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Tag Archives: state intervention

Supreme Court and emotional harm

The Supreme Court judgment in Re B is out, and can be read in full here:-

 

http://www.supremecourt.gov.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2013_0022_Judgment.pdf

For the too-long didn’t read version, the parents lost. The case was hoped to clarify emotional harm, and whether it justifies State intervention, and whether the risk of future emotional harm (when it becomes somewhat tenuous and predictive) justifies the most draconian of orders, a plan for adoption.

There was an excellent preview of the case by Celtic Knot over on Pink Tape, here

http://pinktape.co.uk/cases/rescuing-children-from-significant-harm-looking-forward-with-trepidation-and-hope/

and it sets out the backdrop to this case very clearly and why it was that he and I were both hoping that the parents would succeed. In all of this debate, I am mindful that  (a) I haven’t had the chance to read or hear all of the evidence and (b) that the case sadly involves real people and a real child.  Sadly, as it has important principles, it is something that needs to be discussed in broader terms than just the tragedy for the immediate family.

Frankly, my reading of the Re B Court of Appeal decision was that there was a lot that professionals were worried about or anxious about, but none of it actually amounted to proof that the child was at risk of significant harm. [I stress, this may very well be a fault of the Court of Appeal judgment in not properly framing how they found threshold to be crossed, rather than on professionals involved in the case]

 

I think the closest it came to threshold was in this passage here

It was the diagnosis of Dr Bass, which Judge Cryan accepted, that, beyond  abnormal personality traits and in additi on to, and more significantly than, her  somatisation disorder, M suffers a factitious  disorder of mild to moderate intensity.

This is a related psychiatric disorder in  which the sufferer is driven repeatedly to exaggerate symptoms or altogether to fabricate them and to offer false histories.

There is therefore a deceptive dimension to  the disorder which was replicated in a  mass of other evidence before the judg e, unrelated to M’s medical condition,  which raised questions about  her ability, and for that matter  also the ability of F, to behave honestly with professionals. Dr Bass  stressed that M’s psychiatric disorders required psychotherapy which might last for a year and which could be undertaken  only if she were to acknowledge the problems and to engage honestly with the therapist.

 

 

Undoubtedly within the case, and the Supreme Court gave multiple examples, there had been incidents where claims had been made by M which the Court found to be untrue, and they were florid claims. That much, I don’t disagree with.  The decision of the Court of Appeal that this crossed the threshold seemed, to me, to fall short on the critical area of actual evidence that it HAD harmed the child or was a risk of harming the child, and not merely in nebulous “Jedi-hand-wave” terms – what was it that was said the parents might do that would harm this child, and how likely was it that they would do it?

 

The original trial judge said this:-

The judge concluded: “Ultimately, I find that I am persuaded… that what the evidence  clearly demonstrates is that these parents do not have the capacity to  engage with professionals in such  a way that their behaviour will be  either controlled or amended to  bring about an environment where  [Amelia] would be safe… In short I cannot see that there is any  sufficiently reliable way that I can fulfil my duty  to [Amelia] to  protect her from harm and still place her with her parents. I  appreciate that in so saying I am depriving her of a relationship  which, young though she  is, is important to  her and depriving her  and her parents of that family life which this court strives to promote.”

 

Again, that seems to me to be a legitimate decision for the Judge who heard the evidence to take ONCE it was established that the threshold was crossed. If there WAS a risk of harm, then whether the parents could manage that harm, take advice, work with professionals and change their behaviour is massively relevant.

But did we ever cross the threshold on the facts as reported?

My fundamental issue is this – if one cannot put into a paragraph, or a page, what harm it was that the State was protecting this child from, I am not sure that the harm is actually properly made out. [Not a criticism of the LA involved – I  haven’t read the papers, I don’t know the whole case, but from the twin judgments I have seen, I don’t see anything that comes close to telling the parents, or the public, what it was that this child was being protected FROM – other than very peculiar behaviour short of abuse]

 

One focus of the appeal was the wording of the threshold criteria (the test that the State has to cross before a Care Order can be made) which is “significant harm”  and whether the law has wrongly developed to an extent where it is now hard to see the distinction, in law, between harm and significant harm.

 

If one were to get a family lawyer to draw up two columns, one headed Harm, and one headed Significant Harm, and then gave them a series of allegations, would all of the family lawyers put each allegation in the same column ? would there be broad consistency about which is which, perhaps with a few grey areas? Or in fact, would nearly everything go into the “significant harm” column.

 

Here is what the Supreme Court have to say

26.  In my view this court should avoid attempting to explain the word “significant”. It would be a gloss; attention might then turn to the meaning of the  gloss and, albeit with the best of intentions, the courts might find in due course that they had travelled far from  the word itself. Nevertheless it might be worthwhile to  note that in the White Paper which preceded the 1989 Act, namely The Law on  Child Care and Family Services, Cm 62, January 1987, the government stated, at para 60:

“It is intended that “likely ha rm” should cover all cases of unacceptable risk in which it may be necessary to balance the chance of the harm occurring against the magnitude of that harm if it does”

The Supreme Court also rejected the applicant’s submission that when a Court determines whether or not the threshold is crossed, article 8 is engaged, and determined that article 8 only arises when the Court are deciding whether or not to make an order.   [I can’t say that i am happy about THAT either]

 

The second matter relates to Mr Feehan’s submission that the threshold set  by section 31(2) is not crossed if the deficits relate only to the character of the parents rather than to the quality of their parenting. His alternative submission is  that harm suffered or likely to be suffered by a child as a result of parental action or inaction may cross the threshold only if,  in so acting or failing to act, the parent or parents were deliberately or intentionally to have caused or to be likely to cause such harm. M is, of course, not responsible for her personality traits nor for her psychiatric disorders; and in effect the submission is that the dishonesty,animosities and obstructionism of the parents represent deficits only of character

and that, if and insofar as they might cause harm to Amelia,whom they love, the harm is neither deliberate nor intentional

 

This is an interesting one, taking us into issues of free will and determinism. I would agree partly with Mr Feehan QC  – I think that the threshold ought to get into quality of parenting or how the parenting impacts on the child, but I don’t go as far as saying that a parent is not responsible for elements of their personality which are beyond their control. (The latter, seems to me, to invite later ligitation on the basis of paedophilia being intrinsic to a person, rather than a conscious or deliberate choice on their part)

The Supreme Court rejected this anyway.  

 

One interesting addition from the Supreme Court was their debate about whether, when deciding whether a lower Court had mistakenly found threshold to be crossed (or vice versa) the test for the appellant Court should be the usual one (derived from Piglowska) that the Court had been “plainly wrong”  or whether in the context of the threshold, which is a binary value judgment – the evidence is there to satisfy it, or it is not, the test should simply be whether they were “wrong”

it is generally better to allow adjectives to speak for themselves without adverbial  support. What does “plainly” add to “wrong”? Either the word adds nothing or it serves to treat the determination under challenge with some slight extra level of generosity apt to one which is discretionary but not to one which is evaluative.

Like all other members of the court, I  consider that appellate review of a  determination whether the threshold is crossed should be conducted by reference  simply to whether it was wrong.

 

 

I think they may come to regret that formulation.

 

Going to the issue of threshold this passage in the judgment outlines why the majority of the Judges found that it was met and the decision was not wrong

The nature of the harm which concerned Judge Cryan was (i) “the emotional harm to [Amelia] likely to be caused by” (a) “the Mother’s somatisation disorder and factitious illness disorder”,

(b) “concerns … about the parents’ personality traits”,

(c) “her mother’s lying”,

(d) her father’s “active, but less chronic, tendency to dishonest

y and vulnerability to the misuse of drugs”, and

(ii) “physical harm to [Amelia]” which “can not be discounted, for example, by over treatment or inappropriate treatment by doctors”.

As to the possibility of such harm being prevented or acceptably mitigated, the Judge concluded that Amelia’s parents did not have “the capacity to engage with professionals in such a way that their behaviour will either be controlled or amended to bring about an environment where [Amelia] would be safe”. He explained that the result of this was that he could think of no “sufficiently reliable way” in which he could “fulfil [his] duty”

to Amelia “to protect her from harm and still place her with her parents”.

 

66. Those conclusions are concerned with what may be characterised as risks, prospects or possible outcomes, and they

are not, therefore, findings of primary fact, let alone conclusions of law. As explained above, they are evaluations based

on the findings of primary fact, and on assessments of character and likely behaviour and attitudes, made by the Judge

as a result of many days of considering oral and written evidence and also as a result of hearing argument. They are

evaluations which are also plainly dependant on the Judge’s overall assessment of  the witnesses, and in particular on his opinion as to the character and dependability of Amelia’s mother and father, and as tothe reliability of the assessments of the expert witnesses. His conclusions appear to me to be ones to which, to put it at its lowest, he was fully entitled to come on the evidence he had heard and assessed. In other words, they were justified in terms of logic and common sense in the light of his findings of primary fact and his assessment of the witnesses, and they were coherently formulated. There is no basis in my view, for saying that they were wrong.

 

Sadly, to me, it seems that the Supreme Court have tackled this case in that very narrow way, rather than comparing the threshold said to be met in this case with the doctrines of Lord Templeman and Justice Hedley, about the difference between abusive parenting which harms a child or is likely to harm a child, and eccentric odd or even poor parenting which falls short of that mark.  I slightly have to wonder why they agreed to hear the appeal at all if they were not going to roll up their sleeves and tackle the issue of emotional harm. They just really said that it was a matter for the trial judge which side of the line the case fell on, unless it was apparent that he had got that wrong.

 

Lady Hale in her judgment, which in my mind actually tackled the issues and concluded in the dissenting judgment that the original judge was wrong to have made a Care Order,  sets out what practitioners felt was the key issue in the case in her opening paragraphs

 

143. This case raises some profound questions about the scope of courts’ powers to take away children from their birth families when what is feared is, not physical abuse or neglect, but emotional or psychological harm. We are all frail human beings, with our fair share of unattractive character traits, which sometimes manifest themselves in bad behaviours which may be copied by our children. But the State does not and cannot take away the children of all the people who commit crimes, who abuse alcohol or drugs, who suffer from physical or mental illnesses or disabilities, or who espouse anti-social political or religious beliefs. Indeed, in Dickson v United Kingdom (2007) 46 EHRR 937, the Strasbourg court held that the refusal of artificial insemination facilities to a convicted murderer and the wife whom he had met while they were both in prison was a breach of their rights under article 8 of the European Convention.

 

How is the law to distinguish between emotional or psychological harm, which warrants the compulsory intervention of the State, and the normal and natural tendency of children to grow up to be and behave like their parents?

 

144.Added to this is the problem that the harm which is feared may take many years to materialise, if indeed it ever does. Every child is an individual, with her own character and personality. Many children are remarkably resilient. They do not all inherit their parents’ less attractive characters or copy their less attractive behaviours. Indeed some will consciously reject them. They have many other positive influences in their lives which can help them to resist the negative, whether it is their schools, their friends, or other people around them. How confident do we have to be that a child will indeed suffer harm because of her parents’ character and behaviour before we separate them for good?

 

Hear hear

 

 

Sadly all of this next bit is by the by, since it is from the dissenting judgment, but I think it is all correct, and I wish it were an accurate reflection of what the law was, post Re B

The reason for adopting a comparatively low threshold of likelihood is clear: some harm is so catastrophic that even a relatively small degree of likelihood should be sufficient to justify the state in intervening to protect the child before it happens, for example from death or serious injury or sexual abuse. But it is clear that Lord Nichollsdid not contemplate that a relatively small degree of likelihood would be sufficient in all cases.

 

The corollary of “the more serious the harm, the less likely it has to be” is that “the less serious the harm, the more likely it has to be”.

 

 

Of course, another reason for adopting a test of “real possibility”, rather than “more likely than not”, is that it is extremely difficult to predict the future and to do so with the sort of accuracy which would enable a court to say that it was more likely than not that a parent would harm a child in the future. Once again, this is a particular problem with emotional or psychological harm, which may take many years to manifest itself. The Act does not set limits upon when the harm may be likely to occur and clearly the court is entitled to look to the medium and longer term as well as to the child’s immediate future.

 

190 However, the longer term the prospect of harm, the greater the degree of uncertainty about whether it will actually happen. The child’s resilience or resistance, and the many protective influences at work in the community, whether from the wider family, their friends, their neighbourhoods, the health and social services and, perhaps above all, their schools, mean that it may never happen. The degree of likelihood must be such as justify compulsory intervention now, for there is always the possibility of compulsory intervention later, should the “real possibility” solidify

191. The second element in the threshold sheds some light upon these questions. The harm, or the likelihood of harm, must be “attributable to the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if an order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him”(s 31(2)(b)). This reinforces the view that it is a deficiency in parental care, rather than in parental character, which must cause the harm. It also means that the court should be able to identify what that deficiency in care might be and how likely it is to happen.

 

For my part, I am unsure why the other Judges did not share those views, they seem to me eminently sensible and fair. In reality, it is merely a sieve to remove the sort of cases that Lord Templeman and Hedley LJ were referring to as being short of the level of parenting that requires State intervention.

I also feel somewhat for Lady Hale, who has given excellent judgments in many of the Supreme Court cases but seems to be being characterised as the dissenter who does not sway the majority.

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