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Tag Archives: threshold criteria

Tense – nervous, headache

 

This is a case in which the Court of Appeal unpicked a decision of a Circuit Judge, where the tenses that were applicable to the threshold criteria became confused.

 

I don’t myself much care for the way that the constructors of section 31 brought tenses into the definition, particularly because they involve some semantic dancing on the head of a pin to the way that people actually consider the threshold in practice. I wrote earlier this year about the Court of Appeal decision that largely turned on the common conflation of ‘is suffering’ (which is what the statute says) and ‘has suffered’ (which is what everyone in Court always says, largely because you are talking about something that inevitably happened in the past but having to do so in the present tense) . In that case, having lectured everyone on the need to stick to the language of the statute ‘is suffering’, the Court of Appeal forgot its own advice and talked frequently about ‘has suffered’

 

Hence the title, and by now, you could probably do with an Anadin yourself

 

 

 

Re K (A child : Threshold findings) 2018

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/2044.html

 

  1. On 18 May 2018 HHJ Tolson QC sitting at the Central Family Court dismissed an application for a care order and instead made a private law order that a little girl, then aged six months, to whom I shall refer as K, should live with her mother. The basis for this outcome was that the judge found that the threshold for intervention under section 31 of the Children Act 1989 had not been made out. This appeal by K’s children’s guardian, for which I gave permission on 17 July, is supported by the local authority but opposed by the mother.
  2. Events since the making of the judge’s order have led to this appeal becoming historic. The local authority issued further proceedings on 14 August, and on 23 August K was removed from her mother’s care and placed in foster care under an interim care order. The outcome of these earlier proceedings is nevertheless of some significance as providing a baseline for future decisions. In the circumstances I describe the background in only the broadest detail and avoid making any observations that might bear on welfare decisions yet to be taken by the Family Court.

 

One might well think that a Judge who had decided that there was no likelihood of future harm for a child is on thin ice before the Court of Appeal when the appeal arrives and the likelihood of future harm has developed into actual harm leading the child to have to be removed.  That could just be bad luck, of course.

 

  1. The evidence that the judge heard showed that the mother had done reasonably well in the foster placement and that no harm had come to K since her birth. Nonetheless, when the matter came before the court for final hearing on 23 April, all parties invited the judge to adjourn to allow for further expert evidence and the assessment of other potential carers. The judge refused this application as well as other adjournment applications made during the hearing. He said in effect that he would “see where we go”. His approach led to uncertainty in the minds of the parties as to what was and what was not within the scope of the hearing. That approach is challenged in the grounds of appeal, but the parties are agreed, rightly in my view, that it is no longer necessary to investigate that aspect of the matter.
  2. In the course of his judgment the judge described the mother as having been a deeply troubled teenager. He considered the report of an independent social worker who had acknowledged the mother’s ability to look after K’s basic care in a highly supported environment but gave the opinion that her volatility would prevent her from giving safe, consistent and nurturing care in the community. That was also the opinion of the allocated social worker and of the guardian, who advised that K would not be safe if placed in her mother’s independent care. The psychiatric expert initially expressed cautious optimism but tempered this when she received the other professional opinions. The judge however did not accept this evidence, essentially on the basis of the mother’s performance since K was born. He emphasised that the language of “risks” and “concerns” was not good enough. He was impressed by the mother’s presentation in court. The judge found and was entitled to find that the mother had not been volatile around or towards K. He posed this question to himself:
    1. “Accordingly in my judgment the question whether, when the mother was first placed in the mother and baby foster placement, she was likely to be volatile around her own child has to be judged in large manner by her actual behaviour around [K]. There is no evidence that she is anything other than calm when around [K]. There have been no incidents with the foster carer despite the latter’s, as the professionals say, too-intrusive approach.”

He concluded that while there was reason to believe that the threshold was crossed at an interim stage when the proceedings began, “My judgment on this evidence is that there neither is nor was a likelihood of significant harm to this child”. He continued:

“The possibility, which I acknowledge exists, that the mother will be so volatile in future that he daughter suffers significant emotional harm is one in my judgment which can sensibly be ignored in the context of the threshold justifying state intervention. This, I emphasise, is not to say that the professionals are wrong. I can of course acknowledge that we may be back in court in months’ or even years’ time with the professionals telling me that I was the one who got it wrong. I hope I can profoundly respect their opinion. It is simply the case that on this evidence I cannot be satisfied that the ‘risks’ and ‘ concerns’ which they identify establish the necessary likelihood.”

 

 

The judicial conclusion that the case did not warrant or justify adoption or separation was not the subject of the appeal. The appeal focussed on whether the Judge was wrong in law to conclude that threshold was not crossed and whether he made two separate errors – the first, in considering the likelihood of significant harm to be based on the facts as they were at the time of the final hearing rather than at the date of issue/intervention, and second in tying together the issue of whether threshold was crossed and what the welfare decisions for the child should be.  (In effect, whilst a Judge HAS to take the harm into account when deciding the right order, he or she ought not to take into account what the plans for the child might be when making the factual decision as to whether threshold is met)

 

The first of these is interesting. It does seem to fly in the face of common sense – if a Court is deciding whether to make an order on the basis of future harm, surely they look at the facts as they present at the time of making the order? Well, yes and no.  That’s massively relevant when deciding whether to MAKE the order, but not at all relevant in deciding whether the threshold criteria were met at the time of issue.  The threshold issue is a purely factual analysis, and the welfare issue is balancing up all of the facts and deciding whether an order is proportionate, necessary and better for the child than making no order.

 

In bald terms – if a mother is misusing heroin before the baby is born, then that is a fact which can satisfy the threshold at the time of issue and meet the threshold criteria for making a final order. But the mother being abstinent for six months of the proceedings, having insight into the problems heroin caused her and working hard with support groups is a massive factor in whether an order is needed at all, and if so, what sort of order should be made.

 

(Think of threshold as being whether you get into a nightclub at all, and welfare as being the range of options available to you once you are in there – you can get drunk, dance, flirt with people, get into a quarrel, or leave having had an uneventful evening)

 

  1. On behalf of K’s guardian, Ms Porter argues that the judge was wrong to limit his consideration of the threshold to the mother’s direct behaviour towards K. Instead he should have looked at the wider context, as required by section 31. She next argues that he paid insufficient attention to the relevant date for consideration of the threshold, namely the time when protective action was taken. Lastly, he allowed the issues of threshold and welfare outcome to become entangled, repeatedly referring while considering the issue of threshold to the need for rigorous scrutiny of the option of what he described as “state-sponsored adoption”. These submissions are echoed by Ms Rahman for the local authority. In response, Ms Hibbard, who appeared below for the mother also, argues that the judge did not misdirect himself in any way. She points out that he gave reasons for disagreeing with the professional assessments of risk based upon the mother’s actual care for K.
  2. We are grateful for the clear and precise way in which the arguments have been presented. Having considered them, I am in no doubt that the judge’s decision that the threshold for the making of a public law order was not met in this case was wrong for the following reasons.
  3. Firstly, the case put by the local authority and the guardian was based on the whole of the history, which covered not only events during K’s short lifetime but all the evidence, including incontrovertible evidence concerning events that took place before she was born and while her mother was pregnant with her. By limiting his consideration to the way in which the mother had behaved with K, the judge excluded from his consideration the solid wall of evidence relating to the mother and father’s personal histories. Had he taken a full overview of the matter, it would have been overwhelmingly apparent that at the time proceedings were taken in November 2017, there was a likelihood of harm to K as a result of her being born to two very young and volatile parents. The professional evidence did not consist of expressions of “risks” and “concerns” with no basis in fact. Here the facts were plain, and the likelihood of harm arose from them. Those facts undoubtedly disclosed risks of significant harm that could not sensibly be ignored. In this case the threshold under section 31(2) of the Children Act 1989 was not only met, it was obviously met.
  4. Secondly, the judge misdirected himself by failing to focus on the relevant date of his assessment, namely whether, at the time when protective measures were put in place and using the statutory tense, K “is likely” to suffer significant harm. Instead he became distracted by the mother’s performance in the mother and baby foster placement. That evidence could only influence the assessment of whether the threshold had been crossed insofar as it might shed light on the significance of the evidence as it stood at the relevant date: see G (Children) [2001] EWCA Civ 968 at paragraph 23. Here, however, there was no suggestion that the later evidence cast new light on the earlier evidence in a way that lessened its significance, and that is certainly not how the judge approached the matter. Had he asked himself the right question – was the threshold satisfied at the date proceedings were issued? – there could only have been one answer.
  5. Thirdly, the judge entangled questions relating to the welfare outcome with the question of whether the threshold had been met. The judge’s role is to find the facts, apply the threshold test to them and, where appropriate, make welfare and proportionality evaluations. These are separate exercises, one leading to the next. It is quite possible to reason that the threshold has been crossed but that welfare does not require separation of parent and child. It is not possible to reason that, because the child and parent should not be separated, the threshold has not been crossed.
  6. For these reasons, if my Lord agrees, this appeal must be allowed to the extent that the judge’s finding that the threshold of likelihood of significant harm had not been crossed must be set aside

 

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Law for social workers (Part 1)

This piece is aimed at social workers, but it isn’t exclusively for them. Basically, the law has moved very fast in care proceedings since I started writing this blog, and on Twitter yesterday there was a conversation about there not being an easy place for social workers to find out what they now need to know.  So the idea here is two short(ish) pieces that tell you all of the important legal principles and then in part 2, what the specific tests are for each sort of order.

 

None of this is intended to be a substitute for getting legal advice from your own lawyer, it is just a guide to what sort of things the Court is looking for, and what tests they are applying. If you’re very confident about the basics, you can skip to Part 2  (though not immediately, because I am still writing it!)

 

The Acts

 

We all know, I think, that there are two main pieces of legislation involved in care proceedings.

 

The Children Act 1989

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1989/41/contents

 

and The Adoption and Children Act 2002

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2002/38/contents

 

There are a few others that come up occasionally – the Mental Capacity Act 2005,  the Care Act 2015, the Children and Families Act 2014 and various mental health Acts, Housing Acts, if you’re really really unlucky Education Acts.  And of course, the Human Rights Act 1998 permeates everything. In terms of the Human Rights  Act – the big bits that you need to know is that a social worker, as part of the State, owes parents duties under the Human Rights Act – they owe parents an article 6 right to fair trial (which is not limited just to Court, but involves fairness in all decisions) and interference by the State with parents Article 8 rights to private and family life, which can only be done where it is PROPORTIONATE and NECESSARY.

 

Key principles of the Acts

 

  1.  The Child’s Welfare is the Court’s paramount consideration when making any decision – it won’t be the only consideration, but it is the main one.
  2. The Court can only make an order if satisfied that doing so is better for the CHILD than making no order  (the ‘no order principle’)
  3. Any delay is harmful to the child, and has to be justified (the ‘no delay principle’)
  4. The Court should try to make the least serious of the orders available to it, if that will meet the child’s needs  (‘the least interventionist principle’)
  5. There’s a set of guidance of the main issues for the Court to consider when making decisions about children – the Welfare Checklist. Parliament has given us that as a valuable toolkit to reach the right decisions, and you stand the best chance of making the right decisions if you use it.

 

And from Human Rights, the key principles are :-

FAIRNESS  – in all decisions, strive to be fair – take things into account, even when they don’t fit with your hypothesis or initial thoughts, listen to what parents have to say, be honest about what you are seeing, recognise change when it is happening, be willing to consider that you might be wrong. Try to approach the task of working with a family in the way that you would hope someone would work with you if the roles were reversed. Recognise that for a parent, the State can be a scary and powerful force – you might not feel powerful yourself, but be alive to the possibility that that is the way the State can come across. Imagine someone coming into YOUR home, looking in YOUR cupboards, criticising YOUR relationship. It might need to be done, but be aware that it doesn’t feel nice to be on the receiving end.

NECESSITY – is it NECESSARY to do X or Y?  Not just is it helpful or useful or desirable, but did it NEED to be done? And even if it NEEDED to be done, did it NEED to be done in that particular way?

PROPORTIONALITY – looking at what you’re worried about and what you want to do about it, and thinking hard about whether what you want to do is proportionate to the worries that you have.

All of those principles really boil down to being a REASONABLE person – if you are reasonable, and try to do the job in a REASONABLE way, the Court’s are more likely to be receptive to what you’re saying and you are going to be less exposed in the witness box than someone who goes around like a bull in a china shop.

 

The threshold criteria

 

In order for the Court to make an Emergency Protection Order, or a Care Order or Supervision Order, or Interim Care Orders or Interim Supervision Orders, they need to be satisfied that the threshold criteria is met. If there’s no threshold criteria, the Court CANNOT make the order.

The burden of proof (who has to prove it) is on the Local Authority. It is for the Local Authority to PROVE that the child has suffered significant harm, or is at risk of such harm, NOT for the parent to prove that the child isn’t.

The standard of proof (how sure does the Court need to be) is the BALANCE OF PROBABILITIES.  If a Court thinks that something is MORE LIKELY THAN NOT to have happened (in percentage terms 50.000001% or higher) then that is sufficient.  If a Court thinks that the LA has NOT proved that, even if there’s a 49.99999999% chance of it having happened, then in law it did NOT happen. When it comes to factual issues, the law is binary – if it is MORE LIKELY THAN NOT to have happened, then it happened, if not, it DIDN’T.  And if it is exactly 50-50 (which doesn’t happen often, but it HAS happened) then the burden of proof means that the LA failed to prove it was more likely than not, so it DIDN’T happen.

The threshold criteria itself

 

s31 (2)A court may only make a care order or supervision order if it is satisfied—

(a)that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm; and

(b)that the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to—

(i)the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or

(ii)the child’s being beyond parental control.

 

The likely to suffer has been quite tricky to resolve over the years – basically, if you’re going to say that a child is LIKELY to suffer significant harm, you need to :-

 

(a) Prove some facts

(b) Prove that those facts mean that there is a risk of significant harm

(c) Prove that it is MORE LIKELY THAN NOT that the risks involved ‘cannot sensibly be ignored’

 

So you don’t HAVE to show that the risk is MORE LIKELY THAN NOT to materialise.  Sometimes, if the level of the possible risk would be very serious, there can be a lesser chance of it happening as long as there is a FACTUAL basis for saying that the risk exists and it cannot be ignored.

 

Case law

The Acts themselves only give you so much – most of the legal arguments are about how to intepret those Acts – what precisely does such and such a word mean, what has to be taken into account when deciding whether such and such applies. Rather than different Courts across the country having the same arguments over and over and coming to different decisions in different places, when an important point of principle is decided  (for example – WHEN does the threshold criteria have to be satisfied? When proceedings were issued? When they finish? What if the child was in foster care for 2 months before issue – the child wasn’t at any risk in that placement…)  a senior Court – the High Court, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court decides a case that deals with that point, and that’s the answer from then on  (in this example, threshold has to be satisfied when the Local Authority ‘took protective measures’  – that could be by issuing, or it could be by a section 20 placement or written agreement)

The next time THAT issue comes up, the Court is able to say ‘well, that’s been decided now, there’s a PRECEDENT for it, and we’ll follow that’.   The Children Act has been around for over 25 years and you would think that all of these technical and interpretation questions would have been sorted out years ago now, but they still keep coming, and occasionally the interpretations change or shift a bit.

For basically ALL of the things that a social worker might want to do, or ask the Court for, knowing what the Act itself says is just the tip of the iceberg. The really important information, and the wording that you are working to is set out in case law.  And as I said, it changes.

 

Part 2 is going to tell you what the current case law says about the various tests – and I’ll keep this up to date when it changes. The law is moving quickly at the moment, particularly in relation to adoption.

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Beyond parental control

Threshold criteria – the legal ‘key’ which allows a Court to make a Care or Supervision Order, is defined by section 31 of the Children Act 1989 and it usually relies on the child having suffered or there being a likelihood that the child will suffer significant harm, as a result of the parent behaving in a way that would be unreasonable to expect of a parent.  There is, however, the much less frequently seen other limb which is that the child is ‘beyond parental control’.

 

There are volumes of reported cases about threshold on the first limb, but very little on the second, so even though this is a Circuit Judge decision and not binding precedent, it is worthy of discussion.

Re P (Permission to withdraw care proceedings) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2016/B2.html

I’ve written at some length about one of the cases cited in this judgment, Re K, and the facts here are somewhat similar.

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/07/30/forensic-ferrets-or-standing-in-the-way-of-beyond-parental-control/

It relates to adoptive parents of a child, where the placement breaks down, and at much the same time, the relationship between the parents and the Local Authority similarly hits the buffers. (This was the second such breakdown – the child having been placed with different people previously, which makes things even sadder and harder)

In Re P, the Local Authority had issued care proceedings, but by the conclusion of the case were seeking leave to withdraw. That was agreed by everyone, but what was contentious was the basis of that withdrawal. The Local Authority contended that threshold was crossed but it was not in the child’s welfare interests to make an order, whereas the parents contended that threshold was not crossed.

It was common ground that as a result of her life experiences, the child was in a seriously bad way. She had been sectioned, diagnosed with an emotionally unstable personality disorder and had been self-harming. It was in no doubt that she had suffered significant harm. As a factual matter, she was probably beyond parental control. (Whether anyone could have exercised control with those particular difficulties is a considerable question)

The principal legal issue was whether you should approach threshold like this

  1. The child has suffered significant harm AND
  2. She is beyond parental control

Which was how the LA argued it

 

OR

  1. The child has suffered significant harm AND
  2. She is beyond parental control AND
  3. There is some casual link, even if it is not the only or dominant cause, between the child being beyond parental control and the significant harm.

As the parents were arguing.

For clarity, in the first instance, there’s no sense of blame, and in the second, there’s at least some slight degree of blame or responsibility for at least some of the harm.

If the parents have done nothing wrong, and the child being beyond their control is a CONSEQUENCE of her difficulties and the harm she is experiencing, rather than her difficulties and the harm being at least in small part a CONSEQUENCE of her being beyond parental control, then should threshold be crossed?  Can threshold be crossed if a parent has done nothing other than what any parent could have done in the circumstances?

It might have been quite easy for the parents in this case to say “Well, the LA aren’t seeking a finding that we did anything wrong, so let’s just agree threshold is crossed, and accept this plate of fudge” but I think that it raises an important point of principle and they were right to stand their ground.

As the transcript of judgment contains matters that are emboldened, I can’t use my usual approach of putting the judgment in bold, so bear with me. These are the relevant bits of the judgment

 

  1. S.31(2) of the children Act 1989 provides:-A court may only make a care order or supervision order if it satisfied (a) that the child concerned is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm and that harm or likelihood of harm is attributable to…….ii) the child’s being beyond parental control. Mr. Sinclair relies upon the judgment of H.H.J.Bellamy, sitting as a judge of the Family Division in Re:K(Post Adoption Placement Breakdown) [2013]1FLR. where a child had suffered extreme damage in the care of her birth parents, resulting in an attachment disorder; expert evidence concluded that no blame could be attached to the adoptive parents for the child’s difficult behaviour and that the child was likely to suffer significant harm because of her reactive attachment disorder and not because she was beyond parental control.
  2. HHJ.Bellamy referred to the observations of Lord Nicholls in Lancashire v B [2000] 1FLR: ” ….the phrase “attributable” in S.31(2)(b) connotes a causal connection between the harm or likelihood of harm on the one hand and the care or likely care of the child’s being beyond parental control on the other….. the connection need not be that of a sole or dominant or direct cause and effect, a contributory causal connection suffices”. At para. 149 he concluded that if a child suffered significant harm as a result of a disorder which effected her behaviour and as a result of that behaviour the parent is unable to control the child, that lack of control was at the very least, a contributory cause of the likelihood of future harm. Accordingly he made a care order, in the belief that it was not open to him to ward the child. Subsequently the Court of Appeal discharged the care order and made her a ward of court.
  3. Mr. Sinclair urges me to take a similar approach in this case and conclude that the harm caused to T. or likely to be caused to her whilst a result of her mental health diagnosis was/is attributable to her being beyond parental control – at least in part. He has also referred to para.3.1 to the 2008 guidance to the Children Act for the use of local authorities that the court is required to determine as a matter of fact whether a child is beyond parental control and if he/she is it is immaterial who, if anyone is to blame. This paragraph has been omitted from the current guidance.
  4. Conversely , Mr. Parker on behalf of the parents argues that the comments of Lord Nicholls make it clear that the inclusion of the word “attributable” results in the need to make a causal connection between harm and being beyond parental control, albeit it need not be the only or dominant cause; that on the facts of this case, whilst there is overwhelming evidence that T. has suffered and is likely to continue to suffer significant harm, there is no evidence that this is attributable in any way to the fact that T is beyond parental control. He refers to the authorities of Re: O [a minor] (care proceedings: education) 1992 4 All ER 905 and M v Birmingham City Council [1994] 2 FLR 141 Stuart-White as authority for the proposition that lack of control involved parental culpability. Having read these two judgments in my view both learned judges assumed this proposition to be the case. I have also considered Re:L (a minor) Court of Appeal 18.3.1997
  5. Ms. Jones on behalf of T. (who visited me this morning in the company of two members of staff from the hospital, where she is an in-patient), and Ms.Jones pointed out that the guardian (and her predecessor) seriously questioned the actions of the local authority in issuing these proceedings. I voiced that opinion at an early CM hearing and I urged the local authority to consider at a senior level whether these proceedings should continue. Despite the views of the previously allocated social worker in her first and second statements that the parents were not a protective factor for T. and the assertion that the local authority needed to share parental responsibility for T, T’s previous treating psychiatrist was quite clear in the professionals’ meetings that the parents had only ever had T’s interests at heart and were indefatigable in supporting her and trying to obtain the best treatment. At paragraph 30 of Ms.Jones’ skeleton argument she says “It should be made very clear in the judgment that the parents are not culpable in any way, that there is no evidence to support inadequate parenting and that they have shown themselves to be committed parents and advocates for their daughter.”
  6. Under the Children and Young persons Act 1969 the courts had the power to remove a child from the care of his/her parents if it was satisfied that the child in question was beyond parental control. It was not necessary to show serious harm, or likelihood of harm. The Children Act 1989 changed the law and required harm/likelihood of harm to be proved and for it to be attributable to either the care given by the parents, or the child being beyond parental control. In my judgment the ordinary grammatical construction of the section requires the establishment of a causal connection by evidence, however slight. That is lacking in the documents filed in this case and with respect I cannot agree with Paragraph 149 of HHJ Bellamy’s judgment in Re:K (see above). Therefore I give the local authority permission to withdraw these proceedings on the basis that it is unlikely on the current evidence to be able to prove threshold.
  7. There is no evidence of any kind that either the mother or the father are culpable in any way for the behaviour of their daughter and the harm she has suffered or is at risk of suffering in the future. They have fought tirelessly for her to receive the treatment she needs and in my judgment these proceedings should never have been issued.   [underlining mine on this paragraph]

 

There is a broader issue and that was highlighted considerably in the Selwyn 2014 research on adoption breakdowns https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/04/10/adoption-breakdown-research/  which showed that once adopters came to local authorities with problems or the placement was beginning to show cracks, the supportive element seemed to be frequently replaced with a combative and blaming approach. I don’t know the background and facts of this particular case other than what is in the judgment, but it does seem to me that blame was the last thing that was needed.  I wish this young woman, and her parents, well for the future and hope that she can get the help that she clearly needs and that after this hearing, everyone involved in her life will be able to pull together and work with each other.

Sibling rivalry

 

In Re P (A child) 2015, His Honour Judge Wood had to deal with an application for a Care Order for a girl who was sixteen years and four months old. That in itself is unusual. Even more unusual, the central allegation was that of physical abuse (which was disputed by the family). More unusual still, the allegation was that the girl had been physically assaulted by her older brother.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B101.html

 

Now, if you have a sibling, you might be thinking along similar lines to my initial reactions.  My sister and I fought, not like cat and dog, but like two fighting roosters whose feed had been laced with PCP. We fought about absolutely everything. No topic was too trivial , no imagined slight too minor.  That did occasionally spill into physical conflict. I’m sure that my sister has many dreadful stories about me – many of which would be true, and I will simply indicate that there was a day at Pwllhlei Butlins putting green where she hit me with some degree of force on the nut with a golf club  (from behind) and when it knocked me out, ran off and spent the rest of the afternoon in the arcades playing Burger Time.  She also once hit me full in the face with a tennis racket swung with genuine purpose and intent (but as I recall, that was warranted, though painful).

 

This story, however, goes rather further even than those (admittedly shameful) incidents.

 

At 18.11 hours on Monday, 20th June 2014 P, a girl born on 28th October 1998 and now aged 16 years 4 months, was admitted by ambulance to the emergency department of Hospital A. She was found to have six distinct areas of injury: the first were three red linear marks on the right upper thigh, 1cm by 6cm long; second were two linear marks on the outer aspect of the left forearm, 4cm by 1cm wide; the third was an oblique red mark across the left upper outer thigh, 10cm by 1cm; the fourth was a bruised area, circular in shape, 3cm in diameter with a contusion over the left shoulder tip; the fifth was a linear bruise to the left upper outer arm approximately 4cm by 1cm and the final were a number of red marks across the lower thoracic area, that is to say the back, approximately 3cm by 1cm to the left and right of the midline.

 

 

The fact that the girl had been injured was not therefore in dispute, what was disputed was how these injuries had occurred.

The girl said that she had been at home, watching television and that she and her brother had had an argument (he wanting to turn the channel over to watch football and she wanting to finish watching what she had started), whereupon he started hitting her, escalating to hitting her with an iron bar.

 

The brother said that the girl had come home from school, complained of being hot and fainted from the heat.

It had of course been June when this happened, so perhaps it was hot. However, the girl had grown up in Nigeria and only been in England for a year.   And the family were living in Sunderland. Perhaps the weather in Sunderland that particular day was so hot that a girl who had spent 13 of her 14 years in Nigeria was unaccustomed to such heat and it caused her to faint.

 

The weather in Sunderland on 20th June 2014 was pretty hot for Sunderland. 20 degrees Celsius.  Looking at the weather in Nigeria in the year before, when the girl had been living there, 20 degrees C would represent a brisk chilly day in Nigeria, with a hot day being about 33-36 degrees.

https://weatherspark.com/history/28568/2013/Ikeja-Lagos-Nigeria

 

I have to say that the ‘fainting from heat’ explanation is in need of some work.  I suspect that “Girl Faints from Heat in Sunderland” would be headline news in the North East were it ever to happen.

 

[Actually out of curiosity, I just Googled ‘Sunderland heat wave’ ready to tell you that there were no results, but there were 168,000. Perhaps many of them were along the lines of  “Ed Milliband making a comeback as Labour leader in 2020? That’s about as likely as a Sunderland Heat Wave”]

 

The brother’s evidence became less credible when, for example, he denied that the iron bar was something that he had ever seen before and then retracted this when it was suggested to him that his DNA would be on it.

 

The mother, who had been present, and her father (who had been in Nigeria) both supported the brother’s version of events.

The cultural issue of course raised its head, and the Judge dealt with that

  1. Before considering which evidence I prefer, I want to say a word about cultural issues. This family come from a remote part of Nigeria. English is not their first language, albeit they have a good command of it. They are, as I have said, born again Christians and they seek to live their lives by a strong religious code. Their cultural background is in many ways very different to that which exists in the north east of England. They do things in Nigeria which are acceptable there but not here.
  2. Specifically, physical chastisement of children is normal. The father’s evidence was very clear that for what he called an accountable child, probably from the age of 10 onwards, whipping a child on the legs with African broom or with a cane as part of a process of punishment and learning is normal. It is not so long ago, certainly within the lives of some of the lawyers here, that such was acceptable in this country and so the court has no difficulty at all in accepting that but, given the way that this case has proceeded, its relevance is limited because it is not said either by the mother or R that this is what happened to P. Rather, they say she was not struck at all but I do accept that P and R are likely to have a more benign view of physical chastisement on a child than most British people would have in 2015. All that said, I agree with Mr Donnelly that this is not a case about chastisement in a different culture but a case about significant harm in the care of a mother.
  3. I accept that, further, there is a strict hierarchical structure within families whereby the father of the house, whether he is there or not, has to be consulted on important decisions. That has had significant practical consequences given parental separation here and I accept that it may have played some part in the refusal to consent to P being accommodated, as well as the initial engagement with the Local Authority and possibly even going to court in the early stages which I have no doubt is both a frightening and possibly shameful thing for the mother, in particular, to have experienced. So I have all of these factors very much in mind in making the decisions that I have to and I will return to this in due course.

 

 

The Court had to consider the evidence given by all parties, and of course the legal framwork, which is all very carefully set out. It is a very well constructed judgment.

  1. So which evidence do I prefer? Unhesitatingly, that of P. There is no more explanation for her lying now than there was in June last year. The lengths to which she went in feigning a faint point to the seriousness of the assault that she suffered. The instincts of the ambulance man first on the scene were, in my judgment, entirely correct. The injuries are entirely consistent with her account. They are all about the same age and fresh. They have the characteristics of being hit with an object such as a table leg in their linear appearance. They affect the outer aspects of both thighs, the outer aspects of the left arm and the back. They are not consistent with a simple collapse to the floor. They are, as Dr Mellon said but the mother, father and R denied, characteristic of defensive injuries. It appeared to be beyond the father and R’s comprehension that P would not fight back. She is described elsewhere as an underweight, 15-year-old girl of slight build pitched against a 19-year-old male who appeared to be over six feet high and who was armed and one might have thought that that was a sufficient reason to adopt a defensive position rather than try and fight back.
  2. There is simply no other explanation for these injuries, just as there is no reason put before the court as to why, as R said, P would want to put herself in care and be separated from her family. I reject her father’s submission that because P has told him that she has been refused permission to go to church and to foster care, to the foster carer has said that she does not want to go, that she is demonstrably untruthful or unreliable. There could be many reasons for two different accounts at different times and there has been no opportunity to investigate the circumstances in which those accounts were given in any event. I also reject R’s submission that because she identified her shoulder to the ambulance man, she was thereby not complaining of being beaten by her brother. The medical evidence, in my judgment, is clear. There is no alternative, credible explanation.
  3. The evidence of the mother and R, far from causing me to question her veracity, confirms that they were neither credible nor reliable. I found R to be evasive, argumentative and unwilling to confront the truth staring us all in the face. I could say more about it but I am satisfied, as it happens, that in her letter P has described her brother to a tee:

    “My brother is not a type of person that says sorry so easily. He is a type of person that is so proud and full of himself.”

    It seemed to me that that was a very accurate description of a rather arrogant and self-centred young man. I am quite satisfied that he is an intelligent and articulate man. Having seen him give his evidence and be cross-examined, I am quite sure that he was generally intent on ensuring that he gave answers which supported and/or did not undermine his case rather than trying to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth at all times. Accordingly, I did not find him credible and reliable.

  4. I am satisfied that R lost his temper with his sister over an argument about the television. He wanted to watch the five o’clock football match and would not let her finish the programme that she had been watching for some time since she came in from school and, not for the first time, he responded with violence. I am satisfied he beat her with a table leg and caused the injuries that I have noted and, furthermore, I am satisfied that P’s mother knew that this is what had happened for the very reason that she saw it. I pay due regard to what her husband has said about his belief in her veracity but I do not believe that she intervened but, in seeking to deflect attention at the outset, suggested that very thing to the police only to back away from it, as she did, when the seriousness of the incident became known.
  5. P’s shock and distress at her mother not intervening was marked and entirely understood. Although the mother told me that both R and P are her children and that she loves them equally, by her conduct she has demonstrated that, in fact, she has put R’s interests before her daughter. She has protected him when she knows the truth of what he has done. She has almost inexplicably abandoned – and it is not too strong a word – her daughter by denying her contact, putting up as obstacles the Local Authority’s perfectly reasonable conditions. Most parents would walk over hot coals to see their children, however objectionable the terms, because to do so would be to prioritise the child and to meet the child’s needs to see her family. Furthermore, she is not ignorant of the role of social workers. Her professional training and experience over a period of almost ten years contradicts her claim. She may very well be ashamed at the misfortune that has befallen her and her family but she simply has persistently refused to engage in this process as I will explain.
  6. So looking at the threshold document prepared by the Local Authority in the bundle at A16, I am satisfied it is made out as pleaded. That refers in paragraph 4(a) to the injuries themselves, in paragraph (b) to R being the cause of the injuries, being struck by an iron rod and that it was causing her pain, in subparagraph (e) that the mother has been complicit in that physical abuse perpetrated by her son in that she knew or ought to have known it was happening and had failed to tell anyone so as to protect her own interests. She misled professionals and, indeed, now the court about her son having assaulted her daughter and instead alleged that P is lying about the abuse she has suffered and following P’s admission to hospital and subsequently care has, as I have said, abandoned her daughter preferring to protect her son.

 

The family in this case had adopted a strategy of not engaging with the assessment or coming to contact, which is the all or nothing approach that only really ever works if the Court find that the threshold is not met. In a case like this, where the Judge found that the brother had caused very serious significant harm to the girl by hitting her with an iron bar, and that the mother had been in the home at the time, had not intervened and had lied about it, that is not really giving the mother much chance of a happy outcome.  They absolutely would not countenance the brother moving out of the home so that the girl could come home.

 

Even then, though, the Judge was holding out a hand and inviting the parents to take it

I want to say this at this stage: it is still not too late for this family, mother and R in particular, to accept the findings of this court, to make a suitable admission and to work with the Local Authority to reduce the risk both to P and any other children with whom they may be concerned – a very particular concern of P as she said in her letter to me

 

The Court had to make the Care Order, there was no other option

 

This is a very, very sad case. It began as a one issue case, the assault. It could, as Mr Rowlands has said, have had a very different outcome. That it has not is entirely due to the family and not their daughter. It has ended up as more than that because of the astonishing and persistent denial in the face of all of the evidence and the near complete rejection of P by her family. The harm to her from the latter is likely to outweigh the harm from the former in the longer term but, I repeat, even now it is not too late to reverse that process. These parents have an attractive, appealing and loving daughter who has shown the Christian virtues of forgiveness and love that they taught her. She really deserves a very much better outcome than this but I am afraid the solution lies entirely in their hands.

 

One particularly worrying feature of this case was the removal of the child by Police Protection. The mother having refused section 20 and the girl at that time not being sixteen so she was not able to accommodate herself using section 20 (11).   However,

I want to register my extreme concern at the level of force which was used when the police recovered P from her home when she ran away from foster care in September. She was handcuffed, under what power is not clear, and the incident is said to have been recorded because of its nature. This incident needs to be noted and taken up by the Local Authority in conjunction with the police. It is ambiguous from the statement as to whether a social worker was actually present when it happened. It has not formed part of the material evidence before me but it was an extremely unfortunate incident, it was harmful to P that her guardian was rightly horrified about. I do not know what the Local Authority response to it was at the time, what its response has been since and I do seek separately an explanation from the Local Authority and the police as to the circumstances that were pertaining and as to what measures have been devised and agreed upon to avoid a repetition of such an event in the future.

 

composite threshold – a living example

 

I wrote about the difficulties of composite thresholds here https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/05/28/composite-threshold-documents-in-which-a-tightrope-is-walked/  particularly where a document is produced that sets out what everyone says but doesn’t end up with clarity as the precise way that threshold is said to be met.

 

This judgment by Her Honour Judge Owens  http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B73.html  OCC v B and T 2015 is a really good example of that.

Particularly since the Judge includes a suitably anonymised version of the threshold at the end of the judgment. I commend that, I think it makes far more sense when considering what decisions was made by a Court to see the factual background set out.  I really like it.

The version provided is a composite document, set out in tablular form (and again, I like the way that this is produced, it is really helpful in terms of seeing what the allegation is, where the evidence is for it and what the parents say).

 

But it is a composite document. It doesn’t end up by setting out the findings that the Court was either making by agreement or was asked to adjudicate upon. So it isn’t a final threshold.

And then, there’s this bit in the judgment itself

Threshold is no longer in issue in this case. A composite threshold document has been agreed and the Local Authority accepts that the concessions recorded in that document are sufficient for threshold purposes. They do not therefore seek findings in relation to the issues not accepted on that document and I adopt that threshold document as my threshold findings in this case and make no findings in relation to items 1 (e), 3(a) and (b) on that schedule. A copy of that schedule, suitably redacted in relation to the identities of the parties, is appended to this Judgement

 

All very sensible and practical – the LA deciding not to push for additional findings where there is agreement and the concessions are sufficient.

However, when I look at the composite document, I see that whilst mother accepts all of the matters that remain (3 a) and (3b) were the only bits that she disputed, father was disputing just about EVERYTHING.  And the LA were accepting that they did not seek any findings in relation to matters that were disputed, so effectively all of those matters are just crossed out of the threshold.

Here is what father actually concedes, in totality

 

1(b) I accept arguing which can be seen as verbally abusive but not aggressive.  [Really hard to see in the light of Re A and Re J – and even before then, that this amounts to threshold]

1(c) The mother made allegations of domestic abuse against father but then withdrew them.   [Well, that’s not threshold unless the assertion is that the allegations were true OR that the making of false allegations caused emotional harm to the child, neither of which are asserted]

1(d) Both parents sent abusive text messages and Facebook messages to each other

2 The father had an argument with the Health Visitor because she came to the home for an important meeting without a sign language intepreter  (again, that’s not threshold)

4. The father accepts that he had some convictions, the most recent of which was ten years ago.

 

5. The father accepts that his other children were placed on the Child Protection Register but disputes that this was the right decision.

 

As we’ve previously discussed, it is possible that on a line by line basis, each individual allegation in and of itself would not amount to threshold, but that taken as a totality, it would. But that’s also not the case here. [Given that para 5 as drafted by the LA contains reference to his two older children being adopted, the Court could have been asked to find that the threshold relied upon and found in those proceedings was sufficient to establish a risk of harm from father, depending upon what was in it and how historical it was, but that didn’t happen]

 

Given what the Judge says about threshold  – LA don’t invite Court to make findings on any matters in dispute and that those matters which are accepted are how threshold is established, then those are the only concessions that are agreed by both parents.  The Local Authority could have invited the Court to find that the threshold was met on the basis of the mother’s concessions, and the Judge would then have had to rule on the matters that father disputed, but that’s not what happened. The LA invited the Court to make a finding that threshold was met on the basis of father’s concessions.

Now, just imagine for a moment, drafting a threshold that contains only those matters set out above. As a stand alone document, saying that this is why the children are at risk of significant harm.  It appears to me that this would be very short of threshold.

 

[There are 3 matters that relate chiefly to mother that father does not dispute, so we could add those in. She wasn’t always honest with professionals, she went to a refuge and then went back to father, and refused to go into a refuge just before the Court proceedings were issued.  IF the Court established that father was domestically violent, then those are matters which could add to the threshold, but there isn’t such a finding.  On the threshold that the case has ended up with, the very high point of the findings made is that harsh words were exchanged between mother and father (both verbally and via text messages/facebook) ]

 

I’ll be clear,

(a) The allegations set out by the Local Authority in their original document (the first two columns of the composite document) were more than capable of meeting threshold

(b) From reading the judgment, I would be confident that most, and perhaps all of them, would have been found had the LA pushed for this – the evidence was there to do so

(c) I’m fairly sure that all involved were approaching the case on the basis that it was not in dispute that there had been DV between father and mother and that he posed a risk to the children

(d) But actually there was. Father’s response to threshold disputed this. And that became a live issue as to whether his admissions were sufficient or whether the Court needed to deal with the disputed issues on threshold

(e) In my opinion, the actual concessions made and accepted, are way short of threshold  (particularly threshold for deciding that the children should be permanently separated from their mother – whilst there is only one section 31 threshold criteria it is plain from the Supreme Court in Re B that the Court’s final orders have to be proportionate to the harm suffered or a risk of being suffered.  )

 

I think there was ample evidence for the Court to find that father was a risk to the children and that mother had been subjected to domestic violence and had not been able to protect. And reading the totality of the judgment, I think that’s the basis on which the Court approached the case. Additionally, there were three significant  findings made which could properly go into a finalised threshold, and given that the Judge set these out in passages of her judgment that were explictly considering ‘risk of harm’ I would legitimately be putting them into a final threshold document.  BUT that would have been dependent on the Judge’s paragraph about threshold adding ‘and the specific matters that I found in my judgment in relation to risks of harm to the children’ or something similar.

 

  If they return to the care of their mother, however, I find that the likelihood is that this placement would breakdown due to her inability to apply the required parenting skills to a good enough standard

I find and the only conclusion I can draw is that she is simply not capable of working openly and honestly with the local authority in the best interests of her children.

The stakes are therefore very high indeed for them and the risk of them suffering further disruption and emotional harm is, as I have found, high

 

The Judge also makes comment that mother failed to understand the risk that father poses (and that’s very important, but it is equally important to remember that the Court hasn’t actually made findings about the level of risk father poses, and the adverse findings against him relate to mutual exchanges of harsh words between him and mother. )

 

There is also reference to what was probably the most important incident

On the 9th December 2014 RB moved to a place of safety following an alleged assault on her by ST on 8th December 2014. This assault was witnessed by a member of the public and ST was arrested. The Police records of this assault are at F110-112 and F129 – 144 and I have also seen the DVD recordings of ST’s Police interview and RB’s statement to the Police about this incident.

 

Although that is in the LA threshold document, at 1(d),  it is disputed by the father, and because of the formulation of words in the judgment about threshold (which I’ll repeat here) it is NOT a finding made. The Judge had done sufficient to make a decision about that allegation, and would probably have made the finding if asked, but was not in fact asked to do so.

 

Threshold is no longer in issue in this case. A composite threshold document has been agreed and the Local Authority accepts that the concessions recorded in that document are sufficient for threshold purposes. They do not therefore seek findings in relation to the issues not accepted on that document and I adopt that threshold document as my threshold findings in this case and make no findings in relation to items 1 (e), 3(a) and (b) on that schedule.

 

It is really obvious that the Court is proceeding throughout on the basis that it is established that father is a risk to the children and indeed to the mother.

BUT the threshold findings that were actually made by the Court were astonishingly low – far lower than I suspect anyone involved really grasped. And if there had been a second threshold document, one that went beyond just setting out a Scott Schedule  (we say,she says, he says) and into just setting out the precise allegations that were actually agreed i.e a final threshold, looking at that on a piece of paper would have made it clear that the concessions given were not sufficient to cross threshold and that the Judge would have to be invited to make findings.

IF this father were to be involved in future Court proceedings, someone picking up this judgment might consider that the Court had made findings that he posed a risk to his children and that he had been domestically violent to the mother   (and I’m sure that’s what those involved thought had happened) BUT as a matter of law, the findings against dad that were made were only those things that he admitted to – which amount to an exchange of harsh words with mother and an argument with a Health Visitor.  Would the actual findings that were made by this Court be sufficient to establish a likelihood of harm with future children?

 

I don’t mean to be critical of anyone involved – this is just an illustration of how a composite style threshold can pose a problem. Had a second document that sets out, taking into account just those matters that were accepted, it would have been really plain that the LA needed to go above and beyond just the accepted matters and into asking the Court to make findings on the central issue (was father domestically violent towards the mother and was he a risk to the children?).   I am sure that all involved took those matters as a given – I’m sure that if father had been fighting the allegations he would not have succeeded, but the approach that the concessions themselves were sufficient to meet the threshold doesn’t seem to stack up when you look at it with fresh eyes.

 

There’s a lot of other stuff to praise in this judgment, it is just a shame about that one element.

 

 

 

 

Composite threshold documents – in which, a tightrope is walked

 

Two nightmares of legal blogging this week. The first was the McKenzie Friend case in which I had to write an account of the Court roasting a person for bad behaviour when that person was not just a name on a page but someone that was in my mind a real flesh and blood person.  And now this one, where the judgment is written by my local Designated Family Judge.

That’s something that I dread seeing, because it puts me in an ethical quandary. If I praise it to the skies, I’m a suck-up. If I take a red pen to it and dissect its flaws – well, I’m stupid but I’m not THAT stupid.  So if I see one, I hope that it has nothing of wider relevance and I can ignore it. That avoids the need for me to walk a tightrope.

 

Damn. This one does have some wider relevance. It says things that have been said before and emphasises them, but it also says some things that haven’t been said before and that have been worth saying.

Behold, Suesspicious Minds walks a tightrope, without a safety net. GASP as he wobbles. WONDER if he will plummet to his certain demise?  PUZZLE as to why he has thought up too late that he could have put at the start that this particular article was a Guest post…

 

Why am I going to walk the tightrope for this case?

Firstly, it is the DFJ identifying several flaws in practice and I know that many of my readers practice in Sussex and will come before this DFJ. Forewarned is forearmed, and actually many of these practice issues would, if fixed, make for smoother running of Court hearings. What the Judge has to say about practice issues is important to read.  The less time that the Court has to spend in a hearing on fixing practice issues, the more that everyone can concentrate on the child and the child’s future, and we all want that.

 

Secondly, the DFJ says things about composite threshold documents which have wider implications for practitioners in all parts of the country.  What the DFJ says about composite threshold documents is, in my opinion, very long overdue, and I can’t think of an authority which sets out just how problematic they have become.

So I’d recommend that all Sussex practitioners put this judgment high on their “to-read” pile, and I have little doubt that these issues are troubling other Judges across the country and that similar judgments will be following, so it should go on everyone’s “to-read” pile, which will for many of you involve getting a stepladder and sliding the authority in the ever-decreasing gap between the top of the pile and the aertexed ceiling of the office.  (Top tip – avoid starting the pile directly under a ceiling fan)

 

East Sussex County Council v BH and Others 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B57.html

 

A quick note, for readers who aren’t lawyers. (Ah, how I envy you all).

The threshold document is a 2 page document prepared by the Local Authority setting out the harm that the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering and the allegations/facts that lead to that. The parents both respond to that, with the help of their lawyers. The Local Authority then prepare a final, or composite threshold document that sets out exactly what is agreed.

The problem is, and this isn’t a Sussex problem – I’ve seen it all over the county, and it has always irked me,  that often what you end up with is a “He said, she said” document, that doesn’t set out what the parties agree happened, so much as just squash the parents responses in next to the Local Authority allegation.

 

I’ll give you an example.  We are going to work on the basis of a single sentence within the LA threshold, and for illustrative purposes it is going to be  “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”

[Pedantic note – I originally used ‘jumps’ as in the typist sentence, but because the threshold is in the past tense, it made me wince every time, so I had to go back and change it. Also, because my father was a speed typist and taught me with the sentence  “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’s back”  to put a punctuation mark into the mix, I felt guilty for not using that version. ]

[That is NOT real threshold, before anyone rings the Daily Mail and claims that children are taken into care as a result of athletic foxes]

 

Mother’s response is “It is accepted by the mother that she does own a dog, it is accepted that on occasions the dog does enjoy a sleep but on other occasions he leads a full and active life. On the morning in question, the mother does not recall the state of the dog’s alertness. It is accepted that a fox did jump over the dog. The mother considers that the fox was orange.  The mother had been meaning to shut the back door, which would have prevented the fox entering the house, but at that moment the postman rang the bell at the front-door and she had to attend to that.”

 

Father’s response is  “It is accepted by the father that on one occasion, a fox entered the home. This was through a window that had been broken the night before by a gang of youths, father did a week later report that criminal damage to the police. The fox did move swiftly and it was a brownish-orange colour.  The fox did leap over a member of the household, though father tried to prevent it, he was holding a jar of Branston pickle at the time and his grip was impaired. What was leapt over, however, was not the dog, but the cat”

 

And the composite threshold document then becomes.

 

Paragraph 7.  The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog

Mother’s response is “It is accepted by the mother that she does own a dog, it is accepted that on occasions the dog does enjoy a sleep but on other occasions he leads a full and active life. On the morning in question, the mother does not recall the state of the dog’s alertness. It is accepted that a fox did jump over the dog. The mother considers that the fox was orange.  The mother had been meaning to shut the back door, which would have prevented the fox entering the house, but at that moment the postman rang the bell at the front-door and she had to attend to that.”

Father’s response is  “It is accepted by the father that on one occasion, a fox entered the home. This was through a window that had been broken the night before by a gang of youths, father did a week later report that criminal damage to the police. The fox did move swiftly and it was a brownish-orange colour.  The fox did leap over a member of the household, though father tried to prevent it, he was holding a jar of Branston pickle at the time and his grip was impaired. What was leapt over, however, was not the dog, but the cat”

 

Not only is that cumbersome and unwieldy, but it doesn’t actually tell you anything about what actually happened.  It could instead be put like this.

 

Paragraph 7.  Something happened. Nobody agrees what, but they all agree that something happened.

And you can end up with two pages of long-winded “Something happened. Nobody agrees what” as being apparently the factual basis on which the Court is invited to make final orders – serious final orders.

When a Judge comes to hear the case, and considers what the risk of a future episode of a lazy dog being jumped over by a fox might be, how on earth does that composite threshold help anyone?

 

This is a problem on two fronts. Firstly, there’s a tendency in responses to threshold to put in extraneous detail and mitigation, when that could be in a statement instead. If the response focussed on – is the allegation accepted in full, accepted in part or denied?  And if accepted in part, provide a form of words which would be acceptable to your client, we would avoid much of the superfluous detail that clouds the issues.  In this case – was there a dog, was there a fox, did the dog jump over the fox?

Secondly, there’s a failure by the person drafting the final composite threshold (that’s someone like me, and even though I hate it, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it) to not be able to strip away all the superfluous detail and mitigation, to be able to get to the core of what form of wording would be agreed.

 

For example, here are three acceptable composite documents.

 

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog   – this is accepted

The fox jumped over the dog and the dog showed no later ill-effects – this is accepted

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog – this is denied by the parents and the Court is asked to make a finding

 

(and a fourth, which the allegation is disputed, and the Local Authority agree to remove it from the document.   There are some important issues about whether you’d go for option 3 or option 4 and whether a parents concessions are sufficient – I’ve written about it here  http://www.jordanpublishing.co.uk/practice-areas/family/news_and_comment/view-from-the-foot-of-the-tower-horse-trading-and-threshold-concessions#.VWa9FEY1Ouc)

 

So, for parents lawyers, please please please stop your documents being pleas of mitigation, and hone in on the task of ‘is this agreed, partially agreed and here’s my form of words, or denied’ .  It’s a response to threshold, not a plea of mitigation.  And for me, and those like me – produce a final threshold document that actually sets out for the Judge (and those to read it in years to come), what the AGREED basis for the order is, and where there is not agreement, set out what finding is sought from the Court.

 

The Judge deals with this without the need for fox and dog imagery.

 

  • As frequently happens, a “composite threshold document” had been completed in a cut-and-paste fashion. By that I mean the document set out the evidence relied upon by the local authority, together with the responses and explanations of each parent in turn. However, whilst it was clear from the document that the threshold was met to the requisite standard, the replies when examined clearly revealed that a number of facts relied upon were not accepted, and not capable of being resolved. There was no indication to me, even at the eleventh hour, as to what I was being expected to determine from the outstanding facts and matters which were in dispute. Threshold must be thought out, and any issues in need of determination identified at the earliest possible stage and the PLO applies. It is entirely unsatisfactory to present a court at the start of a final hearing with matters relied upon which have not been either agreed or identified for determination. Precious time was therefore taken up on this issue alone. Either a threshold is agreed or it is not at the earliest possible stage, in which case the court takes a view. In the event the parties managed to agree threshold at the start of the hearing.

 

Finally, the judgment makes a point about judicial reading time. There is never enough of it allocated, but the parties don’t help by not estimating it properly. We are obliged to put in the case summary how much judicial reading time is needed.  That bit is never nice to fill in – if you are realistic, and put that for an IRH the Court ought to read everything, and have a grasp and knowledge of it, then for a 350 page bundle, a minute a page gives you a 6 hour reading time.  A minute a page might be breezy for some parts of the bundle but others might take much longer than that.  Handwritten medical notes for example… Or a page of heavy analysis or cross-references – you might have to slow down to check that the quotations from other documents are fair and representative rather than cherry picked and misleading.

 

Do you think any Judge is going to thank you for putting a 6 hour – or a cut-down slightly unrealistic 3 hour (30 seconds per page) time estimate for a hearing that is listed for an hour?  So we all fudge and put 2 hours…

If judicial reading time is included, advocates might consider how long it took them to prepare the case for hearing in terms of reading time and allocate judicial reading time accordingly.

 

Of course, if we had the old days of special prep SIPS forms, a Judge could tackle this by saying that the reading time that counsel would get paid for would not exceed the reading time allocated to the Judge. That would have made for more accurate estimates of judicial reading time…

 

 

 

Only just over the threshold

 

I am tending to think that there’s a repositioning of the threshold criteria going on at the moment. It is a little hard to call, since there’s always been the unspoken background that what constitutes threshold in Liverpool doesn’t necessarily be the same things that consitute threshold in Torquay. But it feels that Re A and Re J are a subtle raising of the bar.

When a bar is raised, it can be tricky to work out exactly where that bar now is. We know that on the facts of Re A, threshold was not made out, but we don’t know if it was miles short or inches short.

Which is why when the President decides a case and says that the threshold criteria was satisfied but only just, it gives us some potentially useful information.

 

Leeds City Council v M and others 2015   http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/27.html  is the follow-up to the President’s judgment on Female Genital Mutilation (you may remember, this was the case where that was alleged, and the President had to decide (a) if it had happened (no) (b) whether it could amount to threshold (yes) (c) Would it amount to risk of harm to a male child (no) and (d) if it had happened, would it by itself justify adoption (no)

 

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/01/14/fgm-an-important-authority/

The President’s first judgment pre-dated Re A, which is what makes me think that there’s a shift in thinking. The President here didn’t seem to be struggling with the idea that domestic violence, even if not of the most serious nature could amount to significant harm:-

 

“(i) The local authority is unable on the evidence to establish that G (as I shall refer to her) either has been or is at risk of being subjected to any form of female genital mutilation.

(ii) There was a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F (as I shall refer to them) was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety.

(iii) Given all the facts as I find them, including but not limited to (i) and (ii) above, threshold is established.

The President had said in the first case that adoption, the LA’s plan, was not proportionate, and was seeking an alternative resolution. This case is that resolution.

In giving his final judgment, the President identified four key areas where the LA contended threshold was met:-

1. Mother’s mental health

2. Domestic violence

3. Neglect and physical abuse

4. Lack of cooperation / engagement

Remember, the President concluded that threshold WAS met, but only just.

I am prepared to accept, in the light of my findings, that threshold is established, though not by a very large margin.

So, looking at things in detail

 

1. Mother’s mental health

The psychiatrist, Dr T, made the diagnosis that mother had ‘schizo-affective disorder’, currently in remission, but a lifelong condition vulnerable to relapse caused by stress. Dr T said at least 12 months’ stability in M’s condition was essential if B and G were to be safe in her care and that the necessary period had not yet elapsed. If stability and compliance could not be maintained over that length of time, it would be “very risky” for them to be returned to her care

The Judge accepted Dr T’s evidence and opinion.

 

  • I accept that there has been improvement in M’s mental health. But Dr T’s evidence, which I accept, is clear, compelling and withstood all challenge. It would be irresponsible not to heed and give effect to it. In my judgment, M is not at present able to look after B and G.

[You might look at that and say that this in and of itself is sufficient to cross the threshold – there’s a factual matrix which allows the Court to establish that there is a risk of significant harm – remember that if a factual matrix is established, the risk itself does not have to be more likely than not, it is sufficient to be a risk which cannot sensibly be ignored, as decided by the House of Lords in H and R 1996. ]

 

2. Domestic violence

 

The mother had made allegations of domestic violence against the father, but later retracted them. The Court had heard evidence from mother and father.

My conclusion, having carefully considered the mass of material put to me and the helpfully detailed submissions from counsel, is that there was, as I have said, a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety. It was, as Mr Ekaney submits, at the lower end of the scale. Beyond that it would not be right to go.

 

Remembering that the definition of ‘harm’ was expanded in the Children Act 1989  to include the words in bold  “harm” means ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development [including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another];     – the words being added in the Adoption and Children Act 2002. So a child being exposed to domestic violence, or at risk of being so exposed can be considered to have suffered harm, or risk of such harm – the issue really being whether it is significant.  The President does not, in his judgment, specify whether his conclusion about domestic violence here amounted to significant harm or the risk thereof.  The best we can do is go back to this bit

“(i) The local authority is unable on the evidence to establish that G (as I shall refer to her) either has been or is at risk of being subjected to any form of female genital mutilation.

(ii) There was a greater degree of marital discord than either M or F (as I shall refer to them) was willing to admit to. There was also, I am satisfied, some physical violence on the part of F, though neither very frequent nor of the more serious variety.

(iii) Given all the facts as I find them, including but not limited to (i) and (ii) above, threshold is established.

 

 

and suggest that domestic violence was part of the factual matrix that led the President to conclude that threshold was crossed, though not by a very large margin.

 

3. Neglect and physical abuse

 

This is the section where you get to see the Re A dynamics play out. There are facts established to show what happened to the children

There were two very specific allegations of neglect, amongst more general complaints

in October 2013, G was taken to nursery with spare clothes that were damp, soiled and smelled of urine; much more significant, on 7 November 2013 M, it is said, abandoned G in an alleyway in the city centre, where she was found cold, wet and very distressed. 

[The mother accepted the abandonment. G was born in July 2011, remember]

 

There is no doubt that B and G experienced instability and inconsistency of care, brought about by M’s recurrent mental health difficulties and F’s limited ability to cope with them. There were the specific instances of neglect I have already referred to.  To the extent that there was marital discord between F and M, B and G were exposed to it. I think it is probable that on a few occasions B and G were exposed to mild chastisement – but nothing more serious.

 

But as Re A showed us, establishing a contested (or accepted fact) as being proven is only half of the story. The next stage is for the Local Authority to satisfy the Court that what happened caused the children harm.

In this case, the Guardian considered that the children did not present as having been damaged by their experiences

“Without exception these two children have been described in very positive ways; it is clear they are delightful and endearing children who make a good impression on anyone who meets them. It is also clear that the first impressions of these children did not signify children who had been exposed to neglect, or an abusive home environment. They appeared to have been protected from the worst excesses of the mother’s mental health challenges. They have experienced positive parenting.”

 

The President says

I entirely agree. The guardian’s analysis accords with everything I have read and heard.

What is important, however, is the fact that, as I have already found, none of this seems to have had any significant or prolonged impact on either B or G – so nothing they have been exposed to can have been that serious.

 

The President doesn’t say so explicitly (which is somewhat vexing for those of us who are trying to decipher the Delphic offerings), but I think that that final remark can be read to mean that he did not accept that the threshold was made out on the basis of the neglect aspects.

Frankly, I think abandoning a 2 1/2 year old child in an alleyway is significant harm, but it appears that I am wrong about that.

 

Firstly, this troubles me because that sort of thing also feeds into risk of future harm, and of course a child isn’t yet showing the ill-effects of future harm. This approach seems to ignore future harm entirely.

The other thing that concerns me about this approach is that I can forsee that we are ending up with a different threshold criteria for a resilient child, who is exposed to poor parenting but has inner qualities that allow them to cope, and a fragile child whose reaction to the same parenting is marked and plain to see.  And it also requires that the child is showing the effects of the harm that they have suffered in a very visible and measurable way – I know that the neuroscience is controversial, but there is at least some evidence to suggest that neglect has much longer repercussions than the immediate visible impact.

 

4. Lack of cooperation / engagement

 

Here the parents made concessions

 

 

  • M admits poor engagement with professionals due to her mental health problems.
  • F accepts that, prior to the children being taken into care, he failed to engage and co-operate with the local authority and that this led to him adopting what was understandably perceived as a controlling attitude towards M. This, I accept, was driven by the two factors to which Mr Ekaney drew attention. The first was F’s perplexity about the family situation, largely caused by his failure to recognise the nature and extent of and inability to understand M’s mental health difficulties. The other was F’s desire to protect his family and his fear, from his perspective well-founded fear, that B and G would be removed from their care. Since B and G were taken into care, F’s attitude has changed. There has been, as Mr Ekaney puts it, a high level of co-operation and engagement with the local authority, coupled with a high level of commitment to B and G. And, as I accept, this is not due to any compulsion; it reflects F’s growing realisation and acceptance of the underlying realities.
  • Given M’s and F’s concessions, which appropriately reflect the reality of what was going on, there is no need for me to make any further findings.

 

[Well, there is a slight need – again, I am assuming that this was not found to have amounted to significant harm or the risk of significant harm, but it is rather difficult to say for certain, because the judgment doesn’t outline it.  To be honest, I do not envy the Local Authority advocate who had to draw up a final settled threshold based on this judgment. I THINK that the totality of the judgment suggests that findings of fact were made across points 1-4, but only those in points 1 and 2 amounted also to findings of significant harm. But I would not race to Paddy Power with bundles* of fivers to back that conclusion. My actual bet would be that over the next year, the number of cases where threshold is agreed rather than fought out will dramatically reduce. And as we can’t have fact finding hearings any more, thresholds will be fought out at final hearings. How’s that going to work out for 26 weeks, I wonder?]

 

 

The President ruled that whilst mother could not care for the children now or within their timescales, the father could and should be given that opportunity, and the children would be placed with him under Supervision Orders.

So there we have it, on these facts, the case crossed the threshold, but not by a very large margin.

 

 

*IF I did happen to be going to the bookies with bundles of fivers, I would ensure that in accordance with Practice Direction 27 there were (a) no more than 350 of them (b) They were A4 sized  and (c) that they were printed only on one side. Which explains why Paddy Power doesn’t want me going in there any more.