Author Archives: Sarah Phillimore

Children, competence and consent: An overview.

Keira Bell’s case, which began on October 7th 2020 has provoked a lot of comment about the issues of children and their capacity to consent to medical treatment. This is an attempt to provide a quick over view in easy to understand language. If you are interested in this area in greater detail, I set out some ‘further reading’ at the end of this post.

Medical treatment is only lawful if given in an emergency or with informed consent.

The case of Montgomery (Appellant) v Lanarkshire Health Board (Respondent) (Scotland) [2015] UKSC 11 deals with what risks about birth should have been shared with an adult patient – but is a useful discussion of the general parameters of what can be meant by ‘informed consent’ – patients do not have the medical knowledge of doctors, may not know what questions to ask. Doctors have a duty to reveal and discuss ‘material’ risks with a patient.

At para 77 the court comments approvingly on 2013 guidance to doctors:

Work in partnership with patients. Listen to, and respond to, their concerns and preferences. Give patients the information they want or need in a way they can understand. Respect patients’ right to reach decisions with you about their treatment and care.”

In a genuine emergency, doctors are unlikely to be penalised for treating a patient on the spot. In all other cases, medical intervention to which the patient does not consent is likely to be a crime.

Someone is said to lack capacity if they can’t make their own decisions because of some problem with the way their brain or mind is working. This could arise due to illness, disability or exposure to drugs/alcohol. It doesn’t have to be a permanent condition.

Some people lack capacity because their disability or injury brings them under the terms of the Mental Capacity Act and they cannot understand or weigh up the necessary information. These cases may have to go to the Court of Protection so the Judge can decide what is in their best interests.

Some people lack capacity because they are a child. A child is a person aged between 0-18. While most people would agree that a child aged 4 is unable to make any serious decisions on his own, the waters get muddier the older a child gets, as their understanding and desire for autonomy increases.

A child over 16, who doesn’t have any kind of brain injury or disability, is presumed to be able to consent to medical treatment as if an adult, under the Family Law Reform Act 1969.

Children under 16 may have capacity if they have enough understanding of the issues – this is called Gillick competence, from the case of the same name.

Adults who have parental responsibility for a child can give consent when a child cannot. However, the older the child gets, the more likely there is to be tension between what the adult and child think is best.

If the child, parents or doctors cannot agree about what treatment is best, then this has to come before the court to decide. A very sad example of this which got a lot of media attention, is the case of Alfie Evans, a toddler whose parents disagreed very strongly with the medical advice that his life should not be prolonged.

Applying the basic principles to the Bell case

I have seen some very odd comments about this case. However, first – if it is correct that Bell’s lawyers are arguing that NO child ever could consent to taking puberty blockers, I agree this is a bold submission and would certainly seem to be moving away from the clear statutory recognition of the likely autonomy of the 16 year old child. It may be that this submission rests on the grave concerns about the experimental nature of such treatment – and certainly the Tavistock does not seem to be able to provide the court with much if any hard data about the longer term consequences of this.

But any suggestion that the Bell case will somehow ‘destroy’ Gillick competence and deny 15 year old girls the right to contraception or abortion, is simply wrong.

The first and basic point is that Gillick was decided by the House of Lords – now the Supreme Court. The High Court has no power to change or alter the decision of the Supreme Court. Second point is that even if Bell’s case does succeed in getting a declaration from the High Court that NO child can ever consent to taking puberty blockers for transition, this will not impact other areas of decision making for children about medical treatment.

This is because the nature and quality of such treatments is well known and researched. It is therefore possible to weigh up the consequences, benefits and risks, in a way many would argue is simply impossible for puberty blockers given to aid ‘transition’ rather than to deal with precocious puberty.

When the nature and quality of such treatments are not known and doctors are unhappy to offer it, or a child (or parents) is refusing consent to a treatment that the doctors say is essential, then the matter will need to come to court.

Conclusion

I await the judgment in Bell with very keen interest. It will certainly need to cover all the areas I briefly touch on above, and hopefully will make such vital issues much clearer for many.

I accept a small minority of children DO need access to puberty blockers to prevent the development of sex characteristics they find very distressing. But I think they will be a tiny minority. I think the evidence to dates shows very clearly the impact of some kind of social contagion around issues of ‘gender identity’ which has led to staggeringly high numbers of children seeking ‘transition’ as a cure all for their emotional distress.

While I do not agree that NO child is capable of consenting to take these drugs, I certainly agree that the evidence base which will inform them of the risks and benefits is lacking, and dangerously so.

EVERY child should be given the right information in order to make these decisions.

Further reading

How do children consent? The interplay between Gillick competence and Parental Responsibility CPR January 2020

A child’s consent to transition; the view from Down Under CPR September 2020

In whose best interests? Transitioning pre school children Transgender Trend October 2019

The Impossibility of Informed Consent for Transgender Interventions: The Risks Jane Robbins April 2020

Freedom to Think: the need for thorough assessment and treatment of gender dysphoric children Marcus Evans June 2020

A child’s consent to transition: the view from Down Under

Imogen (No. 6) [2020] FamCA 761; (10 September 2020)

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.

This is a case from the Family Court in Australia – so of interest to those of us in England and Wales as our jurisdictions share a common history. It is a case that makes much of Gillick competence which is certainly a familiar domestic concept and I have written about it in more detail here. One key difference however is that Imogen was over 16 years old – therefore if this was a case in England or Wales, she would be considered competent to consent to medical treatment as if she were an adult, by virtue of the Family Law Reform Act 1969.

I have written about the changing attitudes of the High Court to transitioning pre-schoolers here.

Facts of Imogen’s case

Imogen was born a boy called Thomas. She was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria and was taking puberty suppression medication. When she was aged 16 years and 8 months old, she wished to move to ‘stage 2 gender affirming hormone treatment ‘. Her father supported this but her mother did not, disputing both the diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria and that Imogen was Gillick competent, i.e. able to make the decision to take hormones. The mother wanted Imogen to have therapy, rather then medical treatment.

Both the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Attorney General were intervenors in the case, so its importance is clear. There was also an Independent Children’s Lawyer (ICL).

The court had a variety of questions to grapple with. If there is a dispute about medical treatment for an adolescent, was it mandatory to make an application to court to resolve that dispute? If Imogen was Gillick competent – could she make her own decision without her parents’ consent? If the court had to resolve the dispute then what was the legal test?

The court found that where there was such a dispute about the existence of a medical condition or the need for treatment, it was mandatory to make an application to the court – and interestingly there was official guidance that got the law wrong about that. The court decided that the test was what was in Imogen’s best interests – and it was for her to receive the treatment she wanted.

The discussions in this case are very relevant for every common law jurisdiction – there has been a staggering increase in recent years of the number of children wishing to ‘transition’ from one sex to the other and some interesting legal actions on the horizon, criticising the swiftness with which children are put on the path of ‘affirmation’ that leads to medication and surgery.

What is the best way to treat children with Gender Dysphoria?

The court acknowledged that this case was taking place within a wider debate about treatment for children with gender dysphoria, but the court was focusing on what was best for Imogen. Expert evidence was heard which was split roughly into three camps.

Imogen’s treating medical practitioners followed “The Australian Standards of Care and Treatment Guidelines: For trans and gender diverse children and adolescents” (“the Australian Standards”) which adopted a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment using gender affirming hormones.

The mother relied on an expert psychiatrist Dr D’Angelo, who advocated a more conservative approach, preferring psychotherapy rather than medication.

Reference was also made to the “Informed Consent Model” where general practitioners are willing to prescribe gender affirming hormone treatment to 16 and 17 year old adolescents without knowing whether their parents or legal guardians consent.

It was clear that Dr C – Imogen’s treating psychiatrist – and Dr D’Angelo adopted “fundamentally different diagnostic frameworks, methods, and conceptualisation of the experience of Gender Dysphoria”.

The court – annoyingly – describe ‘Gender Dysphoria’ at para 22 as

Gender Dysphoria is a term that describes the distress experienced by a person due to incongruence between their gender identity and their gender assigned at birth.

This conflation between sex and gender is very typical and has not assisted clarity in the general debate about the proper approach to a child who rejects the sex with which they were born.

The Australian Standards provide (at page 11) that the optimal model of care for trans and gender diverse adolescents who present to services involves a coordinated, multidiscipline team approach. There are two stages to treatment – Stage 1 is ‘puberty suppression’ via gonadotrophin releasing hormone analogues (GnRHa) in order to halt progression of physical changes such as breast growth or voice deepening. Stage 2 is ‘gender affirming hormone treatment’. Some of the effects of this medication are irreversible and likely to lead to the child becoming infertile.

The court noted at paragraph 27 that the Australian Standards gave incorrect guidance as to the law about when an adolescent could consent to stage 2 treatment – an interesting parallel to the situation in England and Wales where a number of official guidances around treatment of trans children are being challenged as unlawful.

At page 7, the Australian Standards state, “current law allows adolescent’s clinicians to determine their capacity to provide informed consent for treatment. Court authorisation prior to commencement of hormone treatment is no longer required”… “…[a]lthough obtaining consent from parents/guardians for commencement of hormone treatment is ideal, parental consent is not required when the adolescent is considered to be competent to provide informed consent”.

Further investigation of Gillick competence.

Australian courts have adopted the approach explained by the House of Lords in Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority [1985] UKHL 7;  [1986] AC 112, that the parental power to consent on behalf of a child diminishes as the child’s capacities and maturities grow: a child is capable of giving informed consent, and a parent is no longer capable of consenting on the child’s behalf, when the child achieves a sufficient understanding and intelligence to enable him or her to understand fully what is proposed.

However, at paragraph 29, the court noted that regardless of the child’s Gillick competence, its permission was required for non-therapeutic procedures, in particular those that required in combination: 

  1. invasive, irreversible and major surgery;
  2. a significant risk of making the wrong decision, either as to a child’s present or future capacity to consent or about the best interests of a child who cannot consent; and
  3. Where the consequences of a wrong decision are particularly grave.

The case of Re Kelvin, found that both stages of treatment were therapeutic and therefore, if the child, the parents and the medical practitioners agreed the child was Gillick competent, there was no need to involve the courts – the child could decide what treatment they were willing to accept.  

But the court was clear, at paragraph 35 that the matter MUST come before a court if a parent or doctor could not agree

  • If the child was Gillick competent
  • The diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria
  • or the proposed treatment for Gender Dysphoria

If the only issue in dispute was Gillick competence, the court would either declare the child competent or not – if competent, the child could consent to whatever treatment they liked.

BUT if there was a dispute about diagnosis or treatment, it was then up to the court to determine the diagnosis and decide what treatment was appropriate on the basis of what was in the adolescent’s best interests. Therefore, if the parents dispute the need for treatment, a doctor should NOT agree to provide it to even a Gillick competent adolescent without the authorisation of the court.

This is an interesting re-assertion of the parens patriae duty of the court – the protective and paternalistic jurisdiction it has over children to keep them safe from harm and certainly goes against the stated trend of current UK guidance that ‘parental responsibility’ is of little or even no importance against a child’s stated wish to ‘change sex’ – apparently even when the child is far too young for Gillick competence to be likely.

Why is it important to come to court to resolve these disputes? The Attorney General recognised two good reasons

  • Without the court’s authorisation, if a doctor gets it wrong about a child being Gillick competent, they risk criminal or civil liability for providing treatment, as the child cannot consent.
  • or a doctor may override the parental responsibility of the parent who does not consent, which puts the doctor in an invidious position.

Why is the finding of  Gillick competence of an adolescent not determinative, if parents do not agree about treatment?

This is the key question, not only for this court but for all others who operate according to the principle of Gillick competence. If we are saying that an adolescent is competent to make their own decisions, why isn’t that an end to the matter? This is because the court retains the ‘parens patriae’ jurisdiction over a child – to act as if the child’s parent.

There was no disagreement, that the court had the power to make an order against the wishes of a Gillick competent child, but it was unusual. For example, In X and Others v The Sydney Children’s Hospital Network [2013] NSWCA 320;  (2013) 85 NSWLR 294, the court did not allow a competent 17 year old Jehovah Witness to refuse blood products which were potentially lifesaving. However, this was the only case identified where a court has overruled the views of a Gillick competent child to impose treatment. Other cases involving anorexia nervosa and treatment for drug rehabilitation involved children who were not Gillick competent (Director General, Department of Community Services v Y [1999] NSWSC 644Director General, Department of Community Services v Thomas [2009] NSWSC 217;  (2009) 41 Fam LR 220).

No case was identified where a court had refused to authorise therapeutic treatment where a Gillick competent child had consented.

At para 59 the court was clear it should determine the dispute about the nature of the treatment to be given and in doing so the court should have regard to the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration and give significant weight to Imogen’s views in accordance with her maturity and level of understanding (Re Jamie, per Bryant CJ at [140](f)).

There is an interesting suggestion at para 57 about

the proliferation of academic and other writings since Re Kelvin and the emergence of alternate thinking about treatment and questions arising from the state of knowledge in respect of the long-term implications of current medical treatment for Gender Dysphoria.

Which suggests the court was certainly open to considering whether Stage 2 treatment was really therapeutic after all.

The Informed Consent Model.

The court went on to consider the legality of this.

Dr C gave evidence that “the Informed Consent Model” of care in Gender Dysphoria is being adopted by an increasing number of medical practitioners. This model sees general practitioners proceeding with the prescription of gender affirming hormone therapy to adolescents over 16 years of age who express the desire to do so and who are assessed by the general practitioner as being able to give informed consent to the treatment, without the general practitioner making any inquiry as to whether or not the parents or legal guardians of the adolescents give their consent. Dr C opines that there is confusion in respect of the legality of the Informed Consent Model.

The court was very clear. This was not lawful. See para 63

This judgment confirms the existing law is that any treating medical practitioner seeing an adolescent under the age of 18 is not at liberty to initiate stage 1, 2 or 3 treatment without first ascertaining whether or not a child’s parents or legal guardians consent to the proposed treatment. Absent any dispute by the child, the parents and the medical practitioner, it is a matter of the medical professional bodies to regulate what standards should apply to medical treatment. If there is a dispute about consent or treatment, a doctor should not administer stage 1, 2 or 3 treatment without court authorisation.

Conclusion

This re-affirmation of the importance of parental responsibility and court oversight is very important. Both have run the risk of being over looked or even over ridden by some who push an ‘affirmation model’ very insistently, to the extent that any challenge or even mild objection is characterised as ‘hate’ and ‘bigotry’. It will be interesting to see how in our jurisdiction, the Family Law Reform Act may shine a different light on the statutory competence of children aged over 16.

I concede there is a distinction between a child who seeks life changing treatment and a child who refuses life saving treatment, but we must surely all be able to agree that for anyone, serious surgery or medication must only be accessed via valid consent.

In the judgment, some very interesting discussion then follows about the emerging literature in the field of Gender Dysphoria and how to treat it – although I wonder if the reliance on ‘extremely high rates of suicide’ discussed below is a reference to now thoroughly debunked claims. But there can be no doubt at all that the way forward is by data and by discussion. It is not ‘transphobic’ or ‘hateful’ to care about the health of our children, both mental and physical.

In August 2019 the Federal Minister for Health wrote to The Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP) seeking advice on the treatment of Gender Dysphoria in children and adolescents in Australia. The RACP responded on 5 March 2020. 

In that response, the RACP noted that trans and gender diverse children and adolescents are a very vulnerable population, experiencing stigma and extremely high rates of depression, self-harm, attempted suicide and completed suicide. Importantly, the RACP described treatment for Gender Dysphoria as an emerging area of healthcare where existing evidence on health and wellbeing outcomes of clinical care is limited due to the relatively small number of studies, the small size of study populations, the absence of long-term follow up and the ethical challenges of robust evaluation when control (no treatment) is not acceptable. The College relevantly observes that similar limitations on the existing evidence of healthcare apply to other conditions which affect small segments of the population, such as rare cancers.

The College expressed the view that addressing gaps in the evidence base is important, although notes that further scientific evidence may take a considerable period of time to produce.In the meantime, the College supported the principles underlying the Australian Guidelines, and specifically the emphasis on the multidisciplinary approach to providing person-centred care which priorities the best interests, preferences and goals of the child or adolescent. The College recommends that treatment should be holistic, developmentally informed, child centred and individualised. In order to facilitate a higher level of informed consent, the College recommends that patients and families must be provided with information about the limitations of the available evidence regarding Gender Dysphoria and there should be informed discussion of the burdens and benefits of treatment and options in a way each child or adolescent can understand. The College points to differences across Australia in the access, funding and delivery of care and treatment for Gender Dysphoria. It recommends the development of a national framework for service provision and outcomes monitoring and believes that that is the best way to ensure consistency in the outcome of data collection across jurisdictions.

Further Reading

The right to be fully informed – This site collates and summarises the medical literature and legal issues surrounding puberty blockers so that parents and doctors can be more fully informed. The information should not be taken as medical advice.

  

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‘Similar Fact’ evidence in family cases

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.

The case of R v P (Children: Similar Fact Evidence) [2020] EWCA Civ 1088 is of interest to family lawyers for its technical examination of when ‘similar fact’ evidence should be allowed in family cases.

But it is also of wider interest for how it illustrates what I argue are the primary reasons family cases go off the rails – not because Judges and lawyers ignore or don’t care about issues of violence and coercive control, but because lack of judicial continuity and legal aid inevitably cause chaos.

Background to the proceedings

The parents were in a relationship from 2013 to 2017. After they separated, the father made application for contact. The proceedings soon became a ‘procedural muddle’; there was no judicial continuity, with at least 15 different judges involved, and six attempts at a finding of fact hearing to determine the truth or otherwise of the mother’s allegations. The parties had ‘inconsistent or non existent’ legal representation throughout 2019.

In 2018 the father began a relationship with Mrs D. She was involved in court proceedings in Wales regarding her children and their father, Mr D. The court in Wales ordered a section 37 report which raised serious concerns about her children’s welfare and the nature of her relationship with the father. On the advice of the police, the Welsh local authority contacted the local authority in London who were involved with the father’s contact application.

The report from Wales revealed concerning information about the degree of influence exerted over Mrs D by the father. In December 2018, the court in Wales removed the children from Mrs D’s care and placed them with their father. Mrs D did not engage with the local authority or make any efforts to see her children and the Welsh local authority concluded that the father had behaved in a coercive and controlling way towards Mrs D.
The mother asserted that the Welsh reports showed that the father had subjected Mrs D to the same kind of coercive control that had been directed against her.

By January 2020 the mother had secured legal representation and a three day finding of fact was listed for the summer. There was a pre trial review on June 24th, which was held remotely. There were serious difficulties in connection and the Judge ended up with limited time to consider the issues.

The hearing before the judge

With regard to the Welsh evidence, the Judge took the view that this had been excluded at a July 2019 hearing, and she was very critical of the mother’s solicitors for including this evidence in the court bundle. She pointed out that the reports contained hearsay and the father could not have a fair hearing if the reports were admitted on the assumption they were true.

The mother’s counsel replied that the father would have the opportunity to challenge the report’s contents but the Judge disagreed and was clearly exasperated that it was unclear which witnesses would be coming to court to give evidence. She wanted the fact finding hearing to go ahead. She permitted the mother’s own parents to be called as witnesses, but refused the mother’s application to rely on the reports from the Welsh local authority or the letters provided by Mr D and Mrs D’s parents.

The appeal – analysis of the admissibility of similar fact evidence

The mother appealed. It was argued on her behalf that the Judge was wrong to exclude this evidence as it was highly relevant, both to the fact finding hearing and to any welfare decision. The evidence concerning the father’s relationship with Mrs D and the D children showed a strikingly similar pattern of behaviour to that alleged by the mother. The judge did not consider their relevance at all, nor did she carry out the necessary analytical exercise in relation to admission or exclusion, despite having been referred to the legal principles. She was wrong to have regard only to fairness to the father when exclusion of such significant evidence would be unfair to the mother.

The Court of Appeal considered the relevant procedural rules, practice directions and case law to give general guidance to the approach a court should take when considering the admissibility of similar fact evidence in family cases.

The court has a broad power to control evidence and limit cross examination pursuant to the Family Procedure Rules 2010 para 22. Hearsay evidence is admissible in proceedings concerning children by virtue of the Children (Admissibility of Hearsay Evidence) Order 1993. Part 23 of the Rules includes provisions for the management of such evidence.

Practice Direction 12J applies when it is alleged or admitted or there is other reason to believe that the child or a party has experienced domestic abuse perpetrated by another party or that there is a risk of such abuse. Paragraph 19 of the Practice Direction contains a list of matters that the court must consider when making directions for a fact finding hearing in a case of this kind, including at paragraph (d) what evidence is required to determine the existence of coercive, controlling or threatening behaviour, or of any other form of domestic abuse.

The final report of the expert panel to the Ministry of Justice in June 2020: Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases notes that a focus on recent incidents may fail to acknowledge a pattern of behaviour over a long period of time (page 55) and expresses concern about the limitations of Scott Schedules, which may tend to disguise the subtle and persistent patterns of behaviour involved in coercive control, harassment and stalking (page 94).

The need for the court to recognise patterns of behaviour was also discussed by Baker J in Re LG (Re-opening of Fact-finding) [2017] EWHC 2626 (Fam) at [27]

Similar fact evidence in civil cases was discussed In O’Brien v Chief Constable of South Wales Police [2005] UKHL 26; [2005] 2 AC 534. The court considered the two necessary questions for the court considering similar fact evidence which apply equally to civil and family proceedings.
• To be admissible, evidence it must be relevant i.e. it must be logically probative or disprobative of some matter which requires proof.
• If legally admissible, should it be admitted? This is a more difficult issue and requires an often difficult and sometimes finely balanced assessment as to the significance of such evidence in the context of the case as a whole. There is a possibility that such evidence could place a considerable burden on the party who wishes to challenge it, particularly if it relates to something that happened some time ago; documents may be lost and witness recollections fade.

The similar fact evidence in this case involved ‘propensity’ so the Court of Appeal went on to consider to what extent do the facts relating to the other occasions have to be proved for propensity to be established? That question was answered by the Supreme Court in the criminal case of R v Mitchell [2016] UKSC 55 [2017] AC 571.

In summary, the court must be satisfied on the basis of proven facts that propensity has been proven, in each case to the civil standard. The proven facts must form a sufficient basis to sustain a finding of propensity but each individual item of evidence does not have to be proved.

The Court of Appeal also considered the family case of f Re S (A Child) [2017] EWCA Civ 44, where similar fact evidence was excluded on the basis that evidence about rape of a previous partner had only recently surfaced and the previous partner was not being called to give evidence. However, in the present case, the father was well aware of the allegations against him which were contained in professional reports.

Applying all these principles, the Court of Appeal were unanimous that the judge’s decision to exclude the evidence relating to the father’s relationship with Mrs D could not stand. The hearing had clearly taken place in very difficult circumstances but nevertheless, the necessary analysis required to determine the admissibility of the evidence was not carried out.

The ‘procedural muddle’

This is worthy of further consideration, which is set out at para 10 of the judgment. Perhaps most astonishingly was the role played by Mrs D as ‘MacKenzie friend’ to the father. It is difficult to understand how the court felt that could be appropriate in all the circumstances of this case.

Returning to the proceedings concerning these children, the issue of the admission of evidence relating to the father’s relationship with Mrs D was played out in an unsatisfactory way against the background of repeated attempts to hold a fact-finding hearing.  In brief, the issue arose at four hearings before the one with which we are concerned on this appeal:

(1) In February 2019, the court ordered the mother’s solicitors to write to the court in Wales seeking disclosure of the two reports of the Welsh local authority and recited that the court was of the view that those reports would be of assistance in the current proceedings.  The father was absent from that hearing.

(2) In May 2019, a deputy district judge directed the updating section 7 report from the London local authority in order to take account of the contents of the Cardiff reports, which had by then been received.  The mother was unrepresented.  The father sought a direction for the attendance of KS and she was invited to attend, though the court indicated that the fact-finding hearing would go ahead in any event.  The non-molestation order against the father was extended.  The father’s application for a continued non-molestation order against the mother (transferred from the North-West in February) was dismissed as being without merit. 

(3) In July 2019, the parties appeared before the same deputy district judge.  The mother was unrepresented.  The order recorded that the court would not be assisted at the fact-finding hearing by the evidence of KS.  What was meant by this was obscure until an email was discovered during the course of this appeal which showed that the father’s former solicitors had stated that they did not require the attendance of KS.  Until then, the meaning of the order was disputed, it being suggested on behalf of the father that it showed that the court had excluded the Welsh reports.

(4) In September 2019, when the matter came before a  district judge, both parents were unrepresented, with the father, bizarrely, being allowed to have Mrs D as his ‘MacKenzie friend’.  The court recorded that the mother had sought permission to rely on the Welsh reports but that permission was refused on the basis that it had been refused at the July hearing and that nothing had changed.

Without judicial continuity, legal representation for parents, speedy fact findings and robust enforcement these cases are doomed from the outset and it doesn’t matter how many ‘Inquiries’ the MoJ hold or how many campaigners insist on further expensive training for Judges. Denial of this obvious truth is magical thinking at its finest and I grow very tired of it.

Parental Alienation – what is it? And what can the courts do about it?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

I am writing this post because I am concerned that there is a strong view in certain circles that ‘parental alienation’ either does not exist or is very rare and used as a deliberate strategy by violent men to deny contact with children to the mothers they oppress.

I don’t agree that parental alienation doesn’t exist. There is abundant evidence that it does. Nor do I agree that falsely asserting parental alienation as a strategy is commonplace, although I am sure it does happen.

Therefore I find it concerning to see the very existence or importance of parental alienation ‘downgraded’ by a number of academics and lawyers – particularly when those academics are involved in the recent MoJ report into private law cases. I have set out my criticisms of and concerns about this report here.

I endeavour always to render my criticisms reasonable, balanced and evidenced. So it was surprising and rather shocking to be called a ‘troll’ on social media and accused of ‘picking on’ victim of DV by one of the academics involved in a literature review for the MoJ.

This is not a helpful response from anyone. It is a particularly bizarre and inappropriate response from someone with a seat at the table of political influence.

This view about parental alienation as a ‘grand charade’ is set out here by Rachel Watson in July 2020. She says

A pattern emerged in the family courts (England & Wales) of parental alienation (PA) raised as a response to domestic abuse claims, as proved in Dr Adrienne Barnett’s research published in January 2020. It resulted in devastating outcomes for mothers and children. The need for a child to maintain contact became a priority as we were subtly influenced to believe in a new stereotype; a hostile, vindictive mother; a woman scorned, one who used her child as a pawn. Domestic abuse was reframed by controlling, abusive fathers who denied their behaviour, lied about it and projected it onto bewildered, abused mothers. Fathers’ rights groups powerfully marketed the new stereotype.  They cried from the rooftops;

“Mothers lie about abuse and cut off contact from deserving fathers; we are the true victims; there is a bias against us!”

Judges routinely minimised domestic abuse in the courtroom; mothers were disbelieved, dismissed and punished through the contact arrangements. Welfare reports were often carried out by unsuitable and underqualified assessors.

I don’t agree with this. It does not reflect my own experience of 20 years in the family courts. That others seem to have a profoundly different experience is worrying. I would like to know what explains the gulf between my understanding and theirs. Given that this will be impossible to achieve in a blog post, I will restrict myself here to addressing the issue of parental alienation as a ‘grand charade’.

What do the courts say about parental alienation?

Let’s look at just two examples from published court judgments. There are sadly many, many more. I hope even this brief discussion makes it clear that ‘parental alienation’ is a phenomenon that exists and which does tremendous harm. Both the alienating parents in these cases were mothers; that does not mean that this is a sex dependent failure of parenting. Fathers can and do alienate their children from their mothers. It is wrong regardless of the sex of the parent who does it.

 D (A child – parental alienation) (Rev 1) [2018] EWFC B64 (19 October 2018).

The child D was born in 2005. Proceedings had been ongoing for over ten years, albeit with a four year respite from 2012 – 2016,  and had cost a staggering amount of money for both parents – about £320,000 over ten years.

There was a residence order made in the father’s favour in 2011 and the mother’s application to appeal was refused in 2012. Following a relatively peaceful four years, the mother then refused to return D to his father’s care in November 2016 and the father did not see D again until March 2017. A final hearing was listed for April 2018 after the instruction of a psychologist.

in early 2018 D made allegations of a serious assault upon him by the father and contact against ceased. The police became involved but took no further action and the Judge granted the father’s application in August 2018 that D give evidence at the finding of fact hearing.

D gave evidence and was very clear, saying (para 74):

I just want a normal life, living in happiness with mum. I cannot go back to my father’s. I was promised by my mum and the police officer that dad wouldn’t hurt me ever again. Now, I am here in court because he hurt me bad. Why can’t I just have a life that isn’t based on court and stress? I just want a life that I can live not live in fear from, please.’

D’s guardian put forward a schedule of six allegations that D made against his father. The court noted the evidence of the psychologist Dr Spooner at para 85.

D presented with what seemed like a pre-prepared and well-rehearsed script of all the things he wanted to tell me about his father. He took every opportunity to denigrate him, his family and his partner. Each time I attempted to ask him about issues not related to his father, such as school, hobbies and so on, he quickly derailed himself and continued on his frivolous campaign of denigration.

The court heard a great deal of evidence from social workers and other experts about the alleged injuries suffered by D. It is disturbing to note how the Judge was not assisted by some of the evidence from the local authority, not least because the social worker who prepared the section 37 report was working from the assumption that everything a child said must be true.

The father denied assaulting D but had to hold his arms when D was being aggressive towards him.  The Judge did not find any of the allegations proved; he found the father and his partner to be honest witnesses and this was a case where the mother was determined to ‘win’ at any cost. The judge found that she had deliberately alienated D from his father.

Analysis of what is meant by ‘parental alienation’

From paragraph 165 the Judge considered the issue of parental alienation. At para 169 he refers to the research Dr Julie Doughty at Cardiff University. She comments:

There is a paucity of empirical research into parental alienation, and what exists is dominated by a few key authors. Hence, there is no definitive definition of parental alienation within the research literature. Generally, it has been accepted that parental alienation refers to the unwarranted rejection of the alienated parent by the child, whose alliance with the alienating parent is characterised by extreme negativity towards the alienated parent due to the deliberate or unintentional actions of the alienating parent so as to adversely affect the relationship with the alienated parent. Yet, determining unwarranted rejection is problematic due to its multiple determinants, including the behaviours and characteristics of the alienating parent, alienated parent and the child. This is compounded by the child’s age and developmental stage as well as their personality traits, and the extent to which the child internalises negative consequences of triangulation. This renders establishing the prevalence and long-term effects of parental alienation difficult…’

At para 170 the Judge considers the CAFCASS assessment framework for private law cases. The assessment contains a section headed ‘Resources for assessing child refusal/assistance’ which in turn has a link to a section headed, ‘ Typical behaviours exhibited where alienation may be a factor ’. These include:

  • The child’s opinion of a parent is unjustifiably one sided, all good or all bad, idealises on parent and devalues the other.
  • Vilification of rejected parent can amount to a campaign against them.
  • Trivial, false, weak and/or irrational reasons to justify dislike or hatred.
  • Reactions and perceptions are unjustified or disproportionate to parent’s behaviours.
  • Talks openly and without prompting about the rejected parent’s perceived shortcomings.
  • Revises history to eliminate or diminish the positive memories of the previously beneficial experiences with the rejected parent. May report events that they could not possibly remember.
  • Extends dislike/hatred to extended family or rejected parent (rejection by association).
  • No guilt or ambivalence regarding their attitudes towards the rejected parent.
  • Speech about rejected parent appears scripted, it has an artificial quality, no conviction, uses adult language, has a rehearsed quality.
  • Claims to be fearful but is aggressive, confrontational, even belligerent.

Re A (Children) (Parental alienation) [2019] EWFC

The Judge said this about the case

In a recent report to the court, one of this country’s leading consultant child and adolescent psychiatrists, Dr Mark Berelowitz, said this: ‘this is one of the most disconcerting situations that I have encountered in 30 years of doing such work.’ I have been involved in family law now for 40 years and my experience of this case is the same as that of Dr Berelowitz. It is a case in which a father leaves the proceedings with no contact with his children despite years of litigation, extensive professional input, the initiation of public law proceedings in a bid to support contact and many court orders. It is a case in which I described the father as being ‘smart, thoughtful, fluent in language and receptive to advice;’ he is an intelligent man who plainly loves his children. Although I have seen him deeply distressed in court because of things that have occurred, I have never seen him venting his frustrations. It is also a case in which the mother has deep and unresolved emotional needs, fixed ideas and a tendency to be compulsive.

The Judge felt it was important for this judgment to be published, albeit heavily anonymised to protect the identities of the children.

My intention in releasing this judgement for publication is not because I wish to pretend to be in a position to give any guidance or speak with any authority; that would be presumptuous, wrong and beyond my station. However, this is such an exceptional case that I think it is in the public interest for the wider community to see an example of how badly wrong things can go and how complex cases are where one parent (here the mother) alienates children from the other parent. It is also an example of how sensitive the issues are when an attempt is made to transfer the living arrangements of children from a residential parent (here, the mother) to the other parent (the father); the attempts to do so in this case failed badly.

The UK Parental Alienation Study

In 2020 Good Egg Safety CIC produced a report about parental alienation and its impact, concluding that parental alienation was:

A devastating form of ‘family violence’ with psychological abuse and coercive control at its heart

Of the 1, 513 who responded to the survey, parental alienation was a live issue for 79% of respondents who were split 56% male, 44% female. 80% experienced an adverse impact on their mental health, 55% an adverse financial impact. 58% saw court orders breached.

Conclusions

Of course, the same criticisms can be made about this survey as I made about the MoJ survey. We have to be careful about the results of a survey conducted with the self selecting. The MoJ reassured itself this was ok because the wide ranging review of case law and literature supported the view of the self selecting respondents that family courts routinely ignore issues of violence.

The problem however, as I pointed out above, is when you have someone conducting your literature review who thinks that those who talk about parental alienation as a real thing are ‘trolls’.

It is my view that the case law abundantly supports the findings of the Good Egg Safety report. Parental alienation exists and it does enormous harm to the children and parents caught up in it. It is not restricted to women as perpetrators – but I am sad to say that in all the cases of parental alienation in which I have been involved over 20 years, all the perpetrators were women.

It also does enormous harm to the rule of law and respect for court orders. Pretending it doesn’t exist or that it exists primarily as a strategic tool for abusive men to further their abuse is plain wrong. I suspect those who promote this theory know on some level how wrong they are, given the level of abuse and insults they throw at anyone who challenges them.

You may not like what I say. You may – with some justification I concede – accuse me of rudeness or abruptness in the way I say it. But I am no troll. That is a baseless, insulting assertion and it will not help your arguments gain or sustain any credibility whatsoever.

For those now asking in despair – but what do we DO about all this? I set out some suggestions in this post. But as many of them will involve a significant financial investment in both judges and court buildings, I do not expect to see any change in my life time. But I will continue to do what I can to promote honesty and openness in the public debate about such important issues.

Further reading

Case Law

A case where shared residence was agreed after 10 year dispute – see Re J and K (Children: Private Law) [2014] EWHC 330 (Fam)

See Re C (A Child) [2018] EWHC 557 (Fam) –  Unsuccessful appeal to the High Court by a mother against a decision which transferred the residence of C, aged six, to her father, in light of the mother’s opposition to progressing C’s contact with her father. Permission to appeal was refused as being totally without merit.

Transfer of residence of child from mother to father – RH (Parental Alienation) [2019] EWHC 2723 (Fam) (03 October 2019)

Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult) [2020] EWCA Civ 568 – child ordered to live with father if mother continued to refused to give up her adherence to a ‘harmful and sinister’ cult.

Articles and Research

What is the evidence base for orders about indirect contact?

See this article from the Custody Minefield about how intractable contact disputes can go wrong or get worse.

Address from the President of the Family Division to Families Need Fathers, June 2018

Review of the law and practice around ‘parental alienation’ in May 2018 from Cardiff University for Cafcass Cymru. There is a very useful summary of the relevant case law in Appendix A. The report concludes at para 4.7:

With no clear accepted definition or agreement on prevalence, it is not surprising that there is variability in the extent of knowledge and acceptance of parental alienation across the legal and mental health professions. The research has however, provided some general agreement in the behaviours and strategies employed in parental alienation. This has led to the emergence of several measures and tests for parental alienation, although more research is needed before reliability and validity can be assured. Many of the emerging interventions focus upon psycho-educational approaches working with children and estranged parents, but more robust evaluation is needed to determine their effectiveness.

The Cafcass Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF) sets out how children may experience parental separation and how this can be understood and acted on in Cafcass. The framework brings together existing guidance and tools, along with a small number of new tools, into four guides which Cafcass private lawpractitioners can use to assess different case factors, including:

  • Domestic abuse where children have been harmed directly or indirectly, for example from the impact of coercive control.
  • Conflict which is harmful to the child such as a long-running court case or mutual hostility between parents which can become intolerable for the child.
  • Child refusal or resistance to spending time with one of their parents or carers which may be due to a range of justified reasons or could be an indicator of the harm caused when a child has been alienated by one parent against the other for no good reason.
  • Other forms of harmful parenting due to factors like substance misuse or severe mental health difficulties.

Resources and Links recommended by the Alienation Experience Blog

Useful analysis of case law from UKAP.ONE

The Empathy Gap 14th June 2020 – Commentary on Adrienne Barnett in “A genealogy of hostility: parental alienation in England and Wales”, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law (Jan 2020). The paper discusses the role of parental alienation within the English and Welsh family courts.

The Empathy Gap 11th June 2020 – Commentary on “U.S. child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations: what do the data show?”, By Joan S. Meier, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 42:1, 92-105 (2020)

Urgent appeals in cases where the court orders removal of a child

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

What do you do if the court orders the removal of a child and you need to appeal against that order urgently? If the removal is set to happen that day you will need to ask the court to ‘stay’ the order while you seek an urgent appeal.

The case of N (Children: Interim Order/ Stay), Re [2020] EWCA Civ 1070 (12 August 2020) is a recent decision on this point.

On 6th May 2020, 3 children were removed from their mother’s care. They were already the subject of interim care orders.

The local authority clearly had concerns about the mother’s ability to stay separate from the father and had asked the court to remove the children before, unsuccessfully. However at a one day hearing in May, hearing evidence only from the social worker, without the presence of the Guardian, who was unable to attend and the further difficulty that interpreters were required, the court ordered the children’s removal.

The mother’s barrister asked for the court order to be ‘stayed’ i.e. not put into effect until an urgent application could be made to appeal. The parents had repeatedly asked to be allowed to give evidence if the Judge was contemplating removal.

The application for a stay was refused and the children went to foster care that evening. The mother’s counsel had difficulty taking instructions due to lack of interpreter once the remote hearing had ended. Although application for permission to appeal was made on 11th May, it wasn’t accompanied by a request for a stay and there was no transcript of the judgment until 29th May. Permission to appeal was eventually granted on 29th June, the appeal was successful, and 3 months after they had been removed, the children returned to their mother.

The Court of Appeal decided a short stay should have been granted in this case:

I consider that the request for a short term stay should have been granted, particularly where the mother was at a disadvantage in instructing her lawyers. The reasons given by the judge fell short of justifying refusal. The nature of the risks involved in the children remaining at home for a further very short period can be measured by the fact that the court itself had sanctioned them remaining there between 27 April and 6 May for procedural reasons. Further, as the judge herself acknowledged, there was no real risk to the children being taken out of the country and, bearing in mind that the family had not disappeared in the previous six months when it could have done, the prospect of internal flight was hardly likely either.

What do I have to do if the Judge refuses my request for a short stay?

Hopefully it will be possible for the Judge to agree a short delay before any order takes effect in order to give you an opportunity to make an urgent appeal. If however the Judge refuses, you need to act quickly.

Any application for a longer stay i.e. while you are waiting for an actual decision on an application to appeal, is is determined by the principles set out in Hammond Suddart Solicitors v Agrichem International Holdings Ltd. [2001] EWCA Civ 2065.

I received the following advice via email after making such an application a few weeks before this judgment was delivered. You are encouraged to make your application in working hours but if you can’t call the security officers at the Royal Courts of Justice on 020 7947 6260, who will refer you on to the Duty Clerk.

Advice from the court received 14th August 2020


URGENT applications should be submitted to the court via email to this address: civilappeals.urgentwork@justice.gov.uk between 9am and 4.15 pm

What may be deemed as urgent?

Cases where in the interests of justice a substantive decision is required within 7 days. The types of work listed below fall into this category
• Child cases ;
• Committal appeals;
• Applications for stay of removal;
• Evictions;
• Cases (including ancillary applications) with a hearing listed in the Court of Appeal within the next month;
• Applications for an urgent stay of execution;
• Covid-19 related cases e.g. medical guidance regarding priority patients;

NON URGENT applications should be emailed to: civilappeals.registry@justice.gov.uk

All appellant’s notices will be accepted in the first instance on the basis that they may be rejected at a later date for want of jurisdiction.

Fresh applications for permission to appeal must include:
• a completed appellant’s notice (form N161);
• grounds of appeal on a separate sheet;
• an undertaking to pay the appropriate court fee via your PBA account, a completed Help with Fees form (EX160) or by contacting the *RCJ Fees Office (see below); and
• a copy of the sealed order being appealed.
• A transcript of judgment should also be provided if available (or should be ordered immediately)

*Access to the Fees Office will be on an appointment only basis.
An appointment can be booked from the 1 June 2020 by calling the telephone number 0207 947 6527 each Monday, Wednesday and Friday between the hours of 10am to 2:00pm or by emailing the following address feesofficecounterbooking@justice.gov.uk . If you are unable to attend in person please contact the Fees Office by telephone or email and a member of the team will assist you.

The public counter at E307 (registry) remains closed and the drop box facility is no longer operating.

Once the appellant’s notice is issued, all queries should continue to be emailed to the following addresses:
Civilappeals.cmsa@justice.gov.uk
Civilappeals.cmsb@justice.gov.uk
Civilappeals.cmsc@justice.gov.uk
Civilappeals.listing@justice.gov.uk
Civilappeals.associates@justice.gov.uk

As our IT capacity for remote working increases we will look to provide a limited telephone service to our users.

The court will issue orders electronically for the time being.

Through a Glass Darkly – Transparency in the Family Courts

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

This is a post about the case of Newman v Southampton City Council & Ors [2020] EWHC 2103 (Fam) (05 August 2020. The judgment is very long which is an indication that something important was happening.

Melanie Newman, a journalist wanted to see documents in care proceedings which had ended in October 2018.

The child, born in 2012, had been removed from her mother’s care in 2015 and in 2016 a court ordered that the child be adopted. The mother appealed and succeeded. This is a very rare thing for a parent to do. It cost her about £20,000 and the local authority was not ordered to pay any costs as their decision to apply for a placement order was ‘in line with all professional advice’

If the mother hadn’t appealed, it was likely the relationship with her child would have been severed, certainly throughout her childhood. The Court of Appeal said the matter should be reheard. More assessments were carried out; the local authority changed its plan to rehabilitation and the child went back to her mother.

Melanie Newman wanted to know what was driving an apparent trend for this area to have a unusually high percentage of cases which resulted in orders for adoption. She knew that her application to see the documents was not an application to publish anything about them – that would need a further application. She was interested to investigate how it could happen that a Judge could make an order that a little girl should be adopted, only to have that judgment overturned because of its ‘significant’ gaps and the slimness of the evidence.

The court described ‘the essence’ of Ms Newman’s application in this way at para 118 of the judgment:

The essence of the application is a request by Ms Newman for the court’s permission to immerse herself in the private detail of this family’s domestic affairs (for these purposes with M at its centre) in a search to uncover material which may assist in exposing to public debate at least one of the questions she has formulated through her counsel: did this local authority act lawfully in commencing care proceedings in respect of this child ? 

But she did not succeed in gaining access to anything other than a small selection of limited and redacted documents; permission to appeal was refused.

I discuss below why this happened and why I think it was the right decision.

The Law

Hopefully we are now all more familiar with the law in this area than we were a few years ago. The judge examines the framework from para 20 to para 72 of existing statutory restrictions on publication, the developing history of guidance about reporting and transparency, and how the court itself can ease or tighten restrictions using the inherent jurisdiction.

For a more general discussion of transparency and the applicable law, see this post.

The court relied on the case of Webster [2006] as a useful summary of the present law:

  • The starting point is that justice is administered in public
  • There is a risk of miscarriages of justice in family cases and the public need to be confident in the system
  • Freedom of speech, protected by Article 10 is a very important human right
  • The press play a vital role in ensuring the proper functioning of democracy
  • But if the court is dealing with children, that is an exception to the rule of open justice, because it involves private family matters that usually people want to keep private – however that could be different when the State is trying to remove children from their families
  • The court retains the right to relax OR increase existing statutory restrictions on disclosing or publishing information about family cases. This will require a ‘balancing exercise’ between all the different rights in play.

The court noted at para 49 that the move towards greater transparency was taken up by the current President of the Family Division in October 2019, when he published further guidance, flowing directly from the journey of this case when journalists launched a challenge to the decision of the Judge in 2018 to restrict what the journalists could comment on – even the previous Court of Appeal judgment that was already in the public domain!

Applications made to the court to see documents can clearly vary hugely in nature and extent. Here, the court considered the child who wished to know more about his own family history and the different sensitivities that might apply to medical evidence. But even that child was not entitled to ‘conduct an archaeological excavation through the entirety of the trial bundles’ as much of the material he wished to ‘mine’ relates to very personal and private aspects of the lives of other family members.

Factors towards maintaining confidentiality were set out in Re X (Disclosure of Information) [2001] 2 FLR 440.

  • The interests of the particular child
  • The interests of litigants generally who didn’t want their private business made public
  • public interest in encouraging frankness in children’s cases and securing co-operation from professionals who might be deterred from giving evidence if there was publicity
  • encouraging people who had hurt children to be honest about it

It’s clear these applications are not easy. The court noted the comments of Bodey J in Louise Tickle v The Council of the Borough of North Tyneside & Others [2015] EWHC 2991 (Fam).

However, what I will say is that this application demonstrates how time consuming and troublesome applications like this can be; not only for the media, but also for the court and for all parties. These are not easy applications. They require time, effort, research and expense on what is essentially a satellite issue. For these reasons it is important that if and when Local Authorities and the media (and/or the other parties) do come to realise there is an issue between them about how much should be reportable and on what terms, there should be sensible and responsible dialogue as soon as possible, with a view to finding an early modus vivendi. With the application of give-and-take, a measure of common- sense, and the engagement of the Children’s Guardian, it should be possible in most cases to come up with a formula based on decided authority which steers a path between (a) the need for greater transparency in the public interest, and (b) the need to respect the privacy and sensitivities of those whose lives are involved.”

What the parties wanted

Ms Newman wanted to see the court files to undertake an ‘independent journalistic assessment’ as to whether or not the public interest demanded a closer look at this case where a child was initially placed for adoption ‘on the slimmest of evidence’.

The local authority identified some documents it was willing to provide, but resisted wider disclosure. While recognising that Ms Newman was a respected journalist with a legitimate interest in this case, her request was ‘unprecedented’ and represented a significant intrusion into private rights. If granted, this request would set a dangerous precedent, and encourage other journalists to make similar requests. There was also a significant amount of material in the public domain; the Court of Appeal had already exposed the injustice done to the mother and child and fulfilled its proper function as a check and balance on a miscarriage of justice.

Further, the principle of open justice and freedom of speech had never been absolute – both were subject to ‘material and legitimate’ inroads.

Lord Mance put it this way in Kennedy v Charity Commission (Secretary of State for Justice and others intervening) [2014] UKSC 20[2015] AC 455

Information is the key to sound decision-making, to accountability and development; it underpins democracy and assists in combatting poverty, oppression, corruption, prejudice and inefficiency. Administrators, judges, arbitrators, and persons conducting inquiries and investigations depend on it; likewise the press, NGOs and individuals concerned to report on issues of public interest. Unwillingness to disclose information may arise through habits of secrecy or reasons of self-protection. But information can be genuinely private, confidential or sensitive, and these interests merit respect in their own right and, in the case of those who depend on information to fulfil their functions, because this may not otherwise be forthcoming….

Those representing the child argued that disclosure was not in her best interests. They made the valid point (see para 102) that it is artificial to see Ms Newman’s request as simply to access the documents. She wanted to see the documents because she wanted to write about them and publish what she writes. The application for disclosure cannot be seen in isolation from the obvious wish driving the request for disclosure.

The court therefore considered that although Ms Newman is a serious journalist with a serious purpose, that does not provide a starting point of access to documents, but it does engage the necessary ‘balancing exercise’ to determine which rights will prevail.

The court permitted Ms Newman to see limited aspects of the court file, commenting at para 162

This is a targeted and fact-specific exercise which has involved a careful balancing exercise of all the competing rights involved as between the individual parties to this particular case. I have rejected Ms Newman’s application for wholesale disclosure of the court file but I have agreed that she should be entitled to see limited aspects of the material it contains. To the extent that I have interfered with either the mother’s or M’s Article 8 rights and/or Ms Newman’s Article 10 rights, I have done so in what I judge to be an entirely proportionate manner. An important factor in my decision has been the mother’s consent to disclosure but this does not mean that in every case where an aggrieved parent supports media access to material generated in children’s proceedings, journalists should be encouraged to make applications.

The court found that different considerations applied in respect of different broad categories of evidence – medical and health records, foster care and contact records, police disclosure, previous records, minutes of child protection conferences and experts reports.

With regard to medical evidence, the court said this at para 136:

In considering where the balance lies, it seems to me that the overarching factor which I have to weigh in the balance is whether it is in M’s overall best interests to release to a journalist the most intimate details of her own and her mother’s medical records even if the dissemination goes no further than that. Such a step would represent a clear court-directed intrusion of this child’s most basic and fundamental rights to a private family life. If those rights are to be the subject of court-sanctioned interference, there has to be a proper justification. I appreciate that Ms Newman cannot justify that interference on any specific basis because she has not yet seen the medical and other records. She wants to read them in order to see what they contain. Having reflected carefully, and because of the intimately personal and sensitive nature of this material, I do not consider the mother’s consent to its release on her own or M’s behalf to be sufficient to displace the overwhelming need to ensure that such information remains confidential from public scrutiny and I would include Ms Newman within this embargo. In the context of this application, I am satisfied that she has sufficient material about the medical history of both M and her mother. It is either already in the public domain and recorded in the judgments to which I have referred or it is likely on the balance of probabilities to be irrelevant to any decisions which were made in those proceedings. To the extent that those judgments have not recorded the full detail of the medical evidence available in the bundles, I am satisfied that such confidence will have been preserved for a very good reason.

However, a different approach was justified in terms of reports and assessments that relate to the mother herself where the balance fell in favour of allowing Ms Newman to see them, redacted where necessary to preserve the rights of third parties.

Happily, all agreed that Ms Newman should not have to pay towards the considerable costs of the substantive application. But the local authority sought £1,200 to pay for the costs of redaction and copying. Ms Newman agreed to pay for the costs of copying. The court noted that Ms Newman’s legal team had acted pro bono and that Ms Newman did not have the backing of a large media organisation. Therefore the court ordered Ms Newman only to pay limited costs towards copying documents.

Her permission to appeal was refused.

Conclusion

The key point I think was this: it is not for journalists to establish the lawfulness of court decisions. Their important role is to hold up to public scrutiny the reasons for the rules that bind us together in a democratic society. In this case the Court of Appeal had already set out and scrutinised the failings in this case and put right the injustice done. There was no criticism of the local authority for bringing care proceedings and its subsequent actions were not seen as sufficiently unreasonable to attract sanction in costs.

I can on many levels understand the frustration of the journalists. It is difficult to read – at para 103 – the child’s barrister placing reliance on ‘research’ about what children think about publicity, that is based on such tiny numbers of self selecting interviewees. – see ‘Safeguarding Privacy and Respect for Children and Young People” [2014].

It was also interesting to see discussion of a key point that is often overlooked. Who is going to pay for the practicalities of disclosure? In this case the court decided that it was proportionate to ask the local authority to redact the documents. That may not always be the case.

I think that there is certainly a case for more and better research about the impact on children of publicity of such cases.

However, the judgment here is very careful and detailed and in my view provides compelling reasons for why the right of any journalist to access court documents must be carefully and cautiously analysed.

The court commented at para 163:

The principle of transparency and openness is of crucial importance in a democratic society. There have been significant developments towards greater transparency in the Family Courts but any wholesale departure from the principled and well-recognised protection afforded to the interests of children is one which will need to be informed by a careful evidence-based review. Just such a process is ongoing at the present time. As advertised in his 2019 View from the President’s Chambers to which I have referred in paragraph 72, Sir Andrew McFarlane, as President of the Family Division, has assembled a panel who will assist him in the important task of considering whether the line which is currently drawn between, one the one hand, the need for confidentiality for the parties and children whose personal information is the subject of proceedings, and, on the other, the need for the public to have confidence in the work done in these courts on behalf of the State and society is the right one. The consultation process is ongoing as I conclude this judgment.

It is certainly true that journalists play a vital role in shining a light on the failures and excesses of the State. I agree that a system that works in ‘secrecy’ risks bad practice becoming the norm and unchallenged. But I also note that for every Carl Bernstein we have an Andrew Norfolk. There is a risk for all of us who feel passionately about the subjects that interest us; we risk our objectivity and we risk causing harm to others in pursuit of a single minded goal and focus.

My views about the need for more openness and transparency in the family courts have undergone significant evolution over the past six years and I find myself more firmly over the line of ‘less’ rather than ‘more’ – sadly because I have lost faith in journalists to report with impartiality and integrity.

But it is necessary that we never stop thinking about this. I applaud Ms Newman’s tenacity and bravery in making this application; it must have been stressful and difficult. But I think the court made the right call here.

I will be interested to see where further consultation and guidance takes us.

Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law cases.

Final Report of the Ministry of Justice 2020

In May 2019 a ‘3 month inquiry’ into issues of domestic abuse and applications to court about children was announced by the Ministry of Justice. I expressed considerable scepticism at the time, not least scoffing about the wholly unrealistic timescales proposed.


In that at least I can see I was correct. The final report was published at the end of June 2020 so a 13 month process. Even that seems astonishingly quick to me. It is without doubt an impressive piece of work, covering a great deal of important and necessary conversations about the family justice system. All practitioners need to read it, digest it and think about it carefully .

I will not pretend that I am about to unpick it line by line. But I thought it might be interesting or helpful to share my immediate concerns.

In May 2019 I said this about the real problems facing the family court system:

Family courts are not the arenas for frightened or angry people. An adversarial court system that requires proof is a hard place to be for those who believe themselves to be or who actually are victims of violence.
I quite accept that most of us entering into a relationship do not at the outset start gathering evidence of our partner’s appalling behaviour. One of the real evils of coercively controlling relationships is the very long time it can take to work out what is going on and to gather the resources and courage to leave.
There appears to be widespread public ignorance about how the forensic process operates and how you prove an allegation in court. That is not anyone’s ‘fault’ but it is a great shame more people are not prepared to accept their lack of understanding before diving into the debate.
But the elephant in the room is the removal of resources. Social workers and Cafcass need time and space to conduct investigations, to thoughtfully reflect, and to build relationships with parents. Courts dealing with private law disputes need to offer judicial continuity and swift fact-finding hearings – which currently doesn’t happen because we don’t have enough judges or courts.
The removal of legal aid from private law family cases has led to a huge rise in the number of litigants in person, with obvious and serious problems for how cases are managed. This removal was endorsed by Parliament in 2012 with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012.
Research by Citizens Advice in 2015 stated what we all know to be true: “Restricted access to legal aid is one of the biggest barriers to support for victims of domestic abuse in England. In their work helping victims of domestic abuse, only 12% of advisers reported being unaffected by the changes that came into force from April 2013.


The aim of the report is to provide an understanding of how effectively the family courts identify and respond to allegations of domestic abuse and other serious offences, in cases involving disputes between parents about the arrangements for their children. These are known as ‘private law children proceedings’ because they are a dispute between private individuals and not any agency of the State.

The report sets out its summary and recommendations. The expert panel received ‘over 1,200 responses’ from individuals and organisations and held roundtables. The evidence focused on domestic abuse.

The report noted key themes

  • Resource constraints; resources available have been inadequate to keep up with increasing demand in private law children proceedings, and more parties are coming to court unrepresented.
  • The pro-contact culture; respondents felt that courts placed undue priority on ensuring contact with the non-resident parent, which resulted in systemic minimisation of allegations of domestic abuse.
  • Working in silos; submissions highlighted differences in approaches and culture between criminal justice, child protection (public law) and private law children proceedings, and lack of communication and coordination between family courts and other courts and agencies working with families, which led to contradictory decisions and confusion.
  • An adversarial system; with parents placed in opposition on what is often not a level playing field in cases involving domestic abuse, child sexual abuse and self- representation, with little or no involvement of the child.

I agree with much of this. But there are some things summarised there and discussed in greater detail in the body of the report which I find frankly surprising in any document co-produced with a number of senior laywers.

Pro contact culture and other curious statements

The Panel say this about pro-contact culture

Previous literature has identified the ‘pro-contact culture’ of the family courts and we have adopted this terminology as appropriate to capture the systemic and deep-seated nature of the courts’ commitment to maintaining contact between children and non-resident parents. A ‘culture’ describes the particular set of beliefs and behaviours (sometimes unconscious or taken-for-granted) of a group of people. Most institutions develop a distinctive culture over time, and the family courts are no exception. This does not mean that all members of the institution necessarily agree with or conform to all aspects of the culture. But it does mean that there is a strong pressure to conform, and that cultural change does not happen easily. ‘

The pro-contact culture’ is not some whimsy or consequence of submission to the patriarchy. It is the law. It has long been the law. It is enforced in various decisions of the European Court. I do not understand why the law is reframed here in clearly pejorative terms as a ‘culture’ .

Children have a right to a relationship with both parents, so long as they are safe. I agree however, that a system starved on resources and which operates on an adversarial platform may end up giving a crude prominence to the presumption that contact is in a child’s best interest.

I also reject and am astonished to see this comment about liaison with the criminal justice system:

Silo working can result in evidence of abuse accepted in one system, for example the criminal courts, not being acknowledged or effectively engaged with in the family court.

Police disclosure and findings of the criminal courts are vital pieces of evidence and never overlooked in any case where I am instructed. Of course, getting the information from the police quickly is another matter. Again an area where lack of resources make it very difficult for the family court system to do its job.

The Panel comments:

Many respondents reported that regardless of the particular circumstances, even where the most serious allegations of domestic abuse were raised, courts expected that parents would work together to facilitate contact arrangements.

Raising an allegation is not the same as proving it. Where serious allegations are made the court needs to determine them by way of a finding of fact. I accept, and this has been known for some time, that early findings of fact are often essential. An assertion of something another does not accept and which has not already been proved, is not a fact and never can be ‘a fact’.

We can ‘raise’ whatever allegations we like. To ask allegations to impact on the proceeses of a legal system they have to be proven. I am very surprised and uneasy to read a phrase like this in a document produced by the Ministry of Justice.

The value of self selective lived experience.

This is without doubt my key concern. I am worried that what I feared has come to pass. There was no scrutiny of the reliability of the accounts given to the Panel and yet such indivudal accounts represented the vast majority of responses to it. 87% of responses ‘in scope’ were from individuals with personal experience of private law children proceedings – mainly mothers and their families.

The report makes it clear the Panel ‘were unable to review individual case files’. But reliance on evidence from an entirely self selecting group apparently causes little concern as this was ‘supplemented with a literature review and a review of relevant case law.’ So I am not quite sure what the Panel mean when they later say ‘In practice, the large number of responses meant that the panel needed an extra six months to ensure that the evidence could be thoroughly analysed and reviewed’.

What exactly were they reviewing? Seeing case law and ‘literature’ through the lens of ‘lived experience’ that you accept as true without investigation sounds to me suspiciously like the seeds of a self fulfilling prophecy.

It is clear the responses from the lawyers were different to the responses from the mothers:

Submissions from legal professionals described their experience in cases involving abuse which varied in persistence and severity, whereas most mothers described relatively severe and sustained abuse, almost invariably involving coercive control.

No question appears to be raised as to why the lawyers saw things so differently. I think it is very important to robustly test assertions which are so serious. Such as this –


Respondents felt that orders made by the court had enabled the continued control of children and adult victims of domestic abuse by alleged abusers, as well as the continued abuse of victims and children. Many submissions detailed the long-term impacts of this abuse manifesting in physical, emotional, psychological, financial and educational harm and harm to children’s current and future relationships.
Many respondents felt that the level of abuse they and their children experienced worsened following proceedings in the family court. There were concerns that efforts to report continuing abuse were treated dismissively by criminal justice and child welfare agencies because of the family court orders. Many respondents also highlighted the negative impacts felt by children who were compelled to have contact with abusive parents, and the burden placed on mothers and children to comply with contact orders compared to minimal expectations on perpetrators of abuse to change their behaviour.

Again, there seems to be no attempt to clarify the nature and status of the alleged victims and perpetrators. Were the ‘perpetrators’ referred to here FOUND TO BE SO in either a criminal or civil court? Or are we back in territory of allegations being raised? I have never known a case where a person found to have perpetrated serious abuse was simply left to get on with it and unsupervised contact ordered.

But I have experienced many cases where fathers never had direct contact with their children again after allegations raised about their behaviour by the children’s rmothers.

The Panel does recognise the limitations of its approach, but concludes that it doesn’t impact their ability to make robust recommednations

Nor can we tell how representative the submissions are of all court users and professionals. As with all inquiries, the individual and organisational submissions and engagement in the data gathering process were voluntary. There is therefore likely to be some selection bias. Individuals who are largely satisfied with the process and outcomes in the family courts may have less incentive to provide evidence. Similarly, professionals who work in the system may have more incentive to defend how the system operates.
Nor can we test the accuracy and completeness of the accounts given. It is not possible to have an ‘objective’ account of what occurred in each case. Qualitative evidence presents the perceptions and views of individuals and organisations that respond. These views will be influenced by the attitudes, cultural context, organisational culture, specific role in the proceedings and individual biases of those providing evidence. They can also be subject to recall bias. The panel was well aware that submissions can be based on misunderstandings, misapprehensions or deliberate distortion as well as wishful thinking.
Despite these inherent limitations, we are persuaded that the evidence gathered does identify systemic problems with how family courts deal with domestic abuse cases and cases raising other risks of harm in private law children cases. It is unlikely that the panel has managed to uncover only isolated mistakes or rare events. The evidence does point to issues affecting multiple cases across the system and with potentially serious effects, although we were also able to identify instances of good practice.


I think this is powerfully naïve. I am particularly concerned by this comment:


…majority with detailed descriptions that appeared to provide authentic accounts of individual experiences.

‘Appeared to provide’ just isn’t good enough when it is used to scaffold the following comments. This has never been my experience in any private law case over 20 years.

Many respondents argued that in ordering direct contact in the majority of cases, the court ignores, dismisses and systematically minimises allegations of domestic abuse and simply treats the case as if domestic abuse was of no continuing relevance. Too often, even where findings of domestic abuse are made, the submissions suggest that victims are told to ‘move on’ and to progress contact, even though the perpetrator has shown no or minimal effort to accept or engage with the findings made against them. Thus, the victim is left with the responsibility of ensuring that contact takes place, including liaison with the abuser, and sometimes against the expressed wishes of the child.

We can see how this is being interpreted beyond the Ministry of Justice and how the Panel’s willingness to accept the unverified accounts of Respondents may now play out.

“The Court Said” has already launched a petition. This is an organisation supported by a number of women with ‘personal’ experiences of the family court system. Two of these women are Samantha Baldwin and Victoria Haigh, both subject to serious findings in the family court about the harm they inflicted on their children and both enthusiastic self identified victims of the family court.

A self identifying ‘journalist’ Richard Carvath who also supports the Court Said has just been convicted of harassment due to his campaigning against the family courts which he believes is justified because of the ‘detailed’ accounts given to him of injustice.


It is or should be abundantly clear that ‘personal’ experiences do not provide the whole story. And that those with axes to grind need to be treated with polite scepticism.

If the accounts of the Respondents to the Panel are simply accepted, its clear what The Court Said wants to happen now. I quote from the petition.

The government needs to launch an immediate case review and a mechanism for recourse for victims affected by the crisis. Thousands of children have been removed unlawfully from victims of Domestic Abuse with no prospect of reversing the situation. Many more thousands are living in fear with unsafe Court decisions impacting families dealing with a Domestic Abuser. Without recourse, this will continue.
The report publishes the harms endured by survivor families in the Family Court system. It is time to right the wrongs and provide compensation for victims, whose lives, families and futures have been forever marked, or even destroyed by an unsafe decision in the Family Court.
We call upon the government urgently to immediately review all cases that have gone before the proposed reforms, and the ones that will suffer during the transition to reform. We call upon the government to reverse decisions where possible and provide compensation to those affected by the crisis. #thecourtsaid

Conclusion

The Panel Report sets out a lengthy list of recommendations and hopes, some of which sound sensible, some a little more optimistic – the Panel should probably have considered a little more carefully the impact of the ECHR on their recommendation to end a presumption of parental involvement for e.g.

But no one could argue in good faith with efforts to make sure that the wishes and feelings of children are properly heard and they are not put under pressure by either parent to toe any particular line.

But I am afraid I cannot read something like this without a hollow laugh

The panel hopes that its recommendations will empower judges, lawyers, Cafcass, Cafcass Cymru and other family justice professionals to work to their best potential in private law children’s proceedings, and above all, that its recommendations will benefit children and parents experiencing domestic abuse.

If parents in the system don’t have lawyers, if there is no where in the court bulding to sit and talk, let alone wait in safety, if CAFCASS don’t get the time and resources they need to do their job properly, if anyone’s account is simply accepted without challenge, all of this is meaningless.

Resources are rightly identified in this report as a major stumbling block to any effective change and I agree wholeheartedly with this

The panel believes that the shortage of resource affects the whole system, but is most concerning for domestic abuse cases, which are likely to be more resource-intensive to address than non-abuse cases. Safeguarding requires time and resources to do a detailed and careful risk-assessment; the need for special measures requires adequate court facilities; fact-finding hearings require additional judicial time; and additional interventions may be required to make any child arrangements safe. This all costs money. The scarcity of resources mean that the system finds it difficult to address the additional demands presented by domestic abuse cases:

So what will be done about that?

Nothing. No doubt any spare cash in the system will now go to setting up further serious case reviews as is urged by ‘The Court Said’. This seems to be how we roll now as a nation.

I hope I am wrong. But I doubt I am. Let’s meet in a year’s time and see what came to pass.

EDIT July 4th 2020. The Government’s plans to implement its reforms are set out here. Their plan seems to involve yet another pilot scheme.

I do hate being right all the time.

Further reading

CAFCASS tool for assessing domestic abuse

The Empathy Gap 14th June 2020 – Commentary on Adrienne Barnett in “A genealogy of hostility: parental alienation in England and Wales”, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law (Jan 2020). The paper discusses the role of parental alienation within the English and Welsh family courts.

The Empathy Gap 11th June 2020 – Commentary on “U.S. child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations: what do the data show?”, By Joan S. Meier, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 42:1, 92-105 (2020)

Vaccination of children; how does the Family Court handle disputes?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

This post considers how the court should deal with disputes between those who have parental responsibility, about whether or not a child should be vaccinated. Vaccines are routinely administered in England; see Public Health England’s guidance in ‘The Green Book: Information for public health professionals on immunisations’. Despite the routine nature of vaccination, there remains a significant minority of those who object, some fearing that vaccines cause harm. The Court of Appeal however has given a very clear ruling that there is no medical evidence to support an argument that these routine childhood vaccines are harmful, and that local authorities do not need to seek the approval of the High Court before agreeing to vaccinate children in their care.

In February 2020 there was a decision in care proceedings about parents who objected to their child being vaccinated, which can be found at  [2020] EWHC 220 (Fam). The Judge commented that the father was “driven by the fundamental belief that neither the court nor the State, through the arm of the Local Authority has any jurisdiction to take decisions in relation to his children”.

The Judge heard medical evidence about the benefits of immunisation in general and in particular with regard to the child before him. He found that vaccination should not be characterised as ‘medical treatment’ but rather ‘a facet of public preventative health care intending to protect both individual children and society more generally’.

The Judge was satisfied that the local authority could authorise the vaccination of the child under section 33(3) of the Children Act 1989. This is significant, as previous cases (see Re SL (Permission to Vaccinate) [2017] EWHC 125 ) had set out that this issue had to be decided using the ‘inherent jurisdiction’ of the court – a jurisdiction which can only be exercised by the High Court or by Circuit Judges with special authorisation. This has the potential to take more time and cost more money to get a decision.

Therefore the Judge felt it appropriate to allow his decision to be appealed pursuant to the Family Procedure Rules 30.3(7) – ‘contradictory decisions on the substantive issue’

By the time the matter got to the Court of Appeal, no one was arguing that the child should NOT be vaccinated but everyone wanted clarity about what route people needed to use in any future cases like this.

Judgment was handed down on 22nd May 2020 in H (A Child Parental Responsibility : Vaccination) [2020] EWCA Civ 664

Is vaccination a ‘grave and serious’ matter?

The Court of Appeal decided that in order to make the right decision about the route to take, it was necessary to consider some broader questions, and in particular whether or not vaccination is to be considered ‘a grave or serious matter’ or should be regarded as ‘medical treatment’.

These questions also had to be considered in two different contexts: ‘public law’ proceedings (where the local authority shares parental responsibility with the parents) and ‘private law’ proceedings (where only individuals such as the mother and father share PR).

As a general principle, the State should be slow to interfere with how parents exercise their rights and duties with regard to their children and respect their right to do so, provided that they don’t put the child at risk of significant harm.

Giving consent to having a child vaccinated is clearly an exercise of parental responsibility. Most consider the decision to vaccinate ‘reasonable and responsible’. However it is not a legal requirement. Therefore a refusal to vaccinate your child and nothing else would be very unlikely to be considered ‘significant harm’ to the extent that the State could interfere and apply for a care order under section 31(3) of the Children Act.

The child in the care of the local authority

The starting point for a child in local authority care is section 33 of the Children Act 1989. This gives the LA parental responsibility alongside the parents and the power to ‘override’ the parents provided that what it proposes is necessary to safeguard the welfare of the child. The LA cannot however change a child’s religion or name, or take the child out of the country using this section.

This applies to ‘interim’ and ‘final’ care orders. However, when decisions ‘with profound or enduring consequences’ needed to be made – such as serious medical treatment – the general view is that it was not right for the LA to use section 33 to override a parent’s wishes without further scrutiny – the matter needed to come before the High Court to be resolved.

So – is consenting to vaccination something that a LA can do without the High Court’s permission? Or is this ‘serious medical treatment’?

Medical evidence about the benefit of vaccines is clear

The Court of Appeal first examined the current established medical view – routine vaccination of children is not only in the best interests of the children but also the general public.

The Court of Appeal acknowledged that most – but not all – of the concerns about the safety of vaccinations relate to the MMR vaccination. This was introduced in 1988. Concerns arose that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism following the publication of a paper in The Lancet by Dr Andrew Wakefield. This attracted widespread publicity and caused a drastic reduction in MMR vaccination rates and corresponding increase in cases of measles. It then transpired that Dr Wakefield had not declared a number of conflicting interests and by 2004, 10 of the 12 co-authors of the 1998 paper had withdrawn their support for the claimed link with autism.

Dr Wakefield was then investigated by the General Medical Council for misconduct and in May 2010 he was struck off the medical register and The Lancet formally retracted his paper. No mainstream medical opinion now accepts a link between vaccination and autism.

The Court of Appeal accepted that the medical evidence:

overwhelmingly identifies the benefits to a child of being vaccinated as part of the public health initiative to drive down the incidence of serious childhood and other diseases.

The Court of Appeal were very clear that this short recitation of such historical events was necessary to ‘bring an end’ to the parade of expert witnesses in cases involving vaccination, to demonstrate its medical benefits, unless a child has ‘an unusual medical history’ – see for example in Re C and F (Children) [2003] EWHC 1376 (Fam).

There could be other issues than purely medical over vaccinations which impact on a child’s welfare – for example the parent’s religious belief – but the Court of Appeal have decisively put to bed any lingering doubts about the medical benefits of vaccination.

Regardless of benefit – are vaccines ‘serious medical treatment’?

Regardless of its medical benefit, were the parents right to say that only the High Court could resolve a dispute between parents and a local authority? There have sadly been very many cases where care proceedings and complex medical treatment intertwine and the High Court has been asked to intervene.

The most difficult and controversial cases have been where care proceedings were used to bring parents before the court over disputes about medical treatment where the parents are otherwise ‘unimpeachable’. The Court of Appeal did not approve of this. The more usual route in cases of dispute over serious medical treatment, is via the NHS Trust responsible for treating a child applying to invoke the court’s inherent jurisdiction. in such applications, there is no need to discuss threshold criteria or ‘blame’ the parents and the sole criterion is the welfare of the child.

The Court of Appeal acknowledged that some previous cases could be interpreted as denying that the LA had the power to authorise ANY medical treatment. But, if that was the correct interpretation – then those cases got it wrong.

The Court of Appeal then turned to examine how vaccination cases in particular had been dealt with by the courts. It was noted that in a previous case the hearing had lasted two weeks with extensive medical evidence and a judgment of 370 pages which concluded that it was in the best interests of the healthy children to be vaccinated. That decision was appealed and the appeal dismissed. See In Re C (Welfare of Child: Immunisation) [2003] EWCA Civ 1148[2003] 2 FLR 1095) However, further cases continued to hear extensive expert evidence.

The Court of Appeal stated that by the 2010 at the very latest, there has been no evidential basis for suggesting a link between MMR and autism and other vaccines which are routinely given to children have not been subject to the same high profile concerns about their safety.

The Court of Appeal did not think it mattered to call vaccinations ‘medical treatment’ or ‘preventative health care’ – what mattered is whether vaccinations were ‘grave’ and ‘serious’ in the context of the exercise of PR by a local authority. This was soundly rejected:

I cannot agree that the giving of a vaccination is a grave issue (regardless of whether it is described as medical treatment or not). In my judgment it cannot be said that the vaccination of children under the UK public health programme is in itself a ‘grave’ issue in circumstances where there is no contra-indication in relation to the child in question and when the alleged link between MMR and autism has been definitively disproved. 

Cases involving disputes between parents

The route for parents who cannot agree about vaccination is to apply for a Specific Issue Order under section 8 of the Children Act 1989 – see Thorpe LJ in Re C (Immunisations) at paragraph [17] where in 2003 he expressed the view that immunisations were part of a ‘small group of important decisions’ where if those with PR could not agree, it should come before the court. The Court of Appeal wondered if now in 2020 this could still hold good given that all evidence unequivocally supports the recommendation of Public Health England that vaccinations benefit children and the wider society. However, the Court of Appeal declined to offer a definite view about this.

However, the reality is that if parents can’t agree in discussion or more formal mediation, neither has primacy over the other and they have no option but to come to court for resolution.

This is very different to the situation where a care order exists, as in that situation Parliament has given the LA the power to override a parent unless its a decision of such magnitude that it must come before the High Court.

Warning to local authorities

However, the Court of Appeal sounded a note of caution, warning the local authority that it must involve parents in decision making and section 33 CA 1989 was not an invitation to ‘ride rough shod’ over parents. If the parents do not agree with the the LA decision to consent to vaccination, they can make an application to invoke the inherent jurisdiction and apply for an injunction under the Human Rights Act 1998 to prevent vaccination before the matter comes before the court.

The Court of Appeal decision does not in any way diminish the importance of parental views where there is a real issue about what decision will promote a child’s welfare. However, the weight to be given any objection is not decided by how insistently it is made, but according to what substance it has.

The pressure on the family justice system is already serious enough without devoting weeks of High Court time to reinventing the vaccination wheel.

Case law and guidance on remote hearings

St Johns Chambers Family Forum May 14th 2020
Case law and guidance on remote hearings

See also this post for further links to commentary, case law and guidance


Sarah Phillimore

Introduction


Our ways of working, overnight changed dramatically. No one has ever faced this situation before.

As the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory reported on May 6th 2020

In the two-week period between 23 March and 6 April 2020 audio hearings across all courts and tribunals in England and Wales (not only in family courts) increased by over 500%, and video hearings by 340%.

And of course there has been guidance upon guidance and guidance about guidance, which in different circumstances may have represented heaven for many lawyers as we argue about the precise meaning of this word in this context.

But I imagine that for most of us, this is a situation which is extremely stressful and even frightening – we are being asked to get to grips with brand new technology, worry about how our clients will participate and keep on top about how guidance is being interpreted in the courts.
So I am hopefully going to provide a useful aide memoire to the most significant recent guidance and cases and in so far as I can, extract some general principles to use as a starting point in your individual cases.

Always remembering of course that family cases even pre lockdown threw up an infinite variety of factual circumstances – case law is a guide and rarely ever the answer.

Summary of fundamental principles/checklist

THE ESSENTIAL QUESTION – how will you secure the overriding objective and compliance with Articles 8 and 6?

Your obligation is to act to process cases efficiently but justly. Often these two key principles are in direct tension.

You must assess the case in front of you. Guidance is not diktat or straight jacket. No one feature acts as a veto or a compulsion. Some cases are very well suited to remote hearings – short directions hearings for e.g. But the longer the time estimate and the more complicated the issues, the more important your assessment about whether or not fairness is being compromised.

If it helps, divide your assessment into stages.

The stages of your assessment


There will clearly be overlap between many categories but the ‘check list’ school of thought appears to guide against hasty and wrong decision making.

  1. Can the proceedings be conducted remotely? If ‘no’ matter ends there.
    a. Do the parents have access to necessary technology and a space to give evidence in private?
    b. Are there ‘hybrid’ arrangements that might work, i.e. some parties meeting in another location?
    c. Who is setting it up? On what platform? Can all access it? NB There is a real difference between a telephone and a video hearing – note para 35 CoA re B
    d. How will parents access the bundle?
    e. Will necessary assessments be completed in time? – see Government guidance on managing risks for social workers etc.
  2. Jurassic Park Principle: Should the proceedings be conducted remotely?
    a. Identify your ‘magnetic factor’: consider the factors in paragraph 9 of Re A (Children) (Remote Hearing: Care and Placement Orders [2020] EWCA Civ 583
    b. No one factor is a veto or compulsion – see para 11 in CoA re A and para 24 in Re Q. But if ALL the parties are against it, court will have to give cogent reasons to proceed – para 61 CoA re A.
    c. All cases involving children re urgent – but some are more urgent than others. Are there immediate safety risks for a child?
    d. What are the particular risks and benefits of an adjournment for the child?
  3. Plan effectively – If going ahead, what do you need on the ground?
    a. Ground rules in place to ensure effective participation and back up plans if technology fails for some or all.
    b. How are lay clients going to communicate with lawyers if not in the same room?
    c. Advocates meetings, pre-hearing discussions and focused case summaries
  4. And remember – inconsistency and uncertainty is inevitable in such changing times. See para 34 of re Q. There is no golden ‘right answer’ to be discovered. All you can do is show your workings and demonstrate that you have given sufficient thought to the relevant issues. Life can only be understood backwards – but it must be lived forwards.

Synopsis of guidance and case law – up to date as of 12th May 2020

This is not exhaustive. I may have missed something! But these seem to be the key cases and guidance.

19th March 2020
COVID 19 National guidance for the family courts

Over arching aim – ‘Keep Business Going Safely’
Situation will change rapidly – each case must be decided on case by case basis

23rd March 2020 (and updated)
‘The remote access family court’
Mr Justice MacDonald.
Quotes President:
Can I stress, however, that we must not lose sight of our primary purpose as a Family Justice system, which is to enable courts to deal with cases justly, having regard to the welfare issues involved [FPR 2010, r 1.1 ‘the overriding objective’], part of which is to ensure that parties are ‘on an equal footing’ [FPR 2010, r 1.2]. In pushing forward to achieve Remote Hearings, this must not be at the expense of a fair and just process.

9th April 2020
On 9 April 2020, the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and the President of the Family Division sent a message to all circuit judges and district judges concerning remote working during the ‘lockdown’ If all parties oppose a remotely conducted final hearing, this is a very powerful factor in not proceeding with a remote hearing; if parties agree, or appear to agree, to a remotely conducted final hearing, this should not necessarily be treated as the ‘green light’ to conduct a hearing in this way;
Where the final hearing is conducted on the basis of submissions only and no evidence, it could be conducted remotely;
Video/Skype hearings are likely to be more effective than telephone. Unless the case is an emergency, court staff should set up the remote hearing.
Parties should be told in plain terms at the start of the hearing that it is a court hearing and they must behave accordingly.
In Family Cases in particular:
Where the parents oppose the LA plan but the only witnesses to be called are the SW & CG, and the factual issues are limited, it could be conducted remotely;
Where only the expert medical witnesses are to be called to give evidence, it could be conducted remotely;
In all other cases where the parents and/or other lay witnesses etc are to be called, the case is unlikely to be suitable for remote hearing.

6th May 2020
Nuffield Family Justice Observatory Rapid review – a handy over view of what’s gone well and badly between with about 1K responses from judges, lawyers, parents and social workers.

Notes fundamental concerns of approx. 1,000 participants
• Difficulties arising from lack of face to face contact
• Difficulty in ensuring full participation in a remote hearing
• Concerns about lack of preparation for hearing
• Issues of confidentiality and privacy – particularly hard for parents in the same house as the children subject to proceedings and for professionals sharing home with family
• Concerns relating to the removal of new born babies
• Concerns about whether or not cases are adjourned – carries risk and benefit .
• Other factors relating to fairness – such as face to face assessments etc.
• Think about your platform – hostilities are less easy to mange over the phone
• Impact of remote hearings on health and wellbeing
• For some hearings, remote working provides greater efficiency

6th May 2020 Guidance for children’s social care services

[and see The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 ]

It is for all those delivering or with an interest in children’s social care, including local authorities, social care trusts, those who have corporate parenting responsibilities, all adoption agencies, independent fostering agencies and children’s homes, and local safeguarding partnerships who work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children in their area. It is also for social workers, residential care providers and staff, and those with safeguarding responsibilities.
We expect that the sorts of circumstances where local authorities, local safeguarding partners and providers may want to make use of the additional flexibility that the secondary legislation amendments provide include:
• where staff shortages, due to sickness or other reasons, make it difficult or impossible to meet the original requirements
• where making use of flexibilities to take a different approach is the most sensible, risk-based response in light of other demands and pressures on services; this might involve focusing services on those most at risk
• where there is a consequential reason to make use of flexibilities, for example due to limited capacity in other providers or partners making it difficult or impossible to comply with the original requirements

Contact issues
We expect that contact between children in care and their birth relatives will continue. It is essential for children and families to remain in touch at this difficult time, and for many children, the consequences of not seeing relatives would be traumatising.
Contact arrangements should therefore be assessed on a case by case basis taking into account a range of factors, including the government’s social distancing guidance and the needs of the child. Where it may not be possible, or appropriate, for the usual face-to-face contact to happen at this time and keeping in touch will, for the most part, need to take place virtually. Where face-to-face contact is not possible, we would encourage social workers and other professionals to reassure children that this position is temporary and will be reviewed as soon as it is possible to do so.
We expect the spirit of any court-ordered contact in relation to children in care to be maintained and will look to social workers to determine how best to support those valuable family interactions based on the circumstances of each case.

CASE LAW 

16th April 2020

Re P (A Child Remote Hearing)
[2020] EWFC 32

FACTS: Long running proceedings involving girl now aged 7 and allegations of FII. 15 day final hearing due.
Emphasises importance of primary purpose, to deal with cases justly – which requires parties to be on ‘equal footing’
President clear this case was NOT suitable for remote hearing. Magnetic factor was need for Judge to assess the mother – not just as she gave evidence but in her reaction to the evidence of others. (but note disagreement about forensic value to be attached to this in Re Q below)

COMMENTARY: Para 8. The ‘Jurassic Park principle’
Establishing that a hearing can be conducted remotely, does not in any way mean that the hearing must be conducted in that way.

Para 24 Each case is likely to involve a wide range of factors and some will be in tension


The need to maintain a hearing in order to avoid delay …is likely to be a most powerful consideration in many cases, but it may be at odds with the need for the very resolution of that issue to be undertaken in a thorough, forensically sound, fair, just and proportionate manner. The decision to proceed or not may not turn on the category of case or seriousness of the decision, but upon other factors that are idiosyncratic of the particular case itself, such as the local facilities, the available technology, the personalities and expectations of the key family members and, in these early days, the experience of the judge or magistrates in remote working.

30th April 2020

Re A (Children) (Remote Hearing: Care and Placement Orders)
[2020] EWCA Civ 583

FACTS: Case involving the youngest 4 of 6 siblings. The plan was for 2 to remain in long term foster care and for youngest two to be adopted. Judge determined that case was suitable for ‘hybrid’ final hearing in face of parents’ opposition. Appeal allowed and hearing fixed vacated.
Para 49 appeal succeeded on following basis
• Mr A’s inability to engage adequately with remote evidence (either at home or in the courtroom);
• The imbalance of procedure in requiring the parents, but no other party or advocate, to attend before the judge;
• The need for urgency was not sufficiently pressing to justify an immediate remote or hybrid final hearing.

COMMENTARY
‘Cardinal principles’
• The decision about holding a remote hearing is a case management one for the Judge
• Guidance is just that – guidance
• Guidance may have a temporary nature and circumstances will continue to develop

Para 11:

We wish to state with total clarity that our decision does not mean that there can be no remote final hearings on an application for a care order or a placement for adoption order. Neither is our decision to be taken as holding that there should be no ‘hybrid’ hearings, where one or more party physically attends at a courtroom in front of a judge. The appropriateness of proceeding with a particular form of hearing must be individually assessed, applying the principles and guidance indicated above to the unique circumstances of the case.

Magnetic factor here was ability of the father, as a result of his personality, intellect and diagnosis of dyslexia, to engage sufficiently in the process to render the hearing fair.

Para 9 – likely factors to influence decision

  1. The importance and nature of the issue to be determined; is the outcome that is sought an interim or final order?
  2. Whether there is a special need for urgency, or whether the decision could await a later hearing without causing significant disadvantage to the child or the other parties;
  3. Whether the parties are legally represented;
  4. The ability, or otherwise, of any lay party (particularly a parent or person with parental responsibility) to engage with and follow remote proceedings meaningfully. This factor will include access to and familiarity with the necessary technology, funding, intelligence/personality, language, ability to instruct their lawyers (both before and during the hearing), and other matters;
  5. Whether evidence is to be heard or whether the case will proceed on the basis of submissions only;
  6. The source of any evidence that is to be adduced and assimilated by the court. For example, whether the evidence is written or oral, given by a professional or lay witness, contested or uncontested, or factual or expert evidence;
  7. The scope and scale of the proposed hearing. How long is the hearing expected to last?
  8. The available technology; telephone or video, and if video, which platform is to be used. A telephone hearing is likely to be a less effective medium than using video;
  9. The experience and confidence of the court and those appearing before the court in the conduct of remote hearings using the proposed technology;
  10. Any safe (in terms of potential COVID 19 infection) alternatives that may be available for some or all of the participants to take part in the court hearing by physical attendance in a courtroom before the judge or magistrates.
    Para 61: Court endorsed LCJ’s message of 9 April at sub paragraph (a): ‘If all parties oppose a remotely conducted final hearing, this is a very powerful factor in not proceeding with a remote hearing’. Whilst in the present case it is true that the Children’s Guardian did not oppose proceeding with the planned hearing, all of the other parties, including the local authority, did. In such circumstances, when the applicant local authority itself does not support a remote contested final hearing, a court will require clear and cogent reasons for taking the contrary view and proceeding to hold one.

30th April 2020

[2020] EWCA Civ 584
Re B (Children) (Remote Hearing: Interim Care Order)

FACTS: A 9 year old boy was removed from his grandmother’s care and placed in foster care following a telephone hearing on 3rd April.
CoA agreed the order should not have been made and child returned to grandmother.

COMMENTARY – The problems here arose because the local authority changed its care plan in the middle of a remote hearing and because an application that was not urgent was treated as if it was. A hearing that had come about to regulate the position of his older sister took on a momentum of its own; the Recorder who made the wrong decision had, by the time he made it been working for over 10 hours remotely, and facing a stream of documents electronically.
The LA changed their care plan on the basis of recommendations from the Guardian who wrongly saw the situation as ‘urgent’ and had not carried out a balanced welfare analysis.

Para 34 – the remote hearing was part of the problem:

Our further observation is that, no doubt partly because of the exigencies of the remote process, there was a loss of perspective in relation to the need for an immediate decision about Sam. This was a classic case for an adjournment so that a considered decision could be taken about removal, if indeed that option was going to be pursued after reflection. An adjournment would have enabled the parties and the court to have all the necessary information. As it was, crucial information was lacking and its absence was overlooked by the court.

Para 35 – there is a real distinction between a telephone and a video hearing

There is a qualitative difference between a remote hearing conducted over the telephone and one undertaken via a video platform. If the application for an interim care order for Sam had been adjourned, it may well have been possible for the adjourned hearing to have been conducted over a video link and that single factor might, of itself, have justified an adjournment in a case which, in our view, plainly was not so urgent that it needed to be determined on 3 April

5th May 2020

[2020] EWHC 1086 (Fam)
A Local Authority
High Court

FACTS: Involved a 4 year old child whose sister had died at home and was later found to have suffered 65 fractures. Case had already been significantly delayed and child in foster care.
The court heard the medical evidence over 5 days then adjourned to consider if hearing should continue via Zoom to hear the lay parties. The father also sought an adjournment on grounds of mental health issues which were unrelated to the issue of remote hearings.

COMMENTARY: Judge referred extensively to Re P and CoA authorities. Did not share the President’s view about the importance of direct observation of lay witnesses:

Para 27: “…in my own view is that is not possible to say as a generality whether it is easier to tell whether a witness is telling the truth in court rather than remotely. It is clear from Re A that the Court of Appeal is not saying that all fact finding cases should be adjourned because fact finding is an exercise which it is not appropriate to undertake remotely. I agree with Leggatt LJ that demeanour will often not be a good guide to truthfulness. Some people are much better at lying than others and that will be no different whether they do so remotely or in court. Certainly, in court the demeanour of a witness, or anyone else in court, will often be more obvious to the judge, but that does not mean it will be more illuminating.”

Relied in factors in re A at [9] and determined that hearing should go ahead – but decision may have been different if parents were trying to follow proceedings only via a phone screen.

6th May 2020
Re Q
[2020] EWHC 1109 (Fam)

FACTS: Appeal against refusal to continue remote hearing with regard to a girl aged 6 who was subject of long running private law proceedings. Allegations of sexual abuse raised by M against F; clear finding that this did not happen and in March 2020 expert advised that child should move to live with F. The final hearing was set for April 22nd. The DDJ initially agreed it must continue but two days later reversed that decision after reading the decision in re P again and considering the very serious issues at stake in this hearing. The father appealed –it went before the President because of ‘perceived need’ to clarify the decision in Re P.

Appeal allowed and matter remitted to DDJ to determine how and when the hearing was to take place.

COMMENTARY: Para 24 Neither the guidance that has been issued, nor the decision in Re P, establish a veto to the holding of a remote hearing where a parent objects, or expert evidence is to be called.
The appeal succeeded not because of a failure to interpret re P correctly but because of a failure of process and error in approach re the welfare issue.
The Judge was concerned that the father had raised new issues in his position statement which might change the temperature of the final hearing – but had not raised this before counsel. Nor did the Judge explain why her welfare analysis shifted so starkly in only two days.

Para 34 – a degree of inconsistency and uncertainty is inevitable:
…each judge or magistrate must consider the individual case before the court and determine whether or not it should proceed remotely in whole or in part. It is to be accepted that a consequence of this approach is that different courts may take a different view on similar cases and that this may inevitably give rise to some inconsistency from court to court, or even from judge to judge.

Further reading


Useful article on how to identify risk of infection


Indoor spaces, with limited air exchange or recycled air and lots of people, are concerning from a transmission standpoint. We know that 60 people in a volleyball court-sized room (choir) results in massive infections. Same situation with the restaurant and the call center. Social distancing guidelines don’t hold in indoor spaces where you spend a lot of time, as people on the opposite side of the room were infected.
The principle is viral exposure over an extended period of time. In all these cases, people were exposed to the virus in the air for a prolonged period (hours). Even if they were 50 feet away (choir or call center), even a low dose of the virus in the air reaching them, over a sustained period, was enough to cause infection and in some cases, death.
Social distancing rules are really to protect you with brief exposures or outdoor exposures. In these situations there is not enough time to achieve the infectious viral load when you are standing 6 feet apart or where wind and the infinite outdoor space for viral dilution reduces viral load. The effects of sunlight, heat, and humidity on viral survival, all serve to minimize the risk to everyone when outside.
When assessing the risk of infection (via respiration) at the grocery store or mall, you need to consider the volume of the air space (very large), the number of people (restricted), how long people are spending in the store (workers – all day; customers – an hour). Taken together, for a person shopping: the low density, high air volume of the store, along with the restricted time you spend in the store, means that the opportunity to receive an infectious dose is low. But, for the store worker, the extended time they spend in the store provides a greater opportunity to receive the infectious dose and therefore the job becomes more risky.
Basically, as the work closures are loosened, and we start to venture out more, possibly even resuming in-office activities, you need to look at your environment and make judgments. How many people are here, how much airflow is there around me, and how long will I be in this environment. If you are in an open floorplan office, you really need critically assess the risk (volume, people, and airflow). If you are in a job that requires face-to-face talking or even worse, yelling, you need to assess the risk.
If you are sitting in a well ventilated space, with few people, the risk is low.
If I am outside, and I walk past someone, remember it is “dose and time” needed for infection. You would have to be in their airstream for 5+ minutes for a chance of infection. While joggers may be releasing more virus due to deep breathing, remember the exposure time is also less due to their speed.

While I have focused on respiratory exposure here, please don’t forget surfaces. Those infected respiratory droplets land somewhere. Wash your hands often and stop touching your face!

As we are allowed to move around our communities more freely and be in contact with more people in more places more regularly, the risks to ourselves and our family are significant. Even if you are gung-ho for reopening and resuming business as usual, do your part and wear a mask to reduce what you release into the environment. It will help everyone, including your own business.

Limits to Self Identification: The Protection of Children

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.

I was interested to read the decision of Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult), a judgment handed down on April 29th 2020. It covers so much of what has been interesting and challenging for me throughout my career. The damage that even loving parents can do to their children, and the particular harm caused by a parent who puts their own right to self identification above the child’s welfare.

This is a case about a mother who was a member of a cult and a father who wanted their daughter to live with him because he was so worried about her exposure to the cult. His application was refused and the child’s time was divided between the parents; he appealed.

The first Judge to hear the case agreed that the mother was a member of a cult organisation founded in Australia in 1999 by Serge Benhayon, called ‘Universal Medicine’. The mother in turn cross appealed, denying she was a cult member and sought to reduce the amount of time the child spent with her father, relying on historic and repeated allegations that the father had sexually abused the child and he was coercive and controlling.

The father’s appeal ultimately succeeded.

The judgement offers a helpful analysis of the law relating to the weight to be accorded freedom of belief when that conflicts with a child’s welfare. I think it poses some interesting further questions about what areas courts ought to be investigating when faced with other parental systems of belief that are controversial or deny material reality – such as the growing insistence in some quarters that biological sex is a myth and to attribute it to a child is some kind of hateful bigotry.

The law concerning freedom of belief

The court first needed to examine the law concerning freedom of belief. The first Judge carefully surveyed the law’s treatment of sects, cults and minority groups in cases involving children. He recognised that the court had to approach this with caution: the court should not become unnecessarily involved with criticising minority groups and controversial beliefs. The court should only be concerned with the welfare of the child.

The leading decision around religious upbringing is Re G (Education: Religious Upbringing) [2012] EWCA Civ 1233; [2013] 1 FLR 677. This case involved the schooling of children from an ultra-orthodox Jewish background, but the comments of Munby LJ apply equally to belief systems that are not avowedly religious. The Judge is not there to weigh one religion against another and all are entitled to equal respect so long as they are ‘legally and socially acceptable’. The court must recognise Article 9 of the European Convention:

“1 Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2 Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

From this, we can see the right to religious freedom is not absolute but qualified in two ways. Your religion or philosophy is protected only if worthy of respect in a democratic society and not incompatible with human dignity – see Campbell and Cosans v United Kingdom (No 2) (1982) 4 EHRR 293. Second, how you ‘manifest’ that religion or philosophy – such as in worship or other observance – can be restricted if necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others.

It is incompatible with any power on the State’s part to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs; the State must be neutral and impartial – see  Moscow Branch of the Salvation Army v Russia (2007) 44 EHRR 46.

But if a religious practice or belief has negative consequences for a child’s welfare, the court has the power to restrict manifestations of that practice or belief – and in the most extreme cases, remove the child from the care of the parent who will not change their views.

In summary, the court must respect the mother’s beliefs to the extent that the teachings of Universal Medicine are worthy of respect in a democratic society, but the child’s welfare remains the paramount consideration and may override the mother’s rights.

The law concerning parental alienation

The Appeal Court then considered the law around parental alienation. The Court rejected any attempt to enter the debate about labels, agreeing with Sir Andrew McFarlane (see [2018] Fam Law 988) that where behaviour is abusive, protective action must be considered whether or not the behaviour arises from a syndrome or diagnosed condition. The Appeal Court relied upon the CAFCASS definition of alienation.

“When a child’s resistance/hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”

Such manipulation does not need to be deliberate or malicious. It is the process that matters, not the parent’s motive.

The Appeal Court commented:

Signs of alienation may include portraying the other parent in an unduly negative light to the child, suggesting that the other parent does not love the child, providing unnecessary reassurance to the child about time with the other parent, contacting the child excessively when with the other parent, and making unfounded allegations or insinuations, particularly of sexual abuse.

These cases can be very difficult but the courts are under a positive obligation imposed by Article 8 of the ECHR, to strive to find some resolution, particularly as the passage of time often leads to a determination of the matter by default, as a child simply hardens negative views towards the absent parent.

As McFarlane LJ said in Re A (Intractable Contact Dispute: Human Rights Violations) [2013] EWCA Civ 1104; [2014] 1 FLR 1185 at 53: 

The conduct of human relationships, particularly following the breakdown in the relationship between the parents of a child, are not readily conducive to organisation and dictat by court order; nor are they the responsibility of the courts or the judges. But, courts and judges do have a responsibility to utilise such substantive and procedural resources as are available to them to determine issues relating to children in a manner which affords paramount consideration to the welfare of those children and to do so in a manner, within the limits of the court’s powers, which is likely to be effective as opposed to ineffective.”

The courts have to keep the child’s medium to long term welfare in mind, as the temptation may well be to take the short term path of least resistance as less stressful for everyone. However the court must not wait for serious harm to be done before taking appropriate action.

The Facts

The parents separated in 2012 when the child was about a year old, so at the time of the appeal hearing, she was aged 9 years.

The father moved out but continued to spend time with his daughter on alternate weekends. About the same time as the separation the mother became a ‘student’ of ‘Universal Medicine’.

The Judge did not need to decide if this was a ‘religion’, but found it was a ‘belief system’ to which the mother was strongly aligned. The founder of this system, Serge Benhayon, was described by an expert on cults, the Rev Dr David Millikan, in this way:

Benhayon hovers over his followers with a myriad of pronouncements about how they should behave. His teachings, cloaked in the robes of sanctity, prescribe what food they can eat. He has strict rules on clothes, work, physical exercise, how to speak and move, how sex works (he encourages orgasms like a hermaphrodite), how to treat children, how to dispose of their money, what books to read, who to talk to, what media to read or watch, how to treat family and friends who complain about their discipleship. Piece by piece their lives are recast in the mode of Benhayon himself.”

As is common with cults, its members will lose the capacity to question what they are taught and will consider those outside the ‘closed system’ as unable to understand. Relationships with family or friends who aren’t in the cult becomes very difficult, or are severed entirely.

The father was particularly concerned by the attitude of the cult towards food, collecting information which showed what categories of food were allowed or disapproved of by Universal Medicine. The categories include “Fiery foods”, “Pranic foods” (said to hinder the flow of the light of the soul and the body, including all wheat and grain and dairy milk … ) and “Evil foods”.

Other concerning cult practices included “Esoteric ovary massage” which is said to offer women “a true healing to deconstruct the emotional inputs and blockages that may lay suppressed in the ovaries, consequence to the many experiences a woman has endured throughout her life that have had the effect to the relationship she holds with herself”. There is apparently no evidence in support of any of the cult’s practices which were ‘developed’ by the cult founder Benhayon, described as a ‘former bankrupt tennis coach from New South Wales’.

When his daughter was three, the father became increasingly concerned about her restricted diet and the influence of this cult upon the mother’s parenting. The local authority assessed and found a good relationship between mother and child. The social worker thought the mother’s ideas were somewhat ‘fixed’ but did not pose a safeguarding concern.

The father applied for a child arrangements order so that his daughter would share time equally between her parents and a specific issue order so that she would not have any further dealings with Universal Medicine.

The mother objected, and asserted that that Universal Medicine was not a cult but rather “an award-winning complementary healthcare organisation bringing many benefits to its adherents, herself included.”

“Serge provides the absolute reflection of integrity and truth,and of unwavering love for all in service untiringly andunceasingly… No greater role model have I ever met.”

CAFCASS reported in April 2017 and recommended that the child should not attend any Universal Medicine events until she was old enough to make informed choices, reporting concern that the child would become segregated and that would impact on her formation of relationships.

The parents were able to agree shared care and the mother was prohibited from taking the child to UM events before she was 16, imposing any teachings or doctrines or initiating discussions about UM.

By July 2018 the father was concerned that the mother was not sticking to this agreement and in fact the influence of UM over their child had increased.

In October 2018 an Australian court [Benhayon v Rockett (No 8) 2019 NSWSC 169] found that Universal Medicine was a socially harmful cult and Benhayon to be a sexually predatory charlatan who had assaulted female students and had an indecent interest in children as young as ten.

The father therefore issued his application for his daughter to come and live with him and have no further involvement with the cult. The father set out a schedule of allegations against the mother. In May 2019 the court refused the father’s application for a psychological assessment of the child but ordered a report from an Independent Social Worker. The matter was listed for a three day final hearing in November 2019.

The father said that he did not trust the mother to distance herself from Universal Medicine and although their daughter would be devastated to spend less time with her mother, to remove her from the mother’s care would be the lesser of two evils.

The mother rejected the father’s criticisms of Universal Medicine and alleged he was coercive and controlling. The Independent Social Worker found that the mother’s involvement was harmful to the child, in terms of restricted diet, behaviour and beliefs. She recommended that the child live with her father and have supervised contact with her mother.

The mother then changed her legal team and instructed her new lawyer to strike out the father’s application altogether on the grounds that any transfer of residence would breach the mother’s Article 8, 9 and 10 rights. This application was dismissed and the matter continued to trial. The mother asserted that the Australian judgment was nothing to do with her and it was discriminatory to require the child to give up her ‘thoughts and conscience’.

The Judge’s Decision and the Appeal

The Judge rejected any allegation that the father was coercive or controlling. He was motivated by concern for his child’s welfare. He thought the mother seemed genuine in her agreement to dissociate herself from Universal Medicine if it meant her daughter would stay with her.

Both parents loved their daughter and could meet her practical needs. The Judge concluded that the order which would best meet the child’s welfare was a return to the arrangements in 2017, after weighing up the harm presented by Universal Medicine against the distress that the child would feel if spending less time with her mother. The court was persuaded that the mother was ‘sincere and genuine’ in her assertions that she would ‘modify’ her thinking about Universal Medicine.

The father appealed, on the basis that the Judge had given inadequate reasons for not following the recommendations of the ISW and that by January 2020 it was clear that the mother was backtracking from her undertakings and that the child arrangements order had already been wholly disrupted.

The mother responded to seek a reduction of the father’s time with the child, on the basis that historic allegations of sexual abuse had not been properly investigated and that the mother could not be asked to give up her her beliefs.

The Court of Appeal rejected the mother’s cross appeal and found that the Judge had been entirely correct in his evaluation of the facts and that Universal Medicine was a harmful cult. What was at issue here was his evaluation of how this applied to the child’s welfare and what orders should be made. It was clear that the mother was not going to stick to her undertakings. She had raised issues of sexual impropriety against the father since 2015. This supported the father’s case about parental alienation but had not been considered by the Judge.

The court therefore decided to give the mother one last chance to demonstrate that she would reject any adherence to the cult, failing which the child would move to live with her father. The final hearing was listed for July 2020.

EDIT On 15th July 2020 the court decided that the child should move immediately to her father’s care, as the mother was not able to show that she had made the necessary break with the cult. See Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult: Transfer of Primary Care) [2020] EWHC 1940 (Fam)

Conclusion

This case is a fascinating example of parental alienation but also a very useful examination and summary of the authorities relating to freedom of religious or philosophical belief and how rights can exist in serious tension with one another.

The mother has a right to religious freedom. But equally her daughter has a right to a healthy diet, to grow up to make her own choices and to have a relationship with her father. The court found that the child’s right to be free of a ‘harmful and sinister’ cult outweighed the mother’s right to continued adherence to it. However the mother would be given one last and short chance to show she could break away from the cult and promote her child’s welfare.

I wonder what parallels can be drawn between this case and the continuing debate about ‘transgender children’. Is there really much distinction between a harmful cult that puts food into categories (including ‘evil’) and promotes ‘esoteric ovary massage’ and a belief system that holds that biological sex does not exist but rather we can chose from infinite ‘genders’?

Both are products of adult minds. Neither have any foundations in fact. Both, if imposed on children from a young age have the potential to do harm. The welfare of the child remains the paramount consideration and that will require clear, honest and thorough weighing of a variety of factors in every such case.

Further reading

In whose best interests? Transgender Children: Choices and Consequences

No one, no issue is off the table when it comes to safeguarding

You had better make some noise – abusers will exploit bad laws and poor safeguarding