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Pre-flight checklist

 

I found quite a lot of Re F (Children) 2016 to be fairly stodgy porridge, eaten in the Scottish style with salt rather than sugar. That is to say, that whilst it would no doubt have been very good for me, I didn’t enjoy it much and spent most of my time with it pushing it around rather than actually consuming it.

It was Hague Convention proceedings, and I can’t actually face discussing the facts or the decision, which I’ll provide a link to if you are keen to read it.

There were two diamonds in it though, and as they were delivered by the President, expect to see him quoting them in future judgments approvingly and building upon them.

The first was in relation to criticisms about what was missing from the judgment of the original trial Judge. One might expect that the President, who after all authored Re B-S and the call to arms for judgments to show their working and be robust and leave no stone unturned, might get vexed by things being missed out of a judgment, but that of course was BEFORE the Court of Appeal got drowned in appeals and sick to the back teeth of appeals where the decision itself seemed okay but the judgment didn’t tick all of the boxes.

So we have a Court of Appeal shift in emphasis (this has been building over the last two years, but this really does put down a marker.  Don’t come to us on the basis of absence of ‘show your working’ unless the sums are also clearly wrong). I mean, it isn’t often that the Court of Appeal (still less the President) leans on a quotation from Mostyn J to demonstrate a point.

 

Like any judgment, the judgment of the Deputy Judge has to be read as a whole, and having regard to its context and structure. The task facing a judge is not to pass an examination, or to prepare a detailed legal or factual analysis of all the evidence and submissions he has heard. Essentially, the judicial task is twofold: to enable the parties to understand why they have won or lost; and to provide sufficient detail and analysis to enable an appellate court to decide whether or not the judgment is sustainable. The judge need not slavishly restate either the facts, the arguments or the law. To adopt the striking metaphor of Mostyn J in SP v EB and KP [2014] EWHC 3964 (Fam), [2016] 1 FLR 228, para 29, there is no need for the judge to “incant mechanically” passages from the authorities, the evidence or the submissions, as if he were “a pilot going through the pre-flight checklist.”

 

 

Fuel? Check. Landing Gear? Check. Rudder? Check. Likely effect on the plane of any change of circumstances?

Fuel? Check. Landing Gear? Check. Rudder? Check. Likely effect on the plane of any change of circumstances?

 

I’m totally in favour of judgments focussing on a robust analysis of the evidence and laying that evidence alongside the law, and setting out how the decision is reached, rather than the current model I see SO often in the Bailii reports of “If I namecheck and quote from every relevant authority, it will be assumed that I had those principles in mind, so I don’t actually need to show how I applied them, I just need to put in 10 pages of boilerplate that will bore the parties to tears, just to be a boilerplate bullet-proof vest against an appeal”

[I only started seeing those AFTER the Re B-S guidance, but correlation is not causation 😉 ]

 

And thus on appeals, Piglowska is back in favour, as opposed to the ‘can I find fault with the judgment’ approach that we had for a year or so post Re B-S

 

 

  • The task of this court is to decide the appeal applying the principles set out in the classic speech of Lord Hoffmann in Piglowska v Piglowski [1999] 1 WLR 1360. I confine myself to one short passage (at 1372):

 

“The exigencies of daily court room life are such that reasons for judgment will always be capable of having been better expressed. This is particularly true of an unreserved judgment such as the judge gave in this case … These reasons should be read on the assumption that, unless he has demonstrated the contrary, the judge knew how he should perform his functions and which matters he should take into account. This is particularly true when the matters in question are so well known as those specified in section 25(2) [of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973]. An appellate court should resist the temptation to subvert the principle that they should not substitute their own discretion for that of the judge by a narrow textual analysis which enables them to claim that he misdirected himself.”

It is not the function of an appellate court to strive by tortuous mental gymnastics to find error in the decision under review when in truth there has been none. The concern of the court ought to be substance not semantics. To adopt Lord Hoffmann’s phrase, the court must be wary of becoming embroiled in “narrow textual analysis”.

 

 

The next point, touching on the recent case of Re E, where the Court of Appeal flagged up that the Supreme Court’s decision that there was no presumption, rebuttable or otherwise, that a child ought not to give evidence, did not seem to have filtered through to Courts and lawyers on the ground.

 

As the appeal had already been rejected, the President acknowledged that nothing turned on what he was about to say, but the word “Obiter” is not carved into his heart in Times New Roman 12 point font for nothing…

 

Because, as I have said, nothing ultimately turns on any of this, I can take matters fairly shortly, in large part merely identifying the relevant authorities without any elaborate citation.

 

And then

 

 

  • The starting point is, of course, Article 12(2) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 11(2) of Council Regulation (EC) No 2201/2003, commonly referred to as BIIA, both of which identify the obligation on the court to ensure that the child is given the opportunity to be “heard”. Next I refer to the well-known passage in the characteristically prescient judgment of Thorpe LJ in Mabon v Mabon [2005] EWCA Civ 634, [2005] 2 FLR 1011, paras 28-29, culminating in his observation that “judges have to be … alive to the risk of emotional harm that might arise from denying the child knowledge of and participation in the continuing proceedings.” Thorpe LJ returned to the same theme in Re G (Abduction: Children’s Objections) [2010] EWCA Civ 1232, [2011] 1 FLR 1645, para 15, a case where (see paras 20-21) Thorpe and Smith LJJ themselves met the child, a 13-year old girl, and again in Re J (Abduction: Children’s Objections) [2011] EWCA Civ 1448, [2012] 1 FLR 457, paras 33, 42.
  • Well before then, in In re D (A Child) (Abduction: Rights of Custody) [2006] UKHL 51, [2007] 1 AC 619, paras 57-61, the House of Lords had indicated that merely enabling the child to meet the judge might not be sufficient. Having observed (para 59) that “children should be heard far more frequently in Hague Convention cases than has been the practice hitherto. The only question is how this should be done”, Baroness Hale of Richmond continued (para 60):

 

“There are three possible ways of doing this. They range from full scale legal representation of the child, through the report of an independent CAFCASS officer or other professional, to a face-to-face interview with the judge.”

I add another possibility, the child giving evidence but without being joined as a party: see Cambra v Jones (Contempt Proceedings: Child joined as party) [2014] EWHC 913 (Fam), [2015] 1 FLR 263, paras 10, 14.

 

  • The Supreme Court returned to the topic, this time in the context of care proceedings, in In re W (Children) (Family Proceedings: Evidence) [2010] UKSC 12, [2010] 1 WLR 701, holding that there is no longer a presumption, or even a starting point, against children giving evidence in family proceedings. In In re LC (Children) (Reunite International Child Abduction Centre intervening) [2014] UKSC 1, [2014] AC 1038, the Supreme Court considered whether a 13-year old girl, T, should be joined as a party to Hague proceedings. Reversing this court, it held that she should.
  • Next, I should refer to In re M and others (Children) (Abduction: Child’s Objections) [2015] EWCA Civ 26, [2016] Fam 1, para 155, and, more particularly, to In re D (A Child) (International Recognition) [2016] EWCA Civ 12, paras 41, 44, 47, 48, where the obligation of the court to ensure that the child is given the opportunity to be heard and “the right of the child to participate in the process that is about him or her” were said to be fundamental principles of universal application, “reflected in our legislation, our rules and practice directions and our jurisprudence” and where it was said that “the theme of the case law is an emphasis on the ‘right’ of participation of those ‘affected’ by proceedings.”
  • Finally, I refer to the very recent decision of this court in Re E A Child) [2016] EWCA Civ 473, paras 46-48, 56-63, and, in particular, McFarlane LJ’s acid observation (paras 48, 56) that Baroness Hale’s judgment in In re W “would seem to have gone unheeded in the five or more years since it was given” and that “the previous culture and practice of the family courts remains largely unchanged with the previous presumption against children giving evidence remaining intact.”
  • It is apparent that in relation to all these matters there has been a sea-change in attitudes over the last decade and more, even if on occasion practitioners and the courts have been and still are too slow to recognise the need for change or to acknowledge the pace of change. Moreover, and I wish to emphasise this, the process of change continues apace.
  • In April 2010, “Guidelines for Judges Meeting Children who are Subject to Family Proceedings” were issued by the Family Justice Council with the approval of Sir Nicholas Wall P: [2010] 2 FLR 1872. In December 2011, and following the decision of the Supreme Court in In re W, the Family Justice Council issued Guidelines, endorsed by Sir Nicholas Wall P, on “Children Giving Evidence in Family Proceedings:” [2012] Fam Law 79. More recently, the whole topic, with other related matters, has been considered by the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group which I established under the Chairmanship of Russell and Hayden JJ in May 2014. Their interim report was published in July 2014 (see [2014] Family Law 1217) and the final report in February 2015 (see [2015] Family Law 443). The Family Procedure Rules Committee is currently considering the extent to which, given limited resources, the recommendations of the Working Group can be fully implemented. Whatever the outcome of that discussion, it is plain that the further changes in our approach to these matters which are now widely acknowledged require to be implemented, and sooner rather than later.
  • One thing is quite clear: that proper adherence to the principles laid down in In re W will see ever increasing numbers of children giving evidence in family proceedings.
  • One of the drivers for this is the point which this court emphasised in In re KP (A Child) (Abduction: Rights of Custody) [2014] EWCA Civ 554, [2014] 1 WLR 4326, paras 53, 56, namely, that a meeting between the child and the judge is “an opportunity: (i) for the judge to hear what the child may wish to say; and (ii) for the child to hear the judge explain the nature of the process;” that the “purpose of the meeting is not to obtain evidence and the judge should not, therefore, probe or seek to test whatever it is that the child wishes to say;” and that if “the child volunteers evidence that would or might be relevant to the outcome of the proceedings, the judge should report back to the parties and determine whether, and if so how, that evidence should be adduced.” The corollary of this is that, quite apart from all the other drivers for change, there are likely for this reason alone to be more cases in future than hitherto where the child either gives evidence, without being joined as a party, or is joined as a party.

 

 

Heavy hint being dropped there that the Court of Appeal are itching to get their hands on an appeal where a Judge has refused to hear from a child, and that there’s a judicial speech already drawn up to deliver on it. Consider yourselves warned.

 

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Another day, another appeal against Placement Orders refused

 

I know…  it is like autumn 2013 but in reverse.  It would be nice, once in a while if the Court of Appeal would grant some appeals and refuse others, rather than having six months of granting them all and then six months of refusing them all.

At the moment, these appeals are like turning up to play 5-a-side football with your mates, and Christiano Ronaldo turns up as one of the ten.

It isn’t that hard to predict the outcome and if you are on the other side, it is a lot of hard work for not much reward.  Even worse if you turn up thinking he’s going to be on your team, only to find out that the rules changed to put him on the other side whilst you were travelling to the match.

 

Re P (A child) 2014 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1648.html

 

Nothing much in this one about the legal test and the ongoing debate about whether when the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal say “You’ve got to do A, B, C and D if you are going to make a Placement Order” that amounts to a change in law or not.

But some things of interest.

 

The difficulty for a real human being  (we lawyers call them “lay persons”, but “person” is also an acceptable term to use for a person) in understanding the appeal process and what to do, what form to fill out, where to send papers, who to send them to

 

This case yet again puts into sharp relief the difficulties which arise for the courts, the litigants and most of all the children, where unrepresented parents seek to navigate their way through a system which necessarily operates on the basis of detailed procedural rules, without which there would be chaos but which inevitably present the layman with significant difficulties. Had the father been represented, the mistakes that followed, would have been picked up by his solicitors.

 

The Court of Appeal explain that in this case, the father had thought he could appeal to the County Court, and the County Court had also thought that for quite a while because the Recorder who heard the case had also been sitting at that Court as a District Judge. Their explanation for this is so complicated, I had to read it three times to grasp it, so I feel for all involved.

 

Then the age old difficulty of getting a transcript

Meanwhile, notwithstanding that the county court had asserted that a transcript of judgment had been sent to the parties in December 2013, it was not until the 11 July 2014 that the local authority received a copy, and even then they obtained it only because counsel for the father sent it to them. Unhappily, whatever defect in the system for the obtaining and distribution of transcripts had been responsible for the delay in the onward transmission of the Recorder’s judgment did not lead to a revision of those systems as there were further significant difficulties with regard to obtaining transcripts. It is not being suggested that the resulting delays were the result of indifference on the part of the court staff. No doubt the problems stem from a lack resources leading to a shortage of appropriately trained and experienced court staff able to identify the problem and put in place a system for ensuring the prompt and efficient ordering and distribution of transcripts of judgments and evidence.

 

The County Court actually wrote a letter of apology to the father in this case for all of the things that had gone wrong. That’s a fairly rare occurance  (in twenty years of practice, I’ve never heard of the Court apologising to anyone)

As I understand it the father has received two letters of apology from the County Court for the mistakes which led to the wholly unacceptable delay in this matter coming before the court; a delay unacceptable for the father, but also for the prospective adopters. Whilst the father was obviously distressed during the course of the hearing, he behaved with dignity and composure throughout. It will inevitably be hard for him to accept that the outcome of this appeal, and the making of the adoption order which will in due course be made in respect of S, are not a direct result of an inadequate judgment and delay within the family justice system. I can only assure him that it is not so; Mr Hayes put forward every possible argument to convince the court that the case should be remitted, but even his skill and tenacity could not undermine the fact that upon close analysis of the findings and assessments available to the court at the time of the hearing, the making of a care order and placement order in respect of S was the inevitable outcome.

 

In this case, the appeal was based on the judgment not being sufficiently clear about what basis various options had been discounted to arrive at adoption – one might think from reading Re B-S that when they said THIS

 

41. The second thing that is essential, and again we emphasise that word, is an adequately reasoned judgment by the judge. We have already referred to Ryder LJ’s criticism of the judge in Re S, K v The London Borough of Brent [2013] EWCA Civ 926. That was on 29 July 2013. The very next day, in Re P (A Child) [2013] EWCA Civ 963, appeals against the making of care and placement orders likewise succeeded because, as Black LJ put it (para 107):

“the judge … failed to carry out a proper balancing exercise in order to determine whether it was necessary to make a care order with a care plan of adoption and then a placement order or, if she did carry out that analysis, it is not apparent from her judgments. Putting it another way, she did not carry out a proportionality analysis.”

She added (para 124): “there is little acknowledgment in the judge’s judgments of the fact that adoption is a last resort and little consideration of what it was that justified it in this case.”

42. The judge must grapple with the factors at play in the particular case and, to use Black LJ’s phrase (para 126), give “proper focussed attention to the specifics”.

that they meant that a judgment ought to grapple with the factors at play and give proper focussed attention for the specifics.

The Court of Appeal had been taking a very hard line on this, but seem to have softened their approach and are prepared to look at the totality of the judgment and the evidence heard by the Judge  (which was not the case in the low-watermark case where the parents had both been in prison at the time of the Placement Order and the appeal was granted)

  1. One of the difficulties where a judgment lacks structure and fails to present the reader with a clear analysis of the evidence, its application to the law and thereafter of its cross check with Convention rights, is that a reviewing court is not only presented with a formidable task in determining whether the decision reached by the judge was wrong, but it potentially leaves a litigant, (often a parent destined as a consequence of that judgment to have their parental tie severed), with a sense of unfairness, even where there is no question of his or her Article 6 rights having been compromised.
  2. At first blush it appeared that the deficiencies in the judgment with which this court is concerned were such that, no matter what further delay was occasioned in determining S’s future, the appeal must be allowed and the matter remitted for rehearing. The process of determining whether the essentials can in fact be found within the judgment and the evidence has been immeasurably assisted by the careful analysis of Miss Morgan QC, through which it has become clear to the court that notwithstanding the difficulties inherent in the judgment:

    i) All the material necessary for a proper determination of the case was before the judge and tested in cross examination.ii) That, whilst the finding in relation to developmental delay cannot stand, there were nevertheless more than adequate findings to allow the threshold criteria to be satisfied and therefore the court to proceed to consider what, if any order, should be made.

    iii) The father was assessed by both the Guardian and the social worker as to his ability to care for S. The judge was entitled, having heard the evidence, which included oral evidence from the father, to accept the recommendation of the Guardian and indeed, if a court decides not to follow the recommendation of the Guardian, it should give its reasons for failing to do so. (Re J [2001] 2 FCR 44)

    iv) The evidence before the judge addressed the available options and the judge took into account the father’s strengths as well as weaknesses. The Recorder gave his reasons for concluding that it was not in the best interests of S to be rehabilitated to her father.

    v) Whilst the judge failed to state in terms that he made a care order before moving on to consider the placement order application, it was implicit that, having determined that the child could not return to the only parent who was a realistic option, a care order would follow. The conditions necessary for the making of a care order were undoubtedly made out.

    vi) The care plan was for adoption. The necessary information was available to the judge for the welfare analysis within the extended assessment of the Children’s Guardian. The Recorder noted the exceptionality of the order sought and said that the making of such an order was ‘necessary’. Even though the case was heard before Re B-S the Recorder took into account the importance of the order for adoption being ‘proportionate’ and importantly, that it is not enough to say that “it would be better for the child to be adopted than to live with his natural parents”

    vii) This was a little girl who had just turned 2 at the time the orders were made in circumstances where there was no one within the extended family who could appropriately offer her a home. Once the court had concluded that it was not in her best interests to be returned to the care of either parent then, given her age and need for a secure, stable and permanent home, it could not be regarded as wrong for the judge who had heard the case to conclude that her welfare required an adoption order to be made.

  3. Pieced together in this way, I conclude that the Recorder did engage with the essence of the case and that his judgment contained the essential ingredients necessary for there to be a proper determination of the issues which determination also respected the Convention rights of all the parties

It was Professor Plum, in the kitchen with a candlestick – no, it was Professor Plum AND Miss Scarlett….

A discussion of  the Court of Appeal decision in Re L-B (Children) 2012 . Or ‘when is a judgment not a judgment?’

 

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/984.html 

 

 

If you’re going to read one case this year, you should probably be more ambitious in your reading, but in any event, if you want one that is not necessarily hugely important but a real shocker, this one would be a good start.

 

It seems a silly little thing, but actually raises some good (if quirky points) and cuts to the root of what judicial decisions are.

 

The facts are very simple (and I assure you that this is not one of my imaginary judgments, though I wish I’d thought of it)

 

A Judge heard a fact finding hearing about non-accidental injuries.  At the conclusion of the hearing, the Judge indicated that the full judgment would be provided in due course, but that she had determined that the injuries were non-accidental and had been caused by father.  That was in December 2012.  It is important to note that this finding was recorded within an order made at that time.

 

Counsel for father invited the Court to deal with, in the full judgment, the matters as to fact and law that had been set out in father’s written submissions.

 

The LA moved forward with plans to place the children in the care of maternal grandparents (there were other difficulties with the mother, outwith the physical injuries) .

 

 

 

The perfected judgment was handed down on 15th February, and it was with some surprise that the parties heard the following passage :-

 

The perfected judgment was not in fact distributed until the 15th February. In that judgment the judge stated that she had “reconsidered the matter carefully” and had reached the view that “to identify a perpetrator would be to strain beyond the constraints of the evidence which I have both read and heard”.

 

In Lord Justice Thorpe’s beautifully understated prose,  “this was indeed a bombshell”

 

 

 

 

The judgment recorded the following:-

 

  1. 22.   However the decision I reached had to be reached on the balance of probabilities and when I considered the matter carefully I could not exclude the mother because I was not sufficiently satisfied that no time had arisen when she had not been alone with the child and might not have caused some injury.

23. I would be reluctant to expand further than that. I hope that will, in fact, constitute the clarification which you seek and I am reluctant to take time now to produce something further in writing, given that I have already given you my decision twice, the second time changing direction, but, as I say, I do not view it as incompatible with what I said the first time; it is simply a reconsideration of the point I reached on the balance of probabilities led to my second expressed view.”

 

 

The issue before the Court of Appeal was twofold, in essence.  Was the Judge bound by her earlier decision that father was the perpetrator of the injuries or entitled to change her mind and make a Lancashire finding? (i.e her function in determing the fact finding ended when she gave a short judgment in December and made an order recording that father had been determined by the Court to be the perpetrator of the injuries)

 

  And if the Judge were not bound by her earlier decision, does the change of mind in any event render the judgment unsustainable?

 

 

Matters become worse – when trying to establish when the order in December was perfected and sealed, the following came to light:-

 

  1. The court seal on the order of 15th December is only partially legible and bears no date. When we asked for the date on which the court sealed the order no-one in court could answer the question. We accordingly proceeded on the common assumption that the order had been sealed prior to 15th February 2012. However, we required investigation over the lunch adjournment.
  1. At 2pm a further extraordinary story emerged. Manchester Civil Justice Centre does not keep a record of the date that orders are sealed. The order of 15th December was drafted by the Local Authority’s representative and circulated to other parties for approval. On the 6th January it was emailed to the judge for her approval. That email received no response.

 

31.The hearings on the 23rd January, 20th February and 23rd February all provided the obvious opportunity for the Local Authority, and other parties, to ask the judge either to approve or amend the draft submitted for her approval. However, it was not until the 24th February that the Local Authority noticed what was lacking and re-submitted the draft to the court. Seemingly the draft received the court’s stamp on that same day.

 

 

 

 

 

The Court of Appeal grasped the significance of this.

 

  1. This revelation altered the legal path. Had the judge a license to revise or reconsider on 15th February since the previously announced conclusion had never been made the subject of a perfected order: see for instance the judgment of Arden LJ in Re T (contact: alienation: permission to appeal) [2003] 1FLR 531 at paragraph 50 where he said:-

“It is well established that it is open to a judge to amend his judgment, if he thinks fit, at any time up to the drawing of the order”

 

 

So, had the order made in Court in December naming father as sole perpetrator been sealed before the Judge had changed her view on the case and amended her judgment, that would have been outside the safety net of Re T, because the order would have been drawn.

 

 But in this case due to a catalogue of errors, the order was not sealed before the Judge changed her mind, and thus had the latitude to do so.

 

(A salutary lesson to us all, to record on the Court order on the fact finding hearing what findings were made AND to ensure that the Court seals them as soon as possible – though this issue is developed later, I still think it is good ‘belt and braces’ to do this)

 

The Local Authority, argued that in care proceedings, it is the final order as to Care Orders, Supervision Orders or no order that is  “the order” and that therefore the Judge can amend any judgment made at interlocutory stage providing that the “final order in the case has not been drawn up”

 

(That was an interesting argument in this case, but one which could wreak havoc in care proceedings generally if the judgment given in any fact finding was still ‘up for grabs’ at any stage thereafter until final disposal of the case, and I’m slightly surprised that the Local Authority wanted to set that particular hare running, given that the Re T point was already made about the legality of the Judge being able to change her judgment at any point before the order was drawn up (i.e sealed)  )

 

 

Thankfully for me, Lord Justice Thorpe determined:-

 

  1. It is important that we should not diminish the general importance of finality that judgment brings to human disputes. Judges appreciate that their findings as to disputed past fact and as to credibility are enduring and they are very conscious of the consequential burden and responsibility. The responsibility is magnified by the knowledge that once they have pronounced there is no opportunity for reconsideration or review.
  1. This principle is of particular importance in child protection litigation. This case well illustrates the havoc, the damage to the child and the family and the difficulties for the social work team caused by the judge’s departure from principal.
  1. Reverting to the question identified in paragraph 37 above, I do not draw from paragraph 21 of Munby J’s judgment, the conclusion that in the case of split hearings the principle articulated by Arden LJ and Rix LJ in Re T licenses a judge generally to amend his judgment as to past fact at any time before he has pronounced his judgment as to the future.
  1. In my opinion the purpose and objective of each of the preliminary hearings as to past events, and the welfare hearing to settle the future, are fundamentally different. The purpose and objective of the first trial would be jeopardised or lost if the judge at the second were free to re-write the history of past events

 

 

 

On the central issue of whether the Judge was entitled to change her judgment, Lord Justice Thorpe decided the following :-

 

  1. Furthermore, these skeletons reveal a tension between two lines of authority: the first establishing the principle that a judge is free to change the judgment until the resulting order is sealed (see Stewart v Engel [2000] 3 All ER 518), the second, that when an oral judgment is given, the winner is entitled to rely on its validity, only to be upset in most exceptional circumstances (in Re Barrell Enterprises [1973] 1WLR 19).
  1. I do not believe it necessary to consider these and other relevant authorities cited further, given the extraordinary facts of this case. I need only emphasise the clarity of conclusion announced on 15th December, the general assumption that the resulting order had been perfected in mid January, the general implementation of the judge’s conclusion, her adherence to that conclusion at the hearing on the 23rd January, the absence of any change of circumstance and the general slackness that left the December order unsealed until 28th February.
  1. Despite all the difficulties that were laid out in the supplemental skeletons I unhesitatingly conclude that the judge was bound to adhere to the conclusion of her December judgment and that her obligation to particularise it further did not permit her to enter a fresh and contrary conclusion. The result was not, as is submitted, merely to add back the mother: it was seemingly to elevate the father from low to first consideration as the primary carer, albeit the rationality of that elevation is not clear to me, given that he remained a suspected perpetrator. The effect of the judge’s shift is to remove the simplicity of a sole parent perpetrator. However the mother was not a placement option. That remains between father and maternal grandparents. Whether the father is viewed as a possible or a proven perpetrator there is still a risk to be assessed.

 

And effectively rejected the Re T argument that the Judge could change her judgment up until the order is perfected, saying in essence:-

 

If a judgment seems to be incomplete or deficient, counsel has the obligation to invite the judge to expand or supplement rather than to rely on the deficiency as grounds for an application for permission to appeal. But that practice allows the judge only to expand findings or reasons in further support of his stated conclusions. It certainly does not permit a judge to reverse a previously stated conclusion.

 

And thus that Re T effectively allows a Judge to refine, polish and improve a judgment, to perfect it and to take on board issues raised by the parties, but NOT to reverse it.  

 

 

 (That leads to an interesting tension with some recent Court of Appeal authorities suggesting that with a deficient finding of fact judgment, counsel should furnish the Judge with a list of areas that need to be addressed and a judgment perfected, because it implies that whilst the Judge can bolster the judgment against appeal, he or she can’t actually be swayed by those identified deficiencies to the point of changing their decision)

 

 

The second Judge, Lord Justice Rimer, took a contrary view, that having come to a fundamentally different conclusion, the Judge HAD to amend her judgment and be allowed to do so, otherwise how could she sensibly follow her judicial oath? Having determined that father was NOT the sole perpetrator, but a Lancashire one, and the case potentially progressing in a way that would conclude with him seeking to care for the child, it must be wrong for the Judge to HAVE to proceed on the basis of findings she had no confidence in.

 

One set all.   Sir Stephen Sedley to serve for the championship.

 

Sir Stephen Sedley is obviously not a great believer in preserving tension, because he makes it plain in his opening paragraphs where his judgment is going :-

 

  1.  The history of these proceedings has been fully set out in the other two judgments. I can therefore go directly to the issue: did Judge Penna have power to substitute her second judgment for her first?
  1. In my judgment she did not. I reach this view on both procedural and substantive grounds.

 

74. It seems to me to be of little or no consequence that the order recording the first judgment had not yet been sealed in the court office at the date of the second judgment; or that a final order in the case still remains to be made and sealed. Justice cannot depend on the functioning of an overworked and underfunded court office. Although the sealing of an order gives visible finality to a court’s decision, it is the delivery of judgment which constitutes the decision. The drawing up of the consequent order is not unimportant (and before the days of mechanical recording and word processing was often critical), but it is not what gives finality to a judgment. Nor can “deeming” a perfected judgment to have been handed down on the day of its distribution (as was purportedly done here) somehow postpone its finality.

 

 

And then gives this lovely quote, which I fully intend to steal and use at the earliest opportunity.

 

“Finality is a good thing,” said Lord Atkin in Ras Behari Lal v King-Emperor (1933) 60 IA 354, 361, “but justice is a better.”

 

 

 

 

 

And this is the paragraph which seems to settle things :-

 

Between 15 December 2011 and 15 February 2012, when she reversed her own decision, nothing had changed except the judge’s mind. I do not mean this dismissively. There can be few judges who have not worried about their more difficult decisions and sometimes have come to think that there was a better and different answer. But this by itself is not an objective reason why their original judgment should not have been right. Hence the need for some exceptional circumstance – something more than a change in the judge’s mind – to justify reversal of a judgment

 

 

 

It is always harder teasing out the principles from an Appeal case when the second and third judgments are not  “I agree” and particularly where one is a dissenting judgment, but I think the following :-

 

 

  1. In a fact finding hearing, a judgment is made when the Judge indicates the decision and NOT when the order is sealed.  And certainly it doesn’t hang over until the final order is being made.

 

  1. The detail of a judgment may be perfected and refined and a Judge is entitled to take supplementary requests for additions and clarifications into account.

 

  1. That refining process (post announcement of decision and pre perfected judgment being produced) can not produce a reversal of the DECISION or fundamental change of direction unless there are exceptional circumstances  (and those have to be more than the Judge’s mind having been changed)

 

 

Where the story goes next is harder to tell. The Court dealing with the welfare hearing have to proceed on the basis that father is identified as the sole perpetrator, even though the Judge who made that finding no longer believes it to be the case.  If it is the same Judge, how can her decision at analysis of ‘risk of harm’ and ‘ability of the parents’  limbs of the welfare checklist truly proceed on the basis of the father having caused the injuries, rather than merely paying lip-service to that being the position in law?

 

If that were to be the tipping point that prevented father caring for the child  (i.e all things being equal, if there was a Lancashire finding, the child would be in his care but not as a sole perpetrator) how can justice really be done?

 

I think that this decision is right in law, and from a moral standpoint, it is right for mother  (it can’t be right that a Judge hearing the case in December takes her out of the equation and then puts her back in two months later)  but wrong for father  (because the Judge no longer has confidence in the finding she made naming him as sole perpetrator)

 

 

See everyone, law CAN be interesting.

“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.