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Judicial bias

The Appeal in Q (Children) 2014

 

Grumblings that the Judge was biased are fairly commonplace, complaints that the Judge was biased get made from time to time – appeals on the point are pretty rare and successful appeals rarer still.  Q is one of the latter, and as such a rare breed is worthy of some consideration.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/918.html

 

 

  • The case concerns two boys, W, born 12th January 2003 and therefore now aged 11 years, and R, born 9th August 2012 and therefore now aged 21 months. Proceedings with respect to the children commenced nearly two years ago and comprised, for the first three months, a private law dispute between the two parents. However, the local authority then issued care proceedings and it was in those proceedings that HHJ Tyzack undertook an extended fact finding process involving some 13 days of evidence between July and November 2013 and culminating in an extensive judgment given on 28th January 2014.

 

 

 

  • The case has a number of complicating features. As a result of circumstances during the course of her own birth, the mother has a significant learning disability; her IQ is measured at the level of 61 and she is said to function at a mental age of approximately 12 years. In addition the mother also unfortunately suffers from ordinary epilepsy, which is controlled by medication and, separately, from non-epileptic seizures which apparently have a psychological origin for which no medication is provided.

 

 

 

  • The father originates from Bangladesh and is a practising Muslim. The mother is English and is a practising Jehovah’s Witness.

 

 

 

  • The eldest boy, W, has special needs and is apparently described as being the most complex child in his school amongst those who are registered with special educational needs. Although of ordinary intelligence, he is considered to have a condition which is either somewhere within the autistic spectrum or an attachment disorder or a combination of both.

 

 

 

  • The couple had generated a level of concern in a number of local authority areas with respect to their care of W and as a result of the fact that they had moved some 10 times in the 10 years between the date of their marriage in 2002 and the date of their separation in 2012.

 

 

 

  • Private law proceedings between the parties commenced in September 2012 when the mother issued an application for residence orders and a non-molestation order. Within those proceedings she alleged domestic violence against the father and alleged that he had raped her. In October 2012 the mother undertook a four or five hour Achieving Best Evidence interview with the local police in which she raised a range of allegations, including assault and rape, against the father. The father was arrested and granted bail on condition that he had no contact with the mother. However on 13th November 2012 both parents presented themselves together at the local police station indicating that they wished to reconcile. As a result of this turn of events the local authority sought and obtained the agreement of the maternal grandmother for her to care for the children and not to allow the mother to take the children out without supervision. These care proceedings were then issued on 3rd December 2012.

 

 

 

  • Initially it was considered that the mother lacked sufficient mental capacity to act as a litigant in the proceedings and she was therefore represented by the Official Solicitor. However on 7th June 2013 HHJ Tyzack found that the mother did have capacity and was competent to give evidence.

 

 

 

  • The fact finding evaluation conducted by the judge involved consideration of a range of allegations made by the mother against the father relating to dominant behaviour, physical assault and sexual assault on her. In addition two specific allegations of potential assault on W were raised together with more general assertions as to the volatile nature of the parent’s relationship and their inability to work co-operatively with the social services. The schedule of allegations, together with responses by the parents, runs to 30 pages. In addition the judge was required to consider allegations which the father made against the maternal grandmother. During the course of the hearing the judge heard evidence from all of the key players, including the mother. In view of the intellectual vulnerability of the mother a screen was used to prevent the mother having sight of the father whilst giving evidence and the topics for cross examination were disclosed to her in advance.

 

 

 

  • The judgment of 28th January 2014 effectively dismissed each of the allegations made by the mother, whose evidence the judge found to be totally unreliable. He was also highly critical of the maternal grandmother whom he described as “a devious and manipulative woman”. He concluded that both the mother and the maternal grandmother had told “wicked lies” to the court. In contrast the judge formed a favourable view of the father both as an individual and as a credible witness.

 

 

 

  • In order for the court to have jurisdiction to consider making a care order or a supervision order with respect to these children, it was necessary for the local authority to satisfy the “threshold criteria” in Children Act l989, s 31 to the effect that the children were suffering, or were likely to suffer, significant harm as at the date that protective measures were first put in place. That date was identified as 13th November 2012, being the date on which the local authority first insisted that the maternal grandmother should take over control of the children’s care.

 

 

 

  • In the light of his findings, which were to reject the mother’s factual allegations which had hitherto been relied upon by the local authority to establish the threshold, the judge went on, at the conclusion of his judgment, to hold that the threshold criteria were satisfied on the basis that

 

 

“both children would be likely to suffer significant harm if living with the mother and [maternal grandmother] because of it being likely that they would become caught up in the emotionally destructive atmosphere of [maternal grandmother’s] home in which false allegations have been made by the mother against the father and which have been completely and immediately accepted, uncritically and unquestioningly by [maternal grandmother] and reported as fact to the police.”

The judge found that this was a potentially toxic atmosphere for these children to live in and that those circumstances therefore met the threshold criteria.

 

 

None of that (with the exception perhaps of the Judge’s decision that the mother was a competent witness) is that extraordinary, so it must turn on the conduct of the case. With that in mind, this next bit is illuminating

A further striking feature of this case is that each party, with the exception of the children’s guardian, has issued a Notice of Appeal complaining about one aspect or another of the judge’s handling of the fact finding exercise. A total of no less than 7 Notices of Appeal have been issued. Having considered the matter on paper, I adjourned the determination of the permission to appeal applications to a one day hearing before the full court with the appeal to follow if any of those applications were granted. Finally, although not a direct applicant for permission to appeal, the children’s guardian’s skeleton argument supports a number of the points that were raised as criticisms of the judge’s handling of the case.

 

It is really not unusual in cases involving children for one party to leave the court aggrieved. When all of them do, something has gone badly wrong. Seven separate notices of appeal on one case is new to me. The Court of Appeal did not deal with all seven aspects, because one issue cut across all of it

 

 

  • One of the central matters raised by the mother is a complaint that at an early case management hearing [‘CMH’] on 20th March 2013 HHJ Tyzack displayed apparent judicial bias by making a number of clear indications that he had formed a concluded view as to the validity of the mother’s allegations and her credibility and the judge had done so during a process which was itself conducted in an unfair manner. The mothers’ case is that this premature adverse conclusion infected the judge’s whole approach to these proceedings thereafter and came to be replicated and crystallised in his final judgment.

 

 

 

  • Having identified the mother’s claim of apparent judicial bias as being a separate and discrete criticism which, if established, would cut across the entirety of the process before the judge, we proceeded, with the parties’ agreement, to hear submissions on that aspect alone. At the conclusion of those submissions we were satisfied that the mother’s criticisms were, unfortunately, well founded and that as a result the appeal must be allowed and the entire proceedings re-heard by a different judge.

 

 

It is, as I said at the outset, rare for an appeal to be upheld on the basis of judicial bias, so let’s explore that further. First, what was happening at this hearing on 20th March 2013 – well, it related to some fresh allegations against father made by mother, and the CPS decision not to prosecute   (there’s some read-between-the-lines on what the CPS say)

 

 

  • Shortly before the CMH hearing the local authority had prepared a special guardianship report in relation to the grandmother. That report was distributed to the parties at the hearing on 20th March. The report contained reference to fresh allegations that had been made by the mother to the police. Understandably Mr Hickmet, counsel for the father, sought clarification and the judge requested the police officer in the case, Detective Constable C, to attend, which he did. The transcript of the day’s hearing shows that the officer gave evidence and also produced his copy of the relevant file that had been submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service. The file was handed to the judge, who read it, but no copies were distributed or shown to any of the advocates at that hearing. The judge did, however, read out the relevant notes recording a meeting undertaken on 11th February 2013 between a different police officer, the mother and maternal grandmother. The note commences as follows: “I met with [mother] with her mother. [Mother] stated, but prompted by mother that…”. The record then goes on to chronicle the serious allegations that the mother made on that occasion. For the first time she alleged that W was a victim of sexual assault. She described both W and herself being sexually assaulted, not only by the father, but also by other unnamed men who would be invited into the house for that purpose.

 

 

 

  • The note of the mother’s list of allegations made to the police on 11th February 2013 concludes with these words: ‘She did not say offences had been committed, though, only that she was worried they had.’

 

 

 

  • The hearing continued and counsel on behalf of the mother cross-examined the officer. It should, however, be recalled that, as a result of her incapacity, the mother acted in the proceedings at the time through the Official Solicitor. Counsel confirms that before being afforded the opportunity to cross-examine, she had not asked for, nor been given, an opportunity to take any instructions from the mother on this important new information. The cross-examination was not lengthy.

 

 

 

  • In addition to this fresh material the judge was given additional information about another matter. Soon after making her original allegations, which had supported the bailing of the father, the father and mother attended the local police station together and the mother sought to withdraw the allegations that she had made. Her account, later, however was that she had been forced by him to do this as a result of being kidnapped, placed in a van and driven to the police station. In contrast, the police file showed that CCTV recording of the foyer of the police station depicted the mother and father kissing and cuddling immediately prior to her making her request to withdraw her allegations.

 

 

 

  • Cross examination of the police officer by Mr Hickmet, on behalf of the father, included the following question and answer after the officer had stated that the CPS had concluded that there was not enough evidence to charge the father:

 

 

‘Q: Can you assist the judge as to why the CPS came to that view?

A: They were unhappy with the ABE interview which covered the main original offences. They were also unhappy with [mother], due to her behaviour when [father] was arrested for the second time for the breach of bail condition.’

 

  • During exchanges with counsel following the conclusion of the police officer’s oral evidence the judge is recorded as making the following observations:

 

 

‘What the notes … reveal … is that first of all the grandmother prompts the mother to make allegations, that then they are not really allegations at all, but just thoughts in the mother’s head.’

 

  • In relation to the content of the police note of the mother’s ‘allegations’ made in February 2013, the judge questioned, rhetorically, why not a word had been said by the mother in relation to these more serious allegations in her initial ABE interview and, secondly, he questioned whether it was safe for the children now to be in the same house as the mother. The judge asked ‘How is it credible? How is any of that credible?’ and stated that he found it ‘simply incredible’ that these allegations were not raised during the lengthy ABE interview [Appeal bundle page M580]

 

 

 

And there then follows this exchange

 

 

  • Later the judge, without having heard submissions on the point, went to the local authority document which set out a draft of grounds on which the s 31 threshold criteria might be established and observed:

 

 

‘Let us have a look at the threshold together. … Then paragraph 4, the harm, they say, is emotional harm in relation to both children, and actual physical in relation to W and risk of physical in relation to R. Well now that must go. Any suggestion of actual physical harm or risk of physical harm, in the light of what the police are now saying, that is knocked out, surely, is it not? Does everyone agree with that?’

The judge then further queries the basis upon which the local authority could establish the allegations emanating from the mother which underpin the proposed threshold criteria:

‘Well I think that, for myself, how it can be proved, in relation to a lady who within minutes of getting to a police station withdraws her allegation that she has been kidnapped there by the father, and is observed on the DVD at the police station kissing and cuddling him. That is what I am told by a police officer on oath this afternoon. How then can the local authority bring a lady like this into the witness box and say to a court, “We want you to believe this lady on a balance of probabilities?” At the moment, as I see it, I do not see how it can happen.’

 

  • Counsel for the local authority, Miss Ireland, objected to the manner in which the analysis of the case was being conducted by the judge. She said:

 

 

‘At the moment, the evidence is incomplete. I entirely understand the court’s desire to actively case manage this case, which is clearly a difficult case to manage. However the evidence is incomplete. All of the parties agree that one of the most important aspects which is required is the psychiatric evidence of Mother, and whilst I can understand that the court is concerned at the current state of the case, I would respectfully submit that understanding of the case will improve significantly after that report has been prepared.’

 

  • The judge gave a short judgment at the conclusion of the hearing on 20th March. In it he noted the various matters that had been raised and he recorded the fact that, after a full investigation, the police had decided not to take any action against the father in respect of any of the matters that had been raised.

 

 

 

  • In relation to the allegation that she had been forced to retract her complaints the judge says this:

 

 

“Indeed, the breach of bail allegation, of course, was not pursued either, in the light of the fact that the mother retracted that fact that she had been abducted by the father in his van and brought to the police station; that turned out to be a pack of lies, it would seem.”

 

  • In relation to the most recent allegations, in which the mother alleged very serious sexual assault upon her and upon W by the father and other unnamed men, the judge described the situation around those allegations as “very shocking indeed”. He notes that it is said that the mother was “prompted” by her own mother and he notes that, after the list of very serious allegations was complete, “it was simply said that the mother is not saying that these things happened, she is not saying these were offences, but rather that she thought they might have happened”. The judge expressed strong concern at the manner in which serious allegations of sexual abuse of children simply seemed to “be flung around” in the case. After recording that consideration had to be given to the fact that the mother was a very vulnerable person, and represented by the Official Solicitor, and was recorded as having a mental age of twelve, the judge went on to say:

 

 

“…even a twelve year old person would know what is happening if a child is being sexually abused or not. And even a twelve year old would be able to say in an interview if it had happened, how it had happened and when it had happened. The mother had an ample opportunity in the hours of her ABE interview to make clear, if indeed it had been the case, that W had been sexually abused, and it is that that the police were concerned about in the notes, as everybody will be able to read for themselves in due course.”

 

  • Later in the judgment, at paragraph 11 the judge says this:

 

 

“Another thing I want to say in my judgment is that I am very concerned indeed to have heard from the police officer about the fact that the mother has made allegations then retracted them, has made allegations of a serious kind about sexual abuse, and then it transpired that they were not really allegations at all. What I am concerned about is that this child is living, or the children are living, it is not really apply to R quite so much, but these children are living in a home in which such allegations are being made and I was particularly concerned to read that it was the grandmother who prompted the mother to make the allegations in relation to the sexual abuse matters. Now, that leads me to be concerned that the mother, who is said to have a mental age of twelve, is living with this boy of ten in which she believes in her mind that serious things have happened. I am therefore directing that the mother must not be alone with either of these children without there being supervision.”

 

  • The judge then went on to look forward to the forensic consequences of the information to which he had been exposed during the hearing. The local authority case was that the threshold criteria were established on the basis of the allegations made by the mother. In the light of what he had heard, the judge was concerned as to the ability of the authority to establish the threshold in this case. At paragraph 12 he said:

 

 

“…what I need the local authority to tell me at [the next] hearing is what they are pursuing by way of threshold criteria at the moment, because reading the police documents that I read today, it seems to me that the local authority could be, I am using that word advisedly, could be in some difficulty in getting over the threshold in this case. It seems to me unjustified and disproportionate at the moment for there to be 5 days of court time made available in July….because, as I say, at the moment, on the basis of what I have read in those police papers, I very much doubt, and I put it no higher than this, but I very much doubt that threshold would be made out. I can put it no higher than that at the moment, because obviously I need to give the parties an opportunity to investigate that, and the local authority, perhaps to file further threshold documents.”

 

  • The judge repeated his requirement that the mother should not be alone with the children and he stated:

 

 

“I have to say that for two pins I very nearly removed these children today from the grandmother’s care, and even if they could not have gone to the father would have invited the local authority to have placed them in foster care. I came very close to that indeed today, and I want everyone to know that, because I am sufficiently concerned about the placement of these children as to what influence they may be receiving from the grandmother and the mother, and these children need to be protected from that.”

 

  • During the course of further discussion with counsel after the conclusion of the judgment the judge made the following observation:

 

 

“…it seems to me that the father can legitimately say in this case that he has had to be on the receiving end of serious allegations when they are not now being pursued, and also in circumstances where he can say that it would appear that for some reason or another he has been manipulated.”

 

Whilst this is all expressed in fairly robust language, looking just at this, I can see that establishing threshold based on mother’s allegations about father is not in the slightest bit straightforward and I can quite see that a Judge would want the Local Authority’s team to go away and have a long hard think about whether they were relying on (and hoping to prove) mother’s allegations in the light of the forensic problems that posed. Judges are being caught between a rock and a hard place here – on the one hand, they are being told to robustly case manage, cut down irrelevant issues and narrow the issues (which they can only really do by sharing what is on their mind) and on the other, when they do, the Appeal Court shakes its head disapprovingly at them.   I’m not saying that I think that this Judge is beyond reproach on these exchanges, but I would draw the distinction between  a Judge who is off on some wild frolic and a Judge who is trying to avoid huge public expense and litigation over allegations which appear hopelessly short of the requisite standard of cogency but doesn’t choose their method of expressing that in an ideal way.

 

The appeal was put on this basis

 

 

  • On behalf of the mother Miss Janet Bazley QC, who did not appear below, leading Miss Bridget McVay, who did, submits that the various observations made by HHJ Tyzack on 20th March 2013 demonstrated that he had formed a view that the mother was a liar who, with the encouragement of her mother, fabricated and repeated allegations. Alternatively, that she was a fantasist who, with the encouragement of her mother, repeated imagined allegations to the police. These conclusions were expressed by the judge without having heard any account of her side of the matter either from or on behalf of the mother and, similarly, without affording the grandmother any opportunity to explain her position to the court. It is submitted that the judge was in error in permitting evidence to be given of the reasons that the officer understood that the CPS had decided not to charge the father.

 

 

 

  • On behalf of the father, Miss Tina Cook QC, leading Mr Hickmet, submitted that the process undertaken by the judge, which involved immediate investigation of the source of fresh allegations that had been described, for the first time in the family proceedings, within a report circulated at the court hearing, was a perfectly proper one. No party sought time to take instructions during the hearing, and no party raised the issue of apparent judicial bias on that day. The issue was raised for the first time at a hearing in May 2013 before Baker J, who advised that any question of recusal should be raised first with the trial judge, HHJ Tyzack, himself. Thereafter the matter was not raised until the middle of the final hearing in late 2013.

 

 

 

  • Both in their written submissions and orally, Mr Christopher Sharp QC, leading Ms Penny Ireland, for the local authority made a range of measured and helpful submissions, the first of which was that, looked at generally, ‘this is a case that has lost its way’. Mr Sharp told this court that the local authority were very concerned about the manner in which the case was proceeding and the way in which they perceived that the judge was not listening to any part of the case other than matters that he himself had generated.

 

 

 

  • In relation to the hearing on 20th March, Mr Sharp drew attention to the following passage [appeal bundle page M543]:

 

 

HHJ: Let me try this issue now. Call the mother.
F’s counsel: Well I think, my Lord, that is a problem.
LA counsel: Well the problem with calling the mother is that there is an outstanding issue as to whether or not she is competent to give evidence.
M’s counsel: Yes.
HHJ: Yes, but this man cannot just go on facing allegation after allegation. Where are we on this case?

 

 

  • The local authority, having heard the submissions in the appeal made on behalf of the mother, altered its position to one where it was conceded that the judge’s conduct at the 20th March hearing was sufficient to disqualify him from fairly and accurately assessing the evidence of the mother and maternal grandmother.

 

 

 

  • Ms Kathryn Skellorn QC, on behalf of the children, again after hearing the submissions made on behalf of the mother, accepted that a valid ground of appeal had been established with respect to the judge’s conduct of the hearing on the 20th March.

 

[Without deviating from what I said in the earlier paragraph, that exchange there does seem to me to determine the appeal, and the Court of Appeal thought the same. That is an exchange that goes too far]

 

Miss Tina Cook QC, representing the father (who was obviously happy that the Judge had thrown out all of mother’s allegations and taken a dim view of them) had a crack at salvaging this

 

 

  • Miss Cook invited the court to consider how the proceedings would have appeared to an impartial observer had there been one, as a fly on the wall, in the courtroom on 20th March. There was no need to imagine what such an observer would conclude in this case, it was submitted, because both the local authority and the children’s guardian were in just that position. Miss Cook asserted that neither of those parties made any complaint at the time, and, indeed, did not support the mother’s appeal on this point until some time during the oral submissions in this court. On that basis, Miss Cook submitted that it is plain that an impartial observer would not have concluded that there was a real possibility that the judge was biased. The judge was doing no more than, quite sensibly, expressing a preliminary view.

 

 

 

  • Miss Cook’s secondary position was that, even if there had been some falling short in the judge’s approach, this was corrected by and during the extensive process of hearings thereafter.

 

 

The legal test in relation to judicial bias

 

 

  • The test to be applied is on the issue of apparent judicial bias is now well settled and was not controversial as between the parties in this appeal. It is set out in Porter v Magill [2001] UKHL 67; [2002] 2 AC 357. The House of Lords approved the test to be applied in such cases in the following terms [at paragraphs 102 and 103]:

 

 

‘The court must first ascertain all the circumstances which have a bearing on the suggestion that the judge was biased. It must then ask whether those circumstances would lead a fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility … that the tribunal was biased.’

[Which is why Miss Cook framed her submissions in that way]

  • One of the purposes of such hearings is for the court to focus upon the real issues in the case and the evidence required to resolve those issues. The entry relating to the CMH in Family Procedure Rules 2010, PD12A lists the matters to be considered including:

 

  • identifying the key issues
  • identifying the evidence necessary to enable the court to resolve the key issues
  • deciding whether there is a real issue about threshold to be resolved.
  • More generally, a judge hearing a family case has a duty to further the overriding objective of dealing with cases justly (having regard to any welfare issues) by actively managing the case [FPR 2010, rr 1.1(1) and 1.4(1)]. Active case management involves a range of matters set out at FPR 2010, r 1.4(2) which include identifying the issues at an early stage [r 1.4(2)(b)(i)] and deciding promptly which issues need full investigation and hearing and which do not [r 1.4(2)(c)(i)].

 

  • Family judges are encouraged to take control of the management of cases rather than letting the parties litigate the issues of their choosing. In undertaking such a role, a judge must necessarily form, at least a preliminary, view of the strength and/or merits of particular aspects of the case. The process may well lead to parties reviewing their position in the light of questioning from the judge and, by agreement, issues being removed from the list of matters that may fall to be determined.

 

  • Despite having to adopt a ‘pro-active’ role in this manner, judges must, however, remain very conscious of the primary judicial role which is to determine, by a fair process, those issues which remain live and relevant issues in the proceedings. The FPR 2010 makes provision for an ‘Issues Resolution Hearing’ [‘IRH’] at a later stage of care proceedings. As the IRH label implies, it is intended that some, if not all, of the issues will be resolved at the IRH stage. The rules are however plain [FPR 2010, PD12A] that the ‘court resolves or narrows issues by hearing evidence’ and ‘identifies the evidence to be heard on the issues which remain to be resolved at the final hearing’.

 

  • The task of the family judge in these cases is not an easy one. On the one hand he or she is required to be interventionist in managing the proceedings and in identifying the key issues and relevant evidence, but on the other hand the judge must hold back from making an adjudication at a preliminary stage and should only go on to determine issues in the proceedings after having conducted a fair judicial process.

 

  • There is, therefore, a real and important difference between the judge at a preliminary hearing inviting a party to consider their position on a particular point, which is permissible and to be encouraged, and the judge summarily deciding the point then and there without a fair and balanced hearing, which is not permissible.

 

  • As the words used in some parts of the formal judgment given on 20th March make plain, HHJ Tyzack, as an extremely experienced family judge, was aware of the need to express himself with care for the reasons that I have described. Two examples come from paragraph 12 of the judgment:

 

‘… it seems to me that the local authority could be, I am using that word advisedly, could be in some difficulty in getting over the threshold in this case.’

‘… at the moment, on the basis of what I have read in those police papers, I very much doubt, and I put it no higher that this, but I very much doubt that threshold would be made out. I can put it no higher than that at the moment, because obviously I need to give the parties an opportunity to investigate that, and the local authority, perhaps, to file further threshold documents’.

  • Such expressions of judicial opinion, given the need for the judge to manage the case and be directive, are commonplace and would not be supportive of an appeal to this court based upon apparent judicial bias. The question in the present appeal is whether the other observations made by the judge, and the stage in the overall court process that those observations were made, establishes circumstances that would lead a fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge was biased in the sense that he had formed a concluded view on the mother’s allegations and her overall veracity.

 

  • As will be plain from our decision to allow the appeal, I am clear that a fair-minded and informed observer would indeed have concluded that there was a real possibility that the judge had formed such a concluded view at the hearing on 20th March. I am also concerned that the process adopted by the judge during the hearing prevented there being a fair and balanced process before the judge came to his apparent conclusion

{This, in essence, is our newfound friend – a phrase that keeps coming up, and will continue to do so – “Robust case management has its place, but it also has its limits}

  • Having already rehearsed the detailed circumstances, it is possible to set out the matters upon which I have based my conclusion in short terms. I deal first with the procedural matters which are of concern:

 

a) The judge based his analysis upon a police file which only he had read and which was not copied or otherwise disclosed to the parties until after the hearing;

b) Although the judge did read out the note in full of the 11th February 2013 meeting between the mother, grandmother and a police officer, the note was no more than a note. It had not been compiled by the officer who gave oral evidence to the judge. The phrase ‘[Mother] stated, but prompted by [her] mother that …’ is capable of describing a wide range of intervention by the grandmother from mild and neutral encouragement (such as ‘just tell the officer what you want to say’) to overt direction of the mother (for example ‘tell the officer about the time that you were tied up and the men came to assault you and W’). Without the author of the note to explain the word ‘prompted’ and without affording to the mother and the grandmother the opportunity to submit evidence on the point, it was neither appropriate nor possible for the judge to place any reliance on that word, and certainly not to rely upon it to the degree that he went on to do;

c) In like manner, the closing phrase in the note (‘she did not say offences had been committed, though, only that she was worried they had’) may have required some explanation from the author, but the need for a fair process certainly required the mother being afforded an opportunity to give her account of what, if anything, she said and what she had meant;

d) The judge proceeded with the hearing without giving those acting for the mother any opportunity to take her instructions on this new material and either to submit her account to an adjourned hearing or, at the very least, to make submissions to the judge at that hearing. The need to allow the mother to meet the point applies to any party in this situation. The fact that the mother lacked litigation capacity at that time, was a vulnerable witness and was represented by the Official Solicitor only goes to add to the weight of this factor in this case.

  • Turning to the occasions on which the judge conducted himself in a manner that would have caused a fair-minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility that he had formed a concluded adverse view as to the mother’s allegations and her veracity, I would highlight the following:

 

a) ‘what the notes … reveal … is that first of all the grandmother prompts the mother to make allegations, that then they are not really allegations at all, but just thoughts in the mother’s head.’;

b) ‘How is it credible? How is any of that credible?’ ‘[I find it] simply incredible’ [that the mother had not raised the more serious matters during her ABE interview];

c) Regarding the threshold criteria schedule with respect to physical harm to W – ‘Well now that must go. Any suggestion of actual physical harm or risk of physical harm, in the light of what the police are now saying, that is knocked out, surely, is it not? Does everyone agree with that?’;

d) Again regarding proof of the threshold: ‘How then can the local authority bring a lady like this into the witness box and say to a court, “we want you to believe this lady on a balance of probabilities?” At the moment, as I see it, I do not see how it can happen.’

e) Although it was the case that the mother had indeed retracted her allegation of being abducted and forcibly taken to the police station, the judge’s description of her account as ‘a pack of lies’ at a stage before the mother had been given any opportunity to explain her actions and when the court knew that a psychiatric assessment of the mother was awaited, was in unnecessarily striking terms and surely would, in the context of the legal test, have struck a fair-minded observer as indicating that the judge had formed a strong and clearly adverse view of her on this issue.

  • I am keenly aware of the need to avoid criticising a judge who is doing no more than deploying robust active case management. There is, as I have described, a line, and it may be a thin line in some cases, between case management, on the one hand, and premature adjudication on the other. The role of a family judge in this respect is not at all easy and I would afford the benefit of the doubt to a judge even if the circumstances were very close to or even on the metaphorical line. Here, I am afraid, the words of the judge to which I have made reference, both separately and when taken together, take this case well over the line and indicate at least the real possibility that the judge had formed a concluded view that was adverse to the mother’s allegations and her veracity.

 

  • I take Miss Cook’s point that it may be informative, in the context of the fair-minded and informed observer, to look to the reactions on the day in the court room of those representing the local authority and the children. In this regard, however, it is of note that Miss Ireland, as counsel for the local authority, did indeed object to the approach that was being taken at a time when the evidence in the case was incomplete (see paragraph 26 above). In so far as it goes, Miss Ireland’s intervention would seem to confirm, rather than to question, the conclusion at which I have arrived.

Conclusion

 

  • For the reasons that I have given, I am clear that the process conducted at the CMH on 20th March was seriously flawed if, as it was, it was used by the judge to reach any conclusion as to the state of the mother’s allegations. It was not a fair process and it was not an evidentially sound process. The judge is not to be criticised for attempting to use the hearing to clarify the material that lay behind the reference in the special guardianship report to fresh allegations which apparently took most of the parties by surprise at the hearing. Getting the officer to court and hearing basic factual evidence allowed the family court to receive disclosure of the relevant police material in a very prompt fashion. Thereafter, the judge should have left it up to the parties to take the disclosed material on board, take/give instructions and, if necessary, file further evidence setting out their account of these matters. Thereafter the judge might well have invited the local authority to explain how it proposed to approach the mother’s evidence in the light of disclosed material. He may well have invited them, at that stage, to consider how the threshold might be proved.

 

 

 

  • The judge did not, however, take the course that I have just described. Instead he strayed beyond the case management role by engaging in an analysis, which by definition could only have been one-sided, of the veracity of the evidence and of the mother’s general credibility. The situation was compounded by the judge giving voice to the result of his analysis in unambiguous and conclusive terms in a manner that can only have established in the mind of a fair-minded and informed observer that there was a real possibility that the judge had formed a concluded and adverse view of the mother and her allegations at a preliminary stage in the trial process.

 

 

 

  • In the circumstances my conclusion was that the appeal must be allowed on this point with the inevitable result that there will now have to be a retrial in front of a different judge.

 

 

 

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Go on then, appeal me, I dare you

 

The trial judge in Re P (A child) 2014 doesn’t QUITE say what I say in the title above, but it isn’t far off.

 

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed130704

 

“If you do not like it, there is always the Court of Appeal.  Good luck.”

 

The Court of Appeal, reading that sort of thing in a transcript, don’t like it. It is rather akin to telling the heavily refreshed man with the tattoos on his neck that, yes, I AM looking at your bird.

 

How on earth did the Judge come to say that? Was it a truly outrageous application? Well, not really. It was the parents in a case suggesting that the grandparents who lived in Poland ought to be assessed. (And yes, that’s Poland, not darkest Peru or a remote part of the Arctic circle)

“MR SEFTON: Your Honour, we have raised with the Local Authority as well as other family members putting themselves forward.  The paternal and maternal grandparents have put  

THE JUDGE:  Whereabouts are they?

MR SEFTON: They are based in Poland.

THE JUDGE: Yes.  There are certain practical difficulties here.

MR SEFTON: Of course, there are practical difficulties.

THE JUDGE: Because, as in the next case,    the parallels are remarkable    without giving you any details, the next family are not from this country, the father has vanished very conveniently and the mother is saying, “He did it.  I did not.  Let me have my children back” and it might be that they are on the next bus to whether it is Paris, Berlin, Rome, whichever country they are from, where, miraculously, the father will spring up.  So England will not wash its hands of children who are here.  The applies to this child as well as in the next case.  That is one huge difficulty about considering family members who are natives of and residents in Poland.  If you do not like it, there is always the Court of Appeal.  Good luck.”

“MS ROBINSON: Your honour, clearly, a lot of work is going to have to be done in terms of the timetabling of this matter.  However, with regards to the extended family members, the Guardian is anxious that there is at least some enquiry made of them because this little girl is Polish and there are going to be significant cultural considerations that have to be borne in mind by this court.  I understand that both sets of grandparents are due to visit this country over the course of the next few weeks and the Guardian would like for both sets to at least be spoken to and for some enquiries to be made.  I also understand that there was a direction made by you earlier in these proceedings with regards to information from Polish Social Services regarding the father’s elder child and that information has, as yet, not been made available.  Again, I would ask that that is chased and that that information is available as soon as applicable.

THE JUDGE: Yes.

MS ROBINSON: I do not think there is anything more that I can add at this stage.

THE JUDGE: I am sure what I was saying to Mr Sefton is not lost on you, Ms Robinson, but the Children’s Guardian must not think that the panaceatic remedy will be the unimpeachable grandparents from Poland.  Poland is one short hop away from Merseyside and I very much doubt that I will be entertaining that as a solution should I come to the conclusion that this injury was non accidental, that it was perpetrated by one or both of the parents, that the other failed to protect or is lying through his or her teeth and in circumstances whereby it is not safe to reunite the family.  If it is not safe in this country, it would not be safe in Poland.  So, if anybody has the notion that the solution is rehabilitation to a member of the extended family in Poland, I would not share that sentiment in those circumstances.  There we are.

MS ROBINSON: But your honour would not be opposed to the Local Authority making enquiries of the grandparents when they are in this country in terms of  

THE JUDGE: No, but what I am saying is, and I direct my remarks to Ms Williams as I do to you, this is a game of chess, not draughts.  Any fool can play draughts and move one step at a time.  It takes rather more skill to play chess where you have to think several moves ahead.  That is what I am saying.  If it sounds like a crude exposition, then I apologise but that is what I have in mind.”

 

It is not a huge shock that with that sort of expressed view, the grandparents did not pursue their claim. It ought to have been appealed there and then, but wasn’t. By way of context, this exchange came after the Supreme Court’s decision in Re B  (nothing else will do)

 

There follows a lovely bit, which is almost something out of Allo Allo

 

Finally in this context, we have the submissions by Ms Bannon on behalf of the children’s guardian.  I quote from her skeleton.  Referring to the July hearing, Ms Bannon says this:

“The judge made it clear to all that rehabilitation of the child to Poland was not an option and this set the backdrop against which all placement options were considered.”

39. Now, that description of the guardian’s position is, we are told, a surprise to the social workers.  Equally, Ms Bannon tells us that the social workers’ surprise at what she has said is also a surprise to the guardian. 

 

The Court went on at a later final hearing to make a Placement Order, and the parents appealed that.

 

It is no huge shock that the Court of Appeal felt that the Judge had got it wrong in not exploring the possibility that the child could be placed with relatives in Poland. A consequence of that was that these proceedings, which could have been concluded in September last year, had an assessment been done, is still going on.

 

The Court of Appeal had this to say about when robust case management crosses the line
56. I cannot, however, leave this case without expressing my disappointment with the turn of events at the hearing on 26 July 2013.  There are many pressures in various fields of litigation, none perhaps more so that in family proceedings, for speed and efficient use of resources.  However, there are proper limits to robust case management. 

57. In my judgment, it is regrettably all too clear from the transcript that we have seen of the hearing on that day that, unfortunately, this judge appears to have closed his mind to any solution for this child’s future in Poland.  My Lord has referred to the relevant passages of the transcript.  There is a distinction properly to be drawn between case management and premature jumping to conclusions.  Unfortunately, it seems to me that the judge’s conduct of the hearing on 26 July fell very much on the wrong side of that line.

 

and

 

I accept Mr Downs’ submission that “The reality is that two willing sets of grandparents were overlooked because the judge set his face against a placement out of England and Wales”.

60. The local authority submits that the social workers thought that the option had not been closed out, but if that is what they thought, then it appears they made no efforts to find out whether there was any possibility of a placement within the wider family in Poland.  Nor does it appear from the evidence that they asked what should have been an obvious question: why was the maternal grandmother was proposing to come and live in Warrington on her own in order to be the carer for the child?  What was to happen about all her other family commitments in Poland and how long was she proposing to stay?

61. In making these points, I am impressed by the fact that the guardian’s solicitor, Miss Robinson, pressed the judge at the hearing in July to no avail, that the guardian herself was present at that hearing and that she formed the view that the judge had closed out the option.  At the very least, it suggests that Mr Downs’ interpretation was not an unreasonable one. 

62. I do appreciate that the local authority have great burdens put upon them, but they are, as Mr Downs submits, subject to a positive obligation under Article 8 to consider ways of retaining a child within the family.  That positive duty is owed also by the court.  Mr Downs has not cited any authority, but the principle is well known.  It is reflected in the decision of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in TP and KM v the United Kingdom (Application No. 28945/95).  I sat as the UK ad hoc judge on this case. 

63. At paragraph 71 of its judgment, and in the context of Article 8 and the margin of appreciation in relation to a local authority’s duty to disclose relevant information to the parent of a child who had been taken into care, the Grand Chamber held:

“71.  The margin of appreciation to be accorded to the competent national authorities will vary in accordance with the nature of the issues and the importance of the interests at stake.  Thus, the Court recognises that the authorities enjoy a wide margin of appreciation, in particular when assessing the necessity of taking a child into care. However, a stricter scrutiny is called for in respect of any further limitations, such as restrictions placed by those authorities on parental rights of access, and of any legal safeguards designed to secure an effective protection of the right of parents and children to respect for their family life. Such further limitations entail the danger that the family relations between the parents and a young child would be effectively curtailed (see, amongst other authorities, the Johansen v. Norway judgment of 7 August 1996, Reports 1996 III, p. 1003, § 64).”

64. The judge’s observations give insufficient weight to the Convention jurisprudence.  Judges have to be very careful in the way in which they express themselves.  So if what they are really intending to do is to express a provisional view only to help the parties, they have to underscore, underline and make it clear that it is a provisional view only.

65. This case still has a very long way to go, sadly, before a permanent decision is made about the child’s future care and no one is predicting what that decision will be.

 

Robust case management has its place, but it also has its limits

 

A Christmas dash through  Re B (A child) 2012    (and when WILL the Court of Appeal revert to giving cases helpful names inside the brackets?)

 

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1742.html

 

 

This is a private law case with the usual cavalcade of allegations and cross-allegations.   In major part, the most serious allegations related to whether the mother had continued a relationship with a man, Mr C, who was suspected of having been very violent towards his own children.

 

The father hired a private investigator to observe the mother, to see whether Mr C continued to be a visitor to (or indeed a guest at) the children’s family home.

 

  1. The hearing started on Monday 1 October. It is now clear that there had been a flurry of activity immediately preceding it.
  1. On the weekend of 14 – 16 September, when S was staying with her father, she had said various things to him which suggested that far from the mother and Mr C having separated, Mr C was still part of day to day life. S said that:

i) Mr C had cooked her tea the night before she came to stay with her father; she came to stay on Friday 14 September so that would have been on Thursday 13 September.

ii) She had been swimming with her mother, E and A, and Mr C; A was born on 23 August 2012 so if she was right, that must have been a recent occurrence.

iii) She sometimes had to sleep with E because Mr C was sleeping in her mother’s bed with A; again, given the presence of A in the account, that must have been a recent occurrence.

  1. The father instructed a private investigator to observe the mother’s house. Mr Preece was that private investigator. He observed the premises over the back fence from 18 September to 24 September. A report by him was produced, stating that he had observed Mr C coming out of the back door of the mother’s house on Tuesday 18 September at 08.06 and on Thursday 20 September at 08.05. On Monday 24 September at 15.00, he saw Mr C leave the property and get into a car and drive away. Mr Preece’s report was appended to a statement from the father dated 27 September which was served on the mother just after midday on 28 September, that is the Friday before the hearing was due to start on the Monday.
  1. Also on 28 September, James Green, S’s allocated social worker, visited S at school and talked to her. There is an email from him in which he set out what happened [E11]. It reads:

“S said she has been ill and off school. She said she has been up in the night when sick. I asked her who was in the house. She said Mummy and that A and E were in mummy’s bed. I asked what about [Mr C]. She told me [Mr C] was also there. Also that he was helping her when she was ill last night.

I asked S about swimming. I asked her who goes swimming with her. She told me A, E and [Mr C]. She said [Mr C] has to stay out the pool and watch to look after A [sic].”

  1. The mother was then visited by Mr Green who discussed with her the evidence pointing towards Mr C having been in contact with S. Mr C was there too. Apart from admitting that Mr C was at the house at 15.00 on 24 September, both he and the mother denied the information that emerged from the investigator and from S.
  1. These last minute developments obviously placed all the parties in a difficult position. The judge had to decide what to do in response to them. It was clear that the matter was of great significance because the guardian made plain that if it was established that there had been unofficial association between the mother and Mr C, she would be recommending an immediate transfer of residence from the mother to the father.

 

 

 

The mother disputed that Mr C had been at the home, other than on the admitted occasion and wished to call a number of witnesses to that effect. In particular,

 

In relation to 18 September, she also wanted to produce documentary evidence in support. Her case was that on that day, Mr C was in Glen Parva near Leicester meeting his son who was being released from the Young Offender Institution there that morning. She was able to produce a form showing that Mr C’s son was being released that day. She also produced a copy of a bank statement of Mr C’s which showed that his Advantage Gold card had been used for a purchase in McDonalds in Leicester that day. However the bank statement did not record a precise time for the transaction. A telephone call to McDonalds had indicated that the transaction was at 9.19 a.m. but documentary proof of that could not be obtained at such short notice. It was common ground that if Mr C had been in Leicester then, the private investigator could not have been seen him at the mother’s property.

 

 

And the credit card transactions could, therefore, have become alibi evidence for Mr C, putting him in another town at the time that the private investigator claimed to have seen him at the mother’s home.

 

[Interestingly, neither the trial judge nor the Court of Appeal seem to me to have criticised the father for taking this step of placing mother under surveillance,  which would seem to me to have been a breach of mother’s article 8 right to private and family life]

 

The nub of the case therefore became, as the Court of Appeal succinctly put it, how the Judge was to manage to fit what would have been four days of litigation into the two days available.

 

  1. It is always difficult for a judge faced, as this judge was, with an urgent decision to take and insufficient time in which to take it. It is a dilemma which family judges regularly have to confront. How they resolve it will depend upon the precise circumstances of the individual case. As this court has often observed, a judge making case management decisions has a very wide discretion and anyone seeking to appeal against such a decision has an uphill task.
  1. However, in this case, I am very clearly of the view that the judge’s case management decisions not only deprived the mother of the opportunity to answer the case against her but also deprived the court of evidence that was necessary to enable it to make reliable findings of fact. It is therefore necessary, in my judgment, for the judge’s finding of fact and his consequential orders to be overturned and for the matter to be reheard in front of a different judge

 

 

The Court of Appeal considered that whilst it is open to a Judge to robustly case manage, and determine what evidence is to be called and heard, and to place time restrictions on cross-examination, the way it was done in this case effectively prevented the mother from placing her defence before the Court.

 

They were particularly troubled in the Judge’s decision not to bring Mr C into the proceedings or to obtain his credit card transactions.

 

  1. It appears that the judge considered that he could determine the truth or otherwise of the allegations about Mr C’s presence in the mother’s house through the prism of the evidence of Mr Preece and the mother. He said (§16):

“it seems to me that I have got to grasp the nettle of whether I accept Mr Preece’s evidence or whether I accept mother’s evidence.”

  1. Judges do sometimes have to decide, almost in a vacuum, whether or not to believe a witness. However, this was not such a case.
  1. This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the position in relation to Mr C’s credit card. The combination of the bank statement and the preliminary enquiries that had been made of McDonalds suggested that there was a realistic possibility that documentary evidence would be forthcoming that Mr C’s credit card was used in Leicester McDonalds in circumstances which, if Mr C was the user of the card, would make it impossible for him to have been seen by Mr Preece on 18 September. The judge was of course correct in saying that the fact that Mr C’s credit card was in Leicester did not necessarily mean that Mr C was. However, if more detailed bank records did in fact support the presence of the credit card there at the material time, it would have been an important piece of evidence for the judge to include in his evaluation of the totality of the evidence and not one, I think, that could be dismissed as robustly as the judge dismissed it. There would have needed to be consideration of how the credit card got there, if not with Mr C. Mr C’s own evidence would have been particularly important in that regard. And assuming that Mr C did not concede that he had not used the card in Leicester himself, counsel would no doubt also have wished to challenge Mr Preece with the evidence of its use and the impossibility of Mr C being in two places at once, endeavouring thereby to shake Mr Preece’s evidence that he saw him at the mother’s house.
  1. I am troubled by the judge’s comment that he would have been “unwilling to admit Mr C to these proceedings”. It is understandable that the judge wished to keep the focus on S and those immediately responsible for her care. He may well also have had in mind that, as we were told by counsel for the father, Mr C had earlier been involved in the proceedings but ceased to be so when he failed to provide his solicitor with any instructions. However, when it comes to making findings of fact, the court’s focus should be firmly on an analysis of what evidence is necessary to enable proper findings to be made. Of course, the urgency of the court’s decision can sometimes make it imperative that there be limitations on the evidence that is called, however relevant it would be. Similarly, the judge may find himself unable to permit a witness’s evidence to be adduced because it has been produced too late in the day or without regard to earlier case management directions or he may determine that it is disproportionate to the issues to permit reliance on it. However, matters such as those are different from a decision to decline to hear evidence from a material witness because, for some reason not related to their evidence, the witness is not thought to be an appropriate person to participate in the proceedings; such a decision is much more difficult to justify. Here Mr C was a material witness, indeed a central witness, not only on the issue of the bank card but also generally in addressing the allegations that he was present at the mother’s home when he should not have been. Subject to the need to decline to hear Mr C for reasons of urgency (to which I return below), I do not see how the judge’s decision to refuse to consider evidence from him and about the use of his credit card can be supported.

 

 

The Court of Appeal made a suggestion for how the Court could have proceeded in the time available without curtailing mother’s opportunity to present her case against the allegations.

 

  1. The judge was rightly anxious to protect S and conscious of the need to do so without delay. The father submits that the risk to S had increased if the mother was lying about Mr C’s presence in the household and that once evidence came to light to suggest this, the judge had to act. However, it seems to me that the judge needed to consider whether, rather than holding an immediate truncated hearing, there was any other way in which he could safeguard S’s welfare. I got the impression that in fact no one had suggested any alternative to him but a possibility which occurs to me is that he could have ordered that S stayed with her father, possibly under an extended contact order or alternatively a short interim residence order, for whatever limited time was sufficient to enable a fuller hearing to be arranged (see for example Re K (Procedure: Family Proceedings Rules) [2004] EWCA Civ 1827 [2005] 1 FLR 764 as to the circumstances in which interim transfers of residence may be made), either adjourning the case entirely to another day or, if feasible, making a start on the evidence with a view to resuming it at a later date.
  1. Given the option of an extended stay with the father by way of protection for S, I do not therefore see the judge’s choice as a stark one between running such risk as there was to her safety in the care of the mother or determining the factual issues on the material that could be produced and fitted into the two days of court time that were available. It may well be that the anxiety provoked by the impression that those were the only options led the judge to give too much weight to the urgency of the situation and the need to get on with the hearing. The decisions that he took in relation to the material evidence that the mother wished to adduce were no doubt the product of that anxiety but I am persuaded that they were not decisions that were properly open to him in this particular case, even making allowance for the breadth of his case management discretion.

 

The Court of Appeal conclude by stating that the case turns on its own facts, but emphasising that there is a balance in using the powers under Rule 22, and that a fair trial is still essential when using those powers.

 

I should say in conclusion that this appeal turns very much upon its own facts. Rule 22 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 entitles the court to control the evidence in a case by giving directions. This is a wide power and can be used to exclude evidence which would otherwise be admissible. Robust case management therefore very much has its place in family proceedings but it also has its limits.