Tag Archives: finding of fact

Cases involving Domestic Abuse – how should the court handle this?

This is the text of a presentation given at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre on 19th January 2022, considering how the Court of Appeal’s guidance in Re H-N has been working out ‘on the ground’ We are left with the distinct impression that its not possible to resolve the tension between two competing principles – undertake a sensitive and detailed analysis of patterns of behaviour in a relationship AND take up less of the court’s time. But the need for early and robust findings of fact is clear.

We first met to discuss this in May 2021 and we thought it would be helpful to meet again to see how the guidance was working on the ground. I am going to remind you of the Court of Appeal guidance and consider how it was applied in the case of A Child (Application of PD12J : No.2 – Findings of Fact) [2022] EWFC 2 (12 January 2022)

Re H-N and Others (children) (domestic abuse: finding of fact hearings)

Neutral Citation Number: [2021] EWCA Civ 448

In March 2021 the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in four conjoined appeals. A number of intervenors were involved, including the Association of Lawyers for Children and Families Need Fathers. The Court of Appeal was clear that PD12J was ‘fit for purpose’ – the issue was how it was being implemented in proceedings. 

The first 77 paragraphs deal with some general guidance. The fundamental issue was, where domestic abuse is alleged in children cases, should the focus be on patterns of behaviour rather than specific incidents?

Summary of guidance

The Court of Appeal will expect to see recognition of the following issues in cases involving allegations of domestic abuse. 

Do we need a finding of fact hearing?

  • At the earliest stage, consider the detailed guidance in PD12J about the need for a finding of fact. 
  • Remember that PD12J is focused on child arrangement orders – it does not establish a free-standing jurisdiction to determine domestic abuse allegations that are not relevant to child welfare issues.
  • Fact finding hearings are to provide a factual basis for assessments or orders/interventions
  • Only allegations that are necessary for assessment purposes or particular orders should be considered
  • Does the fact finding need to be a separate hearing, or can it be bundled up with the final hearing?

CAFCASS made the very sensible suggestion that it would help to have more input from their officers at an earlier stage to help answer these questions and the Court of Appeal agreed this was a good idea worthy of more consideration – I am not sure how this is playing out on the ground. 

Awareness of ‘patterns of behaviour’ means we have to consider the limitations of a Scott Schedule as a means of pleading a case

  • In every case where domestic abuse is alleged, both parents should be asked to describe in short terms (either in a written statement or orally at a preliminary hearing) the overall experience of being in a relationship with each other 
  • Where one or both parents assert that a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour existed, and a fact-finding is necessary, that assertion should be the primary issue for determination at the fact- finding hearing. 
  • Any other, more specific, factual allegations should be selected for trial because of their potential probative relevance to the alleged pattern of behaviour, and not otherwise, unless any particular factual allegation is so serious that it justifies determination irrespective of any alleged pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour (a likely example being an allegation of rape). 

BUT how do we square the circle between increased focus on pattens of behaviour and a need to save court time and scarce resources? 

In essence, decisions about fact findings must be made at an early stage and any interim arrangements for contact must be safe for the child. The key words are ‘proportionality’ and ‘necessity’. We have to keep in mind the ‘overriding objective’ to deal with cases efficiently and recognise that resources are finite and need to be allocated to other cases than just our own. 

As the President’s Guidance ‘The Road Ahead’ (June 2020) set out:

‘if the Family Court is to have any chance of delivering on the needs of children or adults who need protection from abuse, or of their families for a timely determination of applications, there will need to be a very radical reduction in the amount of time that the court affords to each hearing. Parties appearing before the court should expect the issues to be limited only to those which it is necessary to determine to dispose of the case, and for oral evidence or oral submissions to be cut down only to that which it is necessary for the court to hear.’

But the Court of Appeal at para 54 were alert to the immediate tension that exists, between dealing with matters efficiently and doing justice to allegations of ‘patterns of behaviour’. I have certainly never experienced two week finding of fact in a private law case – I consider myself very lucky if I can get a day within a reasonable timescale. 

In promoting the need for courts to prioritise consideration of whether a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour is established over and above the determination of any specific factual allegations, there is the potential that this additional layer of evaluation may add to an already lengthy forensic evaluative process. By example, the fact-finding hearing that had been listed in Re B-B (one of the four appeal cases before the court) was planned to last five days (that is 25 court hours) in order to consider five factual allegations.

How to meet the need to evaluate the existence, or otherwise, of a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour without significantly increasing the scale and length of private law proceedings is therefore a most important, and not altogether straight- forward, question. 

A number of suggestions were made by the parties in submissions including; 

  • a ‘threshold’ type document, similar to that used in public law proceedings,
  •  formal pleadings by way of particulars of claim as seen in civil proceedings and 
  • a narrative statement in prescribed form. 

A recent case is a useful illustration of the difficulties of trying to ‘square the circle’ 

A Child (Application of PD12J) [2021] EWFC B59 (6 October 2021) sets out the tension so often apparent in private law cases – either one party is a victim of domestic abuse, including sexual abuse and controlling and coercive behaviour, with the children being exposed to this abuse or one party has laid a trail of false and/or exaggerated allegations to justify removal of the children from their family home or refusal to permit contact with the other party. 

On 30th September 2021 HHJ Dancey gave permission to appeal to the mother of three children, aged 10, 8 and 5 from an order made by a district judge three days earlier that she return the children from the North of England to Dorset and for shared time with their father.  In default of return the district judge had made a transfer of ‘residence’ order. The mother alleged significant abusive behaviour from the father, including that he had lied about being HIV positive and had repeatedly raped her. 

One ground of appeal was that the judge failed to address PD12J at any point in his judgment and failed therefore to consider the harm the mother and/or the children would suffer if he made the orders sought, the level of supervision required, the risk to the children and the impact domestic abuse could have on their emotional well-being and the safety of the mother. He treated it effectively as a summary return in a relocation case. 

The Judge found the district judge was entitled to take a critical view of the mother’s position and weigh that in the balance. He was also entitled to expect a rational explanation for a move of such distance and to consider the proportionality of the mother’s decision-making.   But he was not entitled to dismiss the mother’s allegations summarily, ignore CAFCASS recommendations and fail to properly consider PD12J. 

It’s worth reading the submissions in full as they set out the huge difficulties of these kind of cases. 

Judge commented at para 120 

The acutely difficult question the present appeal poses is the balance to be struck by the court between (a) the potential harm identified by PD12J of making orders that may place children at risk of the consequences of domestic abuse and (b) the emotional harm and potential relationship damage that may be caused by unilateral removal a considerable distance away from the family home and cessation of contact.  

These are decisions that have to be made on an urgent basis, often with limited and untested information.    Get it wrong and the court risks placing children at risk of harm either way.   This is a welfare analysis that requires caution, balance and proportionality – often not easy to achieve at an interim stage.

Para 122 he endorses the framework of analysis proposed by Peter Jackson LJ in the different context of public law care and placement orders in Re F (A Child) (Placement Order: Proportionality) [2018] EWCA Civ 2761 :

a)         What is the type of harm that might arise (for present purposes, putting the mother’s case at its highest)?   

b)        What is the likelihood of it arising?

c)         What would be the consequences in terms of severity of harm if it happened?

d)        Can the risks of harm happening be reduced or mitigated so that they are manageable (including in this case by the making of protective measures)?

e)         What does a comparative evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of each option (here, return or not, contact or not) say about the best interests of the children, having regard also to the need to protect a parent vulnerable to abuse?

f)         Is the outcome proposed proportionate?

At para 124 the judge comments that the court is not bound to simply accept whatever a party says without some kind of critical analysis but at an interim stage is required to consider the circumstances around the allegations, including:

a)             the seriousness of the allegations and the harm that might result;

b)             whether there is already evidence from other sources which supports or undermines the allegations;

c)             the consistency or otherwise of the allegations (making allowance for the fact that it is in the nature of domestic abuse that accounts are often given piecemeal and incrementally, especially in relation to allegations of sexual abuse which may be delayed because of embarrassment, shame or simply thinking ‘I won’t be believed’);

d)             possible motivations for making allegations;

e)             how the children are presenting and what they are saying.

His last comment at para 139 is interesting 

I should add that the current practice, driven by resource demands, of Cafcass not interviewing both parents for the purpose of preparation of the safeguarding letter has contributed to the sense that the Cafcass recommendations were based solely on what the mother told them. At the moment Cafcass are leaving it until the FHDRA before speaking to the parties at court.   I am concerned that interviewing parents in this pressured environment rather than independently away from court risks safety issues being missed.  In this case of course the hearings were on non-Cafcass days and there was no opportunity to speak to both parents even at court.   The father was not spoken to by Cafcass at all until after the decision under appeal.  

The finding of fact was then heard in December, court reminding itself that Section 63 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which came into force on 1 October 2021, requires amendment of the Family Procedure Rules to ensure that, where a person is, or is at risk of being, a victim of domestic abuse carried out by another party, or relative of another party or witness, it is to be assumed that the quality of their evidence and, where they are a party, their participation in the proceedings, are likely to be diminished by reason of vulnerability.

The following special measures were therefore put in place

a) separate waiting areas were arranged for the mother;

b) in court the father was screened from sight by the mother and arrangements were made when going in and out of court and during adjournments to ensure she would not see the father;

c) the mother was screened from the father while giving her evidence from the witness box;

d) breaks were taken during the mother’s evidence which spanned the afternoon of the first day of the hearing and the morning of the second and took some 5 hours;

e) additional opportunities for breaks were offered to the mother at points when she appeared to find questions about intimate matters particularly difficult, although in fact the mother opted to carry on;

f) given that there were some long pauses before the mother was able to answer some questions, I ensured that adequate time was given to the mother to answer questions fully before moving on to the next.

The difficulty for the court was that one of the parties had to be lying. Their starkly different accounts could not be resolved. The Judge was clearly alive to the difficulties In assessing the evidence of victims of trauma – at para 180 he said

This has been a troubling and difficult case. Experience shows that victims of domestic abuse, who are by definition vulnerable witnesses, sometimes find it difficult to talk about intimate and highly personal information, particularly allegations of sexual abuse. Because victims live in a state of fear, with patterns of abusively controlling behaviour, it is not uncommon for dates and incidents to become confused. Lived experiences are revealed over sometimes lengthy periods, including during court proceedings and, in my recent experience, in the course of giving evidence. Sometimes this iterative process is a matter of victims gaining the independence and courage to talk about their experience. Sometimes something is said which triggers a victim to be able to speak.

However on a careful analysis of the evidence he found that the mother had fabricated allegations against the father to justify her departure from an unhappy marriage. Although the father’s failure to disclose his HIV status was ‘abhorrent and abusive’ it did not create a risk to mother or children and therefore was not a matter to be relied upon to restrict contact. 

What this case clearly underscores is the need for careful analysis of all the factors set out in PD12J at an interim stage, followed by swift and robust findings of fact. The only way to do this is I am afraid by taking up court time. I can’t see any other way to square the circle. 

Further reading

Another useful example of how to apply the Court of Appeal guidance B-B, Re (Domestic Abuse: Fact-Finding) (Rev1) [2022] EWHC 108 (Fam) (20 January 2022) – in this case the father was found to have behaved abusively.

Guidance from the Court of Appeal about domestic abuse cases

Neutral Citation Number: [2021] EWCA Civ 448

Re H-N and Others (children) (domestic abuse: finding of fact hearings)

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore. This is a useful judgment setting out comprehensively and clearly the historical evolution of the family court approach to issues of domestic abuse and offering useful pointers for how such cases should be handled. It recognises that every appeal in such cases represents a failure but does not accept wider criticisms of a systemic refusal or inability of the family court system to tackle allegations of abuse. However, the massive, trumpeting elephant in the room remains the tensions between the need to see relationships more of ‘patterns’ than discrete incidents and the inevitability that such investigation will take time that the family court system just doesn’t have.

On the 30th March 2021 the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in four conjoined appeals. A number of intervenors were involved, including the Association of Lawyers for Children and Families Need Fathers. The first 77 paragraphs deal with some general guidance on two very important issues.

  1. where domestic abuse is alleged in children cases, should the focus be on patterns of behaviour rather than specific incidents?
  2. What extent should the family courts be taking into account concepts which are applicable in criminal proceedings?

The rest of the judgment looks at the individual appeals. While guidance from the Court of Appeal is always welcome, the court recognises at the outset its limitations. Not only are there various initiatives already in train but there is a clear limit to what any court can say about issues which do not strictly arise from the appeals before it.

Domestic Abuse in the Family Courts

This is sadly a common issue. A ‘guesstimate’ is that of the 55,253 ‘private law’ children applications made in 2019/2020, 40% involved allegations of domestic abuse. It is important that the court consider the impact of the abuse on the parents and child and may restrict or even close down, any continuing relationship between the abusive parent and the child. If one parent does not accept the allegations of the other, the family court as a civil court, may conduct a ‘finding of fact hearing’ to determine what did or didn’t happen. The burden of proof is on the person making the allegations and the standard of proof is the ordinary civil standard ‘on the balance of probabilities’ . If the court does not find that an allegation is true then it is treated as if it didn’t happen.

Cases are heard by the 2,744 lay magistrates and 1,582 salaried judges, along with some part time judges. Making decisions in such cases is clearly a significant responsibility – get it wrong and either an abusive parent is allowed free reign to continue abusing, or a blameless parent may lose their relationship with their child. The cases can be very difficult – the evidence is often not clear and may turn on the word of one parent against the other. The decision about having a finding of fact hearing and what allegations it should deal with is clearly very important and needs to be made at an early stage. Not every case will need such a hearing.

Developing understanding of issues around domestic abuse

The family courts approach to issues of domestic abuse have evolved as society’s attitudes have shifted – although some say its far too little and too slowly. But the attitudes of decades ago, where domestic abuse was seen as either trivial or a private matter, are long gone. There have been various shifts in attitude over the years. The Court of Appeal noted the ‘seminal moment’ to the court’s approach to ‘domestic violence’ (as it was still called) was the Court of Appeal judgment in another conjoined hearing of four appeals –  Re L (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re V (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re M (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re H (Contact: Domestic Violence) [2000] 2 FCR 404; [2000] 2 FLR 334. The court heard from expert child psychiatrists who emphasised the need for greater awareness of the existence of and the consequences for children of, exposure to ‘domestic violence’ between parents and other partners.

Further initiatives were developed to improve the ways the courts handling of such cases, one being Family Proceedings Rule 2010: Practice Direction 12J- Child Arrangements and Contact Orders: Domestic Abuse and Harm (‘PD12J’) which was originally implemented in 2008. PD12J sets out a step by step guide over 40 paragraphs about what the court MUST do in cases where there is reason to believe that one party has perpetrated abuse or there is a risk this might happen.

Even wider initiatives are afoot – the Ministry of Justice is moving to implement their report: Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases: (‘The Harm Panel Report’). At the same time, the Domestic Abuse Bill is before Parliament. In addition the  President of the Family Division’s ‘Private Law Working Group’ (‘PLWG’) punished its second report in April 2020. The Harm Panel Report wishes to implement a more ‘investigative and problem solving’ approach to domestic abuse in the courts, rather than allow the current adversarial system to continue – pilots of Integrated Domestic Abuse Courts (IDAC) are being designed. The success or otherwise of such initiatives are clearly beyond the scope of any court judgment to examine, so the Court of Appeal restricted itself to general guidance about the current court processes.

General guidance relating to the current court process

The number of appeals against decisions in these cases are low but the Court of Appeal warns against complacency. When the stakes are so high, even a small amount of cases going wrong can cause deep unease and the public rightly seek to hold the Family Justice System to account when it fails.

While I take on board the significant developments in improved practice and procedure over the last 50 years, there is an immediate and angry elephant in the room which this appeal hearing illustrated starkly. Legal aid was removed in 2012 from private law cases, unless a ‘domestic violence’ exemption can be proven. That meant each of the mothers/appellants had the benefit of public funding whereas each father had to find solicitors and barristers willing to work for free. The Court of Appeal was of course grateful that this was done, but no court system can run on gratitude. There ought to be ‘equality of arms’ in these proceedings.

Increased awareness of ‘patterns of behaviour’.

The definition of ‘abuse’ was expanded in 2017. PD12J paragraph 3 reflects the need to move away from characterising domestic abuse as separate incidents of violence, but looking more to patterns of acts and incidents, including incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour which can be demonstrated by psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse. Domestic abuse also includes culturally specific forms of abuse including, but not limited to, forced marriage, honour-based violence, dowry-related abuse and transnational marriage abandonment. We have come a long way from the 1970s and the focus on ‘violence’ only. No one argued before the court that this definition of ‘abuse’ should change and the Court of Appeal concluded therefore that it was fit for purpose. Although the structure of the definition of ‘domestic abuse’ in clause 1 of the Domestic Abuse Bill [‘DAB’] currently before Parliament differs from that in PD12J, the content is substantially the same.

The Court of Appeal therefore concluded:

We are therefore of the view that PD12J is and remains, fit for the purpose for which it was designed namely to provide the courts with a structure enabling the court first to recognise all forms of domestic abuse and thereafter on how to approach such allegations when made in private law proceedings. As was also recognised by The Harm Panel, we are satisfied that the structure properly reflects modern concepts and understanding of domestic abuse

The key issue was whether the Judges ‘on the ground’ were properly implementing PD12J. Just before the Court of Appeal hearing in January 2021, Mr Justice Hayden handed down judgment in F v M [2021] EWFC 4 in a case that involved a 2 week finding of fact hearing on allegations that centred on coercive or controlling behaviour. All the parties praised this judgment for its ‘comprehensive and lucid analysis’ and agreed with the plea within it urging greater prominence to be given to coercive and controlling behaviour in the Family Court which would involve more training. The judgment was considered ‘essential’ reading for the judiciary and also highlighted paragraph 60 of the statutory guidance published by the Home Office pursuant to Section 77 (1) of the Serious Crime Act 2015 which identified paradigm behaviours of controlling and coercive behaviour. I haven’t read that and now will, so I guess my ‘awareness’ has been usefully raised.

The Court of Appeal noted that it was also necessary to be clear what was NOT sufficiently bad behaviour to count as coercive or controlling

It is equally important to be clear that not all directive, assertive, stubborn or selfish behaviour, will be ‘abuse’ in the context of proceedings concerning the welfare of a child; much will turn on the intention of the perpetrator of the alleged abuse and on the harmful impact of the behaviour. We would endorse the approach taken by Peter Jackson LJ in Re L (Relocation: Second Appeal) [2017] EWCA Civ 2121 (paragraph 61):“Few relationships lack instances of bad behaviour on the part of one or both parties at some time and it is a rare family case that does not contain complaints by one party against the other, and often complaints are made by both. Yet not all such behaviour will amount to ‘domestic abuse’, where ‘coercive behaviour’ is defined as behaviour that is ‘used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim…’ and ‘controlling behaviour’ as behaviour ‘designed to make a person subordinate…’ In cases where the alleged behaviour does not have this character it is likely to be unnecessary and disproportionate for detailed findings of fact to be made about the complaints; indeed, in such cases it will not be in the interests of the child or of justice for the court to allow itself to become another battleground for adult conflict.

What should the court do?

Once allegations of abuse are raised, the Court of Appeal identified four important questions to guide the court’s approach:

  1. Whether there should be a finding of fact hearing – there is detailed guidance in PD12J about this.
  2. The challenges presented by Scott Schedules as a means of pleading a case;
  3. If a fact-finding hearing is necessary and proportionate, how should an allegation of domestic abuse be approached?
  4. The relevance of criminal law concepts.

In essence, decisions about fact findings must be made at an early stage and any interim arrangements for contact must be safe for the child. The key words are ‘proportionality’ and ‘necessity’. We have to keep in mind the ‘overriding objective’ to deal with cases efficiently and recognise that resources are finite and need to be allocated to other cases than just our own.

As the President’s Guidance ‘The Road Ahead’ (June 2020) set out:

‘if the Family Court is to have any chance of delivering on the needs of children or adults who need protection from abuse, or of their families for a timely determination of applications, there will need to be a very radical reduction in the amount of time that the court affords to each hearing. Parties appearing before the court should expect the issues to be limited only to those which it is necessary to determine to dispose of the case, and for oral evidence or oral submissions to be cut down only to that which it is necessary for the court to hear.’

This immediately ushers in yet another angry elephants. I have never had a finding of fact hearing longer than five days in a domestic abuse case, and that was very rare. We are usually lucky if we can squeeze a handful of days out of court listing. Of course, restricting allegations to your ‘top six’ or ‘best 10’ do not enable proper investigation into coercive patterns of behaviour over many years – but unless the numbers of salaried judges expand dramatically, its difficult to see how two week findings of fact (or even two days) are going to become achievable within any realistic time frame. Therefore I am afraid I retain my usual bad tempered scepticism about the magic wand of ‘training’ . I am tolerably aware of coercive and controlling behaviour. But we need actual court time to conduct a proper hearing about such cases; they are unlikely to be able to slot into a day or two.

The Court of Appeal at para 54 did however echo my concerns

In promoting the need for courts to prioritise consideration of whether a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour is established over and above the determination of any specific factual allegations, there is the potential that this additional layer of evaluation may add to an already lengthy forensic evaluative process. By example, the fact-finding hearing that had been listed in Re B-B (one of the four appeal cases before the court) was planned to last five days (that is 25 court hours) in order to consider five factual allegations.

And noted this was an important question which the Court of Appeal could not answer

How to meet the need to evaluate the existence, or otherwise, of a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour without significantly increasing the scale and length of private law proceedings is therefore a most important, and not altogether straight- forward, question. It is a matter that will require consideration by others involved in working through the implications of the MOJ Harm Panel report, in implementing the Domestic Abuse Act and in any subsequent revision of revising PD12J as part of those two processes. The President will refer the anonymised skeleton arguments in these appeals to Mrs Justice Knowles (the lead judge on issues of domestic abuse) and to Mr Justice Cobb (the lead judge on private law matters) for consideration as part of that review.

Trying to spin the plates

In order to grapple with the clear tension between a fair investigation of what has actually happened in the parties relationship against the need to keep control over the length of court hearings, its clear that case management is the key. The court summarised the approach to fact findings:

  1. consider the nature of the allegations and the extent to which they will be relevant to making order about children.
  2. Keep in mind that the purpose of a finding of fact is to provide the basis for a risk assessment
  3. Carefully consider if its ‘necessary’ or whether there is other evidence that provides a sufficient factual basis to proceed.
  4. Does the fact finding need to be a separate hearing, or can it be bundled up with the final hearing?

CAFCASS made the very sensible suggestion that it would help to have more input from their officers at an earlier stage to help answer these questions and the Court of Appeal agreed this was a good idea worthy of more consideration.

Everyone agreed that Scott Schedules were useless and risked giving a false picture of what was happening in a relationship. The Court of Appeal agreed with the comments of Ms Mills QC on behalf of the second interveners, (‘Women’s Aid’, ‘Rights for Women’, ‘Rape Crisis England and Wales’ and ‘Welsh Women’s Aid’), who submitted that ‘the overwhelming majority of domestic abuse (particularly abuse perpetrated by men against women) is underpinned by coercive control and it is the overarching issue that ought to be tried first by the court. It is clear that the family court needed to move away from picking ‘your best 10’ allegations but considerations of how we move forward are limited to noting some suggestions at this time.

A number of suggestions were made by the parties in submissions including; a ‘threshold’ type document, similar to that used in public law proceedings, formal pleadings by way of particulars of claim as seen in civil proceedings and a narrative statement in prescribed form. The particular advantage of a narrative statement was, it was submitted, that it would allow there to be a focus on the overall nature of the relationship and expressly whether a party says that she had been harmed as a result of the behaviour and, if so, in what manner. Such an approach would allow the court to identify at an early stage whether an allegation of controlling and coercive behaviour is in issue. Identifying the form of harm (which may be psychological) and only then looking back at the more granular detail, would, it was submitted, allow the court to determine what specific facts need to be determined at a fact-finding hearing.

This all sounds very sensible and I hope we will see it translated into a Practice Direction soon.

The court offered the following ‘pointers’

PD12J is focused on child arrangement orders – it does not establish a free-standing jurisdiction to determine domestic abuse allegations that are not relevant to child welfare issues.

Fact finding hearings are to provide a factual basis for assessments or orders/interventions

Only allegations that are necessary for assessment purposes or particular orders should be considered

In every case where domestic abuse is alleged, both parents should be asked to describe in short terms (either in a written statement or orally at a preliminary hearing) the overall experience of being in a relationship with each other (this is an excellent idea!)

Where one or both parents assert that a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour existed, and a fact-finding is necessary, that assertion should be the primary issue for determination at the fact- finding hearing. Any other, more specific, factual allegations should be selected for trial because of their potential probative relevance to the alleged pattern of behaviour, and not otherwise, unless any particular factual allegation is so serious that it justifies determination irrespective of any alleged pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour (a likely example being an allegation of rape).

The relevance of criminal law concepts

With regard to the last point about rape being justified as necessary allegation to determine, I maintain my concern that allegations of rape are for the criminal courts to be decided on the criminal standard of proof. The Court of Appeal said:

When considering domestic abuse, it will not infrequently be the case that the alleged behaviour will be such that it is capable both of being the subject of prosecution as an offence before the criminal courts and being the focus of consideration in the family courts as justification for the implementation of protective measures. The criminal law has developed a sophisticated and structured approach to the analysis of evidence of behaviour, to enable the criminal court to determine whether the guilt of the alleged offender has been proved to the requisite high standard. This raises the question of the degree to which the Family Court, if at all, should have regard to and deploy criminal law concepts in its own evaluation of the same or similar behaviour in the different context of Family proceedings.

The question was answered simply – it is not appropriate to use criminal law concepts in family proceedings. The two systems are fundamentally different with different aims and different standards of proof – criminal law concepts, such as the elements needed to establish guilt of a particular crime or a defence, have neither relevance nor function within a process of fact-finding in the Family Court.

The Court of Appeal commented that the authoritative statement of the law in this regard is that which is found in the judgments of McFarlane and Hickinbottom LJJ in Re R.

But I accept what the Court of Appeal says about allegations on rape in the family courts – perhaps the problem is me getting too caught up in criminal law concepts here.

Behaviour which falls short of establishing ‘rape’, for example, may nevertheless be profoundly abusive and should certainly not be ignored or met with a finding akin to ‘not guilty’ in the family context. For example in the context of the Family Court considering whether there has been a pattern of abusive behaviour, the border line as between ‘consent’ and ‘submission’ may be less significant than it would be in the criminal trial of an allegation of rape or sexual assault.

Will those who see the family courts as a misogynistic tool of oppression welcome this judgment ?

This judgment is I suspect, not going to be welcomed happily by those who would have accepted nothing less than the collective family court system falling on a massive sword and accepting its inability to recognise or deal with domestic abuse cases. The Court of Appeal rejected any suggestion that the family court system has yet to be dragged into the ‘modern approach’ but warned judges who fail to properly direct their minds:

We are confident that the modern approach that we have described is already well understood and has become embedded through training and experience in the practice of the vast majority of judges and magistrates sitting in the Family Court. Where however an issue properly arises as to whether there has been a pattern of coercive and/or controlling abusive behaviour within a family, and the determination of that issue is likely to be relevant to the assessment of the risk of future harm, a judge who fails expressly to consider the issue may be held on appeal to have fallen into error.

3 of the 4 appeals succeeded. The decisions were made on long-established principles of fairness. They do not establish any ‘new law’ nor any binding precedent. I will therefore not discuss them here, but as ever it is instructive to read and consider what went wrong and how we might avoid repeating such mistakes in future cases. Every appeal of a family court judgement represents a failure, represents avoidable pain and misery caused to adults and children. But the fact that a small percentage of judgments need to be appealed, does not mean the whole system is rotten. Any system requiring input from humans will fail at times. We have to do the best to limit those failures; it is magical thinking to expect them to be avoided entirely.

While the Court of Appeal welcomed and described the further training for Judges, such as a now mandatory free standing sexual assault awareness training programme, it did not accept that the failures under their current investigation are indicative of a systemic failure to appreciate the nature and significance of domestic abuse.

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How does the court decide to have a ‘fact finding’ hearing?

A ‘fact finding hearing’ does what it says on the tin. It’s the way in which the civil courts attempt to find out what happened when people disagree about the facts. Or, to be more accurate, it ‘finds’ facts on the balance of probabilities, which is the civil standard of proof. So if the Judge reads the court papers and hears people give evidence and be questioned, then thinks that something is 51% more likely to have happened than not, you will get your finding. 

There is a curious narrative in the family justice system that this system establishes the ‘truth’ and that children are entitled to it. I agree that children have a right to know what happened to them – who hurt them and why – but I have often argued that we need more realism about the nature and limitations of the fact finding process. 

In 2016 I said for a post for The Transparency Project

I can find only one mention in the judgment – at para 22 – to the fact that ‘the Truth’ will be determined in any rehearing on the balance of probabilities. The usual civil standard. Meaning more than 51% likely. I apologise if I have missed any further reference to this low civil standard – but certainly by para 27 it has vanished in the mist and what we have now is:

“the re-hearing must proceed so that the truth, whatever it turns out to be, can be ascertained, finally and definitively, in the light of all the evidence now available.”

I am very troubled by this. My concerns about the weight the ‘balance of probabilities’ is often asked to bear was explored in the discussions had by The Transparency Project, regarding the Ellie Butler case. I pointed out that to attempt to ‘exonerate’ someone on such a low standard of proof was unwise. I appreciate that findings must be made and must be considered definitive. But to go further and chase such findings as ‘exoneration’ and ‘the TRUTH’ is asking far, far too much of the balance of probabilities.

The Judgment and some of the arguments have a curious, naive air. That this rehearing will find The Truth, which will be crucial to X as he or she grows. X NEEDS an ‘accurate narrative’ of how his or her adoption came about. Seriously? How many of us have an ‘accurate narrative’ of our formative years. How many different choices, chances, perspectives, denials, hopes, dreams, fantasies and delusions have gone into making us who we are? Who is naive or arrogant enough to think they know The Truth?

I therefore do not accept that a fact finding hearing is a way to unmask the ultimate ‘truth’. However, I accept there must be some way of dealing with disputed allegations and identifying the agreed facts which will inform any decision made about the child’s welfare. Regardless of any unease about the process, you will arrive at something which from then on the court (and everyone else you have dealings with) must accept as objectively true. If you don’t prove your allegations, they are treated as never having happened. 

So what happens if people are arguing about the need for a finding of fact? This can be a really serious and important issue in cases involving allegations such as violence or sexual abuse. The police may have decided to take no further action, if they and the CPS think it unlikely to get a conviction in a criminal court – which operates to a much higher standard of proof.  

But the adult who is accused wants to be part of the chid’s life. How should the family court approach these cases?

The Family Procedure Rules 2010. 

We start here. The ‘over-riding objective’ of the Family Procedure Rules is to deal with cases justly. 

Dealing with a case justly includes, so far as is practicable –

(a) ensuring that it is dealt with expeditiously and fairly;

(b) dealing with the case in ways which are proportionate to the nature, importance and complexity of the issues;

(c) ensuring that the parties are on an equal footing;

(d) saving expense; and

(e) allotting to it an appropriate share of the court’s resources, while taking into account the need to allot resources to other cases.

Rule 1.4(a)(c)(i) provides that, in furthering the overriding objective by actively managing cases, the court should decide promptly which issues need full investigation and which do not.

Rule 4.1(2)(l) permits the court, in the exercise of its general powers of management, to exclude an issue from consideration. 

Case law

It is ultimately a matter for the court’s discretion as to whether a finding of fact is needed. The court decides what facts are necessary to be found and the court may disagree with any party’s perception.  You can appeal against such a case management decision but the time limits are shot and strict. 

The authorities mirror the overriding objective and the relevant considerations can be summaries as: 

  • The interests of the child (which are relevant but not paramount)
  • The time that the investigation will take
  • The likely cost to public funds
  • The evidential result
  • The necessity or otherwise of the investigation
  • The relevance of the potential result of the investigation to the future care plans for the child
  • The impact of any fact finding process upon the other parties
  • The prospects of a fair trial on the issue
  • The justice of the case.

McDonald J at said at 242 in Re P (Sexual Abuse – Finding of Fact Hearing) [2019] EWFC 27

The fact that the complainant children have made allegations of sexual abuse does not create a rebuttable presumption that the allegations are likely to be true. An allegation is only an allegation, and the burden remains on the local authority to prove that the allegations made by the children are established to the requisite standard of proof

Other relevant cases are:

Re G (A Minor) (Care Proceedings) [1994] 2 FLR 69

Stockport Metropolitan BC v D [1995] 1 FLR 873 

Re B (Agreed Findings of Fact) [1998] 2 FLR 968 

Re M (Threshold Criteria: Parental Concessions) [1999] 2 FLR 728 

Re D (A Child) (9 August 2000) 

Lincolnshire County Council v CB & Ors [2021] EWHC 2813 (Fam) (21 October 2021) – short examination of the relevant law and principles; decided that a 20 day finding of fact was not necessary.

In a case involving allegations of sexual abuse, the court will look carefully at the credibility and reliability of the allegations and in particular if there has been compliance with best practice over interviewing children. There is a good examination of this in Re P above, which notes that allegations of child sex abuse create’ particularly acute forensic difficulties’ for the family courts.

Interventions by well meaning adults can often corrupt a child’s evidence beyond rescue and it is very important to adhere to the good practice around ‘Achieving Best Evidence’. Many children are susceptible and wish to please adults – they may end up saying what the adult wants to hear.

It is essential that clear and contemporaneous records are kept of what a child says, but a child should not be subject to repetitive questioning. 

Getting it wrong in a case of child sex abuse has really serious consequences as Re P noted:

The consequences of the court reaching the wrong conclusion in respect of an allegation of child sexual abuse include a child being returned to a position of danger or, conversely, a child being deprived of a family that is, in fact, perfectly safe.  In the circumstances, when determining whether sexual abuse has taken place and, if so, who is responsible for perpetrating that abuse, it is vital that the court remain acutely conscious of the forensic difficulties outlined above.  As Holman J observed in Leeds City Council v YX & ZX (Assessment of Sexual Abuse) 2008 EWHC 802 (Fam) the task of the court in cases of this nature is not so much akin to putting together a single jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces are present, but rather:

“If the jigsaw metaphor is helpful at all, then, in my view, it is important to think of a pile of jigsaw pieces in which pieces from more than one jigsaw have been muddled up. There may be pieces which, on examination, do not fit the jigsaw under construction at all, but which require to be discarded or placed on one side.”

Knowles J considered the relevant legal factors to decide whether to discontinue with a fact- finding hearing in Re X (Care Proceedings: Jurisdiction and Fact Finding) (Rev 1) [2020] EWHC 2742 (Fam) – see Para 79- 82

He cited with approval Re C (Family Proceedings: Case Management) [2012] EWCA Civ 1489,  where Munby LJ (as he then was) distinguished family proceedings from civil proceeding in this way (paras [14] –[15]):

“[14] … But these are not ordinary civil proceedings, there they are family proceedings, where it is fundamental that the judge has an essentially inquisitorial role, his duty being to further the welfare of the children which is, by statute, his paramount consideration. It has long been recognised – and authority need not be quoted for this proposition – that for this reason a judge exercising the family jurisdiction has a much broader discretion than he would in the civil jurisdiction to determine the way in which an application of the kind being made by the father should be pursued. In an appropriate case he can summarily dismiss the application as being, if not groundless, lacking enough merit to justify pursuing the matter. He may determine that the matter is one to be dealt with on the basis of written evidence and oral submissions without the need for oral evidence. He may, as His Honour Judge Cliffe did in the present case, decide to hear the evidence of the applicant and then take stock of where the matter stands at the end of the evidence.

[15] The judge in such a situation always be concerned to ask himself: is there some solid reason in the interests of the children why I should embark upon, or, having embarked upon, why I should continue exploring the matters which one or other of the parents seeks to raise. If there is or may be solid advantage to the children in doing so, then the enquiry will proceed, albeit it may be on the basis of submissions rather than oral evidence. But if the judge is satisfied that no advantage to the children is going to be obtained by continuing the investigation further, then it is perfectly within his case management powers and the proper exercises of his discretion so to decide and to determine that the proceedings should go no further.

Conclusions

As with so much in family law, you need to deal with the case before you. Previous authorities can guide you and provide a useful checklist of what you need to be thinking about, but they cannot make the decision for you. Different people may reasonably hold different views about the importance or need for a finding of fact and it is up to the Judge to decide. The courts are motivated to avoid separate findings of fact as they cause delay and may prefer to deal with findings of fact and welfare issues at one composite final hearing, even if this does mean preparing the case on an ‘either/or’ basis.

Clearly, the more serious the allegations, the more recently they happened and the greater the kind of involvement in the child’s life the accused adult wants to have, the greater the need for a finding of fact. 

And never forget, once those findings are made, you are stuck with them, unless you can successfully appeal or persuade the court to grant a re-hearing.

Can you challenge a finding of fact in a family court?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

TLDR; yes  – but its difficult. Don’t rely on being able to challenge a finding after it is made – it is far, far better to challenge it at the time of your court case, if you have all the available evidence.  

However, if you discover evidence after the hearing that shows the findings have been made on an inaccurate basis, it is clear that there is a mechanism to challenge this. 

So anyone who asserts the the Judge ‘got it wrong’ at their hearing and they have the evidence to prove this – ask yourself (and them) why they haven’t asked the court to look at this. 

in cases involving children, it is clearly very important that decisions about their welfare are based on sound factual findings. See W (Children), Re [2009] EWCA Civ 59. But what does a parent do if they think the finding of fact was made on the wrong basis?

Section 31F(6) of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 was inserted by the Crime and Courts Act 2013, section 17(6), Schedule 10, paragraph 1 and came into force on 22nd April 2014.  It gives the Family Court the power to “vary, suspend, rescind or revive any order made by it”. it’s an interesting provision as that undermines the principle in relation to finality of judgments and orders – but which itself is in tension with the principle that decisions about children, which have such long lasting consequences, should be made on the soundest footing.

in the case of Re E (Children: Re-opening Findings of Fact) [2019] EWCA Civ 1447 the  Court of Appeal held that the Family Court had the statutory power under the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 s.31F(6) to review its findings of fact at any time.

In this case, the children were removed from the mother’s care, after the youngest was found to have cigarette burns on her arm. The mother said it was an accident but her accounts were inconsistent. In the criminal investigation, the police medical evidence supported the mother and said she offered a plausible explanation for accidental burns. The mother then got permission to appeal out of time on the basis of that report.

The Court of Appeal found that a finding of fact was not “an order” in the strict sense of s.31F(6), but it could be appealed if it was integral to the order on which it was based and therefore came within the scope of section 31F(6). A finding of fact that the mother deliberately hurt her child was clearly integral to the order made to remove them.

Nor did section 31F(6) express that it was limited to a particular time after the hearing, given that findings of fact often have longstanding consequences for children and their families.

The court refused to follow G (A Child), Re [2014] EWCA Civ 1365  where the judge commented that when a sealed order, after a fact finding hearing, is challenged then that challenge must be to the appeal court and the mother should not have been allowed to apply to the first court to re-open factual issues.

However, the Court of Appeal in Re E dismissed the mother’s appeal and found she should apply directly to the trial court – the trial court was more likely to be in a better position than any appeal court to assess the true significance of the further evidence and was likely to be able to deal with the application more quickly and cheaply.

Applying to the first court to look at its findings again.

So if a parent wants to review a finding of fact the approach is set out in Re ZZ, (Children) (Care Proceedings: Review of Findings) [2014] EWFC 9;[2015] 1WLR 95.This case adopted a three part test first set out by Charles J in Birmingham City Council v H and Others [2005] EWHC 2885 (Fam):

  • the court must consider whether it will permit any challenge to the earlier findings
  • it then has to decide the extent of the investigation and evidence heard by the review
  • then it hears the review and decides whether or not the earlier findings still stand.

The court will not get beyond the first stage unless there is some ‘real reason; to believe that the earlier findings can be challenged. ‘Mere speculation and hope’ are not enough. The over arching question for the court will be whether there was any reason to think that a rehearing would result in a different finding.

See also CTD (A Child: Rehearing) [2020] EWCA Civ 1316 (14 October 2020)

Appealing to another court to about the findings

Or a parent could appeal based on further evidence but this might need an application to extend time, as applications to appeal have strict time limits.  Pursuant to CPR r.52.21(3) an appeal to the Court of Appeal would be allowed where the lower court decision was either wrong or unjust because of a serious irregularity.

Under r.52.21(2) any evidence not before the lower court would not be admitted without permission, looking at criteria in in Ladd v Marshall [1954] 1 W.L.R. 1489

  •  that it hadn’t been possible to get the evidence for use at the first hearing
  • if heard, the evidence would have had an important impact on the case
  • and the evidence was credible.

An appeal was allowed against a judge’s decision in Re A (no 2) (children: findings of fact) [2019] EWCA Civ 1947 where the Judge came up with his own ‘theory of the case’ that had not been argued before him and which was not supported by the evidence.