A discussion of Re W (Children) 2012 EWCA Civ 1307
This appeal centres on whether, having made allegations and then subsequently consented to an order saying that findings in relation to them would not be pursued, a party can then resile from that and seek to reopen the findings.
An interesting appeal, arising from private law proceedings. Within the course of the proceedings, a very detailed set of allegations was drawn up on behalf of the mother. These were very grave allegations indeed.
At a relatively early stage of the fact finding hearing, in August 2009, counsel for mother appears to have given the mother certain robust advice about the prospects of succeeding in proving such allegations.
Counsel for both parents asked to address the Judge in chambers, and taking appropriate precautions to ensure that both clients were aware and content with this and that the discussion was recorded, this took place.
5. Trying to summarise the discussion, it seems that mother’s counsel, acknowledging the standard of proof that was upon the mother and the allegations over many years on a monthly basis, said to the judge that it would be difficult to see how the court could make a positive finding or indeed a negative finding and the judge may therefore come to the conclusion she could not make a finding one way or the other. She posed the question one has to ask, namely where that would take the court in the terms of the proceedings then before the court, which seemed to be concentrating on the father’s contact. The judge acknowledged that, and there was therefore some discussion about the allegations set out in the Scott schedule.
6. Counsel for the mother then indicated to the judge that mother had expanded upon her complaints and was now also complaining about his behaviour to the children, though the only specific matter she could relay to the judge was an allegation that mother had seen father hitting the boy about the head. She explained that her instructing solicitor was making further inquiries and would detail those further allegations as soon as possible during the course of that day, because the judge made it perfectly plain that she would deal with any further allegations there and then without delaying the case any further.
7. So those further inquiries were made and they are now set out on a further schedule, which recites with regard to the children that the father would hit the boy about the head almost on a daily basis and call him stupid; that he would punish the boy; that he did not treat the children equally; and fourthly that the father would touch the daughter inappropriately, not in a father-daughter manner but more intimately than expected by a father. As I read the transcript, of the proceedings I am not sure that the judge was made aware of that fourth allegation.
8. The judge, that is to say HHJ Black — pragmatically and sensibly in my view — enquired what the true nature of the dispute was going to be. And if and insofar as it was a matter of contact, it was important, she considered, to understand the mother’s case. She said:
“Now if that was her case so she was saying ‘No contact ever because I emotionally will never be able to deal with this’ which I would have a great deal of sympathy with, I think probably all of us would have a great deal of sympathy with and be on her side. So this was a complete no contact case, I can understand that …
But I cannot understand…Even with the new allegations, what I will always want to know as a start point is…she is the mother of these children… If she is coming in to say, notwithstanding all of this, ‘This is what I think is the way safe contact for my children can continue’ short term, long term et cetera, et cetera, that is how I would be informed. And I would like you firstly to find out, whatever happens, there will be contact starting as soon as it can be sorted out. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be.”
9. So the judge was asking instructions to be taken about whether the mother was saying no contact at all or whether she was accepting that there should be contact, which would progress if it was shown to be successful and the case was therefore adjourned for mother to be advised.
10. Counsel then took instructions and returned to the judge and, in a long passage which I need not read in full, counsel for the mother made it plain as follows:
“My client’s position is this. That notwithstanding any of the allegations that she still generally believes are true that she would like the children to see their father in a controlled environment and if he is able to behave appropriately and have a father, child relationship with them she would wish contact to progress.”
And she then set out how that would happen. Counsel told the judge:
“She understands that that would mean drawing a line in the sand in respect of her allegations both the ones she has detailed in her statements to the court and those she has raised today in respect of dad’s conduct towards the children specifically.”
And I omit further words:
“She is very clear she wants the children to enjoy their relationship with their father.”
I omit more passages:
“Your Honour, as I say, my client does understand that this will be drawing a line under her allegations. She is not withdrawing them in the sense that she does not accept they are fabricated and if I could say that does not strike us as a situation where this woman genuinely believes what she is saying. Whether that is objectively how events have occurred is a different matter and I know that it is a point that troubles my learned friend.”
11. So, in the light of that discussion, the judge was being asked not to proceed with the hearing before her and left it to counsel to prepare a draft order, which had recitals giving full effect to the understanding they had reached.
There’s then what I consider to be a very neat bit of drafting, to dance on the head of a pin, and reflect that the allegations were not being pursued or relied upon in relation to the issues of contact and residence before the Court, but neither was there any acceptance on behalf of either party as to whether or not they were true.
“UPON HEARING COUNSEL for each of the parties.
AND UPON the Respondent Mother not seeking to pursue positive findings in respect of the allegations raised by her in the Scott Schedule and in the list here attached. It being noted by the court that the allegations made on the list were first made at Court today.
AND UPON the Respondent Mother understanding that notwithstanding that fact that she is not withdrawing her allegations, she will not be able to put forward specific allegations as reason(s) for a bar against contact or future progression of contact between the children and the Applicant Father or in relation to residence and the Mother understanding that matters will proceed on the basis that [I think it should be] no negative findings have been made against the Father.
AND UPON the Court recording that no findings of fact have been made against the Applicant Father and that the Applicant Father continues to deny all allegations made against him by the Respondent Mother.
AND UPON the Court recording that as no allegations have been proved against the Applicant Father, no professional assessment of him should be on the basis of the concerns against him by the Mother in the Scott Schedule and list attached herewith, and any assessment should proceed on the basis of events as described by the Mother as having not occurred.”
Sadly for counsel for the mother, she was no longer representing the mother by the time of a hearing on February 2012 (perhaps due to diary clash, perhaps – as can be seen by mother’s complaints, more a clash of personality than diary), and mother instructed her subsequent counsel to seek to revive the allegations. This is what she says in her witness statement for the February 2012 hearing.
12. I know it sounds dramatic but I would use the word tyrannical to describe [counsel’s] approach. I was very scared and I do not believe she gave me balanced advice.
13. [She] suggested that she should go and see what the judge had to say and I agreed. I recall she came back and indicated that the judge had said that she would have difficulty in making a positive or negative finding but that we could do things by way of recital. I think at that point that [she] was doing all that she could to dissuade me from testifying and although she did not say it I was left in no doubt she thought I was wasting the court’s time. I felt bullied and I had lost all confidence.”
17. It may be that that allegation should be contrasted with how she had earlier approached the hearing before HHJ Black. In a witness statement of 22 December 2009, that is to say some four months after the hearing before HHJ Black, she said only this:
“I am aware I am no longer allowed to bring these matters into the Children Proceedings, but can confirm I am still on the waiting list to see a counsellor from the Portsmouth Rape Crisis Team but I will not let the past, in respect of myself, have any weight to my views and the children’s views of contact with their father.”
In the same witness statement she dealt with the harm that the children could suffer and she said:
“I am aware this cannot be brought up again in these proceedings.”
18. There are certainly no mention of bullying or of her not fully understanding the nature of the compromise there had been effected. She put in her own witness statement in January 2012 when she was without legal advice and there she said:
“When the fact-finding hearing came up I had an alternative barrister, who advised me that the hearing would not achieve anything, as the Judge viewed the evidence and had said that even with testimony from all the parties involved, she would find it very difficult to make a decision either way. It was not made clear to me at the time that the fact finding hearing it was necessary for the facts of the case to go on record, whichever way the Judge ruled. I felt, and still feel that some elements are central to the case, and [father’s] ability to parent (such as the fact that he abused me and raped me throughout our marriage, and that I was in fact under the age of consent when he first attacked me)”
Again, there is not a complaint of being put under pressure by counsel through bullying nor of a failure fully to understand the compromise she had reached.
The Judge on 12th February refused to reopen the allegations and to undo the order made, and this is the order that was appealed.
Counsel for mother in the appeal put her case skilfully (and as the Court of Appeal describe, valiantly) on the basis that the allegations are so serious that they cannot sensibly be ignored and a determination of them central to the issues in the case.
The Court of Appeal declined to overturn the case management decision of 12th February 2012, saying that it was not only not plainly wrong but that was plainly right.
24. I, of course, entirely agree that it is in the interests of justice and in the interests of the children that the truth be known where the truth can be established, but in all of these cases the court is required by Section 1 of the Act to have regard, among other matters, to delay which is inimical to the well-being of the children. In this case there is nearly three years of delay or two-and-a-half years of delay and, as HHJ Marston rightly observed, matters had moved on considerably since that hearing. Matters had moved on because mother had suffered a further breakdown in her mental health. She was unable to care for the children. They were placed with father. They were subject to supervision by the social services department, who were well aware of the fact that these allegations had never been tried out one way or the other, but being alive to that fact nonetheless came to the very firm conclusion, as I have recited from the report of the social worker, that the best interests of the children lay with their remaining with their father.
25. The appeal has to be, in my judgment, an appeal against, in effect, a case management decision by HHJ Marston as to whether or not this matter should be re-opened. It may be a matter of debate as to whether the more appropriate course would have been to have appealed. This is not a case where the court is being asked to consider fresh evidence or different evidence from that which had been presented to the court which had undertaken the exercise. Here, in effect, the gist of the application is to set aside HHJ Black’s order and to have a rehearing. That, one may think, was better a matter for appeal rather than to go back to the same or a different county court judge, but I need not express a concluded view on technical issues of that sort.
26. Treating this as an exercise of discretion, Ms Earley attacks it as being plainly wrong. In my judgment it was plainly right. The judge was fully entitled to look at delay, to look at the way of the mother’s allegations of bullying had gradually grown as the case progressed, and to have regard to the fact that the mother was perfectly happy to leave these children in the father’s care unsupervised and unsupported for weekends and over holiday periods. She consented to all of those orders. She was aware of the effect of the compromise in August when she agreed those orders. She did not then complain. She complained only when the case had changed and she was now the one seeking residence from father, who had the backing of the social services in retaining the children in his care.
27. To re-open the matter would undoubtedly cause further delay; the effect on the boy who suffers sadly from a problem of his ill health would be severe; and the judge, taking all of those matters into account, was fully entitled to say that it was far too late to re-open matters. He was correct, moreover, to take the view that it would have been disproportionate, because one has to ask what prospect was there on the face of the papers before the court of mother succeeding in establishing the vague allegations she was relying on, allegations over many years with no corroboration apart from a broken tooth, which could have been explained as easily on the father’s account as on her account. There was little medical evidence, it seems, to corroborate her account. She was on her own admission inconsistent in her explanations of misconduct, in her reports to the psychiatric team who were advising her. She was inconsistent about the events of March 2011 when she suffered an injury, as she at first put it, in the course of sexual activity, which was to say the least unusual.
28. Taking a view as to the prospects of her success, they could not be put as anything like reasonable. On the contrary, they appear, as the judge concluded, to be weak. What was the benefit to the children? In my judgment not a great deal. The allegations against the mother do not appear to have impacted upon his treatment of the children, who as I have repeatedly said are thriving in his care.
29. For all those reasons, I conclude the judge was right to draw the line where he did. I would therefore dismiss this appeal.
Much of this obviously turns on its facts – the huge passage of time between the allegations being ‘left on the file’ and the attempt to resurrect, the lack of credibility given later evidence filed that mother had been ‘bullied into this by counsel’ and the inconsistencies in mother’s allegations, but there are the wider points that it is legitimate for a Court to conclude a finding of fact hearing with an agreed order on the basis set out in August 2009, and that the parties need to be advised with care that reopening such findings laid to rest may be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible, and that they should be sure about that before consenting to such an order.