The ever-continuing saga of the (imho misplaced) decision of the framers of the Children Act to express actual harm in the present tense rather than the past tense continues, and perhaps reaches its nadir in this case before the Court of Appeal, in which
pause, deep breath
a Judge was persuaded to summarily dismiss the application for a Care Order following a byzantine (and as quoted from the Court of Appeal ‘obviously fallacious’) legal argument that because the child was in a safe place at the time of issue and the LA could not say that at that date of issue the child ‘is suffering’ significant harm, the case should be thrown out
H-L (Children: Summary Dismissal of Care Proceedings)
The threshold criteria expresses that
Section 31 (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.
This whole thing with the present tense was litigated to hell in the early 1990s, and it is astonishing to me that the Courts are still being troubled with it. The threshold is decided with reference to the “Relevant Date” and if one can prove that (looking back in time) at the Relevant Date the child ‘is suffering’ then the threshold is met. The Relevant Date will OFTEN BUT NOT ALWAYS be the issue date. Where the harm is neglect for example, and the child is at home, the LA will say that the child “is suffering” from that neglect at the date of issue. BUT, what happens where the child is no longer in the dangerous home at the time the proceedings start (they are with grandmother, or in foster care, or the risky adult has moved out) – well, in that case the Relevant Date is the date when those protective measures were put in place.
Jackson LJ opens the case with a background history that I can’t improve upon
1.A two-year-old child is examined by a hospital paediatrician. She is found to have about 20 bruises, including groups of bruises on the face, neck and arms that are in the doctor’s opinion highly likely to have been caused by forceful grabbing by an adult. There are three people who could be responsible: the mother, the father, and a non-family carer. The local authority is immediately informed and it begins child protection inquiries. The police also investigate. All three adults deny causing any injury. Plans need to be made for the child and for her six-year-old half-sister. The mother and the two fathers have different views about where the children should be placed.
2.A scenario of this kind would be familiar to any social services department and to any family court. Both agencies are given wide and flexible powers, mainly under the Children Act 1989, that they are under a duty to use to protect children and promote their welfare, while at the same time being fair to adults. Both agencies will recognise that a child that has suffered transient injuries may be more seriously injured over time and that other children in the household may face similar risks. They will also recognise that delay and inefficiency will work against the interests of the children and may well be harmful to them. Accordingly, on these facts the local authority will undertake a swift assessment and, on it becoming clear that the source of the risk has not been established, will take steps to ensure that proper plans can be made for the children. This requires an adjudication on responsibility for the injuries, something that can only be done by the court. The local authority will therefore issue proceedings to allow the court to reach a factual conclusion and to make any orders that may then be necessary. The court process should in all normal circumstances (and there is nothing particularly abnormal about these) be completed within the statutory period of 26 weeks, allowing the children and their family to move on with their lives on the basis of sound plans, built on the best possible understanding of what went wrong and how it might be avoided in future. That understanding is not only needed for the sake of these children, but also for the sake of any other children for whom the parents may in future be responsible.
3.Unfortunately, that is not what happened in the present case. Neither of the key agencies acted correctly. The local authority secured alternative arrangements for the children without having any legal standing for doing so, and it then delayed for three months in issuing proceedings, which it then pursued in what the court rightly described as a shambolic manner. For its part, the court departed from established case management practice and authority before striking out the proceedings in week 15 without conducting any investigation whatever into how the child came by her injuries. In doing so, it accepted and adopted a legal argument born of a profound misunderstanding of the basic statutory regime governing proceedings of this kind. During the lifetime of the proceedings the court did not make any statutory orders to govern the arrangements for the children, even to the extent of making the interim supervision orders requested by the local authority, being the least level of protection that the situation required.
4.The net result is that almost a year has passed since the child went to hospital without there being the smallest increase in our understanding of how she was injured. In the meantime, the children’s lives have continued on the basis of arrangements brokered (until the proceedings were dismissed) by the local authority without legal authority or (since the proceedings were dismissed) by the parents themselves. The process has been unproductive and substantial amounts of public money have been wasted on legal costs, along with the depletion of scarce professional time. The process has also been hard for the children, who have been separated from their main carer and from each other, and for the parents, who have been bewildered by the actions of the agencies. If there is any silver lining it is that they have to some extent become united in their bewilderment, so that their relationship with each other may be better now than it was before the events arose. It can at least be said that this case may be unprecedented, in that neither this court nor counsel appearing before it are aware of a previous instance, reported or not, of care proceedings being dismissed at an interim procedural stage against the opposition of the local authority and the Children’s Guardian.
It is easy to understand why the Judge was irritated at the two huge failings of the LA – first to remove the children from mum and place with dad without any proper agreement (and actually at the time dad was one of the possible suspects for the injuries) and second to delay for so long in issuing proceedings. That makes perfect sense to me.
The bruising was noticed on 13th May.
16.The local authority held a legal planning meeting on 28 May, when it was advised that the threshold for court proceedings was crossed. On 7 June an Initial Child Protection Conference took place and the children became subject of child protection plans. On 22 June the local authority held a legal gateway meeting at which it was decided to take the matter to court. On 9 July the social worker completed her statement. On 12 July an ‘intent to issue’ meeting was held. Despite that, it took the local authority until 23 August 2018 to issue care proceedings, seeking interim supervision orders in the short term and an expeditious fact-finding process.
17.A further consequence of the local authority’s delay in issuing was that the parents were not fully legally represented during the period of the delay. Nor did the children have a Guardian to represent them or monitor their situation. Also, the mother in particular was distressed at the children’s removal from her care, but was not given a forum in which she could readily challenge it
Things seem to have gone badly awry at a hearing on 1st November
24.Also at the hearing on 1 November, discussion started about the ‘relevant date’ for proving the threshold. The local authority had asserted that this was the date of the issue of proceedings, but counsel then vacillated by telling the judge that the relevant date was 14 May before returning to the pleaded case. For their part, counsel acting for Mr H and for the Guardian submitted that if the relevant date was 14 May, it was arguable that the threshold was not met since the children had been placed by the local authority with people with parental responsibility. This issue was taken up by the judge who, no doubt exasperated by the local authority’s approach, said: “I cannot think of any better way of expediting proceedings than the court concludes that threshold is not crossed and the application is dismissed.” There then followed this exchange between the judge and counsel for the Guardian:
JUDGE: … If 14 May is not the relevant date and the relevant date is the date on which the proceedings were issued, how does the Local Authority prove that on that date, either of the children were at risk of significant harm?
COUNSEL: … If the relevant date is the date of the issue of proceedings, then in my submission, the likelihood of significant harm for Lara flows from the risks that are posed by mother being within the pool of perpetrators.
JUDGE: At the time the proceedings were issued, Lara was in the care of her father… so, how could she be at any risk of significant harm?… I am intrigued, because this is a point that has never really been developed before… But it is a point that might actually be fatal to the local authority’s case.
25.The judge said there was a real question mark in his mind as to whether or not the local authority could possibly succeed, and something to be said for the court determining the issue on “a quasi-summary basis”. He therefore listed this issue and others for legal argument on 23 November and directed skeleton arguments to be filed. This led to the parties filing over 60 pages of legal submissions on this and other issues, something that I consider to be completely inimical to the scheme of the legislation. This whole sequence of events shows that the court had strayed from its mission, which was to seek to discover how a small child had received worrying injuries.
26.At the hearing on 23 November, Mr L (who, it will be recalled, had conceded in September that the interim threshold was obviously crossed) was represented by leading counsel, Mr Vine QC. It was by now common ground that the relevant date was the date of the issue of proceedings, avoiding any need to consider complex arguments about whether protective measures had been put in place in May that might have complied with the criteria set in Re M (above). I set out the core of Mr Vine’s argument, in fairness to the judge, because it is the argument he went on to accept:
“24. While the Local Authority now correctly identifies the ‘relevant date’ in their revised threshold document as being 23 August 2018, the date of issue of the application for care orders, it is not able to establish that the section 31 (2) threshold conditions were satisfied at that time unless it can establish Mr L as a possible perpetrator of Nina’s injuries… This is because, as at the relevant date, (a) Nina was already in his care, (b) the child protection plan was being complied with, in particular, the mother’s contact (certainly in relation to Nina) was being supervised, and (c) there was no need for a care or supervision order.
- If that is correct, there is no statutory basis for these public law proceedings, and if mother seeks to resume care of the children or unsupervised contact in a departure from the child protection plans, her remedy (absent judicial review) is to apply for child arrangements orders under s. 1 (sic). In that event, there would still be a role both for (a) fact-finding in respect of Nina’s injuries, and (b) Local Authority welfare evidence by way of a section 7 welfare report, but that does not mean that these proceedings should proceed on a flawed footing.”
27.At the hearing, there were lengthy exchanges between the judge and counsel then acting for the local authority. They included these:
“JUDGE:… I mean, the wording of the relevant provision of Section 31 is in the present tense, so it means that the court looks at 23 August and asks itself the question, is the child at risk of suffering significant harm as at that date, or has the child suffered significant harm as at that date.
COUNSEL: Well, we know in respect of Nina, that is right. She has suffered –
JUDGE: Well no, because she had suffered significant harm arguably back in May… and by the time you issued your proceedings, she has… effectively from the point of view of the Local Authority at that time been removed from the source of that danger, has she not.… I have a real conceptual difficulty at the moment with understanding how one can say as at 23 August 2018 the children were at risk of significant harm. I make no bones about it. I have had that difficulty right from when this case first came before me.”
“JUDGE: … So, does it come down to this then… or am I oversimplifying it, that the risk of harm as at 23 August, in fact stems from the fact that Nina is living with someone you now say was responsible for or may have been responsible for her injuries in May?
COUNSEL: Yes … Firstly, because of course you’re not just considering this father. Of course, section 31(2)(b) relates to ‘a’ parent… the mother is also in the pool of perpetrators –
JUDGE: But as at 23 August the child is not living with the mother… So the child cannot be at risk of suffering significant harm from anything attributable to the mother.”
Counsel for the local authority unavailingly pressed her case. She stressed that a dismissal of the proceedings would mean that there would be no determination of the issues. The judge, probably inspired by Mr Vine’s submissions, said that the matter could be dealt with in private law proceedings between the parents, to which counsel responded that this would lead to the “farcical” result that the local authority would then be asked to provide a section 37 report and “we are then back where we are now.”
Further exchanges included (in telescoped form):
JUDGE: … What you have done is… you have taken some steps, as the Local Authority thought, to protect children and then 3 months later, [you] issue proceedings and are now trying to argue that that the three-month delay is really immaterial…
COUNSEL … But it cannot be right surely just because we didn’t issue on 14 May that then we should have not gone on to issue with, as I say, the injuries unexplained to this child… And in looking at the risk of harm, one looks at the risk of harm presented by either of these parents, not both parents… one has to consider the risk looking backwards. That includes the injuries. It also then considers the risks going forwards, beyond those injuries, in as much as how it is that the parents are then preventing that risk of harm for that child going forward.… It’s a live risk that was still present then on 23 August. Whilst the child wasn’t in the mother’s care at that time, there is still the risk of significant harm because she was part of the pool of the unexplained injuries. It cannot be right that the court says, just because therefore the risk isn’t there because the child is not with the mother therefore threshold is not met.”
28.Mr Vine then pursued his written submissions to the effect that the threshold could not be established in Nina’s case, unless there was a real possibility of Mr L being responsible for the bruising. He relied on the case of Re C (above). He submitted:
“You can decide the case summarily. You don’t need to wait until the evidence has been tested if the propositions are not capable of being established, and you can exclude an issue.”
29.Counsel for the mother and for Mr H echoed Mr Vine’s submissions. Counsel for the Guardian expressed concern about the children’s position and distinguished the case of Re C, but did not squarely confront the legal issue of the threshold. By contrast, the Guardian’s submissions on the appeal crisply note that the proceedings had been dismissed without the Guardian filing an interim analysis, without the evidence of the paediatrician and without consideration of the risks that might be posed by the mother, regardless of the position of the fathers.
The Judge’s decision
30.In a reserved judgement given on 7 December, the judge dismissed the proceedings, and with them the direction for the paediatric report. He also amended the orders dated 10 October and 16 October “pursuant to the slip rule” by removing recordings that the court had found the s.38 interim threshold had been crossed and substituting recordings that the threshold had remained in dispute.
31.The judge described the case as “deeply troubling”. He expressed his concern about the local authority’s approach to the proceedings. He confirmed that he had kept the welfare of the girls in the forefront of his mind. They had gone from being with their mother and each other to being separated and living with their respective fathers and seeing their mother only for contact. He continued:
“11. … I am acutely aware that whatever decision I make today will not immediately improve their position and that, inevitably, there may be further delay before final decisions are made about their future.”
Father’s counsel stood by those submissions at the Court of Appeal hearing. It does not appear that the Court of Appeal found this a difficult appeal to resolve.
46.As will be apparent from what I have said above, and as we informed the parties at the end of the hearing, this appeal comprehensively succeeds. The judge erred in law by failing to recognise that the threshold for intervention was plainly crossed on the basis that at the date of the issue of proceedings both children were likely to suffer significant harm arising from the clear evidence about the very worrying injuries to Nina, for which one or other of her parents might, when the evidence was heard, be shown to have been responsible. He was in no position to prejudge that matter, and wrong to do so. It is a matter of regret that he should have been faced with such obviously fallacious legal arguments, particularly when advanced by leading counsel of Mr Vine’s standing. However, those arguments were clearly exposed as fallacies by counsel then acting for the local authority, and the judge should have given them short shrift. He should have affirmed that the threshold is to be approached from the perspective of the children, not from the perspective of the parents, one of whom may have been responsible for Nina’s injuries. He should have appreciated that delay in bringing proceedings, however lamentable, cannot of itself be determinative of the threshold. He should have realised that the fact that injuries are unexplained does not make them irrelevant, but rather raises an unassessed likelihood of future harm, aptly described in the local authority’s submissions to the judge as “a live risk.” Rather than seeking to cast doubt on the analysis undertaken by this court in Re S-W, by which he was bound and which was and remains authoritative guidance on the summary determination of public law care proceedings, he should have applied it. He should particularly have cautioned himself against terminating the proceedings when that course did not have the support of the Guardian, nor any written analysis from her. He should ultimately have seen the absurd impracticality of this unprecedented outcome, and the inappropriateness of private law proceedings as a surrogate forum for child protection. The injuries to this child cried out for investigation and the law, far from preventing it, positively demanded it.
47.For all that the judge’s task was made more difficult by the inadequacies of the local authority, courts have to work with the resources available to them. The sterile outcome in this case could easily have been avoided through normal case management procedures and loyal application of well-established law. Instead, the proceedings drifted with no strategic direction and a dissipation of energy on irrelevant issues, all greatly to the disadvantage of these children. They and the adults are entitled to a judicial determination of how Nina’s injuries were caused, and the directions that we now give will ensure that this happens as soon as reasonably possible. The order of 7 December will be set aside, so that the proceedings revive. The case will be allocated to another judge, by arrangement with Keehan J as Family Division Liaison Judge, and will be listed for an early single case management hearing at which it can be decided whether or not a split hearing remains appropriate and whether the direction for a further paediatric report remains necessary. We will also make an interim supervision order, to continue until the conclusion of the proceedings