The Court of Appeal had decided two cases about remote hearings in light of the Covid 19 public health emergency.
The first is Re A (Children) (Remote Hearings) 2020
Where a Judge had decided that because the parents in the case could not really participate in a remote hearing, the parents should attend Court for the hearing in a physical building, whilst others attended via video-link (what lawyers are calling a ‘hybrid’ hearing)
The Court of Appeal decided that on the facts of the case, the Judge was wrong to order a hybrid hearing and granted the appeal. The Court of Appeal point out in painstaking detail that they do not intend in this case to give the impression that hearings in other cases should be remote, should be hybrid or should be adjourned, it is a fact specific case, not intending to give general guidance.
- It follows from all that we have said above that our judgment on this appeal should be seen as being limited to the determination of the individual case to which it relates. Each case is different and must be determined in the light of its own specific mixture of factors. The import of the decision in this case, in which we have held that the appeal must be allowed against a judge’s decision to conduct a remote hearing of proceedings which include applications for placement for adoption orders, is that, on the facts of this case, the judge’s decision was wrong. As will be seen, one important and potentially determinative factor was the ability of the father, as a result of his personality, intellect and diagnosis of dyslexia, to engage sufficiently in the process to render the hearing fair. Such a factor will, almost by definition, be case-specific. Another element, and one that is likely to be important in every case, is the age of the children and the degree of urgency that applies to the particular decision before the court. The impact of this factor on the decision whether to hold a remote hearing will, as with all others, vary from child to child and from case to case.
- It also follows that the decision on this appeal must not be taken as an authority that is generically applicable to one or more category of children cases. We wish to state with total clarity that our decision does not mean that there can be no remote final hearings on an application for a care order or a placement for adoption order. Neither is our decision to be taken as holding that there should be no ‘hybrid’ hearings, where one or more party physically attends at a courtroom in front of a judge. The appropriateness of proceeding with a particular form of hearing must be individually assessed, applying the principles and guidance indicated above to the unique circumstances of the case.
- Finally, in addition to the need for there to be a fair and just process for all parties, there is a separate need, particularly where the plan is for adoption, for the child to be able to know and understand in later years that such a life-changing decision was only made after a thorough, regular and fair hearing.
They do say this:-
Finally, and more generally, we would draw attention to, and endorse, the steer given in the LCJ’s message of 9 April at sub paragraph (a): ‘If all parties oppose a remotely conducted final hearing, this is a very powerful factor in not proceeding with a remote hearing’. Whilst in the present case it is true that the Children’s Guardian did not oppose proceeding with the planned hearing, all of the other parties, including the local authority, did. In such circumstances, when the applicant local authority itself does not support a remote contested final hearing, a court will require clear and cogent reasons for taking the contrary view and proceeding to hold one.
The other appeal is, to my mind, more interesting. It deals with a remote hearing for an Interim Care Order and separation. Those are hearings where the option of waiting for the end of lockdown isn’t necessarily available.
Re B (Children) (Remote Hearing : Interim Care Order) 2020
I have to say, even ignoring the fact that the hearing took place by telephone, this case is a breakfast that would be suitable for dogs.
It involved a case where a boy Sam (not his real name) aged 9 was living with his grandmother. The LA made an application for a Care Order – on the papers they had filed they were not seeking removal.
- Accompanying the application was a substantial amount of documentation arising from the local authority’s knowledge of the family down the years, including a fully pleaded interim threshold document, a comprehensive chronology (16 pages) and a thorough template statement from the children’s social worker (34 pages). Of note, this described a close relationship between the children and their grandmother, with plenty of mutual love and affection being shown. Given the local authority’s position, the removal of Sam from home did not even feature in the social work analysis as a realistic option, let alone a preferred one. The case for an interim supervision order was put in this way:
- “Whilst [Sam] is not considered to be at immediate risk of physical harm, there have been historical allegations against his Maternal Uncle… who is known to still to be attending the home despite being prohibited by written agreements in place. [Sam] has suffered and remains at risk of suffering emotional harm due to the concerns [about] treatment of him by Maternal Uncle… and Maternal Grandmother.”
Lawyers will very quickly spot that the LA evidence was “Sam is not considered to be at immediate risk of harm” (which is an essential ingredient if they are to seek and obtain an Interim Care Order.
The case was listed for hearing. Just before the hearing began, the Guardian filed a position statement indicating that she thought Sam should come into care, and the LA changed their position to recommending that. There was no updating interim care plan, and no statement explaining the change in position.
Those representing the parents learned of the change in plan an hour before the hearing. Very understandably, they made an application for the case to be adjourned and set down for a proper contested ICO hearing with the parents having opportunity to respond to the LA case.
The Recorder dealing with the case was getting all of this evidence as a stream of updating emails, whilst wrestling with the other cases in his list. By the time this case came before him, he had been working all morning, and by the time he gave judgment he had been working for 10 1/2 hours, on hearings which were taking place by telephone.
Between 17.20 and 17.41 he gave an extempore judgment. At 17.52 he refused Mr Lue’s application for permission to appeal and scheduled a further hearing for 21 April. At 17.57 the hearing concluded. By that time the Recorder had been working, almost continuously and mainly on the telephone, for 10½ hours. Our observation is that, although we have found the decision in this case to have been unquestionably wrong, the nature of the workload faced by the Recorder, experienced as he is, was surely a contributory factor.
- We next mention the position of the Children’s Guardian. Her solicitor, having evidently carried out a lot of work in a short time, filed a six-page position statement at 10.49 that morning. We quote the concluding paragraphs in full because, as Mr Squire, who did not appear below, frankly asserted, “the Guardian has driven this in terms of immediacy” and because they represent the whole reason why an interim care order was made for Sam.
- “Guardian’s Position
25. The Guardian is very concerned with respect to the safety of both children given their cumulative previous experiences and the lack of emotional stability that they seemed to have experienced under a Special Guardianship Order. She is concerned that the maternal grandmother is prioritising the needs of the maternal uncle and aunt over that of the children, or is at least unable to protect them from abusive situations. Most concerningly, the children seem to be blamed when their behaviours are likely to be expression of the experiences they had, and/or additional needs that their care giver/s should be attuned to identify and respond to; [Samantha] being compared to her mother in derogatory manner and [Sam] being called names are particularly emotionally abusive behaviours in the context of the children’s own experiences.
26. There are concerns that maternal grandmother does not appear to be working openly and honestly with professionals since 2014 and it is noted that the written agreements have been breached on a number of occasions and allegedly the uncle reported that he was prompted by the grandmother to breach or ignore such agreements, and not talk to professionals. It appears as if the maternal uncle continues to be a frequent visitor to the family home and is reported to have been involved with the police 3 times this year in relation to drug offences [C25]. It is also not clear where the Mother is presently residing since her release from prison; the local authority statement refers to the children having had unsupervised contact with her.
27. The Guardian is concerned that both children are at risk of ongoing physical and emotional abuse. She is very concerned with the proposal by the Local Authority that [Sam] remain in the family home under an interim supervision order under the current circumstances, when there are severe limitations in what visits and intervention can be provided and uncertainty around how long pandemic-related measures will need to continue. It is not clear how his safety will be monitored as there are very little, if any, direct social work visits being undertaken at present; the presenting concerns cannot be effectively monitored via virtual visits. Schools often provide an oversight into a child’s wellbeing – however the schools are now closed and it is not known when they will re-open; they also often provide an outlet for both children and carers; being constantly at home can greatly escalate the current risks for [Sam], and limits his ability to reach out to professionals or safe adults outside the house for help. The Guardian is concerned that given these exceptional times it will be very difficult to monitor [Sam]’s safety.
28. It may be that [Sam] will be placed at more risk of emotional and physical harm if he is left alone in the family home. [Sam] has already stated that his family matters are confidential and it is therefore not clear whether he will actually disclose any concerns should they arise at the home; [Sam] may also internalise that violence is acceptable and risk perpetrating violence himself, or take matters in his own hands to protect himself or others, such as, for example, his grandmother if she is also subject to abuse from the uncle. The Guardian believes that both children need to be placed in a place of safety whilst assessments are ongoing.
29. The Guardian therefore supports interim care orders for both children. If the Court agrees that an interim care order is appropriate for both children, the Guardian would strongly prefer for both children to be placed in the same foster placement, if possible. A together and apart assessment to look at the sibling relationship and potential split arrangements for them in the longer term needs to be considered. There are also indication of severely distressed behaviours from the children, emotional regulation and ongoing attachment difficulties, which may require psychological assessment to ensure that the parenting they need to meet their individual needs is fully considered in care planning.”
- Once a Children’s Guardian has been appointed, he or she is obliged to exercise professional judgment, whatever the circumstances of the appointment. The court relies on Guardians to be independent in promoting and protecting the interests of the children in the litigation, and they may take, and not infrequently do take, a different position to that of the local authority. We acknowledge that, as commonly happens when an interim application is made at the outset of proceedings, this Guardian was having to absorb a mass of information at very short notice. She had no time to make inquiries, beyond reading the papers and having one conversation with the social worker at about 9 am. In cases of real urgency that may be unavoidable, but in this case it is, to put it at its lowest, surprising that she and the children’s solicitor felt it appropriate to make such a bold recommendation from such a low knowledge base. Neither of them had met or spoken to Sam or to his grandmother or his grandmother’s solicitor, nor did they have any information at all coming from that quarter. We also note that the Guardian was not available for the hearing in the afternoon. Her solicitor was said to be fully instructed, but the Guardian’s absence left her unaware of such arguments as Mr Lue was able to put to the court in response to her recommendation and deprived her of the opportunity to reflect.
- We are also troubled by the lack of any balanced analysis in the case for removal that was put by the Guardian, and also by the local authority. There is no reference to the emotional detriment to Sam in being removed from his only parental figure without notice or preparation. There was no reference to Sam’s wishes and feelings about immediate removal, nor any reminder to the court that these were not known. There was no credible explanation for why there had to be an emergency decision. Mr Squire fairly accepted at no less than three points in his appeal skeleton argument that the outcome was “harsh”, though he defended it as not being unfair or unjust. When we asked him about the above matters he described them as a consequence of this being “an emergency application” in which child protection imperatives had to prevail. We reject that argument. The pressured way in which the proceedings developed may have felt like an emergency to the professionals, but it was not an emergency for Sam. We also firmly dismiss the proposition that the current ‘lockdown’ provides a reason for the removal of a child where none would otherwise exist. It is possible to envisage a case at the margins where face-to-face supervision is so important that a child would not be safe without it, but this case and most others like it fall nowhere near that category. Our overall observation in this respect is that unfortunately Sam’s voice was not heard at a critical moment in the proceedings and his interests were not protected by his Guardian, whose recommendation set in train the sequence of events that followed.
- The local authority had in our view taken a sensible position in seeking an interim supervision order, as reflected in its position statement at 10.37. Yet within the hour it had moved to seeking Sam’s immediate removal. Nothing relevant had happened to Sam in the fortnight between Samantha’s departure and the hearing. The only basis for the volte-face was the intervention of the Guardian. We asked Mr Melsa, for the local authority, about the process leading to the changed decision, which came to him in an email instruction when he was in the middle of an advocates’ meeting. We learned that the decision was undocumented and the change of plan unreasoned. There was no evidence about it and no care plan to underpin it. Not surprisingly that led to confusion. At 12.48 the other parties were informed that removal would not take place until Monday 6 April because Sam had a cough that might be virus-related. The social workers then tried to investigate testing, but were unsuccessful. Despite that, at 13.43 the local authority announced that its plan was again one for immediate removal.
- Our observation is that it is hard to describe this process as anything other than arbitrary. A local authority must always be responsive to the stance of a Children’s Guardian, but there was no good reason for the plan to have been changed in this case. The consequence was to wrong-foot the grandmother, with whom it was going to share parental responsibility for Samantha, at least in the short term, without any discussion with her. Mr Lue was, as he put it, unable to understand the decision-making process and was having to take instructions by telephone on a constantly moving picture. He gave us examples of matters concerning Sam in the social work statement and the Guardian’s position statement that he has since the hearing been able to establish that the grandmother simply did not accept (for example concerning the arrival of the uncle on 20 March). We were entirely convinced by his account of feeling, in his words, hopelessly unable to represent his client in the way he would normally be able to do. It says a lot that throughout the whole process not one page emanating from the grandmother could be placed before the court. She had no opportunity to file evidence in relation to this serious matter, nor was Mr Lue in a position to marshal a position statement. In cases of exceptional urgency that may be unavoidable, but here it was unfair.
In terms of the remote nature of the hearing itself
- The Recorder made some reference to these principles but he did not apply them. Our observation is that this was a case where the central concern related to emotional harm stretching back for years. On the information then before the court it could not in our view be plausibly argued that something had now happened to make Sam’s removal that evening necessary. The circumstances in which Samantha had been taken into foster care showed the need for Sam’s situation to be carefully assessed. The evidence did not remotely justify his peremptory removal and there is nothing in the judgment that is capable of persuading us that it did. Our further observation is that, no doubt partly because of the exigencies of the remote process, there was a loss of perspective in relation to the need for an immediate decision about Sam. This was a classic case for an adjournment so that a considered decision could be taken about removal, if indeed that option was going to be pursued after reflection. An adjournment would have enabled the parties and the court to have all the necessary information. As it was, crucial information was lacking and its absence was overlooked by the court.
- There is a qualitative difference between a remote hearing conducted over the telephone and one undertaken via a video platform. If the application for an interim care order for Sam had been adjourned, it may well have been possible for the adjourned hearing to have been conducted over a video link and that single factor might, of itself, have justified an adjournment in a case which, in our view, plainly was not so urgent that it needed to be determined on 3 April. Whilst it may have been the case that the provision of video facilities was limited at the particular court at the time of the hearing, it is now the case that the option of using a video link is much more widely available. Where that is the case, a video link is likely at this time to be the default option in urgent cases.