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“Unnourished by sense.”

 

It is always nice to see a judgment from Sir James Munby, and this one has everything, including the title above, which I intend to steal and deploy at every available opportunity.

 

(The fact that the phrase was originally coined by an American Judge whose given name was “Frankfurter” makes me even fonder of it, as does the fact that the case it was taken from is one where the US Court ruled that the historical rule that a husband and wife could not conspire to commit a criminal act was nonsense based on medieval views of women being the property of their husband  United States v Dege 1960 http://www.worldlii.org/us/cases/federal/USSC/1960/136.html

 

Such an immunity to husband and wife as a pair of conspirators would have to attribute to Congress one of two assumptions: either that responsibility of husband and wife for joint participation in a criminal enterprise would make for marital disharmony, or that a wife must be presumed to act under the coercive influence of her husband and, therefore, cannot be a willing participant. The former assumption is unnourished by sense; the latter implies a view of American womanhood offensive to the ethos of our society. )

 

What is the case about?

In a nutshell, some people got divorced on the grounds of 2 years separation when they hadn’t been separated for 2 years (in one of the cases, they’d only been married for 22 months, so couldn’t possibly have been separated for 2 years). The Court wrongly granted the divorces. The problem got flagged up by Court software after the event [apparently showing that 11 divorces were made in 2016 that shouldn’t have been granted], the Court fudged the mistake by making orders it didn’t have power to make. The people then remarried, making them inadvertently bigamists, Sir James Munby learned of the Court software throwing up divorces that had been wrongly made and looked into it, the Legal Aid Agency said (I’m paraphrasing) “Just because the State cocked up your divorce, and now says you’re not divorced, or might not be, and you might be a bigamist or might not be,  and your new husband might be deported by the immigration authorities if your second marriage isn’t lawful, and you need to be in a Court hearing to argue about that involving really complex case law going back to 1936, the case law being so complicated that it made a former President of the Family Division (but not Sir James Munby) say with exasperation “I find it impossible to discover any clear and logical principle from the decided cases.” , well all of that doesn’t mean that you get legal aid to help put this right. You are £37.17 a month over the limit for legal aid. Do it yourself. Good luck, pal. ”

 

THAT is what caused Sir James Munby to say

 

 

  • I do not criticise the Legal Aid Agency which was, no doubt, operating within the confines of a system imposed on it by others. But the idea that someone with an available net monthly income of £625.87 (the amount if one takes the actual rather than the notional amount of her rent: £1,580.87 – (1,500 – 545) = £625.87) and, for all practical purposes, no capital has the means to fund litigation of this kind is, to adopt a phrase used by Frankfurter J in United States v Dege (1960) 364 US 51, page 53, “unnourished by sense.” Nor is it immediately obvious why someone whose disposable income is so low should be denied legal aid because their aggregate income exceeds some artificial limit, let alone when it does so by a sum as trivial as £37.17. After all, P, like all of us, has to live on what is left after payment of PAYE and NI (deducted, of course, at source) and the costs of housing.
  • What ought also to be obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense and understanding of forensic realities is that no lay person in the position of either P, or for that matter M, could possibly be expected to argue a case of this legal complexity, and this even if English was their native tongue.
  • What I was faced with here was the profoundly disturbing fact that P does not qualify for legal aid but manifestly lacks the financial resources to pay for legal representation in circumstances where, to speak plainly, it was unthinkable that she should have to face the Queen’s Proctor’s application without proper representation. The State has simply washed its hands of the problem, leaving the solution to the problem which the State itself has created to the goodwill, the charity, of the legal profession. For what brought this matter to court was, to repeat, failures, mistakes, by the State, by the court system, and, specifically by judges. Moreover, the application has been mounted by an officer of the State, the Queen’s Proctor. Yet the State has declined all responsibility for ensuring that P is able to participate effectively in the proceedings. I make as clear as possible that in saying this I intend not the slightest criticism of the Queen’s Proctor, who has acted throughout with complete propriety and, moreover, with conspicuous concern for the predicament in which P and M find themselves. Indeed, the Queen’s Proctor, having discussed the point with the court, very properly took the highly unusual step of writing to Messrs Duncan Lewis a letter to assist with P’s application for legal aid in this case. Yet the situation is, it might be thought, both unprincipled and unconscionable. Why should the State leave it to private individuals to ensure that hapless individuals like P and M, victims of the State’s failings, are able to obtain justice? Or is society in the twenty-first century content with the thought, excoriated well over a century ago by Matthew LJ, that justice, like the Ritz, is open to all? It is deeply wrong and potentially most unfair that legal representation in a case like this, where it is a vital necessity, is available only if the lawyers, as here, agree to work for nothing.

 

 

And

 

121.The ultimate safeguard for someone faced with the might of the State remains today, as traditionally, the fearless advocate bringing to bear in the sole interests of the lay client all the advocate’s skill, experience, expertise, dedication, tenacity and commitment. So the role of specialist family counsel, and of the specialist family solicitors who instruct them, is vital in ensuring that justice is done and that so far as possible miscarriages of justice are prevented. May there never be wanting an adequate supply of skilled and determined lawyers, barristers and solicitors, willing and able to undertake this vitally important work. There can be no higher call on the honour of the Bar than when one of its members is asked to act on behalf of a client facing the might of the State. The Bar, I am sure, will never fail in its obligation to stand between Crown and subject. And the same of course goes for the solicitors’ profession. But there is something profoundly distasteful when society, when Government, relies upon this as an excuse for doing nothing, trusting to the professions to do the right thing which the State is so conspicuously unwilling to do or to provide for.

 

The lawyers in this case worked for free to represent people caught up in a life-altering piece of litigation because the State cocked up.

 

I also like that the Daily Telegraph headlined this story in their indupitable way

126.During the hearing on 28 February 2019, I mentioned the fact that I had discovered certain problems with an early version of the software. This, I should emphasise, was well before it was first made available to the public. The fact that I, as an elderly judge, had been able to identify such gremlins seemed to surprise the media: a report of the hearing in the Daily Telegraph of 1 March 2019 carried the headline “Online divorce service glitch revealed by senior judge, 70“, faithfully reflecting the story beneath.

 

 

 

You may be thinking at this point that blaming it on software is easy but decree nisi and decree absolute are actually made by Judges and surely even busy Judges could look at a marriage that was 22 months ago and see that it couldn’t possibly be a 2 year separation case. You are right. Ultimately the mistakes were made by Judges.  (There were 11 such cases in 2016, this is a sample one)

 

  • The parties were married in London on 19 September 2011. In June 2013, the husband, M, acting in person, submitted a divorce petition dated 14 June 2013 to the Willesden County Court. It was returned to M on three occasions before the Court was prepared to accept it: first, on 18 June 2013 because the front page needed to be completed and because of deficiencies in Parts 2 and 4; then on 27 June 2013 because the deficiency in Part 2 had still not been remedied; and finally on 3 July 2013 because with effect from 1 July 2013 the issue fee had increased from £340 to £410. It is to be noted that through all this to-ing and fro-ing no-one in the court office had spotted the fundamental problem with the petition. After these delays, the petition was issued on 26 July 2013.
  • In Part 3, “Jurisdiction”, M asserted jurisdiction in accordance with the Council Regulation, stating that he and his wife, P, were both habitually resident in England and Wales. Part 5, “The fact(s)”, follows the structure of section 1 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and requires the petitioner to mark the relevant boxes. M put a cross in two boxes, one against the rubric “I apply for a divorce on the ground that the marriage had broken down irretrievably”, the other against the rubric “The parties to the marriage/civil partnership have lived apart for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition and the Respondent consents to a decree/order being granted.” In Part 6, “Statement of case”, M wrote: “The respondent has refused to share the same household as the petitioner since the marriage took place on the 19th September 2011.”
  • The problem which has given rise to the present proceedings is immediately apparent: given that the marriage had taken place on 19 September 2011, the period of two years referred to in section 1(2)(d) of the 1973 Act had not elapsed by the date the petition was issued on 26 July 2013. Unhappily, even at this stage the problem was not identified by the staff at Willesden County Court, notwithstanding that the Automatic Event Record generated in the court office and dated 29 July 2013, accurately recorded under the heading Case Details that the Grounds for Divorce (sic) were “2yrs separation”, that the date of marriage was 19 September 2011 and that the date of issue was 26 July 2013.
  • In her acknowledgment of service dated 12 August 2013, P, in answer to question 1C (“Do you agree with the statement of the petitioner as to the grounds of jurisdiction set out in the petition? If not, please state the grounds on which you disagree with the statement of the petitioner.”), answered “I agree with the statement of the petitioner.” In answer to question 4 she stated that she did not intend to defend the case and in answer to question 5 that she consented to a decree being granted. M’s “Statement in support of divorce … – 2 years, consent” was dated 27 September 2013.
  • On 22 October 2013 the file was put before Deputy District Judge Quin. The Deputy District Judge completed the Form D30 (“Consideration of applications for Decree Nisi / Conditional order under FPR 7.20”), by ticking the relevant boxes and making the appropriate deletions so as to say “I certify that the Petitioner is entitled to a decree of divorce on the following ground(s): 2 years separation by consent.”
  • On 21 November 2013, decree nisi was pronounced by District Judge Steel, the order stating, so far as material for present purposes: “The Judge held that the petitioner and respondent have lived apart for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition, and that the respondent consents to a decree being granted …” The decree was made absolute on 24 February 2014.
  • On 26 January 2015, M remarried in Brazil, his new wife being a Brazilian national.
  • On 12 October 2016, a member of the HMCTS Family Improvement Team at HMCTS headquarters emailed the delivery manager at what was now the Family Court at Willesden seeking “urgent information from a divorce file where the petition should not have been issued.” The delivery manager referred the matter to District Judge Middleton-Roy the same day, with this note:

 

“It would appear that this petition was issued in error. It was issued under 2 yrs with consent but the parties were only married for 22 months. Directions/ comments please. DA has already been issued 24/2/14.”

District Judge Middleton-Roy responded the same day. He ticked the “No action necessary” box on the referral form and commented: “I am not clear why the issue has arisen now – neither party appears to be applying to set aside the DA.”

  • The next morning, 13 October 2016, the delivery manager emailed the HMCTS Family Improvement Team to report District Judge Middleton-Roy’s comment. The response from the Family Improvement Team was an email to the delivery manager the same morning:

 

“The issue has been raised as our data checking process returns has picked this case up as a case that should not have been issued, thereby possibly making the DA invalid. Can this be re-referred down to a judge for consideration of directions to be given in view of this …”

The delivery manager put the file back before District Judge Middleton-Roy the same day. On 17 October 2016 he directed that the matter be listed for directions with a time estimate of 30 minutes and instructed the court staff write to both parties as follows:

“The Judge has considered that papers and directs that I write to you as follows: An error has been identified in the process giving rise to the Decree Absolute (final divorce) in these proceedings in 2014. The matter has been listed for a directions hearing when the court will identify what steps are necessary to restore the issue.”

Letters in those terms were sent to both parties on 19 October 2016, enclosing notices, dated 17 October 2016, listing the directions hearing for 18 January 2017.

  • The hearing on 18 January 2017 took place before District Judge Middleton-Roy. M was present in person; P did not attend the hearing. The order made by District Judge Middleton-Roy “RECORDED” certain matters, including that “This hearing was listed of the Court’s own motion and not on the application of either party”; that “The Court was informed that subsequent to the granting of the Decree Absolute in this action, the Petitioner has re-married”; that “The Court determined that the original petition … proceeded erroneously by not relying upon the correct facts in support, namely two years separation, when the parties had not been separated for a full period of two years at the time of presenting the petition”; that “The Court determined that the Petitioner shall be permitted to amend the petition, to rely upon the fact of the Respondent’s behaviour”; and that “The court dispensed with the need for a formal written application to amend the petition and dispensed with the need for notice to be served upon the Respondent, the petition having proceeded on an undefended basis and no answer having been filed.” The order also “RECORDED” that:

 

“The Court determined, declared and certified that the Petitioner is entitled to a decree and that the Decree Nisi dated 21.11.13 and Decree Absolute pronounced in public on 24.02.14 remain valid”

and that:

“The Court declared that nothing in the terms of this Order has the effect of invalidating the Petitioner’s subsequent marriage.”

  • The order further ordered (“It is ordered that”) that:

 

“2.1 Permission to the Petitioner to amend the petition dated 14.06.2013 in the form of the amendment dated 18.02.2017.

2.2 Filing and service of an application to amend the petition is dispensed with.

2.3 The Decree Absolute pronounced on 24.04.2014 remains valid.”

  • The court file contains a copy of the petition marked at the top of the first page, in what appears to be District Judge Middleton-Roy’s handwriting, “AMENDED” and at the foot of the final page “18.01.2017”, again in what appears to be his handwriting, although it appears that M also re-signed the petition. In Part 5 the cross against the rubric “The parties to the marriage/civil partnership have lived apart for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the presentation of the petition and the Respondent consents to a decree/order being granted” has been deleted and, in its place, a cross inserted against the rubric, which was underlined, “The Respondent has behaved in such a way that the Petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the Respondent.”
  • On 24 March 2017, in Brazil, P married a Brazilian national.

 

 

 

The legal argument (and it is complex) hinged on whether the decree absolutes, which were made on an incorrect premise (that the parties had been separated for 2 years when it was apparent on the face of the documents that they had not been) were VOID – which means the divorce didn’t happen and the subsequent remarriages of both parties were unlawful or VOIDABLE meaning that a Court could decide whether to void them or whether to leave the divorces legally intact.

 

The conclusion (and if you want to see how Sir James Munby got there good luck to you, its at paragraphs 45-103 inclusive) is

 

 

 

40.At the end of the hearing I reserved judgment. On 4 March 2019 I informed the parties of my decision: that the decrees are VOIDABLE, not void; that the decrees will NOT be set aside; and that the decree absolute accordingly remains valid and in force. I now (22 March 2019) hand down judgment.

 

And reasoning

 

  • At the end of this long analysis of the jurisprudence, I have come to the clear conclusion that the consequence of what happened in this case is that the decrees are voidable, not void.
  • I can set out my reasoning as follows, taking the points in no particular order:

 

  1. i) First, there is no previous case directly in point. The present case turns on statutory provisions linguistically and analytically different from those in play both in Butler v Butler, The Queen’s Proctor Intervening [1990] 1 FLR 114, and in Manchanda v Manchanda [1995] 2 FLR 590.
  2. ii) Secondly, I should lean against holding the decrees void unless driven to that conclusion by the language and context of the relevant statute, here section 1(2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.

iii) Thirdly, and applying the approach articulated by Sir Jocelyn Simon P in F v F [1971] P 1, I need to ask myself whether Parliament can really have intended that the consequence here should be that the decrees are nullities and void. My answer is that Parliament surely cannot have intended the injustice which will inevitably flow, not just to M and P but also to their new spouses, if the decrees are void.

  1. iv) Fourthly, and as I have already explained, the fact that there has been non-compliance with the statute is not determinative.
  2. v) Fifthly, although recognising that the statutory context is different, the fact is that the structure of section 1(2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 – “the court … shall not … unless the petitioner satisfies the court” – is indistinguishable from that in both section 33(1) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1965 and section 6 of the Divorce Reform Act 1969 (now section 10 of the 1973 Act) – “the court shall not … unless it is satisfied” – and the case-law is all at one that in those cases the consequence of non-compliance is not that the decree is void but rather that it is voidable.
  3. vi) Sixthly, both the statutory context and the structure and language of section 1(2) of the 1973 Act are markedly different from the context, structure and language of section 9(2).

vii) Seventhly, it is quite clear that there was here no non-compliance with section 3 of the 1973 Act, so that, in contrast to the situation in Butler v Butler, The Queen’s Proctor Intervening [1990] 1 FLR 114, the court here did have jurisdiction to entertain the petition.

viii) Eighthly, the petition correctly pleaded the only relevant ground, namely that “the marriage has broken down irretrievably”.

  1. ix) Ninthly, the error in correctly identifying the relevant fact did not prevent the court entertaining the petitioner’s subsequent application for a decree: in Leggatt LJ’s sense of the word, District Judge Steel had jurisdiction to hear the petitioner’s application for a decree nisi. The District Judge’s error was, to adopt Leggatt LJ’s words, an inadvertent failure to observe a statutory provision – section 1(2) of the 1973 Act – against the exercise of it.
  2. x) Tenthly, there was in the present case another fact in existence at the date of the petition which if properly pleaded – by an amendment of the petition – would undoubtedly have justified the court granting a decree nisi and thereafter making the decree absolute.
  3. xi) Finally, although this is not, I emphasise, a necessary pre-requisite to my conclusion, in the present case the evidence to establish that fact was actually set out in Part 6 of the petition. So, in this particular case, the defect in the petition came down to this: that the cross had been put in the wrong box in Part 5 – a defect simply curably by putting the cross in the correct box. It is sometimes said that Roger Casement was hanged by a comma, but, whatever the truth of that, one has to ask what conceivable principle of justice or public policy could possibly be served by treating as nullities decrees where the parties were the innocent victims of failure by the court itself, and where their subsequent marriages, entered into in complete good faith and in reliance upon the court’s own orders, would thereby be treated as bigamous, when the entire problem derives from the fact that a cross was placed in the wrong box. We are no longer in the days of Parke B. Surely the modern judicial conscience would revolt if compelled to come to such a conclusion.

 

(So actually, and Sir James Munby says this, DJ Middleton-Roy was right in the hot-fix that he applied to the situation, although there was quite a bit of judicial reasoning to get to that point. In old Math teacher language, DJ Middleton-Roy had the right answer, but hadn’t shown his working.)

 

I wasn’t familiar with the Roger Casement was hanged by a comma history, so there’s a link here, and it is a worthwhile side-track   (one of the things I like most about Sir James Munby is that his judgments expand your mind)

 

https://ipdraughts.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/hanged-on-a-comma-drafting-can-be-a-matter-of-life-and-death/

 

I think the portions of the judgment dealing with the human realities are also interesting and bring the case to life

 

41.The focus of the hearing was, inevitably, on the difficult questions of law to which I must come in due course. But it must never be forgotten that, at the end of the day, this application affects four human beings – P, M and their new spouses – in a matter which is of transcendental importance to all of them. P, in her statement, puts the point in understandably emotive and powerful language:

 

 

 

“I am an innocent party to these proceedings … My current husband and I married in Brazil in good faith after the amended petition … on 24/03/17 before God and our families … the idea that I have committed bigamy is convulsing and my mental health is now being affected … if it indeed the case that my former husband and I is not divorced that means I am a bigamist [Bigamy is illegal in Brazil] irrespective if it was a legal oversight, and I can be arrested, detained and prosecuted if I try to annul the divorce.”

 

She then added this very important point:

 

“In addition as my husband is a Brazilian national who travels to the UK as my spouse will no longer be able to enter the UK as he will no longer be my spouse and the Home Office don’t allow partners visitation. This is going to affect my marriage severely.”

42.Ms Bazley and Ms Dunseath make similar points in their skeleton argument:

 

 

 

“In her statement [P] raises particular concerns about the fact that the setting aside of the decrees would seem to mean, amongst other things, that she had entered into a second marriage whilst already married – coming within the definition of the offence of bigamy, contrary to s.57 Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (and, it appears, a contravention of Article 1521(VI) of the Brazilian Civil Code – acting unlawfully by remarrying whilst still being married).

 

[Her] concerns are both legal, she may have committed an offence, and moral/spiritual, in that she feels deeply disturbed by potentially having committed that offence. Further, it is enormously distressing to her to contemplate that her marriage may be invalidated, despite having taken place in good faith, in a ceremony witnessed by family and friends.

 

The setting aside of the decrees would cause [her] emotional, psychological, and financial harm, and may disturb her new relationship.”

43.The potential immigration problems in this kind of situation are all too real, as the reaction of the Home Office to the predicament in which the parties in Solovyev v Solovyeva found themselves, so clearly illustrates: see Solovyev v Solovyeva [2014] EWFC 1546, [2015] 1 FLR 734, para 4 and Solovyev v Solovyeva [2014] EWFC 20, para 7. The fact that the official policy of the “hostile environment” has recently been replaced with the semantically less challenging policy of the “compliant environment” is, one suspects, of little comfort to bewildered people like P and M.

 

 

44.To that I should add what may be obvious from what I have already said but nonetheless needs to be stated plainly and without equivocation: both M and P are the wholly innocent victims of serious mistakes by the court, mistakes not merely by court staff but, more importantly, by judges – Deputy District Judge Quin and District Judge Steel. True it is, that the original mistake was by M, when he made the mistake of marking the wrong box in Part 5 of the petition, and that if he had not made that mistake there would never have been any problem. But that is wholly beside the point. If M’s mistake was the causa sine qua non – the ‘but for’ cause of what happened –, the causa causans – the real, primary, cause was the errors of the court, of the judges

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When I’m sixty-four (bundles)

 

A permission to appeal hearing in the Court of Appeal. Where the parents did not have legal aid and

 

(A) There were Court orders that said that they couldn’t have a copy of the judgment ; and

(B) There were sixty four Court bundles  (and even whittling it down for the appeal there were still 27 just to decide the permission application)

 

Re A and B (Children) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2016/1101.html

 

 

 

The impact of confidentiality on the appeal process

 

  • For sound reasons, which are not challenged in the course of these two applications for permission to appeal, Theis J imposed a highly restrictive regime aimed at maintaining total confidentiality as to the content of her fact finding judgment and the subsequent welfare determinations that she made. In short terms mandatory orders are in place which prevent any of the lay parties from having a copy of the judgments, or any part of them, in their possession at any time. The solicitors acting for the various parties, and indeed the other professionals in the case, were required to retain any copies of the judgments securely in their possession and not to pass a copy of a judgment, or any part of it, to any of the lay parties.
  • The three applicants for permission to appeal no longer have the benefit of legal representation funded by Legal Aid. They appear before this court as litigants in person. The difficulties that they face as litigants in person attempting to challenge the judge’s highly detailed and sophisticated analysis of the factual evidence is, sadly, compounded by the fact that Mr A and Miss B in particular and, to a lesser extent, Mrs A are said to suffer from learning difficulties.
  • I considered the applicants’ applications for permission to appeal on paper soon after they had been issued. The difficulties facing each one of the three applicants was plain. The suggested “Grounds of Appeal” put forward with respect to each of the two applications was, understandably, in the most general and superficial terms. The challenge for this court and for the parties was to consider how each of these three individuals, with their limited intellectual resources and acting as litigants in person, could possibly present an effective application for permission in circumstances where they were denied personal access to copies of the judgment. The applications were therefore listed on notice to the local authority for hearing before me on 19th May 2016 so that attempts could be made to enable each of the applicants to present their proposed applications for permission through a process which was as fair and as effective as could be achieved within the parameters set by the confidentiality orders made by Theis J.

 

That would make it impossible for the appellants to run their case. For those reasons, the Court and the other parties helped the appellants to liaise with the Bar Pro Bono Unit.

However, the sheer volume involved made that difficult  – doing legal work for nothing is one thing, but reading 64 bundles of evidence  is quite another (that by the way amounts to reading 21 books as long as War and Peace or The Stand. Or reading the entire Harry Potter series SEVEN times. No, I wouldn’t do that for nothing either. They did eventually find someone, but given that they were doing all of this reading for free, in between their paid job it took a little longer)

 

 

 

28th July 2016 hearing

 

  • Unfortunately, the timetable leading to a hearing on 7th July slipped, despite the apparent best efforts of all concerned, and the matter was listed once again before me on 28th July. At that hearing a number of matters were apparent. Firstly, despite the genuine endeavours of the Bar Pro Bono Unit, to whom I am most grateful, it had not been possible to engage a barrister who was willing and able to take on the very substantial task of familiarising themselves with the details of this case. To put the matter in perspective, Theis J had no fewer than 64 lever arch files of documents for the fact finding hearing and this court has already been provided with 27 lever arch files of material simply to support the decision at the pre-permission stage.
  • It was also apparent that the limited time that had been available to the applicants at their respective solicitors’ offices had been insufficient for them to engage with the detail of the judge’s judgment so as to be able to identify potential grounds of appeal.
  • In the event the court was therefore obliged to adjourn the matter further on the basis that the applicants would have additional time to consider the judgment at the various solicitors’ offices and the hope was that they would be supported in that process by an advocate or other support service. On that basis the case was adjourned until September.

 

9th September 2016 hearing

 

  • The final hearing of the permission to appeal applications took place before me on 9th September 2016. By that time the paperwork submitted by the applicants indicated that they had each spent sufficient time with a copy of the judgment to enable them to draw up a list of grounds of appeal. That the applicants and the court were able to achieve that state of affairs is undoubtedly due to a good deal of hard work on their part and, at the same time, a good deal of support and goodwill shown to them by their former solicitors and the advocates who have assisted them. So far as the former solicitors are concerned, I do not anticipate that the facilities and staff that they have made available to the applicants will be remunerated in any way and I am therefore particularly grateful to them for their contribution to this process which, without their help, may well have failed to achieve its target of enabling the applicants to engage with the detailed substance of Theis J’s decision.
  • It is also right to record that throughout this process the court has been very significantly assisted by the thorough, calmly presented and well informed submissions of Miss Sally Stone, counsel for the local authority. Having undertaken the professionally taxing role of presenting the local authority’s case before Theis J, Miss Stone was well placed to assist this court in understanding the various issues raised by the applicants. I am also grateful to the legal services department of the local authority who have provided the court with very well prepared bundles to support this process. That the applications for permission to appeal have taken over six months to determine is, understandably and rightly, a source of great frustration to those who are required to focus upon the welfare of the children. Despite that high level of professional frustration, Miss Stone has presented the local authority’s case in careful and measured terms, as opposed to taking a confrontational stance towards the applicants, in a way which has displayed insightful professionalism of the highest order and which is in the best traditions of the family Bar. Both the local authority and the children’s guardian submit that there are no arguable grounds of appeal.
  • At the conclusion of the 9th September hearing I announced my decision which was to refuse permission to appeal to all three applicants on all grounds. I reserved this judgment in order, firstly, to explain the reasons for that decision and, secondly, to do so in the form of a judgment which will be publicly available so that the details of this process can be made known. In order for the judgment of this court to be public, but at the same time in order to protect the confidentiality of the content of the proceedings before Theis J, it is necessary for this judgment to do no more than refer to the detailed allegations and the circumstances of the family members in the most general of terms. In the event, as I shall explain, because my conclusion is that the potential grounds of appeal do not really engage with the scale of the findings made against these three applicants by Theis J, it is not necessary to descend to fine detail in explaining my reasons for determining the applications as I have done.

 

The appeal itself is not that absorbing – you can read about it in the linked judgment if you wish, but this case really does throw up in a very sharp way just how daunting the task of appealing is for litigants in person and how much fairness in our system is now depending on amounts of goodwill and charity that just wouldn’t be expected in any other line of work.

If you imagine that three bundles is about average (some High Court cases go more than that), then the barrister advising these parents did the equivalent in man hours of working twenty cases for free. Can you concieve of us expecting a heart surgeon to do twenty operations for free? The Pro Bono Bar Unit and the people who help out do remarkable and extraordinary work and it is worth thinking about someone giving up their free time to do the equivalent of twenty normal cases for absolutely no money. Worth thinking about that the next time you read a Daily Mail piece on fat cat legal aid lawyers.

 

 

The placement of an adult away from their family

This Court of Protection decision LBX v TT and Others 2014  touches on some important issues. It is a case involving a 19 year old girl, and the decision of the Court that she lacked capacity to make decisions for herself and that it would be in her best interests to continue to live in foster care.

 

 

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCOP/2014/24.html

 

The background to this is that there were allegations of serious sexual misconduct by her step-father, who awaits criminal trial. The case had been set down for what would have been quite a long and tricky hearing, particularly in the Court of Protection, to determine the truth of those allegations.  Since, if they were not true, the best interests decision would be very different, or potentially very different.

That starts to look like care proceedings, but on a vulnerable adult rather than on a child.

An additional complexity is that whilst mother and probably stepfather would have been entitled to free legal advice to fight the case in care proceedings, that’s not the case in the Court of Protection.

 

The Judge, Cobb J, said this  (MJ is mum, JJ stepfather)

At the outset of the hearing on 7 July, MJ and JJ made an application to adjourn the proceedings to obtain legal advice. They told me that they had been advised that they did not qualify for legal aid (on grounds of means) and did not have funds to instruct a solicitor privately. They had tried, without success, to obtain a litigation loan from the bank. I had been advised at the pre-trial hearing that the Bar Pro Bono Unit could not offer counsel for this hearing.
 

I recognise the considerable disadvantage to someone in the position of MJ and JJ appearing unrepresented in proceedings of this kind; their article 6 ECHR rights are imperilled. However, as there seemed no realistic prospect of MJ or JJ obtaining representation in these proceedings, and given the need to reach conclusions at this hearing, I refused the application to adjourn.
 

I was advised that JJ had solicitors acting for him in the criminal proceedings. I caused a message to be communicated to those solicitors over the short adjournment expressing my hope that they would be able to offer JJ some advice. I was very pleased to see Mr Levy at 2pm appearing on a pro bono basis.
 

On the third day of this hearing, MJ attended court with a McKenzie Friend. I considered it appropriate to allow this gentleman to assist MJ, and in doing so, applied the Guidance offered by the McKenzie Friends Practice Guidance Civil and Family Courts (12 July 2010): this Guidance is said to apply to civil and family proceedings in the Court of Appeal (Civil Division), the High Court of Justice, the County Courts and the Family Proceedings Court in the Magistrates’ Courts. I have assumed, and unless advised to the contrary will continue to conduct hearings in my court on this basis, that it applies to proceedings in the Court of Protection.

 

A further problem was the unwillingness of the police to provide any of the source material, which would have been vital to the conduct of any finding of fact hearing. In the event, the finding of fact hearing did not take place, due to MJ’s position at the hearing on 9th June 2014:-

I arranged a hearing on 9 June 2014 to consider the viability of the fact-finding hearing. At that hearing the case took an unexpected turn; MJ and JJ (who were helpfully represented by counsel instructed by the Bar Council Pro Bono Unit) indicated that they intended to remain together as a couple, irrespective of the allegations &/or the outcome of any trial of the allegations, and did not propose to offer TT a home, now or in the long-term. Specifically, they conceded that:
 

 

i) MJ could not envisage a situation in which she would separate from JJ “even if findings were made against him”. 

ii) TT should not return to live with MJ and JJ; she should remain living with KK (MJ: “we cannot offer her a home”).

iii) That the decision that TT should remain with KK is a “long-term decision” on the part of MJ;

iv) JJ was “is not willing to, and will not, have any contact with TT in the future. Contact is defined as direct and indirect contact and facebook/social media messaging”. He further agreed not to attempt to have any contact.

 

 

Within the case, the Official Solicitor (representing the 19 year old, TT) argued that the Court should still conduct the forensic exercise about the allegations and what happened to this young woman, and went further in suggesting that the Court had a duty to do so.

The Official Solicitor, on behalf of TT, contended that I am under a duty, or, if not under a duty should nonetheless exercise my discretion, to hear oral evidence in order that I can determine a solid factual basis for establishing TT’s best interests orders, even on an interim basis. Mr. McKendrick referred me to Re W [2008] EWHC 1188 (Fam) where McFarlane J held at paragraph 72:
 

“It is important that the planning in the future for these children, particularly C, is based upon as correct a view of what happened to R as possible. It is not in the children’s interests, or in the interests of justice, or in the interests of the two adults, for the finding to be based on an erroneous basis. It is also in the interests of all of the children that are before this court for the mother’s role to be fully understood and investigated.”
He contended that the principles outlined above could be appropriately transported from the Family Division to the Court of Protection. I interpolate here to say, as will be apparent later, that I agree.

The Official Solicitor’s argument was developed further thus:
 

 

i) Section 48 provides jurisdiction to make interim ‘best interests’ orders where it is necessary to make those orders “without delay”; this phrase in section 48(c) imports into the section a degree of expectation that this provision should be used very much as an interim measure; 

ii) While the evidential bar is lower on determination of capacity in section 48(a), there is no qualification to the court’s approach on ‘best interests’; therefore unless the case is urgent, there ought to be a reasonable and proportionate enquiry into best interests;

iii) That I should endeavour to resolve the facts so far as I can at this stage; many of the issues will need to be grappled with at some point in time and it is better to do so while the events are fresher in people’s minds; this hearing was set up for that purpose, and the witnesses are available;

iv) MJ has expressed a wish for unsupervised contact in the future: see §9 above. Indeed, the Official Solicitor observes that the Applicant itself accepts that “it is … foreseeable that [MJ] will seek unsupervised contact in the future, after the conclusion of the criminal trial”;

v) That ‘best interests’ decisions should be made on the most secure evidential footing; this is particularly so where

a) interim orders are expected to last for a considerable period (the criminal trial may not be for many months);
b) interim orders are inconsistent with TT’s expressed wishes (see §95-98 below);
vi) Prolonged interference with TT’s Article 8 ECHR rights for unrestricted contact without a clear determination of facts is not proportionate;

vii) That particular caution is required before the Court proceeds to make determinations largely on the basis of concessions offered by an unrepresented party (MJ), particularly where that party is plainly distressed by the issues.

 

 

As a family lawyer, it interests me that lawyers in the Court of Protection are placing reliance on McFarlane J ‘s (as he then was) decision in the family Court in Re W, which is a decision I wholeheartedly agree with, when the Court of Appeal in dealing with family cases are taking quite the reverse view about finding of fact hearings in family cases.  My support for the latter stance is somewhat less than wholehearted.

 

Cobb J goes on to borrow some principles from family law cases to provide guidance for if and when to embark on a finding of fact exercise in the Court of Protection, and these would now be rules or guidelines to follow in such cases

By analogy with the position in family law, the judge would in my judgment be well-served to consider the guidance of Butler-Sloss LJ in the family appeal of Re B (Minors)(Contact) [1994] 2 FLR 1 in which she said as follows:
 

“There is a spectrum of procedure for family cases from the ex parte application on minimal evidence to the full and detailed investigations on oral evidence which may be prolonged. Where on that spectrum a judge decides a particular application should be placed is a matter for his discretion. Applications for residence orders or for committal to the care of a local authority or revocation of a care order are likely to be decided on full oral evidence, but not invariably. Such is not the case on contact applications which may be and are heard sometimes with and sometimes without oral evidence or with a limited amount of oral evidence.”
It is acknowledged that the ‘spectrum’ may now be narrower than that described in 1994 following the revisions to rule 22.7 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010, but the principle nonetheless remains, in my judgment, good.

Butler–Sloss LJ went on to define the questions which may have a bearing on how the court should proceed with such an application (adapted for relevance to the Court of Protection):
 

 

i) whether there is sufficient evidence upon which to make the relevant decision; 

ii) whether the proposed evidence (which should be available at least in outline) which the applicant for a full trial wishes to adduce is likely to affect the outcome of the proceedings;

iii) whether the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses for the professional care or other agency, in particular in this case the expert witnesses, is likely to affect the outcome of the proceedings;

iv) the welfare of P and the effect of further litigation – whether the delay in itself will be so detrimental to P’s well-being that exceptionally there should not be a full hearing. This may be because of the urgent need to reach a decision in relation to P;

v) the prospects of success of the applicant for a full trial;

vi) does the justice of the case require a full investigation with oral evidence?
In deciding whether to conduct a fact-finding hearing at all, I consider it useful to consider the check-list of considerations discussed by McFarlane J in the case of A County Council v DP, RS, BS (By their Children’s Guardian) [2005] EWHC 1593 (Fam) 2005 2 FLR 1031 at [24]. Following a review of case-law relevant to the issue he stated that:
 

“… amongst other factors, the following are likely to be relevant and need to be borne in mind before deciding whether or not to conduct a particular fact finding exercise:
(a) the interests of the child (which are relevant but not paramount)
(b) the time that the investigation will take;
(c) the likely cost to public funds;
(d) the evidential result;
(e) the necessity or otherwise of the investigation;
(f) the relevance of the potential result of the investigation to the
future care plans for the child;
(g) the impact of any fact finding process upon the other parties;
(h) the prospects of a fair trial on the issue;
(i) the justice of the case.”
There is some (but not universal) acknowledgement at the Bar in this case that this list (with modifications as to (a) to refer to the best interests of ‘P’ rather than ‘the child’) provides a useful framework of issues to consider in relation to the necessity of fact finding in the jurisdiction of the Court of Protection.

 

Those principles are familiar to family lawyers (or at least they were, before the Court of Appeal took its newer position) but are probably fresh to Court of Protection lawyers.

 

The Court decided not to embark on a full-blown fact finding hearing, but did take evidence on some limited allegations which were of particular import. As part of that judgment, the Judge also clarified that hearsay evidence is permissable in the Court of Protection.

 

Hearsay: The factual allegations which I have been required to investigate rely very extensively on what TT has reported to third parties. She has not been called to give evidence at this hearing (no party proposed that she should), and I have therefore had to rely on a range of hearsay accounts, and on records, and interpretations, of her behaviours.
 

Hearsay evidence is plainly admissible in proceedings of this kind; as McFarlane J made clear in LB Enfield v SA [2010] 1 FLR 1836. While ruling (at §29-30) that proceedings in the Court of Protection under the MCA 2005 must fall within the wide definition of ‘civil proceedings’ under section 11 of the CEA 1995, they are civil proceedings before a tribunal to which the strict rules of evidence apply. He went on to conclude (§36) that:
 

“COPR 2007, r 95(d) gives the Court of Protection power to admit hearsay evidence which originates from a person who is not competent as a witness and which would otherwise be inadmissible under CEA 1995, s 5. Admissibility is one thing, and the weight to be attached to any particular piece of hearsay evidence will be a matter for specific evaluation in each individual case. Within that evaluation, the fact that the individual from whom the evidence originates is not a competent witness will no doubt be an important factor, just as it is, in a different context, when the family court has to evaluate what has been said by a very young child”
In all the circumstances, I guard against accepting without careful consideration of the evidence as a whole, the hearsay evidence of what TT told LT and WT as proof of the substance of what is alleged against MJ; this is particularly so given the unchallenged evidence of Dr Joyce that TT has a “very limited understanding of the oath”.

 

This is, as always with Cobb J, a very detailed and well-structured judgment, and he eventually reaches these conclusions about the declarations sought

 

Conclusions

Having regard to the matters listed above, I propose to make the following orders/declarations:
 

 

i) For the reasons fully set out above at §25-29, I declare (under section 15 MCA 2005) that TT lacks capacity to litigate these issues; 

ii) For the reasons fully set out above at §25-29, I declare (under section 15 MCA 2005) that TT lacks capacity to make decisions about her care and residence;

iii) For the reasons fully set out above at §25-29, I declare (under section 15 MCA 2005) that TT lacks capacity to make decisions about her contact with others;

iv) For the reasons fully set out above at §28 and §30, I declare that there is reason to believe (section 48 of the MCA 2005) that TT lacks capacity to consent to sexual relations;

v) For the reasons fully set out above at §30 and §105, I declare that there is reason to believe (section 48 of the MCA 2005) that it would be in TT’s best interests for any education about sexual relations to await the outcome of the criminal trial (in which JJ is a defendant);

vi) For the reasons fully set out above at §8(ii), and §100-102, I find that it is in TT’s best interests that she should continue to reside with her foster carer KK (and that I should make this order under section 15 of the MCA 2005);

vii) For the reasons fully set out above at §8(iv), §100 and §104, I find that it is in TT’s best interests to have no contact with JJ (and that I make this order under section 48 of the MCA 2005);

viii) For the reasons fully set out above at §100 and §103, I find that it is in TT’s best interests to have restricted supervised contact with her mother; this order is made under section 48 MCA 2005; I propose that this should be at a frequency of about twice per week, although with a degree of flexibility. For the time being, the contact should be supervised at least until the conclusion of the criminal trial. At the conclusion of the criminal trial, urgent consideration will be required in relation to whether on-going supervision of contact is in SS’s best interests.

 

 

It does raise important questions – not least being that if the Court of Protection is going to develop a jurisprudence of quasi-care proceedings about vulnerable adults then shouldn’t the parents/carers of those vulnerable adults have access to free legal advice and representation to deal with what can potentially be very grave issues and (as here) potentially extremely serious findings against them of sexual misconduct?

After ten years of war, peace breaks out

The High Court decision in Re J and K (Children : Private Law) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/330.html

Another judgment from Pauffley J – not remarkable on the facts, nor indeed on the law, and I suspect it is one that might not have been published were it not for the transparency guidance. But it is another good judgment, and remarkable in that a set of private law litigation, which began in 2003 and involved 24 court hearings finally ended with agreement.

This opening is worth reading, for a start

This private law dispute demonstrates a number of phenomena. Firstly, that it is sometimes possible to achieve real and substantial progress as the result of the hearing itself. Secondly, that there can be incalculable benefits from the simple exercise of parents giving evidence and, just as importantly, listening to the evidence of others. Thirdly, that proceedings which begin in an atmosphere of adversity may swiftly evolve into an exercise in constructive collaboration. Fourthly, that protracted litigation over children is profoundly harmful to everyone concerned. And fifthly, that the involvement of skilled and insightful professionals – in this instance Miss Wiley, Ms Bushell and Mr Kirkwood – has immeasurable advantages in (a) achieving a better understanding of the genesis of past problems and (b) assisting parents to an infinitely more constructive way of working together for the benefit of their children.

The Judge tried, in this case, to understand, and describe why it was that two loving, caring and kind parents had ended up in a horribly conflicted and contentious bout of litigation that lasted so long. It is worth a read, if you advise parents in this position, or if you are finding yourself in this position. It is possible to get sucked into a fight that neither side really intended – there doesn’t have to be a good guy and a bad guy in family cases. Sometimes everyone is a decent person and a good parent, and a wrong turning just gets made and the case escalates into something nobody wanted.

Why did the problems arise?

    1. So why did things go so badly wrong for this couple such that there was serious and persistent disagreement even although there has never been a valid welfare argument against ongoing contact? Peeling away the layers of mistrust and antipathy has been both painful for the parents but also, I would say, illuminating. In addition, it has been, as Mr Kirkwood so rightly says, cathartic. And the best demonstration of that is the scene he witnessed at lunch time on Wednesday when all the family members were together in the coffee shop, standing around and chatting.

 

    1. To revert to the reasons for the difficulties, I would identify the following as having contributed to the atmosphere of hostility. The twins were alarmingly small when delivered – less than 3 lbs each – and had to stay in hospital for 8 weeks. Their mother had been ill herself in the period prior to their birth. Thereafter, the boys were not physically robust for a couple of years. The mother, entirely understandably, was intensely protective of them as was their closely involved maternal grandmother. It must have been a time of enormous stress and anxiety for the whole family, particularly the mother whose attachment to the babies, of necessity, was of the most concentrated kind.

 

    1. The father felt excluded to an extent though he would say he always did his best to support the mother and his children. During the twins’ first year, the long standing relationship between the parents ended. Doubtless there was disappointment and a sense of loss on both sides. Inevitably, the maternal grandmother would not have been inclined to give the father ‘a good press’ at that time or indeed in the years that followed. Clearly, she had views about his actions in the earliest months of the boys’ lives which were highly unflattering and, I would have to say, very hurtful to him.

 

    1. In the years that followed, the father’s applications to court – his efforts to ensure he played a proper fatherly role in the boys’ lives – were seen as “attacks” upon the mother. Doubtless she was strongly encouraged, by successive CAFCASS officers and judges, to play her part in ensuring the smooth progress of a developing contact routine. Her husband and the children’s father are very different individuals. By trying to do right by her husband, there must have been times when she did wrong by the children’s father. She was criticised for the way in which contact handovers were undertaken at the children’s schools. She complained to various bodies when she believed her behaviour had been wrongly reported as having been confrontational. When a suggestion was made by Cafcass that her actions may have had a psychological or psychiatric component requiring of expert advice, she responded defensively. There was, as it is all too easy to see now, a downward spiral of alarming dimensions.

 

    1. If there was one thing that the parents seemingly failed to do for all of the years they were in dispute, it was that they did not consider the impact upon the other – and the children themselves – of their actions. A prime example of that lack of empathy and its harmful impact was the regularly repeated performance at the children’s schools on a Friday afternoon when the handover was effected. It was easily done; and could, with the benefit of hindsight, have been so straightforwardly avoided as the mother conceded in evidence.

 

    1. For his part, I have no doubt but that the father had not considered the repercussions for the mother and her very respectable, well ordered and closely governed family of repeated court appearances. I am sure they became almost too much for her to bear; and the impact upon the children was a sense that their mother was under attack. They are and were both incredibly loyal to and, said the mother’s husband, fiercely protective of her. He could see though that the boys would have been far better off had they not been inappropriately exposed to the detail of the adults’ dispute.

 

  1. I am hopeful, very hopeful, that for the future similar mistakes will not be made; and that, as Ms Bushell suggested, the mother and her husband will be able to parent the boys authoritatively. There is very little which frightens children more than an absence of appropriate parental guidance and firm boundaries about the things in life which matter most.

I think that it is also worth drawing specific attention to the praise that the Judge gave to Ms Bushell, who acted as the McKenzie Friend for the father.  McKenzie Friends are a bit like Environment Ministers – you only usually know who they are when they are getting told off, but the reality is that 99% of the time they are silently getting on with it and doing very good work.  I have been lucky enough, in the writing of this blog, to come into contact with some very good and thoughful McKenzie Friends, and it is a role that requires all of the qualities praised here by the Judge.

So, it is nice to see a case that recognises that McKenzie Friends can be a powerful force for good and common sense.  (It is also worth noting that the mother’s counsel was acting pro bono – which is a way of masking by clever use of Latin to your clerks and bank manager that you are doing  work for free)

    1. The very last matter for comment is the extent to which each of the parents has been assisted by highly skilled, insightful and intuitive representatives.

 

    1. Ms Bushell has acted as the father’s McKenzie friend. Her background is in social work; her experience of the family justice system as a former guardian is extensive. I had no problem in agreeing that she should perform the role of speaking for the father, asking questions of him and on his behalf. Ms Bushell explained that the father is a shy man who would have encountered considerable difficulty if left to conduct the advocacy on his own. Having seen him give evidence, I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. He is also, unsurprisingly given what he had lived through, extremely emotional, and would not have managed the advocacy task unaided.

 

    1. Miss Wiley is a member of the Bar with very considerable experience of high conflict private law disputes as well public law Children Act and inherent jurisdiction cases. She enjoys a reputation, deservedly, for diligence, economy, realism and innovative thought. She responded with immense generosity and in the very best traditions of the Bar when she accepted the invitation to act pro bono for the mother. Minor adjustments were made to the court’s sitting time on Wednesday to accommodate another one of her professional commitments in the High Court. Miss Wiley’s questions of her own client as well as of the father demonstrated just how well she understands the dynamics of a dispute of this kind. Her wisdom and emotional intelligence played a very large part in achieving so pleasing an outcome – not just as to the order itself but more importantly as to the shifts in attitude.

 

  1. Both parents were fortunate indeed for the professionalism and legal assistance provided by each of their ‘representatives.’ But of greater significance still, it seems to me, they were in the hands of individuals unafraid to show kindness, generosity and with a desire to help others.