Bringing public bodies to account

Financial remedies if mistakes are made in proceedings involving children

This is the text of a seminar delivered at St Johns Chambers in Bristol on March 21st 2018

Financial Remedies in Children Proceedings

1. What we will examine this evening are possible routes down which might enable you to get a financial remedy for a child who has suffered harm or loss. A typical example is a child who has been through care proceedings which have not been conducted well., or has been left drifting in section 20 accommodation without the local authority making any application to the court. There is evidenced that the child has been harmed by this, possibly left traumatised and needing further therapeutic support, which a local authority may be reluctant to pay for. What are the options in such cases?
2. I will look at three possible avenues – the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, actions in negligence and actions under the Human Rights Act 1998. Spoiler alert – I am going to conclude that when comparing negligence and the HRA it is the latter that is likely to be the remedy of choice. Asha will then take you through the ‘nuts and bolts’ of making such an application as the courts have now clarified the strict procedural requirements and the likely impact for the legally aided that the LAA will attempt to claw back costs.

General points

3. The law in these areas can be complicated. It is not difficult to understand why as they invariably involve payment of money. The only compensation possible in many cases is money – years of childhood cannot be restored.
4. Getting financial compensation may have to involve bringing legal action against people or agencies who did not directly cause the harm, because they have ‘deeper pockets’ i.e. greater access to money via department budgets or insurance schemes. Insurance companies are usually very keen to avoid paying out. Thus such cases are often fought very hard.
5. This has proved a particularly fraught arena when dealing with harm done to children or families by the actions or failure to act of a local authority. Harm is most likely to be caused by individuals such as social workers or foster carers who are unlikely to be rich enough to be worth suing as individuals. The focus then falls on the local authority and to what standards they could reasonably be held. But when local authorities are under a statutory duty to try and protect children, there are significant public policy arguments against imposing financial liabilities owing to fears that this may lead to defensive practices and unwillingness to work with families. It is also often difficult to establish causation when many different agencies and people contribute to decision making.

Criminal Injuries Compensation Board

6. The CICB deals with compensation claims from people who have been physically or mentally injured because they were the victim of a violent crime in England, Scotland or Wales. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme 2012 sets out the critieria for eligibility and compensation rates. Annex B to the scheme confirms that a crime of violence includes a sexual assault. I won’t go into detail here but will just remind you of paragraph 9 (which I had overlooked):
A person may be eligible for an award under this Scheme whether or not the incident giving rise to the criminal injury to which their application relates has resulted in the conviction of an assailant in any part of the United Kingdom or elsewhere.


7. In essence, to establish negligence you need to show that you were owed a ‘duty of care’ which was breached. In many cases the courts have refused to find that such a duty of care existed, relying on public policy grounds. However, those who argue against the refusal to extend liability point out that negligence is more than just ‘carelessness’ – it has to be behaviour that falls far below what you would expect from others in this field. Why shouldn’t children and families be protected from such serious failings
8. The common law around negligence is continually evolving, reflecting the constant shifts in societal attitudes towards notions of vulnerability and harm. For example, we can see the clear evolution of the court’s willingness to find local authorities liable for harm caused to children by abusive foster carers. As recently as 2015 the Court of Appeal decided a local authority could not be held ‘vicariously liable’ for the actions of its foster carers; however, the decision was over-turned in part when the case reached the Supreme Court in Armes v Nottinghamshire County Council [2017] which decided that whilst there was not a non-delegable duty to take reasonable care, it was possible for such vicarious liability to exist
9. I stress at the outset that negligence is a complicated area of law and I do not claim particular expertise. Anyone contemplating an action in negligence will need to get proper advice from a specialist practitioner. But I hope what follows can be a useful overview of some of the likely considerations, to at least help you decide if you do need to take that next step.

CN v Poole Borough Council

10. An interesting recent case that provides a framework for this discussion was the decision by the Court of Appeal on December 21st 2017; CN v Poole Borough Council [2017] EWCA civ 2185. This was reported at the time as a decision that prevented victims of abuse claiming compensation from local authorities, including victims of such scandals as Rotherham – see for example reports in The Times and the Daily Mirror on the 1st January 2018.

Facts of this case

11. A mother ‘Mrs N’ had two sons, CN (aged 9) and GN (aged 7). CN had serious disabilities, requiring a high level of care and supervision. In May 2006, the family moved into accommodation on a housing estate in Poole. The local authority arranged this as the local housing authority and the accommodation was rented from the Poole Housing Partnership Limited (“PHP”).Sadly, over the next few years, Mrs N and her sons were the victims of serious anti social behaviour from a neighbouring family. Mrs N reported this to various agencies – the police, the local authority and the PHP. She had to complain further to local politicians about the lack of effective response from these agencies. This led to the Home Office being involved who carried out an independent case review in 2010 that criticised the agencies’ responses. However, the anti social behaviour continued and the family were finally re-housed in December 2011.

Litigation from 2012

12. Litigation then commenced. In December 2012 the family claimed against the council, the police and the PHP alleging breach of the Human Rights Act 1998 and negligence. The essence of the claim was that all three agencies had failed to take appropriate steps to protect the family from abuse and this was a breach of their rights under Articles 3 and 8 of the ECHR. However, the family did not provide particular details of their claim, they asked more time to provide these details in August 2013, but in December 2013 that application was dismissed. A year later a second set of proceedings was issued and this time only the council was a defendant and the claim was now based solely in negligence (previous case law having established that no duty of care was owed by either the police or the housing departments in such circumstances)
13. A second claim was also made on behalf of the children that the council had failed to comply with its duties under the Children Act 1989 to safeguard them and promote their welfare. The local authority wanted the court to strike out that second claim as having no foundation in law. However, In October 2015 the court dismissed both elements of the family’s claim, finding that there was no basis to hold that a local authority owed a duty of care to protect against the anti social behaviour of others and that there was no legal foundation to hold that the Children Act 1989 created any additional duty of care with regard to the children.
14. The children then appealed with regard to the argument that a duty of care flowed from the local authority’s obligations under the Children Act. The court were reminded of the Court of Appeal decision in JD & Ors v East Berkshire Community Health & Ors [2003] EWCA Civ 1151 (31 July 2003) which found at para 87: where consideration is being given to whether the suspicion of child abuse justifies taking proceedings to remove a child from the parents, while a duty of care can be owed to the child, no common law duty of care is owed to the parents.
15. The claim then became about the local authority’s failure to remove the children from their mother. The appeal was heard in February 2016 and Slade J agreed that it was wrong to strike out the children’s claims based on the local authorities social services functions. The children’s case was then put on this basis, arguing that the local authority should be liable for the following failures:

  • Failed to assess the ability of the Claimants’ mother to protect her children from the level of abuse and violence they were subjected to. The Defendant did not carry out any timely or competent risk assessment and such assessments as were carried out were flawed and delayed ….
  • Failed to assess that the Claimants’ mother’s ability to protect the Claimants from abuse …. Further failed to assess that the mother was unable to meet the Claimants needs whilst she lived …. with them.

16. The council were then given permission to appeal and they succeeded. The Court of Appeal found the argument that the children should have been removed from their mother’s care as a means of dealing with anti social behaviour as “rather startling” and “highly artificial” (paragraph 41). In essence, the claim had nothing to do with any social services functions but was “in fact a criticism of the housing functions of the local authority” (paragraph 104).
17. The Court of Appeal in Poole considered at para 55 the implications of the earlier ruling in JD v East Berkshire that a duty of care could be owed to a child when considering the child’s removal from his parents: The Court was considering the decision whether to leave a child in a family where abuse was in question. For the purposes of such a decision there exists no true “third” party, in the usual sense. The actual or potential wrongdoing by those who would retain (or gain) custody of a child is central to the decision being taken. It is the mainspring of the relevant decision. That is a significant distinction from the current case.
18. There were two fundamental aspects to these proceedings which argued against making the council liable

  • the danger of encouraging defensive decision-making; and
  • the general absence of liability for the wrong-doing of others (paragraph 94). It is simply unfair for the local social services authority to be held liable, when the housing department, the landlord and the police could not. (paragraphs 95-98)

19. Although the court accepted that society placed a high emphasis on protecting vulnerable people, it was neither effective nor just to do so by singling out one agency of the State for tortious liability as against the others.
20. The Court of Appeal confirmed that the Court of Appeal decision in JD v East Berkshire relating to a possible duty of care to children when decisions were made about removing them from their parents, was inconsistent with the subsequent decisions of higher authority and should no longer be followed (paragraphs 99-101).
21. King LJ, an experienced family judge, was further critical of the argument that the courts would grant a care order in the circumstances of this case, re-stating the high threshold for the making of a care order with a plan for interim removal. Davis LJ stated that care proceedings to protect the children by removing them from their mother would have been “utterly heartless” and “utterly wrong” (paragraph 118).
22. There were suggestions that this might be going to the Supreme Court but so far I have not heard anything.

Consequences of this decision

23. It appears that the result of the CN judgments is that a common law claim in negligence for a negligent act or omission in a failure to investigate / failure to protect case before a care order will now fail; or at least will certainly be very hard fought by a local authority who will argue that any action in negligence against a Children’s Services Department is only now possible post a formal assumption of responsibility via a statutory decision to intervene.
24. This is a major judicial U-turn, which sets the law back 27 years by reinstating the largely discredited public policy reasons set out by Lord Browne-Wilkinson in X (Minors) v Bedfordshire CC [1995] 2 AC 633. Irwin LJ who delivered the main judgment has declared that the Court of Appeal decision in JD v East Berkshire [2004] QB 558 should no longer be followed. It was Lord Phillips in JD who declared that X (Beds) should not be followed as the policy objections said to point away from the imposition of a duty of care (defensiveness, resources, delicate and multi-disciplinary decision making to name but three) could not survive the Human Rights Act 1998 as local authorities were exposed to just those dangers under the Human Right Act.

Human Rights Act 1998

25. So if you are considering harm done to children because a care order was NOT made, it looks as if the only avenue will be that which flows from breach of the Human Rights Act 1998. For example, note the decision of the European Court in Z and Others v UK [2001]. This examined the refusal of the House of Lords in X v Bedfordshire in 1995 to find a duty of care existed to remove children from abusive home circumstances and thus denied them financial compensation for the significant harm they suffered. The European Court found the children’s Article 3 rights had been breached, so serious was the harm they suffered, and awarded damages.
26. These cases need very careful consideration about the legal mechanism identified for bringing a claim. Bringing a claim in negligence has different requirements than bringing a claim under the Human Rights Act.
27. Recent case law has also made an application under the HRA less attractive, as Asha will explain. I will give just a general overview here. First thing to note is that it seems unlikely that you will be making much reference to Article 3, which protects against torture and inhuman treatment. Much more likely is a claim under Article 8 whereby you argue that a local authority did not show sufficient or any respect to the child’s and family’s right to a family life, or Article 6 when you argue that the proceedings were not fair. This can be clearly shown in any section 20 ‘drift’ case, particularly if this narrows the eventual options for the child’s permanence.
28. Also you need to be alert at the outset to the operation of the statutory charge on any damages awarded if you are acting under a publicly funded certificate.

The Basics

29. The Human Rights Act (HRA) was passed to give direct effect to the Articles of the European Convention into domestic law. Prior to the HRA, if you wanted to claim that your human rights had been breached you had to take out an action in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Now, it is unlawful for any public body – including the courts and local authorities – to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right, unless they have no choice because they have to obey current statute law.
30. However, applicants who are receiving legal aid will need to consider carefully the implications of the statutory charge on any award of damages – this is discussed below. It seems likely that in most cases, pursuing an HRA application is simply not commercially viable. However, there are some avenues worth exploring and these are discussed below.

What is an unlawful act and what is a public authority?

31. ‘Unlawful Act’ is defined under section 6 (1) of the HRA. It is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way incompatible with a ECHR right UNLESS it doesn’t have a choice because of the way the domestic law is written.
32. A ‘public authority’ includes a court/tribunal or any person who carries out functions of a ‘public nature’ BUT it excludes the Houses of Parliament.

Who can make an application under the HRA?

33. Section 7 provides that a person can bring proceedings if they are, or would be a ‘victim’ of the unlawful act. There is a distinction between a ‘free standing’ application [section 7(1)(a)] and relying on your Convention rights in existing proceedings [section 7(1)(b)].
34. It is now clear that the court will expect formal applications made according to the Civil Procedure Rules NOT the FPR and this will have consequences for many issues, not least the role of the children’s guardian. For a clear analysis of the necessary procedural requirements, it is worth reading carefully the judgment of Cobb J in SW & TW (Children : Human Rights Claim: Procedure) (Rev 1) [2017] EWHC 450 (Fam) (08 March 2017). Asha will cover this in more detail. The biggest shock to those of us who enjoyed a few years of free standing applications made by Guardians was that the court pointed out this isn’t actually lawful under section Section 12 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 –cannot be authorised to act as litigation friends to child claimants although they may give advice about the appropriateness of a child making a HRA 1998 claim.
35. The full costs regime in Part 44 CPR 1998 also applies, including (in contrast to the position in family proceedings) the general rule that ‘costs follow the event’ (CPR, Part 44.2(2)(a): “(a) the general rule is that the unsuccessful party will be ordered to pay the costs of the successful party”; see also CZ v Kirklees MBC [2017] EWFC 11 at [61]));

What remedy can you get?

36. Section 8 of the HRA gives the court a discretion to remedy the breach of your human rights; the remedy must be ‘just and appropriate’.
37. This can include damages, if the court is satisfied this is necessary ‘to afford just satisfaction’. The court must take into account the principles applied by the European Court about awards of damages – but the problem with this is that the jurisprudence from the ECtHR is deliberately opaque about what makes the quantum of damages ‘just satisfaction’. Each case will depend on its own facts.

Article 41 of the ECHR

38. This sets out the requirement for ‘just satisfaction’ on violation of a ECHR right. For useful discussion about the application of Article 41, see paragraph 143 onwards of the judgment of the European Court in the case of P, C and S v UK [2002].
39. A clear causal link must be established between the damage claimed and the violation alleged. The Court will not be satisfied by a merely tenuous connection between the alleged violation and the damage, nor by mere speculation as to what might have been.
40. Compensation for damage can be awarded in so far as the damage is the result of a violation found. No award can be made for damage caused by events or situations that have not been found to constitute a violation of the Convention, or for damage related to complaints declared inadmissible at an earlier stage of the proceedings.
41. The purpose of the Court’s award in respect of damage is to compensate the applicant for the actual harmful consequences of a violation. It is not intended to punish the Contracting State responsible. The Court has therefore, until now, considered it inappropriate to accept claims for damages with labels such as “punitive”, “aggravated” or “exemplary”.
How have the courts approached damages under the HRA 1998?
42. The first case to consider damages under the HRA 1998 was Anufrijeva v London Borough of Southwark in 2003. At para 49 the court noted the conclusions of the Law Commission in its report on Damages under the Human Rights Act 1998 which suggested that the obvious analogy for a claim for damages under the HRA is a claim against a public authority in tort, such as negligence. But this analogy cannot be drawn too strictly as there are distinctions between the purpose behind an award of damages in tort and under the HRA.
a) damages are recoverable ‘as of right’ in a negligence claim (tort), but are at the court’s discretion in a HRA claim;
b) the purpose behind the damages claim is different; in negligence this is to put the claimant back in the position he would have been in without the negligent act, whereas in HRA claims the purpose is to provide ‘just satisfaction’;
c) That ‘just satisfaction’ may be provided by dealing with the HR breach, not necessarily compensating someone with money. The European Court has often found that in cases where there was a procedural, rather than substantive breach, a simple declaration that the claimant’s human rights were breached is in fact sufficient ‘just satisfaction’.
43. In the case of H (A Child – Breach of Convention Rights: Damages) [2014] the court was very clear that in the circumstances of this case ‘just satisfaction’ would NOT be achieved by a simple declaration that the parents’ rights had been breached. See paragraph 82.
It was not until June 2014 that these parents eventually managed to secure the return of their daughter to their care, exactly a year after she was placed with Mr and Mrs B. Whilst it is true that during that year the parents were having regular contact, supervised contact at a local authority contact centre is far removed from the joys of fulltime, unsupervised care of one’s own child. The residential assessment which began in June 2014 could have begun a year earlier. The cognitive assessment of the parents, not finally obtained until May 2014, could have been obtained months earlier. Unlike the parents in the Coventry case, these parents’ have suffered a loss of time with their daughter which was both unnecessarily lengthy and deeply distressing.

How should damages be assessed? And what is an appropriate award?

44. The difficulty is in situations where the harm suffered by the claimant is not one that can easily be measured in money – for example, loss of earnings is a lot easier to measure than being very upset or anxious about something. There is little guidance from the European authorities, save that the court tends to look at the nature and seriousness of the breach complained about, and the claimant’s own behaviour.
45. The European Court has also recognised ‘loss of relationship’ as another form of intangible injury – that is the loss of love and companionship which occurs when a family relationship is disrupted by breach of Article 8.
46. This is a clear difference between the kinds of damages that may be awarded for breach of contract or tort in the domestic courts, which may not recognise many of these types of loss or would require much stricter proof to be satisfied they had occurred. Some types of loss are going to be much more easily quantified than others.
47. The court in H (A Child) noted that there was not much assistance from previous cases in determining what amount should be awarded. In this case, each parent was awarded £6,000. See para 87:
48. Whilst the authorities referred to are of some small assistance, there are too few to be able to be confident that they indicate the broad parameters for making an assessment. In any event, it must, of course, be remembered that every case is different. Every case turns on its own facts. The assessment of damages in these cases is highly fact sensitive.
49. The court in X, Y. & Z re (Damages: Inordinate delay in issuing proceedings) [2016] approved the identification of the relevant issues by HHJ Lazarus in the Medway case [2015]:
a) The length of the proceedings
b) The length of the breach
c) The severity of the breach
d) Distress caused
e) Insufficient involvement of the parent or child in the decision making process
f) Other procedural failures.
50. WARNING: It is likely that the Court of Appeal decision in London Borough of Hackney v Williams & Anor [2017] is a clear attempt to row back from what appears to be ever increasing amounts awarded in damages for HRA claims. The Court decided that there had been no breach in this case so no damages fell to be awarded – BUT if they had, the Court of Appeal were clear that the £10K awarded at first instance was simply too high.

Damages awarded in other cases

51. P, C, S v the UK [2002] the European court awarded each parent €12,000 for breaches of their Article 8 and 6 rights in a case which involved removal of a baby at birth. This case also has some useful commentary as to how damages should be assessed.
52. Northamptonshire CC v AS [2015] – damages £16K.
53. Ferrari v Romania in the European Court of Human Rights in April 2015 where a father was awarded €7,500 after the state failed to properly engage with Hague Convention proceedings and caused delay.
54. In re A (A Child) in August 2015, the mother was awarded £3,000 for unlawful removal of her child.
55. Medway Council v M and T October [2015] awarded £20K to both mother and child for unlawful use of section 20 accommodation under Children Act 1989.
56. B (A Child) [2016] EWFC B10 January 2016 – £5K awarded for 3 year delay in revoking placement order that meant B lost out on developing a relationship with his siblings.
57. Case Soares de Melo c. Portugal (Application No 72850/14) [Feb 2016] award of €15,000 for decision to have children adopted without offering family sufficient support.
58. X, Y & Z re (Damages: Inordinate Delay in Issuing Proceedings) [2016] EWFC B44 (23 February 2016) – £45K awarded, (£20K for each child and £5K for the mother) highest level of damages known to date for misuse of section 20, and particular criticism of the failure of two IROs to act.
59. BB (A Child) [2016] 27th June EWFC B53 £7,500 awarded for misuse of section 20.
60. GD & BD (Children) [2016] 10-18 October 2016 EWCH 3312 – example of very poor police, LA and legal practice, described by Suesspiciousminds as ‘the worst case of the year’. £10,000 awarded to the mother and £5,000 to each child.
61. London Borough of Hackney v Williams and Anor [2017] – Court of Appeal sound the warning that £10K awarded at first instance was too high (in the event the court did not find a breach of statutory duty so no damages were awarded at all)
62. CZ (Human Rights Claim: Costs) [2017] EWFC 11 – £3,750 to each parent and child for unjustified removal at birth for about 3 weeks. However, costs likely to be completely absorbed by the statutory charge – publicly funded costs in region of £100K.

A Social Worker’s perspective on the judgment in W (A child)

This is a post by Kate Wells a retired social worker, who sets out her views about the case of W (A Child) [2015] – an extra-ordinary judgment, both in its decision to refuse to make an adoption order and return W to her father’s care and also for the language used by the Judge to criticise the decision making of Judges, social workers AND the guardian. There is now an appeal lodged against this judgment and we will await further news. 

I hope you will see that I am not defending the LA social workers at all, and the Guardian was clearly lazy and incompetent. I think the Judge’s criticisms of the psychobabble were justified and yes it does underline the need to use plain English, both in writing reports and giving oral evidence.

However I am really upset that this little girl is going to be moved from the prospective adopters and am very frustrated that so called experts can honestly believe that to subject a child to 5 moves before her 3rd birthday is acting in the child’s best interests.


Dealing with the threshold criteria

The overarching concerns about the children’s safety and well being resulting from their mother’s chronic mental ill-health remained when the case came before the District Judge. Both parents accepted that the threshold criteria as set out in s 31 of the Children Act (CA) 1989 had been met which would allow the court to make care orders or supervision orders under the CA. The DJ had failed to set down the threshold criteria on which he was basing his decisions as to the children’s welfare. The learned judge said under the heading “Threshold” that:

The mother accepts the criteria are met. The father has made concessions also the majority of these [sic] and that the children have suffered emotional harm as a result of the parents’ relationship and the mother’s mental health and alcohol issues and his lack of awareness or insight of the stress he was under in December 2012. What he does not accept is the allegations in respect of the ‘toothbrush’ incident with [X] in November 2012 and the injury to [Z]’s ear in December 2012.
Insofar as the toothbrush incident is concerned, there is no medical evidence to assist. We have [X]’s account of how this came about, but true to say that she had in the past apparently said things had happened to her which were not in fact true. I am unable to find on the evidence that the father ‘shoved’ the toothbrush as alleged.
As to the injury to [Z]’s ear, there is no reliable medical evidence and one sees that [Z]’s evidence do in fact differ on occasions. I am unable to find evidence to support this allegation.
I am satisfied however otherwise the threshold is crossed.”
There are no details of that “otherwise”. Fortunately in reaching a decision as to W’s future welfare and placement I am not directly concerned with the threshold at the time the care and placement orders were made; indeed those orders are no longer extant as a result of the decision of the Court of Appeal. Importantly, in respect of W, no findings were sought or made regarding the baby falling off the sofa.

It would be interesting to know exactly what grounds the LA put forward to prove significant harm. Is there any way that this can be sought? I also wondered why there were no findings in relation to the baby falling from the sofa, at aged under 4 weeks, although the baby had been examined at hospital and no serious injury found.


Criticisms of the SW Evidence

The District Judge was very critical of the social worker’s (Ms Hendry) evidence calling it “unconvincing” and “totally focussed on one aspect namely the ability of the father to change.” Despite advocating the immediate removal of the three older children based on a decision reached at an unrecorded meeting in May 2013 between social worker, managers and solicitors, Ms Hendry had not assessed the effect on each child of such a removal and was unable to address it in her evidence. The district judge went further and said that she should be replaced as the allocated social worker for the family.

Given the DJ’s criticism of the social worker’s unconvincing evidence, in an application to remove all 4 children from the care of the father, it seems to me all the more curious that the DJ made a Care and Placement Order in respect of W. Incidentally is it within the Judge’s remit to order that a social worker be replaced – suppose it is! Is this a common occurrence?

18. The parenting assessment carried out by Ms Hendry in October 2012, as I alluded to above, formed the basis of the local authority’s case and continued to inform it even after her oral evidence had not been accepted by the court. The evidence of the social workers now allocated to this case continued to focus on their perception of the father’s inability to change or accept the need for change (although the circuit judge had given him permission to oppose the adoption of W precisely because he had changed his circumstances). Despite the fact that there were no findings of physical abuse these allegations continued to be repeated by the local authority and, I repeat, their concentration on “the need for the father to change” remained a constant part of the local authority’s case and the basis for their opposition to his attempts to have W returned to his care. In September 2013 the court found that the father provided “very good care” and was satisfied that he had separated from the mother and “had reached a turning point recognising that he must concentrate on the care of the children to the exclusion of his relationship [with the mother]. I am satisfied that he is intending to address his difficulties and has started to do this by engaging in counselling. I am satisfied that the children are for the main part doing well at school. I am satisfied that they have significant attachment to their father.

It seems clear that Ms Hendry was well out of her depth in proving that these 4 children were being significantly harmed. The substitute social workers must have felt very anxious and intimidated, but did themselves no favours by repeating the same arguments i.e. the need for the father to change, and repeated allegations of physical abuse, which had been disregarded by the DJ. It could be however that the DJ’s judgement was also “erroneous” in this respect, but that doesn’t excuse the LA from persisting along that track.

However there is no mention of the LA lawyer and why an application to remove 4 children from their parents was not scrutinised to ensure that the evidence met the standard required to prove significant harm in the balance of probabilities.


What is the Impact on W of being moved 5 times in 3 years?

41. Dr Willemsen was clear when I asked him that he had thought hard about this child and what was best for her throughout her life; he said when he was preparing the report in the first instance he thought “this child belongs with her father, that was the starting point, then I became very worried about child and good attachments and at that time had the legal evidence as it was she should stay. This verged [sic] me towards thinking I am really worried about this child moving. The additional evidence there is now is a father by going to the Court of Appeal says ‘I want to be a good father to my child’ and further evidence that [he] understands some of [her] needs. So I think it is clear to say that it has changed. I think most important argument knowing what Court of Appeal decided what are you going to say to child when she is 12 or 13 or 14 what are you going to tell her and say? What are you going to tell her? This is a miscarriage of justice. Much will depend on how will she take it. This argument is the one that went through my mind if she comes to ask”. When asked on balance what he thought he said, unequivocally, “I think she returns to her father.”

Here we have a clinical psychologist talking of “good attachments” – good, as opposed to “bad”……….grrrh. There are references in the judgement to “strong” attachments – I MUST make those notes on attachment theory. However I am really concerned that Dr W can believe that this child should be moved back to her father. The wrong decision was almost certainly made by the DJ but this child was moved 3 times before moving to her adoptive placement, where she has lived for 16 months, and Dr W is recommending a 5th move for a child not yet 3 years old. Does he not realise that the first 3 years of a child’s life are the most important years of all, and lay down the foundation for the remainder of her life, be that positive or negative.

All this talk of what W is going to think when she is 12/13/14 and asks why she was adopted and not the other 3 children, is pure conjecture, nothing more, mothing less and it seems to have totally influenced the Judge. There is absolutely no way of knowing what W might think about the reasons that she was adopted. It is just as likely that she will be glad that she was adopted especially if she has had a happy and untroubled childhood and a family who will continue to support her throughout their lifetime.

Balanced against this child being subjected to 5 moves before her 3rd birthday it is, as far as I’m concerned a “no brainer” (much as I dislike that phrase) W was placed with her adoptive family at the age of approx. 1.5 years and will be 3 years old in Nov this year. We know nothing of the early weeks and months of W’s placement with the prospective adopters, and the difficulties of settling a child who had 3 moves in 18 months.

At some point in the judgement, the Judge acknowledges the trauma for the prospective adopters but comments that their failure to re-assure the court of their willingness to facilitate W’s move back to her father as evidence of them not putting the needs of the child before their own. I think this comment was grossly unfair and unnecessary. It was also unfair to put the adopters on the spot by asking how they would explain to W that she was adopted whilst her 3 siblings remained in the care of their father, and again the Judge was critical of their inability to provide a satisfactory response. Prospective adopters are all told that the child must know that they are adopted right from the word GO – and it is usually done by means of a life story book which should contain pictures of the birth parents/siblings, other members of their extended family, foster carers etc. Photographs can be added as the child grows. Birth mothers are usually referred to as “tummy mummies” and all explanation obviously have to be age appropriate. However to expect adopters to be able to “fast forward the tape” to answer the possible questions of an older child is simply unfair, as so much will depend on the child and the nature of any questions, if indeed any are forthcoming. Many adopted children are not interested in their background although this tends to change once they are adult and especially after giving birth to their own child. This is a key time for searching for birth mothers, though many adoptees wait until the adoptive parents have died before searching.


The wishes and feelings of W’s siblings

42. Mark Hatter is an independent social worker with considerable experience of social work and, in particular, with working with adolescents when adoptive placements have failed and broken down. He had seen the father and the three children at home and had made very positive observations of their father with X, Y and Z. He too had felt able to work with the father, was impressed by the children and found their father to be responsive to them and managing the family in what is a very cramped environment. Mr Hatter found the family as a whole had a strong awareness of W and that her return was something that X wanted, which may lead to a reduction in her anxiety. His recommendation altered when he gave oral evidence to the court when asked he said “[The recommendation] is still extremely balanced but in light of those changes I would have to support the return of W [to her family].” The changes he referred to were the evidence of Dr Willemsen and the decision of the Court of Appeal.

What I wonder is a “strong awareness” – yes the children know they have a little sister but they haven’t seen her for over 18 months, though given their ages, they will remember her of course. On what basis does Mr H make his assertion that W’s return to the family reduce X’s anxiety? It is small wonder that X is anxious given her family background and the fact that her mother is seriously mentally ill, and she therefore is not able to have a good relationship with her, something that is very important to young women on the brink of adolescence. There is no mention of a supportive granny or aunt who may be able to offer X the support she will need as she reaches puberty. I think it naïve in the extreme that Mr H believes that having W back in the family will alleviate X’s anxiety – it could well increase it, especially as W is going to be very confused and upset at the move, and this distress will be played out in the family home, in my view adversely affecting all 3 of the other children. The father will of necessity need to divert his attention to W and so the other children could be disadvantaged as a result.
So much talk of “finely balanced” ……….


Matter is finely balanced, recommendations vague

43. Mr Hatter observed that he had not had long to consider those changes and he had not heard the evidence of Dr Willemsen, but as much of his opinion was based on the attachment of W to the adopters and as he is not a psychologist and he would rely on Dr Willemsen and as his recommendation has changed he would acknowledge and respect that change. He voiced the same concerns for W going up in an adoptive placement with the background of this case and said “I struggle with what W’s journey would now be in terms of being an adoptive child when backdrop to the case appears to be care and placement orders now set aside and I struggle to understand how she would cope with knowing that at some stage whilst also knowing has three siblings remaining in the care of her father and on balance I believe that with very clear support to the father that with the father fully engaging with that support that the potential harm to W of being adopted in the present circumstances versus potential of remaining within her birth family outweigh [adoption]and make me wish to change recommendation. Though I again stress it is very finely balanced in my professional opinion and I would still hold concerns however now faced with other concerns for W if she remained.”

Seems to me that Mr H has bowed to the “superior knowledge” of the clinical psychologist and does not have the courage of his convictions. Any experienced social worker should know that to move a child 5 times in her first 3 years of life is NOT acting in her best interests. You don’t need to be a psychologist to know this, and of course Dr W doesn’t seem to know that either.

44. He had based his original recommendations on matters that were relied on by the local authority as I set out in paragraph 32 above; most of which are without foundation, as can be seen from the evidence of Dr Willemsen. Mr Hatter said that he found the father to be “completely open to working with me.” He was also very concerned about overcrowding; an issue which cannot weigh heavily with this court as it affects so many low-income families and cannot be the basis for the permanent removal of children from their families. Mr Hatter urged the local authority to support an urgent move for the family to larger accommodation. I am assured by counsel on behalf of the local authority that such support would be forthcoming. He said that bearing in mind the cramped surroundings he was most impressed by the children, their interaction and the father’s management of them. He praised the children’s mother for the position she had taken which he described as “good”. He spoke of X, who as the eldest and a girl had the response of wanting to help and voiced the, wholly reasonable, opinion that she could do with some individual support, perhaps from a mentor, and “time out”.

What do these vague recommendations actually mean? Yes I agree X needs support, but where is this “mentor” going to come from – the LA won’t be in the business of paying anyone to perform this mentoring duty, and what is meant by “time out” ??? Hmm the Judge doesn’t seem to be concerned with vague comments that don’t mean anything.

45. As to the father seeking help and support when and if necessary Mr Hatter emphasised that it was a two-way street and that the father had to feel that he and the local authority were working from the same sheet. He said that from his observation the father was not a man seeking victory as his empathy towards the adopters was real. Moreover the father acknowledged he’d need support and would appreciate support from the local authority. Mr Hatter felt that the biggest remaining upset within the family was that W was missing and they saw themselves as disjointed; although he still had concerns “the balance moved to W going home.”

Mr H “feels” – the court shouldn’t be concerned with “feelings” surely, they should be concerned with evidence. This is a family that have all suffered in their different ways, the mother because of her mental health issues, the father attempting to save the marriage and the stresses and strains of doing that, alongside being the primary carer for 4 children, one just a few weeks old. And the children have witnessed their mother in irrational and angry states and attacking their father on at least one occasion, and the turmoil and distress this must have caused them, and now the mother is no longer in the family home – and Mr H believes that the “biggest remaining upset” is that the family “see themselves as disjointed” – I’m sure they do, because they are, but not necessarily because W was missing.


What will happen in the future?

46. Mr Hatter has had experience of teenage adoption breakdown both as an independent social worker and a social work manager and he anticipated difficulties for W in the future if she finds out the circumstances of her adoption. He considered that she would find out and would be upset and feel anger about the adoptive placement.

Ah I see Mr H can see into the future! I am simply astonished at this comment and even more astonished that it has been accepted by the Judge.

48. Mr Hatter had pointed out in his report at paragraph 76 that should W remain in the adoptive placement she would be likely to want to have direct contact with her parents and siblings in the future, particularly as her siblings remained living with their father. “It will be relatively easy once W has unsupervised access to the internet and Facebook for her to make contact with her family should she wish to do so which will be in turn a challenge for her adoptive parents to deal with and to manage. I am concerned that this situation may be compounded if there is the potential of the family moving abroad during W’s minority.” He went on to say, in his oral evidence, that it was a valid point to add to the likelihood of breakdown the fact that the As are part of these proceedings and voicing resistance to her going home. He saw the difficulty as being that W was securely attached to her current carers but that the change was a positive one of being back with her birth family; there would be losses but also gains. In the longer term, if the local authority works with the children’s father, there is a lot more to be gained by going home.

Given Mr. H’s comments about the internet, this could well be true for any child who has been adopted and it is a valid issue, but if this is going to weigh so heavily in deciding a child’s future then it surely will only be a matter of time before it will mean an end to a child’s future being secured by way of adoption or any other form of permanent care. And again we see Mr. H’s capacity to see into the future, evidenced in his comments about the possibility of the prospective adopters moving abroad during W’s minority! Astonishing!

As you can see I am very frustrated about Mr. H’s “expertise” but that changes to anger when he assert that “a breakdown of the adoptive placement is likely because the As are part of the proceedings and voicing resistance to her going home.” Dear god, of course they are resistant to her going home. Mr H claims to have an expertise in adoption and adoptive placements, and yet he can make such a ridiculous comment. They would be very strange adopters if they would happily agree that this child, who they have loved and nurtured for 16 months and who they envisaged being a part of their family for ever, should be returned home to the care of her father.

Maybe Mr H spelled out in details just how exactly “there is a lot more to be gained by W going home.” Or then again maybe he didn’t, but he’s impressed the Judge, so that’s all that matters.


Psychobabble and defensiveness

47. I heard the oral evidence of Lucy Wilkinson the current social worker. She had not filed a statement but her practice manager Ms Alsop had done so which was largely based on Ms Wilkinson’s interaction with the family; I am still unclear as to why the evidence was produced in this way and, although Ms Wilkinson denied it, it seems the likely explanation is that she was not considered to have been a “success” as a witness in the previous hearing in December 2014 when permission was given to the father to oppose the adoption.
48. The statement of Ms Alsop, in addition to containing evidence which could only be attested to by Ms Wilkinson repeated outdated evidence (of Gail Miller) and what can only be described as psychobabble about the effect on the father’s parenting of his own childhood experiences. In short it voiced opinions which neither Ms Wilkinson nor Ms Alsop are qualified to make. I give two examples only; at paragraph 4.6 statement of Ms Alsop dated 2nd March 2015 it reads”[the father] is unable to have a dialogue with the children about [W] as it is too painful to him. It is my opinion that due to [the father]’s own experience, this has had an impact on his emotional intelligence and that is so poor that he may not be able to put himself in his children’s position and think from their perspective. His own adverse childhood experiences may have led him to develop maladaptive strategies in order to protect himself from his own experiences and his therefore not able to acknowledge the difficult experiences of his children and the difficult experiences they have suffered.” Not only is this evidence entirely at odds with the evidence of the qualified clinical psychologist Dr Willemsen, it is not supported by any evidence from the school or the observations of independent observers such as Mr Hatter; both in the care proceedings and in the adoption application the local authority has given insufficient weight

It is very odd in my view, and totally unacceptable that the social worker with case responsibility does not file a statement, but this is done by her team manager and I am sure the Judge is right in thinking that Ms Wilkinson did not feel she was capable of making a statement and being cross examined. Maybe the Ms W was a newly qualified worker. But Ms Alsop’s noble attempt to step in fell on stoney ground, and as much as I dislike the term “psychobabble” as a derogatory term, I have to agree that her comments made little sense.

I have tried to de-gobbledygook the comments made by Ms A: – The father has had such a traumatic childhood that he can’t really talk to the children on their level, and he has tried to shut out the pain of the past, and this prevents him from understanding the distress the children are suffering. Best I can do! However this is opinion not evidence and it doesn’t make much sense even when phrased in simple language

Not only is this evidence entirely at odds with the evidence of the qualified clinical psychologist Dr Willemsen, it is not supported by any evidence from the school or the observations of independent observers such as Mr Hatter; both in the care proceedings and in the adoption application the local authority has given insufficient weight to the observations of professionals working with the family apparently where that evidence does not accord with its case. The wholly positive and unchallenged evidence regarding the parenting skills of the father of the Family Support Worker, the health visitor and the school welfare officer is barely touched on.

Poor Ms A – the team manager who stepped in to show the social worker how it’s done – maybe she should remember that when you’re in a hole, stop digging!

In paragraph 6.8 in an attempt to dismiss the counselling the father has undertaken and to build their case against him they say “I am aware that the father has undergone counselling at the R clinic but it is my opinion that the trauma C has suffered in his own childhood is still unresolved and this is impacting on his ability to offer attuned parenting to the children. Research strongly suggests that [reference to part of a sentence from a publication identified only as Cozolino 2002, The neuroscience of psychotherapy]. I would question whether the father uses disassociation as a defence against the trauma he has suffered, as a coping strategy to stop thoughts and memories causing anxiety.” This opinion is used to justify comments about his alleged inability to cope with and provide for the individual needs of each of his three children. Again there is no evidence to support these assertions either from the school or in the assessments of Dr Willemsen and Mr Hatter, whose evidence I prefer. The continued reliance on the report of Ms Miller (which is clearly out of date) alone raises questions as the validity and substance of any view expressed by the social workers but the continued references to the father not being able to put into practice what he has learnt after engaging in parenting work at paragraph 6.20 are almost risible when considered against the evidence of Dr Willemsen and Mr Hatter.

Churlish of Ms A to disregard the counselling the father has undertaken. Ok there are no quick fixes and 11 months (or even 11 years) are sometimes not enough to alleviate the long term difficulties associated with a traumatic childhood, as these can persist through the lifespan, often in the form of PTSD, but credit should be given to the father for seeking help via counselling. MsA is very hung up on the notion of the father “using disassociation as a defence against the trauma he has suffered” expressed previously as “adopting maladaptive strategies………

To describe the social workers’ written and oral evidence as merely grudging when it comes to the care and security the father has given his children is too generous; Ms Wilkinson was certainly both grudging and defensive when giving oral evidence; their unprofessional attempts at case building are reprehensible. There is no evidence that they have moved on from the social work assessment carried out in October 2012 by the then social worker Ms Hendry who was criticised by the district judge.

I’ve stopped feeling sorry for Ms W – there is absolutely no excuse to be grudging and defensive in written and oral evidence and demonstrates a complete lack of even a modicum of professional wisdom and integrity. I have come across this attitude when working as a Guardian (before guardians were employed by CAFCASS) and we worked on reciprocal arrangements with neighbouring LAs, and when I was working independently. However I still think it was regrettable that the DJ made the serious error in the first place and this must have influenced the LA social workers that they had a good case. Again where was the LA lawyer in all this………….?


Guardian’s evidence – beyond shocking

At the hearing before the district judge in September 2013 the guardian produced a brief report that was scant of any real analysis and which failed to set out the reasons for and against permanent placement outside her family. Re B-S, though heard on 22nd July 2013, was handed down on 17th September 2013 (2 days prior to the reserved written judgment being handed down the hearing having taken place earlier in September), as Lord Justice McFarlane said at [22] of his Court of Appeal judgment in this case “Although the district judge may not have had any knowledge of this court’s decision in Re: B-S, which was only handed down some 2 days prior to the district judge’s judgment, Miss Branigan submits that the district judge should have been fully aware of the Court of Appeal decisions given some two or three months earlier upon which much of the judgment in Re: B-S was based (Re R (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1018; Re G [2013] EWCA Civ 965; Re S (A Child) [2013] EWCA Civ 926).” The guardian should have been aware of the decisions which preceded B-S at the time of the hearing in September 2013.
The lack of any real child-centred analysis within these proceedings is inexcusable, the report he filed on the 27th April 2015 contained very little analysis (in barely two pages from the foot of page 7 to the foot of page 8 setting out what he considered to be the “essential balance”) and certainly not the table setting out the advantages and disadvantages to W of adoption, which he was advocating, that the court could expect from the child’s guardian. Moreover Mr Madge explicitly criticised the father for pursuing multiple applications and appeals, which he described as at sixes and sevens with each other and blamed him for causing significant delay for W. He clearly accepted the local authority’s view of the children’s father describing the father as a thoughtful man whose reflection of W’s situation was “systemically closed”. I do not know to what he referred as it is a jargonistic phrase empty of meaning, unaccompanied by an explanation.

Shocking, clearly hopelessly incompetent Guardian – “at sixes and sevens with each other” WTF! And “systemically closed” – I have absolutely no idea what this means and I doubt he did either. “Shut out” is a guess!

I expressly asked Mr Madge to provide the court with a balanced analysis at the outset of the hearing and he did so, finally, on the 21st May 2015. His counsel complained on his behalf that the court had prejudged the issue; in fact it was he who had done so. He did not attend court for counsels’ final submissions. The import of his last report was to swing behind the expert opinion but he was rancorous about it and I found his analysis lacking both depth and balance, bereft of objectivity and of little or no assistance.

Beyond shocking – sounds like he just didn’t care about these children or their future, and having been criticised for aligning himself with the view of the LA, he grudgingly aligned himself with the expert opinion. I imagine this was to prevent any further criticism from the Judge, rather than anything else.



Well Sarah this took rather longer than I expected and I am beyond burning the midnight oil. I hope you will see that I am not defending the LA social workers at all, and the Guardian was clearly lazy and incompetent. I think the Judge’s criticisms of the psychobabble were justified and yes it does underline the need to use plain English, both in writing reports and giving oral evidence.

However I am really upset that this little girl is going to be moved from the prospective adopters and am very frustrated that so called experts can honestly believe that to subject a child to 5 moves before her 3rd birthday is acting in the child’s best interests. I think far too much weight was given to what she might think about her adoptive placement when she is old enough to understand – and how this influenced the Judge. At one stage he mentioned that W will have some residual memory of her father and siblings at the last contact, which must have been some 18 months ago. I absolutely disagree and in the child’s sense of time, at her age, she can’t possibly have this kind of recall.

There is not a great deal of criticism from the Judge about the DJ’s judgement, other than to say it was “erroneous” (something of an under statement) and again no criticism of the LA lawyer. What IS it with these lawyers – do they not understand the need to ensure that there is sufficient evidence for the LA to prove their case. That surely is a fundamental task of such a lawyer.

The other issue is the mother of the children, and little is said about her in the judgement. I think I read father has a RO on the 3 children. I do wonder if the LA were critical of the fact that the parents were obviously having a sexual relationship which resulted in the birth of W. This wasn’t made explicit, but I wonder if it was somewhere in their thinking, as there were comments that the father was putting his relationship with the mother before the needs of the children.

I also wonder about the mother’s mental health. I note that she has a diagnosis of recurrent depressive disorder with Emotionally Unstable PD, but I wonder if there is also a psychotic element to her mental illness, as some of the descriptions of her behaviour would suggest this could be the case. She has also been sectioned under the Mental Health Act on more than one occasion I think and it’s very unusual for the use of a Section in the absence of a psychotic illness.

If this is the case, then there is the possibility of this illness emerging in one (or more) of the children, as psychosis is by and large a hereditary condition. This doesn’t seem to have been addressed at all. I think EUPD is a bit of a “catch all” diagnosis and until relatively recently wasn’t seen as a treatable mental illness. Very often though patients are wrongly diagnosed and this may well be the case with this mother. Mental health services as I’m sure you know are very stretched and it is easy for people to “slip through the net” as it were.

Ah well, those are my thoughts/views for what they’re worth.

Kate Wells

Bringing public bodies to account

What are my remedies if a public body doesn’t do its job properly?

What happens if you suffer harm because a professional involved in your family life hasn’t done his or her job properly? This can be a very thorny issue because such professionals often have very significant powers to interfer in your private and family life. If they fail to do their job properly – either by failing to act when they should have done, or acting carelessly or irresponsibly – this can result in a lot of emotional distress or harm.

This is clearly relevant in the child protection system – the statutes and accompanying guidance and regulations give individuals who work in the system significant powers and duties to act in certain ways that would be unlawful if attempted by a private individual; for example getting information about your child or removing your child from home.

These laws which give professionals such power, have been passed for the benefit of society as a whole and therefore it is not considered in the public good to curtail or limit their operations in individual cases unless really necessary.  People are expected to carry out their statutory duties ‘in good faith’, i.e not doing anything deliberately malicious or harmful.

However, even if you are not the victim of deliberate malice, the consequences of carelessness from public officials can be very serious. For example, take a botched investigation into abuse of a child; if an innocent parent is wrongly labelled an abuser this can cause enormous harm both emotionally and through loss of reputation or even the ability to look after your child whilst investigations are carried out or the matter comes to court. Equally, if guilty abusive parents aren’t detected, their children remain unprotected and at continuing risk.

If professionals cause harm to parents or children because of the way they have carried out or failed to carry out their statutory responsibilities, what are the legal remedies?

We will look at what are the current options to bring public bodies to account for their actions in the child protection system which  have caused harm to parents or children.


Making a formal complaint.

You can complain about the activities of public bodies. For example, see section 26(3) of the Children Act and our post about making a complaint about a professional.

This may be an appropriate remedy if you want acknowledgement that mistakes have been made which could be put right,  or at least procedures could change so the same mistakes are less likely to occur in the future. However, you are highly unlikely to be entitled to claim for any compensation under a statutory complaints scheme.


Other remedies

If you are not satisfied with the response under the formal complaints procedure or you need a more urgent remedy and/or compensation for loss you have suffered you will need to consider other remedies. We will consider these remedies in more detail in other posts.

The remedies are:

For information on how to obtain information from public bodies, either generally or about yourself, please see our post on data protection and freedom of information requests.