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In the pool or not in the pool?

 

This reported case is a Circuit Judge decision, so not binding on any other Judges, but it is interesting and raises a potentially important issue.

C (Interim threshold not crossed) [2019] EWFC B5 (15 February 2019)    

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2019/B5.html

 

A child C, was 6 1/2 and had lived, for all but four months of his life, with his maternal grandparents, who held a Child Arrangements Order.  C’s cousin, D, was admitted to hospital with fractures to both legs, she being a non-mobile baby.  A police investigation was taking place in relation to D’s injuries. As part of that, the police informed the Local Authority that for a period during the time when those suspicious fractures had occurred, D had been spending time with the grandparents.

 

In the vernacular, the grandparents  (whilst by no means the main suspects for those injuries) were in the ‘pool of perpetrators’   – or were they?

  1. On 8 th October 2018, [the] police apparently advised the local authority that C should be removed from the care of his maternal grandmother and placed with his aunt R, while further and urgent investigations were undertaken.  The grandparents reluctantly gave their section 20 consent to this, feeling they had no option.  The local authority applied for emergency protection orders for D and her brother E on 11 th October, and subsequently care proceedings were issued.  Those two children are subject to interim care orders and are currently in foster care.  HHJ Owens has listed a fact-find hearing to determine the cause of D’s injuries, due to take place in the week before and after Easter, in April 2019.  

 

The LA issued care proceedings for C  (I don’t know that I would have done that, prior to a decision being made about D’s injuries, but the LA were obviously worried that C’s carers may have been responsible for such serious injuries to a baby.  It rather depends on whether that’s a theoretical possibility that they might have been responsible based just on timing, or some evidence that pointed more strongly towards them)

The Court had originally made an EPO and later ICO for C.

 

This was the judgment from a later contested ICO hearing.  It was complicated further because the LA were proposing that C be placed with his father (who was not involved in D’s life at all and thus absolutely not under any suspicion about D’s injuries)

 

#spoiler alert – the title of the case rather gives away the judicial decision, but read on to find out why.

 

An argument deployed at Court was that the Court, faced with a father and grandparents, could apply a private law filter to the case and decide which placement was better for the child in the interim while D’s injuries were being assessed (in effect, a ‘beauty parade’ exercise)

 

The Court, rightly, did not agree. The legal position had to be that the child be with grandparents unless the LA could satisfy the Court that there were reasonable grounds to believe he was likely to suffer significant harm in the grandparents care and further, that the risk of harm was such that C’s safety required separation from the grandparents.

 

 

  1. I have found this application difficult to determine because it was initially presented to me as a simple exercise of my discretion in respect of weighing up the pros and cons of two competing placement options, but, for the reasons I have given, I do not regard that as the correct approach as a matter of law.  I am grateful to all counsel who have shown flexibility in dealing with the issues that were troubling me, but I have received no written submissions about the question of interim threshold, and no evidence or submissions in respect of the application of the welfare checklist.  Because there has in my judgment been inadequate formulation of the nature of the risk that each of the grandparents is said to present to C, there has been inadequate consideration as to how those risks might be contained so as to enable C to continue to be cared for by his grandparents.  The case law is clear that the key to any application for an interim care order in which it is proposed that a child is separated from his primary care givers is proportionality.  I have had no evidence or submissions to enable me to consider whether the course of action proposed by the local authority is necessary or proportionate in safeguarding C’s welfare.

 

Threshold

 

  1. The threshold document is very short on factual detail and does not explain why it is said that C, who it is accepted has never suffered any harm in his grandparents’ care, is at risk of significant harm from either of them

 

  1. Paragraphs one to nine set out the history of D’s admission to hospital and the local authority’s concerns about the care she and her brother E received in their mother’s care. 

 

  1. Paragraphs 10 to 16 concern the grandparents, although there is not a single specific allegation against the paternal grandfather. 

 

  1. At paragraph 10 it is said that E has spent a considerable amount of time in the care of his maternal grandparents.  It is then pleaded:

 

The maternal grandparents have, therefore, had, at the very least, very regular contact and extensive contact with their grandchildren and have failed to protect them from suffering significant harm.

 

  1. There can be no doubt that D has suffered significant harm.  However, this paragraph does not plead when either of the grandparents had regular or extensive contact with D, or in what way they should have acted in order to prevent her serious and significant injuries.  The threshold document does not identify which, if any, of the injuries allegedly sustained by E amount to significant harm.  It is not pleaded in what respect either of the grandparents should have prevented his injuries being sustained.

 

  1. At paragraph 11(a) the local authority pleads that it considers that C would be at immediate risk of significant harm if he returned to the care of his grandparents at this time, because:

 

(i)                  D’s treating clinicians consider that her injuries were inflicted non-accidentally;

(ii)                None of the adults who had care of her or were in contact with her at the time have been able to provide any explanation for the injuries;

(iii)              The paternal grandparents and extended family, are reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of the injuries being inflicted non-accidentally … and show a lack of acceptance around the severity of D’s injuries and the need for local authority involvement with the children.

 

  1. In my judgment, this paragraph fails the President’s test in Re A .  It does not set out why the A + B + C of D’s injuries and the grandparents’ reluctance to contemplate their being inflicted non-accidentally amounts to the X + Y + Z of an immediate risk of significant harm to C if he was in their care.  Within the evidence, I have not seen a specific reference to either of the grandparents suggesting that there should not have been local authority involvement with D.  There is a reference in the first social work statement to the maternal grandmother expressing her reluctance for C to be living with his aunt stating that ‘she had done nothing wrong’ , but if this is what is relied upon, it is not explained why this would mean that C is at risk of significant harm.

 

  1. It is not specifically pleaded whether either of the grandparents was caring for D or in contact with her at the time her injuries were sustained, or whether they were specifically asked to give an explanation or not.  If they were not there when the injuries were sustained I am not sure why they should be criticised for not having an explanation for their cause.

 

  1. If proved, showing a lack of acceptance around the severity of D’s injuries and the need for local authority involvement, is of course a valid concern in general, but in my judgment not on its own sufficient to stand as an explanation that C is at ‘immediate risk of significant harm’ from his grandparents.

 

  1. Paragraph 11(b) includes the statement that ‘one of the adults within the potential pool of perpetrators is the maternal grandmother’.

 

  1. It was repeated to me a number of times in submissions that the grandmother is in the pool of perpetrators’ .  She is not.  A person is ‘in the pool’ only after a finding of fact has been made to that effect.  I understand that an allegation has been made against her within D and E’s proceedings, but findings have not yet been made.  The threshold is for the local authority to prove.  If the grandmother is alleged to be in the pool of perpetrators as part of these proceedings, it is not because she accidentally found herself there, or someone else put her there, it must be because the local authority positively asserts that she had the opportunity and the motive to cause these very serious injuries, and that she was there at the time the injuries thought to have been sustained.  In support of its assertion, and in order for the Court to come to the conclusion that there are reasonable grounds to believe that C is at risk of suffering significant harm from his grandmother, the local authority must spell this out in its threshold document and provide evidence in support. 

 

 

(*On first reading, I thought that HHJ Vincent was saying a person is only ‘in the pool of perpetrators’ if a finding of fact about the injury has been made, but he is saying that actually a finding of fact has to be made that ‘X and Y and  Z are the people who could have caused the injuries to C, if the Court later goes on to find that C was injured deliberately’  – that doesn’t usually arise, because the issue of whether someone is ‘in the pool’ is not itself contentious.  But of course here, and in any case where a child is potentially being placed with family members whom the LA assert may be ‘in the pool of perpetrators’ – the issue really should be whether the LA satisfy the Court that this person is reasonably likely to be  ‘in the pool’ and they are not just placed ‘in the pool’ on the LA’s say so.  The remarks about ‘motive’ are interesting, because there’s barely ever evidence as to motive in physical harm to children.  But of course, it is relevant for the Court to consider a 6 year period of problem-free care of C, the limited time the grandparents would have spent with C and lack of evidence as to say  – substance misuse, anger management, violence, or being overwhelmed or frustrated, because those are the usual causes of physical abuse – it is very rare to see actual evidence of sadistic intent)

  1. I have not found any other evidence within these proceedings to suggest that the maternal grandmother had care of D in the week or so before her admission to hospital.

 

  1. Nonetheless, SW still asserts in her conclusion that ‘MGM is currently in the pool of perpetrators for causing injuries to D and/or failing to protect her’.

 

  1. A perpetrator does not fail to protect, they perpetrate.  The pleaded allegation is that MGM is in the pool of perpetrators. 

 

  1. I am unaware of what is pleaded against MGM in the proceedings concerning D and E, and I accept there may be specific allegations and evidence that puts her in the frame more clearly.  However, I am concerned with C, and the pleaded threshold document in respect of him.  The threshold document does not explain upon what facts it relies to suggest that the grandmother could reasonably be believed to be in the pool of perpetrators, and scrutiny of the local authority evidence in this case does not assist. 

 

  1. At paragraph 12 it is pleaded that D’s injuries are so severe, ‘with no explanation as to causation and no clarity, at present, around the possible perpetrator, that the local authority does not consider that it can be safe for C to return to his grandmother’s care’. Again, this allegation does not explain why it is that the severity of D’s injuries and the fact of the perpetrator remaining unidentified pose an immediate risk of harm to C from his grandmother. 

 

This next paragraph,  it took me a while to work out who “Q” was – it is the mother’s partner.

 

  1. At paragraph 13 it is alleged that the presentation of the maternal grandmother and mother’s presentation at the hearing of the EPO were ‘extremely alarming’.  They were seen to physically and verbally restrain Q by sitting on him and putting their hands over his mouth, while he clenched his fist.  This allegation may well need to be explored further, but whether true or not and whatever the reasons for and the significance of this behaviour is, again, the threshold document does not explain why this means that C is at immediate risk of significant harm from his grandparents. 

 

 

 

In conclusion

 

 

Is interim threshold crossed?

 

  1. I have looked at the threshold allegations carefully. 

 

  1. I have considered all the evidence in the bundle and I have listened carefully to the oral evidence of Y and of the guardian.

 

  1. I am not satisfied that threshold is pleaded with sufficient clarity to set out why it is said that either the maternal grandmother or the maternal grandfather present an immediate risk of significant harm to C.  I have reviewed all the evidence and I am not satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that on the date protective measures were taken, C had suffered or was at risk of suffering significant harm as a consequence of the care given by his grandparents, which or that the care given by them was not the level of care one would reasonably expect a parent to give.

 

  1. I do not accept that asserting repeatedly that the grandmother is in the pool of perpetrators with respect to D’s injuries, and being concerned that there is insufficient information and clarity around the circumstances of D’s injuries is sufficient to form the basis of a threshold allegation against the maternal grandmother. so far as C is concerned.  If the local authority wishes to put forward a positive case in respect of the maternal grandmother then it is required to set out in the threshold document what facts are relied upon and then to provide the evidence in support of its contention.  They have not done so.  The evidence is at best equivocal.  While at an interim stage there is of course no requirement to prove the section 31 final threshold is crossed, there must be evidence to satisfy the Court that there are reasonable grounds to believe the section 31 circumstances exist.

 

  1. There is no single specific allegation against the maternal grandfather in the threshold document.

 

  1. All the remaining allegations are generalised and none of them provides an explanation as to why it is said that the care that has been given to C or is likely to be given to him by his grandparents should he return to their care, is below what one would reasonably expect from a parent, and why it would put him at risk of suffering significant harm.  

 

  1. Because I do not find interim threshold to have been crossed, I have no jurisdiction to make an interim care order in respect of C and he should in my judgment be returned to his grandparents’ care.

 

  1. In reaching this conclusion I am not suggesting that the local authority’s concerns about the grandparents are baseless, and I accept that SW and the guardian have genuine concerns about the grandparents’ ability to work co-operatively with them, their insight and acknowledgment of the severity of D’s injuries and the existence and impact of domestic abuse upon their grandchildren.  However, the case law is clear, the local authority must meet a high standard when seeking to justify the continuing separation of C from his grandparents.  I must only consider making an order which interferes  with their right to a family life where the strict statutory grounds are made out.

 

 

 

 

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Couple “too old” to look after their granddaughter

I saw this case break in the Telegraph  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11754837/Couple-told-they-are-too-old-to-look-after-their-granddaughter.html   where the line was that grandparents who were able, willing and capable of looking after their grand-daughter were turned down on the basis of their age and the child would be adopted.

 

That immediately didn’t sound right. It had the immediate ring of “I think that you’ll find its a little bit more complicated than that”.   [If you do find yourself being outraged and appalled by a case and you haven’t actually read the judgment, that’s usually a safe answer.  Of course, there are cases where reading the judgment actually does appall you at the scandal that’s gone on, but at least you are now being appalled on an informed basis]

 

That would fall extremely short of the legal tests involved, and you can see from the Telegraph article that they do include the comment from the Social Services department involved, who said flatly that age was not the deciding factor in the case.

 

The judgment is now available and people can see it for themselves

 

Re C 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B99.html

 

You can see that the grandparents made an application to Court, to challenge the assessment done of them that did not recommend that they could care for the child. The Court heard from them, including hearing evidence from the grandfather (who sounds like a thoroughly nice man, to be honest).  The Court then applied the statutory tests and the case law guidance to whether they should have that application granted and whether the child could live with them, or whether adoption was the right way forward.

 

Additionally, you can see that whilst the Judge does mention the age of the grandparents, it is mentioned in passing rather than being the reason for the decision.

 

The reason for the decision, very simply, was that the mother had considerable mental health difficulties, including cutting herself in front of the child, that the mother had a very difficult relationship with the grandparents and that they were not going to be able to shield the child from these things.

 

The main concern however it seems to me is the fact that this family would be in my judgment completely unable to cope with the triangular relationship of C, M and the grandparents. Mr G expressed in evidence that he hoped that his daughter was going to recover her mental health, that she had had some recent treatment that over the next four years might lead to her mental health recovering. I very much hope that that is the case and it may well be right, but he was very clear that he was going to continue his relationship with his daughter and indeed he is to be commended for that. He said he saw her yesterday. I just cannot envisage how the triangular relationship can possibly work. Dr Martinez in her report expresses the concern that mother is unable to bring up C because she is likely to expose C to extreme behaviours – ‘scary situations’ is the word she uses – and she is referring to the incident in January when M in front of C self-harmed, cutting herself, and C was clearly in a scary situation witnessing her mother bleeding. That is exactly the type of situation which Dr Martinez envisages recurring and which puts C at the risk of significant harm if she were to be placed with her mother. If I were to envisage C being placed with her grandparents it seems to me that it is only a matter of time before C is put in that situation again. This is because of the conflict which the grandparents will experience in their meetings with their daughter, who they will not be able to turn away and in the conflict that is likely ultimately to create and which C is inevitably going to experience. Their personal circumstances are not ideal but ultimately it is that relationship which it seems to me makes it impossible for their application to succeed. Given the disruption to the local authority Care Plan against the likelihood of success of their application, I am afraid that I have no hesitation in saying that that application should therefore be dismissed.

 

Now, you may agree or disagree that this is a valid reason for saying no to these grandparents; but it certainly isn’t a decision that was made because of their age.

I don’t fault the grandparents at all for this – Courts can be confusing and scary places, and Judges use language and concepts that aren’t commonplace for ordinary people. Add to that, that of course this was an emotionally charged hearing and it is little surprise that the grandparents left not completely understanding all the reasons why the Judge said no to them, and that they got the wrong end of the stick.

Nor do I blame the journalist  – if the judgment had borne out what the grandparents said, that a Court had ordered that the child be adopted purely because the grandparents were too old, that would be a miscarriage of justice and a scandal worth reporting.  Of course, the journalist did have the clear rebuttal from Social Services that the case wasn’t about age, but also they had the comments from the solicitor engaged to represent these grandparents in an appeal  (which I doubt has any legs at all).  So it is not the flaw we often see in the Telegraph of the story having a single source – the journalist here did try to get multiple sources and to stand the story up.

You could make a criticism that the journalist didn’t try to get the judgment from the Court or wait for it on Bailii, but I think that’s to confuse the worlds of law and journalism.  Firstly, news stories are time sensitive. If the Telegraph waited for it to be published, they could have missed the scoop element that they had. And secondly, given that most lawyers can’t get an answer out of the Court service, what makes you think a journalist enquiring about “there’s been this case, I don’t have the case number, but can I have an anonymised copy of the judgment” is going to get any better response.

So I think it was okay for the Telegraph to run the story.  The problem, however, is that the Telegraph’s version of the story – that social workers and Courts rule people out just based on age, is the one that fluorishes and replicates and spreads, and the actual truth that the reasons for the decision were based on a Judge’s assessment of their ability to keep the child safe from mother, won’t get out there.

It is really important in care proceedings that family members who are able to help out, support the parents and ultimately offer a home if the parents can’t do it, come forward and aren’t put off. So, the story here spreads a myth that simply isn’t true.

I do appreciate that newspapers don’t exist solely as a vehicle to communicate the truth. They have to sell copies, they have to get clicks on their articles, they have to exist as a commercial venture. If they print articles that are factually accurate but that nobody wants to read, then the advertisers who want to sell their conservatories, plates with Princess Diana on them,  safes disguised as baked-bean tins, and mustard coloured polyester slacks*, won’t be placing those adverts.

I can’t actually work out a sexy way for the Telegraph and other news outlets to tell this story and correct the myth.  The best I can do is “Family Courts do still screw up from time to time, but they didn’t on this occasion. Sorry”   – and even I probably wouldn’t read that article.

[* Other products are, I’m sure, advertised in the Telegraph , and that’s just the sort of flippant generalisation and stereotyping that I would criticise them for when writing about social workers wearing corduroy trousers and knitting their own muesli.  It was just a cheap gag…   – now,  if you want to find “cheap gags” in the advertising section of a publication you are looking for something in the newsagents on an entirely different shelf to the Telegraph]

Removal from grandparents under Interim Care Order

This is a curious appeal (I have to say that my gut feeling is that the grandparents were damn unlucky to lose this appeal, but of course the Court of Appeal have the benefit of seeing the papers and hearing the full argument. And each time I read the appeal judgment, my view that the grandparents were damn unlucky increased.  )

 

Re T (Children) 2015

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed144754

There are two issues of wide import

 

1. That the test for removal under an ICO from grandparents is exactly the same as for removal from parents.

[Most of us thought this and worked on that premise, but it is helpful for the Court of Appeal to formally confirm it –  in short terms – the child’s safety must require immediate separation]

2. That the original trial Judge had not been fair in curtailing the time for the parents to seek a Stay application before the Court of Appeal – and had gone too far.

 

A stay, for those readers who are not lawyers, is an application that can be made to say “Don’t take the action that the Judge ordered, because I intend to appeal that order, and things should stay the same way as they are now until that appeal can be heard”  (think of it like a ‘stay of execution’)

In this case, a judgment concluding that Interim Care Orders were made and that the children could be removed by social workers was announced on Friday 30th January. Counsel for the grandparents immediately applied for a stay  (don’t remove the children until I can get before the Court of Appeal) . The Judge granted a stay until 2.30pm on Monday 2nd February, but didn’t send out his judgment until 1.00pm on that Monday. Even if counsel happened to be free and immediately available to look at the judgment the second the email arrived, that only gave 90 minutes to read it, draw up an appeal notice and lodge the appeal. Oh, and get before an Appeal Court to ask them for a stay. And have that application heard and decided. Ninety minutes doesn’t perhaps seem like a fair amount of time for that.

Mr Elliott of counsel seems to me a top bloke, but I don’t actually believe that he is the Fastest Man Alive (as anyone will know, that is Barry Allen. And yes, The Flash is faster than Superman)

 

except maybe Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash

Although counsel asked for the stay to be continued for longer, the Court were only prepared to grant him an extra ninety minutes. Thus, by the time that the grandparents case for an appeal was able to be considered, the children had already been removed – that must have massively damaged their prospects of success.

If the Court had been reasonable and granted the stay for say 24 hours after delivery of a judgment that was known to be likely to be appealed, that injustice would not have occurred.

14. Before descending to the merits of the appeal itself, it is necessary to dwell for a short time on the procedural progress of the appeal and in particular upon the paternal grandparents’ application for a stay of the interim care order to allow them to issue papers in the Court of Appeal and make application to this court for an extension of any stay until at least the permission to appeal application could be determined.

15. The sequence of events is that the judge, as I have indicated, announced his decision to make the interim care order on Friday, 30 January, but did not hand down his judgment until it was circulated by email to the advocates shortly after 1 pm on Monday, 2 February. On the application of counsel, Mr Mark Elliott, who has conspicuously and very effectively stood up for the interests of the paternal grandparents in these proceedings, the judge granted a stay on Friday, the 30th until 2.30 on Monday, 2 February. It became clear during the course of the morning of the Monday that preparation of the judgment was to an extent delayed and the judge therefore extended the stay to 3 pm on that day.

16. At the hearing which took place shortly after the judgment was circulated and I should indicate for these purposes the scale of the judgment, it runs to some 31 closely reasoned pages and amounts to 120 paragraphs the judge was asked to extend the stay until 3 pm on the following day, 24 hours later. However, the judge declined to do so and was only prepared to extend the stay until 4 pm on that day, 2 February. Counsel, Mr Elliott, those who instruct him and his clerks, were engaged in a process of trying to make contact with the Court of Appeal in order that their application for a further stay might be considered by this court. They were told that such an application could only be entertained if a formal notice was filed, and it simply was not possible for them to get the paperwork in order by 4 pm, when the judge’s stay expired.

17. The Local Authority were mindful of the procedural and professional difficulties that I have described, and they in fact allowed a further hour’s extension to 5 pm, but at 5 pm on 2 February, the children were removed from the paternal grandparents’ care. At shortly before 7 pm, Mr Elliott was able to make an oral application to the out of hours Lord Justice on duty on that night, but by then the children had been removed and the stay application fell to be considered in the colder light of day subsequently, and on that basis it was considered by me on 7 February, when at the same time I initially refused permission to appeal, and so the question of a stay did not arise.

18. I go through that procedural chronology for this reason: Mr Elliott as his fourth ground of appeal complains that the sequence of events and the limited stay granted by the judge was profoundly unfair to his clients, and also I think his submission is that it was not a procedural course which was in the best interests of the children. It effectively prevented an application for a stay being made to this court until the children had been removed.

19. In short terms, I think Mr Elliott’s point is very well made. This was not a case, happily, where the children were in any situation which could be described as immediate risk of physical harm. There was no emergency in that sense. The children had been living for a very substantial period of time in the grandparents’ home. The grandparents, we have been told, despite some concerns on the part of the social workers to the contrary, had not behaved in any unreasonable or worrying way in the intervening period between the Friday, when they heard that the order was to be made, and the Monday when judgment was handed down.

20. From the perspective of this court, it is difficult to see why Judge Meston felt unable to grant a stay of sufficient length to enable an application to be made to this court. It is well known, and has been the subject of judicial comment by judges of this court over a significant period of time, that judges at first instance, in a case which does not have the characters of a 999 emergency, should be encouraged to establish a short but reasonable stay to their orders in cases such as this so that an application can be made to this court. Judge Meston, hearing the case as he was on a Monday, might reasonably have contemplated a stay measured in the length of two or three days to allow an application to be made to this court as I have described, and not to do so seems to my eyes to be entirely unwarranted.

21. It is not – I do not think Mr Elliott argues it in this way – a ground of appeal that would lead me to hold that the judge’s overall order about the making of the interim care order should of itself be set aside, but insofar as I need to, I would agree entirely with the criticism of the judge’s process that is made in ground four.

 

On the facts of the case itself, the removal was not an emergency one – the Court had decided that the children’s needs were not being met but their safety wasn’t in jeopardy.

For my part, I’m not convinced that the ‘child’s safety requires immediate separation’ was borne out, but the Judge thought that it was, and so did the Court of Appeal.

 

My reading is more that the Local Authority were arguing that their assessment of the children’s needs was being hampered by them being with their grandparents and that removal into foster carer would allow for a better assessment. (I have heard that argument posited before, and I’ve always thought that it doesn’t meet the legal test for removal)

26. In addition, it is plain that Judge Meston in the course of his judgment considered that the plan to have these two children assessed in a neutral venue with skilled foster carers was a helpful step for the Local Authority to take. It would provide helpful, vital, information for those charged with drawing up any plan for the children’s future. It would also, if the grandparents were to become once again the full time carers of the children, give the grandparents much needed information about the sophisticated needs of these young children.

27. But again, it is plain on a reading of the judge’s judgment, and it is the submission of the Local Authority and the guardian in this case, that the judge did not make the order simply because he favoured the process of assessment that was available; he made the order, it is submitted by those who oppose the appeal, because he considered that the test of “safety demanding immediate separation” was met.

28. It is therefore necessary to see what the judge did or did not say about the level of harm to which the children were currently exposed in the grandparents’ home. Before descending into detail, it is helpful to summarise the case that is put by the Local Authority and the guardian. They do not assert that the grandparents themselves are fresh sources of significant harm to the children.

29. The case that is put is that these children have been profoundly damaged in an emotional and psychological way by the experience that they have previously lived through, and that in the care of the paternal grandparents, the need for enhanced parenting is not being met, and that despite their best endeavours the grandparents are simply not able to provide the sort of care that the children need, that the children’s behaviour is deteriorating and has been seen to deteriorate over time and contact which is supervised at times when the mother has observed them, and also more generally when observed by social workers. The Local Authority’s case, to put it in lay terms, was simply that “enough is enough”, the time has come when it is no longer in the children’s interests to be exposed to further deterioration in their emotional wellbeing.

 

[I interrupt. This is smacking to me of that rather insidious ‘reparative care’ argument…]

30. In the course of his submissions, Mr Hand has taken the court to a number of parts of the judge’s judgment where he refers to evidence about harm to the children that he has heard from the social worker and from the children’s guardian, and to findings that the judge has made. It is not necessary for me to turn to those parts of Mr Hand’s submissions which in my view did not advance his case to any great extent, but at paragraph 108 of the judgment, the judge said this:

“The nature of the harm suffered by the children is now clear enough, although the continuing risks to the children are less easy to measure; but in my judgment the risks are correctly seen to be significant, particularly if the children’s needs are not properly understood and managed by the grandparents, and particularly if the father is not seen by them as a source of risk, and/or if the conflicts between the two sides of the family remain or revive. The father’s hostility to the mother and their immature relationship was a striking feature of the evidence. The concerns about the grandparents’ attitude of the social workers is another worrying feature. Only further assessment will show whether the grandparents have developed, or can develop, some insight which can be put into practice.”

The judge had already made findings in a number of places about the need for the children to have enhanced parenting. He said at paragraph 107:

“They are also said now to require reparative care, with a high standard of skill, insight and consistency.”

[Yes, there’s the reparative care bit]

31. Looking back to an earlier stage of the judgment, in paragraph 92, the judge there lists the findings that the Local Authority sought in relation to the grandparents. Most of those are not directly relevant to the issue of harm to the children now, but the judge does say this at subparagraphs 9, 10 and 11:

“(9) The Local Authority point to the deterioration in the children’s behaviour since September shown by the mother’s statement, the contact records and the school reports.

There is no doubt that there have been serious problems in the children’s behaviour which was noted by almost all the professionals. As was said by the social worker, it was not suggested that the grandparents have been the cause of this behaviour but that their ability to manage it is limited. As was said by RP, J has sought attention by a level of negative behaviour which is not normal for the behaviour of a four year old, and she described his behaviour as escalating without strategy and routine.

(10) The Local Authority contend that the paternal grandparents struggle to set appropriate boundaries for the children. In the parenting assessment J was noted to be violent to L without there being any reprimands or other consequential for his action. In general his behaviour is challenging.

Clearly the behaviour of J, in particular, has been remarkably difficult for the grandparents to deal with, and if it continues there will be serious implications for his development and for the relationship between him and his sister.

(11) The Local Authority submit that the children have suffered significant harm and disruption in their lives to date because of the care provided by the parents, and that the children have a heightened need for stability and consistency and require reparative parenting. L also has special educational needs and requires better than good enough parenting which the grandparents are not in a position to meet. In this respect it is submitted that the paternal grandparents are not in a position to meet those needs for the rest of the children’s minorities.

There is no dispute that the children have suffered significant harm and disruption and there can be no dispute that they have a particular need for stability and consistency and require reparative parenting. The evidence overall does raise very real doubts about the abilities of the grandparents to meet the children’s particular needs.”

32. Of that material, Mr Hand in particular draws attention to subparagraph 10, where focus is placed upon the behaviour of J and the fact that the grandparents find that behaviour remarkably difficult to deal with. Within that subparagraph, I would stress the following; the judge says:

” … if it continues, there will be serious implications for his development and for the relationship between him and his sister.”

Pausing there, that is a plain highlighting by the judge of a profoundly important long term factor in the case. The starting point for any consideration of a child’s welfare is that it is normally likely to be in his or her interests to be brought up with and continue to live with any siblings. What the judge identifies at subparagraph 10 is a potential for J’s behaviour, if it continues to deteriorate or even be maintained at its current level, to call into question his ability long term to find a home with his sister.

33. The judge, having made those particular findings, moves on in his judgment to cast them within the test of identifying safety requiring immediate separation. The judge says this at paragraph 103:

“At this stage and on the evidence available I do not propose to rule out the paternal grandparents from further consideration as potential carers for the children (or either of them). They are devoted grandparents who have been prepared to take on the children, and they might have taken a more constructive position had they had legal representation at an earlier stage and perhaps, thereby they might have obtained more support from the Local Authority. They almost certainly now represent the only chance of keeping the children within their birth family. Although there is considerable force in the criticisms of the grandparents it is necessary to be cautious before deciding that they are not, and could not become, a realistic option (even if that turns out to be an option to be considered for only one of the children). At a final hearing the realism or otherwise of that option is likely to depend upon (among other things): (a) evidence that their attitude to the inevitable constraints and intrusions of Local Authority involvement really has changed, and that any improvements are not superficial as the social worker suspected they were; (b) further (and better) evidence about the grandmother’s medical condition and prognosis; and (c) the availability of effective measures to protect the children from harm in the longer term.”

There the judge, as well as stating that he is not ruling the grandparents out, does identify serious deficits in their ability to care that require attention in terms of further evidence at the hearing.

34. Turning to the harm in relation to the children, the judge says this at paragraph 108:

The nature of the harm suffered by the children is now clear enough, although the continuing risks to the children are less easy to measure; but in my judgment the risks are correctly seen to be significant, particularly if the children’s needs are not properly understood and managed by the grandparents, and particularly if the father is not seen by them as a source of risk, and/or if the conflicts between the two sides of the family remain or revive. The father’s hostility to the mother and their immature relationship was a striking feature of the evidence. The concerns about the grandparents’ attitude of the social workers is another worrying feature. Only further assessment will show whether the grandparents have developed, or can develop, some insight which can be put into practice.”

35. Drawing matters to a conclusion, the judge describes his analysis at paragraphs 113, 114, 115 and 116, before stating his conclusion at 119:

“113. I accept the fundamental arguments advanced by the Local Authority and guardian that it is now essential and urgent for the long term needs of the children to be assessed to inform the final care plans, and that in the circumstances of this case the necessary assessment cannot properly be carried out while the children remain in the care of the paternal grandparents.

[interruption – of course, that’s not a safety issue]

114. Secondly, the Local Authority and guardian argue that the evidence of the children’s continuing and deteriorating behaviour, not least towards each other, shows the extent to which the children have been damaged in their upbringing and shows the limited ability of both paternal grandparents to understand and manage the children’s situation and needs. In essence the contention of the Local Authority and guardian was that the situation is bad and could get worse; and although there has been no obvious emergency that requires immediate removal of the children, there has been a growing level of concern and the situation is serious and urgent enough to justify such a removal.

115. In looking at the evidence overall including the incidents and difficulties indicating harm to the children and the risks of harm, I have tried to assess whether these are really long term welfare concerns, rather than concerns which involve a current risk to safety.

[That’s really the nub of the case – these could all be categorised as long term concerns, rather than immediate safety ones]

116. I accept the evidence of the social worker and guardian that things cannot remain as they are. The concerns of the Local Authority are valid and are justified by the evidence. The need to understand, manage and address the problems and needs of L and J and the potential for further damage to them outweigh the arguments for leaving the children with the grandparents in the hope that the grandparents continue to control their attitude to the Local Authority and their reluctance to cooperate, and in the hope that the grandparents can shortly acquire the skills and insight they lack.

119. In the light of all the evidence I have concluded that there is sufficient concern about the children’s emotional and psychological safety to justify the orders sought for the reasons advanced by the Local Authority and guardian. I have therefore decided that it is necessary and proportionate to approve the proposals of the Local Authority for removal of the children.”

Given the importance of a finding that the child’s safety require immediate separation, this seems somewhat thin.

36. Mr Elliott in his submissions to the court accepts as a matter of fact that the judge did identify harm of the nature that I have now described, and did seek to cast it in the context of current safety needs, but he submits that the element of harm that is identified simply does not come within what the case law requires. He says this is emotional harm and at no stage does the judge identify why at that date, in January 2015, the children required removal from the home because of the impact on their emotional wellbeing, when that had not been sought at an earlier stage and when the court was going to look at the whole question of the children’s future wellbeing only some four months further in the future. He submits that the judge simply did not achieve findings that got as far as identifying the children’s immediate safety needs, in emotional terms, requiring removal on that day.

37. I am bound to say, when I granted permission to appeal and when I heard Mr Elliott’s submissions this morning, I too could readily identify the dislocation that he draws attention to between the judge on the one hand saying “I do not rule these grandparents out as long term carers,” but on the other hand saying nevertheless the children’s circumstances require immediate removal.

38. Having now had the benefit of being taken to the detail of the judgment by Mr Hand in the way that I have described, I take a contrary view. The judge declined to rule out the grandparents at that stage for reasons to do with their long term capacity to be carers of the children. For the judge, the jury was still out on the question of whether or not the grandparents could bring themselves to meet the needs of the children long term, and the issues that the Local Authority had sought to identify, which included matters to do with the grandmother’s health, the ability of the grandfather to devote himself more fully to the care of the children alongside his laudable and clear desire to work hard in his chosen trade, and other matters, were long term issues that required further investigation.

39. They are, I now accept, separate matters from the immediate wellbeing of the children, and I can see how this experienced family judge, who had become immersed in the evidence of this case over the course of five days, who said that he was considering the test of safety requiring immediate separation, could come to the view that the children’s safety in emotional terms did indeed require separation at this stage.

40. For me, the elements of the evidence that I have drawn attention to, that we have been led to by Mr Hand, establish the context within which the judge’s decision can be seen to be justified in evidential terms, and also justified as a conclusion. In particular, paragraph 92 subsection 10, to which I have already drawn attention, is striking. The judge there is identifying the status quo in the grandparents’ home, where J was behaving in a way that the grandparents found remarkably difficult to deal with, but also in a way which had “serious implications for his development”, and which might, if it was allowed to continue and consolidate, pass the point of no return so that the option of this boy being able to grow up in the same home as his sister might be lost, in terms of safety in emotional terms, requiring immediate separation. To my eyes, that point alone would justify the order that the judge made.

41. Secondly, I have already described the approach of the judge and the experience of the judge. Where a judge correctly identifies the legal test, says he is applying it, and says he has the evidence which justifies that conclusion, and is able in the course of the judgment to refer to that evidence, this court should be slow to interfere and say he is wrong. There is no indication here that there was an error of principle in the judge’s conclusion, and to my mind he should be given a substantial margin of respect by this court in having conducted the exercise that he said he had undertaken.

I think the grandparents were unlucky here – I would have been fairly confident about their appeal had I been them, and fairly doubtful if I had been for the Local Authority.  Interesting that MacFarlane LJ thought that in and of itself – J’s behaviour might lead to him and his sister not being able to be placed together in the future as being sufficient for a finding of ‘safety requires immediate separation’.  I see that particular formulation being deployed in future cases.  How does one assess a ‘might’?  Is it necessary to show that it is more likely than not to happen, or is it sufficient to be a risk that cannot sensibly be ignored?

This is what Lord Justice Ryder had to say on the issue

44. The judge identified the correct test in principle. He was perhaps less clear in a detailed judgment about his analysis of the findings that he made and the prima facie evidence that existed. This court has, however, been assisted by the submissions of counsel for the Local Authority, the children’s guardian, and the appellant paternal grandparents. It is now sufficiently clear that the judge accepted the evidence of the Local Authority witnesses and the analysis of the children’s guardian that the children had suffered significant emotional harm in the care of their parents, and importantly that that harm had continued in the care of the paternal grandparents. The behaviour of the children as between each other, in particular from the child J towards his sister, had continued and deteriorated in the paternal grandparents’ care, to the extent that one of the risks identified was that as a consequence of their behaviour, the children may have to be separated such that they might not be able to be cared for together by anyone. That was capable of being characterised as a safety question that demanded immediate separation; i.e. to put it colloquially, enough was enough. 

Let us hope that ‘enough was enough’ does not become the latest soundbite to be shoved into every submission and skeleton argument in the next six months.

Note also the continuing trend of the Court of Appeal to move away from where they were on appeals post Re B, where a judgment needed to be a stand-alone document explaining and making plain why a decision had been made to a position where now the Court of Appeal are willing with a judgment that is thin in places to open up the luggage of the case and have a good rumage around to see if there are garments within that could cover the barer patches of the judgment so as to preserve its modesty.

“That’s all we do, isn’t it? Look at things and try new rules?”

–         Ernest Hemingway (nearly) 

A consideration of the private members bill about Family Justice

 

 

I came across John Hemming MP’s draft family justice bill, which will be put forward as a result of him winning the ballot to put forward a Private Members Bill, and felt it was appropriate to write about it.

 

Not because it will necessarily become law  (very, very few Private Members Bills make it to Acts, because they don’t have the force of the parties and whips behind them)

 

Nor because I want to coruscate or ridicule it.

 

But because, at a time when Family Justice Review is dominating the thoughts and actions of professionals, it seemed to me appropriate to look at how one of the staunchest critics of the current system would want to change it. 

 

Just because someone has different and firm views with which I disagree  (in a nutshell, I think miscarriages of justice in family law are tragic but rare, and John Hemming thinks they are relatively commonplace – we’re entitled to have different views on that) , doesn’t mean that their ideas and suggestions are without merit, and I particularly wanted to see how John Hemming would want family law to change.  It seemed to me that his views would be a damn good place to start in working out what changes could be achievable, if one started with a blank sheet of paper.

 

I don’t agree with John Hemming on everything, but I applaud him without doubt for his sincere desire to make family justice better for those who are dragged into using it, and it is substantially easier to knock something down than construct it, so he earns my respect for putting together some proposals.

 

 

If you don’t listen to people who have had the roughest end of family justice, how can you genuinely reform it? I don’t say that you should slavishly follow their views, but the real voiceless in the Norgrove consideration of family law were the parents.

 

I doubt that many people, with the deluge of material we have to read, will have read the draft bill, but I found it genuinely interesting.

 

[Quick sidebar, the title quote above is actually “That’s all we do, isn’t it? Look at things and try new drinks”  and one that crops up regularly in a book I’ve just been reading called Boozehound, which is about cocktails and is fantastic. I particularly like the author for his insistence that vermouth is a crucial part of a martini, and all this macho “very dry, like open a bottle of vermouth in the next room” nonsense is actually just arising from people like Churchill and Hemingway who were functioning alcoholics and just drinking a very very cold glass of gin.  If you want to try the book, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Boozehound-Trail-Obscure-Overrated-Spirits/dp/1580082882/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1344446493&sr=8-1

 

 

Anyway, you can find the draft bill here:-

 

http://www.john.hemming.name/pmb/family_justice_bill_draft_bill.pdf

 

 

There were lots of things I really liked in this.  As a lawyer, there were lots of drafting issues I’d tighten up, and it is clearly a work in progress but the proposals contain good ideas. Drafting is the easy bit, coming up with ideas is the difficult part.

 

 (I would baulk at the idea that any party to court proceedings can bring up to 5 people in to court to support them, but think formally allowing people to be able to bring in some support is not a bad idea  – the Court would need to be able to control behaviour so that it did not descend into Jeremy Kyle territory, but wouldn’t it be better to have a default position that people can bring in a friend or relative to support them, and only exclude them if they misbehave, rather than assuming that they are inevitably going to be trouble-causers?)

 

 

1.  The proposals about grandparents  –  clause 2   

 

(3) Grandparents or siblings of parents, who are not parties to a case, shall

(a) be able to participate in that part of any proceedings which involves considering whether or not childrenshould be placed with them; and such people who have had care of children should not face detailedassessment unless their children have been subject to a child protection plan or care proceedings; and

(b) in the case of grandparents be permitted to participate in proceedings if they have had long term involvement with their grandchildren and have information which will be helpful to the outcome of the case.

(4) Grandparents shall be permitted to have reasonable direct and indirect contact with their grandchildren without this contact being supervised unless it is not in the interest of the welfare of the child

 

[I suspect that as a local authority lawyer, I ought to be against the idea of not assessing grandparents in detail, but I actually think that’s a proposal that’s worthy of consideration. If the grandparents don’t have visible or historical problems, shouldn’t we start assuming that they’re decent people? Why not speed up and slim down assessments by working on the premise that grandparents are prima facie a good thing, unless there’s evidence to the contrary?]

 

2. The addition of a principle that children in care should be placed near their family if possible – clause 2(5)

 

(5) Children not placed with their family should be placed as close as is practicable to their home authority.

 

[Though I would add, unless this would place them or the security of their placement at risk, I think it is an important and worthwhile thing to be included in any new Act]

 

3. The consideration of the conflict that necessarily exists between the Local Authority being responsible for providing for a child in care and at the same time investigating allegations of abuse that occur whilst in care.  The Bill suggests that Parliament should set up an independent body to investigate complaints of abuse to children in care. I think there’s no money for that, but it doesn’t make it a bad idea.

 

4. Establishing that being, or having been in care during your childhood should be a category covered by the Equality Act. 

 

 

5. Proposed amendment to the Adoption and Children Act

 

 4. Amendment of the Children and Adoption Act 2002

After section 52(1) of the 2002 Act there shall be inserted

“(1A) Where a judge is of the opinion that parental consent may be dispensed with pursuant to subsection (1) (b) he must

(a) in his judgement explain how he has considered the requirement of section 1 (4) of this Act; and

(b) then only make an order placing a child in the care of a local authority after considering whether it is possible and in the interest of the welfare of the child to place the child with one of his relatives.”

 

I think every judge I’ve ever been before already does that, but I can’t see that it hurts to have it as a statutory requirement. If there’s doubt that it is being done, then make it mandatory.

 

 

6. A statutory duty for the LA to act so that the child’s welfare is paramount

 

6. Children and Parents: Duties of local authorities and other bodies

(1) When a local authority or other body carries out any functions or makes any decisions in connection with the upbringing of a child, the child’s welfare shall be the paramount consideration.

(2) In respect of subsection (1), the local authority or other body must act on the presumption that the child’s welfare is best served through having access to and contact with both parents and grandparents sufficient to enable him to have a meaningful relationship with both parents and grandparents unless in the opinion of the court such contact is not in the interests of the welfare of the child and that information about the child should be provided to both parents.

 

 

Again, I think that most Local Authorities do this as a matter of good practice, but I would have no problem with this being enacted.

 

 

7. Greater scrutiny for the office of the Official Solicitor

 

 

 

Where I start diverting is :-

 

 

The right of all parties to proceedings to record them  (I see the purpose of it, but think it would be misused massively.)

 

The right of a person who has been deemed to lack litigation capacity to appeal this and to appoint a person of their choice to assist them  (again, I see where the idea of this is going, but the difficulty is that if you are establishing that someone doesn’t have capacity, they don’t then have capacity to make such a decision).  

 

This was the very issue that got John Hemming into hot water with Mr Justice Wall in  RP v (1) NOTTINGHAM CITY COUNCIL (2) OFFICIAL SOLICITOR (2008) [2008] EWCA Civ 462   (though he was clearly making an important point in that case about a person who was denied the opportunity to fight her case because she was vulnerable)

 

I do see where John Hemming is coming from with this – it doesn’t sit comfortably with me when a parent who lacks capacity is saying that they want their children back, but aren’t able to run that case because the Official Solicitor takes the view that they aren’t able to.  That requires a bigger consideration of litigation capacity, however. I would not be against a policy whereby the day to day conduct of litigation is run by the O/S, but the parent is able to communicate to the Court through their solicitor or counsel what their wishes are on the big issues of placement and contact.

 The bill’s proposal for a tweaked test on capacity seems, to me, not unreasonable. People should be allowed to make bad, foolish or downright stupid decisions, providing they are not causing themselves harm in doing so. If the decisions fall within a range of reasonable possible decisions  (i.e it is reasonable to eat salad, or chips, or rice, but not to eat glass) then it seems to me appropriate that a person be allowed to make such decision, even if they would, or could have made a better one

 

13. Ambit of Reasonableness in Capacity

Any person who, in the assessment of their capacity to make a decision, proposes to make a decision that is within the ambit of possible reasonable choices shall be deemed to have capacity for the purposes of that decision notwithstanding that they would otherwise be found incapacitous, unless it would on balance of probabilities cause them serious harm, whether immediately or in the future.

 

 

I have to say, I was surprised, although I strove hard to have an open mind when reading the draft bill, how much of it I found sensible or unexceptional. I thought it would go further, and I almost wish that it had.  If this is all that it takes to placate one of the staunchest critics of the family justice system, I would be prepared (were I an MP, to vote for very much of it, and object to relatively little)

 

I actually wish John Hemming luck with it.

 

It probably would produce a fairer family justice system than the as yet unpublished bill that I suspect is heading our way, which will make a mockery of the sentiment that “Finality is a good thing, but justice is a better one”