RSS Feed

Tag Archives: re a

Evidence from witnesses who do not speak English

 

As this is an issue which is cropping up more and more in recent years, it is helpful to have this clear and comprehensive guidance from the High Court, courtesy of Singer J   (actually echoing the guidance of Jackson J in 2013, NN v ZZ [2013] EWHC 2261 (Fam) but helpful to jog people’s memories – I had missed it first time around)

 

Re  A, B, C and F (children) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/3663.html

 

 At my invitation, counsel made submissions about the way in which evidence from witnesses who do not speak English should be prepared. In the light of those submissions, I record the following basic principles:

(1) An affidavit or statement by a non-English-speaking witness must be prepared in the witness’s own language before being translated into English. This is implicit from Practice Direction 22A of the Family Procedure Rules 2010, paragraph 8.2 of which states that:

Where the affidavit/statement is in a foreign language –

(a) the party wishing to rely on it must –

(i) have it translated; and

(ii) must file the foreign language affidavit/statement with the court; and

(b) the translator must sign the translation to certify that it is accurate.

(2) There must be clarity about the process by which a statement has been created. In all cases, the statement should contain an explanation of the process by which it has been taken: for example, face-to-face, over the telephone, by Skype or based on a document written in the witness’s own language.

(3) If a solicitor has been instructed by the litigant, s/he should be fully involved in the process and should not subcontract it to the client.

(4) If presented with a statement in English from a witness who cannot read or speak English, the solicitor should question its provenance and not simply use the document as a proof of evidence.

(5) The witness should be spoken to wherever possible, using an interpreter, and a draft statement should be prepared in the native language for them to read and sign. If the solicitor is fluent in the foreign language then it is permissible for him/her to act in the role of the interpreter. However, this must be made clear either within the body of the statement or in a separate affidavit.

(6) A litigant in person should where possible use a certified interpreter when preparing a witness statement.

(7) If the witness cannot read or write in their own native language, the interpreter must carefully read the statement to the witness in his/her own language and set this out in the translator’s jurat or affidavit, using the words provided by Annexes 1 or 2 to the Practice Direction.

(8) Once the statement has been completed and signed in the native language, it should be translated by a certified translator who should then either sign a jurat confirming the translation or provide a short affidavit confirming that s/he has faithfully translated the statement.

(9) If a witness is to give live evidence either in person or by video-link, a copy of the original statement in the witness’s own language and the English translation should be provided to them well in advance of the hearing.

(10) If a statement has been obtained and prepared abroad in compliance with the relevant country’s laws, a certified translation of that statement must be filed together with the original document.

Advertisements

Only just over the threshold

 

I am tending to think that there’s a repositioning of the threshold criteria going on at the moment. It is a little hard to call, since there’s always been the unspoken background that what constitutes threshold in Liverpool doesn’t necessarily be the same things that consitute threshold in Torquay. But it feels that Re A and Re J are a subtle raising of the bar.

When a bar is raised, it can be tricky to work out exactly where that bar now is. We know that on the facts of Re A, threshold was not made out, but we don’t know if it was miles short or inches short.

Which is why when the President decides a case and says that the threshold criteria was satisfied but only just, it gives us some potentially useful information.

 

Leeds City Council v M and others 2015   http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/27.html  is the follow-up to the President’s judgment on Female Genital Mutilation (you may remember, this was the case where that was alleged, and the President had to decide (a) if it had happened (no) (b) whether it could amount to threshold (yes) (c) Would it amount to risk of harm to a male child (no) and (d) if it had happened, would it by itself justify adoption (no)

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/01/14/fgm-an-important-authority/

The President’s first judgment pre-dated Re A, which is what makes me think that there’s a shift in thinking. The President here didn’t seem to be struggling with the idea that domestic violence, even if not of the most serious nature could amount to significant harm:-

 

“(i) The local authority is unable on the evidence to establish that G (as I shall refer to her) either has been or is at risk of being subjected to any form of female genital mutilation.

(ii) There was a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F (as I shall refer to them) was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety.

(iii) Given all the facts as I find them, including but not limited to (i) and (ii) above, threshold is established.

The President had said in the first case that adoption, the LA’s plan, was not proportionate, and was seeking an alternative resolution. This case is that resolution.

In giving his final judgment, the President identified four key areas where the LA contended threshold was met:-

1. Mother’s mental health

2. Domestic violence

3. Neglect and physical abuse

4. Lack of cooperation / engagement

Remember, the President concluded that threshold WAS met, but only just.

I am prepared to accept, in the light of my findings, that threshold is established, though not by a very large margin.

So, looking at things in detail

 

1. Mother’s mental health

The psychiatrist, Dr T, made the diagnosis that mother had ‘schizo-affective disorder’, currently in remission, but a lifelong condition vulnerable to relapse caused by stress. Dr T said at least 12 months’ stability in M’s condition was essential if B and G were to be safe in her care and that the necessary period had not yet elapsed. If stability and compliance could not be maintained over that length of time, it would be “very risky” for them to be returned to her care

The Judge accepted Dr T’s evidence and opinion.

 

  • I accept that there has been improvement in M’s mental health. But Dr T’s evidence, which I accept, is clear, compelling and withstood all challenge. It would be irresponsible not to heed and give effect to it. In my judgment, M is not at present able to look after B and G.

[You might look at that and say that this in and of itself is sufficient to cross the threshold – there’s a factual matrix which allows the Court to establish that there is a risk of significant harm – remember that if a factual matrix is established, the risk itself does not have to be more likely than not, it is sufficient to be a risk which cannot sensibly be ignored, as decided by the House of Lords in H and R 1996. ]

 

2. Domestic violence

 

The mother had made allegations of domestic violence against the father, but later retracted them. The Court had heard evidence from mother and father.

My conclusion, having carefully considered the mass of material put to me and the helpfully detailed submissions from counsel, is that there was, as I have said, a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety. It was, as Mr Ekaney submits, at the lower end of the scale. Beyond that it would not be right to go.

 

Remembering that the definition of ‘harm’ was expanded in the Children Act 1989  to include the words in bold  “harm” means ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development [including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another];     – the words being added in the Adoption and Children Act 2002. So a child being exposed to domestic violence, or at risk of being so exposed can be considered to have suffered harm, or risk of such harm – the issue really being whether it is significant.  The President does not, in his judgment, specify whether his conclusion about domestic violence here amounted to significant harm or the risk thereof.  The best we can do is go back to this bit

“(i) The local authority is unable on the evidence to establish that G (as I shall refer to her) either has been or is at risk of being subjected to any form of female genital mutilation.

(ii) There was a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F (as I shall refer to them) was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety.

(iii) Given all the facts as I find them, including but not limited to (i) and (ii) above, threshold is established.

 

 

and suggest that domestic violence was part of the factual matrix that led the President to conclude that threshold was crossed, though not by a very large margin.

 

3. Neglect and physical abuse

 

This is the section where you get to see the Re A dynamics play out. There are facts established to show what happened to the children

There were two very specific allegations of neglect, amongst more general complaints

in October 2013, G was taken to nursery with spare clothes that were damp, soiled and smelled of urine; much more significant, on 7 November 2013 M, it is said, abandoned G in an alleyway in the city centre, where she was found cold, wet and very distressed. 

[The mother accepted the abandonment. G was born in July 2011, remember]

 

There is no doubt that B and G experienced instability and inconsistency of care, brought about by M’s recurrent mental health difficulties and F’s limited ability to cope with them. There were the specific instances of neglect I have already referred to.  To the extent that there was marital discord between F and M, B and G were exposed to it. I think it is probable that on a few occasions B and G were exposed to mild chastisement – but nothing more serious.

 

But as Re A showed us, establishing a contested (or accepted fact) as being proven is only half of the story. The next stage is for the Local Authority to satisfy the Court that what happened caused the children harm.

In this case, the Guardian considered that the children did not present as having been damaged by their experiences

“Without exception these two children have been described in very positive ways; it is clear they are delightful and endearing children who make a good impression on anyone who meets them. It is also clear that the first impressions of these children did not signify children who had been exposed to neglect, or an abusive home environment. They appeared to have been protected from the worst excesses of the mother’s mental health challenges. They have experienced positive parenting.”

 

The President says

I entirely agree. The guardian’s analysis accords with everything I have read and heard.

What is important, however, is the fact that, as I have already found, none of this seems to have had any significant or prolonged impact on either B or G – so nothing they have been exposed to can have been that serious.

 

The President doesn’t say so explicitly (which is somewhat vexing for those of us who are trying to decipher the Delphic offerings), but I think that that final remark can be read to mean that he did not accept that the threshold was made out on the basis of the neglect aspects.

Frankly, I think abandoning a 2 1/2 year old child in an alleyway is significant harm, but it appears that I am wrong about that.

 

Firstly, this troubles me because that sort of thing also feeds into risk of future harm, and of course a child isn’t yet showing the ill-effects of future harm. This approach seems to ignore future harm entirely.

The other thing that concerns me about this approach is that I can forsee that we are ending up with a different threshold criteria for a resilient child, who is exposed to poor parenting but has inner qualities that allow them to cope, and a fragile child whose reaction to the same parenting is marked and plain to see.  And it also requires that the child is showing the effects of the harm that they have suffered in a very visible and measurable way – I know that the neuroscience is controversial, but there is at least some evidence to suggest that neglect has much longer repercussions than the immediate visible impact.

 

4. Lack of cooperation / engagement

 

Here the parents made concessions

 

 

  • M admits poor engagement with professionals due to her mental health problems.
  • F accepts that, prior to the children being taken into care, he failed to engage and co-operate with the local authority and that this led to him adopting what was understandably perceived as a controlling attitude towards M. This, I accept, was driven by the two factors to which Mr Ekaney drew attention. The first was F’s perplexity about the family situation, largely caused by his failure to recognise the nature and extent of and inability to understand M’s mental health difficulties. The other was F’s desire to protect his family and his fear, from his perspective well-founded fear, that B and G would be removed from their care. Since B and G were taken into care, F’s attitude has changed. There has been, as Mr Ekaney puts it, a high level of co-operation and engagement with the local authority, coupled with a high level of commitment to B and G. And, as I accept, this is not due to any compulsion; it reflects F’s growing realisation and acceptance of the underlying realities.
  • Given M’s and F’s concessions, which appropriately reflect the reality of what was going on, there is no need for me to make any further findings.

 

[Well, there is a slight need – again, I am assuming that this was not found to have amounted to significant harm or the risk of significant harm, but it is rather difficult to say for certain, because the judgment doesn’t outline it.  To be honest, I do not envy the Local Authority advocate who had to draw up a final settled threshold based on this judgment. I THINK that the totality of the judgment suggests that findings of fact were made across points 1-4, but only those in points 1 and 2 amounted also to findings of significant harm. But I would not race to Paddy Power with bundles* of fivers to back that conclusion. My actual bet would be that over the next year, the number of cases where threshold is agreed rather than fought out will dramatically reduce. And as we can’t have fact finding hearings any more, thresholds will be fought out at final hearings. How’s that going to work out for 26 weeks, I wonder?]

 

 

The President ruled that whilst mother could not care for the children now or within their timescales, the father could and should be given that opportunity, and the children would be placed with him under Supervision Orders.

So there we have it, on these facts, the case crossed the threshold, but not by a very large margin.

 

 

*IF I did happen to be going to the bookies with bundles of fivers, I would ensure that in accordance with Practice Direction 27 there were (a) no more than 350 of them (b) They were A4 sized  and (c) that they were printed only on one side. Which explains why Paddy Power doesn’t want me going in there any more.

 

Adoption – here we go again?

The Court of Appeal have found the reverse gear to their reverse gear (from the original reverse gear of Re B-S).  Sort of.

I actually think this is just the Court of Appeal reminding Judges that in cases where Placement Orders are being made, it is actually a requirement that the judgment explains why.

 

There have been a few cases where the judgments have been flawed and the Court of Appeal rolled up their sleeves, got under the bonnet of the case and got oil on their forearms in order to set out what the Judge must have meant, but omitted to say. This wasn’t one of those.

Re J (A child) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/222.html

 

It is pretty bad that the Court of Appeal remark of the judgment that it barely contains any information that emerged during a three day final hearing or any analysis of the evidence that the Court heard.

The judgment is contained within 38 paragraphs and runs to some 16 pages. Two thirds of the substance of the judgment consists, however, of verbatim recital by the judge of sections within the local authority chronology and the parenting assessment

The judge’s approach to the content of the assessment report was to select substantial passages from that document and simply quote them in narrative form within his judgment. From time to time the judge punctuates these extensive quotations with a comment and, on three occasions, with respect to specific matters the judge simply states that he “rejects” or “accepts” one account or another. No reasons are given for such acceptance or rejection and no references are made to any oral evidence given to the court on any of these three specific points during the three day oral hearing. Indeed, the judgment does not contain any account at all of the oral evidence. The judge’s quotations with regard to the parents’ capacity are all drawn from the written report alone.

This Judge also did something that I have complained about (not with my own Judges, but because I read the published judgments that go up on Bailii) where it appears that simply setting down the law and the rigorous tests to be applied has become a substitute for actually engaging with those tests. The Court of Appeal in Re BS deprecated the practice of stock phrases being used as ‘judicial window dressing’ rather than Judges actually engaging with those ideas and applying them to the facts of the case, but if anything since Re B-S the published judgments on Bailii just show that the stock phrases have just become stock paragraphs.

10…the judge gives a brief outline of the legal context within which he was required to make the necessary decisions. He did so in these terms at paragraph 4:

 

“I recognise immediately that to accede to the Local Authority application I must conclude that there is no other option open, no other option exists for the welfare of this child other than to make the order that the Local Authority seek, it is a position of last resort and it is only a position I can adopt if nothing else remains. It is a draconian order that the Local Authority seek, I have to adopt a holistic approach measuring the pros and cons, the child has a right to a family life with birth parents unless his welfare and safety direct that I am forced, and I underline the word forced, to accede to the Local Authority application.”

  1. Insofar as it goes, the judge’s description of the legal context cannot be faulted. It is repeated towards the end of the judgment at paragraph 36 in these terms:

    “Again I repeat I cannot concur with the Local Authority application unless what they say establishes a case of necessity for adoption, nothing less than that will do, intervention in a child’s right to a family life if at all possible should be through the birth parents or extended family, is it possible that the Local Authority could provide a package of support to maintain the child in the family?”

  2. Again, that account by the judge is entirely in keeping with the current case law regarding these important decisions. The criticism made by Miss Fottrell and Miss Hughes is that in all other parts of the judgment the judge signally failed to operate within the legal parameters that he had described.

 

It is of note that the Court of Appeal formally acknowledge and approve the President’s judgment in Re A about thresholds, giving them even more weight if any were needed.

 

In fact, as Lord Justice Aikens not only approved the points in Re A, but provided a distillation of them, this authority bolsters those points considerably. You won’t get far re-arguing those points with the Court of Appeal.   [Although I note with heavy heart that ‘nothing else will do’ is making a comeback, after I thought we’d reverted to Baroness Hales full paragraph]

 

  1. This case exhibited many of the shortcomings that were highlighted in the judgment of Sir James Munby P in Re A (a child) [2015] EWFC 11. I wish to endorse and underline all the points of principle made and the salutary warnings given by the President in that case. It is a judgment that needs to be read, marked and inwardly digested by all advocates, judges and appellate judges dealing with care cases and particularly adoption cases. As the judgment of the President in that case is necessarily long and detailed, I have respectfully attempted to summarise below the principles set out, none of which are new. I venture to give this summary in the hope that advocates and judges throughout England and Wales who have to deal with these difficult care cases will pay the utmost heed to what the President has said. Advocates and courts are dealing in these cases with the futures of children, often very young and therefore very vulnerable. They are also dealing with the futures of parents who may be imperfect (as we all are) but who often dearly love the child who is at the centre of the litigation. Separating parents and child by placement and adoption orders must only take place if it is proved, upon proper evidence, that “nothing else will do”.
  2. The fundamental principles underlined by the President in Re A, which, as I say, are not new and are based on statute or the highest authority or both, can, I think, be summarised thus:i) In an adoption case, it is for the local authority to prove, on a balance of probabilities, the facts on which it relies and, if adoption is to be ordered, to demonstrate that “nothing else will do”, when having regard to the overriding requirements of the child’s welfare.

    ii) If the local authority’s case on a factual issue is challenged, the local authority must adduce proper evidence to establish the fact it seeks to prove. If a local authority asserts that a parent “does not admit, recognise or acknowledge” that a matter of concern to the authority is the case, then if that matter of concern is put in issue, it is for the local authority to prove it is the case and, furthermore, that the matter of concern “has the significance attributed to it by the local authority”.

    iii) Hearsay evidence about issues that appear in reports produced on behalf of the local authority, although admissible, has strict limitations if a parent challenges that hearsay evidence by giving contrary oral evidence at a hearing. If the local authority is unwilling or unable to produce a witness who can speak to the relevant matter by first hand evidence, it may find itself in “great, or indeed insuperable” difficulties in proving the fact or matter alleged by the local authority but which is challenged.

    iv) The formulation of “Threshold” issues and proposed findings of fact must be done with the utmost care and precision. The distinction between a fact and evidence alleged to prove a fact is fundamental and must be recognised. The document must identify the relevant facts which are sought to be proved. It can be cross-referenced to evidence relied on to prove the facts asserted but should not contain mere allegations (“he appears to have lied” etc.)

    v) It is for the local authority to prove that there is the necessary link between the facts upon which it relies and its case on Threshold. The local authority must demonstrate why certain facts, if proved, “justify the conclusion that the child has suffered or is at the risk of suffering significant harm” of the type asserted by the local authority. “The local authority’s evidence and submissions must set out the arguments and explain explicitly why it is said that, in the particular case, the conclusion [that the child has suffered or is at the risk of suffering significant harm] indeed follows from the facts [proved]”.

    vi) It is vital that local authorities, and, even more importantly, judges, bear in mind that nearly all parents will be imperfect in some way or other. The State will not take away the children of “those who commit crimes, abuse alcohol or drugs or suffer from physical or mental illness or disability, or who espouse antisocial, political or religious beliefs” simply because those facts are established. It must be demonstrated by the local authority, in the first place, that by reason of one or more of those facts, the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering significant harm. Even if that is demonstrated, adoption will not be ordered unless it is demonstrated by the local authority that “nothing else will do” when having regard to the overriding requirements of the child’s welfare. The court must guard against “social engineering”.

    vii) When a judge considers the evidence, he must take all of it into account and consider each piece of evidence in the context of all the other evidence, and, to use a metaphor, examine the canvas overall.

    viii) In considering a local authority’s application for a care order for adoption the judge must have regard to the “welfare checklist” in section1(3) of the Children Act 1989 and that in section 1(4) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. The judge must also treat, as a paramount consideration, the child’s welfare “throughout his life” in accordance with section 1(2) of the 2002 Act. In dispensing with the parents’ consent, the judge must apply section 52(1)(b) as explained in Re P (Placement Orders, parental consent) [2008] 2 RLR 625.

I think that is an excellent distillation, and much more user-friendly than the original.

Ms Daisy Hughes drew out a particularly good point, and one which I expect to see appear again  (I applaud her work here)

On behalf of the father, Miss Daisy Hughes draws attention to the fact that there is no reference at all to the father’s evidence in the judgment. In this context Miss Hughes relies upon the case of Re A (A Child) [2015] EWFC 11 in which, at paragraph 6, Sir James Munby P states:

“I add two important points which I draw from the judgment of Baker J in Devon County Council v EB and Ors (Minors) [2013] EWHC 968 (Fam). First, I must take into account all the evidence and, furthermore, consider each piece of evidence in the context of all the other evidence. I have to survey a wide canvas. Secondly, the evidence of the father is of the utmost importance. Is he credible and reliable? What is my impression of him?”

In short terms, Miss Hughes submits that the approach that is described there by The President is plainly correct and that the judge in the present case failed to conduct any effective analysis of the evidence in the sense of giving any regard to the evidence from either of the parents. To the extent that the judge made any findings, Miss Hughes relies upon the complete absence of any reference to the father’s evidence to make good her submission that this judgment falls well short of what is required.

In this particular case, the parents were disputing the threshold and the order sought was the most serious that the Court could make. So it was imperative that the Court gave a judgment that resolved the factual issues and set out what harm the Court considered the child was suffering from or at risk of suffering, as the ‘baseline’ for considering what orders might be necessary.

 

The trial Judge had failed to do this. The Court of Appeal expressed some doubt as to whether, as pleaded, threshold was capable of having been met.

 

  1. The parents did not accept that the facts of the case justified a finding that the threshold criteria under CA 1989, s 31 were met. On the facts of this case, and, in particular, on the basis upon which the local authority had chosen to plead the threshold grounds, the parents’ stance was not without merit.
  2. In addition to the threshold document, the local authority analysis was summarised in a witness statement made by the key social worker in May 2014 in these terms [page C166 paragraph 38]:

    “It is my professional opinion that [mother] and [father] have demonstrated no positive change since the initial removal of J from their care, and neither have they accepted the local authority’s concerns, throughout Social Care involvement. This refers to the concerns raised regarding Domestic Violence, J’s exposure to a lack of routine and consistency, their own levels of immaturity and the impacts of [father’s] substance misuse. It is my professional opinion that many of the local authority’s concerns relate to the lack of maturity of the couple.”

    In that paragraph ‘Domestic Violence’ must, even on the judge’s findings, be confined to the assault a year prior to J’s birth, clothes being thrown out of a window in March 2014 and the mother’s reported complaint in April 2014 of controlling behaviour and punching. The lack of routine and consistency arise from the parenting assessment. The father’s admitted cannabis misuse does not relate to a time when either parent had the care of J. Immaturity is undoubtedly an issue but, as my lord, Lord Justice Vos, observed during submissions, a presumption that no young person would behave other than perfectly is unsustainable.

  3. To my eyes, the content of this central paragraph within the social work statement begs the question whether this statement of the local authority’s ‘concerns’, even taken at its highest on the basis of the factual evidence, is sufficient to support a finding that it is necessary for J to be placed permanently away from his parents and adopted. In that respect, and with particular regard to what is said about domestic violence, I readily endorse the words of the President in his judgment in Re A (see above), which was handed down in the week prior to our hearing where, at paragraph 16, he stressed the need always to bear in mind the approach described by His Honour Judge Jack in North East Lincolnshire Council v G and L [2014] EWCC 877 (Fam):

    “I deplore any form of domestic violence and I deplore parents who care for children when they are significantly under the influence of drink. But so far as Mr and Mrs C are concerned there is no evidence that I am aware of that any domestic violence between them or any drinking has had an adverse effect on any children who were in their care at the time when it took place. The reality is that in this country there must be tens of thousands of children who are cared for in homes where there is a degree of domestic violence (now very widely defined) and where parents on occasion drink more than they should, I am not condoning that for a moment, but the courts are not in the business of social engineering. The courts are not in the business of providing children with perfect homes. If we took into care and placed for adoption every child whose parents had had a domestic spat and every child whose parents on occasion had drunk too much then the care system would be overwhelmed and there would not be enough adoptive parents. So we have to have a degree of realism about prospective carers who come before the courts.”

  4. There was a need for the judge to make clear and sufficiently reasoned findings of fact with respect to any disputed issues. There was then a responsibility upon the judge to identify whether, and if so how, any of the facts found, either alone or in combination with each other, established that J was likely to suffer significant harm in the care of either or both parents. Finally it was necessary for the threshold findings to identify (at least in broad terms) the category of significant harm that the judge concluded was likely to suffered by J.

 

The Placement Order was over-turned and the case sent back for re-hearing before a different Judge.

Leave to revoke a Placement Order, successful appeal

 

Re G (a child) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/119.html

 

The mother was appealing a refusal to grant her leave to apply to revoke a Placement Order (i.e to get her child back). She was in person in the Court of Appeal (and did a very good job) and won her appeal.

 

There are  few big points from this appeal which have wider application.

 

1. Change doesn’t have to be recent

(I think what the Court of Appeal say here rather destroys Mostyn J’s declaration that change has to be ‘unexpected’ because they are explicit that one shouldn’t read words into the statute that aren’t there)

I do not accept Mr Tughan’s submission that the nature and degree of the change of circumstances which a parent does successfully establish, is demoted by it being a recent change. This does add gloss to the words of the statute and should be resisted

 

2. Change doesn’t have to be change in the parent  – it can be change in the life of the child, or in the life of the child’s carers.

 

[This one interests me, because as far as I know, Mrs Suesspicious Minds was the first counsel to persuade a Court of that, so it is nice to see that she was right – as usual]

The “change in circumstances” specified in section 24(3) of the 2002 Act is not confined to the parent’s own circumstances. Depending upon the facts of the case, the child/ren’s circumstances may themselves have changed in the interim, not least by reason of the thwarted ambitions on the part of the local authority to place them for adoption in a timely fashion. I would regard it as unlikely for there to be many situations where the change in the child’s circumstances alone would be sufficient to open the gateway under section 24(2) and (3) and I do not suggest that there needs to be an in-depth analysis of the child/ren’s welfare needs at the first stage, which are more aptly considered at the second , but I cannot see how a court is able to disregard any changes in the child/ren’s circumstances, good or bad, if it is charged with evaluating the sufficiency of the nature and degree of the parent’s change of circumstances.

 

3. Take care in using a note of judgment as if it were a transcript

 

In this case, the Care Order and Placement Order had been made by a District Judge, and the leave to oppose hearing was heard by a Circuit Judge. The CJ had been given counsel’s note of the hearing / judgment, but read it into the judgment on leave to oppose as though quoting the District Judge directly.

The only document that assists is Counsel’s “note of final hearing” prepared by Mr Hepher on 20 August 2012 for his Instructing Solicitor. It has not been approved by the DDJ Johns.

Contrary to what HHJ Levy said in her judgment, the note does not pretend to be a note of the judgment; rather it is the subjective assessment of the hearing and its outcome, giving a potted version of the judge’s conclusions. Counsel who appeared for the Local Authority could have no idea or intention that it would be referred to in any future proceedings or appellate jurisdiction. However, HHJ Levy placed reliance upon it and, it seems to me, elevated Counsel’s written opinion that “the evidence did not go well for [the mother]. She became upset and gave loud, aggressive and frequent inconsistent and confrontational answers when challenged” into findings made by the first instance judge and thereafter cited Counsel’s summary of a part of the judgment in quotation marks, giving the appearance that the same were spoken by the DDJ Johns.

The fact of its quotation by HHJ Levy leads me to conclude that it was instrumental in her decision and I therefore refer to it in full. HHJ Levy said that “[t]he judge had concluded by summing up the mother as: ‘…angry, resentful and accusatory of professionals…blaming of others, was unable to explain the impact of domestic violence and undesirability of drug use, and had a casual disregard to telling the truth. She had no insight into the magnitude of the risks the father might pose, nor the impact of her own behaviour. She was not able to sustain motivation for any meaningful change”.

…Quite apart from the issues raised in the grounds of appeal, I would express my great concern at other aspects of the procedure that was adopted at first instance and which are capable of further infecting the outcome. That is, HHJ Levy was disadvantaged in the absence of DDJ John’s judgment and “agreed threshold criteria” and was wrong to accept counsel’s unapproved “note of the hearing” as a sufficient substitute, even though I am sure she was well intentioned in seeking to avoid delay. She could not possibly establish the true base line in the absence of the “agreed threshold criteria” document, which itself recorded some issues of fact and differing interpretation of others, without reconstructing the evidence that had been available in the court below. In doing so she appeared to rely entirely upon the reports submitted by the social worker and guardian.

 

4. You need to be quite careful about ruling that a parent had not satisfied the first limb of the two stage test (has there been a change in circumstances?)

The Court of Appeal here sent the case back for re-hearing, but were very plain that their view was that the first limb had been crossed and quite comfortably.

5. Fresh evidence

The Local Authority had brought to the Court of Appeal a statement that gave information about family finding – in effect, providing evidence that an adoptive placement was on the cards. The Court of Appeal deprecated this practice.  This was really a request to introduce fresh evidence to the appeal, and if so, a proper application needed to be made, with all of the Ladd v Marshall principles argued  (it is REALLY  hard to get fresh evidence in on appeal, other than in criminal proceedings where the fresh evidence is something like an alibi, or CCTV footage or some sort of CSI test which would undermine the conviction)

 

  1. Shortly before coming into court, a statement prepared by Ms Faith Connell, J’s social worker, unsigned but dated 9 January, 2015 was sent through uninvited. There is no application to admit fresh evidence. I am told by Mr Tughan that it is intended to update the court on ‘family finding’ for J. This practice is becoming increasingly common and I think it entirely inappropriate. If the statement contains fresh evidence which is pertinent to the appeal then leave should be sought in accordance with normal procedure to admit it. If it does not, it may appear as an attempt to influence the outcome of the appeal. Mr Tughan assures me that that is not intended, but that it was submitted with a view to assisting the court if it wished to substitute its own order for that of the court below.
  2. As it is, this is not a court of first instance and is not in a position to determine the disputed factual issues raised in the mother’s application before HHJ Levy, let alone fresh facts on the unilateral presentation of what may be challenged evidence and opinion going to inform the discretion stage. I have refused to read the statement in those circumstances and particularly since the mother is unrepresented.

 

6. You can only ‘shore up’ a judgment so far

In discussion, Mr Tughan was obliged to concede that he was attempting to “shore up” the judgment of HHJ Levy. He accepted the absence of any findings in the judgment that were directly relevant to the adverse findings apparently made against the mother by DDJ Johns and upon which HHJ Levy relied. He argued that some issues that were recorded in the judgment had been ‘resolved’ during the course of the proceedings – entirely, I observe, in favour of the mother’s contentions – and that it was unnecessary to make certain other findings, including whether the mother’s relationship with her previous partner had ended, the extent if any of her drug use, and whether she had threatened the current social worker with violence. He accepted that the Court would “struggle to piece together” HHJ Levy’s thought processes, but that they could be “pieced together” when analysed in the round. He argued that the bar had been set at a high level by reason of the findings made in the original care proceedings and that the self reported changes by a mother, whose credibility had been doubted in the past and, implicitly I think he was suggesting, was in any event so emotionally compromised in relation to an objective consideration of J’s best interests, had inevitably led the judge to conclude that she still had a “long way to go”.

 

The mother was of course appealing the judgment that was made, not the shored up version that counsel for the Local Authority was skilfully presenting. She won her case, and that was the right decision. Nobody knows how the re-hearing will go.

 

6. Threshold post Re A

 

The Court of Appeal here accepted that the threshold were ‘more than satisfied’ and that they had no doubt about that.

Let’s have a look at the threshold then.

A document headed “Agreed Threshold Criteria – 17.7.12” gives some indication of the circumstances of J’s removal. In summary, J’s father has previous convictions for serious drugs and violence. In June 2009, the mother attempted to prevent his arrest for the offence of armed robbery. The father was subsequently jailed. The mother commenced a new relationship. Her new partner also had previous convictions and was a serial offender. Regrettably he was violent to the mother. She continued with the relationship and was said to prioritise her relationship with her partner over her own and J’s safety. The mother disagreed but there is objective evidence that she found it difficult to separate from her partner, refusing an injunction and visiting him in prison whilst he was serving a sentence for assaulting her. The mother was said to continue to “minimise and excuse the extent and impact of the domestic violence and conflict to which J had been exposed”. She herself smoked cannabis but denied that she had used class A drugs. It is clear that she was not co-operative with social services and would routinely deceive them about her home circumstances.

 

Reading this document I have no doubt that the so called threshold criteria imposed by section 31 of the Children’s Act 1989 were more than satisfied.

A lot of this looks like the sort of thing that the President threw out on its ear last week. This isn’t a case where the mother herself posed a risk.  At best, or worst, her partner might have.  But he seemed to be in prison.  Cannabis – gone. Not co-operative with social services – gone.  Assisting father three years earlier to resist arrest – what’s the risk to the child? gone. . Violence from former partner – well, the President seemed to be suggesting that there are people who have had dv in their relationships who would not cross threshold – it would depend on the extent and nature of it.  Minimising dv – gone. Visiting former partner in prison – well, if he wasn’t established to be a risk of harm to the child, so be it.

Too early to say whether the Court of Appeal are going to take a different view to the President on Re A, but if you apply the Re A principles the threshold here is either not crossed or it just limps over the line. Yet the Court of Appeal consider that there is no doubt that it was more than satisfied. Hmmm.