This is our dear old friend section 37 again, and also a regular topic on these blogs – the bringing of allegations that aren’t proven and the consquences for the person bringing the allegation.
Re W (A child) 2014
In this case, private law proceedings were taking place between the two parents about where the child (an 8 year old girl) should live and how much time she should spend with each parent. As part of those proceedings, very serious allegations of sexual abuse were made against the father
[I note, and think it is probably more important than the Court of Appeal treated it, that the Court had previously made findings that the paternal grandfather had sexually abused the child – that sort of thing would probably make any parent hyper-sensitive and vigilant, and also possibly means that the child might act out in a sexualised way as a result of the established sexual abuse which might lead a mother to mistakenly but genuinely think the father had done something. I don’t say that this explains and excuses everything, but it is quite an important bit of context]
At the finding of fact hearing, the Judge found that none of the mother’s allegations were true, and went on to make an Interim Care Order removing the child from mother’s care – although no public law application by Social Services had been made, the Judge using the power under section 37 of the Children Act 1989 to make an Interim Care Order in the absence of an application (albeit for a maximum of 8 weeks, rather than for whatever duration the Court sees fit as with the new public law regime)
- On that day the judge concluded at  to  of his judgment that all of the allegations that the mother had made against the father were false including, in particular, that he had ever behaved in a sexually inappropriate way towards his daughter. The judge set out his conclusions in considerable detail. The conclusions that were reasoned in the previous 245 paragraphs. He held that the mother:
(i) had wrongly suggested that the child did not want to see her father, and was frightened by him;
(ii) had knowingly sought to prevent the child from having a relationship with her father by putting pressure on her about seeing him, and by putting obstacles in the way of contact;
(iii) had deliberately and wrongly sought to exclude father from school events and being involved in the child’s life;
(iv) believed that the father was involved in the child’s abuse in London (i.e. the abuse perpetrated by the paternal grandfather), and had informed others of her belief;
(v) misled the court by saying that it was the child rather than herself who struggled with the grandfather’s abuse;
(vi) deliberately put the worst interpretation on events to place obstacles in the way of the father’s contact;
(vii) encouraged the child to make false allegations against her father because of her own fear of contact (which the child did at her mother’s behest despite being a daughter who delights in seeing her father);
(viii) had told the child about alleged domestic violence on the parties’ separation to influence the child against her father and to cause her to make similar allegations;
(ix) is out of control, believing her own propaganda and convincing the child of it: creating a situation that is deeply concerning – the child was and is subject to influences which she should not be;
(x) is worryingly obsessed by the abuse of the child by her paternal grandfather to the extent that she had unfairly taken an adverse view of the father and worked against his contact at every opportunity, save when she could police it herself. Her reluctance to let him develop a natural relationship with his daughter was plain for all to see; and
(xi) had encouraged the child to have an unhealthy attitude towards her father, to make untrue allegations, to know more about sexual matters and about the case than was good for her with the consequence that her emotional and psychological progress had been damaged.
- The judge concluded that the child could not remain living with her mother before the case was finalised because of the mother’s behaviour, in particular her involvement of the child, and her unjustified convictions, in particular that the father was dangerous and presented a risk of sexual abuse. The judge concluded that the child had suffered significant emotional harm in her mother’s care within the meaning of section 38 CA 1989 and that her psychological safety required her immediate removal from that care.
The mother appealed this.
The Court of Appeal rejected it. They considered firstly that the Judge had applied the correct test in law
- Turning then to the implications of the findings of fact that the judge made. It should be noted that it is no part of this appeal that the judge applied an inappropriate test to the question of removal. That test was set out in Re LA (Care: Chronic Neglect) [2010 ] 1 FLR 80 at  by Thorpe LJ:
13. “separation is only to be ordered if the child’s safety demands immediate separation […] at an interim stage the removal of children from their parents is not to be sanctioned unless the child’s safety requires interim protection”
- Safety is given a broad construction and includes the child’s emotional and psychological welfare (see, for example, Re B (Care Proceedings: Interim Care Order)  1 FLR 1211 at ).
That test is usually seen in connection with an application by a Local Authority to remove a child under an Interim Care Order, but exactly the same principle and legal test extends to a Judge making an Interim Care Order and his own care plan of removal [The more difficult issue of how a Judge doing this is becoming both the applicant and the tribunal is something that doesn’t get raised – to me, it is a significant problem, but the Court of Appeal when dealing with other section 37 appeals haven’t ever felt it was problematic]
The next issue was whether the Judge had properly applied the facts of the case to that test, when deciding that the test was met – and specifically whether the Judge had failed to look at whether removal was proportionate and what other options were available that would have been less interventionist.
- The question is whether the test was wrongly applied to the facts. The judge rejected the mother’s allegations that the father had been involved in or was aware of the sexual abuse of the grandfather or had himself acted in a sexually inappropriate manner. The judge made extensive findings about the inappropriate conduct of the mother which I have summarised by using the analysis that the judge himself constructed at the end of his judgment. The mother’s conduct, even if explicable as a consequence of a psychological or behavioural condition, was inexcusable and highly damaging to the child. The judge’s finding that the mother was “bent on manipulation and encouraging false allegations” was a finding of huge adverse significance in relation to her capability to care for her child. The child had been encouraged by the mother to make allegations against her father despite the child’s own delight in seeing her father in the process of which she had obtained an unhealthy knowledge of sexual issues. On any basis, the risk of further significant harm to the child had to be addressed by the court. Given the prevalence of false allegations made by parents against each other in private law proceedings, conduct at this level by a parent should be understood to be serious child abuse that will usually necessitate intervention by a court.
- Given that context, the judge was required to consider his child protection duties and powers. The only question that realistically arises on this appeal is whether he exercised them proportionately. There can be no question that the court’s jurisdiction to make orders under sections 37 and 38 CA 1989 was engaged on the facts of this case. The interim threshold for the making of an interim care order was clearly satisfied and there was jurisdiction to make that order. The test for removal was clearly satisfied on the facts as found and that only leaves the question of whether there was a less draconian, i.e. more proportionate order that the judge could and should have considered.
- I ask the question rhetorically: given the court’s findings, how could the judge leave the child with the mother? No level of sufficient support and necessary protection was described by anyone. To leave the child without protection would have been unconscionable. One has only to consider physical abuse to a child that gives rise to a similar index of harm to understand that such a position was untenable. The submission made on behalf of the mother that her care of the child had in all (other) respects been good or even better than good simply misses the point. More than that level of care was needed to protect this child from her own mother. Each of the alternative orders described to this court would have left the child in that care without any better ability to protect the child than there had been hitherto. The situation might have been different if there could have been effective policing of that care in the interim and before other assessments were conducted but that was not an option addressed to the judge or to this court. I bear in mind that the family court sometimes hears cogent evidence of particular harm that may be caused on the removal of a child from the care of a parent which the court must consider and balance in the welfare analysis and proportionality evaluation, but that was not this case.
- The distress that had been engendered in the child, as advised by the children’s guardian, sadly made an immediate move to the father impossible. No other relative was immediately available without assessment of the position that relative would take in the highly antagonistic and dysfunctional family relationships that existed (for example, to consider the effect on the maternal family of the mother’s discussions with them that the father was a paedophile). That included the mother’s sister who is now being assessed by the local authority. The only realistic option that remained in this case was the neutral position of short term foster care.
- The judge described his decision as proportionate at  and in accordance with the child’s welfare having regard to the ‘welfare checklist’ in section 1(3) CA 1989. He specifically envisaged a short period of respite care while the local authority explored the possibility of placing the child with her father and/or the obtaining of therapeutic assistance for the mother. Given the need for an assessment of the child’s aunt (who has not challenged the interim conclusion of the judge), there was no immediately available realistic option for the court other than removal.
- Leading counsel for the father has taken the court through the judgment, identifying the specific points at which the judge came to value judgments about the welfare factors in section 1(3) CA 1989 based on the facts that he found. None of those conclusions is seriously challenged in this appeal and it is not necessary for this court to set them out seriatim. The judge analysed his conclusions by reference to more than 40 written submissions made by the mother. The judge did not specifically address the child’s wishes and feelings in his analysis but he had set out in detail what it was that the child had been influenced to say. It is hardly surprising that there was little more that he could add given the context in which he had to make his decision. It may well have been harmful to ask the child anything else at that stage. Likewise, the judge made ample reference to the situation the child was in and focussed on the unacceptability of its continuation. To that extent the effect of the proposed change of circumstance for the child was regarded as positive and no party other than the mother disputed that.
- Given that a decision by a court to remove a child into public care, whether in public or private law children proceedings engages article 8 of the ECHR, a welfare analysis and proportionality evaluation are necessary. In any case where there is more than one realistic option it will be necessary for the judge to summarise his conclusions in what is now a conventional balance sheet approach i.e. where there is a choice to be made between two or more realistic options, an analysis of each option by reference to the welfare checklist is required so as to afford paramount consideration to the child’s welfare. The court is then required to evaluate the proportionality of its proposed intervention (and / or that of the local authority) by conducting a balancing exercise in which each of the available options is evaluated by considering the positives and negatives, or the benefits and detriments, of each option side by side. An adequately reasoned judgment must deal with the reasonably available options and give them proper and focussed attention.
- That was not this case. There were no other realistic options i.e. options that were reasonably available to the court and no more proportionate interference than that contemplated by the judge. Given the stark facts, no further analysis was necessary.
[Okay, this may be more widely important, because this is the Court of Appeal accepting the point that some High Court Judges, notably Pauffly J have made about Re B-S, that the Court isn’t required to rigorously scrutinise EVERY option, only the realistic ones. The Court of Appeal accept that what is required of a Judge is to analyse each of the REALISTIC OPTIONS. They say in this case that there were no other realistic options, so the level of scrutiny and weighing up was much lower. That, to me, is interesting, since I read last week of a Court of Appeal judgment that overturned a Placement Order where BOTH OF THE PARENTS WERE IN PRISON at the time of the final hearing and were going to be there for some years to come, and the Court of Appeal overturned it for lack of proper analysis of the options. Consistent much? * I have that on Lawtel as Re T (a child) 2014 but without a bailli report yet, and Lawtel is paywall-y so I can’t link]
I would be using Re W (a child) 2014 as Court of Appeal authority for the principle that only the REALISTIC options need to be scrutinised and weighed. (That raises the question of how you sift the options into realistic and unrealistic without scrutinising them, but y’know, there are degrees of scrutiny – like for example, mum is not a realistic option to care for her child because she is doing FIVE YEARS IN PRISON)
The Court of Appeal here are saying that removal on the facts of the case was such a blindingly obvious outcome that it doesn’t matter if the Judge didn’t spend much time in the judgment setting out the pros and cons, the facts speak for themselves. [They might regret that, this seems to be something that lawyers could argue about till the end of time – was THIS case bleedin’ obvious, or was it finely balanced? We call an expert witness, whose specialist subject is the Bleedin’ Obvious, Mrs Sybil Fawlty]
So, the mother’s appeal on those first two points failed – the next point was whether this was procedurally fair and whether she had been properly placed on notice that she might face an Interim Care Order and removal of her daughter.
- It is convenient to take the last two propositions first because the whole context of the decision making process needs to be analysed if one is to understand what happened on the day the order was made. At the time the fact finding hearing was being case managed by Judge Cardinal on 21 June 2013 the judge indicated to the parties in the presence of the mother that if it were subsequently to be established that the mother was leading the child to make false allegations against her father, the court would consider making a residence order in favour of the father. At that stage, the judge had identified as a key issue the nature and extent of the harm that was being or would be caused to the child if the mother’s allegations were false and had rightly, in my judgment, identified one of the potentially serious consequences, namely removal of the child and a change of residence away from the child’s primary carer.
- On 16 July 2013 at a hearing when mother was again present and assisted by an experienced McKenzie friend, Ms Haines, Judge Cardinal repeated his concerns to both parents: the consequences for each parent of the allegations being determined to be true or false were patent. On 18 October 2013 in the presence of Ms Haines, the judge explained to the mother that if he rejected her allegations he would have to very carefully consider the child’s future.
- On the morning of 28 October 2013 before the fact finding hearing in question began, Judge Cardinal addressed all the advocates and Ms Haines. Entirely properly and to enable the parties to think about their positions, the judge indicated that if the mother’s allegations against the father were subsequently proved, he would have to consider exercising his powers to make a section 37 direction and an interim supervision order because the threshold for intervention would be met and the child would need protective assistance. He also dealt with the converse position. He explained that if the allegations were found to be false (a necessary and logical position on the facts of this case if they were not proved) he would have to consider exercising his powers to make an interim care order on the basis he would approve the removal of the child from the mother’s care. These observations were repeated by the judge more than once during the fact finding hearing.
- The fact finding hearing was adjourned on 31 October 2013 at the conclusion of the oral evidence. The judge directed the parties to file written closing submissions by 10.00 am on 6 November 2013 in preparation for the resumed hearing on 11 November 2013. The judge directed the local authority as the recipient of his section 37 direction to attend court on 11 November 2013. In order to assist the mother, who did not have a legal representative, the judge identified specific questions for the mother to answer in her written submissions. The questions related to what orders he should make specifically including the options of interim care or supervision orders and residence and contact orders. The mother understood the judge’s intentions at least to the extent that she faithfully replicated his questions in her written submissions.
- The mother did not answer the questions posed by the judge in her written submissions but as respects the notice she had of the judge’s powers and his realistic options, it is quite clear that she had days not hours or minutes to consider her position. Indeed, as to the key question about the removal of her daughter, she had more than 4 months notice and repeated reminders of the stark position that faced everyone if her allegations were found to be false.
- As the judge records at  of his judgment, the mother’s closing submissions were received and considered after the deadline he set. There were in fact four sets of closing submissions from her, the last of which was received on 11 November 2013 which was the resumed final hearing day. By that time the mother would have been aware of the written submissions of the other parties specifically dealing with removal and inviting the court to take that step. The father asked the court to remove his daughter from the mother’s care and the children’s guardian recommended and reasoned the precise order made by the judge. The guardian also dealt with the difficult position that would arise if the judge decided that the mother’s allegations were false and that she had involved the child in her allegations to the extent that on removal the child would not immediately be able to go to live with her father.
12. “ At the outset of proceedings I warned both parents of the serious consequences of pursuing this fact finding exercise. Were the allegations now make [sic] of sexual abuse true, then the court would be finding [the child] had been abused twice over, both by the grandfather and, later, by father. It would almost certainly mean, given [the child’s] distress, the need for a section 37 report, and probably an interim supervision order, and very careful evaluation of the need to protect, of a risk assessment, and the need to manage, with care, a deeply damaged little girl.
12.  Were the allegations untrue, then mother would be guilty of feeding her with untruthful stories, of an obsessive nature, about sexual abuse. Again, I would almost certainly be directing a section 37 report and making an interim care order, as [the child] would then need speedy removal from an abusive home.”
- Once the judgment had been handed down the judge gave the parties the opportunity to reflect on his conclusions and have discussions including with the local authority who were present in accordance with his earlier direction. Counsel recollect that there was a period from about 12.30 pm to 2.15 pm during which the mother asked the local authority to consider placement of her daughter with the mother’s sister. The local authority would not accept that proposal without an assessment for reasons that are understandable having regard to the content of the judgment. That decision was not at that stage a matter for them but rather for the court and it is of note that from about 2.15 pm to about 3.00 pm the mother was given and used an opportunity to make further oral submissions to the judge about her proposals and the orders that the court could make.
- Given the judge’s record and that of all counsel in the case and for the reasons set out above, I cannot accept that the mother would have been in any doubt about what the judge was able to do and indeed what he proposed to do if the facts were found against the mother and absent any submissions as to other alternatives. The mother had every opportunity which she used to make proposals about placement including her sister and other members of the family. During oral submissions to this court and for the first time both without written warning or earlier complaint, the mother instructed her counsel to the effect that she had not had notice of the other parties written submissions because she had had computer difficulties and had not been able to open their documents. The process that I have described and the manner in which this complaint is disclosed to this court make it inherently unlikely but even if it is correct, there is ample other material to remain of the firm view that there was no procedural irregularity. This element of the ground of appeal is without merit and is not the case that was put to the single judge when he granted permission. There was no procedural irregularity or unfairness
There does seem to be quite a few warning shots there, that weren’t picked up on.
An argument that was not raised by the mother’s McKenzie Friend which might have been (I think the appeal was doomed, but I would have liked to see how the Court of Appeal tackled this) was the article 6 point. A parent in private law proceedings can be unrepresented – and in this case it seems that the mother was – making use of a McKenzie Friend, because she would not qualify for free legal representation.
In order to assist the mother, who did not have a legal representative, the judge identified specific questions for the mother to answer in her written submissions.
In a case where a Local Authority applies to remove your child, you automatically qualify for free legal representation. Once the Judge was contemplating the possibility of making an Interim Care Order and removing the child, should the mother not have been entitled to free legal representation in exactly the same way that she would have been in care proceeedings? From the point of view of a parent’s rights, does it matter whether the Interim Care Order is made by a Judge after a Local Authority apply, rather than by a Judge of his own motion? The issue is the removal of the child from her care and into foster care, surely?
If a Judge is contemplating removal of a child into foster care under section 37, should a parent not be entitled to free legal advice and representation about that, and be able to challenge it with the benefit of such representation? Is it a denial of the principles of Airey v Ireland for her to NOT be able to be represented? Given the warning that the Judge gave to the mother about the risks of the finding of fact hearing, might it have been beneficial for her to have had legal advice?