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Physical chastisement – Court of Appeal

 

A Local Authority appealed the decision of a Recorder at a finding of fact hearing, that having made some serious findings about physical injuries sustained by a child and caused by a parent, he went on to find that the threshold was not made out in terms of risk to that child’s sibling.   This case also deals with some important principles as to what extent making SOME findings has on the other allegations to be dealt with.

 

Re L-K 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/830.html

 

The Recorder had made these findings about the injuries

  1. The Recorder found that two sets of bruising had been inflicted by the parents, although he was unable to say which of them was responsible. They were as follows:

    i) There were parallel lines of bruising on R’s buttocks which the Recorder found were caused by someone striking him across the buttocks with a linear object (§20 of the Recorder’s first judgment). The Recorder thought it likely that the object used was a ruler or a belt, in which case there were at least two blows, but it may have been a stick or flexible cable, in which case there were at least four blows.

    ii) There were three bruises on the inner part of R’s right thigh, immediately below his buttocks, which were described as “loop pattern or crescent shaped injuries” and a further “sigma shaped pattern bruise” to the right of the lower buttock crease (§21). The Recorder found that these marks were caused by at least two deliberate slaps (§24).

  2. The Recorder found that both the instances of inflicted injury had the character of corporal punishment (§29). The parents had denied that they were responsible for the injuries but the Recorder found that they both knew who did it and had agreed to stick together and protect each other (§33), trying to mislead the social workers and lying in court. He said that it was “difficult to blame them in the circumstances” (§35) (referring, I think, to their lies and collusion, although he may have been referring to their treatment of R) as they were in a foreign country and had a difficult child to look after.
  3. It is not entirely clear how the Recorder viewed the corporal punishment inflicted on R. At §36, he said it “may well be regarded as going well beyond reasonable chastisement”. At §37, he said that he could envisage that if the parents had admitted it, they would have argued that it was no more than reasonable chastisement and said, “I cannot judge that question”. Later in the same paragraph, however, he went on to say that it certainly seemed excessive to him to hit a five year old at all, especially with an implement. What is clear is that he was unwilling to find it established that what happened to R was “abuse”. He seems to have taken into account in reaching this conclusion the possibility that it was “an over exercise of parental authority in a disciplinary capacity”, the evidence that the parents are loving parents and that R loves them and is not afraid of them, and the fact that he could not know how much R had suffered in the process (§37 of the main judgment and §5 of the Recorder’s supplemental judgment).
  4. The parents did admit one of the local authority’s allegations, that is that they had, each independently of the other, made R stand in a corner for more than two hours when he was naughty. The Recorder described the father’s conduct in so doing as “treating R cruelly” (§31). However, he accepted the parents’ evidence that this was something that happened when the family was under great stress and was not a regular occurrence (§34).

 

 

He then went on, however, to conclude that whilst the threshold was met for R, it was not met for R’s brother even in terms of risk of harm:-

 

 

14. He was accordingly asked to deal with the threshold thereafter, and did so, after further argument and consideration, in a short ex tempore judgment. In it, he found the threshold crossed in relation to R on the basis that R would have suffered significant harm because a) hitting a child of five who suffers from psychological problems with an implement will cause significant harm b) standing such a child in a corner for two to three hours must also cause significant harm and c) there must be a significant risk of repetition as the parents had closed ranks and said nothing about it to social services and the courts (supplementary judgment §5). As to M, in that judgment the Recorder stated baldly that he did not think the threshold was crossed.

  1. He returned to the threshold in relation to M in his judgment refusing permission to appeal and in his final short judgment. He determined that M was not at risk in his parents’ care, essentially on the basis that he was a very different child and had not suffered any harm so far. In the permission judgment, he referred to the findings he had made about R, and the evidence as to how very difficult R was to look after, contrasting that with M, in relation to whom there was neither evidence of psychological difficulty nor evidence of any problem with him in foster care. He said:

    “6. The difference between these two children is such that I cannot conceive that anybody could imagine that the findings I have made in respect of the older brother should lead to a finding that the younger brother is at risk.”

 

 

Well, the Recorder couldn’t concieve that anyone could imagine this, but the Court of Appeal not only imagined it, but did it.

 

36. The local authority argued that, in the light of the findings that R had been beaten with an implement and slapped sufficiently hard to leave bruising and had been excessively punished by being made to stand in a corner for a prolonged period, it was wrong to conclude that there was no risk of significant harm to M. What those facts indicated, in their submission, was that at times of stress or challenging behaviour from one of the children, the parents may harm their child whether by way of discipline or simple loss of control. They argued that the Recorder placed too great a weight on the difference between the two boys as a protective factor for M and failed also to take account of the fact that M is more vulnerable because of his young age and may also become more challenging as he grows older.

  1. I would accept this submission. Rightly or wrongly, the Recorder did not make any findings on the issue of whether M was present during the punishments of R and whether he was emotionally harmed by what he saw and there was no evidence that M himself suffered any physical harm. The threshold in relation to M therefore depended on whether he was “likely to suffer significant harm”. “Likely to suffer” in this context means that there is “a real possibility, a possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored having regard to the gravity of the feared harm in the particular case”, see Re H and R (Minors)(Child Sexual Abuse: Standard of Proof) [1996] 1 FLR 80. The threshold is therefore “comparatively low”. It was, in my view, plainly satisfied on the facts that the Recorder had found. Every case depends upon its own facts, but in this particular case it was not at the threshold stage but at the welfare stage that matters such as the parents’ circumstances at the time R was injured and the differing personalities of the children were relevant. Given the nature of the Recorder’s findings in respect of R, and the parents’ failure to acknowledge or explain what had happened and why, I do not think that the factors that the Recorder relied upon in differentiating between the two boys in fact provided any reassurance in relation to the risk to M for threshold purposes. I would therefore substitute for the Recorder’s dismissal of the proceedings in relation to M, a finding that the threshold criteria were satisfied in his case on the basis of likely harm.

 

 

The next limb of the appeal was that, having made those findings, was the Judge wrong in discounting the other injuries to R that he made no findings on?  I.e in relation to say ten physical injuries should the Judge approach each and every one in isolation, OR if the Judge had made findings in relation to four or five or them, does the fact of those findings become a relevant consideration when approaching the remainder?

 

  1. The local authority argued that the Recorder was wrong to decline to make findings in relation to the injuries to R’s face, neck/chest, and thigh, and a finding that he was “abused”. They submitted that he had gone wrong because he failed to look at the totality of the picture, instead considering the injuries only individually. It was argued that the findings that he did make, whilst not probative of the other injuries, were capable of being corroborative and supportive evidence in respect of them. Also relevant to the overall evaluation, it was submitted, was the parents’ dishonesty.
  2. I agree with these submissions. It is always necessary for a judge who is considering possible non-accidental injuries to look at the whole picture before determining causation. So, for example, what might be accepted as an accidental injury if it stood alone, might take on a wholly different aspect if it is only one of a number of injuries. Similarly, the fact that it is firmly established that one of a number of injuries has been inflicted by a parent must be taken into account when evaluating the cause of other injuries.
  3. In this case, I have no doubt that when it came to considering the possible causes of the other marks found on R, attention had to be paid to the fact that the parents had a) beaten R with an implement causing bruising, b) smacked him to the extent that bruising was caused, and c) lied in an attempt to conceal what they had done. Regard should also have been had to the excessive punishment which the parents conceded had been imposed on R in the form of having to stand in a corner for a prolonged period. As the local authority acknowledged, the fact that one injury is inflicted does not prove that others are non-accidental, but it changes the context in which the child came by the other injuries from a home which may be beyond reproach to one in which it is known that there has been, at the least, excessive physical punishment. As Mr Roche for the father observed during submissions, it was also the case that R had injuries which were accepted to be accidental. That fact was relevant too, but it did not remove the potential significance of the findings of non-accidental injury. The fact that the parents had lied about what they had done was also relevant to their credibility in relation to other matters. The Recorder’s approach did not pay proper regard to these factors as part of the overall picture he was surveying.

 

Whilst the Judge did not have to slavishly follow the medical opinions  (see dozens of Court of Appeal decisions that confirm that), the Judge does have to pay proper attention to them, and where a theory for the explanation of the injury emerges from the Judge himself, it is necessary for the Judge to explore that theory with the expert.

 

  1. In my view, the Recorder also failed to pay proper attention to the evidence of Dr Fonfé in determining what had happened. It was, of course, for him to decide, on the basis of all of the evidence, whether it was established that particular injuries were non-accidental, and not for Dr Fonfé. However, he needed to take her expert views into account in his determination. In referring to what she said about each of the injuries as her “suspicion”, he seems to me to have understated the force of her opinion. He also failed to take account of her more general advice as to causation, perhaps because he concentrated on the injuries individually. As can be seen from the passages from her reports which I have quoted above, Dr Fonfé’s approach was entirely conventional in that she looked at R’s situation overall as well as considering the various injuries individually. The Recorder was not bound to accept her general observations but he did, at least, need to show that he had considered them. Had he done so, he may have structured his judgment differently and avoided falling into error. As it was, he appears to have made his determination about each of the individual injuries before, at §26 (see above), turning to look at the picture collectively, and when he did look at the whole canvas at this point, it was not with a view to considering what the overall picture might tell him about the individual injuries, but in order to address the local authority’s allegation that R had been subjected to a prolonged single attack or a series of individual episodes of attack.
  2. In short, the Recorder was wrong to conclude that there was nothing but Dr Fonfe’s suspicions in relation to the other injuries. His own positive findings and Dr Fonfé’s expert evidence about what, in her view, the overall picture revealed were important too. It is not a foregone conclusion that they would have led to a different conclusion as to the other injuries but they needed to be put into the equation and considered with the rest of the evidence.
  3. In my judgment, this deficiency in the Recorder’s approach is sufficient to render his decision in relation to the balance of the local authority’s allegations unsafe. It would follow that, in so far as it is necessary in order to make decisions about the children’s futures for there to be findings in relation to those allegations, there would have to be a further hearing for that purpose. I need not therefore say much more about the other flaws that there may have been in the Recorder’s approach. I would, however, mention a number of matters.
  4. The first is the Recorder’s crayon explanation (see §16 of the judgment). It seems that this came entirely from him. Dr Fonfé’s view as to the feasibility of the hypothesis was not sought. If a particular explanation such as this is to carry weight in the court’s decision, it is important, in my view, for it to be offered for comment by the relevant expert and in submissions. Had that been done, the response may well have been that the crayon explanation ignored the existence of what Dr Fonfé saw as a pair of marks which looked like grip marks.
  5. I wonder also whether this passage in the Recorder’s judgment indicates that he was veering towards requiring that all other possible causes must be excluded before a finding of non-accidental injury could be made (see also §14, for example) and/or proceeding on the basis that no finding could be made without corroboration. Depending on the particular facts of the case, it may not be necessary for the evidence to go that far. What is required is simply that it should be established on the balance of probability that the injury was non-accidental.
  6. As to the Recorder’s conclusion that the findings he had made were not established to be abuse, I am not inclined to spend time on that issue for two reasons. First, there is little point in debating whether what the Recorder found to have been established should or should not be classed as “abuse” when his findings may not be the last word on what happened to R. Secondly, what actually happened is much more important than how it is classified and it may well be that evidence which is relevant to this may continue to emerge, for example from Poland, from the parents themselves in response to the findings made so far, and in the course of any further fact finding hearing in relation to the balance of the allegations.

 

 

The appeal was therefore successful

 

 

For the reasons I have already given, I would allow this appeal. In relation to the threshold in respect of to M, I would substitute a finding that it is satisfied on the basis of likelihood of harm. As far as the Recorder’s findings of fact are concerned, I would not interfere with the facts which he found proved but I would set aside his determination in relation to the balance of the local authority’s allegations and remit the case to the Family Court for an urgent directions hearing at which the future conduct of it will be decided.

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Sibling rivalry

 

In Re P (A child) 2015, His Honour Judge Wood had to deal with an application for a Care Order for a girl who was sixteen years and four months old. That in itself is unusual. Even more unusual, the central allegation was that of physical abuse (which was disputed by the family). More unusual still, the allegation was that the girl had been physically assaulted by her older brother.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B101.html

 

Now, if you have a sibling, you might be thinking along similar lines to my initial reactions.  My sister and I fought, not like cat and dog, but like two fighting roosters whose feed had been laced with PCP. We fought about absolutely everything. No topic was too trivial , no imagined slight too minor.  That did occasionally spill into physical conflict. I’m sure that my sister has many dreadful stories about me – many of which would be true, and I will simply indicate that there was a day at Pwllhlei Butlins putting green where she hit me with some degree of force on the nut with a golf club  (from behind) and when it knocked me out, ran off and spent the rest of the afternoon in the arcades playing Burger Time.  She also once hit me full in the face with a tennis racket swung with genuine purpose and intent (but as I recall, that was warranted, though painful).

 

This story, however, goes rather further even than those (admittedly shameful) incidents.

 

At 18.11 hours on Monday, 20th June 2014 P, a girl born on 28th October 1998 and now aged 16 years 4 months, was admitted by ambulance to the emergency department of Hospital A. She was found to have six distinct areas of injury: the first were three red linear marks on the right upper thigh, 1cm by 6cm long; second were two linear marks on the outer aspect of the left forearm, 4cm by 1cm wide; the third was an oblique red mark across the left upper outer thigh, 10cm by 1cm; the fourth was a bruised area, circular in shape, 3cm in diameter with a contusion over the left shoulder tip; the fifth was a linear bruise to the left upper outer arm approximately 4cm by 1cm and the final were a number of red marks across the lower thoracic area, that is to say the back, approximately 3cm by 1cm to the left and right of the midline.

 

 

The fact that the girl had been injured was not therefore in dispute, what was disputed was how these injuries had occurred.

The girl said that she had been at home, watching television and that she and her brother had had an argument (he wanting to turn the channel over to watch football and she wanting to finish watching what she had started), whereupon he started hitting her, escalating to hitting her with an iron bar.

 

The brother said that the girl had come home from school, complained of being hot and fainted from the heat.

It had of course been June when this happened, so perhaps it was hot. However, the girl had grown up in Nigeria and only been in England for a year.   And the family were living in Sunderland. Perhaps the weather in Sunderland that particular day was so hot that a girl who had spent 13 of her 14 years in Nigeria was unaccustomed to such heat and it caused her to faint.

 

The weather in Sunderland on 20th June 2014 was pretty hot for Sunderland. 20 degrees Celsius.  Looking at the weather in Nigeria in the year before, when the girl had been living there, 20 degrees C would represent a brisk chilly day in Nigeria, with a hot day being about 33-36 degrees.

https://weatherspark.com/history/28568/2013/Ikeja-Lagos-Nigeria

 

I have to say that the ‘fainting from heat’ explanation is in need of some work.  I suspect that “Girl Faints from Heat in Sunderland” would be headline news in the North East were it ever to happen.

 

[Actually out of curiosity, I just Googled ‘Sunderland heat wave’ ready to tell you that there were no results, but there were 168,000. Perhaps many of them were along the lines of  “Ed Milliband making a comeback as Labour leader in 2020? That’s about as likely as a Sunderland Heat Wave”]

 

The brother’s evidence became less credible when, for example, he denied that the iron bar was something that he had ever seen before and then retracted this when it was suggested to him that his DNA would be on it.

 

The mother, who had been present, and her father (who had been in Nigeria) both supported the brother’s version of events.

The cultural issue of course raised its head, and the Judge dealt with that

  1. Before considering which evidence I prefer, I want to say a word about cultural issues. This family come from a remote part of Nigeria. English is not their first language, albeit they have a good command of it. They are, as I have said, born again Christians and they seek to live their lives by a strong religious code. Their cultural background is in many ways very different to that which exists in the north east of England. They do things in Nigeria which are acceptable there but not here.
  2. Specifically, physical chastisement of children is normal. The father’s evidence was very clear that for what he called an accountable child, probably from the age of 10 onwards, whipping a child on the legs with African broom or with a cane as part of a process of punishment and learning is normal. It is not so long ago, certainly within the lives of some of the lawyers here, that such was acceptable in this country and so the court has no difficulty at all in accepting that but, given the way that this case has proceeded, its relevance is limited because it is not said either by the mother or R that this is what happened to P. Rather, they say she was not struck at all but I do accept that P and R are likely to have a more benign view of physical chastisement on a child than most British people would have in 2015. All that said, I agree with Mr Donnelly that this is not a case about chastisement in a different culture but a case about significant harm in the care of a mother.
  3. I accept that, further, there is a strict hierarchical structure within families whereby the father of the house, whether he is there or not, has to be consulted on important decisions. That has had significant practical consequences given parental separation here and I accept that it may have played some part in the refusal to consent to P being accommodated, as well as the initial engagement with the Local Authority and possibly even going to court in the early stages which I have no doubt is both a frightening and possibly shameful thing for the mother, in particular, to have experienced. So I have all of these factors very much in mind in making the decisions that I have to and I will return to this in due course.

 

 

The Court had to consider the evidence given by all parties, and of course the legal framwork, which is all very carefully set out. It is a very well constructed judgment.

  1. So which evidence do I prefer? Unhesitatingly, that of P. There is no more explanation for her lying now than there was in June last year. The lengths to which she went in feigning a faint point to the seriousness of the assault that she suffered. The instincts of the ambulance man first on the scene were, in my judgment, entirely correct. The injuries are entirely consistent with her account. They are all about the same age and fresh. They have the characteristics of being hit with an object such as a table leg in their linear appearance. They affect the outer aspects of both thighs, the outer aspects of the left arm and the back. They are not consistent with a simple collapse to the floor. They are, as Dr Mellon said but the mother, father and R denied, characteristic of defensive injuries. It appeared to be beyond the father and R’s comprehension that P would not fight back. She is described elsewhere as an underweight, 15-year-old girl of slight build pitched against a 19-year-old male who appeared to be over six feet high and who was armed and one might have thought that that was a sufficient reason to adopt a defensive position rather than try and fight back.
  2. There is simply no other explanation for these injuries, just as there is no reason put before the court as to why, as R said, P would want to put herself in care and be separated from her family. I reject her father’s submission that because P has told him that she has been refused permission to go to church and to foster care, to the foster carer has said that she does not want to go, that she is demonstrably untruthful or unreliable. There could be many reasons for two different accounts at different times and there has been no opportunity to investigate the circumstances in which those accounts were given in any event. I also reject R’s submission that because she identified her shoulder to the ambulance man, she was thereby not complaining of being beaten by her brother. The medical evidence, in my judgment, is clear. There is no alternative, credible explanation.
  3. The evidence of the mother and R, far from causing me to question her veracity, confirms that they were neither credible nor reliable. I found R to be evasive, argumentative and unwilling to confront the truth staring us all in the face. I could say more about it but I am satisfied, as it happens, that in her letter P has described her brother to a tee:

    “My brother is not a type of person that says sorry so easily. He is a type of person that is so proud and full of himself.”

    It seemed to me that that was a very accurate description of a rather arrogant and self-centred young man. I am quite satisfied that he is an intelligent and articulate man. Having seen him give his evidence and be cross-examined, I am quite sure that he was generally intent on ensuring that he gave answers which supported and/or did not undermine his case rather than trying to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth at all times. Accordingly, I did not find him credible and reliable.

  4. I am satisfied that R lost his temper with his sister over an argument about the television. He wanted to watch the five o’clock football match and would not let her finish the programme that she had been watching for some time since she came in from school and, not for the first time, he responded with violence. I am satisfied he beat her with a table leg and caused the injuries that I have noted and, furthermore, I am satisfied that P’s mother knew that this is what had happened for the very reason that she saw it. I pay due regard to what her husband has said about his belief in her veracity but I do not believe that she intervened but, in seeking to deflect attention at the outset, suggested that very thing to the police only to back away from it, as she did, when the seriousness of the incident became known.
  5. P’s shock and distress at her mother not intervening was marked and entirely understood. Although the mother told me that both R and P are her children and that she loves them equally, by her conduct she has demonstrated that, in fact, she has put R’s interests before her daughter. She has protected him when she knows the truth of what he has done. She has almost inexplicably abandoned – and it is not too strong a word – her daughter by denying her contact, putting up as obstacles the Local Authority’s perfectly reasonable conditions. Most parents would walk over hot coals to see their children, however objectionable the terms, because to do so would be to prioritise the child and to meet the child’s needs to see her family. Furthermore, she is not ignorant of the role of social workers. Her professional training and experience over a period of almost ten years contradicts her claim. She may very well be ashamed at the misfortune that has befallen her and her family but she simply has persistently refused to engage in this process as I will explain.
  6. So looking at the threshold document prepared by the Local Authority in the bundle at A16, I am satisfied it is made out as pleaded. That refers in paragraph 4(a) to the injuries themselves, in paragraph (b) to R being the cause of the injuries, being struck by an iron rod and that it was causing her pain, in subparagraph (e) that the mother has been complicit in that physical abuse perpetrated by her son in that she knew or ought to have known it was happening and had failed to tell anyone so as to protect her own interests. She misled professionals and, indeed, now the court about her son having assaulted her daughter and instead alleged that P is lying about the abuse she has suffered and following P’s admission to hospital and subsequently care has, as I have said, abandoned her daughter preferring to protect her son.

 

The family in this case had adopted a strategy of not engaging with the assessment or coming to contact, which is the all or nothing approach that only really ever works if the Court find that the threshold is not met. In a case like this, where the Judge found that the brother had caused very serious significant harm to the girl by hitting her with an iron bar, and that the mother had been in the home at the time, had not intervened and had lied about it, that is not really giving the mother much chance of a happy outcome.  They absolutely would not countenance the brother moving out of the home so that the girl could come home.

 

Even then, though, the Judge was holding out a hand and inviting the parents to take it

I want to say this at this stage: it is still not too late for this family, mother and R in particular, to accept the findings of this court, to make a suitable admission and to work with the Local Authority to reduce the risk both to P and any other children with whom they may be concerned – a very particular concern of P as she said in her letter to me

 

The Court had to make the Care Order, there was no other option

 

This is a very, very sad case. It began as a one issue case, the assault. It could, as Mr Rowlands has said, have had a very different outcome. That it has not is entirely due to the family and not their daughter. It has ended up as more than that because of the astonishing and persistent denial in the face of all of the evidence and the near complete rejection of P by her family. The harm to her from the latter is likely to outweigh the harm from the former in the longer term but, I repeat, even now it is not too late to reverse that process. These parents have an attractive, appealing and loving daughter who has shown the Christian virtues of forgiveness and love that they taught her. She really deserves a very much better outcome than this but I am afraid the solution lies entirely in their hands.

 

One particularly worrying feature of this case was the removal of the child by Police Protection. The mother having refused section 20 and the girl at that time not being sixteen so she was not able to accommodate herself using section 20 (11).   However,

I want to register my extreme concern at the level of force which was used when the police recovered P from her home when she ran away from foster care in September. She was handcuffed, under what power is not clear, and the incident is said to have been recorded because of its nature. This incident needs to be noted and taken up by the Local Authority in conjunction with the police. It is ambiguous from the statement as to whether a social worker was actually present when it happened. It has not formed part of the material evidence before me but it was an extremely unfortunate incident, it was harmful to P that her guardian was rightly horrified about. I do not know what the Local Authority response to it was at the time, what its response has been since and I do seek separately an explanation from the Local Authority and the police as to the circumstances that were pertaining and as to what measures have been devised and agreed upon to avoid a repetition of such an event in the future.

 

“Immigrants who beat their children should get special treatment”

 

This was the headline of a piece in the Daily Telegraph, similar stories in other newspapers.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/11663029/Immigrants-who-beat-their-children-should-get-special-treatment-says-judge.html

 

It ticks all of the boxes for a Telegraph story – we have here a High Court Judge (and as she is female, for some reason it is considered appropriate to set out within the story her marital situation and how many children she has), social workers, ‘secret’ family Courts and immigrants being treated more favourably than UK nationals. It’s a great story for the Telegraph.

 

The story leads with this

Immigrants should be allowed to “slap and hit” their children because of a “different cultural context” when they are new arrivals in Britain, a High Court judge suggested yesterday.

and it has some quotations from the Judge, and a bit of rent-a-quote from a politician.

 

Is it accurate?

Well, I don’t think is misleading. I don’t think that the Judge intended to convey that meaning, but the meaning that the Telegraph have derived from it is the fault of the judgment not the fault of the reader. I also don’t think that the Telegraph have sensationalised it or are wrong to report it. I don’t think that it says everything that the Telegraph believes that it says, but I think that their reading of it is one that a common sense reader would derive from it.

 

Re A (A child: Wardship) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/1598.html

 

[I’ll quickly hold up my hands – I read this on Tuesday when it came out and my reading of it was that the case was far too dull to blog about – I missed paragraph 67 when I first read it. I’m like the guy who decided that Fred Astaire ‘can’t sing, can dance a little’ ] 

This is the paragraph that has caused all of the fuss

 

67.I do not believe there was punitively harsh treatment of A of the kind that would merit the term physical abuse. Proper allowance must be made for what is, almost certainly, a different cultural context. Within many communities newly arrived in this country, children are slapped and hit for misbehaviour in a way which at first excites the interest of child protection professionals. In this instance, and on the basis of his ABE interview, A did not appear to have suffered more than sadness and transient pain from what was done to him.

 

A common sense reading of that is that we must make allowances in law for a parent who has just come to this country and that social workers should treat them differently. Which is the Telegraph’s take on it. They aren’t misquoting or misleading – they report what the Judge said and then report how an ordinary person would read those remarks.

 

The allegations were being made in private law proceedings (the argument being between mum and dad , rather than public law proceedings where the argument would be between social workers and parents).

The allegation made by mum was that the father had slapped the child twice. The child  when interviewed by the police said that dad had hit him with a belt, causing him pain and leaving marks which went quickly. Father said that he smacked the child as part of normal discipline.  The job of the Judge therefore was to decide which of these three versions (if any) was correct, and what impact that this would have on any decisions about whether the child should see his father and spend time with him.  [There were also a lot of allegations between mother and father as to domestic violence, and the Judge found that father had been violent to the mother including an attempt at strangulation with a head scarf and a violent push]

 

  1. One of the last matters for discussions arises from A’s physical assault allegations comprised principally within his ABE interview. In the context of a question from the officer about what he did on 17 October – and seemingly out of the blue – A said, “I did my homework … With his belt, he kind of hits me.” A little later, A is asked, “OK and how does he hit you?” A who was by then looking directly at the officer, said, “With a belt … A long belt.” He described being hit on his back and leg and said it was “kind of fast, to hit me.” Asked how he felt, A said “Sad … But I’m little brave … I’m not scared of him… But normally I’m sad.” In response to questions as to whether it hurt, did it leave marks and whether they ‘went quite quickly’, A did not reply verbally but nodded his head to all three inquiries.” Towards the very end of the interview, A responded affirmatively when asked if he missed his father.
  2. The father wholly denies ever striking A with a belt or otherwise. He described with evident emotion that if he could not see A he does not “want to live.” He can “only say (he) never hit A with a belt” and he is “dying to see A.” The father also described what he meant by a “slap or a tap” the words used when he was interviewed by the police in connection with A’s allegations. He said this was not to slap A “badly but to keep him disciplined.”

At the end of my determination on this issue I make the following observations. I did believe the mother when she told me she had not said anything bad about the father although it had been for her “really horrible being separated from her son.” The mother also said that during the time they were together, she had seen the father slap A twice and there had been occasions when he had been pushed and shouted at. She had not told her Solicitor because there had been “so many things.”

 

The conclusion of the judgment is that what father did to the child was not something that amounted to physical abuse (and thus, that it would not amount to any criminal offence).

 

The law in this country is that it is lawful to lawfully chastise a child (that’s a bit redundant, but I was trying to use the emotive word ‘smack’). The line is crossed where the physical discipline becomes a criminal offence.

The Telegraph piece says:-

The Children’s Act 2004 made it illegal for parents in England and Wales to chastise children if blows led to bruising, swelling, cuts, grazes or scratches, with the offence carrying up to five years’ imprisonment.

This is what the Children Act 2004 actually says (it is much, much much less clear cut than the Telegraph summary ) – picking through all of the legal jargon, what it says is “If you have hit a child in such a way that a criminal offence may have resulted, it is not a defence to cite reasonable punishment’  – for most of those offences, the impact on the child would be that the injury caused bruises, marks or fractures (ABH, GBH) or cuts or breaks to the skin (Wounding), but the offence of cruelty or battery don’t require those things.

If you were thinking that the Telegraph has given you legal advice that you can beat your child as long as you don’t leave marks or break the skin, you’d be wrong.  [For example, the sack of oranges scene in the Grifters]

 

 

58Reasonable punishment

(1)In relation to any offence specified in subsection (2), battery of a child cannot be justified on the ground that it constituted reasonable punishment.

(2)The offences referred to in subsection (1) are

(a)an offence under section 18 or 20 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 (c. 100) (wounding and causing grievous bodily harm);

(b)an offence under section 47 of that Act (assault occasioning actual bodily harm);

(c)an offence under section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (c. 12) (cruelty to persons under 16).

(3)Battery of a child causing actual bodily harm to the child cannot be justified in any civil proceedings on the ground that it constituted reasonable punishment.

(4)For the purposes of subsection (3) actual bodily harm has the same meaning as it has for the purposes of section 47 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861.

(5)In section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, omit subsection (7).

 

 

Right, so let’s get back to that first paragraph of the Telegraph story – the lead of the whole article

Immigrants should be allowed to “slap and hit” their children because of a “different cultural context” when they are new arrivals in Britain, a High Court judge suggested yesterday

 

I think that it is a fair reading of the case that the Judge suggested that. I don’t think it is quite what she meant, but it is a common-sense reading of what paragraph 67 says.

If, however, someone reads this to mean that immigrant parents have a ‘get out of jail card’ or that they can hurt their children in a way that would get a British parent into trouble but they would get off scot-free, and that this is now the law in this country, that wouldn’t be right.

Firstly, as the case was not decided on that particular point, the remarks would not be binding on any other Court.

Secondly, the Judge wasn’t deciding here that as a matter of principle different standards apply. She was taking into account the individual circumstances of the parents in deciding whether what happened to this child constituted something that would be a barrier to the father having contact with him.

 

I can’t defend the case entirely. I think it is significantly flawed. When I read it, I can’t ascertain whether the Judge found that

a) As the child said in the police interview, father hit him with a belt on his back and legs and that it hurt, it left marks but the marks went quite quickly; OR

b) as the mother said, she had seen father slap the child twice; OR

c) as the father said, that he slapped or tapped  the child as reasonable discipline

 

It is such an important point that it is really quite problematic that the Judge doesn’t say whether she concluded that the child’s account was right or that father’s account was right.

For example, if the Judge had said :-

I find that the father did smack his child on the back of the leg for being naughty, but that this caused no lasting harm to the child.

 

I suspect that it wouldn’t really be in the Press to the extent that it is. I certainly think that the majority of the Telegraph’s readers (and possibly mine too) would nod in agreement with that sentiment.

Whereas the reading of

The father hit his child with a belt, but that’s okay because he was an immigrant

is obviously newsworthy.  [And the readership of the Telegraph and my readers would not be nodding in agreement, but reaching for either a pen, a keyboard or a revolver]

 

And because such an important piece of information is not clear in the judgment (we know that the Judge concluded that WHAT happened to the child was not that serious, but not WHAT she concluded had happened), it does cause legitimate confusion.

The inference has to be that it was the hitting with a belt that she believed happened (since if it was the smack for reasonable punishment, then most of paragraph 67 doesn’t need to be said at all, since this would be within the boundaries of acceptable parental behaviour, whether the parent was from Clapham or Calcutta)

and that then leads to the Press reporting that the Judge is suggesting that a parent from Calcutta in this situation is to be treated differently to a parent from Clapham.

 

Going back to my original question – is the Telegraph piece accurate?  Well, it isn’t inaccurate. The judgment here is unclear about what father was found to have done, but then goes on to excuse what he has done. Part of that is because the effect on the child was very temporary and transient * , but part is the cultural issue set out in paragraph 67.

 

* There might be those who consider that this is not a helpful way of looking at it – a child can recover from the physcial signs of  a bruise on the face in a few days, but the emotional impact can be much more than that. I haven’t been a child for many many years, but I can still vividly recall each and every occasion that an adult struck me in rage as a child.  Whereas the reasonable smacks I got for being naughty are long forgotten. The bruises from a violent assault fade much more easily than the memories.

I think that paragraph 67 is not terribly helpful, and if an argument was being developed in that way it needed more space within the judgment.  I don’t read anyone within the case as having run the argument as “Father did X, but we do X in India”

Father’s case was that what he had done was reasonable chastistment (in Clapham) not, that what happened might have been unreasonable in Clapham but it was reasonable in Calcutta.

 

I’m not sure that the controversial parts of para 67 needed to go in the judgment at all, or play any part of the decision-making. This wasn’t one of those cases (and they do happen) where a parent says “I did do X, and I now know that X is considered wrong in this country, but it isn’t where I’m from”

 

It would be worrying if as a result of the reporting of the story  (and I’ll stress that I don’t think the Press are either inaccurate or irresponsible in their reporting on this), that social workers formed the view that if they are told that a recently arrived immigrant had hit their child with a belt, they should not take that seriously and not take action if they consider it appropriate.  Or that a lawyer thought that as a result of this case, that wouldn’t be capable of establishing threshold.  It would also be worrying if a parent thought that they are being treated more harshly than a parent just arriving from another country would be.  OR that a parent who is in a relationship with someone recently arrived from another country thought that it was okay for their partner to discipline the child with a belt.

For me, the cultural issues are about understanding, rather than condoning. There are parts of the world that tolerate, support, believe in Female Genital Mutilation, and we can understand that parents who have arrived in the UK might have those views, but we can’t condone them acting upon them.  We have to judge all parents on the standards of what is acceptable and lawful in the UK, though we can understand that those standards can be different in other countries.