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What responsibility do CAFCASS have towards children who AREN’T the subjects of proceedings?

In this family case, an argument arose as to whether the father had committed a sexual act with a child, AB, who was not in the family and was not part of the proceedings. Consideration was given as to whether AB should give evidence in the family Court – the father disputed the allegations.

 

The Court gave directions to undertake a Re W exercise – the Court asks for evidence to be gathered about the merits and risks of the young person giving evidence. Where the young person is a child the subject of proceedings, it is the Guardian who speaks with the child and prepares a report about the ability of the child to give evidence and their views and the impact upon them. The Court then hears argument and decides whether the child should give evidence and if so whether any special arrangements are to be put in place.

 

Here, the Court made a direction for CAFCASS to do the work, and CAFCASS objected, so the Court then directed the social worker to do it.   (The Local Authority raised that this was an issue of public importance – Guardians are well placed to obtain the wishes of children and do the Re W assessment and are more neutral than the LA whose job it is to prove the allegations, and the case was listed for consideration before Keehan J in the High Court.

A County Council v Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) [2019] EWHC 2369 (Fam) (20 September 2019)

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2019/2369.html

 

The Submissions of the Local Authority

  1. The local authority submitted that the court does have the power to make the direction given in this case in respect of a non-subject, non-party child and that Cafcass would not be acting outwith its statutory functions. The issue is a matter, it is said, of the statutory construction of s.12 of the 2000 Act and of the relevant rules in the FPR.
  2. In support of this submission the local authority rely on four aspects of the statutory and FPR provisions, namely:
    1. i) s.12(1)(b) provides that it is a function of Cafcass to “give advice to any court about any application made to it in [family] proceedings”;

ii) r.16.20(2) provides that “the children’s guardian must also provide the court with such other assistance as it may require”;

iii) paragraph 6.1(b) of PD16A provides “obtain such professional assistance as is available which the children’s guardian thinks appropriate or which the court directs must be obtained”; and

iv) paragraph 6.6(f) of PD16A provides the children’s guardian must advise the court on “any other matter on which the court seeks advice”.

and that in terms, the Court has the power to direct CAFCASS to do anything that would assist the Court or on which the Court wants advice.

The Submissions of Cafcass

  1. It was submitted that the opening words of s.12(1), “in respect of family proceedings in which the welfare of children…is or may be in question” confirm the parameters of the role of Cafcass is limited to the subject child or children. Further, it was submitted that the subsections of s.12 of the 2000 Act should not be read disjunctively. The reference in s.12(1)(c), “make provision for the children to be represented in such proceedings”, emphasises the point that the role of Cafcass is limited to the subject child of the proceedings.
  2. The point is forcefully made that it is the function of local authorities’ children services departments, and not Cafcass, to be responsible for the safeguarding of children generally. The duty of Cafcass to safeguard children is owed to those who are the subject of family proceedings.
  3. The general nature of the powers and duties of Cafcass was noted by the Court of Appeal in R and Others (Minors), R (ota) v The Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service[2012] EWCA Civ 853. McFarlane LJ, as he then was, observed,
      1. “On its wording and in its immediate statutory context, the natural reading of s.12 is that it is concerned with establishing a general framework of operation for CAFCASS, not with creating duties owed to individuals. The purpose of the section is to lay down the principal functions of the body established by s.11. By s.78, those functions include both powers and duties. By paragraph 9 of schedule 2, they are to be performed in accordance with any directions given by the Lord Chancellor (for Lord Chancellor now read Secretary of State – see note at paragraph 28 above). All of this is very general in nature. So too is the wording of the functions themselves. That is true not only of the functions in subsection (1), to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children”, “give advice to any court …”, “make provision for the children to be represented …” and “provide information, advice and other support …”, but also of the duty in subsection (2) to “make provision for the performance of any functions conferred on officers of the Service …”. There is nothing in any of this to suggest a legislative intention that all or any of the duties created by s.12 are owed to the individuals for whose benefit the functions are to be performed. On the face of it, these are general public law powers and duties. Nor was our attention drawn to anything within the other parts of the CJCSA 2000 that might suggest a different view.”
  4. The Court of Appeal considered the approach of the court in undertaking a Re W assessment in Re E (A Child)[2016] EWCA Civ 473. At paragraph 61 McFarlane LJ, as he then was said,
      1. “It is plainly good practice for the court to be furnished with a written report from the children’s guardian and submissions on behalf of the child before deciding whether that child should be called as a witness. This court understands that it is, however, common-place for guardians to advise that the child should not be called to give evidence on the basis that they will or may suffer emotional harm as a result of doing so. Where such advice is based upon the consideration of harm alone, it is unlikely to be of great assistance to the court which is required to consider not only ‘harm’ but also the other side of the balance described in the Guidelines, namely the possible advantages that the child’s testimony will bring to the determination of truth.”
  5. As in the case of Re B, the court in Re E was not considering the position in respect of a non subject child nor the role of Cafcass, if any, in relation to such a child.

 

CAFCASS were arguing, in effect, that the powers of the Court to make directions for CAFCASS to do things were limited to the children who were the subjects of the proceedings.

 

I think you can tell from the first paragraph of the discussion that CAFCASS are going to win this, and indeed they do.   Cue every Local Authority lawyer falling off their chair in amazement.

 

Discussion

  1. The interpretation of s.12 of the 2000 Act and the relevant rules contended for by the local authority, see paragraph 23 above, would effectively place no limit on the work or the role a court could direct Cafcass or an officer of the Service to undertake. Counsel for the local authority conceded this point but submitted that ‘common sense’ must be applied to limit the scope of what a court may require of Cafcass. I do not find this, to put it mildly, to be an attractive nor a persuasive submission: rather it undermines the local authority’s contention. I cannot accept that Parliament intended to create a statutory national body to advise and assist the court in family proceedings, and to represent the children who are the subject of those proceedings, without any restriction or limit on its function and roles. Still less would Parliament have intended that the restrictions or limitations on the role of the service would be determined by applying common sense.
  2. The advocates were agreed, that according to the best of their respective researches, there is no reported authority on the interpretation of s.12 of the 2000 Act in respect of the scope of the function of Cafcass.
  3. In respect of whether the subsections of s.12 should or should not be read disjunctively, I note that:
    1. i) the words ‘or’ do not appear after subsections (a), (b) or (c); and

ii) neither does the word ‘and’ appear after subsection (c).

It is in my judgment, however, significant that s.12(1) reads “it is a function of the Service to” followed by subsections (a) to (d). If the subsections had been intended by Parliament to be read disjunctively, I would have expected the word ‘functions’ to appear in s.12(1). The use of the word ‘function’ in the singular leads me to conclude that subsections of s.12(1) are not to be read disjunctively but instead are to be read conjunctively. Since one part of that function is to ‘make provisions for the children to be represented in the proceedings’, I am persuaded that the function and role of Cafcass pursuant to s.12 of the 2000 Act is limited to the subject child or children of the proceedings.

  1. Furthermore, I agree with and accept the submission made on behalf of Cafcass that the opening words of s.12(1), “in respect of family proceedings in which the welfare of children…is or may be in question” should be interpreted to mean that the role of Cafcass is limited to the subject child or children of those proceedings.
  2. I am reinforced in coming to this conclusion by taking account of the following matters:
    1. i) the appointment of the children’s guardian in public law proceedings under Part IV of the 1989 Act (‘specified proceedings’ as defined by s.41(6)) and the assistance it may be required to give to a court are subject to rules of court (s.41(10) 1989 Act);

ii) the appointment of a children’s guardian in public law proceedings is limited to a child who is the subject of the proceedings and is a party to the same (r.16.3 FPR);

iii) similar provision is made in respect of the appointment in private law proceedings (r.16.4 FPR);

iv) the FPR make separate provision for a child who is not the subject of the proceedings but is a party to the proceedings, namely the appointment of a litigation friend (r.16.5 FPR); and

v) the powers and duties of a children’s guardian whether in public law or private law cases set out in rr.16.20 & 16.27 and paragraphs 6 & 7 of PD16A must be read in the context of and in the light of the requirements of rr.16.3 and 16.4 FPR, namely the appointment is made in respect of the subject child.

  1. I am in no doubt that a children’s guardian, appointed to represent a child in public or private law proceedings, may be required to advise the court on the subject child’s relationship with a non-subject child (eg a step-sibling) and the impact on the same depending upon the orders made by the court for the future placement of the subject child: see FPR r.16.20(2) & PD16A paras 6.6(f) & 7.7. Similarly, a children’s guardian may be required to enquire into and advise the court about a wide range of matters and about a diverse group of people (eg relatives, friends and connected persons etc). This could include advising the court on the benefits/disadvantages of a non-subject child being called to give evidence in the proceedings. What is key, however, is that the objective and focus of these enquiries and of the advice is, and must be, establishing the welfare best interests of the subject child.
  2. It is quite a different matter to seek to appoint an officer of Cafcass, whether a children’s guardian or otherwise, to work with and advise upon a non-subject, non-party child. I have not been referred to any statute nor to any relevant rule of court which makes provision for such an appointment in these circumstances. I am satisfied such an appointment is outwith the statutory function and role of Cafcass.
  3. Conclusion
  4. I, therefore, conclude that the court has no power to require Cafcass to appoint an officer of Cafcass, whether a children’s guardian or otherwise, to undertake any work with or play any role with AB.
  5. The preparatory work directed by the judge ought properly to have been undertaken by a social worker from the local authority and/or a social worker from A City Council or, as was ultimately directed, by an independent social worker. The young person, if called to give evidence, would have been the local authority’s witness on whose testimony it relied in seeking to prove relevant facts which, if found to be proved, would have satisfied the threshold criteria of s.31(2) of the 1989 Act.
  6. I have not taken account of the potential adverse consequences for Cafcass, in terms of workload, if I had concluded the court had the power to make directions in respect of a non-subject child. Given, however, the increase of the workloads for all concerned in the child protection and family justice systems, now is not the time to consider widening the scope of the functions of Cafcass with its current resources

Can and should a Local Authority facilitate the use of sex workers for a vulnerable adult?


This is an issue that comes up from time to time, and it provokes a lot of contentious debate on either side. On the one hand, there’s the argument that sex work is exploitative and in this country subject to criminal laws.  On the other, there’s the argument that there are certain vulnerable adults who have appetites and needs and are not able to have those needs met any other way.   I’m taking no moral stand either way on this argument, just reporting what the High Court, in this particular case before Keehan J, decided.

 

In this case, the Local Authority went to the Court of Protection to say that they did not feel that facilitating P’s use of sex workers either in this country where it would be illegal, or by facilitating his travel to the Netherlands where it would be, was in his interests and that they did not wish to do it, and sought a declaration from the Court to that effect.

https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCOP/2019/43.html

 

Lincolnshire County Council v AB [2019] EWCOP 43 (08 May 2019)

 

1.These proceedings in the Court of Protection are brought by Lincolnshire County Council in relation to a man, AB, whom I shall refer to as ‘P’ in this judgment. He is a 51-year-old man with a diagnosis of moderate learning disabilities, autistic spectrum disorder, harmful use of alcohol and psychosis due to solvent abuse. He suffered, sadly, a chaotic childhood. He had difficulties engaging in mainstream education and spent much of his childhood in boarding schools, due to concerns about his behaviour, which are recorded as having been inappropriately sexualised from a young age.

2.He was first detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 in 1985. Thereafter, he was detained on a further 10 occasions between 1985 and 2003, generally as a result of interpersonal conflicts, alcohol abuse or withdrawal hallucinations and seizures. In 2000, P moved into his own property and began a relationship with a woman, who was noted to have exerted significant influence over him. The pair are recorded as falling into a pattern of drinking and engaging in antisocial behaviour in public. In July 2003, P was evicted from his flat, having caused significant and substantial structural damage.

3.In October 2003, he was admitted to hospital. Thereafter, he was detained under section 3 of the Mental Health Act and he remained in various psychiatric facilities for the next seven years. On his discharge in October 2010, P moved to another placement. It was here that he developed a friendship with a local prostitute and thereafter, began his fascination with female sex workers. He has since lived at a number of residential properties and during this time he has been facilitated to access sex workers, and then on occasions, to travel to the Netherlands to have sex with prostitutes there. In November 2008, he moved to his new supported placement. In April 2018, Lincolnshire County Council made an application for the court to determine P’s capacity and best interests, specifically with regard to contact with sex workers.

4.Evidence was sought from Dr Lisa Rippon, who concluded that P lacked capacity in all relevant domains, save the capacity to consent to sex. On the issue of contact, and particularly contact with sex workers, she said as follows:

“P has limited insight into the risks that others might pose to him, including sex workers, and overestimated his ability to keep himself safe. He could not think through the potential consequences of visiting sex workers, including the possibility of financial exploitation or involvement with the criminal justice system. I believe that P failed to both understand the information necessary to make decisions about contact and was unable to weigh up the benefits and risks. It is therefore my opinion, that P lacks capacity in this area and this is as a result of his learning disability and autism.”

5.The position now, is that the local authority do not intend to facilitate P’s access to sex workers, whether in this country or abroad, in particular in the Netherlands. They set out their reasons in a detailed and helpful position statement. P’s litigation friend has visited him on a number of occasions in the recent past to gain his views. P, it is said by his litigation friend, has a high sex drive and finds the lack of access to sex workers frustrating. He has stated that self-pleasuring using pornography, sex dolls and toys, is not the same as having physical contact with a woman. He would wish to continue his past conduct of having and being permitted to have sexual relations with sex workers, here and in the Netherlands.

 

 

That sets up the background and the judgment then moves onto the decision

 

Conclusion
6.I have due regard to P’s wishes and desires. But I have come to the clear conclusion that the local authority have adopted the right decision and approach, in not seeking to facilitate his contact with sex workers either here or abroad.

7.In coming to that conclusion, I have had regard to s.2 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005. There has been no change in the P’s circumstances, namely that he lacks capacity as I had set out above. I have also had regard to ss.3 and 4 of the 2005 Act. I note that a care worker who causes or incites sexual activity by an individual for payment, with another person, commits a criminal offence, pursuant to ss. 39,42 and 53A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

8.If care workers who look after and support P, were to facilitate such activity, they would be committing a criminal offence and any declaration by me, would not alleviate their liability to be prosecuted. In the Netherlands, of course, prostitution and payment for sexual services are not illegal. But in my judgment, there is a very real risk that if a care worker here, supporting P, made arrangements for him to travel to the Netherlands for the purposes of having sexual activity with a woman for payment, they would be at risk of being prosecuted for a breach of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

9.Accordingly, I would not be minded to make any declaration permitting care workers or the local authority to arrange for P to have sexual activity in exchange for payment with a woman, either in this country or in the Netherlands. Secondly, and in any event, I consider it would be wholly contrary to public policy for this court and for this local authority, to endorse and sanction P having sexual relations with a woman for payment. Thirdly, and in any event, notwithstanding P’s clearly expressed wishes and his clear desires to continue to meet prostitutes for sexual activity, I do not consider it is in his best interests to do so. I have well in mind, his expressed views that he does not consider that he would otherwise be able to have a relationship with a woman and therefore, he sees no alternative but to seek to use the services of prostitutes.

10.I have regard to the fact that he finds self-pleasuring is not of the same enjoyment or satisfaction as having sexual relations with a woman. In light of the opinion of Dr Rippon, however, it is clear that P does not understand all of the implications of having sexual relations with a woman for payment. He puts himself at risk to his health, his welfare and his safety and he puts himself at risk of exploitation: none of which he accepts or understands. In those circumstances, I am entirely satisfied that it is wholly contrary to his best interests for him to have sexual relations with prostitutes. Still less, is it appropriate for this court to sanction the same. On behalf of P, his litigation friend through counsel, Miss Twist, acknowledged those factors, not least the impact of the criminal law and did not seek to pursue an application for the court to grant such declarations. In my judgment, that was an entirely right and appropriate decision.

11.I have been asked to give this short extempore judgment, so that it may be transcribed and a copy given to P, so that he may know why the court has come to the above conclusions. I entirely accept that P will be, to put it mildly, disappointed by and he will undoubtedly not agree with my decision. Nevertheless, I am satisfied that the conclusions I have reached are in his best interests.

 

Separating twins

 

 

There’s a notorious study from the 1960s, in which an American organisation, the Louise Wise Adoption Agency under the request of a child psychologist, Peter Neubauer, placed twins in separate adoption placements, with a number of different twin pairs, so they could be followed up by psychologists in later life to see whether they, as adults, had similarities (which would give credence to nature / genetic factors being the most dominant) or differences (which would give credence to nurture/environmental factors being the bigger influence on children). It’s the sort of thing that makes us shudder now.  And rightly makes us think that separation of twins is a huge, huge life-changing decision, never to be made lightly.

 

This case isn’t as bad as that, because the separation came about more by a combination of incompetence, lack of thought and dogma that adoption is the best thing always even if it means splitting twins, rather than just carelessly using children as unwitting experiments, but it is still bad.

 

Readers may remember Keehan J opening a can of judicial whup-ass on Herefordshire just before Christmas. After I finished writing THAT post, I found this judgment, which….well. You’ll see.

BT & GT (Children : twins – adoption) [2018] EWFC 76 (29 November 2018)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2018/76.html

 

1.I am concerned with two children, BT and GT who are twins who were born in 2010. It is almost impossible to imagine the circumstances in which it would be considered appropriate to separate twins and place them for adoption by different prospective adopters. This is, however, what occurred in this case and I have before me an application by a couple, whom I shall refer to as A and B, to adopt BT and an application by a single carer whom I shall refer to as C, to adopt GT.

 

 

2.As I shall set out in some detail, I am satisfied and find that the court is in the position of considering applications to adopt the twins in two separate homes because of the incompetence and serial failings of the local authority, Herefordshire Council, and the egregious behaviour of some of its former staff.

 

  1. The failings of this local authority have been utterly appalling. Whilst I accept the assurances of the director of children’s services and of the assistant director that significant and substantial reforms will be made and effected, no child should ever again be cared for in the manner BT and GT have had to endure at the hands of this local authority nor suffer the woeful lack of rational care planning. Further no prospective adopter should ever again have to endure the treatment meted out to A, B and C in this case.

 

This was a case in which twins born in 2010, were made the subject of Care Orders and Placement Orders (authorising them to be placed for adoption) in 2015 – the plan approved by the Court at that stage being that the Local Authority would search for an adoptive placement for the twins together for nine months, and if one was not found to search for a long term foster placement for them together.

 

 

 

 

22.On 19th March 2015 HHJ Hooper QC made all five children the subject of care orders and made placement orders in respect of BT and GT. Their court approved care plans provided for them to be placed together with a search being made for nine months for an adoptive placement and if the search was unsuccessful the following three months would be devoted to seeking a long-term foster placement for them together. There was no question of the local authority proposing, still less the court approving, a plan for the twins to be separated and placed separately whether in adoptive placements or long-term foster care.

 

 

23.On 10th April 2016, however, a team manager made the decision to place the twins separately for adoption. This plan was endorsed by a LAC Review held the following day. I shall return to consider these decisions in greater detail later in this judgment.

 

We aren’t given a huge amount of background as to the decision to make Care Orders in 2015. We know that the twins father was convicted of multiple sexual offences against children and that he is also serving a 21 year prison sentence. (para 5) and we know that 5 children were removed from the mother and made the subjects of Care Orders and that there were issues of neglect, domestic abuse and alcohol abuse.(paras 17-22)

 

The Judge, Keehan J, was faced at this hearing, with applications by two different adopters to adopt one of the twins each. By the time of the hearing, the children had been in those placements for over a year. The Judge had to decide whether to grant the adoption orders, meaning that the two children would permanently live apart, or to refuse them and move the children from those separate placements into presumably a foster placement together. Understandably the Court was more than vexed at being placed in this position after the event, when it would have been very unlikely to have sanctioned separation of the twins in the first place.

 

Let’s look at why that happened.

 

As we know, the social work team manager took the decision on 10th April 2016 that the children should be placed separately for adoption. Their foster placement, a joint one, broke down on 28th April 2016.

 

 

 

26.The allocated social worker undertook a sibling attachment assessment. The report, approved by the then team manager, is dated 7th July 2016: some three months after the decision had been made to place the twins separately for adoption. It is asserted by the local authority that the social worker, whom I shall refer to as D, gave an oral report on this issue but I do not know when nor to whom this oral report was given. Quite astonishingly and wholly contrary to good social work practice, there is no note or minute of the manager’s decision made on 10th April. Therefore, I do not know what material he considered when making his decision and I do not know the reasons or basis for the same. Thus, I do not know whether he considered the oral report of D. Moreover, I have had no explanation as to why it took D three months to write up her assessment.

 

 

27.I will return to this so-called assessment later in this judgment, but I note in the summary of her report D asserted:

 

 

 

“Having considered the legal, policy, moral and best practice guidance, it is essential that GT and BT have the opportunity of an adoptive family.

 

GT and BT’s care plans have remained to be one of adoption (jointly placed) for a considerable period of time. Over the period of 12 months, family finding attempts have not been successful.”

 

This does not reflect the court’s approved care plan which was for a 9-month search for an adoptive placement together to be followed, if unsuccessful, a by three-month search for a long-term foster placement together. I have been given no explanation as to why or how D in her assessment completely misrepresented the care plan: whether it was deliberate or just an error I do not know.

28.I am satisfied that the prospective adopters were unaware of the flawed decision making process relating to the separation of the twins until these proceedings seeking adoption orders in respect of BT and GT had been commenced.

 

GT was placed with prospective adopters in March 2017, BT in May 2017. The Local Authority ended contact between them, there being just two sessions of contact for twins (aged at that time seven) in a YEAR.

 

 

 

35.They did not then see each other again for seven and a half months until there was a contact visit on 27th October 2017 and then no contact for over four months until a visit took place on 4th March 2018. I do not understand how, why or when the hugely important decision was taken to so severely curtail, indeed deny, the children an ongoing relationship once they had been placed for adoption. For the avoidance of any doubt, it was the local authority which determined this level of contact. I make and intend no criticism of the prospective adopters.

 

 

The Local Authority accepted a large catalogue of failings at the Court hearing

The Local Authority: Actions and Failings

44.The admitted failings of the local authority which led to breaches of BT and GT’s human rights and those of the prospective adopters are set out in Annexe 1 to this judgment. These admitted failings are supplemented by further admissions of failings by the local authority, together with notes of the actions taken by or to be taken by the local authority to prevent, or at least, ameliorate the future risk of such failures of the system and of social work practice occurring. This schedule was prepared by Liz Elgar, the assistant director of children’s services and is set out in Annexe 2 to this judgment.

 

 

45.The admitted breaches of human rights and the schedule of failings of the local authority are extensive and grave. They relate to the whole operation of children’s services in Herefordshire. They are both systematic and the fault of individual social workers, team managers and line managers.

 

 

46.This said I commend the approach taken in this case by the new management team of children’s services, including in particular the Director, Chris Baird, and the Assistant Director, Liz Elgar, for the open and forthright manner in which they have responded to the divers criticisms made. I am reassured by their expressed commitment to a root and branch reform of children’s services in Herefordshire and a commitment to ensure that far more robust systems are in place to ensure compliance with good social work practice.

 

 

 

  1. The breaches of human rights may be summarised:

 

  1. i) a failure to undertake a thorough analysis of the need to change the care plans for the children and a failure to consider appropriately the consequences of separating the twins;

 

  1. ii) a failure to disclose in full detail the needs of, the challenging behaviours of and the past life experiences of BT or GT to their prospective adopters;

 

iii) a member of the social work team deleting references to the children’s challenging violent behaviours from the Child Permanence Reports (‘CPR’) and the Adoption Support Plans;

 

  1. iv) the wholly unmeritorious decision and issuing of a s.35(2) notice to remove BT from his placement with A and B;

 

  1. v) the undue stresses and strains caused to the prospective adopters by:

 

  1. a) the local authority’s flawed decisions; and

 

  1. b) as a result, these prolonged court proceedings which have had an adverse impact on BT and GT’s experience of family life;

 

  1. vi) the failure to consider properly the alternative plan for placing BT or GT in long term foster placements and to adhere to the court approved care plans;

 

vii) the failure to hold adoption reviews rather than LAC reviews (adoption reviews have an entirely different mandatory criteria to consider than LAC reviews: see Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005, regulation 36); and

 

viii) the failure of the Independent Reviewing Officer system to take any steps to secure any cogent care planning for the children and/or to protect them from the consequences of flawed and/or ill-considered decisions.

48.The schedule of supplemental failings set out in Annexe 2 may be summarised as follows:

 

 

 

  1. i) a failure in the original care plans to set out what the local authority would do if a placement together could not be found after 12 months;

 

  1. ii) a lack of management oversight;

 

iii) a failure to follow the court approved care plan to a correct conclusion;

 

  1. iv) a failure in the decision-making process to place the twins separately for adoption;

 

  1. v) the failure to acknowledge the significance of maintaining the legal sibling relationship of the twins;

 

  1. vi) the failure to acknowledge the legal relationship between BT and GT and their older siblings;

 

vii) the failure to record the reasons why a manager made the decision to place the twins separately for adoption on 10th April 2016;

 

viii) the failure of the LAC review on 11th April 2016 to consider pursuing a plan of long term foster care or commissioning further expert report(s) on the issue of placing the twins separately;

 

  1. ix) the failure to promote contact between the twins once they had been placed for adoption;

 

  1. x) the failure in applying full and accurate information in the CPRs and Adoption Support Plans including the adoption team manager wrongly and inappropriately deleting information about the twins challenging behaviours;

 

  1. xi) the failures of the IROs to take any steps to oversee and/or challenge the local authority’s decisions;

 

xii) the failure of the ADM decision making process, namely to fail to consider the impact on the children throughout the whole of their lives of separating them; and

 

xiii) the failure of the local authority, as a result of poor record keeping, to provide accurate evidence to the court.

49.Most regrettably all these admitted failures were not the end of this long litany of errors and misrepresentations. On the second day of the final hearing the local authority discovered there were documents and records, which contrary to previous orders and/or the local authority’s general duty of disclosure, had not been disclosed to the court or to the parties. When the disclosure was made it amounted to some 200 pages. I gave the parties the whole of the following day to read and digest the documents disclosed and to take instructions.

 

 

50.It caused the prospective adopters considerable distress to discover that within this disclosed material were matters relating to the children which had not previously been communicated to them by the local authority nor had it been communicated to the adoption agencies supporting the two sets of prospective adopters. [REDACTED TO PRESERVE CONFIDENTIALITY].

 

 

51.The emotional pressure on the prospective adopters was great enough without the added burden of having to receive and cope with the new information revealed. I do not understand the explanation offered as to why this material had not been disclosed earlier, other than it resulted from yet another error by an employee of the local authority. I received no explanation as to why the information revealed had not been previously communicated to the prospective adopters or their supporting adoption agencies.

 

 

However, over and above that, emerged the actions of the social worker who had written the sibling assessment (after the conclusion of proceedings) that formed the basis of the decision to separate these twins

 

 

 

52.It then emerged that the then social worker, D, the author of the sibling assessment had misquoted the opinions of Dr Mair Edwards, a consultant psychologist, who had prepared a report on the children for the purposes of the original care proceedings. The extract contained in the sibling assessment of July 2016 reads as follows:

 

 

 

Dr Edwards concluded, “If GT and BT were not twins, I would be recommending separate placements for them as GT’s challenging and bossy behaviours do impact on BT’s abilities to express himself and he therefore tends to focus in on his love of mechanical objects and machinery, and withdraws from social interactions…Both GT and BT have significant learning difficulties and developmental delay and will have significant needs throughout their childhoods. Their long-term placement would therefore need to be fully aware of the high level of commitment that will be required, and the ongoing support that the children are likely to require from agencies and services throughout their lives””

 

It will be noted three dots appear about halfway down the extract indicating some material had been omitted

 

One hopes, of course, that the three dots are just indicating that there was extraneous and irrelevant information contained which has been snipped out to provide an accurate and thorough summary of what Dr Edwards had said.

 

Oh, dear.

 

Counsel for the children’s guardian, Mr Kingerley referred me to Dr Mair Edwards 2014 report. The passage omitted from the above extract reads as follows:

 

“When observing them together there was very limited interaction (other than GT telling BT to “no talk”), and no real sense of a sibling relationship. However, they are twins, and the sense of loss in later years at being separated would almost certainly be more detrimental to their welfare than placing them together.”

53.The words omitted completely change the import and meaning of the quoted section of Dr Mair Edwards’ report. The social worker was not called to give evidence before me nor has she been given the opportunity to give an explanation. Therefore, I will not name her in this judgment. The prospects of this being an innocent omission are unlikely in the extreme. It is not an opening or concluding sentence that has been missed. It is a passage in the middle of the quoted passage from the report and the deliberate omission of some words was marked by three dots. Given also that the omitted section of Dr Mair Edwards’ report sets out an opinion wholly contrary to the ultimate recommendation of the sibling assessment, the only credible explanation for this omission is a deliberate act to mislead a reader of the assessment to conclude that the recommendation of separate placements for adoption was consistent with the opinion of Dr Mair Edwards. It manifestly was not.

 

 

54.I was informed by counsel for the children’s guardian that in another case, some years ago, the self-same social worker was alleged to have tampered with a document. I asked for the issue of the social worker’s role in drafting the sibling assessment to be referred to the Director of Children’s Services and to the Chief Executive of Herefordshire Council. The social worker had left the local authority in March 2018 but had later been re-engaged in some role on a zero hours contract. It was proposed, in the Adoption Support Plans, that this social worker would be carrying out life story work for the twins. The following day I was told by counsel for the local authority that her contract had been terminated with immediate effect.

 

 

The Judge went on to explore the other expert advice that the Local Authority had (quite properly) obtained when deciding whether to separate twins and if so, how to best manage this so that the damage could at least be reduced (but sadly had largely ignored)

55.The issue of separating the twins was considered by a child and adolescent therapist with the adoption team, in her report of 12th April 2016. On the issues of separation and future contact between the twins if the decision was made to place them separately she said:

 

 

 

“Making the decision that twins should be separated is problematic. Although each child’s needs may be better met in separate families, they have been constant companions to date, and will find separation confusing and stressful. In addition they share a common heritage and history. The complexities of these children’s circumstances and individual needs should be considered at length and in detail, so that a decision can be made which will be of most benefit to both the children.

 

If they are to be separated, it would seem vital that there is ongoing contact between them. Both children would find the separation difficult in the short term especially, and would need the reassurance of frequent contact.

 

Ongoing contact would rely on two adoptive families both being willing to commit to this. If one child is adopted and one remains in foster care, then contact with the adopted sibling needs to be carefully considered, due to the link to the birth family.

 

Separation would obviously need to be done with a carefully constructed programme that takes both children’s needs into account.”

56.In light of this clear recommendation I am at a loss to understand why the local authority did the exact opposite. Prior to placement with the prospective adopters the twins had a ‘see you later’ contact session and that over the succeeding eleven months they had contact on just two occasions. The local authority was unable to explain who had made this decision for there to be very limited contact between the twins post placement or why this decision had been made.

 

If, like me, you are waiting to see what the reasons given by the Local Authority for the need to separate the twins in the first place was then you, I and the Judge were all equally frustrated that the reasoning just never materialised

 

 

 

 

57.The catalogue of the local authority’s errors and failings in this case is troubling and hugely lamentable. I do not minimise any of the admitted breaches of human rights and/or the other admitted failures by highlighting what I consider to be the most egregious failures, namely:

 

 

 

  1. i) the deletion of important and highly relevant information from the CPRs and Adoption Support Plans by the adoption team manager. This could only have been done to mislead the prospective adopters about BT and GT’s respective behaviours and needs with a view to increasing the prospects of them agreeing to a placement of BT or GT with them;

 

  1. ii) the deliberate and misleading selective quote from the report of Dr Mair Edwards in the so-called ‘sibling assessment’. I am satisfied that the social worker began this apparent assessment with the end result, that of separating the twins, already decided and wrote an assessment to support that conclusion. I do not understand why this assessment was written up three months after the decision had been taken on 10th April 2016 to place the twins separately for adoption or why this decision was not stayed pending the completion of a sibling assessment;

 

iii) the failure to give full and frank information about the twins to their prospective adopters and their respective supporting adoption agencies;

 

  1. iv) the complete and utter failure of the IRO service to satisfy any of its statutory duties in respect of BT and GT. The IROs and the IRO service did absolutely nothing to protect and promote the welfare best interests of the children and did nothing to challenge the local authority’s dreadful and, at times, irrational decision making and care planning; and

 

  1. v) the failure for there to be any note or record of the matters considered, the documents read or the reasons for taking the life changing decision to place the twins separately for adoption taken on 10th April 2016. It is astonishing given the highly unusual and momentous nature of the decision.

 

70.Ms Elgar, the assistant director of children’s services, and Ms Leader, the team manager, gave relatively brief evidence. Ms Elgar had been in post from June 2018 and Ms Leader became the team manager in July 2017. They both offered profuse apologies to the prospective adopters for the actions and failings of the local authority.

 

 

71.Ms Elgar could not explain how or why the material which had been disclosed at this hearing had not been disclosed at an earlier time or had been ‘lost’ by the local authority. She recognised the local authority’s serious shortcomings and sought to assure the court that action had been, and would continue to be, taken to resolve the identified and admitted failings of the local authority. She accepted the deletions from the CPRs and Adoption Support Plans resulted from a deliberate and wrongful act by an employee of the local authority.

 

 

72.It was Ms Leader who, having heard certain observations by me, checked the electronic records and discovered a considerable amount of material had not been disclosed. She readily accepted the decision to terminate BT’s adoptive placement in late 2017 had been wrong and the whole episode had been badly dealt with by the local authority. Mr Noble had noted that some of the documents disclosed in the hearing related to events some months or even up to two years before but had only appeared on the local authority’s computer system within days of each other in February or March 2018. When asked why this was, Ms Leader said that the previous social worker, D, had got seriously behind with her administration and had thus spent the last few days of her employment uploading two years worth of notes, records and other documents onto the system. When asked how this could have been allowed to happen, she could give no answer other than to say it was not good practice. This ranks as a masterful understatement and was a completely inadequate response. For the last seven or eight months of the social worker’s employment in children’s services, Ms Leader had been her line manager and had taken no effective steps to remedy this extraordinary state of affairs.

 

 

73.Finally, Ms Leader confirmed that no note, record or document had been found relating to the decision made on 10th April 2016 that BT and GT should be placed separately for adoption

 

The Court then was faced with what to do for these twins in the future, it having become abundantly clear that they ought not to have been separated, but that the independent expert analysis was now that they had settled with their prospective adopters and moving them would be profoundly damaging to them.

 

88.I have struggled with the concept that a court could find that it was in the welfare best interests of twins to place them separately for adoption. From the time the case first came before me up to and during the course of this final hearing I was keen to find a route by which BT and GT could be reunited in a single placement. If this proved impossible to achieve, I was keen to find a legal framework, short of adoption, which could afford them the degree of permanence, stability and security which I entirely accept they both so desperately require.

 

 

89.For the avoidance of any doubt, as I observed in the course of the hearing, in expressing these views I did not for one moment doubt the love, commitment and care which A, B and C have afford to BT and GT: quite the reverse. I wholeheartedly commend both sets of prospective adopters for the enormous great love and devotion they have shown to BT and GT, for their unswerving commitment to them and for the superlative care they have given BT and GT. It is plain that, notwithstanding the grave harm and damage they suffered in their past lives, they are thriving beyond expectations in the care of A and B and C. The stoicism each of these adults have displayed in the course of these lengthy proceedings has been admirable.

 

 

90.Nevertheless, BT and GT are not just simply siblings they are twins. In making adoption orders in favour of two separate sets of prospective adopters, I would sever the legal relationship of BT and GT as brother and sister. Further I would sever their legal relationship with their elder siblings. Whilst the latter is very important, it is the former consequence of adoption that principally troubles me.

 

 

91.There is no question of it being a realistic option in the welfare best interests of the children for either of them to return to the care of either parent. The mother manifestly is not capable of caring for them and neither is the father. In any event, he is serving a very substantial custodial sentence and is convicted of offences of child abuse.

 

 

92.Is there any other realistic placement together or apart? On the basis of the powerful and compelling evidence presented by the Anna Freud Centre and the most impressive and persuasive oral evidence of Dr Morris and Ms Mautner, supported by the children’s guardian and the local authority’s assistant director, and the compelling evidence of the prospective adopters, the answer is a resounding no.

 

93.I am of the view that if this local authority had exercised good social work practice and exercised a modicum of child focused judgment in its decision-making processes, there was, in my judgment, a real possibility that the children could have been placed and lived together for a substantial period of their childhoods. They had, I note, lived together in their foster placement for nearly three years albeit not without presenting their foster carers with immense challenges from time to time. Whatever the possibilities of being placed together, I am completely satisfied that the actions of this local authority denied them the opportunity of this option being properly explored which is, to put it mildly, deeply regrettable and will have an impact, great or slight, for the whole of BT and GT’s lives.

 

 

94.I am satisfied on the totality of the evidence before me that I cannot now contemplate moving either BT or GT, or both of them, from their placements without causing them serious harm and, potentially, lifelong grave harm. They are well settled with their prospective adopters and are plainly well integrated into what they consider to be their respective families. They are, for the first time in their lives, allowing themselves to believe they have their forever family. If one or other of them or both of them were to be moved, I accept the evidence of the Anna Freud Centre, that one or both of them would be devastated. They would suffer a sense of considerable loss, their behaviour would undoubtedly regress and they are likely never to allow themselves to trust a future carer or others involved in their lives: even if not likely, there is a substantial risk this would be the consequence of a removal.

 

 

95.To embark on the removal of the children with all the attendant serious adverse consequences cannot, in my judgment, be in the welfare best interests of either BT or GT. Accordingly, I am now persuaded and satisfied that both BT and GT must remain in the care of their respective prospective adopters.

 

The Court was driven to make the adoption orders, though not without a great deal of anguish.

 

Damages claims were agreed and settled.  (I think they seem very low for the twins, but that’s a personal view and opinion rather than a legal one, as damages is not my field)

 

  1. The damages agreed in satisfaction of A and B’s HRA claim were £5,000.00. The same sum was accepted by C in respect of her HRA claim.
  2. When considering the infant settlement approval of BT and GT’s respective claims for breaches of their human rights I had the benefit of advice on quantum by Mr Kingerley dated 16th November 2018. The local authority offered in settlement of the children’s claims the sum advised by counsel, namely £20,000.00 each. I was satisfied in all the circumstances of this case and having regard to recent authorities on the issue of HRA damages, that these were entirely reasonable damages to offer just satisfaction to both children. Accordingly, I approved the settlement achieved for BT and for GT. Further I made the declarations of the breaches of human rights of BT, GT, A & B and C in the terms agreed and set out in Annexes 1, 3 and 4 to this judgment.

 

 

 

Multiple failings, IRO and whistleblowing

 

It is part of the Christmas tradition of Suesspicious Minds that some Local Authority takes an almighty judicial kicking in a published judgment,  and this year I’m afraid it is Herefordshire behind the door on the advent calendar.  This is a damning judgment by Keehan J

 

 

 

2.The care of and care planning for both these young people by Herefordshire Council has, over the last ten years or so, been woeful.

A & B (care orders and placement orders – failures) [2018] EWFC 72 (30 November 2018)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2018/72.html

 

Herefordshire County Council obtained Care and Placement Orders on two children, A and B in May 2008. At that time, A was 11 and B was 10 (that sounds immediately to me like a highly optimistic order…)

 

Neither were placed for adoption, and the plan of adoption was abandoned by the Local Authority in September 2009. No applications were made to revoke the placement orders for A, and it discharged on her 18th birthday. An application was finally made to revoke the placement order for B, when she was 17 ½, it being revoked the day before her 18th birthday.

The girls were separated in 2013, and nobody was really able to explain to the Judge why that was

 

This was followed by a LAC Review held on 13th December 2013 at which it was decided to place A and B in separate foster placements. I do not know the reasons why this important decision was made nor the evidence on which it was made. A and B were never again placed together. I have no explanation as to why not.

 

 

 

 

22.On 19th November 2016 A and B had their first face to face contact since 2014. This has been requested by A who was pregnant.

 

 

23.On 12th March 2017 A gave birth to her first child, F. She had no secure or stable accommodation. A whilst pregnant and after F was born had been living in an annexe at her former foster carer’s home. In May 2018 A reported to the local authority that she and F had been evicted by her former foster carer and that she had nowhere to go. The local authority’s response to the plight of this young mother and care leaver was wholly inadequate. The response was so poor that, the Head of Service, Gillian Cox, accepted that the local authority had failed A and her daughter.

 

 

 

 

26.Between December 2013 and 1st September 2017, when she had attained her majority, A had had at least 5 changes of placement in various different areas of the country. There is no doubt that the instability in A’s life during these formative years, including the numerous changes of placement, have caused her significant emotional and psychological harm.

 

 

27.Between February 2016 and 6th March 2018 B endured 7 changes of placement in various different areas of the country. The harm suffered by B as a result of these changes in placement in terms of her emotional and psychological wellbeing are incalculable.

 

 

28.Between November 2008 and May 2018 A has had 6 different social workers allocated to her case. Between June 2014 and August 2018 B has had 8 different social workers allocated to her case. I accept the reallocation of case in October 2016 to a social worker in the 16+ Team was inevitable. There is, however, no good or cogent explanation for the high turnover of the other social workers which, to put it mildly, must have been unsettling and unhelpful.

 

 

29.From the time the children were made the subject of care orders and placement orders in February 2008 until October 2018 this local authority has had eight different independent reviewing officers (IRO) responsible for the oversight of their care plans.

 

 

(In 25 years of practicing family law, in various different local authorities, I don’t think I’ve MET 8 different IROs, but these girls had 8 different ones allocated to them at various points…)

The Head of Service filed a statement setting out the admissions that the LA made as to their failings in this case

 

 

30.I was so concerned at the failures of the local authority in respect of A and B that I ordered Ms Cox, the Head of Service, to file a statement setting out an explanation for the same. Her statement is dated 1st November 2018.

 

 

31.In respect of A, Ms Cox said as follows:

 

 

 

“In my view our service has failed to support [A] as I would expect since she first became homeless and in particular I would identify the following:

 

 

  1. In May when [A] first contacted our team to say that she was homeless we should have offered her supported lodgings accommodation in Herefordshire with [F] on a temporary basis whilst a longer term solution was identified. We should also have pro-actively supported [A] to search for private rented options in Birmingham and made it clear to her that we would financially support her with a bond and act as a guarantor if required.

 

 

  1. As time progressed and [A] continued to ask us for help and was not able to obtain suitable accommodation for herself in Birmingham we should have revisited these options and again offered her short-term solutions in Herefordshire and proactively supported her to find private rented accommodation. On the 15th June [A] specifically requested to return to Herefordshire but I can find no evidence of this being responded to which is unacceptable.

 

 

  1. The situation should have been escalated through Heads of Service to our Assistant Director and Director who have all asked to be kept informed of any young person who is placed in Bed and Breakfast accommodation. In the turnover of team managers and Heads of Service this expectation was not understood.

 

 

  1. On the 18th June [A] was informed that the local authority decision was that we would not pay a bond for her to secure private rented accommodation for her. This was not the case as this was agreed by the Head of Service when she was made aware of the situation. It is concerning that the team lack clarity about the support they are able to offer and did not escalate the situation earlier.

 

 

  1. There was a delay of almost a month in authorising a placement request made in July and this is unacceptable. The delay was due to further information not being provided to the Head of Service but in the circumstances the Head of Service should have been more pro-active in gaining the information she required.

 

 

  1. On the 11th October the personal advisor supported [A] and [F] to move from the Travel lodge to Northbrook hostel but did not look around the shared facilities. She described the accommodation as “basic” but did not raise concerns about the suitability of it for [A] and [F]. Having seen the photographs that [A] sent via her legal representative I was appalled by the state of the accommodation she was living in and was very clear that this was unsuitable and she should not have been left there.

 

  1. [A] is currently living in a supported lodging placement in Herefordshire with her daughter, [F]. She moved there on Tuesday 23rd October as an interim arrangement whilst suitable private rented accommodation for [A] and [F] is sourced in Birmingham. I received photographs and an email that [A] had sent her legal representative on the 23rd October and I was appalled at the state of the accommodation that she was living in. I telephoned [A] directly myself and asked if she would be willing to move to a supported lodging placement in Herefordshire if I could arrange that whilst we sorted out a suitable place for her to live in Birmingham. [A] was concerned about moving away from Birmingham but I was able to reassure her that this would be for just a short time. [A] agreed and so I made arrangements for our fostering team to find a placement for her and [F] and for her personal advisor to go to Birmingham to collect her that day.

 

  1. [A] was supported by her personal advisor to view flats in Birmingham on Thursday, 25th October and found a flat that she liked in an area that she is happy to live in. Herefordshire Council has paid 6 months’ rent up front and all relevant administrative fees to enable [A] to move into the accommodation. [A] will pay the housing benefit that she receives to the local authority as she receives it. At the time of writing this statement the plan is that [A] and [F] will move into their new home on Friday, 2nd November.

 

  1. [A] will continue to receive the support of her personal advisor. She is being referred for “floating support” and the most suitable provider for this is being investigated. The local authority will fund this support if [A] is not entitled to receive the support at no cost.”

32.In respect of B, Ms Cox observed in respect of the current placement that:

 

 

 

“[B] continues to live in a supported lodging placement with her boyfriend and his mother. She has lived there since March 2018. She is reported as happy living there although understands it is unusual to be living in the same home as her boyfriend at such a young age and is keen to move to live independently soon after she turns 18. She has been supported to register for housing and in the meantime can remain where she is. [B] will continue to receive the support of her personal advisor.”

33.I was told by Ms Cox that substantial steps have now been taken by the local authority to ensure:

 

 

 

  1. i) the mistakes and serious errors made in respect of A and B are not suffered nor endured by any other child or young person in the care of Herefordshire; and

 

  1. ii) far more robust procedures are now in place to ensure issues are escalated to more senior managers and, where appropriate, to the assistant director and/or the director of children’s services.

 

 

The Judge was concerned that the IRO system, which should have tackled these failings and drift, and got the LA to apply to revoke the placement orders and tighten up their planning for these girls (including ensuring that they had contact with one another) had not done so. He ordered a report from the Head of the IRO team

 

 

35.Accordingly I ordered the Head of Service, Safeguarding and Review (i.e. the head of the IRO service for this local authority), Cath Thomas, to file a statement. I am grateful to Ms Thomas, as I am to Ms Cox, for providing the court with a statement dated 1st November 2018. I regret to note that the statement contained a number of matters which caused me very profound and grave concern.

 

 

36.The statement of Ms Thomas concluded with the final paragraph:

 

 

 

“It is very clear that the issue of revoking [B]’s placement order continued without resolution for a significantly long period of time, both prior to and since the data error was realised in early 2016. This length of delay is absolutely unacceptable and I apologise unreservedly to [B] and her sister. The IRO service failed to fulfil its statutory responsibilities to [B]. I failed to robustly challenge the views of my assistant director at the time, which I recognise I should have done and as head of service I take full responsibility for these failings and apologise unreservedly to the court.”

 

This is a frank acceptance of a proper degree of responsibility by Ms Thomas. I accept her apology without reservation. Some of her actions or more properly her lack of action may be explained or, at least, put into context by a number of events set out in her statement which I shall now turn to consider.

37.In the autumn of 2008 Children’s services in Herefordshire moved from paper files to electronic records. It was not discovered until January 2016 that the placement orders made in respect of both children had not been recorded on their electronic records. This may explain why subsequent IROs did not raise the issue of revocation of these orders, but it does not explain why the IRO at the time the care plan was changed in early 2009 from one of adoption to long term fostering did not do so.

 

 

38.Ms Thomas asserted that in an unrelated case an IRO had concerns about a child’s case and wished to obtain independent legal advice and/or refer the matter to Cafcass. She said she raised this issue with the then senior lawyer and the then assistant director in January 2017. The response from the assistant director to Ms Thomas was that she was not to seek independent legal advice nor to refer the matter to Cafcass. She was further told that if she did not comply with this ‘advice’, disciplinary procedures would be invoked. Ms Thomas asserted that this assistant director did not recognise the independent nature of the IRO service.

 

 

39.It is not for me to determine the truth of these assertions, not least because I have not heard from the former assistant director. The council’s legal department did, however, immediately upon receipt of Ms Thomas’ statement invoke a whistleblowing investigation which has been reported to the Chief Executive of the local authority and members of the council. I note that the then deputy county solicitor agreed with Ms Thomas’ recollection of events.

 

 

40.Ms Thomas asserted that it was because of the ‘advice’ given by the former assistant director that she did not escalate the case of A and B beyond the Head of Service level, did not seek to obtain independent legal advice and/or refer the matter to Cafcass. As Ms Thomas readily acknowledged this was, to say the least, deeply regrettable.

 

 

41.The former assistant director left this local authority in March 2018.

 

 

Obviously the Judge did not hear from the former assistant director who allegedly told an IRO that escalating a complaint about a child’s case would be treated as a disciplinary matter, so there is not a finding as to whether or not that happened. (He notes, however, that the Deputy County Solicitor agreed with what Ms Thomas was alleging)

 

So we can’t say that this actually definitively happened, but if it DID, then there’s a complete failure to understand the role of the IRO and how vital their independence is. The Judge set out the framework and the importance of independence and the ability for IROs to obtain independent legal advice in detail, concluding this

 

 

 

 

50.I am appalled at the manner in which and the serial occasions on which the social workers and their managers have failed these two young people. The fact that I have chosen in this judgment to focus on the role and actions of the various IRO’s should not be taken in any way to diminish the failures of the social workers and/or their mangers in this case. Rather the failings of the IROs has been so stark and grave that, in my judgment, it was appropriate to focus on the failings of the IROs and the IRO service in this case.

 

 

51.Once a court makes a care order it entrusts, as by statute it must, the future care of the child to the local authority. The essential safeguard the court and the public at large have that a local authority will be a good corporate parent is the function and role of the IRO. Any obstruction of an IRO performing their statutory role or any diminution in an IRO, or their manager, feeling empowered to do so, is a matter of the utmost consequence. For otherwise a looked after child is subject to the vagaries of social work practice and the local authority’s different pressures and priorities. The IRO is, or should be, the child’s protector or advocate. If the IRO is silenced or pressured not to act as the child’s interests demand and require, it is the child who will suffer – just as these children, A and B have suffered.

 

 

 

Conclusions

52.This local authority, as it has accepted, failed both young people in the errors made by its social workers and their managers over a very prolonged period of time.

 

 

53.The IROs failed them on a serious and serial basis.

 

 

54.I entirely accept and acknowledge that in these straitened financial times all local authorities are stretched. Furthermore I recognise that this local authority, like very many around the country, have difficulties recruiting and retaining social workers. As a consequence many social workers have to carry very heavy case loads, may not have sufficient experience to deal with the more complex cases and/or have limited time to work on a particular case.

 

 

55.These difficulties, however, do not begin to explain the wholesale failure of this local authority, in its role as a corporate parent to plan adequately or appropriately for the care of these children. I simply do not know or do not understand why the care plan was changed from adoption to long term fostering in 2009. The explanation given in B’s 2018 Care Plan is plainly false or, at best, inaccurate.

 

 

56.This means that neither A nor B can now be given a clear and cogent explanation of why they suffered such instability when in the care of this local authority. I find this to be profoundly regrettable.

 

 

57.The fact that the local authorities are under financial pressures, and there too few social workers who carry too many cases, increases the importance of the role performed by the IROs. When it is known deadlines may be missed, visits not undertaken, assessments not completed or other actions in furtherance of a child’s care plan not addressed, the IROs must take active steps to ensure a child’s welfare and future care is not disadvantaged by these omissions.

 

 

58.Whatever opposition or obstruction the IRO or Head of Service faced from a local authority, the IROs and their managers must remember that their first and foremost duty is to the children and young people that they serve. If this is ignored or obstructed, it is only the children or young people, who are our future, who will be harmed.

 

 

59.The clear message must go out that IROs serve a vital and essential function to ensure that a child’s or a young person’s interests are met post the making of a care order or other orders. If those functions and roles are not exercised in a clear, robust and untrammelled fashion, the children or young people will suffer.

 

 

Making Special Guardianship Order before child has lived with prospective carers

This Court of Appeal decision raises a number of interesting and important issues.

(It doesn’t have anything amusing in it or any 80s references, but you can’t have it all.  If you want, you can momentarily imagine that this is some litigation involving Barry Chuckle and Jimmy Krankie having a dispute as to who gets custody of a tiny hedgehog in a hat and that the key pieces of evidence involve (i) Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits in the witness box (ii) how many ferrets Fred Dineage can pop down his trousers and (iii) the enduring mystery of exactly how much smack Zammo Maguire hoped to obtain by stealing and pawning Roland Browning’s alarm clock, thus making Roland late for an exam.  It  has none of this.  I remain on the lookout for such a case)

 

P-S (Children) [2018] EWCA Civ 1407 (18 June 2018)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/1407.html

 

Essentially, the Court at first instance, was invited by the LA and the Guardian to make Special Guardianship Orders to grandparents for two children – S aged 2 and P aged 5. The parents were seeking the return of the children to their care – it had been a FDAC (Family Drug and Alcohol Court) case and the parents had withdrawn from that process – the judgment does not deal much with the parents case, as it was not the subject of the appeal.

 

[The parents had withdrawn from the Court process, thus at final hearing it was only the Local Authority and the Guardian playing an active part, both of whom supported the making of SGOs]

 

The Court declined to make Special Guardianship Orders, in part relying on a letter circulated by Keehan J to Judges on the Midlands Circuit to the effect that

“a special guardianship order should not be made, absent compelling and cogent reasons, until the child has lived for an appreciable period with the prospective special guardians.”

 

The Court instead made a full Care Order – in effect deciding that the Local Authority, in consultation with the grandparents, should decide the point at which the case should come back before the Court with an application for a Special Guardianship Order. That also, in effect, envisaged the Care Order being a short-term order, rather than the permanent or long-term order that it is commonly viewed as.

 

The Court of Appeal judgment deals with a number of issues :-

 

  1. The need for solid evidence-based research about whether SGOs being made before a trial placement are a beneficial or adverse approach
  2. The status of the guidance given by Keehan J – and the representations made to the effect that it was being followed by the Courts in the Midlands circuit as though it were binding upon them
  3. What role prospective Special Guardians should play in the Court process
  4. What approach the Court should take, where potential suitable carers come forward late in the process.

 

All of this is useful.

 

 

 

  1. There are three strands to the errors that all represented parties before this court identify in the family court’s decision: a) the lack of any adequate reasoning for making care orders rather than interim care orders or special guardianship orders, b) the reliance of the judge on informal guidance that was neither approved guidance nor peer reviewed research capable of being scrutinised or challenged by the parties and c) procedural unfairness. I shall take each in turn. The court is mindful of the fact that each of the represented parties before it (except S’s father) have taken the same position in respect of each issue and accordingly the court has tested with the interveners each of the propositions in respect of which they would otherwise have reached a consensus.

 

 

 

  1. The propositions about which there is a large measure of agreement are as follows:

 

 

 

 

  1. The judge was wrong to make care orders: no party who was present supported the making of the same and on the merits and in particular having regard to the un-contradicted special guardianship assessments, the care orders were disproportionate;

 

  1. b. The judge’s characterisation of the care orders that were made as ‘short term care orders’ was wrong in principle given that there is no statutory mechanism for the making of time limited care orders or orders that will be discharged on the happening of an event, including the expiration of time;

 

  1. The judge was wrong to rely upon the extra-judicial guidance of Keehan J to the effect that children should live with proposed special guardians for a period of time before a court entertains an application for an SGO;

 

  1. The judge was wrong not to make provision for effective access to justice for the grandparents by their joinder, the disclosure of documents to them, time for advice to be taken by them, the facility for them to take a proper part in the proceedings, an adjournment or otherwise.

 

  1. It is helpful to trace the judge’s reasoning by setting out how he came to his conclusion in his judgment. The following extracts are sufficient:

 

 

 

 

 

“1….It is not a case in which I must consider rival realistic options in terms of the children’s future placements. Instead, the main question for me to resolve is the appropriate legal order which should govern a placement with the children’s respective paternal grandparents……

 

 

7.…the local authority and the Guardian contend that the children’s placements should take place under special guardianship orders………During the trial it has largely been left to me to raise concerns as to whether special guardianship orders in favour of the two sets of grandparents would be premature…….

 

 

  1. In this case the children might be placed with the paternal grandparents under either a care order, a special guardianship order, or a child arrangements order. These are very different orders. A care order creates parental responsibility in the local authority which, under section 33(4) of the Act may be exercised by the local authority if they are “satisfied that it is necessary to do so in order to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare”…….

 

 

  1. Section 14A provides for those who may make an application for a special guardianship order…….the grandparents come within the definition of those who may apply for a special guardianship order.

 

 

  1. There is also a power for a court to make a special guardianship order of the court’s own motion. That power is found at section 14A(6)(b).

 

 

  1. ……It suffices to say that during my time as designated family judge here at the Central Family Court I must have made upwards of 30 special guardianship orders. I have, however, yet to encounter an application for such an order. On every occasion I have been invited by the local authority, whether opposed by another party or unopposed, to make the order of my own motion. That is not just the default position, but it appears to be the universal practice amongst authorities who use this court centre. This is the largest family court centre in England…….My purely personal impression is that the practice has changed in recent times.

 

 

  1. Whilst I do not suggest that these children should be the subject of care orders for their minority, the real balance in the case is in my judgment between special guardianship orders now and care orders (although not interim orders). The care plan under such care orders would be that if all goes well, then applications for special guardianship orders should follow in due course. By the expression ‘in due course’ I mean ‘when the new placements are regarded as settled and working well for the children’. In this case that might perhaps be in about a year from now…….

 

 

  1. ……both sets of grandparents have been assessed in accordance with the Statute and the accompanying Regulations. The assessments are positive……

 

 

  1. My first concern is, however, that neither child is currently living with the proposed special guardians. During the course of argument, I mentioned that, last year, a letter had been written to interested parties by Keehan J, the Family Division Liaison Judge for the Midlands Circuit. It discussed the use of special guardianship orders. The view promulgated by Keehan J, as a result of a meeting with the chairs of the Circuit’s Local Family Justice Boards, was that “a special guardianship order should not be made, absent compelling and cogent reasons, until the child has lived for an appreciable period with the prospective special guardians.” Such guidance is not, of course, binding upon me but in passing I observe, with some deference, that it appears to amount to sound common sense……

 

 

  1. All this leads me to believe that someone has to be in charge of a process which oversees not just the move of the children to a new home, and their settling in, but also the implementation and progression of a closely controlled contact regime in circumstances where it is unclear what the parents’ reaction will be to the children’s move and equally unclear as to how they will handle time with the children in the very different circumstances which would apply……

 

 

  1. 30. The next matter which concerns me is the position of the grandparents – within these proceedings as well as towards the children. As I listened to the case being developed, I did so in the complete absence of the grandparents – of the proposed special guardians. They were not parties. They were not represented. They were not present. They were not intended to be witnesses. Had an application been made – properly sponsored by the local authority which after all is the prime mover in this change to the children’s lives – then the grandparents would have been parties, represented, present and witnesses……

 

 

31 ….I have had the conduct of this case since the IRH on 3 February 2017. I could then have (i) made the grandparents parties (although that would not necessarily have secured representation for them); (ii) asked them to file a statement; (iii) invited them to give evidence; (iv) encouraged a special guardianship application at that stage. I did not take any of these steps, nor was I invited to do so……In truth, however, with the exception of my concerns surrounding their lack of participation in the process, the grounds on which I propose to reject the local authority case for special guardianship orders would have remained whatever step had been taken at the IRH. I know a great deal about the grandparents. I am not making special guardianship orders, but it is not because I lack information about the proposed special guardians.

 

 

  1. I invited the grandparents into court before they spoke to the professionals (all of whom were of course advocating special guardianship) so that at least they could hear the guardian, the representatives and myself debating the issues as the guardian gave evidence. They spoke with professionals afterwards. The result of this exercise was that they confirmed their wish to be special guardians immediately and for the children not to be subject to care orders…….I remain concerned, however, as to the process here. I am not convinced that the grandparents have been sufficiently involved. It is stating the obvious to observe that the effect of making an application to a court is to involve the applicants closely in the process.

 

 

  1. A short-term care order meets many of the concerns expressed in the previous paragraphs…..It is common ground that the transfer of the children to the grandparents, which is happening as I write this judgment, will not be delayed for want of special guardianship orders, or by any further assessment process.

 

 

  1. ……There would remain untested placements.

 

 

  1. ……the Guardian…….emphasised that “there was enough of a relationship that it is not an impediment to a special guardianship order…….”

 

 

The Court of Appeal considered this carefully

 

 

 

16.It is evident that the judge recognised that the only realistic placement options that he had were with the paternal grandparents. His concern was the viability of those placements: not because they were unassessed but because they were untested in the specific context of the possible interference with them by the children’s mother and the father of S. It was in that context that on the merits the judge wanted to be assured that the control and parental responsibility which vests in special guardians would be sufficient to manage the relationship with the parents. The alternative was control and parental responsibility being vested in the local authority through care orders. The problem to be solved was whether the relationships and capabilities of the grandparents were strong enough or needed to be supported and tested before SGOs were made.

 

 

 

  1. The solution to the problem was in the choice of order: SGO, care order or interim care order and an adjournment. The route to the solution lay in an evaluation of the evidence including oral evidence from professional witnesses, the parents and the proposed carers i.e. the paternal grandparents. It is clear from the judgment and from a transcript of the judge’s discussions with the advocates during the hearing that the judge had the problem and the solutions in mind. What was missing was a route to the preferred solution. Having identified the problem and the range of solutions the judge did not go on to evaluate that evidence. That necessarily meant that the propositions advanced in the discussion and the conclusions reached in the judgment take the form of assumptions that were not reasoned and which are now challenged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. As I remarked at [16] and [17] it was the absence of any testing of the assumptions raised in discussion which created the problem with which this court now has to grapple. The judge was concerned about the relationship between the grandparents and each of the children in the context of continuing discord with the mother and the father of S. It is also right to note that it was not until the commencement of the appeal before this court that the special guardianship support plans were agreed between the local authority and the grandparents. The judge identified what were potentially adverse factors to balance against the positive factors in the special guardianship assessments which might lead to the conclusion that a trial placement of the children was required before vesting parental responsibility and control in the grandparents. That deserved more than a cursory analysis not least because the local authority and the children’s guardian had come to a clear and agreed contrary opinion on the basis of rigorous assessment material that apparently demonstrated that the positives outweighed the negatives.

 

 

 

  1. In order to test the assumptions the judge had described in his discussion with the advocates, he could have heard evidence about them and from that drawn conclusions. The judge records in his judgment that he heard some oral evidence but it is plain from his judgment that such evidence as there was either did not touch on the issues that he was raising or was unhelpful. That may be unsurprising given that the local authority and the children’s guardian disagreed with the judge and were agreed among themselves and also that no advocate was pursuing the issues the judge wanted to pursue. In that circumstance, as inquisitorial tribunals know, there must be an enhanced caution in a judge not to ‘simply’ rely on his or her own pre-conceptions or opinions and to ensure that as provisional conclusions are formed in judgment they are adequately tested so that they are soundly based on evidential conclusions.

 

 

 

  1. It would also have been legitimate, if properly reasoned, for the judge to conclude that he needed more evidence with the consequence that the time for the proceedings might need to have been extended. In order to come to either conclusion the judge needed to identify the risk that he sought to protect the children against and reason the options that were open to him on the evidence. He ought to have tested his own assumptions and the opinions of the professional witnesses in oral evidence and by hearing evidence from the paternal grandparents. He would have been assisted by evidence from the mother and the father of S but, as has sadly been the case more than once in these proceedings, they had absented themselves and the judge was left with a history from which only inferences could be drawn. Had the judge reasoned his concerns on the evidence he would have had a proper basis for conducting an evaluation of the benefits and detriments of each order that was available to him.

 

 

 

  1. In that context, it is not surprising that the judge’s evaluation of the merits of each option and the available orders was incomplete. The judge agreed with the parties that a child arrangements order was not in the interests of either child and he was right to do so on the merits. No-one pursues that option before this court. That left SGOs, full care orders and interim care orders with an adjournment.

 

 

 

  1. I agree with the paternal grandparents of S that if and in so far as the judge needed more time to ensure that the relationship of the grandparents with the child and the parents was such that it was in the interests of each child to make an SGO, that could, if reasoned, have been an appropriate basis upon which to adjourn the proceedings

 

 

 

Local Authority unlawfully caring for child for four years (section 20 abuse)

 

Herefordshire Council v AB 2018

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2018/10.html

 

This is the case referred to in my earlier blog posts, and in this news story in the Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/16/council-kept-boy-9-in-care-for-whole-of-his-life-judge-reveals?CMP=share_btn_link

 

The Guardian piece is not overselling it.

 

  This judgment concerns two unconnected young people who have been accommodated pursuant to the provisions of The Children Act 1989, section 20 (the 1989 Act) for a very considerable period of time.  Their treatment by Herefordshire Council (‘the local authority’) represents two of the most egregious abuses of section 20 accommodation it has yet been my misfortune to encounter as a judge.

May as well open with the key bit

 

In the case of one of the 42 children accommodated by the local authority referred to above, the mother withdrew her consent for her child to be accommodated in 2013.  The local authority not only did not return the child to her mother’s care, it effectively did nothing in terms of care planning for the child.  Thus, for four years the local authority unlawfully had care of this child. 

 

That wasn’t the only example.

 

On 28 March 2010 CD’s mother gave formal written notice to the council of the withdrawal of her consent to CD being accommodated.  In response, the local authority (1) did not return CD to her care, but (2) advised her to seek legal advice if she wished CD to be returned to her care.  The director has acknowledged that this was a misuse of the local authority’s powers and it should have made immediate arrangements to return CD to his mother’s care.  It is, however, far worse than being a misuse of powers.  The local authority acted unlawfully and unlawfully retained care of CD until at least February 2013 when it appears from the chronology that the mother was engaging with the local authority and agreeing to CD remaining in care. 

 

The Judge, Keehan J, made orders that the Director of Children’s Services file statements explaining what had gone wrong with these two children and to set out all of the children that were in section 20 accommodation with details.

 

  1. I required the Director of Children’s Services to file and serve (i) a statement explaining the events and lack of planning in respect of CD and GH, and (ii) a statement detailing the circumstances of each and every child accommodated by this local authority pursuant to the provisions of section 20.
  2. The latter document made very grim reading.  Excepting CD, GH and three other children who are now the subject of public law proceedings, the local authority is accommodating 42 children.  Of these 42 children, the local authority have now recognised that 14 have wrongly and abusively been the subject of section 20 accommodation for a wholly inappropriate lengthy period of time and/or should have been the subject of legal planning meetings and/or care proceedings at a much earlier time.

 

My mathematical skills are not perfect, but that’s about a third of the children that they were accommodating that were being wrongly and abusively accommodated.

 

Gulp.

 

  1. Mr Chris Baird was appointed the permanent Director for Children’s Wellbeing for this local authority (otherwise known as the Director of Children’s Services and hereafter referred to the as ‘the Director’) on 10 November 2017.  It is right that I record at an early stage in the judgment that he (a) has readily and timeously complied with all directions made by this court for the filing and serving of statements and letters (b) has been completely frank and open about the past failings of this local authority (c) has provided a ready explanation of the steps he has taken or will take to remedy past mistakes, and (d) has chosen to attend court hearings in person.
  2. Later in this judgment, I will be roundly critical of egregious failings of this local authority in relation to CD and GH but also in relation to the 14 children to whom I have referred above.  Nevertheless, it is important for me to recognise and acknowledge that Mr Baird and the new senior management team at this local authority have taken and will take steps to ensure that such dreadful failures in the care of and planning for children and young people in its care will not occur in the future.  I have every confidence in the sincerity and commitment of this director to improve very significantly the planning for and provision of services to the children and young people for whom it is responsible.

 

 

Very decent of Mr Baird not to throw his predecessor under the bus.

 

(I also note with pleasure the use of the word ‘timeously’ which I was naming to a friend as one of my favourite words just last week)

 

  1. In February 2017, I sent a letter to the Director of Children’s Services of each of the 22 local authorities on the Midlands circuit with the consent and approval of all of the circuits’ designated family judges and of the chairs of the circuits’ ten local family justice boards.  One of the principal topics addressed was the use of section 20 accommodation.  I offered the following guidance:

“The use of section 20 by a local authority to provide accommodation to children and young people is perfectly legitimate if deployed in appropriate circumstances.  It is a useful tool available to local authorities.  I offer the following as examples of the appropriate use of section 20 but I emphasise these are examples only and not an exhaustive list: (a) a young person where his or her parents have requested their child’s accommodation because of behavioural problems and where the parents and social care are working co-operatively together to resolve the issues and to secure a return home in early course; (b) children or young people where the parent or parents have suffered an unexpected domestic crisis and require support from social care to accommodate the children or young people for a short period of time; (c) an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child or young person requires accommodation in circumstances where there are no grounds to believe the threshold criteria of section 31 of the Children Act 1989 are satisfied; (d) the children or young people who suffer from a medical condition or disability and the parent or parents seek respite care for a short period of time; or (e) a shared care arrangement between the family and local authority where the threshold of section 31 care is not met yet, where supported, this intensive level is needed periodically throughout a childhood or part of a childhood. 

“In all of the foregoing, it is likely the threshold criteria of section 31 of the Children Act 1989 are not or will not be satisfied and/or it would be either disproportionate or unnecessary to issue public law proceedings.  It is wholly inappropriate and an abuse of section 20 to accommodate children or young people as an alternative to the issue of public law proceedings or to provide accommodation and to delay the issue of public law proceedings.  Where children and young people who are believed to be at risk of suffering significant harm are removed from the care of their parent or parents, whether under a police protection and emergency protection order or by consent pursuant to section 20, it is imperative that care proceedings are issued without any delay.”

 

  1. This guidance, which was given by me in my role as the Family Division Liaison Judge of  the Midland Circuit, has neither legal effect nor greater significance than, as was intended to be, helpful advice to the respective directors, their senior staff, their social workers and the local authority’s child care solicitors. 

 

 

We shall see whether the Supreme Court agree with that formulation – they might well do.

 

CD was accommodated on 14th October 2009.

 

On 28 March 2010, the mother wrote to the local authority formally to withdraw her consent to CD remaining accommodated by the local authority pursuant to the provisions of section 20.  The local authority did not act on this withdrawal of consent and, instead, advised the mother to seek legal advice if they wished CD to be returned to their care.  I shall return to this issue later in the judgment. 

 

 

To make it absolutely plain, once mother does that, the LA have to return the child to her care or obtain an order from the Court authorising them not to do so.  They can’t just pretend she didn’t say it.  It is particularly rich to suggest to the mother that she seeks legal advice, when the LA obviously weren’t doing that themselves, or at least weren’t following it.

 

If the LA had asked me at that point what the legal status of the child was, I would have sent them this image

 

And, if you want to make provision for the damages claim that’s about to follow, you may want to locate “Treasure Island”

 

  1. A further LAC review was held on 29 April 2010.  That review recommended that the local authority should take steps to address CD’s legal security and permanence.  A legal planning meeting was held on 4 August 2010.  The legal advice given was to issue care proceedings to gain greater clarity around the parties’ views and timescales to secure permanence for CD as early as possible and for CD to have a voice in the proceedings through his guardian and solicitor.  Nothing was done.
  2. A further LAC review held on 18 November 2010, during which CD’s independent reviewing officer raised concerns about the delay in achieving permanence for CD and reiterated that the legal advice given needed to be followed.  Nothing was done.
  3. Two further legal planning meetings were held on 16 February 2011 and, following the completion of an updated assessment of CD’s needs again, on 30 March 2011, there was agreement at that latter meeting to initiate care proceedings.  At a further LAC review on 6 April 2011, no further recommendations were made as a clear decision had been made on 30 March. 
  4. On 5 May 2011, the decision to initiate care proceedings was retracted by the then Assistant Director of Children’s Services who stated she was not, “agreeing to issuing proceedings and considered that seeking a care order would not make a significant difference to CD’s care given he had been accommodated for some time”. 
  5. This decision was fundamentally misconceived and fundamentally wrong.
  1. The next LAC review was held on 28 February 2013 where it was agreed that CD should remain looked after until his 18th birthday.  There had been a query about his legal status.  The decision was made that he remained accommodated pursuant to section 20, noting that CD’s mother was engaging well with the arrangements.  A further LAC review was held on 16 July 2013.  No changes were recommended to CD’s care plan.  The same approach was taken at the next LAC review on 9 December 2013 but there were discussions about the possibility of CD’s foster carers applying for a special guardianship order. 

 

There are a string of further LAC reviews, all thinking that the section 20 was okay  (basing that presumably on the Feb 2013 view that “Mother was engaging well with the arrangements”), then

 

There was a further LAC review on 3 April 2017.  On 5 September 2017, legal advice was sought at a legal gateway meeting.  It was recognised that CD had been accommodated under section 20 since 2009.  Somewhat surprisingly, the section 20 accommodation arrangement was deemed appropriate.  Thereafter, the decision was made to issue these public law proceedings. 

 

GH was accommodated on 9th July 2008 – the LA relying on the purported consent given by his mother, who was fourteen.

 

  1. At a LAC review held on 4 March 2014, there was a change of plan by the local authority.  The local authority decided to take GH’s case to a legal planning meeting.
  1. It was decided at the legal planning meeting that care proceedings should be instigated. The care plan of the same date stated that the local authority is considering the need to obtain a full care order. Nothing, however, was done

Well, at least they decided after nearly six years to issue care proceedings. Job done.

 

  1. In June 2016 a comprehensive review was undertaken of all section 20 accommodation cases by this local authority.  A LAC review was then held in respect of GH on 8 December 2016 where it was reported that legal advice regarding the continuing use of section 20 had been sought.  The decision was made that (i) an application for a care order needed to be initiated, and (ii) the local authority needed to gain parental responsibility due to GH’s complex health needs and the fact that he might need to move to a new placement in the near future. Nothing was done.

 

Okay, so having decided after six years that they needed to do something, they didn’t do anything for a further two years, then reviewed it and realised that they needed to do something. Then did nothing.

 

A further legal gateway meeting took place in March 2017.  The case was escalated by the independent reviewing officer to the Children with Disabilities Team at regular intervals between May and July 2017.  The independent reviewing officer then raised the matter with the Head of Service for Safeguarding and Review, who in turn escalated it to the relevant Head of Service in July.  It was not until 22 September 2017 that this application for a care order was in fact made. 

 

 

Oh boy.

 

  1. I have never before encountered two cases where a local authority has so seriously and serially failed to address the needs of the children in its care and so seriously misused, indeed abused, the provisions of section 20 of the Children Act 1989.  By happenchance alone, as it appears to me, both children have remained in the care of quite extraordinary and superlative carers who have met their respective needs extremely well.  I offer the warmest of thanks and congratulations to CD’s foster carers and to GH’s foster carer.  For periods of at least eight years they have each cared for the two boys without any parental responsibility for either of them.  Both sets of foster carers have in many ways been failed by this local authority, but their commitment to CD and GH respectively has been undaunted and unfailing. 
  2. Nevertheless, serious and long lasting damage has resulted.  Contact between CD and his mother had never properly been considered nor promoted.  The mother is not without blame on this issue.  It led however to an extremely unfortunate event recently where the mother and CD inadvertently came across each other in public and the mother did not recognise her son.  CD was dramatically affected.  What child could reasonably cope with their mother or father not recognising them?
  3. In respect of GH, his mother was so young when he was born that she needed the greatest possible advice, support and consideration.  She was not given any of the foregoing.  The local authority, as referred to above, did not even consider whether she was capable of consenting to GH’s accommodation.  Thereafter she was frankly side-lined.  As she grew older and matured, little, if any, consideration was given as to whether she could then care for GH or whether she could and should play a greater role in his life.  I have a very real sense that her role as his mother, albeit, or perhaps because, she was so very young, was simply overlooked and ignored.  Fortunately, with the issuing of these proceedings it has been possible to secure the placement of both children.  In respect of CD with his current carers as special guardians.  In respect of GH, to secure his placement with ZA but then to consider where his interests lie in a future long-term placement.  It has also enabled CD’s foster carers to be invested with parental responsibility for him.
  4. I have been seriously critical of the actions and inactions of this local authority.  I do not, despite the explanations offered, understand how or why this local authority failed these two children so very badly.  Nevertheless, I am satisfied that the appointment of a new director and a new management team, who are alive to the past failings in these and in other cases, will lead to an improved service for the children and young people who are now or hence forward will be placed in the care of this local authority.

 

 

The Local Authority argued that they should not be named in this judgment.  Given that the title of the case is Herefordshire Council v AB 2018,  how do you think that application went?

 

Publicity

  1. I have indicated to the parties at earlier hearings that I was minded to give a public judgment in respect of both cases.  It was submitted on behalf of the local authority that I should anonymise the names of all parties, including the local authority, because the adverse publicity would be damaging to the council.  I subsequently received a letter from the director bringing to my attention Hereford’s struggle to recruit solicitors and social workers and that “adverse publicity for the local authority does count in the minds of some prospective employees and it would be unfortunate if our historic failings were to turn people away.”  The contents of this letter, which had been disclosed to all of the other parties, caused me to consider once more whether it was necessary for me to name the local authority in this case.  After long and careful reflection I have concluded that it is.  I decided that a public judgment which named the local authority was necessary for the following reasons: (a) the President has repeatedly emphasised the importance of transparency and openness in the conduct of cases in the Family Division and in the Family Court; (b) the public have a real and legitimate interest in knowing what public bodies do, or, as in these cases, do not do in their name and on their behalf; (c) the failure to plan and take action in both of these cases is extremely serious.  There were repeated flagrant breaches of guidance from the judges of the division and of standard good practice; (d) it is evident that this case emanates from the Midlands Circuit.  Not to identify the relevant local authority would unfairly run the risk of other authorities on this circuit coming under suspicion; and (e) the President and the judges of the division have always previously taken a robust approach on the identification of local authorities, experts and professionals whose approach or working practices are found to be below an acceptable standard. 
  2. The director is understandably concerned about the potential adverse consequences of a public judgment.  I fully understand those concerns, but, for the reasons I have given above, I do not consider these concerns should lead me to anonymise the local authority.  In my view these concerns are addressed, or at least ameliorated, by the court making it clear, as I do in paragraphs 11 and 12 above and in the paragraphs below, that the criticisms set out in this judgment relate to the past actions of this local authority and that there is now a new director and leadership team in place who are committed to change and to improve the care and provision of services to the children and young people in its care.

 

To be fair, even as someone who practised law for ten years in the Midlands, I had no idea that Hereford was considered to be in the Midlands circuit, so it wouldn’t have been on my suspect list had the Court just said “a Local Authority in the Midlands”

Geography is not my strong suit.  I have yet to establish what my strong suit is, other than snark.

 

Hereford will now be waiting to see what the Supreme Court decide in Hackney about human rights claims arising from section 20 misuse.  These are very bad ones.  If HRA claims are still going after Hackney, expect this to break all records.

Guardian and Child’s Solicitor get strong (and justified) bashing from High Court

This is a Keehan J decision in the High Court.

It is pretty rare for a Judge to criticise a Guardian, and I can’t recall a case before where a Child’s Solicitor was criticised in a judgment. This is full on judicial dissection. And in my humble opinion, utterly warranted.

The case involved a child who was 13 and had learning difficulties. There was also a sibling, Y. There were serious allegations of abuse made by the child against the father. Achieving Best Evidence interviews had been conducted.

Most of the case is very fact specific, so I won’t go into it, (and the hearing lasted 20 days, so there was a LOT of it) but the part that has wider application is what happened towards the end of the case.

The father, understandably, made an application for the child X to give evidence. The Court set down a Re W hearing to decide whether the child should or should not give evidence. The Court directed the Guardian to meet with the child and to provide a report to the Court as to her view as to whether the child should or should not give evidence.

What actually happened was that the Guardian allowed the child’s solicitor to take the lead during that visit and that rather than exploring the Re W issues, the child’s solicitor actually cross examined the child AT LENGTH about the detail of the disclosures, leading her, challenging her, contradicting her. (In fact it also appears that some of the disclosures made were fresh disclosures not previously made, so it was not only emotionally abusive to the child but contaminated the evidence, and neither the Guardian nor the solicitor made referrals to the social work team about the fresh allegations)
(I’ve used ‘disclosures’ here as a synonym for ‘allegations’ and have rightly been corrected. We should all use allegations for things that are yet to be proved, and disclosures afterwards. Fixxored in edit)

None of this should have happened. Reading the case it appears that the Guardian is the subject of internal disciplinary proceedings through CAFCASS and that there is to be a hearing to decide whether this case should be referred to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority. It will be a very difficult thing for either of them to come back from, professionally. Readers can make up their own mind how sympathetic they are about that.

Wolverhampton City Council v JA and another 2017

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2017/62.html

The Former Children’s Guardian and the Former Solicitor for the Children
172.On 30 August 2016 the then children’s guardian, AB, and the children’s solicitor, Ms Noel, visited X in her foster placement for the purpose of speaking with her, ostensibly to gain her wishes and feelings about giving evidence at this hearing.

173.During the course of this interview X is recorded as having made a number of disclosures relating to her having been sexually abused.

174.On 6 September 2016 AB and Ms Noel paid a similar visit to Y.

175.At an advocates’ meeting the disclosures made by X in her interview on 30 August were revealed. It became apparent that no referral in respect of those disclosures had been made to the local authority nor to the police. The advocates’ meeting was immediately terminated and an urgent directions hearing was sought before the then allocated judge.

I’ve done at least a thousand advocates meetings and they are universally very dull. This one, however, wasn’t. There must have been an utterly deathly silence as this information came to light.

176.The children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor were ordered to disclose their notes on both interviews with the children and to file and serve witness statements.


177.On 30 September 2016 the appointment of the children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor were terminated and a new guardian and solicitor were appointed for the children. I am, understandably, asked to make clear in this judgment that the current children’s guardian, the current children’s solicitor and counsel instructed by him at this hearing had no part and no involvement, whatsoever, in the events of 30 August or 6 September 2016.

So a whole new team was appointed to represent the child, and that new team were untainted by these failures.

178.The guardian and solicitor’s interview of Y on 6 September 2016 could be the subject of considerable criticism, however, for the purposes of this judgment I focus on the interview with X on 30 August where the most egregious errors occurred.

179.X was subjected to an almost two hour cross examination conducted principally, if not exclusively, by Ms Noel: I stop short of categorising it as an interrogation. I have never seen the like of it before and I hope never to see a repetition of it again. X was asked leading questions on innumerable occasion, she was contradicted repeatedly by Ms Noel and when X denied a particular treatment or abuse by her father the question was put again and again, effectively denying the child the opportunity of being heard.

180.A particularly egregious question was asked by Ms Noel when she asked ‘Did your dad ever push the sponge or his fingers inside your private?’ X replied ‘no I don’t think so but it was painful’. The question was repeated and the answer was the same save hurt replaced painful. Ms Noel then asked ‘did dad ever get into bed with you’. Answer no. Prior to this interview and prior to these questions X had never asserted that the father had inserted his fingers into her vagina nor that he got into bed with her.

When you have a High Court Judge driven to say “I have never seen the like of it before and I hope never to see a repetition of it again” things are really bad. This is painful to read.

181.Prior to this ‘interview’ X had not said that she had told her mother of the father’s alleged sexual abuse of her.

182.At the time of both X’s and Y’s interviews the children’s guardian and the children’s solicitor knew that there was an ongoing police investigation into these allegations of sexual abuse and ongoing enquiries by the local authority.

183.Both AB and Ms Noel accepted their respective contemporaneous notes of the two interviews were not a verbatim transcript of the interviews. As the lead questioner Ms Noel’s notes were more comprehensive than AB’s but neither recorded all questions asked nor all the answers given.

The impact on the Guardian of these failings was so pronounced that the Judge was actually very concerned about her well-being when giving evidence.

184.AB is a very experienced children’s guardian of longstanding. I was very concerned about her welfare and well being when she came to give evidence.

185.My order of 6 December 2016 was received by Cafcass. She was the subject of internal disciplinary procedures of which it is not necessary for the purposes of this judgment to say any more. She has since been reinstated.

186.The guardian had just returned from holiday. She knew the purpose of the visit was at my request to establish X’s views about giving evidence. She met Ms Noel outside the foster carer’s home and there was a limited discussion about how the interview should proceed. She told me, and I accept, she agreed Ms Noel should take the lead in asking questions as she had not been present at the last court hearing. It was she said, and I accept, the one and only time she had allowed a children’s solicitor to take the lead in asking questions of a child. She had not, at that time, viewed the children’s ABE interviews nor had Ms Noel.

187.When asked why she had not referred the disclosures made by X to the police, she said Ms Noel advised her that she needed to consult with counsel then instructed on behalf of the children.

188.AB conceded her note taking of the interview was not as thorough as it should have been. She readily acknowledged that she should have stopped the questioning as soon as disclosures had been made. She candidly told me that X wanted to talk and because AB believed the children had not been listened to she was open to let X, and then Y on 6 September, talk. She said she was uneasy at some of the questions the girls were asked by Ms Noel and now realised she should have stopped it.

189.It was immediately obvious from the moment AB stepped into the witness box that she was racked with guilt and remorse. Only a few minutes into her evidence she became distressed and I adjourned for a short period to enable her to compose herself. She readily acknowledged the grave and serious professional errors she had committed in allowing these interviews to progress as they did – most especially in respect of X – and for not terminating them at an early stage.

190.I accept the guardian’s errors and professional misjudgement in this case were grave and serious. Nevertheless I accept her regret and remorse at her actions and omission are entirely genuine and sincere.

It is obviously very dreadful that a children’s solicitor would cross-examine a child with learning difficulties about sexual abuse allegations for 2 hours – that’s made worse still when you realise that she had not even seen the ABE interviews – so effectively cross-examining without properly looking at the source material.

If you think things were bad for the Guardian, they are about to get very much worse

191.I only wish I could make the same observations in respect of Ms Noel: I regret I cannot.

192.Ms Noel has been a solicitor for 11 years. She has been on the Children’s Panel for 6 years but this was the first case of sexual abuse in which she had acted for the children. I do not understand why a solicitor so inexperienced in acting for children should have come to be appointed in as complex and serious case as this one.

193.I was moved to comment during the course of Ms Noel’s evidence that by her actions during the interview with X she had run a coach and horses through 20 years plus of child abuse inquiries and of the approach to interviewing children in cases of alleged sexual abuse. I see no reason, on reflection, to withdraw those comments.

194.At the conclusion of Ms Noel’s evidence, in very marked contrast to that of the former children’s guardian, I had no sense that Ms Noel had any real appreciation of what she had done or of the extremely serious professional errors she had committed. She appeared to be almost a naïve innocent who had little or no idea of what she had done.

That’s the stuff of anxiety nightmares, having that sort of thing said about you.

195.It is right that I set out with particularity her evidence, most especially to highlight those matters which cause me to make the foregoing observations.


196.Ms Noel told me that her visit to X was the first time she had met X.
She said that the language she used when asking questions of X and the length of the interview – some 2 hours – was “possibly” inappropriate for a child with learning difficulties. On repeated occasion Ms Noel had told X how brave she was being in answering the questions. On reflection, she said, such comments could have been seen by X as a clue as to what she was expected to say and to talk about. She said that ‘it may appear but was not my intention.’

197.Ms Noel had had no training in how to speak with children involved in court proceedings. She knew X had made disclosures to the police and to her foster carers. Why, therefore, she was asked did she embark on this lengthy questioning of X? She replied that at the time she wanted to clarify what X was saying. With the benefit of hindsight, she accepted she should not have done so and should have stopped asking questions. She said she did not know she had asked X directed or leading questions. When it was put to her that she was cross examining X, Ms Noel replied ‘I suppose so, yes’.

Now, perhaps it is an omission of Children Panel training that she did not have training in how to ask children questions, but as an ADVOCATE you really should know whether or not you are asking someone directed or leading questions – that’s a catastrophic failing to admit that you didn’t know whether you were or not. And note that this 2 hour cross-examination was the first time she had ever met the child.


198.She confirmed her notes were not a verbatim record and that she had not noted X’s demeanour during the course of the interview. She accepted she had probably got some questions and answers missing from her notes and in that sense her notes could be misleading.


199.Ms Noel asserted she had only seen the DVDs of the girls’ interviews after she had seen X on 30 August and Y on 6 September. She had not reported X’s disclosures to the local authority because counsel then instructed by her had advised her to wait until after counsel had met with her and the guardian in conference.

(The Judge doesn’t pass any comment as to whether counsel was right or wrong there. I might have my own view, but the Judge had all of the facts and was in a far better position to say so if there was fault)

200.Ms Noel accepted that in acting as she did she had badly let the children down. She accepted there was a risk of the children, especially X, being ‘set up’ to make fake allegations. She accepted there were not insignificant differences between her contemporaneous notes of her meetings with X and with Y and those set out in her statement which she had prepared and signed in December.


201.Ms Noel was specifically asked if she had approved and authorised the contents of a position statement provided to the court for hearing on 16 September 2016. She said she could not remember. When reminded that she had emailed the same to the court, she replied ‘I would have read it’. The position baldly states that in the interview with the guardian and the solicitor X had made disclosures of a sexual nature against her father and had made disclosures in relation to the state of knowledge of the mother and the maternal grandmother. At no point is any reference made to the circumstances in which X said these things, namely that she had been subjected to an intense and prolonged period of cross examination.


202.I am sorry to observe that Ms Noel’s many acknowledgments of error and of professional misjudgement were made, in my judgment, very begrudgingly.


203.In conclusion I find that in relation to interview undertaken with X on 30 August 2016:

a) she was inappropriately questioned by Ms Noel;

b) the interview lasted for a wholly excessive length of time;

c) the conduct of the interview took no account that X suffered from learning difficulties;

d) she was repeatedly asked leading questions;

e) frequently leading questions were repeated even after X had answered in the negative to the proposition implicit in the question;

f) there was absolutely no justification for embarking on this sustained questioning of X;

g) the exercise was wholly detrimental to X’s welfare and seriously imperilled a police investigation;

h) the conduct of the interview led to a real possibility that X would be led into making false allegations;

i) the conduct of the interview was wholly contrary to the intended purpose of the visit, namely to establish X’s wishes and feelings about giving evidence in this fact finding hearing; and

j) the record keeping of AB and Ms Noel was very poor. Not all questions and answers were recorded or accurately recorded. No reference is made to X’s demeanour during the interview or to any perceived change in her demeanour.

204.The breaches of good practice were so legion in the interview conducted with X that I have concluded that it would be unwise and unsafe for me to rely on any comments made by X
. I will have to consider later in this judgment the extent, if at all, to which this interview with X on 30 August tainted the subsequent ABE interview undertaken by the police with X on 30 September 2016.


205.One of the worst examples of these very poorly conducted interviews arose in Y’s interview on 6 September. She alleged for the very first time that she told her grandmother of the sexual abuse she had suffered. For the reasons I have given in relation to X’s interview, I pay no regard to this comment at all. To the extent that I find, if at all, that the grandmother knew about the sexual abuse of both girls, I shall rely on the other evidence before me.


206.The issues of whether I should name Ms Noel in this judgment and/or she should be referred to her professional disciplinary body is to be determined at separate hearing. None of the parties to these proceedings wish to be heard on these issues: the matter is left to the court. I will, however, hear submissions on behalf of Ms Noel at that hearing. At the hearing on 18 August I read and heard submissions from counsel on behalf of Ms Noel. I was asked to show compassion to Ms Noel and not name her in the judgment. A number of personal and professional reasons were advanced. I do not propose to set them out in this judgment. I took account of all those submissions but concluded that the public interest and the need for transparency overwhelmingly required me to name Ms Noel. Accordingly her name appears in the published version of this judgment.