This is a Court of Appeal decision, which tidies up an area of law where the Court of Appeal has given a decision and then the High Court has ‘clarified’ and amended the test set out. (and yes, this is not the first time this blog has written about that sort of thing in the last few years, and also yes, there’s going to be another one on exactly the same point later today)
Probably the most important thing to arise from the judgment is this:-
48. A judge’s main responsibility is to decide the case in hand. The High Court and the appeal courts may also give rulings on matters of law to ensure that the law is correct, accessible to litigants and the public, and expressed in a way that is helpful to trial judges. This additional responsibility is not a vehicle to pursue a legal theory or to run the rule over binding decisions of higher courts, all the more so where the issue does not arise in the individual case. The analysis in Re RL was, and could be, of no legal effect: see Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council v KW  EWCA Civ 1054,  WLR(D) 425. Decisions that reformulate a binding legal test or set up a different test are bound to be cited to trial judges and operate as a distraction and a drain on resources, as exemplified by the need for this appeal.
49. More fundamentally, it is a misconception that the time-tested approach to reopening findings of fact in children’s cases has been arrived at in ignorance or defiance of the principles of res judicata in civil proceedings. There is rightly considerable consistency in the response of all courts to attempts to relitigate (see for example Re W at , cited at paragraph 9 above) but formulations cannot be cloned from one context to another without regard to their effect. Proceedings about children take place in the context of a statutory welfare imperative and, as the present appeal shows, reopening applications may arise in a very wide range of circumstances. In order to achieve just, welfare-based outcomes in these cases, the law operates a test that differs for good reason from a test identified in another context. The formulation in Re RL originates in the decision in Phosphate Sewage Co Ltd v Molleson (1879) 4 App Cas 801, which arose from efforts to relitigate a claim in bankruptcy, but Re RL and the present case required the court to evaluate the very different considerations that arise in cases of child welfare. The applicable law is clear and there is no need to unsettle it for the sake of theoretical conformity by transposing a test devised in a different legal context.
If you are wondering which particular High Court Judge decided Re RL, you might well be able to make an educated guess.
In this particular case
Re J (Children: Reopening Findings of Fact) 2023
There had been a previous set of private law proceedings involving the Father and a child A, his stepdaughter, who had made allegations of sexual assault against him. He was found not guilty in the Crown Court (2020) and no findings were made in the private law case against him (2021)
His daughter with another woman, D, made an allegation of sexual assault against him in 2022, and the Local Authority issued care proceedings.
Its case is that the threshold is met on three possible bases: assault on D in 2022, assault on A in 2019, or emotional abuse by M, including by fostering false allegations by D and/or by A. Meanwhile the children are living with M and contact between F2 and C and D is not taking place. The picture is of a complex and deeply unhappy family situation in which the threshold of significant harm has surely been crossed: the questions for the court are how, and with what consequences. The forensic effect of the earlier family proceedings is that the alleged assault on A is taken as not having occurred
The LA applied for those findings of fact (or absence thereof) in the private law proceedings to be reopened.
The Court at first instance were taken to the Court of Appeal authorities on the point
5. The law in relation to reopening findings of fact in children’s cases is settled. It is to be found in the decisions of this court in Re E (Children: Reopening Findings of Fact)  EWCA Civ 1447,  1 WLR 6765 and Re CTD (A Child) (Rehearing)  EWCA Civ 1316,  4 WLR 140. These authorities endorse the decisions of Hale J in Re B (Minors)(Care Proceedings: Evidence)  2 All ER 29,  Fam 117,  1 FLR 285,  3 WLR 1 and Munby P in Re Z (Children) (Care Proceedings: Review of Findings),  EWFC 9,  1 WLR 95,  All ER (D) 143.
6.In summary, the test to be applied upon an application to reopen a previous finding of fact has three stages. Firstly, the court considers whether it will permit any reconsideration of the earlier finding. If it is willing to do so, the second stage determines the extent of the investigations and evidence that will be considered, while the third stage is the hearing of the review itself.
In relation to the first stage: (i) the court should remind itself at the outset that the context for its decision is a balancing of important considerations of public policy favouring finality in litigation on the one hand and soundly-based welfare decisions on the other; (ii) it should weigh up all relevant matters, including the need to put scarce resources to good use, the effect of delay on the child, the importance of establishing the truth, the nature and significance of the findings themselves and the quality and relevance of the further evidence; and (iii) above all, the court is bound to want to consider whether there is any reason to think that a rehearing of the issue will result in any a different finding from that in the earlier trial. There must be solid grounds for believing that the earlier findings require revisiting.
7.As Mr Aidan Vine KC rightly submitted, the requirement for ‘solid grounds’ is a part of the evaluation that the court must carry out. It is not a shorthand substitute for it.
8. In Re W (Children: Reopening: Recusal)  EWCA Civ 1685,  2 FCR 793 at , I said this:
“It is rare for findings of fact to be varied. It should be emphasised that the process of reopening is only to be embarked upon where the application presents genuine new information. It is not a vehicle for litigants to cast doubt on findings that they do not like or a substitute for an appeal that should have been pursued at the time of the original decision. In Re E at  I noted that some applications will be no more than attempts to reargue lost causes or escape sound findings. The court will readily recognise applications that are said to be based on fresh evidence but are in reality old arguments dressed up in new ways, and it should deal with these applications swiftly and firmly.”
9. As I noted in Re E at , the approach to applications to reopen is now well understood and there is no reason to change it. During the hearing of this appeal, counsel agreed that the judge in the case, Her Honour Judge Skellorn KC, directed herself correctly and they confirmed that in their experience the courts are having no difficulty in applying the guidance that has been given. That is also the experience of this court: applications for permission to appeal give no indication that the practice of the last 25 years needs revision.
The Court at first instance was also taken to the High Court authority of Re RL , where Mostyn J was considering an application to reopen findings of fact and looked specifically at the ‘solid grounds requirement’,
L v Nottinghamshire County Council
This was an application by a mother to reopen a finding, made five years previously, that injuries to a baby had been inflicted by her or by the child’s stepfather. It was not a strong application and, after a careful analysis of the facts, Mostyn J dismissed it. However, his judgment contains a lengthy exegesis of the doctrine of res judicata in family proceedings, leading to a different version of the applicable test for reopening findings:
“42. The authorities identify two types of case where justice provides an exception to an estoppel preventing re-litigation of the same issue between the same parties:
i) First, and obviously, an anterior judgment can be challenged on the grounds that it was fraudulently obtained: Takhar v. Gracefield Developments Limited  UKSC 13,  AC 450.
ii) Second, an anterior judgment can be challenged on the ground that new facts have emerged which strongly throw into doubt the correctness of the original decision. In Arnold v National Westminster Bank Plc  2 AC 93 at 109 Lord Keith of Kinkel stated:
“….there may be an exception to issue estoppel in the special circumstance that there has become available to a party further material relevant to the correct determination of a point involved in the earlier proceedings, whether or not that point was specifically raised and decided, being material which could not by reasonable diligence have been adduced in those proceedings. One of the purposes of estoppel being to work justice between the parties, it is open to courts to recognise that in special circumstances inflexible application of it may have the opposite result …”
This exception echoed the well-known decision of the House of Lords in Phosphate Sewage Company Limited v Molleson (1879) 4 App Cas 801 where Lord Cairns LC held that an anterior judgment can be challenged where additional facts had emerged which ‘entirely changes the aspect of the case’ and which ‘could not with reasonable diligence have been ascertained before.’ In Allsop at  the continuing validity of this exception was affirmed by the Court of Appeal.
- It therefore seems to me that Jackson LJ’s test of “there must be solid grounds for believing that the earlier findings require revisiting”, ought to be interpreted conformably with these exceptions if a divergence from the general law is to be averted. This would mean that “solid grounds” would normally only be capable of being shown in special circumstances where new evidence had emerged which entirely changes the aspect of the case and which could not with reasonable diligence have been ascertained before.
- For my part looking at the matter from first principles I cannot see any reason why the general substantive law of res judicata should not apply to children’s cases. …
- I naturally accept that Jackson LJ’s test is binding on me. I completely agree that there should be a Stage 1 form of permission filter. I completely agree that on a rehearing application mere hope and speculation will never be enough to gain permission. I am merely suggesting an interpretative reconciliation between the solid grounds test and the general law such that solid grounds will normally only be demonstrated where either the fraud exception, or the special circumstances exception, is satisfied.”
Effectively deciding that ‘solid grounds’ would mean in an application to reopen findings of fact either that there has been fraud OR that there is new evidence available which entirely changes the aspect of the case and could not with reasonable diligence have been ascertained before.
The Court of Appeal disagree and say that Re RL is an authority which should no longer be followed.
In this particular case, the Court of Appeal agreed with the decision of the first instance Judge to grant the reopening and refused the father’s appeal.
There are a number of cases potentially affected by para 48 of this judgment – one has been resolved (the test for change of circumstances in leave to oppose adoption – which will be the subject of a later post today, but one is the changes to the Court of Appeal test for circumstances which warrant a finding of fact hearing – the Court of Appeal having said that ‘benefits to the child of establishing the truth of the allegations’ and ‘risks to future children’ should be added to the list of factors to be considered and Mostyn J having determined that the Court of Appeal decided that wrongly having not referred to the proper authorities and taking them out.
Occasionally – as in the leave to oppose, my heart rather tends to agree with the Mostyn J analysis, but it clearly isn’t a satisfactory way for practitioners and Judges at the coalface to have to interpret law to have a steer from the Court of Appeal and then a change to fundamental issues of the test be reported as High Court decisions and have to wait for an appeal to clarify whether the original or current test is the one to be followed.