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Pre-flight checklist

 

I found quite a lot of Re F (Children) 2016 to be fairly stodgy porridge, eaten in the Scottish style with salt rather than sugar. That is to say, that whilst it would no doubt have been very good for me, I didn’t enjoy it much and spent most of my time with it pushing it around rather than actually consuming it.

It was Hague Convention proceedings, and I can’t actually face discussing the facts or the decision, which I’ll provide a link to if you are keen to read it.

There were two diamonds in it though, and as they were delivered by the President, expect to see him quoting them in future judgments approvingly and building upon them.

The first was in relation to criticisms about what was missing from the judgment of the original trial Judge. One might expect that the President, who after all authored Re B-S and the call to arms for judgments to show their working and be robust and leave no stone unturned, might get vexed by things being missed out of a judgment, but that of course was BEFORE the Court of Appeal got drowned in appeals and sick to the back teeth of appeals where the decision itself seemed okay but the judgment didn’t tick all of the boxes.

So we have a Court of Appeal shift in emphasis (this has been building over the last two years, but this really does put down a marker.  Don’t come to us on the basis of absence of ‘show your working’ unless the sums are also clearly wrong). I mean, it isn’t often that the Court of Appeal (still less the President) leans on a quotation from Mostyn J to demonstrate a point.

 

Like any judgment, the judgment of the Deputy Judge has to be read as a whole, and having regard to its context and structure. The task facing a judge is not to pass an examination, or to prepare a detailed legal or factual analysis of all the evidence and submissions he has heard. Essentially, the judicial task is twofold: to enable the parties to understand why they have won or lost; and to provide sufficient detail and analysis to enable an appellate court to decide whether or not the judgment is sustainable. The judge need not slavishly restate either the facts, the arguments or the law. To adopt the striking metaphor of Mostyn J in SP v EB and KP [2014] EWHC 3964 (Fam), [2016] 1 FLR 228, para 29, there is no need for the judge to “incant mechanically” passages from the authorities, the evidence or the submissions, as if he were “a pilot going through the pre-flight checklist.”

 

 

Fuel? Check. Landing Gear? Check. Rudder? Check. Likely effect on the plane of any change of circumstances?

Fuel? Check. Landing Gear? Check. Rudder? Check. Likely effect on the plane of any change of circumstances?

 

I’m totally in favour of judgments focussing on a robust analysis of the evidence and laying that evidence alongside the law, and setting out how the decision is reached, rather than the current model I see SO often in the Bailii reports of “If I namecheck and quote from every relevant authority, it will be assumed that I had those principles in mind, so I don’t actually need to show how I applied them, I just need to put in 10 pages of boilerplate that will bore the parties to tears, just to be a boilerplate bullet-proof vest against an appeal”

[I only started seeing those AFTER the Re B-S guidance, but correlation is not causation 😉 ]

 

And thus on appeals, Piglowska is back in favour, as opposed to the ‘can I find fault with the judgment’ approach that we had for a year or so post Re B-S

 

 

  • The task of this court is to decide the appeal applying the principles set out in the classic speech of Lord Hoffmann in Piglowska v Piglowski [1999] 1 WLR 1360. I confine myself to one short passage (at 1372):

 

“The exigencies of daily court room life are such that reasons for judgment will always be capable of having been better expressed. This is particularly true of an unreserved judgment such as the judge gave in this case … These reasons should be read on the assumption that, unless he has demonstrated the contrary, the judge knew how he should perform his functions and which matters he should take into account. This is particularly true when the matters in question are so well known as those specified in section 25(2) [of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973]. An appellate court should resist the temptation to subvert the principle that they should not substitute their own discretion for that of the judge by a narrow textual analysis which enables them to claim that he misdirected himself.”

It is not the function of an appellate court to strive by tortuous mental gymnastics to find error in the decision under review when in truth there has been none. The concern of the court ought to be substance not semantics. To adopt Lord Hoffmann’s phrase, the court must be wary of becoming embroiled in “narrow textual analysis”.

 

 

The next point, touching on the recent case of Re E, where the Court of Appeal flagged up that the Supreme Court’s decision that there was no presumption, rebuttable or otherwise, that a child ought not to give evidence, did not seem to have filtered through to Courts and lawyers on the ground.

 

As the appeal had already been rejected, the President acknowledged that nothing turned on what he was about to say, but the word “Obiter” is not carved into his heart in Times New Roman 12 point font for nothing…

 

Because, as I have said, nothing ultimately turns on any of this, I can take matters fairly shortly, in large part merely identifying the relevant authorities without any elaborate citation.

 

And then

 

 

  • The starting point is, of course, Article 12(2) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 11(2) of Council Regulation (EC) No 2201/2003, commonly referred to as BIIA, both of which identify the obligation on the court to ensure that the child is given the opportunity to be “heard”. Next I refer to the well-known passage in the characteristically prescient judgment of Thorpe LJ in Mabon v Mabon [2005] EWCA Civ 634, [2005] 2 FLR 1011, paras 28-29, culminating in his observation that “judges have to be … alive to the risk of emotional harm that might arise from denying the child knowledge of and participation in the continuing proceedings.” Thorpe LJ returned to the same theme in Re G (Abduction: Children’s Objections) [2010] EWCA Civ 1232, [2011] 1 FLR 1645, para 15, a case where (see paras 20-21) Thorpe and Smith LJJ themselves met the child, a 13-year old girl, and again in Re J (Abduction: Children’s Objections) [2011] EWCA Civ 1448, [2012] 1 FLR 457, paras 33, 42.
  • Well before then, in In re D (A Child) (Abduction: Rights of Custody) [2006] UKHL 51, [2007] 1 AC 619, paras 57-61, the House of Lords had indicated that merely enabling the child to meet the judge might not be sufficient. Having observed (para 59) that “children should be heard far more frequently in Hague Convention cases than has been the practice hitherto. The only question is how this should be done”, Baroness Hale of Richmond continued (para 60):

 

“There are three possible ways of doing this. They range from full scale legal representation of the child, through the report of an independent CAFCASS officer or other professional, to a face-to-face interview with the judge.”

I add another possibility, the child giving evidence but without being joined as a party: see Cambra v Jones (Contempt Proceedings: Child joined as party) [2014] EWHC 913 (Fam), [2015] 1 FLR 263, paras 10, 14.

 

  • The Supreme Court returned to the topic, this time in the context of care proceedings, in In re W (Children) (Family Proceedings: Evidence) [2010] UKSC 12, [2010] 1 WLR 701, holding that there is no longer a presumption, or even a starting point, against children giving evidence in family proceedings. In In re LC (Children) (Reunite International Child Abduction Centre intervening) [2014] UKSC 1, [2014] AC 1038, the Supreme Court considered whether a 13-year old girl, T, should be joined as a party to Hague proceedings. Reversing this court, it held that she should.
  • Next, I should refer to In re M and others (Children) (Abduction: Child’s Objections) [2015] EWCA Civ 26, [2016] Fam 1, para 155, and, more particularly, to In re D (A Child) (International Recognition) [2016] EWCA Civ 12, paras 41, 44, 47, 48, where the obligation of the court to ensure that the child is given the opportunity to be heard and “the right of the child to participate in the process that is about him or her” were said to be fundamental principles of universal application, “reflected in our legislation, our rules and practice directions and our jurisprudence” and where it was said that “the theme of the case law is an emphasis on the ‘right’ of participation of those ‘affected’ by proceedings.”
  • Finally, I refer to the very recent decision of this court in Re E A Child) [2016] EWCA Civ 473, paras 46-48, 56-63, and, in particular, McFarlane LJ’s acid observation (paras 48, 56) that Baroness Hale’s judgment in In re W “would seem to have gone unheeded in the five or more years since it was given” and that “the previous culture and practice of the family courts remains largely unchanged with the previous presumption against children giving evidence remaining intact.”
  • It is apparent that in relation to all these matters there has been a sea-change in attitudes over the last decade and more, even if on occasion practitioners and the courts have been and still are too slow to recognise the need for change or to acknowledge the pace of change. Moreover, and I wish to emphasise this, the process of change continues apace.
  • In April 2010, “Guidelines for Judges Meeting Children who are Subject to Family Proceedings” were issued by the Family Justice Council with the approval of Sir Nicholas Wall P: [2010] 2 FLR 1872. In December 2011, and following the decision of the Supreme Court in In re W, the Family Justice Council issued Guidelines, endorsed by Sir Nicholas Wall P, on “Children Giving Evidence in Family Proceedings:” [2012] Fam Law 79. More recently, the whole topic, with other related matters, has been considered by the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group which I established under the Chairmanship of Russell and Hayden JJ in May 2014. Their interim report was published in July 2014 (see [2014] Family Law 1217) and the final report in February 2015 (see [2015] Family Law 443). The Family Procedure Rules Committee is currently considering the extent to which, given limited resources, the recommendations of the Working Group can be fully implemented. Whatever the outcome of that discussion, it is plain that the further changes in our approach to these matters which are now widely acknowledged require to be implemented, and sooner rather than later.
  • One thing is quite clear: that proper adherence to the principles laid down in In re W will see ever increasing numbers of children giving evidence in family proceedings.
  • One of the drivers for this is the point which this court emphasised in In re KP (A Child) (Abduction: Rights of Custody) [2014] EWCA Civ 554, [2014] 1 WLR 4326, paras 53, 56, namely, that a meeting between the child and the judge is “an opportunity: (i) for the judge to hear what the child may wish to say; and (ii) for the child to hear the judge explain the nature of the process;” that the “purpose of the meeting is not to obtain evidence and the judge should not, therefore, probe or seek to test whatever it is that the child wishes to say;” and that if “the child volunteers evidence that would or might be relevant to the outcome of the proceedings, the judge should report back to the parties and determine whether, and if so how, that evidence should be adduced.” The corollary of this is that, quite apart from all the other drivers for change, there are likely for this reason alone to be more cases in future than hitherto where the child either gives evidence, without being joined as a party, or is joined as a party.

 

 

Heavy hint being dropped there that the Court of Appeal are itching to get their hands on an appeal where a Judge has refused to hear from a child, and that there’s a judicial speech already drawn up to deliver on it. Consider yourselves warned.

 

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it cannot be right for the Court of Appeal to be asked to case manage cases retrospectively.

A discussion of Re G (A child) 2012 EWCA Civ 1377

This is a recent Court of Appeal decision (and in light of my recent grumblings about the delay between summaries of decisions and the full judgments being made available, I note that the decision was made on 31st October and the judgment was available by 5th November, so kudos to those involved. 

Mild grumble,  not aimed at this case specifically we seem to be getting a raft of  RE something (a child)  2012 decisions, and a more descriptive title might not go amiss. Otherwise we will have nine Re C (a child) 2012’s and no easy way of distinguishing them save the case number, which is slightly cumbersome.)

 

I tread carefully on this, because I know many, though not all of those involved on a professional level, and have a great deal of respect for all of them. As luck would have it, I don’t really have to criticise any of the people involved.

 

The title is taken from a quotation from the Judgment, but was coined by Mr Adam Smith of counsel, and is a phrase which I am as taken with as Munby LJ clearly was. At the risk of increasing his ego, Mr Smith is a splendid fellow.

 

It goes to the heart of this case, and is the important principle that lifts it from being a very case-specific decision. 

 

The judgment can be found at

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1377.html

 

 

The appeal essentially related to an aunt, who was putting herself forward to be a carer for a child. The aunt had certain disabilities and it was decided at an interlocutory hearing that the assessment of the aunt’s direct care of the child should take place at the mother’s home (that being where the child was living) with certain modifications taking place.

 

  1. By February 2012 the position had been reached that assessments were being awaited on the mother (who at that stage, subject to assessment, was supported by the children’s guardian as a potential carer for T) and the aunt. There was an issue as to where the aunt’s home assessment with T was to take place. It was resolved by Judge Coates at a hearing on 16 March 2012. I quote from her judgment of 9 October 2012:

“In March it was argued that [the aunt] needed to be assessed in a home environment of her ability to care for T – this court determined it should take place at [the mother’s] home and required the local authority to put in handrails to accommodate [the aunt’s] difficulties. [She] argued assessment at the maternal grandmother’s home and forcibly argued the position and I determined where the assessment should take place.”

The order made by Judge Coates was in the following terms:

“provided the appropriate handrails are fitted to [the mother’s] property the assessment of [the aunt] will take place only at [the mother’s] home and not the home of the maternal grandmother.”

The assessment never took place. Judge Coates explored the reasons why at the hearing in September 2012. As she explained in her judgment:

“I have heard evidence as to what happened thereafter … the evidence of what happened when builder came to do the adaptation that [the aunt] sabotaged the attempt to put in handrails and therefore her assessment could not be progressed.”

 

 

Certain findings were made, having heard the evidence as to whether the aunt had ‘sabotaged’ the assessment being able to take place in the mother’s home, and whether she was in a position to provide care to the child.  At final hearing a Care Order was made, the appeal immediately lodged, and a stay granted whilst the appeal was dealt with.

 

The Court of Appeal dismissed the majority of the appellant’s grounds, without difficulty. They were clearly matters which the Judge had heard evidence on, and that the Judge had assessed the evidence and made perfectly proper conclusions.

 

 

  1. That takes me on to the second of Ms Phil-Ebosie’s complaints, which goes to what are said to be various errors on the part of Judge Coates in relation to the aunt’s assessment. It is said, first, that Judge Coates failed to consider whether the assessment she directed on 16 March 2012 was compliant with the 2010 Act; second, that she was wrong to find that the aunt had sabotaged that assessment; third, that she failed to appreciate that, in the absence of such an assessment, she lacked sufficient evidence to reach a decision that the aunt could not care for T; and, fourth, that she was wrong to refuse to permit a risk assessment of the aunt in the light of the outcome of the fact-finding hearing. In short, it is said, Judge Coates should not have proceeded to a final determination of the care proceedings without first directing further assessment of the aunt. The aunt, says Ms Phil-Ebosie, has not been properly assessed.
  1. In my judgment there is no even arguable merit in any of these complaints.

 

….

 

  1. The two final parts of this complaint are linked, since both assert that Judge Coates’s determination of the care proceedings was premature, given the need, so it is said, for further assessment of the aunt. There is, in my judgment, no arguable basis of challenge on either point. It was for Judge Coates, as the judge managing the litigation and conducting the final hearing, to determine what assessments were going to be needed for that hearing and then, if the point arose again during the final hearing, to satisfy herself that she had all the evidence she needed – all the assessments she needed – to determine the issues fairly, justly and in accordance with the law. That is an evaluative task that the law imposes on the case management judge. Indeed, it is an absolutely central task of the case management judge, for it may well determine the shape of the final hearing. But this court can intervene only in limited and well recognised circumstances: only if (I put the matter generally) the judge has erred in law or in principle, has denied the applicant a fair trial or has come to a decision that is “plainly wrong”. In my judgment, there is simply no arguable basis for any such complaint here. This was the decision of a very experienced judge who had available to her, moreover, a mass of expert evidence, including evidence of various assessments of the aunt. I find it unsurprising that, in the circumstances she described in her judgment, Judge Coates should have concluded that further assessment was unnecessary as well as being inconsistent with T’s need for a settled placement without further delay.
  1. It is essential that appellate courts do not too readily interfere with seemingly sensible and appropriate case management decisions of judges who, in the nature of things, are likely to have a much better ‘feel’ for the case than an appellate court can ever have. Those seeking to appeal such decisions must heed not only the well-known decision of the House of Lords in G v G (Minors: Custody Appeal) [1985] 1 WLR 1 WLR 647 but also what ought to be, but I fear is not, the equally well-known decision of the House of Lords in Piglowska v Piglowski [1999] 1 WLR 1360, and in particular the speech of Lord Hoffmann.
  1. The third, and final complaint, is that Judge Coates failed to identify clearly in her judgment what the risks were of placing T in his aunt’s care and why those risks could not be managed without his removal from her care, just as she failed, it is said, to identify which of T’s emotional and other needs the aunt could not meet. For her part, Ms Lee submitted that Judge Coates also erred in giving insufficient consideration to the impact on T of separation from the birth family at this stage in his life and provided insufficient grounds to justify approving the plan for adoption. I do not agree. The judgment more than adequately explains Judge Coates’s concerns and the basis of her decision. There is, in my judgment, no arguable basis for any complaint that Judge Coates erred in her evaluation of the relevant factors or that she failed adequately to explain her reasoning. Were this court to interfere here it would be doing the very thing that Lord Hoffmann has emphasised it must not.

 

 

It is always pleasing to this writer to see the Court of Appeal honestly and rigorously applying the principles of Piglowska and G v G, which sometimes (in my humble opinion) are given lip-service before the appellant Court replace a Judge’s conclusions with their own.

 

The Court of Appeal were with the appellant on one point :-

 

  1. The first alleges breaches of various duties arising under the Equality Act 2010. It is common ground that the aunt is disabled within the meaning of section 6 of the Act. What is said is that the local authority was in breach of its duties under sections 20, 29 and 149 of the Act. The facts relied on are common to all three alleged breaches: the aunt’s complaint as spelt out by Ms Phil-Ebosie in her skeleton argument is that “the local authority refused to assess her capacity to care for T at her own home”, despite it being adapted for her needs, and “asked [her] to undertake a capability assessment at a venue” – the mother’s house – “that had not been adapted to her needs.” The proposed installation of handrails at the mother’s house was, she says, a “token gesture”, given that the aunt’s house is fully adapted with a range of equipment to assist her everyday life.
  1. This is, in my judgment, quite unarguable as a ground of challenge to Judge Coates’s order. I am not concerned with, as it were, a challenge by way of judicial review to some decision of the local authority. The matter before me is a challenge to the order made by Judge Coates on 9 October 2012. Moreover, the factual premise which underlies this ground of complaint is simply wrong. It was Judge Coates, exercising her judicial discretion in the context of the pending care proceedings, and not the local authority, who decided both where the assessment was to take place and what adaptations to the mother’s house were required. So the challenge, if there is to be one, must be to Judge Coates’s decision.

 

 

The Court of Appeal then looked at whether that case management decision was appropriate, and whether the challenge stood up to closer scrutiny.

 

 

  1. Judge Coates was plainly justified in finding that the necessary assessment was, from T’s point of view, better conducted away from the maternal grand-mother’s somewhat dysfunctional household and on territory that was more familiar to him. Judge Coates was aware of the need to accommodate the aunt’s disability and did so, in what seemed to her, having heard argument, to be the appropriate way, by directing the fitting of handrails. Even if more was sought by way of alteration to the mother’s house (and it is far from clear it was) there is, in my judgment, no sensible basis of challenge to the order which Judge Coates made on 16 March 2012 – an order which, it is to be noted, was neither challenged at the time nor subsequently. Moreover, it is apparent that the detailed arguments under the 2010 Act which the aunt now seeks to put forward were deployed for the first time at the hearing before me on 12 October 2012. I do not criticise Ms Phil-Ebosie but this is no way in which to conduct care proceedings. As Mr Smith put it, and I entirely agree, it cannot be right for the Court of Appeal to be asked to case manage cases retrospectively.
  1. The finding that the aunt had sabotaged the assessment was a finding on a matter of fact on which Judge Coates heard evidence. Judge Coates was ideally placed to evaluate the evidence, including in particular the evidence of the aunt, and was plainly entitled to find as she did. This finding of fact is unassailable.

 

 

The Appeal was therefore refused.

 

The key issues from the case for practitioners are therefore that arguments about Equality Act issues have to be deployed when the case is being argued and before the decision is made, if they are to give winnable grounds for an appeal. Second, that if a case management decision is made that fundamentally devastates your case, you need to consider the appeal at that point and not wait for the final hearing for orders to be made on the foundations laid down at that interlocutory hearing.   And more broadly, that you can’t reserve your best arguments for the Appeal process, you have to lay them out before the Judge determining the case.