This is a very tricky one – I have to say that my eventual conclusion is that the Court of Appeal are entirely right about the principles and the decision that they came to, but it leaves me feeling uncomfortable and queasy that allegations as important as this about professional misconduct end up being dealt with on a technicality. What was alleged (and found by the Judge who heard all the evidence) was very serious stuff indeed.
In this case, at the end of a 4 week hearing, the Judge delivered a judgment that said that the SW and Police Officer had embarked on a deliberate calculated exercise of getting ‘evidence’ to prove sexual abuse without any relation to whether or not the allegations were true, that they had drawn other professionals in, that both had lied to the Court and that the SW had caused considerable emotional harm to the child. The Judge also directed that the judgment be sent to their employers. The Judge delivered this judgment as a bullet point ‘draft’ and allowed the SW and PO to make representations about it before it was finalised, but it ended up in the same form.
- Permission to appeal was granted by this court to the local authority, the named social worker (“SW”) and the named police officer (“PO”). Their appeal, if successful, will lead to the passages complained of being excised from the judgment, it is therefore plainly inappropriate to offer any more than a mere gist of those matters within this judgment. On that basis, and in short, the complaint relates to the judge’s finding that SW and PO, together with other professionals and the foster carer, were involved in a joint enterprise to obtain evidence to prove the sexual abuse allegations irrespective of any underlying truth and irrespective of the relevant professional guidelines. The judge found that SW was the principal instigator of this joint enterprise and that SW had drawn the other professionals in. The judge found that both SW and PO had lied to the court with respect to an important aspect of the child sexual abuse investigation. The judge found that the local authority and the police generally, but SW and PO in particular, had subjected C to a high level of emotional abuse over a sustained period as a result of their professional interaction with her. In addition to the specific adverse findings made against the local authority, SW and PO also complain that there was no justification for the judge deploying the strong adjectives that he used in describing the scale of his findings in a judgment which, in due course, in its final form, will be made public.
- It is necessary to stress that the issues canvassed in this appeal relate entirely to process. This court has not been asked to analyse the evidence underpinning the judge’s adverse findings nor to determine whether or not the judge was justified in criticising the professionals as he did. The central point raised by each of the three appellants is that the prospect of them being the subject of such adverse findings was made known to them, for the very first time, when the judge gave an oral “bullet point” judgment at the conclusion of the hearing. It is submitted that individual and collective adverse findings of the type that the judge went on to make in his judgment, did not feature at all in the presentation of the case of any of the parties and were not raised in any manner by the judge during the hearing. In short terms it is said that these highly adverse findings “came out of the blue” for the first time in the judgment. The findings both in nature and substance have the potential to impact adversely upon the standing of the local authority and/or the employment prospects and personal life of each of SW and PO, yet none of the three had been given any opportunity to know of or meet the allegations during the course of the trial process. They therefore seek a remedy from this court to prevent the inclusion of these adverse and extraneous findings in the final judgment that has yet to be handed down formally and published as the judge intended it to be.
As a result, the SW has been suspended ever since and the police officer had to be taken off all criminal investigations (a bit of a problem for a police officer) because this judgment would be discloseable to the defence in ANY case involving that officer. If the process in making the findings was fair, then those consequences would be utterly justified by the findings. But what if the process was NOT fair?
- In the context of potential “legal consequences”, Mr Brandon draws specific attention to the requirement, as he submits it is, for the judge’s findings with respect to PO, if they stand, being “disclosable” material in relation to any criminal proceedings in which PO may be involved as a police officer in the future on the basis of the approach described in R v Guney (Erkin Ramadan) (Disclosure)  Cr. App. R. 242. It is also at least arguable that these findings would amount to “reprehensible behaviour” (R v O’Toole (Patrick Francis)  EWCA Crim 951) and, he submits, they are also capable of being adduced as evidence of “bad character” pursuant to Criminal Justice Act 2003, s 100 by the defence in a criminal trial. Mr Brandon went on to explain that it is common practice amongst constabularies in England and Wales to remove officers who are the subject of adverse judicial findings from the “evidential chain” as their participation in the investigation and prosecution of offences may jeopardise the prospect of convicting those whom they are investigating. If this occurred, PO would not be permitted to be concerned in obtaining evidence in criminal investigation thereby compromising her ability to continue to work as a police officer.
- For SW, Mr Zimran Samuel, who acts on a pro bono instruction and to whom the court is most grateful for taking on this substantial case, has informed the court that SW who, following these proceedings went to work for a different local authority, has been suspended as a consequence of the judge’s findings and has been unable to work for any other authority since that time. He argues that that circumstance alone is sufficient to amount to a legal consequence sufficient to bring her appeal within the boundaries established by Cie Noga. Mr Samuel adopted the submissions that had been made on behalf of the local authority and PO before making detailed submissions on behalf of SW focussed upon the specific findings of fact made against her. It is not necessary in this judgment to consider that level of detail, although the court fully understands the importance to SW of the points that have been made on her behalf.
Both of them appealed, so the Court of Appeal had to look at :-
- A) Can a witness appeal at all? (and the vexed question of whether you appeal against FINDINGS, or ORDERS – an issue that the Court of Appeal change their mind on just about every time the issue comes up)
- B) Does the Court as a public body owe article 6 and article 8 duties to WITNESSES ?
- C) Was the process adopted here fair?
- D) Is there guidance to Judges in similar situations?
The Court of Appeal held that in the circumstances of this case, where the witnesses lives were significantly and materially affected by the process, they could appeal, and that they could appeal against the findings. (Those bits are all quite legalistic and compex, so I’ve just given you the answer. The working out is at paras 19-65)
Process and fairness
- It is plainly necessary to consider what elements of procedural fairness are required by Art 8 in this context. In my view, however, for the purposes of deciding this appeal, it is unnecessary to go beyond what must be an essential factor to be included on any list of the elements of procedural fairness, namely giving the party or witness who is to be the subject of a level of criticism that is sufficient to trigger protection under Art 8 (or Art 6) rights to procedural fairness proper notice of the case against them.
- Mr Brandon submits that it is a basic element of fairness for a judge to ensure that criticisms of the nature that he came to find proved are put to the witness rather than appearing for the first time ‘out of the blue’ (to use Mr Brandon’s phrase) in the judgment. Reliance is this regard is placed upon the Court of Appeal decision in Markem Corp v Zipher Ltd  EWCA Civ 267, which was a patent case that included an assertion of procedural unfairness. Lord Justice Jacob, giving the main judgment, drew attention to a 19th century House of Lords decision of Browne v Dunn (1894) 6 R 67. The case report of Browne v Dunn is sparse, but Jacob LJ sets out in full the relevant parts of their Lordships’ opinions at paragraph 59 of his own judgment in Markem. Of particular note is the following in the speech of Lord Herschell LC:
‘Now my Lords, I cannot help saying that it seems to me to be absolutely essential to the proper conduct of a case, where it is intended to suggest that a witness is not speaking the truth on a particular point, to direct his attention to the fact by some questions put in cross-examination showing that that imputation is intended to be made, and not to take his evidence and pass it by as a matter altogether unchallenged, and then, when it is impossible for him to explain as perhaps he might have been able to do if such questions had been put to him, the circumstances which it is suggested indicate that the story he tells ought not to be believed, to argue that he is a witness unworthy of credit. My Lords, I have always understood that if you intend to impeach a witness you are bound, whilst he is in the box, to give him an opportunity of making any explanation which is open to him; and, as it seems to me, that is not only a rule of professional practice in the conduct of a case, but is essential to fair play and fair dealing with witnesses.’
Other members of House of Lords gave speeches that expressly concurred with the Lord Chancellor on this point and the authority of Browne v Dunn was fully endorsed by this court in the course of its decision in the Markem case.
- The statement of the law in Browne v Dunn must however be read alongside the authoritative description of the role of a judge given by Lawton LJ in Maxwell v Department of Trade and Industry  QB 523 at page 541 B-D:
“The researches of counsel have not produced any other case which has suggested that at the end of an inquiry those likely to be criticised in a report should be given an opportunity of refuting the tentative conclusions of whoever is making it. Those who conduct inquiries have to base their decisions, findings, conclusions or opinions (whichever is the appropriate word to describe what they have a duty to do) on the evidence. In my judgment they are no more bound to tell a witness likely to be criticised in their report what they have in mind to say about him than has a judge sitting alone who has to decide which of two conflicting witnesses is telling the truth. The judge must ensure that the witness whose credibility is suspected has a fair opportunity of correcting or contradicting the substance of what other witnesses have said or are expected to say which is in conflict with his testimony. Inspectors should do the same but I can see no reason why they should do any more.”
- During the detailed submissions made on behalf of PO by Mr Brandon and of SW by Mr Samuel, we were taken to the transcript of the oral evidence which demonstrated beyond doubt that the matters found by the judge were not current, even obliquely, within the hearing or wider process in any manner. None of the key findings that the judge went on to make were put by any of the parties, or the judge, to any of the witnesses and there is a very substantial gap between the cross examination, together with the parties’ pleaded lists of findings sought, and the criticisms made by the judge. In this respect this is not a matter that is finely balanced; the ground for the criticisms that the judge came to make of SW, PO and the local authority, was simply not covered at all during the hearing.
- For my part it became clear from reading the transcript that the cross-examination of SW and PO had been entirely conventional in the sense that it dealt with ordinary challenges made to the process of enquiry into the allegations of sexual abuse and was conducted entirely, to use Mr Geekie’s phrase, within the four corners of the case. At the conclusion of the oral evidence, in closing submissions no party sought findings that went beyond those conventional challenges. At no stage did the judge give voice to the very substantial and professionally damning criticisms that surfaced for the first time in the bullet-point judgment.
- It can properly be said that by keeping these matters to himself during the four week hearing, and failing to arrange for the witnesses to have any opportunity to know of the critical points and to offer any answer to them, the judge was conducting a process that was intrinsically unfair.
- For my part, in terms of the decision in this appeal, it is not necessary to go further than holding that, unfortunately, this is a fundamental and extreme example of ‘the case’, as found by the judge, not being ‘put’ to SW and PO. However, out of respect for the thoughtful and more widely based submissions that have been made, and because the ramifications of this decision may need to be considered in other cases, I would offer the following short observations on other aspects of procedural fairness in the context of Art 8 in answer to the rhetorical question: ‘what should the judge have done?’.
To give you an illustration of this point, if I am cross-examining a witness, let’s say David Kessler, I may ask him questions as to whether his appetite for meat has increased in recent times, whether he has visited London Zoo recently, whether he is familiar with a pub called the Slaughtered Lamb. But if I intend to ask the Judge at the end of the case to find that David Kessler is a werewolf, I have to actuallly put the allegation to him, and not just join up those dots. I have to ask him “Are you in fact a werewolf?” or words to that effect – SO THAT HE HAS THE CHANCE TO DENY IT and give an alternative explanation which might fit those other facts.
Similarly, if as in this case, nobody had actually asked the Judge to find that David Kessler is a werewolf, but the Judge is joining those dots for himself, it is not fair to David Kessler (whether he is a werewolf or not) that the first time he hears of the possibility is when the Judge delivers a judgment.
In a case like this, where the Judge was considering (and did) make a finding that the social worker had lied and entered into a conspiracy, that question has to actually be put. It isn’t sufficient to join the dots – the bald question has to be asked.
The SW and Police officer won the appeal, the process had not been fair. (Note in particular that at no point did anyone in the case seek these findings or declarations and the first anyone knew of it was in the judgment). The Court of Appeal also interestingly said that the Court owes an article 6 right to fair trial to the Local Authority (the LA is not owed any art 8 rights, though the witnesses were)
By way of general guidance
95.Where, during the course of a hearing, it becomes clear to the parties and/or the judge that adverse findings of significance outside the known parameters of the case may be made against a party or a witness consideration should be given to the following:
- a) Ensuring that the case in support of such adverse findings is adequately ‘put’ to the relevant witness(es), if necessary by recalling them to give further evidence;
- b) Prior to the case being put in cross examination, providing disclosure of relevant court documents or other material to the witness and allowing sufficient time for the witness to reflect on the material;
- c) Investigating the need for, and if there is a need the provision of, adequate legal advice, support in court and/or representation for the witness.
Article 8: Conclusions
97.In the light of the law relating to ECHR Art 8 as I have found it to be, it is clear that the private life rights of SW and PO under Art 8 of these individuals as witnesses would be breached if the judgment, insofar as it makes direct criticism of them, is allowed to stand in the final form as proposed by the judge. The finding of breach of Art 8 does not depend on whether or not the judgment is published; the need to inform employers or prospective employers of such findings applies irrespective of whether the judgment is given wider publication. In short terms, the reasons supporting this conclusion are as follows:
- a) In principle, the right to respect for private life, as established by Art 8, can extend to the professional lives of SW and PO (R (Wright) v Secretary of State for Health and R (L) v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis);
- b) Art 8 private life rights include procedural rights to fair process in addition to the protection of substantive rights (Turek v Slovakia and R (Tabbakh) v Staffordshire and West Midlands Probation Trust);
- c) The requirement of a fair process under Art 8 is of like manner to, if not on all-fours with, the entitlement to fairness under the common law (R (Tabbakh) referring to Lord Mustill in R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Ex Pte Doody);
- d) At its core, fairness requires the individual who would be affected by a decision to have the right to know of and address the matters that might be held against him before the decision-maker makes his decision (R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Ex Pte Hickey (No 2));
- e) On the facts of this case protection under Art 8 does extend to the ‘private life’ of both SW and PO for the reasons advanced by their respective counsel and which are summarised at paragraphs 61, 86 and 87;
- f) The process, insofar as it related to the matters of adverse criticism that the judge came to make against SW and PO, was manifestly unfair to a degree which wholly failed to meet the basic requirements of fairness established under Art 8 and/or common law. In short, the case that the judge came to find proved against SW and PO fell entirely outside the issues that were properly before the court in the proceedings and had been fairly litigated during the extensive hearing, the matters of potential adverse criticism had not been mentioned at all during the hearing by any party or by the judge, they had certainly never been ‘put’ to SW or PO and the judge did not raise them even after the evidence had closed and he was hearing submissions.
98.As will be apparent from this analysis of the issues in the context of ECHR Art 8, I regard the process adopted by the judge in the present case to have fallen short by a very wide margin of that which basic fairness requires in these circumstances. The occasions on which such circumstances may occur, or develop during proceedings, will, I anticipate, be rare. This judgment should be seen by the profession and the family judiciary to be a particular, bespoke, response to a highly unusual combination of the following factors:
- a) a judge considering himself or herself to be driven to make highly critical findings against professional witnesses, where
- b) such findings have played no part in the case presented by any party during the proceedings, and where
- c) the judge has chosen not to raise the matters of criticism him/herself at any stage prior to judgment.
99.The fact that, so far as can be identified, this is the first occasion that such circumstances have been brought on appeal may indicate that the situation that developed in the present case may be a vanishingly rare one. For my part, as the reader of very many judgments from family judges during the course of the past five years, I can detect no need whatsoever for there to be a change in the overall approach that is taken by judges.
100.The present case is, unfortunately, to be regarded as extreme in two different respects: firstly the degree by which the process adopted fell below the basic requirements of fairness and, secondly, the scale of the adverse findings that were made. This judgment is, therefore, certainly not a call for the development of ‘defensive judging’; on the contrary judges should remain not only free to, but also under a duty to, make such findings as may be justified by the evidence on the issues that are raised in each case before them.
All of the adverse findings were set aside and were to be removed from the judgment before it was published – so not mere redaction, but actual removal of them as legal findings. [This is where I have the difficulty, since those original findings were grave, and I think to simply ignore them on a technicality is uncomfortable. Of course, unless the Judge’s decision on the child was wrong and being appealed, it is hard to come up with a framework to have a re-hearing of the allegations about the professional witnesses, but it still doesn’t sit well with me. It looks like a whitewash]
Remedy on appeal
119.Where, as I have found to be the case here, the adverse findings complained of have been made as a result of a wholly unfair process and where, again as here, the consequences for those who are criticised in those findings are both real and significant, it is incumbent on this court to provide a remedy and, so far as may be possible, to correct the effect of the unfairness that has occurred. In the present case what is sought is the removal from the judgment of any reference to the matters that were found by the judge against SW, PO and the local authority that fell outside the parameters of the care proceedings and had not been raised properly, or at all, during the hearing.
120.Mr Feehan accepts, as I understand it, that if this court reaches the stage that, in my judgment, it has indeed reached, then redaction from the judgment must follow, subject to any submissions as to detail. I agree that that must be the case. So that there is no ambiguity as to words such as ‘removal’ or ‘redaction’ in this context, I make it plain that the effect of any change in the content of the judge’s judgment that is now made as a result of the decision of this court is not simply to remove words from a judgment that is to be published; the effect is to set aside the judge’s findings on those matters so that those findings no longer stand or have any validity for any purpose. The effect is to be as if those findings, or potential findings, had never been made in any form by the judge.
And general guidance for other cases:-
108.Looking at this issue in general terms, it must, in some cases, be possible, where a court is contemplating making findings which may have arisen outside the original focus of the case, for the court to embark on a process which allows for those affected to make submissions and/or submit evidence in relation to those matters before final judgment is given. I have already described some of the basic elements in such a process at paragraph 95. For those additional steps to be an effective counter-balance to a process which might otherwise be seen as a whole to be unfair, they need, in my view, to be undertaken before the judge has reached a concluded decision on the controversial points. Whilst not impossible, it is difficult to conceive of circumstances where the overall fairness of the hearing could be rescued by any form of process after the judge has reached and announced his concluded decision. Where a court is considering making findings that have not, thus far, been foreshadowed in the proceedings I would suggest that, at the very least, the judge should alert the parties and, if necessary any affected witness, to the potential for such an outcome so that the steps in paragraph 95, and any other relevant additional matters, can be openly canvassed during the hearing and before any judgment is given.
The Court of Appeal went on to consider criticism of expert witnesses (and of course this year we have seen the very different approach to the radicalisation case where the Judge savaged the ISW in the judgment without her knowing in advance that this was possible, and the psychologist who made up quotes who had the chance to be represented by a Silk at a hearing where the declarations sought were all set out in advance)
Both of these experts had their reputation, and integrity, and livelihood put in doubt by these judgments – and the processes were wildly different.
Criticism of Expert witnesses
101.It is, unfortunately, sometimes the case that a judge in civil or family proceedings may be driven to criticise the professional practice or expertise of an expert witness in the case. Although what I have said with regard to a right to fair process under ECHR, Art 8 or the common law may in principle apply to such an expert witness, it will, I would suggest, be very rare that such a witness’ fair trial rights will be in danger of breach to the extent that he or she would be entitled to some form of additional process, such a legal advice or representation during the hearing. That this is so is, I suspect, obvious. The expert witness should normally have had full disclosure of all relevant documents. Their evidence will only have been commissioned, in a family case, if it is ‘necessary’ for the court to ‘resolve the proceedings justly’ [Children and Families Act 2014, s 13(6)], as a result their evidence and their involvement in the case are likely to be entirely within the four corners of the case. If criticism is to be made, it is likely that the critical matters will have been fully canvassed by one or more of the parties in cross examination. I have raised the question of expert witnesses at this point as part of the strong caveat that I am attempting to attach to this judgment as to the highly unusual circumstances of this case and absence of any need, as I see it, for the profession and the judges to do anything to alter the approach to witnesses in general, and expert witnesses in particular.
The Court of Appeal were trying to be as clear as possible that they weren’t asking Courts to approach the issue of assessment of witnesses and criticisms of witnesses differently or defensively, and that the issues in this case arose really because the specific allegations that led to the findings weren’t actually put to the witnesses, or sought by the parties. If the social worker and police officer had been asked the direct questions and known that such findings were sought, then the Judge’s findings could have been upheld.