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Guardian neutrality at fact finding hearing – is it right, wrong, or are you neutral about that?

A twitter follower, @dilettantevoice put this one in front of me.

Cumbria County Council v KW 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/26.html

It is a case of a suspected head injury, with the usual classic triumvirate signs.  The case is interesting, from a legal perspective, because of paragraph 58

Having considered the legal framework and surveyed the broad landscape of the evidence I turn now to my findings. I record that the Guardian has thought it appropriate not to advance any submissions on the findings sought by the Local Authority. This is a wide spread practice which I would, for my part, strongly deprecate, in most cases. The importance of strong, intellectually rigorous representation on behalf of the child’s lawyer and his Guardian, has been emphasised regularly see: GW and PW v Oldham MBC [2005] EWCA Civ 1247; Re U (A Child) [2005] 2 FLR 444; Islington LBC v Al-Alas and Rway [2012] 2 FLR 1239. These principles apply just as vigorously, in my judgement, to the fact finding process. A position of neutrality motivated solely by desire to appear independent and objective in the eyes of the parents loses sight of the primary professional obligation to the child. I am aware that others take a different view

 

That isn’t part of the ratio, so isn’t a binding proposition, and you can see that Hayden J even says at the end that he knows that others take a different view.  It is a tricky issue. I’m firmly of the view that the Guardian has an important part to play in a fact-finding hearing, and it isn’t (as some think) a “Deckchair brief” – the Guardian and their representatives have to make sure that they do whatever they can to assist the Court in establishing the truth of what happened to the child – to make sure that the right documents are obtained, that the right experts are asked the right questions, and that all of the proper issues are investigated by the Court. It can, therefore, be a very tough brief, since rather than having a set of questions prepared in advance, the lawyer has to be flexible and fluid and extremely on top of all the detail and attentive to how the evidence develops.

It is vitally important for the child, and their siblings, that the Court comes to the right conclusion – either because the child has been harmed and needs to be kept safe OR because the allegations are not correct and the parents don’t pose a risk and there’s a danger of the child being wrongly separated from a parent. In representing the child, you obviously want that decision to be right and for all the important evidence to be drawn out.

Whether at the conclusion of all of the evidence and in making submissions,  as the Guardian here felt the Guardian should stay neutral, or whether as Hayden J thought the Guardian should pin their colours to the mast, is very difficult.

Looking at things logically, if the Guardian hasn’t played a part in the direct collection of evidence (i.e is not a witness of fact, but of opinion), then is his or her view actually significant? On causation, I mean. Clearly on what risks flow if the allegation is proven, and what should happen next, the Guardian’s opinion is vital. But if all the Guardian is doing is saying, having heard all of the evidence, I believe that mother didn’t do it, or that mother did it, how does that really help the Judge?  So, I’d tend to agree with the Guardian here. I’m sure if the Guardian had very strong views either way and wanted to put them in submissions, that would be okay too, but just of limited evidential value.  Is it wrong to remain neutral though, if that’s the Guardian’s preference?   At a fact finding stage, I’d say that it isn’t wrong.  You can follow the professional obligation to be the voice of the child without making your own quasi-judicial view of the evidence.

 

[If the Guardian is a witness of fact – i.e he or she has some factual information to provide about parental presentation or the relationship observed between parent and child or inconsistencies in accounts they gave to the Guardian, then I think it is more incumbent to come off the fence]

 

In broader terms, this is a case where the medical opinion was that the medical evidence alone would not determine the case. The medical evidence alone could not rule out non-accidental injury, nor could it rule out a benign explanation.  (As the Judge later explained, that did not mean that each of those possibilities was equally possible just that neither was impossible)

 

“All counsel agree that the Court should approach any findings it may make in this case by having regard to the broad canvass of the evidence i.e. the medical evidence; the lay evidence; the social work assessments etc.

In this exercise the Court is entitled to conclude that the medical evidence from each of the disciplines involved may, both individually or collectively, support either of the findings contended for by the parties ( i.e. accident or non accidental head injury).”

There have been quite a few reported cases where the medical evidence points to non-accidental injury but the Court is satisfied from the parents explanation that the parents did not injure the child and makes no finding of abuse. This one is the other way, where the parental evidence  particularly the mother’s evidence and the text messages that she was sending, led the Judge to conclude that the child had been injured by the mother.

An unusual element is the raising of the Japanese Aoki research on head injuries. This is research suggesting that the classic triumvirate can present in an accidental fall from a fairly small height and is thus generally accidental.  This research is not accepted by experts outside of Japan (even the many doctors who suggest that shaking injuries are caused by less trauma than commonly supposed don’t subscribe to it.)

  • as the medical profession has also impressed upon me in the past, if low level falls in infants were associated with SDH, retinal haemorrhages and/or transient cerebral irritation or encephalothopy then such might be seen clinically, they are not. This is the primary basis, as I understand it, upon which the medical profession considers it unlikely that low level falls cause fresh subdural and retinal haemorrhaging. Moreover, as Mr Richards identifies, the scanning of children following relatively minor trauma supports the opposite view, i.e. that such is unlikely to cause retinal or subdural bleeding. Mr Richards develops his analysis thus:

“On the basis of the appearances of the subdural haemorrhage, the acute traumatic effusion and, although I would defer to an ophthalmologist, the retinal haemorrhages, I do not from a neurosurgical perspective think it is possible to determine which is the correct answer. Infants cannot be experimented on in laboratories to determine what forces are required to cause subdural haemorrhaging, acute traumatic effusion and retinal haemorrhaging. Studies where infants are routinely scanned even if there is no clinical indication to do so have not been carried out. It is therefore possible that acute subdural haemorrhage and retinal haemorrhaging following very minor trauma is more common than we think. Nobody knows. On the basis of those children who are scanned following relatively minor trauma it is thought unlikely to cause fresh subdural bleeding, acute traumatic effusion and retinal haemorrhages. However, we do not know this with scientific certainty.

2.8 There has been some publications from Japan where children who are alleged to have fallen backwards from Japanese floor-based changing mats have suffered significant head injury with severe brain disturbance, seizures, subdural haemorrhages and retinal haemorrhages being identified (Aoki 1984). Many outside of Japan consider these publications as indicative of a cultural resistance to accepting the concept of non-accidental inflicted injury and that the cases described as occurring as a result of low level falls were, in fact, missed cases of non-accidental injury. However, the Japanese authors maintain their position that the significant injuries were caused by low level falls. Similar publications have not been generated outside of Japan.”

  • It is my understanding that the Aoki (1984) research is regarded by mainstream medical practitioners as deficient in its technique, methodology and professional objectivity. I can think of no case in the last 20 years (in the UK) where this research has been relied on. Mr Richards articulates the central criticism made of the research as a cultural resistance, in Japan, to the very concept of non accidental injury. He does not, however, directly associate himself with those criticisms. Indeed he asserts that the Japanese authors maintain their position. I am surprised that this paragraph has been included within the report neither can I understand what it is intended to establish by scientific reasoning.

 

I haven’t seen the Aoki research cited in any shaking injury or head injury case either, so it was new to me.  It didn’t go down very well.

 

Whilst there is undoubtedly a place to stimulate dialectical argument on these challenging issues, it is not in an expert report, in proceedings where the welfare of children is the paramount consideration. Whilst the Court must review the differential diagnostic process in order to reach its own conclusion i.e. ‘diagnosis by exclusion’ based on ‘the complete clinical scenario and all the evidence’ (see Dr. Newman, para 14 above) and though it is important to recognise the inevitable ‘unknowns’ in professional understanding, these important points are weakened, not reinforced, by elliptical references to controversial research. In addition, there is a danger that social work professionals and others might misinterpret the information in such a way as to grant it greater significance than it can support. Ms. Heaton QC, on behalf of the mother, distances herself from this paragraph entirely and places no reliance on it. She is right to do so.

 

 

Though the Judge made the findings of fact against mother, he declined to make final orders in this case, allowing instead a window of opportunity for work to be done with the parents and specifically for mother to have the chance to reflect and potentially make admissions that would reduce the risks to a manageable level. I think that’s the right approach – I worry about the rigidity of 26 week limits being applied in these cases, just as I worry about Judges rigidly following Ryder LJ’s Court of Appeal line about not having fact finding hearings separately to final decision in all but the most serious of injuries. A reflective space can make a significant difference for families in such cases.

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