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Tag Archives: likelihood of future harm

Tense – nervous, headache


This is a case in which the Court of Appeal unpicked a decision of a Circuit Judge, where the tenses that were applicable to the threshold criteria became confused.


I don’t myself much care for the way that the constructors of section 31 brought tenses into the definition, particularly because they involve some semantic dancing on the head of a pin to the way that people actually consider the threshold in practice. I wrote earlier this year about the Court of Appeal decision that largely turned on the common conflation of ‘is suffering’ (which is what the statute says) and ‘has suffered’ (which is what everyone in Court always says, largely because you are talking about something that inevitably happened in the past but having to do so in the present tense) . In that case, having lectured everyone on the need to stick to the language of the statute ‘is suffering’, the Court of Appeal forgot its own advice and talked frequently about ‘has suffered’


Hence the title, and by now, you could probably do with an Anadin yourself




Re K (A child : Threshold findings) 2018


  1. On 18 May 2018 HHJ Tolson QC sitting at the Central Family Court dismissed an application for a care order and instead made a private law order that a little girl, then aged six months, to whom I shall refer as K, should live with her mother. The basis for this outcome was that the judge found that the threshold for intervention under section 31 of the Children Act 1989 had not been made out. This appeal by K’s children’s guardian, for which I gave permission on 17 July, is supported by the local authority but opposed by the mother.
  2. Events since the making of the judge’s order have led to this appeal becoming historic. The local authority issued further proceedings on 14 August, and on 23 August K was removed from her mother’s care and placed in foster care under an interim care order. The outcome of these earlier proceedings is nevertheless of some significance as providing a baseline for future decisions. In the circumstances I describe the background in only the broadest detail and avoid making any observations that might bear on welfare decisions yet to be taken by the Family Court.


One might well think that a Judge who had decided that there was no likelihood of future harm for a child is on thin ice before the Court of Appeal when the appeal arrives and the likelihood of future harm has developed into actual harm leading the child to have to be removed.  That could just be bad luck, of course.


  1. The evidence that the judge heard showed that the mother had done reasonably well in the foster placement and that no harm had come to K since her birth. Nonetheless, when the matter came before the court for final hearing on 23 April, all parties invited the judge to adjourn to allow for further expert evidence and the assessment of other potential carers. The judge refused this application as well as other adjournment applications made during the hearing. He said in effect that he would “see where we go”. His approach led to uncertainty in the minds of the parties as to what was and what was not within the scope of the hearing. That approach is challenged in the grounds of appeal, but the parties are agreed, rightly in my view, that it is no longer necessary to investigate that aspect of the matter.
  2. In the course of his judgment the judge described the mother as having been a deeply troubled teenager. He considered the report of an independent social worker who had acknowledged the mother’s ability to look after K’s basic care in a highly supported environment but gave the opinion that her volatility would prevent her from giving safe, consistent and nurturing care in the community. That was also the opinion of the allocated social worker and of the guardian, who advised that K would not be safe if placed in her mother’s independent care. The psychiatric expert initially expressed cautious optimism but tempered this when she received the other professional opinions. The judge however did not accept this evidence, essentially on the basis of the mother’s performance since K was born. He emphasised that the language of “risks” and “concerns” was not good enough. He was impressed by the mother’s presentation in court. The judge found and was entitled to find that the mother had not been volatile around or towards K. He posed this question to himself:
    1. “Accordingly in my judgment the question whether, when the mother was first placed in the mother and baby foster placement, she was likely to be volatile around her own child has to be judged in large manner by her actual behaviour around [K]. There is no evidence that she is anything other than calm when around [K]. There have been no incidents with the foster carer despite the latter’s, as the professionals say, too-intrusive approach.”

He concluded that while there was reason to believe that the threshold was crossed at an interim stage when the proceedings began, “My judgment on this evidence is that there neither is nor was a likelihood of significant harm to this child”. He continued:

“The possibility, which I acknowledge exists, that the mother will be so volatile in future that he daughter suffers significant emotional harm is one in my judgment which can sensibly be ignored in the context of the threshold justifying state intervention. This, I emphasise, is not to say that the professionals are wrong. I can of course acknowledge that we may be back in court in months’ or even years’ time with the professionals telling me that I was the one who got it wrong. I hope I can profoundly respect their opinion. It is simply the case that on this evidence I cannot be satisfied that the ‘risks’ and ‘ concerns’ which they identify establish the necessary likelihood.”



The judicial conclusion that the case did not warrant or justify adoption or separation was not the subject of the appeal. The appeal focussed on whether the Judge was wrong in law to conclude that threshold was not crossed and whether he made two separate errors – the first, in considering the likelihood of significant harm to be based on the facts as they were at the time of the final hearing rather than at the date of issue/intervention, and second in tying together the issue of whether threshold was crossed and what the welfare decisions for the child should be.  (In effect, whilst a Judge HAS to take the harm into account when deciding the right order, he or she ought not to take into account what the plans for the child might be when making the factual decision as to whether threshold is met)


The first of these is interesting. It does seem to fly in the face of common sense – if a Court is deciding whether to make an order on the basis of future harm, surely they look at the facts as they present at the time of making the order? Well, yes and no.  That’s massively relevant when deciding whether to MAKE the order, but not at all relevant in deciding whether the threshold criteria were met at the time of issue.  The threshold issue is a purely factual analysis, and the welfare issue is balancing up all of the facts and deciding whether an order is proportionate, necessary and better for the child than making no order.


In bald terms – if a mother is misusing heroin before the baby is born, then that is a fact which can satisfy the threshold at the time of issue and meet the threshold criteria for making a final order. But the mother being abstinent for six months of the proceedings, having insight into the problems heroin caused her and working hard with support groups is a massive factor in whether an order is needed at all, and if so, what sort of order should be made.


(Think of threshold as being whether you get into a nightclub at all, and welfare as being the range of options available to you once you are in there – you can get drunk, dance, flirt with people, get into a quarrel, or leave having had an uneventful evening)


  1. On behalf of K’s guardian, Ms Porter argues that the judge was wrong to limit his consideration of the threshold to the mother’s direct behaviour towards K. Instead he should have looked at the wider context, as required by section 31. She next argues that he paid insufficient attention to the relevant date for consideration of the threshold, namely the time when protective action was taken. Lastly, he allowed the issues of threshold and welfare outcome to become entangled, repeatedly referring while considering the issue of threshold to the need for rigorous scrutiny of the option of what he described as “state-sponsored adoption”. These submissions are echoed by Ms Rahman for the local authority. In response, Ms Hibbard, who appeared below for the mother also, argues that the judge did not misdirect himself in any way. She points out that he gave reasons for disagreeing with the professional assessments of risk based upon the mother’s actual care for K.
  2. We are grateful for the clear and precise way in which the arguments have been presented. Having considered them, I am in no doubt that the judge’s decision that the threshold for the making of a public law order was not met in this case was wrong for the following reasons.
  3. Firstly, the case put by the local authority and the guardian was based on the whole of the history, which covered not only events during K’s short lifetime but all the evidence, including incontrovertible evidence concerning events that took place before she was born and while her mother was pregnant with her. By limiting his consideration to the way in which the mother had behaved with K, the judge excluded from his consideration the solid wall of evidence relating to the mother and father’s personal histories. Had he taken a full overview of the matter, it would have been overwhelmingly apparent that at the time proceedings were taken in November 2017, there was a likelihood of harm to K as a result of her being born to two very young and volatile parents. The professional evidence did not consist of expressions of “risks” and “concerns” with no basis in fact. Here the facts were plain, and the likelihood of harm arose from them. Those facts undoubtedly disclosed risks of significant harm that could not sensibly be ignored. In this case the threshold under section 31(2) of the Children Act 1989 was not only met, it was obviously met.
  4. Secondly, the judge misdirected himself by failing to focus on the relevant date of his assessment, namely whether, at the time when protective measures were put in place and using the statutory tense, K “is likely” to suffer significant harm. Instead he became distracted by the mother’s performance in the mother and baby foster placement. That evidence could only influence the assessment of whether the threshold had been crossed insofar as it might shed light on the significance of the evidence as it stood at the relevant date: see G (Children) [2001] EWCA Civ 968 at paragraph 23. Here, however, there was no suggestion that the later evidence cast new light on the earlier evidence in a way that lessened its significance, and that is certainly not how the judge approached the matter. Had he asked himself the right question – was the threshold satisfied at the date proceedings were issued? – there could only have been one answer.
  5. Thirdly, the judge entangled questions relating to the welfare outcome with the question of whether the threshold had been met. The judge’s role is to find the facts, apply the threshold test to them and, where appropriate, make welfare and proportionality evaluations. These are separate exercises, one leading to the next. It is quite possible to reason that the threshold has been crossed but that welfare does not require separation of parent and child. It is not possible to reason that, because the child and parent should not be separated, the threshold has not been crossed.
  6. For these reasons, if my Lord agrees, this appeal must be allowed to the extent that the judge’s finding that the threshold of likelihood of significant harm had not been crossed must be set aside



“Lancashire Hot Pot(ato) “

The Supreme Court have given their decision in Re J, looking at whether a finding of fact that an injury was caused and neither parent can be excluded, forms a basis for finding that such a parent would be a risk to children in a new relationship.

They conclude, to skip to the chase, that it does not.  But before there are fireworks and street parties / wailing and gnashing of teeth, wait, it is a bit more nuanced than that.

To make it simpler,  Fred and Wilma find themselves in care proceedings, as a result of Pebbles suffering a skull fracture.  The Court finds that the skull fracture was caused non-accidentally, and that it must have been caused by either Fred, or Wilma, who were the only people caring for Pebbles at the relevant time.

The Court looks very carefully to see whether it is possible to say that it is more likely than not that Fred caused the injury, or Wilma, or whether one has to make a finding that neither of them can be excluded as a possible perpetrator.    (The last of these findings is usually called a “Lancashire” finding, named after the leading case that decided that this was an option open to the Court where the evidence was compelling that the injury must have been caused by Fred OR Wilma, but not sufficient to say it was Fred and not Wilma or vice versa)

 Now, the Court, as a result of a previous Supreme Court decision (Re S-B Children 2009)   have to be careful not to dance on the head of a pin and strive too hard to decide that it was Fred, if the evidence was not there. 

If the Court feel that it is not possible to say with confidence that it was Fred, they shouldn’t make the finding that Fred did it just because he seems more likely than Wilma.  Re S-B suggests that there’s real value, where the evidence is there to allow it, in making a positive finding about whether it was Fred or Wilma, but that Courts should not strive to force the issue if the evidence isn’t there.   (The Supreme Court put that in terms – the risk of doing that is the risk that the Judge gets it wrong, and someone is treated as a risk who is not, and more importantly that someone who IS a risk is treated as though they were not)

 When the Court considers, if they make a Lancashire finding, the risk to Pebbles, they are entitled to consider the risk from both parents, in the light of the finding that neither is excluded. That doesn’t mean that Pebbles can’t live with them, it will depend on a careful assessment of risk, and of how that risk can be managed in the future.

 So, if Fred and Wilma go on to have another child, the threshold criteria is capable of being made out on the basis of the findings about Pebbles.

One of them caused that injury to Pebbles, and if they are both in the same household caring for the new baby, that risk is a live one.   [It won’t mean that they are barred from caring for the new baby, the Judge will consider all of the factors – passage of time, work done, maturation, how they present now, but the Court is entitled to assess whether that risk is sufficiently addressed to make them safe carers for the new baby, or whether the risk is too high]

 But what has been more murky, is what happens if Fred and Wilma split up, and Fred gets together with Betty* and has a baby.

 [*Don’t pretend you’ve never wondered what Betty saw in poor dull Barney Rubble]

 There have been strong arguments that Fred poses a risk to the new baby, because of the findings that he couldn’t be excluded from being the person who hurt Pebbles. Equally, there have been strong arguments that Fred should not be treated as a risk to the new baby UNLESS the Court made a positive finding that he WAS the person who hurt Pebbles.  At some stage, the Supreme Court was going to have to step in and answer it once and for all, and they have finally done so.

 The law is clear that when assessing likelihood of future harm, it doesn’t have to be that the risk is more likely than not to happen, it is a “risk which cannot sensibly be ignored’  BUT that in deciding whether there is a risk at all, there has to be an established fact to put into the pot, or on the scales.

So, Fred and Betty have a baby.  Is the ‘fact’ that Fred was found to be one of two people who must have injured Pebbles, a ‘fact’ that can be put in the pot to mean that there is a risk that he might injure the new baby?

 The Supreme Court decided that this is not a ‘fact’ which can legitimately go into the pot when deciding risk to Fred and Betty’s baby.

“In re S-B is authority for the proposition that a real possibility that this parent has harmed a child in the past is not, by itself, sufficient to establish the likelihood that she will cause harm to another child in the future.

And here  (my underlining)

  1. The question which has been put to us, as set out in the Statement of Facts and Issues, is whether (i) a finding that a child has suffered harm while in the care of more than one person and (ii) a finding that one or both of the carers have perpetrated that harm are findings of fact which may be relied on in subsequent proceedings relating to only one of the potential perpetrators, in support of a conclusion that a subsequent child is likely to suffer significant harm in a new family unit of which that potential perpetrator is part.
  1. The answer which I would give, applying the test set out in para 49 of In re S-B (Children) (Care Proceedings: Standard of Proof) [2010] AC 678, is that these findings may be relied on only to the extent that they may be relevant to the issue the court has to decide. But to find that this information is relevant does not go far enough. This is because such findings would not be sufficient, on their own, to establish that a child in the new family unit was likely to suffer significant harm. If they are the only findings that are available, they must be disregarded in the assessment for lack of sufficiency. A prediction of future harm based on what has happened in the past will only be justified if one can link what has happened in the past directly and unequivocally with the person in the new family unit in whose care the subsequent child is living or will now live.

It is very important to note that the Supreme Court were keen to stress that the problem here arises in cases where the findings boil down to one single issue  “Who caused the injuries to Pebbles, or who can be excluded from causing those injuries?”

They go on to say that in most cases, the case will not be pleaded on the basis of that one finding, and indeed was not in the original fact finding hearing here.

As McFarlane LJ pointed out, there were several facts found by Judge Masterman which might have been relevant to an assessment of whether it was likely that this mother would harm children in the future. There was “(a) gross and substantial collusion expressly designed to prevent the court identifying the perpetrator; (b) failure to protect T-L; (c) deliberately keeping T-L away from health professionals in order to avoid the detection of injury” (para 109). The local authority have chosen not to rely upon these. They acquiesced in the decision to treat this as a one point case. The result was that this mother returned to the household where she had previously been looking after the three subject children for some time without (as far as we know) giving any cause for concern. She has now been looking after her new baby for more than a year, also without (as far as we know) giving any cause for concern.

If findings were made about Fred and Wilma in relation to those sorts of matters, they could go into the ‘pot’ for any children Fred or Wilma have with other people.

 In this case, it was the reliance of the LA on the single issue of “Fred is a risk to this baby, because the Court made a Lancashire finding about him not being excluded as having caused the injury to Pebbles” that meant that the threshold criteria on the new baby was not crossed.

 This is emphasised again here:-

Finally, I would observe that if, as has been said, the current law is causing consternation, that appears to me to be an over-reaction. It is important to emphasise, as Lady Hale has done at paras 52-54, that the court’s inability to establish whether X was the perpetrator of harm to a child in the past does not necessarily mean that the threshold set by section 31(2)(a) cannot be met in relation to a child now being cared for by X. It means however that some other cause for concern, besides the possibility that X was the perpetrator of the harm, must be established. The onus thereby imposed is, in a case of that kind, one which should ordinarily be capable of being discharged where substantial causes for concern currently exist. In practice, in the great majority of cases where a child has been harmed by one of its primary carers but it has not been possible to identify which of them was responsible, and only one of them is now responsible for the care of another child, it will be possible to establish facts on the basis of which a prognosis as to the future risk of harm can be made. The case at hand would itself appear to have been such a case, if the evidence before the court had not been deliberately restricted.

It is going to be important, therefore, in care proceedings, for the schedule of findings to be drawn up carefully, particularising a chain of events both before and after the injury, and making it plain those areas on which the Court can properly make findings that BOTH Fred and Wilma are culpable for, those areas which FRED is culpable for, those areas that WILMA is culpable for and then the ultimate question of who caused the injury being for the Court to determine whether it was FRED, WILMA or one of them with it being impossible to exclude either on the balance of probabilities.

 And thereafter, for any subsequent care proceedings involving children of Fred and Wilma to not rely   on the single  “whodunit” fact, but to rely on the totality of matters which were found in the judgment. 

 It is noteworthy that in fact, what the Supreme Court in effect said to this particular Local Authority is, that the threshold isn’t made out on the way that you have pleaded the case  (that Fred was the subject of a Lancashire finding), but you can pick through the original judgment about and make a threshold based on the findings that were definitive findings as to the parent’s culpability and failings, and just issue the proceedings again.

 So it is not as earth-shattering as ones first impression of it might be. It will mean a careful consideration on any threshold document involving a parent who had previously been the subject of a Lancashire style finding, and also a careful consideration of the schedule of facts proposed on any forthcoming finding of fact hearing.

[And of course none of any all of that tells us how a Court will decide the future of Fred and Betty’s child, just whether in making their deliberations they should pay any attention to the finding that Fred may be one of the two people who injured Pebbles  – NO, they should not. ]

not as innocent as he looks

Oh Fred, you should have put forward an alternative perpetrator