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Court of Appeal criticise Judge for insufficient analysis of the placement options

 

In re P (A child) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2016/3.html

The Court of Appeal conclude that a Judge who made a Placement Order (thus authorising a child to be placed for adoption) had not conducted a sufficiently robust analysis of the relative merits of the placement options before making that decision.  The Judge had set out in the judgment what he was required to do, but the Court of Appeal say that he didn’t actually do it.

That’s been an issue I’ve been concerned about for quite a while – I read all of the published judgments, and it seems to me that the complaints that the Court of Appeal made in Re B-S about ‘adoption is the last resort’ being a stock phrase of judicial window-dressing, a remark to be thrown into a judgment but with no real engagement with the principle and philosophy has just been replaced by Judges inserting into their judgments huge swathes of case-law that tell them what they must do and what they must consider (including huge swathes of Re B-S) but there’s not often evidence when I read these judgments of the Judge going on to actually apply these principles. It seems to be considered sufficient for the Judge to simply tell everyone that they know the relevant portions of the caselaw rather than actually following those stipulations.

So in part, I’m rather glad of this case. It puts down that marker.

  1. While ostensibly aware of the need to adopt a ‘holistic’ approach to the evaluation of the options for P (and the guidance offered by Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, [2014] 1 FLR 1935 at [36] and at [46]), we are not convinced that Judge Ansell delivered on his intentions. It is, as this Court has emphasised in Re B-S and in Re R (A Child) (Adoption: Judicial Approach) [2014] (above)) “essential” that a judge provides an adequately reasoned judgment at the conclusion of a case such as this. We very much regret that after the extensive, perhaps overly discursive, review of the evidence this judgment is light on analysis of at least one of the two realistic options (i.e. adoption) to the degree of detail necessary, nor does the judgment contain a comparison of each option or options (see McFarlane LJ in Re G (Care Proceedings: Welfare Evaluation) [2013] EWCA Civ 965, [2014] 1 FLR 670 at [54]), or a proportionality evaluation. In this respect, Mr. Horrocks makes good his submission.
  2. There is no specially prescribed form for a judge undertaking the exercise outlined above; the judge is doing little more than performing an ‘old-fashioned welfare balancing exercise’ (Re F [2015] EWCA Civ 882 at [48]); the term ‘holistic’ does not have any special meaning. Neither the parties, nor this Court, will readily conclude that a judge has performed the necessary welfare balancing exercise just because he or she acknowledges the need to do so. The debate about whether the analysis of the realistic options is a ‘balance sheet’ of the pros and cons or an aide memoire of the key welfare factors and how they match up against each other is sterile. What is expected is that the benefits and detriments of each option are considered and there is an evaluation of each option as against the other based on that analysis.
  3. In this case, as in Re R (A Child) (Adoption: Judicial Approach) [2014], Judge Ansell was faced with an essentially binary decision; either P was restored to her mother’s care, or she was adopted. There was no realistic alternative. The fact that the judge considered the merits of the mother’s position, properly evaluating, we are satisfied, her strengths and weaknesses, but ruling her out as a long-term carer for P before moving on to consider the other option of adoption is ‘linear’ thinking, both in form and substance (see Re R [18]).
  4. There was sufficient evidence before Judge Ansell for him to conclude that the mother was indeed a realistic option as a long-term carer for P (giving ‘realistic’ its ordinary English meaning: Re Y (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1553). After all, her aspirations to care for P throughout her childhood had attracted some support during the proceedings from both the Family Centre and (until after the hearing had started) P’s Guardian. There were many positives of her parenting, as the Judge himself recognised. This was not one of those rare cases identified in North Yorkshire County Council v B [2008] 1 FLR 1645, and discussed by Sir James Munby P in Re R at [67], in which it would have been permissible for a court, albeit acting cautiously, to rule out a parent as a potential option (even in some cases before the final hearing itself) before going on to consider other options. By his judgment (both in substance and structure), Judge Ansell gives the impression that this is precisely what he did.
  5. That said, the judge conducted a sufficiently sound analysis of the pros and cons of the mother’s potential as a long-term carer of P; he was, after all, entitled to rely on the fact that the expert and professional evidence in this case all pointed against rehabilitation of P with her mother – namely, the final evidence from the Family Centre, the social worker’s assessments and the final recommendations of Mr. Abrahams. At least two of the professional witnesses (one of the social workers and the Children’s Guardian) had known the mother from the earlier proceedings, and were able to bring to this case long-standing knowledge of her care and parental capabilities. Indeed, it is significant to us that the experienced Guardian, who had represented P’s older half-siblings in the 2012/2013 proceedings, had initially supported the mother in her endeavour to care for P, but in the final analysis, had found himself unable to do so, having heard the same compelling oral evidence as the judge. Mr. Abrahams had concluded that P would not be safe in the care of the mother, a view on which the Judge was entitled to, and did, place significant reliance.
  6. However, that was only part of the required holistic evaluation. The Judge then needed to go on to consider the issue of adoption, and place that option up against the case for parental long-term care.(6) The outcome of adoption:
  7. As indicated in the previous section, having conducted a fair review of the mother’s strengths and weaknesses, and considered her potential as a long-term carer for P, the judge should, in our judgment, have gone on to conduct an internal analysis of the pros and cons of adoption, and then place that analysis up against his conclusions on the mother. In failing to do this, Mr. Horrocks has made good his complaint under this ground of appeal.

 

However, the Court of Appeal in this case go on to say that there is sufficient material before them for THEM to go on to conduct that analysis themselves, rather than send the case back for re-hearing. That’s an approach that is legally and properly available to them and they direct themselves to the relevant caselaw.

My querying eyebrow is that the Court of Appeal therefore consider that THIS is sufficient as an analysis of placement options, as it is the one that they themselves provide and rely upon

 

  1. In reaching a view about this, we have considered carefully the evidence from the senior social worker in the adoption team, the final statement of the key social worker, the Family Centre reports, the Placement Order report, the mother’s written evidence and the Guardian’s reports, all of which (save that from the mother) was evidence accepted by the judge. We consider that we have sufficient evidence to undertake the analysis ourselves.
  2. P is an eighteen-month old infant; she is in good health, though has sickle cell traits. She has the ordinary needs for “predictable, reliable, consistent” parenting from a parent who is “available, responsive and sensitive” (per Placement Order report). She has, in the judge’s finding, a warm relationship with her mother. We acknowledge, as indeed the social workers acknowledge, that if P were to express her feelings, she would almost certainly wish to be cared for by her mother, assisted by her father, provided this was in her best interests. This would reflect well her dual-heritage ethnicity, and would most completely respect her rights to family life; she would probably be able to establish a modest relationship with five of her six half-siblings, through her mother’s periodic contact with them.
  3. By contrast, adoption will sever all legal and emotional ties with the mother and she will, in all probability, lose any contact with her half-siblings; it is thought that any ongoing direct family contact could potentially destabilise any placement. P will nonetheless be claimed as a child in a new family. It is not envisaged that there will be difficulty in finding a suitable placement for P for adoption, and it is believed that this could be done within 3-6 months of a final placement order. The “strict” test for severing the relationship between parent and child by way of adoption is now clearly defined; it will be satisfied only in “exceptional circumstances” and:

    “where motivated by overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s welfare, in short, where nothing else will do” Baroness Hale Re B [198].

  4. We have much in mind that the court’s paramount consideration, in accordance with section 1(2) of the ACA 2002, is P’s welfare “throughout [her] life.” We are of course acutely conscious of the effect on P of ceasing to be a member of her family. But having considered the case carefully, and having placed the options alongside each other, we share the judge’s view, essentially for the reasons he gave, that P’s best interests would not be protected, let alone enhanced, in the care of her mother. We are persuaded that adoption was indeed the only outcome which would meet P’s long term emotional and physical needs; it was, in the final analysis, the only realistic option. The judge was therefore entitled to conclude, albeit he expressed it with incautious brevity, that the mother’s consent to adoption was “required”.
  5. Notwithstanding the exceptionality of this outcome, and while acknowledging that the judgment is light on analysis of the competing options, and far from ‘holistic’ as McFarlane LJ used the term in Re G, the outcome was in our view sufficiently clear that we feel able to substitute our own conclusion.

 

 

It seems rather superficial and sketchy to me – it seems rather like the sort of analysis that the Court of Appeal railed against in Re B-S and all of those other cases. But now, rather than simply carping about what is deficient, we have a concrete example of what the Court of Appeal have ruled is SUFFICIENT.   And it seems, to use vernacular, a bit weaksauce.

If I got that as the social worker’s analysis of placement options, I’d have been sending it back to ask for substantial improvements. I would have been telling them that it doesn’t comply with the guidelines laid down by Re B-S. It seems exactly the sort of analysis that the Court of Appeal described as being anodyne and inadequate. It is barely longer than the example that the Court of Appeal skewered in Re B-S.

And therefore, I am puzzled.

 

The Court of Appeal did express some sympathy for the Judge in the case

In focus in this appeal is a judgment which gives every appearance of being prepared under pressure of time, in a busy court, following directly from submissions at the conclusion of a five-day contested hearing. The result is, as all parties in this appeal have acknowledged to a greater or lesser extent, not altogether satisfactory – a matter of concern to us given that we have concluded that the judge was right for the additional reasons we shall describe; the outcome could not be more momentous for this mother and this child. The appeal represents an example of an all too common occurrence, namely the difficulty of finding time in a busy list adequately to explain a decision based on a series of multi factorial elements. The inevitable temptation for a judge who is seeking to be compassionate and also not to interfere with the other business of the court, is to try and do too much in the time available, when it would be better to take additional time.

 

The judgment was 30 pages long, so not exactly a half-assed rush job. What emerges from the Court of Appeal judgment was the sense that by the time the Judge reached the meat of the case, the real area where the judgment needs to shine – the analysis of placement options and reasons for conclusions, it had rather run out of steam.

 

The judgment finally accelerates to a rather abrupt discussion of the orders; in a concise concluding section the judge expressed the hope that he had “sufficiently analysed the options in this case”; he indicated that, “whether it be a holistic or linear approach”, he rejected the contention that either of these parents could safely protect P. He regarded himself as “driven to the only conclusion” that could be reached, namely a “care order in the welfare of the child must be made”. Without discussing the care plan as such, he reflected that a care order would “involve” a placement order and that required him “to dispense with the parental consent if the welfare of the child requires that consent to be dispensed with”. Without further reflection, he made those orders “in the interests of this child.”

Successful appeal against placement order

 

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Re R (A child) 2014 and why an appeal is now even worse news for a Local Authority

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/597.html

 

It has been a little while since we had one of these “non B-S compliant” appeals, but just to let you all know that they haven’t gone away.

 

This was an appeal about four children, who were all made subject to Care Orders in August 2013, and the youngest two were made subject to Placement Orders.

 

The mother appealed, and when the case got to the Court of Appeal, the Court of Appeal were very troubled that from the original judgment, it simply wasn’t possible to tell whether the Court had really looked at the other options available, the positive benefits of those other options and whether adoption really had been the last resort.

 

The fundamental concern in the case had been the risk posed by the father. The Court of Appeal quoted what Lewinson LJ had said when granting the permission to appeal

 

“The risk …. that the judge found was clearly tied to Mr J and his inappropriate sexual behaviour. The material submitted by the local authority, which I have read and which is confirmed by the mother’s grounds of appeal, shows that the mother and Mr J are now divorced, no longer living together and the mother has no intention of resuming any relationship with Mr J. In those circumstances, I have a considerable concern that the judge did not make any clear findings about whether the risk which he identified continued to exist after the disappearance of Mr J from the life of the mother and her children. I have a concern also that the judge did not expressly deal with less draconian outcomes than the orders which she eventually made.”

 

And the final conclusions that the Court of Appeal reached were not markedly different to that.

 

On risk

 

21 The central issue in this case, as the judge saw it, was the sexual risk posed by Mr J. That risk was based upon the 2006 conviction although the judge referred to the allegations made by S as particularly troubling too. Plainly, she was entitled to take into account the existence of those allegations and M’s response to them but given that she had not made a finding that the disputed events in relation to S had taken place, she was not entitled to proceed on the basis that Mr J was a risk because he had sexually abused S. This is appropriately reflected in her formulation of the risks.

22 Two points immediately stand out in relation to the sexual risk posed by Mr J.

23 First, Mr J is only a risk to these children if he remains on the scene or is going to return to it. M’s case is that she separated from him within weeks after the events of August 2012 and has since divorced him. LA say that there is no direct evidence that she has continued to associate with him but they remain suspicious on grounds which they explained. However, the important point for the present judgment is that no finding was made by the judge about whether M was still associating with Mr J or would be likely to do so in future. Without a finding that he was likely to feature in her life or the children’s in some way, it is difficult to see how he could be said to pose a risk to these children. If he did not pose a risk, then it was academic whether M would be able to protect the children against him and no finding was made that she would be likely to take up with another man who would pose a similar risk.

24 Second, even if the evidence were to establish that Mr J may be part of the picture in future, any evaluation of M’s attitude to the risk he poses would have to take into account LA’s own attitude to that risk in May 2012. The risk flows principally from Mr J’s 2006 conviction and, knowing about that, LA permitted Mr J to live in the family home with the children from May 2012 onwards, without even supervisory oversight by LA who had closed the case. A rather sophisticated analysis of the situation would be required in order to accommodate this feature. The analysis may be further complicated by the need to take into account also M’s attitude to the August 2012 allegations that S made. Although it was not proved that things had happened as S said, there was no question but that she made serious allegations and LA would say, no doubt, that M’s failure to keep an open mind about them shows that she lacks the capacity to behave protectively. However, whether M’s attitude to the allegations counted for anything in the analysis of her ability to protect the children from risk in future would depend upon what facts were available to her about the situation in relation to S, either from her own knowledge or from elsewhere. Particularly careful evaluation of this feature of the case would therefore be required. The fact is that the judgment does not deal with these factors at all, neither referring to the older history of the case leading to it being closed in May 2012, nor dealing with the complex situation in relation to the August 2012 allegations.

25 This is a deficiency in the judgment which undermines the judge’s welfare decision fatally in my view.

26 Without a sufficient evaluation of the risk flowing from Mr J’s sexual activities, all that was left as a foundation for the judge’s view that M could not provide the children with emotional care and was unable to protect them was what she set out in §38.3 (supra). It would be difficult to argue that that alone was enough to justify the orders that she made.

 

On a failure to properly explore the other options

 

 

27 Lewison LJ questioned whether the judge had dealt sufficiently with the less draconian outcomes that might have been possible for these children. We explored this question further during the hearing and I concluded that the judgment did not, in fact, deal sufficiently with this.

28 Exactly what might be possible for the children will depend upon the precise nature of the risk that is found to exist – what is at risk of happening, how likely it is to happen and what the consequences would be for the children if it did happen. However, there is an obvious need at least to consider, in every case, whether the children could be protected whilst living at home by LA maintaining a supervisory role through the medium of a supervision order or even a care order. I note that M’s case was that the children would live with her and her parents (judgment §17). The judgment reports that the social worker did not see this as a viable arrangement for the children but there is no explanation as to why not. The social worker gave evidence about the difficulties of communicating effectively with the children and gaining an understanding of what was happening in their home (judgment §15) and also about the near impossibility of establishing a working relationship with M (§18). That may weigh heavily against a placement at home under supervision but whether or not it did would depend upon the nature of the risks against which the children needed to be protected, as to which I have already expressed my views above.

29 Part of the overall welfare evaluation needed to be a thorough examination of the implications for the children of being removed from home permanently, split up from their siblings (the plan being for them to be placed in two pairs) and, in the case of the youngest two, removed from their family permanently. These were not infants by any means. The evidence was that they were very loyal to M. The judge recorded that the oldest two were expressing a desire to go home. There was evidence that the youngest two, whose primary carer had consistently been M, seemed to have largely secure attachments and were resilient children, engaging and sociable and not giving rise to any concern in relation to their behaviour or social presentation (see the report of the clinical psychologist who assessed the children).

30 The judge précised some of the evidence of the clinical psychologist in her judgment. She reported, for example, that the psychologist said it was difficult to balance the sibling relationship against the individual needs of the children for stability and permanence in a placement (judgment §20) but this was in the context of a consideration of what should be done about the children’s placements away from home i.e. whether they should all be placed together or split so as to give the younger children the chance of being adopted. That was predominantly the focus of the rest of the evidence précised by the judge as well, from the social worker and the guardian.

31 As Re G [2013] EWCA Civ 965 has made clear, the decision whether an order should be made which will result in the children not going home has to be taken following a global, holistic consideration of all the factors in the case and each of the options available for the children. The judgment in Re G was, of course, only handed down on 30 July 2013, which was during the hearing of evidence in this case. It is well understood that its implications would not have been digested by the time that submissions were made and judgment given. Indeed, it is only fair to observe that 2013 was a year of upheaval for family law and I have no doubt at all that keeping abreast of developments must have been very difficult indeed for practitioners and judges alike.

32 For whatever reason, however, even taking the judgment as a whole and concentrating on substance rather than form, it cannot be said that the judge carried out “a balancing exercise in which each option is evaluated to the degree of detail necessary to analyse and weigh its own internal positives and negatives and each option is then compared, side by side, against the competing option or options” (see §54 of Re G). What was required was not only a comparison of adoption vs fostering and splitting the children vs not splitting them. The judgment needed also to deal with the possibility of returning them to their home, taking account of losses that the children would suffer if this were not to happen. Those losses needed, in turn, to be taken into account in considering the case for adoption/long term care. It may well be that the judge considered that she had covered the possibility of a return home in her précis of the evidence of the social worker and the guardian, whose evidence she found impressive and who considered that it would not be feasible because it would not be possible to work with M or the children. However, more was needed in my view, and I am confident that the judge would have dealt with these issues more fully had she had the benefit of all the observations that emerged from this court and the Supreme Court during the course of 2013.

 

 

The Court of Appeal therefore discharged the final orders and sent the case back for re-hearing.

 

 

They also raise a practice point, one which will make the average Local Authority lawyer’s hair stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine. They point out that as the appeal was brought by a litigant in person, the procedural formalities (making sure everyone was served, setting out clearly the issues, having all of the relevant documents in the bundle) weren’t complied with. They then say “there’s no resources for the Court to do all of this”

 

And of course they then say “So, Local Authorities, with their bottomless resources and pockets, will have to sort it out”   (bear in mind that the LA are opposing these appeals, not bringing them)

 

6 This case is illustrative of an increasing problem faced by this court. More and more litigants appear in front of us in person. Where, as here, the appellant is unrepresented, this requires all those involved in the appeal process to take on burdens that they would not normally have to bear. The court office finds itself having to attempt to make sure that the parties to the litigation are notified of the appeal because litigants in person do not always know who should be served; the only respondent named by M here was LA. The bundles that the court requires in order to determine the appeal are often not provided by the litigant, or are incomplete, and proper papers have to be assembled by the court, not infrequently at the request of the judges allocated to hear the case when they embark upon their preparation for the hearing just days before it is due to start. The grounds of appeal that can properly be advanced have to be identified by the judge hearing the permission application and the arguments in support of them may have to be pinpointed by the court hearing the appeal.

7 The court has no extra resources to respond to these added challenges. It needs to be understood that the file from the lower court is not available to the appeal court which is dependent on the papers supplied for the appeal by the parties. If it is to be able to deal properly with an appeal in care proceedings, and to do so speedily (as most local authorities require so that undue delay is avoided for the children who are the subject of the proceedings), then local authorities will have to expect to assist by ensuring that the court is provided with appeal bundles. Three copies of the appeal bundles are normally required, unless the appeal is ordered to be heard by two judges in which case only two copies need be supplied. The bundles will often have to include the documentation that was available to the court below, although there can be appeals in which the issue is so discrete that a more limited selection of papers will suffice. It is so frequently the case that the papers supplied by the appellant are deficient that it should be standard practice for the local authority to take steps itself, well in advance of the hearing, to consider the appellant’s proposed bundle and, if it is deficient or apparently non-existent, to contact the court to see whether it is necessary to supply alternative or supplementary bundles.

8 It is important also that the respondents to the appeal make themselves aware of the issues that will be aired at the hearing. If permission is given in writing there will be an order which sets out shortly what the Lord Justice decided and why. If permission is given at an oral hearing, a short judgment will almost invariably be given explaining why and a transcribed copy of this should be sought.

9 I said more about the cost to individuals and to the legal system of the absence of legal assistance in Re O-A, a private law children case decided on 4 April 2014. Everyone involved in public and private law children cases is attempting to achieve the best possible result for the children whose welfare is at the heart of the proceedings and, without legal representatives for the parties, that task is infinitely more difficult

 

 

In effect, if an appeal is brought by a litigant in person, the Local Authority should undertake all of their requirements as a Respondent, but also now do everything that the Court would normally expect an Applicant to do.

 

(And of course, remembering that whilst there’s no chance of the LA recovering THEIR costs if the appeal is hopeless or lost by a country mile, there’s authority to say that if the appeal succeeds costs orders can be made against the LA.  )