thought to lack capacity, but they don’t cooperate with the assessment that would answer that question?
  2. If a parent refuses to allow relatives to be considered as potential carers, is that the end of it, or is there a responsibility on the Local Authority to consider them anyway if the only other plan is adoption?

 

 

  • What happens when a parent is thought to lack capacity, but they don’t cooperate with the assessment that would answer that question?

 

 

There’s some lovely analysis here, set out carefully and precisely.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. c)       Under section 1(2) of the Mental Capacity Act “ A person must be assumed to have capacity unless it is established that he lacks capacity ”. This is more generally known as the ‘Presumption of Capacity’. My underlining points out a critical, and often misunderstood, element of this provision

 

(WordPress has lost its underlining function, so I’ve put the judicial underlining in red)

 

 

 

  1. d)       Sections 2 and 3 set out the factors to be considered in determining whether or not someone lacks capacity, and are not directly in issue here. However, section 2(4) provides: “ In proceedings under this Act or any other enactment , any question whether a person lacks capacity within the meaning of this Act must be decided on the balance of probabilities .”

 

  1. e)       It is well established and follows from the wording of those provisions:

–         the Presumption is an important starting point;

 

–         however information may raise a question whether a person lacks capacity and so lead that Presumption to be questioned;

 

–         such a question is to be decided on the balance of probabilities by reference to the relevant factors in sections 2 and 3;

–         it is therefore a matter of fact to be determined on evidence by the court;

 

–         the Presumption is thus rebuttable, and may be rebutted if lack of capacity is established by that determination.

 

 

 

  1. f)       The philosophy and purpose behind this Presumption is not a matter for detailed explanation in this judgment, but one significant intention is to prevent inaccurately assuming lack of capacity in apparently vulnerable individuals without it being properly established on evidence. It is emphatically not there to obviate an examination of such an issue.   Nor can it have been Parliament’s intention to place a vulnerable person in danger of their lack of capacity being overlooked at the expense of their rights by a slack reliance on this Presumption, and as is made clear in the law I refer to below.

 

In short, whilst deciding that a person lacks capacity requires a judicial decision and evidence, that doesn’t mean that where you have doubts about a person’s capacity you just go with the presumption unless there’s a cognitive assessment to say otherwise.

 

 

 

 

  1. k)       Medical evidence is “ almost certainly ” required for the purposes of establishing lack of capacity.   In Masterman-Lister v Brutton and Co (Nos 1 and 2) [2003] 1 WLR 1511 at paragraph 17H Kennedy LJ said: “ even where the issue does not seem to be contentious, a district judge who is responsible for case management will almost certainly require the assistance of a medical report before being able to be satisfied that incapacity exists ”.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. l)           But what should be done if there is no expert evidence available?    

 

In Carmarthenshire County Council v Peter Lewis     [2010] EWCA Civ 1567 Rimer LJ was considering an application for permission to appeal against a decision in which the first instance judge had made an order that “ unless the applicant allowed an examination of himself by a particular specialist by a specified date, he was to be debarred from defending the claim ”. The purpose of the proposed examination was to assess capacity. In that case, the applicant did not allow the examination, and at the final hearing, the first instance judge determined the claim against him without further consideration of the issue of capacity. On appeal, Rimer LJ said this:

 

“ In my view the problem raised by this case is as to how, once the court is possessed of information raising a question as to the capacity of the litigant to conduct the litigation, it should satisfy itself as to whether the litigant does in fact have sufficient capacity. I cannot think that the court can ordinarily, by its own impression of the litigant, safely form its own view on that. Nor am I impressed that the solution is the making of an “unless” order of the type that Judge Thomas made. The concern that I have about this case is that an order may have been made against a party who was in fact a “protected party” without a litigation friend having been appointed for him ”.

 

 

  1. m)       In Baker Tilly (A Firm) v Mira Makar [2013] EWHC 759 (QB) the Respondent refused to co-operate in an assessment of her capacity. The Master hearing the case at first instance made his own assessment, based on the information available to him, that the Respondent lacked capacity. On appeal to the High Court, Sir Raymond Jack noted the dictum of Rimer J (above) that the court cannot ordinarily , by its own impression of the litigant, safely form its own view of capacity. But he also noted that “ In most cases where a question of capacity has arisen the person whose capacity is in question has co-operated with the court and the court has been provided with the assistance of appropriate medical experts ” and that “ counsel has not found any case where the court has had to resolve a situation as has arisen here where the litigant has refused to co-operate in an assessment of their capacity ” (paragraph 8). In the case then before him, having taken into account further information not available to the Master, he came to the opposite conclusion as to capacity. But it is noteworthy that there is no suggestion that the Master should not have attempted the exercise, or could have properly left the issue of capacity unresolved.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. n)         In Re D (Children) [2015] EWCA Civ 745 the issue before the appeal court was whether the court at first instance had failed properly to determine whether or not the mother had litigation capacity at the time proceedings were heard.

 

 

King LJ said this at paragraph 30: “ Evidence from a suitably qualified person will be necessary as to the diagnosis [cf. section 2(1) Mental Capacity Act]. This will usually be someone with medical qualifications. … ”.

 

 

And at paragraph 56:

 

“ This case does however perhaps provide a cautionary tale and a reminder that issues of capacity are of fundamental importance . The rules providing for the identification of a person who lacks capacity, reflect society’s proper understanding of the impact on both parent and child of the making of an order which will separate them permanently. It is therefore essential that the evidence which informs the issue of capacity complies with the test found in the MCA 2005 and that any conflict of evidence is brought to the attention of the court and resolved prior to the case progressing further . It is in order to avoid this course causing delay that the Public Law Outline anticipates issues of capacity being raised and dealt with in the early stages of the proceedings .”

 

In that case the Court of Appeal described the steps that had been taken at first instance to establish capacity as a “ serious procedural irregularity ” but declined to order a fresh capacity assessment and a retrial on the basis that the mother was not adversely affected and no practical difference was made to the hearing or outcome as a consequence. The court validated the proceedings retrospectively.

 

 

  1. o)       There therefore remain, to some extent, tensions between the dicta in the Court of Appeal cases referred to above, and arising between:

 

 

–           on the one hand the absolute necessity to determine an issue of capacity, as a matter of fact, with the assistance of expert or other medical opinion, and as a matter of urgency;

 

 

–           and on the other hand, the possible absence of an expert or other medical opinion through the parent’s non-engagement, refusal to attend assessments, or due to a failure to provide information by the relevant medical sources.

 

 

  1. p)       There does not appear to be a clear and authoritative decision that provides guidance with direct reference to this problem. It cannot have been intended that proceedings should be hamstrung and in stasis by an inability to determine this issue in the absence of co-operation with medical assessment or availability of medical evidence.

 

 

  1. q)       However, the key may be in the words ‘ ordinarily ’ and ‘ almost ’ in the Carmarthenshire and Masterman cases, and the word ‘ likely ’ in PD15B paragraph 1.2 which appear to give some leeway.

 

 

  1. r)         Paragraph 44 of the updated 2018 Family Justice Council guidance states: “ A parent may decline professional assessment. In those circumstances, it will be for the court to determine the issue on the best evidence it has available. ”

 

 

  1. s)         This may enable courts faced with this challenge where there is no expert or medical assessment evidence to meet the absolute requirement that capacity issues must be fully addressed and determined, and to do so by reaching appropriate pragmatic evidence-based decisions, while ensuring that both the overriding objective and the protected party’s rights are fully in mind.

 

 

  1. t)         Such a determination could be based on a careful review of the other relevant material that may be available, such as a report from a clinician who knows the party’s condition well enough to report without interviewing the party (if available and appropriate), other medical records, accounts of family members, accounts of the social worker or other agency workers who may be supporting the parent, and occasionally direct evidence from a parent. [2]    

 

 

  1. u)       Any such finding made without expert assessment evidence that leads to a declaration of protected party status due to lack of litigation capacity could always be reviewed upon expert evidence being obtained to suggest that the finding was incorrect, and by ensuring that the question of assessment is regularly revisited with the protected party by their litigation friend, their solicitor and the court. Such a review and correction is anyway the case where a party has regained capacity and the issue is addressed with the benefit of an updating expert opinion.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. v)       What can be derived as following from the above statutory provisions, guidance and case law as clearly impermissible or inappropriate, and would likely lead to a failure to apply the required procedural approach and lead to breaches of that party’s Article 6 and 8 ECHR rights? :

 

 

–             failure to grasp the nettle fully and early,

 

 

–             ignoring information or evidence that a party may lack capacity,

 

 

–             purporting to ‘adopt’ the Presumption of Capacity in circumstances where capacity has been questioned,

 

 

–             making directions addressing the capacity issue, but discharging them or failing to comply with them and thereby leaving the issue inadequately addressed,

 

 

–             failing to obtain evidence (expert or otherwise) relevant to capacity,

 

 

–             use of ‘unless’ orders,

 

 

–             similarly, using personal service or ‘warning notices’ on that party,

 

 

–             relying on non-engagement by that party either with assessments or the proceedings,

 

 

–             proceeding with any substantive directions, let alone making final orders, in the absence of adequate enquiry and proper determination of the capacity issue,

 

 

–             treating a party as having provided consent to any step, let alone a grave and possibly irrevocable final step, where capacity has been questioned but the issue not determined.

 

 

 

INVESTIGATION OF FAMILY MEMBERS

 

 

There’s a long and careful analysis of the principles with sources (which I’d recommend as vital reading for any lawyer or professional grappling with the issue of whether to consult with family members where the parent is dead-set against it but where adoption appears a realistic outcome if suitable family members are not found.) But here are the conclusions.

 

 

  1. s)         The legal and best practice framework and local policies set out above are a small summary of a much wider range of authorities, statutory provisions and guidance. In combination, the following principles can be derived:

 

 

–             Unless a child’s welfare requires it a child’s interests are best promoted by living with their family.

 

 

–             Interference with the living arrangements for children by a Local Authority must pass a threshold. If there is insufficient evidence to establish that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm the court, at a Local Authority’s invitation, cannot interfere with a child’s living arrangements.

 

 

–             Where it becomes clear to a Local Authority that a child is at risk of suffering significant harm there is a duty under section 17 Children Act 1989 to provide services to a child to try to allow them to live within their family.

 

 

–             When public law proceedings are contemplated and removal of the child from their primary carer is a realistic possibility the Local Authority should identify at the earliest opportunity if there are wider family and friends who may be able to care for the child, for example from their own records.

 

 

–             A referral to a Family Group Conference should if possible be made when proceedings are contemplated. One of the purposes of the Family Group Conference is to identify if there are wider family members who can offer support or care for the child.

 

 

–             Where capacity is an issue the Local Authority should consider if an advocate is necessary to assist a parent.

 

 

–             If a Family Group Conference referral is refused legal advice should be sought. Any parental objection to wider family members being assessed or involved in proceedings requires scrutiny.

 

 

–             Identifying alternative carers for a child should if possible take place during the pre-proceedings process under the Public Law Outline, failing which it should be raised with the court once proceedings are issued.

 

 

–             Once in proceedings the Local Authority still has a duty to continue identifying wider family members who may be assessed to care for the child. This is part of the duties required of Local Authorities to promote the child’s welfare.

 

 

–             A child’s right to respect for private and family life may include the right to know wider family members who have not been part of the proceedings and may not have met the child.

 

 

–             When adoption is being considered the Local Authority has a duty to ascertain the wishes and feelings of relatives regarding the child and the plan for adoption.

 

 

In this case

 

 

 

  1. o)         I acknowledge that there may be good reasons on occasions for other family members not being approached, but these need to be understood rather than glossed over. And, while there is case law relating to certain extreme examples where the question of who should be contacted about or made parties to family proceedings has been considered, there does not appear to be authoritative guidance on the type of circumstances as arose here in relation to Family Group Conferences.

 

 

  1. p)         Here, given the concerns over Y’s capacity the Local Authority should at least have been alert to consider very carefully her failure to put forward any relative. Reliance on her exercise of parental responsibility cannot sit together with the Local Authority’s own concerns about her capacity, without further careful enquiry.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Errors, traps and temptations that should have been avoided :

 

(Can I please say how much I like these helpful subheadings in the judgment – albeit that I can only imagine how cringe-making it must be for those involved in the proceedings to listen when a Judge announces that as a chapter title…)

 

 

  1. I)                     Relying on Y’s purported exercise of parental responsibility in saying that she did not propose the maternal grandmother as a potential carer. In particular where she was thought to lack capacity, this is not a step that somehow relieves or prevents the Local Authority from considering what steps needed to be taken to meet its duties to consider other family members.

 

 

  1. II)                   Believing the Presumption of Capacity replaces or obviates the need for the court to determine the issue of litigation capacity on evidence as a matter of fact, or entitles the parties or the court to ignore a capacity problem, particularly where there were worrying recent accounts of Y being significantly unwell. It is simply a rebuttable assumption and a starting point. Any suggestion that capacity is in issue should lead to the opposite approach, namely to take steps that would enable the court to determine whether the assumption remains in place or lack of capacity is established.

 

 

III)                 Ignoring glaring evidence or information suggestive of lack of capacity. This is an abrogation of responsibility to acknowledge the implications of such information, albeit it is easier to shut an eye to it in order to avoid its inconvenient effects on the case, particularly where a case outcome appears obvious or a solution is readily to hand.

 

 

  1. IV)               Relying on Y’s non-engagement or non-attendance at hearings, or employing ‘unless’ orders as a basis for progressing the case and discharging directions critical to the question of her capacity. A vulnerable person who may be a protected party due to lack of capacity may well find it difficult or impossible to engage or attend without the appropriate support or identification of her status and appointment of a litigation friend. This compounds a breach of her Article 6 rights.

 

 

  1. V)                 Personal service and warning ‘Notice’ – these steps make no sense in law or natural justice if Y lacked capacity, and simply seem to lack common sense. What might such steps or notices actually mean to a vulnerable person who lacks litigation capacity?

 

 

  1. VI)               Discharging directions critical to the determination of the capacity issue, and not complying or following up on non-compliance with those directions. This is case management failure with direct consequences for the procedural propriety of the case.

 

 

VII)             Making permissive directions to obtain the treating clinician’s certificate of capacity, rather than mandatory and time-limited directions.

 

 

VIII)           Treating Y’s wishes and feelings obtained by the Social Worker and over the telephone with her solicitor as a capacitous decision consenting to very grave and complex and potentially irrevocable orders, compliant with section 52(5). Her diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder and alcohol dependence were well known. Directions had been made that she should be subject to capacity, cognitive and psychiatric assessment, but had not resulted in any assessments nor other medical information being provided. There was no adequate information before the court to assist with any question of her abilities or suggestibility or understanding.

 

 

  1. IX)                 Her position was erroneously described as ‘consent’ and named as such in the order, when it was not put forward as formal consent in the Position Statement prepared on her behalf, and the exercise of considering whether her consent should be dispensed with by undertaking a welfare-based consideration of the checklist factors was not done, despite her solicitor flagging it up.

 

 

  1. X)                   As the Social Worker and Children’s Guardian acknowledged, the parties became caught up in the ‘excitement’ of having found a solution for X’s placement that avoided stranger adoption, and so lost sight of wider issues that had been overlooked.

 

 

  1. XI)                 The temptations of a precipitate approach, naturally abetted by the lure of completing a case within the required 26 weeks time-limit, and by the existence of ‘a solution’ for X which tempts professionals and the court not to address the harder, wider or longer questions which might cause any delay, leading everyone to push ahead to final orders despite serious procedural irregularities.

 

 

XII)               No party, representative nor the court spotted or voiced or prevented or corrected the series of avoidable errors around failing to address a key issue which had riddled the case from the outset, and the case was allowed to progress and ultimately extremely serious final orders were made on the back of those serious procedural irregularities. This collective shared failure seems something akin to group-thinking or peer pressure or a gross shared example of confirmation bias.

 

 

 

 

This is already a piece which is far too long, but in terms of the final decision, HHJ Lazarus decided that Z should stay with Q and R (the step-aunt) who had originally intended to adopt her, but under a Special Guardianship Order, and that there should be a Child Arrangements Order giving contact between Z and the grandparents.   The reasoning is too long to set out here, and it must have been a very difficult task – readers who are interested are referred to the judgment paragraphs 51 onwards. There was the involvement of an independent social worker whose evidence was very helpful to the Court in reaching the decision.

 

Advertisements

Medway case part 2 – a lot of practice issues

Following on from the last blog – I don’t often split case discussions, but in this one I felt that the issues over the foster carer and recording was worth a piece on its own.

 

This piece now tackles some of the many practice issues raised by Medway Council v A  2015 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B66.html

 

Let us start with our old friend section 20

 

 

  • 6 On 6.8.14 the SW claims she contacted the Maternal Grandmother and Mr S to see if alternative arrangements could be made within the family to support them. Issues have been raised about her manner of doing so, and whether appropriate support was offered. I make no finding as it has not been possible to explore this fully, but I note that there were several meetings that took place on this date and the SW will have wanted that information beforehand and so may have sounded abrupt and left little time for matters to be considered.
  • 7 By the end of that day the parents had signed a section 20 agreement which they and Mr S thought simply covered a two week period in a mother and baby foster placement. It is clear from the notes in the medical records, and the SW accepts, that the issue of Mother’s vulnerability was raised by Mrs Rose before Mother signed the section 20 agreement. The SW also accepted that in addition to the hospital’s concerns, Mr S and the Maternal Grandmother had confirmed that Mother had a learning difficulty. The SW accepted that it was not appropriate to have obtained Mother’s signature to an agreement under s20 in such circumstances where her cognitive abilities had been questioned by other professionals and no assessment had taken place. I also note that it was obtained prior to the strategy meeting taking place on 7.8.14.

We now know that the mother’s IQ was 54, making it extremely questionable that she had capacity to sign a section 20 agreement – certainly without it being really carefully explained to her. In any event, the parents understanding was that they were agreeing to a two week placement and the placement was actually intended to be for twelve weeks, breaking down after 40 days. This, once again is not a fair and proper use of section 20.

 

  • The guidance of Hedley J in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] COPLR 658 is as follows, at paragraph 46: “i) every social worker obtaining consent to accommodation of a child from a parent (with parental responsibility) is under a personal duty to be satisfied that the person giving consent does not lack the required capacity; ii) the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity, take into account all the prevailing circumstances and must consider the questions raised by Mental Capacity Act 2005, section 3 and in particular the mother’s capacity to use and weigh all the relevant information; iii) if the social worker has doubts about capacity, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion. Advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.”
  • I acknowledge that the Father signed the section 20 agreement, but this is not good enough (cf s.20(7) Children Act). I have been appalled at the reliance placed by Medway on a section 20 agreement signed by the Mother. She was encouraged to sign it on 6.8.14 without any assessment of her learning difficulty or her capacity. This is wholly unacceptable when the SW knew from the hospital staff and family members that Mother had a learning difficulty and appeared to have problems with her understanding.
  • Medway should not have waited to rely on assessments prompted and undertaken by another agency. Given the anxieties expressed by Mrs Rose at the meetings on 6.8.14, I consider that a section 20 agreement should never have been pursued that day.
  • While I accept that subsequent assessments, by the Learning Disability nurse and by Dr Conning, have suggested that she has capacity, these should not vindicate this practice of relying on a section 20 agreement that was obtained beforehand. In any event I do not consider that an Learning Disability nurse’s assessment on the ward should have been relied upon in relation to the import of a section 20 agreement by which a parent agrees to major interferences with the family’s life. And I further note that Dr Conning’s assessment of the Mother’s capacity in October 2014 was couched in terms of having capacity in the context of her being supported by her legal team and her husband (also legally advised by then).
  • It is likely that the cognitive assessment appointment two weeks after the section 20 agreement was signed, on 21.8.14, followed from the Resource Panel’s concerns expressed at the meeting on 19.8.14, and there appears to have been no attempt by the SW or her team manager to arrange one before then. Although I acknowledge that efforts were then made to obtain a cognitive assessment of Mother on 21.8.14 and 2.9.14 that were not successful due to the Mother’s non-attendance, nonetheless it meant that the section 20 agreement that was extended on 3.9.14 was equally flawed.
  • Mr Crimes’ assessment was sent on 8.9.14. He assessed Mother as having a full IQ score of 54, and as he noted in the accompanying email to the SW this was about the lowest level of functioning he had ever assessed. This was not an assessment of her capacity but set out a grave picture of impairment of her ability to comprehend and make decisions about complex information. Mother was not then assessed as to her capacity until 10.10.14 which was within the care proceedings and with the benefit of legal advice and representation – an important difference. Given the information from Mr Crimes on 5.9.14, Medway should immediately have taken steps in early September and not continued to rely on a section 20 agreement obtained from a vulnerable new mother with this degree of learning disability.
  • Several difficulties arise for vulnerable adults in these circumstances. They are unlikely to want to appear to be difficult or obstructive and so they may well agree to section 20 arrangements that are not necessarily appropriate. Once they have agreed to such arrangements, and are in a mother and baby foster placement as in this case for example, there is a natural impetus to remain with the child and so be locked into a continued agreement to the arrangement. Most significantly, the use of section 20 agreements results in vulnerable adults coping with such circumstances without legal advice or representation.
  • This was compounded here by there being no referral to adult services and no input from social workers experienced in working with vulnerable adults and who are not focussing simply on child protection issues, but are able to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on the case.
  • Just over 40 days passed between the section 20 agreement and the issue of proceedings. It was in this period that the Mother was placed in an inappropriate placement, isolated from her family and increasingly deprived of the support of her husband, and moving towards the breakdown of the placement. I acknowledge that this is not the length of time experienced by the families in the recently reported cases of Re P (A child: Use of section 20) [2014] EWFC 775 and Northamptonshire and DS [2014] EWHC 199 (Fam), but the real significance is this: if it had been properly recognised that section 20 should not be used in these circumstances and proceedings had been issued at an earlier stage, it is likely that arguments about appropriate placements and assessments would have been raised by the parents’ legal representatives, and an inappropriate placement and lack of assessment and ultimately early separation of baby A from his parents may well have all been avoided.

 

 

Learning difficulties

 

We touched in the last piece on the failure to find a specialist placement for the mother, and as you can see from the passage above, no referral was made to Adult Services to get help for mother in her own right, though it must have been apparent that she needed it. There simply wasn’t proper thought given to what the mother’s difficulties meant in terms of how she should be supported, helped or treated

 

 

  • I have set out in Appendix A and B to this judgment respective links to the 2007 DoH Good Practice Guidance on working with parents with disabilities which is cited as a relevant resource in the 2015 Working Together Guidance, together with limited extracts from those documents (while of course recommending that these documents should be properly considered by those involved in this case in their entirety).
  • I also quote here from Mr Justice Baker’s analysis in Re X Y X (Minors) [2011] EWHC 402 (Fam):

 

“132. The last thirty years have seen a radical reappraisal of the way in which people with a learning disability are treated in society. It is now recognised that they need to be supported and enabled to lead their lives as full members of the community, free from discrimination and prejudice. This policy is right, not only for the individual, since it gives due respect to his or her personal autonomy and human rights, but also for society at large, since it is to the benefit of the whole community that all people are included and respected as equal members of society. One consequence of this change in attitudes has been a wider acceptance that people with learning disability may, in many cases, with assistance, be able to bring up children successfully. Another consequence has been the realisation that learning disability often goes undetected, with the result that persons with such disabilities are not afforded the help that they need to meet the challenges that modern life poses, particularly in certain areas of life, notably education, the workplace and the family. 133. To meet the particular difficulties encountered in identifying and helping those with a learning disability in the family, the government published in 2007 “Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability”. In their closing submissions, Miss Ball and Miss Boye contended that such good practice guidance is required because there is little evidence of effective joint working between adult and children’s services and practitioners in each area rarely have a good working knowledge of the policy and legislative framework within which the other is working. They submitted that local authorities frequently do not take account of the fact that, if children are to be enabled to remain in their own families, a specialist approach to a parent with a learning disability is absolutely central to any work that is done, any protection which is offered and any hope of keeping the family together. The 2007 guidance points out, inter alia, that a specialised response is often required when working with families where the parent has a learning disability; that key features of good practice in working with parents with a learning disability include (a) accessible and clear information, (b) clear and co-ordinated referral and assessment procedures, (c) support designed to meet the parent’s needs and strengths, (d) long-term support where necessary, and (e) access to independent advocacy; that people may misunderstand or misinterpret what a professional is telling them so that it is important to check what someone understands, and to avoid blaming them for getting the wrong message; that adult and children’s services and health and social care should jointly agree local protocols for referrals, assessments and care pathways in order to respond appropriately and promptly to the needs of both parents and children; and that, if a referral is made to children’s services and then it becomes apparent that a parent has a learning disability, a referral should also be made to adult learning disability services. The guidance also stresses that close attention should be paid to the parent’s access needs, which may include putting written material into an accessible format, avoiding the use of jargon, taking more time to explain things, and being prepared to tell parents things more than once.”

 

  • And Wall LJ makes a relevant comments in P v. Nottingham City Council and the Official Solicitor [2008] EWCA Civ 462:

 

“175. It is, I think, inevitable that in its pre-proceedings work with a child’s family, the local authority will gain information about the capacity of the child’s parents. The critical question is what it does with that information, particularly in a case where the social workers form the view that the parent in question may have learning difficulties.’ 176. At this point, in many cases, the local authority will be working with the child’s parents in an attempt to keep the family together. In my judgment, the practical answer in these circumstances is likely to be that the parent in question should be referred to the local authority’s adult learning disability team (or its equivalent) for help and advice. If that team thinks that further investigations are required, it can undertake them: it should, moreover, have the necessary contacts and resources to commission a report so that as soon as the pre-proceedings letter is written, and proceedings are issued, the legal advisers for the parent can be in a position, with public funding, to address the question of a litigation friend. It is, I think, important that judgments on capacity are not made by the social workers from the child protection team.’

181. In the pre-proceedings phase local authorities should feel free to do whatever is necessary in social work terms to assist parents who may become protected parties. My view, however, is that this is best achieved by members of the adult learning disabilities team who do not have responsibility for the children concerned.”

 

  • It is clear that the purpose of the 2007 DoH Good Practice Guidance, namely to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to ensure services and training are in place to meet the needs of parents with disabilities, has yet to be met in Medway; and there appears to have been little if any awareness of the DoH Good Practice Guidance’s recommendations shown by Medway’s practice in this case.
  • In order to comply with their duties under s17 Children Act 1989 and in accordance with the good practice set out in the Guidance, this SW, her managers and this local authority should have:

 

  • Immediately made a referral to the adult services Learning Disability team and worked together with them to benefit from their advice, training, experience and resources;
  • Triggered an assessment of Mother’s abilities via the Learning Disability team;
  • Ensured the appointment of an adult care SW for Mother:
  • Identified and provided a specialist resource within a short period of time, in order to assess the Mother, and her and the family’s needs for support;
  • As soon as the parents expressed complaints about the placement, if not before, provided her with details of how to complain;
  • Investigated more fully the support options available from Father, friends and family.

 

Bundle-culling

 

The stipulations of Practice Direction 27A were followed in this case – care was taken to produce a bundle that did not exceed 350 pages in length. The problem is that despite that intention to comply with those stipulations, the culling exercise itself was problematic.

 

  • Thus at the outset of this hearing there were significant contested findings and the most serious of final orders sought against the parents. However, it became apparent that the preparation for such a hearing had been a mess, and there were a number of evidential and procedural issues that almost forced the adjournment of an entire final hearing that would have caused significant delay and extended further the separation of parents and child. I will discuss aspects of this case management as a separate final section of this judgment.
  • In short, it quickly emerged that the documents included in the 350 page PD27A compliant bundle prepared by Medway had been ‘culled’ (to use the term coined by counsel for Medway) from all the documents relating to the case. That cull had been undertaken unilaterally by Medway at the last minute and without agreement of the other parties, and they unsurprisingly considered it to be partial and incomplete. Last minute attempts were made by A’s advocate to prepare a more comprehensive bundle. Given the wide-ranging and serious counter-factual issues it was necessary to further expand the bundle during this hearing to include key missing documents. These have included the medical notes and social work case recordings for the key period of August to September 2014, but the bundle was also even missing the Mother’s statement and the Father’s first statement.
  • Additionally, the evidence has now included the statements and notes of the Safeguarding Midwife Mrs Rose and the Health Visitor Ms Gibson. These were directed by DJ Gill at the IRH held on 5.2.15 to be filed by Medway by 12.2.15 and they were named in the IRH order as witnesses to be heard at the final hearing, but their evidence and notes were still outstanding at the outset of this hearing (mid-April). I made peremptory directions to ensure, in A’s interests, that this evidence was available by day 3 of this hearing. Such directions were among those that should and could have been sought and made since the IRH but long prior to the final hearing. I was also obliged to direct that missing foster carer’s notes and social work recordings from the crucial period in August and September 2014 should be provided. I did not permit Medway to file a further statement by Ms Down, supervising SW from ISP (the agency providing the foster placement), as to what she had seen, heard or done regarding the foster placement. This application was made over a week after the final hearing had begun and on the morning that the foster carer was due to give evidence. Ms Down had not been one of the named witnesses in the IRH order, and I considered it was unfair for the local authority to be attempting to add further evidence and witnesses at this very late stage in the proceedings, and would risk an unnecessary and disproportionate adjournment.
  • I have read all the documents and evidence filed in this case and all the documents additionally prepared by the advocates (whom, I must add, have been of great assistance to the court in the challenging circumstances in which this final hearing came to court). I have heard evidence from Mrs Rose, Ms Gibson, Ms Anyimiah, Ms Barton, the foster carer Ms McG, Ms Stewart, the parents and the Children’s Guardian; and I have heard and read the parties’ submissions.

 

 

 

a) PD27A COMPLIANT BUNDLE – There is little point in Medway having created a bundle a few days before a final hearing by unilaterally selecting documents to fit the 350 page limit. Needless to say it was not considered fit for purpose by the other parties and I have already identified that it lacked crucial documents. This, and the various acts of non-compliance discussed elsewhere, betray an unacceptable failure by Medway to adequately prepare the case, to consider properly which documents would be required, to focus on the issues and the evidence, and to apply itself with care and a sense of the necessarily heavy responsibilities borne by applicant local authorities when applying for care and placement orders which have life-changing consequences for families.

b) In order to achieve a meaningful compliance with PD27A, the local authority should liaise with the other parties at an advocates’ meeting prior to the IRH to agree a provisional core bundle index. This will not only assist with the proper analysis of the issues and evidence in readiness for an IRH, and permit a proper resolution of issues at that hearing, but will also identify any further documents that may need to be the subject of an application to depart from PD27A and form a supplemental bundle, and which can be addressed and resolved at that IRH. I will be implementing directions to facilitate this approach at CMHs, but even absent such directions it is evident that a local authority applicant should be taking on this responsibility in any event.

 

That is the only way that the 350 page stipulation can actually work. However, that hinges on getting actual responses from the other advocates. If they have not yet read all of the source material and records, or are not going to be trial counsel, then there’s resistance to culling any document. I can see why – who wants to agree that “we don’t need the Health Visitor records” only to find later during exhaustive preparation that there’s something vital within them.  And rather than argue that those particular records must go in, it is simpler just to not agree to any culling at all.  Of course, if everyone came to an IRH having prepared their cross-examination and knowing all of the issues they would want to take up with witnesses at final hearing and what documents would assist, that would solve everything. But that’s not likely to happen. Preparation for an IRH IS different to preparation for a final hearing. For one thing, you’ve got all of the evidence, whereas all too often at IRH final statements from this or that party are still outstanding.  For another, counsel preparing for a final hearing knows that they are actually going to be the ones asking the question, whereas at IRH the final hearing will be listed at the Court’s convenience and it will be pot-luck whether counsel at the IRH will be free to do the final hearing.  [That’s a solveable problem by going back to the old system of listing a final hearing at the early stage of the case that everyone can work towards. That’s even more important given that we have to conclude cases by week 26, so only deciding to list a final hearing at week 20 is a recipe for disaster. Everyone bar HMCS thinks that is a good idea, but as HMCS don’t like it, it won’t happen]

 

 

Human rights claim – £12,000

 

This is the decision of Bellamy J, sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge.

 

Re H (A child) 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/38.html

 

In this case, the LA accepted that their actions had breached the parents article 8 and article 6 rights, and the only issue was whether there should be a financial penalty, and the scale of it.

 

I’ve rather given the whole plot away (in the style of a cinema trailer that shows you everything that happens in the film) in the title – the parents were awarded £6,000 each.

 

What was the nature of the breach? Well, in effect it was that the LA had obtained written consents from the parents for their child to be in voluntary care, but had not followed the principles of fairness in ensuring that the parents actually understood what they were signing up to and their right to say no.  (You will recall that the High Court gave a powerful precedent on this issue in Re C – particularly where a parent might be lacking capacity)

 

In this case, to be fair, the social worker picked up straight away that these parents might have some cognitive or learning difficulties.

  1. The local authority conducted an investigation pursuant to s.47 of the Children Act 1989. The assessment was completed on 29th May. The local authority considered that the parents had concealed the pregnancy. The local authority concluded that H was at risk of significant harm from her parents due to the concealed pregnancy, the parents’ learning needs and their limited support networks and that it would therefore be unsafe to discharge H into her parents’ care at that time.
  2. During the course of the assessment the local authority social worker noted that the parents’ learning difficulties were evident during discussions and that the parents appeared to have difficulty in understanding and processing information. She discussed her concerns with her manager. She did not take any steps to explore this issue further

 

Thus missing the boat. That would have been the time to get a cognitive assessment done, to establish what the parents issues were and find out the best way to work with them.  It didn’t happen, and arrangements were made for the child without any real consideration of whether the parents properly understood what they were agreeing to.

There is no record of the parents having been provided with an explanation of all of the available options or of the consequences if they did not consent to H being cared for by Mr and Mrs B or of there having been any discussion about how long this ‘informal’ placement might last. They were advised to seek legal advice if they were unhappy with this plan and were provided with a complaints leaflet. The parents did not seek legal advice.

 

 

The case moved to another social worker, who again picked up on the learning difficulty issue immediately.

 

The case was transferred to the local authority’s long-term childcare team in August 2013. The social worker later raised concerns with her manager about the lack of progress in completing an assessment of the parents. She suspected that this may be linked to what she believed to be the parents’ learning disability. The social worker was also concerned that the parents appeared not to have fully understood what they were agreeing to when H was placed with Mr and Mrs B. The parents were anxious to know when H would be returned to their care

 

Did that resolve it? Well, not quite.

  1. In October 2013 the Team manager sought advice from senior management. This led to a legal planning meeting being convened. The meeting took place on 12th November 2013. The meeting recognised that the placement of H with Mr and Mrs B was not a private fostering arrangement and yet was clearly a ‘placement’ as it was initiated by the local authority. The meeting decided,

    (1) that the parents should be asked to give their retrospective consent to the placement of H in the voluntary care of the local authority pursuant to s.20 of the Children Act 1989 with effect from the date she had been with Mr and Mrs B (7th June 2013);

    (2) that there should be an urgent cognitive functioning assessment of both parents in order to inform the local authority assessment and how best to work with the parents.

    (3) that if the parents refused to consent to H being accommodated under s.20 and placed with Mr and Mrs B and/or to co-operate with arrangements for a cognitive functioning assessment, then the local authority would commence care proceedings.

  2. It was also agreed that the social worker would meet with the parents to discuss the decisions made by the legal planning meeting. It was accepted that H, her parents and Mr and Mrs B had been subjected to unacceptable delay and uncertainty and that the need for conversation with the parents was now urgent.

 

 

Absolutely right that there should be a cognitive assessment. But to try to get the parents to sign a s20 agreement when there was a doubt as to their capacity can’t be right. This is of course after the Re CA decision, so obviously some people haven’t read it. Let me set out those principles again

i) Every parent has the right, if capacitous, to exercise their parental responsibility to consent under Section 20 to have their child accommodated by the local authority and every local authority has power under Section 20(4) so to accommodate provided that it is consistent with the welfare of the child.

ii) Every social worker obtaining such a consent is under a personal duty (the outcome of which may not be dictated to them by others) to be satisfied that the person giving the consent does not lack the capacity to do so.

iii) In taking any such consent the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity and take into account all the circumstances prevailing at the time and consider the questions raised by Section 3 of the 2005 Act, and in particular the mother’s capacity at that time to use and weigh all the relevant information.

iv) If the social worker has doubts about capacity no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.

v) If the social worker is satisfied that the person whose consent is sought does not lack capacity, the social worker must be satisfied that the consent is fully informed:

a) Does the parent fully understand the consequences of giving such a consent?
b) Does the parent fully appreciate the range of choice available and the consequences of refusal as well as giving consent?
c) Is the parent in possession of all the facts and issues material to the giving of consent?
vi) If not satisfied that the answers to a) – c) above are all ‘yes’, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought as above and the social work team should further consider taking legal advice if thought necessary.

vii) If the social worker is satisfied that the consent is fully informed then it is necessary to be further satisfied that the giving of such consent and the subsequent removal is both fair and proportionate.

viii) In considering that it may be necessary to ask:

a) what is the current physical and psychological state of the parent?
b) If they have a solicitor, have they been encouraged to seek legal advice and/or advice from family or friends?
c) Is it necessary for the safety of the child for her to be removed at this time?
d) Would it be fairer in this case for this matter to be the subject of a court order rather than an agreement?
ix) If having done all this and, if necessary, having taken further advice (as above and including where necessary legal advice), the social worker then considers that a fully informed consent has been received from a capacitous mother in circumstances where removal is necessary and proportionate, consent may be acted upon.

x) In the light of the foregoing, local authorities may want to approach with great care the obtaining of Section 20 agreements from mothers in the aftermath of birth, especially where there is no immediate danger to the child and where probably no order would be made.

 

IF YOU DOUBT that a parent has capacity, you really shouldn’t be getting them to sign ANYTHING, particularly not a section 20 agreement.

 

Back to the case – the cognitive assessment didn’t arrive until 1st April 2014 – yes, eleven months after the issue was first spotted, and six months after it was spotted the second time around and a Legal Planning Meeting recommended it.

 

Perhaps my experience is unusual, but having worked at seven local authorities, I’ve never had a difficulty in obtaining a cognitive assessment – they aren’t reports that take a long time to produce – you can normally get them within 2-3 weeks of asking the doctor to provide them.

 

Oh wait, I’m wrong. That was the date of the APPOINTMENT. The report itself didn’t turn up for another 8 weeks, at the end of May. So yes, a year had passed between thinking the parents had learning difficulties and getting a cognitive.

 

To paraphrase Edmund Blackadder, we may have been at home for Mr and Mrs Cock-up here.

 

Here’s what the cognitive assessment said

  1. It is appropriate to set out Dr James’ conclusions at this stage in the narrative though she did not, in fact, report until 27th May 2014.
  2. With respect to the mother, Dr James says that all of her scores fell within the borderline range, indicating consistently limited functioning across all areas. With respect to the father, Dr James says that:

    ‘While [the mother’s] scores give a consistent picture of Borderline abilities, the distribution of [the father’s] scores, ranging as they do from Learning Disability, through Borderline to Average, is unusual, and presents a complex picture. As a result of this intellectual profile, [the father’s] ability to understand, process and use verbally mediated information and concepts is significantly below what might be expected, given his ability in other areas. This is likely to present a very real limitation for him in everyday life. The most likely explanation for this very specific impairment is that it is related to his epilepsy.’

  3. Dr James gave advice on how the parents should be approached. With respect to the mother, Dr James said that:

    ‘As far as information and advice presented verbally are concerned, [the mother] has a reasonable ability to understand this, and I would expect her to be able to cope well with the kind of discussion likely to take place during a parenting assessment. She will seem at times to be a little slow to respond to what is said, but if you wait for an answer she will give it in a way which shows that she has understood the question.’

    With respect to the father, Dr James advised that:

    ‘Allowance will need to be made for [the father’s] specific difficulties with verbal comprehension…Of particular importance in the course of the assessment will be not expecting him to portray verbally what he is capable of, since he can evidence this more effectively through practical means. In other words, his behaviour rather than his descriptions will be the best guide to what he can achieve.’

  • In a subsequent letter, Dr James gave the following further guidance so far as the father is concerned. She said that, 

    ‘The following guidance is intended to help his Solicitor to support him to have full capacity in the Proceedings. At the beginning of an appointment, [the father] can present with rushed speech, and a jumbled account of recent events. He needs a little time to settle down, after which he will become more coherent, and can be systematically led through the information he wants to convey. He responds well to direct questioning. Advice given to him should be expressed carefully to avoid ambiguity. Ideally, each sentence should contain one idea only, with a pause at the end of the sentence for this to be absorbed, before offering the next piece of advice or information. It can also be helpful to specifically remind him to listen carefully to important points.’

 

But you know, maybe these parents were unknown quantities and that explained some of the problem. Nope.

 

  1. Given that the father was in the care of this local authority during his own childhood, much of this information about his presentation and functioning should have been contained in the local authority’s earlier case file and should, therefore, have been available to the local authority when it became involved with the father again following the birth of H.
  2. The local authority finally issued these care proceedings on 29th April, 2014. H was born on 16th May, 2013. She was, therefore, fast approaching her first birthday when these proceedings were issued. It took this local authority almost a year to issue these proceedings. That delay was unjustified and inexcusable.

 

Where the Local Authority did recover some mild credit was in ‘fessing up once these mistakes came to light, rather than trying to defend the indefensible.

  1. Sonia Grant, Service Manager in the local authority’s Children In Need Service, filed a written statement. Most of the narrative set out above is based on Ms Grant’s evidence. Ms Grant concedes that in this case the performance of this local authority has fallen below acceptable standards. She says,

    ‘4.1 The local authority’s review of the events surrounding both situations has identified serious practice issues relating to the identification of [the mother’s] capacity to give consent, particularly in respect of the placement with Mr and Mrs B in June 2013.

    4.2 The parents’ capacity to consent was not fully considered or explored at all the key stages of the assessment and decision-making process…

    4.5 The placement with Mr and Mrs B was clearly a ‘Section 20 placement’ made by the local authority, who would have had to place H in foster care and possibly initiate care proceedings if Mr and Mrs B could not care for her. The Legal Planning Meeting held on 12th November attempted to bring the matter back on track to avoid further delay, but there was a significant delay in arranging the cognitive functioning assessment which only added to the delays within the case.

    4.6 The local authority accepts that the social work judgments and decision-making within this case fell below what was required at key points, and failed to fully take account of the combined complexities of the parents and H’s competing needs in a timely and child-centred way.

    4.7 The issues about parental capacity to give consent that occurred within this case have highlighted the urgent need to ensure social workers are aware of their responsibilities in this area. Therefore, the local authority intends to urgently address this training issue to avoid this happening again.’

  2. It is against that background that the local authority accepts that it has breached the parents’ rights under Article 6 and Article 8 and that it is appropriate for the court to make declarations. With respect to the declarations sought by the mother, the local authority concedes that it has acted in breach of the mother’s Article 6 and Article 8 rights in that it:

    1. failed to issue proceedings in a timely manner;

    2. failed to involve the parents in the decision making process;

    3. failed to take steps to explore concerns regarding the mother’s lack of understanding [though making the point that at the meeting on 18th November 2013 the social worker was satisfied that the parents were able to provide informed consent to s.20 accommodation at that stage];

    4. should not have sought the parents’ consent on 31st May 2013 or taken their proposals of alternative carers as consent to the placement with Mr and Mrs B;

    5. placed insufficient weight on the parents’ clearly expressed wish to care for H themselves;

    6. failed to explain all available options, timescales and the consequences if they did not consent to H being cared for by Mr and Mrs B;

    7. should not have asked the mother to sign an agreement on 3rd June 2013 consenting to placement away from the parents;

    8. permitted H to be cared for away from her parents against their expressly stated wishes;

    9. failed to acknowledge that they had placed H with Mr and Mrs B or to undertake a written viability assessment of Mr and Mrs B [though noting that it did undertake routine checks, interviews and a review of the accommodation in the process of making a decision that it was a safe arrangement for H]; and

    10. significantly delayed in assessing the parents’ capacity to parent H.

  3. With respect to the declarations sought by the father, the local authority concedes that it acted in breach of the father’s Article 6 and Article 8 rights in that it:

    1. failed to provide him with appropriate information as to the consequences of not consenting to s.20 accommodation;

    2. failed to consider or explore his capacity to consent to s.20 accommodation before removing H from his care;

    3. permitted unacceptable delay and uncertainty in the assessment process; and

    4. by its flawed procedures, deprived the father of living with H for the first year of her life [though being of the view that both parents have complex histories and difficulties and that H’s removal pending assessment of the parents was necessary to ensure her safety].

 

Having established those breaches, the Court then turned to the issue of damages. It is too law geek for the general public, but the judgment does set out an helpful analysis of the law and judicial approach towards making punitive awards in family law cases. It would be a decent starting point for skeletons for and against the principle.

 

  1. In the case with which I am now concerned H is these parents’ first child. Whilst it may be the case that had the local authority issued care proceedings soon after H was born an interim care order would have been made, the fact is that proceedings were not commenced promptly. They were not issued until shortly before H’s first birthday. It was not until June 2014 that these parents eventually managed to secure the return of their daughter to their care, exactly a year after she was placed with Mr and Mrs B. Whilst it is true that during that year the parents were having regular contact, supervised contact at a local authority contact centre is far removed from the joys of fulltime, unsupervised care of one’s own child. The residential assessment which began in June 2014 could have begun a year earlier. The cognitive assessment of the parents, not finally obtained until May 2014, could have been obtained months earlier. Unlike the parents in the Coventry case, these parents’ have suffered a loss of time with their daughter which was both unnecessarily lengthy and deeply distressing.
  2. I am in no doubt that, bearing in mind the guidance given in the authorities to which I have referred, this is a case in which merely to make the declarations set out earlier in this judgment would not provide just satisfaction for all that these parents have had to live through as a result of the conduct of this local authority. I am satisfied that an award of damages is ‘necessary to afford just satisfaction’ to these parents.
  3. Quantum
  4. The final issue is to determine the appropriate quantum of damages. There is little guidance in the authorities on the approach to be taken when quantifying an award of damages under s.8(2). If one looks at the authorities for appropriate comparators, again there is relatively little assistance.

 

It is worth noting the underlined passages – these parents were successfully reunited with their child, and had lost the first year of that child’s life due to these mistakes.

 

The Court looked at such historical precedents as there were for human rights act breaches and financial recompense and agreed with the parents that their claim for £6,000 each was fair.   (I think that’s probably a bit light, having read the case, but can you really be compensated for something as priceless as time with your child?)

 

To finish up, there was a film which had a very memorable strap-line, used in the trailers and on the posters. It was so memorable that everyone knows it, though hardly any of you will be able to tell me which film it was from. Let me know if you know it, or think you do.  Googling or such is cheating – you either know it, or you don’t. I know that you can type.

 

The strapline, apposite here was

 

BE  AFRAID

 

 

BE VERY AFRAID

Vulnerable witnesses revisited

The Court of Appeal have looked again at a case involving the issues of a vulnerable adult giving evidence.  Re M (A Child) 2013

Sadly, given how often this crops up, they have not given any generic guidance for the Courts to apply, but the case throws up some interesting issues.

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed111952

 

The issue related to a finding of fact hearing, where the father was one of the adults “in the frame” for causing the injury to the child.  Noting his cognitive difficulties, a cognitive assessment was undertaken of him.

 That concluded that he was not capable of instructing a solicitor, but was capable of giving evidence. He would not be capable of providing a narrative statement.

 His capacity to give evidence was both fluctuating and deteriorating and before the fact finding hearing, a further updating report on his cognitive abilities was commissioned.

 This arrived the day before the fact-finding hearing was to begin

 

6. Dr North addressed that task, decided that a narrative statement could not be filed and by his report made it very plain that the father’s capacity to testify had deteriorated in consequence of mounting stress and anxiety.  Dr North in his final report was relatively, but not absolutely, clear in his opinion that, whilst the father remained capable of giving evidence, he was to be regarded as a vulnerable witness due to his cognitive difficulties and his level of suggestibility.  In order to help him to succeed in giving oral evidence Dr North suggested some preliminary familiarisation with the setting, but more importantly went on to set out in ten bullet points some pretty fundamental things that should be done if his competence was to be retained; particularly, the seventh bullet point stated:

“He should be offered a ‘supporter’ whilst he is in the witness box who can help him to understand any difficult questions and encourage him to provide accurate answers.”

7. Then, below the bullet points, Dr North wrote:

Mr Smith becomes excessively anxious if he has to speak in front of other people. His anxiety level may lessen if he is made familiar with the court and the court processes. If his anxiety levels do not reduce it will be essential to provide him with additional facilities such as using a screen or a video link. If his anxiety levels are excessively high he will find it extremely difficult to provide evidence; this can be assisted by the provision of screen or video link.”

And then, importantly, in the concluding paragraph:

“Mr Smith is a very vulnerable man and in order to help him to give oral evidence it will be essential that he be provided with an advocate or intermediary in order to help him to negotiate and understand the court processes and proceedings.”

 

Now, obviously, none of this was in place the next working day, and those representing the father made requests that such arrangements be made.

 The Judge rather ‘parked’ that issue, saying well, we will all try, counsel and myself, to make it easy for the witness“, but in the end it is impossible to spell out anywhere in the transcript the judge giving a ruling on the application or saying much beyond that she was minded to, as it were, get on with the case, see how it went and possibly return to the issue at a later stage in the light of the father’s performance. 

 The Court of Appeal describe this as a ‘high risk judicial case management decision’ and of course, not actually determining the application for the steps proposed by Dr North to be taken or not taken, robbed the father of either having those safety mechanisms or being able to appeal the decision for them not to be provided.

This next bit is very peculiar –the Guardian was charged with the role of being the ‘advocate or intermediary’ to help the father in the witness box.

 

The father did testify, but, before he did, an unsatisfactory makeshift was engineered whereby Mr Taylor, who was after all the guardian ad litum, found himself trying to undertake, additionally, the role of being intermediary.  He had no previous experience of that role unlike Dr North.  He had some brief guidance I think from Dr North, but not only was he not a registered practitioner but he was attempting the responsibility for the first time and, fundamentally dangerous, trying to fulfil two functions at the same time; functions that were not mutually complementary and which were liable to take him into conflict between Role A and Role B.

This seems to me to have been an intolerable position both for the father and the Guardian to find themselves in.

At the conclusion of his evidence Mr Taylor registered with the judge how uncomfortable he felt at the end of his endeavour to provide intermediary services.  He said, by way of self-criticism, that he felt that he had failed the father

The Court of Appeal came to the conclusion that the father had not been fairly treated by the process and that his article 6 right to a fair trial had not been properly adhered to, and directed that the finding of fact hearing be re-tried.  [underlining mine for emphasis]

 

21. By way of conclusion, I would like to express my appreciation of the burden borne by  [the Judge] , who is the designated judge in a busy care centre. She has a responsibility for containing delay in these county court cases.  Although this case was not particularly urgent, it was necessary to ensure completion at the earliest viable date.  Had she acceded to Ms Storey-Rae’s application, the consequence would have been months of delay.  So I would wish to be in every way supportive of the judge’s general duty to manage all cases to achieve targets.  I only observe that that general duty cannot in any circumstance override the duty to ensure that any litigant in her court receives a fair trial and is guaranteed what support is necessary to compensate for disability.  It is easy to be critical with the advantage of hindsight, but I do think that the judge fell into error in not ruling specifically on Ms Storey Rae’s application of 13 April.  I think she fell into error in adopting the “let’s see how we get on” management policy.  As I have already observed, it seems to me a dangerous policy because, by not grasping the nettle, it risks having to adjourn not at the optimum moment before the trial is launched, but at a very late stage, when things have run off the rails and then there is simply further wastage of court time.

22. I also think that she was wrong to take the evidence and to endeavour to assess the expert contribution of Dr North when the case was over and done, and then to rule on the issue of capacity.  It seems to me that to defer the ruling beyond the evidence of Dr North and the submissions that followed and to set it in her final judgment was less than ideal.  Finally, I consider that her justification for the course that she had adopted throughout the trial is unpersuasive in that it fails to grapple with core expert evidence from Dr North as to what was essential and to explain why a simple protective measure, like the provision of a screen, had simply not been put in place.  Some steps were taken to ease the mother’s contribution by ensuring sight lines that did not bring her into direct eye contact with the father.  It seems to me almost worse to take steps to assist the mother, who had no particular disability, and not to do more for the father.

23. Whilst it is never attractive to order a retrial of any fact finding investigation, I conclude that we have no alternative, and that is the consequence of finding a breach of Article 6 rights

 

It does seem that the importance of this case will be in those representing such vulnerable persons to secure detailed expert evidence addressing the difficulties of the client in giving evidence and what can be put in place, and in persuading the Court that such recommendations need to be adjudicated on and not merely ‘parked’

 Given what we know of the Legal Services Commission, I am unclear as to how funding to obtain the intermediary or advocate to assist father in the witness box would be obtained, but those efforts would have to be made. It must be manifestly unfair for a party to the proceedings to have to take that neutral role.