The case of Re N (Children) 2015, http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B98.html involves a private law case with 3 children, aged 11, 9 and 6. Her Honour Judge Atkinson had to deal with a novel and delicate point of law on an appeal.
The children all live with their mother, and the dispute has been about the time that they spend (or do not spend) with their father.
In this case, the mother made a series of very serious allegations against the father, of physical abuse. The father faced criminal trial for these and was acquitted. the mother then sought findings against him in the family court proceedings. That was complicated by the last minute addition of a rape allegation.
In any event, the District Judge who heard the case dismissed all but one of the allegations, which he found was proved in part. The finding that was made would not have been a barrier to contact, and really contact should have resumed.
However, mother then appealed that decision, and the appeal was unsuccessful.
She then made a subsequent appeal, and it is that subsquent appeal that gives the case its novelty. I am not naming the DJ here – it is in the linked judgment if people want to see it, but I took a call that the interest in the case is in the legal issue rather than any naming and shaming of the DJ himself.
- On 17th March 2015 District Judge B was removed from judicial office following an investigation into an allegation that he had viewed pornographic material on judicial IT equipment in his office. The material did not include images of children or any other illegal content. However, this was considered to be an inexcusable misuse of his judicial IT account and “wholly unacceptable conduct for a judicial office holder”.
- On 18th March, together with an enquiry as to the progress of their application for an oral hearing, solicitors acting for the mother wrote to the court lodging a fresh ground of appeal based on the fact of DJ B’s dismissal and its apparent association with sexual matters. Ground 10 argued his lack of judgment, as demonstrated by his dismissal, and argued that the pornography added a sexual element to that lack of judgment directly relevant to the issues that he had tried in this case.
The case got still more complicated, because at the appeal, mother sought to withdraw the appeal – not because she accepted DJ B’s findings but because she had realised that there was a finite pot of money for her legal representation and if she went ahead with the appeal there would be little or none left for the remainder of the proceedings. (Grounds 1-9 here were the ones that had previously been rejected in the previous appeal, ground 10 was the “as the Judge has been sacked for viewing pornography, his judgment is questionable and he was not someone who ought to have been dealing with sexual allegations” angle)
- So it was that on 11th June 2015, 6 months on from the decision made by DJ B that there was no evidential basis for the assertion that this father has been the perpetrator of violence or sexual abuse against the mother or violence against the children, the mother’s appeal was listed before me to hear. On the day before the hearing the mother’s representatives contacted the court and the father’s representatives stating that she intended to withdraw her application for permission. They asked for the case to be vacated and directions made to enable the matter to proceed as directed by DJ B. The father’s team, shocked by the sudden turn of events refused to agree the vacation of the hearing and the parties nevertheless appeared before me.
- I note that the mother does not retract these allegations. Nor does she state that she is accepting of the findings made. Her main motivation in withdrawing from the appeal is cost – not that she will be saddled with a bill of costs but rather, she risks not having enough left in her publicly funded pot to continue to be represented after the appeal has been concluded. A secondary consideration was, it would seem, the “welfare of the children” and the impact upon them of this continuing litigation. Unsurprisingly, the father expressed his concern that if given simple permission to withdraw her appeal then these allegations would almost certainly surface to be litigated again in some form or other.
- Accordingly, although I have decided to give permission for the mother to withdraw her application for an oral hearing in relation to Grounds 1-9, I have decided to do so only after I have made a decision on Ground 10 effectively as I would have done on the papers. By this means there will have been a merits based decision recorded on each of the Grounds.
That, I think, was a good call. It would otherwise have always been hanging over the case. In case anybody else is envisaging an appeal on similar grounds to Ground 10, this might pour some cold water on it
- Ground 10
- I turn now to the additional Ground which reads as follows: “the decision of the DJ in this matter related to various matters of a sexual nature…
it demonstrates the poor exercise of Judgment in relation to matters of a sexual nature…it demonstrates poor exercise of judgment more generally…justice has to be seen to be done and the public would have no confidence in this DJ dealing with a matter of a sexual nature”
- The skeleton argument develops two arguments between paragraphs 88 and 93:
a. The removal of the District Judge from office demonstrates that he had conducted himself in a manner inconsistent with the high standards of judicial office expected of the judiciary and shows a lack of judgment which is undermining of his decision making generally;
b. The sexual nature of the behaviour leading to dismissal demonstrates that his judgment in “matters of a sexual nature has been found to be impaired” and the public cannot be expected to have confidence in his decision making as a result.
- I give permission to appeal only if I consider that there is a real prospect of success or there is another compelling reason why the appeal should be heard. To succeed on the substantive appeal the mother will need to show that the DJ was wrong or that the decision is unjust by reason of some other serious procedural or other irregularity in the proceedings.
- I have now read all of the papers lodged in what was to be an oral application for permission. I have not heard oral argument and so the decision which follows is effectively made on the papers but on a considerable body of paper. I am quite satisfied that the appeal on Ground 10 has no reasonable prospect of success and indeed I consider it to be without merit. I will explain why.
- The lack of judgment arguably demonstrated by the District Judge through misconduct in his office does not necessarily infect all areas in which he has to exercise Judgment. District Judge B was dismissed because of inappropriate use of judicial IT. It does not follow that he has thereby demonstrated himself incapable of making a proper judicial decision. If it did it would mean all of his decisions would be null and void following his dismissal. That simply is not right.
- The argument does not become different or stronger simply because his misuse of judicial IT involved the watching of pornography. In the first place it is important to note that he was not dismissed for viewing pornography. In any event, the viewing of pornography does not of itself suggest that he would have disbelieved an allegation of rape. It does not suggest that his approach to the sexual element in this case would be in any way skewed or biased. Had he been viewing such material in the privacy of his own home that would not have rendered him unable to make a determination in the case.
- The best way to determine whether District Judge B carried out a proper judicial exercise of discretion is by examining the detail of his Judgment. I have done just that and the transcript reveals a Judgment that is in my assessment beyond complaint. It contains all necessary directions on the law. It gives full and detailed reasons as to why he found the evidence of the mother lacking and why she failed to establish her case to the appropriate standard. As I have already rehearsed, the mother has been unable on the papers (in spite of the numerous and voluminous skeleton arguments in support of her appeal) to establish any basis for criticism.
- Accordingly, I find there is no basis for the granting of permission in relation to Ground 10.
Where you might, I suppose, have stronger grounds for appeal is for example if the decision-maker in an Employment case where the allegation against the employee was illicit use of IT for this purpose and the decision-maker had found in favour of the employee (where you’d be wondering whether the decision was a ‘kindred spirit’ / ‘there but for the grace of God’ scenario)
[It does occur to me that if you are a Judge doing nothing but private law conflicts, where you are just hearing people say “no” all the time, one can perhaps see why DJ B wanted to just listen to people saying “yes yes yes oh yes” once in a while]
There’s a rather sad postscript to the judgment
- Finally, the mother at this hearing indicated her desire to move on from these matters and look forward. She expressed a willingness to be guided by professionals. I was encouraged by that until it became clear that the professionals that she has put her trust in are currently limited to Norfolk County Council, specifically the author of the s.37 report, who has advised against face to face contact between the children and their father with no clear plan as to how this situation can be improved.
- It was made clear at the hearing that the Guardian may not be of the same view. Disappointingly, it was far from clear that if that be the case this mother will be accepting of the Guardian’s advice. I felt it necessary to record this position as a post script to this Judgment.
- The court has determined that there is no evidential basis for the allegations made against the father by the mother. He has been through two Crown Court trials and one trial of the facts in the family court. Six months have been wasted on an unmeritorious appeal. Meanwhile these children have not seen their father now since November 2011. If the mother’s concern is for the welfare of her children as she has insisted then going forward she will have as her aim how she can best assist these children in re-establishing their relationship with their father