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CARE: Re C (Care: Contact) [2009] EWCA Civ 959

Date:10 JUL 2009

(Court of Appeal; Sedley and Toulson LJJ and Bodey J; 10 July 2009)

The mother of the two children reported that her partner had beaten the children during her absence. The mother's partner had a conviction for assault on a previous girlfriend. The mother subsequently complained about harassment by the partner. Social workers and the police advised the mother that she should not allow the partner to have any contact with the children. However, the mother then resumed her relationship with the partner. The local authority placed the children on the child protection register, and issued care proceedings, but the children remained with the mother, who signed a working agreement that the children were to have no contact with the partner. However, the mother failed to comply with the agreement. A second agreement was signed, to the effect that the partner was to have no access to the children and no access to the family home; it spelt out very clearly that if there was a breach the children would very likely be removed from the mother.

Following an anonymous telephone call, the police and social services visited the family home, and discovered the mother's partner in the property. The mother responded to the visit with verbal abuse and aggression, which the children copied. The police handcuffed the mother to restrain her; the children were removed and placed with foster carers.

The mother ignored the authority's terms for contact with the children, and made threats against the social workers. Although the mother continued, at intervals, to complain about the partner's behaviour, and she had been formally told that she must separate from him and cooperate with the authorities, the mother's relationship with the partner continued. Following an incident in which the mother barricaded herself and one of the children upstairs in her home, the local authority suspended contact. The mother subsequently declined contact with the children on the local authority's terms. Contact eventually resumed, but was then suspended again because of the mother's behaviour. However, when contact resumed, shortly before the final hearing, it went well.

The judge made a care order, on the basis of a care plan involving contact with the mother only four times a year; the judge also, sitting as a High Court judge, restrained the mother from contacting or approaching the children at any other time, until the children were 16. The mother appealed the care order and the injunctions.

The social worker's affidavit before the judge had had a number of inaccurate statements and errors in it, suggesting, wrongly, that the mother had been involved with the local authority for some years before her first complaint to the authorities about the partner, that the mother had a propensity to move addresses, and that the children had poor attendance records at school. The inaccuracies indicated a deplorably casual and inappropriately hostile approach to a sensitive and responsible task on which the fate of families could depend. Errors of this type fuelled some parents' perception that the authority was 'out to get them' by fair means or foul. It was essential that local authorities got basic background information right. However, those items of wrong information had not acted in any significant way on the judge's mind; the care orders had been made on adequate, indeed in many respects compelling, evidence and without procedural unfairness.