Readers might remember the recent case where the President looked at a set of care proceedings where it had not been known at the time that the mother lacked capacity, and the outcome was that the orders were effectively overturned and the proceedings re-wound to the beginning.
[Actually, if you remember it, it is because of the bad pun in the title….
Here, the Court of Appeal were faced with a very similar issue – the mother in care proceedings conducted them as though she had capacity and her lawyers fought hard on her behalf, but it turns out that perhaps she didn’t have capacity – at the very least there were two conflicting reports and the Court had not expressly resolved the issue. She then appealed on that basis, arguing that the Care Order and Placement Order should be overturned and the case re-heard.
In this one, though, the Court of Appeal ruled that even though the original proceedings had been flawed, it would not have made any difference to the eventual outcome if she had been represented through the Official Solicitor rather than instructing her solicitor directly, and so the Court of Appeal could retrospectively validate the proceedings and orders.
Not sure that I agree. (I agree that the Court of Appeal’s analysis that they HAVE the power is right. Whether it was right to use it, I’m not so sure of. Of the two approaches, I think the one before the President is more in keeping with article 6 and a right to a fair trial. I think that instructing a solicitor involves rather more than just saying “I want to fight” and that the protections for vulnerable persons or Protected Parties are fundamental, and where they’ve been lost even due to honest mistake, that’s a fatal flaw in the process, not something that can be patched up after the event)
Re D (Children) 2015
There were two issues :-
- Had the original Court process been flawed because it had proceeded on the basis that mother had capacity when she in fact didn’t?
- If so, did those flaws amount to an irresistable basis for an appeal, or can the Court retrospectively validate the orders if that seems the right outcome?
The mother had been represented through the Official Solicitor in previous care proceedings, so the starting point in these ones was that an updating report on her capacity was sought. However, no doubt to avoid delay and ensure that there wasn’t drift past the 26 week timetable, the expert saw the mother within the first six weeks of giving birth. This is important, as it is no doubt happening in other cases.
The cognitive assessment therefore came with a significant health warning, although it did say that she lacked capacity
“The immediate post natal period (under six weeks) tends to be a somewhat volatile period in terms of health and mood. Cognitive tests undertaken during this period are likely to reflect mood variations and difficulties with concentration due to hormonal changes…. In this assessment, therefore I have drawn on the results of SD’s August 2012 assessment together with a brief corroborative assessment conducted on 4 .11.13”
That report from Dr Morgan also gave a further health warning, that when one repeats the tests in a short period of time, the results can be skewed.
Those representing the mother sought a further expert opinion, from a Dr Flatman. The Court of Appeal were criticial that the Part 25 procedures on expert assessments were not followed and as a result, mistakes were made.
In any event, Dr Flatman examined the mother and concluded that she DID have capacity to conduct litigation.
Here’s the error
At the hearing before the District Judge on 20 January 2014 the District Judge was simply told that:
“there has been a cognitive assessment further filed to say that she does have capacity to give instructions to her legal representatives”.
Dr Morgan’s conflicting report was not brought to the attention of the judge, neither was the fact that Mr Flatman had failed to apply the proper test for assessing capacity. As a consequence no consideration was given as to how to resolve the conflict, whether by additional questions, an experts meeting or by hearing short oral evidence to resolve the issue. Ms Weaver was simply discharged as litigation friend.
41. When the mother came before the judge for the final hearing Ms Weaver attended as the mother’s IMCA and the case proceeded without further consideration as to the mother’s capacity.
There were two competing reports and the Court needed to resolve which opinion was correct (bearing in mind the starting point of the Mental Capacity Act is to presume capacity unless there is evidence to the contrary)
44. All those who are regularly involved in care proceedings are aware that such a situation is all too common and it is plain to see why issues of capacity are critical to those affected. The starting point for the court is not only that a party has capacity, but that every effort must be made to help a party without capacity to regain it. Only in this way which accords with the statutory principles found in MCA 2005, can a parent feels that his or her case has been presented in accordance with his or her wishes, no matter how unrealistic or unachievable those wishes may be when considered against the yardstick of the welfare of her child in question. On the other hand the MCA 2005 is designed to ensure that those vulnerable adults, who have not got the capacity to conduct litigation on their own behalf, are properly identified and provided with appropriate support and a litigation friend in order to ensure that they not prejudiced within the proceedings as a consequence of their disability.
45. Process is not all and should never, particularly when one is concerned with a child’s future, be slavishly adhered to at the expense of achieving the right welfare outcome for a child without delay. Having said that, I am satisfied that the informal course which was adopted in the present case went far beyond a pragmatic and practical approach to case management and amounted to serious procedural irregularity.
The answer to that first question then was, yes, the original process had been flawed.
The analysis of whether the Court has the power to retrospectively validate the flawed process is set out very carefully from paragraphs 46-58, and if you are interested in the nuts and bolts of that, then it is all set out.
In a nutshell, it is this
47. FPR 2010 r.15.3 qualifies the general rule that a protected party may only conduct proceedings by a litigation friend. In particular FPR 2010, r.15.3(3) provides:
“(3) Any step taken before a protected friend has a litigation friend has no effect unless the court orders otherwise.”
So if the Court orders otherwise, then the Court can proceed even though a person ought to have been treated as a protected party and could only conduct proceedings through a litigation friend. [Of course, as the Court at first instance DIDN’T do that, since they wrongly decided that she DID have capacity and neglected to take into account that there were conflicting reports, the Court at the time DIDN’T “order otherwise” under r 15.3]
Bailey v Warren  EWCA Civ 51. Hallett LJ said:
“ Within CPR r.21.3 (4) there are no restrictions whatsoever on the court’s discretion to validate steps taken in proceedings before a litigation friend is appointed. A court can regularise the position retrospectively provided, as Kennedy L.J. observed in  of Masterman-Lister “everyone has acted in good faith and there has been no manifest disadvantage to the party subsequently found to have been a patient at the time”. He could not envisage any court refusing to regularise the position because “to do otherwise would be unjust and contrary to the over-riding objective ….
 It is for the judge to consider all the facts of the case before him, therefore, and where as here, there is no suggestion of bad faith, decide whether or not the compromise is manifestly disadvantageous to the patient”
And that was the line that the Court of Appeal took.
55. In the present case it is recognised that the outcome of the case would have been the same regardless of whether the mother had litigation capacity. There was therefore no forensic disadvantage to the mother. Further, thanks to the dedication of Mrs Weaver, there was in reality no difference in the nature and quality of the representation the mother received. Mrs Weaver’s title within the proceedings changed from IMCA to Litigation friend and back to IMCA depending on the current court order, but the manner in which she carried out her role remained the same. It is apparent from the attendance notes that Mrs Weaver, in whatever guise, was not about to agree to the orders sought by the local authority being made; she felt strongly that the mother’s best interests could only be served by the applications for care and placement orders being opposed, I am entirely satisfied that not only would the outcome of the trial have been the same had the mother been found to lack capacity, but that the case would have been conducted in exactly the same way on her behalf.
56. There is no question but that all involved have acted with good faith. In dissecting the progress of this case, as has been necessary in order to consider the important issues before the court, I do not lose sight of day to day life in busy family courts with Counsel and Judges over stretched in every direction. This case does however perhaps provide a cautionary tale and a reminder that issues of capacity are of fundamental importance. The rules providing for the identification of a person, who lacks capacity, reflect society’s proper understanding of the impact on both parent and child of the making of an order which will separate them permanently. It is therefore essential that the evidence which informs the issue of capacity complies with the test found in the MCA 2005 and that any conflict of evidence is brought to the attention of the court and resolved prior to the case progressing further. It is in order to avoid this course causing delay that the PLO anticipates issues of capacity being raised and dealt with in the early stages of the proceedings.
57. SSD is now 20 months old and has been in her adoptive placement for over half her life. Her future needs urgently to be secured. I am satisfied that notwithstanding the procedural failings which led to this court being unable to conclude with any certainty whether the mother was or was not a protected party at the time of the trial, she was not in the end adversely affected and no practical difference was made to the hearing or outcome as a consequence. In those circumstances it is open to this court to validate the proceedings retrospectively and in my judgment that should and will be done.