Listening to children and other protected individuals: a family court response
In parallel with all the press and political furore over setting up a child sex abuse inquiry and the Rotherham cover-up, the Judicial and Tribunals Office have issued a consultation paper from the Children and Vulnerable Witness Working Group entitled an Interim Report and dated 31 July 2014 (http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/publications/president-of-the-family-divisions-consultation-interim-report-of-the-children-and-vulnerable-witnesses-working-group-31st-july-2014/). The group seems to be part of the personal fiefdom of Sir James Munby P and was set up by him following one of his musings (12th View from the President’s Chambers) of 4 June 2014.
The working group (‘WG’) has met once, and seeks responses to its ‘proposals and initial recommendations’ by 3 October 2014. It proposes a rule change – yes, one procedural rule. Yet this is a much larger subject than one rule will resolve; and part of a massive political, legal and sociological subject demanding co-ordinated thinking between criminal, civil and administrative tribunals alongside family proceedings. It is only the civil and family courts aspect of it which the WG is considering. Ultimately the whole topic needs co-ordination with other departments dealing with protected individuals; and with any child abuse inquiry which may be set up. It may be an incremental process; but it needs some clarity of intent, to be based on some form of policy or philosophy.
Proposals and initial recommendations
The working group has put forward a number of ‘proposals and initial recommendations’. In summary these are:
- There should be a new ‘mandatory [when are rules voluntary?] rule’ for ‘children and vulnerable witnesses and parties’ with practice direction and guidance to be ‘inserted’ in FPR 2010 as soon as possible (13(ii) and (iv)). This is to be drafted by the WG with the Family Justice Council (‘FJC’) (13(xvi)) (not with Family Procedure Rules Committee, which was appointed by Parliament to do this job).
- Paras 13(vii)-(x) require advocates and litigants in person to identify ‘vulnerable’ parties etc
- A practice direction for FJC guidance (it is not clear what constitutional role the WG envisages for FJC) to judges is recommended (13(xi); and the status of judicial discussions which children should be clarified (13(xii)) says the group.
- Special measure should be made for vulnerable witnesses; and ‘the rule’ should contain details as set out in paras 13(xiii) and (xiv).
- There should be training for judges and advocates (13(xvii)-(xix)) and ‘as part of the (sic) tool-kit’ (what ‘tool-kit’; and whatever that term is intended to mean in context).
This is the limit of what is proposed by the group. I now suggest a number of other headings which should be addressed by the WG, and only – in this context – to vulnerable individuals involved in civil and family proceedings. The wider issues thrown up by modern concerns about the treatment of abused individuals in a variety of contexts – listening to children and others concerned (at whatever stage in their lives), their treatment by public authorities (children’s departments, police, schools and courts), involvement of victims in court prosecutions, child welfare informants etc – needs further, detailed – and urgent – consideration.
Given a canvas limited to court proceedings – and mostly to civil and family proceedings at that – to what should immediate reforms be addressed? At this stage notes only follow. It is a subject which needs urgently to be developed alongside all the other issues which public authority neglect and political inertia are throwing up in relation to abused children and their treatment by public authorities.
Protected individuals in civil proceedings
First the title is too restricted. The group of individuals covered by the reforms is much wider. Parties, witnesses and all others involved in civil proceedings who might fairly be regarded as vulnerable – I would propose ‘in need of’, or ‘deserving,’ ‘protected status’ – should be the main part of the reforms. I have therefore proposed the slightly clunky working title of ‘protected individuals’: it gets away from ‘witness’ and ‘party’ which implies only court process. It is important to be clear that the information which is provided by a protected individual may not necessarily be for use in court proceedings.
The reforms must consider the special position of individuals (who may later become witnesses) who require protection in other circumstances: for example, because of their relationship with one of the parties (eg parent or child in cases of abuse by a party), because of their capacity (Mental Capacity Act 2005) or because they are child welfare informers (as with the case of X in Re A (A Child)  UKSC 60 and later Re J (A Child)  EWCA Civ 875).
Information from protected individuals
To what information – to use a neutral term – is this consultation addressed? What forms of information are involved; from whom that information will come; how may that information be employed; and by whom and how in court proceedings? Information which is collected from protected individuals, or where they give evidence in court and are entitled to protection, will include:
- Information which vulnerable individuals (including children) may wish to give to children’s department social workers, schools, police etc), quite separate from court proceedings (at this stage)
- Information and views which children who are the subject to proceedings may want to provide to the court: eg talking to the judge
- Evidence which children as parties wish to give to the court
- Protection for ‘vulnerable’ parties (eg parents and children who allege abuse by a party, where that party may have a right to cross-examine them)
Protection for whom?
Court proceedings which might involve a protected individual in any conceivable role – party, witness, subject (and talking to the judge) – include:
- Children who take their own CA 1989 Part 2 proceedings and in their own right (with permission from the court as appropriate)
- Children proceedings where the child is the subject of the case (ie the case is about the child and his/her family): either because parents are seeking an order in respect of the child (Children Act 1989 Part 2 (‘child arrangements’) or Part 4 and 5 (care etc)
- Women (it will almost invariably be women) who have been abused (or allegedly abused) by a partner or other individual involved in the proceedings
- Children who are accommodated by a local authority (CA 1989 Part 3) and may be involved in eg judicial review proceedings in relation to their care
- Children who may be called as a witness in proceedings
- A child or adult in any civil (including family) proceedings lacks capacity (Mental Capacity Act 2005)
- A protected individual (as with X in Re J (A Child)  EWCA Civ 875) is required to give evidence in any of the above proceedings and to be cross-examined or to give evidence in front of an alleged abuser
Protected individuals: context of their information and evidence
Extensive procedural changes are needed, and more understanding of the variety of facets which the question of protected parties’ evidence presents. This needs at least a review and a clear definition of the primary law and the court proceedings to which procedural changes might apply. The involvement of protected parties will span their first involvement either with a public authority; or with the courts where, as the subject of private proceedings, they may wish to – or be asked to – give their views as children of age and understanding.
As much flexibility as possible needs to be built into the system, so that where there is evidence it must be available to the court – even though not, in purist terms by a means which accords with every rule of procedural fairness (eg hearsay rules may need to be overridden, opportunities for cross examination reduced or constructed so that the court deals with appropriate questions from a party). A purist approach to the requirements of a fair trial may need to be sacrificed to child welfare.
This will need much more than a single ‘rule’. The role of obtaining child information for a court process needs well developed rules; the position of a judge talking to a child who wants to talk to the court needs a clear structure; and the special status of child welfare informers cries out for proper definition. Some of this may need primary legislation (the Children and Families Act 2014 was such a damp squib for family court reformers).
Child protection inquiry and reform
And this – the position of protected individuals and their evidence – is only a small part the law reform called for in this area. What happened in Rotherham, and in other parts of society, in the abuse of children and young women; what is happening with state interference with parental ties (ie is adoption really still necessary?); how children and other witnesses should be heard in the criminal courts; and how should children be heard and listened to by the courts: all this needs to be linked, but not delayed, in a process of child protection inquiry and reform.