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You be frank, I’ll be earnest

 

Another judgment from Mr Justice Baker, who I’m becoming increasingly fond of (although I think his decision about termination of parental responsibility probably will get overturned by the Court of Appeal).

This is Re L and M (Children) 2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/1569.html

 

It is, sadly, not a terribly unusual case – unusual in society in general but not in the field I practice in. There were multiple and serious injuries to the child, and the medical opinion as to how these had been caused was at variance with how the parents said the injuries had been caused. The Judge carefully considered all of the evidence, and the judgment is a perfect analysis of the caselaw and the competing factors that the Judge has to consider, not least of course the well-known quotation from Dame Butler-Sloss   “The judge in care proceedings must never forget that today’s medical certainty may be discarded by the next generation of experts or that scientific research would throw a light into corners that are at present dark.” 

 

The findings against the parents, including that they had not been honest in their account, were made by the Judge. So far, so commonplace, but there are two features in the case which lift it, and make it worthy of discussion.

 

Firstly, the judicial approach towards the instruction of experts in the case.  (It will not surprise you to learn that I completely agree with the Judge here, and commend him for saying these things. I have grave doubts that a case like Al Alas Wray would reach the same outcome, were we to try it again next year, because getting to the truth required the Court to be amenable to the instruction of multiple experts and no doubt delays were incurred in getting to the truth, which was that the parents were not responsible for the dreadful injuries and that there was a medical cause, allowing them to be reunited with a child rather than that child being adopted. It is simply, but ghastly, to imagine, how that case would have developed if the Court had simply heard evidence from the (very eminent) treating medical professionals.

We don’t hear, for my mind, enough about Al Alas Wray. We have set off upon a path, in family justice, of child rescue dominating over family preservation, no doubt in part due to the rightful sense that what happened to Baby P should never happen again. But what happened to the Al Alas Wray family ought not to happen to other families, and what could have been far worse (that their child was wrongly permanently separated from them) is equally something to be avoided if at all possible.  It worries me deeply that such cases might slip by us in the future.

    1. At this point, before turning to the parents’ evidence, I mention some points of wider importance that emerged from the medical evidence in this case.

 

    1. As mentioned above, no MRI was carried out on M in August 2011. Dr. Stoodley reminded the court of the recommendation of the Royal College of Radiologists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (“Standards for Radiological Investigations of Suspected Non-accidental Injury”, March 2008) that an MRI scan should be performed if an initial CT scan of a child is abnormal (para 15.3). He informed the court that there have been a number of recent cases in which such MRI has not been performed in these circumstances. Plainly from a forensic point of view, the absence of an MRI contemporaneous to the other imaging is a lacuna in the evidence. All the experts in this case agreed that an MRI should have been carried out at the time. I recognise, of course, that there may be clinical reasons why the treating physicians choose not to carry out imaging. I also note Mr. Richards’ observation that resources for MR imaging are scarce. I share Dr. Stoodley’s view, however, that “whilst the lack of an MRI scan at the time of M’s acute admission will not have affected her clinical care, an opportunity was potentially lost to gain useful forensic information”. It may therefore be appropriate for the professional bodies to review this issue to establish the extent to which the Royal Colleges’ recommendations are being followed

 

    1. There is, in addition, a more fundamental point of general importance. This case demonstrates yet again the invaluable role played by medical experts in cases of alleged non-accidental injury. There is rightly a renewed scrutiny on the use of experts in family proceedings, and some potent arguments have been advanced against what is perceived as the misuse and overuse of experts. In response, the Family Procedure Rules have been amended so as to impose more stringent regulation of the instruction of experts. Henceforth, under the amended rule 25.1, “expert evidence will be restricted to that which in the opinion of the court is necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings”.

 

    1. In difficult cases of non-accidental injury, it will continue to be the case that expert evidence from a variety of disciplines will be necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings. In the recent case of Devon CC v EB and others cited above, I observed at para 156

 

“Judges will be rigorous in resisting the call for unnecessary use of experts in family proceedings but equally will not hesitate to endorse the instruction of experts where, under the new rules, they are satisfied that they are necessary for the determination of the issues in proceedings.”

    1. This case provides a further example. The medical picture presented to Judge Marshall created what she thought, and Munby LJ in the CA agreed, was a conundrum. In directing a retrial, Munby LJ, whilst leaving the scope of the retrial to be decided by the judge conducting it, suggested that there should include a more exhaustive search of the literature. The instruction of Dr. Stoodley, a further search of the literature by the experts, and the process of the retrial in which the experts have each made an important contribution, have enabled this court to resolve the conundrum.

 

    1. Court-appointed experts play a vital role in difficult cases of non-accidental injury. As this case demonstrates, it will ordinarily not be sufficient to rely on the opinion of the treating physicians in this type of case. In respect of M’s rib fractures, the court-appointed experts provided insights that would not otherwise have been available to the court. The radiologists who initially reported on the X-rays, but who were not called to give evidence in the hearing, identified evidence further possible ten rib fractures. Neither Dr. Chapman nor Dr. Halliday identified any fractures at these points, and the local authority has not pursued this issue. As Mr. Kirk pointed out in closing submissions, the consequence is that this case looks somewhat different from how it appeared initially to the treating physicians. Had the case been presented purely on the basis of their interpretations, the focus of the court would have been significantly different. In respect of the skull fractures, as both Dr. Stoodley and Mr. Richards recognised, it is possible that in the past lucencies that had been routinely but wrongly diagnosed as fractures in spite of the fact that it was recognised that fissures and other abnormalities existed. Both experts had been involved in a case in which they had diagnosed a fracture but a bone pathologist had identified a traumatised suture. As Mr. Richards said in evidence, “we are beginning to get pathological evidence coming out to make us re-think our thoughts about fissures and fractures in the same way [as] a few years ago we got more evidence about birth causing subdural haemorrhages.” This is another example of how medical opinion about non-accidental head injury is continuing to evolve.

 

  1. This case provides further illustration of the important role of court-instructed experts in these difficult cases where the medical evidence is unusual and therefore outwith the experience of many hospital doctors. In the circumstances, it goes without saying that it is vital that experts of sufficient calibre and experience should continue to be available where the court considers their instruction necessary to resolve the proceedings. In the course of this trial, I have been informed that a number of doctors commonly instructed in these difficult cases are not at present accepting instructions. Any impediment to the instruction of experts in these difficult cases will make it much harder for the court to achieve a just and timely outcome for the child.

 

And secondly, as this was just a finding of fact hearing, there would then be a phase two, where assessments took place as to the future risk of harm that the parents might pose. The Judge reinforced this :

 

    1. I make these findings only after prolonged thought and with regret and reluctance. I know these parents have endured a great deal of hardship over the past few years, in particular the tragic loss of C and now these protracted proceedings leading to these findings. I accept that in many other ways the mother and father have been good parents to L and M. I accept that they are devoted to their children. I accept that they are desperate to care for them again.

 

  1. All children should wherever possible be brought up by their parents. That is as true of L and M as of any other children. I do not regard these findings as the end of the story. All the professionals in the case – the social workers, the guardian and the court – must do what we can to see if L and M can be safely returned to their parents. But the primary responsibility now lies with the parents themselves. I urge them, even at this late stage, to be more frank with the court so that we can all understand what happened to M and work together to ensure that she and her brother are safe in the future.

Nothing terribly new or controversial there, but a warning between the lines about how such cases will be dealt with in our brave new world.

The President has indicated that cases involving non-accidental injuries will only go beyond the 26 week limit in exceptional cases, and the mere fact of a finding of fact hearing being required won’t be sufficient to warrant a delay. Well, that’s all well and good, but what it will mean in practice is that where now, these parents would have something like a 10-14 week period to reflect on the judicial findings, perhaps accept them, perhaps partially move towards them, perhaps put some practical or therapeutic arrangements in place, they will from autumn of this year, probably get a 2-3 week period to do so.  The consequence of findings in a case like this, might be that a mother and father need to separate from one another, and it seems to me inhumane to expect them to make decisions of such gravity so quickly. Additionally, that assessment of future risk would probably have been undertaken by an independent expert, whereas from autumn of this year, it almost certainly will be undertaken by the social worker, who just 2-3 weeks earlier was effectively prosecuting those findings. It isn’t much time to turn around the parents views, and still less for the parents to be able to turn around the view of the social worker.

 

We shall see. The revised PLO is nearly upon us, and it will be happening, so all that we in the system can do is to try our best to make it work fairly for all involved. I’ll try to stop carping from the sidelines and try to come up with positive solutions as to how we make this system work fairly, but my fundamental thought is that it WILL require WORK to make it fair and that approaching the new regime as “like the old one but faster” won’t be sufficient, people in the system will have to be more alive to the need for us to get decisions that are not only swift but RIGHT.

 


 

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Headlines, deadlines, outlines (but not hemlines)

The revised Public Law Outline was published last week, and I hadn’t yet blogged about it.

You can find it here

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=dl114192

Lucy Reed over at Pink Tape has also blogged about it, and you can read her bit here:-

http://pinktape.co.uk/legal-news/new-plo-published/

 

There’s some jaunty young fellow-me-lad writing about it for Family Law Week, which you can find here,  though without as much ‘snark’ as suesspiciousminds would apply to it.

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed114224

I go back to one of my earliest ever blog posts, quoting the German military strategist Helmut Von Molke

“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”

and we will have a much better idea in the autumn (or more accurately, by the end of next spring, when all these 26 week cases OUGHT to be concluding) how it operates when moved from the field of theory into practice.

 

[And just to save me having to do a whole separate blog post, because I wanted to tell everyone how much I love THIS picture, which shows Mick Jagger at the very height of his rock-God powers, enjoying the cricket AND carrying a pint of bitter  (in a dimpled glass no less) . I don’t think I have seen a picture that quite makes me feel so utterly English as this one]

Mick gets some satisfaction

 

 

View from the President 2 : Into Darkness ?

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

And on the issue of experts

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

benedict