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Ministry of Justice press release – fixxored

 

 
The MOJ sent me this press release today
A new law taking effect today will reinforce the importance of children having relationships with each parent following family breakdown. Parental involvement is the last part of the Children and Families Act 2014 to be implemented and marks the end of a significant phase of reforms to the Family Justice system.

The change will encourage parents to be more focused on children’s needs following separation and the role they each play in the child’s life. It will require family courts to presume that each parent’s involvement in the child’s life will further their welfare – where it is safe. However the needs of the child will always remain the paramount priority of the courts.

In 2011 the Family Justice Review landmark report found that the family justice system was ‘no system at all’ and that children’s needs were not being met. Since then the Government has made bold reforms so that the needs of children are firmly at the heart of the family justice system from now on.

The reforms include:
• The introduction of the new Family Court in England and Wales with a simpler single system and a network of single application points making it much easier for the public.
• The introduction of a 26 week time limit for care proceedings to reduce further the excessive delays in these cases and give greater certainty to the children involved.
• New child arrangements orders which will encourage parents to focus on the child’s needs rather than what they see as their own ‘rights’.
• Compulsory family mediation information meetings so separating couples must consider alternatives to the harmful and stressful court battles when resolving financial matters and arrangements for children.
• The Government continues to monitor closely the family justice system, and has recently announced a single mediation session for both parties if one of them is already legally aided.

 

I thought it was in need of a bit of modification, so I have fixed it for them. Here is the new version

 

The Government held an independent review into Family Justice, which concluded that there was no need for a statutory declaration about ‘equal parental involvement’ – but we ignored that and announced that we’d introduce it, then we got scared off by all the objections, but then we were too scared to admit we were wrong, so we cobbled together some meaningless form of words that achieves nothing and satisfies no one and changes nothing. That new meaningless form of words comes into effect today. You’re welcome!

In 2011 the Family Justice Review landmark report found that the family justice system was ‘no system at all’ and that children’s needs were not being met. Since then the Government has made bold reforms so that the needs of children are firmly at the heart of the family justice system from now on.

The reforms include:

 
Making it so that if there’s an allegation of rape the alleged rapist probably has to cross-examine the alleged victim themselves

Removing legal aid from private law proceedings and hiding behind a “it will happen for cases that deserve it” clause that we secretly brief is never to be used

Having the Children’s Commissioner report that our reforms have had bad consequences for children

Locking the doors to public counters so that nobody can talk to our staff

Using the word “Hub” at every possible opportunity, without ever outlining how these Hubs will be funded or staffed.

Making user-friendly new forms that are utterly unintelligible and take an eternity to fill in

Giving ‘residence’ and ‘contact’ a new name in the mistaken belief that that will make everyone behave reasonably at all times
The introduction of a 26 week time limit for care proceedings to reduce further the excessive delays in these cases and give greater certainty to the children involved (although the Court of Appeal have told everyone that as long as they tick the right box on the new user-friendly form, they can go over the 26 weeks).
Compulsory family mediation information meetings that have a far lower take-up rate than when they were purely voluntary

Introducing Regulations that were beyond the scope and the power of the Lord Chancllor to do so, which were xenophobic in intent and a sop for the right-wing Press / our MPs who were thinking of defecting to UKIP

Did we mention the Hubs?

 

 

Yes, I think that’s rather more accurate

 

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LASPO and article 6 – a huge case

The President has given his judgment in Q v Q, and it is a helluva read.

If you want the “Too Long: Didn’t Read” version – in a case where the Judge concludes that it is necessary for a party to be legally represented or to have the costs of an expert paid for and that failure to do so would be a breach of article 6, and the Legal Aid Agency refuse to use their power under s10 LASPO to grant exceptional funding,  the Court would be entitled to order that Her Majesty’s Court Service pay for the legal representation.

 

The original Q v Q I wrote about here :-  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/06/09/q-v-q-an-impasse/

 

The facts broadly are that a father was seeking contact with his child, an expert assessment as to future risk had been obtained, he disagreed with the conclusion and wanted to challenge it by way of cross-examination, but wasn’t in a position to do that himself, it was a task that would have been beyond him.  At the end of the judgment, the President floated the idea that if the Court considered that a party’s article 6 right to a fair trial was being breached, and the Legal Aid Agency wouldn’t pay for representation, then the Court Service might well have a duty to.  He didn’t finally determine that, giving the Ministry of Justice a chance to intervene and make representations as to why not  (they didn’t take that chance, because they are not the brightest crayon in the box)

 

The President also bundled up with Q v Q two private law cases where serious sexual offences were being alleged against the father and the Legal Aid Agency’s refusal to grant exceptional funding was going to place the Court in a position where the father might have to cross-examine in person the alleged victim. One of those,  D v K and B 2014   I wrote about here https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/03/14/equality-of-arms-d-v-k-and-b-2014/

 

The judgment in Q vQ 2014 is here

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/31.html

 

I have not been, over the last few years, the biggest flag-waver for the President – many of my grumbles are about his performance as a reforming administrator rather than a Judge; but he delivers for justice here.  And puts a target on his head, because this won’t be a popular decision in the Ministry of Justice, who are probably in a room now with a flip chart drawing up battle-plans and watching old episodes of  Judge John Deed to try to pick up some tips for when the MOJ are at war with a ‘rogue’ Judge.

 

Let’s have a quick look at why the MOJ, when placed on notice that the President was contemplating making a decision that would in effect be – “either the LAA write a cheque or HMCS write a cheque, but a cheque’s going to get written”, decided not to get involved

I decided to invite the Secretary of State for Justice (para 20) to:
 

“intervene in the proceedings to make such submissions as are appropriate in relation, in particular, to the argument that in a situation such as this the expenditure which is not available from the Legal Aid Agency but which, in the view of the court, if it be the view of the court, is necessary to be incurred to ensure proceedings which are just and fair, can be met either from the Legal Aid Agency by route of the other certificate, the mother’s certificate, or directly at the expense of the court.”
On 25 June 2014 I received a letter from Shailesh Vara MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice in the Ministry of Justice. After an opening paragraph the letter reads as follows:
 

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to intervene but the Ministry of Justice does not propose to do so in this case.
Ministers have no right or power to intervene in individual legal aid funding decisions made by the Director of Legal Aid Casework. The independence of the Director is an important statutory measure, which ensures impartiality in decision making. From the information recorded in your judgment, it is clear that the father in this case failed to satisfy the statutory merits criteria required to access funding. The merits test is a fundamental and long established part of the legal aid system, and ensures that limited public money is focussed on sufficiently meritorious cases and is not available in cases lacking sufficient merit. It is clearly established that it is legitimate for the Government to focus limited public resources through applying a merits test.
As you record in your judgment, there is expert evidence in the case (one report plus addenda commissioned by the father and one plus addendum commissioned jointly by the mother and the father) which set out unequivocally that the son would not be safe in his father’s presence and that at the moment there should be no contact between the father and the son. There have always been litigants in person in family proceedings, whether because individuals do not qualify for legal aid or choose to represent themselves, and the Courts have been able to resolve such proceedings justly and fairly.
I agree with you that further delay should be avoided in this case and, in the absence of a mechanism for funding the appearance of the experts or representation for the father, you will have to decide this issue in the absence of the cross examination you refer to in your judgment.”

 

So, we’re not coming, and if you can’t find a lawyer to do the cross-examination for free, then you’ll just have to decide the case without any cross-examination.

 

Do you remember in 1984 how Orwell talks about the Ministries in Airstrip One being named for the opposite of what they really do? So their Ministry of Peace was really a Ministry of War and so on?   Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Ministry of Justice.  Bravo, bravo.

 

The President goes through the various options, looking chiefly at the cases involving an allegation of rape in private law proceedings which is challenged and where the ‘accused’ has no lawyer.  In short they are ‘pro bono’,  the Guardian conducting the cross-examination, the father doing it in person or the Judge doing it and shows why each are insufficient and flawed.

 

He then establishes that as a result of European jurisprudence, notably  Airey v Ireland, and the Human Rights Act, the Court itself is bound by article 6 and fair trial and would itself be breaching the person’s right to a fair trial if it were to conduct the trial in a way that it considers to be unjust

 

46. The court is a public authority for the purposes of the Human Rights Act 1998 and is therefore required, subject only to section 6(2), to act in a way which is compatible with Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention. So far as is material for present purposes Article 6(1) provides that “In the determination of his civil rights and obligations … , everyone is entitled to a fair … hearing within a reasonable time”. Article 8, which guarantees “the right to respect for … private and family life”, also affords significant procedural safeguards in relation to the court process. As the Strasbourg court said in McMichael v UK (1995) 20 EHRR 205, para 87, “the decision-making process leading to measures of interference must be fair and such as to afford due respect to the interests safeguarded by Article 8.”
 

47. It is necessary also to have regard to Article 47 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights:
 

“Everyone whose rights and freedoms guaranteed by the law of the Union are violated has the right to an effective remedy before a tribunal in compliance with the conditions laid down in this Article.
Everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal previously established by law. Everyone shall have the possibility of being advised, defended and represented.
Legal aid shall be made available to those who lack sufficient resources insofar as such aid is necessary to ensure effective access to justice.”
I do not take up time considering whether this is applicable in cases such as those before me. In any event, it is not clear that it creates any greater right than arises under Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention: see Gudanaviciene and others v Director of Legal Aid Casework and another [2014] EWHC 1840 (Admin), paras 36-37.

48. Article 6 guarantees the right of “practical” and “effective” access to the court. In the case of a litigant in person, the question is whether, without the assistance of a lawyer, the litigant will be “able to present her case properly and satisfactorily”: Airey v Ireland (Application no 6289/73) (1979) 2 EHRR 305, para 24. In that particular case, the court held that Ireland was in breach of Mrs Airey’s Article 6 rights because it was not realistic in the court’s opinion to suppose that, in litigation of the type in which she was involved, she could effectively conduct her own case, despite the assistance which the judge would afford to parties acting in person. In DEB v Germany [2011] 2 CMLR 529, para 46, the CJEU summarised the Strasbourg jurisprudence in this way:
 

“Ruling on legal aid in the form of assistance by a lawyer, the ECtHR has held that the question whether the provision of legal aid is necessary for a fair hearing must be determined on the basis of the particular facts and circumstances of each case and will depend, inter alia, upon the importance of what is at stake for the applicant in the proceedings, the complexity of the relevant law and procedure and the applicant’s capacity to represent himself effectively.”

49. Mantovanelli v France (Application no 21497/93) (1997) 24 EHRR 370, indicates the significance of the right to an adversarial hearing guaranteed by Article 6 specifically in the context of an expert’s report which is “likely to have a preponderant influence on the assessment of the facts by [the] court.”

 

 

The President also looked at section 31 G (6) of the  amended Matrimonial and Famly Proceedings Act 1984

 

33….section 31G(6) of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984, set out in Schedule 10 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which came into effect on 22 April 2014:
 

“Where in any proceedings in the family court it appears to the court that any party to the proceedings who is not legally represented is unable to examine or cross-examine a witness effectively, the court is to –
(a) ascertain from that party the matters about which the witness may be able to depose or on which the witness ought to be cross-examined, and
(b) put, or cause to be put, to the witness such questions in the interests of that party as may appear to the court to be proper.”

 

And in conclusion

 

75…does section 31G(6) operate to confer on a judge of the Family Court power to forbid a party who wishes to conduct his own case from examining or cross-examining a witness? Again I have heard no sustained argument, but my inclination is to think that the answer is, no it does not, for principle suggests that such an important right is only to be cut down by express words or necessary implication, and neither is very obviously to be found in section 31G(6): see again General Mediterranean Holdings SA v Patel and Another [2000] 1 WLR 272. As against that, I can see the argument that there may be cases where to expose the alleged victim to cross-examination by the alleged perpetrator might engage the alleged victim’s rights, whether under Article 8 or Article 3, in such a way as to impose on the court an obligation under the 1998 Act to prevent it, so that in such a case section 31G(6) has to be read as giving the court the appropriate power to do so.
 

76. The second thing which is unclear is this: what, in contrast to the word “put” in section 31G(6), do the words “cause to be put” mean? When section 31G(6) provides that in certain circumstances “the court is to … put” questions, that must mean questioning by the judge or magistrate. In some – probably many – cases that will be entirely unproblematic. But in cases where the issues are as grave and forensically challenging as in Re B and Re C, questioning by the judge may not be appropriate or, indeed, sufficient to ensure compliance with Articles 6 and 8. There is, in my judgment, very considerable force in what Roderic Wood J and Judge Wildblood said in the passages in their judgments (respectively, para 24 and paras 6(iii)-(v)) which I have already quoted.
 

77. The words “cause to be put” must, in contrast, contemplate questioning by someone other than the judge. Now that someone else might be an advocate whom the court has managed to persuade to act pro bono. It might be the guardian, if there is one, or the guardian’s advocate. But there are, as both Roderic Wood J and Judge Wildblood understandably pointed out, great difficulties in expecting the guardian or the guardian’s advocate to undertake this role – difficulties which were expounded also in the argument before me. I agree with what Judge Wildblood said (para 6(ix) quoted above). The point applies with equal force in the circumstances of both Re B and Re C.
 

78. What then is the court to do if the father is unable to pay for his own representation and “exceptional” legal aid is not available?
 

79. In the ultimate analysis, if the criteria in section 31G(6) are satisfied, and if the judge is satisfied that the essential requirements of a fair trial as required by FPR 1.1 and Articles 6 and 8 cannot otherwise be met, the effect of the words “cause to be put” in section 31G(6) is, in my judgment, to enable the judge to direct that appropriate representation is to be provided by – at the expense of – the court, that is, at the expense of HMCTS.

 

 

Now, some caveats  – the President is careful to say that these were cases with particular characteristics, each involving allegations of sexual offences and two involving allegations of rape, and that he had been looking at these cases in particular not s10 LASPO in general.   And also we need to bear in mind that  (a) the LAA might appeal this decision, as they are threatening to do with Gudanaviciene and others v Director of Legal Aid Casework and another [2014] EWHC 1840 (Admin),  and (b) hardly anyone at the LAA seems to have taken on board Gudanaviciene so far, as can be seen from the Smackdown judgment from HH Judge Bellamy I wrote about yesterday.     The criminal bar were all cock-a-hoop about the  Op Cotton judgment and the rug was pulled out from under them by the Court of Appeal.

 

Here are the President’s own caveats   (and if you are a Local Authority lawyer or budget-holder note the chilling implications of the LA funding intervenors or grandparents to litigate against them)

 

Three caveats

In this judgment I have been concerned only to consider the problems that may arise in private law cases. I have therefore not had occasion to consider any further the point I made in Q v Q (para 18), where I suggested that “In a public law case where the proceedings are brought by a local authority, one can see a possible argument that failing all else the local authority should have to pay.” That is a matter for another day.
 

I have concluded that there may be circumstances in which the court can properly direct that the cost of certain activities should be borne by HMCTS. I emphasise that (the provision of interpreters and translators apart) this is an order of last resort. No order of this sort should be made except by or having first consulted a High Court Judge or a Designated Family Judge.
 

I emphasise also that the allegation in each case is one of sexual assault, in two of the cases an allegation of rape. It may be that a similar approach is appropriate in cases of serious non-sexual assault. It may be that it will not be appropriate in less serious cases. I express no concluded views, beyond drawing attention to the trite observation that everything will, in the final analysis, depend upon the particular facts of the specific case.
 

Concluding observations

The Ministry of Justice, the LAA and HMCTS may wish to consider the implications. That is a matter for them. For my part I would urge the early attention of both the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group and the Family Procedure Rules Committee to those aspects of the various matters I have canvassed that fall within their respective remits.

 

In both of the live cases, the Judge gave the Legal Aid Agency one last chance to see sense and grant the funding under LASPO, but gave the clearest of indications that to proceed without representation would be an article 6 breach and that the Court would have to consider its own duty to fund such representation.

 

Reversing the dilution of “homeopathic’ Guardians?

The Ministry of Justice have published a series of consultation documents, setting out the contribution they suggest various ‘stakeholders’  (yuck) should bring to the table in our brave new world.

{I do like, though it is not the thrust of this post, that the Her Majesty’s Court Service contribution is to (a) send out the orders that the lawyers type up and email to them within 5 days, which doesn’t sound that onerous and (b) to have Court rooms available and Judges to sit in them. The phrase ‘don’t go mad’ springs to mind } 

The CAFCASS one interested me, to see what the MoJ think CAFCASS ought to be doing on the ground. 

 Warning, I am going to be snarky about our current ‘homeopathic Guardian’ model, not because I think that Guardians on the ground are bad or lazy (though of course, there are some who are, but just as you don’t judge GPs by Dr Shipman, and in the words of the Osmonds, one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch), but rather because I think their organisation has sold representation of children and the vital role of check and balance of robust Guardians to a LA down the river. 

They have responded to an unprecedented increase in demand for the services by watering down the role of representing children to such an extent that there’s barely any actual representation of children by Guardians left, and what we have is a ‘view on the papers’,  and run the risk that eventually their services will be dispensed with.

 I have seen many cases over the last few years with Guardians who have never actually seen a parent outside of the Court building, and where two visits to see a child is something of a miracle and something to be grateful for rather than being scope for savage criticism.

 So, this is one of those rare documents which is actually worth reading in full – it is fairly short.  I’ll pick out the good stuff here

 Consultation ends a week on Thursday  (28th Feb)

 Here is the document:-

 http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/about/moj/advisory-groups/cafcass-care-proceedings.pdf 

By first hearing

 The children’s guardian will provide assistance to the court at the first hearing in relation to the threshold, and the adequacy of the assessment carried out, or proposed, by the local authority.

The children’s guardian will appraise the proposed plans for the interim and, to the extent set out by the local authority, for the longer-term care of the child – whether by parents, others with parental responsibility, and/or other adults – ensuring that the local authority has given the plans due consideration. The children’s guardian will also assesses whether the plan is optimal, within the resources available to the local authority taking account of the child’s timescale.

 

[“Appraise” the plans is a lofty goal, quite often these days, “reading them” is a bit beyond the homeopathic Guardian model.  See, I did warn you about incoming snark at the outset]

By the time of the CMC   [which, let’s not forget will probably be by week 2 of the proceedings in the new model]   – underlining is mine

5. By the time of the CMC the children’s guardian will independently evaluate the local authority case to differentiate between thorough local authority applications and those where the guardian considers further work is needed. For the latter type of case, the children’s guardian will be intensively involved in the case on behalf of the child. The advice of the children’s guardian at the CMC is intended to help shape the case, and to support judicial case management.

6. The children’s guardian will read relevant parts of the local authority case records in order to gain a thorough understanding of the impact of previous interventions by the local authority and others. The children’s guardian’s analysis presented to court will be informed by direct work with the child and/or by observation of contact between the child and his/her parent(s)/carer(s).

7. The children’s guardian will analyse the local authority’s assessments and investigations, both direct and commissioned from others, to establish if all that could have reasonably expected to have been done at the pre-proceedings stage was done. This will be supported through constructive dialogue with the child’s local authority social worker.

8. The children’s guardian should, by the time of the CMC, see, hear, and know enough about the child to offer a clear view to the court about the child’s ascertainable wishes and feelings and the issues in the case affecting the child’s current and future safety and welfare. This includes assessing the benefit to the child from particular additional assessments and bringing to the court’s attention the child development implications of any delay within the case.

 

 

You know what? I would bloody love it, if Guardians were back doing this. Seeing the child, seeing the family, reading the records, grilling the social worker about the case, testing the evidence out in the field. That’s how we used to do it, and that was a period where we didn’t end up with a plethora of independent experts because the Guardian came to the table with a meaningful contribution.  That also reads to me as though the MoJ envisage that we will actually get the Initial Analysis on paper that is a requirement of the PLO but is a ‘custom more honoured in the breach than the observance’

 

For IRH/final hearing  (and throughout) – again, underlining mine

 9. The children’s guardian will advise the court about the possibility of the child’s attendance at court, and about any matters that s/he considers that the court should be informed. This advice may be given orally or in writing.

10. The children’s guardian will ensure that any reunification plan for a child is likely to be viable and to provide stability and permanence, especially if the child is returning to a home environment that was previously abusive or neglectful.

11. A written report must be provided to the court by the children’s guardian unless directed otherwise. The children’s guardian will produce high quality reports that are focused, analytical and evidence based, utilising the Cafcass analytical writing template. This will support robust judicial decision making and case management. Reports will generally be 3-6 pages in length, though the examination of a disputed or contentious issue may result in a longer report. Cross referencing information held elsewhere within the case file, in accordance with the Cafcass reporting to court policy, will ensure reports are succinct. Reports and evidence given in court will be informed by evidence from research.

 

12. The children’s guardian will provide the court with an analysis of parental capacity to meet the subject child’s/children’s needs, taking account of the timescale within which the identified needs must be met.

 

13. The recommendations of the children’s guardian will reflect the child’s needs in terms of placement and contact arrangements, explaining how these arrangements are likely to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare

 Not 100% sure that the combination of robust analytical reports and a 3-6 page aspirational length really goes together, but I applaud the spirit of what is here.

In a practical sense, that sort of length will mean that our current theme of Guardians not doing their own welfare checklist, as a counterpoint/comparator to the LA version, is likely to continue.  I LIKED, even as an LA lawyer, having an alternative version of the key analytical checklist before the Court, and would like to see it come back.

Let us see whether this actually gets adopted by CAFCASS, even if it does come in. After all, the PLO is routinely ignored.

What might be different is that, given the tone and direction we are heading in, that parents representatives will be forced, if they want an independent assessment, to persuade the Court that the Guardian’s contribution isn’t a reason to refuse that, and comparing it to what the MoJ say the Guardian should be bringing to the party would be one way of doing that.