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A day in the life Of...
Edward Bennett
Edward Bennett
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Re A: Giving a dog a bad name
Date:18 FEB 2015
It is fair to say that there has been, and continues to be a lot of information for professionals involved in the family law arena to digest of late. From guidance to views, working group reports to the constantly developing precedents set by our case-law. Granted, not all cases are designed to be laid out as precedents – some are so fact specific one would have a job to follow them even if one wanted to. And then we have cases like Re A (A Child) [2015] EWFC 11.

This saw the President making an example within care proceedings of Darlington Borough Council following some highly questionable (and that is putting it mildly) case preparation by the social workers and team manager at the centre of the case. The extracts of the local authority evidence make for some uncomfortable reading and in the President’s words keep 'harping on about the allegedly “immoral” aspects of the father’s behaviour'. Added to this were also issues of delay of some 8 months in commencing proceedings and abuse of section 20 Children Act 1989. Working through the strands of the local authority’s concerns, the President found almost every issue was baseless:

'[95] First, the many flaws in the local authority’s case to which I have already referred go a very long way to weakening its case. Taking account of all the evidence, and surveying the wide canvass, the real picture is very different from that which the local authority would have had me accept. Secondly, and having had the advantage of hearing the father and his mother give evidence, I cannot accept that the father presents the kind of risk to A which gives rise to a real possibility of A suffering significant harm, let alone the degree of risk which would have to be demonstrated to justify a plan for adoption ...

[96] I can accept that the father may not be the best of parents, he may be a less than suitable role model, but that is not enough to justify a care order let alone adoption. We must guard against the risk of social engineering, and that, in my judgment is what, in truth, I would be doing if I was to remove A permanently from his father’s care.'
Spectacularly dismissing the applications for care and placement orders, the President – although clearly dumbfounded at the way the case had been put together – chose not to name the individuals involved but pointed the finger of blame further up the hierarchy towards the legal team and the anonymous senior management:

'[102] It will be noticed that I have, quite deliberately, not identified either SW1 or SW2 or TM, though their employer has, equally deliberately, been named. There is, in principle, every reason why public authorities and their employees should be named, not least when there have been failings as serious as those chronicled here. But in the case of local authorities there is a problem which has to be acknowledged.

[103] Ultimate responsibility for such failings often lies much higher up the hierarchy, with those who, if experience is anything to go by, are almost invariably completely invisible in court. The present case is a good example. Only SW1, SW2 and TM were exposed to the forensic process, although much of the responsibility for what I have had to catalogue undoubtedly lies with other, more senior, figures. Why, to take her as an example, should the hapless SW1 be exposed to public criticism and run the risk of being scapegoated when, as it might be thought, anonymous and unidentified senior management should never have put someone so inexperienced in charge of such a demanding case. And why should the social workers SW1, SW2 and TM be pilloried when the legal department, which reviewed and presumably passed the exceedingly unsatisfactory assessments, remains, like senior management, anonymous beneath the radar? It is Darlington Borough Council and its senior management that are to blame, not only SW1, SW2 and TM. It would be unjust to SW1, SW2 and TM to name and shame them when others are not similarly exposed.' 
Whilst there is nothing particularly to rejoice in when reading this case (save the fact that the child was reunited ultimately with his father) it is refreshing to see that those at the coal face are not the only ones susceptible to facing the backlash of the court when failings such as these occur. We can but hope that this judgment has landed on the appropriate desks in the appropriate ivory towers.

The full judgment Re A (A Child) [2015] EWFC 11 is available to download here.