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Laying down a marker – the Court of Appeal speaks on analysis of welfare checklist

As regular readers will know, we had been anticipating the Court of Appeal in Re B S  to deal with issues of how appellant Courts were to tackle appeals in the light of the changes to the tests highlighted by the Supreme Court in Re B.

We hadn’t necessarily anticipated that the Court of Appeal would get under the bonnet of this issue before then, but to an extent, they have, in Re G (A child) 2013. The case really delves very carefully into an often overlooked aspect of the judicial decision-making – the welfare checklist.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/965.html

The facts of the original case , determined by a District Judge (which was appealed, and then that appeal decision appealed to the Court of Appeal) aren’t really that important.

What is important is the Court of Appeal’s clear guidance as to how Judges in care proceedings are to tackle the task.

In broad terms, this is the order of events

  1. The Court must establish the facts and particularly to make findings on any relevant facts or disputed facts
  2. The Court must then evaluate whether on the basis of those facts, the section 31 threshold is crossed
  3. The Court should then apply the welfare checklist to the circumstances of the case
  4. If the case involves a plan of adoption, the Court should also apply the welfare checklist as set out in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 to the circumstances of the case
  5. The Court should then consider proportionality when determining what order to make, and in an adoption case must specifically address the formulation set down by the Supreme Court in Re B  (in essence that ‘nothing else will do’

Nothing within that sequence of events is at all controversial or new. What might be new is the Court of Appeal’s focus on the welfare checklist and how that exercise must be approached judicially, and by any appellant Court looking at whether the exercise was approached.

In particular whether the approach of dealing with the welfare checklist in a linear way – by looking at the merits of the parents case against the welfare checklist and then only at point (g) range of powers available to the Court mapping out the pros and cons of the various options, is in fact the wrong way to go about things.

  1. The wording of certain elements of the welfare checklist must, I would suggest, involve a direct comparison of the relevant options that are being considered, for example:

(c) the likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances;

(e) any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering;

(f) how capable each of his parents, and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting his needs.

  1. Under s 1(3)(c), consideration of the effect of any change in the child’s circumstances must involve considering, in the present case, not just the prospect of returning to the mother’s care but must include consideration of the effects, positive and negative, of placement in long-term foster care. Under s 1(3)(e), consideration of the risk of harm obviously will include the potential for future harm from parental care, but must also require evaluation of any risk of harm from the alternative option provided by ‘any other person’, namely the local authority as corporate parent, for example emotional harm as a result of long-term separation of a child from his parent. Under s 1(3)(f), when considering how capable ‘each of his parents, and any other person’ are to meet the child’s needs, again I would suggest that, alongside consideration of the parent’s capacity, there is a need to look at the strengths and detriments in the local authority’s capacity to meet his needs through long-term fostering.

 

What the Court of Appeal are saying here is that the Court must not simply look at the case for the child remaining with the parent, analyse this, and then if determining that this is not possible, move on to considering what type of order would be appropriate.  The Court cannot properly decide whether the child should be with a parent based on the pluses and minuses of THAT option, but must weigh into the balance the pluses and minuses of the OTHER options.

It is not, as they say, a linear exercise, but one of laying out the various options and comparing them alongside one another. When considering, for example, the ‘capacity of the parent or any other person to meet his needs’ the Court must not only look at what the parent could offer under no order or a Supervision Order, but what the Local Authority could offer (including any deficiencies) under a Care Order or Placement Order.

The structure of the welfare checklist, culminating as it does with the “range of powers available to the Court” seems to tempt the Court into approaching that comparison of the various orders only at that stage, but this would be the wrong approach.

They develop this further – underlining mine

  1. In most child care cases a choice will fall to be made between two or more options. The judicial exercise should not be a linear process whereby each option, other than the most draconian, is looked at in isolation and then rejected because of internal deficits that may be identified, with the result that, at the end of the line, the only option left standing is the most draconian and that is therefore chosen without any particular consideration of whether there are internal deficits within that option.
  1. The linear approach, in my view, is not apt where the judicial task is to undertake a global, holistic evaluation of each of the options available for the child’s future upbringing before deciding which of those options best meets the duty to afford paramount consideration to the child’s welfare.
  1. One only has to take an extreme example of the effect of linear consideration to see the potential danger for this approach. The linear model proceeds by evaluating and then eliminating each individual option in turn before selecting the option at the end of the line, without evaluation of its own internal merits or de-merits, simply on the basis that it is the only remaining outcome. Much therefore depends on which end of the line the selector starts the process. Conventionally those judges who deploy a linear approach start, for understandable reasons, with the option of rehabilitation to a parent and end with the option of a care or adoption order. If, however, for the purposes of observing the dangers in the process, one were to start at the other end of the line and look at long-term foster care or adoption first, and were then to rule that out on the basis that there are risks and negatives attaching to it, the linear approach would soon arrive at ‘rehabilitation to a parent’ as the only remaining option and select that without any consideration of whether that is in fact the best outcome for the child. All would agree that such an approach would be untenable. I hope, however, that this example demonstrates how inappropriate the linear model is for a judge who is tasked with undertaking a multi-faceted evaluation of a child’s welfare at the end of which one of a range of options has to be chosen.

And later

  1. A further concern about the linear model is that a process which acknowledges that long-term public care, and in particular adoption contrary to the will of a parent, is ‘the most draconian option’, yet does not engage with the very detail of that option which renders it ‘draconian’ cannot be a full or effective process of evaluation. Since the phrase was first coined some years ago, judges now routinely make reference to the ‘draconian’ nature of permanent separation of parent and child and they frequently do so in the context of reference to ‘proportionality’. Such descriptions are, of course, appropriate and correct, but there is a danger that these phrases may inadvertently become little more than formulaic judicial window-dressing if they are not backed up with a substantive consideration of what lies behind them and the impact of that on the individual child’s welfare in the particular case before the court. If there was any doubt about the importance of avoiding that danger, such doubt has been firmly swept away by the very clear emphasis in Re B on the duty of the court actively to evaluate proportionality in every case.
  1. In mounting this critique of the linear model, I am alive to the fact that, of course, a judgment is, by its very nature, a linear structure; in common with every other linear structure, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. My focus is not upon the structure of a judge’s judgment but upon that part of the judgment, indeed that part of the judicial analysis before the written or spoken judgment is in fact compiled, where the choice between options actually takes place. What is required is a balancing exercise in which each option is evaluated to the degree of detail necessary to analyse and weigh its own internal positives and negatives and each option is then compared, side by side, against the competing option or options.

I think those words about “formulaic window dressing” are apt – and are similar in nature to the reinforcement of the Supreme Court in Re B that the Court have to genuinely look at and tackle proportionality and human rights, rather than just the stock phrases of ‘the interference with article 8 is proportionate and necessary in this case to safeguard the child’ without looking behind that stock phrase into what is genuinely meant and intended.  When the term ‘draconian’ is thrown about the Court room, which it is, and often– if one were somehow able to calculate all of the occasions when the word ‘draconian’ was uttered I think 85% or more would be in the Family Court;  it isn’t sufficient just to say the word, those present must feel the weight of what that word really means.

It becomes clear then, that the role of a Court in determining any application for public law orders is to get heavily stuck into the Welfare Checklist. The culture that has sprung up over years of the Welfare Checklist largely being extracted from the social worker’s statement with perhaps a few corrections or additions here or there, is unlikely, in the light of Re G to be sufficient.

This must be an comparative exercise balancing each of the options open to the Court and weighing them each against the other. It would be fair to say that most Welfare Checklists I have seen have been constructed more on the linear model, where one starts with an assumption that the child should be placed with the parents and analyses whether or not that is possible, rather than following each of the options through each stage and weighing each against the other. The weighing process, if any, tends to happen at the very end of the Welfare Checklist once the linear process has been undertaken (resulting in either ‘Yes, child can be with the parent’ or ‘no, the child can’t be with the parent’) when it comes to the Range of Powers available to the Court and positing which orders are appropriate on the basis of the linear process having ruled in or ruled out the child being with a parent.

Re G makes the Welfare Checklist even more important than it is at present, at the very time of course, that the PLO standardised documents take it out as a flowing self-contained part of the social work evidence and it vanished from Guardian’s reports long ago in all but very rare cases. Judges will now have to fish around in the social work statement for the social work analysis of the welfare checklist, scattered as it now is throughout the document rather than residing in one defined section.

As the Court of Appeal say in this case about the two Judges whose decisions were the subject of this appeal (underlining mine again)

Before moving on, I would like to acknowledge the strong professional sympathy that I feel for DJ               and HHJ                          who find themselves in the invidious position of having their judgments subjected to scrutiny by the Court of Appeal armed, as it always is, with 20/20 hindsight but, on this occasion, also armed with a strong decision from the Supreme Court that has been injected into the mix between their respective involvements in the case and this judgment. I wish to stress that the observations that now follow are made in this case because it provides the opportunity to do so, and not because there is anything in these two judgments which is worthy of additional individual criticism. My working life is now spent very largely in reading first instance, and less frequently, first level appeal judgments. The concerns that I have about the process in this case are concerns which have also been evident to a greater or lesser extent in a significant number of other cases; they are concerns which are now given sharper focus following the very clear wake-up call given by the Supreme Court in Re B. I therefore hope that DJ              and HHJ                      will be stoic and may see their judgments in this case as being the unwitting launch vehicles for what now follows, rather than its specific target.

I suspect that in the immediate future, advocates will be particularly alert during the passages of a judgment that deal with the welfare checklist, because the cursory race through it, or  formulation of “I adopt the welfare checklist as set out in the social work final evidence” will not be sufficient.

(Moving on from this, one MIGHT conclude that in order for Judges to properly and thoroughly analyse the weaknesses of the care that the State can provide for any particular child, some proper independent, neutral, rigorous and up to date research on delay, breakdown rates, abuse in State care,  the factors that are indicative of a successful or poor prognosis for children in State care or adoptive placements, children’s thoughts and feelings about being cared for by the State, how issues of loss endure or resolve for these children and outcomes for children in State care would be both extremely helpful and long overdue.  Otherwise there is a risk that the information is either overly rose-tinted or overly negative depending on who is providing it to the Judge)

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Imaginary written submissions

[These are imaginary written submissions, in relation to an application for an Emergency Protection order  – in reality, one wouldn’t have the opportunity to make them, but they bear some resemblance to what the advocate representing the mother might have said in addressing the bench, though almost certainly in less florid and melodramatic terms.  I have been very careful, as any advocate would, not to misrepresent any facts]

  1. This application for an Emergency Protection Order is made by the Local Authority. The mother has had very limited notice of the hearing, and very limited opportunity to see the case put against her. She has had to defend her position and persuade the Court not to make this most draconian of orders without having the opportunity to see the Local Authority case in writing, or to put into writing her own account of events.

It is for those very reasons that the Courts have set down authorities that making an order of this kind is draconian, and requires “compelling evidence”,  particularly, the decision of RE X (A CHILD) sub nom RE X (EMERGENCY PROTECTION ORDERS) (2006) [2006] EWHC 510 (Fam)

  1. I will come on to those matters in a moment; but the Court should have in mind the context that to remove a child from a parent at any stage requires cogent evidence that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold is made out, but that beyond that, that the decision to remove is a proportionate one to make far in advance of assessments or a final hearing bearing in mind the alleged nature of the risk, and that to do so at an Emergency Protection Order stage requires extraordinarily compelling evidence that it is effectively the only thing to do, it is an order of last resort.  And that it should only be contemplated if imminent danger is actually established.
  1. The legal context is then set out in Re X, and the predecessor case, also Re X. In X Council v B (Emergency Protection Orders) [2004] EWHC 2015 (Fam); [2005]1 FLR 341,  

      Quoting from the earlier case :-

An EPO, summarily removing a child from his parents, is a ‘draconian’ and

‘extremely harsh’ measure, requiring ‘exceptional justification’ and

‘extraordinarily compelling reasons’. Such an order should not be made   

unless the FPC is satisfied that it is both necessary and proportionate and that

no other less radical form of order will achieve the essential end of promoting

the welfare of the child. Separation is only to be contemplated if immediate 

separation is essential to secure the child’s safety: ‘imminent danger’ must be

‘actually established’.

 

 

The evidence in support of the application for an EPO must be full,

detailed, precise and compelling. Unparticularised generalities will not

suffice.

The sources of hearsay evidence must be identified. Expressions of opinion

must be supported by detailed evidence and properly articulated reasoning

  1. So there must be a serious emergency, to justify having such an important hearing in such a rush, and there must be compelling and detailed evidence that an EPO is the only real course of action, and the applicant has to establish imminent danger; the burden of proof is on them to prove that there IS, not on the parent to prove that there ISN’T.
  1. Let us look at what the Local Authority claim this “emergency” is.  The child is thirteen months old.  It is said by them that he has been known to Social Services throughout his life, and that is true. It is also said by them that he has spent a period of time in voluntary foster care, and that is also true. He was in voluntary foster care for around two months, but has been at home with mother for nearly six months since then.  There have been periods of his life where he has been on the child protection register – the same is of course true of many children.
  1. It is accepted that there are positive reports from the health visitor and childminder, and the social worker accepts that the mother’s presentation around the child, and the child around her, is illustrative of a loving relationship.
  1. They say that the ‘emergency’ triggering event, is that yesterday, the mother took the child to a hospital appointment, and that the child had visible bruises.  
  1. That is also true. But what is also true is that the doctor who examined him has said is that the child was unwell and miserable and probably had a viral infection, that he had a history of aggressive behaviour including head-butting the floor, and that there is nowhere within the medical report a conclusion that those bruises were non-accidental, or likely to be non-accidental, or could possibly be non-accidental.  
  1. The best evidence about these bruises comes from the paediatrician – she saw the bruises, she saw the child, she took the history, she is after all, the expert in these matters. That’s the evidence before the Court, and it concludes that the bruises were caused accidentally. We deal in evidence, not mere suspicion.  Where there is suspicion and it is relied upon, there must be evidence to support that suspicion.
  1. The Local Authority say that there is a history of previous bruising, and again, that is true. But it is not for them to put two and two together and make sixteen. The doctor examining him saw the child, took the history from mother, read the previous history, and if the doctor felt that there were reasonable grounds to believe that the bruises were non-accidental, then she would have said so when asked to prepare this report for Court.
  1. The case has been brought to Court, for what I have to remind the Court is the most draconian type of order, requiring compelling evidence, because the social worker has made her own diagnosis that the doctor, who is qualified to examine children and draw conclusions, has got this wrong.
  1. Well, in the spirit of generosity, perhaps the doctor has got this wrong. Perhaps, and this is not the mother’s case at all, there is a history here which needs looking at with a fresh pair of eyes. The mother is confident that another paediatrician will come to the same conclusions and that these lingering suspicions will be removed. 
  1. But to REMOVE this child from mother’s care, because the paediatrician might have got this wrong, cannot be the right thing to do. If the Local Authority consider that there is something here which needs to be investigated, then they can issue an application for a care order, set out their concerns and their evidence for those concerns on paper, and the Court can consider whether an independent paediatric assessment of the child is warranted.  That is an argument for another day.
  1. What these circumstances do not add up to, in any way shape or form, is the sort of compelling evidence that this child has been suffering significant harm or is likely to do so, and that he should be removed from his mother’s care and put in foster care, much less so on such short notice, with such a paucity of evidence before the Court.  
  1. The Local Authority point to some historical bruising – seven months ago, there was some bruising. The mother says that this was caused in play with some other children. A medical report at that time felt that it was suspicious and might be non-accidental.  The child came into foster care during a police investigation – the mother cooperated with that, and as we have heard, two months later the child came home.
  1. What they try to do now, is to add that, where they have a medical report which does give rise to some legitimate concern, to the situation today, where they have a medical report that raises no concerns at all, and try to force the two things together. As I said earlier, this is a case of trying to make two and two make five.
  1. Respectfully, they cannot do that. If we had been here seven months ago, with the report from the doctor saying there were suspicious bruises, then perhaps there would be a case to deal with. But something can’t be an emergency, if you wait for seven months to bring it up. Something can’t require the court to urgently intervene to protect the child if the LA had him in care and were happy to send him home five months ago.  And something that the paediatrician who saw the child yesterday already knew about and had read in the medical records, when they decided that the child was safe to go home from hospital with his mother, can’t now become evidence that the child is not safe at home and has to be removed. 
  1. If the previous bruises made the paediatrician yesterday look at the bruises with a more cynical and suspicious eye, then that is one thing, but that isn’t what happened. In the light of knowing about those previous bruises, the paediatrician was satisfied that what mum was saying, what her own eyes showed her – an aggressive hyperactive child with a temperature and a virus who was head-banging, had got those bruises by doing just that.  
  1. The Local Authority essentially say, “well, she should have done”, but that is neither here nor there. In terms of actual evidence, she didn’t. There is no medical opinion that those bruises seen yesterday were caused non-accidental.
  1.  This isn’t an emergency. The child is at home with mum, safe and well. The hospital didn’t feel the need yesterday to say “this is risky, we can’t send him home”.  
  1. The child doesn’t need protection. There is no evidence of significant harm here. The highest it can be put is that the Local Authority would want a fresh medical opinion looking at all the notes.
  1. There is no need for an order, particularly the most draconian order that can be made by a Court. 
  1. Is the evidence here “extraordinary compelling”?   Have the Local Authority actually established imminent danger?   In setting out why the evidence of the social worker, who has not seen these bruises, should be preferred to that of the independent expert paediatrician, who has, have the Local Authority provided evidence which is “full, detailed, precise and compelling”?  With “detailed evidence and properly articulated reasoning”?
  1. In my respectful submissions, they have come nowhere near, and the application should be refused.

 

 

Well, unless you have been under a rock for a few years, you will know that the name of the child in the case is Peter Connolly, and you probably twigged that very early on.   

 

You will also know that the Local Authority DID NOT issue an emergency court application, on either the day the paediatrician saw the child or the day after.

 

If they had, would it have saved Peter? Probably not, as you can see here, the case against making the EPO is overwhelming.   I have to be candid and say that if they had rung me, with the medical opinion being as it was, I would have advised that an EPO had no prospect of success. It wasn’t even finely balanced.

 

You may be thinking that I have stacked the deck here, by making it an Emergency Protection Order, where the bar is so much higher following the Re X decisions than the test for an ICO. 

 

Well, I haven’t stacked the deck, because there were just two days, and only 1 full working day between the paediatrician seeing Peter and him being killed. So an Emergency Protection Order was the only order that Haringey could have applied for that would have had him out of the home before he was killed.

 

If such an application had been made, it would have been resisted, along similar lines to this – the test for an EPO is very high, it needs extraordinarily compelling evidence, the Court need to be satisfied that there is actual evidence of imminent danger, and that the paediatrician who examined the child didn’t make a diagnosis of NAI.

 

That’s not to defend Haringey – there were clearly mistakes made, largely at the point when having got an earlier paediatric report saying non-accidental bruises, they didn’t issue. Nor did they issue at the point where they had the child in foster care and the point came where he was going home to mother unless they got a Court order.

 

Nor is it to castigate those who would represent a parent in this situation. Far from it, those are exactly the points that should have been made, and any barrister or solicitor representing a parent against those facts would have been pretty shabby if they hadn’t left the court room with their client going home with the child.

If I’d been representing Peter’s mother on that day, with those facts, I would have fought to make sure the EPO wasn’t made. And it would have been the right thing to do, regardless of how it later turned out. The Court have to decide cases on evidence, and in this case, the medical evidence to justify an EPO wasn’t there.

 

My point is that it would have been extraordinarily hard to save baby Peter’s life AT that critical point, the last chance to intervene to save him simply would not have worked. If the LA had flown in the face of the paediatric evidence and sought an EPO, they would not have got one. The best they could have hoped for would be that there would be an ICO hearing a week later. By which time it was too late.

 

From what information there was, at the last possible moment to save him, you would not have persuaded a Court that he needed to be taken into foster care there and then.  It is very easy to make all sorts of different decisions in hindsight, but I do believe that it is worth bearing that in mind  – the media portrayal is that this was an inevitable course of action that could have been averted at any time, but I would suggest that things often appear inevitable when you are working back from a known outcome.  If you had been there, at an EPO hearing on that day, with the facts that were known at the time, you would have been appalled if the Court had granted the EPO.  

 

[of course, had the paediatrician seen all that was there to be seen, then firstly Peter would have remained in hospital instead of going home, and secondly, there would have been compelling evidence of imminent danger, and the whole case is transformed]