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LASPO and article 6 – a huge case

The President has given his judgment in Q v Q, and it is a helluva read.

If you want the “Too Long: Didn’t Read” version – in a case where the Judge concludes that it is necessary for a party to be legally represented or to have the costs of an expert paid for and that failure to do so would be a breach of article 6, and the Legal Aid Agency refuse to use their power under s10 LASPO to grant exceptional funding,  the Court would be entitled to order that Her Majesty’s Court Service pay for the legal representation.

 

The original Q v Q I wrote about here :-  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/06/09/q-v-q-an-impasse/

 

The facts broadly are that a father was seeking contact with his child, an expert assessment as to future risk had been obtained, he disagreed with the conclusion and wanted to challenge it by way of cross-examination, but wasn’t in a position to do that himself, it was a task that would have been beyond him.  At the end of the judgment, the President floated the idea that if the Court considered that a party’s article 6 right to a fair trial was being breached, and the Legal Aid Agency wouldn’t pay for representation, then the Court Service might well have a duty to.  He didn’t finally determine that, giving the Ministry of Justice a chance to intervene and make representations as to why not  (they didn’t take that chance, because they are not the brightest crayon in the box)

 

The President also bundled up with Q v Q two private law cases where serious sexual offences were being alleged against the father and the Legal Aid Agency’s refusal to grant exceptional funding was going to place the Court in a position where the father might have to cross-examine in person the alleged victim. One of those,  D v K and B 2014   I wrote about here https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/03/14/equality-of-arms-d-v-k-and-b-2014/

 

The judgment in Q vQ 2014 is here

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/31.html

 

I have not been, over the last few years, the biggest flag-waver for the President – many of my grumbles are about his performance as a reforming administrator rather than a Judge; but he delivers for justice here.  And puts a target on his head, because this won’t be a popular decision in the Ministry of Justice, who are probably in a room now with a flip chart drawing up battle-plans and watching old episodes of  Judge John Deed to try to pick up some tips for when the MOJ are at war with a ‘rogue’ Judge.

 

Let’s have a quick look at why the MOJ, when placed on notice that the President was contemplating making a decision that would in effect be – “either the LAA write a cheque or HMCS write a cheque, but a cheque’s going to get written”, decided not to get involved

I decided to invite the Secretary of State for Justice (para 20) to:
 

“intervene in the proceedings to make such submissions as are appropriate in relation, in particular, to the argument that in a situation such as this the expenditure which is not available from the Legal Aid Agency but which, in the view of the court, if it be the view of the court, is necessary to be incurred to ensure proceedings which are just and fair, can be met either from the Legal Aid Agency by route of the other certificate, the mother’s certificate, or directly at the expense of the court.”
On 25 June 2014 I received a letter from Shailesh Vara MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice in the Ministry of Justice. After an opening paragraph the letter reads as follows:
 

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to intervene but the Ministry of Justice does not propose to do so in this case.
Ministers have no right or power to intervene in individual legal aid funding decisions made by the Director of Legal Aid Casework. The independence of the Director is an important statutory measure, which ensures impartiality in decision making. From the information recorded in your judgment, it is clear that the father in this case failed to satisfy the statutory merits criteria required to access funding. The merits test is a fundamental and long established part of the legal aid system, and ensures that limited public money is focussed on sufficiently meritorious cases and is not available in cases lacking sufficient merit. It is clearly established that it is legitimate for the Government to focus limited public resources through applying a merits test.
As you record in your judgment, there is expert evidence in the case (one report plus addenda commissioned by the father and one plus addendum commissioned jointly by the mother and the father) which set out unequivocally that the son would not be safe in his father’s presence and that at the moment there should be no contact between the father and the son. There have always been litigants in person in family proceedings, whether because individuals do not qualify for legal aid or choose to represent themselves, and the Courts have been able to resolve such proceedings justly and fairly.
I agree with you that further delay should be avoided in this case and, in the absence of a mechanism for funding the appearance of the experts or representation for the father, you will have to decide this issue in the absence of the cross examination you refer to in your judgment.”

 

So, we’re not coming, and if you can’t find a lawyer to do the cross-examination for free, then you’ll just have to decide the case without any cross-examination.

 

Do you remember in 1984 how Orwell talks about the Ministries in Airstrip One being named for the opposite of what they really do? So their Ministry of Peace was really a Ministry of War and so on?   Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Ministry of Justice.  Bravo, bravo.

 

The President goes through the various options, looking chiefly at the cases involving an allegation of rape in private law proceedings which is challenged and where the ‘accused’ has no lawyer.  In short they are ‘pro bono’,  the Guardian conducting the cross-examination, the father doing it in person or the Judge doing it and shows why each are insufficient and flawed.

 

He then establishes that as a result of European jurisprudence, notably  Airey v Ireland, and the Human Rights Act, the Court itself is bound by article 6 and fair trial and would itself be breaching the person’s right to a fair trial if it were to conduct the trial in a way that it considers to be unjust

 

46. The court is a public authority for the purposes of the Human Rights Act 1998 and is therefore required, subject only to section 6(2), to act in a way which is compatible with Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention. So far as is material for present purposes Article 6(1) provides that “In the determination of his civil rights and obligations … , everyone is entitled to a fair … hearing within a reasonable time”. Article 8, which guarantees “the right to respect for … private and family life”, also affords significant procedural safeguards in relation to the court process. As the Strasbourg court said in McMichael v UK (1995) 20 EHRR 205, para 87, “the decision-making process leading to measures of interference must be fair and such as to afford due respect to the interests safeguarded by Article 8.”
 

47. It is necessary also to have regard to Article 47 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights:
 

“Everyone whose rights and freedoms guaranteed by the law of the Union are violated has the right to an effective remedy before a tribunal in compliance with the conditions laid down in this Article.
Everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal previously established by law. Everyone shall have the possibility of being advised, defended and represented.
Legal aid shall be made available to those who lack sufficient resources insofar as such aid is necessary to ensure effective access to justice.”
I do not take up time considering whether this is applicable in cases such as those before me. In any event, it is not clear that it creates any greater right than arises under Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention: see Gudanaviciene and others v Director of Legal Aid Casework and another [2014] EWHC 1840 (Admin), paras 36-37.

48. Article 6 guarantees the right of “practical” and “effective” access to the court. In the case of a litigant in person, the question is whether, without the assistance of a lawyer, the litigant will be “able to present her case properly and satisfactorily”: Airey v Ireland (Application no 6289/73) (1979) 2 EHRR 305, para 24. In that particular case, the court held that Ireland was in breach of Mrs Airey’s Article 6 rights because it was not realistic in the court’s opinion to suppose that, in litigation of the type in which she was involved, she could effectively conduct her own case, despite the assistance which the judge would afford to parties acting in person. In DEB v Germany [2011] 2 CMLR 529, para 46, the CJEU summarised the Strasbourg jurisprudence in this way:
 

“Ruling on legal aid in the form of assistance by a lawyer, the ECtHR has held that the question whether the provision of legal aid is necessary for a fair hearing must be determined on the basis of the particular facts and circumstances of each case and will depend, inter alia, upon the importance of what is at stake for the applicant in the proceedings, the complexity of the relevant law and procedure and the applicant’s capacity to represent himself effectively.”

49. Mantovanelli v France (Application no 21497/93) (1997) 24 EHRR 370, indicates the significance of the right to an adversarial hearing guaranteed by Article 6 specifically in the context of an expert’s report which is “likely to have a preponderant influence on the assessment of the facts by [the] court.”

 

 

The President also looked at section 31 G (6) of the  amended Matrimonial and Famly Proceedings Act 1984

 

33….section 31G(6) of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984, set out in Schedule 10 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which came into effect on 22 April 2014:
 

“Where in any proceedings in the family court it appears to the court that any party to the proceedings who is not legally represented is unable to examine or cross-examine a witness effectively, the court is to –
(a) ascertain from that party the matters about which the witness may be able to depose or on which the witness ought to be cross-examined, and
(b) put, or cause to be put, to the witness such questions in the interests of that party as may appear to the court to be proper.”

 

And in conclusion

 

75…does section 31G(6) operate to confer on a judge of the Family Court power to forbid a party who wishes to conduct his own case from examining or cross-examining a witness? Again I have heard no sustained argument, but my inclination is to think that the answer is, no it does not, for principle suggests that such an important right is only to be cut down by express words or necessary implication, and neither is very obviously to be found in section 31G(6): see again General Mediterranean Holdings SA v Patel and Another [2000] 1 WLR 272. As against that, I can see the argument that there may be cases where to expose the alleged victim to cross-examination by the alleged perpetrator might engage the alleged victim’s rights, whether under Article 8 or Article 3, in such a way as to impose on the court an obligation under the 1998 Act to prevent it, so that in such a case section 31G(6) has to be read as giving the court the appropriate power to do so.
 

76. The second thing which is unclear is this: what, in contrast to the word “put” in section 31G(6), do the words “cause to be put” mean? When section 31G(6) provides that in certain circumstances “the court is to … put” questions, that must mean questioning by the judge or magistrate. In some – probably many – cases that will be entirely unproblematic. But in cases where the issues are as grave and forensically challenging as in Re B and Re C, questioning by the judge may not be appropriate or, indeed, sufficient to ensure compliance with Articles 6 and 8. There is, in my judgment, very considerable force in what Roderic Wood J and Judge Wildblood said in the passages in their judgments (respectively, para 24 and paras 6(iii)-(v)) which I have already quoted.
 

77. The words “cause to be put” must, in contrast, contemplate questioning by someone other than the judge. Now that someone else might be an advocate whom the court has managed to persuade to act pro bono. It might be the guardian, if there is one, or the guardian’s advocate. But there are, as both Roderic Wood J and Judge Wildblood understandably pointed out, great difficulties in expecting the guardian or the guardian’s advocate to undertake this role – difficulties which were expounded also in the argument before me. I agree with what Judge Wildblood said (para 6(ix) quoted above). The point applies with equal force in the circumstances of both Re B and Re C.
 

78. What then is the court to do if the father is unable to pay for his own representation and “exceptional” legal aid is not available?
 

79. In the ultimate analysis, if the criteria in section 31G(6) are satisfied, and if the judge is satisfied that the essential requirements of a fair trial as required by FPR 1.1 and Articles 6 and 8 cannot otherwise be met, the effect of the words “cause to be put” in section 31G(6) is, in my judgment, to enable the judge to direct that appropriate representation is to be provided by – at the expense of – the court, that is, at the expense of HMCTS.

 

 

Now, some caveats  – the President is careful to say that these were cases with particular characteristics, each involving allegations of sexual offences and two involving allegations of rape, and that he had been looking at these cases in particular not s10 LASPO in general.   And also we need to bear in mind that  (a) the LAA might appeal this decision, as they are threatening to do with Gudanaviciene and others v Director of Legal Aid Casework and another [2014] EWHC 1840 (Admin),  and (b) hardly anyone at the LAA seems to have taken on board Gudanaviciene so far, as can be seen from the Smackdown judgment from HH Judge Bellamy I wrote about yesterday.     The criminal bar were all cock-a-hoop about the  Op Cotton judgment and the rug was pulled out from under them by the Court of Appeal.

 

Here are the President’s own caveats   (and if you are a Local Authority lawyer or budget-holder note the chilling implications of the LA funding intervenors or grandparents to litigate against them)

 

Three caveats

In this judgment I have been concerned only to consider the problems that may arise in private law cases. I have therefore not had occasion to consider any further the point I made in Q v Q (para 18), where I suggested that “In a public law case where the proceedings are brought by a local authority, one can see a possible argument that failing all else the local authority should have to pay.” That is a matter for another day.
 

I have concluded that there may be circumstances in which the court can properly direct that the cost of certain activities should be borne by HMCTS. I emphasise that (the provision of interpreters and translators apart) this is an order of last resort. No order of this sort should be made except by or having first consulted a High Court Judge or a Designated Family Judge.
 

I emphasise also that the allegation in each case is one of sexual assault, in two of the cases an allegation of rape. It may be that a similar approach is appropriate in cases of serious non-sexual assault. It may be that it will not be appropriate in less serious cases. I express no concluded views, beyond drawing attention to the trite observation that everything will, in the final analysis, depend upon the particular facts of the specific case.
 

Concluding observations

The Ministry of Justice, the LAA and HMCTS may wish to consider the implications. That is a matter for them. For my part I would urge the early attention of both the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group and the Family Procedure Rules Committee to those aspects of the various matters I have canvassed that fall within their respective remits.

 

In both of the live cases, the Judge gave the Legal Aid Agency one last chance to see sense and grant the funding under LASPO, but gave the clearest of indications that to proceed without representation would be an article 6 breach and that the Court would have to consider its own duty to fund such representation.

 

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“You’re fired! Now, can I have an adjournment?”

We seem to have had a recent flurry of Court of Appeal decisions about whether it is fair to press on with a final hearing where a parent parts company with their lawyer shortly before the hearing, or even in the midst of it.

This is an interesting dilemma, since obviously there’s a tension between wanting a fair trial and recognising that a parent who suddenly finds that they are representing themselves at the eleventh hour has more than they can realistically cope with, and having decisions made in accordance with the timetable the Court has fixed for the case (that being based on what the child’s timescales are)

On the one hand, it is important that parents who face the prospect of permanent separation from their child (a) HAVE a lawyer and (b) HAVE CONFIDENCE in that lawyer; on the other, if simply sacking your lawyer gets the hearing adjourned, then it would always be better to simply sack your lawyer at the morning of the first day, rather than INSTRUCT your lawyer to argue for an adjournment.

 [Also, if not having a lawyer gets you an adjournment, you can infinitely prolong the decision by sacking your lawyer every time you reach the final hearing, so there has to be a line drawn in the sand somewhere]

 alan sugar

There are two recent cases, with two different outcomes

Re L (A Child) 2013, where the decision to refuse an adjournment was overturned

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/267.html

Re GB (Children) 2013, where the refusal of the adjournment was approved.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/164.html

 So, in brief summary, the facts of the two cases :-

 In Re L, the father was having considerable difficulties with his solicitors and things reached the point where they indicated that they were no longer willing to act for him. This happened on the Friday, with the final hearing due to start on the Tuesday. His solicitors conveyed the full set of papers to him on Monday, but he was not at home, having had to set off to make the journey to the town in which the final hearing was to take place.

 The father had sought an adjournment, as although he was ‘wedded to not wanting to return to his previous solicitors, he was also wedded to having legal representation’ and was not seeking to represent himself.

Additionally, and pivotally, there was also a report from a psychiatrist, Dr Bowskill  (this having been a piece of information which caused quite a lot of the disruption between father and his solicitors) and was not presented at the initial final hearing, but was presented to the Court of Appeal.

 

  1. We have what the judge did not have, namely a letter from Dr Bowskill dated 6 September, in which he states shortly but pertinently:

“I have assessed Mr LL and confirm that my opinion is that he is not fit to represent himself in court.”

Beyond that, we have a full medico-legal report from Dr Bowskill dated on its face 20th, but actually signed and dated by the doctor 27 September 2012. What is important is paragraph 7.1, in which the doctor states:

“My opinion is that Mr LL has a Paranoid Personality Disorder, as defined in Section F60.0 in the International Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, Version 10.”

Then in paragraph 7.10 and 11, he states:

“7.10 Given Mr LL’s Paranoid Personality Disorder, I do not believe Mr LL would be able to represent himself in a useful way in the court process. Judge Compston made his findings without being aware of Mr LL’s Paranoid Personality Disorder.

7.11 My opinion is that the degree of Mr LL’s personality disorder is that he would not be able to rationally respond to and address questions that would be posed to him during the Court process. Indeed, the Court process is likely to exacerbate his feeling of paranoia and persecution.”

 For the Court of Appeal, that tipped the balance –underlining mine

I would not myself conclude that the judge’s decision on 14 August and 15 August fell without the very generous ambit of discretion given to a judge who has to balance on the one hand possible unfairness to the applicant, on the other hand unfairness to the respondent in granting the application, to which must be added the all-important welfare dimension taking into account the interests of the child. Finally, there is the general point of public importance that public funding resources need to be husbanded. A transfer from firm A to firm B usually involves wastage and therefore increase in the ultimate bill to the public purse. And always, there is the risk of delay inherent in granting any adjournment and the additional pressure on the limited resources of the court in filling the time vacated and finding matching time elsewhere.

However, the importance of the fresh evidence must, in my judgment, be recognised. Had that information been available to the Recorder, had he had the letter of 6 September and even more the medico-legal report, he would have recognised that he had before him a vulnerable applicant, disadvantaged as a result of his disorder and one who in the opinion of an expert was simply not fit to litigate unrepresented. Accordingly, if he had available to him information available to this court, it is at the least arguable that he would have reached the contrary decision. Indeed, in my view had he had that material, the application required to be granted, at least to give the applicant a limited opportunity to ensure that the certificate was not lost, but transferred to an alternative firm, who would then simply have the relatively light task of picking up the trial from the point at which all the documentation had been prepared. And Mr Maitland Jones, who had only been stood down from his brief to represent on the 14th, would have been available to be briefed on some other day.

 

 

In Re GB, it seems that the parents lost confidence in their legal team shortly after the Issues Resolution Hearing  (a hearing at which their position was confirmed as being that that parents accepted that the 3 children would not be returning to their care, and that the time estimate for the final hearing was reduced by agreement from 5 days to 2),  but did not obtain fresh representation between the IRH and final hearing and had not taken any steps to do that.

They dismissed their legal representation and sought an adjournment to obtain fresh legal representation, which was refused, and thus found themselves in the position of being litigants in person. [Again the underlining is my own, for emphasis]

  1. Ms Sterling’s case before us today sought to highlight a number of aspects. First of all, the mother’s vulnerability before the court. In doing so, we were handed one page from what is obviously a lengthy report prepared by Mrs Westerman, a clinical psychologist who conducted an assessment of the mother. The page that we have sets out three paragraphs listing the outcome of a number of psychological tests that were undertaken. These indicated that the mother had an elevated score in a number of aspects, in particular in one test on the “paranoid scale of the severe personality pathology scale”. Another result indicated the presence of “depressive and masochistic personality traits”; and, generally, Ms Sterling submitted that these results established or at least strongly indicated that her client was a significantly vulnerable individual and not well fitted, or fitted at all, to be either a litigant in person in any proceedings or, more forcefully, the litigant in person in these proceedings in relation to her own history, her own functioning as a parent and the future of her own children.
  1. Ms Sterling also took us to no less than four occasions in the judgment where the judge either herself expressed the view, or quoted the view of professionals, that the mother lacked “insight” into the difficulties that were being raised against her in the proceedings. Ms Sterling also pointed out that this mother had herself had a very troubled time as a young person in the care system.
  1. As part of the task facing the mother at the hearing, she was required to cross-examine the psychologist who had produced this comprehensive report. Ms Sterling said in terms that it was just wrong for a person such as this mother to be required to cross-examine a psychologist in these circumstances. She said that for the judge to have established a trial where this took place was unfair, unjust and unkind.
  1. In support of the second ground of appeal, Ms Sterling having taken us in her detailed skeleton and in her oral submissions to other matters, stressed that the judgment of the court does not simply deliver the task of deciding what should happen to the three children before the judge in November 2011, it also has an impact upon any future child that this mother might have, because it would be taken as the starting point and given credence by the local authority in deciding whether the mother could be a safe or good enough parent for any future child. The submission was made that there was no urgency in the proceedings before the judge, that there was benefit in time being taken to allow for legal representation; the children were not going to be moving, and indeed have not moved, from the places that they were already established in at the time of the hearing and the judge should have given the mother the adjournment that she sought.
  1. Finally Ms Sterling took us to the detail of the task that the mother faced in conducting the hearing. She described it as a herculean task, not least because of the physical burden of the mother carrying the six or seven bundles of paperwork away with her for the first time from court at the end of the first day, travelling on public transport back to her home, reading them as best she could overnight and returning to court for the 9.30 start on the next morning.
  1. Ms Sterling also said that a reading of the transcript showed that to pack so much into the day and for the judge to hold, as she did at the beginning of the first day, that the hearing would finish “tomorrow” was to put too much pressure on the mother and led to the court driving the case forward at an unacceptable pace during the course of the second day.
  1. I asked Ms Sterling whether any criticism was made of the approach the judge took once the hearing had begun, other than the pace of the process, and to that request Ms Sterling indicated that the way in which the judge simply allowed the mother to ask very long narrative questions of the witnesses was in fact a detriment to the mother; it allowed her, to use Ms Sterling’s phrase, “to rant” in an unfocussed manner which almost became self-defeating of the mother trying to present a positive and wholesome picture to the judge

The Court of Appeal in both cases referred back to Re B and T (care proceedings: legal representation) [2001] 1 FCR 512 and cited the general principles about an adjournment application where the parents had become unrepresented [underlining mine]

 

  1. 45.   “17. The assertion by Mr Miss Booth that art 6 obliged the judge to discontinue on either 12 June or, if not then, on 14 June, seems to me to be an unrealistic submission. In this jurisdiction the proceedings are not adversarial proceedings. The judge always holds an inquisitorial responsibility, It is his difficult task to maintain a balance between the rights of the children to an early determination of their future. The obligation of the judge to avoid delay is expressed in the statute. I cannot see that it could be said that this judge, supremely experienced in this field of work, fell into error in balancing the rights of the children to determination against the rights of the parents to a fair trial. It is not a case in which the parents were denied the opportunity to put their case. It is manifest that the judge endeavoured, to the best of his ability, to ensure that the received the support which is conventionally given by a judge and advocates to unrepresented litigants.

[…]

21. When one considers the requirements of art 6 of the Convention, it is relevant to remember that art 6 requires the entire proceedings to have been conducted on a fair basis. It is not appropriate simply to extract part of the process and look at that in isolation. In this case, as my Lord has said, there had been abundant legal advice and guidance of the most skilled nature available to Mr and Mrs T before the matter came before Wall J. There had also been the possibility, indeed the obligation, to produce further evidence: steps that had not been taken on the instance either of Mr and Mrs T or of those were acting for them. I do not therefore agree that, in assessing the impact of the Convention in this case, one should necessarily start on the day upon which the adjournment was sought, ignoring everything that had gone before. Further, I do not agree that, in proceedings of this nature, in which the children as well as the parents have an intimate and pressing interest, one should look at the question of fairness to the parents in paramount priority to fairness (in terms of a prompt decision, which is another aspect of art) to the children. In the passage that my Lord has read, it is clearly apparent that the judge had, and properly had, the interests of the children well in mind when he was making his decision.

22. However, I put those matters to one side. I will look at the case on the basis upon which Miss Booth put it in support of the submission that art 6 did require a decision, either to adjourn the trial or to stop it at the point that I have indicated. We have to remind ourselves, as I have already said, that art 6 is concerned with the overall fairness of the proceedings. The article itself lays down very few absolute rules. That said, both the jurisprudence of the European Court and simple common sense, of a kind that an English lawyer can immediately identify, do require in general terms that certain elements are present in any judicial proceedings, an obvious example is the right and ability of those concerned in the proceedings to put their case. Here Mr and Mrs T had ample opportunity and occasion, as the judge was satisfied they had done.

23. Another consideration is that there should be equality of arms between the parties but, in my view, that does not mean that there must necessarily be legal representation on both sides, indeed on all sides, more particularly where everybody concerned in the case was acutely aware of the need give every assistance to people who were representing themselves. Provided that the tribunal is itself aware o and constantly reminds itself of the duty of fairness, it is very much a matter for that tribunal, and is recognised in the jurisprudence of the Convention as being to a substantial extent a matter for that tribunal, whether, in all the circumstances, it is able to discharge the case fairly.”

[Just as well, considering what has just happened to legal representation in private law cases, that equality of arms doesn’t mean that if one person has a a lawyer, everyone else should have a lawyer]

So, in Re GB, the Court of Appeal went on to consider whether, drawing on those general principles, the decision to refuse an adjournment was plainly wrong

  1. It therefore seems to me that issues such as the one raised in the present case will of necessity be fact specific; it will be necessary to look at all of the elements that were in play before the judge who decided to adjourn or not adjourn a set of proceedings. The principles are set out in the European decision of Re P and most helpfully set out in Re B and T, as I have indicated.
  1. Applying those matters to the present case, and not underestimating the task that the mother faced in conducting this litigation before the court in the, to her, unexpected event of the court pressing on without granting an adjournment, I consider that the process that was adopted and the decision to press on without an adjournment did not breach the mother’s Article 6 rights to a fair trial, looked at either in terms of the narrow focus of the hearing itself in November or, as we have to do, against the canvas of the proceedings as a whole.
  1. This was a case which turned very much upon the assessments that had been undertaken by the various professionals. Much of the work of teasing out the detail, the strengths and weaknesses of the various family members and the vulnerabilities and needs of the children had been undertaken by professionals over the course of weeks and months, had been reduced to writing and was before the judge. The judge’s decision was very much based upon that material. There is a limit in such circumstances as to how much any advocate, lay or otherwise, can achieve where the body of material upon which the judge will rely is established, and there is no countervailing expert opinion the other way. For example, had the independent social worker instructed on behalf of the parents taken a contrary view then there would have been more room for manoeuvre available to an advocate to present a case; here the evidence was all one way.
  1. Secondly, this was a case where the judge was contemplating delay of already one year from the time the children were removed to foster care. Although they were not going to change their placement or their home if the orders sought were granted, everybody involved with them, and in particular the children insofar as they could understand it, needed to know whether or not these arrangements were going to be for the future, so that they could hunker down and get on with life and the task of growing up or bringing up the children; or, if the children were going to go home, plainly that issue had to be determined so that the moves to move them back to the parents’ care could be undertaken. The judge was therefore justified in attaching a premium to the need to achieve finality in this process.
  1. Although Rule 1.1(2)(c) urges the court to establish an equal footing between parties, that can never be justification of itself for a litigant in person seeking an adjournment and holding that the failure to grant an adjournment is a breach of Article 6 rights.
  1. At each turn a balance has to be struck; it is not a balance that is to be determined under Section 1 of the Children Act under which the child’s welfare would be the court’s paramount consideration, but the court must take account of the child’s welfare and the fair trial needs of the parties to the court, which include the parents but also include the child and, to a lesser extent, the local authority. This was a decision that the judge was particularly well seated to take; she had a prior knowledge of the case and she had indicated at the earlier hearing that no adjournment would be contemplated simply for a change in legal representation to be achieved. In my view, the judge was right to reject the adjournment application.
  1. But that is not the end of the matter. Once the case is proceeding a judge is faced with the difficult judicial task of acting as the judge in the proceedings, of refereeing the court process, but doing so in a way that seeks to meet the need for all parties to be on an equal footing so far as is practicable, notwithstanding that one of them is not legally represented, and in this regard I think the judge conducted herself in a way which was conspicuously helpful in meeting that need. In particular, the judge had been open and clear to the parties by indicating at the previous hearing that there would be no adjournment. The parties were in no doubt that that was the judge’s view and any change that they were going to seek to make in their representation would have to bear in mind that parameter set by the judge.
  1. Secondly, once the judge had decided to press ahead with the hearing she was clear in dealing with the mother as to what was required and, on my reading of the transcript, went out of her way to assist the mother to achieve focussed representation in the terms of choosing which witnesses to call and how they should be questioned. One aspect of this is that, despite the breakdown in the professional relationship between the parents and their lawyers, the judge invited counsel and solicitors for the parents to remain in the court room during the morning of the first day of the hearing. The time came when the court turned to ask the mother which witnesses she would wish to call. At that stage the judge was able to ask the mother to spend a short time out of the court room with her previous barrister and solicitors to obtain their assistance and indeed to consider reinstructing them and returning them to their previous role. The result of that was that a list of witnesses was provided and the mother confirmed that she did not wish to reinstruct the lawyers. The judge’s invitation for the lawyers to remain in the court room seems to me a sensible and proportionate step to have taken.
  1. Most of the witnesses who were called on the second day had in fact been stood down, and again the judge did not stand by the previous order which had simply listed a few witnesses to be called; she exhorted the local authority to obtain as many of the key witnesses as possible and adjourned the case from time to time to assist that process.
  1. During the evidence giving itself, the judge allowed the mother full rein; she did not interrupt the mother with interventions designed to keep the mother on a track that a lawyer skilled in the forensic process should follow; she did not bombard the mother with technical points; instead she allowed the mother simply to say what she wanted to say, and then at a suitable interval the judge would try to focus the witness onto a question or questions arising from what the mother had said.

And thus concluded that taking the principles from Re B and T and the European Court decision in P, C and S v  UK, which is reported in [2002] 2 FLR at 631 and applying the facts of this case, the Court had not been plainly wrong in refusing the adjournment.

 What we don’t have then, is a checklist of what factors tip the balance for granting the adjournment and refusing one.

(I’d suggest that relevant factors would be – the circumstances in which the parent and lawyer parted company, the complexity of the trial, the timing of the separation, what steps the parent has taken to try to get fresh representation, the vulnerabilities of the parent, their ability to conduct the litigation in person if given appropriate support, the impact of delay on the case and the child,  and the timescales for reconvening the hearing. But those are just my suggestions, the Courts haven’t sat down and thrashed out a set of factors]

Of course, this raises the interesting point – in order to properly seek an adjournment, the parent (who is representing themselves, perhaps unwillingly) needs to know of the substance of at least four pieces of case law – Re B and T, P C and S v UK, Re L and Re GB, and to be able to highlight to the Court the facts of their case which put them in the Re L bracket and not the Re GB bracket.   [Good luck with that]

It would seem sensible, where the other parties get advance notice of a parting of the ways, for the relevant cases to be brought to Court and the principles distilled into a short document for the benefit of the Court and the parents.

 The Court of Appeal in Re GB also made some salient points about the delay, it having taken 15 months to get the appeal heard, principally because the appeal had not been issued until the transcript of the hearing had been obtained, and firstly there had been a delay in getting the LSC to fund the transcript and secondly in getting the transcript approved by the original trial judge.

The Court of Appeal encourage parties in a similar position to issue the appeal without the documents and use the force of the Court of Appeal’s directions to hasten the production of those documents.

  1. From this unedifying chronology it seems to me that the following points for future practice can be drawn:

a) The preparation of transcripts, and indeed the obtaining of advance authorisation for the costs of preparation from the Legal Services Commission, may take a significant amount of time. At each turn it is important to ask the question: is the obtaining of this particular transcript an essential pre-requisite before either filing a notice of appeal or indicating that the papers are in order for the permission to appeal application to be considered?

b) Where, as here, time was running on and a further first instance hearing was timetabled, serious consideration should be given to filing the notice of appeal in any event, notwithstanding that one or more plainly essential transcripts is not yet available. Such a step

1) enables the Court of Appeal to support a prompt process by the Legal Services Commission and the transcribers in meeting a sensible timetable;

2) enables the Court of Appeal to contact the first instance judge if necessary to chase up approval of the transcript of judgment; and

3) provides a vehicle via which the proposed appellant may seek a stay of the ongoing court proceedings pending consideration of their application by this court.

c) In a case which is already grossly delayed, the notice of appeal if not already filed must be filed within a matter of a day or so after granting of legal funding and not, as here, some weeks later.

d) the pursuit of transcripts in relation to issues which, at best, are peripheral should not delay progressing the case at least to the stage of consideration for permission to appeal.

How do we deal fairly with vulnerable adults under suspicion?

 

 

It is not uncommon for adults involved in child protection cases to be vulnerable and have their own needs. It is not of course, always the case, but it is not rare.  Also, it is not uncommon for adults involved in child protection cases to be facing serious allegations and have to give factual evidence about whether they did, or did not, do something. It is again, not always the case, but it is not rare.

 

Inevitably then, there will be some overlap, where the person facing very serious allegations and having to give evidence about them is a vulnerable witness.

 

We have been lacking in guidance about this, save for the Court of Appeal decision that having a vulnerable adult as a potential perpetrator was not sufficient to dispense with the need for a finding of fact determination.

 

The Court of Appeal has just decided :-

 

Re M (Oral Evidence: Vulnerable  Witness)

 

I do not yet have a transcript, so this is the helpful summary from Family Law

 

 

 

Court of Appeal,  Thorpe, Rimer, Black LJJ, 21 November 2012-11-30

 

A fact-finding hearing was scheduled to determine whether the father had caused non-accidental injuries to the 18-month-old child. The father was found to have low intelligence and a psychologist recommended that due to his vulnerability, tendency to be manipulated and anxiety of speaking in front of people, special measures should be put in place when he gave oral evidence either by way of video-link or screen in court.

 

As video facilities were not available the father had to give evidence in court but a screen was not provided and the father’s application for an adjournment was refused. The father’s guardian acted as an intermediary but had no experience of doing so. Following the father’s evidence his representative applied for the trial to be terminated due to an infringement of the father’s rights under Article 6 of the Human Rights Convention. The judge determined that the father had capacity to give evidence and that he had caused the non-accidental injuries to the child. The father appealed.  

 

The appeal would be allowed. While the judge had a duty to manage the instant case in a busy court, that did not override the duty to ensure the father had a fair trial. The judge had erred in failing to specifically rule on the father’s application for an adjournment when it became clear that a qualified intermediary had not been available. Overall the judgment could not stand in light of the breach of the father’s Article 6 rights.

 

 

Hopefully, the full judgment will give some guidance to professionals and the Court as to how the article 6 rights of vulnerable adults are to be protected whilst the Court conducts the necessary determination of whether a child has been abused and if so, how that came about.

 

It raises also interesting questions as to whether a request for a cognitive assessment in cases where a fact finding hearing might be contemplated, should be tailored to include specific questions about giving evidence and any protective measures that should be put in place.