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Contempt of Court and right to silence

This is an intricate, but important, decision by the Court of Appeal. A man here was sentenced to six months imprisonment for failure to comply with an order, and the Court of Appeal overturned that decision.  It does seem that the man spent about five weeks in prison, and the Court of Appeal found that the decision was procedurally flawed in some significant ways.

 

Re L (A child) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2016/173.html

It relates to an application to commit to prison the Uncle of a child for contempt. The child had been the subject of care proceedings in 2004  (yes, 2004), and the parents had fled the country with her. The High Court had made some orders under the inherent jurisdiction, including importantly the “collection order” in this case, which included this provision

 

“If the Defendants[1] or any other person served with this order is not in a position to deliver the child into the charge of the Tipstaff, he or she[2] must each:-

(a) inform the Tipstaff of the whereabouts of the child, if such are known to him or her; and

(b) also in any event inform the Tipstaff of all matters within his or her knowledge or understanding which might reasonably assist him in locating the child.”

The Uncle, Mr Oddin, was brought to Court AS A WITNESS in July 2015

  1. On 30 June 2015, Keehan J discharged both the care order and the freeing order. L remained a ward of court. On 30 July 2015 Keehan J made an order which, so far as material for present purposes, was in the following terms:
    1. “UPON the court being satisfied that the attendance of Mr Gous Oddin to attend court for the purpose of examining the whereabouts of the parents [that is, L’s parents] and the welfare and whereabouts of the child [that is, L] is necessary

… IT IS ORDERED THAT

1 Leave is granted to the local authority for a witness summons to be issued, whereby Mr Gous Oddin shall attend court at 9.30am on 8 October 2015 before Mr Justice Keehan sitting at … for the purposes of being examined as to the whereabouts of the parents and the welfare and whereabouts of the child, L …

2 Mr Gous Oddin … shall attend the hearing on 8 October 2015 for the purpose of examination as to the whereabouts of the parents and whereabouts of the child L …”

Mr Oddin gave evidence before the Court on 8th October 2015  – remember that he was there as a witness, and that he was NOT at that point subject to an application for committal. However, the Court was not satisfied that he was giving honest answers.

  1. On 8 October 2015 Mr Oddin attended before Keehan J as directed. We have the Transcript of the proceedings. The local authority was represented by Mr Stefano Nuvoloni and L by Miss Roberta McDonald. Unsurprisingly, since he was there as a mere witness, Mr Oddin was not represented. The judge asked Mr Oddin to “come forward to the witness box.” Mr Oddin affirmed, gave his name and address and explained, in answer to questions from the judge, that he was L’s paternal uncle. Keehan J then said this:
    1. “Now, Mr U, I want you to understand something very clearly. You are here today to give me all the information you know about the current whereabouts of L. If I come to the view that you have not told me the truth or you have not told me everything you know about the current circumstances and whereabouts of L, you will be liable to be found in contempt of court. If I find you to be in contempt of court, you then fall to be punished for the contempt. That punishment can consist of a fine or it can result in your committal to prison. Do you understand?

A. Yeah.

You are today in a very, very serious position. I should tell you now that, subject to anything that is said by Mr Nuvoloni or by Miss McDonald, what I propose to do is to take evidence from you today. If I am not satisfied with your answers, I will adjourn the matter for a period of time to hold a committal hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. If that comes to pass, I would very strongly advise you to seek legal representation for that hearing. Do you understand?

A. Yeah.”

  1. Mr Oddin was then questioned, at the judge’s invitation, first by Mr Nuvoloni and then by Miss McDonald. From time to time the judge asked Mr Oddin questions. Mr Nuvoloni asked a few more questions, concluding “My Lord, I do not think I can take it further.” The Transcript continues:
    1. “THE JUDGE: (Long pause) Mr U, I am very sorry to tell you that I do not believe you have been telling me the truth. I do not believe that you have given me all the information that you can. This is what I propose to do. I am going to list this matter at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Wednesday, 28th October. It will be listed for half a day. It will be listed as a committal hearing, when I will consider whether you are in contempt of court, and if you are in contempt of court, I will then proceed to decide what punishment you should face for that. Do you understand?

 

THE WITNESS: Yeah.”

The case was duly listed for a committal application, and Mr Oddin was represented. Keehan J gave him a six month prison sentence. It is worthy of note that Mr Oddin’s passport was taken from him in 2004 and he had not been able to travel abroad since that time.

Counsel for Mr Oddin at the committal hearing attempted to establish whether Mr Oddin was charged with contempt for BREACHING the collection order of 2004, or whether he was charged with contempt in the face of the Court for not answering Keehan J’s questions.

We have the Transcript of the hearing on 18 January 2016. Before the evidence was called, Miss Norman sought clarification from Keehan J as to “what the contempt is that my client faces.” She made the point that the collection order required the provision of information that might reasonably assist the Tipstaff in locating the child, whereas the judge’s observations at the end of the hearing on 8 October 2015 had been in very much wider terms, referring to the whereabouts of the parents and the welfare and whereabouts of the child. She continued, “what I am not clear about is, is the contempt as your Lordship might see it not answering your Lordship’s questions, or is the contempt going back to the 2004 order?” The judge replied, “It is going back to the 2004 order.” Miss Norman took the point no further (nor, for that matter, did anyone else) and the judge proceeded to hear the only witness called in support of the allegation of contempt, L’s guardian.

  1. In the course of her closing submissions Miss Norman returned to her opening point:
    1. “MISS NORMAN: My Lord, I expressly asked the question were we dealing with the 2004 order or were we dealing with contempt in the face of the court, and I understood your Lordship to say we were dealing with the 2004 order.

MR JUSTICE KEEHAN: The two are related, though, because if I find that I do not accept the evidence that Mr Oddin gave me on 8th October, or if I do not accept the evidence he has given me today and I find that he is lying to the court, I am then entitled, or may well then be entitled on that basis to be satisfied that he is not telling the truth, that he knows more than he is telling and is therefore in breach of the 2004 order.

MISS NORMAN: My difficulty is this, as I have suggested to your Lordship earlier on, that your Lordship found him to be at fault in a much wider area than the 2004 order. The 2004 order was matters which might reasonably assist in locating the child and that was it, nothing about welfare or parents or anything else. And so if we focus on that issue …”

  1. After Miss Norman had concluded her submissions there was a short adjournment, after which Keehan J returned to court and gave judgment.
  2. In paragraph 3 of his judgment the judge framed the issue in these terms:
    1. “This matter is listed today before me for committal proceedings against one of the father’s brothers, Mr Gous Oddin. The issue is, do I find that he is in breach of the order made consequent upon that abduction on 30 December 2004.”

He then quoted paragraph 3 of the collection order. In paragraph 5 of his judgment, he said this:

“The question was raised by Ms Norman, on behalf of Mr Oddin, at the start of this hearing as to precisely on what grounds Mr Oddin was being considered for committal and contempt proceedings. I made plain that that related solely to the order of 30 December 2004. But very plainly when considering whether there has been a breach of that order, I am entitled and I must consider the totality of the evidence before me and, in particular, whether I find that Mr Oddin is telling the truth or not. If I find that he is not telling the truth, I then have to consider the reason or possible reasons for him lying to the Court.”

The Court of Appeal make it very plain that a person faced with an application to commit him for contempt has a right to silence – such right extending further than just an ability to refuse to answer individual questions but an ability to refuse to go into the witness box at all.

  1. The absolute right of a person accused of contempt to remain silent, which carries with it the absolute right not to go into the witness box, was established in Comet Products UK Ltd v Hawkex Plastics Ltd [1971] 2 QB 67, where this court held that such a person is not a compellable witness. This right is to be distinguished both from the privilege against self-incrimination and from legal professional privilege, each of which may entitle a witness in certain circumstances to decline to answer a particular question but neither of which entitles the witness to refuse to go into thewitness box or refuse to take the oath (or affirm): see Re X (Disclosure for Purposes of Criminal Proceedings) [2008] EWHC 242 (Fam), [2008] 2 FLR 944, para 9.
  2. As both Re G and Hammerton v Hammerton illustrate, the principle in Comet has repeatedly been emphasised in this court; see also Re K (Return Order: Failure to Comply: Committal: Appeal) [2014] EWCA Civ 905, [2015] 1 FLR 927, para 61, to which we were referred. Most recently, so far as I am aware, the relevant principles were summarised by Jackson LJ, with whom both Lewison LJ and Treacy LJ agreed, in Inplayer Ltd and ors v Thorogood [2014] EWCA Civ 1511, paras 40-45:
    1. “40 A person accused of contempt, like the defendant in a criminal trial, has the right to remain silent: see Comet Products UK Ltd v Hawkex Plastics Ltd [1971] 2 QB 67. It is the duty of the court to ensure that the accused person is made aware of that right and also of the risk that adverse inferences may be drawn from his silence.

41 If the committal application is heard at the same time as other issues about which the alleged contemnor needs to give evidence, he is placed in the position where he is effectively deprived of the right of silence. That is a serious procedural error: see Hammerton v Hammerton [2007] EWCA Civ 248. This is precisely what happened in the present case. Furthermore no-one told Mr Thorogood that an alleged contemnor has the right not to give evidence.

42 If the contempt application had been the subject of a separate hearing and Mr Thorogood had been informed of his right not to give evidence, he might have exercised that right. He could then have dealt with the contempt allegations by way of submissions. In that regard it should be noted that the judge based her two findings of contempt upon answers which Mr Thorogood had given under skilful cross-examination.

43 Mr Milford points out that Mr Thorogood was reminded of his right not to incriminate himself. That is true, but it is not sufficient. Mr Thorogood should have been told that he was not obliged to give evidence. Furthermore the litigation should not have been managed in a way that forced Mr Thorogood into the witness box.

44 Mr Milford submits that even if there had been a separate hearing of the contempt application, the result would have been the same. If Mr Thorogood gave evidence, he would have been caught out in cross-examination. If he had declined to give evidence, the court would have drawn adverse inferences.

45 What Mr Milford says may well be true. Indeed, as things have turned out, Mr Thorogood may be a very lucky man. Nevertheless there can be no question of upholding findings of contempt against a person who has been deprived of valuable safeguards in the circumstances of this case.”

What we have here is a man who was compelled to Court to give evidence, and made to then answer questions – such answers as he gave then became evidence against him in the committal proceedings – although if he had been served with an application for committal, he never would have had to go into the witness box at all. That doesn’t seem very satisfactory – if the committal was for breach of the 2004 order, then it must have been a live possibility when he started to give his evidence in the October 2015 hearing. He was not legally represented, as a witness, and he was not advised by the Court that he had a right to silence.

In fact, looking again at Keehan J’s words in October 2015, committal was obviously a possible outcome of his evidence, yet he was being urged to give evidence and provide answers

  1. “Now, Mr U, I want you to understand something very clearly. You are here today to give me all the information you know about the current whereabouts of L. If I come to the view that you have not told me the truth or you have not told me everything you know about the current circumstances and whereabouts of L, you will be liable to be found in contempt of court. If I find you to be in contempt of court, you then fall to be punished for the contempt. That punishment can consist of a fine or it can result in your committal to prison. Do you understand?

The problem here arises because Keehan J was making use of the evidence given by Mr Oddin in that October hearing at the committal hearing in January 2016. He was deprived of the safeguards (legal representation, being made aware of his right to silence) and was a committal hearing where a defendant had been deprived of such safeguards legitimate?

  1. In my judgment, no criticism can be made of what happened on 8 October 2015; the problem arises because of the use that was made on 18 January 2016 of the evidence given by Mr Oddin on the earlier occasion.
  2. It is quite clear that on 8 October 2015 Keehan J was exercising, and exercising only, the jurisdiction which I have described in paragraph 9 above. By then, Mr Oddin was no longer a party to the proceedings. He attended court as a witness in answer to the witness summons which Keehan J had directed on 30 July 2015. Mr Oddin was a compellable witness. He was compelled to give evidence. Despite being a compellable witness he would have been entitled to plead the privilege against self-incrimination as a reason for declining to answer a particular question. He was not advised of that right, though in the event nothing, in my judgment, turns on this fact.
  3. Keehan J was appropriately robust in spelling out the implications for Mr Oddin if he did not tell the truth: namely that if he did not tell the truth he stood in peril of committal proceedings for contempt. Keehan J said nothing at that point about the collection order; the species of contempt he had in mind was plainly contempt in the face of the court, not contempt arising from breach of the collection order. The warning, though robust, was entirely proper, indeed only fair, so that Mr Oddin be left in no doubt as to the seriousness of the proceedings before the judge. It is precisely the kind of warning that I have myself given on many similar occasions. As McFarlane LJ said in Re K (Return Order: Failure to Comply: Committal: Appeal) [2014] EWCA Civ 905, [2015] 1 FLR 927, para 77:
    1. “The situation that faced Russell J in the various hearings leading up to the final committal hearing not infrequently arises in the context of international children cases before a High Court judge. A judge may be required to deploy the court’s considerable powers to compel parties or others to attend court or to bring about the return of the child to this jurisdiction. At a hearing in which pressure is brought to bear on an individual, and injunctive orders are made, the judge may be justified in presenting a very robust demeanour and, in so doing, making reference to the potential consequences if court orders are disobeyed. In the present case, the judge did just that, and no criticism has been sustained in relation to her actions.”

However, as he went on (para 78):

“The difficulty that can arise … occurs if and when the court is later required to hear committal proceedings arising out of an alleged breach of an earlier order … The more robust the judge has been in delivering a coercive message at the earlier hearings, and the more the judge has emphasised the consequences of breach, the more inappropriate (or impossible) it will be for the same judge to conduct the committal process.”

  1. A comparison of the language used in the order which he had made on 30 July 2015 with the language used in the orders Keehan J subsequently made on 8 October 2015, 28 October 2015 and 9 November 2015, shows clearly, in my judgment, that the contempt in relation to which Mr Oddin was required to attend before Keehan J on 18 January 2016 was in respect of his untruthful evidence to Keehan J and not in relation to the collection order. It is the point which Miss Norman correctly identified on 18 January 2016. Each of the three later orders identified the contempt as being “not providing the court with” all the information Mr Oddin had “as to the whereabouts of the parents and the welfare and whereabouts of the child” (emphasis added). The inconclusive discussion between Miss Norman and the judge on 30 November 2015 did not, seemingly, change matters, though, as her question to Keehan J on 18 January 2016 indicated, it left Miss Norman somewhat unsure as to what exactly the contempt was which the judge was intending to consider at that hearing.
  2. At the beginning of the hearing on 18 January 2016, as we have seen (paragraph 34 above), Keehan J made clear that the contempt he thought he was considering was not contempt in the face of the court on 8 October 2015 but rather contempt for breach of the collection order. It was at this point, in my judgment, that the proceedings took a fatal turn.
  3. It rather seems that Miss Norman’s main concern may have been as to the ambit of the factual inquiry before the judge at the hearing on 18 January 2016. Be that as it may, the salient, and very regrettable, fact is that no-one – no-one – thought through the implications of the answer Keehan J had given Miss Norman; no-one thought through the implications of the fact that the judge was about to embark upon the hearing of committal proceedings, based on an alleged breach of the collection order, in the course of which much weight was obviously going to be attached to the evidence Mr Oddin had given under compulsion on 8 October 2015. And, even after all the evidence had been given and Miss Norman was making her closing submissions (paragraph 38 above), no-one thought through the implications of what had happened or of the fact that, as the judge put it, the collection order and the evidence he had heard on 8 October 2015 were “related” in the way he described.
  4. The confusion is revealingly illustrated by what the judge said in paragraph 6 of his judgment, where he referred to “the start of these committal proceedings … on 8 October 2015.” The committal proceedings had not started on 8 October 2015; and if they had, there would have been the plainest possible breach of the Comet principle on that occasion.
  5. The consequence of what I have just described was a serious, and in my judgment irremediable, procedural error. Because of the use that was made against him during the hearing on 18 January 2016 of the evidence which had been extracted from him under compulsion on 8 October 2015, Mr Oddin was denied the safeguards which anyone facing proceedings for committal is entitled to: in particular, and fatally, the right to remain silent, the right to refuse to go into the witness box. The court had forced him into the witness box on 8 October 2015 and then used his evidence against him, not in committal proceedings for perjury committed on that occasion (which would have been entirely permissible) but in support of committal proceedings in relation to a previous order. In my judgment, this amounted to a clear, serious and irremediable breach of the Comet principle, necessitating, for the reasons given in Hammerton v Hammerton and Inplayer, that the appeal be allowed. As Jackson LJ said in the passage from Inplayer which I have already quoted, “there can be no question of upholding findings of contempt against a person who has been deprived of valuable safeguards in [such] circumstances.” I add, lest it be thought I have overlooked the point, that there is, in my judgment, nothing in the decision of this court in Dadourian Group International Inc and others v Simms and others (No 2) [2006] EWCA Civ 1745, [2007] 1 WLR 2967, which can be relied upon to save what happened here.
  6. On this ground alone, the appeal must, in my judgment, be allowed.

The issue that Holman J raised in Re DAD  2015  – that the standard orders have been wrongly drafted in a way that puts the warning about consequences of breach on page 5, when for committal the consequence MUST BE CLEAR on the FACE OF THE ORDER is raised again

  1. There is a further problem with the collection order. FPR 37.9(1) requires that, if an order is to be enforced by committal, it must contain a penal notice in appropriate form “prominently displayed, on the front of the copy of the … order”. In this case, the penal notice was on the fifth page. I can do no better than to repeat and endorse what Holman J said of a similarly defective collection order in Re DAD [2015] EWHC 2655 (Fam), para 12:
    1. “the use of those words in that paragraph on the fifth page of the order simply does not comply with, or satisfy at all, the requirements of rule 37.9(1). In the first place, the warning cannot be said to be “prominently displayed”. It is merely a part of several pages of somewhat indigestible text. In the second place, it most certainly does not appear, as the rule requires, “on the front of the copy of the … order”. It will be recalled that rule 37.9 is emphatic and prohibitive in its terms. Unless the penal notice is prominently displayed on the front of the copy of the order, “a judgment or order … may not be enforced …” In my view, the words “may not be enforced” where they appear in that rule do not import a discretion in the court. Rather, they are a mandatory direction to the court that it cannot and must not enforce the order by committal.”

 

 

The Court was also perturbed about a collection order that was made in 2004 being used to commit  a person to prison for breaching it some eleven years later, and at the length of time that Mr Oddin’s passport had been withheld from him.

 

The collection order

  1. Once we had announced our decision to allow the appeal, the question arose as to what should happen about the collection order which had been made on 30 December 2004. We indicated our view that it should be discharged. No opposition to this course having been voiced either by Mr Bennett or by Mr Maynard, we discharged the collection order and directed the immediate return of the passports.
  2. Three factors, in my judgment, pointed very obviously and, in the event, decisively to that outcome:
  3. i) First, it is wholly wrong in principle that a collection order should be left in place, hanging over peoples’ heads like the sword of Damocles, for anything remotely approaching the eleven years throughout which this collection order has been in force.

ii) Secondly, it is undesirable, to put it no higher, to allow an order to remain in force which is not compliant with FPR 37.9(1).

iii) Finally, and decisively, the perpetuation, beyond a comparatively short period, of the passport order (paragraph 4(b) of the collection order), essentially for purposes of coercion, was wrong in principle and fundamentally objectionable: see In re B (A Child) (Wrongful Removal: Orders against Non-Parties) [2014] EWCA Civ 843, [2015] Fam 209, [2015] 1 FLR 871, paras 24-33. This should never have been allowed to happen. Mr Oddin’s protests as set out in his three witness statements (paragraphs 22, 24 and 27 above) were well-founded. It is very much to be regretted that Mr Oddin and other members of his family should have been deprived of their passports for so long and without any proper justification. They have been badly ill-used by the court.

This appeal, even more than the decision of Holman J in Re DAD, has focused attention on a number of disquieting problems arising in relation to collection orders made prior to the new form of order which was introduced in July 2013. It is idle to imagine that the collection order we have been considering in this case is unique. On the contrary, there is every reason to fear that there are significant numbers of elderly collection orders still in force and which, it might be thought, ought, for the reasons set out in paragraph 65 above, to be discharged. I propose, therefore, to identify, with the assistance of the Tipstaff, just how many such orders there are, with a view to taking appropriate steps to investigate whether those orders should or should not be allowed to remain in force.

 

The Court of Appeal also touched upon the delicate issue of whether a Judge who is considering committal of a person ought to be a different Judge to the one who conducted the hearing in which the contempt is said to have arisen. They are cautious about that – but I read this as being a cautious suggestion that it is probably safer to have it heard by a different Judge

  1. As McFarlane LJ said in Re K (Return Order: Failure to Comply: Committal: Appeal) [2014] EWCA Civ 905, [2015] 1 FLR 927, para 77:
    1. “The situation that faced Russell J in the various hearings leading up to the final committal hearing not infrequently arises in the context of international children cases before a High Court judge. A judge may be required to deploy the court’s considerable powers to compel parties or others to attend court or to bring about the return of the child to this jurisdiction. At a hearing in which pressure is brought to bear on an individual, and injunctive orders are made, the judge may be justified in presenting a very robust demeanour and, in so doing, making reference to the potential consequences if court orders are disobeyed. In the present case, the judge did just that, and no criticism has been sustained in relation to her actions.”

However, as he went on (para 78):

“The difficulty that can arise … occurs if and when the court is later required to hear committal proceedings arising out of an alleged breach of an earlier order … The more robust the judge has been in delivering a coercive message at the earlier hearings, and the more the judge has emphasised the consequences of breach, the more inappropriate (or impossible) it will be for the same judge to conduct the committal process.”

I referred in paragraph 50 above, to what McFarlane LJ had said in Re K about the circumstances in which a judge who had conducted the kind of hearing which took place in the present case before Keehan J on 8 October 2015 ought not to conduct subsequent committal proceedings. That issue, which was at the heart of the appeal in Re K, is not one which, in the event, arose for determination here, so I say no more about it. The point to which I draw attention, is simply this. Quite apart from the Comet principle, which, as we have seen, would prevent the use in subsequent committal proceedings of the evidence given by someone in Mr Oddin’s position at a hearing such as that which took place on 8 October 2015, it is possible that the rule in[2008] 2 FLR Hollington v F Hewthorn and Company Limited and another [1943] KB 587[15] might in certain circumstances prevent the use in subsequent proceedings of any findings made by the judge at the first hearing. That is a complicated matter which may require careful examination on some future occasion; so, beyond identifying the point, I say no more about it.

Theis J’s judgment draws together some very important practice issues, and is worth reading in full, so I set it out here.

  1. The powers of the court to make, and enforce, orders to secure the return of children who have been wrongfully removed from those who care for them is an essential part of the family court’s powers to protect vulnerable children from harm.
  2. Before any court embarks on hearing a committal application, whether for a contempt in the face of the court or for breach of an order, it should ensure that the following matters are at the forefront of its mind:
  3. (1) There is complete clarity at the start of the proceedings as to precisely what the foundation of the alleged contempt is: contempt in the face of the court, or breach of an order.

(2) Prior to the hearing the alleged contempt should be set out clearly in a document or application that complies with FPR rule 37 and which the person accused of contempt has been served with.

(3) If the alleged contempt is founded on breach of a previous court order, the person accused had been served with that order, and that it contained a penal notice in the required form and place in the order.

(4) Whether the person accused of contempt has been given the opportunity to secure legal representation, as they are entitled to.

(5) Whether the judge hearing the committal application should do so, or whether it should be heard by another judge.

(6) Whether the person accused of contempt has been advised of the right to remain silent.

(7) If the person accused of contempt chooses to give evidence, whether they have been warned about self-incrimination.

(8) The need to ensure that in order to find the breach proved the evidence must meet the criminal standard of proof, of being sure that the breach is established.

(9) Any committal order made needs to set out what the findings are that establish the contempt of court, which are the foundation of the court’s decision regarding any committal order.

  1. Counsel and solicitors are reminded of their duty to assist the court. This is particularly important when considering procedural matters where a person’s liberty is at stake.

Rhubarb* and custody

 

(*Story contains no rhubarb, but was prepared in an environment where there is a risk that rhubarb, rhubarb pollen (?) or rhubarb dust may have inadvertently contaminated the contents )

 

 

A committal hearing in relation to a grandmother who was using electronic media, including Facebook to protest against the adoption of her granddaughter.

 

 

Staffordshire CC and Beech 2014

 

There are two judgments, one being the committal hearing itself, and the second being the sentencing

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B81.html

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B80.html

 

 

Probably the most important thing is said at the very end

 

I conclude the Judgment by making clear to Mrs. Beech that there is no objection to her criticising the court, criticising the judge, the Social Services Department or the family justice system. She has an entitlement to campaign about these matters. What the court will not tolerate is the use of the name of her grandchild or the photograph of her grandchild in connection with this campaign.

 

 

The Court did find that the grandmother had breached the orders preventing her from naming her grandchild and using photographs of her grandchild within the campaign. Part of that had been to ask a wide network on Facebook to circulate the photograph of her grandchild with a view to tracking her down in the adoptive placement and find out where she was.

 

Allegation number 1. Mrs. Beech has a group Facebook page entitled “Stop social services” which has about 7,000 members. This page was compiled before my Injunction Order was granted. The page has photographs of the child and a slogan including her name. The page contains the assertion that the child has been stolen by Staffordshire County Council Social Services. On 24th January 2014 the Injunction Order was served on Mrs. Beech. On that very day she posted additional words on her group Facebook page in terms which represent a flagrant breach of the court order. I read from the relevant posting which is exhibit 5 in my papers: “I have just had court papers handed me. I have been gagged until (the child’s name) is 18 years old. How can this be? They steal my granddaughter, then gag me. Fuck off. You have no chance. I am still fighting for her, you idiots. You cannot bully this nana. The truth hurts and no one will shut me up. I will go to war for my family, you idiots. Please spread the word”. These words were posted alongside photographs of the child and other words and slogans which had been posted long before the Injunction Order was granted. However, I find that by posting these additional words on 24th January 2014 alongside the photograph Mrs. Beech was republishing the old photograph and slogans and so her breach extends not only to the new words but to the old words and the old photograph.

 

Allegation number 2. On 28th January 2014 the B.B.C. website reported my Injunction Order in an article carefully drawn to avoid breaching the terms of the order itself. However, Mrs. Beech on her Facebook page posted a link to the B.B.C. report together with a short extract from it. She accompanied this posting with additional words of her own which constituted a flagrant breach of the Injunction Order. She posted “Just to let you know this is me, Amanda Jane Beech. It’s about my granddaughter (named). Staffordshire Social Services think they can bully me. The truth will be heard.”

 

Allegation number 3. On her Facebook page Mrs. Beech posted more words of flagrant breach, this time accompanied by a photograph. Mrs. Beech claims that the photograph could have been put up by someone else. She says that the photograph was already present on her Facebook page. She says that if another person clicked on the Facebook page to indicate they liked the contents the consequence would be that the photograph came up on this profile page automatically without any intervention on her part. The Facebook page does show that people had clicked the page to show that they liked it. Mrs. Beech raised the same point in relation to allegations 5, 9 and 11, saying in relation to these other allegations that the intervention of others explains the entire posting, not just the posting of the photograph, as she says it does for allegation 3. I have looked closely at these pages. No other name appears. On each occasion the posting appears under Mrs. Beech’s own name. With the exception of allegation number 5 each photograph follows a different form of words for which it is obvious to me that the grandmother, Mrs. Beech, is responsible.

 

She gave me rather inconsistent evidence about these allegations. She said that she did from time to time re-post material on the Facebook page in order to encourage her campaign. In this context she accepted that some of the postings might be her responsibility but some might be the responsibility of supporters. In the course of her evidence she said that the accompanying words appeared automatically from what she had already recorded herself on other parts of the page. However, on analysis the form of words is different for each of these postings, so I reject this explanation from Mrs. Beech. One of these allegations, allegation number 5, has no accompanying words and comprises just a photograph. However, this posting appears under Mrs. Beech’s name, just like the rest. I have heard her account. I am sure that she posted this and the other postings to encourage others to support her continuing campaign.

 

Allegation number 4. This allegation comprises clear words of breach which Mrs. Beech accepts that she posted on her Facebook page. There was no photograph with this posting.

 

Allegation number 5. I have dealt with allegation number 5 above.

 

Allegation number 6. This allegation comprises clear words of breach which Mrs. Beech accepts she posted on her Facebook page. Again, there is no photograph involved in this breach,

 

Allegation number 7 caused me a moment’s hesitation. This is Mrs. Beech’s Facebook group page. She accepts that she posted on this page a link to a YouTube recording. The new words do not constitute a breach of the terms of the injunction. However, these new words must be considered with the existing words to which they were linked so the effect is a re-publication of the words previously posted. Read together the words refer to the removal of Mrs. Beech’s grandchild into care which constitutes a breach of the injunction.

 

Allegation number 8. Mrs. Beech accepts that she posted the words and photograph which constitute this breach. She makes the point that the photograph was already on the web as part of an online petition that she started long before the Injunction Order was imposed. The local authority accept that the photograph is not new, but on this occasion by posting the link Mrs. Beech brought the old picture back onto her Facebook page again which constitutes a re-publication of the old picture in breach of the Injunction Order.

 

Allegation number 9. I have dealt with allegation 9 above when dealing with allegation number 3.

 

Allegation 10. Mrs. Beech accepts that she posted these words which clearly breached the terms of the Injunction Order. The reference to her partner, Mr. Rogers, is accepted by Mrs. Beech as a mistake. This was a publication to a closed group without a photograph.

 

Allegation number 11 has already been dealt with above when I was dealing with allegation number 3.

 

Overall then, all 11 allegations made by the local authority have been proved so that I am sure of the truth of the allegation and the fact that it infringes the terms of the injunction

 

 

It then adjourned, to give the grandmother the chance to reflect on this, and to get legal advice before the sentencing hearing.

 

At that sentencing hearing the grandmother accepted that she would comply with the injunction, take down those postings and not put up things of that sort in the future.

 

As a result, the Judge gave her a suspended sentence of 56 days, meaning that Ms Beech would not go to prison for her breaches unless she were to breach the order again (in which case the sentence of 56 days would take effect)

 

 

It does raise difficult questions, which I raised in part at the original report of the injunction. If a person campaigns on Facebook without naming their granddaughter, the step to indirect identification is a very short one. It is likely that within the rest of the grandmother’s facebook page are pictures and names of her family, and one could deduce fairly swiftly by the appearance of say “Rebecca” on those photos up until a year ago and then no more photos that it is “Rebecca” who was the child who was removed.

 

The provisions about directly identifying and indirectly identifying a child make decent sense for mainstream press – a newspaper reporting about a child and calling them “Child X” doesn’t identify the child.

 

Moreover, newspapers have editors, and lawyers. They can pause and consider whether they might be in breach of the law by any element of their story.

 

But we are now in a world where anyone with a mobile telephone can become their own publisher, and put things on the internet for all to see. It’s a whole new ball-game, and the law hasn’t quite caught up yet.

 

 

Ms Beech putting on Facebook “My granddaughter, who I can’t name, was stolen by social services” doesn’t directly identify the child, but it must be arguable that it indirectly identifies the child, because you can see that that the author of the post (who is named) is related to the child in question, and probably find on that page other photographs of the child. In a situation like that, proving whether someone made that indirect identification deliberately or by accident or lack of thought is very difficult, especially to the criminal standard of proof required.

 

 

 

 

[The original injunction judgment is here

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCC/Fam/2014/B1.html

 

and my post at the time about it is here

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/01/24/transparency-and-facebook/   ]

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Rubric’s cube”

Anonymity and human interest stories. And Re K – part 3

There’s an interesting new judgment up on Bailli  – Re K (A Child: Wardship: Publicity) 2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/B11.html

I can’t write much about the case because of a tangential involvement, but it raises some interesting principles, particularly given where we are with the President’s consultation on transparency and publishing anonymised judgments as a matter of course. So, I’ll be discussing the issues in the case, rather than the merits of what the parents were arguing.

I wrote about the care proceedings here

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/07/30/forensic-ferrets-or-standing-in-the-way-of-beyond-parental-control/  

And a later follow-up on the Court of Appeal decision that Wardship was the right answer for the child, not the Care Order made at first instance.

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/12/31/the-case-i-am-most-pleased-about-this-year/

Keeping things very short, the parents in the case obtained a judgment that was very very critical of the Local Authority and the way that the Local Authority had treated them.  The parents say that this has continued, even after those damning judgments. This was obviously something that the press were interested in, and because the judgment was reported and available on Bailli in an anonymised transcript, the press could legitimately report the facts of the case;  PROVIDED that they did not name or take steps that would lead someone to be able to identify the true names of the people concerned.

So far so good. But of course, the Press are more interested in the human element of the story, and it becomes a more interesting story if they are able to report and the readers are able to read, how the mother and father in that case felt about their experiences – what was it like to be in that position, how did it feel, how did they have to struggle . The bare facts, without any human element to bring those bare facts to life is a less compelling story.

We are people, and we are interested in people, not merely bare facts. If you are Holly Willoughby (and if you are, I love your work, ma’am) then discussing this case on “This Morning” is a damn sight more interesting and compelling if the parents in the case are on the sofa next to you, or even in a video-link as silouhettes that you can interact with.

 So, in this case, the parents were keen to campaign about their experiences, whilst preserving anonymity, and spread what many people might consider to be a vital two pronged message about family justice – 1. That professionals can get things badly wrong and 2. That by fighting your case properly you can nonetheless achieve justice through the courts. And even, the third – that doing that can be exhausting, draining, expensive and it takes many many months before the truth is reached. 

If that can be done whilst preserving the anonymity of the child, that would be a good thing. These parents have a judgment setting out the facts and they in essence won their case and it is no longer an argument about how the Local Authority behaved but an established fact that they behaved badly towards these parents.

Now, in order to disseminate that message, the parents really need to be able to speak out, to give interviews, to give comments, to give statements. Can they do that, on the existing law, provided that they don’t identify the child ?

I’m going to use the analogy of Bruce Wayne and Batman here, to make it a bit easier to follow.  Bruce Wayne can never go on television and say that he is Batman. Batman can never go on television and say that he is Bruce Wayne. But Batman can go on television and talk about what it is like to be Batman – PROVIDED he doesn’t say that he is Bruce Wayne.  (I’m sorry if you don’t know who Bruce Wayne or Batman are, the analogy won’t help you at all. Think instead, that the parent wants to be on tv saying “I am Mr X, from this particular case about Mr X”  but that he doesn’t want to say “I am [My real name]  and I am also Mr X, from this particular case about Mr X”)

In this analogy, the published judgment is all about Batman, and talks about Batman and never mentions Bruce Wayne, the identity of Bruce Wayne is completely concealed in the judgment and cannot be disclosed.

So, can a parent go on television and say “I am the parent in this reported case, here’s my story – I AM BATMAN” as long as they do so as Batman, and don’t mention that they are Bruce Wayne?  If they would be recognised from a visual image, they might have to be dressed as Batman  (metaphorically – some element of disguise that stops them being readily identified)

That all seems to hinge on what is called the ‘rubric’  – that is effectively the basis on which the anonymised judgment is made public. In this case, it said this :-

‘The judgment is being distributed on the strict understanding that in any report no person other than the advocates (and other persons identified by name in the judgment itself) may be identified by name or location and that in particular the anonymity of the children and the adult members of their family must be strictly preserved.’

 

So, the parents in the case manifestly and plainly can’t go on television and say “Hello everyone, I am Bruce Wayne, and I am also Batman”  ( I am the Father in the celebrated case of X, and my real name is  whatevertherealnameis).

But can they go on television and say “I am the father in the celebrated case of X, where the father is referred to as Batman. I am Batman”

The parents sought clarification from the Court as to what was acceptable, of course not wanting to breach any confidentiality or commit contempt of Court. From the point of view of statutory law, them going on television as Batman, to talk about being Batman was fine.

The whole notion of the rubric is a bit perplexing. It of course isn’t a creature of statute, although it borrows the words and the concepts of those pieces of statute that provide a cloak of anonymity to the identity of the true names and identifying information about the parties and more importantly the child. So, is the rubric anything more than just words – does it have any effect in law?

This is what the President said in a reported case, which touched on what the legal standing of the rubric was :-

The legal effect of this rubric is uncertain. That is an issue that was considered by Munby J in Re B, X Council v B and Others [2008] 1 FLR 482. At para [12] he said:

‘Lurking behind the current application there is, in fact, an important issue as to the precise effect of the rubric where, as here, there is no injunction in place. I do not propose to consider that issue. I will proceed on the assumption, though I emphasise without deciding the point, that the rubric is binding on anyone who seeks to make use of a judgment to which it is attached.’

 

[I admire that chutzpah of identifying that there is an important issue and then without drawing breath deciding not to consider that issue]

That therefore, is that, for the time being. Where a judgment is published on the basis of a rubric, those wanting to make use of the information contained in the judgment are bound by it.  (I wonder idly, whether once the Presidents changes come in, and judgments are routinely published, whether rubrics will still be issued – it will no longer be a situation of the Court generously agreeing to publish the judgment on the basis of a rubric, but a blanket assumption that all judgments would ordinarily be published)

But that still leave us, and more importantly, the parents, in doubt  as to whether they can speak as Batman, and wearing Batman’s cloak of anonymity, providing they do nothing that lets slip that they are REALLY Bruce Wayne.

The LA in this case were arguing that the parents were prohibited from declaring that they were Batman, and that they could give interviews saying that they had been involved in A CASE but could not point towards them being the parents in THIS CASE  (which of course would be an insanely dull interview)

. It is worth also reading the judgment for the issue of the child’s very strong views that publicity of any kind about her case was not something she wanted and considered would be damaging.

I have to say, that the judgment could be plainer towards the end, but it seems to me that the Judge comes down in support of the parents being able to declare that they were Batman  (i.e that they were the parents in THIS CASE and could talk about THIS case, as long as they did so in that character, and not using their real identities or anything that might identify them)

 

·  So far as concerns the actions of this local authority, in my earlier judgment I set out a catalogue of poor social work practice, of failure to engage appropriately with these parents, of failure to keep them informed, of arriving at hasty, ill-informed and flawed judgments about them and of marginalising them. Against that background, not only do the parents have a legitimate interest in telling their story, the public has a right to hear their story.

·  The case also raises wider issues of equal if not greater importance, particularly when seen in the context of the current public debate about delays in adoption and the shortage of prospective adopters. As I noted earlier these wider issues include, for example, the importance of providing prospective adopters with full, detailed and relevant information about a child’s background before placing her for adoption, the level of post-adoption support available to adopters of children with complex needs and challenging behaviours, the vulnerability of late adoptions to placement breakdown, the significance and impact of RAD on a child’s behaviour and the therapeutic support required by such children. These are all issues which are of genuine and legitimate public interest.

Conclusions

·  In A v Ward at para [133] Munby LJ made the point that “The maintenance of public confidence in the judicial system is central to the values which underlie both Art 6 and Art 10 and something which…has to be brought into account as a very weighty factor in any application of the balancing exercise.” In this case I am in no doubt that the balance comes down in favour of allowing the parents to discuss the case with the media.

·  Miss Moseley seeks to persuade me that I should attach conditions to any permission I grant to the parents. I have given that careful consideration. I have come to the conclusion that the rubric set out at the beginning of my earlier judgment is sufficient. That rubric makes it plain that in any media reporting K, her parents and her adoptive sisters may not be identified by name or location. The additional requirement that “in particular the anonymity of the children and the adult members of their family must be strictly preserved” means that the media must take particular care not to report information not contained in the published judgment if that information may lead to the identification of K and her parents.

There remain gray areas, and this will become more and more pressing once judgments are routinely available.

What if, whilst giving their interview in the cloak of Batman, a neighbour recognises their voice or their style of speech? What if that neighbour comes up to them and says “Hey, Bruce Wayne, I saw Batman being interviewed on tv today – that was you! You’re Batman”

Is it a breach of the rubric for  the parent to say “Yes, you’re right, that was me, I am Batman?”

Is it a breach if the neighbour then tweets “Hey everyone, you know that bloke who was on This Morning – the Batman guy. He’s really my neighbour Bruce Wayne”?

[My last substantial law blog was about defamation, and here’s an interesting one, which ties into the next one I’m going to write. If I, or someone like me, writes about a person named as Mr X in a published judgment, and I say things about Mr X which go further than the judgment, those things are capable of being defamatory. But they are only defamatory if some of the readers know who Mr X is. Given that he is anonymous, am I only defaming the legal creature of Mr X, rather than the real human being who lies behind that pseudonym, whose true identity is not known to anyone? Can the real Mr X sue me for defamation? Is he breaching the rubric by sending me a solicitors letter saying “Our client Bruce Wayne, who is the Mr X you refer to in your article, is of the view that your words about him were defamatory” ?        Is all hypothetical, since I don’t go further than the judgments, but I of course do have my own opinion when I join the dots of the judgments as to what sort of person Mr X might be, I just don’t voice it.  I do wonder though, whether it is possible for me to defame Bruce Wayne by what I say about Mr X, when nobody knows that Bruce Wayne and Mr X are the same person]

Fear of Commitment

Following the recent media outrage (or mock outrage, or manufactured outrage,  or slow news day outrage or perfectly appropriate outrage, depending on your standpoint) , there is now a practice direction on Commital for Contempt of Court, which, it makes plain, applies to Court of Protection cases too.

 The starting point is to try to do the committal hearing in public if at all possible, if there are sensitive matters, to deal with those by making a proper order about what can and cannot be reported, but if a case ABSOLUTELY has to be heard in private, there should be nonetheless a public notice  and a declaration in a public Court, stating the name of the person, broadly why they have been committed, and what the punishment is, and a suitably anonymised judgment published, put on Baiili, and available at reasonable expense to any interested party who asks for it.

 

All perfectly reasonable and sensible proposals. 

 

 

COMMITTAL FOR CONTEMPT OF COURT

 

PRACTICE GUIDANCE

 

issued on 3 May 2013 by

 

LORD JUDGE, LORD CHIEF JUSTICE OF ENGLAND AND WALES

and

SIR JAMES MUNBY, PRESIDENT OF THE FAMILY DIVISION and

PRESIDENT OF THE COURT OF PROTECTION

  1. It is a fundamental principle of the administration of justice in England and Wales that applications for committal for contempt should be heard and decided in public, that is, in open court.
  1. This principle applies as much to committal applications in the Court of Protection (rule 188(2) of the Court of Protection Rules 2007) and in the Family Division (rule 33.5(1) of the Family Procedure Rules 2010) as to committal applications in any other Division of the High Court.
  1. The Court of Protection and, when the application arises out of proceedings relating to a child, the Family Division, is vested with a discretionary power to hear a committal application in private. This discretion should be exercised only in exceptional cases where it is necessary in the interests of justice. The fact that the committal application is being made in the Court of Protection or in the Family Division in proceedings relating to a child does not of itself justify the application being heard in private. Moreover the fact that the hearing of the committal application may involve the disclosure of material which ought not to be published does not of itself justify hearing the application in private if such publication can be restrained by an appropriate order.
  1. If, in an exceptional case, a committal application is heard in private and the court finds that a person has committed a contempt of court it must state in public (rule 188(3) of the Court of Protection Rules 2007; Order 52 rule 6(2) of the Rules of the Supreme Court 1965):

(a) the name of that person;

(b) in general terms the nature of the contempt of court in respect of which the committal order [committal order for this purpose includes a suspended committal order] is being made; and

(c) the punishment being imposed.

This is mandatory; there are no exceptions. There are never any circumstances in which any one may be committed to custody without these matters being publicly stated.

  1. Committal applications in the Court of Protection or the Family Division should at the outset be listed and heard in public. Whenever the court decides to exercise its discretion to sit in private the judge should, before continuing the hearing in private, give a judgment in public setting out the reasons for doing so. At the conclusion of any hearing in private the judge should sit in public to comply with the requirements set out in paragraph 4.
  1. In every case in which a committal order or a suspended committal order is made the judge should take appropriate steps to ensure that any judgment or statement complies with paragraphs 4 and 5 and that as soon as reasonably practicable:

(a) a transcript is prepared at public expense of the judgment (which includes for this purpose any judgment given in accordance with paragraph 5 and any statement given in accordance with paragraphs 4 and 5);

(b) every judgment as referred to in (a) is published on the BAILII website; and

(c) upon payment of any appropriate charge that may be required a copy of any such judgment is made available to any person who requests a copy.

 

Silence is golden, justice is blind

 

 

 

An imaginary judgment, dealing with section 98 of the Children Act 1989 and rights to remain silent….

 

The Court is dealing today, I was sorely tempted to begin this judgment with ‘we are gathered here today’ given the themes of the case, with a vexed preliminary issue prior to the determination of a finding of fact hearing.

 

The bare facts of the case are simple. The Court is about to embark upon a finding of fact hearing. Serious allegations of physical abuse are made against the mother and the father, and the Court must establish firstly whether these allegations are proven on the balance of probabilities, and then move on to determine whether it is possible to identify the perpetrator, or exclude either parent. 

 

The father has made it plain that he does not seek to care for the children, he and the mother having separated, and his role in the proceedings is limited to the factual determination of the finding of fact hearing. For his part, he denies that the injuries were non-accidental, and if the Court is against him on that, he denies that they were perpetrated by him.  He does not go so far as the mother, who actively asserts that the father caused the injuries.

 

The factual allegations are detailed and involve multiple injuries over multiple dates and the factual enquiry into this will without doubt involve a great deal of detailed cross-examination and forensic discussion. There will need to be exploration of the accounts provided, and how these tally with both the medical explanations and any previous accounts.

 

This is complicated by the father’s current position. He, having left the family at the outset of these proceedings, has undergone something of a religious conversion, and is now living in a monastery and has become a Trappist monk.  It is asserted on his behalf, that a fundamental part of his religious beliefs and practice is to maintain a complete vow of silence. Evidence has been filed , necessarily in writing, from those at his monastery to confirm that (a) the father is living there (b) that he has undertaken the necessary conversion to become a Trappist monk, albeit in a more accelerated process than is usual, (c) that the vow of silence is indeed a legitimate and indeed mandatory form of his religious expression  and (d) that having taken that vow, he is bound by it and cannot relinquish it.  The necessity to speak and give oral evidence does not countermand his vow of silence, so far as his religious practices are concerned.

 

 

I am advised that a rudimentary form of finger signing is permitted, but an inspection of this shows that it would be substantially short of the ability to communicate the level of detail that would be required. Equally, it is apparent that it would be permissible for father to reduce his answers to writing, and for these to be read aloud by another.  I muse that this must be an acceptable method of dealing with the need for oral evidence in a case where the witness is physically incapable of speech, for example where they are mute.

 

It is submitted on behalf of mother, and supported by the Local Authority, that giving his evidence by way of written answers affords the father a tactical advantage. Clearly his answers would not be as instant as those given by someone answering aloud; the process of writing them renders both an opportunity for thinking time and indeed the opportunity to avoid ‘stumbling into an answer’  because he would have the ability to correct a remark that he wished he had not made and substitute it for a more polished answer before the written answer is finalised and shown to the Court / read aloud by an usher. 

 

Equally, the mother submits, that in comparing and assessing the evidence of two parents who are under the spotlight of suspicion, the Court hearing tone, manner, demeanour, facial expression and cadence of one witness and merely the written answers of another is ‘comparing apples and oranges’ and that mother’s right to a fair hearing may well be prejudiced if the two parties under scrutiny are not competing on a level playing field.

 

It is certainly right that all of the factors mentioned by mother’s counsel are matters which a judge properly brings to bear on an assessment of a witness’ evidence. It is not merely, as she asserts, “what is said, but the way it is said’ that is important.

 

I accept, that it would be better, if at all possible, to hear from the mouths of both witnesses, their evidence; and that alternative methods such as communicating in writing should be done only if unavoidable.

 

 

We turn, therefore, to the issue of whether the father can legitimately be compelled to give oral evidence, irrespective of his religious convictions.

 

I am referred to section 98 of the Children Act 1989

 

98 Self-incrimination.E+W

(1)In any proceedings in which a court is hearing an application for an order under Part IV or V, no person shall be excused from—

(a)giving evidence on any matter; or

(b)answering any question put to him in the course of his giving evidence,

on the ground that doing so might incriminate him or his spouse [F1or civil partner] of an offence.

(2)A statement or admission made in such proceedings shall not be admissible in evidence against the person making it or his spouse [F1or civil partner] in proceedings for an offence other than perjury.

 

 

 

 

It is submitted on behalf of father, quite properly, that this relates to the principle that a person is not excused from giving evidence or answering questions in evidence on the grounds that it might incriminate him, or his spouse.  In effect, that in care proceedings, there is no “Fifth amendment” right to ‘refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it may incriminate me’   or, adopting the UK terminology in the criminal process, the  right to remain silent.

 

He asserts that he  (a) is not refusing to answer questions, but is unable to do so and (b) that if he is ‘refusing’ it is not on the grounds that it may incriminate him, but on religious beliefs.

 

The other parties assert that it is clear from the reading of section 98 that there is no reason that a witness in care proceedings can refuse to give evidence.

 

He is a competent witness, applying the principles of  the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, section 53  –  “all persons are competent to give evidence unless  they don’t understand the questions put to them, or they cannot give answers to those questions which can be understood”    – although those principles strictly apply to criminal trials, I am satisfied that they are an appropriate measuring stick and that father is competent (and thus compellable) on that basis.

 

If a witness summons is issued, compelling father to attend and give oral evidence, what powers, if any, does the Court have if he is asked to swear the oath, or to answer a question and not a syllable passes his lips?

 

 

I am helpfully pointed towards the decision of the criminal courts in

R v Montgomery 1995, which sets out that refusal to give evidence can constitute a contempt of court.

 

 

 

R v Montgomery (1995) 16 Cr.App.R.(S) 274

• An immediate custodial sentence is the only appropriate sentence for contempt

unless there are wholly exceptional circumstances.

• There is no rule or established practice that states higher sentences should be

imposed in cases of interference with for example jurors, than in the case of a

witness refusing to give evidence.

• Although the maximum sentence for failing to comply with a witness order is 3

months, this does not mean a longer sentence cannot be imposed for blatant contempt by refusing to testify.

• The following factors were determined to be relevant to the sentencing of contemnors:

(a) the gravity of the offence being tried;

(b) the effect upon the trial;

(c) the contemnor’s reasons for failing to give evidence;

(d) whether the contempt is aggravated by impertinent defiance to the judge;

(e) the scale of sentences in similar cases, albeit each case must turn on its own facts;

(f) the antecedents, personal circumstances and characteristics of the

contemnor; for example, whether for the contemnor this would be his first time to prison or is institutionalised.

 

It is notable, that the father, faced with the possibility that his decision not to give oral evidence might result in a custodial sentence, possibly in excess of three months, has not waivered from his position that he is unable to give oral evidence.

 

The fact remains that ultimately, whether I find the father in contempt of court I cannot compel him to utter a word in the witness box. I can compel him to get into the witness box, and punish him for not answering, but no more than that.

 

 

 

 

All that I could do would be to witness summons him to give evidence, and commit him to prison if he refused to do so, and then, as our American cousins say “lather, rinse, repeat” whilst we test which of us has the greater patience – the father in spending three months in prison following each time he comes to court or myself in whether I am prepared to keep adjourning the case indefinitely should he remain steadfast.

 

And of course, I must bear in mind that throughout this theoretical exercise of brinkmanship where I would test whether the father’s determination to not speak would exceed my own determination to have his evidence heard, the child would be in limbo and waiting for a determination. The principle of no delay I think, drives me, not to embark on a futile course of action that would cause delay for the crucial decision to be determined.

 

So, as far as the father is concerned, I can potentially  punish him for not speaking, but I cannot compel him to speak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Given that the father’s defence to any application for contempt would be that he is not refusing to give evidence, but is unable to do so as a result of his religious convictions, I must turn now to the Human Rights Act 1998 and in particular, the right to religious expression; to consider whether in law, I could actually punish him at all for exercising his religious beliefs, inconvenient as they may be for the Court.  

 

 

  ARTICLE 9
  FREEDOM OF THOUGHT, CONSCIENCE AND RELIGION
      1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
 
      2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

 

 

Regardless of the assertion by the Local Authority and the mother that I should treat the father’s religious conversion as a convenient device for the purpose of side-stepping the need to give oral evidence and that the Court can make inferences in that regard, perhaps even so far as making inferences that this is as a result of a guilty conscience,  I am troubled that this would be a step too far.  The father has the right to adopt a religion and to change it.

 

The Court can look to an extent, at whether this is genuine or a device, but cannot peel off too many layers of that particular onion.  

 

If he merely asserted that he was now in deep sympathy with the principles of Trappist monks and had taken a vow of silence, and had taken no steps whatsoever to adopt any other elements of their religion,  the Court would be justifiably sceptical; but this father has actually moved into a monastery and undergone the conversion process. There is no evidence to suggest that since doing so, the father has not adhered to their practices, and as indicated early, much evidence to the contrary.

 

One of the essential facets of faith is that it can be a lifelong deeply held belief, or a sudden conversion, as a person encounters a situation or comes to a revelation that there is another facet to the world than the merely physical and that they wish to take steps to embrace the sense of religious wonder or responsibility that they feel.

 

 

It may be that the connection with the Trappist monks and their vow of silence is  a helpful device (or as mother puts it ‘a get-out-of-jail-free card’, it may be a  merely coincidental happenstance, as father asserts. Without prima facie evidence that his religious beliefs are not genuine, I am not entitled to delve too deeply into this.

 

Regardless, he is legitimately entitled to change his religion to that of a trappist monk if he wishes, and legitimately entitled to follow their religious practices unless there are limitations to this prescribed by law.

 

 

I could legitimately issue a witness summons against him, but it must be questionable whether I could legitimately commit him for contempt for not answering a question once he gets into the witness box. That being the case, and given that the father has made it plain through those who represent him (who have had more than the usual volume of written notes passed to them during these proceedings) that he is willing to attend the hearing and step into the box, one wonders whether there is any value in issuing a witness summons.

 

 

 

The best I can do, in this difficult and vexed situation, and I am sure that this is a solution that will earn me a great deal of displeasure from my usher, a person whom I depend on for smooth running of my daily working existence and a person who I offend at my peril, is for both parents to give their evidence on the same footing.

 

Therefore, both mother and father may, if they desire, give their evidence by writing their answers on a pad of paper. When the answer is finished, they will hand the answer to the usher, who will read it aloud.  It is not ideal, but it avoids the risk of comparing apples and oranges that the Court must be alive to.

 

Counsel are asked to keep their questions as concise as possible, in order that answers can be likewise, and to avoid the nested and tiered questions of which so many advocates are fond these days.

 

I will now rise for lunch, and I suspect that I may need to be treating the usher to something substantial and possibly lavish, so I will begin the case at 3 o’clock.

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