An appeal about the structure of a judgment and whether it was sufficiently deficient to warrant overturning the decision (I’m sure that combination of italicised words is already making David Burrows writhe in agony…. )
Re DAM (Children) 2018
(There are obvious alternative jokes about the way the case name sounds if you read it aloud, but you know me and pop music, I wasn’t going to be able to resist a Sophie B Hawkins reference)
The decision being appealed was from HHJ Tolson QC. The lead Judge in the Court of Appeal was Jackson LJ . (If you ARE being appealed about the manner in which you construct your judgment, you probably would not elect Jackson LJ to be critiquing your judgment, in much the same way as you would not want Rodin turning up to your pottery class to tell you if your bodged-up clay ashtray is any good)
5.Judges hearing care cases in the Family Court are engaged in one of the most difficult of all judicial tasks. The decisions are of huge significance for children and their families. The evidence is often difficult and distressing, and the level of emotion high. Achieving good case management and timely decision-making, not just for the children in the individual case but for all the children who are awaiting decisions, is a demanding challenge for the specialist judges who undertake this work.
6.In every care case, the Children Act 1989 and the Human Rights Act 1998 require the court to address a series of questions. What are the facts? Has the threshold been crossed? If so, what order is in the child’s best interests? Is that outcome necessary and proportionate to the problem? There is much authority from the appeal courts about each of these questions but at its simplest every valid decision will answer them.
7.It is in the judgment that the judge’s reasoning is found. There is no one correct form of judgment. Every judge has his or her own means of expression. Different cases may call for different types of judgment. Some judgments will be given at the time and others will be reserved. What is necessary in every case is that the judgment should be adequately reasoned: Re B-S  EWCA Civ 1146 at . That is a matter of substance, not of structure or form: Re R  EWCA Civ 1625 at . The judgment must enable the reader, and above all the family itself, to know that the judge asked and answered the right questions.
8.This is not to say that the structure of a judgment is irrelevant. A judgment that lacks structure or is structured in a confusing way makes the judge’s reasoning harder to follow and may raise the possibility that the process by which the decision was reached was faulty. Inevitably, that increases the possibility of an appeal.
There was an educational psychologist instructed in the case who seems to have had an idiosyncratic approach to her role
Dr Rothermel’s approach: – The judge described this as the most bizarre aspect of the matter. Having filed her lengthy report, she was directed on 18 July to provide copies of her notes and correspondence. She said that would take six hours and sought payment for it, having already exceeded her budget. She was then directed to bring the documents to court on the first day of the hearing. They amounted to more than a hundred pages of, in particular, email exchanges with the mother. The other parties made extensive criticisms of Dr Rothermel, and the judge summarised the material as revealing her to be an expert who had strayed far beyond her limited brief, advising the mother on the presentation of her case, gathering evidence for her and, when giving evidence, being an advocate for home education and for the mother. She disposed of the key elements of her instruction in what the judge described as a few bland lines.
36.The grounds of appeal included the contention that the judge was wrong to reject the evidence of Dr Rothermel as worthless in its entirety, and to conclude that the children had not been educated at home. This argument was not developed by Mr Twomey. In my view, the judge’s verdict on Dr Rothermel’s contribution was fully justified, and his finding of fact about the children’s lack of education at home could not be disturbed in this court.
Fundamentally, the appeal was based on the assertion that the trial Judge had wrongly approached the case as one that was decided on threshold, that having found threshold met he swiftly ruled mother out and announced his decision on orders and AFTER that, dealt with welfare matters including the welfare checklist and briefly.
33.Mr Twomey QC and Mr Boyd start their submissions with an analysis of the way the judge structured his judgment as showing that he had fallen into substantive error. They make these undeniable observations:
(1) The judge stated that the key to the case lay in the threshold criteria. 
(2) Having found the threshold to be made out , he immediately eliminated the mother  and announced his conclusion, stating that there was no other realistic option but foster care for D and A [63, 65].
(3) He did not carry out any welfare assessment, by balancing the advantages and disadvantages of placements at home or in foster care. He did not refer to the welfare checklist until , long after he had stated his decisions, and in doing so, he stated, “I check my conclusions against the welfare checklist.”
(4) When identifying factors in the welfare checklist, he did not mention (g), the powers of the court, such as an interim or final care order with placement at home, or injunctions or undertakings to ensure schooling and medical care, perhaps as conditions to a supervision order under Schedules 2 or 3.
(5) He made no proportionality crosscheck.
34.As a matter of law, Mr Twomey submits that the use of the welfare checklist as an afterthought is not compliant with s.1(4), which requires the court to have regard to the matters in s.1(3) when it “is considering” whether to make a care order. It must, he argues, be considered before a decision is reached, not afterwards. He also draws attention to the encouragement given by Baroness Hale to judges to address each of the factors in the welfare checklist in any difficult or finely balanced case so as to ensure that no particular feature of the case is given more weight than it should properly bear: Re G (Children)  UKHL 43 at .
35.In an ambitious submission, Mr Twomey argued that the court was not entitled to make a care order separating the children from their mother without being satisfied that “nothing else will do”.
[For those who are not fluent in Judge, ‘ambitious’ here is not a compliment]
The Court of Appeal don’t explicitly mention Re B 2013, and the words of Lord Neuberger, which are what sets that particular hare running (in my respectful view)
- It appears to me that, given that the Judge concluded that the section 31(2) threshold was crossed, he should only have made a care order if he had been satisfied that it was necessary to do so in order to protect the interests of the child. By “necessary”, I mean, to use Lady Hale’s phrase in para 198, “where nothing else will do”. I consider that this conclusion is clear under the 1989 Act, interpreted in the absence of the Convention, but it is put beyond doubt by article 8. The conclusion is also consistent with UNCRC.
- It seems to me to be inherent in section 1(1) that a care order should be a last resort, because the interests of a child would self-evidently require her relationship with her natural parents to be maintained unless no other course was possible in her interests. That is reinforced by the requirement in section 1 (3)(g) that the court must consider all options, which carries with it the clear implication that the most extreme option should only be adopted if others would not be in her interests. As to article 8, the Strasbourg court decisions cited by Lady Hale in paras 195-198 make it clear that such an order can only be made in “exceptional circumstances”, and that it could only be justified by “overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s welfare”, or, putting the same point in slightly different words, “by the overriding necessity of the interests of the child”. I consider that this is the same as the domestic test (as is evidenced by the remarks of Hale LJ in Re C and B  1 FLR 611, para 34 quoted by Lady Hale in para 198 above), but it is unnecessary to explore that point further
(Now of course in Re B, the care plan was adoption, and it might well be that those passages are intended to be read as ‘a care order where the care plan is adoption’, but the bare language is “should only have made a care order if satisfied that it was necessary to do so in order to protect the interests of the child and by necessary I mean ‘where nothing else will do’ “ )
I think there’s at least an argument to be had on that aspect. I have seen a Parker J case in which it was posited that this formulation applies to interim care orders as well, which I think goes too far.
The Court of Appeal don’t agree
(5) I reject the argument that a court considering whether to make a care order has to be satisfied that “nothing else will do”. A care order is a serious order that can only be made where the facts justify it, where it is in the child’s interests, and where it is necessary and proportionate. But the aphorism “nothing else will do” (which, as has been said, is not a substitute for a proper welfare evaluation and proportionality check) applies only to cases involving a plan for adoption. That is clear from the case in which it originated, In re M (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Threshold Criteria)  UKSC 33, which concerned an application for a care order with a care plan for adoption. It is clear, where it is not explicit, that all the justices were addressing a situation involving the severance of the parental relationship altogether, and not one involving physical separation under a care order, where the parent retains parental responsibility. That is confirmed by the summary given by the President in Re B-S:
“22. The language used in Re M is striking. Different words and phrases are used, but the message is clear. Orders contemplating non-consensual adoption – care orders with a plan for adoption, placement orders and adoption orders – are “a very extreme thing, a last resort”, only to be made where “nothing else will do”, where “no other course [is] possible in [the child’s] interests”, they are “the most extreme option”, a “last resort – when all else fails”, to be made “only in exceptional circumstances and where motivated by overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s welfare, in short, where nothing else will do”: see Re M paras 74, 76, 77, 82, 104, 130, 135, 145, 198, 215.” [my emphasis]
I may be utterly wrong about the impact of Lord Neuberger’s words, but it is a shame that they weren’t considered explicitly, because that’s what gives rise to the suggestion that any order that permanently separates a child from birth parents has to be measured against that necessity and ‘nothing else will do’ yardstick.
On the other matters, the Court of Appeal decision is as follows:-
41.Despite the neat way in which the mother’s case has been presented, my clear conclusion is that the judge’s findings of fact, set out at paragraph 29 above, amply satisfy the threshold for making public law orders and adequately underpin the welfare decision. Taking full account of the matters that appear below, it has not been shown that the judge was wrong to conclude that the mother’s parenting falls so far short of what the children need, and that her approach is so ingrained and unchangeable, that care orders were necessary. He had an excellent opportunity to assess the mother’s personality and behaviour during the course of the proceedings. Nor is it irrelevant that there is now no challenge to the judge’s decision that M, who had grown up for 4½ years in her mother’s care, should remain with her father. The home circumstances that justified that decision were shared by the older children.
42.Dealing specifically with the criticisms of the judge’s approach, set out in paragraph 33 above:
(1) It was unwise of the judge to characterise the decision as one that turned on the threshold findings. The threshold is concerned only with harm, while the welfare checklist addresses a much wider range of factors. There are cases involving very serious abuse where the threshold definitively determines the outcome, but this was not one of them. Nonetheless, despite the way the judge expressed himself, his decision did not in fact rest on the threshold alone, but on all the welfare considerations mentioned in the judgment.
(2) The term “realistic options”, deriving from cases such as Re B-S  EWCA Civ 1146, ensures that time is not wasted on outcomes that are merely theoretical, so that attention can be focused on the genuine possibilities. In this case, the realistic options for D and A were placement at home or placement in foster care. The fact that one was discarded in favour of the other made it a rejected option, not an unrealistic one, and the judgment, read as a whole, shows that this is how the judge in fact proceeded.
(3) In the almost 30 years since it was devised, the ‘welfare checklist’ has stood the test of time and its value to decision-makers, as described in Re G, cannot be overstated. It is obligatory to have regard to its contents when considering what order should be made. That obligation will be discharged if it is evident that in substance all the relevant, significant welfare factors have been taken into account. I do not accept that there is an obligation to articulate a checklist analysis before announcing a decision. However, to omit any reference to the substance of the checklist, or to relegate the exercise until after the court has stated its conclusion, carries risks of the kind seen in this appeal.
(4) The absence of a point in the judgment where the judge can be seen to have drawn together the welfare factors for comparative evaluation is an undoubted weakness. However, analysis of the judgment as a whole shows that the judge did evaluate all the significant welfare factors, although not in a methodical order that would have made his reasoning easier to appreciate.
(6) To continue, I do not accept Mr Twomey’s submission that the judge did not consider the powers of the court, as required by checklist factor (g). He dealt with that matter squarely at paragraph 51 (see 31 above).
(7) I accept that the judge did not explicitly return to the issue of proportionality, but he clearly had it in mind from his self-direction and in my view his decision is not undermined by that omission.
43.I therefore conclude that the submission that the judge’s decision was wrong must fail.
The Court of Appeal did, it seems to me, consider that there were failings in the structure and approach of the judgment; but these were not such as to fatally flaw the judgment. A considered reading of the judgment answered all of the questions posited in the opening remarks in the appeal judgment and this piece.
44.I would also reject the submission that the decision was unjust because the form of the judgment amounted to a serious procedural irregularity. The judge gave a substantial judgment that, on close examination, adequately reasons his decision.
45.However, I am also in no doubt that permission to appeal was rightly granted. Had the judgment proceeded simply and methodically through the stages of the decision-making process, this might have been avoided. It should not be necessary for an appeal court to undertake a laborious explanatory exercise of the kind contained in this judgment. That can only affect the parties’ confidence in the decision. In the meantime, this family has been left in a state of uncertainty for a further four months and the costs of the appeal to the public purse have, we were told, amounted to some £37,000.