The President has published his judgment in one of the “are parents taking children to join up with ISIS?” cases
This one he has previously given judgment on, and ruled that at an interim stage the children should return home to parents with the parents wearing electronic tags. The mother, and two other adult relatives, were arrested when attempting to board a flight to Turkey with their four children.
This one is the fact finding hearing, as to what the mother’s motivation was.
Re X (Children) (No3) 2015
First, let me recount the mother’s position at previous hearings (underlining mine for emphasis)
- The mother’s case
- An order made by Peter Jackson J on 22 April 2015 recorded the mother’s position as follows:
“The mother disputes that the threshold criteria is crossed. She says that she was intending to travel to Turkey with the children for the purposes of a legitimate family holiday. She says that although she understands why the Local Authority has intervened, her wish is for the children to be returned to her care as quickly as possible or for them to be placed with a member of their family. Once the children have settled in their current placement, she would also like to have increased contact with them so that this takes place more than twice per week.”
- The mother disputed the local authority’s case as set out in the original Scott Schedule. Her position, as encapsulated in her response to the local authority’s allegation in paragraph 69 (paragraph 78 in the final Scott Schedule), was that “I am a practising Muslim. I do not regard myself as a radical fundamentalist and have no links or contacts with ISIS militants.”
- The finding of fact hearing was at that stage listed to start before me on 29 June 2015. Shortly before, the mother’s counsel, Mr Karl Rowley QC, circulated a position statement on her behalf. This set out her position in relation to the findings sought by the local authority as being that:
“she does not seek to oppose the making of a finding that she was intending to attempt to enter Syria and live in territory governed by the Islamic State. That is not to say that she accepts the truth of the allegations but she does not wish to resist the making of findings on the balance of probability. In these circumstances she does not require cross examination of the local authority witnesses and does not wish to give evidence herself.”
- That radical shift in her position gave rise to a certain amount of discussion in court when the hearing began on 29 June 2015. It was left that she would prepare and file a statement. The statement was circulated the next day, 30 June 2015. It represented another radical shift in her position. She acknowledged that she had not been fully open with the court and professionals. Her case now, in short, was (judgment, para 13) that:
“she had travelled to Turkey to meet up again with, and possibly marry, a man” – I shall refer to him as H – “she had met in this country collecting money for Syrian refugees and whom she understood to be a doctor in Turkey. She denied any intention of travelling to Syria and said “I do not agree with or support or favour anything ISIS do … and have no wish to be involved with ISIS in any way.””
- That remains her stance.
The Local Authority therefore had to seek findings [again, underlining mine for emphasis]
- The local authority’s case
- As I have mentioned, the final version of the Scott Schedule is dated 17 October 2015 and now runs to 80 numbered paragraphs. Much of this sets out the “agreed context”. Paragraphs 13, 16-20, 22, 24-27, 32, 34b, 36-37, 39-44, 46-48, 51-53, 55, 57-76 and 78-80 contained the findings sought by the local authority which were disputed by the mother. In his final submissions, Mr Simon Crabtree on behalf of the local authority made clear that it no longer sought findings in relation to paragraphs 13-18.
- The local authority’s case has seven strands, which can be summarised as follows. In support of its overarching case, the local authority relies upon what it asserts were:
i) The mother’s acquaintanceship with various individuals who, it is alleged, had travelled via Turkey to Syria in 2014 to take up arms with ISIS militants (paragraphs 19-27).
ii) Lies the mother told the children’s schools on 27 February 2015 about the reasons for their forthcoming absence from school (paragraphs 28-33).
iii) The fact that when stopped at the airport on 2 March 2015 the mother gave a false address (paragraphs 36-37).
iv) The fact that the family’s luggage, when searched at the airport, was found to contain a number of suspect items (paragraphs 39-48); as it is put (paragraph 39), “a large number of items not normally associated with any family holiday.” It is asserted (paragraph 48) that “There is a striking similarity between the items contained in the … luggage and a list of items a known ISIS operative asked a British recruit to bring to Syria with him (and in connection with the same the said recruit was found guilty of possessing items of use to terrorists).”
v) The fact that, when her house was searched, the items found included (paragraphs 76-77) “ISIS flags” and ‘to do’ lists, written by the mother, “which indicated that the writer of the list was moving and not intending to return.”
vi) The fact that the mother lied to the police when being asked the purpose of their trip (paragraphs 49-55). She described (paragraph 51) “a multi-faceted trip involving a combination of an adventure holiday, culture, sight-seeing and relaxation.”
vii) The fact that the mother’s most recent account, as I have summarised it in paragraph 10 above, is a lie (paragraphs 56-65).
- This last part of the local authority’s case is further elaborated as follows:
i) It is said that she met no man in the circumstances she described or at all (paragraph 62). She has (paragraph 63) “manifestly failed to provide any tangible evidence as to his existence and cannot even produce a photograph of him, any contact details or even one of the electronic communications which she claims passed between them.” Furthermore (paragraph 64), “In so far as that man is not a point of contact she had in Turkey for another reason, he is a figment of her imagination.”
ii) As a separate point, it is said (paragraph 59) that, if her account was true, “it would reveal a mother who was unable to place her children’s needs before her own and that she was prepared to sacrifice her children’s stability, all they knew and their relationship with their father so that she could fulfil her own desire for a relationship with a man she hardly knew.” Furthermore (paragraph 60), if it was true “the extent of her intended folly is revealed by the fact that this man has literally disappeared without trace and left the mother unsupported at a time she needed it most.”
iii) It is alleged (paragraph 65) that “She has in essence, weaved this account around the notes secreted in the children’s underwear to try to explain away the manifest inherent improbabilities in her first version of events at the eleventh hour and in the face of a growing realisation that no Judge would on the totality of the evidence believe that first account.”
- The local authority’s case is summarised as follows (paragraphs 66-74):
“The reality is, the mother, her own mother and her brother had no intentions of remaining in Turkey.
They intended to travel with the children from Istanbul to the Turkish border with Syria.
Once they crossed the border into Syria, they intended to join up with ISIS militants and to supply them with items of use to the group’s combative activities.
In all probability, they also intended to meet up with those … who had already travelled … to Syria via Turkey.
In essence, the mother’s plan was to take these children to a war zone.
As such, she knowingly and intended to place the children at risk of significant harm.
The sole purpose and intention was … to cross the border into Syria and take up arms with ISIS militants and/or live in the Islamic caliphate ISIS claims to have established in the region for the foreseeable future.
[Neither] she nor [her brother] had any intention of returning to [her house].
That is why she suddenly found the money to buy the above electronic equipment which with one exception she financed on credit in February 2015 and why [her brother] paid for the trip using a £12,000.00 loan.”
- In conclusion, the local authority asserts (paragraphs 78-80) that:
“In short, the mother is a radical fundamentalist with links and contacts with ISIS militants and those who seek to recruit others to their cause.
Although she is arguably entitled to have whatever view she chooses, she is not however entitled to place her children at risk of significant harm or even death in furtherance of such a cause.
In furtherance of her aims and objectives, [she] is and was prepared so to do and to lie with impunity to conceal her real intentions and motives.”
Bearing in mind the two underlined passages, you may be surprised to learn that the President ruled that the threshold was not met, and the children are now living with mother under no statutory orders at all.
I have to say that mum’s counsel did a blinding job, but it is still a surprising outcome, on my reading.
What about the ISIS flag though?
Thirdly, he submits that the local authority has failed to show that the material recovered from the mother’s home was indicative of her holding such views or being sympathetic to ISIS. The flag is one that has been adopted by ISIS, but it contains the shahada and seal of the Prophet Mohammed, both of which, he says, are important symbols which all Muslims share. The local authority, he correctly points out, has failed to adduce any evidence to disprove the proposition that the flag predated the al-Baghdadi Caliphate, and the mother’s case that she received it from a bookshop some 12 years ago as a gift has not been seriously challenged.
[See, I’m NOT a Neo-Nazi, I’m just a collector of flags designed by dentists…]
Although the President was not satisfied with mother’s account, the burden of proof was on the LA and he was not satisfied that they had made out their allegations
- The first point to be made is that, on her own admission, she is, even if she cavilled at the appropriateness of the label, a liar. The contrast between her original case, as I have summarised it in paragraph 7 above, and her revised case, set out in paragraph 10 above is obvious. If elements of her first story have been carried forward into the second, the two are nonetheless so fundamentally different that one or other must be essentially untrue. This is not mere suggestio falsi et suppressio veri; it is simply the telling of untruths, in plain terms lying. The notes to the schools were, on any basis, and wherever the ultimate truth in relation to the trip may lie, false to the mother’s knowledge. Mr Rowley characterises them (paragraph 66) as “ill-advised”. I cannot, with respect, agree. They involved the deliberate uttering of falsehoods. I am also satisfied, and find as a fact, that the mother did indeed give a false address when questioned by DS SH. And the allegations she made in the witness-box against the police were, in my judgment, and I so find, utterly groundless. On matters of fact I accept the evidence of each of the police officers. I cannot accept Mr Rowley’s submissions on the point (paragraph 68).
- As we have seen, the mother put herself forward at the hearing as now being completely open, honest and frank. Was she? I am not satisfied that she was. I am unable to accept what she is now saying merely because she is saying it. Some of it may be true. About much of it I am very suspicious. Some of it may well be, in some cases probably is, untrue. But the fact that I am not satisfied that the mother was telling the truth, the fact that I am very suspicious, does not mean that I find everything she said to be a lie. And, as I have already explained, the fact, to the extent it is a fact, that the mother has in the past told, and is still telling, lies, does not of itself mean that the local authority has proved its case.
- Be all that as it may, the plain fact is that the mother has not, in the past, been frank and honest either with the local authority, the guardian or the court and I am not satisfied that she is being now.
- So where, at the end of the day, am I left? There are four key matters, in my judgment, which preponderate when everything is weighed in the balance, as it must be:
i) The mother is a proven liar. The mother has not, in the past, been frank and honest either with the local authority, the guardian or the court and I not satisfied that she is being now.
ii) H (if that is his true name) is someone known to the mother and who has some connection with Turkey. The mother has wholly failed to persuade me, however, either that she met H in the circumstances she describes, or that their relationship was as she asserts, or that the role (if any) he was to play in Turkey was as she says. I am unable to accept her as being either a reliable or indeed a truthful witness. The mother, in my judgment, has not proved her case in relation to H.
iii) The mother is an observant Muslim, but the local authority has been unable to prove either that the materials found at her home have the significance which was suggested or, more generally, that she is a radical or extremist.
iv) The luggage contained a significant number of items which cry out for explanation in circumstances where the only explanation proffered by the mother is tied to her story about H which, as I have already explained, I am unable to accept.
- It is for the local authority to prove its case. The fact that the mother has failed to persuade me of the truth of her case, in particular in relation to H, does not, as I have already explained, absolve the local authority of the requirement that it prove its case. And, for reasons I have explained and which Mr Rowley appropriately relied on, I must be careful to remember the Lucas point when I come to consider the inferences I can properly draw from the fact, to the extent I have found as a fact, that the mother has lied. The fact, to the extent it is a fact, that the mother has in the past told, and is still telling, lies, does not of itself mean that the local authority has proved its case.
- There are, as I have noted, many matters on which I am suspicious, but suspicion is not enough, nor is surmise, speculation or assertion. At the end of the day the question is whether in relation to each discrete part of its case, the local authority has established on a balance of probabilities, applying that concept with common sense, the proposition for which it contends.
- Standing back from all the detail, and all the arguments, there are, at the end of the day, two factors of particular importance and which, unhappily, point in opposite directions. The mother, for her part, has not proved her case in relation to H, with the consequence that the only explanation she has proffered for the presence of various significant items in her luggage falls away. The local authority, for its part, has not proved either that the materials found at her home have the significance which was suggested or, more generally, that she is a radical or extremist. Weighing these and all the other matters I have referred to in the balance, I am left suspicious of what the mother was really up to but I am unable to conclude that the local authority has proved any part of its case as set out in paragraphs 66-73 and 78-80 of the Scott Schedule.
It is very difficult to successfully appeal a finding of fact (the Court of Appeal vacillate from time to time as to whether you even CAN – because technically you appeal an order, not a judgment. In this case, the President did make an order – because he made NO order on the care proceedings or Wardship application, so the LA can appeal that). The Court of Appeal are very mindful that on a finding of fact hearing the Judge has the advantage of hearing all of the evidence and seeing the demeanour of the witnesses, so are reluctant to interfere.
Having said that, I’d appeal the hell out of this one. The order (which one presumes would have the effect of removing the electronic tags) is stayed until 18th December (oh, today), so we will soon find out whether an appeal has been lodged.
There’s a lot in the judgment about the contents of the luggage – the President kindly sets out the matters in a footnote. As indicated above, the President was not satisfied with either the mother’s account (of either a holiday, or that her new boyfirend H had wanted these things) or that the LA had proved that these matters amounted to evidence that mother intended to join up with ISIS
Note 1 Including, it is alleged, 9 battery powered or other powered torches, 4 hand-wound torches, 3 solar charger units or power-packs, 4 emergency blankets, 3 new and 2 used rucksacks, 5 mobile phones in excess of the 3 mobile phones chargers carried by the group as a whole, unused computer equipment comprising 6 machines (including 3 identical Samsung devices) and 5 chargers, 3 unused sim cards, 5 Multi-tools devices and power converters etc, what is described as “a large quantity of substantially if not entirely new size ‘large’ and ‘extra-large’ outdoor clothing including coats, waterproof bottoms, breathable t-shirts, gloves and so on”, what is described as “a large amount of medication and panty-liners and tampons”, and “telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and passwords … found on pieces of paper secreted in the children’s underwear in one of the suitcases.”
Note 2 It is further said (paragraph 42) that “By contrast, the luggage did not contain outdoor clothing of a sort which might have been associated with an adventure or camping holiday for (amongst others) 4 children”, (paragraph 43) that “Although there was a large quantity of large and extra-large outdoor clothing there was bar one piece, an absence of such clothing in sizes that would fit any of the children and in particular, X1”, and (paragraph 44) that “Those and most of the other supposedly camping equipment was or appears to be completely new.”