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Inordinate delay in issuing proceedings (£45K damages)

 

This is a Circuit Judge decision made in my local Court (it is not a case that I or any of my colleagues are involved in, so I can write about it) so I will try to avoid much comment and stick to the reported facts.

 

Re X, Y and Z  (Damages: Inordinate Delay in issuing proceedings) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2016/B44.html

Three children had been s20 accommodated from January 2013 until July 2015 when an Interim Care Order was made. The Court determined that the s20 had been lawfully entered into and was valid, but of course on the authorities, a valid s20 does not prevent a human rights breach based on delay.  Whilst the mother in this case had never formally withdrawn her consent or lodged an objection, she had been asking for more contact with the children and saying from time to time that she would like them to come home.

 

  1. The mother clearly frequently stated that she would wish to care for the children and certainly to see them :
  2. i) 8.2.13 Letter from Z seeking to see the children.

ii) 1.3.13 Z asks for contact and to have the children back in her first meeting with a social worker

iii) 3.4.13 Z seeks fortnightly contact in a telephone call.

iv) 5.9.13 LAC review – stated that Z would like to be able to care for the children.

v) 14.1.14 Report for LAC review notes that Z would like to see the children and that she sometimes states she wants to care for the children and sometimes that she just wants to have contact with them.

vi) 8.4.14 Legal Planning Meeting Solicitor for Z stated that she had requested both children be returned to her care as soon as possible…if not returned to her care, would like increased contact.

vii) 26.11.14 LAC Review Z would like to be able to care for the children.

 

 

The Judge ruled that the children’s article 6 and  8 rights were breached in the following ways

 

  1. It follows from all that is set out above that I make the following declarations:
  2. i) West Sussex County Council acted unlawfully and in violation of the Convention Rights of X, Y and Z as follows:

a) Purported to exercise parental responsibility for X and Y for a period of almost two and a half years when they did not hold parental responsibility for the children.

b) Failed to promote contact between the children ,X and Y and their mother Z.

c) Failed to issue care proceedings for almost two and a half years causing the children to be without access to independent representation, failing to carry out adequate assessments and allowing the children’s permanence plan to drift.

d) The Independent Reviewing Officer failed to challenge the conduct of the Local Authority sufficiently robustly.

The judgment contains analysis of the relevant authorities on s20 breaches, s20 drift, human rights claims and calculating quantum.

The Judge concluded that each of the  children should receive the sum of £20,000 in damages  (*initially, with the case being called X, Y and Z, I’d assumed three children and hence £60k, but I am told two children. Still £45k is a lot of money)

 

  1. The factors to be considered for the children are substantially different to those for the mother and consequently must be assessed separately. The main factors in relation to quantum are :
  2. i) A failure to assess their needs for an inordinate period of time – over two years before any report was obtained;

ii) The fact that they were denied access to any independent legal representation for two and a half years – of particular importance when they had no relatives in the country who would be able to care for them and when they had been the subject of apparent abuse during their time in Jamaica;

iii) Little promotion of contact with their mother even though X indicated in February 2013 that he would like to go back to her – there was no contact for the next twelve months;

iv) No comprehensive assessment of their needs although it was indicated as early as March 2013 that such an assessment was required;

v) Frequent changes in placements without any input from anyone with parental responsibility

vi) Placement with W, the previous foster carer, without any such assessment or understanding of any abuse they had suffered in Jamaica;

vii) The fact that the children are now in separate long term foster placements with no contact with each other or any other relative and X is not in a culturally appropriate placement;

  1. It is apparent that the end result for these children is not a good one. It is not possible now to say that the outcome would have been any different if proceedings had been issued in early to mid-2013 which should have occurred. However, it is difficult to see how the outcome would have been much worse and the loss of a chance of a better conclusion must be reflected in any award that is made.
  2. This case appears to be at the upper end of the bracket that has been awarded in similar cases. The only aggravating feature which is not present in this case, which is present in the majority of other such cases, is the fact that I have found that the s.20 agreement is a valid one. I am not going to set out all of the possible comparators as they appear in the table in the Medway case but I would simply state that this case involves the longest period as well as a poor outcome which may not have been the case without the breaches. As a result due to all of the issues which have been highlighted I am satisfied that the children should be awarded the sum of £20,000 each for all of the breaches of their Article 6 and 8 rights.

 

 

In relation to the mother

 

The Mother’s Award

  1. The mother is in a different position as she did have the benefit of legal advice from June 2013 onwards and as a result would have been able to withdraw her consent at any time thereafter. This must be of significance in considering damages as the inordinate delay in this case is the most troubling aspect and that delay could have been stopped at any time by the simple act of instructing her solicitor to withdraw her consent.
  2. It is argued on behalf of the Local Authority that this feature is of such significance that it should mean that the mother would receive ‘just satisfaction’ by way of a declaration alone. However that ignores the other crucial factors in her case which include :
  3. i) The frequent requests for contact to her children which were simply ignored by West Sussex although there was no legal basis to do so;

ii) If proceedings had been issued the Local Authority would have been obliged pursuant to s.34 Children Act 1989 to promote such contact;

iii) The failure to properly assess the mother due to the fact that she had been fully assessed in the previous proceedings some five years earlier.

  1. It seems unlikely that the children would have been placed with their mother if the proceedings would have been commenced in a timeous fashion and as such there does not need to be any award for the loss of that chance. However, the same cannot be said in relation to contact as that may have been very different if addressed much earlier. The children are now stating that they will not see their mother but that was not the position when they first arrived at Gatwick in January 2013. This loss is even more significant now that each child has no contact whatsoever with any member of their family.
  2. In these circumstance the appropriate level of damages for the mother must be far lower than for the children and I assess the figure of £5,000 as the correct amount to compensate her for her Article 6 and (more significantly) Article 8 rights.

 

 

Looking at the chronology given in the judgment,  there was involvement with lawyers as early as 24th June 2013, which was still 2 years before proceedings were issued.

 

The Judge was very critical of the  Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO), who would have been holding Looked After Child Reviews at regular intervals during the 2 1/2 years of s20. He found that they, too, had been responsible for breaches of both the mother and the children’s human rights.

 

  1. The Independent Reviewing Officer failed to challenge the conduct of West Sussex and did not promote care proceedings. The functions of the IRO are set out within s.25 Children Act 1989 and they include monitoring the performance of the Local Authority of their functions in relation to the child’s case. In the case of A and S v Lancashire CC [2012] EWHC 1689 at para 168 it was submitted (and Jackson J did not demur) that the task of the IRO was to “monitor, persuade, cajole, encourage and criticise fellow professionals in the interest of the child”. Their roles are more fully set out within the “IRO Handbook” which provides the relevant statutory guidance. In the Lancashire Case it was found that the failures of the IRO amounted to a breach of the children’s rights.
  2. The actions of the IRO in this case are fully set out within the statement of Children’s Safeguarding Manager and which is referred to above, which concludes with a list of ‘Strengths’ and ‘Areas for Development’ and the latter included :
  3. i) “the Review minutes do not consistently contain sufficient specific evidence of IRO challenge, especially on issues in relation to progress towards permanence”

ii) “the decision specific to the permanence plan was not specific enough and did not contain any target dates”

iii) “would have expected more explicit detail in relation to the permanence plan of long term fostering and the need to seek legal advice”

  1. It does not seem to me that this adequately highlights the deficiencies of the IROs (there were two) in this case. There does not appear to be any note whatsoever of the IRO cajoling the Local Authority on timescales and this can be highlighted by two simple issues :
  2. i) There is a bald statement in the second review held in May 2013 that an SGO assessment is about to commence in relation to the paternal aunt. This is repeated in the fourth review in January 2014 which records that “an SGO assessment will be undertaken at the appropriate time”. It is noted at the fifth review in July 2014 that the paternal aunt still wished to have the children living with her under SGOs but the assessment is still not there some fourteen months after it was first raised. This is a simply appalling delay and does not seem to be criticised by the IRO – if there is not going to be criticism in such cases then one has to ask when would it ever occur?

ii) The IRO was aware in May 2013 that the mother wanted contact to the children but no decisions were made on this crucial point at the time. In September 2013 it was noted that indirect contact had happened and the next stage would be to consider re-introducing direct contact yet by the fourth review it is simply noted that they were “working towards direct contact”! The first face to face contact did not take place until February 2014, a full 13 months after the children had arrived in the UK with the mother saying that she wanted to see the children throughout and the eldest child, X, having said he would like to see his mother in February 2013. It is entirely possible that the contact would not have been successful (as has in fact occurred) but it must be the duty of the IRO to challenge this astonishing delay in attempting such contact in circumstances when the children had no involvement with any member of their birth family.

  1. The lack of urgency in the case is breath-taking and it is simply wrong to point out the failures of the IROs to force the issues as an “Area for Development”. It was a total failure to “monitor, persuade, cajole, encourage and criticise fellow professionals in the interest of the child” as they should have been doing. This was clearly a case that should have come before the courts years before it actually did yet the IRO did not appear to put any pressure upon the Local Authority to ensure that this occurred. There is power within s.25B(3) Children Act 1989 for an IRO to refer the case to CAFCASS if it is considered it was appropriate to do so. It is difficult to understand why such action should not have been carried out in this case in order to ensure that the welfare needs of these children were fully protected.
  2. It follows that the failures of the IRO were sufficient in this case to amount to a breach of the children’s and the mother’s rights to family life and a fair trial.

 

 

If I were a betting man, and I am, I would expect an increase in care proceedings issued when the September set of CAFCASS stats come out.  And the volume of care proceedings issued is already at an all-time high.

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And I’m all outta bubblegum

 

 

It is always enjoyable for me to receive a judgment from His Honour Judge Wildblood QC.  I expect that there may be a slightly different qualitative experience between reading one at a safe geographical distance and being physically present to receive it on a case you’re involved in.

 

My mental image of His Honour Judge Wildblood QC is that of a kindly man who nonetheless would be able to come into his Court room and open with the Rowdy Roddy Piper (God Rest his soul) line

 

“I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all outta bubblegum”

 

[Incidentally, the fight scene in this movie, They Live, which is between two characters, one of whom wants the other to put on a pair of sunglasses and the other who is reluctant to don said sunglasses, is so epic that my dad came and got me out of bed to come and watch it at about three am, when he was watching this film on TV. And I was glad that he did. It is marvellous.  In case you are in any doubt – when I compare HH J Wildblood QC with Rowdy Roddy Piper it is intended as high praise]

This case does not disappoint on that level. There was clearly a deficiency of gum that day, but no deficiency of kicking ass.

 

Gloucestershire CC and M 2015

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B147.html

I am publishing the judgment in this case because it is an example of the following:

i) The unnecessarily protected use of accommodation of a child under section 20 of The Children Act 1989. This child was accommodated with short term foster carers for 12 months before these inevitable proceedings were issued and has now been with them for about 16 months.

ii) The delayed identification of the need for therapeutic intervention for this mother. 19 months after the Local Authority intervened in a family where the mother had obvious difficulties it was identified that the mother needed therapy. It was then said that, by then, the benefit of therapy was ‘outwith the timescales of the child’. If psychological evidence was to be obtained with the invariable recommendation of therapy (and I have never known a psychologist not recommend therapy in a report) I cannot understand why it was not obtained much earlier.

iii) Failure to identify realistic options leading to the adjournment of this final hearing and a consequent inability to meet the timetabling demands of section 32 of The Children Act 1989, as amended.

 

Section 20 drift has been something of a theme of the Courts and hence this blog, for some time now.

As a quick rule of thumb for a social worker thinking about a case in their cabinet/caseload where there’s a section 20 agreement, ask yourself this question

 

If the mother or father rang you this afternoon and said “I want the child back” would you be ?

 

(a) Perfectly fine about that and make the arrangements

(b) Okay about it, but suggest that the move take place over the next 2 days to make the preparations

(c) Concerned and thinking that the child would not be safe at the moment, if they went home

(d) In a blind panic, and wanting to do anything to stop that happening

 

If your answer is (c) or (d), then it isn’t really a proper use of section 20 any more. The section 20 here is a very short holding position until you can either have a Meeting Before Action at which the parents will have lawyers, or care proceedings at which the parents will have lawyers.

 

 

  1. C grew up in the primary care of his mother until 28th May 2014 when, at the age of 5, he was removed from the mother under police powers of protection and then accommodated by the Local Authority with foster carers. The mother does not accept that the threshold criteria in s31 (2) of The Children Act 1989 are fulfilled and has also issued a claim for damages under The Human Rights Act 1998 in relation to the circumstances in which C was removed from her care and the manner in which the Local Authority has conducted itself in relation to C. On the same day in May 2014 A went to live with Mr D.
  2. For no valid reason it took the Local Authority a year, that is until 15th May 2015, to issue these proceedings. In its application the Local Authority said at B9: ‘C was the subject of a child protection plan from August 2013 until 19th May 2014 as a consequence of neglectful parenting. The concerns related to the dirty and unhygienic home conditions and the mother’s mental health and its impact upon her parenting and capacity to meet her child’s needs. A week after de-registration a further child protection referral was received. C was accommodated on 29th May 2014 following police powers of protection being used on 28th May 2014. The police removed C as a consequence of a person known to be a risk to children continuing to have contact with him (against professional advice) and because of the unsuitable home conditions. On 29th September 2014 the mother was evicted from her flat which had been significantly damaged. The mother was sofa surfing. Roger Hutchinson, psychologist, completed a report on the mother on 9th March 2015. This concluded that the mother experiences social anxiety and schizoid and paranoid traits with poorly developed social, functional and adaptive skills. Therapy is indicated over a nine month period’.
  3. C has therefore been with his current foster carers for 16 months of his life, has settled with them and is integrated into life with them. His mother has been having contact with him twice a week for sessions lasting one hour and although there have been inevitable niggles about that contact, a condensed analysis of that contact could not express it as falling below the grasp of the adjective ‘reasonable’ on my current reading of the papers and submissions that were made at the IRH. C’s educational and social connections, at an important time of his life when he is settling into school, have all been made from the base of his current foster home. The foster carers have done an excellent job in caring for him and, in his letter to the judge, C says ‘my family is [the foster father, the foster mother and their cat]‘ and draws the foster father with a big smile on his face. The guardian reports that C is making ‘greatly improved progress at school and his health has improved’ since living with them [A14].

 

 

These three paragraphs of background raise the three obvious questions

 

  1. What the hell took the LA so long to issue?
  2. Is it fair for the LA to have delayed so long in finding out that mum needed 9 months of therapy – because if they’d found out earlier, she’d have had it by now
  3. IF the child can’t go and live with mother, surely this child is going to stay with the current carers if humanly possible

 

However, the LA in this case had delayed for so long, were saying that the child couldn’t wait for mum to have therapy, and had ruled out the current foster carer as an option.

 

Taking these in turn

i) Having been involved with this mother since August 2013 and having accommodated this child in May 2014 it is inexplicable that it took a year for the Local Authority to issue these proceedings. That has absolutely nothing to do with limited resources. It is simply bad practice.

 

On the issue of therapy :-

 

ii) The Local Authority knew the mother’s level of functioning but still took until 9th March 2015 to identify that this mother needed therapy. Knowing the mother’s level of functioning why did it take 19 months (from August 2013) to do that? How can it be regarded as satisfactory for the Local Authority now to say that the mother needs therapy which is outwith the timescales of the child? For instance, if a psychologist’s report had been obtained within three months of C being accommodated (i.e. in August 2014) there could have been 13 months of therapy by now at far less expense than the cost of these proceedings leading to the possibility that the consequences of this mother’s unfortunate background could have been mitigated with the child receiving an upbringing with her

 

[I have a bit of sympathy with the LA here –  I’m not sure whether anyone actually argued that as a result of House of Lords authority Kent County Council v G, it is not within the Court’s powers to compel the provision of therapy, that therapy thus has to be resourced through the NHS and the NHS aren’t going to provide therapy without a clear diagnosis and recommendation, at least not without a huge waiting list. So tempting as it is to just start the therapy whilst waiting for the expert report, that isn’t how the real world works.  It is fair enough to say that the real world in this regard sucks and it needs to change.   There is possibly a big argument to come as to whether the House of Lords settled position that “there is no article 8 right to be made a better parent at public expense” is compatible with what Baroness Hale says in Re B about the State needing to provide the resources to do just that, but that’s a debate that can only be resolved by the Supreme Court. ]

 

On the last issue, why the current foster carers had been rejected in favour of adoption by the LA.

 

  1. At the IRH, on 8th September 2015, I was told that the current foster carers were not offering C a long term home. The guardian says in her position statement: ‘since the IRH on 8th September 2015 the guardian has spoken to C’s current foster carers. They have confirmed they have never said they would not keep C long term as foster carers. They would not wish to consider special guardianship or adoption because they see themselves as foster carers and may well wish to foster another child and would wish both children to be placed with them on the same basis. The foster carer has also informed the guardian that Mr D has on a number of occasions said that he would be prepared to care for C if there were no other options’.
  2. It is right that, on 27th August 2015 there was a discussion between the adoption social worker, TG, and the foster carers. I have the case note in relation to that. This conversation therefore took place six days after the placement application had been filed by the Local Authority (so the Local Authority had already ruled out long term fostering then). The foster carers were saying at the time of that note that they did not feel able to adopt C. They are not recorded as saying that they would not foster C. It took one conversation between the guardian and the foster carers to clarify matters. When asked directly by the social worker on an unspecified date (but after the IRH) ‘the foster father confirmed that he and the foster mother would have C for as along as is needed in long term foster care with a care order if they were supported by the Local Authority’. The clear impression that I have, having read the papers, heard the IRH and listened to submissions today, is that the Local Authority did not consider the possibility of long term fostering with the foster carers and, once it regarded the mother as ruled out, its linear analysis took it to adoption.

 

So the child’s current foster carer, who everyone involved would agree had done a marvellous job, was willing to be a permanent carer for the child, just that he didn’t want to adopt the child. The LA had approached this on the basis of “our plan is adoption, you don’t want to adopt, therefore you are out”, rather than looking at whether the child could remain with the carer on a different basis THUS avoiding the need for adoption.

 

The case simply could not be concluded, as there were too many unknowns.

Following a heavy IRH on 8th September 2015 the case is listed before me for final hearing for the rest of this week. That final hearing cannot proceed because there are realistic options in relation to the future care of C that have not been assessed by the Local Authority. That means that large amounts of public money and time have been wasted in a Local Authority involvement that has spanned 16 months. All parties now say that the case has to be adjourned. Eventually, I have had to give up my attempt at keeping this case on the rails of this final hearing and have had to accede to adjournment. To adjourn a case where there has been lengthy Local Authority involvement with a family in a straightforward case is absurd but now unavoidable.

 

 

and in conclusion

  1. What are the options that need to be considered? They are these:

    i) That C should be rehabilitated to his mother. Of course, nature, law and common sense require that it be recognised that the best place for a child to live is with his natural parent unless proven and proportionate necessity otherwise demands. As matters stand the professional evidence is all stacked up against this mother but her case will require very careful consideration at a final hearing.

    ii) That C should continue to be a child fostered by Mr and Mrs B. If the Local Authority will not support this the only way in which C could live with the foster carers would be through private law orders. If special guardianship orders were to be proposed there would need to be a report under s14A(8) of The Children Act 1989. Therefore I need to flush out what the Local Authority is saying. If it will not agree that C should remain with the foster carers (should the court so recommend on the making of a care order and a rejection of the placement application), I will have to give directions for a special guardianship application to proceed (a written application is not necessary if I so determine – s14A(6)(b) of the 1989 Act). The possibility of C remaining with the foster carers is unassessed by the Local Authority and there has not been sufficient discussion with them.

    iii) That C should live with Mr D and A. This is also unassessed. There is no blood relationship between Mr D and C but there is a blood relationship between A and C. They have a clear fraternal attachment (in which C is A’s big brother). That possibility remains unassessed also.

    iv) That C should be placed for adoption. That is an option upon which I have already commented. I am not suggesting that there are difficulties about that option on the basis of age alone. I say that there are difficulties about it because of the particular circumstances of this child.

  2. Therefore today I have had to give directions for the future of these proceedings. By the time that the case comes back the new baby will have been born, and I wish the mother well with the birth. However, the advent of the new baby will mean that there are additional complications that will arise in ensuring that the best solution is found for C.
  3. I have given this judgment in writing so that there is a formal record of what has gone wrong in this case and how matters must now be put right. The Local Authority must consider the realistic options that arise and must put its case into order.
  4. Proper plans must be put in place for the birth of the baby and where the inevitable assessment of the mother and the baby will take place. That should have been done already. The mother is in and out of hospital at the moment and it is manifestly unfair that, as well as dealing with the physical demands of impending birth and repeated hospital appointments, she is also having to deal with the uncertainties of these proceedings and a lack of knowledge about what will happen when she does give birth – where will she be living and what is planned for the baby?
  5. The Local Authority must therefore look at the options that arise and file proper evidence in relation to them. The case will have to come back before me later this week when I will have to give further directions as to how that will be achieved. It is deeply frustrating that a case such as this has to exceed the timescales provided by section 32 of The Children Act 1989 and that should be recorded as having been caused by systemic failure by the Local Authority

 

 

There is also some pending litigation in this case as to whether when the child was originally removed from the parents by police protection, whether that was in breach of the families human rights – it being really settled law that where removal of a child is being contemplated it should be a decision of the Court unless there are exceptional and compelling reasons why the removal cannot wait for a Court hearing.

 

 

Angola – gross, inexplicable and unjustifiable delay

 

This is a judgment by a circuit Judge, His Honour Judge Wood, sitting in Newcastle. It is not binding precedent, but I think that it illuminates some important issues.

 

The mother in the case was Angolan, born in 1977. The eldest child had been born and raised in her early life in a refugee camp in Angola. The family came to England in 2005. It was sadly and brutally apparent that this mother had seen and experienced things that you would wish on no human being, and that obviously as a result, she had severe and serious need of help that she did not receive.

 

 

Re N (Children) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/37.html

  1. I have found this case simultaneously to be very difficult, very sad and also to have made me very angry. In reverse order, the anger flows from the failure of this Local Authority to meet these children’s needs in a significant way. First, the gross, inexplicable and unjustifiable delay, the breach of statutory duty under section 1(3). Secondly, this is a family with, if not a unique background, a relatively unusual and extraordinarily difficult one, which until Mrs Louw reported does not seem to the court to have been really considered at all and even following her report I question the extent to which it was properly embraced. The search for suitable cultural support has come really very late indeed.
  2. Thirdly, the likelihood of the parenting course that the mother was sent on barely scratching the surface was evident before the mother even went on it. I do not say that she learned nothing from it, she was able to explain what she had learned and spoke to me in quite complimentary terms about it, but the real difficulty identified by Mrs Louw was completely beyond its scope. Fourthly, the delay in obtaining the evidence from Mrs Louw was caused entirely by the Local Authority not identifying that need until these proceedings were issued. It was ordered at the earliest point at the case management hearing but by then 17 months had elapsed since the children went into care.
  3. Fifthly, the Local Authority knows about this mother’s isolation. It is apparent on all of the evidence. She belongs to a church but does not mix with other families, at school or elsewhere. She has, on her account, maybe one or two visitors from her church to her home but she does not visit the homes of her visitors and she has no other family or friends, certainly locally. As an asylum seeker from a war-torn country but with children brought up in a western educational system, the potential for cultural issues and expectations to give rise to conflict ought to have been obvious. I do not underestimate the difficulty of finding appropriate help. Even at the end of this hearing it is not clear what does exist but no real attempt was made even to mount a search until much too late. To criticise the mother for not having learnt from five group sessions of an effective parenting course is really just not fair.
  4. Sixthly, the background of being a refugee, particularly from Angola, even with an elementary knowledge of recent Angolan history and absent that an enquiry just on the internet, should have alerted the Local Authority to the likelihood that this mother had experienced real trauma likely to be of a severe kind which should have set alarm bells ringing as to her likely needs. On all of these scores the President’s textbook example of how not to conduct a care case seems to the court to have been met.

 

The Judge was rightly scathing about the delay between the Local Authority taking these children into care and issuing proceedings, some 17 months. With all of the features of this case, it should have been apparent that section 20 would not be sufficient and that proper plans for the long-term future of these children was needed.  Even worse than the delay was that the Local Authority took SEVEN MONTHS to issue the proceedings from the date that they wrote to mother’s solicitors saying that they were going to issue.  As the Judge points out – if the LA had issued when they said they were going to, the proceedings would have been concluded a month earlier than when they were actually issued.

[Even worse than this, the children had been taken into Police Protection a year before the section 20 accommodation, as a result of a physical assault, and then returned home, so the LA were seized of the issues and concerns for some 29 MONTHS before care proceedings were issued]

 

5. I want to say at the outset that the course that this case has taken in the hands of this Local Authority has been deeply unsatisfactory. Following a precipitating event in the middle of June 2013 the children were accommodated with the mother’s consent under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. Despite taking a decision in January 2014 that the plan was to be long term foster care and the Local Authority writing to the mother’s solicitor in March of that year to the effect that proceedings would be issued within seven days, they were not issued for another seven months on 22nd October 2014. As I observed when Miss Woolrich on behalf of the Local Authority addressed me, had the proceedings been issued when the Local Authority said that they were going to issue, they should have been concluded before the date when they were, in fact, issued. That they were not is bad enough but that bald fact ignores the period of nine months that preceded that statement of intent. Thus, these children were voluntarily accommodated for 16 months prior to the issue of proceedings and can properly be said today to have been in limbo now for 21 months.

  1. It is difficult to avoid a direct application of the words of Sir James Munby P in the recent Darlington Borough Council case reported at [2015] EWFC 11 in which he described that case as being, “Almost a textbook example of how not to embark upon and pursue a care case.” A specific criticism from that case that applies directly in this case is, “The misuse and abuse of section 20”, that the President said could no longer be tolerated endorsing, as he did, the observations of the Court of Appeal in Re W [2014] EWCA Civ 1065 and Northampton County Council v AS [2015] EWHC 199 quoting with approval the remarks of Keehan J recorded at paragraphs 36 and 37 of that latter judgment.
  2. This all lies entirely at the door of the Local Authority and requires addressing at the highest levels within Children’s Services and their legal advisors. That said, no parent in such circumstances is left without a remedy. Legal advice is available from the outset of notification of proceedings and it is a matter of both surprise and disappointment that the mother here was not encouraged to force the point as she was perfectly entitled, and I would say bound, to do in the circumstances of such gross delay by withdrawing her consent. I want to emphasise I do not blame this mother personally but it is the fact and a matter of regret that this did not happen long before the Local Authority belatedly got round to issuing proceedings. The effect of delay varies from case to case but in no sense could it here have been described, using the now disapproved term, as being purposeful. It served no identifiable purpose, it has delayed the outcome inordinately for young children wanting their futures decided and, as a matter of law, it has amounted to a complete and inexcusable breach of the statutory delay principle enshrined in section 1(2) of the Act.

 

The Judge sadly had to make Care Orders – one will never know whether if during those 17 months of drift the mother had been given the right help whether the outcome would have been different.

He decided that these failings were not solely those of the social worker but of the organisation and system as a whole, so followed the President’s decision in Darlington not to name and shame the individual workers

 I make a disclosure order to the head of service and to the independent reviewing officer in respect of this judgment which will be transcribed as anonymised, the cost of which to be shared equally by all parties. I should say that for the avoidance of doubt for the reasons that the President gave in the Darlington case itself, I have also directed that the two social workers who have been involved should be anonymised as well because it seems to me entirely unfair that, whatever individual shortcomings may have arisen, the criticisms that have been levelled against the Local Authority should be laid at their door or that they should be identified as responsible.

 

It also seems to me that with all of the demonisation of asylum seekers that goes on in both political discourse and the media reporting, it is worth reading this little passage and remembering that asylum seeker ought not to be used a synonym for ‘sponger’

The mother was born on 23rd October 1977 in Angola. By then the brutal civil war that shocked the outside world had been underway for two years. G was born in a refugee camp in Zambia in 2002 just after that war ended. The psychologist who reported in this case makes the point that the mother grew up and came to maturity in a war-torn country. The central province where she lived is said to have been devastated. The mother herself reports that there came a day in 1999 or 2000 when they “all ran different ways” and she thereby lost contact both with her parents and her sister. She has no idea where they might be – that is to say, assuming they are still alive – and somehow she ended up following a convoy of complete strangers that took her to Zambia. Little more than that is known, albeit the expert assessment of her presentation was consistent with her affirmative nod in answer to a direct question as to whether she had been jailed and/or tortured. She is likely to have experienced first hand, or at least witnessed, extreme brutality that has traumatised her to this day.