RSS Feed

Tag Archives: section 20 drift

“I completely forgot”

 

This is a successful appeal (indeed fairly unusually it was an appeal that by the time the Court of Appeal came to look at it, all four parties were in agreement should be granted) about a decision in the High Court to make a finding of sexual abuse against a child, T, who had just turned 16 when the High Court considered the case. T had been the subject of a Care Order and Placement Order when she was six, then placed for adoption.

 

(Bit nervous about this one, as I know that 75% of the silks in the case read the blog… and I have a mental crush on all three of them. And because I also have a lot of respect for the High Court Judge who gets monstered in the appeal judgment)

 

The adoption got into difficulties, and T went into respite care for a short time in May 2014. She went back to her adopted family at the end of May and that carried on until the end of August 2014, at which point the adopters agreed a section 20 arrangement – the social work team wishing to remove T as a result of her allegation to a CAMHS worker. The allegation was that during that period from May 2014-August 2014 when she was with her adopted family, the adoptive father had sexually assaulted her, including one allegation of rape.

P (A Child), Re [2018] EWCA Civ 720 (11 April 2018)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/720.html

 

The section 20 arrangement continued. It was obvious to all that T would not be going back to the adopters. (Listen, I know that at this point, the adopters are legally her parents and I don’t seek to diminish that, but I think to understand the case it is easier to say adoptive parents and birth parents). The s20 continued until the Local Authority issued proceedings in April 2016. By that time, T had given an ABE interview, made further allegations and declined a second ABE interview and made partial retractions of the allegations. Her behaviour had deteriorated and by the time of the Court case, had been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. (which is rare for a child)

 

The first question the case raises then, is why this child was under a section 20 arrangement for so long, rather than proceedings having been issued?   I’ll preface this by saying that obviously a case involving an allegation of rape against a child – particularly rape where the alleged perpetrator is an adopter and someone still approved to adopt children, ought to have been placed before the Court. Very quickly after those allegations were made – perhaps allowing a short period of time for the investigation to take place.

(I can’t lay my hands on the authority at the moment, and Hershman McFarlane is being uncooperative, but I’m fairly sure that there is a mid 1990s authority that says where the LA believe the child has been the subject of serious sexual or physical abuse, they ought to place it before the Court by issuing proceedings… I wish I could find the authority. Perhaps one of my illustrious silk readers can illuminate us.  The Act itself just says that the LA can’t issue proceedings unless they believe the threshold criteria to be met – so it says that there are situations where they shouldn’t, it is silent about the circumstances in which they should. The LA don’t have to issue proceedings on every child where the threshold is met. )

 

So what follows is not a justification or excuse for the delay, but an attempt to consider the context.

 

Here are some possible reasons why proceedings were not issued :-

 

  1. It just never got considered (prior to April 2016), and it wasn’t a conscious decision not to, so much as just nobody thinking about it.
  2. The adoptive parents were not asking for T back, T didn’t want to go back, T was in what was considered to be a safe place, and so there was a thought process that nothing was to be gained by going to Court. T wasn’t going to be adopted by anyone else and a Care Order would add nothing to the situation on the ground. Perhaps people even actively thought about the ‘no order principle’ and considered that it wasn’t possible to make out a case that the making of a Care Order (as needed by article 8) would be ‘proportionate and necessary’
  3. This was happening BEFORE the s20 drift was coming to judicial attention and prominence as an issue, and when those s20 cases did emerge, that’s when the LA did take action.
  4. Perhaps everyone was caught up in the day to day management of T and what she needed in terms of placement and stability, and overlooked the bigger picture.
  5. Let’s be quite honest – there’s the potential that the parents in this case were treated differently (because they were adopters) to the way they would have been treated as birth parents.

 

However, ALL of those issues are hard to excuse the fact that T’s sister, X, remained with the adoptive parents. So the LA had an allegation of rape by T, known about for over 18 months, and knowing that a younger sister was still living with the adopters.

 

(So either they didn’t believe T’s allegations OR they thought for some reason that X was safe, but the point is they couldn’t know for sure either way)

Anyway, the Court of Appeal were critical of the delay

 

12.Unfortunately, and to my mind inexplicably, the state of affairs whereby T was accommodated under CA 1989, s.20 was maintained from August 2014 until the institution of care proceedings in April 2016, notwithstanding the clear and stark issue of fact created by T’s allegations and the father’s wholesale denial. Irrespective of the fact that T’s mental health and presenting behaviour may have rendered it impossible for her placement in the family home to be maintained, the need to protect and have regard to the welfare of the younger sibling, X, who remained in the family home, required this significant factual issue to be determined

 

The next issue in the case is that the adoptive parents agreed that the threshold was met for T, because she was beyond parental control. The LA, however, sought a finding about the sexual abuse allegations (five findings in all). That obviously makes sense given that X wasn’t beyond parental control, and there was a need to establish what happened to T, to decide if X was at risk of sexual harm. That makes sense to me. (I can’t, so far, make sense of why it appears that the proceedings were about T, and not T AND X – and the Court of Appeal say that

 

 

50.So far as X is concerned, although she has been the subject of arrangements made under the Pre-commencement Procedure operated within the Public Law Outline, no proceedings have ever been issued with respect to her since the making of the adoption order )

 

The High Court heard from 16 witnesses at the finding of fact hearing. Things went wrong when Parker J came into Court to deliver her judgment

 

 

 

 

The judgment

17.The oral evidence had been concluded on 18 November 2016 and closing submissions were delivered on 18 and 25 November. The case was then adjourned to 8 December 2016 for the delivery of judgment. On that occasion, however, the Judge explained that she had been occupied with other cases and had been unable to prepare a written judgment. She had, however, reached “some conclusions” and, with the parties’ agreement, she stated what those were in the course of a short judgment which runs to some 6 pages in the agreed note that has been prepared by the parties. In short terms, the Judge rehearsed a number of the significant points in the case, for example, T’s mental health, the recording of her allegations and the ABE interview process, any evidence of inconsistency and T’s overall reliability, and an assessment of the father’s credibility before announcing her conclusion in the following terms:

 

 

 

“I have come to the conclusion therefore, and I am sorry to have to do so as I thought the mother and the father were the most likeable people, but during the course of 2014, there was an attempt at least, it may have been more, of sexual congress between the father and T.”

18.The case was then adjourned to 30 January 2017 for the delivery of a full judgment. A note of what had been said in court on 8 December was agreed between the parties and submitted to the Judge. On 30 January the Judge again indicated that, due to pressure on her time as a result of other cases, she had not been able to prepare a full judgment. Instead the Judge gave a lengthy oral judgment, seemingly based on prepared notes.

 

 

19.On 30 January, when the Judge had concluded her judgment, counsel for the father immediately identified a number of aspects in which, it was submitted, the judgment was deficient. The Judge directed that an agreed note of what she had said should be prepared and submitted to her within 7 days, together with requests from each party identifying any suggested corrections or requests for clarification.

 

 

20.The parties, in particular those acting for the parents, complied with the tight 7-day timetable. The Judge was provided with an agreed note of judgment which runs to some 115 paragraphs covering 42 pages. In addition, counsel submitted an annotated version of the note indicating possible corrections, together with a list of more substantial matters which, it was claimed, required clarification. In doing so those acting for each of the parties were complying precisely with the process originally described by this court in the case of English v Emery Reimbold and Strick Ltd [2002] EWCA Civ 605 and subsequently endorsed in the family law context by this court on many occasions.

 

 

All of this was compounded then, because despite knowing that the case was going to be appealed, following the judgment in January 2017, the transcript of the judgment wasn’t made available. The transcribers sent it to the Judge on 18th March 2017 – the Judge sent an approved copy back to them SIX MONTHS later, September 2017, but that approved copy never got sent to the parties or the Court of Appeal.

 

The Court of Appeal (at the time of hearing the appeal) were therefore working from an agreed note of the judgment rather than the transcript

The Judge’s decision

26.Early in the judgment of 30 January the Judge records the decision that she had already announced at the December hearing in the following terms (paragraph 17):

 

 

 

“I have decided that she has been sexually interfered with by her father and that she has been caused significant emotional harm by reason of her mother’s disbelief in telling her so, although my criticism of the mother was highly muted in the circumstances for reasons I will come back to.”

27.After a summary of the evidence the Judge stated (paragraph 58):

 

 

 

“It is against that background that I need to assess the threshold.”

 

She then set out the content of the local authority fact-finding Schedule introducing it with the following words:

 

“I am asked to make findings in terms of:”

 

Unfortunately, the judgment does not record the Judge’s decision on any of the five specific findings of sexually abusive behaviour alleged in the local authority Schedule save that, at paragraph 71, the Judge stated “I also find that the description T gives of her father attempting to penetrate her is wholly believable”. Whether that statement amounts to a finding is, however, not entirely clear as it simply appears as a statement in the 8th paragraph of a 40 paragraph section in which the Judge reviews a wide range of evidence.

28.The basis of the appeal is that the Judge’s judgment fails sufficiently to identify what (the local authority would submit, if any) findings of fact the Judge made.

 

 

29.Before leaving the 30 January judgment, it is necessary to point to 2 or 3 other subsidiary matters that are relied upon by the appellants as indicating that the judgment, substantial though it may be in size, is inchoate:

 

 

 

  1. a) Prior to listing the witnesses who gave oral evidence the Judge states “I think I heard the following witnesses”. The list of 13 witnesses is said to omit 3 other individuals who also gave oral evidence.

 

  1. b) In the closing stages of the judgment the Judge makes one additional point which is introduced by the phrase “one thing I forgot to say” and a second which is introduced by “also one thing I have not so far mentioned, and I should have done”.

 

  1. c) At the very end of the judgment, and after the Judge has gone on to deal with procedural matters unrelated to the findings of fact there appears a four paragraph section dealing with case law related to the court’s approach to ABE interviews where it is asserted there has been a breach of the ABE guidelines. That section is preceded by the phrase “I completely forgot”.

 

There are of course, all sorts of different styles and approaches one can adopt to delivering a judgment and the Court of Appeal are not trying to be prescriptive or to fetter a Judge’s discretion of   stylistic delivery. Having said all that, if the immediate comparator that comes to mind is Columbo talking to Roddy McDowell, that’s not a good thing.

 

Have I ever been happier to be able to get a particular picture into the blog? Maybe Kite-Man, but I am VERY pleased about this one

 

The appeal itself

30.Two notices of appeal issued on behalf of the father and mother respectively were issued in August 2017. Although this was many months after the making of the care order and the delivery of the oral judgment in January 2017, I accept that the delay arose because the parties were waiting for the Judge to engage in the process of clarification that she had directed should take place and, thereafter, the production of a final version of the judgment. There were also considerable difficulties in securing legal aid, caused at least in part by the absence of a judgment. At various stages the Judge’s clerk had given the parties some hope that a final judgment might be produced. The notices of appeal were only issued once the parties were forced to conclude that a final version of the judgment was unlikely to be forthcoming. Following the failure of the efforts made by the Court of Appeal to obtain a judgment, I granted permission to appeal on 16 November 2017.

 

 

31.The grounds of appeal and skeleton arguments that argue the cases of the father and of the mother from their respective positions engage fully with the underlying facts in the case in addition to arguing that the process as a whole has been fatally compromised by the court’s inability to produce adequately precise findings and to do so in a judgment which sufficiently engages with the significant features of the evidence. As it is on this latter basis that the appeal has preceded by consent, my Lords and I have not engaged in the deeper level, granular analysis of the evidence that would otherwise be required.

 

 

32.In terms of the English v Emery Rheimbold process, those acting for each of the two parents submitted short (in the mother’s case 3 pages, in the father’s case 5 pages) requests for clarification on specific issues. Each of those requests is, on my reading of the papers, reasonable and, even if a specific request were unreasonable, it was open to the Judge to say so.

 

 

33.The resulting state of affairs where the only record of the Judge’s determination is imprecise as to its specific findings and silent upon the approach taken to significant elements of the evidence is as regrettable as it is untenable.

 

 

34.That the state of affairs that I have just described exists, is made plain by the stance of the local authority before this court. Rather than simply “not opposing” the appeal, the local authority skeleton argument, as I will demonstrate, specifically endorses the main thrust of the appellant’s case. Further, we were told by Miss Hannah Markham QC, leading counsel before this court, but who did not appear below, that the local authority’s position on the appeal has been approved at every layer of management within the authority’s children services department. For one organ of the state, the local authority, to conclude that the positive outcome (in terms of the findings that it sought) of a highly expensive, time and resource consuming, judicial process is insupportable is a clear indication that the judicial system has, regrettably, failed badly in the present case.

 

 

35.Against that background it is helpful to quote directly from the skeleton argument prepared by Miss Markham and Miss Grieve on behalf of the local authority:

 

 

 

“5 At the heart of the appeal are findings that (father) behaved in a sexually inappropriate way towards his daughter T. The findings are set out in this way, as it is accepted by the respondent local authority that the judgment given by Mrs Justice Parker does not particularise the findings made nor does it cross refer findings to the local authority Schedule of findings. As such the findings have not been accurately recorded or set out.

 

….

 

“14 The local authority does not oppose the appeal for reasons set out below.

 

15 However the local authority does not accept that all grounds as pleaded would be matters or arguments which the local authority would either not oppose or indeed agree, if taken in isolation. The focus in approaching this appeal has been to stand back and have regard to the fairness and integrity of the judgment and the process taken by the parties to try to clarify the judgment and in particular the findings made.

 

16 It is submitted that it must be right and fair that a party against whom findings are made should know the actual findings made and the reasons for them. It is submitted that reasons on reasons are not necessary, but clarity as to findings and a clear basis for them is a primary requirement of a Judge.

 

17 It is significant that the learned Judge has resisted requests of her to clarify her judgment and that in particular she has not taken opportunities to set out the findings she has in fact made.

 

18 Dovetailing into that error is the argument that flows from that omission; absent clear findings it is impossible to see, understand and argue that the Judge formulated her findings on clear, understandable and right reasoning.

 

 

21 In this instant case it is submitted on behalf of the parents that the judge did not even set out the findings, not least allow them to see whether she fairly and with significant detail set out her reasoning for coming to the findings she then made. Further requests of the Judge were properly made and the learned Judge has neither responded to them nor clarified why she is not engaging in the requests of her

 

 

23 (Having listed the short specific findings made by the Judge) It is acknowledged that these matters are the most detail (the Judge) gives to her findings. Whilst it is asserted by the local authority that the learned Judge was able, within the ambit of her wide discretion to make findings, it was incumbent upon her to set out with clarity what those findings were and how she came to make them.

 

24 It will be apparent from the matters set out above that she failed in this task and that she failed to cross refer back to paragraph 59 (where the Judge listed the content of the local authority Schedule of findings) and set out what she had or had not found proved.”

36.The local authority identified two specific grounds relied upon on behalf of the father, one asserting that the Judge rejected the father’s case on the deficits on the ABE interview, against, it is said, the weight of the evidence, but provides no analysis for coming to that conclusion. Secondly the local authority accepts that there were many examples of inconsistency within the accounts that T had given. In both respects the local authority expressly acknowledged that the Judge failed to engage with these two important aspects of the case and failed to set out her findings in respect of each.

 

 

37.The local authority, rightly, argue that a Judge has a wide discretion to accept or reject evidence in a case such as this and that the Judge does not have to refer expressly to each and every detail of the evidence in the course of their judgment. The local authority’s skeleton argument, however, accepts “that a fair and balanced assessment of the cases advanced and evidence for and against said cases is necessary, proportionate and fair and has not occurred sufficiently in this complex case.”

 

 

38.Miss Kate Branigan QC, leading Miss Lianne Murphy, both of whom appeared below for T, acting on the instructions of the children’s guardian adopt a similar stance to that taken by the local authority. In their skeleton argument (paragraph 10) they state:

 

 

 

“Albeit T maintains that the allegations made against her father are true, the children’s guardian has had to conclude that the judgment as given by the court on 30 January 2017 is not sustainable on appeal and that inevitably the appeals on behalf of both appellants must succeed.”

 

Later (paragraph 14) it is said:

 

“Regrettably we accept that it is not possible from the judgment to identify what findings the court has made. At paragraph 59 of the judgment note, the court sets out the detail of the findings it is invited to make, but at no stage thereafter does the learned Judge indicate which of the findings she has found established to the requisite standard nor does she attempt to link what she is saying about the evidence to the specific findings sought….On this basis alone the judgment is arguably fatally flawed.”

 

And at paragraph 15:

 

“We further recognise in certain key respects the court has failed to engage with the totality of the evidence to the extent that any findings the court has purported to make are unsustainable in any event. In particular, we accept the arguments advanced on behalf of the appellant father… that the court failed to undertake a sufficiently detailed analysis of the context in which T’s allegations came to be made, failed to engage with the professional evidence which called into question the reliability of those allegations and did not weigh appropriately in the balance the inconsistencies which were clearly laid out on the evidence in relation to T’s accounts.”

39.In the light of the parties’ positions, the oral hearing for this appeal was short. All were agreed that the appeal must be allowed with the result that, at the end of a process which started with allegations made in August 2014, and in included a substantial trial before a High Court Judge, any findings of fact made by the Judge and recorded in her oral determinations made in December 2016 and on 30 January 2017 must be set aside and must be disregarded in any future dealings with this family.

 

 

40.For our part, my Lords and I, rather than simply endorsing the agreed position of the parties, had, reluctantly but very clearly formed the same view having read the note of the 30 January judgment and having regard to the subsequent failure by the court to engage with the legitimate process of clarification that the Judge had, herself, set in train

           41.Before turning to the question of what lessons might be learned for the future and offering some guidance in that regard, a formal apology is owed to all those who have been adversely affected by the failure of the Family Justice system to produce an adequate and supportable determination of the important factual allegations in this case. In particular, such an apology is owed to T, her father and her mother and her younger sister X, whose own everyday life has been adversely affected as a result of professionals justifiably putting in place an intrusive regime to protect her from her father as a result of the statement of the Judge’s conclusions 16 months ago.      

 

    

The Court of Appeal were asked to give some clarifying guidance in relation to the issue of what happens where the parties ask (as they must) for the Judge to clarify flaws in the judgment and after a period of time the Judge has not done so. For a start, when does the clock for the appeal start to tick? After judgment, or after the request for clarification, or after receipt of such clarification?

 

 

 

42.Whilst it is, fortunately, rare for parties to encounter a situation such as that which has arisen in the present case, such circumstances do, however, occur and we have been invited to offer some limited advice or guidance.

 

 

43.The window in which a notice of appeal may be issued under Civil Procedure Rules 1998, r 52.12(2) is tight and is, in ordinary circumstances, limited to 21 days. It is often impossible to obtain a transcript of a judgment that has been delivered orally within the 21 day period. Unfortunately, it is also the experience of this court that not infrequently problems occur in the five or six stages in the administrative chain through which a request for transcripts must proceed and it may often be months before an approved transcript is provided. Whilst it is plainly more satisfactory for the judges of this court to work on an approved transcript, and that will normally be a pre-requisite for any full appeal hearing, the Lord or Lady Justices of Appeal undertaking evaluation of permissions to appeal in family cases are now more willing to accept a note of judgment (if possible agreed) taken by a lawyer or lawyers present in court in order to determine an application for permission to appeal rather than await delivery of an approved transcript of the judgment. It is therefore important for advocates attending court on an occasion when judgment is given to do their best to make a full note of the judgment so that, if it is needed, that note can be provided promptly to the Court of Appeal when a notice of appeal is filed.

 

 

44.The observation set out above requires adaptation when a party seeks clarification of the Judge’s judgment. In such a case, it must be reasonable for the party to await the conclusion of the process of clarification before being obliged to issue a notice of appeal, unless the clarification that is sought is limited to marginal issues which stand separately to the substantive grounds of appeal that may be relied upon.

 

 

45.Where, as here, the process of clarification fails to achieve finality within a reasonable time, it is not in the interests of justice, let alone those of the respective parties, for time to run on without a notice of appeal being issued. What is a reasonable time for the process of post judgement clarification? The answer to that question may vary from case to case, but, for my part, I find it hard to contemplate a case where a period of more than 4 weeks from the delivery of the request for clarification could be justified. After that time, the notice of appeal, if an appeal is to be pursued, should be issued. The issue of a notice of appeal does not, of itself, prevent the process of clarification continuing if it has not otherwise been completed. Indeed, in some case the Court of Appeal at the final appeal hearing may itself send the case back to the Judge for clarification. The benefit of issuing a notice of appeal, apart from the obvious avoidance of further delay, is that the Court of Appeal may itself directly engage with the Judge in the hope of finalising any further outstanding matters.

 

 

Whilst the Court of Appeal say that because of the administrative nightmare that is obtaining an approved transcript, they will accept an agreed note from the lawyers I wonder how on earth that is going to work with cases involving only litigants in person (eg about 90% of private law proceedings)

Advertisements

Das reBoot – Court of Appeal find reverse gear (once again)

 

A major theme in family case law over the last 2-3 years has been misuse of section 20 – voluntary accommodation, with all sorts of guidance being provided, culminating in the President of the Family Division giving a decision in Re N 2015 which just invented huge new chunks of legal obligations on Local Authorities and threatening damages if they didn’t obey.

 

That in turn, quite coincidentally, led to the biggest increases in number of care proceedings issued that we have seen since the Baby P crisis hit. It is a complete coincidence, of course. I mean, over that same period of time, we haven’t actually seen the number of children in foster care go up at all, but we have seen the number of care proceedings go up by 35%, but the two things are utterly unrelated.

 

As I’ve said before, I do think that there was a genuine problem with section 20 misuse and it needed to be addressed – I just think we swapped one problem for three others – an increased demand which the system utterly couldn’t manage, an increased layer of complexity and time in dealing with claims being added into care proceedings which the system utterly couldn’t manage, and an insoluble problem about how to deal with the cost issues caused by the statutory charge which, you’ve guessed it…

(And also, as I’ve said before, I’d be entirely up for Parliament to review s20 and put in some stronger safeguards for parents – I think a very short limit on the initial s20 and it to be reviewed at a meeting to which parents have free legal advice would be a start)

Anyway, the Court of Appeal today have given judgment on an appeal from one of the early s20 damages cases – this was one where the police removed children after the father hit one of them with a belt, the police arrested the parents and gave them bail conditions not to live with the children, and the parents objected to s20.  The parents later sued the LA for breach of their human rights in continuing the s20 without their express consent.

 

I wrote about the original case at the time, and if WordPress ever stops behaving like a four year old hopped up on Tartrazine, I’ll put a link in.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2017/26.html

 

London Borough of Hackney v Williams & Anor [2017] EWCA Civ 26 (26 January 2017)

 

(you can skip right to the end if you just want the reboot paragraph, I’ve put it in super large font)

 

So this is an appeal from an award for £10,000 damages against Hackney, where the parents had been arrested and had bail conditions not to be with the children. The LA asked for s20, the parents refused to sign and the LA relied upon the statute that the parents were prevented (for whatever reason) from providing accommodation and thus s20 (1) (c)  was met, and that the parents objection had to be looked at in the context of s20(7) which states

 

(7) A local authority may not provide accommodation under this section for any child if any person who—

 

(a) has parental responsibility for him; and

 

(b) is willing and able to—

 

(i) provide accommodation for him; or

 

(ii) arrange for accommodation to be provided for him, objects.

 

 

The parents were objecting, but weren’t providing any alternative accommodation, and weren’t in fact able to provide their own accommodation (because they would have then been in breach of bail conditions, and arrested. So the LA view was that it wasn’t a legal objection because they weren’t able to meet (b) (i) or (ii)

 

 

This all happened, by the way, in 2007.

 

The High Court looked at it in  September 2015 , and decided that the bail conditions weren’t sufficient to defeat the objection under s20(7) and awarded the parents £10,000 compensation each, plus costs. The High Court were clear that the allegations that led to the arrest were largely true (the father had hit the child with a belt) but nonetheless the parents human rights had been breached by the LA s20ing the children without consent, rather than seeking consent or a court order.

 

This, 18 months later, reaches the Court of Appeal.

 

 

The Court of Appeal look at Sir Mark Hedley’s decision in Coventry City Council v C [2013] EWHC 2190 (Fam) ,  and the Court of Appeal decisions giving judicial guidance on s20 cases  Re B (Looked after child) [2013] EWCA Civ 964 (sub nom Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council v Others); Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065; and Re N (Adoption: Jurisdiction) [2015] EWCA 1112.

 

The Court of Appeal say that those cases didn’t have to specifically determine a s20 issue, so where they have made comments, they are obiter and not binding. Specifically, what the President says in Re N is not binding on the Court of Appeal in a case where argument has been specifically heard on the s20 and where s20 is a ratio issue.

 

 

59.In relation to item (d), after setting out the terms of s. 20(8), Sir James stated (at [169]):

 

‘This means what it says. A local authority which fails to permit a parent to remove a child in circumstances within section 20(8) acts unlawfully, exposes itself to proceedings at the suit of the parent and may even be guilty of a criminal offence. A parent in that position could bring a claim against the local authority for judicial review or, indeed, seek an immediate writ of habeas corpus against the local authority. I should add that I am exceedingly sceptical as to whether a parent can lawfully contract out of section 20(8) in advance, as by agreeing with the local authority to give a specified period of notice before exercising their section 20(8) right.’

60.In conclusion, Sir James set out further requirements of good practice, in addition to those identified by Hedley J before stating [171]:

 

‘The misuse and abuse of section 20 in this context is not just a matter of bad practice. It is wrong; it is a denial of the fundamental rights of both the parent and the child; it will no longer be tolerated; and it must stop. Judges will and must be alert to the problem and pro-active in putting an end to it. From now on, local authorities which use section 20 as a prelude to care proceedings for lengthy periods or which fail to follow the good practice I have identified, can expect to be subjected to probing questioning by the court. If the answers are not satisfactory, the local authority can expect stringent criticism and possible exposure to successful claims for damages.’

 

72.Finally, in Re N, the judgment of Sir James Munby P does repeat his conclusion that parental consent is required by the statute; this can most conveniently be seen from two sentences (from [163]):

 A Local Authority cannot use its powers under section 20 if a parent “objects”: see section 20(7). So where, as here, the child’s parent is known and in contact with the local authority, the local authority requires the consent of the parent.”

73.In considering this passage in the President’s extensive judgment in Re N, it is necessary to be clear that any issues relating to s. 20 were very much at the periphery of that case, the focus of which was the jurisdiction of the English Family Court to make orders leading to adoption with respect to foreign nationals. It seems plain that the section of the judgment as to the working out of arrangements for s. 20 accommodation arose from concern, evidenced by a raft of recent first instance decisions, as to social work practice in general. No issue in the case of Re N turned on the interpretation of s. 20, or, indeed, on any matter with respect to s. 20. It is apparent that Sir James was using the opportunity provided by the fact that the children in Re N had been accommodated for eight months before the local authority issued care proceedings as a hook upon which to hang some, no doubt timely, firmly worded and important good practice guidance. Despite the respect that this court undoubtedly has for the opinion of a judge of such authority on these matters, the short judicial statement (in [163]) following a hearing at which the interpretation of s. 20 was not in issue cannot be binding upon this court where the focus is directly upon s. 20 and where there has been full argument.

 

 

 

Therefore, s20(7) does apply where the parent is not able to provide accommodation themselves, or is unable to provide alternative accommodation. In those circumstances, a parent’s objection does not defeat s20 – they need to be able to provide accommodation themselves or from third parties in order to satisfactorily object.

 That does NOT mean, and should not be interpreted to mean that in a scenario where the parent says “I object to s20, the child can come home with me’ that the LA can hide behind s20(7) and say that the home offered was unsuitable or dangerous, or they didn’t think it was a good idea. S20(7) goes only as far as the parent not being ABLE to have the child live with them (think bail conditions, homelessness, incarceration or detention in mental health hospital, that sort of thing) and where they aren’t able to provide any other accommodation.  It doesn’t cover “the child could live with my brother Mike” and the Social worker going “hell no”

 

 

74.I recognise that, in the context of the cases that he was then considering, it may well have been appropriate for Sir James to equate the obligation on a local authority not to use its powers under section 20 if a parent ‘objects’ as meaning, effectively, that when the parent is known and in contact with the authority, consent is required but, in my judgment, it would be wrong to elevate the requirement of consent into a rule of law that operates in all circumstances. In this case, the parents had the benefit of solicitors experienced in both family and criminal law. Their ability to apply to remove the prohibition on contact with the children was well known and emphasised by the solicitors in correspondence. The local authority was not responsible for the bail condition and had no obligation to take proactive steps to have it removed. If the solicitors had wanted the local authority to express a view, an appropriate official could have been requested to do so by the court or been the subject of a witness summons to attend.

 

 

75.On any showing, it was not for the local authority to aid and abet the flouting of the bail condition and it is not sufficient to argue that the local authority should have sought to persuade the police to modify the condition. The only inference to be drawn from the fact that the condition remained in place was that the parents (no doubt on advice) were prepared to negotiate with the police rather than risk a conflict in court. In those circumstances, for the period that the bail condition remained in place, they were not in a position to provide accommodation for them within s. 20(7)(b)(ii) of the 1989 Act and were thus not in a position legally to object whether or not they formally consented.

 

 

76.Thus, the continued existence of the bail condition had the twin consequence that Mr and Mrs Williams, firstly, were ‘prevented … for whatever reason’ from providing suitable accommodation and care for their children (s 20(1) of the 1989 Act) and, secondly, were not ‘able’ to provide accommodation for them in order to trigger their statutory right to object (s 20(7) ibid

 

 

This is the really important bit, with wider implications than the bail conditions/parent in prison objecting to s20 though.

 

 

 

77.Before passing from the issue of s. 20 of the 1989 Act and consideration of the guidance given by Sir James Munby P, Hedley J and others in the Family Division cases to which I have referred, I wish to stress that nothing that is said in this judgment is intended to, or should be read as, altering the content and effect of that guidance in family cases. The focus of the court in the present appeal is on the bottom-line legal requirements that are established by s 20 and within which a local authority must act. The guidance given in the family court, which has built upon that bottom-line in the period since the Williams’ children were removed, identifies clear, cooperative and sensible ways in which a voluntary arrangement can be made between a parent and a local authority when a child may need to be accommodated; it is, in short, good practice guidance and a description of the process that the family court expects to be followed. For reasons of good administration, the practice guidance should continue to be followed, notwithstanding the limits of the underlying legal requirements in s 20 that I have identified but a failure to follow it does not, of itself, give rise to an actionable wrong, or found a claim for judicial review.

 

I would expect to see that paragraph quoted by Local Authorities in response to any suggestion of HRA claims for s20 damages in the future.  There may be circumstances where this sort of breach does give rise to action, and we’ll have to wait to see that litigated, but it is going to need something more than just failure to comply with the guidance.   The Court of Appeal were also scathing about the proportionality of litigating this particular HRA claim – the damages were out of proportion to the costs and the Court also made it very clear that they considered the quantum of damages to be significantly more than they would have contemplated.

 

This brings me to another trend in family law – we had the raised test for interim care orders, which caused all sorts of mayhem and was eventually rolled back by the Court of Appeal saying ‘oh, nobody meant what you all thought’, then the raised test for adoption, which caused all sorts of mayhem and was eventually rolled back by the Court of Appeal saying ‘oh, nobody meant what you all thought’ and now the raised tests for s20, which caused all sorts of mayhem and has now been rolled back by the Court of Appeal saying ‘oh, they DID mean it, but they weren’t actually able to apply the teeth to it that they thought they were applying’

 

Perhaps when far-reaching judicial speeches that go further than the issue being litigated next arises, the Courts could hear full argument about the implications of what they are contemplating? Or, heaven forbid, just only tell us what the law means where it is the issue in the case and the law is unclear, rather than reworking the plain words of the Statute into what you happen to wish they said instead?

 

 

Crisis in infinite Courts

 

The President has published his 15th View from the President’s Chambers, and it is a doozy. We waited a long long time for the 14th, but the 15th came soon after it.

 

http://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/15th-view-from-the-president-s-chambers-care-cases-the-looming-crisis#.V-I-7jU1Ouc

 

It has been pretty apparent for a long while that the number of care proceedings has just continued to climb from the post Baby P figures, which at the time everyone thought was a temporary surge in caution and new referrals and would eventually settle down.  (Back then it went from just over 6,000 per year, to around 8,000 per year.) It didn’t. There was a very short period when the numbers dipped, but those were clearly attributable to the issue of the brand new Public Law Outline and professionals getting to grips with the new model of doing things.  Over the last 8 years, care proceedings have just continued to climb, year on year, the only thing that differed was by how much.

But then over the last two years, the rate of increase dramatically shot up.

As the President observes in his View, we’re going to be pretty close to 15,000 sets of care proceedings this year, and are likely to pass that next year. He gloomily predicts that we are heading for 20,000 a year over the next few years (I’m not sure that I agree, and I’ll explain why later)

The critical thing, of course, is that this increase of between 200 and 300 % in the volume of care proceedings over the last ten years has not been matched by a 200-300% increase in the number of Judges or Court sitting days.  Nor by the number of social workers, or Guardians, or care lawyers.  And vitally important for the Crisis that even the President says is looming, is that there has ABSOLUTELY not been a 200-300% increase in the legal aid budget for care cases – in fact there’s not only not been increases in line with inflation, but actual cuts.

At the moment, each care case has a fixed fee in terms of solicitors (they can cost a bit more if the case takes twice as much work as the average) , so when care cases increase, the number of those fixed fees increase. When, as at the moment the increase in volume is about 23% on last year, which was in turn 20% on the year before, you can see that the portion of the Legal Aid budget that deals with fixed fees for solicitors, which has had NO INCREASE AT ALL is under huge pressure.

The other costs in terms of legal aid are – counsel’s fees, and the more cases that are in Court, the higher those will go – particularly as solicitors have more volume of cases to run in the office and are able to go to Court less, those costs will go up. And experts fees – there had been a considerable reduction in the use of experts since the 2014 law changes which meant that before the Court could agree an expert they had to be satisfied that it was NECESSARY rather than just helpful or useful.  But, that was all working on the basis that social workers would be doing more and more of the assessments, and if their volume of work has gone up like that, that’s less possible.

My best case scenario is that the legal aid budget for care proceedings is around 40% overspent from 2 years ago (it takes time for all the payments to filter through, but we could be in for that experience again where the Legal Aid Agency write no cheques at all in February and March, because they’ve got no money – it happened about 6 years ago, I think. If that happens now, firms will go under).  I think the overspend might be far worse than that, in reality.

 

So I agree entirely with the President when he says :-

 

Following implementation of the recommendations of the Family Justice Review, the average duration of care cases fell rapidly month by month – the graph, accordingly, showing a constant falling line. Over the last year or so the graph has ‘flat-lined’. That it has not, as yet, begun to climb must be a matter for congratulation to everyone involved in making the system work. To keep the line level as the caseload increased by 14% is an astonishing achievement. I hope I turn out to be wrong but I do not believe that this level of achievement can be maintained as caseloads continue to rise. The fact is that, on the ground, the system is – the people who make the system work are – at full stretch. We cannot, and I have for some time now been making clear that I will not, ask people to work harder. Everyone – everyone – is working as hard as they can.

We must, accordingly, assume that the line on the graph will start to go up – to move in the wrong direction. We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis.

 

That’s brave and honest language from the man in charge of the system, and he is to be commended for it. Every time I’ve looked at the CAFCASS care demand stats, which are published each month, I’ve thought ‘either these numbers take a sharp dive over the next few months, or we’re all f***ed.’   And far from taking a dive, they’ve just ramped up higher and higher.

There IS no more money, there is not going to BE any more money.  So, either the Government and Legal Aid Agency work out a way of cutting VOLUMES, or COST PER CASE, or they just simply don’t pay nearly half the bills that come in, with no prospect of being able to pay them next year either.

 

As the President says
There are, in principle, three possible causes for the increase:

  1. that the amount of child abuse/neglect is increasing;
  2. that local authorities are becoming more adept at identifying child abuse/neglect and taking action to deal with it;
  3. that local authorities are setting more demanding standards – in other words, lowering the threshold for intervention.

I do not believe that child abuse/neglect is rising by 14% let alone 20% a year. So this cannot be the sole explanation. It follows that changes in local authority behaviour must be playing a significant role.

 

I think that there are fairly clear correlations between poverty in our society and neglect, and between poverty and substance and alcohol abuse (that’s not for a SECOND to say that all abuse is perpetuated by poor people, or that poor people are child abusers – just that as the level of poverty increases in the country, you’ll see a corresponding increase in the levels of neglect and alcohol misuse and substance misuse).  So I think there’s going to be an ongoing underlying increase until this country’s economic fortunes turn round.

 

Equally, I think that cuts to services that support and help families – which have happened and continue to happen, inevitably mean that some families without those services will fall into care proceedings.

My guess is that those two factors account for some of the underlying increase year on year – that 6-10% annual increase.  But the massive spikes – I don’t think that they are that, and there’s not the clear “Baby P” fear factor that we all thought accounted for the increases since 2008  (incidentally, the timing of the big increase and continued increases rather than care proceedings being roughly stable each year corresponds with the 2008 financial crisis and austerity since that time, disporportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable in society. With the benefit of hindsight, it wasn’t so much a Baby P factor as a ‘sub-prime mortgage’ factor)

 

The spike , my thinking is, is largely a result of the set of decisions within care proceedings that meant that Local Authorities who had children in care under s20 with parents not objecting to that were getting hammered by Judges for not having gone to Court earlier and being made to pay damages and costs.   Now, this is difficult, because I think that s20 drift (particularly with parents whose capacity to consent was compromised) was a genuine problem and a real issue and it needed to be tackled.  So I welcome those cases (though I think the damages figures are rather plucked out of the air in comparison to personal injury damages quantum), but you simply can’t get away from this :-

 

Judges told Local Authorities that if they held on to s20 cases and didn’t issue, they’d be told off, made to pay compensation, made to pay costs, and be in published judgments, so local and national press could report on them getting a judicial kicking.

Local Authorities issued way more proceedings.

 

 

Do I think s20 drift is an issue that needs addressing? Hell yes.

Do I think it is such an important issue that it is worth risking either – LAA not paying cheques for 3-4 months of the year and solicitors firms going out of business?  OR the alternative which is clearly attractive to the Legal Aid Agency – remove representation of children by lawyers, save 33% of the budget in one simple move?

I’m afraid that I don’t.

 

So, quick hotfix

 

  1. HRA damages claims about s20 drift or delay should be issued in the civil courts, as a civil case with the pre-action protocols.
  2. And not done within care proceedings or within care proceeding legal aid certificates.

 

Does this make it harder to get those HRA claims? Absolutely. Does it mean that s20 drift won’t be tackled as rigorously by the Courts as it is at present? Absolutely. Will it reduce the number of proceedings being issued. Hell yes.

 

 

I’m also afraid that from what I have heard about the effectivness of settlement conferences in avoiding final hearings in the pilot authorities, these are INEVITABLY  going to be rolled out, despite reservations that the Association of Lawyers for Children rightly have about them

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2016/07/06/settlement-conferences/

 

The biggest resource cost in care proceedings is the final hearing – that takes up Court time, Judge time, counsel fees, expert attendance fees.  So a scheme which in the pilots has changed the proportion of cases that settle before final hearing from about 30% to 90% is going to be massively attractive to the MOJ and the Legal Aid Agency.  Particularly in this climate. I can’t see how they won’t be rolled out nationally if the pilot when it reports even says that the proportion of cases that settle went from 30% to 50%.

 

Here is another idea of mine which would save money at final hearings but without being as queasy as the Settlement Conferences scheme.

 

At an IRH, if the parents are presenting as a couple and there are no issues which REQUIRE them to be separately represented by counsel at the final hearing, there will be a rebuttable presumption that they would have one counsel.  That will be a decision for the Judge to decide at IRH, having heard representations. Obviously if it is a case with allegations of domestic violence or coercive control, it won’t be appropriate for one counsel to represent the other, likewise if there is a disputed injury or sexual allegation where one party might have to implicate the other or decide on separation.  But I have lost count of the number of final hearings I’ve done where the Legal Aid Agency and hence the taxpayer, is paying for counsel to represent the mother and counsel to represent the father, and you could not slip a cigarette paper between their case and their submissions.  It adds to time, it adds to cost, and with a looming 40% budget overspend, it is a luxury we can’t afford.

To be honest, this is something which ought to be addressed at IRH’s anyway, but I’ve never heard parents counsel asked the question at any IRH – what is the need for parents to be separately represented here?

[In those cases where there’s an answer to that, then of course they should be separately represented, but too often it is just done without any thought or consideration, other than mum has her own team and dad has his own team.  It’s not going to save 40% of the budget, but it would be a start, and much better than robbing the child of a voice in the proceedings]

 

I think that the President places a lot of stock in shorter documents solving some of the problems of time and cost per case.  In my experience, shorter documents give less space for setting out the facts and the arguments clearly, and result in greater disputes.  To draw up a threshold which provides the factual allegations, the specific examples for which findings are sought AND contains the Re A analysis, is a constant battle to get into 2 pages, and LA’s are ALWAYS drawing them up with one hand tied behind their back. Something has to give, and if it is the choice between two lines where I can put in a significant allegation or dropping that allegation for a Re A analysis, I’ll drop the Re A every time. Sorry, but that’s how it is.   I think it was right to stop thresholds being so sprawling, but when Re A came in, the limit should have been made to 3 pages – 5 in exceptional cases.    (Try doing an FII threshold in 2 pages….)

Shorter social work statements – well yes, we’d all like to get rid of the waffle and duplication and jargon (not sure that the standard SWET model does absolutely anything in that regard) and a large chunk of the documents are now spent on the Re B-S analysis, so we can’t get rid of that.   Shorter statements, in space restrictions might also lead to less balance – if you have to squeeze everything in, isn’t there a tendency to focus on the stuff that helps your case, rather than provide the balanced accounts of the positive things that the parents have done. To write about the truly awful session of contact on 4th February but not make room for some of the positive feedback about other sessions?

 

In my experience, the most common question I hear posed to social workers in the witness box is :-

 

“But why isn’t this in your statement?”

 

So shorter statements might well be a mixed blessing. Less for people to read, but missing some of the facts, context, analysis and rigour that might lead to less need to call live evidence and to have final hearings.

 

I’m all for the President’s suggestion of research – let us perhaps start with a comparison of those authorities who are using SWET and whose Courts are hardline on page restrictions versus those who aren’t.  Does it affect number of proceedings, number of hearings, number of contested final hearings, time taken to conclude cases…

Law for social workers (part 2)

Ah admit it, you skipped straight here, didn’t you?  In which case, you missed a lot of cool stuff about lizards, that’s for sure.

 

In this part, I’ll tell you the key tests and principles from the Acts and case law, for each sort of order.  I will keep this up to date if the law changes, and it will be up on the front page on a tab.

 

Let’s start with the thing that is changing more dramatically than anything else at the moment, and it ISN’T an order.

 

Section 20 accommodation

 

Section 20 is the voluntary agreement of a parent for the child to come into foster care.  For almost 22 years of the Children Act 1989 it was completely ignored by the Court and barely got a mention. Then all hell broke loose.

It started with a decision by Mr Justice Hedley, where a mother was asked to agree section 20 consent immediately after a C-section. She also had learning difficulties and was basically scared into signing it by threats that if she didn’t, the social worker would go to Court and get an EPO.

From that case, which you can read about here,

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2012/2190.html

the following principles were derived.  These are REALLY important for all social workers to know. I would seriously recommend having them on a piece of paper that you have on your person when doing any visit – because if the issue of section 20 comes up, it is on YOUR shoulders to evidence that you knew about all of this and took it all into account – the records are going to need to show all of it.

 

i) Every parent has the right, if capacitous, to exercise their parental responsibility to consent under Section 20 to have their child accommodated by the local authority and every local authority has power under Section 20(4) so to accommodate provided that it is consistent with the welfare of the child.

ii) Every social worker obtaining such a consent is under a personal duty (the outcome of which may not be dictated to them by others) to be satisfied that the person giving the consent does not lack the capacity to do so.

iii) In taking any such consent the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity and take into account all the circumstances prevailing at the time and consider the questions raised by Section 3 of the 2005 Act, and in particular the mother’s capacity at that time to use and weigh all the relevant information.

iv) If the social worker has doubts about capacity no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.

v) If the social worker is satisfied that the person whose consent is sought does not lack capacity, the social worker must be satisfied that the consent is fully informed:

a) Does the parent fully understand the consequences of giving such a consent?
b) Does the parent fully appreciate the range of choice available and the consequences of refusal as well as giving consent?
c) Is the parent in possession of all the facts and issues material to the giving of consent?
vi) If not satisfied that the answers to a) – c) above are all ‘yes’, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought as above and the social work team should further consider taking legal advice if thought necessary.

vii) If the social worker is satisfied that the consent is fully informed then it is necessary to be further satisfied that the giving of such consent and the subsequent removal is both fair and proportionate.

viii) In considering that it may be necessary to ask:

a) what is the current physical and psychological state of the parent?
b) If they have a solicitor, have they been encouraged to seek legal advice and/or advice from family or friends?
c) Is it necessary for the safety of the child for her to be removed at this time?
d) Would it be fairer in this case for this matter to be the subject of a court order rather than an agreement?
ix) If having done all this and, if necessary, having taken further advice (as above and including where necessary legal advice), the social worker then considers that a fully informed consent has been received from a capacitous mother in circumstances where removal is necessary and proportionate, consent may be acted upon.

x) In the light of the foregoing, local authorities may want to approach with great care the obtaining of Section 20 agreements from mothers in the aftermath of birth, especially where there is no immediate danger to the child and where probably no order would be made.

 

At the moment, Human Rights Act damages are being paid out by Councils not just for misuse of section 20 to get a child INTO care, but delaying too long in making decisions about a child’s future once they are IN care – an issue called section 20 drift.

 

The law has developed still further, with the Court of Appeal in Re N suggesting that section 20 agreements should always be in writing and that it is not sufficient for a Local Authority to rely on an absence of objection.  Also that if a parent withdraws their consent, the LA have to either get an immediate Court order (very very hard at present due to Court access) or return the child. I’d suggest that Re N is a major factor in the volume of care proceedings going up 20% this year, and it is going to keep going up.

Re N is here http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/1112.html  (don’t read it, because 98% of it is unintelligible stuff about international law, but if you MUST, skip straight to para 157

 

Be REALLY aware that going to a maternity ward to ask for s20 consent with a police officer there as back up is liable to make the s20 consent invalid as made under duress

  1. Surrey County Council –v- M, F & E [2012] EWHC [2400] a decision of Mrs. Justice Theis and at paragraph 60 she said this:-

“To use the section 20 procedure in circumstances where there was the overt threat of a police protection order if they did not agree, reinforced by the physical presence of uniformed police officers, was wholly inappropriate. By adopting this procedure the local authority sought to circumvent the test any court would have required them to meet if they sought to secure an order, either by way of an EPO or interim care order.”

 

And that leads us nicely into

 

Police Protection

 

 

First things first-  EVERYONE calls these PPOs  (because they sort of sit beside Emergency Protection Orders EPOs) but there’s no O. There is no Order. This is the police exercising their power to remove a child

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1989/41/section/46

 

46 Removal and accommodation of children by police in cases of emergency.

(1)Where a constable has reasonable cause to believe that a child would otherwise be likely to suffer significant harm, he may—

(a)remove the child to suitable accommodation and keep him there; or

(b)take such steps as are reasonable to ensure that the child’s removal from any hospital, or other place, in which he is then being accommodated is prevented.

 

And you can see from the statute that the test for this is pretty low. It is an administrative decision taken by a police officer at the time, on the scene.  There’s no filing of evidence, no legal argument, no representation of a parent, no voice of the child, and no Judge weighing things up

It is for that reason that the Court’s don’t like them and have made it clear that “Wherever possible, a decision to remove a child from a parent should be made by a Court not as an administrative decision”.   Police Protection should be reserved for situations where the risk can’t even be managed long enough to go to Court and seek an EPO. That’s a LOT rarer than their actual use.

Be warned, if a Court scrutinises use of Police Protection and thinks that the LA were involved and used it as a short cut or an easy way to get the child into foster care without having to go to Court, damages can and will be made.

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/05/01/misuse-of-police-protection-human-rights-claim/

“Police protection is an emergency power and should only be used when necessary, the principle being that wherever possible the decision to remove a child/children from a parent should be made by a court.”

 

The lead case is Langley v Liverpool 2005, so these issues are not exactly new.  The Home Office Guidance above makes it really clear that s46 is an emergency power only, not to be used if the Court can make a decision instead.

 

Emergency Protection Order

 

The bare statute just says this:-

44 Orders for emergency protection of children.

(1)Where any person (“the applicant”) applies to the court for an order to be made under this section with respect to a child, the court may make the order if, but only if, it is satisfied that—

(a)there is reasonable cause to believe that the child is likely to suffer significant harm if—

(i)he is not removed to accommodation provided by or on behalf of the applicant; or

(ii)he does not remain in the place in which he is then being accommodated;

 

[It is quite often overlooked that actually ANY person can apply for an EPO – unlike care orders, where only the LA or NSPCC can apply. In 25 years, I’ve only seen a parent apply once for an EPO, but it can happen]

The Courts set a much higher test for EPOs than the Act does.

The lead case is Re X and B Council 2004

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2004/2015.html

There are 14 points in there which the High Court say MUST be drawn to the attention of a Court considering an EPO application – the case law has to be produced and the Court referred to these 14 points when making the application.

Critically for social workers

An EPO, summarily removing a child from his parents, is a “draconian” and “extremely harsh” measure, requiring “exceptional justification” and “extraordinarily compelling reasons”. Such an order should not be made unless the FPC is satisfied that it is both necessary and proportionate and that no other less radical form of order will achieve the essential end of promoting the welfare of the child. Separation is only to be contemplated if immediate separation is essential to secure the child’s safety; “imminent danger” must be “actually established”.

 

If your statement or evidence in relation to an EPO does not ‘actually establish’  ‘imminent danger’ then you can’t have your order.

and

 

The evidence in support of the application for an EPO must be full, detailed, precise and compelling. Unparticularised generalities will not suffice. The sources of hearsay evidence must be identified. Expressions of opinion must be supported by detailed evidence and properly articulated reasoning.

 

It is probably the HARDEST order to obtain, and many would argue rightly so. The test set down by the High Court in re X and B, compared to what the Act says is the difference between a limbo bar and a pole vault.

 

Removal under an Interim Care Order

 

Again, the bare statute doesn’t say much

 

38 Interim orders.

(1)Where—

(a)in any proceedings on an application for a care order or supervision order, the proceedings are adjourned; or

(b)the court gives a direction under section 37(1),

the court may make an interim care order or an interim supervision order with respect to the child concerned.

(2)A court shall not make an interim care order or interim supervision order under this section unless it is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the circumstances with respect to the child are as mentioned in section 31(2).

 

The Courts though have set a higher test for removal under an Interim Care Order, and THAT is the test that social workers must address in their written and oral evidence

 

 

“that separation is only to be ordered if the child’s safety demands immediate separation.”

It may do no harm to invite particular attention to Wall LJ’s definition of “safety” in this passage in Re B and KB. The concept of a child’s safety, as referred to in the authorities which I have cited, is not confined to his or her physical safety and includes also his or her emotional safety or, as Wall LJ put it, psychological welfare. Indeed, it may be helpful to remember that the paramount consideration in the court’s decision as to whether to grant an interim care order is the child’s welfare, as section 1 Children Act 1989 requires, and as Wall LJ shows when he says that in his view “KB’s welfare did demand her immediate removal from her parents’ care”.

 

Re GR and Others (Children) 2010

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2010/871.html

 

I was going to squeeze adoption into this part, but it has already been pretty long, and my Chinese food has arrived, so I’ll clean up adoption over the weekend.

 

I hope this has been useful, feel free to pass it on, email it around, print it out and stick it on notice boards.

If this is your first encounter with Suesspicious Minds – normally there is more sarcasm and 80s pop culture, and weird cases that might make you wince or cry or laugh, so pop in again.

 

If you enjoyed the piece, or the blog, please visit the website about my book, and if it takes your fancy, pre-order it.  I’m 85% of the way to getting it published now, thanks to loads of support and help from very cool people. Be like Fonzie and be cool too.

 

https://unbound.com/books/in-secure

Inordinate delay in issuing proceedings (£45K damages)

 

This is a Circuit Judge decision made in my local Court (it is not a case that I or any of my colleagues are involved in, so I can write about it) so I will try to avoid much comment and stick to the reported facts.

 

Re X, Y and Z  (Damages: Inordinate Delay in issuing proceedings) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2016/B44.html

Three children had been s20 accommodated from January 2013 until July 2015 when an Interim Care Order was made. The Court determined that the s20 had been lawfully entered into and was valid, but of course on the authorities, a valid s20 does not prevent a human rights breach based on delay.  Whilst the mother in this case had never formally withdrawn her consent or lodged an objection, she had been asking for more contact with the children and saying from time to time that she would like them to come home.

 

  1. The mother clearly frequently stated that she would wish to care for the children and certainly to see them :
  2. i) 8.2.13 Letter from Z seeking to see the children.

ii) 1.3.13 Z asks for contact and to have the children back in her first meeting with a social worker

iii) 3.4.13 Z seeks fortnightly contact in a telephone call.

iv) 5.9.13 LAC review – stated that Z would like to be able to care for the children.

v) 14.1.14 Report for LAC review notes that Z would like to see the children and that she sometimes states she wants to care for the children and sometimes that she just wants to have contact with them.

vi) 8.4.14 Legal Planning Meeting Solicitor for Z stated that she had requested both children be returned to her care as soon as possible…if not returned to her care, would like increased contact.

vii) 26.11.14 LAC Review Z would like to be able to care for the children.

 

 

The Judge ruled that the children’s article 6 and  8 rights were breached in the following ways

 

  1. It follows from all that is set out above that I make the following declarations:
  2. i) West Sussex County Council acted unlawfully and in violation of the Convention Rights of X, Y and Z as follows:

a) Purported to exercise parental responsibility for X and Y for a period of almost two and a half years when they did not hold parental responsibility for the children.

b) Failed to promote contact between the children ,X and Y and their mother Z.

c) Failed to issue care proceedings for almost two and a half years causing the children to be without access to independent representation, failing to carry out adequate assessments and allowing the children’s permanence plan to drift.

d) The Independent Reviewing Officer failed to challenge the conduct of the Local Authority sufficiently robustly.

The judgment contains analysis of the relevant authorities on s20 breaches, s20 drift, human rights claims and calculating quantum.

The Judge concluded that each of the  children should receive the sum of £20,000 in damages  (*initially, with the case being called X, Y and Z, I’d assumed three children and hence £60k, but I am told two children. Still £45k is a lot of money)

 

  1. The factors to be considered for the children are substantially different to those for the mother and consequently must be assessed separately. The main factors in relation to quantum are :
  2. i) A failure to assess their needs for an inordinate period of time – over two years before any report was obtained;

ii) The fact that they were denied access to any independent legal representation for two and a half years – of particular importance when they had no relatives in the country who would be able to care for them and when they had been the subject of apparent abuse during their time in Jamaica;

iii) Little promotion of contact with their mother even though X indicated in February 2013 that he would like to go back to her – there was no contact for the next twelve months;

iv) No comprehensive assessment of their needs although it was indicated as early as March 2013 that such an assessment was required;

v) Frequent changes in placements without any input from anyone with parental responsibility

vi) Placement with W, the previous foster carer, without any such assessment or understanding of any abuse they had suffered in Jamaica;

vii) The fact that the children are now in separate long term foster placements with no contact with each other or any other relative and X is not in a culturally appropriate placement;

  1. It is apparent that the end result for these children is not a good one. It is not possible now to say that the outcome would have been any different if proceedings had been issued in early to mid-2013 which should have occurred. However, it is difficult to see how the outcome would have been much worse and the loss of a chance of a better conclusion must be reflected in any award that is made.
  2. This case appears to be at the upper end of the bracket that has been awarded in similar cases. The only aggravating feature which is not present in this case, which is present in the majority of other such cases, is the fact that I have found that the s.20 agreement is a valid one. I am not going to set out all of the possible comparators as they appear in the table in the Medway case but I would simply state that this case involves the longest period as well as a poor outcome which may not have been the case without the breaches. As a result due to all of the issues which have been highlighted I am satisfied that the children should be awarded the sum of £20,000 each for all of the breaches of their Article 6 and 8 rights.

 

 

In relation to the mother

 

The Mother’s Award

  1. The mother is in a different position as she did have the benefit of legal advice from June 2013 onwards and as a result would have been able to withdraw her consent at any time thereafter. This must be of significance in considering damages as the inordinate delay in this case is the most troubling aspect and that delay could have been stopped at any time by the simple act of instructing her solicitor to withdraw her consent.
  2. It is argued on behalf of the Local Authority that this feature is of such significance that it should mean that the mother would receive ‘just satisfaction’ by way of a declaration alone. However that ignores the other crucial factors in her case which include :
  3. i) The frequent requests for contact to her children which were simply ignored by West Sussex although there was no legal basis to do so;

ii) If proceedings had been issued the Local Authority would have been obliged pursuant to s.34 Children Act 1989 to promote such contact;

iii) The failure to properly assess the mother due to the fact that she had been fully assessed in the previous proceedings some five years earlier.

  1. It seems unlikely that the children would have been placed with their mother if the proceedings would have been commenced in a timeous fashion and as such there does not need to be any award for the loss of that chance. However, the same cannot be said in relation to contact as that may have been very different if addressed much earlier. The children are now stating that they will not see their mother but that was not the position when they first arrived at Gatwick in January 2013. This loss is even more significant now that each child has no contact whatsoever with any member of their family.
  2. In these circumstance the appropriate level of damages for the mother must be far lower than for the children and I assess the figure of £5,000 as the correct amount to compensate her for her Article 6 and (more significantly) Article 8 rights.

 

 

Looking at the chronology given in the judgment,  there was involvement with lawyers as early as 24th June 2013, which was still 2 years before proceedings were issued.

 

The Judge was very critical of the  Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO), who would have been holding Looked After Child Reviews at regular intervals during the 2 1/2 years of s20. He found that they, too, had been responsible for breaches of both the mother and the children’s human rights.

 

  1. The Independent Reviewing Officer failed to challenge the conduct of West Sussex and did not promote care proceedings. The functions of the IRO are set out within s.25 Children Act 1989 and they include monitoring the performance of the Local Authority of their functions in relation to the child’s case. In the case of A and S v Lancashire CC [2012] EWHC 1689 at para 168 it was submitted (and Jackson J did not demur) that the task of the IRO was to “monitor, persuade, cajole, encourage and criticise fellow professionals in the interest of the child”. Their roles are more fully set out within the “IRO Handbook” which provides the relevant statutory guidance. In the Lancashire Case it was found that the failures of the IRO amounted to a breach of the children’s rights.
  2. The actions of the IRO in this case are fully set out within the statement of Children’s Safeguarding Manager and which is referred to above, which concludes with a list of ‘Strengths’ and ‘Areas for Development’ and the latter included :
  3. i) “the Review minutes do not consistently contain sufficient specific evidence of IRO challenge, especially on issues in relation to progress towards permanence”

ii) “the decision specific to the permanence plan was not specific enough and did not contain any target dates”

iii) “would have expected more explicit detail in relation to the permanence plan of long term fostering and the need to seek legal advice”

  1. It does not seem to me that this adequately highlights the deficiencies of the IROs (there were two) in this case. There does not appear to be any note whatsoever of the IRO cajoling the Local Authority on timescales and this can be highlighted by two simple issues :
  2. i) There is a bald statement in the second review held in May 2013 that an SGO assessment is about to commence in relation to the paternal aunt. This is repeated in the fourth review in January 2014 which records that “an SGO assessment will be undertaken at the appropriate time”. It is noted at the fifth review in July 2014 that the paternal aunt still wished to have the children living with her under SGOs but the assessment is still not there some fourteen months after it was first raised. This is a simply appalling delay and does not seem to be criticised by the IRO – if there is not going to be criticism in such cases then one has to ask when would it ever occur?

ii) The IRO was aware in May 2013 that the mother wanted contact to the children but no decisions were made on this crucial point at the time. In September 2013 it was noted that indirect contact had happened and the next stage would be to consider re-introducing direct contact yet by the fourth review it is simply noted that they were “working towards direct contact”! The first face to face contact did not take place until February 2014, a full 13 months after the children had arrived in the UK with the mother saying that she wanted to see the children throughout and the eldest child, X, having said he would like to see his mother in February 2013. It is entirely possible that the contact would not have been successful (as has in fact occurred) but it must be the duty of the IRO to challenge this astonishing delay in attempting such contact in circumstances when the children had no involvement with any member of their birth family.

  1. The lack of urgency in the case is breath-taking and it is simply wrong to point out the failures of the IROs to force the issues as an “Area for Development”. It was a total failure to “monitor, persuade, cajole, encourage and criticise fellow professionals in the interest of the child” as they should have been doing. This was clearly a case that should have come before the courts years before it actually did yet the IRO did not appear to put any pressure upon the Local Authority to ensure that this occurred. There is power within s.25B(3) Children Act 1989 for an IRO to refer the case to CAFCASS if it is considered it was appropriate to do so. It is difficult to understand why such action should not have been carried out in this case in order to ensure that the welfare needs of these children were fully protected.
  2. It follows that the failures of the IRO were sufficient in this case to amount to a breach of the children’s and the mother’s rights to family life and a fair trial.

 

 

If I were a betting man, and I am, I would expect an increase in care proceedings issued when the September set of CAFCASS stats come out.  And the volume of care proceedings issued is already at an all-time high.

section 20 and human rights damages (£17,500 award)

 

Kent County Council v M and K (section 20 : declaration and damages) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2016/28.html

 

The judicial trend for curbing the worst excesses of section 20 continues (see for example  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/10/21/fast-and-the-furious-tunbridge-wells-drift/ )

Apologies to the people of Kent, I know some of you are readers, and it is nothing personal, I just report the cases as they happen.

In this case, there was NO issue as to whether the original section 20 consent was lawful (the parents had capacity, and the principles laid down by Hedley J had been properly followed), but the drift and particularly here the failure to issue care proceedings in a timely fashion were what led to the human rights claim, and later damages.  Most of the s20 drift cases involve very young children – in fact infants, but this one involved an older child whose difficulties were significant and got worse over time.  This one is unusual in that it was not the parent complaining that drift and delay had impacted negatively on them, but the child arguing that although the mother had granted valid s20 consent and was not seeking rehabilitation of the child, the LA’s failure to issue care proceedings had harmed the child.

 

 K was placed in the care of the LA pursuant to section 20 Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) on 14 December 2011, the LA issued these proceedings on 16 November 2015. The HRA claim is put under three headings: the failure of the LA to assess K; failure to meet K’s needs and the failure to issue court proceedings. The LA deny this claim. K’s mother supports the claim. 

 

Just shy of four years of s20, that does seem like a long time – from a child’s perspective it is a massively long time, more than a fifth of their total years of childhood.

The Judge sets out the background prior to proceedings being issued. It is long, but I’ll put it in full, because it shows clearly the missed opportunities for the case to be seized and the drift put right. Many many LAC reviews.

  1. K was accommodated by the LA, pursuant to s 20 CA 1989, on 14 December 2011. Prior to that she had been living with her aunt, as her mother was unable to cope with her care. K has a younger sister who remains in her mother’s care. Her father has taken no active part in her care, or these proceedings.
  2. The LA had had prior involvement with K. They had completed a core assessment in April 2011 when K was living with her aunt. The assessment recorded the need for M to address her own mental health needs, K’s relationship with her M was difficult which ‘will certainly impact on her emotional and behavioural development’, and ‘[K] may well need some intervention from the primary mental health team to support her with the difficult feelings and interactions she has with her mother and sister’. The recommendations in the assessment included M to give parental responsibility to the aunt.
  3. On 5 December 2011 K’s aunt informed the LA that she was unable to continue to care for K. K’s mother, M, gave her consent to K being accommodated by the LA by telephone that day. There is no issue that this was a valid consent.
  4. The documents show a placement plan was formulated on 14 December, providing that the period of accommodation pursuant to s 20 was for an initial period of four weeks, pending the convening of a family group conference (FGC), to consider whether any alternative family placements could be explored. This plan recorded ‘It is a concern that [K’s] emotional needs has not been addressed in an appropriate way during her short life’. This care plan was signed by M.
  5. At the Looked After Review (LAC Review) on 6 January 2012, it records K needing a referral for therapy/counselling and a referral had been made to the Lenworth Clinic (next meeting 25 January). The care plan is recorded as being ‘Eventual return to birth family’. And under the ‘Assessment’ sub heading, it states a core assessment ‘to be updated’. Under ‘Emotional and Behavioural Development’ it states K is ‘known to CAMHS and plan is that once [K] is settled fully they will start working with her’. These LAC Review minutes are signed by M.
  6. On 11 January 2012 the family met at the FGC, and all agreed that it would be better for K to stay in foster care as none of the family were able to have K live with them. M signed this document, signifying her agreement to this plan.
  7. At the next LAC Review on 27 March 2012 there is a record of a meeting at the Lenworth Clinic on 25 January 2012, an acknowledgement that K needs a referral for therapy/counselling. It records the referral to the Lenworth Clinic and notes ‘no work will be undertaken with her until current foster placement would be confirmed for long term’. The acute difficulties between K and her M at contact are noted. Importantly, this record notes the change in care plan for K to long term foster placement with foster carers, but acknowledges K has not been informed. It records the core assessment has been completed (although no updated core assessment has been produced) and notes it recommends that it would be ‘advisable to convene a legal planning meeting for the [LA] to seek advice regarding [K’s] care status and issue of parental responsibility’. This advice is repeated in the care planning section, where it records ‘legal advice needs to be sought re long-term fostering as permanency for [K] and Parental Responsibility issue’. This topic is recorded in the decisions and recommendations section as ‘Legal advice to be sought re Parental Responsibility Issue By whom – Social Worker and her manager Timescales – 27/04/12′. This document is not signed by M.

 

 

Quick break in the background – the chronology there shows that by April 2012, there had been a decision that there needed to be a legal planning meeting to discuss the child’s legal status and plans for the future. In the next section we learn that some form of meeting with legal happened in June 2012.  We know that care proceedings were not issued until November 2015. Let’s continue.

  1. The advice from CAMHS of K being unable to benefit from individual therapy until she is ‘firmly ensconced within a family unit’ is confirmed in a letter copied to the LA from the Lenworth Clinic. The LA urge CAMHS to reconsider their position in a letter dated 2 May, stating that K is ‘settled down and doing exceptionally well in the foster placement’. In June CAMHS respond to say they have sent the foster carers a questionnaire and when it is returned the referral will be discussed further.
  2. K’s placement broke down on 5 July, in circumstances where her behaviour was so difficult the police had to be called.
  3. At the next LAC Review on 12 September 2012 there is reference in the record of the meeting to a legal planning meeting on 25 June 2012, but no other detail about this meeting has been disclosed. As regards the CAMHS referral it notes K has moved placements and another questionnaire will be sent to her new foster carer. The record repeats that K needs a referral for therapy/counselling and notes the concerns regarding K’s emotional well-being caused by her wish to live with her mother, why her sister lives with her mother and she can’t, and her mother’s inconsistent behaviour at contact. It continues ‘[K] has been emotionally and psychologically affected by her experiences. She does require psychological support as soon as possible…It is hoped that once this [questionnaire] has been received by CAMHS appointments will be set up’. Under the section entitled ‘Legal’ it states ‘A legal planning meeting needs to be pursued with regard to care proceedings’. There is reference to the core assessment and care plan to be updated. Under ‘Decisions and Recommendations’ is recorded ‘Care proceedings to be pursued in order to give this child some stability and long-term placement. The referral to CAMHS to be pursued and the questionnaire to be completed by the previous and present foster carer.’ M did not sign this record.
  4. On 27 September the LA were informed by the Lenworth Clinic that as K was no longer placed in their catchment area they were referred to the CAMHS resource in the area of the new foster placement.
  5. The next LAC Review was on 5 December 2012. There is a repeated reference to a legal planning meeting on 25 June 2012. As regards the CAMHS referral there is reference to Ms A (the LAC Mental Health Specialist in CAMHS) requesting a meeting with the foster carer, which was still outstanding. The record notes ongoing concerns about K’s emotional well being, that she struggles in her relationship with M and M being unable to empathise with K and what she is going through. K has been ’emotionally and psychologically affected by her experiences’ and requires psychological support as soon as possible. The record of the meeting refers to the care plan, stating that the case is twin tracked ‘but the mother is clear that she could not care for her daughter and will therefore not consider rehabilitation home. Given the situation, the local authority needs to pursue long-term plans for [K]‘. M does not sign these minutes.
  6. In April 2013 there is a letter from Ms A to the LA setting out the CAMHS meeting with the foster carer and the social workers. It is accepted by Ms King, for the LA, that K was not present.
  7. The LAC Review meeting on 16 May 2013 refers to the CAMHS meetings being with the foster carer, but then records K ‘has been emotionally and psychologically affected by her experiences. She is currently receiving psychological support via [Ms A] at CAMHS’, later on referring to Ms A as now ‘working with [foster carer] and [K] to advise on strategies to manage behaviours and support the placement’. The CAMHS referral has been noted to have been ‘actioned’. M does not sign the minutes, but is recorded as having been seen on 21 March.
  8. On 16 July 2013 there was an emergency breakdown of the foster placement, there was an alleged assault by K on the foster carer requiring a late night home visit by the LA.
  9. The LAC Review meeting on 5 September 2013 refers to K attending the meeting. The record notes there had been no updated core assessment, no life story or direct work done with K and that this had left her ‘confused and unclear why she could not remain in the care of her mother. This is further exacerbated by a younger half-sibling remaining in the care of [M].’ It continues ‘LA do not hold PR for [K] and no other family members have been identified. The LA needs to give further consideration to this given [K’s] young age and potential difficulties in the future if they do not hold PR…The LA have not been able to safeguard [K’s] emotional well being given the breakdown in placements and the fact that Permanency has not yet been achieved for her…She [K] has previously had intervention and support from CAMHS – it was unclear as to whether this is being offered at present….Legal: Section 20. LA will need to give this further consideration in view of securing stability and security for [K]’.
  10. In January 2014 there is a signed letter from M confirming her consent for the foster carer to sign for day trips abroad and emergency medical treatment. This is followed in February 2014 with a health consent form signed by M.
  11. There is a report from an educational psychologist, following a consultation with K on 6 November 2013 regarding her behaviour at school which is reported to have improved.
  12. Undated LAC Review minutes indicate a meeting took place in January 2014. There is reference to Ms A working with K in January 2013, which it is accepted is incorrect as no direct work was done with K. The minutes refer to Life Story work being started, but not completed. There is no entry in the box regarding consideration of any new legal orders. Under the section entitled ‘Is this the preferred placement option for this child/young person?’ it says ‘No’, when asked why, it states ‘It is preferred that [K] return to a Local Authority Foster Placement’, when asked about alternative plans it states ‘An assessment is being undertaken to fully identify [K’s] needs’.
  13. In May 2014 there is a letter from SM (Senior Systemic Psychotherapist CAMHS) to the social worker confirming the four professional meetings and their conclusion that ‘the uncertainty about her future is affecting [K’s] emotional well-being and since [the foster carer] is similarly unable to provide reassurance to [K] this is having an impact upon [K’s] attachment to the [foster carer] and the [foster carer’s] attachment to [K]. [the foster carer] must, by virtue of not knowing, withhold some aspects of ”normal’ family life as such as planning for the future. It could be that this is, in part, why [K] believes she may still return home, and why she has seemed confused in her thinking. Other issues notwithstanding, it would seem that [K] is positioned between two families and needs to know who she is going to live with long term. It must be borne in mind that multiple moves (such as have occurred for [K]) can only increase her sense of loss and reduce her hope that there is someone and somewhere she can feel safe and secure. It is not surprising that she displays very challenging behaviours, she must feel enraged and despairing.’
  14. At around this time M writes a letter to K, to explain why she can no longer care for her.
  15. In the LAC Review minutes for 18 June 2014 K is noted as attending. They note that the LA have not pursued to change the legal status for K as work was being undertaken with M and she is supporting the care plan. It notes that the social worker has ‘undertaken and completed much overdue life story work’ which M has supported so K has a clear message she is not returning home. Under ‘Legal’ the minutes record ‘[K] remains accommodated under s 20. Whilst Mum continues to give consent and work with the LA in care planning for [K] there are no indications to change this.’ In July 2014 M gave her consent for K to go on holiday with the foster carer. In another record of this meeting it notes ‘[K’s] emotional and physical behaviour continues to be of concern within the placement and this is felt to be due to the level of uncertainty she still has in regards to her placement due to being told she may be moving placements/is staying and the confusion this has caused her….a plan of permanency has not been agreed for the IFA placement due to Kent’s current policy on IFA placements..’.
  16. In September 2014 the foster placement broke down due to K’s disruptive behaviour and in October she moved to her fourth placement.
  17. At the LAC Review on 20 November 2014, which K attended, the minutes confirm that individual support from CAMHS has yet to be offered. As regards the care plan meeting the need for permanency it records ‘Yes – if stability of Placement is achieved. Consideration also needs to be given to [K’s] Legal Status which is s20 and has been since December 2011’. A little further on under ‘Legal’ it records ‘IRO has asked that LA give consideration as to how her Legal Status could be more secured.’ Under ‘Decisions and Recommendations’ the minutes note that the social worker is to request senior managers to write to CAMHS to secure appropriate level of service including a definite date for State of Mind Assessment. Also the social worker is to raise with managers K’s legal status and advise IRO of outcome. One record of this meeting refers to concerns about the increased use of restraint and sedatives in her previous foster placement, with no further reference to how this was dealt with or whether M was informed.
  18. A file note dated 7 December records discussions with the out of hours social worker. K had told the foster carer that ‘she could go back to her mum any time’. The record ends with the following ‘K needs to be spoken to urgently by her social worker tomorrow as she needs to feel validated and listened to and clearly needs an explanation about her current status in care and why she is not in her mother’s care. It seems she has some unrealistic expectations about return to her mother’.
  19. On 5 January 2015 there is an out of hours file note with the foster carer seeking to end the placement due to K’s behaviour. K moves to her fifth placement on 16 January.
  20. A file record on 18 March 2015 notes that CAMHS have not yet made any contact with the foster carer, although the school have made contact for K with another project.
  21. In around June 2015 the LA make a referral to Great Ormond Street CAMHS where they note K has ‘been passed around services for the last 18 months with no real support or assessment in place. The [LA] feel this in unacceptable for K and she needs a professional team to take responsibility for completing an assessment and putting a plan in place to address her needs’. The referral records it has the support of the service manager, Ms Ransley.
  22. K’s behaviour deteriorates again and the police are called. She moved to her sixth placement on 10 June 2015 for one night, before being placed with Mr and Mrs M her current carers on 11 June 2015. They are her seventh foster carer in four and a half years.
  23. The LAC Review minutes for the meeting on 7 July 2015 record the attendance of Ms Ransley and K and M’s apologies. The referral to GOSH is noted. Under ‘Legal’ it records ‘[K] remains accommodated under s20. Discussions have been ongoing outside of the CIC Reviews with LA regarding this. NB Subsequent to this Review Service manager advised via email that Care Proceedings will be filed in first week of September’.
  24. A psychological report dated 6 August 2015 details the number of moves K has had and recommends a referral to GOSH, which had already taken place.

 

 

This is very tricky. On the one hand, this child was clearly uncertain about her future and getting very mixed up by it. On the other hand, the Local Authority had a mother who was genuinely consenting to the child being in foster care and accepting that she was not able to care for her. There’s at least an argument that in keeping this outside of care proceedings, although the length of s20 was unusual, the LA were observing the least interventionist approach which is the spirit of the Children Act 1989. Bear in mind that the Court can only make an order if it is better for the child than not making one, and here we had a mother who was working with the Local Authority and in agreement with the foster placement and accepting that she could not resume care of K.  I can understand the LA doubt about whether an application for a Care Order could have resulted in a Care Order being made, given that mum was working with the LA and giving valid s20 consent.   It is the unusual position of it really being the child who was unhappy with the s20 rather than the parent.

 

It was the Guardian, on behalf of K, making the Human Rights Act claim. Here are the Guardian’s arguments as to why there was a breach of K’s human rights.

  1. On behalf of K it is submitted that when K was received into care in 2011, at the behest of the LA, they were already aware from their own core assessment in April 2011 of her considerable difficulties in her relationship with her mother, and that she may need some intervention from the primary mental health team. Despite this knowledge in their own assessment the LA failed to;
    1. (i) Update her core assessment for over 2 years, despite repeated recommendations at LAC Reviews to do so.

(ii) Seek a psychological assessment of K’s family. The LA had recommended this should be done at a meeting in January 2005.

(iii) Seek a psychiatric or psychological assessment of K until 2015, despite that being recommended in LAC review meetings from March 2012. It is acknowledged she did see an educational psychologists in November 2013, but this concerned her behaviour at school. Some of the LAC reviews appeared to proceed on the basis that she was seeing someone from CAMHS, but the report dated 6 August 2015 from the trainee psychologist VT makes it clear she had not met K.

(iv) Life story work, although repeatedly recommended in LAC reviews did not start until over 2 years after she was received into care.

  1. In her statement the Guardian deals with the lack of assessment in the following way; ‘If such an assessment was sought many years ago work could have been done on the mother/child relationship which may have prevented the need for [K’s] permanent accommodation. In any event work could have been carried out on attachment and behavioural issues and therapeutic intervention could have assisted [K’s] development which suffered by this not happening…This is an assessment that the LA could have commissioned itself, if CAMHS would not agree to undertake it’. Mr Hall rejects any suggestion in the LA evidence that they recognise, with the benefit of hindsight, they may have acted differently. He submits the need for assessment was obvious from the time K was placed with foster carers in 2011. K’s attachment difficulties with her mother needed urgent assessment, and then effective support put in place. That was repeatedly recommended, but not done.
  2. Turning to his second heading, Mr Hall recognises that it is inter-linked with the failure to assess. In the record of the LAC review meeting on 5 September 2013 the LA candidly recognise they have ‘..not been able to safeguard [K’s] emotional wellbeing given the breakdown of placements and fact that permanency has not been achieved for her.’
  3. There have been 7 placement breakdowns, often at short notice and in upsetting and distressing circumstances for K. The records have many references to the extent the placement breakdowns have caused K emotional harm. In their referral for a psychological report in 2014, some three years after K has been in the LA’s care, the reason for a different picture at school emerged. As the record of the meeting notes ‘…[K] has learnt to cope by withdrawing emotionally and functioning independently whilst maintaining control over her environment. This works well at school and when she first enters into a new placement. However, this coping strategy breaks down at home as she starts to settle and get close to the foster carer…’ To illustrate this Mr Hall relies on the report to the LA review in January 2014 concerning K’s third foster placement with Mr and Mrs T. The social work report for the review notes that K was happy and beginning to form an attachment to the foster carer, but as it was an agency placement the LA, as a matter of policy, were unable to sanction this placement as a long term placement. The report notes that this lack of certainty in the placement was impacting on K’s emotional well-being. This view was endorsed in a letter dated 15 May 2014 from CAMHS and it went further in stating ‘It must be borne in mind that multiple moves (such as have occurred for [K]) can only increase her sense of loss and reduce her hope that there is someone and somewhere she can feel safe and secure. It is not surprising she displays very challenging behaviours, she must feel enraged and despairing.’
  4. Between December 2011 and February 2016 Mr Hall submits the LA have not ensured K has received appropriate therapy; had they done so the Guardian considers K’s family life is likely to have been very different. At the LAC review on 4 February 2015 it was recorded ‘…It is imperative that therapeutic support is offered to [K] to enable her to become more stabilised to reduce the risk of further placement breakdowns’.
  5. Under the third heading, the failure of the LA to issue court proceedings, Mr Hall also recognises is linked to the first two. He submits on the LA’s own records K suffered from instability from spending so long in foster care, with only her mother having parental responsibility and no clear direction. K’s current social worker Ms A sets out in her statement in support of these proceedings ‘It is envisaged that a care order will also support [K] in terms of feelings of security and stability, as she has historically struggled to understand the decisions made by her mother, and therefore she will know that there will be a level of oversight to her care planning’.
  6. Mr Hall submits if proceedings had been issued there is every likelihood they would have made a difference. The repeated failures by the LA to follow through their own decisions would have been subject to effective scrutiny, by the guardian, her legal representative and the court. The issue was repeatedly flagged up by the LA from March 2012, but not followed through. Had K been represented in court proceedings, there would have been proper oversight, the plans would not have been allowed to drift and assessments would have been undertaken when required. Whilst K’s mother did not raise any complaints at the time about how K was cared for by the LA, she had not been able to provide consistent and predictable care for K before 2011, K’s mother had her own mental health difficulties, she was inconsistent in her attendance at LAC reviews and her contact was gradually reduced to the extent she was only seeing K once during each school holiday. Mr Hall submits it is difficult to see how she could be regarded as someone who was proactively exercising her parental responsibility in relation to K.
  7. As regards any suggestion by the LA that s 20 is not time limited and/or is not always a prelude to care proceedings Mr Hall submits the LA’s own records point in the other direction. In particular,
    1. (i) On 12 September 2012 the LAC review records that a legal planning meeting needs to be pursued with regard to care proceedings noting ‘care proceedings to be pursued in order to give this child some stability’ and long-term placement’.

(ii) On 16 May 2013 the LAC review records that the LA are to review current legal status within next 3 working weeks and advise IRO of outcome.

(iii) 5 months later on 5th September 2013 the records note the LA does not hold PR for K and ‘the LA needs to give further consideration to this given [K’s] young age and potential difficulties in the future if they do not have PR…the LA have not been able to safeguard [K’s] emotional wellbeing given the breakdown of the placements and the fact that permanency has not been achieved for her’.

(iv) 14 months later on 20 November 2014 the LAC review notes ‘IRO has asked that LA give consideration as to how her legal status could be more secured…Sally to raise with managers [K’s] legal status and advise IRO of outcome’.

(v) 4 months later on 4 February 2015 the LAC review records similar concerns being expressed by the IRO as to K’s legal status.

  1. The LA issued care proceedings on 16 November 2015. Mr Hall submits the fact that care proceedings were finally issued conclusively responds to any suggestion by the LA as to their necessity. Otherwise, he asks rhetorically, why did they issue them? He submits that the failure to issue the proceedings soon after K was placed in care has denied K the opportunity to be properly assessed and access appropriate support at a much earlier stage as, he submits, it would be inconceivable that a court would have permitted care plans to be made without a proper assessment of K’s needs. As a result K has lost the opportunity to have the input of a Guardian, a legal representative and planning for her care to be properly and robustly based on sound assessment.
  2. Mr Hall submits the detrimental effect on K of the LA’s failure to secure emotional, practical and legal stability for her is clear from the LA records and the Guardian’s evidence.

 

The point here on the delay in issuing care proceedings that it is not merely the making of a Care Order that is achieved within care proceedings – having judicial and Guardian scrutiny of the care PLANS is a vital part of the process and if this had happened, K would have had a better care plan much sooner and suffered less disruption and harm in care.  The journey through care proceedings, says the Guardian, is just as significant as the ultimate destination.

 

What did the LA say?

 

  1. Ms King on behalf of the LA does not dispute the LA records. She submits there is no issue about the validity of the consent given by K’s mother, either at the start or during K’s placement with foster carers. She submits neither statute nor any guidance stipulate s 20 is a short term measure only. In this case, unlike the reported cases, there was not any dispute about the LA’s care plan for K. So, she submits, the starting point is very different and distinguishes this case on the facts.
  2. Ms King submits the documents show there was considerable involvement by K’s mother, such as the number of written consents provided by her for the foster carers to sign forms for her, the letter she wrote to K about why she was placed with foster carers. The submission on behalf of K that they should have issued care proceedings earlier does not amount to a breach of her article 6 and 8 rights.
  3. She submits there is no evidence of a failure to plan for permanency in that the LA investigated the options with the family first, when this was not possible their plan for K was to be placed with long term foster carers. They acknowledge the high number of placements, but state being within care proceedings was unlikely to have made any difference to the efforts made by the LA to secure a permanent placement. Ms Ransley, the service manager for the area at the relevant time, states ‘Providing children with stability within foster care is often a challenge (this is irrespective of their legal status) and this sadly was the theme for [K]. [K] experienced numerous foster care breakdowns within both the in house provision and the commissioned private foster care sector, which is regrettable but not unusual within a care system which operates a 30 per cent disruption rate. Finding the right match where it clicks, can often evade even the most meticulous professional.’ Ms King submits no link has been established that the situation would have been any different if care proceedings had been issued earlier than they were.
  4. Ms King refutes the submission that the LA failed to assess and/or provide therapeutic support for K. She submits the papers demonstrate the appropriate referrals were made to CAMHS but CAMHS concluded they should provide a service to the carers, not directly with K until she was settled in her placement. Whilst Ms Ransley in her statement acknowledges the LA’s frustration with the position taken by CAMHS that is the service provided to meet the mental health needs for children by the NHS, which is what the LA commissions for children in their care. Ms King relies on the fact that the Guardian has not sought an independent assessment within these proceedings.
  5. Ms King submits the submission on behalf of K that as a result of the LA breaches K’s welfare has been harmed, is speculative. Given the harm K suffered prior to coming into care and the extent to which that has been the root cause of her placement breakdowns and the uncertainty over CAMHS support due to placement uncertainty, such harm as might be found proved cannot be attributed directly to the failings of the LA to the extent of a breach of K’s article 6 and 8 rights.
  6. Finally, Ms King submits K’s mother has exercised her PR in a way regarding K’s accommodation that was and is consistent with her welfare. There were no alternative carers for her and K had an IRO. Ms King states in her written skeleton argument ‘Whilst the LA accept that it is better for [K] that a care order is made so that her position as a child in care is formalised by way of an order which signals permanency and confers PR onto the LA, none of those advantages mean the LA has acted unlawfully and/or breached [K’s] Article 6 rights. Her mother exercised her PR in a free and informed manner. Her mother decided that [K] was best looked after by the LA. She was entitled to take that decision and the LA was entitled to act on it’.

 

I think that those are good points – somewhat weakened by the number of placements and the child being at times sedated in care, which is a very unusual set of circumstances, but on the whole, the Local Authority had a decision to make as to whether care proceedings would achieve something for the child that could not be achieved without it.  I have certainly had cases (with the child not having such a bumpy ride in care) where with an adolescent in a settled foster placement I have advised against care proceedings where the parents are giving long-term and capacitous section 20 consent with no prevarication.  For a significant part of that four year period,

We know from the headline though that the LA lost here, so let us cut to the chase.

 

Discussion and decision

  1. There is some force in the submission made by Ms King that the facts in this case are different than those in many of the reported cases concerning the misuse of s20. A common feature of those cases was an issue over the parent’s consent to their child being accommodated and the lack of agreement with the care plan; neither of those matters featured in this case.
  2. Ms King builds on that position as, whilst acknowledging what the President said in Re N (ibid) about s 20 having a role as a short term measure, she seeks to rely on the fact that there is nothing specific in the section, or guidance, to found that view.
  3. The difficulty with Ms King’s position is that the documents produced by the LA paint a picture of
    1. (i) A mother who has to a large extent abdicated her parental responsibility to the LA. Whilst she has some involvement in the decision making after K is placed with foster carers, the fact that she doesn’t seek to challenge the LA inactions in the context of what is taking place demonstrates her inability to exercise her parental responsibility proactively for the benefit of K.

(ii) The LA on the documents decided repeatedly there should be a further/updated core assessment, mental health assessment/therapeutic support and legal advice about K’s status; but the same documents demonstrate repeated failures to follow through these decisions.

(iii) Repeated and worsening placement breakdowns, which were deeply damaging to K’s emotional well-being.

  1. Whilst there is no time limit on providing s 20 accommodation in the statute, each case has to be considered on its own facts, with active consideration being given as to whether proceedings should be issued. In this case care proceedings would have helped significantly to provide the stability and security that K so clearly needed. K would have had the benefit of a guardian and legal representative to give her an effective voice regarding the LA failures and enabled the LA to share PR with M. As the LA accepted in the middle of 2015 K had been ‘passed around services for the last 18 months with no real support or assessment in place’. This is hardly a ringing endorsement by the LA of their own care planning for K.
  2. A common thread in the records is the harm being caused to K by the lack of security and stability any of her placements (other than the current one) were able to offer her. The evidence demonstrates K was acutely aware that her mother could remove her at any time.
  3. I am satisfied that the LA have acted unlawfully, in my judgment their actions have been incompatible with K’s article 8 and 6 rights. I have reached that conclusion for the following reasons:
  1. (1) The failure by the LA over a period of over three years to conduct or update the core assessment done in April 2011 meant the LA had not properly assessed K’s needs during the period she was placed with them from December 2011 to November 2015 to provide a secure foundation for care planning for her, in order to protect her article 8 right to family life. The care plan for long term fostering lacked any detailed foundation that such an assessment would have given it.

(2) The LA’s failure to secure appropriate mental health assessments and/or therapeutic support meant her continued placement breakdowns over that period were unsupported. Reliance on inconsistent CAMHS referrals together with the repeated misunderstanding of what CAMHS support was being provided permeated the decision making and the delay in seeking an assessment until 2015, when a referral was made to GOSH. This all contributed to the increased risk of repeated placement breakdown.

(3) The suggestion that the LA were not able to commission independent private providers on an ad hoc basis does not stand up to scrutiny. In her statement Ms Ransley states ‘Commissioning independent, private providers on an ad hoc basis does not happen. Local Authorities only generally fund these types of arrangements within care proceedings’. Yet this is what the LA did when they made a referral to GOSH in July 2015, prior to issuing proceedings. No explanation is given as to why this could not have been done earlier, other than an acknowledgement in Ms Ransley’s statement that ‘this should have happened sooner with hindsight.’

(4) The repeated failure by the LA to act on its own decisions for over three years to seek legal advice to secure K’s legal position, including consideration of the issue of proceedings and the advantages that would bring for K, together with the LA having PR through a care order. On their own admission in the evidence the LA filed in 2015 in support of the care proceedings, a care order would provide the stability that K clearly required. The delay of over three years in doing so is not justified in any way. That delay meant K was denied access to an independent guardian and her own legal representation, in circumstances where the LA were not implementing their own decisions about her and the only person with PR was not exercising it in a proactive way. K’s article 6 and 8 rights were compromised by this significant delay.

(5) Whilst K’s mother was entitled to exercise her PR for K in the way she did, that does not absolve the LA from actively considering whether it should secure its legal position in relation to the child concerned. Here K’s mother was, at most, after November 2011 reactive rather than proactive in exercising her PR. She responded to requests from the LA and attended some, but not all, meetings. Probably due to her own vulnerabilities she was not in a position to challenge the actions, or inaction, by the LA in relation to K.

(6) Reliance by the LA on the unlimited term of s 20 simply cannot be justified in a factual vacuum. The circumstances in this case demanded for K’s article 8 and 6 rights to be protected, for the LA to secure their legal position regarding K. The LA’s own records repeatedly make decisions of the need to get such advice, those decisions were repeatedly not acted on and when they were care proceedings were issued, nearly three and a half years after they should have been. It is unattractive for the LA to now submit that there was no obligation on them to issue such proceedings. The President’s words in Re N (ibid) could not be clearer.

(7) I am satisfied that if proceedings had been issued earlier the assessments that the LA failed to do are more likely to have been ordered by the court. Reliance by the LA on the fact that within these proceedings the Guardian has not sought any further assessment is a realistic recognition by her of the current position, that with a settled placement and a report from GOSH further assessment is not justified. That does not absolve the LA from responsibility of its failure to issue proceedings earlier, as it should have done, over three years ago.

(8) I agree that in considering this application the court should guard against making decisions with the benefit of hindsight. In her statement Ms Ransley observes ‘With the benefit of hindsight criticism can be formulated. Is the service and support provided to [K] optimal, [K] has been given what all children in care are, but for [K] like 30 percent of young people, her experience has been sub-optimal due to issues inherent in the care system. These issues are experienced by children subject to an order and those who are not.’ What this does not acknowledge are the facts of this case; the unacceptable delay in issuing proceedings, the consequent uncertainty which increased the risk of placement breakdown and the failure to properly assess and support K.

 

The Judge assessed the appropriate level of damages for K as being £17,500.

 

Statutory charge

 

The statutory charge is not very exciting, but I need to talk about it here, because it is important. The statutory charge is the term given where as a result of  free legal representation, someone obtains money through a Court order, and has to use that money to repay the cost of their legal aid. It usually occurs in divorce, and makes a lot of sense. If someone racks up a legal aid bill of £20,000 and as a result of their divorce gets £250,000 it makes perfect sense that the legal aid should be repaid out of that money, rather than the taxpayer footing the bill.

Up until fairly recently, this didn’t affect people in care proceedings. Legal aid for care proceedings is non-means non-merit  (which means that even a millionaire would be entitled to free legal advice and representation) and parents didn’t get any money back at the end.  But now that Human Rights compensation for bad behaviour by a Local Authority is a thing, the change to the Statutory Charge which means that it applies to such compensation is a big deal.

£17,500 of compensation for K is a decent amount of money, and intended to be compensation for what she has gone through in her life as a result of the human rights breaches the Court has found. But before she gets any of that money, she has to pay back the legal aid agency for the cost of her care proceedings AND the cost of her human rights claim.  That’s probably going to leave her with nothing.

Many of us were hoping that you could box off the human rights claim separately, which would be much less, and possibly an amount of money that the Court might order the Local Authority to pay. A human rights claim probably costs about £2,000, compared to the £10-20,000 of care proceedings  (remember that the legal aid bill covers barrister’s fees and expert fees too).

So, here are the options that the Court has :-

  1. Make no orders about costs, and know that almost the entire compensation package goes to the legal aid agency rather than the child or the parents.  Michael Gove is the person who benefits, not the person who actually suffered the human rights breaches.
  2. Make an order that the Local Authority pay the costs of the care proceedings AND the human rights claim. That means that the LA are paying out double the amount of compensation. It also makes it difficult to fit with the Supreme Court’s decision on costs in care proceedings, which are that there shouldn’t be costs orders unless the LA’s conduct WITHIN the proceedings has been egregiously bad. The conduct here is BEFORE the care proceedings, so there’s a strong chance that the LA would appeal. That racks up the costs even more, potentially swallowing up ALL the compensation, since really only the Supreme Court can decide how this affects their previous decisions.
  3. Make an order that the LA pay the costs of the human rights act claim. That’s a well-founded costs order and doesn’t cause legal problems. However, it is a small amount compared to the costs of the care proceedings, and may still end up with the child getting only a small amount of compensation.

 

 

The Judge in this case took the third option.

Costs

  1. Mr Hall seeks an order for the LA to pay the costs of the proceedings. He submits the HRA claim has succeeded, the court should be mindful of the impact of the statutory charge and in the circumstances of the case the court should make an order for the LA to pay the cost of the proceedings.
  2. Ms King resists this application. She submits the court should not depart from the general position in family cases that costs are not usually awarded in family proceedings (see Re S (A Child) [2015] UKSC 20 paras 15 and 29). She submits the LA have not taken an unreasonable stance. In any event, the LA should not be responsible for the cost of the proceedings, merely as a device to avoid the full impact of the statutory charge. She submits there are discrete costs concerning the HRA application.
  3. I recognise the financial pressures on the LA and that it is unusual for the court to make a costs order in care proceedings. Against that I have determined that the HRA claim succeeds, I rejected the submissions of the LA and made an award of damages. In the circumstances of this case, where the breaches continued for such a long period of time, I have reached the conclusion the LA should pay K’s costs of the HRA application only, but which will include the full costs of the hearing on 29 March 2016, as the only reason that hearing could not proceed was due to the late disclosure by the LA on that day of relevant documents. I will make no order for costs as between M and the LA.

 

 

 

I do have a fourth solution, but it is hard to use when a human rights act claim has already actually been made. Effectively, if a lawyer believes that the client has had their human rights breached and that compensation might be payable, they open up a brand new pro bono file. This is kept ENTIRELY separate from the care proceedings. Ideally another lawyer deals with the case so there’s no overlap at all.  Not a penny of publicly funded/legal aid money is spent on that file, so any compensation achieved is nothing to do with legal aid at all. The money would only go to legal aid if the care proceedings ended with a “Lottery order” about costs (that’s an order that says in effect, K had free legal aid and would only have to pay for it if she came into a huge sum of money, say a lottery win. These are NEVER made in care proceedings, because legal aid for them is non-means, non-merit – even a millionaire qualifies)

Ideally, under this pro bono file, the lawyer writes to the LA a pre-action protocol letter setting out the alleged breach and giving a figure that their client would be prepared to settle for. If the case settles, the costs are minimal and could be bundled into the settlement. The client gets the money, the lawyer gets paid for the work they’ve done, the LA don’t incur a costs order of tens of thousands.  If the case doesn’t settle, the lawyer has to decide whether to run it as effectively no-win no-fee, or to make an application for public funding knowing that the stat charge will bite on their client.

None of this should be necessary BECAUSE the Statutory Charge just plain and simple should not apply to human rights compensation cases, and particularly not to ones that arose out of care proceedings. Making someone pay out of their compensation for care proceedings that a millionaire would have got for free, and they only have to pay a penny BECAUSE their human rights were breached is just plain unfair and wrong. I don’t see that changing until the Press get outraged about the unfairness of it  or Michael Gove gets JR-ed on it.  Or perhaps a LA appeals a costs order for the entireity of the costs and the Minister gets added as an intervenor on the appeal.

 

 

*Addendum, solution number 5.

 

Judge smiles very clearly and obviously at counsel who had been making the HRA claim and invites them to withdraw it. If so, delivers judgment and says within it that IF had been asked would have found breaches and IF asked about quantum, would have said £x. Pauses after judgment, gives parties a small adjournment for discussions to see if any applications need to be made arising from the judgment, or whether for example an offer might be made an accepted. If Judge told that nothing arising, simply makes no order for costs. Stat charge doesn’t bite because no order for compensation made, and any compensation was achieved in that short adjournment for which nobody charges the Legal Aid Agency a penny for their time. If Judge is told that an application to revive the HR claim is made, then so be it, the LA will likely feel the full force of a costs order because they were too dumb to take a hint.

Court of Appeal – section 20 abuse

 

There have been several reported cases about Local Authorities misusing section 20 now, to obtain “voluntary accommodation” of children in foster care where the ‘voluntary’ element doesn’t seem all that voluntary, and therefore it was only a matter of time before the Court of Appeal fell upon such a case and made an example of it.

 

Here it is:-

 

Re N (Children: Adoption : Jurisdiction) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/1112.html

 

As you can see from the title, it is also a case about adoption and the jurisdiction to make adoption orders about children who are born to foreign parents or who live overseas by the time the order is made.  I would really want more time to ponder those parts of the judgment before writing it up.

 

This particular sentence from Aitkens LJ is probably worthy of a piece on its own – raising the issue of ‘limping adoption orders’

 

There is one further comment I wish to make. Both the President and Black LJ have emphasised that when an English court is considering making a placement order or adoption order in respect of a foreign national child, it must consider, as part of the “welfare” exercise under section 1(4) of the 2002 Act, the possibility of the result being a “limping” adoption order. By that they mean an adoption order which, although fully effective in this country, might be ineffective in other countries that the child and his adopters may wish or need to visit. There is a danger that natural parent(s) (or perhaps other parties) who oppose the adoption, will attempt to turn this factor into a major forensic battle by engaging foreign lawyers to give opinions on the effectiveness (or lack of it) of an English adoption order in other countries, in particular the state of the nationality of the natural parent(s). Those legal opinions might then be challenged and there is the danger of that issue becoming expensive and time consuming “satellite litigation”. I hope that this can be avoided by a robust application of the Family Procedure Rules relating to expert opinions.

 

So, focussing just on the section 20 issues  (If you want the background to what section 20 is, what drift is and why it is a problem, I’ll point you towards my most recent piece on it  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/10/21/fast-and-the-furious-tunbridge-wells-drift/)

 

This is what the Court of Appeal had to say  (and this is one of those judgments that the President has cascaded down – which is a posh way of saying “sent by email to all Courts saying that they must read it and follow it”)

 

  1. Other matters: section 20 of the 1989 Act
  2. The first relates to the use by the local authority – in my judgment the misuse by the local authority – of the procedure under section 20 of the 1989 Act. As we have seen, the children were placed in accordance with section 20 in May 2013, yet it was not until January 2014, over eight months later, that the local authority eventually issued care proceedings. Section 20 may, in an appropriate case, have a proper role to play as a short-term measure pending the commencement of care proceedings, but the use of section 20 as a prelude to care proceedings for a period as long as here is wholly unacceptable. It is, in my judgment, and I use the phrase advisedly and deliberately, a misuse by the local authority of its statutory powers.
  3. As I said in Re A (A Child), Darlington Borough Council v M [2015] EWFC 11, para 100:

    “There is, I fear, far too much misuse and abuse of section 20 and this can no longer be tolerated.”

    I drew attention there, and I draw attention again, to the extremely critical comments of the Court of Appeal in Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065, as also to the decision of Keehan J in Northamptonshire County Council v AS and Ors [2015] EWHC 199 (Fam). As Keehan J pointed out in the latter case (para 37), the accommodation of a child under a section 20 agreement deprives the child of the benefit of having an independent children’s guardian to represent and safeguard his interests and deprives the court of the ability to control the planning for the child and prevent or reduce unnecessary and avoidable delay. In that case the local authority ended up having to pay substantial damages.

  4. Then there was the decision of Cobb J in Newcastle City Council v WM and ors [2015] EWFC 42. He described the local authority (paras 46, 49) as having acted unlawfully and in dereliction of its duty. We had occasion to return to the problem very recently in Re CB (A Child) [2015] EWCA Civ 888, para 86, a case involving the London Borough of Merton. Even more recent is the searing judgment of Sir Robert Francis QC, sitting as a Deputy High Court Judge in the Queen’s Bench Division in Williams and anor v London Borough of Hackney [2015] EWHC 2629 (QB), another case in which the local authority had to pay damages.
  5. Moreover, there has in recent months been a litany of judgments in which experienced judges of the Family Court have had occasion to condemn local authorities, often in necessarily strong, on occasions withering, language, for misuse, and in some cases plain abuse, of section 20: see, for example, Re P (A Child: Use of S.20 CA 1989) [2014] EWFC 775, a case involving the London Borough of Redbridge, Re N (Children) [2015] EWFC 37, a case involving South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council, Medway Council v A and ors (Learning Disability: Foster Placement) [2015] EWFC B66, Gloucestershire County Council v M and C [2015] EWFC B147, Gloucestershire County Council v S [2015] EWFC B149, Re AS (Unlawful Removal of a Child) [2015] EWFC B150, a case where damages were awarded against the London Borough of Brent, and Medway Council v M and T (By Her Children’s Guardian) [2015] EWFC B164, another case where substantial damages were awarded against a local authority. I need not yet further lengthen this judgment with an analysis of this melancholy litany but, if I may say so, Directors of Social Services and Local Authority Heads of Legal Services might be well advised to study all these cases, and all the other cases I have mentioned on the point, with a view to considering whether their authority’s current practices and procedures are satisfactory.
  6. The misuse of section 20 in a case, like this, with an international element, is particularly serious. I have already drawn attention (paragraphs 50-51 above) to the consequences of the delay in this case. In Leicester City Council v S & Ors [2014] EWHC 1575 (Fam), a Hungarian child born in this country on 26 March 2013 was accommodated by the local authority under section 20 on 12 April 2013 but the care proceedings were not commenced until 10 October 2013. Moylan J was extremely critical of the local authority. I have already set out (paragraph 115 above) his observations on the wider picture.
  7. What the recent case-law illustrates to an alarming degree are four separate problems, all too often seen in combination.
  8. The first relates to the failure of the local authority to obtain informed consent from the parent(s) at the outset. A local authority cannot use its powers under section 20 if a parent “objects”: see section 20(7). So where, as here, the child’s parent is known and in contact with the local authority, the local authority requires the consent of the parent. We dealt with the point in Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065, para 34:

    “as Hedley J put it in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 27, the use of section 20 “must not be compulsion in disguise”. And any such agreement requires genuine consent, not mere “submission in the face of asserted State authority”: R (G) v Nottingham City Council and Nottingham University Hospital [2008] EWHC 400 (Admin), [2008] 1 FLR 1668, para 61, and Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 44.”

  9. In this connection local authorities and their employees must heed the guidance set out by Hedley J in Coventry City Council v C, B, CA and CH [2012] EWHC 2190 (Fam), [2013] 2 FLR 987, para 46:

    “(i) Every parent has the right, if capacitous, to exercise their parental responsibility to consent under s 20 to have their child accommodated by the local authority and every local authority has power under s 20(4) so to accommodate provided that it is consistent with the welfare of the child.

    (ii) Every social worker obtaining such a consent is under a personal duty (the outcome of which may not be dictated to them by others) to be satisfied that the person giving the consent does not lack the capacity to do so.

    (iii) In taking any such consent the social worker must actively address the issue of capacity and take into account all the circumstances prevailing at the time and consider the questions raised by s 3 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, and in particular the mother’s capacity at that time to use and weigh all the relevant information.

    (iv) If the social worker has doubts about capacity no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought from the social work team leader or management.

    (v) If the social worker is satisfied that the person whose consent is sought does not lack capacity, the social worker must be satisfied that the consent is fully informed:

    (a) Does the parent fully understand the consequences of giving such a consent?

    (b) Does the parent fully appreciate the range of choice available and the consequences of refusal as well as giving consent?

    (c) Is the parent in possession of all the facts and issues material to the giving of consent?

    (vi) If not satisfied that the answers to (a)–(c) above are all ‘yes’, no further attempt should be made to obtain consent on that occasion and advice should be sought as above and the social work team should further consider taking legal advice if thought necessary.

    (vii) If the social worker is satisfied that the consent is fully informed then it is necessary to be further satisfied that the giving of such consent and the subsequent removal is both fair and proportionate.

    (viii) In considering that it may be necessary to ask:

    (a) What is the current physical and psychological state of the parent?

    (b) If they have a solicitor, have they been encouraged to seek legal advice and/or advice from family or friends?

    (c) Is it necessary for the safety of the child for her to be removed at this time?

    (d) Would it be fairer in this case for this matter to be the subject of a court order rather than an agreement?

    (ix) If having done all this and, if necessary, having taken further advice (as above and including where necessary legal advice), the social worker then considers that a fully informed consent has been received from a capacitous mother in circumstances where removal is necessary and proportionate, consent may be acted upon.

    (x) In the light of the foregoing, local authorities may want to approach with great care the obtaining of s 20 agreements from mothers in the aftermath of birth, especially where there is no immediate danger to the child and where probably no order would be made.”

  10. I add that in cases where the parent is not fluent in English it is vital to ensure that the parent has a proper understanding of what precisely they are being asked to agree to.
  11. The second problem relates to the form in which the consent of the parent(s) is recorded. There is, in law, no requirement for the agreement to be in or evidenced by writing: R (G) v Nottingham City Council and Nottingham University Hospital [2008] EWHC 400 (Admin), [2008] 1 FLR 1668, para 53. But a prudent local authority will surely always wish to ensure that an alleged parental consent in such a case is properly recorded in writing and evidenced by the parent’s signature.
  12. A feature of recent cases has been the serious deficiencies apparent in the drafting of too many section 20 agreements. In Re W (Children) [2014] EWCA Civ 1065, we expressed some pungent observations about the form of an agreement which in places was barely literate. Tomlinson LJ (para 41) described the agreement as “almost comical in the manner in which it apparently proclaims that it has been entered into under something approaching duress.” In Williams and anor v London Borough of Hackney [2015] EWHC 2629 (QB), the Deputy Judge was exceedingly critical (para 65) both of the terms of the agreement and of the circumstances in which the parents’ ‘consent’ had been obtained. There had, he said, been “compulsion in disguise” and “such agreement or acquiescence as took place was not fairly obtained.”
  13. The third problem relates to the fact that, far too often, the arrangements under section 20 are allowed to continue for far too long. This needs no elaboration.
  14. This is related to the fourth problem, the seeming reluctance of local authorities to return the child to the parent(s) immediately upon a withdrawal of parental consent. It is important for local authorities to recognise that, as section 20(8) of the 1989 Act provides:

    “Any person who has parental responsibility for a child may at any time remove the child from accommodation provided by or on behalf of the local authority under this section.”

    This means what it says. A local authority which fails to permit a parent to remove a child in circumstances within section 20(8) acts unlawfully, exposes itself to proceedings at the suit of the parent and may even be guilty of a criminal offence. A parent in that position could bring a claim against the local authority for judicial review or, indeed, seek an immediate writ of habeas corpus against the local authority. I should add that I am exceedingly sceptical as to whether a parent can lawfully contract out of section 20(8) in advance, as by agreeing with the local authority to give a specified period of notice before exercising their section 20(8) right.

  15. It follows, in my judgment, that for the future good practice requires the following, in addition to proper compliance with the guidance given by Hedley J which I have set out above: i) Wherever possible the agreement of a parent to the accommodation of their child under section 20 should be properly recorded in writing and evidenced by the parent’s signature.

    ii) The written document should be clear and precise as to its terms, drafted in simple and straight-forward language that the particular parent can readily understand.

    iii) The written document should spell out, following the language of section 20(8), that the parent can “remove the child” from the local authority accommodation “at any time”.

    iv) The written document should not seek to impose any fetters on the exercise of the parent’s right under section 20(8).

    v) Where the parent is not fluent in English, the written document should be translated into the parent’s own language and the parent should sign the foreign language text, adding, in the parent’s language, words to the effect that ‘I have read this document and I agree to its terms.’

  16. The misuse and abuse of section 20 in this context is not just a matter of bad practice. It is wrong; it is a denial of the fundamental rights of both the parent and the child; it will no longer be tolerated; and it must stop. Judges will and must be alert to the problem and pro-active in putting an end to it. From now on, local authorities which use section 20 as a prelude to care proceedings for lengthy periods or which fail to follow the good practice I have identified, can expect to be subjected to probing questioning by the court. If the answers are not satisfactory, the local authority can expect stringent criticism and possible exposure to successful claims for damages.

 

The marker is down then.  Any LA facing a challenge about misuse of section 20 is on notice that damages may follow, and certainly where the misuse begins after today’s judgment one would expect damages to play a part.

 

The President also tackles here something which has been on my mind for a month. The practice by which agreement is reached that an Interim Care Order is not needed, because the parent agrees (either in a section 20 written agreement) or in a preamble in the Court order that they “agree to section 20 accommodation and agree not to remove without giving seven days notice”   – that is a fairly common compromise which avoids the need for an ICO or to have a fight in Court about the child’s legal status where it is agreed by the parents that the child should stay in foster care whilst assessments are carried out.

 

As the President says here

 

para 169

 I should add that I am exceedingly sceptical as to whether a parent can lawfully contract out of section 20(8) in advance, as by agreeing with the local authority to give a specified period of notice before exercising their section 20(8) right.

 

and here

para 170

iv) The written document should not seek to impose any fetters on the exercise of the parent’s right under section 20(8)

 

I don’t think that this is legally permissable any longer. (The Court of Appeal could, of course, have said explicitly that such a fetter can only be made where the parent agrees after having had independent legal advice, but they didn’t)

That means that Courts up and down the country are going to be faced with arguments as to whether the right thing for a child is to make an Interim Care Order, OR to rely on a section 20 agreement that could be withdrawn at any time  (including the obvious nightmare scenarios of “twenty minutes after we leave Court” or “at five to five on a Friday night” or “at 5pm on Christmas Eve).

 

The other thrust of the President’s comments on section 20 (8) objections are that as a result, surely even a delay in return of the child to place the matter before the Court for an EPO hearing is going to be a breach unless the parents themselves agree to that course of action.  That in turn raises the spectre of an increase in children being taken into Police Protection, since a forseeable outcome of this case is:-

 

(A) Parent says at 4.55pm on Friday “I want little Johnny home now, I object to section 20”

(B) LA are in breach of the Act and may be committing a criminal offence if that child is not on his way home by 4.56pm

(C) Courts aren’t likely to be able to hear an EPO application on one minutes notice

(D) The police remove under Police Protection instead

 

  [I seriously don’t recommend that as an option as a result of the many cases which batter social workers and police officers for misuse of Police Protection, but I do wonder whether the current case law on Police Protection really works after Re N  – those cases making it plain that it should be the Court decision not a police decision only work if there is time to place the matter before the Court.  BUT until one of them is challenged and the law on Police Protection changes, almost any removal under Police Protection can be scrutinised and perhap[s condemned.  And of course the alternative to THAT, is that more and more cases will instead find their way into care proceedings.  I think that the decisions on Police Protection and section 20 are right, but if we have learned nothing else since the Family Justice Review it should be that fixing one problem often has substantial unintended consequences and causes another problem elsewhere]

 

So, LA lawyers up and down the country, get hold of the current section 20 agreement, and rewrite it to comply with this judgment.