RSS Feed

Tag Archives: issues resolution hearing

Cracking a case at IRH without father present – robust case management or jumping the gun?

 

This is a Court of Appeal decision

 

RE v North Yorkshire County Council and Others 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/1169.html

 

(Making me wonder if it is going to get shortened to “Re RE”)

It has an unfortunate typo in the very first line of the case report which will delight those like me with a childish mind – you really do need to be very careful with the spelling of the word “Public” in Public Law Outline.

 

Though this version has a certain aptness – in many parts of the country it doesn’t really exist at all, in some areas only a sliver of it can be observed,  everyone can agree that some pruning and trimming is wholly desirable, and nobody really pays it much attention until a bit gets stuck in your throat…

 

Anyway, the nuts and bolts of the case. The parties attended an Issue Resolution Hearing. The father was not in attendance – he was in prison and a production order was not sought.  [As a person in prison is not in a position to simply saunter out and wander down to Court of their own volition, what needs to happen is for their solicitor to apply to Court for a Production Order so that the prison staff know that the person is required in Court on that date and must be brought there. Without a Production order, the prisoner won’t be produced. With one, they will be produced two hours later than you asked for…]

 

The Court made a series of final orders

 

i) A Care Order in favour of the Local Authority, North Yorkshire County Council;

ii) Permission to the Local Authority, to refuse contact between the child (A) and his father (F) pursuant to section 34(4) of the Children Act 1989;

iii) Leave to the Local Authority to apply for a declaration removing responsibility to consult F in relation to A;

iv) A declaration that the Local Authority should be absolved from the statutory responsibility of consulting F in relation to A’s care and their obligation to involve him in the Looked After Children (LAC) consultation process;

v) A non-molestation order (granted until further order) prohibiting F from:

a) Contacting M, A or the maternal great grandmother (MGGM) either directly or indirectly or through any third party except through lawyers or through the Local Authority for the purpose of the letterbox contact;

b) Attending within 100 metres of any address where he knows M and A or MGGM are living;

c) Should F meet M in any public or private area he is ordered to leave immediately to a distance of at least 100m away.

A power of arrest was attached to the non-molestation order.

 

 

The father appealed the order, on the following grounds

 

  1. The Grounds of Appeal have been drafted in very general terms (even as amended) but the thematic basis, which embraces each of the orders set out above, is identified in Ground 1 of the Appellant’s Amended Grounds of Appeal:

    “The Judge was wrong to have made final orders at interim hearing which:

    1. Prevent a child from maintaining personal relations with a parent; and

    2. Prevent a child having a future determined by which both parents have played a part.”

    It is argued that at the IRH the Judge was not in a position to conduct the ‘holistic analysis’ of the available options that was required in order properly to do justice either to the interests of the child or the father. In particular, at Ground 3, which is really an amplification of the same point, it was contended:

    1. Before reaching the determination that it was necessary and proportionate to the identified risks, that ‘nothing else would do’ the Judge needed to be sure that all the evidence was before the Court. The Judge was wrong to have proceeded to make Final Orders at an interim hearing;

    i. Without the court bundle;

    ii. Without the father having had notice that the IRH might be dealt with as a final hearing;

    iii. Without the father having been produced from prison

    iv. Without having heard any evidence or allowed father the opportunity to properly challenge the evidence of the Social Worker and Children’s Guardian;

    v. Without some form of contact being tested, the father, having made requests for contact, photographs and for the Social Worker to visit him, had the father having never met A or received any update in respect of his developments except the redacted Care Plans when the child was nearly 5 months old.

    vi. Where despite a large number of concessions and acceptances by Father, enough for a court to consider the Threshold Criteria for making s.31 orders was crossed, the Threshold Criteria annexed to the order had only been agreed by the Mother and not by Father,

    vii. Without having proper evidence before the court as to the impact upon the child of having no contact with the paternal family.

  2. Further, the Declaratory Relief granted by the Judge is attacked on the separate ground that the Judge lacked a jurisdictional basis to grant such relief and accordingly exceeded the ambit of her lawful powers. No party now seeks to uphold these declarations recognising and conceding their lack of jurisdictional foundation. The Appellant however goes further and contends that ‘even had there been jurisdiction, it would have been wrong to make the orders’. Furthermore, it is asserted ‘the declarations were in breach of the F’s Article 6 rights and were unlawful.’

 

 

The Court of Appeal tackled the declaration first, and had no difficulty in saying that it ought not to have been made. Firstly, the Judge had not been sitting in the High Court or as a s9 Judge and had no jurisdiction for a declaration of that type,

 

As I have already foreshadowed, none of the advocates seek to salvage the declaration releasing the Local Authority from its obligation, pursuant to statute, to consult F in relation to A’s care and to involve him in the Looked After Children (LAC) consultation process. I propose therefore to address this point first. HHJ Finnerty was sitting as a Judge of the Family Court. Though she is an experienced Judge who sits regularly as a Deputy High Court Judge of the Family Division, she was not sitting in that capacity in this case on the day of the IRH. No application had been made for her to seek permission from her Family Division Liaison Judge or other Judge of the Division to sit as a Section 9 Judge of the High Court. It is plain that, through oversight, no thought was given to the jurisdictional basis of the declaration by either Counsel or the Judge. Such declarations are made pursuant to the inherent jurisdictional powers of the High Court, they have no other foundation. If this had been the sole difficulty here and had they been otherwise sustainable I would, for my part, have been prepared to investigate some pragmatic resolution, perhaps a speedy remission to the Judge inviting her to reconstitute herself in the High Court to authorise the declarations on a free standing application pursuant to the inherent jurisdiction. It may well be that there is no such solution. However, it is unnecessary for me to investigate further as I am of the clear view that the declarations are more generally flawed.

 

  1. There are sound reasons why declarations are required to be made under the Inherent Jurisdiction and commenced in the High Court. Frequently, as here, they involve authorisation of actions which fall outside statutory obligation or may, again as here, be directly contrary to it. Thus, these are invariably complex issues which require to be dealt with in the High Court. This is given effect to, unambiguously by Rule 12.36 (1) and PD 12D.
  2. In Re B [2013] EWCA Civ 964, the Court of Appeal considered whether there needs to be a formal transfer where the Circuit Judge is authorised to sit as a s.9 Judge. At para 7, Black LJ observed:

    Where a circuit judge is to sit as a High Court judge, it seems to me that this needs to be arranged deliberately, with the proceedings commenced in or transferred to the High Court. The mere fact that the judge who has heard the case happens to be authorised to sit as a High Court judge or to try Administrative Court cases might not redeem a failure to observe proper practice.’

  3. I note that Black LJ does not completely exclude some pragmatic resolution, limiting herself to the observation that the matter ‘might not’ be capable of being redeemed. Here, as I have stated, Counsel on behalf of the Respondents all agree that the declarations cannot be sustained for these jurisdictional reasons.

 

Secondly, that a declaration of that seriousness could not be made lightly and not on the sort of facts that this case presented

  1. Ms. Bazley submits the case law establishes that a Local Authority may only be absolved from its duty to consult and to provide information to a parent in ‘exceptional circumstances’. I agree.
  2. The duty, pursuant to s.26, is directory not mandatory. But, as Ms. Bazley submits, the result of non-compliance is treated as an irregularity: Re P (Children Act 1989, ss22 and 26: Local Authority Compliance) [2000] 2 FLR 910. Ms Bazley further directs this Court’s attention to Re C (Care: Consultation with Parent not in Child’s Best Interests) [2006] 2 FLR 787; [2005] EWHC 3390 (Fam). There Coleridge J granted a declaration to the effect that the Local Authority was absolved, in what were described as ‘exceptional circumstances’, from any obligation to consult the father. In that case the father was serving a lengthy sentence for raping the child, who did not wish the father to be informed or consulted at all in relation to her future. The child had applied, successfully, to discharge the father’s Parental Responsibility. The applications were decided on the basis of C’s best interests. The Court concluded that the father’s total disregard for C’s best interests in committing the offences, coupled with her consistently and strongly articulated wish that he be excluded from her life entirely, led to a clear conclusion that he should not participate in any discussions about her future welfare. Nonetheless even there, the court directed that he would be informed if the Local Authority intended to make significant changes to the Care Plan, such as applying for adoption. Coleridge J observed:

    “[30] The conclusions that I have come to are really these: the considerations which govern the dismissal of this father from further involvement in the proceedings, and the granting of the declarations seem to me to be the same. Indeed, there is little point in him remaining a party if he is not going to be given any information; indeed, it would be impractical for him to remain a party if he was not going to be given information.”

    [31] The second pivotal point, of course, is that this application is decided, first and foremost, on the basis of s 1 of the Children Act 1989 – that is to say, what is in S’s best interests. Of course, hers are not the only interests, but they are the ones which are of paramount concern to the court.

    [32] The third factor, self-evidently, is that it is a very exceptional case only which would attract this kind of relief. Self-evidently – and it hardly needs the human rights legislation to remind one – a parent is entitled to be fully involved, normally, in the decision-making process relating to his, or her, child, and if not to be involved, then at least informed about it. However, insofar as that engages the father’s rights to family life, then by the same token it engages S’s right to privacy and a family life.”

  3. The factual background, giving rise to this appeal, though undoubtedly very troubling does not, in my judgement, amount to ‘exceptional’. It is not difficult to contemplate strategies which enable the privacy and security of the placement to be protected by a far less draconian level of intervention. Accordingly, Ms. Bazley submits and I agree that: ‘even had it been lawful to make the declaration, the circumstances of this case were not so exceptional as to justify it being made‘.

 

 

The appeal was granted and the declaration set aside.

Next, the substantive part of the appeal – was it wrong for the Judge to have made final orders, particularly final orders which in effect ended the father’s relationship with the child when the father had not expressly agreed, had not attended Court (as a result of Production Orders not having been obtained) and had not had the opportunity then to oppose those final orders?

That may seem something of a no-brainer, but bear with me.  All advocates will need to be aware of particularly paragraph 49 and the duty that this places upon them

 

  1. The following uncontentious facts require highlighting:

    i) The Care Plan provided for mother and baby to remain together;

    ii) No Party opposed the plan;

    iii) It was agreed by all the parties that the question of A’s direct contact with F was not an issue for the final hearing, in consequence of F’s incarceration;

    iv) All agreed that a Care Order was the appropriate order;

    v) All agreed as to the extent to which F should be able to provide photographs / cards to A;

    vi) All Parties and the Judge were aware of the indeterminate Restraint Order passed by the Crown Court preventing F from having contact with M (and others);

    vii) F had not asked to be produced from custody at any stage in the case.

  2. It is axiomatic that this was precisely the kind of case that had every potential for resolution at the IRH. It was the professional duty of all concerned to ensure that it did. I regret to say that the profession fell short in that duty. The Judge had done everything she could. By contrast, the Advocates’ Meeting appears to have been formulaic and ineffective. It was plain that F wished to have photographs of his son. F’s solicitors had not obtained a Home Office Production Order to facilitate F’s attendance at Court. Accordingly, F’s counsel was not in a position to take instructions on last minute and important details. Ms. Bazley asserts that F repeatedly elected not to come to court because he considered his presence to be an impediment to the mother’s case. The obligation of his lawyers here was to ensure that F’s own case was not compromised by his non-attendance.
  3. It requires to be stated that Court Orders are there to be complied with, they are not aspirational targets. I strongly suspect that if the advocates’ meeting had absorbed the true objectives of the IRH, and F produced at court, this case would have resolved by agreement. Moreover, I have no doubt at all that had there been proper thought given to concluding the case, the advocates would, at the final meeting, have paid greater attention to the legal basis of the Local Authority’s application for a declaration.
  4. I agree with King LJ in Re S-W (supra) that a Final Order at a CMH will be appropriate only occasionally. However, the message must go out loudly and clearly that the Court will and must always consider the making of Final Orders at the IRH. It must be understood that it is the professional duty of the advocates and all the lawyers, in every case, to direct their attention to the obligation to achieve finality at the IRH wherever possible. It follows that the lay Parties are always required to attend. If a Party is in custody a Home Office Production Order should be obtained and, if necessary, at the instigation of the Judge.
  5. In granting permission to appeal Ryder LJ considered that this case raised an important issue. Though the Court of Appeal has considered these points before it has been in the context of Judges who have been too robust in concluding cases where evidence required to be tested. This case, for the reasons I have set out, is one of wholly different complexion. It provides an opportunity to signal the cultural shift brought about by the Family Justice Reforms and the particular responsibilities on all involved at the IRH.
  6. Though I regret to say it, where the Judge’s objectives (i.e. to facilitate the potential for resolution of the case) are thwarted by non-compliance with Case Management Orders then this may in future have to trigger the consideration of appropriate sanctions in costs. Such orders are counterintuitive in a court arena where much reliance is placed on cooperation and common endeavour. However, the Family Justice Reforms are not merely administrative; they are designed, as I have emphasised above, to reconnect the profession with a core welfare principle: the avoidance of delay.
  7. The approach of the first instance Judge has been entirely vindicated in this Court. The Parties have been asked to consider whether the key issues were capable of resolution given the very narrow ambit of dispute. It struck me that it would have been hugely disproportionate to adjourn them for hearing before a High Court Judge, as it was submitted the outcome should be.

 

In the event, the parties at the Appeal hearing were able to reach agreement on indirect contact and Christmas cards etc, so in part the appeal fell by the wayside. But putting that to one side, was the Judge wrong to have made final orders when father’s attendance had not been facilitated, or was this robust case management?  It seems from my reading that the Court of Appeal would have backed the trial Judge here (other than on the declaration) and the appeal if it had been on those grounds alone would have failed. The responsibility here was with the advocates for not ensuring that either father’s position was entirely in keeping with the orders sought or to obtain a Production Order so that negotiations / representations could have been dealt with at the IRH.

 

The Court of Appeal put down a marker here that advocates must always be alive to the possibility that the case may be concluded at IRH and turn their minds to the final orders.   [They didn’t actually expressly deal with some of the important issues in the appeal – to whit, whether this Judge had made such serious final orders without a Court bundle i.e reading all of the papers, and the threshold having been finally determined taking into account mother’s concessions but including within it matters that father disputed without the Court hearing evidence about the disputed matters and making findings]

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Appeal, Special Guardianship Order to a stranger

 

The Court of Appeal in Re H (a child) 2015 considered the decision from a circuit Judge, Her Honour Judge Wright, to make a Special Guardianship Order to a woman who knew the mother through church as opposed to placing the child with the father.  From the material before the Court, it appeared that the prospective Special Guardian had been observed with the child for about an hour.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/406.html

 

This case, as it deals with how to conduct the balance properly, and making it plain that all of the strictures of Re B, Re B-S et al still apply (as it involves the permanent removal of a child from a parent) makes for an interesting comparison with the Court of Appeal in Re E-R (a child) 2015   where they made it even more explicit that in private law disputes, there is no broad presumption that a natural parent is the best person to care for a child.

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/04/27/no-broad-presumption-in-favour-of-a-natural-parent/

 

The Court of Appeal (rightly so in this case) were critical that the PLO process had not been properly followed. These weren’t nitpicking complaints, but actually went to the heart of why the case had been decided in a flawed way and why there had to be a re-hearing.

 

There had been no continuity of judiciary, no continuity of representation, the parties had not properly identified the issues and hence the Judge had not been able to properly narrow the issues at IRH, and critically proper thought had not been given as to whether the expert in the case ought to be asked to either provide an addendum or to be called to address what was really the key issue in the case.

Could this father, having undergone therapy and developed insight, now care for this child to a ‘good enough’ standard, or did the expert’s prior report indicating that he would need to have another person alongside him to co-parent still stand?

  1. The threshold for jurisdiction described in section 31 of the Children Act 1989 was necessarily constructed on a broad basis having regard to the fact that there were issues of fact and likelihood of harm relating to both mother and to father. The local authority’s case against father was that he was not capable of caring for his daughter because of his autism, the effect of stress on him, the specialist skill required to deal with H’s chromosome disorder and the risk that he presented to H’s emotional wellbeing.
  2. The risk that it was said father presented was based in part on matters determined in the earlier proceedings and in part on new allegations. The risk was made up of (1) that which it was said flowed from an allegation that father left H in the care of her mother when the couple separated, (a risk which was mitigated by the fact that he chose to inform the local authority through the dedicated nursery workers), (2) that which arose out of the abusive relationship between the parents, the physical elements of which he denied, and (3) that which would arise if father was unable to engage with H as her primary carer. The judge held that the findings sought by the local authority which were sufficient to satisfy the threshold had been proved. There was undoubtedly ample justification for that conclusion based on the mother’s conduct alone. What is sadly missing from the judgment is attention to the detail of the findings that the judge made against the father so that there can be a proper understanding of the nature and extent of the risk that existed in the father’s care for the purpose of a welfare analysis.
  3. The judge identified in her judgment the key issue in the case which was the question whether father was capable of caring for H on his own, about which there was an adverse assessment conclusion supported by the analysis of the children’s guardian. Closer examination reveals that the opinion upon which the judge relied was that of a Dr Campbell, a consultant neuropsychologist who was an expert witness in the 2011/12 proceedings and who had then advised that father would need another person alongside him to co-parent H. The judge records that opinion and the fact that father disagreed with it on the basis that he had received therapy, had developed insight and had changed.
  4. Although the judge set out the fundamental disagreement on the key issue, no-one had thought in advance of the final hearing to identify whether the issue was important enough for Dr Campbell to write an updating report or even to be called to be cross examined on behalf of the father. No-one took any steps during the hearing to question how the disagreement was to be resolved. There was no application to call Dr Campbell. If the social worker and guardian were asked for their opinions during examination and cross examination this court was not taken to their answers and the judge did not rely on any of the detail of their evidence in her judgment to suggest that the issue was addressed. Furthermore, it was conceded before us that the social work assessments and analyses in this case could not substitute for or update the forensic opinion of Dr Campbell. The witnesses did not have the skill and expertise to do that.
  5. The consequence is that the judge did not give the lack of agreement that existed the importance that it deserved and that was because there were fundamental flaws in case management before the final hearing. The issue was not identified nor was there any identification of the evidence and the witnesses whose materials would go to that issue. A part 25 application to adduce expert evidence had been unsuccessful during case management and the assessment material appears to have taken the issue as being concluded when it was not. In fact the part 25 application seems to have been misguided, asking as it did for alternative adult psychological assessment. What should have been asked for was up to date evidence from Dr Campbell and given that his opinion was part of the local authority’s case, they should have made application for it, paid for all or some of it and taken the lead in giving instructions for it.
  6. In discussion before this court, the advocates acknowledged that the lack of judicial continuity was compounded by the lack of continuity of representation of the parties such that essential steps including mandatory advocates’ discussions before hearings were missed. Had there been judicial continuity it is at least likely that these issues would have been addressed.
  7. There are cases where a judge’s firm acceptance of evidence can lead this court to acknowledge that the reasoning process implicit in that acceptance is sufficient to deal with the key issue identified. Suffice it to say that having regard to the other issues in the case, to which I shall now turn, no-one seriously pursued a submission that the judge’s reasoning was sufficient or that any gaps could be filled by reference to the evidence that was accepted by the judge

 

The underlined portion of paragraph 16 is important – the LA here were relying on Dr Campbell’s conclusions that the father could not be a sole carer for H, and the Court of Appeal took the view that it was they who were responsible for updating Dr Campbell and getting fresh evidence before the Court whether the change of circumstances changed his view (and moreover, responsible for paying for that)  – rather than the father, as it was his case that he had changed.

Worth bearing in mind.

 

I found it a little odd that the Court of Appeal were not even more interested in threshold, which seems on the thin side post Re A and Re J (particularly given that this child had been with father as a sole carer during the six months of the care proceedings)

  1. The background to the case is as follows. As the judge recorded, the local authority had been involved with the family since before H’s birth. There were previous care proceedings within which, in April 2011, H was placed in foster care. She moved to her parents’ care one year later. In June 2012 a supervision order was made which reflected the success of a residential assessment and the subsequent placement of H at home. The order was extended until February 2014. It was an important element of the care plan that the parents’ care was to be supported by the father’s family and members of the mother’s church because each parent on their own was assessed to be unable to care for H. H was subsequently diagnosed as having a condition known as ‘chromosome 16’ which is linked to developmental delay and speech, language and learning difficulties. She has delayed development and is vulnerable to seizures. Her needs have been assessed to be high, requiring a level of parenting that is better than ‘good enough’ and carers who are ’emotionally available’ to help her make sense of her experiences.
  2. The triggering incident which led to these proceedings occurred on 5 January 2014 when the police were called to a shopping centre in West London. H had been left unaccompanied inside the centre by her mother who had been smoking a cigarette outside the main entrance. H’s father was not present and was unaware of what had happened. The incident was investigated by a social worker who discovered that the parents’ relationship was breaking down. By late January, H’s mother was insisting that the father should leave the home and on 26 January 2014 he did so, leaving H in her mother’s sole care. Despite increased local authority support the care of H by her mother rapidly broke down. That led to a trial agreement between the parents and the local authority for collaborative care by the parents under the supervision of the local authority which was to be provided for by renewed care proceedings that were issued on 7 March 2014.

 

The father also produced evidence from professional bodies and groups – given that what was being said was that his autism (in whole or in part) was why he could not parent as a sole carer and needed another adult to provide day to day support and care. The Court of Appeal were critical that this evidence was not properly analysed in the judgment – yes, the Court could have decided that it did not tip the balance in favour of the father, but to do so, it would have to have grappled with the evidence and set out an analysis of why it was found not to tip the balance.

 

18. Furthermore, there were independent elements of the evidence available to the court which might have impacted on all three opinions.

  1. The independent evidence that was available came from Mencap, the National Autistic Society and from father’s two siblings. The judge heard no oral evidence about any of the support that was on offer from those who could provide it. On the written materials she came to the following conclusion:

    I do not accept the support offered by way of his family, MENCAP, and NAS would be sufficient to meet [H’s] need for a co-parent to assist [the father] if she were to remain in his care in the longer term

  2. First of all that recognised the importance of the key issue I have identified, about which the only other relevant conclusion to which the judge came was:

    “The difficulty he has is that, as was made clear in the previous proceedings, he does not have a reliable person who can provide primary care for [H], who will be attuned to her changing needs, and with whom he can work in partnership. Sadly, the evidence from the parenting assessment, [the social worker] and the guardian’s (sic) indicates [H] remains at risk of harm in her current circumstances.”

  3. The judge went on to consider what the position would be if father was not supported and also two other aspects of the case that are relevant, namely the father’s understanding of the need to act quickly if H had a seizure and what was described as a negative “snapshot” from the guardian derived from her only visit to father’s household during the extensive period that he successfully cared for his daughter with the support of family members. None of this was decisive. The key issue in the case remained whether father needed a co-parent and if not, whether the nature and extent of the available support was sufficient.
  4. It is clear from the judge’s judgment that she had read materials from the interest groups referred to above and from the father’s relatives. It is not at all clear what part, if any, they played in her analysis. That is because the analysis is missing. It is possible that no-one wished to cross examine the authors of the documents and that their contents were taken as agreed. An alternative explanation is that the local authority took the pragmatic view that they disagreed with the contents or that the contents did not address the issue and that cross examination would not take the evidence any further. Either position would have been acceptable and understandable but given the disagreement on the key issue it would have been helpful to know whether or not the content of the documents was agreed and how that was factored into the welfare analysis. I also find it difficult to accept that a value judgment about a co-parenting or caring supporter in a contested case can be definitively made without hearing some limited oral evidence from that person in the absence of agreement or a case where the proposal is not realistic.

 

A further criticism was that the father had wanted to call evidence from family members and had had this request refused. I know that this is an issue that greatly troubles Ian from Forced Adoption, so I will set out the Court of Appeal’s ruling on that (which he will like)

It is one of the grounds of appeal to this court that the judge declined to hear oral evidence from the paternal family, i.e. evidence other than that of the father. The paternal aunt and uncle attended court on the third day of the final hearing with the intention of giving that evidence. We were told that the evidence would have gone to answer some of the questions that the local authority social worker and the guardian had about the merits of the support that the father had. It is difficult to know whether that is right. The judge rejected the application for reasons that are unclear. They were neither expressed in the judgment nor in the detailed order made by the court. The reasons may have been appropriate but if not expressed the impression given is that the judge treated the father’s case as if it was not a realistic option.

 

If a Court is going to refuse to hear evidence from witnesses, they will have to give reasons for that, and set out very clearly in the judgment why that was decided.

Ryder LJ was very clear that the problems in this case and judgment arose fundamentally from a failure to have a proper IRH

  1. All of these issues should have been addressed by the court and the parties at the issues resolution hearing when a different judge briefly had conduct of the case. It was at that hearing that the SGO option is first identified in a recital to an order. Although there is a reference to a SGO, the question of whether a SGO should be made is not then identified as an issue to be determined as it should have been on the face of the case management order. It is not until the final order of the court that the issue is identified as one for resolution. The importance of that is not merely technical. For an SGO to be made there are steps that have to be taken. The steps are part of a regulatory scheme that provides protections for the child involved and for those with parental responsibility and those who seek to obtain it. Furthermore, it is important that the court identifies the realistic options before the court so that the evidence can be focussed upon those options thereby providing the material for the judge to consider in the welfare analysis.
  2. At first sight of the papers one could be forgiven for wondering what compliance there had been with the rules in the preparation there had been for the final hearing. The local authority did not amend the care plan to make the proposal for special guardianship until 2 October 2014 and the detail of the transition plan to move H from the care of her father to A was not provided until the first day of the final hearing. The IRH had taken place on 23 July 2014 when all of those materials should have been available. I assume that no-one was taken by surprise because there was no application to adjourn the final hearing on that basis but the extended period from July to October, which was inappropriate in itself, should have been used to regularise what was happening so that it did not occur at the last minute.

 

The Court of Appeal were unhappy that there had not been a proper Special Guardianship report, which is of course a statutory requirement.   There is something VERY IMPORTANT in this bit, which is going to make 90% of my readers groan  – the Court of Appeal rule that if an SGO is sought, there should be an application. Rather than, as usually happens, the Court is asked to make it of its own motion.  Either the prospective special guardian or the LA should make a formal application.  [And that s10(9) applies to such applications – which in a practical sense means that anyone other than a person with whom the child has lived for at least a year, or has a residence order  OR has consent from everyone with PR to make the application, is going to need leave of the Court]

 

{There’s a slight bit of wiggle room here It is only where parties agree that an application for a SGO should be dispensed with that the section 14A(6)(b) CA 1989 power can be exercised without good reason.    so if everyone agrees, you could still ASK the Court to rule that a formal application isn’t needed. Given that there is an application fee, and the Court service is financially straitened, I’m not sure I’d count on that. At the very least, you are going to need to know prior to IRH whether the Court is going to agree to use that power, or insist on a formal application and possibly a s 10(9) application. Remember that both can easily be foreced by one parent saying that they resist. }

 

  1. What was happening was that the local authority were seeking to persuade the court to make a SGO. Although the court has power to make such an order of its own motion in accordance with section 14A(6)(b) CA 1989, that should not be the default position. Such a process can, as it nearly did in this case, give rise to procedural irregularity for lack of notice. The special guardian or the local authority on her behalf should have made the application. The important procedural hurdle of the satisfaction of the test in section 10(9) CA 1989 would then have been addressed. It is only where parties agree that an application for a SGO should be dispensed with that the section 14A(6)(b) CA 1989 power can be exercised without good reason. In any other case, the use by the court of this power must be reasoned. The parties in this case did not agree and the use of the power was assumed not reasoned.
  2. In accordance with section 14A(8) CA 1989 the local authority must prepare an SGO report and by section 14A(11) the court cannot make a SGO without such a report. The statutory purpose is a very real protection. The contents of such a report are set out in a regulatory scheme which is to be found in the schedule to the Special Guardianship Regulations 2005, which is designed to ensure that necessary questions are addressed before controlling parental responsibility for a child is vested in a person other than a local authority. Such a report was never directed to be prepared in this case because no SGO application was ever made.
  3. In her judgment the judge accepts that a report, a support plan and an addendum report which she identifies are sufficient for the statutory purpose. It is only because there is a concession before this court that the content of an earlier ‘connected person’s assessment’ of A fulfil those requirements that this court has not moved on to question whether the assessment was sufficient for its purpose. During case management, the court should have addressed the question directly. On identifying that one of the realistic options that the court was being asked to consider was special guardianship, it should have made directions in the prospective application including for the SGO report and any relevant evidence. If a report which is being or has been prepared is to be deemed to satisfy the regulatory and statutory requirements, then the case management judge should say so: allowing anyone who disagrees to be heard given the statutory importance that is attached to the report. In other words, the assertion must be scrutinised. By section 14C(1) CA 1989 the holder of a SGO shares parental responsibility with the parents of a child but has the right to override the responsibilities of the parents. Such an order is a significant step in a child’s life that is intended to have long term consequences and the protections that surround it should be respected.

 

The final major criticism was that given that this was a stark choice between two options (dad or prospective SGO) the Court had not properly allowed the father to challenge the assertions that the SGO would be able to care for the child.

  1. The final element of this appeal that is troubling is the judge’s treatment of the special guardian. The judge was apparently of the opinion that it was not appropriate for the father to ‘compete’ with the special guardian. I can understand the point she was making, namely that it would be undesirable for the two potential carers of H to be engaged in an adversarial exchange when subsequently they might have to work in partnership. However, the father was entitled to the procedural protection of being able to cross examine witnesses about the capability of A to care for his child. If that was not to be A herself and I reserve judgment on that question until it is a live issue on which a case turns, then it should have been the assessor.
  2. One of the authors of the connected person’s assessment to which I have referred was called to give oral evidence. Unfortunately, she was the assessor who provided information about the birth family. The separate assessor who provided the information about A was not called to give evidence and accordingly there was no cross examination on the question of the capability of A to care for H.
  3. All of this stemmed from an assumption generated in poor case management that the special guardian was a realistic option and the father was not. That was not this case. At the time of the final hearing H had been living with her father for more than six months. It was accordingly incumbent on the court to undertake a comparative welfare analysis. That is missing and would have been difficult to construct on the evidence that was heard.
  4. The errors that I have described are fatal to the determination made by the judge. As a consequence, at the conclusion of the hearing before this court we allowed the appeal, set aside the special guardianship order, imposed an interim care order on an undertaking to file a new interim care plan to abide the event of an application to restore the status quo ante or an urgent re-hearing. We made case management directions to expedite the identification of the issues, evidence and witnesses at a new IRH.

The Court of Appeal was very damning in Ryder LJ’s final remarks

  1. I have set out the catalogue of problems in this case in rather more detail than might usually be necessary because it is essential that the rules and practice directions of the court are applied. They are there for a purpose. Casual non-compliance is not an option precisely because further harm will likely be caused to a child.