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Over-egging the pudding

I seem to be jumping the gun on the Christmassy theme, it still (just) being November and having done a Santa Claus is coming to town post yesterday and a pudding one today.

 

[Quick tangent – I am myself surprised to learn that in the phrase ‘over-egging the pudding’ one is not talking about the sort of eggs that have yolks and whites. It seemed immediately obvious that it was about putting too many eggs in the pudding, but no – it means in this sense the ancient Anglo-Saxon use of ‘egg’ as in excite. So it means not whipping something up too much. Also ‘pudding’ here means sausage, not a dessert. So literally “don’t over-excite the sausage”   – apologies to anyone who typed “over-excite the sausage” into Google – this really isn’t the sort of site you were after. Just move on.   The metaphor works much better as ‘don’t put too many eggs into your pudding mixture’ than ‘don’t over-excite the sausage’  *]

 

Anyway, this case is about social workers over-egging the pudding when giving their evidence and presenting their arguments.

 

This is a County Court case (feel free to read that as being “Family Court sitting in a building which is called a County Court” if you are in the Ministry of Justice ) so it is not precedent, but it contains some important lessons and it is well worth a read.

 

Sanchia Berg of the BBC has written a good piece on it here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-30227974

 

 

The case is North East Lincolnshire v G and L 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCC/Fam/2014/B77.html

 

It was a case involving a three year old child called J. His mother had been unable to care for him due to substance misuse problems and she sadly died within the course of the proceedings. The two options that came before the Court were placement with grandparents, or adoption.

 

The Local Authority and the Guardian were recommending adoption and considered that the grandparents could not meet the child’s needs. It was said that the grandparents had had a history of alcohol misuse and domestic violence.

 

The Judge disagreed, but more than that, criticised the Local Authority witnesses for taking a biased approach and not being fair.

 

 

I heard evidence over two days. I heard in particular from Neil Swaby who had been the social worker for a substantial period, and also from Rachel Olley. During the course of that evidence the local authority’s case was severely undermined. Neil Swaby seemed very reluctant to accept that anything positive could be said about either set of grandparents. When he was referred to positive things said in the papers about them, he would say things like, “Well, I suppose you could say that”. He was very begrudging indeed in his evidence and I had the clear impression that he was, for whatever reason, whether it was his own inclination or instructions from above, that he was intent on saying only things which supported the local authority’s case and was very reluctant to make any concessions which would undermine that case.

 

           I then heard evidence from Rachel Olley whose evidence was totally discredited in my view. She sought to make it a substantial plank of her evidence that J was a child who had real behavioural problems, and had had them throughout his placement with foster carers. That, unfortunately, conflicted very strongly with not only what she had said in her own statement but what was said in the adoption social worker’s statement. Again I had the very strong impression that the local authority witnesses were intent on playing up any factors which were unfavourable to the grandparents and playing down any factors which might be favourable. In those circumstances I found it very difficult to give any weight at all to their evidence.

 

 

From time to time, I provide social workers with training, and a key part of that training is letting them know that a major thing that the Court is looking for is fairness. The power of the State is substantial and it is essential that when the State is making decisions and recommendations that can have such a devastating effect on people that they are being fair. That means giving credit for things that parents do well, seeing the positives, looking for the positives – it means saying sorry when the State have made a mistake or got something wrong, and it means not cherry picking in your evidence so that you focus entirely on the bad points and ignore the good points.

 

Things like this :-

 

When he was referred to positive things said in the papers about them, he would say things like, “Well, I suppose you could say that”

 

Can only persuade a Court that the worker is not fair and reasonable.

 

{I don’t mean in this piece to have a go at the individual workers concerned – firstly, anyone can have a bad day or a bad case, and secondly, I think the mistakes that these workers made are sadly not unique to them and are symptomatic of a culture of defensive practice and a preoccupation with ‘winning’ and ‘child rescue’. What these two workers did is not unique – it is rare for a Judge to nail someone for it so vividly and name them, but it does happen. Yes, a social worker has to present their professional opinion, yes they have to make a decision, yes sometimes that decision will be very painful for the family – but within all of that, the social worker should still be alive to the other side of the argument – to see how else it could be looked at, to acknowledge the real positives that the family have to offer}.

 

The Judge did say that he had rarely encountered this sort of behaviour in evidence from social workers, but that it made it very difficult if not impossible to rely on their evidence

 

Having heard the evidence of Neil Swaby and Rachel Olley I took the view, as I have already indicated, that the local authority’s case was wholly undermined. Their concerns appeared to be grossly overstated in order to try and achieve their ends. I have never, in over ten years of hearing care cases taken the view, as I did in this case, that the local authority’s witnesses were visibly biased in their attempts to support the local authority’s case. It is very unfortunate and I hope I shall never see that again.

 

 

 

The Judge looked at the particular criticisms of the grandparents, and set those into context. (The Judge doesn’t quote Hedley J’s masterful analysis in Re L, but the spirit of it is clear to see)

 

So far as Mr. and Mrs. C are concerned, may I say, I deplore any form of domestic violence and I deplore parents who care for children when they are significantly under the influence of drink. But so far as Mr. and Mrs. C are concerned there is no evidence that I am aware of that any domestic violence between them or any drinking has had an adverse effect on any children who were in their care at the time when it took place. The reality is that in this country there must be tens of thousands of children who are cared for in homes where there is a degree of domestic violence (now very widely defined) and where parents on occasion drink more than they should, I am not condoning that for a moment, but the Courts are not in the business of social engineering. The courts are not in the business of providing children with perfect homes. If we took into care and placed for adoption every child whose parents had had a domestic spat and every child whose parents on occasion had drunk too much then the care system would be overwhelmed and there would not be enough adoptive parents. So we have to have a degree of realism about prospective carers who come before the Courts

 

 

There was a new social worker brought into the case, a Mr Nelson. The Judge was critical of one portion of Mr Nelson’s evidence – and this will no doubt strike a chord with anyone who does children cases regularly – it is a hint that things are probably untoward but that we simply don’t know yet to what extent – a technique that is really easy to assert but because it is so nebulous and flimsy really difficult to analyse.

 

Dealing with Mr. Nelson’s report I find it is significant that Mr. Nelson seems to try to revive at least one aspect of the local authority’s case which had been discredited. For example, in relation to I who from the papers I had read, appears, despite his problems, to be a nice lad, Mr. Nelson sets out the history of the problems that I has had and concludes in paragraph 3.5 by saying, “At the time of writing this report I’s problematic behaviour is not known”. There is the clear implication in that sentence that there must be some problematic behaviour from I but Mr. Nelson does not know what it is. That smacks to me of the same bias that I regrettably have to say I saw from Neil Swaby and Rachel Olley

 

 

Another criticism of the grandparents was that if J were placed with them, he would not have his own bedroom and would need to share a room – what the Judge says here is telling

 

 

Mr. Nelson also raises issues which it seems to me are not serious issues. For example he raises an issue about the sleeping arrangements. Now, I accept, of course, that in an ideal world each child would have his own – his or her own bedroom and certainly you would not have children of different sexes sharing at least beyond a certain age. But we live in fact in a world where probably the majority of families all sleep in the same bedroom and so it cannot be said that the fact that a child may have to share a room is a significant problem

 

 

The case is not decisive of anything other than the result for the individual family and individual child, but it does raise some wider issues about the importance of being fair, the importance of not setting the bar too high for family members and the importance of being realistic about your expectations and seeing things in the round.

 

 

Have a good weekend everyone and don’t over-excite any sausages.

 

 

*[As with any Etymology, you have to take these explanations with a pinch of salt.  And oh God, looking at the eytomological explanation of “take it with a pinch of salt” opens up a whole new can of worms… and so the long day wears on]

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Written Agreements

 

Written agreements in cases involving Social Services are always a tricky thing. It is important that the wording is clear about what is being asked of a parent and what is okay and what’s not. It is also important that they are fair and not  “setting a parent up to fail”

 

These would be my golden rules for parents about written agreements

 

1. Don’t sign one unless you understand every single bit, and you’ve been told clearly what will happen if you don’t stick to it

2. If you have a lawyer, you should ask for legal advice BEFORE you sign it.  If you don’t have a lawyer, say that you want the Local Authority to hold a Meeting Before Action, so that you can have free legal advice about the agreement.

3. If you think that something isn’t fair, say so

4. If you’re willing to do what is being asked, but you want help, ask for that help to be identified and put in the agreement

5. Never ever sign a written agreement if you don’t intend to stick to it – your position is made worse by signing it and not doing it than by not signing it.

 

 

And for social workers

 

1. Be clear

2. Be fair

3. Don’t try to solve every tiny problem – worry about fresh fruit and veg and home-cooked shepherd’s pie AFTER you’ve solved the violent partner hitting the children.

4. It should be a two-way street – what are you doing to help the parent?

 

The Court of Appeal touch on a particular aspect of Written Agreement in Re W (Children) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1065.html

 

There are some important issues in this case, so I will do a follow-up post, but just on the Written Agreement issue.

 

In August 2012 a social worker, Ms Nesbitt, was appointed to the case and in October 2012 began work on a core assessment. On 12 November 2012 the mother and Ms Nesbitt signed a document which described itself as an “Agreement” made between the local authority, the mother and the paternal grandmother. So far as material for present purposes it read as follows:
 

“This is not a legal agreement however; [sic] it may be used in court as evidence if needed.
This agreement has been complied [sic] to ensure that [the mother] agrees for [the children] to remain in the care of paternal grandmother whilst further assessments are completed.
[the mother] agrees to [the children] remaining in the care of paternal grandmother whilst further assessments are completed.

 

[As one of my commentators once had a go at me for [sic]  I will point out that these are the words of the Court, not mine. I loathe the use of [sic], and it isn’t something I would ever do.]

 

Ryder LJ seems to have assumed, and I can well understand why, that the powers the local authority was exercising in and after July 2012 were those conferred on it by section 20 of the Children Act 1989. But the very curious terms of the “Agreement” dated 12 November 2012 give pause for thought. Why was it stated to be “not a legal agreement”? Why was it said that “it may be used in court as evidence if needed”? Whatever it meant, and whatever its true legal status, it was treated by the local authority as enabling it – I decline to say authorising it – in effect to control this mother and her children. And, moreover, to exercise that control without the need to commence care proceedings and hopefully, from its perspective, without exposing the local authority to the various obligations which arise in relation to a child who is or has been ‘looked after’ in accordance with section 20.
 

I express no view at all as to whether this was in law the effect of what was being done, a question on which my Lady’s judgment in SA v KCC (Child in Need) [2010] EWHC 848 (Admin), [2010] 2 FLR 1721, is illuminating (compare the facts in that case as analysed in paras 57-60, 72-74). See also my Lady’s judgment in Re B, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council v Others [2013] EWCA Civ 964, [2013] Fam Law 1382, and the earlier judgments of Smith LJ in Southwark London Borough Council v D [2007] EWCA Civ 182, [2007] 1 FLR 2181, para 49, and of Baroness Hale of Richmond in R (M) v Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council [2008] UKHL 14, [2008] 1 WLR 535, para 42, to which Mr Boucher-Giles referred us.
 

That is not all. I suspect that the reference to the “Agreement” being “used in court as evidence if needed” can only have been intended to have the effect of warning the mother that if she did not ‘toe the line’ the “Agreement” would be used against her in some way in any proceedings that ensued. I remark that, as Hedley J put it in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 27, the use of section 20 “must not be compulsion in disguise”. And any such agreement requires genuine consent, not mere “submission in the face of asserted State authority”: R (G) v Nottingham City Council and Nottingham University Hospital [2008] EWHC 400 (Admin), [2008] 1 FLR 1668, para 61, and Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 44.
 

Moreover, the “Agreement” was expressed, more than once, to be “whilst further assessments are completed”, yet it seemingly remained in place even after the assessment had been cancelled. And the children were not returned to the mother even after she had asked. If this was a placement under section 20 then, as my Lord pointed out during the hearing, the mother was entitled under section 20(8) to “remove” the children at any time. Why were they not returned to her? I can only assume it was because the local authority believed that the arrangements were not within section 20, so that it was for the mother, if she wished, to take proceedings, as in the event she had to, against the paternal grandmother. But if this was so, why did the local authority arrogate to itself effective decision-making power as to whether the mother’s contact with the children should be supervised or not? And why was the local authority as recently as January 2014 seemingly arrogating to itself decision-making power as to whether or not there should be overnight staying contact?
 

The local authority’s decision to decline Ryder LJ’s invitation to intervene makes it impossible for us to get to the bottom of these issues. The picture we have, however, is disturbing.

 

There are two issues here :-

 

1. The use of the wording that “this is not a Legal Agreement”  and

 

2. Whether a written agreement that is signed as ‘mere submission in the face of asserted state authority’  is fair

 

On the first point, I’ve seen this wording crop up on Written Agreements, and I don’t care for it. It is factually true that the document is not a Legal Agreement – in the sense that the Local Authority can’t sue for compensation or breach of contract or go to Court to MAKE a parent give up heroin because they agreed to it in writing.  But as the Court of Appeal point out, it is a document that would be used in evidence if there was a breach. It is a document that HAS CONSEQUENCES if you don’t stick to it, and those consequences are legal ones.

 

Does writing ‘this is not a Legal Agreement’ on them assist a parent? Well, I think very few parents were signing under the impression that the document was a contract under Contract law.  Does it hinder a parent? Well, if any of them read that message to mean ‘you don’t have to stick to it’, then yes, it does.

 

I can only think that at some time in the distant past, someone or other has said “These Written Agreements have to have written on them ‘This is not a Legal Agreement’, and it got absorbed into practice or philosophy. It might even have been a Judge. I haven’t found an authority to that effect, but it could easily be a small line in a judgment.

 

On the second, the Court of Appeal don’t go as far as saying that written agreements signed in that way should be disregarded   (unless they are a section 20 agreement that the child should live elsewhere, in which case it is established law that this consent must be given on an informed basis and freely, not under duress.

But it raises an important point – if the Written Agreement, as so many of them are, is really a  ‘sign this and you get one last chance before we take the kids’ then is the consent to the written agreement just an extension of what the Courts have ruled wrong in s20 cases ?  Remember that the s20 cases are not about the wording of the Act, which doesn’t mention consent at all, but about the wider Human Rights Act principles of proportionality and fairness.

 

Written Agreements can be valid tools for helping a family to change, to solve problems and in some cases to remove the risks that would otherwise make the children unsafe at home, but a degree of thought has to be given about their construction and use if they are instead being ‘sign this or else’

 

The principles in Re CA would be a sensible way to look at Written Agreements  (even when they are not agreements that involve agreement that the child live elsewhere , section 20)

 

i) Every parent has the right, if capacitous, to exercise their parental responsibility to consent under Section 20 to have their child accommodated by the local authority and every local authority has power under Section 20(4) so to accommodate provided that it is consistent with the welfare of the child.

ii) Every social worker obtaining such a consent is under a personal duty (the outcome of which may not be dictated to them by others) to be satisfied that the person giving the consent does not lack the capacity to do so.

iii) In taking any such consent the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity and take into account all the circumstances prevailing at the time and consider the questions raised by Section 3 of the 2005 Act, and in particular the mother’s capacity at that time to use and weigh all the relevant information.

iv) If the social worker has doubts about capacity no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.

v) If the social worker is satisfied that the person whose consent is sought does not lack capacity, the social worker must be satisfied that the consent is fully informed:

a) Does the parent fully understand the consequences of giving such a consent?
b) Does the parent fully appreciate the range of choice available and the consequences of refusal as well as giving consent?
c) Is the parent in possession of all the facts and issues material to the giving of consent?
vi) If not satisfied that the answers to a) – c) above are all ‘yes’, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought as above and the social work team should further consider taking legal advice if thought necessary.

vii) If the social worker is satisfied that the consent is fully informed then it is necessary to be further satisfied that the giving of such consent and the subsequent removal is both fair and proportionate.

viii) In considering that it may be necessary to ask:

a) what is the current physical and psychological state of the parent?
b) If they have a solicitor, have they been encouraged to seek legal advice and/or advice from family or friends?
c) Is it necessary for the safety of the child for her to be removed at this time?
d) Would it be fairer in this case for this matter to be the subject of a court order rather than an agreement?
ix) If having done all this and, if necessary, having taken further advice (as above and including where necessary legal advice), the social worker then considers that a fully informed consent has been received from a capacitous mother in circumstances where removal is necessary and proportionate, consent may be acted upon.

x) In the light of the foregoing, local authorities may want to approach with great care the obtaining of Section 20 agreements from mothers in the aftermath of birth, especially where there is no immediate danger to the child and where probably no order would be made.

 

 

 

 

 

“An unhelpful cocktail”

 

The interesting case of Re A (A Child) 2013.

 

The Court of Appeal dealt here with a case where some pretty appalling case management occurred with the appellants legal team, and whether a costs order should flow from that. They determined that in the absence of being able to show that costs had been incurred by the other parties for which they could be compensated, one could not make a wasted costs order purely as a punitive measure, no matter how awful the litigation conduct.

 

But it is worth looking at the litigation conduct, just because it is a dull day indeed when one isn’t interested when “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres. Thy knotted and combined locks to part, and each particular hair to stand on end. Like quills upon the fretful porpentine…. “

 

 

Lo, the case is here:-

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/43.html

 

 

The appeal related to a serious finding of fact hearing in care proceedings, a significant number of fractures on a very young baby, where the Judge found that these were caused non-accidentally.

 

Some time after those findings, the solicitors representing the parents became aware of the decision in London Borough of Islington v Al Alas and Wray [2012] EWHC 865 (Fam)    and legitimately considered the findings again in the light of that case, particularly whether there was an alternative medical explanation along the lines of vitamin D deficiency and rickets.

 

They sought leave to appeal from the trial judge, who refused.

 

They then applied to the Court of Appeal, primarily asking whether leave to instruct an expert to look at the case was required. The Court of Appeal considered the case, felt that a fresh expert assessment was desirable and granted that leave, then listing a Permission to Appeal hearing to take place after the expert assessment could be considered.

 

All of that is perfectly fine and proper.  

 

[I blogged about that appeal hearing HERE   https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/11/22/more-on-vitamin-d-and-rickets/ 

 

In short, the Court of Appeal did not consider that the Judge at first instance was wrong, let alone plainly wrong, and that the medical evidence, including the fresh report came nowhere near substantiating a medical explanation for the fractures. ]

 

 

But this particular judgment comes about as a result of the Local Authority and Guardian feeling so aggrieved by the parents litigation conduct that they asked for a costs hearing.

 

This is why :-

 

 

  1. 6.       a) At the first, without notice, oral hearing the solicitors failed in their duty to provide the court with full and frank disclosure of all relevant material. In particular the bundle submitted did not include the original fact finding judgment or the section of the trial bundle that included the expert medical evidence;

b) The court was misled by an assertion in the grounds of appeal that the solicitors had had to prepare the case in a limited time period, whereas the reality was that they had the papers in the case for 18 weeks prior to filing their grounds of appeal;

c) After the September hearing the solicitors failed to disclose any relevant and necessary information to the Local Authority and the solicitors for the child until 16th October. The information withheld included a note of the 19th September hearing, the letter of instruction to Professor Nussey, Professor Nussey’s report (which had been received on 3rd October), the progress report sent by the parents’ solicitors to the Court of Appeal on 3rd October in accordance with my direction and any detail of the extensive supplementary questions and communications passing between the parents’ solicitors and Professor Nussey;

d) Professor Nussey was not instructed in a manner that would comply with the Family Procedure Rules 2010, Part 25 and the associated Practice Direction governing the instruction of experts. In particular, the Professor was not furnished with a copy of the 2010 fact finding judgment and/or the expert medical reports upon which the judge had relied. Instead the Professor was, for example, provided with the parents’ solicitors’ critique of that judgment setting out some 26 points which they said supported a benign medical explanation for the fractures that had been detected;

e) Once Professor Nussey’s report was available to the parents’ legal team, a clear view should have been taken that there was no longer any prospect of achieving permission to appeal. The decision to press on and mount arguments which this court ultimately found were unsustainable, went beyond the bounds of pursuing a hopeless case and amounted to an abuse of the court process.

  1. Ms Jo Delahunty QC, representing the child, supports the criticisms made by the Local Authority and seeks to stress the substantial degree to which, in her submission, the parents’ solicitors fell short of their duty to comply with the ordinary standards of transparency and co-operation required of those engaged in child protection proceedings in the Family Division. In particular, she points to the fact that the non-disclosure for nearly a month of information relating to the without notice hearing in September was not a result of inefficiency or incompetent administration, but arose from the deliberate assertion by the parents’ solicitors that the other parties were simply not entitled to any of this material unless and until permission to appeal is granted. She is also particularly critical of the way in which the expert was unilaterally lobbied by the parents’ legal team with, it is suggested, the aim of turning his initial adverse opinion into one which was more favourable to their case.
  1. In addition to the criticisms made of the litigation actions in the period between 19th September and 1st November, both counsel for the Local Authority and counsel for the child draw the court’s attention to the stance taken by the parents’ representatives at this hearing. Mr Prest drew attention to what he regarded was the startling difference between the world view in relation to these matters taken by the parents’ representatives and the reality of the approach required by the Family Justice System. In similar terms Ms Delahunty submitted that, in seeking to explain their behaviour and avoid adverse criticisms, counsel for the parents’ solicitors, Mr Michael Shrimpton, in his skeleton argument, was simply not speaking in the same language as the lawyers representing the Local Authority and the child. In particular Ms Delahunty points to the fact that, rather than offering an acceptance of poor case management and an apology to the court, Mr Shrimpton’s skeleton argument seeks to meet each of the matters raised head on and to question their validity. For example the case for the parents’ solicitors, who are a well known Birmingham firm of family specialists, questions the validity and legitimacy of FPR 2010 Part 25 insofar as it applies to Family Proceedings at first instance and asserts that, in any event, those provisions have absolutely no application to a pending appeal. They assert that the instruction of an expert in the course of an application for permission to appeal may be undertaken in total disregard of the Family Procedure Rules and the practice otherwise applicable to a family case.

 

 

 

Let me just flesh that out, because it may be so peculiar that it does not quite sink in – they obtained permission to appeal saying that they had had ‘limited time to prepare their case’ (when they had in fact had 18 weeks – some people, not me, but some other people, might actually go so far as to say that this is not a generous interpretation or disingenuous, or misleading, but a straight downright lie)

 

having obtained the permission of the Court of Appeal to instruct an expert, the parents solicitors then don’t give the expert the medical reports AND Judgment in the fact finding hearing, but instead a sprawling 26 point submission prepared by them as to why rickets is the cause of the injury, they don’t try to agree a letter of instruction or include any questions that the other sides would like asked, they don’t initially disclose the report of that expert to the other sides, they try to get the expert to change his mind after seeing his report, and when all of this is highlighted to them, they argue that the Family Proceedings Rules don’t apply to appeals in, erm family proceedings.

 

 

I also like this bit – the parents solicitors, in another case (oh my god) had gone off to get an overseas expert without leave of the court and then (once it was favourable to rely on it)

In January 2012 the parents’ solicitors acted for different parents in an application for permission to appeal which is now reported as Re McC (Care Proceedings: Fresh Evidence of Foreign Expert) [2012] EWCA Civ 165; [2012] 2 FLR 121. In that case, without the knowledge of, let alone the leave of, the Court of Appeal, the parents’ solicitors obtained a medical report from an American paediatrician and sought leave to adduce it as fresh evidence to support a proposed appeal. In his judgment refusing permission to adduce the evidence, with which the other two members of the court agreed, Thorpe LJ said:

 

“14. There are many reasons for refusing this application. It does not begin to satisfy the conditions identified in the well known case of Ladd v Marshall [1954] 1 WLR 1489. It is a report which is deeply flawed in the manner of its production. The respondents to these proceedings were given no notice of the intention to go elsewhere and to knock on another expert door. No permission was sought from this court either to instruct another expert or to release documents from the case to that expert and such documents as were released were not comprehensive and were apparently partisan.

15. I would have absolutely no hesitation in refusing this application but I do want to emphasise that there is, in my judgment, an obligation on an applicant for permission, or an appellant who has obtained permission, to seek leave from this court before instructing a fresh expert and releasing court papers to that expert for the purposes of the hearing of either an adjourned application for permission or an appeal.

16. I would also emphasise the importance of the Guidelines for the Instruction of Medical Experts from Overseas in Family Cases, endorsed by the President and published by the Family Justice Council last month. They must by extension apply to appellate proceedings although the guidelines are of course written specifically in contemplation of proceedings at first instance.”

 

  • Mr X submits that both he and his instructing solicitors were unclear as to the meaning of those passages from Thorpe LJ’s judgment in Re McC. He tells me that they did not understand whether or not it was incumbent upon them to apply for the leave of the Court of Appeal before seeking to instruct an expert to provide a report for use in support of their application for permission to appeal. In their minds, therefore, the purpose of the 19th September hearing was simply to seek the direction of the Court of Appeal on whether or not a full blown application for leave to instruct an expert, which Mr X tells me would have been on notice to the other parties, should be made. 
  • I confess that I am at a loss to understand that submission and ask, rhetorically, how Mr X and the Solicitors Firm could fail to understand the words “there is …. an obligation …. to seek leave from this court before instructing a fresh expert”. The account given in the Notice of Appeal to the effect that the Court of Appeal decision in Re McC, from which I have quoted, had simply ‘expressed some sympathy’ with the view that leave to instruct an expert was required and that the decision had not by that stage been reported is, on the facts, plainly unsustainable. 
  • The words of Lord Justice Thorpe are entirely plain and clear and, for the record, I regard his words as being entirely uncontroversial. The general approach, if not indeed the detailed requirements, of the Family Procedure Rules must, as Thorpe LJ holds, by extension apply to appellate proceedings.

 

So even though the firm of solicitors had been slapped by the Court of Appeal for getting a back door expert, and the Court of Appeal had given clear guidance on this exact point, they didn’t understand what it meant?

 

But all of that is okay, because the counsel representing them (although not a care lawyer, or indeed a family lawyer) is :-

 

 

a member of British Mensa and that he ‘by definition brings a Mensa-level intellect to the analysis of complex scientific and legal issues’

 

 

[If you are wondering, the quotation marks do indeed indicate that the Court of Appeal are quoting directly from counsel’s own skeleton argument. Yes, in a costs hearing in the Appeal Court, before Lord Justice McFarlane, this barrister put in writing that he was clever…. – not just in writing, but orally, and not just once, but “on a number of occasions”]

 

 

Oh. My. God.

 

If you aren’t cringing, writhing a tiny bit and dying a little bit inside on behalf of this man, you are a crueller person than even I am.

 

 

  1. Mr X’s approach to these proceedings readily supports the submissions that I have recorded from both of the opposing counsel to the effect that the case he presents comes from a totally different ‘world view’ and speaks in a ‘different language’ from that of the local authority and the child’s legal team. Mr X is a brave and confident advocate who gives the strong impression of believing the cause for which he advocates. These various factors, high intellect, a lack of understanding of the justification for the approach taken in family proceedings and the brave championing of a cause, are, in my view, the unhelpful cocktail of elements which have come together in counsel’s presentation of the parents’ case in these proceedings. The local authority seeks to hold the parents’ solicitors responsible for this on the basis that they selected the particular counsel for these hearings. That submission is, in my view, not sustainable when it is clear, as it is, that the argument that became the focus of the application and was then sustained on to the second hearing was crafted by counsel and not by the solicitors. Mr X told the court that, following receipt of Professor Nussey’s report, the solicitors sought his advice on the future viability of the application for permission and that as a result of that advice the case continued. An indication of counsel’s faith in his clients’ case at the second hearing was the very surprising information, as reported to me during the hearing, that Mr X had approach Ms Delahunty outside court to enquire if the children’s guardian was going to support the application for permission to appeal.
  1. My clear conclusion is that the manner in which the application for permission was pursued, after receipt of Professor Nussey’s report had removed from it any true validity, arose almost entirely from the wholly over optimistic judgment of counsel and not from any improper or unreasonable act or omission of the solicitors. By the end of the present hearing this understanding of events seemed to be shared by Mr Prest for the local authority when, after all of the submissions were complete, he made an application to include Mr X in the wasted costs application. I refused that application on the basis that the case had by then been heard and concluded on the basis that Mr X was not in the frame and that it would by that stage be oppressive to alter the focus of the application to include him.

 

 

Oh, I want to look at that again, let’s just do this one bit

 

Mr X is a brave and confident advocate who gives the strong impression of believing the cause for which he advocates. These various factors, high intellect, a lack of understanding of the justification for the approach taken in family proceedings and the brave championing of a cause, are, in my view, the unhelpful cocktail of elements which have come together in counsel’s presentation of the parents’ case in these proceedings

 

 

He was SO lucky to escape without a cost order.

 

 

It must have been fairly close as to whether the costs of the appeal hearing itself, were incurred as a result of advice which could not be sustained on the evidence.  It was in part, I think, the fact that it was counsel’s clear advice and driving of the process that absolved the solicitors from blame in not abandoning their appeal once the expert they had instructed (and attempted to nobble) hadn’t supported them.  If you can’t persuade an expert who you have blatantly tried to manipulate into supporting your case to support you, you really don’t  have a winnable case and that would be the time to abandon the appeal. They didn’t. They pressed on.  One can see from the previous blog and judgment just how much work went into that appeal hearing, particularly from leading counsel for the child, Ms Delahunty.

 

 

Of course, I could be wrong – perhaps the Mensa level intellect which counsel brought to bear in the case foresaw that as the Guardian and LA hadn’t included him in the wasted costs application, he could save his solicitors from a wasted costs order that was otherwise heading their way by convincing the Court that all of the faults were of his making. Perhaps he was nobly falling on his sword and was in reality blameless.

 

I would politely suggest that any counsel who are card-carrying members of Mensa to eschew the desire to flaunt this in front of the Court of Appeal in any future hearings.

 

 

[I’m sure 95% of Mensa members are witty, suave, urbane, good company, romantically successful, essentially happy, well-balanced, productive, helpful and fascinating, and that I have just been very  unlucky in meeting the small proportion who spoil it for them….   I did also remove an “a bit like the American Express advert – it’s four letters too long”  joke from this piece, but I’m sure you can work it out for yourselves]

 

 

If you are interested in instructing an overseas expert in care proceedings – perhaps you like paperwork, perhaps you enjoy the game of Russian Roulette that is incurring costs that the LSC might or might not underwrite, perhaps you just enjoy having telephone calls at 4.00am, there’s some guidance about how to do it, here :-

http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/JCO%2FDocuments%2FFJC%2Ffjc_guidelines_for_overseas_experts_Dec2011.pdf

 

 

 

In England, justice is open to all, like the Ritz Hotel

Is there a difference in family justice provided to middle-class parents? A discussiony paranoidy rant…

As you may know, the title of this piece is drawn from a remark by an English Judge, Sir James Mathew and was made in the Victorian era. It is intentionally barbed.

It had quite a flurry of revival in popularity  last year, as the Government debated and then implemented legal aid cuts that removed free legal advice from large chunks of the most vulnerable in society.

Private law

In terms of private law dispute, my initial question is likely to be true, sadly, as we go past April 2013.  After that time, a parent who is denied contact is going to struggle to get their case off the ground and into court unless they are (a) literate (b) articulate or (c) a person of financial means.      One might be cynical and say that the three things are interwoven, and that having three possibilities isn’t much use if they mostly capture the same group.

Of course, a person can represent themselves in court proceedings and a great many people do very well at it.  (I’d recommend Lucy Reed’s book “Family Courts without a lawyer”  for anyone who wants to do this  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Family-Courts-without-Lawyer-Litigants/dp/0956777406/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359383824&sr=8-1 )

But even then, the litigant in person will either need to pay the Court fee for a contact application, which will be £200, or (if they are of limited means) navigate the byzantine system by which you can avoid paying the Court fee if you can satisfy an unsatisfiable bureaucracy of your entitlement to do so, a task which exhausts many private law solicitors who are well accustomed to trying.

[A bit like the Groucho Marx line that banks will lend money to people who can prove beyond doubt that they don’t need it]

Moving beyond that, you will as a wealthy or moderately wealthy person, have an option, a choice, which is denied to the non-middle class.  You can decide whether to represent yourself or have a specialist used to navigating the courts, who speaks the same language as the judge, who can advise you.  That’s a choice that won’t be open to someone who is not middle-class.  [using middle-class as shorthand for someone who has a professional job which pays them average or better income, regardless of family background and such  – of course there are plenty of plasterers who earn more than bank clerks.   Perhaps the class debate is better expressed as ‘haves or have nots’ but is a shorthand for this piece]

If you are faced with allegations of violence or abuse, you won’t get a lawyer to represent you and defend you against them unless you have money. The other parent, the one making them, might well get a lawyer, even if the allegations are false.

More and more private law cases these days are descending into these sorts of allegations, and probably more and more will in the future, as the funding system says that making them gets you a lawyer, whereas defending yourself against allegations that you say are false, doesn’t. 

Care proceedings

What about care proceedings though? The law says that if you are a parent and the State might be intervening in the way you bring up your child and might be contemplating your child no longer living with you, you would be entitled to free legal advice.

Everyone is on a level playing field then.  Family justice is like the Ritz, it is open to everyone.

But how true is that, really?

Here are some names that you will have seen in care proceedings, often many times, if you work in this field  – Zac, Jordan, Chantelle, Destiny.

Here are some names you have probably NEVER seen in care proceedings, Oliver, Crispin, Sophia, Harriet.

You might well say, and you’d be partially right, that a large tranche of care proceedings relate to neglect, and neglect in part springs from poverty.  So, a middle-class family don’t face the same social problems as a poor family, since they have choices and options.

A middle-class parent who struggles with managing household tasks has an option to get a cleaner, or to have someone do the ironing, they don’t have to prioritise between food and electricity, or gas or a toy for their child.

I would argue that not all poor families end up neglecting their children, and that it is possible, and indeed the vast majority of poor families do it, to get their children brought up in clean, safe and loving environments despite a lack of resources.

But it is certainly true that you’re at far greater risk of living in neglect if money is very tight than if you are affluent.

 

[Subsequent to writing this, I came across an excellent blog post in Community Care on why more poverty does not mean more neglect :- http://www.communitycare.co.uk/blogs/childrens-services-blog/2013/01/poverty-does-not-equal-neglect-benefit-cuts-will-not-see-more-children-taken-into-care.html   and is an interesting counterpoint to this debate. I don’t think we are miles apart, though I think if you increase the basic numbers of families in poverty, you may well increase the numbers of those families who don’t manage that sort of poverty well enough]

[This is reminding me of one of my favourite books, George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”

It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have
thought so much about poverty–it is the thing you have feared all your
life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it, is
all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite
simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be
terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar LOWNESS of
poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the
complicated meanness, the crust-wiping….

 

And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I
believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling
of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down
and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs–and well, here
are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off
a lot of anxiety.

I have been, in case you doubt, exceedingly poor, as both a child, and as an adult, and recognise what Orwell says, particularly in his passages about how when you are truly truly hungry, nothing else in the world much exists than that hunger, that preoccupation with food and filling your belly with something.

So, perhaps the care proceedings net doesn’t cast over the “Haves” because neglect isn’t much of an issue in the “Haves” world.

But what about violence, what about sexual abuse, what about alcohol abuse?

I’m fairly certain that the disease of alcoholism, and the effect that it has on parenting, is not a class issue – it can take anyone.   In fact, I have worked, in the past, with people who drank a bottle of wine a night or more, and who would on that basis fail the sort of psychiatric examinations that we were sending parents to.

I have also encountered paedophiles from all walks of life – yes, very many were from damaged and impoverished backgrounds, but many others were teachers, professionals, doctors.

And I fail to believe that it is only poor people, only ‘common’ people, only ‘rough’ people, who reach the end of their tether, lose control and do something to a child that they should never have done.

There’s sort of a feeling, an unspoken one, in the Court rooms of this country, that child abuse is not done by people like us, that it belongs to a different world, another one, that we can look at, and judge, but not one that we truly belong in. There’s very little “there but for the grace of god” in child abuse cases.

As we know, and must remind ourselves, “The plural of anecdote is not data” and therefore it is of only  limited (or indeed no) evidential value that most of the times I have seen parents with middle-class jobs, accents, bearing and relations, facing allegations of physical mistreatment of children, a reason has been found as to why the medical evidence is wrong, and why they can be exonerated.

Efforts seem, again anecdotally to me, to be found by a mixture of professionals  (and again, I don’t claim that this is a conscious or deliberate action) to be more amenable to accepting that people like us couldn’t have done these dreadful things, than when similar things are alleged of people who live in a different sort of world to our own.

I don’t know how one could do the research on whether the outcomes for middle class parents are better for them than those for other parents – there’s no box on the application form for “Is the parent a bit posh?”    or “Do they shop at Asda or Waitrose?”   “Do they say napkin or serviette?”   but I’d like to see some, if someone wants to set out to do it.

So there is  at least the possibility of an unconscious bias of favouring or being more amenable to accepting the evidence given by people like us.

Can it go even further than that? To the overt stage, where actual cash, actual financial resources buys you a greater opportunity in a family case?

I don’t mind bribery, obviously. I don’t think that bribery plays any part in English justice. Call me naive if you want, I just honestly don’t believe that.

I had recently a conversation which prompted me to think about this piece, about a case (not one I was involved in, even tangentially and not necessarily a recent one) of suspected non-accidental injury, where the parents wanted to get a further piece of medical evidence, a fresh report. The Judge refused it, for good reasons about delay and proportionality.

The parents then pipe up that they could pay for the report themselves, rather than through legal aid, and lo and behold, there’s a reconsideration and the report is directed.

The justification, perhaps not unreasonably, is that the report is likely to be accelerated, expedited, on-time, if the expert knows that people are paying for it privately.  So the delay might not be so long, and the expert report will probably not hold the case up so much.  And of course, in the world we operate in, the Judge knows that the parents writing a cheque saves at least 2-3 weeks of messing around with the Legal Services Commission and prior authority, so the report probably will get done quicker.

Is that okay, or does that feel wrong?

It feels wrong to me that a person gets the chance to have a report not because of the merits of their case or the circumstances of the case, but because they, unlike someone else, can write a cheque and get it done.

[I couch all of this with the caveat that it wasn’t my case, I wasn’t there, I don’t know the detail – there may well have been very compelling reasons I am unaware of to have taken that course of action, but even just looking at it in the theoretical sense, would it be right in this hypothetical case below to allow the report?

 

Doctor says “I can do the report in 12 weeks, on public funding, but if it is paid for at my private rates, which are higher, I can do it in 5” 

 

If the Judge was going to refuse the report on basis that 12 weeks delay was too long, should she allow it in 5, if the parents are able to pay for it privately?    Or, is refusing it, if 5 weeks is considered reasonable delay, unfair just to preserve equality with some notional other parents who couldn’t pay the private fees?]

 

 

Can you go off and pay for your own expert without the Court’s permission?

Well, there have been some important decisions about that.  Firstly, you need leave of the Court to give the papers to the expert, and then  if you get leave of the court to instruct an expert, you have to cough up the report even if it is not favourable to you (unlike in crime)   [Re L : A Minor : Police Investigation : Privilege 1996 1 FLR 731 and then Re V (Care Proceedings : Human Rights Claims 2004 1 FLR 944]

 

If you don’t get leave of the Court and go off and get the report anyway, it still has to be disclosed.

[If there are ongoing criminal proceedings, the parent can keep those reports secret and even refuse to say if there are any expert reports and who has written them, and can keep legal privilege when discussing those reports with their care lawyer  S County Council v B 2000 2 FLR 161]

One clever way around this was tried in RE J (Application for shadow expert) 2008 1 FLR 1501

Where the applicant sought permission not to obtain a report that would have to be disclosed whether it was positive or negative, but instead an expert to basically advise the lawyer and formulate good questions for cross-examination and be a sounding board for the barrister’s theories. 

The Court felt that this was not appropriate and would not be granted. And of course, it would only have been a course open to someone paying for the report privately.

Can you get a better barrister by paying money?

A parent relying on a barrister who is being paid with public funding (or what all sane people call “Legal Aid”) will get proper advice, from someone who works hard and does their best and is bright.  All barristers who have experience in care proceedings do legal aid work, so you can’t get some better barrister, better advice by paying privately.  There’s not a Premier League of barristers who know about care but don’t do legal aid work.

I would NOT, for a second, suggest that the average barrister works harder or better on a case that they are earning more money on, I don’t think money comes into it. Honestly, I don’t.

But what you can get, potentially, is a QC.  If you are willing to pay for it, you can get a QC in a case that the LSC (legal services commission, or what sane people call the legal aid board) would not let you have one for free. 

That QC is the best of the best, and may give you an edge in the case.  Though some barristers who don’t have QC after their name are better advocates than some QCs, in general, a QC is going to be better.

It may well send a subliminal message to the Court about your case and the quality of it. Certainly there’s always an impression that the Court treats a QC with more respect than a run of the mill advocate.

Or you may not even need to go that far. Suppose you think about your barrister doing your case for public funding – they will work hard at your case, and put in effort. But they have another case the week before where they are doing that, and another the week after.

Might you get better representation from the same barrister, if you were willing to pay them to take two or three days off the week before your case to prepare?

We can’t know for certain, but I’d suggest that we all work better when we’re not shattered.

That’s an option available to those who have money that doesn’t exist for those who don’t.

Ring your solicitor up and say “I think my barrister should really only work on my case and nothing else the week before the hearing”, and you’ll get this answer if you have no money “That’s a nice idea, but I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that”   – and if you have lots of money, this answer  “They don’t normally do that, but we could see if they would – it would be very expensive though, you’d be paying for seven days of their time instead of five. Do you want me to speak to them about it?”

So, is English family justice really like the Ritz, or am I just crackers?

It is lawful to make ICOs under repeated s37, I say it is lawful to make ICOs

 

A discussion of  RE K (Children) [2012] EWCA Civ 1549  which has just been decided in the Court of Appeal.

 

 

I previously blogged about the permission hearing here :-

 

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/08/31/ive-got-section-thirty-seven-problems-but-a-aint-one/

 The issue turns on this – in private law proceedings, the Court have a power to direct a Local Authority to make enquiries as to whether it is necessary to issue care proceedings – this is generally done when the Court begins to be so worried about the child’s circumstances that the possibility of care proceedings becomes a live one. The investigation is called a section 37 report.

 

The Court also has a power to make an Interim Care Order at the same time as making a section 37 direction – that is an order that allows the LA, if they decide to, to remove the child. So it is a very serious order, particularly given that :-

 

(a)   The LA haven’t applied for it

(b)   The parents won’t have seen a threshold document or social work statement in advance of the hearing

(c)   When making the ICO, the Court does not necessarily know what the LA will do with it  (or what the care plan is, in other words)

(d)   That the parents will not have known when coming to Court that day that there was a prospect of the child being taken off either of them and put in care  [as opposed to an application in care proceedings, where the parents are given notice and sight of the case against them and an opportunity, though a short one, to respond]

 

And so, making an ICO under a section 37 direction is a big deal. A very big deal, for article 6 purposes.  [I would have hoped that the Court of Appeal might have emphasised these things more than they did. They might, for example, have drawn the parallel between the rightly high hurdle for an Emergency Protection Order, where the parents have limited time to respond or defend themselves, with an ICO made of the Court’s own motion]

 

What this appeal turned on, was the vexed question of whether, if the LA do their investigation and say “We don’t need to issue care proceedings and don’t need an ICO” ,  the Court has power to make another section 37 direction and ANOTHER ICO.   [In effect, to make ICOs in an attempt to make the LA change their report and issue proceedings]

 

That’s what the Judge did in this case.

 

I was fully expecting the Court of Appeal to say that this was an abuse of process and goes further than the Act intends 

 

Unfortunately, from my perspective, and that of the appellants, the Court of Appeal thought otherwise, and that the Court can make an ICO under a further s37 direction even when faced with a s37 report that concludes that the LA have investigated and don’t propose to issue proceedings.

 

  1. In an appropriate case the jurisdiction in private law proceedings for the court to make a s 37 direction is an important and useful facility under which a local authority is required to investigate a child’s circumstances and required to consider issuing care proceedings. A private law case may last for a significant time and the circumstances of a child who is the subject of the proceedings may change. It would be wholly artificial to limit the court’s ability to utilise the s 37 jurisdiction to ‘one shot’ in each case. Nothing in the statutory language suggests that there is to be such a limitation on use. To the contrary, by s 37(1) the jurisdiction exists ‘where, in any family proceedings in which a question arises with respect to the welfare of any child, it appears to the court that it may be appropriate for a care or supervision order to be made’. Circumstances sufficient to justify it appearing to the court that a public order may be appropriate may occur for a variety of reasons and at different stages during a single set of proceedings.
  1. In the present case, the judge made a series of s 37 directions arising out of the same factual context on the basis that the investigation conducted by the local authority was, on each occasion, unsatisfactory. As a matter of principle, and before turning to the facts of this case and the justification for the judge’s exercise of the jurisdiction in this case, it must be the case that where a judge is satisfied that the local authority has either simply not complied with an initial s 37 direction, or has conducted an investigation which fails to a significant degree to engage with the court’s concerns, the court has jurisdiction to extend or renew its s 37 direction. It will be a question in each case to determine whether such a course is justified. In approaching that question it will be necessary to bear very much in mind that the statutory structure is firmly weighted in favour of the local authority, which, alone, has the power to issue a public law application under CA 1989, s 31. In Re M (Intractable Contact Dispute: Interim Care Order) [2003] EWHC 1024 (Fam), Wall J underlined the statutory structure thus:

‘[The court] cannot require the local authority to take proceedings. The limit of [the court’s power] is to direct the authority to undertake an investigation of the children’s circumstances.’ [paragraph 123]

  1. Having looked at the matters of principle raised by Mr Pressdee, and having determined that a court does have jurisdiction to make more than one s 37 direction during the currency of private law proceedings and has jurisdiction to extend or renew an earlier s 37 direction if the circumstances so justify, I now turn to look at the deployment of that jurisdiction by HHJ Tyzack in the present case.

 

 

Looking at the Act, there is nothing within it, or within case law that locks the Court into  one section 37 and one s37 ICO and one only, and that is how the Court of Appeal decided it.  But I respectfully think on the basis of natural justice, article 6 and proper process, it ought to have gone the other way.

 

For the avoidance of doubt, I think the decision is wrong, but not plainly wrong so that an appeal would succeed.

 

However, the Court of Appeal do say that where a Court does disagree with the s37 report and direct another one and make an ICO, it is incumbent on the Court to set out reasons.  [And that is why I don’t think they could be plainly wrong]

 

The Court of Appeal did say that if the ICO had been appealed at the time, the appeal would have succeeded, but this particular appeal was brought after the final Care Orders were made, the LA having yielded to strong judicial pressure and issued care proceedings

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Prior to the hearing on 4th March 2011, LCC had complied with the request for an addendum by filing a substantial 30 page report, which concluded that Tun should be returned to his mother’s care under a Family Assistance Order to LCC for a period of 12 months. The recommendation was based upon the level of cooperation between LCC and Mr and Mrs B that had by that stage been re-established. LCC was plain that it did not intend to make an application under CA 1989, s 31 for a care or supervision order.
  1. It has not been possible to obtain a transcript of the March 2011 judgment, but we have seen an attendance note of the hearing made by counsel for LCC and a note of the judgment prepared by Dr K’s counsel. LCC’s counsel seemingly met the jurisdictional issue head on by submitting to the judge that there were now no reasons that might justify making a further s 37 direction and therefore no jurisdiction to contemplate making a further interim care order. The judge apparently pointed to aspects of the report which gave rise to fresh concerns, in particular with regard to sanitation at the B’s home and the prospect that they might be evicted. He was also concerned that the social worker regarded it as acceptable for Tun to be left to protect himself from emotional harm by ‘developing strategies’ to cope with Mr B’s behaviour. These concerns are mirrored in the note of judgment which continues:

‘I am satisfied that it would not be right to act on what [the social worker] has said and I am not minded to discharge the ICO. I require the local authority to address the concerns of the father and the children’s guardian and the court on reading [this report]. I shall give [the social worker] 21 days to respond. I shall direct that input on behalf of the father and the guardian be put to [the social worker] within 14 days.’

On that basis the judge made a further s 37 direction for 21 days and a further 28 day interim care order.

  1. Mr Pressdee submits that the judge’s actions on the 4th March are in a different category from those at the earlier two hearings and that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the judge, sitting in private law proceedings, was effectively dictating to a local authority and seeking to subvert the delineation of role, enshrined in CA 1989, which separates the local authority from the court. He also submits that the judge, once again, inverted the order of decision making by first determining that he was ‘not minded to discharge the interim care order’ before making the s 37 direction. Finally, Mr Pressdee argues that the judge totally failed to spell out in clear terms why the s 37 report was deficient; instead he delegated that role to the father and the guardian who were, over the course of 14 days, to indicate their concerns to LCC. In this context it is of note that the guardian had apparently departed on leave prior to seeing the March s 37 report and was not at the hearing. His views on the document were therefore not available to the judge at that time.
  1. Although a court has jurisdiction to make more than one s 37 direction in the course of proceedings, the exercise of that jurisdiction is to be considered at each turn with regard to the evidence that is then before the court and with regard to the firm weighting of the legislation in favour of the local authority being the determining body on the question of whether or not a child is to be the subject of care proceedings. In each case and at each hearing there will be a line beyond which the court may not go in deploying the facility provided by s 37 under which an interim care order may be made. Whilst the position of the line will vary in accordance with the particular circumstances of the case, the existence of the line and the need for the court to be aware of it should not be in doubt.
  1. By the 4th March the local authority had plainly discharged its duty under s 37 to investigate Tun’s circumstances, it had provided a comprehensive report of that process and had described the reasons for its considered and sustained opinion which was that it did not consider that a care or supervision order was justified at that time. On the evidence as it was at that hearing, making a further s 37 direction and, on the back of that, a further interim care order were steps that were clearly on the far side of the jurisdictional line delineating the role of the court from that of a local authority. In making these orders on that day the judge would seem to have failed to appreciate the limitation of his powers.
  1. In addition, where a local authority is presenting a considered position which is against the issue of care proceedings, it must be incumbent upon a court which holds a contrary view to spell that view out in clear terms and full detail in a reasoned judgment. In the circumstances, it was not sufficient simply to refer back to the December 2010 judgment and recite that the interim threshold had been satisfied at that time; it was, by March 2011, necessary to engage with the contrary view that was being firmly and consistently presented by LCC. The short judgment that was apparently given, and the delegation of the task of spelling out the suggested deficits in the local authority assessment to the father and children’s guardian were significant procedural errors.
  1. If this appeal were being heard during the currency of the 4th March 2011 order, rather than 18 months later, the s 37 direction and with it the interim care order would have to be set aside on the basis that the court had exceeded its jurisdiction in making them and had done so in a procedurally unsustainable manner.

 

 

 

On the broader issue of the appeal, that the Judge making the final decision about care orders had been biased, and in making his succession of ICOs under s37 he had effectively determined the need for care orders before considering the evidence as to whether they should be made, the Court of Appeal rejected this.

 

  • In the circumstances, Mr and Mrs B’s appeal must stand or fall upon the conclusion to be reached on their core assertion which is that the whole process before HHJ Tyzack was fatally tainted by unfairness and judicial bias against them. Their case is assisted by the conclusion at which I have already arrived to the effect that in making the March 2011 s 37 direction and a further interim care order the judge exceeded his jurisdiction. That conclusion is, however, the high point of their case on bias and unfairness. The conduct of the proceedings has to be looked at as a whole. From that perspective, for the reasons that I have given, I can detect no evidence of judicial bias or procedural unfairness. On the contrary the judgment of April 2011, the directions order of November 2011 and the full reasons given for the final decision in January 2012 indicate a judge who was looking to keep Mr and Mrs B on board in the process, should they choose to take part in it, and laying out clearly the factors that he was concerned about and in relation to which he would need to see evidence of change, should Mr and Mrs B wish to provide such. The actual decisions made by the judge were plainly profoundly unwelcome to Mr and Mrs B, but that that was the case is in not, of itself, any indication of judicial bias. In the present proceedings it would seem that Mr and Mrs B’s unilateral actions in withdrawing from cooperation with LCC and with the court at key stages contributed much to the way in which their claim to have Tun in their care became progressively less and less tenable. 
  • Having undertaken a thorough analysis of the process in this case, and despite having concluded that in March 2011 the judge exceeded his jurisdiction, I am fully satisfied that the proceedings as a whole were sound and free from judicial bias. If Mr and Mrs B had appealed the March 2011 interim care order at the time then, in my view, that appeal would have succeeded. They did not do so. Instead they withdrew from cooperation with a local authority, which hitherto had been supporting them to be Tun’s carers. Events moved on and now, some 18 months later, the finding of error in March 2011 is part of the history and cannot, of itself, lead to a finding that the judge’s final conclusion should be set aside with the result that the whole question of this young boy’s future should, once again, be considered afresh by the court. 
  • For the reasons that I have given I would dismiss this appeal.

 [Though I think the appellants had a point here, a Judge who is making repeated s37 ICOs is basically both the applicant and the tribunal determining the application, and it doesn’t sit well with me. I have no way of knowing, of course, whether it was the Judge or the LA who had looked at the case the wrong way, but it does not sit well with me that a Judge who had effectively midwifed the care proceedings into being then determines the outcome of those same proceedings.   It seems to me that whilst justice might well have been done, I’m not sure that it was seen to be done. I have a great deal of sympathy for these parents, who never really came to terms with what they genuinely perceived as unfair treatment, and lost their children as a result of their unwillingness to engage thereafter.  My personal view is that when the parents asked the Judge to recuse himself from the case, that ought to have happened.  Again, sadly, I don’t think the Court of Appeal were plainly wrong on this. ]

 

Here’s the case, make up your own minds

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1549.html