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Inordinate delay in issuing proceedings (£45K damages)

 

This is a Circuit Judge decision made in my local Court (it is not a case that I or any of my colleagues are involved in, so I can write about it) so I will try to avoid much comment and stick to the reported facts.

 

Re X, Y and Z  (Damages: Inordinate Delay in issuing proceedings) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2016/B44.html

Three children had been s20 accommodated from January 2013 until July 2015 when an Interim Care Order was made. The Court determined that the s20 had been lawfully entered into and was valid, but of course on the authorities, a valid s20 does not prevent a human rights breach based on delay.  Whilst the mother in this case had never formally withdrawn her consent or lodged an objection, she had been asking for more contact with the children and saying from time to time that she would like them to come home.

 

  1. The mother clearly frequently stated that she would wish to care for the children and certainly to see them :
  2. i) 8.2.13 Letter from Z seeking to see the children.

ii) 1.3.13 Z asks for contact and to have the children back in her first meeting with a social worker

iii) 3.4.13 Z seeks fortnightly contact in a telephone call.

iv) 5.9.13 LAC review – stated that Z would like to be able to care for the children.

v) 14.1.14 Report for LAC review notes that Z would like to see the children and that she sometimes states she wants to care for the children and sometimes that she just wants to have contact with them.

vi) 8.4.14 Legal Planning Meeting Solicitor for Z stated that she had requested both children be returned to her care as soon as possible…if not returned to her care, would like increased contact.

vii) 26.11.14 LAC Review Z would like to be able to care for the children.

 

 

The Judge ruled that the children’s article 6 and  8 rights were breached in the following ways

 

  1. It follows from all that is set out above that I make the following declarations:
  2. i) West Sussex County Council acted unlawfully and in violation of the Convention Rights of X, Y and Z as follows:

a) Purported to exercise parental responsibility for X and Y for a period of almost two and a half years when they did not hold parental responsibility for the children.

b) Failed to promote contact between the children ,X and Y and their mother Z.

c) Failed to issue care proceedings for almost two and a half years causing the children to be without access to independent representation, failing to carry out adequate assessments and allowing the children’s permanence plan to drift.

d) The Independent Reviewing Officer failed to challenge the conduct of the Local Authority sufficiently robustly.

The judgment contains analysis of the relevant authorities on s20 breaches, s20 drift, human rights claims and calculating quantum.

The Judge concluded that each of the  children should receive the sum of £20,000 in damages  (*initially, with the case being called X, Y and Z, I’d assumed three children and hence £60k, but I am told two children. Still £45k is a lot of money)

 

  1. The factors to be considered for the children are substantially different to those for the mother and consequently must be assessed separately. The main factors in relation to quantum are :
  2. i) A failure to assess their needs for an inordinate period of time – over two years before any report was obtained;

ii) The fact that they were denied access to any independent legal representation for two and a half years – of particular importance when they had no relatives in the country who would be able to care for them and when they had been the subject of apparent abuse during their time in Jamaica;

iii) Little promotion of contact with their mother even though X indicated in February 2013 that he would like to go back to her – there was no contact for the next twelve months;

iv) No comprehensive assessment of their needs although it was indicated as early as March 2013 that such an assessment was required;

v) Frequent changes in placements without any input from anyone with parental responsibility

vi) Placement with W, the previous foster carer, without any such assessment or understanding of any abuse they had suffered in Jamaica;

vii) The fact that the children are now in separate long term foster placements with no contact with each other or any other relative and X is not in a culturally appropriate placement;

  1. It is apparent that the end result for these children is not a good one. It is not possible now to say that the outcome would have been any different if proceedings had been issued in early to mid-2013 which should have occurred. However, it is difficult to see how the outcome would have been much worse and the loss of a chance of a better conclusion must be reflected in any award that is made.
  2. This case appears to be at the upper end of the bracket that has been awarded in similar cases. The only aggravating feature which is not present in this case, which is present in the majority of other such cases, is the fact that I have found that the s.20 agreement is a valid one. I am not going to set out all of the possible comparators as they appear in the table in the Medway case but I would simply state that this case involves the longest period as well as a poor outcome which may not have been the case without the breaches. As a result due to all of the issues which have been highlighted I am satisfied that the children should be awarded the sum of £20,000 each for all of the breaches of their Article 6 and 8 rights.

 

 

In relation to the mother

 

The Mother’s Award

  1. The mother is in a different position as she did have the benefit of legal advice from June 2013 onwards and as a result would have been able to withdraw her consent at any time thereafter. This must be of significance in considering damages as the inordinate delay in this case is the most troubling aspect and that delay could have been stopped at any time by the simple act of instructing her solicitor to withdraw her consent.
  2. It is argued on behalf of the Local Authority that this feature is of such significance that it should mean that the mother would receive ‘just satisfaction’ by way of a declaration alone. However that ignores the other crucial factors in her case which include :
  3. i) The frequent requests for contact to her children which were simply ignored by West Sussex although there was no legal basis to do so;

ii) If proceedings had been issued the Local Authority would have been obliged pursuant to s.34 Children Act 1989 to promote such contact;

iii) The failure to properly assess the mother due to the fact that she had been fully assessed in the previous proceedings some five years earlier.

  1. It seems unlikely that the children would have been placed with their mother if the proceedings would have been commenced in a timeous fashion and as such there does not need to be any award for the loss of that chance. However, the same cannot be said in relation to contact as that may have been very different if addressed much earlier. The children are now stating that they will not see their mother but that was not the position when they first arrived at Gatwick in January 2013. This loss is even more significant now that each child has no contact whatsoever with any member of their family.
  2. In these circumstance the appropriate level of damages for the mother must be far lower than for the children and I assess the figure of £5,000 as the correct amount to compensate her for her Article 6 and (more significantly) Article 8 rights.

 

 

Looking at the chronology given in the judgment,  there was involvement with lawyers as early as 24th June 2013, which was still 2 years before proceedings were issued.

 

The Judge was very critical of the  Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO), who would have been holding Looked After Child Reviews at regular intervals during the 2 1/2 years of s20. He found that they, too, had been responsible for breaches of both the mother and the children’s human rights.

 

  1. The Independent Reviewing Officer failed to challenge the conduct of West Sussex and did not promote care proceedings. The functions of the IRO are set out within s.25 Children Act 1989 and they include monitoring the performance of the Local Authority of their functions in relation to the child’s case. In the case of A and S v Lancashire CC [2012] EWHC 1689 at para 168 it was submitted (and Jackson J did not demur) that the task of the IRO was to “monitor, persuade, cajole, encourage and criticise fellow professionals in the interest of the child”. Their roles are more fully set out within the “IRO Handbook” which provides the relevant statutory guidance. In the Lancashire Case it was found that the failures of the IRO amounted to a breach of the children’s rights.
  2. The actions of the IRO in this case are fully set out within the statement of Children’s Safeguarding Manager and which is referred to above, which concludes with a list of ‘Strengths’ and ‘Areas for Development’ and the latter included :
  3. i) “the Review minutes do not consistently contain sufficient specific evidence of IRO challenge, especially on issues in relation to progress towards permanence”

ii) “the decision specific to the permanence plan was not specific enough and did not contain any target dates”

iii) “would have expected more explicit detail in relation to the permanence plan of long term fostering and the need to seek legal advice”

  1. It does not seem to me that this adequately highlights the deficiencies of the IROs (there were two) in this case. There does not appear to be any note whatsoever of the IRO cajoling the Local Authority on timescales and this can be highlighted by two simple issues :
  2. i) There is a bald statement in the second review held in May 2013 that an SGO assessment is about to commence in relation to the paternal aunt. This is repeated in the fourth review in January 2014 which records that “an SGO assessment will be undertaken at the appropriate time”. It is noted at the fifth review in July 2014 that the paternal aunt still wished to have the children living with her under SGOs but the assessment is still not there some fourteen months after it was first raised. This is a simply appalling delay and does not seem to be criticised by the IRO – if there is not going to be criticism in such cases then one has to ask when would it ever occur?

ii) The IRO was aware in May 2013 that the mother wanted contact to the children but no decisions were made on this crucial point at the time. In September 2013 it was noted that indirect contact had happened and the next stage would be to consider re-introducing direct contact yet by the fourth review it is simply noted that they were “working towards direct contact”! The first face to face contact did not take place until February 2014, a full 13 months after the children had arrived in the UK with the mother saying that she wanted to see the children throughout and the eldest child, X, having said he would like to see his mother in February 2013. It is entirely possible that the contact would not have been successful (as has in fact occurred) but it must be the duty of the IRO to challenge this astonishing delay in attempting such contact in circumstances when the children had no involvement with any member of their birth family.

  1. The lack of urgency in the case is breath-taking and it is simply wrong to point out the failures of the IROs to force the issues as an “Area for Development”. It was a total failure to “monitor, persuade, cajole, encourage and criticise fellow professionals in the interest of the child” as they should have been doing. This was clearly a case that should have come before the courts years before it actually did yet the IRO did not appear to put any pressure upon the Local Authority to ensure that this occurred. There is power within s.25B(3) Children Act 1989 for an IRO to refer the case to CAFCASS if it is considered it was appropriate to do so. It is difficult to understand why such action should not have been carried out in this case in order to ensure that the welfare needs of these children were fully protected.
  2. It follows that the failures of the IRO were sufficient in this case to amount to a breach of the children’s and the mother’s rights to family life and a fair trial.

 

 

If I were a betting man, and I am, I would expect an increase in care proceedings issued when the September set of CAFCASS stats come out.  And the volume of care proceedings issued is already at an all-time high.

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And the office boy kicked the cat

You don’t often get law reports of Interim Care Order hearings, especially now that the senior Courts have finally stopped tinkering with the wording/putting a gloss on the statute / clarifying and refining the law. This one was a High Court decision, and the Judge (Keehan J) was investigating delay in issuing.

Big practice note for everyone – because this is High Court and we all need to follow it :-

 

The message must go out loud and clear that, save in the most exceptional and unusual of circumstances, local authorities must make applications for public law proceedings in respect of new born babies timeously and especially, where the circumstances arguably require the removal of the child from its parent(s), within at most 5 days of the child’s birth.

 

[If I may suggest – draft the bloody statement before the birth, and add to it, rather than start writing it after the baby is born. I know nobody wants to do that, just in case they win the lottery and are able to quit their job and avoid writing the statement, but seriously – have it ready in draft in advance. Babies have a nasty habit of arriving at a time that is least convenient]

 

Nottingham City Council v LW and Others 2016

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/11.html

You can get the tone of how this case is going to go from this very early paragraph.

A birth plan was prepared. It is not, however, worth the paper it is written on because, as it now transpires, it was ignored by everyone connected with the local authority

 

The mother had had a previous child who had been the subject of care proceedings. In fact, it looks as though those proceedings might have been ongoing into at least the late stages of pregnancy, because those proceedings were issued in May 2015. The judgment doesn’t say that the proceedings had actually ended by the time that the new baby was born in January 2016.  (It ought to have ended, on the 26 week rule, but to quote Neil Gaiman “Intent and outcome are rarely coincident”

 

 

  • The hospital, where LW was born on 16 January, notified the social workers of her birth on Monday 18 January.
  • It then took the social workers until 21 January to place the papers before the local authority’s solicitors for consideration of the issue of care proceedings. It took a local authority solicitor until 28 January to issue care proceedings and to apply for an ‘urgent’ interim care order.
  • The local authority’s application, interim threshold criteria and social work statements in support were not served on the parents’ respective solicitors nor on the children’s guardian and her solicitor until about 12.30pm on 28 January. The case was called on before me at 3pm, there being no justices, district judge or circuit judge available to hear the matter at such short notice.

 

It is hard to see an excuse for a hearing taking place in a rush on 2 1/2 hours notice when the baby had actually been born 12 days earlier.

It is not therefore a shock that the Judge wanted to hear from the Director of Children’s Services and the Head of the Legal Department as to why this had happened.  [For my part, I can’t say I’m happy that the legal department tried to throw one of the secretaries under the bus. I would NEVER EVER do that to any of the hard working people in my office who do so much to make things run smoothly and well.]

 

 

The Director of Children’s Services said this:-

 

 

“….I would like to offer my sincere apologies to the court for the delay in issuing proceedings. I understand this caused a number of challenges for those responsible for allocating court time and to all the parties involved who represent the parents and others involved in this case.

In this particular case, I understand however that there had been ongoing communication with the parties legal representatives about the Local Authority’s intention to issue proceedings.

I believe all parties worked on the premise that issuing should take place once all the paperwork including statements from health colleagues had been submitted and the social worker statement had been amended to include the new information from the hospital in relation to father’s alleged overdose, the withdrawal symptoms of baby and the anonymous referral received following LW’s birth. This contributed to the delay in issuing.

I fully accept that the ideal course of action would have been to issue proceedings as soon as possible after the first working day following the birth, namely the 18th January and the Local Authority could have filed a statement making it explicit that further information had come to light which required immediate investigation and seek the court’s permission to submit an updated statement once these investigations had taken place. Again, the social worker statement could have included information reported by health colleagues, making it clear that health colleagues would be required to submit statements as soon as possible following the lodging of the care application.

Furthermore, the Local Authority will ensure that team secure emails are checked on a frequent basis by the team’s Business Support Officer or the team’s duty social worker so they can alert managers when important documents have been received. This will prevent documents “sitting in the inbox” when social workers/ case holders are absent from work due to sickness or annual leave.

Again, please accept my apologies for this delay. The staff involved in this matter take their roles very seriously and did work hard to produce all the materials required by the court, as expeditiously as possible. However, we have all learnt from this experience and will ensure that issuing is done in a timely manner. The staff involved also offer their sincere apologies for the delay and did not wish to cause the court and parties any offence. They were working hard to gather all the necessary evidence and ensure all parties had full and up to date records of recent events. Again the team recognises the need to issue proceedings as soon as possible following the birth of the baby and will ensure this message is shared across their team…..

….LW’s half-brother is currently subject to care proceedings on the basis of concerns arising from domestic violence. The pre-birth assessment of LW concluded that the risks remained as the mother had not changed or accepted the concerns, but instead minimised the domestic abuse and impact this would have on her as yet unborn child’s development and safety.

A Legal Planning meeting was held on the 16th December 2015 chaired by a Children’s Social care service Manager with legal advice and support from the Team leader of the Local Authority’s Children and Adults Legal Team. The decision to issue proceedings was then ratified by me as Head of Service for Children’s Social Care.

It would be usual practice to issue proceedings on the day of birth and I have investigated this matter to try and ascertain why in this case, proceedings were not issued until the 27th January, 8 working days following LW’s birth. I met with the Team Manager, SD, and her covering Service Manager on Friday 29th January and with the Children and Adults Legal Team Leader on Monday 1st February in order to review events and determine reasons for this delay. I set out below the key events as they unfolded and which contributed to the delay in issuing proceedings….”

It isn’t great that the social work team took five days (less working days, obviously) to produce their statement, given that all concerned knew that the intention was to issue proceedings and that a baby would be born in January. Having said that though, having the statement ready on 21st January would still have allowed for a hearing on notice, and the delay of seven days to get the application issued once the statement was prepared is hard to understand.   [The longest and toughest part of issuing an application is of course the social worker writing the statement. The actual application is a horrible soul-crushing bout of tedium, but it really doesn’t take that long. In one dreadful day in December, I did three of these in a morning]

So what did the legal department have to say?  Well, as indicated earlier, they threw the lowest paid person in the room under the bus.

“On 19th January 2016, Legal Services were updated by the social worker following her hospital visit to see mother, father and the baby. The social worker advised there had also been an anonymous referral to the hospital made the previous evening stating that the mother had used opiates throughout her pregnancy. The hospital had also expressed concerns about the baby’s health and they would be undertaking a Rivers chart assessment as they were concerned the baby was experience withdrawal symptoms. I refer to the statement of TN for an explanation regarding what the Rivers Chart assessment is.

In light of the recent information, the social worker needed to update her statement and this was sent to Legal Services on 21st January 2016. By this point there were and had been some difficulties between the social worker and hospital in obtaining medical information regarding LW’s withdrawal and also the father’s overdose. Legal services confirmed that they would assist in seeking this information from the hospital.

On Friday 22 January the hospital emailed over a midwife’s report to the social worker’s team secure email. Unfortunately as the social worker was off sick on Monday 25th January, this statement was not picked up by the social worker until Tuesday 26th January, when it was forwarded on to Legal Services. Unfortunately the allocated solicitor was not in work on the 26th as she works part-time so the first that the solicitor saw of both the midwife’s report and the final paperwork from the Social Worker (the chronology) was on Wednesday 27th January, when the matter was issued. As the hospital was not pressing for discharge until the end of the week the Court were notified with the application that the matter could wait until Friday 29th January for listing if that would assist the Court…..

…the final updated social worker documents were received by Legal on 26th January and the case was issued with the court during the afternoon of 27th January and the court was advised that a hearing the following day was not necessarily needed and the matter could wait until the day afterwards, namely Friday 29 January if that would assist the Court. In the meantime the hospital emailed over further health evidence, a second midwife report and chronology, once again to the chronology, once again to the social worker until the morning of 28th January and then passed on to Legal Services.

The court duly issued the matter during the afternoon of 27th January and listed the case to be heard before a District Judge at 2pm on Thursday 28th January2016. The allocated solicitor left instructions with the team legal secretary to inform CAFCASS and also provide them with copies of the local authority application and also to counsel who would be representing the Local Authority on 28th January.

Unfortunately, the team secretary did not file and serve the Local Authority’s application on the Parent’s solicitors at the same time. I apologise on behalf of the Local Authority for their regrettable oversight. To give this error some context, due to an unexpected absence and vacancies within the secretarial team, the secretary was working on her own that day in a secretarial team which usually consists of four secretaries and was inundated with work. She is very sorry for the problems her oversight caused.

It is also further regrettable that it was not noted that the parents’ solicitors had not been served with the Local Authority’s application until late in the morning on 28th January. It was immediately rectified but unfortunately this was less than two hours before the hearing. Once again I apologise on behalf of the Local Authority for this delay. The Local Authority has been made fully aware of the dissatisfaction expressed by Mr Justice Keehan who heard the matter on 28th January and has not taken this matter lightly. There has been a full review into the circumstances surrounding the issue of this matter both by legal Services and also Children’s Services.

It is accepted that there has been a delay in the issuing of this matter and no disrespect was intended to the court and parties. It is hoped by providing a chronology in respect of what has happened in the conduct of the matter since the birth of LW that Mr Justice Keehan and the court can be reassured that this matter was continually worked and as a result of the critical new information and concerns around events that took place around the birth of LW involving the father’s suspected overdose and also the anonymous referral that the mother possibly had been using opiates through pregnancy that such concerns had to be rigorously investigated and also further evidence adduced in order for the Local Authority to rely on this, particularly, as the Local Authority’s Care Plan was to seek an Interim Care Order with removal of LW from her parents’ care.

In addition, the Parties solicitors were updated as regards progress with the matter. Sadly for LW the hospital had concerns that she maybe experiencing withdrawal symptoms and the hospital were obviously keen to keep her in hospital for monitoring. LW also suffered a seizure on 25th January. Therefore, any delay in the matter being heard before the court had thankfully not caused any inconvenience to the hospital.

Nevertheless in reviewing this matter I accept that should this scenario happen again in the future the appropriate course of action would be for the matter to be issued at the earliest possible opportunity following the baby’s birth. There would then be liaison with the court around further evidence being sought by the Local Authority to assist the court as to how urgently the matter needed to be listed, particularly as in this scenario the Local Authority were seeking an interim Care Order and removal which was and is still to be contested by the parents. The Team Leader for the Children and Adults legal team will ensure that the team is fully aware of the need to take this approach in future cases….”

Hmmm. I’m struggling with the Judge’s opening summary, where he says that the social work documents were with legal by 21st January, because the legal chronology here says 26th January.

The Judge accepted the apologies, but still felt that there was some egregiously poor practice here – and indicated that as there were some failings here which were not unique to this authority but things that happened too often in cases, it was worth highlighting them. In particular, he was concerned at the practice of delaying issuing an Interim Care Order application because a hospital was willing to keep a child for a longer period than would usually take place.  (It is fairly usual to seek an ICO in 4 or 5 days after birth, to allow the notice period and the hospital be asked to keep mother and baby together in the hospital with mother’s agreement.  The Court can’t always accommodate that, and this is particularly an issue where those 4 or 5 days would encompass a weekend, or worst still a Bank Holiday weekend)

I also note that having accepted the Local Authority apologies, the Judge did still take them to task for being a serial offender in late applications, and also ordered them to pay the costs.

[I can’t help but note that Keehan J was a lot harder on this authority than he was on the one in last week’s case who sought an injunction effectively labelling a man as a sexual exploiter of children having got the wrong man…]

Local Authority – Failings and Poor Practice

 

  • In my experience the errors made in this case are not an isolated example nor is the factual matrix of this case either unique nor even exceptional: on the contrary this case is fairly typical of the type of case in which local authorities propose or plan to seek the removal of a baby at birth. Thus, what principally concerns me is that such fundamental and egregious errors should be made in, what may colloquially be termed, ‘a run of the mill case’. In paragraph33 below, I consider what steps should be taken by a local authority when it plans to seek the removal of an unborn child immediately or shortly after his/her birth.
  • Before I do so, I wish to make certain observations on the flawed approach apparently endorsed by both the senior children’s services manager and the local authority’s senior lawyer in this case. First, both made reference to the willingness of the hospital to keep the baby as an in patient pending the issue of care proceedings. Plainly the period of time for which a hospital is prepared to keep a new born baby as an in-patient, either on medical or welfare grounds, maybe a material consideration for a local authority on the timing of the making of an application for an interim care order, but must not place too great a reliance on these indications or assurances. The fact that a hospital is prepared to keep a baby as an in-patient is not a reason to delay making an application for an interim care order. The following should always be borne in mind:

 

a) a hospital may not detain a baby in hospital against the wishes of the mother or a father with parental responsibility;

b) the capability of a maternity unit or a hospital to accommodate a healthy new born child may change within hours, whatever the good intentions of the unit or hospital, depending upon the challenging demands it may be presented with;

c) the ability to invite the police to exercise a Police Protection Order, pursuant to s 48 of the 1989 Act or for a local authority to apply for an Emergency Protection Order, pursuant to s.36 of the 1989, are, of course, available as emergency remedies,

d) but such procedures do not afford the parents nor, most importantly, the child, with the degree of participation, representation and protection as an on notice interim care order application;

e) the indication of a maternity unit as to the date of discharge of a new born baby should never, save in the most extraordinary of circumstances, set or lead the time for an application for an interim care order in respect of a new born child.

 

  • Second, where the pre birth plan provides for an application to be made for the removal of a child at or shortly after birth, it is neither “usual” nor “ideal” practice for an application for an interim care order to be made on the day of the child’s birth, rather it is essential and best practice for this to occur.
  • Third, once it is determined by a local authority that sufficient evidence is available to make an application for an interim care order, on the basis of the removal of a new born child, the availability of additional evidence from the maternity unit or elsewhere, must not then cause a delay in the issue of care proceedings; the provision of additional evidence may be envisaged in the application and/or provided subsequently.
  • The local authority should have adopted good practice and the following basic, but fundamental, steps should have been taken:

 

a) The birth plan should have been rigorously adhered to by all social work practitioners and managers and by the local authority’s legal department;

b) A risk assessment of the mother and the father should have been commenced immediately upon the social workers being made aware of the mother’s pregnancy. The assessment should have been completed at least 4 weeks before the mother’s expected date for delivery. The assessment should then have been updated to take account of relevant events immediately pre and post delivery which could potentially affect the initial conclusions on risk and care planning for the unborn child;

c) The assessment should have been disclosed, forthwith upon initial completion, to the parents and, if instructed, to their solicitors to give them an opportunity, if necessary, to challenge the assessment of risk and the proposed care plan;

d) The social work team should have provided all relevant documentation, necessary for the legal department to issue care proceedings and the application for an interim care order, no less than 7 days before the expected date of delivery. The legal department must issue the application on the day of birth and, in any event, no later than 24 hours after birth (or as the case may be, the date on which the local authority is notified of the birth);

e) Immediately upon issue, if not before, the local authority’s solicitors should have served the applications and supporting documents on the parents and, if instructed, upon their respective solicitors.

f) Immediately upon issue, the local authority should have sought from the court an initial hearing date, on the best time estimate that its solicitors could have provided.

 

  • If these steps had been followed in this case, unnecessary delay and procedural unfairness would have been avoided.

 

Conclusions

 

  • The local authority was inexcusably late in making an application for an interim care order. The consequences of this contumelious failure were that:

 

i) The parents’ legal representatives were served with the application and supporting, albeit deficient, documentation only some 2-3 hours before the hearing;

ii) The court was unable to accommodate a 1 day contested hearing for an interim care order before a circuit judge, a recorder or a district judge until some days hence;

iii) The parents legitimately wished to have a fully contested interim hearing with the benefit of oral evidence to cross examine the social worker and the guardian and to enable the parents to give oral evidence;

iv) The hospital was ready to discharge the child and, for wholly understandable reasons was unwilling and unable to care for the baby for a further prolonged period;

v) The stance of the hospital and the principal, but unchallenged, evidence of the local authority was that the baby would be at risk of suffering significant harm if she were discharged into the care of either the mother and/or the father;

vi) Accordingly and acting in the best welfare interests of the baby, as advised by the children’s guardian, the court had no choice but to make an interim care order in favour of the local authority on the basis of a plan to place the baby with foster carers; but

vii) On the basis that the local authority, at whatever cost and inconvenience to itself, would arrange contact to take place five times per week between the child and her parents.

 

  • I am in no doubt that the parents in this case have been done a great dis-service by this local authority. It may well be that the outcome would have been the same whatever the length of notice that they and their respective legal advisors had had of this application; that is not the point. It is all a question of perceived and procedural fairness.
  • The actions of this local authority, in issuing an application for an interim care order so late in the day, have resulted in an initial hearing before the court which, I very much regret, is procedurally unfair to the parents. Of equal importance, it is unfair to the children’s guardian who was only appointed on the morning of the issue of this application. The fault for this unfairness lies squarely at the door of this local authority.
  • I am in no doubt that if this application for an interim care order had been issued timeously by the local authority then the hearing before me on 28 January 2016 could have been an effective contested hearing.
  • In the premises I have no hesitation in concluding that the costs of this abortive hearing should be borne by the local authority. Accordingly I shall order the local authority to pay the costs of all of the respondents to be assessed if not agreed.
  • This local authority is, I am told and accept, a ‘serial offender’ in issuing late and ‘urgent’ applications for care proceedings and/or interim care orders in respect of new born babies. Save in respect of clandestine pregnancies and/or births, I simply do not understand why this local authority issues proceedings so late and so urgently. In this case it was a most spectacular and contumelious failure.
  • The message must go out loud and clear that, save in the most exceptional and unusual of circumstances, local authorities must make applications for public law proceedings in respect of new born babies timeously and especially, where the circumstances arguably require the removal of the child from its parent(s), within at most 5 days of the child’s birth.
  • Given that in the vast majority of cases a local authority will be actively involved with the family and/or aware of the pregnancy and the estimated date of delivery, I cannot conceive how such a requirement places an unreasonable and/or disproportionate duty upon a local authority. Further it is likely that a local authority’s failure to act fairly and/or timeously will be condemned in an order for costs.
  • In this case the local authority wholly and unreasonably failed the child, her parents and the children’s guardian.

 

 

Judge describes police investigation as “cack-handed”

 

The High Court  (Justice Peter Jackson) has just published a judgment (one that was actually delivered a year ago) which has some significant lessons for practitioners.

Wigan Council v M and Others 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/6.html

 

The opening is as clear and cogent a distillation of the pernicious nature of sexual abuse that I’ve ever seen.

 

  • The perpetrators of sexual abuse are inadequate individuals who control weaker people, often children, for their own gratification. Their behaviour is always an abuse of power and usually a breach of trust. They destroy families and blight childhoods. They create dread in their victims by convincing them that the consequences of speaking out will be worse than the consequences of silence. They create guilt in their victims by persuading them that they have somehow willingly participated in their own abuse. They burden their victims with secrets. They poison normal relationships, trade on feelings of affection, drive a wedge between their victims and others, and make family and friends take sides. They count on the failure or inability of responsible adults, both relatives and professionals, to protect and support the victims. Faced with exposure, they commonly turn on their victims, try to assassinate their characters, and get others to do the same. Most often, their selfishness is so deep-rooted that they ignore other people’s feelings and are only capable of feeling pity for themselves.
  • The effects of sexual abuse on the victim can be lifelong, but because of the way perpetrators operate, most abuse goes undetected. It takes courage to ask for help. Victims are beset by feelings of shame, guilt and fear. They should be able to have confidence that their accounts will be adequately investigated and that they will be appropriately supported. Instead, experience shows that the abuse is often compounded by sceptical or inadequate reactions within the family and beyond. It is not always possible to establish where the truth lies, but where it is possible to investigate, there must be a good reason not to do so. The position of a complainant whose allegation is described as ‘unsubstantiated’ is extraordinarily difficult, but sometimes ‘unsubstantiated’ is no more than a euphemism for ‘uninvestigated’.

 

In this particular case, G was 15 years old and made very serious allegations of sexual abuse against her step-father, Mr C.  Although these were reported to the police and social workers, what actually happened was that G was removed from the family home and Mr C remained there with other children, who we now sadly know he went on to abuse.  Dreadfully, one of the siblings that had been abused, B, had been very outspoken during the investigation into G’s allegations that G was lying.

 

 

  • In this case, a 15-year-old girl (who I will call G) told the police and social services that she had been subject to years of gross sexual and physical abuse by her stepfather, who I will call Mr C. Having done this, she was promptly banished from the family home by her mother and forbidden from having any contact with her four younger siblings. She then found a home with a kindly neighbour who looked after her for a year, largely at her own expense. Although the investigating police officer and the girl’s social worker regarded her allegation as credible, she was treated as a child in need and no child protection procedures were invoked; instead, after five months’ absence, it was Mr C who returned to the family home, while G herself remained outside the family. It might well be asked: what was in it for this young person to confide in the authorities if these were to be the consequences?
  • Two months after Mr C’s return, the second child in the family, a now 15-year-old boy who I will call B, told the police and social services that he too had been the victim of exactly the same kind of sexual and physical abuse (though during the earlier investigation he had denied it). He now corroborated his sister’s account and added that Mr C had also made him engage in extreme sexual activity with her, something she then confirmed. High among the distressing aspects of the matter, B described how the abuse continued after Mr C was allowed back into the home.

 

I won’t go into the details of what happened to the children, because it is too distressing and unpalatable for most readers. The judgment is very clear as to why the children’s allegations were true and why Mr C had been proven to have done these dreadful things, and of the failures of the mother to react properly (though she did accept by the time of the hearing that Mr C had abused the children).

Instead, I’ll focus on some of the issues that the Judge identified as failings in the investigative process.

 

 

After the ABE and medical examination of G  (she having alleged that C had been abusing her physically and sexually in unspeakable ways)

 

 

  • On 4 October, a Child and Family Assessment undertaken by the social worker, Ms W, concluded with the decision that the family would be supported via a Child In Need Plan pending the outcome of the police investigation. As part of the assessment G was spoken to, as were the other children. G said that she felt happy and safe living with Mrs D. B said that there was no truth in G’s allegations. The younger children were also spoken to and at a series of meetings work was done to understand their wishes and feelings and to give them keep-safe work.
  • During this period, B wrote a number of fulsome tributes about and to Mr C: for example “I love you more than the world”. In answer to a question “What is the worst thing about my family?”, he wrote “Nothing. Having [G] near him [Mr C] makes me feel uncomfortable in case she says anything else in relation to rumours/allegations about any of my family.” At the same time, B told the social workers that G was a liar and that she was “sick in the head and needs to see a doctor.”
  • The mother told the social workers that G was a liar. She flatly denied that G had told her that Mr C was sexually abusing her or that she had ever seen him hit any of the children.
  • During the preparation of the local authority’s assessment, a meeting took place on 3 October, attended by the mother and by G and B. G was confronted by her mother and brother calling her a liar, while she insisted that she had told the truth. She was very distressed.
  • On 5 November, the police concluded their investigation and determined that no further action would be taken. They did not refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service. Mr C’s bail conditions were rescinded and he gradually returned to live with the mother and the younger four children in December after the keep-safe work had been completed.
  • On 20 December, the local authority closed the case. It referred G to its lowest level of support: Gateway Services. She was not even considered to be a child in need.

 

It is almost impossible to read this and not conclude that a decision had been taken that G was a liar and had made up the allegations, which awfully we now know not to be the case. She was telling the truth and if she had been believed, her siblings could have escaped further abuse and harm.

 

It was only really when B made serious allegations of the same sort, and importantly that some photographic evidence was found, that things actually moved forward.

Amazingly, it was not until 13 March 2014 — some nine months after G’s initial allegations — that the local authority lawyers were consulted. Even then, it took another eight weeks for proceedings to be started. There were then a large number of case management hearings, largely directed to extracting information from the police. I agree with the conclusion reached by the local authority and the officer in the case that there should have been an early meeting between the local authority lawyers and the police so that the latter’s files could be inspected. As it was, police disclosure was still arriving on the eve of the hearing.

 

 

These conclusions are tragic and also contain some recommendations as to best practice.

 

 

  • (4) Despite clear warning signs, the statutory agencies did not protect these children. Further significant harm thereby came to G by being excluded from the home and to B by remaining there.
  • The following is a non-exclusive list of the practice issues raised by the evidence:

 

(i) The actions of the police in August 2011 and on 1 June 2013 can only be described as cack-handed. By twice being confronted unexpectedly in the presence of the adults, G was effectively dropped in it. Instead of protecting her, these actions made her situation at home even worse and made it even harder for her to speak about what was happening to her.(ii) Against a background of chronic concerns and previous sexual abuse allegations, the social work assessment of the allegations that G made in July 2013 was superficial and inadequate. As a result, the decision to treat these children as children in need, and subsequently to downgrade their status even further, was plainly wrong. There was no risk assessment whatever. There was no analysis of the issues, merely a recital of facts with no conclusions being drawn – see C270. There was no thinking. There was clear evidence in the form of G’s allegations and the family’s striking response that demanded the invocation of child protection procedures. Instead, G’s emotional needs were forgotten while Mr C returned to the home and in the mother’s telling words “everything settled down”. Had a Child Protection Case Conference been called, it would have been an opportunity for an experienced multidisciplinary assessment of this abnormal situation. Proper consideration could have been given to the real needs of this sibling group. G’s anomalous situation in living without contact with her family in an unregulated private fostering arrangement could have been improved. B could have been protected.

(iii) It is disturbing to consider G’s situation at meetings such as the one that took place on 3 October 2013, where she was made to face the hostility of her family. It is no wonder that she was so distressed.

(iv) It is entirely unsatisfactory that no social worker viewed any of the ABE interviews until October 2014. It is a serious imposition on children to record them speaking about such sensitive matters. The least that they can expect is that their social worker will watch and listen to what they have had to say. If crucial evidence of this kind is not absorbed, it is not surprising if misjudgments follow.

(v) The social workers should certainly have asked for legal advice in 2013, well before the case was closed.

(vi) Although Ms H became the children’s social worker back in October 2013, I am in no way critical of the way that she has carried out her responsibilities. This demanding case was the first to be allocated to her as a newly qualified social worker. She was entitled to rely on her manager for supervision and guidance. The local authority has had the opportunity to present evidence showing what that amounted to, but it has not done so. Having heard Ms H give evidence, the first time that she has done so in any case, I was impressed by her grasp of the issues and her willingness to learn from experience. She inherited a case that had already taken the wrong path and she is not personally or professionally responsible for the consequences.