Cross-examination by alleged abusers; and thoughts for a way through…

Abusive cross-examination: recent case-law

 

Cross-examination of complainants by their alleged abusers has had a number of outings in the past three months, including Re A (A Minor: Fact Finding; Unrepresented Party) [2017] EWHC 1195 (Fam), Hayden J and Re D (Appeal – Failure of Case Management) [2017] EWHC 1907 (Fam), Peter Jackson J. Re A has drawn at least two professorial comments in the mainstream legal press: ‘Vulnerable witnesses’ [2017] Family Law 704 by Penny Cooper and ‘Abuse upon abuse’ [2017] New Law Journal by Jonathan Herring.

 

The importance of this subject, and the inadequacy of the family proceedings system to deal fairly with it, cannot be over-emphasised. What is surprising about each of the above sources is their failure – as I read them – to deal with the recent jurisprudence on the subject. Hayden and Peter Jackson JJ (respectively at [25] and [6]) refer to Family Procedure Rules 2010 PD12J; but a practice direction is low down the citation pecking order when compared with statutory and common law (in this case Court of Appeal) authority.

 

Jurisprudence on this subject must surely touch upon at least to the following:

 

  • Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (YJCEA 1999) Pt 2 (and see European Convention 1950 Art 6.3(d). The 1999 Act is the source for much of the thinking of the now stalled Vulnerable Witnesses and Children Working Group (VWCWG: touched on below) and of the proposed reforms for family proceedings by the Prison and Courts Bill cl 47 lost at the June 2017 General Election.
  • Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 (MFPA 1984) s 31G(6) (referred to by Pater Jackson J, though not specifically cited); and
  • K and H (Private Law: Public Funding)[2015] EWCA Civ 543, [2016] 1 FLR 754

 

To put in context the evidence of any witness who is entitled to rely on ‘special measures’ (as explained below) it is worth recalling Lady Hale in the Supreme Court in Re A (Sexual Abuse: Disclosure) [2012] UKSC 60, [2013] 1 FLR 948 (where the Supreme Court said a vulnerable witness must submit to challenge by a defendant of her allegations):

 

[36] … Family proceedings have long been more flexible than other proceedings in [the way the court receives evidence]. The court has power to receive and act upon hearsay evidence. It is commonplace for children to give their accounts in videotaped conversations with specially trained police officers or social workers…. Oral questioning could be arranged in ways which did not involve face to face confrontation. It is not a requirement that the father be able to see [the face of the witness X]. It is, to say the least, unlikely that the court would ever allow direct questioning by the father, should he still (other than in this court) be acting in person. The court’s only concern in family proceedings is to get at the truth. The object of the procedure is to enable witnesses to give their evidence in the way which best enables the court to assess its reliability. It is certainly not to compound any abuse which may have been suffered…

 

And a thought: could a scheme akin to the Bar Pro Bono unit be devised to provide examination for the court of a witness or party who is to be cross-examined by her abuser, akin to YJCEA 1999 s 38(4); and as explained further below.

 

Statutory starting point

 

The statutory starting point is MFPA 1984 s 31G(6). This states:

 

(6)Where in any proceedings in the family court it appears to the court that any party to the proceedings who is not legally represented is unable to examine or cross-examine a witness effectively, the court is to—

(a)ascertain from that party the matters about which the witness may be able to depose or on which the witness ought to be cross-examined, and

(b)put, or cause to be put, to the witness such questions in the interests of that party as may appear to the court to be proper.

 

MFPA 1984 s 31G(6) is derived from Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 s 73 (derived from Magistrates’ Courts Act 1952). It was explained by Lord Dyson MR in Re K and H (above):

 

[42] …. [MFPA 1984 s 31G(6)] … enables the court to put questions to a witness on behalf of a party in the absence of legal representation, or to take steps itself to cause those questions to be put to enable effective examination of the witness…

 

The case concerned funding of representation by the Lord Chancellor, so comments on s 31G(6) may be said to be obiter. Whether obiter or part of the ratio the comments of Lord Dyson MR, sitting with two highly experienced family lawyers – Black and McFarlane LJJ, both of whom agreed with him – must command respect. He considered the need to the judge to ask questions in Re K and H to be ‘fairly straightforward’. Had the judge in Re D followed the district judge’s directions for the father to prepare a list of questions (as Lord Dyson MR suggested for the judge in Re K and H at [60]), that would have been satisfactory; and the judge could have taken over from there.

 

Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999

 

Reference to YJCEA 1999 Pt 2 enables a court to look – as did Roderic Wood J in the often cited case of H v L and R [2006] EWHC 3099 (Fam) [2007] 2 FLR 162 – at the statutory source of the ideas behind cl 47 (yet to re-emerge from the Ministry of Justice drafting department since the election). The context of the 1999 Act in family proceedings is fully explained in Evidence in family proceedings by David Burrows (2016, Family Law/LexisNexis) at Chs 8 (‘Special measures for receiving evidence’) and 19 (‘Children: views and evidence’).

 

For present purposes and in criminal proceedings only, an advocate can be appointed by the court to conduct cross-examination, ‘in the interests of the [defendant]’ where he – it will normally, though not invariably, be a man – has no legal representative (and see comments of Lord Bingham CJ in R v Brown (Milton) [1998] 2 Cr App Rep 364, which are said to have been partly instrumental in passing YJCEA 1999 s 38). YJCEA 1999 s 38 considers the circumstances in which, after consideration of the point, a court determines that it is ‘in the interests of justice for the witness to be cross-examined by a legal representative appointed to represent the interests of the accused’ (s 38(3)). It that case, s 38(4) continues:

 

(4)If the court decides that it is necessary in the interests of justice for the witness to be so cross-examined, the court must appoint a qualified legal representative (chosen by the court) to cross-examine the witness in the interests of the accused.

 

The legal representative will then be paid for from public funds (YJCEA 1999 s 40). If volunteer advocates (see eg Bar Pro Bono Unit) could fill this role if asked to do so by the court, might that work in the type of case which so concerned Hayden and Peter Jackson JJ? The point could be dealt with as a special measure as part of case management directions (in much the same way as seems to have been the case with the original district judge’s case management directions in Re D).

 

A practice direction: case management

 

Peter Jackson J (at [6]) drew attention to PD12J ‘Child Arrangements and Contact Order: Domestic Violence and Harm’ which he pointed out includes the following:

 

  • A definition of domestic violence that includes controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence, or abuse, including psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional abuse (paragraph 3);
  • Approval for the court to question witnesses itself in order to protect alleged victims (paragraph 28):

 

He held that ‘While ensuring that the allegations are properly put and responded to, the fact-finding hearing can be an inquisitorial (or investigative) process, which at all times must protect the interests of all involved.’ He continued, dealing with the ‘fact-finding’ hearing:

 

  • Each party can be asked to identify what questions they wish to ask of the other party, and to set out or confirm in sworn evidence their version of the disputed key facts.
  • The judge or lay justices should be prepared where necessary and appropriate to conduct the questioning of the witnesses on behalf of the parties, focusing on the key issues in the case.

 

Peter Jackson J concluded this passage of his judgement:

 

[6] … Victims of violence are likely to find direct cross-examination by their alleged abuser frightening and intimidating, and thus it may be particularly appropriate for the judge or lay justices to conduct the questioning on behalf of the other party in these circumstances, in order to ensure both parties are able to give their best evidence.

 

By contrast, in Re A Hayden J stated that he refused to deal with a case in the way he had been required to do (but without reference to s 31G(6) or Re K & H:

 

[60] It is a stain on the reputation of our Family Justice system that a Judge can still not prevent a victim being cross examined by an alleged perpetrator. This may not have been the worst or most extreme example but it serves only to underscore that the process is inherently and profoundly unfair. I would go further it is, in itself, abusive. For my part, I am simply not prepared to hear a case in this way again. I cannot regard it as consistent with my judicial oath and my responsibility to ensure fairness between the parties.

 

Special measures: Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999

 

The usefulness of YJCEA 1999 Pt 2 is that is summarises categories of case (child and incapacitated witnesses) in which special measures can be used in criminal proceedings. Many of these – video links, screens etc as mentioned by Lady Hale in Re A – are in effect already in use in family proceedings; and to these can be added special rules as to hearsay and ABE interviews for children proceedings. YJCEA 1999 s 18 (with Criminal Procedure Rules 2015 Part 18 and its supporting practice direction) defines how special measures directions at YJCEA 1999 ss 23-30 are to be made available by the court. The working of special measures was explained by Lady Hale in R (D (a minor)) v Camberwell Green Youth Court [2005] UKHL 4, [2005] 1 WLR 393.

 

Amongst the forms of special measure under YJCEA 1999 and already available in family proceedings are:

 

  • preventing a witness from seeing a party, by ‘screen or other arrangement’ (YJCEA 1999 s 23);
  • allowing a witness to give evidence by live link (s 24);
  • hearing a witness’ evidence to the exclusion of others (s 25);
  • admitting video recorded evidence or cross-examination (ss 17 and 28; and see ABE evidence in the case of child or other intimidated witness);
  • questioning a witness through an intermediary (s 29): in principle and if funding (eg by legal aid is available) in principle this form of assistance should be available in family proceedings.

 

Pro bono assistance as a special measure

 

Special measures are available. With imaginative case management – and perhaps eg the funding of proper video-link equipment in family courts – intimidated witnesses can be helped already in family courts.

 

Pending further family law legislation promised by the Government, could pro bono (free) advocacy assistance as a special measures direction equivalent to YJCEA 1999 s 38(4) be a way to help in cases identified by the judges referred to above. Even could this be funded as an exceptional case determination (Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 s 10(3); and see ‘Funding implications for vulnerable witnesses’ [2017] Legal Action at 6).

Rights and an English divorce

Mrs Owens and the Supreme Court

 

Mrs Owens has been given permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. She is challenging the decision of a circuit judge and the Court of Appeal (Owens v Owens [2017] EWCA Civ 182, [2017] 4 WLR 74) to find that, though her marriage had unquestionably broken down, she failed to prove that her husband had behaved in a way which showed that she could not reasonably be expected to live with him.

 

The relevant law is set out at Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 s 1. There is one ground for divorce: either party to a marriage can petition for divorce (A) ‘on the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably’; but a court can only say there is irretrievable breakdown if one of five ‘facts’ are proved including (s 1(2)(b)): ‘that the respondent [(B)] has behaved in such a way that [A] cannot reasonably be expected to live with [(B)]’.

 

Though they considered that Mrs Owens’s (ie A’s in her case) marriage had broken down irretrievably, the Court of Appeal felt unable to say that she could not be expected to live with Mr Owens (see eg comment at ‘Owens: a dead marriage but no divorce’ [2017] New Law Journal 31 March, David Burrows; and here). The logic of the court’s conclusion, based only on the words of s 1, is difficult to follow. But what of its logic, in terms of Mrs Owens’s personal – or ‘human’ – rights (under European Convention 1950 and generally)?

 

European Convention 1950 and Mrs Owens’s rights

 

In Owens Sir James Munby P commented on Mrs Owens’s advocate’s assertion that European Convention 1950 Arts 8 and 12 supported her case. He said, of Mr Owens’s reply to this assertion, with which he agreed, that there is ‘no Convention right to be divorced nor, if domestic law permits divorce, is there any Convention right to a favourable outcome in such proceedings’.

 

Art 12 declares that those of ‘marriageable age have the right to marry’; and nothing is said of divorce. Art 8 deals with respect for a person’s ‘private and family life [and] his or her home’. Sir James described Mrs Owens’s advocate’s argument under Art 8 as:

 

[54] … He invites us to consider what level of ‘fault’ must be established to obtain a divorce and whether dispositive, or at least greater, weight should be given to the petitioner’s wishes and feelings. More profoundly, he invites us to consider whether the requirement to prove ‘fault’ is consistent with Articles 8 and 12

 

If this was the advocates’ argument it was, indeed, an odd line for him to take. Section 1(2)(b) does not require anyone to prove ‘fault’. It asks an open question: has a spouse behaved in such a way that the other spouse cannot live with her or him? That need not be because they are at fault. It requires proof only that B has acted in a way that A ‘cannot reasonably be expected to live with’ B. A must be able to say that her marriage is dead (as in the Owens case, and as the court found). Each party surely should then be able to move on?

 

Respect for ‘private and family life’: rights to privacy

 

If European Convention 1950 is necessary to all this, Art 8 seems to me to be relevant. I cannot see that Art 12 has any relevance. It is difficult to see how respect for a person’s ‘private life’ (‘private and family’ are disjunctive: they mean two different things. They are not both part of the same concept) is consistent with requiring either party to a dead marriage to going on living with the other spouse (as the court knew was likely to be the effect of their decision for Mrs Owens).

 

Looked at as a question of right separate from European Convention 1950, it is necessary to find a duty to which the right is corollary (or reflective). Do I have a duty to live with someone I no longer want to share a home with? If there is no marriage the answer is resoundingly: no. If I am married to that person, why is my duty any different? If it is different, does not the right not to be discriminated against (Art 14) apply (marriage is an ‘other status’ as referred to in Art 14).

 

In law spouses must make arrangements for financial support for one another (or the court can order it: Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 Pt 2). That is a statutory duty bred of a right to financial support from the weaker spouse (the same does not apply if we are not married). That right would be protected – enhanced even – if Mrs Owens’s marriage is dissolved.

 

But to find – as did the Court of Appeal – a right vested in Mr Owens to expect of Mrs Owens a form of conjugal cohabitation (and thus no right in Mrs Owens to claim financial support till her marriage is dissolved) is not in any statute. Is such a right implied by English law? That it is, is the logic of the Court of Appeal’s decision.

 

Does the requirement to live in an unwanted and loveless relationship interfere with a person’s ‘family life [and] home’? Common sense – and, it must be hoped, the law – must surely say ‘yes’? If MCA 1973 s 1(2)(b) says what the Court of Appeal says it says – and I do not think it does require them to find as they did in Owens – then Mrs Owens needs also to seek a declaration of incompatibility with her rights (in Arts 8 and 14) under Human Rights Act 1998 s 4.

Rights: privacy, anonymity and freedom of expression on family cases

‘Open justice’ in family proceedings

 

As a High Court judge (Mostyn J) has commented (in Appleton & Anor v News Group Newspapers Ltd & Anor [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam), [2016] 2 FLR 1) rights to open justice in family proceedings are a mess; though – sad to say, and as will be seen below (the Carmarthenshire case) – he has done his own bit to stir the muddled pot.

 

Family lawyers are debating whether financial relief hearings (an important part of the family courts’ work) should be in open court or in private (as FPR 2010 r 27.10 – though without any statutory or common law underlay) says they must be. Different Family Division judges take different views (and Mostyn J is one of the noisier ones on the subject).

 

Three cases in the last month remind lawyers generally of the variety of application of open justice principles:

 

  • The predominant issue is whether a case should be heard in public as common law has long required (Scott & Anor v Scott [1913] UKHL 2, [1913] AC 417; and see eg ‘To be heard in the dining hall…’: Scott 100 years on). Subsidiary to this are, for exampe:
  • Anonymity for a party to proceedings; or to a witness or others (eg expert witnesses, social workers etc) involved in the case (eg Khuja below);
  • Release of court and other hearing documents (a consequence of the Carmathen case below);
  • Publicity for a private (eg children) case (and the balance to be struck between privacy (European Convention 1950 Art 8) and freedom of expression (Art 10) (eg Southend case below).

 

Khuja : ‘what’s in a name?

 

Khuja v Times Newspapers Ltd [2017] UKSC 49 relates to the open justice principle and a person’s involvement – though not charged – in criminal proceedings. Charges arose from facts which are directly of concern to family lawyers, namely child sexual abuse (see eg Birmingham City Council v Riaz & Ors [2014] EWHC 4247 (Fam), [2015] 2 FLR 763 Keehan J). As Lord Sumption said (giving judgement for the 5:2 justice majority):

 

[1] For some years The Times and other media organisations have taken a close interest in investigating and reporting on allegations that the police and child protection authorities have failed adequately to confront a pattern of crime involving the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young teenage girls by older men. It need hardly be said that this is a subject of serious public concern. It has given rise to a number of government-ordered national inquiries, a review of standards of protection in children’s homes, and substantial changes in the procedures of the police and prosecuting authorities for handling such cases.

 

Nine men were tried on charges involving organised child sex in the Oxford area. Seven men were convicted. Khuja had been arrested, but not charged. After his release without charge, the newspapers successfully applied to lift an order preventing his identification. Khuja wanted to maintain a reporting restrictions order. The newspapers said that Khuja was ‘someone suspected by the police of being involved in sexual offences against children’. They wished to publish information about him ‘confined to material derived from the proceedings at the trial’ (§[4]).

 

The majority (Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale and Lords Sumption, Clarke and Reed: Lords Kerr and Wilson were the minority) noted that the appellant was seeking to prohibit the reporting of matters discussed at public trial. These were not matters where he had any reasonable expectation of privacy. The impact on the appellant’s family life is indirect and incidental: neither he nor his family participated in any capacity at trial, and nothing that was said at trial related to his family.

 

The public interest in allowing the press reporting of court proceedings extends to the appellant’s identity, said Lord Sumption. Media reporting of cases depends on the right of the public to be informed about public acts of the state, balanced against the law’s recognition that how a story is presented is a matter of editorial judgment.

 

Finally, what does a name matter? ‘What’s in a name? asked Lord Rodger in Re Guardian News and Media Ltd [2010] UKSC 1, [2010] 2 AC 697 (and see Lord Sumption at §[29]). Lord Rodger answered himself:

 

‘A lot’, the press would answer. This is because stories about particular individuals are simply much more attractive to readers than stories about unidentified people. It is just human nature. And this is why, of course, even when reporting major disasters, journalists usually look for a story about how particular individuals are affected. Writing stories which capture the attention of readers is a matter of reporting technique, and the European court holds that article 10 protects not only the substance of ideas and information but also the form in which they are conveyed: News Verlags GmbH & Co KG v Austria (2000) 31 EHRR 246, 256, §[39] … More succinctly, Lord Hoffmann observed in Campbell v MGN Ltd [2004] 2 AC 457, 474, §[59], ‘judges are not newspaper editors’.

 

Parents’ right to petition Parliament: Southend case

 

In Southend Borough Council v CO [2017] EWHC 1949 (Fam) MacDonald J considered a case in which parents of two children on whom placement orders had been made had publicised information about them on Facebook and had organised a petition on Change.org.  (Whether the mother had appealed against the placement order was not entirely clear to the judge.) By the time he came to deal with the case the parents – representing themselves – had agreed to the local authority’s application that information be removed from Facebook and other media. However, the mother insisted on their right to pursue their petition ‘addressed to the United Kingdom Parliament and the Prime Minister’. The consequences of any such right for freedom of expression was the issue on which MacDonald J gave judgment.

 

MacDonald J described Change.org as a ‘website that allows people or organisations to start a petition. Once a petition is started, members of the public can sign the petition electronically subject to providing their first and last name, their email address and their postcode’ (§[9]). It has ‘community guidelines’ which include particular reference to safeguarding children and their protection.

 

The local authority based their application on their concern to protect a child’s private life. The mother wanted the petition to remain in place ‘so that she could have her say with respect to a decision that she does not agree with’ (§[16]).

 

After an extensive review of the law, the judge agreed with the mother. The reporting restrictions order remained to the extent agreed between the parties, but not including any restriction on the mother’s right by her petition to advertise her disagreement with the court’s placement order decisions.

 

Right to freedom of expression

 

On the facts of this case (not as a general approach to on-line petitions: §[66]) the judge set out his decision at §[62]. He balanced the rights of the parents to freedom of expression under Convention Art 10 (especially ‘parents who are the subject of state intervention being able to express their views about, the constitutional importance of the right to petition Parliament and the Government for redress with respect to a personal grievance and the importance of the ability of a parent to make clear who is speaking out or seeking to petition for redress’) against the Art 8 right of the children. He applied the ‘ultimate balancing test’ or proportionality (per Lord Steyn in Re S (Identification: Restrictions on Publication) [2004] UKHL 47, [2005] 1 AC 593, [2005] 1 FLR 591 at §[17]) and held that:

 

[62] … It cannot be said in this case that compelling the parents to take down their online petition directed at Parliament and Government, or compelling them to remove from the petition the mother’s name and the responses which utilise the forenames of the children, represents a proportionate response to the risk to the psychological integrity, personal development, development of social relationships and physical and social identity of the children presented by the limited amount of information concerning the children that the petition now contains.

 

Release of hearings documents

 

The third case is little more than a post-script in all this; but it provides a useful illustration of some of the points considered in ‘Release of court hearing documents’. What documents – when and why? – may a court release to non-parties. What rights to freedom of expression (European Convention 1950 Art 10) do parents have?

 

In Carmarthen County Council v Y and others [2017] EWFC 36 (30 June 2017), Mostyn J considered a preliminary fact-finding issue in children proceedings (the heading to the case hints that it is care proceedings, but he does not say so). This might have been clearer if Mostyn J had remembered – or been reminded by one of the nine barristers in court – of the following comment of his:

 

[4] For an exhaustively full account of the background reference should be made to the chronology prepared by junior counsel for the local authority, which has left no stone unturned. I am grateful for the preparation of that very useful document.

 

But this judge has already made clear that he does not consider that documents in family proceedings should be released (DL v SL [2015] EWHC 2621 (Fam) sub nom L v L (Ancillary Relief Proceedings: Anonymity) [2016] WLR 1259, Mostyn J at §[16]). In law, there are real question on this as explained in ‘Release of court hearing documents’ (above). Thus, in Appleton v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam); [2016] 2 FLR 1, Mostyn J was dealing with an application by the press for reporting restrictions to be lifted for the ancillary relief hearing of well-known musicians (and see Mostyn J in DL v SL [2015] EWHC 2621 (Fam); [2016] 2 FLR 552, also reported as L v L (Ancillary Relief Proceedings: Anonymity)  [2016] 1 WLR 1259). Save to a very limited extent (eg photographs of arrival at court) a reporting restrictions order was retained. Mostyn J [2015] EWHC 2689 (Fam) at [12] and [13], adopts Sir Mark’s “watchdog” role for the press:

 

[13] … Further the press are not allowed any access to documents whatsoever – see FPR  r 29.12. This is only consistent with a watchdog role, because without the documents the press can hardly be expected to be able to report the case intelligibly or even-handedly.

 

I think Lords Scarman and Bingham – and probably Sir James Munby P (see eg Norfolk County Council v Webster and Others [2006] EWHC 2898 (Fam), [2007] 2 FLR 415, Munby J – would have reminded Mostyn J of the importance of helping the press, in its ‘watchdog role’ – to make sense of proceedings. Transparency in the family courts remains a poor shadow of what it could be if – even if they are let in – the media and public can make no sense of the facts of what is going on.

 

And in terms of rights? The media have rights to freedom of expression as much as do parents to petition parliament; so long as, in each case, the children invloved remain anonymous.

How real are a child’s rights to be heard (2)?

A version of https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2017/08/08/how-real-are-a-childs-rights-to-be-heard/ with references

 

A child’s rights to express a view

 

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 Art 12 states that signatories must give children who are capable of forming their own views ‘the right to express those views’. A child must be given an opportunity to do this in ‘all matters affecting the child’ either through ‘a representative or an appropriate body’. Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000/C 364/01) Art 24.1 says much the same thing.

 

This article asks how these rights are recognised in English law. The short answer is hardly at all; or not in any real way if the child does not find out about that child’s rights. If the child does find out or – in court proceedings – someone tells the child, it is very much a matter for the individual judge whether the child manages to express a view. As English law – as opposed to international rights laws – now stands, the right to express a view is not anywhere near as clear as Art 12 implies.

 

If a child wishes to express a view on the case and finds out about that right, the law on how to do so is a mess (described by one Court of Appeal judge as of ‘complexity’ Re W (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Child’s Representation) Practice Note [2016] EWCA Civ 1051, [2017] 1 WLR 1027 at §[18]); and mostly dotted around Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) and Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010) Pt 16. And if a child wants legal aid, different rules and definitions apply so as to make the law more confusing still.

 

This is a truly disturbing state of affairs, given that – as the rules are drafted – it is intended that a child should be able to make her or his own application (FPR 2010 r 16.6); and yet experienced family lawyers (as the Re W case (above) shows) can be perplexed by the law.

 

UN Convention rights

 

The UN Convention Art 12 says the following:

 

1 States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

2 For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.

 

The EU Charter at Art 24.1 says that ‘Children… may express their views freely. Such views shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity.’

 

As can be seen, both Articles place a positive duty on states to take children’s views into consideration; and to take steps to ensure this is done. So how is this dealt with in English courts where a child is of ‘age and maturity’ (or Gillick-competent, after the House of Lords case of Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech AHA [1985] UKHL 7, [1986] 1 AC 112, [1986] 1 FLR 224, which said that in matters of confidentiality and views a child of ‘intelligence and understanding’ must be listened to)? The legal term ‘child’ is used here as of anyone under 18 (CA 1989 s 105(1)); though the extent to which that ‘child’s’ views are considered will depend on the child’s maturity and the issue with which the court is concerned.

 

Mature child in court proceedings

 

This article is concerned with children in court proceedings, which are of five main types:

 

  • between a child’s family and a local authority who asks the court to find that the child is suffering ‘significant harm’ (care or ‘public law’ proceedings: CA 1989 Pts 4 and 5);
  • between a child’s parents (eg as to with which parent a child is to live or how much contact each parent is to have) (‘private law’ proceedings: CA 1989 s 8);
  • where a child wishes to make the child’s own private law application (CA 1989 s 10(8));
  • where a child wishes to be joined as a party in existing private law proceedings and to have something to say to the court; and
  • proceedings where a child has been brought to the United Kingdom by a parent and the other says the child has been abducted.

 

Each of these types of case has different court rules and legal aid definitions (legal aid will be left till a later article).

 

(1)        Public law proceedings

 

Mostly application of the rules in public law proceedings is quite clear. The child has a children’s guardian (CA 1989 s 41) and automatic legal aid. The court appoints a solicitor (or the mature child choses one: CA 1989 s 41(3)(a)). If the child disagrees with the view of the children’s guardian, she or he instructs the solicitor direct. The solicitor must act on the child’s instructions (FPR 2010 r 16.29(2)). Even that is not always clear to judges and lawyers as the Re W case (above showed). And I think the Court of Appeal in that case got the distinction between ‘specified proceedings’ (in Children Act 1989 s 41) and ‘special Children Act 1989 cases’ and ‘public law children cases’ for legal aid muddled up (see separate article).

 

(2)        Private law proceedings: parents’ application

 

Where one parent applies to a court for an order (a child arrangements order) for their child, and that child is of ‘age and understanding’ (which the Court of Appeal has said could be as young as 7: Re D (A Child) (International Recognition) [2016] EWCA Civ 12, [2016] 1 WLR 2469, [2016] 2 FLR 347) that child has rights under Arts 12 and 24.1; yet in practice it is a matter of hit-or-miss as to whether the court (the judge or someone else in the court administration) tells the child about this. It is likely only to arise if there is a contest, and the court appoints a court officer (‘CAFCASS’) to see the child and report to the court.

 

Yet, as can be seen from Art 12 (above), the child has a right ‘to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law’. This is not a matter for the judge to decide according to whim. Surely it means that in every case a child’s maturity must be assessed – even if only quite briefly – and that child be asked if they want to express a view? That does not mean the view will necessarily be followed (Re D (Abduction: Rights of Custody) [2006] UKHL 51, [2007] 1 FLR 961); but it must be a factor included amongst things considered by the court before a decision is made.

 

(3)        Child’s private law application

 

A child has the right, if of ‘sufficient understanding’ (CA 1989 s 10(8)) to instruct a lawyer and to make an application on her or his own behalf. This is dealt with under separate court rules, which deal both with how a child deals with the case through a solicitor or alone (FPR 2010 r 16.6). Legal aid may be available to the child in this type of application and the next (4).

 

(4)        Child joining in proceedings

 

Similar principles apply where a mature child wishes to be ‘joined’ (FPR 2010 r 12.12(2)(c)), and have a say, in a parents proceedings. A CAFCASS officer may have been appointed but the child may not agree with the officer’s views. In that case, as a highly respected family judge has said, it is essential that a child feels their independent view has been heard by the court (Mabon v Mabon [2005] EWCA Civ 634, [2005] Fam 366, [2005] 2 FLR 1011).

 

The child may be able to have a lawyer on legal aid (based on the child’s financial circumstances).

 

(5)        Child abduction proceedings

 

Special rules, some set out in Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction 1980 (‘Hague Convention’) itself, require the courts by one means or another to take account of a child’s views before making an order. In practice there are specialist CAFCASS officers in London (where these proceedings are heard) who discuss a child’s views with her or him.

 

The child may be formally joined in the parents’ proceedings (and if so have a solicitor on legal aid); though separate joining in the proceedings by no means guaranteed.

 

Court procedure

 

Court procedure varies for each of the above categories. There is no clear definition of when or how a child’s views shall be considered. There is no clear definition of when a child must be told what her or his rights are and how this is to be done.

 

The President of the Family Division set up a working group over three years ago: the Vulnerable Witnesses and Children Working Group. The group has drafted new court rules (now over two years old) to answer some of the concerns in this article. The draft does nothing to clarify the procedures which already operate; nor to sort out the complex legal aid provisions which apply to children.

 

As far as I know there is no clear document which explains to mature children what their rights are when they or their parents are involved in court proceedings about them. Still less does the working group deal with how it expects children to be informed of their rights under the UN Convention and how children’s maturity should be considered by the court. Only then will the judge know whether a child’s views under Art 12 should be ‘expressed’ to the court; and only then can the judge start to consider how this should be done.

How real are a child’s rights to be heard?

A child’s rights to express a view

 

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 Art 12 states that signatories must give children who are capable of forming their own views ‘the right to express those views’. A child must be given an opportunity to do this in ‘all matters affecting the child’ either through ‘a representative or an appropriate body’. Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000/C 364/01) Art 24.1 says much the same thing.

 

This article asks how these rights are recognised in English law. The short answer is hardly at all; or not in any real way if the child does not find out about that child’s rights. If the child does find out or – in court proceedings – someone tells the child, it is very much a matter for the individual judge whether the child manages to express a view. As English law – as opposed to international rights laws – now stands, the right to express a view is not anywhere near as clear as Art 12 implies.

 

If a child wishes to express a view on the case and finds out about that right, the law on how to do so is a mess (described by one Court of Appeal judge as of ‘complexity’ Re W (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Child’s Representation) Practice Note [2016] EWCA Civ 1051, [2017] 1 WLR 1027 at §[18]). And if a child wants legal aid, different rules and definitions apply so as to make the law more confusing still.

 

This is a truly disturbing state of affairs, given that – as the rules are drafted – it is intended that a child should be able to make her or his own application; and yet experienced family lawyers (as the Re W case shows) can be perplexed by the law.

 

UN Convention rights

 

The UN Convention Art 12 says the following:

 

1 States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

2 For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.

 

The EU Charter at Art 24.1 says that ‘Children… may express their views freely. Such views shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity.’

 

As can be seen, both Articles place a positive duty on states to take children’s views into consideration; and to take steps to ensure this is done. So how is this dealt with in English courts where a child is of ‘age and maturity’ (or Gillick-competent, after the House of Lords case of Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech AHA [1985] UKHL 7, [1986] 1 AC 112, [1986] 1 FLR 224, which said that in matters of confidentiality and views a child of ‘intelligence and understanding’ must be listened to)? The legal term ‘child’ is used here as of anyone under 18; though the extent to which that ‘child’s’ views are considered will depend on the child’s maturity and the issue with which the court is concerned.

 

Mature child in court proceedings

 

This article is concerned with children in court proceedings, which are of five main types:

 

  • between a child’s family and a local authority who asks the court to find that the child is suffering ‘significant harm’ (care or ‘public law’ proceedings);
  • between a child’s parents (eg as to with which parent a child is to live or how much contact each parent is to have) (‘private law’ proceedings);
  • where a child wishes to make the child’s own private law application;
  • where a child wishes to be joined as a party in existing private law proceedings and to have something to say to the court; and
  • proceedings where a child has been brought to the United Kingdom by a parent and the other says the child has been abducted.

 

Each of these types of case has different court rules and legal aid definitions (legal aid will be left till a later article).

 

(1)        Public law proceedings

 

Mostly application of the rules in public law proceedings is quite clear. The child has a children’s guardian and automatic legal aid. The court appoints a solicitor (or the mature child choses one: though I bet the child is not often told of this right). If the child disagrees with the view of the children’s guardian, she or he instructs the solicitor direct. The solicitor must act on the child’s instructions. Even that is not always clear to judges and lawyers as the Re W case (above showed). And I think the Court of Appeal in that case got the distinction between ‘specified proceedings’ (in Children Act 1989 s 41) and ‘special Children Act 1989 cases’ and ‘public law children cases’ for legal aid muddled up (see separate article).

 

(2)        Private law proceedings: parents’ application

 

Where one parent applies to a court for an order (a child arrangements order) for their child, and that child is of ‘age and understanding’ (which the Court of Appeal has said could be as young as 7) that child has rights under Arts 12 and 24.1; yet in practice it is a matter of hit-or-miss as to whether the court (the judge or someone else in the court administration) tells the child about this. It is likely only to arise if there is a contest, and the court appoints a court officer (‘CAFCASS’) to see the child and report to the court.

 

Yet, as can be seen from Art 12 (above), the child has a right ‘to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law’. This is not a matter for the judge to decide according to whim. Surely it means that in every case a child’s maturity must be assessed – even if only quite briefly – and that child be asked if they want to express a view? That does not mean the view will necessarily be followed; but it must be a factor included amongst things considered by the court before a decision is made.

 

(3)        Child’s private law application

 

A child has the right, if of ‘sufficient understanding’ (Children Act 1989 s 10(8)) to instruct a lawyer and to make an application on her or his own behalf. This is dealt with under separate court rules, which deal both with how a child deals with the case through a solicitor or alone. Legal aid may be available to the child in this type of application and the next (4).

 

(4)        Child joining in proceedings

 

Similar principles apply where a mature child wishes to be ‘joined’, and have a say, in a parents proceedings. A CAFCASS officer may have been appointed but the child may not agree with the officer’s views. In that case, as a highly respected family judge has said, it is essential that a child feels their independent view has been heard by the court.

 

The child may be able to have a lawyer on legal aid (based on the child’s financial circumstances).

 

(5)        Child abduction proceedings

 

Special rules, some set out in Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction 1980 (‘Hague Convention’) itself, require the courts by one means or another to take account of a child’s views before making an order. In practice there are specialist CAFCASS officers in London (where these proceedings are heard) who discuss a child’s views with her or him.

 

The child may be formally joined in the parents’ proceedings (and if so have a solicitor on legal aid); though separate joining in the proceedings by no means guaranteed.

 

Court procedure

 

Court procedure varies for each of the above categories. There is no clear definition of when or how a child’s views shall be considered. There is no clear definition of when a child must be told what her or his rights are and how this is to be done.

 

The President of the Family Division set up a working group over three years ago: the Vulnerable Witnesses and Children Working Group. The group has drafted new court rules (now over two years old) to answer some of the concerns in this article. The draft does nothing to clarify the procedures which already operate; nor to sort out the complex legal aid provisions which apply to children.

 

As far as I know there is no clear document which explains to mature children what their rights are when they or their parents are involved in court proceedings about them. Still less does the working group deal with how it expects children to be informed of their rights under the UN Convention and how children’s maturity should be considered by the court. Only then will the judge know whether a child’s views under Art 12 should be ‘expressed’ to the court; and only then can the judge start to consider how this should be done.

This article is designed for general readership. It will be followed with a separate version with a number of the legal references included.