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Transparency: Be careful what you wish for

This post originally appeared on The Transparency Project but objections were raised to my use of the feature image. So I repost it here.

 

This post is to comment on the latest ramifications of the long journey of two parents who faced the same accusation in both criminal and family courts but with very different outcomes.

The Transparency Project commented on this case in 2016; first looking at the legal position with regard to over turning adoption orders. Julie Doughty described the factual background in June 2016, asking the question ‘can an adoption order be undone?’ (answer – yes but it’s very rare):

In …  Re X [2016] EWHC 1342 (Fam), the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, gave permission for a full re-hearing of the original allegations made in care proceedings in 2012 involving an injury to child, now aged four, who was adopted in 2015. The problem that has since arisen is that the criminal proceedings brought against the parents, later in 2015, were dropped part-way through the trial. The trial judge directed that the parents be acquitted, as there was no case to answer. The standard of proof in a criminal case is of course higher than in a family case, but the parents now want that family case overturned. This is understandable, because if they want to have more children, or to work with children in the future, the family court finding will still say they pose a risk. However, their barrister told the President that if they were successful at the re-hearing, they would go on to challenge the adoption itself.

I also commented on this decision to hold a re-hearing in November 2016: ‘You can’t handle (51%) of the Truth’ . By October 2016 the parents were clear they did not wish to participate in any rehearing  and did not wish to challenge the adoption order. They provided written statements setting out that they could not contemplate removing X from a settled home after so much time had gone by. However, the LA, Guardian and adoptive parents all wanted a hearing.

The LA accused the parents of cynically withdrawing from a case they knew they could not win. The criminal prosecution had failed not because the parents were a victim of a miscarriage of justice and had been ‘exonerated’ but because prosecution witnesses could not agree about the existence or otherwise of metaphyseal fractures; accepted by all as a difficult area of diagnosis. Metaphyseal fractures are also called ‘corner fractures’ or ‘bucket handle fractures’ as they refer to an injury to the metaphysis, which is the growing plate at each end of a long bone, like a thigh bone. Most experts agree it is a indicator of abuse as the force applied to cause these fractures is shaking. Metaphyseal fractures occur almost exclusively in children under 2 because they are small enough to be shaken and they cannot protect their limbs.

The prosecution decided, very properly, that they could offer no further evidence against the parents in light of their own experts’ lack of certainty when set against the high criminal standard of proof.

This emphasis on declaring ‘the truth’ on the balance of probabilities, troubled me then, and troubles me now. In 2016 I commented:

What I had hoped we would see would be some open, transparent and honest discussion about the often enormous and sometimes irreconcilable tensions between doing right by parents and doing right by their children. Some recognition of the unnecessarily cruel bluntness of the lack of options for children to keep in contact with birth families, when decisions are made for adopted children, and which the Court of Appeal recognised in Re W [2016] needed further thought.

However, what it looks like we may get is some dreadful pantomime, further spending of many thousands of pounds of public money in some charade that by holding a re hearing of a finding of fact on the civil standard of proof (the balance of probabilities) we will somehow get to The Truth and we must do this because it will benefit the child.

What happened after October 2016?

For reasons which are not explained, the decisions of the court made in 2016 around this re-hearing have only just been published on the BAILII website in December 2018 so we are finally able to understand how this unusual situation has resolved.

Can a hearing take place if the parents won’t participate? And what are the implications for ‘The Truth’ ?

The first issue to be determined was whether or not the parents’ refusal to participate in the new finding of fact meant it should not go ahead. The court decided it should, commenting at para 30 and my emphasis added:

The fact is that, because of everything which has happened in this most unusual litigation, we are in a very good position to know what the birth parents’ case is and how it would, in all probability, be deployed before me were they to remain participating fully in the re-hearing. So I am reasonably confident that the essential fairness and validity of the process will not be compromised by their absence, just as I am reasonably confident that, even if they play no part in it at all, the process will be able to find out the truth for X and for the public.

I have highlighted that part of the judgment as it does not reassure me that any of the points I raised in 2016 have been answered; rather my concerns have increased. This creates a situation where the child and the wider public are asked to accept that ‘The Truth’ has been discovered on a balance of probabilities, with no participation from the parents and a Judge who is then only ‘reasonably confident’ that the process will work. By the time of the conclusion of the renewed fact finding the President was on firmer footing (see para 47), and was now ‘confident’ the truth had prevailed – but this remains ‘the Truth’ only on a balance of probabilities.

The court then continued with the finding of fact over a 12 day hearing in October and November 2016. See X (A Child) (No 4) [2018] EWHC 1815 (Fam)(decided in 2016 but not handed down in open court until 14 December 2018)

The court found that the parents had hurt X and they had decided at a late stage to try to avoid a finding of fact because they knew ‘the game was up’. The (then) President commented at para 125:

…I ought to say something about the timing and asserted basis for their attempted withdrawal from the proceedings. I cannot accept their protestation that the motivation for this was concern for X’s welfare and a recognition that there was little realistic prospect, whatever my findings, of ever being able to challenge the adoption order. If that had indeed been the case, they could have sought to withdraw much earlier. The truth, as it seems to me, is that, faced with the overwhelming weight of all the expert evidence which by then had been marshalled, they realised that ‘the game was up’ and cynically sought to withdraw, hoping that this would stymie any attempt to re-visit Judge Nathan’s original findings and thus prevent those findings being vindicated…

Matters of interest: Controversial expert evidence

These proceedings touch on a number of key issues that frequently become the subject of discussion and concern about how we deal with allegations that parents have hurt children. I have already commented on the issue of the standard of proof in family proceedings above. Annie will give below her perspective as a parent on how she reacts to the potential for different outcomes on the same facts in criminal and family courts.

It also highlights the difficulties around ‘controversial’ expert evidence which we touch upon in our guidance note relating to experts in the family courts – see Part 6relating to issues of medical controversy. In the criminal court the parents instructed Dr David Ayoub, a board certified radiologist licensed to practise medicine in the United States of America in the states of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa.

He could not be persuaded to attend the renewed fact finding in 2016 so the court considered his 2015 report and the evidence given in the criminal proceedings. Dr Ayoub had taken the controversial view that metaphyseal fractures happen extremely rarely and ‘for a great deal of the time, the medical community fail to take account of rickets’. His evidence was dismissed by the court as ‘worthless’, noting the reactions of the other doctors who described Dr Ayoub’s evidence as ‘nonsense’ (see para 43)

Asked by me to amplify what he meant by “nonsense”, whether he was using it with the colloquial meaning of “bonkers” or with the meaning “lacking any sense”, Dr Somers unhesitatingly replied “both.” Dr Somers said that Dr Ayoub’s interpretation of the images was “so far removed from any competent radiological interpretation that I have encountered that I would question either motive or competence.” He said of Dr Ayoub’s report that it “obfuscates important issues with a selective interpretation of the evidence in order to support an unproven theory.”

It is worth commenting that this is quite an incredible exchange for one expert to have with a Judge about the quality of another purported expert. There are other reported examples of parents attempting to rely on ‘foreign’ experts of less than stellar reputation and I wonder whether this is the inevitable consequence of the growing distrust of ‘the system’ and belief that all experts are in the pockets of the local authority – for an interesting example of the problems this can cause note also A (A Child), Re [2013]EWCA Civ 43. For further comments and concern about Dr Ayoub, see this article from The Times on 10th December 2018,which noted that Dr Ayoub had given evidence in other cases in the UK, further claiming calls were mounting to curb ‘incompetent experts’ and growing fears about their lack of regulation or control.

Matters of interest: Should a Reporting Restrictions Order continue to conceal the parents’ identities?

it is this issue which I think is probably the most pertinent for those of us who are interested in greater openness and transparency in the family courts. We have to grapple with the possible consequences of increased transparency, particularly in light of what seems to be a prevailing journalistic culture that rests very heavily on salacious and personal details as necessary to drive a story. When other members of the Transparency Project commented on a first draft of this post they asked why had chosen not to name the parents. My response was that I had not consciously chosen not to name them – but I felt very sorry for both of them. I have no doubt that they were encouraged to act as they did by those self styled campaigners against the family court system who persistently offer parents very bad advice on the basis that the whole system is corrupt and designed to steal children. Anyone who wants to know their names will find them by following the links in this post. I still feel uneasy about naming them here, even though I know this is futile.

The parents had welcomed considerable publicity after the collapse of the criminal trial in 2015 and their names were well known. The mother gave an interview to the Daily Mirrorsaying:

People need to know this goes on and be told the truth – you can take your baby into hospital scared they might be ill and the hospital can steal your baby away from you.

Their criminal barrister was quoted in the same article as saying:

Every step of the way when people had the opportunity to stand back, look at things again and say ‘we have made a mistake’, they ploughed on instead. These innocent parents have been spared a criminal conviction and a prison sentence for a crime they never committed. But they have had their child stolen from them. Their life sentence is that they are likely never to see their baby again.”

Sadly, this comment could not be excused as excitement in the heat of the moment arising from media attention, as the barrister’s Chambers published a blog which is still on linemaking the same points and quoting the parents’ junior criminal counsel as saying

“This tragic case highlights the real dangers of the Government’s drive to increase adoption and speed up family proceedings at all costs.”

Alarmingly, the blog post claims the parents were ‘exonerated’. They were not. The prosecution offered no further evidence. This is not a positive finding that the parents were innocent of any accusations made against them. This has echoes of the unfortunate ‘exoneration’ of Ben Butler by a family court when his text messages later revealed a very different picture; sadly after he had killed his daughter.

Such claims of exoneration are awkward when read against the 2016 fact finding. X did not have rickets. There was no miscarriage of justice. X had suffered ‘really serious abuse, child cruelty’.

At para 121 the court noted.

Standing back from all the detail, the overall picture is deeply troubling. Over a few short weeks, during the first few weeks of life, and extending, I am satisfied, over some period of time before taken to RSCH, X suffered an extraordinary constellation of what, I am satisfied, were inflicted injuries for which there is no innocent explanation: the constellation of marks and bruises noted by Dr Maynard (excepting the handful for which there may be an innocent explanation); two torn frenulae; and a number of fractures to different limbs. This was really serious child abuse, child cruelty. Whoever was the perpetrator must have known that X required medical attention. Even if someone was neither the perpetrator nor present at the time when injuries were inflicted, that person must have realised, even if only as time went by, that something was seriously wrong and that X required medical attention. Yet, until the final episode of oral bleeding, neither of the birth parents made any real attempt to obtain medical assistance for X, let alone to protect X from what was going on. Whoever was, or were, the perpetrator or perpetrators, both of the birth parents carry a high measure of responsibility for what on any view were serious parental failures.

Despite the considerable public attention already upon the parents in 2016, the court at that time agreed to impose a Reporting Restrictions Order to prohibit further naming or photographs, noting that the absence of that kind of detail would reduce the amount of publicity that could risk identification of the child or adoptive parents during the second finding of fact. The matter would be considered again when proceedings were concluded and this was done at a hearing on 30th November 2018 X (A Child) (No 5) [2018] EWHC 3442 (Fam) (14 December 2018)

In light of the outcome of the renewed finding of fact, it is not surprising that the mother now wished for the RRO to continue. She had since separated from the father who did not participate in the hearing. Her lawyers argued on her behalf that the mother was:

a vulnerable woman, lacking in formal education and certainly lacking in sufficient sophistication to negotiate dealing with the press. In the aftermath of the criminal hearing, [she] quickly came to regret having been forthcoming to the media. She experienced a level of interest and unwelcome attention that she had not anticipated and with which she could not easily cope. She withdrew from any further such involvement. She learned her lesson after the damage was done, but this socially disadvantaged young woman could never have been expected to have understood the ramifications of ‘going public’ and should not now be held responsible for the actions of others, who could have been expected to have such understanding.

However the court was not sympathetic to this argument. After conducting the balancing exercise between Articles 8 and 10 the court was clear that the parents should not be shielded by anonymity. The arguments put forward by the adoptive parents and the Press Association found favour:

…that there are in the public domain two competing narratives: one, the false narrative, in which identified birth parents portray themselves as the victims of a miscarriage of justice; the other, the correct narrative, in which unidentified birth parents are shown to have wrongly portrayed themselves as the victims of a miscarriage of justice. If the RRO continues in relation to the birth parents, it will not be possible to ‘link up’ the two competing narratives and therefore not possible to demonstrate that the false narrative is indeed false. It will remain indefinitely on the internet without anyone being able to counter it and demonstrate its falsity. More specifically, the allegation (now, as we know, false) of the identified birth parents that they – two named individuals – were the victims of a miscarriage of justice will remain indefinitely on the internet without the possibility of challenge and refutation. Ms Cover and Ms Rensten seek to meet this argument by submitting that the dragon is sleeping and will not be revived unless the birth parents are now identified. Even assuming that their premise is correct, this does not meet Ms Fottrell’s point, which is that the false narrative is out there – readily accessible by anyone with access to the internet.

A birth parent’s perspective

Annie, one half of the Project Coordinator role at the Transparency Project and author of Surviving Safeguarding: a parent’s guide to the child protection process adds her perspective.

I remember this case as it unfolded in the glare of the media in 2016.

What I, and other parents read was that these parents had taken their child to hospital, quite rightly, for medical help, and were accused of harming him or her, meaning that the baby was removed from their care at six weeks old. These parents were then put through the ordeal of a criminal trial and were found innocent of harming their baby. In the meantime, the Family Court had found, on the balance of probabilities, that the child had been harmed and decided that the baby should never be returned to their (seemingly innocent) parents and forcibly adopted. After being cleared of any criminal charges, the parents launched an appeal to have that child returned, an appeal which they then withdrew from, saying that their child had been with the adopted parents so long it would not be fair to move them.

To add insult to injury, Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Court Division (as he was then) added in cynical comments saying that he thought the parents had withdrawn because they “knew the game was up”. He stood by the family court findings (that the child was harmed by the parents).

I, like many birth parents with experience of the child protection system, felt both confused and angry by what I was reading. I felt angry with Munby and defensive towards the parents. How could birth parents who had been found innocent of abusing their child still go on to lose that child to a non-consensual adoption? It seemed utter madness – and a terrifying concept. Since 2015, I have offered direct advocacy to birth parents embroiled in the child protection process. What was I supposed to say to a parent who came to me, frightened, and not engaging with the local authority as a result, who had read this story in publications like the Daily Mail? How was I to reassure them that if they engaged with the help being offered that they had a far better chance of their family staying together when this story was being splashed all over the news and shared in amongst Facebook groups set up to protest against forced adoption? And quite frankly, who could blame these parents for feeling scared? I was, too.

I’ve since read the judgments, and taken time to review what evidence is available in the public domain. I understand better, and my view has changed. However, in the main, most members of the general public don’t read judgments. In the main, we read the news reports and form our opinions from them.

When it comes to parents involved with Children’s Services, these news reports only serve to exacerbate our fears that social workers are the “bogeymen” who will steal our children, even when we are found innocent. This perpetuates the “them and us” narrative, and means we are far less likely to either ask for help, or engage with the help being offered to safeguard children.

Conclusions

Sir James Munby’s confidence that the ‘true’ narrative will now overpower the false one, perhaps displays too great a faith in the ability of people to readily abandon narratives that chime with their own emotional reactions when presented with ‘facts’ (particularly if these are facts established as likely only on 51%). Publishing information on the internet does not by itself remedy the harms caused by adherence to more general conspiracy theories; a matter I have discussed in more detail at the Child Protection Resource.

However, this case with its harrowing and hopefully very unusual set of circumstances, sets out some powerful lessons. I think it is a continuing reminder of the need to be honest about what findings of fact in court can achieve. They are rarely about ‘exonerating’ or ‘damning’ but rather making a finding on a particular standard of proof. That means we need good quality evidence and experts who adhere to good standards of practice. Although Sir James was at the end ‘confident’ that ‘the truth’ had prevailed, the situation as highlighted in the criminal proceedings remained; the images of the fractures were of poor quality and the experts were not unanimous about what they saw.

As Annie comments above, it is a very clear example of just how confused those are outside the system about how it operates. The different standards of proof in criminal and civil cases is rarely understood, and when it is many parents make the reasonable comment that if their child is going to be adopted, it should be on the higher standard of proof.

However, most compellingly of all in my view, this case is a reminder of that he genie cannot be put back in the bottle. If we are pushing for greater openness and transparency, we all need to be mindful of the possible consequences. Once information is ‘out there’ it is very difficult to control how it will be republished or reinterpreted, no matter how hard you insist yours is the ‘right’ version. Once you have got journalists excited about the intimate details of your case, you may well attract more attention than you bargained for and end up the centre of a story that you had not anticipated.

Possibly parents who have greater faith in a court system will be less likely to seek to use journalists to fight their cause. But the risk of people pushing a false narrative with intent to deceive will remain and we are naive to think that publishing ‘the facts’ at a later stage will undo all the damage.

Feature Pic courtesy of Michell Zappa on Flickr (Creative Commons licence) – thanks!

Born into Care: Newborns in Care Proceedings In England

On 9th October 2018 I attended the launch of the Summary Report of ‘Born into care: Newborns in care proceedings in England’ from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory for England and Wales.

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory aims to support the best possible decisions for children by improving the use of data and research evidence in the family justice system. The main report will be online as of 10th October; this post deals with a summary and overview of its main findings.

The focus of the report is new borns subject to care proceedings, ‘new born’ being defined as an infant less than 7 days old. ‘An infant’ is a child less than 12 months old. The study used CAFCASS data from 2007 to 2017 to provide the first estimate of what proportion of care proceedings for infants are issued for newborns.

Numbers are on the rise

In the decade covered by the study, 173,002 children were involved in care proceedings and 47,172 (27%) were infants. At the outset, 32% of care proceedings were for newborns – by the end that had increased to 42%. Newborn cases also increased in volume over time; at the outset 1,039 cases were issued involving newborns; at the end 2,447. Thus the likelihood of newborns in the general population become subject to care proceedings has more than doubled. 

Regional variations

An alarming finding was the marked difference between the regions. The North West had the highest rates at 30 newborn cases per 10,000 live births in general population. Contrast this to London which had only 18 newborn cases per 10,000 live births.  A minority of LAs departed significantly from the expected average – the range for such outliers in 2016 was between 55 and 159 newborns per 10,000 live births. This is clearly troubling, and we need to investigate more closely the reasons behind such regional disparity.

The report suggests that differences are most likely attributable ‘to an interaction between professional practice and socio-demographic factors’. Of particular interest to me was the suggestion that we should investigate the influence of the local Designated Family Judges.  As it is a matter of some annoyance to me that different courts are developing divergent ‘local practice’  with regard to primarily administrative matters, it is not a great leap to think that a particular culture or approach may start to take root under the leadership of a particular Judge.

Subsequent Infants

This refers to newborns who had already had an older sibling appearing in care proceedings. In 2012/3 and 2016/7 this represented 47% of newborns. Without the experiences of an older sibling to inform the court, this raises issues about how the claim of ‘significant harm’ is going to be proved to the court – pregnancy provides only a very short window for an assessment of parenting capacity and support for change.

Duration of care proceedings

In 2012/13 only 28% of care proceedings completed within 26 weeks – in 2016/7 this increased to 61%. More research is needed to understand what is happening and what is different about the 39% of cases that do not complete within 26 weeks.

Final Legal orders

The total percentage of newborns subject to final care and placement orders was 47%. 21% were placed with extended family. 13% were placed with family. This requires further investigation – we need to know more about the circumstances behind those percentages.

Further questions

The report identifies the following areas requiring further consideration

  • Is increasing financial hardship for families a factor in the rising rates of newborns in care proceedings?
  • What is the impact of the reduction in preventative services on rates of newborns coming before the courts?
  • Does a defensive risk averse culture mean that professionals are less likely to want to work with the family without the security of a court order?
  • What accounts for fluctuations in the volume of newborn cases over time and place?

 

Main themes emerging from discussion

  • Loss of empathy in the system. What’s going wrong when people in the system want to do their best. ‘The arms that we used to put around families – which are no longer there’.
  • Development of ‘best practice’ in the maternity setting  – how to make the whole experience of removal less brutal for mothers (and fathers). A lot of this would be fairly simple to adopt and wouldn’t cost a huge amount – so why aren’t we doing it?
  • A need for better knowledge about what is done elsewhere – how do jurisdictions beyond England protect newborns, whilst also ensuring the rights of parents and wider family.
  • We have the numbers – now we need to drill down and look at reasons WHY such care proceedings are initiated.
  • And what happens AFTER proceedings? Are there groups of children who should be followed up?

 

Further reading

Care Crisis Review – report from the Family Rights Group

A little less conversation a little more action 

Myths and Monsters of Child Protection 

Evidence and Admissions made in the Family Court – what happens if the police are interested?

Section 98 of the Children Act

The purpose of this section is to encourage parents to speak openly and honestly in the family court about what happened to their child. It is supposed to provide them with safeguards against the involvement of the police who might want to prosecute them for criminal offences if they admit to, or the family court finds they have, hurt their children.

However, the situation is very complicated for even experienced lawyers to understand and it seems that it would be risky for any family lawyer to attempt to reassure their client that information or admissions contained in family proceedings will stay there.

98 of the Children Act 1989 provides that:

1. In any proceedings in which a court is hearing an application for an order under Part IV and V, no person shall be excused from-

A. giving evidence on any matter; or

B. answering any question put to him in the course of his giving evidence, on the ground that doing so might incriminate him or his spouse or civil partner of an offence.

2. A statement or admission made in such proceedings shall not be admissible in evidence against the person making it or his spouse or civil partner in proceedings for an offence other than perjury.

I tried to provide a ‘translation’ of this in this post. 

Attempt at Plain English Version: No guarantees of confidentiality can be given by the family court.

The judge should give a warning in the following terms when a parent is being questioned about causing harm to a child:

  • I need to explain a rule of law to you. Its important you understand this. Your lawyer can explain it further to you, it is their duty to do so.
  • allegations are made against you in these family proceedings. The family court is not involved in any decisions made in the criminal courts about whether you should be found guilty or acquitted of any criminal offence.
  • However, in these family proceedings, the court will have to decide whether or not the allegations made against you are true. If they are found to be true, this would mean you have done something which may also be a criminal offence.
  • in the family proceedings you aren’t allowed to refuse to answer questions or provide evidence in writing on the basis that your answers might show you or your spouse had done something criminally wrong.
  • If you do give evidence that suggests you have done something criminally wrong, this evidence is NOT allowed in any criminal proceedings against you UNLESS you are being prosecuted for perjury (i.e. you have lied on oath in the family court).
  • BUT you must understand that if the family court gives permission that ANYTHING you say or write down for these proceedings may be given to the police for them to use during their investigations into your conduct AND if you did end up in a criminal court, the prosecution might make an application for permission to ask you questions about anything you said in the family court.

The court gave guidance in A Local Authority v PG [2014] EWHC 63 (Fam) about the impact of section 98:

  • when a party to care proceedings is ordered to file and serve a response to threshold and/or to file and serve a narrative statement, that party must comply with that order and must do so by the date set out in the order;
  • the importance of parents or intervenors giving a frank, honest and full account of relevant events and matters cannot be overstated. It is a vital and central component of the family justice system;
  • a legal practitioner is entitled to advise a client of (i) the provisions and import of s.98 of the 1989 CA and (ii) the ability of the police and/or a co-accused to make application for disclosure into the criminal proceedings of statements, reports and documents filed in the care proceedings;
  • it is wholly inappropriate and potentially a contempt of court, however, for a legal practitioner to advise a client not to comply with an order made in care proceedings;
  • It is wholly inappropriate and potentially a contempt of court for a legal practitioner to advise a client not to give a full, accurate and comprehensive response to the findings of fact sought by a local authority in the threshold criteria document. This applies both where that advice is limited in time, eg until after a criminal defence statement has been filed and served and, worse still, the advice is given not to make such a response at all.

Some important points

Automatic disclosure of judgments under Rule 12.73

Rule 12.73 of the FPR 2010 and PD 12G mean any party has an automatic right to disclose to police/CPS whole or part of a judgment in a family case for the purpose of a criminal investigation or to enable the CPS to discharge its functions. BUT neither police nor the CPS can disclose the judgment or the information it contains  to any person without the permission of the family court judge.

Factors set out in Re C 1996

The leading authority remains  Re C sub nom Re EC [1996] 2 FLR 725 CA The court set out the following matters which a judge will consider when deciding to let the police have information from the family court. Each case must be decided on its merits and the importance of these factors will vary from case to case. The case also predates the shift in attitudes towards more openness in family proceedings and the impact of Articles 8 and 10 of the ECHR and the Human Rights Act 1998, so will need to be seen in that context.

  • The welfare and interests of the child or children concerned in the care proceedings. If the child is likely to be adversely affected by the order in any serious way, this will be a very important factor.
  • The welfare and interests of other children generally.
  • The maintenance of confidentiality in children’s cases.
  • The importance of encouraging frankness in children’s cases. The underlying purpose of s 98 is to encourage people to tell the truth in cases concerning children, and the incentive is that any admission will not be admissible in evidence in a criminal trial. But the incentive of guaranteed confidentiality is not given by the words of the section.
  • The public interest in the administration of justice. Barriers should not be erected between one branch of the judicature and another because this may be inimical to the overall interests of justice.
  • The public interest in the prosecution of serious crime and the punishment of offenders, including the public interest in convicting those who have been guilty of violent or sexual offences against children. There is a strong public interest in making available material to the police which is relevant to a criminal trial. In many cases, this is likely to be a very important factor.
  • The gravity of the alleged offence and the relevance of the evidence to it. If the evidence has little or no bearing on the investigation or the trial, this will militate against a disclosure order.
  • The desirability of co-operation between various agencies concerned with the welfare of children, including the social services departments, the police service, medical practitioners, health visitors, schools, etc. This is particularly important in cases concerning children.
  • In a case to which s 98(2) applies, the terms of the section itself, namely, that the witness was not excused from answering incriminating questions, and that any statement of admission would not be admissible against him in criminal proceedings. Fairness to the person who has incriminated himself and any others affected by the incriminating statement and any danger of oppression would also be relevant considerations.
  • Any other material disclosure which has already taken place.

 

A parent who confesses

There is also very useful discussion about the operation of section 98(2) and disclosure of documents to the police in the case of Re X and Y (Children: Disclosure of Judgment to Police) [2014]. This case involved a parent who confessed to causing a serious injury to a child. This confession came AFTER a fact finding hearing where the Judge couldn’t decide which parent hurt the child. On giving judgment the Judge commented that it would be possible to rehabilitate the child back to the family if the perpetrator gave a full and frank account.  The father confessed to causing the injury 2 days later and the parents separated. The children went back to their mother and Baker J gave a further judgment, exonerating the mother of causing harm.

The Father then applied for an order to stop any of this information being sent to the police/CPS. The police had by now closed their file on the case. The police cross applied to see the information about the confession so they could decide whether or not to prosecute the father. Baker J allowed the police and CPS to see the judgments but with limits on their use; they could not discuss the contents of the judgments with either parent without the court’s permission.

At para 22, Baker J considered the question of whether the father’s confession could be used in criminal proceedings – was he protected by section 98? It is for the criminal courts to decide if a admission could be used as evidence within the criminal trial or whether section 98(2) provided protection but noted that he knew of no reported case where section 98(2) has been considered by the criminal courts. In the family court, such confessions have been used to ‘shape the nature and range of the inquiries’ the police undertake [Oxfordshire CC v P [1995] 1 FLR 797].

Therefore, the police can ask a suspect about his previous confession in a further interview. If the suspects admits it was truthful, that could be evidence admitted into his criminal trial. However, being questioned in a police interview in this way runs a serious risk that any protection offered by section 98 would be nullified – as recognised by the court in Re M [2001] 2 FLR 1316.

There is – as yet – no judicial answer to the question raised in Re X &Y as to whether a suspect’s confession could be raised in a criminal trial as a ‘previous inconsistent statement’ pursuant to s119 of the Criminal Justice Act 1993.

This seems to be the worst of all worlds. Of course the police are going to be interested in a confession or an adverse judgment. Of course they are going to want to rely on it and ask questions about it. It does seem that the practical use of section 98 has been considerably eroded.

 

Liz Ingham comments:

It seems a shame, particularly in a climate where the police and CPS appear to await the outcomes of fact finding hearings before deciding on whether to prosecute and where there is sometimes inordinate delay in criminal trials being heard, that the laudable aim of section 98(2) to encourage frankness in the family courts is being eroded by the spectre of criminal proceedings waiting in the wings.

The section was put there for a purpose – if it was not to provide a complete shield for parents who are frank in children cases in order to encourage them to be so, what was the point of it? Is it right to leave the amount of protection it provides to a parent to be determined in the criminal courts where there is no necessity to consider the factors which may compete against the criminal jurisdiction’s perception of fairness such as the need to preserve the integrity of the family justice system as a whole in providing swift and child focused justice? Would it not be better to have children returned home to one parent quickly following being injured by the other parent than to be removed from their birth family for months at best (pending a fact finding hearing) and for life at worst (due to both parents remaining in the pool of perpetrators) even if the price for that were that the guilty parent escaped criminal prosecution? For the children in Re X & Y, perhaps it was fortunate that Baker J did not give the warning under section 98(2). It might have discouraged the Father from being frank and the children would have remained separated from both of their parents.

 

 

Further Reading

 

Communicating with the Home Office in family proceedings.

COMMUNICATING WITH UK VISAS AND IMMIGRATION (UKVI)
IN FAMILY PROCEEDINGS

Protocol agreed between the President of the Family Division and the Home Office issued on 16 May 2018

1 This Protocol enables the family courts (the Family Division of the High Court of Justice and the Family Court) to communicate with UK VISAS AND IMMIGRATION (UKVI), the relevant division of the Home Office, to obtain immigration and visa information for use in family court proceedings. Although it replaces and supersedes the previous guidance issued in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2014, in particular to reflect new UKVI processes and contact details, it does not alter the nature or purpose of the Protocol.

2 There are three parts of the process:

(1) HMCTS form EX660 (rev 04/18), a copy of which is annexed to this Protocol, must be completed by the parties and approved by the judge.

(a) The EX660 must be typed, not handwritten.
(b) The EX660 must be completed in full, specifying the details of the relevant family members and their relationship to the child(ren). Details of both mother and father/adoptive parents if known should be provided, whether or not they are involved in the proceedings, as this enables UKVI to trace the child(ren)’s records.
(c) The EX660 and the order must specify the questions the court wishes to be answered by UKVI.
(d) The EX660 must contain the name and contact details of someone who has agreed and is able to provide further information if needed.
(e) The EX660 must clearly state the time by which the information is required.

Failure to do this may cause delay in the time it takes UKVI to process the request.

(2) An order in the relevant form, a copy of which is annexed to this Protocol, must be drawn up, approved by the judge and sealed by the court.

(a) The order must clearly state the time by which the information is required.
(b) The order must specify any additional information or documents, such as a synopsis, which it wishes UKVI to have and set out in the order that the leave of the court to make disclosure to UKVI has been given. (Note that it may be a contempt of court to disclose this information otherwise.)

(3) The UKVI SVEC pro-forma must be completed by the court staff utilising the information in the EX660 and the order.

(a) All relevant fields in the SVEC pro-forma must be completed:
i. Section A – All fields to be completed if known
ii. Section B – Enquiry Type – Select Standard
iii. Section C – Select Subject 1 and complete all fields.
iv. Section D – Enter “Y” in “Other ” field only.
v. Section E – Enter ” Please refer to court order and EX660″.
vi. For more than one subject, select subject 2 and so on, completing steps C-E for each one.
(b) In Section B there are two fields, “Court date” and “required date”, which must be completed. In both fields the date the information is required should be entered, not the court date. These fields generate the target date on UKVI systems and, as the information ordered by the court will be required before the date of the court hearing, this will ensure that the information is provided in time.

3 The EX660 and the order must contain sufficient information to enable UKVI to understand the nature of the case, to identify whether the case involves an adoption, and to identify whether the immigration issues raised relate to an asylum or a non- asylum application.
4 In order to comply with the agreed four (4) week period for UKVI to provide a response to the court, the sealed order should be available to be sent by the court staff to UKVI on the same day that the order is made. Where that is not possible, the court, when stating the required date of receipt by the court of the information requested, must allow any additional time necessary for the preparation, sealing and sending of the order. This is to ensure that UKVI has four (4) weeks to provide a response from the time it receives the order.
5 The sealed order, completed EX660 and SVEC pro-forma should be sent immediately by the court to ICESSVECWorkflow@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk including EEREQUEST on the subject line of the email. The request for information will be rejected by UKVI if either the sealed order or the SVEC pro-forma is not provided.
6 Where the court wishes to progress a case that may be delayed, it may send an email to SVECManagement@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk
7 The UKVI official will be personally responsible for either:
(i) answering the query themselves, by retrieving the file and preparing a statement for the court; or
(ii) forwarding to a caseworker or relevant official with carriage of the particular file.
8 UKVI will ensure that their information is received by the court in time, as instructed by the judge or court making the request.

James Munby, President of the Family Division

Innovations in Children’s Social Care – to what extent are parents and children included?

This is a post by a parent. NESTA is an ‘innovation foundation’ backing new ideas to tackle ‘the big challenges of our time’. The What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care is a new project to foster evidence-informed practice in the sector in England. The Development Team is helping to identify what the Centre should focus on, how it should identify and share evidence, and how it should be managed and led.

She poses the stark question – are children and families going to be direct participants in this endeavour or is it more an effort to find cheaper innovations with no clear definition of what is meant by ‘success’? I would be interested to know what response this parent receives…

 

WHAT WORKS CENTRE
OPEN LETTER to NESTA

​Dear Sir/Madam

I’m the parent of a young person who entered Care in adolescence. I’ve been campaigning and working for better rights for families in similar circumstances and for children with disabilities who enter Care since then.

I understand that NESTA will have a key role in the new What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care

As I understand it, there are a number of ethical issues that need to be addressed as regards the aims of the Centre and how these should be achieved. The Children’s Act 1989, is the primary piece of legislation to protect the welfare of children and it is generally accepted that it was intended to promote collaborative working between families and Agencies in the best interests of children.

The Main Principles of the Act are:
– the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration.
– wherever possible, children should be brought up and cared for within their own families.
– parents with children in need should be helped to bring up their children themselves; this help would be provided as a service to the child and his family.

It seems apparent that we are at a crossroads as regards working with families in England and Wales with some stark choices:-
​ Are the principles of the Children’s Act to be bravely embraced as never before including involving parents and carers in real decision-making at strategic level when it comes to designing social care services for children and families?
Or
Are children and families to be treated as ‘guinea pigs’ in developing commercially viable ‘interventions’ in the name of ‘innovative practice in child protection’ with little say in the matter and no clear idea of how success is defined relative to the Children’s Act 1989?

I have been in a considerable number of rooms containing child protection professionals with a ‘we know best’ attitude when it comes to working with families and I find this both dispiriting and disturbing. What I’m sure of is that this attitude will never deliver for children and families. Not all programmes are like this thankfully. I’m a parent/carer member of a NHS Programme for example which has an ethos of co-production.

Please, please involve families (birth, adoptive, kinship etc) in the new Centre at decision-making level. To do anything other than this is highly unethical and will undermine the stated aims of the Centre.

This is my submission to the Care Crisis Review for what it is worth.
https://childprotectionautisticchild.weebly.com/respect.html

I look forward to a response to this email.

Yours Sincerely
 

Speaking to student social workers about the Law – and some other stuff

 

On Monday 27th November 2017 I went to talk to some student social workers about the law around care proceedings  – how important it was for them to understand what the law demands. Without that understanding, social workers cannot analyse their cases effectively and they may not appreciate what kind of evidence they need to present to the court.

I have often wondered if it is lack of proper understanding of the burden and standard of proof which explains why so many care cases go off the rails. I spoke to the students for about an hour, largely exploring areas I discuss in this post about the importance of the rule of law and this post about achieving best evidence in Children Act cases.

“Whats the point in doing the job?”

But – for me at least – the most interesting part of the day was the discussion that followed afterwards. We spoke about the importance of discussion between the different professions to enable us to understand the parameters and limits of our different roles.

I spoke about how social media was still on balance a very positive force in my life as it had enabled me to meet and talk to people I would otherwise never have met. It also allows information to be widely shared.

I asked the students what their perception now was of the role of social worker. The answer was immediate and very sad:

We started the year excited but the constant social work bashing makes us think ‘what’s the point… there is no one who talks about us doing a ‘cracking job’.

The students explained that they were receiving negative messages from all sides – from the parents who visited the college to speak and even from representatives of their own profession.

Of particular note to the students was the way the profession was portrayed by Social Work Tutor. The students confirmed that the discussion on the Facebook groups could be really helpful but they were rightly wary and quite shocked by some of the discussion which involved revealing identifying details about families or encouraging a mocking attitude towards them.

This was a very timely discussion for me – only the previous evening I had engaged in lengthy discussion with a number of others on Twitter about our concerns about Social Work Tutor – which have been fairly and comprehensively assessed on Pink Tape here.

For those who haven’t been following the debate, there have been long standing concerns raised by many that Social Work Tutor promotes a message about the profession that is fundamentally unhelpful and really quite damaging – disseminating a view of social work as a dangerous and draining profession where parents are to be either feared or laughed at.

The alternative view is that SWT has provided a useful forum via his Facebook groups that allow aspiring social workers to exchange ideas and resources and that is reliance on humourous ‘memes’ was just typical officer worker banter.

The students were unanimous in their condemnation of use of ‘banter’ as a shield to poke fun at parents, pointing out that to the recipient of ‘banter’ it usually feels like abuse. There is a fine line between banter and bullying.

The students were also very concerned about the frequent use of memes to underscore just what a horrible job social work is – this was a very demoralising message for the students to receive. They also questioned why there couldn’t be more of a positive message about what social workers aspired to do, other than the ‘social worker as super hero’ message. The students recognised this as inherently unhelpful – not merely enforcing dividing lines between them and parents but as simply unrealistic in a culture of austerity and reduced resources.

This led to an interesting discussion about how difficult it is for the social work profession to celebrate their positive achievements, owing to various laws which prohibit dissemination of information about care cases. The recent Tower Hamlets Muslim foster carer row being one of the worst examples of this.

This was an interesting afternoon but also sad. What can we do to stop the initial excitement of these students draining away in the face of persistent negative messages about their profession? Social work is an essential profession in any civilised society and it is very sobering to think that the students did not feel they could be proud of wanting to be a part of this.

My only answer is that we continue to have honest, open conversations and we keep the bantering memes to a minimum.

 

Multi Agency Response to children living with domestic abuse

Regular contributor @DVHurts writes about the recent report investigating the multi agency response to children living with domestic abuse. Some good practice is noted but also criticism of practices that do not keep children safe, such as written agreements that do not focus on the perpetrator as the source of the abuse and therefore the risk. 

I am highlighting a recent joint inspection report by OFSTEAD, HMICFRS, Care Quality Commission and HM Inspectors of Probation, into the multi agency response to children living with domestic abuse. You can read the whole report here.

This report is about the second joint targeted area inspection programme, which
began in September 2016 and which examined ‘the multi-agency response to
children living with domestic abuse’. The findings in this report consider the extent to
which, in the six local authorities inspected, children’s social care, health
professionals, the police and probation officers were effective in safeguarding
children who live with domestic abuse. The report calls for a national public service
initiative to raise awareness of domestic abuse and violence. It also calls for a
greater focus on perpetrators and better strategies for the prevention of domestic
abuse.

It raises the question whether a public health campaign similar to drink driving or drug awareness should be rolled out considering the enormous human and financial cost of domestic violence:

There needs to be a public service message aimed at reducing the prevalence of
domestic abuse as part of a long-term strategy. The focus of this public service
message needs to be on those perpetrators who have offended or might offend, and
to communicate a better understanding of the behaviour and attitudes of those
perpetrating abuse.

Once again firefighting by services, rather than prevention is highlighted:

Work with families that we saw on inspection was often in reaction to
individual crises. Agencies can be overwhelmed by the frequency of
serious incidents, particularly higher risk ones. However, keeping children
safe over time needs long-term solutions.

There was criticism on the concentration on the victim, rather than the perpetrator by services:

A pattern emerged that suggests agencies focus on the victim as the only solution.
In the worst cases, agencies placed an inappropriate attribution of responsibility on
the mother to protect her children. The end of an abusive relationship was
considered to reduce the risk to children, when in fact research tells us that
separation can escalate risk.
Most agencies did not focus on the perpetrator of the abuse enough. Instead, they
focused on removing the family from the perpetrator, leaving them to move on to
another family and, potentially, a repeated pattern of abuse.

On a more positive note, the inspectors highlighted several areas of good practice , including midwifery, in particular staff who are not frightened to ask the awkward questions:

In Hounslow, for example, inspectors praised the ‘One Stop Shop’ service
for parents who are subject to domestic abuse. The service is open one
morning a week. Parents can access a range of services, advice and
support from various professionals including legal advice, support from an
independent domestic violence adviser (IDVA), children’s social care, the
police, housing, substance misuse support, a refuge worker and an
independent sexual violence adviser. Inspectors noted that:
‘parents are gaining an understanding of the impact of living with
domestic abuse, leading to their being better able to meet the needs of
their children and keeping them safe’.

On the other hand there was criticism of practice that was highly unlikely to keep children safe:

Some of the thinking and practice we saw with victims in contexts of coercive
control were clearly inappropriate. This included the use of written agreements
that placed responsibility for managing the risk to children with the victim.
Written agreements are similar to written contracts, where social workers and
parents agree a set of terms that the parents sign. The terms may include
things like, the victim will not continue a relationship with her abusive partner,
she will not allow him into the house, she will not be in contact with him, and
so on.

The use of written agreements in two of the six local authorities was
widespread. However, we saw no evidence that they are effective. Given that
the focus of written agreements is often not the perpetrator who is the source
of the abuse and therefore the risk, it is unsurprising that they are ineffective.

Then something that a number of woman will relate to, and is often the subject of comments on this blog( not just from me):

 

Some of the women we spoke to in our focus groups described how their abusers used their distress as evidence that they were unstable. Often the women believed they were regarded as having mental health conditions or of being emotionally incapable of caring for their children. In one case, this resulted in a mother being evicted from her home and her partner being given sole custody of her children, whom she did not see for several months. Eventually her abuser, who had a severe alcohol addiction, was evicted and custody returned to the mother

Untangling this web and being consistent in identifying who needs to be held
responsible, and for what, will always be challenges for professionals. We found
instances of language being used that incorrectly held victims responsible for
the risk of domestic abuse. For example, we saw reports that described an
abusive situation as a ‘lifestyle choice’ and reports stating that victims had
learnt to ‘make better relationship choices’. We also found instances of
the multi-agency response to children living with domestic abuse
inappropriate practice, including a police log that had been updated to state
that a safeguarding visit would not be completed because both parties were ‘as
bad as one another’.

A lack of focus on perpetrators can lead to a short-term view of risks. We saw examples of swift action being taken to secure the immediate safety of the
victim and children, without any action being taken to address the root causes
of the perpetrator’s behaviour. In temporarily resolving the immediate incident,professionals can lose sight of the greater risks posed in future.

One survivor of domestic abuse told us:
‘I called the police on him multiple times and they just kind of patted him
on the back and said ‘calm down son’. And I’m like, ‘he’s just thrown me
down the goddamn stairs’.

It is a comprehensive, readable report and has been reported on elsewhere: http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2017/09/21/written-agreements-still-common-part-child-protection-practice/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/09/19/domestic-abuse-victims-ignored-police-officers-see-lifestyle/Mul

Costs of Experts in Care Proceedings – what happens when parents dispense with their lawyers?

 

The decision in J (A Child: Care Proceedings: Apportionment of Expert’s fees) [2017] EWFC B49 is mainly concerned with how to ensure the court gets help from expert witnesses now that their fees are subject to pretty stringent caps by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA -formerly Legal Services Commission or LSC)

I set out the discussion about hourly rates and apportionment of fees below; its pretty dry stuff but horribly necessary. It is clear that we live in a society now where a decision by the court that an expert’s opinion is ‘necessary’ is a decision that can be thwarted by a branch of the government that has set the level of acceptable rates for expert pay. It is possible to argue that your expert should be paid more but only in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

Matters were complicated here by both parents refusing to instruct lawyers and thus take advantage of the non means non merits tested public funding they would get.

If all the parties had lawyers the costs would probably be split 4 ways – in this case the court had to split them between the LA and the guardian. This does in fact reduce the burden on the LAA as it faces only 50% of the bill rather than 75% had costs been split four ways and the LA was the only party not with a legal aid certificate. So hopefully it won’t be a problem in this case. But what if it is? What if there are problems for the guardian on his publicly funded certificate? Best case scenario is further delay while arguments are had with LAA. Worst case scenario  is the court doesn’t get the evidence it needs and more experts are put off appearing in family courts over concerns they may not get paid for the work they do.

The discussion and clarification about issues of apportionment of expert fees are very relevant for lawyers, which is why I deal with it below. But the real worry for me about this case is WHY are the parents not accepting lawyers? I accept from some Twitter discussions about this, it could just be that they are distrustful of lawyers having had previous bad experiences.

But I worry – and have plenty of evidence to support my worry – that whispering in their ears will be the voices of those such as Hemming. That they have been told not to trust ‘legal aid losers’ and thus they will try and fight their corner alone. Their baby has a serious head injury and they are in the pool of perpetrators. One of the options before the court is adoption. To attempt to participate in these proceedings without a lawyer is sheer madness. But to end up paying money to some dodgy McKenzie Friends would make it a tragedy.

I remain shocked, sad and baffled that the activities of some self styled McKenzie friends appear to attract so little attention or concern in the wider world. I hope these parents do not come to regret the choice they made here.

For more details about my concerns about Hemming and his organisation JFF, see the posts set out here. 

Summary of the decision in Re J concerning experts’ fees

  • There is no ‘normal rule’ that costs are apportioned equally between all parties. The court retains discretion.
  • Hourly rates are matter for the LAA to determine but apportionment of fees a mater for the court – probably…
  • Guidance re applying for prior authority is inconsistent but to avoid delay it should be done quickly
  • The LAA should give reasons for its refusal

Fixed rates paid to experts when parties are legally aided.

1. Para 1 of Schedule 5 to the Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) Regulations 2013 provides that subject to paragraph 2, the Lord Chancellor must pay remuneration to the provider for the expert service at the fixed fees or at rates not exceeding the rates set out in the Table. The Table that follows sets out a list of different categories of expert and the permitted maximum hourly rate for that expert.
2. It is possible to get paid more than these rates. This is set out at paragraph 2 of Schedule 5, if the circumstances are ‘exceptional’. This is defined as meaning the expert evidence must be ‘key’ to the client’s case AND either the material is so complex an expert with high level of seniority is required OR the material is so ‘specialised and unusual’ that only very few experts could deal with it.
3. If parties want to get their expert paid by the Lord Chancellor via the Legal Aid Agency, beyond the rates set in the Table because of exceptional circumstances, they have to apply to the LAA for ‘prior authority’ , i.e. permission to go over the fixed rates. If they don’t get this permission, the solicitors could end up with the bill as they have now a contractual relationship with the expert to pay for his or her services. They are not expected to take this risk and can’t be compelled to take it.
4. The application for prior authority is via a prescribed form. If refused there is no right of appeal. The solicitor can ask the LAA to reconsider but only challenge to refusal is by way of judicial review. The LAA suggest that they take 9 days to process an application but in reality it appears it will take much longer than that. This is potentially a cause for delay in Children Act cases.

Is equal apportionment of fees the ‘normal order’ where there is no issue over resources? ANSWER NO

5. This was the first question posed in Re J. With regard to the issue of apportioning fees the court examined the decision of the Court of Appeal in Re JG (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 656. The Lord Chancellor asserted it was the ‘normal’ rule that costs should be apportioned equally between the parties and any departure from this ‘normal’ rule that increases a burden on a publicly funded party should be confined to only ‘exceptional circumstances’. The court rejected the idea that such a ‘normal rule’ existed and said ‘it all depends on the particular circumstances of the case’ (para 16).
6. Instead the court looked to the decision in Calderdale MBC v S and the LSC [2005] 1 FLR 751. All parties were publicly funded except the LA. The parties jointly appointed an expert. The LSC persuaded the court to apportion 50% of the costs to the LA. On appeal Bodey J apportioned costs equally between all parties – so the LA paid 25%.
7. Bodey J was clear this was a matter for the court’s discretion. In the exercise of its discretion the court must consider all circumstances but in particular:
a. The adequacy of the work done by the LA itself
b. Where the report is directed at threshold or welfare issues
c. The need for each party to have confidence in the integrity of the forensic process.
8. The court in Re J considered two other authorities and concluded it was clear that the court has discretion as to what order is made as to the costs of instructing experts in family proceedings.

The Family Procedure Rules 2010

9. The impact of Rule 25.12(6) FPR mirrors Rule 35.9(5) CPR and provides:
Unless the court directs otherwise, the relevant parties are jointly and severally liable for the payment of the expert’s fees and expenses
10. The court conceded this is an odd provision as it appears to be concerning itself with the contractual relationship between the parties and the expert. However, the court decided that when reading it alongside Rule 2512(4)(a) – the court may give directions about experts fees and expenses – it is not intended to be prescriptive and simply establishes a ‘default’ position in the absence of any other court directions. This does not however set up a ‘normal rule’ that costs are to be apportioned equally.

What happens when one party has no money?

11. In re J neither parent was able to pay anything as they had very limited means and they had refused to instruct lawyers even though they would have attracted non means and non merits tested legal aid. If the parents had been legally aided the court had no doubt it would have ordered the expert fees to be shared equally between all parties. Black LJ in re JG was very clear that ‘equality is not the norm’ and the impecuniosity of a party may justify the unequal apportionment of an expert’s fees between the parties’.
12. The court therefore concluded at para 18 of the judgment that it had to accept this was a case ‘in which fairness and common sense dictate that an order requiring an equal sharing of the experts’ fees is wholly inappropriate’. The fees should be paid equally by the guardian and the LA.
13. However, the court still needed to consider the Guidance published by the LAA, which was updated in September 2014. Para 1.6 of the Guidance headed ‘Joint instructions and apportionment generally’ advises that it is normal practice for an application to be made for prior authority wherever a party’s legal representative or the expert are unwilling to take a risk as to assessment of expert fees’
14. There is also Guidance published in 2013 on Remuneration of Expert Witnesses which was updated in April 2015. Section 4 of that guidance appears to contradict para 1.6 of the 2014 guidance as it makes application for prior authority mandatory – ‘you MUST always apply for prior authority where you seek to incur costs of an expert service at higher rates than those set out in the Remuneration Regulations…’
15. Para 4.5 of the 2013 Guidance also recognises that unequal apportionment of costs will not always be unusual in care proceedings – for e.g. one party may be an intervenor and it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to bear an equal share of an expert report going to an issue which is not relevant to their intervention.

So what happened in Re J about splitting costs between LA and Guardian?

16. The court approved the instruction of two experts and determined their fees should be split 50/50 between the LA and the Guardian. The court asked – why is prior authority needed before a letter of instruction can be sent? And if an application is made for prior authority for an unequal apportionment of an expert’s fees ordered by the court, is it open to the LAA to refuse that application?
17. Sir Nicholas Wall P in A local authority v S and others [2012] EWHC 1442 (Fam) was clear that the LSC has power conferred on it by Parliament to refuse to fund an instruction or fund in part only. The only remedy is by judicial review. BUT that was a case dealing with the hourly rate paid to experts. How payment of that hourly rate is to be shared between the parties is NOT subject to any regulations. ‘The issue of apportionment is at large’ (para 24).
18. The court was doubtful that the LAA could interfere with the decision of the court about apportionment, but this was a question for another court on another day. However, the guardian’s solicitor thought it prudent to apply for prior authority in any event and court agreed this was sensible.

The hourly rates of the expert in Re J

19. The excess requested by the expert was £432. Dividing this between the LA and the guardian means that the guardian would have to pay £216 more than could be claimed by the LAA. Even if the guardian was only paying 25% that represents £108 more than could be claimed back. The court agreed that the guardian must seek prior authority to instruct the expert at an hourly rate in excess of the standard rates.
20. The application for prior authority should be made without delay and the LAA, if it refused the application should give reasons for its decision as fairness dictates that the parties are able to understand why it has refused to allow what the court has considered necessary – and if appropriate, challenge can be made speedily.

The conversations we are not having about adoption – and how we could have them

On 23rd September 2017 with curiosity and trepidation, I will become a ‘performer’ in a ‘unique live oral communication performance’ created by the artist Pamela Neil (www.pamelaneil.co.uk), looking at some of the issues around child protection and adoption.

In this performance piece I want to explore important questions that are not being raised publicly, such as – can we ‘make’ happy families? Do we need to ‘rescue’ children or should we be trying to keep unhappy families together?

And probably most fundamentally of all – can we impose identity on a child? What IS our identity? And what does it do to us – as individuals and as a society – to see the identity attached to our birth family be destroyed or altered by the state? When does the price to pay for child protection simply become too high?

I was attracted to this unique art form, creating a live oral communication performance about adoption, because it’s become very clear to me over the years that the necessary public debate about these issues keeps stalling and stagnating around the polarised positions of those who feel very strongly that their experiences and understanding represent the only truth.

Attempts to broaden debate and understanding often falter because when the debate pushes so many emotional buttons, attempts to make a particular argument often seem to end up being a barrier to communication rather than opening a door to greater understanding and awareness – its not so much the FACTS that win hearts and minds but the FEELINGS they create.
Is it possible therefore to come at this from another angle? Not the dry legal approach which has informed my training and professional life – but trying to shine a light on the issues in another way?

One of the most important benefits of any performance or work of art must be how powerfully complex thoughts and ideas can be communicated to an audience; straight to the heart, rather than draining our interest in a dull legal lecture and PowerPoint.

 

Where and when

I have no idea if this will work, but whatever happens I am sure it will be interesting and I am really excited about the venue!

I hope you can join me at ‘happy families, the conversations we’re not having about adoption’, 18:30 – 20:30

Saturday 23 September 2017 Arnolfini Gallery Bristol UK.

Tickets are free and you can register here via EventBrite 

Ignorance is no defence: The dangerous activism of Justice for Families

This post is my formal complaint about the activities of the organisation Justice for Families, which I made to its Chairman John Hemming on 8th January 2017. My name is Sarah Phillimore and I am a barrister specialising in child protection law. My concerns about Mr Hemming and his organisation are long standing. You can read more here and here.

I gave Mr Hemming an extension of time until 4pm on 21st February 2017 to respond to this complaint. He replied, via Twitter, that he would not. I thought six weeks was more than enough time to respond to such serious concerns and I made it clear that, in the absence of any substantive response from him,  I would publish the complaint today.  

 

Why am I doing this? What’s the point? Who cares?

Because I don’t see what other choice I have. I cannot ‘unknow’ what I know about this group. It’s probably pointless, I concede because no one seems to care. I can speculate about why that is. When I have tried to get journalists interested in this, they respond sadly ‘it’s too complicated’ (if I’m lucky. If I’m not, they simply ignore me).

I suspect ‘it’s too complicated’ is convenient shorthand for something like this “John Hemming is wealthy and litigious. I don’t want the trouble. Plus, I can’t really get too worked up about the kind of people who get mixed up in this. They seem quite unappealing; poor, drunk, mentally ill, can’t look after their kids. Why bother with them? “.

I appreciate that I cannot make people take an interest in or care about what JFF get up to or the people they hurt. I really don’t understand why so many don’t seem to care,  why many more people are not angry about the exploitation of the vulnerable and the children put at risk of harm.

I also appreciate that the existence of such groups and the fact that so many parents are desperate enough to turn to them, says nothing good about the current state of the child protection system. It is a tragedy that vulnerable parents believe they have no where else to turn; they are between the rock and the very hard place. The blight of the unscrupulous McKenzie Friend is serious and real, as seen in the recent Victoria Derbyshire programme.

All I can do is all I can to spread awareness about the nature and the extent of the problem we face. If, with that knowledge, you chose to do nothing then that is a matter for your conscience.  Mine is clear.

If JFF attempt to involve themselves in any case where I am instructed, I will object. And I will explain very clearly why.

 

Letter of complaint sent January 8th 2017

Parts of this letter of complaint have been removed prior to publication to ensure compliance with section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 which prohibits publication of matters relating to care proceedings, without permission being obtained first from the court. 

Dear Mr Hemming,
1. On 2nd January 2017I asked you via the public electronic communications network Twitter (hereafter Twitter) where I could direct a formal complaint about the activities of the organisation Justice For Families (hereafter JFF) , you as its Chairman and its advisers Tim and Julie Haines. At 22:58 on 2nd January 2017 you replied to say ‘me’. On 5th January 2017 I replied to say that I would make a formal complaint, if time permitted by 6pm on Sunday 8th January 2017. You replied to say that you would respond to that complaint but you could not promise a timescale.

2. The link to the JFF website is no longer valid and I assume therefore this website has been taken down. However I note the Facebook Group ‘Stop Forced Adoption’ is described as the official Facebook Group of Justice for Families Ltd  Registered Company No. 06645051.

3. Information from Companies House shows that JFF company was incorporated as a private limited company on Monday 14th July 2008.  Its registration status is ‘active’ and the company engages in activities of patent and copyright agents and other legal activities not elsewhere classified. The registered address is Osmond House 78 Alecester Road Birmingham B13 8BB, which is the address to which I will send this complaint. I will also send a copy to you via email to john@hemming.email, which is the email address you provide on your blog 

4. Your confirmation that I should send a formal complaint about the activities of JFF and its members/advisers supports my assumption that you remain the Chairman of this company and the frequent public denouncements you make of the family justice system represent the position adopted by JFF, its advisers and members.

5. I am also sending a copy of this complaint to the Designated Family Judge at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre, being HHJ Wildblood QC. [REDACTED]

6. I shall set out below:
a. The time by which I request a response;
b. My proposed actions if your response is not forthcoming or is inadequate;
c. How I would like you to respond to this complaint;
d. a summary of my complaint and
e. more detailed description of the evidence upon which I rely to support that summary. Any reference I make to a publication made on any public electronic communications network can be supported by a screen shot of that publication, if required.

I request a response to my complaint by 6/2/17.
7. If you do not respond by that date, or I consider that your response is inadequate, I will consider:
a. Making formal complaint about serious misconduct relating to the activities of a private limited company;
b. Make formal complaint to providers of the public electronic communications networks such as Twitter and Facebook and request that the JFF Facebook group is removed or suspended. I note in particular that the JFF Facebook group is currently soliciting copies of court judgments from parents without any reference to permission from the President of the Family Division to conduct such ‘research’

How I would like you to respond to this complaint.
8. The remedy that I seek is that you or any person purporting to operate with the approval of JFF;
a. refrain from further publication of unevidenced, inflammatory or demonstrably false denigration of the family justice system; and
b. refrain from any further publication of any suggestion that parents facing care proceedings should leave the jurisdiction because they cannot secure a fair hearing and
c. remove Tim and Julie Haines forthwith as having any official connection or remuneration from JFF; and
d. take down the ‘Stop Forced Adoption’ Facebook Group.

Summary of my complaint

9. I make this complaint as a family law barrister who for many years has been seriously concerned by the activities of you and your organisation. It is clear to me that the activities of JFF can be criticised under two broad headings
a. Having a serious and detrimental impact on the proper working of the family justice system; and
b. Putting numerous vulnerable parents at risk of or suffering actual financial or emotional exploitation.

10. There are a variety of activities I could cite in support of these contentions. To provide an exhaustive list would make this complaint disproportionately and unhelpfully lengthy. I therefore propose to restrict the substance of this complaint to the following 3 examples to support the broad headings of complaint set out above. However, I must stress that what follows is not intended to be an exhaustive list of reasonable complaints that could be raised against the activities of JFF and I reserve the right to refer to further and better particulars, should this become necessary at any future stage.

JFF consistently, inaccurately and unfairly denigrates the competence and integrity of those working within the family justice system.

This risks undermining the rule of law and the Article 6 ECHR rights of parents in care proceedings. JFF promotes the message that parents will not get a fair hearing in care proceedings in England and Wales: You have stated since at least 2014 on a variety of platforms, that parents should not to engage with their lawyers in care proceedings. You have stated that publicly funded family lawyers are not independent and that it is not possible to get a fair hearing in this country.

JFF facilitates or encourages vulnerable parents to leave the jurisdiction and thus puts them and their children at serious risk of harm.

As a corollary to your frequently stated position that it is not possible for parents to have a fair hearing in care proceedings, JFF has directly facilitated parents leaving the jurisdiction by providing accommodation in the form of a caravan or several caravans at the property in France where Gena Jones lives, despite taking no or no reasonable care to ascertain if Gena Jones is able to provide a safe environment. You know or ought to know that her current partner was responsible for putting Gena Jones in hospital by beating her as she confirmed this in a newspaper interview in 2015.

The JFF ‘Advisers’ Tim and Julie Haines are not fit or proper people to offer advice or assistance to vulnerable parents in care proceedings.

Both have been either abusive or threatening on social media, are prepared to publish false statements about the working of the family courts, encourage parents to make unmeritorious appeals and to share confidential documents. They have wholly failed to be transparent about the amounts they charge parents – there is no published information I can find to confirm what JFF charges parents for any assistance they give.

Evidence in support of the assertions set out above.

11. With regard to the public denigration of the family justice system in general and family lawyers in particular your behaviour in this regard has been longstanding. The examples listed below of your public pronouncements when Chairman of JFF are certainly not intended to be exhaustive. I can provide examples of many more from 2008 to date if required.

12. In 2013 you made an allegation in Parliament about the collusion of family lawyers in a particular case. It was reported here in the Express newspaper :

In a highly unusual accusation, John Hemming said lawyers for Jacque Courtnage colluded with Derbyshire County Council to prevent her analysing a document he believes would have cleared her of abuse allegations.

13. You continue to assert that lawyers who represent local authorities cannot also represent parents as by representing local authorities they have lost their independence and are in breach of their professional duties. A solicitor, Giles Peake,  attempted to explain to you in 2016 why this was not so, and he commented in the following terms:

Why is this important? Why pay attention to the ramblings of a former MP whose credibility has been demolished by the Courts? Because a lot of desperate and unhappy people do pay attention to him. His advice, including recommending to parents fleeing abroad to frustrate care proceedings, has been acted upon by people. If Mr Hemming now suggests trying to challenge lawyers on the erroneous basis of conflict of interest, or worse, that people should consider a prospective lawyer to be tainted with conflict of interest if they have ever acted for the other side, he is damaging people’s interests, stupidly and unnecessarily.

14. The article in the Independent on 12th January 2014 states with regard to yourself:

 “An MP has advised parents suspected of abusing or neglecting their children to leave the country if they fear being denied a fair hearing in the family courts”. It is written with reference to your appearance on the BBC Panorama Programme ‘I want my baby back’ which aired on 13th January 2014.

You are quoted on the BBC News website on 13th January 2014 in this way:

He said the process was so unfair that parents should leave the country to avoid social services and the courts. “All the cards are held by the local authority. It has large resources to fight the cases – it does all the assessments,” he said. “My advice to people – if they can afford it – is just to go abroad. You can’t get a fair trial here, because you can’t rely on the evidence being fair.

15. I have commented about your activities in encouraging parents to leave the jurisdiction and go to Gena Jones house in the following post, published on my website www.childprotectionresource.online on September 17th 2016.  I have repeatedly asked you to explain the circumstances in which women are sent to Gena Jones; you have repeatedly failed to reply.

16. The comments on this post are interesting. Gena herself confirms:

“John hemmings have put families in my direction for advice” and “John hemming helped pay towards a caravan that is in my garden that some parents stay but often they moan that they want to stay in my home and get to sleep in a real bed. He’s put about 4 or families I think for advice and it’s advice about the laws in France i.e. Social services rights how to look for a place to rent every day living stuff”. Gena confirms that many of those who come to her are vulnerable, having substance abuse issues and mental health difficulties: “Many of the parents who came to mind could not cope with the culture shock the isolation as there’s no shop or towns for miles and many have issues i.e. Drug drink and mental health !”

17. I have been sent extremely worrying information via Facebook from a number of mothers who say they stayed at Gena’s. This includes allegations of serious verbal abuse and money and possessions being taken from them. I am told the French police have been involved. I have been sent pictures of Gena’s partner posing with what looks like an assault rifle. I have been sent copies of various messages posted by Gena on social media sites in aggressive terms and using extremely foul language.

18. Tim Haines seems confused about whether or not JFF have given advice to people about staying or not staying with Gena. He confirmed on 19th September 2016 there had been a JFF meeting to discuss Gena because they were aware that a JFF client had gone to Gena’s ‘expressly against JFF advice’. However, he then claimed that JFF did not give such advice to any parent.

19. Tim Haines has made further abusive and threatening comments online following my publication of the blog post referred to above.
a. On the blog post itself he commented: “The only other comment I intend to make is that the rest of this article is stuffed with inaccuracies and half-truths, and a barrister ought to be ashamed of themselves for concocting such a stack of bollocks – unless, of course, they are so used to doing that for a living that they didn’t even notice!”
b. I have been sent copies of messages Tim Haines sent to one of the women who alerted me to the situation at Gena’s. I consider his message to be abusive and threatening and it confirms that JFF had serious concerns about the situation at Gena’s. He says: ‘I sent you a private message and you passed it to Sarah Phillimore? How fucking dare you! You just did yourself big damage’; further
c. ‘Because Phillimore has posted a whole page of bullshit blog attacking JH. YOU are doing more harm than good. Contacting Phiullimore (sic) is NOT the way to get Gena shut down’

20. With regard to how the Haines are paid for what they do; Tim Haines claims that he and Julie Haines claim only ‘out of pocket expenses’ but refuses to elaborate on what this means or how much is usually claimed (see Tweet 19/9/16 09:19).However I received a message from one parent via Facebook complaining that Tim Haines ‘has slated me for £1,500’ (tweet 20/09/16 23.03). Tim’s reply is ‘bollocks’ (Tweet 20/09/16 23.22). Tim Haines states ‘I’m paid a small wage which covers the work for JFF clients. At least I have goodness in my heart’ (Tweet 19/09/16 12.26) but refuses to elaborate on how much he is paid or by whom. He calls me ‘twisted’ and ‘an idiot’ (19/09/16 12.52/19/01/16 12.57) then ‘stupid, deaf, illiterate’ (19/09/16 13.03) and someone who made a career out of ‘wrecking families’ (Tweet 19/09/16 10.46).

21. Worryingly, he states that JFF is a small organisation ‘and can only assist a small fraction of the thousands of parents who approach us’. (Tweet 19/09/16 14.07).

22. Julie Haines [REDACTED]

28. I further noted the following examples of how Mrs Haines choses to express herself on a Facebook page that is open to all:
a. 25.12.16 ‘To all social wankers hope you enjoyed having a day off child stealing Happy Christmas!
b. ‘Sunday’ ‘from us three here to all of you. Let’s keep getting the bastards. Make 2017 count. We’ll still be here with you. ‘
c. ‘Saturday’ ‘Forced Adoption is ‘not exceptional in law’ I believe this is the key to getting the child stealing Nazi’s/Marxists stopped’.

29. In light of this kind of behaviour from Mr and Mrs Haines, it is very alarming to note that the JFF Facebook is publishing the following statement urging parents to send copies of court judgments to them:

JFF is asking all parents who have a Placement Order Judgement from within the last six years, if they could kindly send copies by email to (pennylilac@yahoo.co.uk). We want to reassure you that it is completely confidential and that these can be sent in confidence. The purpose of this request is to accurately assess whether or not children are forcibly adopted legally e.g: if dispensation to parental consent has been dispensed correctly. The stats and information we get from this will be given to John Hemming to use in Parliament and possibly for a media campaign regarding numbers of children illegally kept under a Placement Order and or Adopted’.

30. I consider that it is highly inappropriate to encourage parents to send to the Haines such documents. Not only is this a potential contempt of court, I raise serious doubts about the Haines’ abilities to fairly assess the quality of decision making, on such limited information and with such a clear pre-stated bias towards an assumption that children are ‘illegally kept’.

31. It does not appear that JFF have sought any necessary permission from the President of the Family Division to conduct any legitimate ‘research’ in this way and therefore such solicitation of such sensitive documents must cease immediately.

32. I shall await your response with interest.