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“Ex parte removal by the back door”

A discussion of the Court of Appeal decision in Re L (A Child) 2013

 I will begin this discussion by being frank. I do not like this decision. I do not like it on a train, I do not like it on a plane. I do not LIKE green eggs and ham.

 I feel deeply uncomfortable with it, and hope sincerely that it is not used as precedent for any future decisions. I hope that it rests with the peculiarly unusual facts of this case only.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/179.html

 In very brief terms, the central issue was this. The Court had profound concerns over a number of months about a child and had a wealth of information about difficulties in the parenting provided to the child. The Court, faced with a shift in the Local Authority stance that the time had come to remove the child, used the powers under section 37 of the Children Act 1989 to make an Interim Care Order, which allowed the Local Authority to remove the child.

 So far, nothing terribly questionable. The facts of the case justified the making of an Interim Care Order, they probably justified removal, and the Court had the power to make an ICO under section 37 of the Children Act 1989 although no application had been made.

 My issue with the case is that what actually happened was the Local Authority deciding that if they placed the mother on notice that they intended to make an application for a Care Order / Interim Care Order, that the child would not be safe.  They obtained a hearing before the Judge, to which the other parties were not invited and did not attend and had no knowledge of.

 

The Court looked at the section 7 report prepared by the Local Authority, which made plain their escalation of concerns, their intention to issue care proceedings and their fear of what mother might do if given notice of that intention, heard from those representing the LA and made a section 37 direction and an Interim Care Order, with a view to a hearing being listed at which the parents could challenge that ICO.

 

  1. On 22nd January 2013 I granted Mr and Mrs S permission to appeal. At that time the understanding that they had, together with their counsel, was that at the without notice hearing the judge had, then and there, made the full 8 week interim care order. In the absence of a transcript of all save for the judge’s final “on notice” judgment, the understanding was that the “on notice” hearing that followed was relatively short, concluding in a judgment in which the judge sought to justify the steps that had already been taken at the “without notice” hearing.
  1. For the purposes of the present hearing we now have a full transcript of the without notice hearing and the on notice hearing together with a short memorandum from counsel, Miss Anna McKenna for the local authority, who appeared before Parker J on 14th December and again before us at this hearing. The greater clarity that those materials provide indicate that some time between 1 p.m. and 1.15 p.m. the s 7 report was handed in for the judge to read in her chambers. At about 1.50 p.m. the local authority team went into court for the “without notice” hearing. Miss McKenna’s recollection, which is confirmed by the transcript of the hearing which runs to just over two sides, is that this hearing lasted a matter of no more than 5 minutes. The judge stated that she had read the s 7 report and was contemplating making an interim care order but questioned the power to do it at a without notice hearing. The potential to utilise s 37 is raised by the judge and the scheme that was apparently adopted is encapsulated in one short exchange:

Miss McKenna: You can make a s 37 placing the child into our care, take the matter immediately and hear inter partes arguments.

Mrs Justice Parker: Including an application for discharge. Could I discharge the care order on that basis?”

  1. There is then a short discussion about security arrangements and the decision that the local authority have taken. The judge then twice states that she is keen to get “everyone in”. At the conclusion Miss McKenna says “may I take it that a s 37 direction has been made?” to which the judge replies “yes, a s 37 direction and a care order, and for the purposes of the transcript I am satisfied that there is a real risk of significant harm to this child if I do not make an interim care order prior to Mrs S understanding that this local authority is wishing to take care proceedings. There is no doubt about that.”

 

 

And the Court of Appeal felt that this was permissible and justified

 

In circumstances where, as I have held, the judge was justified in holding that this child’s safety required immediate protection by means of compulsory removal from her home, a submission that the procedural path chosen by the judge was technically not available to her is only likely to succeed if there is no escaping the procedural points that are made. This is not such a case. The course adopted by the judge is not excluded by any provision in the CA 1989, the FPR 2010 or elsewhere.

Mr Tolson accepts that, in an emergency, the court is not required to follow the pre-proceedings protocol in PD12A. He accepts that if an application had been made either for an emergency protection order or an interim care order it would either be commenced in, or transferred immediately up to Parker J in, the High Court where these long running proceedings were pending (Allocation and Transfer of Proceedings Order 2008, Art 5(3)). Given that M was a ward of the High Court, the local authority would in any event require Parker J’s permission before making an application for an emergency protection order or an interim care order and, before such an order was granted, Parker J would have to order the discharge of the wardship.

Whilst in another case, of course, the alternative steps that I have described could be taken, the fact that an alternative route exists does not mean that the s 37 route chosen by the judge was impermissible. To my mind, the legal requirement for the case to come before Parker J before any application for a public law order could be made, demonstrates the arid nature of the appellants’ technical challenge. Mr Tolson does not submit that Parker J could not have made an interim care order on 14th December or that, if the situation was properly regarded as an emergency, she could not have done so despite non-compliance with PD12A; his submission is simply that a different route should have been followed. It would, in my view, have been permissible for Parker J simply to have made the interim care order upon the local authority undertaking to issue their application that afternoon or the following morning. Finally, if the October s 7 direction had been made under s 37 (as a number of previous directions had been) no jurisdictional issue would exist.

In the unusual circumstances of this case, I am entirely satisfied that Parker J, who had concluded that M’s safety required an immediate order, was justified in using s 37 to achieve that outcome.

 

This is my problem, in a nutshell.  Where a Local Authority wish to initiate care proceedings and they think that the risks of doing so on notice are too great, there is a mechanism for making an application ex parte and having it heard before a Judge.

 The mechanism is to make an ex parte Emergency Protection Order application.

 And because the nature of such an order is draconian, and because the risks of making an order without the parents being there and represented are so serious and risk a breach of article 6, there are incredibly stringent requirements of the Local Authority, who have to demonstrate extraordinarily compelling evidence to do so, pace RE X (A CHILD) sub nom RE X (EMERGENCY PROTECTION ORDERS) (2006) [2006] EWHC 510 (Fam)

It sits extremely badly with me that in private law proceedings (albeit ones that are about to become public law proceedings) a Local Authority can go in and see the Judge ex parte   [not least because they have no locus standi to make any sort of such application] and that a decision can be made which is in practice an ex parte Emergency Protection Order using section 37 of the Children Act, without any of the protective mechanisms of Re X.

I also think, for me, there is a wealth of difference between a Judge weighing up the facts of a case and reaching for section 37, and a Local Authority effectively asking the Judge to exercise the section 37 power to make an ICO without there being an application on the table.

I’ll make it plain, on the facts of this case, which the Court was extremely familiar with, there was a considerable argument that the removal was the right thing to do. There was some very peculiar stuff happening with this poor child, and the watershed moment had been reached.

And I suppose one takes into account that unlike a traditional EPO application where the Court knows nothing of the case but what the applicant tells them, the Court here had a wealth of knowledge.  I have pretty little doubt that HAD the application been framed as an ex-parte Emergency Protection Order application   [there’s sadly quite a bit of song and dance to how you get that heard by the High Court Judge who knows the case, rather than in the Family Proceedings Court] it would have been given and a judgment delivered that would have been safe from appeal. BUT it would have had to have had the Re X safeguards.

Or if the Court of Appeal had said, it is acceptable to use section 37 in this way, but the applicant should have the same duties as set out in Re X and the Court should approach the section 37 request in the same way, where the application is made ex parte.

 I really don’t like this decision, and for me, this is the second recent time that the Court of Appeal have looked at the ability of the Court to make an Interim Care Order (sanctioning removal of a child from parents without the parents having had sight in advance of the Local Authority case and a threshold document) using section 37 as the hook, and have taken a very permissive “the law doesn’t prevent this, so go ahead” stance, rather than focussing on the issues of natural justice and saying that it is a tool to be used with extreme care.

I probably would not have allowed the appeal, since the decision to remove was probably the right one, but would have made it plain that a Court in future faced with any such ex-parte consideration of using section 37, should have firmly in mind the principles of Re X.  

The Court of Appeal don’t, for me, seem to have contemplated that it was never envisaged that the Court would make a section 37 order and ICO without the parents being present or represented at a hearing, because it would TAKE PLACE IN PRIVATE LAW PROCEEDINGS to which they are parties.  It was never envisaged that a Local Authority would be having an ex parte hearing in proceedings where they had no locus (having been asked to compile a section 7 report).

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

“You can’t handle the truth!”

(An imaginary judgment about an imaginary situation, in homage to the incomparable A P Taylor’s “Misleading cases in the common law”)

This is an application brought by X County Council under section 31 of the Children Act 1989, who seek Interim Care Orders in relation to two children, a boy who we shall call A, who is aged 7 and a girl who we shall call B who is aged 5.   The Local Authority seek orders from the Court permitting them to remove A and B from their parents and to place them in foster care. Further, as I shall consider in more detail later, the Local Authority have placed the Court and the parties on notice that should their application be granted, they would not be able to accommodate the parents wish for the children’s religion to be observed in foster care. The parents contest the application and contend that the section 31 threshold criteria are not made out, that the test established by the authorities for removal of a child is not made out, and that even if the Court were to be against them on both of those issues, that the children’s religious practices should be observed in foster care. The children’s Guardian confesses that she has found this an extremely difficult case with deeply unusual features, but on balance supports the Local Authority case.

It is common ground that these children are happy, that they are doing developmentally well, that they attend school and nursery and have positive reports from those establishments, that they are properly fed, that their home conditions are clean, tidy and with suitable toys for the children; further that they are not mistreated either physically or emotionally and that they receive good quality parenting from parents who love them very dearly. The parents shun the use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs. There are many Judges who would gaze enviously at this litany of praise for parents within care proceedings before gazing sternly at the Local Authority who placed the application before the Court.

However, this particular application does have a feature which leads the Local Authority to suspect that the children are at risk of significant harm; they accepting that there is no evidence that the children HAVE suffered significant harm to date.

The parents in this case moved to the United Kingdom from the state of Arkanas in the United States. They are both committed to their faith, which they have practiced for their entire lives, including when they were children in Arkansas.  Their faith is that of snake-handling.

The Court has heard evidence from senior figures within the Snake-Handling faith, and this evidence has been sufficient to make it plain that the faith is legitimate and recognised, albeit, as the parents concede more of the margins than of the mainstream.  The faith arises from quotations from the Bible:-

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)

Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10:19)

In terms, those who practice the snake-handling faith believe, and it is a central tenet of their belief system, that they may handle snakes and drink poison and that it will not harm them as they are protected by God.

The parents in this case have made it plain, and their evidence on this aspect was, I find, credible, that they do not indulge in the consumption of poisons; as this was not the practice in the Church where they practiced their Faith.

They were, however, candid, that their religious practice is to pray and celebrate the words of the Bible whilst handling  live snakes. They gave evidence that they undertook this ceremony several nights per week, a minimum of three times and as many as five nights per week. The ceremony and handling of the snakes would be for a minimum of ninety minutes, and could on occasion last considerably longer.

Dr Parsel, the expert herpetologist who gave helpful and invigorating evidence confirmed that some of the snakes kept by the family are venomous, and that their bite would be harmful to humans, and in rare cases if medical attention were not sought, could be fatal. She indicated that she would consider the risk of a bite having serious consequences requiring for example an overnight  hospital stay to be at around 30% and the risk of a bite being fatal (if medical attention were sought) to be at around 5% – if medical treatment were not sought for a venomous bite, the consequences would be more severe.   In relation to the non-venomous snakes, her evidence was that a bite would be painful, comparable to the bite of a medium-sized dog, but more of a ‘nip’ than something that would necessarily require medical treatment.

She freely confessed to not have any particular expertise in whether snake-handlers were immune to pain or consequence from receiving bites, but did refer the Court to documented examples of some fatalities emerging from the practice. I note, in relation to this, that the snake-handling church treats such aberrations as being evidence of a lack of genuine faith in the religion, rather than a failure of the religion itself.

She was understandably cautious about estimating the possibility of a snake inflicting such a bite, but did accept in cross-examination by those representing the parents that the risk of a bite being inflicted was considerably reduced where the persons handling the snake are respectful, gentle and not apprehensive or scared.

The medical records of both parents, in this country and those obtained from America have bourne out their account that neither of them have received medical treatment for snake bites and of course, both are here to tell the tale.

They both gave evidence to the effect that being bitten by the snake is very rare in the ceremony, and that it is not the intention of the ceremony to provoke or promote a bite from the snake. I accept the parents’ evidence in this latter regard, but am more cautious about the rarity of the occurance.

Their further evidence, that if they were to be bitten, it would have no effect as they are protected by God and their faith is something that the Court have to be more cautious about. It would probably be best expressed in this way, that the Court is satisfied that the parents genuinely believe this to be the case, that they believe this as a fundamental part of their religious faith and that they are not knowingly placing themselves in what they consider to be harm or jeopardy.

The Court further accepts the following, as drawn from the parents’ evidence:-

1)    That they would intend for the children to become involved in the religious practice, and to handle the snakes, some of which are venomous.

2)    That the older child has already, under careful supervision been involved in the handling process; but not with the venomous snakes

3)    That the younger child has observed the ceremony and worship

4)    That both of the children have been shown how to handle the snakes with care and dignity

I now have to consider whether  there is, on the balance of probabilities a likelihood that significant harm may arise. For today’s purposes, the section 38 criteria apply and the test is whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that the children have suffered or would be likely to suffer significant harm, such harm being attributable to the care given or likely to be given not being what it would be reasonable for a parent to provide.

The risk of harm, as outlined by the Local Authority is as follows :-

(a)  that there is a risk of the children sustaining a bite injury from a non-venomous snake, which would be painful, on a par with a ‘nip’ from a medium sized dog, and which would be likely to hurt a child for several minutes but not require medical attention

(b)  that there is a risk of the children sustaining a bite injury from a venomous snake. This would have the same degree of pain as above, accompanied by a feeling of nausea and light-headedness, which would probably last for an hour or two  (if the anti-venom serum were administered immediately) and might require hospital treatment.

(c)  That if the parents did not, as a result of their religious belief that the children would suffer no ill-effect, obtain medical treatment, the consequences could be much more serious and there is a risk of a fatality

(d)  The Local Authority add that although the risk of either incident occurring might be said to be low for each ceremony (though they took pains to point out that they did not necessarily accept this) the Court were entitled to take into account that exposure to a low level of risk several times per week, over the children’s minority could give rise to a cumulative risk which would perforce be higher.

The parents respond in the following way:-

(a)  the children would feel no pain from the bite of non-venomous snakes, as is clear from their faith

(b)  the children would feel no pain or ill-effects from the bite of a venomous snake, as is clear from their faith

(c)  thus, no harm would result from the children demonstrating their faith and engaging in their legitimate act of worship

They accepted wholly that a parent who were not a snake-handler and protected by their faith, who gave venomous snakes to a child, would be acting in a way that it would not be reasonable to expect from a parent; as such a child would sustain a painful injury, and I myself would not find it a stretch to make such a finding.  (They do not claim that venomous snake bites are harmless to the population at large, and if I were required to find that being bitten by a venomous snake would be generally a bad thing for the average child, I would make such a finding)

I find myself in difficult waters here. I would have no difficulty whatsoever in finding that a parent who allows a child to handle venomous snakes for long periods, on numerous occasions per week, would have a child who was at risk of significant harm.

The parents’ case is, in part, that no harm could arise, because of the protection that their faith offers them and their children.

All parties accept that there is some risk (although they differ as to the level) that the children could be bitten by a snake whilst handling it. The Local Authority say that there would be consequences if so, which would constitute significant harm, the parents say that there would be no such consequences.

To reject the parents’ conviction out of hand would draw the Court into territories of ruling that an individual’s faith is incorrect in fact.  The accepted fact that this particular religion is followed by a relatively small group, rather than having a groundswell of popular opinion does not mean that I should discount their beliefs. There might be many who would regard their beliefs as nonsense, but the same could be said of those who believe that God sent his son to earth to die for our sins.   Many generations of philosophers and theologians have grappled with these weighty issues without necessarily coming to a conclusion; and it would certainly be wrong of me to attempt to do what Aquinas, Bertrand Russell and Descartes could not and put a full stop under whether a particular religion is true or misguided.

I have had to consider whether I need, to determine, on the balance of probabilities whether the Local Authority is right (and thus that the parents faith is misplaced) or vice versa.

Looking at the law, it is clear that what I must consider, in weighing up “likelihood”  is the construction set out in Re H and R 1996  “the context shows that in section 31 (2) (a) likely is being used in the sense of a real possibility, a possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored having regard to the nature and gravity of the feared harm in the particular case”

With that in mind, I am able to determine, with confidence, that there is a real possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored that these children, might over cumulative exposure to snakes (some non-venomous, some venomous) be bitten by the snakes and suffer adverse harm as a result.

I do not, when determining this, need to set out that the risk of this occurring is greater than 50%, and therefore do not need to determine that the parents belief is objectively true, or objectively false, rather that there is some margin for doubt.  I am absolutely plain that I could not rule that one could be absolutely categorically certain that the children of snake-handlers would suffer no harm if they were bitten by a snake, and thus I have to accept that there is a possibility which cannot sensibly be ignored that they might be.

I further accept that the consequences of a bite could constitute significant harm if consequences were to arise, and that therefore the threshold criteria as set out in section 38 of the Children Act 1989  are made out.  I do not believe that, having made that determination, there will be a dispute as to the section 31 criteria at final hearing, the same facts coming to bear.

Turning now to the test for removal, I shall not recount the plentiful authorities, as it is common ground between all of the parties that a satisfactory construction of the test would be “is the harm, or risk of harm that the child would suffer or be at risk of suffering proportionate to the removal of the child at interlocutory stage”

I am mindful here that having effectively established that the religious practice of snake-handling gives rise, if children are participating to a likelihood of significant harm, there is a risk of developing a position whereby the Court determines that effectively all parents who are snake-handlers and wish to bring up their children in that faith are not able to safely care for their children.

That in turn, would effectively be the Court saying to a parent that they do not have the right to practice their religion AND simultaneously parent.  Whilst snake handling is a relatively small religion, practised in some forty churches, it is nonetheless a religion. I am reminded of Martin Niemoller’s famous statement “First they came for the communists….”

Considering the body of authorities where the Court have had to consider the extents to which the State can interfere with someone’s religious practices, I would distill this concept  – that any person is free to believe whatever religious principles they wish and that the State should not interfere with that belief, but that where the exercise of such beliefs has an adverse, or potentially adverse impact on the rights and freedoms of another, the State may intervene and must consider whether such intervention is necessary and proportionate.

I have attempted to apply that principle throughout this case – it is perfectly legitimate for these parents to believe that they, and their children can safely handle snakes as part of their religious practice – it is the point at which they propose that the children actually do handle snakes which leads to the Court needing to become involved. That crosses the line from belief into action.

I have obtained some useful guidance from the Court of Appeal in Re R (A minor) (Residence : Religion) 1993 2 FLR 163 where it was held that it is no part of the Court’s role to comment on the tenets, doctrines or rules or any particular section of society provided that these were legally and socially acceptable, but that the impact of tenets and rules on a child’s future welfare was one of the circumstances to be taken into account.  I have endeavoured to approach the case in that manner.

I have to consider that the parents Article 9 right to freedom of religion, would be engaged. Whilst this is a qualified right, and the Court would be entitled to prescribe those rights if it were necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, the Court should be reluctant to curtail someone’s religious expression.

Speaking for myself, I would feel an enormous sense of disquiet in being the Judge who set a pebble rolling down a slippery slope; whilst I cannot think at present of other religions who might effectively be outlawed to parents I would not wish to set that particular precedent.

In relation to this issue, I have had to consider whether it is possible for safeguards to put in place so that the risks to children I have ruled cannot sensibly be ignored in snake-handling can be managed, such that the child can remain with the parent and that the family can have the freedom to observe their religious practices.

I have a proposal in mind, which I shall outline, and I propose to adjourn the hearing briefly to allow the parents to consider that proposal.

I would not rule that the snake-handling faith in all circumstances is dangerous to children, but I am prepared to decide that  the snake-handling faith, where children are participating in it, requires robust safeguards to be in place in order to prevent the likelihood of significant harm that otherwise would justify the intervention of the State in removing the children to alternative accommodation.

On that basis, I indicate that I would be minded, if the parents accept the safety proposals, to make Interim Supervision Orders, and for there to be monitoring of the adherence to these safety proposals between now and final hearing. If the proposals are agreed but the Court is later presented with evidence that they have not been adhered to, the Local Authority are likely to find the Court much more amenable to the application they have made today. They would be, as the saying has it, pushing at an open door.

If however, the parents are not able to bring themselves to accept the safety proposals, then my ruling will be that the risk of harm that the children are exposed to in the absence of safety mechanisms, is such that the removal of the children is a proportionate response to dealing with it, and would be minded to make the Interim Care Orders.

In the event that I make Interim Care Orders (and I would hope not to need to)  I would not be minded to invite the Local Authority to make arrangements pursuant to section 22 (5)  (giving due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion) , being satisfied that they are extraordinarily unlikely to find foster carers who are snake-handlers or to find foster carers who are willing to allow the children to handle snakes (even in a carefully prescribed environment or regime)

This also requires me to consider s 33 (6) of the Children Act 1989  “while a care order is in force with respect to a child, the local authority designated by the order shall not – (a) cause the child to be brought up in any religious persuasion other than that in which he would have been brought up if the order had not been made ‘

And it could be argued that any form of placement other than with snake-handlers would be in breach of this, even if the carers had no religious beliefs  (it is hoped that at final hearing, one would not need to cross-examine Richard Dawkins as to whether atheism or agnosticism constitutes a religious persuasion in the negative)

Thankfully, Justice Baker rides to my rescue in that regard in the case of Re A and D (Local Authority : Religious Upbringing ) 2010 1 FLR 615  involving a child who had been brought up by Muslim parents but the mother reverted to Catholicism after they separated (it being largely impossible to raise a single child as both a Muslim and a Catholic)  and the Court determining that section 33(6) is subject to the overriding duties on the Local Authority under section 22 (3) to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare when they are caring for him.

I am satisfied that it would not be reasonable to expect the Local Authority to provide the children with live exposure to snake-handling in their foster placement, though the children should be educated about their religious faith without practically carrying it out. That would be sufficient to ensure that they are not in breach with either s 22 (5) or s 33(6).  As I have said, I would hope that the issue of these children being cared for by the State does not arise.

My proposals, which I invite the parents to consider very carefully are as follows :-

  1. When handling snakes as part of their faith, the children shall not handle venomous snakes until such time as the Court can review this safety package
  2. The children shall be supervised by adults at all times
  3. In any event, the parents shall obtain anti-venom serum suitable for treatment of bites from the venomous snakes that they own
  4. The herpetologist having identified the symptoms of snake bite from the venomous snakes that the parents own, the parents shall undertake to administer that anti-venom serum immediately if they observe either of the children to be bitten by a venomous snake; or if they observe these symptoms in the children, and to seek medical attention for the children in either event
  5. This is by way of a placatory mechanism, and does not reflect adversely on the parents’ deep-seated conviction and belief that the children would be unharmed by snake bites. It is simply their recognition that the State has to manage that degree of risk that cannot safely be ignored by the Court that the children would not be unharmed by snake bites, regardless of their faith.
  6. The parents accept, as a long-term proposal, that notwithstanding their faith and conviction that the children would be unharmed by handling snakes and would not require any medical intervention, they will keep this safety net in place until such time as the children are adjudged to be competent to make informed decisions about the risks themselves [by which I would contemplate their later teenage years], or the Court rule that the safety provisions may be relaxed.

I would refer the parents to the decision of the High Court in Re W (A Minor) 25th November 1991, involving parents of a child who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and could not consent to a blood transfusion.

In that case, the order was phrased “Being Jehovah’s Witnesses, the parents do not and cannot approve the order hereinafter stated but recognise the power of the Court to direct the same and cannot therefore maintain any objection to this order”

I would ask the parents to go further in this case, but I think a preamble to the order that  “It is accepted by all parties that the parents are snake handlers and profoundly believe that they and their children would receive no harm or damage from handling snakes as part of their religious practice, but recognise the authority of the Court to make decisions about children who are deemed to be at risk of harm, and offer the following assurances to ensure that during the children’s minority, they are protected from harm that might arise from snake-handling, even if that risk is no higher than one which the Court cannot sensibly ignore”   would be a sensible resolution to the religious quandary that the parents find themselves in.