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High Court admonishes Guardian, psychiatrist and (to a lesser and interesting extent) Child’s Solicitor

Re F v H and Another 2017

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2017/3358.html

This was a knotty and horrendous private law case in which parents separated and mother made a series of grave and utterly unfounded allegations that the father had sexually abused the child. She persuaded a series of doctors to undertake intimate examinations of the child and later left the country with the child when the Court hearings were going against her. The Family Court then placed the child with the father and directed that there should be a psychiatric evaluation of the mother to see if there was any prospect of contact taking place.

The judge said that “the court cannot envisage a situation whereby it could be considering looking at direct contact again other than where she has received extensive psychological therapeutic help.” The decision of the judge in respect of the need for the 1st Respondent to receive treatment prior to contact taking place or to any reintroduction of her mother was based on the welfare of B and the evidence of the 1st Respondent’s behaviour. It was wholly justified.

During the period where mother was awaiting criminal trial for the child abduction, she continued to make a series of allegations about father to professional agencies, all unfounded. Mother received a four month sentence for the child abduction offence, suspended for six months.

When the psychiatric report finally emerged, it wasn’t terribly useful, since the psychiatrist had decided to do the report without reading the judgment from the family Court about her behaviour that had led to the need for the report… And he believed everything that the mother said and recommended strongly that the FATHER was the one who needed a psychiatric assessment.

Safe to say that Ms Justice Russell was unimpressed by that approach.

28.There was no psychiatric assessment of the 1st Respondent so that on the 20th March 2017 when there is a further hearing before the judge this issue remained outstanding as the reports ordered by the court on 29th February 2016 and 25th May 2016 have not been produced. In March 2017, the Court again “made it clear” that this is 1st Respondent’s last opportunity to cooperate with a psychiatric assessment and she did not attend the next appointment arranged for her, her application would be dismissed and a s91(14) (CA) order would be made for a period of two years.

29.Finally, on 25th May 2017 the 1st Respondent was seen by a psychiatrist, Dr Oyebode, who filed a report on 5th June 2017. For reason that are far from clear to this court and to the court below Dr Oyebode conducted his assessment of the 1st Respondent without reading the court documents provided to him, including the judgments; instead he read and relied on the documents given to him by the 1st Respondent and the report of Dr Beider (who had not seen the documents or had access to them at all). Thus, his assessment was partisan, based on the 1st Respondents version of the history of events and on psychiatric evidence obtained outside the family court proceedings and without the permission of the judge.

30.Moreover, not only had Dr Oyebode had not challenged the 1st Respondent on the basis of the court documents or judgement (because he had failed to read them) he also accepted her assertion that the 1st Respondent had made no further allegations since 2014; this was patently untrue as she had made allegations in 2016 and sought to defend the criminal case on the basis of duress and necessity. He neither referred to or considered the 1st Respondent’s behaviour which led the court to make non-molestation injunctions against her. In direct contradiction of the judgment of the court he reached the conclusion that the 1st Respondent was a capable mother who had genuine concerns for her daughter’s welfare. He suggested that the Appellant undergo psychiatric treatment, having accepted the 1st Respondent’s version of events. Quite rightly the judge, at the hearing on the 9th August 2017, described Dr Oyebode’s report as offering the court no assistance and as being “completely flawed”.

That psychiatric assessment being worthless, the case then took a significantly wrong turn.

31.At a further hearing before the judge on 21st June 2017 B was joined as a party to the proceedings and on 5th July 2017 Catherine Callaghan (a Cafcass officer) was appointed as her guardian. Ms Callaghan was provided with some limited papers, consisting of parents’ last statements and Dr Oyebode’s report on 7th July 2017. She met the Appellant and B briefly on 19th July 2017. The guardian spent some two hours with the 1st Respondent on 26th July 2017. She did not receive the court papers, which include the judgments, until 28th July 2017. She could not have been, and was not in, a position to challenge the 1st Respondent’s version of events when she met her; and her views at the time would have be based on what she knew then, which included the flawed and inadequate report of Dr Oyebode. The Guardian did not see the parties or the child again. Although she had had sight of the case papers before preparation of her position statement this was not until after she had seen the parties and her meetings with them to place in ignorance of the circumstances of this case.

32.At six o’clock in the evening of 8th August 2017 the guardian’s solicitor sent her position statement to parties which included the recommendation that there should be direct supervised contact for the 1st Respondent with B. I shall return to her position below; but she had not prepared any analysis or report for the court, which considered the welfare of the child with reference to the statutory provisions contained in s1 of the CA 1989; nor did she explain to the court what form the contact would take; any details of the explanation of what was to happen, and by whom, would be given to the child. She did not proffer any advice to the court as to what would happen if, on the receipt of competent psychiatric assessment of the 1st Respondent, it was found that the risks to B of further harm was considered to be high, without some prior professional intervention. The judge did not hear any oral evidence.

33.The next day on 9th August 2017 the judge, in what she described as a finely balanced decision, which from her judgment, was a decision based largely on the oral submissions made on behalf of the guardian, acceded to the application made on the instructions of Ms Callaghan and made an order which provides for direct contact between B and the 1st Respondent supervised by the guardian herself. The judge stayed the order for direct contact until 30th August to allow for the application for permission to appeal to go before the High Court. In her short judgement, the judge set out her reasons for reaching the decision that some supervised contact should go ahead which, as previously observed were based largely, if not wholly, on the guardian’s recommendations.

34.The precondition for any reintroduction of contact, which the judge had repeatedly reiterated, was not only that the 1st Respondent’s mental health had to be assessed, but also that there should be some treatment with her commenced to avoid repetition of her previous harmful behaviour towards B. Following the oral submission of the guardian (who is not qualified to assess the 1st Respondent’s likely psychiatric or psychological response to any reintroduction to B) the judge reversed the decisions she had made previously. The decisions she had previously made were properly based on the evidence before the court that there should be prior assessment and treatment (as set out above) there was no evidence before the court which supported a reversal of that decision. Moreover, as a result of the inadequacies of the psychiatric report, on 10th August 2017 an agreed letter of instruction was sent to Dr Datta to carry out a further assessment of the 1st Respondent. This letter, agreed by the parties, contained the instruction that the “Mother continues to be of the view that [B] is not safe in her father’s care.”

Ms Justice Russell sets out in detail why the Judge was wrong to have resiled from her earlier position that contact could not be countenanced until there had been a proper psychiatric evaluation of the mother, and largely blames the Guardian for persuading the Judge to do so, and moreover, to have fallen into much the same trap as the psychiatrist – in conducting investigations and reaching conclusions without having properly engaged with the source material.

The father, obviously, appealed and that is how the case came before Ms Justice Russell.

37.The history of this case has been set out at some length as it forms the background to the decision the judge made on 9th August 2017. When viewed as a whole the harm caused to this child by her mother was significant. Not only was she found to have repeatedly subjected to intimate examinations, solely at the behest of her mother, she was prevented from having uninhibited relationship with her father as an infant. On any view, the repeated invasive intimate examination, as found by the judge and set out in her judgment, were in themselves abusive and any long-term effects on B, along with any emotional trauma that may have been at the time, has never been investigated or assessed.

38.The guardian has seen this child on one occasion for a brief period yet she has seen fit to reach conclusions as to the child’s resilience and current psychological and emotional status and ability to deal not only with the re-introduction of her mother but also with the possible, if not probable, cessation of contact should that prove to be necessary. There is no analysis of how she reaches these conclusions, no details of her qualifications to do so and no application of the welfare checklist in reaching her conclusions. Consequently, the judge was wrong to rely on them and to effectively reverse her previous decisions on what amounts to flimsy evidence.

39.The emphasis and assumptions of the guardian are apparently based on the need to reintroduce contact with the child’s mother. If so this is a misinterpretation of the law; although that the amendments to section 8 of the CA and section 1(2A), introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014 emphasised the presumption that unless the contrary is shown, involvement of a parent in the life of a child will further the child’s welfare, this presumption is subject to the requirement that the parent concerned may be involved in the child’s life in a way that does not put the child at risk of suffering harm. This case includes findings of abusive behaviour towards B by her mother, which, if repeated would compromise the child’s safety and reintroduce the possibility of further harm, both physical and emotional.

40.B is a young and vulnerable child whose first few years of life were blighted by her mother’s irrational, abusive and harmful behaviour culminating in an B’s unlawful abduction. The courts can and should consider ordering no contact when the child’s welfare and safety demand it

(illuminating to compare and contrast with the Court of Appeal stance on the transgender father v ultra-Orthodox jewish community case earlier this month…)

Get ready for the pain

Conclusions
47.While it is understandable that the judge acceded to the guardian’s application, it is the decision of this court that she was wrong to do so. The guardian was quite simply not qualified or equipped to reach the conclusions that she did in respect of this child’s psychological and emotional resilience. She was even less qualified to assess the 1st Respondent’s mental state and her ability to conduct herself appropriately when B spent time with her. She had carried out anything other than a cursory consideration of the history, evidence and court documents before she briefly met the child with her father; little wonder failed adequately to explain the basis of her conclusions.

48.In a case such as this with a protracted, complex and convoluted history it is incumbent on the professionals who are called on to proffer advice and recommendations to the court, be they Cafcass officers or others concerned with child welfare, to fully inform themselves about the case and, at the very least, read through the judgments before they commence their investigations. Nor should they consider experimenting or trying out with contact for the child or children concerned against a background of previous harmful behaviour and abduction; in this case the guardian even accepted that contact may prove to be unsuccessful and be terminated or suspended again. Any contact that took place would have provided little or no useful evidence for the court as the guardian is unqualified properly to assess this mother’s ability to deal with and contain her behaviour. For that reason, and for those set out above this appeal will be allowed.

That’s a serious burn. Is it fair and justified? Well, I will leave that to the reader to decide.

The bit that interested me was this, however.

In relation to the position statement filed on behalf of the Child’s Solicitor (bear in mind that the child in question is 4 1/2, so absolutely no prospect of the child being competent to give instructions or even to give their views to the solicitor independently) the Court said :-

There was and are no submissions on behalf of the guardian as to why and on what basis she purported to have reached this conclusion on behalf of this child. A child who as, on any view, be subjected to repeated intimate physical intrusion, flight to Israel and had been fed misinformation about her father throughout her infancy. The solicitor for the child has, apparently, acted solely on the instructions of guardian and failed to include any separate analysis of the child’s position in her position statement.

I’ll give you the last bit again

The solicitor for the child has, apparently, acted solely on the instructions of guardian and failed to include any separate analysis of the child’s position in her position statement

I suspect there are many solicitors for children saying to themselves, well of course the solicitor acted solely on the instructions of the guardian. The child was 4 1/2.

Is it the place of the solicitor for the child to disagree with the instructions of her professional client (where the lay client is not in a position to give instructions?) – is it the place of the solicitor for the child to lay out in a position statement a case wholly in the alternative to that the Guardian is instructing should be pursued?

That seems a stretch to me. I think it is acceptable that the solicitor for the child ask the Guardian to address some of the consequences of the course recommended and provide analysis as to why, despite any adverse consequences it is the preferred option. But if the Guardian sticks by her course, I don’t think the solicitor for the child can advance in a position statement an argument contrary to her instructions.

(Of course, if the Guardian is making a mistake in law, or there is authority contrary to the position being advanced the solicitor for the child has to draw this to the Court’s attention, but I’m not sure that’s the case here. That possibility is raised earlier, so I may be misreading. It seems to me though that this is an issue not as to law and principle but a welfare and risk analysis by the Guardian. If the child’s solicitor and the Guardian disagree about welfare and risk analysis then they should thrash it out in discussions, sure, but ultimately it is the view of the Guardian that goes into the position statement and is advanced at Court, not the view of the child’s solicitor. )

I shall keep an eye out as to whether this theme recurs.

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Guardian and Child’s Solicitor get strong (and justified) bashing from High Court

This is a Keehan J decision in the High Court.

It is pretty rare for a Judge to criticise a Guardian, and I can’t recall a case before where a Child’s Solicitor was criticised in a judgment. This is full on judicial dissection. And in my humble opinion, utterly warranted.

The case involved a child who was 13 and had learning difficulties. There was also a sibling, Y. There were serious allegations of abuse made by the child against the father. Achieving Best Evidence interviews had been conducted.

Most of the case is very fact specific, so I won’t go into it, (and the hearing lasted 20 days, so there was a LOT of it) but the part that has wider application is what happened towards the end of the case.

The father, understandably, made an application for the child X to give evidence. The Court set down a Re W hearing to decide whether the child should or should not give evidence. The Court directed the Guardian to meet with the child and to provide a report to the Court as to her view as to whether the child should or should not give evidence.

What actually happened was that the Guardian allowed the child’s solicitor to take the lead during that visit and that rather than exploring the Re W issues, the child’s solicitor actually cross examined the child AT LENGTH about the detail of the disclosures, leading her, challenging her, contradicting her. (In fact it also appears that some of the disclosures made were fresh disclosures not previously made, so it was not only emotionally abusive to the child but contaminated the evidence, and neither the Guardian nor the solicitor made referrals to the social work team about the fresh allegations)
(I’ve used ‘disclosures’ here as a synonym for ‘allegations’ and have rightly been corrected. We should all use allegations for things that are yet to be proved, and disclosures afterwards. Fixxored in edit)

None of this should have happened. Reading the case it appears that the Guardian is the subject of internal disciplinary proceedings through CAFCASS and that there is to be a hearing to decide whether this case should be referred to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority. It will be a very difficult thing for either of them to come back from, professionally. Readers can make up their own mind how sympathetic they are about that.

Wolverhampton City Council v JA and another 2017

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2017/62.html

The Former Children’s Guardian and the Former Solicitor for the Children
172.On 30 August 2016 the then children’s guardian, AB, and the children’s solicitor, Ms Noel, visited X in her foster placement for the purpose of speaking with her, ostensibly to gain her wishes and feelings about giving evidence at this hearing.

173.During the course of this interview X is recorded as having made a number of disclosures relating to her having been sexually abused.

174.On 6 September 2016 AB and Ms Noel paid a similar visit to Y.

175.At an advocates’ meeting the disclosures made by X in her interview on 30 August were revealed. It became apparent that no referral in respect of those disclosures had been made to the local authority nor to the police. The advocates’ meeting was immediately terminated and an urgent directions hearing was sought before the then allocated judge.

I’ve done at least a thousand advocates meetings and they are universally very dull. This one, however, wasn’t. There must have been an utterly deathly silence as this information came to light.

176.The children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor were ordered to disclose their notes on both interviews with the children and to file and serve witness statements.


177.On 30 September 2016 the appointment of the children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor were terminated and a new guardian and solicitor were appointed for the children. I am, understandably, asked to make clear in this judgment that the current children’s guardian, the current children’s solicitor and counsel instructed by him at this hearing had no part and no involvement, whatsoever, in the events of 30 August or 6 September 2016.

So a whole new team was appointed to represent the child, and that new team were untainted by these failures.

178.The guardian and solicitor’s interview of Y on 6 September 2016 could be the subject of considerable criticism, however, for the purposes of this judgment I focus on the interview with X on 30 August where the most egregious errors occurred.

179.X was subjected to an almost two hour cross examination conducted principally, if not exclusively, by Ms Noel: I stop short of categorising it as an interrogation. I have never seen the like of it before and I hope never to see a repetition of it again. X was asked leading questions on innumerable occasion, she was contradicted repeatedly by Ms Noel and when X denied a particular treatment or abuse by her father the question was put again and again, effectively denying the child the opportunity of being heard.

180.A particularly egregious question was asked by Ms Noel when she asked ‘Did your dad ever push the sponge or his fingers inside your private?’ X replied ‘no I don’t think so but it was painful’. The question was repeated and the answer was the same save hurt replaced painful. Ms Noel then asked ‘did dad ever get into bed with you’. Answer no. Prior to this interview and prior to these questions X had never asserted that the father had inserted his fingers into her vagina nor that he got into bed with her.

When you have a High Court Judge driven to say “I have never seen the like of it before and I hope never to see a repetition of it again” things are really bad. This is painful to read.

181.Prior to this ‘interview’ X had not said that she had told her mother of the father’s alleged sexual abuse of her.

182.At the time of both X’s and Y’s interviews the children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor knew that there was an ongoing police investigation into these allegations of sexual abuse and ongoing enquiries by the local authority.

183.Both AB and Ms Noel accepted their respective contemporaneous notes of the two interviews were not a verbatim transcript of the interviews. As the lead questioner Ms Noel’s notes were more comprehensive than AB’s but neither recorded all questions asked nor all the answers given.

The impact on the Guardian of these failings was so pronounced that the Judge was actually very concerned about her well-being when giving evidence.

184.AB is a very experienced children’s guardian of longstanding. I was very concerned about her welfare and well being when she came to give evidence.

185.My order of 6 December 2016 was received by Cafcass. She was the subject of internal disciplinary procedures of which it is not necessary for the purposes of this judgment to say any more. She has since been reinstated.

186.The guardian had just returned from holiday. She knew the purpose of the visit was at my request to establish X’s views about giving evidence. She met Ms Noel outside the foster carer’s home and there was a limited discussion about how the interview should proceed. She told me, and I accept, she agreed Ms Noel should take the lead in asking questions as she had not been present at the last court hearing. It was she said, and I accept, the one and only time she had allowed a children’s solicitor to take the lead in asking questions of a child. She had not, at that time, viewed the children’s ABE interviews nor had Ms Noel.

187.When asked why she had not referred the disclosures made by X to the police, she said Ms Noel advised her that she needed to consult with counsel then instructed on behalf of the children.

188.AB conceded her note taking of the interview was not as thorough as it should have been. She readily acknowledged that she should have stopped the questioning as soon as disclosures had been made. She candidly told me that X wanted to talk and because AB believed the children had not been listened to she was open to let X, and then Y on 6 September, talk. She said she was uneasy at some of the questions the girls were asked by Ms Noel and now realised she should have stopped it.

189.It was immediately obvious from the moment AB stepped into the witness box that she was racked with guilt and remorse. Only a few minutes into her evidence she became distressed and I adjourned for a short period to enable her to compose herself. She readily acknowledged the grave and serious professional errors she had committed in allowing these interviews to progress as they did – most especially in respect of X – and for not terminating them at an early stage.

190.I accept the guardian’s errors and professional misjudgement in this case were grave and serious. Nevertheless I accept her regret and remorse at her actions and omission are entirely genuine and sincere.

It is obviously very dreadful that a children’s solicitor would cross-examine a child with learning difficulties about sexual abuse allegations for 2 hours – that’s made worse still when you realise that she had not even seen the ABE interviews – so effectively cross-examining without properly looking at the source material.

If you think things were bad for the Guardian, they are about to get very much worse

191.I only wish I could make the same observations in respect of Ms Noel: I regret I cannot.

192.Ms Noel has been a solicitor for 11 years. She has been on the Children’s Panel for 6 years but this was the first case of sexual abuse in which she had acted for the children. I do not understand why a solicitor so inexperienced in acting for children should have come to be appointed in as complex and serious case as this one.

193.I was moved to comment during the course of Ms Noel’s evidence that by her actions during the interview with X she had run a coach and horses through 20 years plus of child abuse inquiries and of the approach to interviewing children in cases of alleged sexual abuse. I see no reason, on reflection, to withdraw those comments.

194.At the conclusion of Ms Noel’s evidence, in very marked contrast to that of the former children’s guardian, I had no sense that Ms Noel had any real appreciation of what she had done or of the extremely serious professional errors she had committed. She appeared to be almost a naïve innocent who had little or no idea of what she had done.

That’s the stuff of anxiety nightmares, having that sort of thing said about you.

195.It is right that I set out with particularity her evidence, most especially to highlight those matters which cause me to make the foregoing observations.


196.Ms Noel told me that her visit to X was the first time she had met X.
She said that the language she used when asking questions of X and the length of the interview – some 2 hours – was “possibly” inappropriate for a child with learning difficulties. On repeated occasion Ms Noel had told X how brave she was being in answering the questions. On reflection, she said, such comments could have been seen by X as a clue as to what she was expected to say and to talk about. She said that ‘it may appear but was not my intention.’

197.Ms Noel had had no training in how to speak with children involved in court proceedings. She knew X had made disclosures to the police and to her foster carers. Why, therefore, she was asked did she embark on this lengthy questioning of X? She replied that at the time she wanted to clarify what X was saying. With the benefit of hindsight, she accepted she should not have done so and should have stopped asking questions. She said she did not know she had asked X directed or leading questions. When it was put to her that she was cross examining X, Ms Noel replied ‘I suppose so, yes’.

Now, perhaps it is an omission of Children Panel training that she did not have training in how to ask children questions, but as an ADVOCATE you really should know whether or not you are asking someone directed or leading questions – that’s a catastrophic failing to admit that you didn’t know whether you were or not. And note that this 2 hour cross-examination was the first time she had ever met the child.


198.She confirmed her notes were not a verbatim record and that she had not noted X’s demeanour during the course of the interview. She accepted she had probably got some questions and answers missing from her notes and in that sense her notes could be misleading.


199.Ms Noel asserted she had only seen the DVDs of the girls’ interviews after she had seen X on 30 August and Y on 6 September. She had not reported X’s disclosures to the local authority because counsel then instructed by her had advised her to wait until after counsel had met with her and the guardian in conference.

(The Judge doesn’t pass any comment as to whether counsel was right or wrong there. I might have my own view, but the Judge had all of the facts and was in a far better position to say so if there was fault)

200.Ms Noel accepted that in acting as she did she had badly let the children down. She accepted there was a risk of the children, especially X, being ‘set up’ to make fake allegations. She accepted there were not insignificant differences between her contemporaneous notes of her meetings with X and with Y and those set out in her statement which she had prepared and signed in December.


201.Ms Noel was specifically asked if she had approved and authorised the contents of a position statement provided to the court for hearing on 16 September 2016. She said she could not remember. When reminded that she had emailed the same to the court, she replied ‘I would have read it’. The position baldly states that in the interview with the guardian and the solicitor X had made disclosures of a sexual nature against her father and had made disclosures in relation to the state of knowledge of the mother and the maternal grandmother. At no point is any reference made to the circumstances in which X said these things, namely that she had been subjected to an intense and prolonged period of cross examination.


202.I am sorry to observe that Ms Noel’s many acknowledgments of error and of professional misjudgement were made, in my judgment, very begrudgingly.


203.In conclusion I find that in relation to interview undertaken with X on 30 August 2016:

a) she was inappropriately questioned by Ms Noel;

b) the interview lasted for a wholly excessive length of time;

c) the conduct of the interview took no account that X suffered from learning difficulties;

d) she was repeatedly asked leading questions;

e) frequently leading questions were repeated even after X had answered in the negative to the proposition implicit in the question;

f) there was absolutely no justification for embarking on this sustained questioning of X;

g) the exercise was wholly detrimental to X’s welfare and seriously imperilled a police investigation;

h) the conduct of the interview led to a real possibility that X would be led into making false allegations;

i) the conduct of the interview was wholly contrary to the intended purpose of the visit, namely to establish X’s wishes and feelings about giving evidence in this fact finding hearing; and

j) the record keeping of AB and Ms Noel was very poor. Not all questions and answers were recorded or accurately recorded. No reference is made to X’s demeanour during the interview or to any perceived change in her demeanour.

204.The breaches of good practice were so legion in the interview conducted with X that I have concluded that it would be unwise and unsafe for me to rely on any comments made by X
. I will have to consider later in this judgment the extent, if at all, to which this interview with X on 30 August tainted the subsequent ABE interview undertaken by the police with X on 30 September 2016.


205.One of the worst examples of these very poorly conducted interviews arose in Y’s interview on 6 September. She alleged for the very first time that she told her grandmother of the sexual abuse she had suffered. For the reasons I have given in relation to X’s interview, I pay no regard to this comment at all. To the extent that I find, if at all, that the grandmother knew about the sexual abuse of both girls, I shall rely on the other evidence before me.


206.The issues of whether I should name Ms Noel in this judgment and/or she should be referred to her professional disciplinary body is to be determined at separate hearing. None of the parties to these proceedings wish to be heard on these issues: the matter is left to the court. I will, however, hear submissions on behalf of Ms Noel at that hearing. At the hearing on 18 August I read and heard submissions from counsel on behalf of Ms Noel. I was asked to show compassion to Ms Noel and not name her in the judgment. A number of personal and professional reasons were advanced. I do not propose to set them out in this judgment. I took account of all those submissions but concluded that the public interest and the need for transparency overwhelmingly required me to name Ms Noel. Accordingly her name appears in the published version of this judgment.