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Appeal, Special Guardianship Order to a stranger

 

The Court of Appeal in Re H (a child) 2015 considered the decision from a circuit Judge, Her Honour Judge Wright, to make a Special Guardianship Order to a woman who knew the mother through church as opposed to placing the child with the father.  From the material before the Court, it appeared that the prospective Special Guardian had been observed with the child for about an hour.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/406.html

 

This case, as it deals with how to conduct the balance properly, and making it plain that all of the strictures of Re B, Re B-S et al still apply (as it involves the permanent removal of a child from a parent) makes for an interesting comparison with the Court of Appeal in Re E-R (a child) 2015   where they made it even more explicit that in private law disputes, there is no broad presumption that a natural parent is the best person to care for a child.

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/04/27/no-broad-presumption-in-favour-of-a-natural-parent/

 

The Court of Appeal (rightly so in this case) were critical that the PLO process had not been properly followed. These weren’t nitpicking complaints, but actually went to the heart of why the case had been decided in a flawed way and why there had to be a re-hearing.

 

There had been no continuity of judiciary, no continuity of representation, the parties had not properly identified the issues and hence the Judge had not been able to properly narrow the issues at IRH, and critically proper thought had not been given as to whether the expert in the case ought to be asked to either provide an addendum or to be called to address what was really the key issue in the case.

Could this father, having undergone therapy and developed insight, now care for this child to a ‘good enough’ standard, or did the expert’s prior report indicating that he would need to have another person alongside him to co-parent still stand?

  1. The threshold for jurisdiction described in section 31 of the Children Act 1989 was necessarily constructed on a broad basis having regard to the fact that there were issues of fact and likelihood of harm relating to both mother and to father. The local authority’s case against father was that he was not capable of caring for his daughter because of his autism, the effect of stress on him, the specialist skill required to deal with H’s chromosome disorder and the risk that he presented to H’s emotional wellbeing.
  2. The risk that it was said father presented was based in part on matters determined in the earlier proceedings and in part on new allegations. The risk was made up of (1) that which it was said flowed from an allegation that father left H in the care of her mother when the couple separated, (a risk which was mitigated by the fact that he chose to inform the local authority through the dedicated nursery workers), (2) that which arose out of the abusive relationship between the parents, the physical elements of which he denied, and (3) that which would arise if father was unable to engage with H as her primary carer. The judge held that the findings sought by the local authority which were sufficient to satisfy the threshold had been proved. There was undoubtedly ample justification for that conclusion based on the mother’s conduct alone. What is sadly missing from the judgment is attention to the detail of the findings that the judge made against the father so that there can be a proper understanding of the nature and extent of the risk that existed in the father’s care for the purpose of a welfare analysis.
  3. The judge identified in her judgment the key issue in the case which was the question whether father was capable of caring for H on his own, about which there was an adverse assessment conclusion supported by the analysis of the children’s guardian. Closer examination reveals that the opinion upon which the judge relied was that of a Dr Campbell, a consultant neuropsychologist who was an expert witness in the 2011/12 proceedings and who had then advised that father would need another person alongside him to co-parent H. The judge records that opinion and the fact that father disagreed with it on the basis that he had received therapy, had developed insight and had changed.
  4. Although the judge set out the fundamental disagreement on the key issue, no-one had thought in advance of the final hearing to identify whether the issue was important enough for Dr Campbell to write an updating report or even to be called to be cross examined on behalf of the father. No-one took any steps during the hearing to question how the disagreement was to be resolved. There was no application to call Dr Campbell. If the social worker and guardian were asked for their opinions during examination and cross examination this court was not taken to their answers and the judge did not rely on any of the detail of their evidence in her judgment to suggest that the issue was addressed. Furthermore, it was conceded before us that the social work assessments and analyses in this case could not substitute for or update the forensic opinion of Dr Campbell. The witnesses did not have the skill and expertise to do that.
  5. The consequence is that the judge did not give the lack of agreement that existed the importance that it deserved and that was because there were fundamental flaws in case management before the final hearing. The issue was not identified nor was there any identification of the evidence and the witnesses whose materials would go to that issue. A part 25 application to adduce expert evidence had been unsuccessful during case management and the assessment material appears to have taken the issue as being concluded when it was not. In fact the part 25 application seems to have been misguided, asking as it did for alternative adult psychological assessment. What should have been asked for was up to date evidence from Dr Campbell and given that his opinion was part of the local authority’s case, they should have made application for it, paid for all or some of it and taken the lead in giving instructions for it.
  6. In discussion before this court, the advocates acknowledged that the lack of judicial continuity was compounded by the lack of continuity of representation of the parties such that essential steps including mandatory advocates’ discussions before hearings were missed. Had there been judicial continuity it is at least likely that these issues would have been addressed.
  7. There are cases where a judge’s firm acceptance of evidence can lead this court to acknowledge that the reasoning process implicit in that acceptance is sufficient to deal with the key issue identified. Suffice it to say that having regard to the other issues in the case, to which I shall now turn, no-one seriously pursued a submission that the judge’s reasoning was sufficient or that any gaps could be filled by reference to the evidence that was accepted by the judge

 

The underlined portion of paragraph 16 is important – the LA here were relying on Dr Campbell’s conclusions that the father could not be a sole carer for H, and the Court of Appeal took the view that it was they who were responsible for updating Dr Campbell and getting fresh evidence before the Court whether the change of circumstances changed his view (and moreover, responsible for paying for that)  – rather than the father, as it was his case that he had changed.

Worth bearing in mind.

 

I found it a little odd that the Court of Appeal were not even more interested in threshold, which seems on the thin side post Re A and Re J (particularly given that this child had been with father as a sole carer during the six months of the care proceedings)

  1. The background to the case is as follows. As the judge recorded, the local authority had been involved with the family since before H’s birth. There were previous care proceedings within which, in April 2011, H was placed in foster care. She moved to her parents’ care one year later. In June 2012 a supervision order was made which reflected the success of a residential assessment and the subsequent placement of H at home. The order was extended until February 2014. It was an important element of the care plan that the parents’ care was to be supported by the father’s family and members of the mother’s church because each parent on their own was assessed to be unable to care for H. H was subsequently diagnosed as having a condition known as ‘chromosome 16’ which is linked to developmental delay and speech, language and learning difficulties. She has delayed development and is vulnerable to seizures. Her needs have been assessed to be high, requiring a level of parenting that is better than ‘good enough’ and carers who are ’emotionally available’ to help her make sense of her experiences.
  2. The triggering incident which led to these proceedings occurred on 5 January 2014 when the police were called to a shopping centre in West London. H had been left unaccompanied inside the centre by her mother who had been smoking a cigarette outside the main entrance. H’s father was not present and was unaware of what had happened. The incident was investigated by a social worker who discovered that the parents’ relationship was breaking down. By late January, H’s mother was insisting that the father should leave the home and on 26 January 2014 he did so, leaving H in her mother’s sole care. Despite increased local authority support the care of H by her mother rapidly broke down. That led to a trial agreement between the parents and the local authority for collaborative care by the parents under the supervision of the local authority which was to be provided for by renewed care proceedings that were issued on 7 March 2014.

 

The father also produced evidence from professional bodies and groups – given that what was being said was that his autism (in whole or in part) was why he could not parent as a sole carer and needed another adult to provide day to day support and care. The Court of Appeal were critical that this evidence was not properly analysed in the judgment – yes, the Court could have decided that it did not tip the balance in favour of the father, but to do so, it would have to have grappled with the evidence and set out an analysis of why it was found not to tip the balance.

 

18. Furthermore, there were independent elements of the evidence available to the court which might have impacted on all three opinions.

  1. The independent evidence that was available came from Mencap, the National Autistic Society and from father’s two siblings. The judge heard no oral evidence about any of the support that was on offer from those who could provide it. On the written materials she came to the following conclusion:

    I do not accept the support offered by way of his family, MENCAP, and NAS would be sufficient to meet [H’s] need for a co-parent to assist [the father] if she were to remain in his care in the longer term

  2. First of all that recognised the importance of the key issue I have identified, about which the only other relevant conclusion to which the judge came was:

    “The difficulty he has is that, as was made clear in the previous proceedings, he does not have a reliable person who can provide primary care for [H], who will be attuned to her changing needs, and with whom he can work in partnership. Sadly, the evidence from the parenting assessment, [the social worker] and the guardian’s (sic) indicates [H] remains at risk of harm in her current circumstances.”

  3. The judge went on to consider what the position would be if father was not supported and also two other aspects of the case that are relevant, namely the father’s understanding of the need to act quickly if H had a seizure and what was described as a negative “snapshot” from the guardian derived from her only visit to father’s household during the extensive period that he successfully cared for his daughter with the support of family members. None of this was decisive. The key issue in the case remained whether father needed a co-parent and if not, whether the nature and extent of the available support was sufficient.
  4. It is clear from the judge’s judgment that she had read materials from the interest groups referred to above and from the father’s relatives. It is not at all clear what part, if any, they played in her analysis. That is because the analysis is missing. It is possible that no-one wished to cross examine the authors of the documents and that their contents were taken as agreed. An alternative explanation is that the local authority took the pragmatic view that they disagreed with the contents or that the contents did not address the issue and that cross examination would not take the evidence any further. Either position would have been acceptable and understandable but given the disagreement on the key issue it would have been helpful to know whether or not the content of the documents was agreed and how that was factored into the welfare analysis. I also find it difficult to accept that a value judgment about a co-parenting or caring supporter in a contested case can be definitively made without hearing some limited oral evidence from that person in the absence of agreement or a case where the proposal is not realistic.

 

A further criticism was that the father had wanted to call evidence from family members and had had this request refused. I know that this is an issue that greatly troubles Ian from Forced Adoption, so I will set out the Court of Appeal’s ruling on that (which he will like)

It is one of the grounds of appeal to this court that the judge declined to hear oral evidence from the paternal family, i.e. evidence other than that of the father. The paternal aunt and uncle attended court on the third day of the final hearing with the intention of giving that evidence. We were told that the evidence would have gone to answer some of the questions that the local authority social worker and the guardian had about the merits of the support that the father had. It is difficult to know whether that is right. The judge rejected the application for reasons that are unclear. They were neither expressed in the judgment nor in the detailed order made by the court. The reasons may have been appropriate but if not expressed the impression given is that the judge treated the father’s case as if it was not a realistic option.

 

If a Court is going to refuse to hear evidence from witnesses, they will have to give reasons for that, and set out very clearly in the judgment why that was decided.

Ryder LJ was very clear that the problems in this case and judgment arose fundamentally from a failure to have a proper IRH

  1. All of these issues should have been addressed by the court and the parties at the issues resolution hearing when a different judge briefly had conduct of the case. It was at that hearing that the SGO option is first identified in a recital to an order. Although there is a reference to a SGO, the question of whether a SGO should be made is not then identified as an issue to be determined as it should have been on the face of the case management order. It is not until the final order of the court that the issue is identified as one for resolution. The importance of that is not merely technical. For an SGO to be made there are steps that have to be taken. The steps are part of a regulatory scheme that provides protections for the child involved and for those with parental responsibility and those who seek to obtain it. Furthermore, it is important that the court identifies the realistic options before the court so that the evidence can be focussed upon those options thereby providing the material for the judge to consider in the welfare analysis.
  2. At first sight of the papers one could be forgiven for wondering what compliance there had been with the rules in the preparation there had been for the final hearing. The local authority did not amend the care plan to make the proposal for special guardianship until 2 October 2014 and the detail of the transition plan to move H from the care of her father to A was not provided until the first day of the final hearing. The IRH had taken place on 23 July 2014 when all of those materials should have been available. I assume that no-one was taken by surprise because there was no application to adjourn the final hearing on that basis but the extended period from July to October, which was inappropriate in itself, should have been used to regularise what was happening so that it did not occur at the last minute.

 

The Court of Appeal were unhappy that there had not been a proper Special Guardianship report, which is of course a statutory requirement.   There is something VERY IMPORTANT in this bit, which is going to make 90% of my readers groan  – the Court of Appeal rule that if an SGO is sought, there should be an application. Rather than, as usually happens, the Court is asked to make it of its own motion.  Either the prospective special guardian or the LA should make a formal application.  [And that s10(9) applies to such applications – which in a practical sense means that anyone other than a person with whom the child has lived for at least a year, or has a residence order  OR has consent from everyone with PR to make the application, is going to need leave of the Court]

 

{There’s a slight bit of wiggle room here It is only where parties agree that an application for a SGO should be dispensed with that the section 14A(6)(b) CA 1989 power can be exercised without good reason.    so if everyone agrees, you could still ASK the Court to rule that a formal application isn’t needed. Given that there is an application fee, and the Court service is financially straitened, I’m not sure I’d count on that. At the very least, you are going to need to know prior to IRH whether the Court is going to agree to use that power, or insist on a formal application and possibly a s 10(9) application. Remember that both can easily be foreced by one parent saying that they resist. }

 

  1. What was happening was that the local authority were seeking to persuade the court to make a SGO. Although the court has power to make such an order of its own motion in accordance with section 14A(6)(b) CA 1989, that should not be the default position. Such a process can, as it nearly did in this case, give rise to procedural irregularity for lack of notice. The special guardian or the local authority on her behalf should have made the application. The important procedural hurdle of the satisfaction of the test in section 10(9) CA 1989 would then have been addressed. It is only where parties agree that an application for a SGO should be dispensed with that the section 14A(6)(b) CA 1989 power can be exercised without good reason. In any other case, the use by the court of this power must be reasoned. The parties in this case did not agree and the use of the power was assumed not reasoned.
  2. In accordance with section 14A(8) CA 1989 the local authority must prepare an SGO report and by section 14A(11) the court cannot make a SGO without such a report. The statutory purpose is a very real protection. The contents of such a report are set out in a regulatory scheme which is to be found in the schedule to the Special Guardianship Regulations 2005, which is designed to ensure that necessary questions are addressed before controlling parental responsibility for a child is vested in a person other than a local authority. Such a report was never directed to be prepared in this case because no SGO application was ever made.
  3. In her judgment the judge accepts that a report, a support plan and an addendum report which she identifies are sufficient for the statutory purpose. It is only because there is a concession before this court that the content of an earlier ‘connected person’s assessment’ of A fulfil those requirements that this court has not moved on to question whether the assessment was sufficient for its purpose. During case management, the court should have addressed the question directly. On identifying that one of the realistic options that the court was being asked to consider was special guardianship, it should have made directions in the prospective application including for the SGO report and any relevant evidence. If a report which is being or has been prepared is to be deemed to satisfy the regulatory and statutory requirements, then the case management judge should say so: allowing anyone who disagrees to be heard given the statutory importance that is attached to the report. In other words, the assertion must be scrutinised. By section 14C(1) CA 1989 the holder of a SGO shares parental responsibility with the parents of a child but has the right to override the responsibilities of the parents. Such an order is a significant step in a child’s life that is intended to have long term consequences and the protections that surround it should be respected.

 

The final major criticism was that given that this was a stark choice between two options (dad or prospective SGO) the Court had not properly allowed the father to challenge the assertions that the SGO would be able to care for the child.

  1. The final element of this appeal that is troubling is the judge’s treatment of the special guardian. The judge was apparently of the opinion that it was not appropriate for the father to ‘compete’ with the special guardian. I can understand the point she was making, namely that it would be undesirable for the two potential carers of H to be engaged in an adversarial exchange when subsequently they might have to work in partnership. However, the father was entitled to the procedural protection of being able to cross examine witnesses about the capability of A to care for his child. If that was not to be A herself and I reserve judgment on that question until it is a live issue on which a case turns, then it should have been the assessor.
  2. One of the authors of the connected person’s assessment to which I have referred was called to give oral evidence. Unfortunately, she was the assessor who provided information about the birth family. The separate assessor who provided the information about A was not called to give evidence and accordingly there was no cross examination on the question of the capability of A to care for H.
  3. All of this stemmed from an assumption generated in poor case management that the special guardian was a realistic option and the father was not. That was not this case. At the time of the final hearing H had been living with her father for more than six months. It was accordingly incumbent on the court to undertake a comparative welfare analysis. That is missing and would have been difficult to construct on the evidence that was heard.
  4. The errors that I have described are fatal to the determination made by the judge. As a consequence, at the conclusion of the hearing before this court we allowed the appeal, set aside the special guardianship order, imposed an interim care order on an undertaking to file a new interim care plan to abide the event of an application to restore the status quo ante or an urgent re-hearing. We made case management directions to expedite the identification of the issues, evidence and witnesses at a new IRH.

The Court of Appeal was very damning in Ryder LJ’s final remarks

  1. I have set out the catalogue of problems in this case in rather more detail than might usually be necessary because it is essential that the rules and practice directions of the court are applied. They are there for a purpose. Casual non-compliance is not an option precisely because further harm will likely be caused to a child.
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Sentence first, verdict afterwards

Some extraordinary appeals kicking around – there’s a cracker called Re A, which involves a judge shouting at a 13 year old child and threatening to make costs orders against her personally (but I’m waiting for that to go up on Bailii).

 

In the meantime, this little treasure.

Re S-W children 2015

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/27.html

 

Three children, 14, 11 and 10. They’d been living with grandparents for about a year and a half by the time the case came to Court, because the mother was having problems with alcohol and drugs and was struggling to end a violent relationship.  There had been a period just before issue where rehabilitation looked like a possibility, but the assessment looking at that had been unsuccessful.

It wasn’t an initial hearing where there looked to be great prospects of these children returning to mother’s care, but one has to bear in mind that these were not tiny tots, but children of 14,11 and 10, and who would have their own views to express and be considered.

The Children’s Guardian had made it plain in the initial document that she hadn’t been able to meet the children yet, but knew that all three were saying they wanted to go home to mother, and that this would be an important part of her work.

The first hearing then, was one in which all of the lawyers were in agreement that there was some work to be done

 

i) The local authority would pay for a drugs hair strand test on the mother. This was a matter of considerable importance …….because

ii) the local authority were to convene a Family Group conference in order to see if a way could be found for LW to return, in whole or part, to the care of his mother. It was hoped that if that could safely be achieved, it might act as a break on the disruptive behaviour which was leading to the constant breakdown in his placements. The local authority note of the meeting says “is it just about good enough with mum, may be able to go back.” The timetable was to provide for an addendum to the parenting assessment already filed by the local authority;

iii) Efforts were to be made to trace the father of ES who had not been served;

iv) Neither of the grandmothers wished to be considered as foster carers and therefore Special Guardianship assessments were to be carried out by the local authority with a view to securing the future of those two children by the making of Special Guardianship Orders;

v) It was agreed that a slimmed down number of documents from that listed by the Guardian in her report would be disclosed, but that only one or two of those documents would be placed in the bundle. This would allow the Guardian to carry out a full review of the case whilst ensuring compliance with Practice Direction 27A – Family Proceedings: Court Bundles (Universal Practice to be applied in the High Court and Family Court)… the Bundles Direction) para 5.1 which limits the court bundle to 350 pages of A4 text; (see also Re W (Children)(Strict Compliance with Court Orders) [2014] EWFC 22);

vi) The matter would be listed for an early Issues Resolution Hearing (IRH) with a view to the case being concluded substantially within 26 weeks.

 

The Judge, His Honour Judge Dodds (who you might remember from https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/07/02/go-on-then-appeal-me-i-dare-you     – they did, he lost)  took something of a robust approach, making Care Orders and ending the case at the first hearing, making that decision within minutes, not listening to anyone, and not giving a judgment.

 

  1. A transcript of the hearing in front of the judge has been made available; it reveals that within a matter of minutes, the judge had made abundantly clear, in trenchant terms, his determination to conclude the case there and then by making final care orders. The judge was fortified in his approach, he told the parties, by the fact that the previous week (30 July 2014), an application for permission to appeal in relation to another final care order he had made at the CMH in a different case had been refused by McFarlane LJ : Re H (Children) Case No: B4/2014/2033.
  2. The judge was scathing of the Guardian’s report and her reasons for requesting further information, saying that “advice about the practice direction that came in on 31st July” (a reference to the new Bundles Direction), would signal the end to what he referred to as “this sort of Victorian detail”.
  3. In relation to LW’s situation he said that whilst he wished LW “every good luck in the world but the Children Act and the court has nothing to do with it”.
  4. All the parties crumbled under the judge’s caustically expressed views, and as a consequence, were unable to explain to the judge that the situation was more complicated than the one the judge clearly saw, and expressed. The judge viewed the case as one in which he had before him three children each of whom had been in care for well over a year, two of whom were in settled placements. The mother he saw had had a recent positive drugs test, and therefore in his mind, the inevitable outcome was the making of care orders. The judge said that all future placement decisions in relation to LW would be made by the local authority through the Looked After Children review process (LAC reviews).
  5. At one stage the judge referred to the mother as looking “upset and bewildered”. It is hard to see how she could have looked otherwise given the course the proceedings were taking.
  6. The judge gave neither a judgment nor reasons prior to making final care orders in relation to all three children.

 

I imagine there was something of a sprint or scissors-paper-stone battle as to which of the parties was going to appeal this first.  Bear in mind that this was a DIRECTIONS hearing, the first hearing in the case and that nobody had been suggesting that the Court should make final orders.

 

The Court of Appeal had to consider whether the Judge might, just might, have exceeded his robust case management powers, and instead made an order which was disproportionate and unfair.

The fact that when Permission to appeal was granted, McFarlane LJ had effectively said to the appeal judges “Bloody hell folks, you really need to check THIS ONE out” was rather telling:-

“In any event, there is a compelling reason sufficient to justify this case being considered by the Court of Appeal. The judge’s approach could not have been more robust. He sought to justify such an approach on the basis that recent family justice reforms and case law. There is a need for the Court of Appeal to consider whether such a robust summary approach is justified and/or required by the recent extensive changes to procedure and case law and, if so, how the basic requirements of a fair trial and judicial analysis are to be accommodated in such a process”.

 

Nicely put.  The  approach adopted ‘could not have been more robust’  – well, not unless the advocates in sequential order had carefully and precisely driven their cars into the Judge’s own car in front of him, moments before the hearing. The Court of Appeal do wonders with their “hell to the power of no, squared”

  1. The expectation is therefore that a CMH will ordinarily be an essential management hearing designed to get the case in proper order to enable it to be ready for disposal, whether by consent or following a contested hearing, within 26 weeks. This is in contrast to the IRH when all the evidence, including expert evidence should be filed and where, unlike the CMH, the rules specifically require consideration to be given as to whether the IRH “can be used as a final hearing” (PD12A Stage 3- Issues Resolution Hearing)
  2. Every care judge will be conscious that, whilst it is in a child’s best interests for their future to be determined without delay, it is equally in their best interests that the management of the case which determines their future should be fair and Article 6 compliant. The danger lies when, as unfortunately happened here, vigorous and robust case management tips over into an unfair summary disposal of a case.

 

The President took up the baton

  1. My Lord has drawn attention to the famous words of Lord Hewart CJ in R v Sussex Justices [1924] 1 KB 256, 259. In the present case it is unhappily all too apparent that no dispassionate observer of the proceedings or reader of the transcript could think that justice was done, let alone that it was seen to be done. It was not.
  2. Vigorous and robust case management has a vital role to play in all family cases, but as rule 1.1 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 makes clear, the duty of the court is to “deal with cases justly, having regard to any welfare issues involved”. So, as my Lord has emphasised, robustness cannot trump fairness.
  3. In the context of case management, fairness has two aspects: first, the case management hearing itself must be conducted fairly; secondly, as I observed in the passage in Re TG to which my Lord has referred, the task of the case management judge is to arrange a trial that is fair. Here, there was a failure in both respects.
  4. We are all familiar with the aphorism that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’. But justice can equally be denied if inappropriately accelerated. An unseemly rush to judgment can too easily lead to injustice. As Pauffley J warned in Re NL (A child) (Appeal: Interim Care Order: Facts and Reasons) [2014] EWHC 270 (Fam), [2014] 1 FLR 1384, para 40, “Justice must never be sacrificed upon the altar of speed.”
  5. Rule 22.1 gives the case management judge extensive powers to control the evidence in a children case: see Re TG, paras 27-28. But these powers must always be exercised, especially in care cases where the stakes are so high, in a way which pays due regard to two fundamental principles which apply as much to family cases as to any other type of case.
  6. First, a parent facing the removal of their child must be entitled to put their case to the court, however seemingly forlorn. It is one of the oldest principles of our law – it goes back over 400 years, to the earliest years of the seventeenth century – that no-one is to be condemned unheard: see Re G (Care: Challenge to Local Authority’s Decision) [2003] EWHC 551 (Fam), [2003] 2 FLR 42, paras 28-29. As I observed (para 55):

    “The fact, if fact it be, that the circumstances are such as to justify intervention by the State, … does not absolve the State of its duty nonetheless to act fairly. It is not enough for the State to make a fair decision: the State must itself act fairly in the way in which it goes about arriving at its decision.”

    A parent who wishes to give evidence in answer to a local authority’s care application must surely be permitted to do so.

  7. Secondly, there is the right to confront ones accusers. So, a parent who wishes to cross-examine an important witness whose evidence is being relied upon by the local authority must surely be permitted to do so.
  8. I stress the word important. I am not suggesting that a parent has an absolute right to cross-examine every witness or to ask unlimited questions of a witness merely with a view to ‘testing the evidence’ or in the hope, Micawber-like, that something may turn up. Case management judges have to strike the balance, ensuring that there is a fair trial, recognising that a fair trial does not entitle a parent, even in a care case, to explore every by-way, but also being alert to ensure that no parent is denied the right to put the essence of their case to witnesses on those parts of their evidence that may have a significant impact on the outcome.
  9. Quite apart from the fundamentally important points of principle which are here in play, there is great danger in jumping too quickly to the view that nothing is likely to be achieved by hearing evidence or allowing cross-examination, in concluding that the outcome is obvious. My Lord has referred to what Megarry J said in John v Rees. The forensic context there was far removed from the one with which are here concerned, but the point is equally apposite. As I said in Re TG, para 72:

    “Most family judges will have had the experience of watching a seemingly solid care case brought by a local authority being demolished, crumbling away, at the hands of skilled and determined counsel.”

  10. I agree with my Lady that there can, in principle, be care cases where the final order is made at the case management hearing. But, unless the decision goes by concession or consent, it will only be exceptionally, in unusual circumstances and on rare occasions, that this can ever be appropriate. Re H, to which my Lady has referred, was such a case, but the particular and unusual facts which there justified a summary process need to be borne in mind. Re H is not and must not be treated as justification for any general principle, let alone for proceeding as the judge did in the present case.
  11. Quite apart from the fact that such a ruthlessly truncated process as the judge adopted here was fundamentally unprincipled and unfair, it also prevented both the children’s guardian and the court doing what the law demanded of them in terms of complying with the requirements of the Children Act 1989 and PD12A. I agree with my Lady’s analysis, in particular in relation to care plans and the meaning and effect of the various provisions in sections 31 and 31A of the Act to which she has referred.

 

Now, of course Judges are human beings, and can have a bad day. And of course, there are some Judges who would have read the background and thought “well, this is one that has some inevitability written all over it”. There might even be Judges who would cut back on the timetable proposed by the parties and view this as a fast track case. One could make a reasonable argument for finishing this case in 10 weeks rather than 26.

There might even be Judges who are unable to supress what their eyebrows think of the whole state of affairs.

But if you’re a Judge in a family case who has made a decision which the appeal Courts can describe as ruthlesss, fundamentally unprincipled and unfair, then things have gone very badly wrong.

I don’t practice in this particular area of the country, but I wonder whether any advocate representing a parent could possibly feel that their client is going to get a fair hearing from a Judge who was capable of making a decision of this sort.

 

Beware the PLO my son! the jaws that bite, the claws that catch (Is the PLO coming to Court of Protection?)

 

Having opened with Lewis Carroll, I’ll digress to Bruce Springsteen – if you practice in the Court of Protection –  “You’d better not pout, you’d better not cry, you’d better watch out, I’m telling you why – the PLO is coming to town”

 

Cases A and B (Court of Protection : Delay and Costs) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCOP/2014/48.html

Mr Justice Peter Jackson  (I know, it is supposed to be Jackson J, but when there are two Jackson J’s, that just causes confusion) gave a judgment in two linked Court of Protection cases that had gone on an inordinate length of time and cost an inordinate amount of public money, and ended with this exhortation to the President  (who of course wears those two hats of President of the Family Division And President of the Court of Protection)

 

The purpose of this judgment is to express the view that the case management provisions in the Court of Protection Rules have proved inadequate on their own to secure the necessary changes in practice. While cases about children and cases about incapacitated adults have differences, their similarities are also obvious. There is a clear procedural analogy to be drawn between many welfare proceedings in the Court of Protection and proceedings under the Children Act. As a result of the Public Law Outline, robust case management, use of experts only where necessary, judicial continuity, and a statutory time-limit, the length of care cases has halved in two years. Yet Court of Protection proceedings can commonly start with no timetable at all for their conclusion, nor any early vision of what an acceptable outcome would look like. The young man in Case B is said to have a mental age of 8. What would we now say if it took five years – or 18 months – to decide the future of an 8-year-old?

 

I therefore believe that the time has come to introduce the same disciplines in the Court of Protection as now apply in the Family Court. Accordingly, and at his request, I am sending a copy of this judgment to the President of the Court of Protection, Sir James Munby, for his consideration.

 

Brace yourselves, Court of Protection folk, for “streamlining” and “case management” and “standardised documents” most of which will make you wish that you had taken a different career path – for example, rather than “Law” that you had decided to become a practice subject for CIA agents working on their interrogation techniques.

The Judge has a point here, we absolutely would not tolerate cases involving a vulnerable 8 year old taking 5 years* (*although see case after case of private law children cases that drag on for years and years) and costing this sort of money.

 

  1. In Case A, the proceedings lasted for 18 months. In round figures, the estimated legal costs were £140,000, of which about £60,000 fell on the local authority, £11,000 on a legally-aided family member, and £69,000 on the young man himself, paid from his damages.
  2. In Case B, the proceedings lasted for five years. In round figures, the estimated legal costs were £530,000, of which about £169,000 fell on the local authority, £110,000 on a family member (who ran out of money after three years and represented himself thereafter), and £250,000 on the young man himself, paid for out of legal aid.
  3. These figures are conservative estimates.
  4. Each case therefore generated legal costs at a rate of approximately £9,000 per month.

 

The Judge draws a comparison between taxi drivers and advocates (and not the usual “cab-rank principle” one)

  1. Just as the meter in a taxi keeps running even when not much is happening, so there is a direct correlation between delay and expense. As noted above, the great majority of the cost of these cases fell on the state. Public money is in short supply, not least in the area of legal aid, and must be focussed on where it is most needed: there are currently cases in the Family Court that cannot be fairly tried for lack of paid legal representation. Likewise, Court of Protection cases like these are of real importance and undoubtedly need proper public funding, but they are almost all capable of being decided quickly and efficiently, as the Rules require.
  2. In short, whether we are spending public or private money, the court and the parties have a duty to ensure that the costs are reasonable. That duty perhaps bites particularly sharply when we are deciding that an incapacitated person’s money should be spent on deciding his future, whether he likes it or not.

 

It is very hard to argue against that, and there can be little worse than burning through a vulnerable person’s money in order to protect them from financial or alleged financial abuse (see for example Re G, and the “94 year old woman subject to gagging order” case)

 

What drives up those costs? The Judge identified two major things – a search for a perfect solution, rather than a decent solution that carries with it some imperfections, and a tendency to deal with every concievable issue rather than to focus on what really matters.

 

A common driver of delay and expense is the search for the ideal solution, leading to decent but imperfect outcomes being rejected. People with mental capacity do not expect perfect solutions in life, and the requirement in Section 1(5) of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 that “An act done, or decision made, under this Act for or on behalf of a person who lacks capacity must be done, or made, in his best interests.” calls for a sensible decision, not the pursuit of perfection.

Likewise, there is a developing practice in these cases of addressing every conceivable legal or factual issue, rather than concentrating on the issues that really need to be resolved. As Mrs Justice Parker said in Re PB [2014] EWCOP 14:

“All those who practice in the Court of Protection must appreciate that those who represent the vulnerable who cannot give them capacitous instructions have a particular responsibility to ensure that the arguments addressed are proportionate and relevant to the issues, to the actual facts with which they are dealing rather than the theory, and to have regard to the public purse, court resources and other court users.”

  1. There is also a tendency for professional co-operation to be dissipated in litigation. This was epitomised in Case A, where the litigation friend’s submission focussed heavily on alleged shortcomings by the local authority, even to the extent that it was accompanied by a dense document entitled “Chronology of Faults”. But despite this, the author had no alternative solution to offer. The role of the litigation friend in representing P’s interests is not merely a passive one, discharged by critiquing other peoples’ efforts. Where he considers it in his client’s interest, he is entitled to research and present any realistic alternatives.
  2. The problem of excessive costs is not confined to the Court of Protection. In his recent judgment in J v J [2014] EWHC 3654 (Fam). Mr Justice Mostyn referred to the £920,000 spent by a divorcing couple on financial proceedings as “grotesque”. In V v V [2011] EWHC 1190 (Fam), I described the sum of £925,000 spent by a couple who had not even begun their financial proceedings as “absurd”. Yet everyday experience in the High Court, Family Court and Court of Protection shows that these are by no means isolated examples: in some case the costs are even greater. There is a danger that we become habituated to what Mostyn J called “this madness”, and that we admire the problem instead of eliminating it.
  3. The main responsibility for this situation and its solution must lie with the court, which has the power to control its proceedings.

 

I hope that if there is going to be a committee or working group on solving some of the problems in the Court of Protection that they can co-opt Mr Justice Peter Jackson and District Judge Eldergill onto it – both of them are extremely sensitive and sensible Judges and the Court of Protection could do a lot worse than have its future steered by them.

Triborough a little tenderness

 

A dash through the evaluation of the Tri-borough project aimed at completing care proceedings within 26 weeks.

 

This is a valuable assessment, being the first evaluation of how the new PLO 26 week timetable works in the wild  , and you can find it here

 

http://www.uea.ac.uk/ssf/centre-research-child-family/news-and-events/news/2012-13/Triborough

 

The Tri-boroughs are Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster, and they rolled out a plan to achieve the 26 week timetable in care proceedings.

 

Caveat to all of this – I couldn’t find anything that indicated that ALL of the cases in those boroughs were included in the pilot  – clearly if there was an “opt-in to the Pilot” then the findings become less valuable, since it would be simple to ‘weed out’ the cases that appear complex or problematic so that they never went into the pot.  It is also worth noting that over the course of the Pilot, one of the Boroughs had reduced their LAC numbers by 30%, which may have had some influence on volumes of proceedings.

 

Their findings are useful. The first thing to note is that whilst all professionals and the local judiciary were throwing the kitchen sink at finishing these cases within 26 weeks, by the end of the pilot period, as many cases took LONGER than 27 weeks as had finished within 27 weeks.

 

The timescales for concluding proceedings had however gone down massively with the new way of working – although they hadn’t hit the target of 26 weeks in over half the cases, they had cut the average duration of proceedings down from 49 weeks to 27 weeks.  And for the longest running cases – the outliers, they had cut these down by almost half, from 99 weeks to 52 weeks. That is impressive, by any standards.

 

 

I think that these comments from the key summary points are helpful, and worth quoting in full

 

 

The fact that the median length of proceedings is now around 26 weeks means, of course, that half the cases are still taking longer than 26 weeks. This should not necessarily be viewed in a negative light since some case-by-case flexibility about the length of proceedings is surely necessary in the interests of children’s welfare and justice. The pilot demonstrates that some flexibility can coexist with meaningful efforts to bear down on unnecessary court delay.

 

 Proceedings involving a single child were shorter (median 25 weeks) than those involving sibling groups (32 weeks). Proceedings resulting in a care order, with or without a concurrent placement order were shorter (median 20 weeks) than cases resulting in an SGO (26 weeks) or in the child returning or remaining at home on a supervision order, with or without a residence order (29 weeks).

 

A lot of the professionals who were interviewed during the evaluation had been concerned (as am I) that attempting to artificially constrain the duration of proceedings might result in unfairness in individual cases even whilst it might be good for the system overall.  In reality in the pilot, it appears that those cases that NEEDED more time were given it.   That is a scheme that I would be behind, but the fear remains that pressure is being applied based on raw numbers and data to drive the duration down with unfairness in some individual cases being an acceptable collateral damage. I hope this lesson from the Tri-borough pilot is taken on board by The Powers That Might Be Giants, but am slightly doubtful.

 

What also interested me in the summaries above was confirmation that a longer duration of proceedings doesn’t automatically mean a bad thing. One can see that you can finish proceedings more quickly if you get what many would consider to be the WORST option (child adopted by strangers) and it takes the longest time to get the BEST option (child being successfully placed with a parent). I also hope that THIS lesson is taken on board – I am rather more doubtful about that.

 

 

I suggest moving through the report to the graph at figure 2.4.  This shows where at each stage, time savings have been achieved.

 

The time from pre-proceedings to issue was about the same. The time from issue to CMC was about the same. The time from CMC to IRH sped up from 26 weeks to 15 weeks, a big reduction in time.

 

But, look at the next bit – the time from IRH (the hearing at which all the evidence should be ready, and the case can either be concluded, or a final contested hearing take place) to final order  – this reduced from 15 weeks to 5.5 weeks.

 

This is an ODD figure.  Nothing that was going on in the pilot ought to have affected the waiting time between IRH and final hearing.

 

Here are the five possible explanations that my cynical mind has come up with:-

 

 

 

A)   s the figure is an average, the Pilot massively increased the proportion of the cases that concluded at IRH rather than final hearing. But the text discounts that, saying that actually the reverse is true – nearly one in six pilot cases finished at IRH, whereas nearly one in three pre-pilot cases finished at IRH. So it isn’t that.

 

B)   The time estimate for contested final hearings went down, thus giving the Court more hearings in the same time period, and making it quicker to list.  (reducing the waiting time from 15 weeks to 5.5 weeks seems a LOT for this) . The report doesn’t give me the data on duration of final hearings pre-pilot and during the pilot, which might be interesting for that. 

 

C)   Because there were less experts, the Court didn’t have to provide dates which suited that limited expert availability. (Under THIS theory, the Court had previously been offering dates quicker than 15 weeks which had, pre-pilot, been turned down due to not being suitable for the expert, but during the pilot could be made use of)

 

D)    There were additional judicial resources in terms of sitting days in the Tri-boroughs during the pilot. 

 

E)   When deciding the date for the final hearing at IRH, pilot cases were getting priority over non-pilot cases  (that’s my polite way of saying ‘queue jumping’

 

 

I would rather like to know more about this, because the 9.5 week saving here represents quite a big chunk of the 22 week time saving the Pilot had achieved as an average. I genuinely hope that it is as a result of B and C, and not the other factors.

 

One would need to know whether that was replicable across the country (i.e it was done fairly) before one could get excited about it.  Without that saving of time at the back-end, the average duration of care proceedings would be stuck at the 35-38 week point.

 

 

There’s an interview with a family law solicitor that expresses just this point, I think rather well (it isn’t me)

 

Now I am aware that the Ministry of Justice is going through a process of trying to make large savings in terms of judicial sittings and appointment of full-time judges, and I also wonder whether the courts can deliver on making courts available, judges available, to make decisions on time, so that we are not waiting four to five months for court time. Because if we are going to be faced with courts saying, ‘Well from the point of an IRH to when a care final hearing is listed, you have to wait four to five months,’ which is very common in the recent past and is not uncommon now, then any savings you make are just going to fly straight out of the window. You are sitting there everybody with their arms folded, the case beautifully presented and no court available to make the decision. So…it is not just the local authorities, it is also court availability and that seems to me problematic. The thing is we are going to be told I am sure, that with a unified court, that’s going to solved, I am doubtful personally, from what I see day in day out in court….And I fear that courts won’t be able to deliver on this in the year. (Family solicitor, Int 3)

 

And

 

I think where it won’t be sustainable is in the ability of the court to accommodate hearings as quickly as they did. (Local authority solicitor, Int 9)

 

 

Both make me suspicious that the savings on the “Wait from IRH to final hearing” weren’t necessarily achieved by replicable means.

 

Of course, if in the headline Pilot study, where the suspicion exists that extra judicial resources AND priority status was given to listing final hearings, it is pretty worrying that it STILL took 5 ½ weeks from IRH to get a final hearing. Since we know that for run-of-the-mill work, we have six weeks from IRH to find a final hearing…. cough, cough… ooh look everyone, an elephant!

 

 

And the report also touches on the ever present difficulty of Pilot studies, that being part of a Pilot tends to focus and energise people and that knowing whether that could be sustained in a national roll-out.

 

 

The concern then is that the pilot has benefitted from unusually favourable conditions (relatively wealthy boroughs, changes in staffing levels at Cafcass, special treatment in the courts), and that it has required, as we discussed earlier, if not more actual time, then higher than average levels of commitment, effort, focus. We discussed previously the fact that views were surprisingly diverse as to whether the pilot added or subtracted from staff workloads in terms of time but it does seem clear that more effort (also described by participants in terms of being ‘strong’ or ‘robust’ or having ‘energy’) is needed to work in this new way.

 

 

The report also echoes the findings of Masson, that the duration of pre-proceedings work had no positive bearing on the duration of the proceedings. In fact, oddly (and this may just be a quirk of a relatively small sample size), the cases where the formal Pre-Proceedings Protocol was used took slightly longer to conclude than those where it wasn’t. (figure 5.2)

 

One of the fears of the new PLO was that delay would be shifted to pre-proceedings rather than during court proceedings, but the pilot evaluation showed that not only did this not happen, there seemed to be a sharper focus on issuing proceedings at an earlier stage. For cases other than newborns, the time between issue of Letter Before Proceedings and issue of proceedings came down from an average of sixteen weeks to an average of six weeks.  (Figure 5.3)

 

(One might query whether six weeks is long enough for a parent to turn anything around, but clearly this figure isn’t showing that the delay was just moved to pre-proceedings)

 

The time children had spent on child protection plans before proceedings were issued had also come down, quite considerably.

 

Pre-proceedings drift, a major worry for many professionals, does seem to have been avoided by the Tri-boroughs pilot, and for that, if nothing else, there must be some valuable lessons to be learned.

Voice of the child in pre-proceedings work

 

Work done with the Local Authority and parents before the case ever gets to Court (and ideally with the view of the case never needing to come to Court) has been important for a few years now, and will become even more important when the new PLO comes in, and there’s even more emphasis on what happened before the case got into the Court-room.

 

There have been many people saying for a number of years, that not having a Guardian, representing the child’s interests and being either the check-and-balance to a Local Authority who may be being zealous or oppressive OR an independent person who is able to impartially communicate to the parents that they are in a perilous situation if improvements are not made, is a major flaw in the pre-proceedings system.

 

It is for that reason that a pilot was set up in Coventy and Warwickshire, to have a Guardian involved in pre-proceedings meetings between the social worker and the parents.

 

The pilot is complete now, and the report is available here http://www.cafcass.gov.uk/media/167143/coventry_and_warwickshire_pre-proceedings_pilot_final_report_july_4_2013.pdf

 

{There was a third pilot area, Liverpool, and there will be a report on that in due course}

 

The positive aspects of the pilot was that the diversion rate of pre-proceedings cases where a Guardian was involved was fifty per cent   (by diversion rate, they mean, cases that ended up with the problems being sufficiently resolved by the parents that the case did not have to go to Court).  That’s a decent figure, comparing favourably to the existing Masson studies of pre-proceedings work generally diverting about 25% of cases, and the other cases in the samples in those Local Authorities where Guardians were not involved.

 

 

Of the cases that do go to Court, are they dealt with any faster? Well, the sample sizes are frankly very small to draw conclusions from – one or two “long runners” could skew the figures very badly, but they do claim that the Pre proceedings cases where there WAS a Guardian (CAFCASS Plus) finished more quickly than the ones where there was not

 

The overall average (mean) duration of the care proceedings for the Cafcass PLUS cases (excluding the complex cases) is 36.3 weeks (based on 11 cases). The duration of the comparator cases is 42.6 weeks (18 cases). There is a distinct differencebetween the Warwickshire Cafcass PLUS and comparator cases in respect of careproceedings duration. There are fewer longer running cases (more than 40 weeks) in the Cafcass PLUS sample as a whole.

 

I really think the sample size is far too small to get excited about that. And actually, is the over-arching aim of having a voice for the child in pre-proceedings work speed of resolution, as opposed to fairness and getting the work done right?

 

 

The positive diversion rates, the pilot considers largely due to two things – (1) galvanising extended family members to assist the parents, and this seems to me to be a very laudable aim and (2) parents engaging in reparative work.

 

It would have been interesting to know whether the involvement of a Guardian either increased the reach out to family members OR somehow made it more likely that the family members ‘stepped up to the plate’. And also whether the reparative work was either better focussed, or the parents more committed to making use of it.    That would be something I would hope is focussed on more, if the pilot is enhanced in numbers.

 

This bit is interesting

 

However, the pilot also provides clear evidence that where cases progressed to court on an unplanned basis and local authority work is

incomplete, then the FCA was not able overturn deficiencies in pre-­proceedings practice.

 

[i.e, where the pre-proceedings work hasn’t been done very well, having a Guardian on board didn’t fix that. That seems to me rather disappointing, that’s clearly what one would hope that a Guardian would be doing during this pre-proceedings work, making sure that the LA did the work properly and covered all of the bases, with the benefit of that fresh pair of eyes and an independent pair of eyes.]

 

 

The pilot report raises some very good questions about systemic causes of delay, two of the four of which rest on the shoulders of the Courts rather than other professionals

 

Systemic factors include:

 

1. the enduring problem of variability in the quality of social work

assessment but equally failure of courts to recognise good social work

practice which creates something of a ‘chicken and an egg’ situation;

 

2. that a number of cases appear to enter the pre-proceedings process too late, such that the window for further assessment and attempt to effect change is missed and cases then progress to court on an

unplanned/emergency basis;

 

3. the difficulty of making effective decisions about, and providing effective support to parents with fluctuating mental capacity who are not deemed to warrant the services of the Official Solicitor;

 

4. difficulties in timetabling contested final hearings due to insufficient court sitting time and problems of co-ordinating the diaries of very busy

professionals.

 

 

The Official Solicitor issue is a perennial one, and becoming even more important as we have a hard cap of 26 weeks – if you can’t fairly work with parents or ask them to make decisions/agree assessments/sign written agreements because they don’t have capacity to do so, and you can’t get the Official Solicitor representing them until you are in proceedings, it will mean that all parents who lack capacity will have less time to turn their problems round than ones who do have capacity. That seems to me to be a decent Disability Discrimination case to run at some point.

 

The pilot report echoes many of the issues already raised in the Masson report about pre-proceedings work, chiefly the overwhelming feeling of professionals involved that the Court didn’t really pay any attention to it and that Courts simply routinely commission fresh assessments with the view that any parenting or risk assessment only counts if it takes place within Court proceedings.

 

 

Independence is an important issue – there’s an obvious risk that a Guardian who participates in pre-proceedings work that culminates in care proceedings being issued might be felt by the parents to have come to the care proceedings with a view of the case already formed  (rather than being completely fresh and impartial at the time that proceedings are issued)

 

The FCA’s Independence: was it in question?

The question of whether pre-proceedings involvement of the FCA compromised the FCA’s independence was raised by a range of stakeholders encountered during the course of this project. A review of parents’ statements did not reveal any concerns about this from their representatives in the Cafcass PLUS sample. The FCAs themselves stated that they did not feel their independence was compromised by

earlier involvement, they felt able to assert an independent perspective regardless of when they became involved in a case. Of course, in a small number of cases, because the FCA who was involved in pre-­proceedings had left the service, in actual fact the

case was then allocated to another FCA as described above.

 

 

[If you’ll forgive me, I’ll continue to use the word “guardian” rather than Family Court Advisor or FCA, I just don’t like it… I still miss “Guardian ad Litem” to be frank]

 

The report overall is positive about the benefits to be achieved by involving Guardians in pre-proceedings work.  I am afraid that given the costs and resources that rolling it out nationally would require, the pilot study would have needed to be much more glowing and triumphant.  And that in particular, it would have needed to show that Guardian involvement pre-proceedings had a real bearing on the success of cases being concluded within 26 weeks.

 

I think in the current climate and the agendas that are being pursued, I don’t see this pilot being positive enough to be rolled out. But it is still an interesting report and the issues that it touches on of just how hard hitting those 26 week targets will be until there is genuine systemic change are important ones.

 

 

 

[Voting link for Suesspicious Minds in the Family Law awards – you can vote for me – or any of the other candidates, who incidentally are not offering to save your life at some unspecified point in the future, here

 

http://www.familylawawards.com/ShortlistedNominees2012   ]

View from the President 2 : Into Darkness ?

The President of the Family Division has published his second bulletin/speech/rallying cry/let’s get ready to rumble.

This is backing up a lot of what is rumoured to be in the new PLO and represents a significant shift in judicial mindset from the current practice. Less paper, more analysis, is the “too long, didn’t read” summary

 

It is an important precursor to the PLO and is worth reading in full

 

http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Reports/pfd-process-reform-revised-plo-may-2013.pdf

 

 

It confirms that the thinking is for a CMC on day 12  (I’ve already written about what that would mean for any parent solicitor seeking an expert assessment)

 

It confirms the thinking that we would basically have three lots of material – that filed in the Court bundle  (slimmed down, almost to ring binder status), a set of primary disclosure which is given to the parties and choice bits might find their way into the Court bundle but it doesn’t go to the Judge until that sifting process is done, and effectively a list of unused material which the parties may seek discovery of.

 

This reinforces really that counsel who will be running the case on behalf of the parents needs to be involved throughout – it won’t be any good someone sitting down and prepping a five day trial on the Friday before, because it will be too late to realise that there’s something useful in those papers which haven’t been before the Court.  Of course, continuity of counsel is great and very important anyway, but it comes at a price – there has to be some resolution of the conflict between counsel’s availability and when the Court can accommodate hearings, and I’m yet to see a proposal for this.

 

It confirms that the Court don’t want to see any documents that are older than two years   (for my own part, I assume that for that purpose they don’t necessarily mean to exclude thresholds or judgments of previous proceedings, but everything else would go)

 

At the same time, there is a strong imperative to produce documents that are focused and succinct. The social work chronology must contain a succinct summary of the significant dates and events in the child’s life. The threshold statement is to be limited to no more than 2 pages.

 

 

Well…. yes with a but.  If you pick up a file of previous proceedings that was dealt with by someone else, from years ago, or from another local authority, the final determined threshold is a really decent way of seeing what the problems and concerns in the case were – not the allegations, but what was finally determined. A two page one isn’t going to be much use (unless we have to run alongside it an old-fashioned meaningful Guardian’s report which draws together the entire case)

 

We must get away from existing practice. All too often, and partly as a result of previous initiatives, local authorities are filing enormously voluminous materials, which – and this is not their fault – are not merely far too long; too often they are narrative and historical, rather than analytical. I repeat what I have previously said. I want to send out a clear message: local authority materials can be much shorter than hitherto, and they should be more focused on analysis than on history and narrative.

In short, the local authority materials must be succinct and analytical. But they must also of course be evidence based.

I worry there that we are just going to have hour upon hour during final hearings of  ” Well, this isn’t in your statement”      and rightly “My client hasn’t been able to see this in your statement, and therefore hasn’t been able to deal with it before now”

And on the issue of experts

 

 

One of the problems is that in recent years too many social workers have come to feel undervalued, disempowered and deskilled. In part at least this is an unhappy consequence of the way in which care proceedings have come to be dealt with by the courts. If the revised PLO is properly implemented one of its outcomes will, I hope, be to reposition social workers as trusted professionals playing the central role in care proceedings which too often of late has been overshadowed by our unnecessary use of and reliance upon other experts.

Social workers are experts. In just the same way, I might add, CAFCASS officers are experts. In every care case we have at least two experts – a social worker and a guardian – yet we have grown up with a culture of believing that they are not really experts and we therefore need experts with a capital E. The plain fact is that much of the time we do not.

 

 

Social workers may not be experts for the purposes of Part 25 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010, but that does not mean that they are not experts in every other sense of the word. They are, and we must recognise them and treat them as such.

 

 

One assumes that the Court of Appeal  (which has several of the drivers of the family justice modernisation sitting on it) will this time around, back Judges who make robust case management decisions, rather than slap them, which is what brought the PLO and the Protocol to their knees.

 

I’m not so sure – it seems to me that faced with an individual case where rigorous application of the new 26 week principles seem to result in unfairness and prejudice to a child’s chance to be brought up within a family, the Court of Appeal will do what is best for that individual child, rather than the system as a whole. That’s what they are charged to do, and it seems to me proper that they do that.  It will depend, of course, on the detail and flavour of the first cases that come before them on   :-

 

(i)                 I was refused an expert because it would have gone out of timescales

(ii)               I was refused for my Auntie Beryl (who used to be a foster carer in Croydon) to be assessed, because I didn’t realise it was going to end up with adoption, so I didn’t tell her my child was in care until week 19.

(iii)             The expert said I could parent my child and make the changes if I was given six months of help, but the Court made a Care Order.

 

 

And whether the cases that come before the Court of Appeal are strong on their facts.

[If you are thinking, by the way, that the subtitle to the article is a gratuitous excuse for a Star Trek reference and a chance to put in another picture of Benedict Cumberbath for the benefit of Ms Suesspicious Minds, you would be correct]

benedict