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Who has the burden of proof?

 

Well, that’s a stupid title for a blog post.  The burden of proof  – whose job it is to prove whether something happened, and whose job it is to persuade the Court to make the order is the applicant. In public law cases, that’s the Local Authority (the social workers).  It isn’t the parents job to prove that they didn’t injure a child, or that the Court should NOT make a Supervision Order. It is well known, and requires no thought or analysis at all by a lawyer – all of us know that already.

There is, of course, a reason why I am asking that question in the title.  It is because a High Court decision has just emerged that makes me call that obvious truism into question.

Here’s the issue – in a case where consideration is being given to a child being removed from a parent under an Interim Care Order, there’s a specific question to be answered. That is, does the child’s safety require immediate removal.  And in deciding whether to make any order at all, the Court has to consider that the child’s welfare is paramount.  So, a Court won’t make an ICO with a plan of removal unless (a) the child’s safety requires immediate removal and (b) the order is the right thing for the child.  The burden of proof would be on the applicant, the social worker.

 

In the case of Re N (A Child: Interim Care Order) 2015 decided by His Honour Judge Bellamy, but sitting in the High Court, here is how the social worker answered those questions.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/40.html

 

46.         On the key issue of removal, the social worker said that in her opinion ‘N’s immediate safety does not require separation’. On the contrary, she considers that any changes in the current care arrangements ‘will be detrimental to N’s well-being and emotional safety’.

 

So, no the child does not REQUIRE separation as a result of immediate safety risks, and no the child’s removal would not be in the child’s best interests.

 

If the Local Authority case was that the two tests were not satisfied (and that was the evidence given), and the burden of proof falls on them, then the order can’t be made, surely?

Well, that’s why this case is challenging, because the Court DID make the Interim Care Order, did say that that the child’s safety requires immediate separation and did say that separation would be in the child’s best interests.

Hmmm.

Let’s look at this logically. The ultimate decision as to whether the two tests are met is of course the Judge. If the social worker had said “yes, the test is met”, that isn’t the end of it. A Judge can hear all of the evidence and come to a different conclusion.  So, surely the reverse must also apply – if a Judge hears all of the evidence and DOES think that the tests are made out, he or she does not have to accept the evidence given by the social worker as being right, or determinative.

The Judge can, as here, decide that the social worker’s analysis of risk and what is best for the child is wrong.  It would obviously be wrong for a Judge, if they felt that, to simply ignore it and not give their own judgment and reach their own conclusions.

That’s the pro argument for a Judge making an ICO where the LA case hasn’t been made out on their own evidence.

The con argument is that the burden of proof is there for a reason – it is for the LA to prove their case. By the end of their evidence, they ought to be over the line. Yes, a parents evidence might retrieve the situation for the parents case and lead to a decision that the right thing is something else. Or the parents evidence might make the LA’s case even stronger. But by the time the LA close their case, there ought to be enough evidence to say “Yes, looking at everything at this snapshot moment, the tests are made out”.  If the LA case isn’t made out by the time they close the case, and reliance is placed on the later evidence of the other parties, that is smacking of a reversal of the burden of proof.

Otherwise, why have a burden of proof at all? After all, hardly any cases end up exactly 50-50, with the Judge unable to make a decision, with the burden of proof being the final feather that tips the scales.  (The only family case I’ve ever seen like that is the Mostyn J one  A County Council v M and F 2011  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/05/04/a-county-council-v-m-and-f-2011/ ) so the burden of proof is more than simply how to settle a tie, it has to be about more, surely?

 

The case here is further complicated, because it wasn’t the Local Authority asking for an Interim Care Order and removal.  It is one of those cases that started as private law proceedings, the Court became increasingly concerned about the child’s well-being  (to be honest, the FACTS of this case probably warrant their own blog post and discussion – in a very short summary, they are about whether the mother had been indoctrinating the child into a form of Jehovah’s Witness belief and practice which was making it impossible for him to have a relationship with his father who did not hold those beliefs – it was an intolerance for non-believers that was the key issue, rather than what the mother and the child were choosing to believe in a positive sense) and made a section 37 direction. And an Interim Care Order with a direction to the Local Authority that the child should be removed and placed in foster care.

That order was the subject of an appeal, and the ICO was stayed pending that appeal. Five months passed, and the LA reported in the section 37, saying that they did not seek removal at an interim stage, but did intend to issue care proceedings. Mother withdrew her appeal.

Care proceedings were issued, and this contested ICO hearing came about as a result of a request from the child’s Guardian.

So, the LA weren’t seeking the ICO, or separation. Although both could only come about as a result of the application that they had lodged for a Care Order.  So, was the burden of proof here on the Local Authority (who had applied for a Care Order) or on the Guardian (who was asking the Court to make an ICO and sanction removal)?  Or was it an application that the Court simply had to hear and determine?  I am honestly a bit legallly stumped on this. My brain says that the legal burden of proof has to be on the party seeking the order, so the Guardian. Just as within care proceedings where the LA is the applicant, a party seeking an adjournment has the burden of proof to persuade the Court to grant the adjournment, even though a formal application might not necessarily be lodged.

An additional complication here was that the LA were saying that not only did they not want an ICO and did not want the power to remove the child, they didn’t intend to exercise that power even if the Court sanctioned it.

In essence, the LA were saying that the religious messages being given to this child were messing him up, but that removing him from mother at an interim stage might mess him up even more. It might make his relationship with his father even more damaged, if he blamed his father for him being taken away from mother and put in foster care.

 

Given that all of this arose from the Judge originally making an ICO and sanctioning a plan of separation, who had the burden of proof for that order?  It seems opaque.  One presumes that the Court was being invited to do this by one of the parties, so the burden would fall upon them. But what if the Court was doing it of their own motion? Then the burden of proof falls upon the Court, who become then both player and referee in the contest.  The section 37 ICO power is a very practical way to allow the Court to intervene to protect a child who seems to be at risk, but as the case law on removal has developed over the years, section 37 ICOs become something of an anomaly. It is very difficult to see how a Court making one of its own motion can avoid a perception that having raised it as a possibility themselves it is then fair to determine an application that they themselves set in motion…

 

The case is complicated STILL FURTHER, because both the LA and the mother indicated that IF the Judge was to make an ICO with a recommendation for removal, in the teeth of the LA saying that they did not want it, they would each appeal.

The Court however felt that the risks did warrant making an ICO and that the child ought to be removed, even if the LA were not willing to do so.

 

I am satisfied that N has suffered emotional harm. The social worker agrees. I am satisfied that the fact that N has been immersed by his mother in her religious beliefs and practices has been a significant factor in causing that emotional harm. The social worker is not convinced. I am satisfied that since the hearing last November N has continued to suffer emotional harm. The social worker agrees though attributes this to the conflict between the parents, not to religious issues. I am satisfied that in the absence of significant change in N’s circumstances there is a risk that he will continue to suffer harm.

  1. Since the shared care order was made N has suffered and continues to suffer significant emotional harm. If the present arrangements continue I am in no doubt that N will continue to suffer that harm. Persisting with the present shared care arrangement is not in his present welfare interests at this moment in time.
  2. I am not persuaded that placement with father is appropriate. For the reasons articulated by the guardian, I accept that the likelihood is that placement in the father’s primary care would have an adverse impact on N’s relationship with his father.
  3. I am satisfied that the change required is that N be removed from the care of his parents and placed with experienced foster carers.
  4. The social worker disagrees. As a result of the position taken by the local authority, if I make an interim care order there is no certainty that the local authority will remove N and place him in foster care. There is no clarity as to the time it will take local authority managers to decide how to respond to an interim care order. If they do not respond positively there could be an impasse between the court and the local authority. For the local authority, Mr Sampson has already indicated that if removal is required he anticipates that the local authority will consider whether there are grounds for appeal. Even if the local authority did not seek leave to appeal, experience suggests that the mother would seek leave. The last time she did so the appeal process took three months. The final hearing of these care proceedings is fixed to take place in mid-August. Against that background, acknowledging the uncertainty about whether an order requiring N’s removal into foster care would be implemented ahead of the final hearing, should the court adopt what might be called the ‘pragmatic’ approach and defer a decision about removal until the final hearing or should the court put that uncertainty to one side and make an order which reflects its assessment of the child-focussed approach required by s.1 of the Children Act 1989?

 

The Judge felt empowered by the remarks of the Court of Appeal in Re W  (the Neath Port Talbot case) in imposing a care plan on a Local Authority who were resistant to it. The Judge concludes that if he makes an ICO with a care plan of removal, the LA’s reaction to it if they disagree must be to appeal and seek a stay NOT to refuse to execute it.   (I think that respectfully, the Judge is wrong there, but I’ll explain why in a moment)

 

         In resolving that issue I derive assistance from the decision of the Court of Appeal in Re W (A Child) v Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council [2013] EWCA Civ 1277. In that case the first instance judge made an assessment of risk which the local authority did not accept. On appeal, the question for the court was whether the judge was wrong to have made a care order on the basis of a care plan with which she did not agree and in the circumstance that the order was opposed by both the local authority and the mother. The leading judgment was given by Lord Justice Ryder. The following passages from his judgment are relevant to the problem which I have identified:

  1. The courts powers extend to making an order other than that asked for by a local authority. The process of deciding what order is necessary involves a value judgment about the proportionality of the State’s intervention to meet the risk against which the court decides there is a need for protection. In that regard, one starts with the court’s findings of fact and moves on to the value judgments that are the welfare evaluation. That evaluation is the court’s not the local authority’s, the guardian’s or indeed any other party’s. It is the function of the court to come to that value judgment. It is simply not open to a local authority within proceedings to decline to accept the court’s evaluation of risk, no matter how much it may disagree with the same. Furthermore, it is that evaluation which will inform the proportionality of the response which the court decides is necessary.
  2. …Parliament has decided that the decision is to be a judicial act and accordingly, the care plan or care plan options filed with the court must be designed to meet the risk identified by the court. It is only by such a process that the court is able to examine the welfare implications of each of the placement options before the court and the benefits and detriments of the same and the proportionality of the orders sought…
  3. …The decision about the proportionality of intervention is for the court…It should form no part of a local authority’s case that the authority declines to consider or ignores the facts and evaluative judgments of the court. While within the process of the court, the State’s agencies are bound by its decisions and must act on them.

 

  1. There is a second issue and that relates to the extent of the court’s power to enforce an interim care order requiring removal in circumstances where the local authority disagrees with that plan and comes to the decision that although it is content to share parental responsibility it is unwilling to remove because, notwithstanding the court’s evaluation, it considers removal to be disproportionate. The law is clear. Although the Family Court dealing with care proceedings can make a care order (whether a final order or an interim order) and express its evaluative judgment that the child should be removed and placed in foster care, it has no power to order removal. If the local authority decides not to remove the child the only mechanism for enforcement of the court’s evaluative judgment is by separate process in the form of judicial review.
  2. On this issue, in Re W (A Child) Ryder LJ makes the following observations:
  3. …once the no doubt strong opinions of the parties and the court have been ventilated, it is for the family court to make a decision. That should be respected by the local authority. For the avoidance of doubt, I shall be more plain. If the local authority disagree with the judge’s risk evaluation they must in a case where it is wrong appeal it. The appellate court will be able to consider such an appeal, where that is integral to the order or judgment of the court. If the welfare evaluation is not appealed then it stands and the local authority must respect it and work with it while the proceedings are outstanding. To do otherwise risks disproportionate, irrational or otherwise unlawful conduct on their part.
  4. There is no purpose in Parliament having decided to give the decision whether to make an order and the duty to consider the basis upon which the order is made to the judge if the local authority that makes the application can simply ignore what the judge has decided and act as if they had made the decision themselves and on a basis that they alone construe.

 

  1. In Re W (A Child) the issues related to a final care order. In this case I am concerned not with a final care order but with an interim care order. Does that make a difference? In my judgment it does not. The observations made by Ryder LJ are equally relevant to interim orders. Parliament has determined that it is for the court and not the local authority to evaluate, on the basis of its assessment of the evidence, whether an interim care order on the basis of removal into foster care is necessary and proportionate. The way to challenge that decision is by appeal and not by decision of senior managers not to remove.

100.     At the hearing in November I came to the clear conclusion that in light of the emotional harm N had suffered and was continuing to suffer it was proportionate and in N’s best welfare interests for him to be removed into foster care under an interim care order. As a result of the mother’s appeal against that order (an appeal which was subsequently withdrawn) N has remained in the care of his parents. Six months later, I find that N has continued and still continues to suffer emotional harm in the care of his parents. I am in no doubt that the child-focussed approach required by s.1 of the Children Act 1989 requires that he be removed from the care of his parents and placed in foster care without further delay. I accept that steps which may now be taken by the local authority and/or the parents may have the effect that my order may not be implemented ahead of the final hearing in August. I am satisfied that that possibility should not deter me from making orders which I consider to be in the best interests of N’s immediate welfare. I shall, therefore, make an interim care order. I make it clear that that order is premised upon an expectation that the local authority will immediately remove N and place him in foster care

 

 

I don’t think that this strong reading of the dynamic between Court and LA  survives either the statute, the House of Lords decision on starred care plans or the President’s own guidance in the Court of Appeal case of Re MN (an adult) 2015 which corrected any misapprehension that might have been caused by Re W a child.   (I have always felt that Re W went far too far with its concept of mexican stand-offs and judicial reviews, and that Re MN puts the relationship between judiciary and Local Authority on care plans in the correct way)

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/05/07/mn-adult-2015-court-of-appeal-pronouncements/

 

  • It is the duty of any court hearing an application for a care order carefully to scrutinise the local authority’s care plan and to satisfy itself that the care plan is in the child’s interests. If the court is not satisfied that the care plan is in the best interests of the child, it may refuse to make a care order: see Re T (A Minor) (Care Order: Conditions) [1994] 2 FLR 423. It is important, however, to appreciate the limit of the court’s powers: the only power of the court is either to approve or refuse to approve the care plan put forward by the local authority. The court cannot dictate to the local authority what the care plan is to say. Nor, for reasons already explained, does the High Court have any greater power when exercising its inherent jurisdiction. Thus the court, if it seeks to alter the local authority’s care plan, must achieve its objective by persuasion rather than by compulsion.
  • That said, the court is not obliged to retreat at the first rebuff. It can invite the local authority to reconsider its care plan and, if need be, more than once: see Re X; Barnet London Borough Council v Y and X [2006] 2 FLR 998. How far the court can properly go down this road is a matter of some delicacy and difficulty. There are no fixed and immutable rules. It is impossible to define in the abstract or even to identify with any precision in the particular case the point to which the court can properly press matters but beyond which it cannot properly go. The issue is always one for fine judgment, reflecting sensitivity, realism and an appropriate degree of judicial understanding of what can and cannot sensibly be expected of the local authority.
  • In an appropriate case the court can and must (see In re B-S (Children) (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, [2014] 1 WLR 563, para 29):

    “be rigorous in exploring and probing local authority thinking in cases where there is any reason to suspect that resource issues may be affecting the local authority’s thinking.”

    Rigorous probing, searching questions and persuasion are permissible; pressure is not.

 

The Court can, as explained in the next passages of Re MN, give a judgment setting out how they perceive the risks and how they could best be managed, and invite the LA to file a care plan addressing those matters. BUT, if there remains resistance, the Judge cannot compel the LA to remove.  The Court CANNOT dictate to the Local Authority what the care plan is to say.

The division of powers is very plain – the Local Authority CANNOT remove a child unless there is a Court order and the Court decides whether to grant such an order. But the Court cannot impose a removal on a Local Authority who do not want to remove.

Of course, in a very practical sense, a Judge who gives a judgment saying that having heard and tested the evidence, he considers the child to be at danger if the child were not removed, places the LA in a huge predicament. If the Judge is right  on his analysis of risk (and Judges get paid to be right and to analyse risk), and something goes wrong, then the LA will be absolutely butchered at an Ofsted Inspection, a civil claim, a Serious Case Review or heaven forbid, an inquest. It really is an “on their head be it” issue.

It would be a courageous Local Authority who took a judgment forecasting dire consequences for a child and sanctioning removal and decided not to remove. But it has to be their choice. That’s the responsibility that they have.

The LA and mother both said that they would appeal this decision. I would expect that appeal to be successful, based on a reading of Re MN (a child) 2015. However, if the appeal is chaired by Ryder LJ, who had those strong views in Re W that the Court could exert considerable pressure on a LA to change their care plan and woe betide them if they did not,  then I would expect them to lose the appeal.  And frankly, I  personally think that each of the major Appeals on the use or misuse of section 37 ICOs, the Court of Appeal has got each of them badly wrong, so I would not be marching down to the bookies on any prediction.

 

I wonder if the Court of Appeal will clarify the burden of proof issue, or whether it will just get bogged down in who has bigger muscles to flex on care plans, Courts or Directors of Social Services?

 

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Court deciding of its own motion to remove a child into care

 

I’ve been writing more or less since I started this blog about my concerns regarding the power in section 37 of the Children Act 1989 for a Court to place a child in foster care of their own motion. (for non-lawyers, ‘of the Court’s own motion’ means that the Judge decides to do this himself or herself, rather than there being a formal application by the Local Authority.   There has been a lot of press attention on one young boy over the last week, but the Court of Appeal’s decision in Re K may have a considerable impact on a number of families. There’s a story here, if the Press care to tell it.

 

That power exists, that is beyond doubt. It is set out in section 37 of the Children Act 1989 that where a Court is dealing with a private law case (i.e two parents arguing about where a child should live or how much time the child should spend with either) they can direct that the Local Authority (social services) carry out an investigation and the Court can make an Interim Care Order for up to 8 weeks whilst waiting for that report.

 

Why does that matter?

 

Well, an Interim Care Order allows the child to be taken away from a parent and placed with another parent, or a relative or in care.

 

And why does it matter that the Court do it of its own motion rather than with the Local Authority applying?

 

Well, here are the protections you get if you are a parent, when the Local Authority apply for an Interim Care Order :-

 

(a) You get a period of notice – three days

(b) You get to see the Local Authority evidence – why should there be an Interim Care Order,

(c) Sometimes more importantly,what do they plan to do with it – the interim care plan

(d) You get FREE legal advice and representation

(e) The Court has to find that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the child has been harmed or would be likely to be harmed (the threshold criteria) and the reasons for this have to be set out in a 2 page document, that the parent can challenged

(f) There will be an independent Guardian, appointed to advise the Court on what is best for the child. They may challenge the social work view and have an alternative plan to put forward

(g) Finally and most importantly, the person who is asking for the application is NOT THE SAME PERSON as the one deciding whether to make the order.

 

With an Interim Care Order made under section 37 of the Children Act, these things do not necessarily happen. It might be that the parents have lawyers, but these days they probably don’t.  There might be a Guardian (but as we’re about to see, the wrong type of Guardian can be worse than not having one at all)

 

Re K (Children) 2014

 

This case, just decided in the Court of Appeal, doesn’t set out all of these concerns, but it is dealing with a case in which the making of Interim Care Orders under section 37 of the Act went badly wrong.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1195.html

 

I will put the killer line in first, because I don’t want this point to get lost

 

33. The judge had in her mind from the beginning of the hearing the jurisdiction of the family court to make an interim care order under section 38(1) CA 1989 where a section 37 report has been directed. The procedural protections of notice and an opportunity to be heard apply to a jurisdiction that is available to the court of its own motion just as much as they do to a jurisdiction invoked on a party’s application.

 

That is a big deal – the Court of Appeal have never said that before. Within the last couple of years, the Court of Appeal take on ICOs made under s37 has included:-

 

If the Local Authority report says no need for a further order, the Court can just tell them to write another one, and another one, and keep making Interim Care Orders until the Local Authority writes a report that the Judge agrees with

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/11/30/it-is-lawful-to-make-icos-under-repeated-s37-i-say-it-is-lawful-to-make-icos/

 

And that it was okay for the Local Authority to turn up at Court, pop in to see the Judge on their own and suggest this route and for the Judge to make an Interim Care Order under s37 even though the mother and her lawyer were AT Court and knew nothing about it

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2013/03/14/ex-parte-removal-by-the-back-door/

 

The Court of Appeal in this case also added that the law on removal is the same under s37 as when the Local Authority apply for it (again, the Court of Appeal have been weak on this in recent years)

 

35. The tests to be applied where a removal into public care is being considered by this route are: a) whether the court ‘is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that circumstances with respect to the child are as mentioned in section 31(2)’ (the interim threshold as set out in section 38(2) CA 1989); b) whether the court is satisfied that the child’s safety demands immediate separation (see the authorities reviewed in Re L-A (Care: Chronic neglect) [2010] 1 FLR 80 CA); c) whether the court is satisfied that removal is in the best interests of the child (the welfare analysis required by sections 1 and 1(3) CA 1989; and d) having regard to a comparative welfare analysis of the options, whether the court is satisfied that removal is a proportionate interference with the child’s and other relevant persons’ article 8 ECHR rights

36.The interim threshold was satisfied by the determination made by the Recorder in his May judgment but that was not enough in itself to demonstrate an application of the other tests. The safety question described by Thorpe LJ in Re L-A was neither asked nor answered. It could not be because of the poor quality of the evidence before the court. In the absence of quality evidence on the point, not only was the safety issue not identified with sufficient clarity or particularity, but of necessity there could be no analysis of the evidence relating to it in order to conclude that a removal was justified.
 

37. Re L-A is the domestic legal test for the justification of removal that takes note of the Strasbourg jurisprudence i.e. the interference of the state in the article 8 rights of those involved in circumstances where there is an issue of safety. In order to identify the nature and extent of an alleged risk to the physical or emotional (psychological) safety of a child the court needs evidence relating to the prima facie facts. As has been explained by the President in Re G (Interim Care Order) [2011] 2 FLR 955, it is also necessary for the court to undertake a broad proportionality evaluation of the comparative welfare analysis of the options for each of the boys on the facts of the case to cross check whether a ‘more proportionate’ option than separation is available. That did not happen, but in fairness it could not happen, because those options were not identified and analysed in the evidence. The absence of this reasoning is fatal to the decision made in respect of A in this case.

 

So, yes, I think this is long, long overdue. If I were for a parent in private law proceedings and got a sniff of the Judge contemplating the atom-bomb answer of “If you two can’t sort it out, maybe the child should be put in care” you are going to want this authority to hand, and you are going to want to argue for three days notice.

 

Back to Re K

 

There were two children, one nearly 15 and one aged 12. The private law proceedings, as so often happens, had been emotionally fraught and acriminious. It was one of those cases where the children were saying that they didn’t want to see their father and there were doubts about whether that was a genuine belief or one instilled in them by their mother. The original Judge heard what was no doubt a very difficult case and decided to separate the children, one going to father, one going into care under an Interim Care Order made under s37 of the Act. The children had never been separated before.

 

No doubt because there was no agreement about how the removal and separation was to occur, a recovery order had to be made in accordance with section 34 of the Family Law Act 1986 and the removal happened late at night with the police in attendance. The circumstances were distressing to all involved, including at least one professional. B was so distressed that he evacuated his bladder and had to change his clothes. The removal was described by mother’s representatives as ‘violent’.

 

[This was not the first time, and sadly probably will not be the last time, that removal of children from a parent following a private law hearing has gone badly wrong]

The Court of Appeal upheld the appeal and decided that the Judge’s decision had been wrong. They were sympathetic as to how this had happened – the pressure of time to make a decision had caused everyone to rush into a decision without really taking everything into account that needed to be dealt with. It is a salutary lesson and the Court of Appeal treat it as such, that sometimes Judges need to step back from the time limits and pressures and say “This needs more time to consider”

The decision taken by the judge was an exercise by her of the ultimate protective functions that are available to the family court when it is exercising its private law children jurisdiction. Those functions have rightly been the subject of anxious and rigorous scrutiny in this court but it should not be forgotten that this decision, like others that have to be taken every day in the family court, was made in the context of asserted urgency of the most immediate nature relating to the safety of the boys concerned, poor quality evidence and little or no time to reflect upon the judgment that was to be made. Although, as I shall describe, this court allowed the appeal in part and set aside the orders made, we did so without criticism of anyone. If there is any lesson to be learned by everyone involved, it is that a judge has to give him or herself time regardless of what anyone else wants that judge to do. I would suggest that the decision that was made in this case would not have been made in the way that it was had time been taken to reflect on the history, the implications for the boys, the options available and the patent need for further and better evidence.
 

This is one of those family cases that a family court judge instinctively knows will cause harm to the children involved whatever decision is made. With that in mind, the analysis that has to be undertaken must bring to bear an acute focus on the balance of welfare factors given the facts of the case. The children are highly enmeshed in their parents’ conflict and the order that Judge Marshall came to have to re-consider was expressly made with the words in mind of Wilson J. (as he then was) in Re M (Contact: Welfare Test) [1995] 1 FLR 274:
 

“Whether the fundamental emotional need of every child to have an enduring relationship with both his parents (s 1(3)(b) of the CA 1989) is outweighed by the depth of harm, which, in the light inter alia of his wishes and feelings (s 1(3)(a)), this child would be at risk of suffering (s 1(3)(e)) by virtue of a contact order.”
An enduring solution to the problem that exists in a case like this depends upon a comprehensive welfare analysis derived out of specialist case management which identifies the problem with clarity, a well informed judicial strategy based on good practice and good quality evidence and a measure of good fortune. The building blocks for such a solution are rarely available in the context of an urgent safety enquiry i.e. in the heat of conflict and, as will appear from the circumstances of this case, it is not a dereliction of duty to stand back and take time to consider whether the building blocks exist. In this case, they did not.

 

As hinted earlier, the situation was compounded because being a private law case, the CAFCASS officer involved was very familiar with private law cases but had little or no experience in public law cases (i.e children being taken into care).  They also had an expert who proposed a strategy, but had no suggestions as to what to try when that strategy went wrong. There had been no Plan B

 

It might have been thought that the solution to the problem that had occurred would have been within the skill and expertise of the guardian and the expert who had recommended the strategy to date: sadly, it was not. As I have described, the expert had written to the court and the parties some time before the summer placement had broken down to say that the circumstances were beyond anything with which his clinical guidance could assist. That was surprising but in fairness there was also the issue of trust that had arisen because of the dual function that the expert had been expected to perform. The result was that the court lost the expert that it had previously decided was necessary. To add to that unfortunate circumstance, the guardian conceded during questions put by this court that she had no public law experience and that the good practice, research based options and/or evidential materials which should be the meat and drink of any public law Cafcass practitioner were not part of her skill and expertise.
 

The consequence has been, as she informed this court, that she has asked the family court for her functions to be transferred to another more experienced public law guardian i.e., as I understand it, an application for the termination of her appointment and her substitution by another guardian will be made before the next hearing. With the benefit of hindsight, the children’s guardian should have asked Cafcass management for assistance and that should of course have been disclosed to the court, leading to an application to the court to add another guardian (which is possible under the rules) or substitute guardians for the hearing before Judge Marshall.
 

It is not at all clear how much of this the judge knew. Some of it she could not have known because it was revealed to this court when it asked questions which had the benefit of hindsight. In any event, it would have needed a more detailed and nuanced hearing to establish that which is now known or identified as respects the problem to be solved.

 

The failure to properly plan was compounded because of course when the Judge makes their own decision to grant an Interim Care Order without an application, there is no interim care plan

 

38.It is almost an aside in this case to remark that even where the court has rightly decided to make an interim care order, it should as part of the process consider what in practice will happen to a child if the order is made i.e. the local authority’s proposals or their care plan if by then it exists. That is not the statutory obligation imposed on a family court by section 31(3A) CA 1989 because the requirements relating to a section 31A care plan do not by section 31A(5) apply to interim care orders. It is simply essential good practice to ascertain how the local authority that finds itself in this position is going to exercise its statutory responsibilities. That evidence is bound to be relevant to the welfare analysis and proportionality evaluation. I do not believe that in this case the divergence of professional view between the children’s guardian and the local authority social worker on the point was sufficiently investigated in evidence. It is perhaps sufficient to record that this court was told that if one includes respite, A has experienced three foster care placements already.
 

39. There were no formed proposals in this case because the local authority did not at the stage the order was made accept that an order should be made. This was not a case of a local authority being difficult. The only time available to the local authority to put together their proposals was the time during which the hearing was taking place where the local authority was not a party and its witness was not its decision maker. What was needed was more time for mature consideration. A plan, using that word in its non-technical sense, would of necessity have been skeletal and would probably not have extended beyond describing the means of recovery, the immediate placement into which A would go and the assessment or other planning process to decide what to do next. At the very least the court should have found time to give consideration to this question.

 

The fact that the Local Authority were present and were saying that there shouldn’t be an order ought to have given someone pause for thought. This course of action was always likely to go wrong.

 

The Court’s failure to consider the effect on the children of being separated from each other was also damning

 

I need not do more than state the obvious in a case of this nature. As young people who have experienced family courts, public care and relationship breakdown make very clear in, for example, the proceedings of the Young Peoples Board of the Family Justice Board, the separation of siblings can be one of the most traumatic elements of their experience, particularly where no provision is made for the sibling relationship to be maintained so as to safeguard their long term welfare into adulthood. Generalisations are dangerous, the intensity of sibling relationships can be very different and this court has not been taken to any of the research studies that consider this issue. However, it is sufficient to say that a sibling relationship is central to both the article 8 respect for family life which is engaged in a decision to make a public law order such as an interim care order and welfare, which by section 1 CA 1989 is the court’s paramount consideration when it ‘determines any question with respect to the upbringing of a child’. It will be a relevant factor in all or nearly all of the section 1(3) factors to which the court is required to have regard.
 

The absence of a value judgment soundly based in evidence about the effects on each of them of the separation of the boys was, in my judgment, almost as fundamental a flaw on the facts of this case as the failure to consider the safety issue and the proportionality of interference in relation to A. It went directly to the quality of the outcome of the court’s intervention for each of the boys.

 

The Judge met with the boys (in the proper way) but unfortunately her impression and observation of the boys leaked into her judgment  (Non-lawyers note, it is acceptable for a Judge to meet children for the purposes of explaining  who she is and what the Judge’s role is, and possibly for very very general chat, but not for the purpose of gaining evidence. We wait to see whether the Ministry of Justices proposal that children should routinely be able to meet Judges will change this, but that’s the current law)

 

The boys saw the judge but were told this was not an opportunity to discuss any issues in the case including their wishes and feelings. It is plain from the transcript of the discussion that they could not believe what they were hearing and the judge observed that ‘they were very concerned and very disappointed’. The judge in seeking to avoid a discussion about the evidence clearly felt unable to listen to them. She entered into a discussion about the inadvisability of the boys’ written communications that it is difficult to characterise as being other than an admonition. They boys left the process distressed and apparently even more convinced in their view that no-one was prepared to listen to them.
 

This case has not been about judges seeing young people. I shall return briefly to the wealth of material on that topic. The question which arose out of the discussion with the boys was whether, despite her best intentions, the judge inappropriately relied upon her impressions of the boys and what they said to her to come to conclusions in the case. Sadly, perhaps as an inevitable consequence of the charged emotions in this case, the judge made that error. There are a number of passages in her judgment where the problem is highlighted. I shall choose three:
 

“[26] The findings that I make on this evidence need to be considered in the context of the opportunity I had to meet with the boys this morning. The parties are aware that I felt that they are at the moment presenting as being rather out of control, not subject to parental influence or indeed able to set appropriate boundaries for themselves. I also formed the view that they had perhaps rather lost touch with reality in relation to what was going on and I do have a concern that they are rather immature and may somehow view this as some sort of fantasy adventure.
[…]
[24] […] My own experience this morning is that these children could exhibit considerable distress and yet were able to calm themselves very quickly and the word ‘histrionic’ was exactly the one which I would have used in relation to their behaviour that I observed.
[…]
[47] I was particularly struck by something that the Guardian said, which is that “it is almost like the children expect someone to put their arms around them and to say ‘do not do this anymore'”. Again that exactly resonated with my own assessment after seeing the children this morning. They are out of control. “
I need go no further than the recent judgment of this court in Re KP (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 554 for a comprehensive statement of the law that takes account of the Family Justice Council’s [FJC] April 2010 ‘Guidelines for Judges Meeting Children who are Subject to Family Proceedings’ [2010] 2 FLR 1872, the FJC’s Working Party December 2011 ‘Guidelines on Children Giving Evidence in Family Proceedings’ [2012] Fam Law 79 and the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the Matter of LC (Children) (Reunite International Child Abduction Centre intervening) [2014] UKSC 1, [2014] 2 WLR 124. It remains an essential principle of the guidance and the relevant authorities that a meeting with a child is not for the purpose of gathering evidence. There is likewise an emphasis on the court hearing the voice of a child and of the court reminding itself that a child’s wishes and feelings may not be capable of being represented to the court by the adult parties. The court should ensure that the child’s access to justice is effective, whether that be through formal separate legal representation or the offices of a guardian, a family court advisor or a parent. Even where formal representation is appropriate there is a wide discretion in the court to determine the extent of a child’s participation.
 

I have regrettably come to the clear conclusion that the judge’s discussions with the boys strayed beyond reassurance, explanation and listening. It was certainly not the latter and to the extent that the boys needed it to be, the judge could and should have adopted the practice of listening, disclosing what was said and not placing reliance on it in her judgment. It is entirely possible to listen without gathering evidence. Where a process is intended to or as here inadvertently leads to evidence being gathered, including by very firm impressions and judicial assessments about the boys’ needs, wishes, feelings, behaviours and the risks which their own needs might occasion, then consideration should be given to whether that evidence should be gathered or considered by a suitable neutral person (an expert or a guardian who is not conflicted). In a case where the conflict that had arisen in this case does not exist, the children’s guardian could have been asked to sit in with the judge or read the transcript of the discussion to assess the material in context. A process needed to be agreed that permitted the evidence to be challenged without harming the boys themselves.
 

The judge’s reliance on her own assessments of the boys derived from her discussion with them was procedurally unfair and to the extent that her primary concern was that they were ‘out of control’ it dominated her thinking. That was a value judgment derived from evidence gathered by the judge in a discussion that was not intended for that purpose and which could not be effectively challenged by others.

 

 

Sadly, with a string of appeal points  being upheld, there was never any doubt that this appeal would succeed. I think the Court of Appeal were right to recognise that there are cases in which Judges are urged and feel that a decision has to be taken  (the politician’s syllogism – “Something must be done”  – “This is something” – “Therefore we must do this”   and that hard as it is to tell people that the decision needs more evidence, more analysis and more thought, with an unsatisfactory status quo remaining in the interim, sometimes that is the right thing for a Judge to do.   The Court of Appeal also remind the parents that the extent of their adult quarrel has been very damaging to their two children.

 

55.The judge in this case was not well served by the evidence or the problems created in part by the history of the case and the supposed urgency of the situation. The circumstances that dominated the hearing were not those which were the most important in the case and she was left to make a decision with poor quality material. Although articulate and intelligent, the father was a litigant in person who would have been simply unable without legal assistance to pursue the legal issues that have been pursued before this court. I question whether in the absence of legal representation he is able properly to put forward a sustainable position to the court.
56. The absence of a determination on the question of separate representation and the severe conflict that has arisen between the boys and their guardian and solicitor mean that I am persuaded that they have not been afforded access to justice. A separate representation application must be properly considered with evidence as soon as possible. I say to the boys who should be asked whether they wish to read this judgment, that the degree to which they may be harmed by being even further enmeshed in their parents’ conflict and inappropriately being involved in the decisions that have to be made by adults, will have to be balanced by the harm that is being done by their perception that no-one is listening to them. The conclusion of an application is by no means clear but whatever the conclusion is, it must provide for them to be listened to and to participate to an appropriate extent.
 

57.I return in conclusion to the boys’ parents. Mother should not and must not continue to believe that she can override the repeated conclusions of the court. It is, as the court has repeatedly said, desirable that the boys should have a close parental relationship with their father. The mother’s approach has contributed to the damage that has been caused to the boys’ emotional welfare. This cannot continue. The father must understand that the court cannot achieve the impossible. He has been responsible for at least some of the conflict that exists and the boys have suffered because of that.
 

58. The problem in this case is the maintenance of a meaningful relationship between the boys and their father. As is too frequently the case, the problem was caused by the parents of the children who are locked into a damaging, deteriorating spiral of conflict which desperately needs to be resolved. Without that resolution, whatever the court orders and no matter what steps are taken to enforce the court’s orders, harm will continue to be caused to the children. Cases of this kind are unhelpfully and generically referred to as ‘implacable hostility’ cases because of the parental conflict that exists. The label provides no insight into or assistance with the myriad of circumstances and features that such cases present.
 

59. Mothers, fathers or both are just as likely to be responsible for the precipitating circumstances in such a case which may be far removed from and are sometimes if not often, irrelevant to the conflict which endures. Such research as there is into available and workable solutions suggests either a) that there should be a careful analysis of the reasons for the conflict by fact finding to identify and assess risk to the children and sometimes to one or other of the adults and/or b) that if the reasons for the conflict do not present identifiable risks to the children or their carer and sometimes even if they do, a resolutions approach to the conflict can be adopted to try and resolve it by professional intervention such as individual or family therapy, external support from local authority children’s services or education and assistance from the various parenting programmes and activity directions that are now available under the CA 1989 or otherwise. Sometimes it is necessary to fundamentally alter a child’s arrangements by removing that child from the adverse influence and control of one parent by placing the child with the other parent and making a child arrangements order that has the effect of limiting the relationship with the harmful parent. In an extreme case (and I emphasise they are and should be rare) where the child is suffering significant harm or is likely to suffer significant harm, the court can intervene and exercise its ultimate protective function by removing the child from its parents and by placing the child into public care so that the local authority shares parental responsibility with the parents.
 

60. The removal of a child from the care of a parent whether by a transfer of living arrangements from one parent to another or by placing the child into public care is not and must never be a coercive or punitive measure. It is a protective step grounded in the best interest of the child concerned. In so far as there was a perception in this case that either the transfer of the conditional residence of the boys to their father by the Recorder or their subsequent removal from their mother was a punishment of the boys for their behaviour and for being unwilling to accept contact with their father, then that was inappropriate.
 

61, For a family to be facing the possibility of a wholesale change of living arrangements between parents because of the harm that one or both of the parents is causing is bad enough, for a family to face the removal of children into public care when they are both capable of caring for their children is, frankly, sad beyond measure. This is such a family. I say that without attributing any causative blame to one parent or the other in the sense of saying that one or other parent is responsible for the problem that now arises. That may or may not need to be determined by a fact finding exercise. This court does not yet know. Where the parents are to blame is that neither of them has facilitated a joint approach to the resolution of their conflict for the benefit of their children. It is time for this court to start saying that which is obvious. The family court is empowered to make decisions for parents who cannot make them for themselves but it cannot parent the children who are involved. When parents delegate their parental responsibility to the court to make a decision, that decision will be in the form of an order. The court cannot countenance its orders being ignored or flouted unless an appropriate and lawful agreement can otherwise be reached. That is not simply to preserve the authority of the court, it is to prevent continuing and worsening harm to the children concerned. Parents who come to court must do that which the court decides unless they agree they can do better and there is no court order that prevents that agreement.
In this case, the parents were both to have a meaningful relationship with their sons. That should have involved active practical and emotional steps to be taken by both parents to make it work. Instead the case is suffused with anger and arrogant position taking that has nothing to do with the children. There has undoubtedly been mutual denigration, true allegations, false allegations, irrelevant allegations, insults, wrongly perceived insults and the manipulation of the boys to an outrageous degree. The idea that the court can wave a magic wand and cure all of those ills is dangerously wrong. It cannot – its function is to make a decision. It does not have available to it a supply of experts, be they psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, counsellors, drug, alcohol and domestic violence rehabilitation units, social and welfare professionals or even lawyers who can be ‘allocated’ to families. Experts that the court relies upon are either forensic experts i.e. they are specifically instructed to advise upon the evidence in a case or they are experts who are fortuitously already involved with the family through one agency or another. Their role in proceedings is to advise the court. There is no budget to employ them or anyone else to implement the court’s decision save in the most limited circumstances through the local authority, Cafcass or voluntary agencies.
One can only sympathise with any family court judge who is faced with such a case. There are no right answers but inevitably there are many wrong answers. To make it worse, in this case, the proceedings had to be re-allocated because of judicial indisposition so that the new judge came to the case without the detailed knowledge of the previous ten years of litigation. The hearing was said to be urgent so that, no doubt, all other judicial work stopped and the case took priority. It was said to be a case that needed an immediate order. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and the nearest a first instance family judge can get to it is to take time for reflection.

 

 

 

So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you

 

 (A quick look at four cases that have been decided, but that I’m still waiting for transcripts of judgments on , and one that I’ve been waiting for for ages, and which turns out to be crushingly disappointing)

 

 

Not worthy of full blogs, until I see the full transcripts, because as lovely as summaries are, they do lose the subtleties of having the entire judgment to rifle through for gems.

 

But anyway, here are four up-and-coming interesting cases.  (and I am aware that the section 37 case – is it an abuse of process to make multiple ICOs pegging them on s37 directions when the LA haven’t made an application, went to the Court of Appeal last week, and there will be a judgment on that in due course. I blogged about that one previously here :-

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/08/31/ive-got-section-thirty-seven-problems-but-a-aint-one/   )       [And where else in legal blogging do you get both the Kinks and Jay-Z?  Can I get an encore/do you want more/cookin raw / with the Brooklyn Boy]

 

 

The first, and most recent is RE H (A CHILD) (2012)

 

CA (Civ Div) (Thorpe LJ, Lewison LJ, Hedley J) 26/10/2012

 

In this case, the LA were seeking final orders, and the trial judge instead made an Interim Care Order, adjourned the proceedings for three months, and directed a placement at a parent and baby foster placement. The Court of Appeal refused the LA appeal, and determined that the Judge was entitled to make those decisions, having weighed the negative and detrimental impacts on the child of delay against the potential positives to the child.  

The interest for me on this one will be  (a) how much of a bulwark it might be against the  “26 weeks is our aspiration, finish things off quicker” philosophy that is currently so “popular” and (b) whether it is actually authority for the Court having power to compel a Local Authority to place in a parent and baby foster placement. 

I assume that this, if there is such a power, derives from s38(6) and the Munby LJ decision in Cardiff, where he determined that a s38(6) placement didn’t have to be in a residential assessment centre, but could be with a family member.  

 

There are two schools currently, one is that the Court CAN compel a Local Authority to place in a mother-and-baby foster placement (or parent-and-baby foster placement) using the Munby decision, and the other is that the Court CAN’T compel, but generally achieves it by rejecting a plan of ICO and separation, and making the LA decide on the ‘lesser of two evils’ between that and having the child at home under ISOs. 

[I have to confess, that I am not at all sure which of those is right. My reading of the Cardiff case is that the Judge was stretching s38(6) very creatively to get an outcome that everyone in the case desired, but that it might reach snapping point to try to do it in a case that is actively litigious. But, there are passages in Cardiff that would support s38(6) being used to place a child whereever a Judge thinks fit]

 

I will be interested to see if the Court of Appeal grapple with that issue at all.  And of course, Cardiff was only a High Court decision, so if so, it will be Court of Appeal backing for that authority.

 

Next up

 

RE M (A CHILD) (2012)

 

CA (Civ Div) (Ward LJ, Lloyd LJ, Rafferty LJ) 22/10/2012

 

This one may fall entirely on its own facts, or it might be incredibly important, which is why I am so keen to read the full judgment and find out.  It was an appeal against a finding of fact hearing. The child was a few weeks old and had 8 separate bruises, left forearm, right arm and right thigh.  No explanations for the bruises were provided. The medical opinion was that they were non-accidental, in the absence of an accidental explanation. The Judge also found the parents evidence to not be credible and found that the injuries had been caused by them.

 

The Court of Appeal considered, on the brief note I have available, that this amounted to a reversal of the burden of proof and that it was not for the parents to explain how the injuries were caused accidentally, but for the LA to prove that they were caused non-accidentally.

 

[This quote from the summary, on a well known law reporting website, not necessarily an extract from the judgment itself – my underlining, to illustrate what seems to be a current direction of travel on medical cases]

 

“The medical evidence was that the marks were imprints or pressure marks from an object, but it was not possible to say what object or even what kind of object or how the pressure was exerted. Nor was it possible to say whether there was a momentary infliction of pain or a sustained pressure. The instant case was not one of a broken limb, or a cigarette burn or finger pressure. The court simply did not know what had happened or how. The judge had accepted the evidence of one of the doctors that in the absence of a benign explanation from the parents it could be concluded that the injuries were not accidental, but that conclusion did not follow, unless the burden of proof, which lay on the local authority on the balance of probabilities, was wrongly reversed and the parents were required to satisfy the court that the injuries were non-accidental. The judge had erred in finding that the parents had deliberately caused the injuries”

 

It may be that the case is entirely case and original judgment specific, but it would not surprise me, given the movement of the Court of Appeal in recent months away from “listen to the doctors” towards “the Court should actively contemplate the possibility that medical opinion is not always right, even if there is consensus” if it contains some important principles.

 

 

Next

 

RE C (CHILDREN) (2012)

 

CA (Civ Div) (Thorpe LJ, Munby LJ) 12/10/2012

 

Which involves private law, and a finding of fact hearing / change of residence hearing. The trial judge stopped the father midway through his evidence [after he had finished in chief] and gave judgment about the allegations the father was making, essentially dismissing them and the application for a change of residence.  The father appealed, in essence saying that had the Court heard mother’s evidence and he had the opportunity to cross-examine mother, his allegations would/might have been proved.

 

The Court of Appeal determined  (again, the quote is from the summary of the case, and not the transcript itself)

 

 

Given that the judge had heard F’s evidence in chief, it was entirely appropriate for him to direct himself as he did, namely that F had to establish on the balance of probabilities that there were compelling reasons why the children should be moved. It was the correct exercise of his discretion for the judge to say F had failed to meet that test. There was no error of law or approach either in his determining the standard by which F’s evidence was to be evaluated or to say he was satisfied that F had failed to prove any of the matters to satisfy the court that the residence order should be changed. It was a matter for the judge to determine the form of procedure to satisfy the welfare needs of the children and he was not obliged to listen to evidence if it was not appropriate and the process would be of no advantage to the children. The judge’s view was robust, but he did not exceed the ambit of his discretion. There was no error of law or misdirection in what he had said about the burden of proof or in taking the course that he did. He had taken a decision that was plainly open to him in all the circumstances and it could not be said that he was plainly wrong.

 

 This may be a gratefully received judgment for all Judges dealing with private law cases faced with clearly threadbare evidence for serious allegations, as they may be able to cut them short when it is clear they are going nowhere.  [I shall not speculate as to whether the number of such cases will increase or decrease as a result of certain political decisions about funding of family legal aid]

 

And this one

 

RE P (A CHILD) (2012)

 

CA (Civ Div) (Thorpe LJ, Lloyd LJ, Black LJ) 05/10/2012

 

 

Where essentially, very serious allegations of sexual abuse was made against the parents. The parents indicated that they did not seek the return of the child or any contact, and that on that basis, embarking on a judicial determination of the allegations was unnecessary   (as they were content for the Court to make a Care Order and did not seek any orders in relation to contact)

 

This is interesting, because it throws up what the role of the Court is – is it to get to the truth, or is it to determine the applications that are placed before it? If having a fact finding hearing doesn’t materially affect the order to be made, how can it legitimately take place on the one hand.  On the other, isn’t it important for the child’s care and future to know whether he or she was the victim of sexual abuse?

 

The Court of Appeal remitted the decision back to the trial judge who had decided not to have a finding of fact hearing, for further consideration – notably of the expert report that having resolution of this issue would be beneficial for the child and that future uncertainty would be detrimental to the child.  They also considered that the parents stance on contact might shift (and may have already shifted) and that it was appropriate for all of these issues to be taken into account.

 

 

 

And oh, I see that another one I was waiting for is now up

 

RE (1) B (2) H (CHILDREN) (2012)

 

[2012] EWCA Civ 1359

CA (Civ Div) (Thorpe LJ, Kitchin LJ, Dame Janet Smith) 01/08/2012

 

This case goes to the issue of having a finding of fact hearing where the suspected perpetrator had considerable learning difficulties. It is pertinent for me because I had similar issues come up with a potential intervenor in a case and the law wasn’t entirely clear on how the Court should decide whether to compel them to give evidence, and how the balancing exercise should be conducted.

 The trial judge in this reported case  decided not to go ahead with the finding of fact hearing, and was appealed.

 

Sadly, the appeal was unopposed, so the judgment is very short.  In effect, the Court of Appeal were persuaded that the role of a finding of fact hearing is twofold  (and this may feed into the case above)

 

The outcome of a fact finding investigation is not only to determine whether the section 31 threshold has been crossed, but also to provide an essential foundation for the trial of the welfare issues that lead to the management decision for the future of the child.

 

 

I can therefore suggest nothing further than the tack I used in my case, which was that the Court should weigh the article 6 right to a fair trial against the rights of the vulnerable person and would have to give leeway to the witness when considering confusion about dates, times, details and sequence of events where their learning difficulty impacted considerably