Evidence of vulnerable witnesses

(1)        AM (Afghanistan) v Secretary of State for the Home Department

 

Fair assessment of vulnerability

 

As the report (with draft regulations attached) of Vulnerable Witnesses and Children Working Group (‘VWCWG’) continues to rot in the Lord Chancellor’s in-tray – or its resources implications to be embroiled with some Treasury austerity sub-committee – three cases concerning vulnerable witnesses and child law have been reported recently.

 

The first is an immigration case, but one which concerns a 15 year old Afghan asylum seeker and the assessment of his credibility in the administrative appeals tribunals. The Court of Appeal was unimpressed as to how he had been dealt with.  In AM (Afghanistan) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2017] EWCA Civ 1123 (27 July 2017) the court commented on the treatment of evidence of child and vulnerable witnesses and held that a First-tier Tribunal (‘FtT’) ‘did not properly consider the impact of the appellant’s age, vulnerability and the evidence of [his] significant learning disability’ ([18]). They sent the case back for reconsideration. The Lord Chancellor was given permission to intervene. The main judgment (with which Gross and Underhill LJJ agreed) was given by President of the Tribunals (‘Ryder LJ’). All parties and the court agreed that the appeal should be allowed.

 

Asylum application by 15 year old Afghan

 

AM’s father was a member of the Taliban. After the father’s death AM travelled across Europe to UK and had claimed asylum. He was beaten up by Afghan police before leaving, and was threatened by them and by the Taliban in Afghanistan. He had a real fear of persecution.  It was said that he has mental health and psychological difficulties. The Secretary of State refused him asylum but granted leave to remain till 17½. Reasons for this included that his evidence was not credible.

 

The tribunal paper included a psychologist’s report which the FtT judge said had only been ‘drawn to his attention’ after the hearing. That said Ryder LJ was not true and was, in any event, ‘a wholly inadequate response to the content of the report’ which included ‘opinions about the appellant that were relevant to procedural fairness’ ([12]). AM’s appeal was rejected as was his appeal to the Upper Tribunal (‘UT’).

 

Ryder LJ considered that the psychologist’s opinion for the FtT was ‘appropriate’; and the FtT judge was not entitled, ‘effectively’, to ignore ([13]) them. He therefore concluded:

 

[16] In like manner to my conclusion at [13] I have come to the firm view that the UT judge took no sufficient steps to ensure that the appellant had obtained effective access to justice and in particular that his voice could be heard in proceedings that concerned him.  Procedurally, the proceedings were neither fair nor just.  That was a material error of law. The appellant was a vulnerable party with needs that were not addressed….  The parties agree.

 

Credibility and objective evidence

 

Central to the court’s view of the tribunal’s assessment of evidence was that the FtT judge looked at what he regarded as the ‘credibility’ of AM, rather than considering his vulnerability and looking at to other available ‘objective evidence’ first. He had an ‘obligation’ to ‘give precedence and greater weight to objective evidence and indicators of risk’ to AM, rather than to his personal credibility. These evidential factors must be reviewed ‘in light of [AM]’s age, vulnerability and learning disability’ ([19]). Had the tribunal properly considered its own practice direction and rules this error and the importance of AM’s age would have been clear to it.

 

The FtT and the parties are required to ensure that an appellant is able to participate fully in the proceedings. There is a flexibility and a wide range of specialist expertise which the tribunal can use to deal with a case fairly and justly.  Within the Rules themselves this flexibility and ability to override formality is made clear, said Ryder LJ. If this is not done there is a risk that any decision made by a tribunal will be ‘unlawful’; and this is especially so where – as here – the welfare of a child is in issue.

 

Ryder LJ reviewed the available tribunal practice directions on dealing with ‘vulnerable adults and sensitive witnesses’ ([31] and [32]): ‘failure to follow them will most likely be a material error of law’ ([30]).

 

 

(2)        Carmarthen County Council v Y

 

Evidence of an incapacitated witness

 

Carmarthen County Council v Y and others [2017] EWFC 36 (30 June 2017) relates to a preliminary fact-finding issue in children proceedings (the heading to the case hints that it is care proceedings). Two immediate problems arise. It is not clear till late in Mostyn J’s judgment what the primary application before the court is; though the preliminary facts issue is summarised as:

 

[1] … The facts in dispute are whether, or not, A repeatedly raped his daughter, Y, more than 20 years ago when she was under 16. It is said that the abuse continued after she turned 16.  A strongly denies the accusation. His wife B says that the allegation is impossible to believe, as does Y’s sister C. Y herself suffers from mental illness and has not participated in the trial. Her counsel take a neutral stance in relation to the allegations, as does the [children’s guardian].  The local authority submits that the accusation is true.

 

But to what application do these facts relate (the heading of the case refers to a child Z)? Z is introduced half way through the judgement at [24]. It becomes clear at [36] and [37] that she was born on 25 October 2011 and that she is the daughter of Y and therefore the grand-daughter of A. By the end of the judgement the implication that there are care issues in relation to Z becomes clear.

 

This might have been resolved by the second problem. Mostyn J tells the reader:

 

[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 (see eg ‘Release of court hearing documents’: ). As matters now stand ‘reference’ cannot now be made to the ‘useful document’. Both problems remain.

 

Issue of law: ‘a probability of 51%’

 

The issue of law relates to Y’s evidence. Such was her mental state that she could not be called at court; not be cross-examined on what she said on behalf of her father A (who was joined s a party in the proceedings). Such was the unreliability of what Mostyn J saw, he held that A could not be required to answer Y’s allegations, and that what she said should be treated as having not happened:

 

[44] The decision of the House of Lords in Re B (Children) [2008] UKHL 35 confirms what we all already knew, namely that if an allegation in relation to a past (as opposed to future) fact or event is not proved to a probability of 51% then it is treated as not having happened: see Lord Hoffmann at paragraph 2. The court may feel that there is a not fanciful (im)probability, say 25%, of the event having happened, but that mere suspicion, for that is all it is, entirely falls by the wayside….

 

That this evidence was from a vulnerable witness (though she was no longer a child) and that therefore whether it should have been seen in the light of other objective evidence of her credibility (if there was any: her mental state might be part of such a question), in accordance with AM (above) was not considered by Mostyn J. In fairness that decision was only handed down a couple of days before Mostyn J’s judgment. However, in AM at [19] Ryder LJ referred to older Court of Appeal authority (which would have been available to Mostyn J) namely Mibanga v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2005] EWCA Civ 367.

 

In Mibanga the Court of Appeal stressed the importance of reference to expert evidence to assist with an objective view of credibility. In that case Wilson J (sitting in the Court of Appeal and with whom Ward and Buxton LJJ agreed) said:

 

[24] It seems to me to be axiomatic that a fact-finder must not reach his or her conclusion before surveying all the evidence relevant thereto. Just as, if I may take a banal if alliterative example, one cannot make a cake with only one ingredient, so also frequently one cannot make a case, in the sense of establishing its truth, otherwise than by combination of a number of pieces of evidence. Mr Tam, on behalf of the Secretary of State, argues that decisions as to the credibility of an account are to be taken by the judicial fact-finder and that, in their reports, experts, whether in relation to medical matters or in relation to in-country circumstances, cannot usurp the fact-finder’s function in assessing credibility. I agree. What, however, they can offer, is a factual context in which it may be necessary for the fact-finder to survey the allegations placed before him; and such context may prove a crucial aid to the decision whether or not to accept the truth of them. What the fact-finder does at his peril is to reach a conclusion by reference only to the appellant’s evidence and then, if it be negative, to ask whether the conclusion should be shifted by the expert evidence….

 

Mostyn J says he read a massive amount of evidence. On the information of his judgment it is not possible to say what specific medical evidence in relation to Y that included; and therefore it is not possible to assess to what extent – in Mibanga and AM terms – he assessed Y’s credibility. He says first:

 

[6] As stated, Y has not given oral evidence. She is presently detained in a psychiatric hospital under the Mental Health Act. There is compelling, unchallenged, medical evidence that it would be very harmful for her to give oral evidence in court. A therefore has not had the opportunity of confronting his principal accuser, nor has the court had the opportunity of assessing under cross-examination the reliability of the evidence deriving from her.

 

Later in his Judgment Mostyn J says:

 

[40] In February 2016 Y was sectioned. She has been in a psychiatric unit ever since and is under close supervision. Her condition is truly pitiful in that she seems to wish to engage in self-harm at almost every opportunity. As I have stated above, the medical evidence is very clear – for her to give evidence or to participate in the proceedings could aggravate her condition considerably.

 

No more detail of the evidence or its assessment of Y’s credibility is attempted by the judge; nor, for example, does he ask why her mental capacity may be affected as it now is. He did not review how a witness in Y’s position might have been dealt with in the analogous position dictated for criminal trials under Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 Pt 2 (though it is likely he was not referred to that Act).

 

 

(3)        H v D (Appeal – Failure of Case Management)

 

A right to cross-examine?

 

The title of H v D (Appeal – Failure of Case Management) [2017] EWHC 1907 (Fam), Peter Jackson J gives a clue as to what is coming. In a convoluted series of hearings concerning a contact dispute, the first instance judge had attempted to protect the mother from direct cross-examination by the father of their child.

 

Peter Jackson J referred early in his judgment to the following:

 

[6] Where questioning by the court is for some reason not possible, the situation of the alleged victim may be entirely unsatisfactory: see for example the recent observations of Hayden J in Re A (a minor) (fact finding; unrepresented party) [2017] EWHC 1195 (Fam) at 57-63.

 

Neither he nor Hayden J (in Re A) seems to have been referred to the Court of Appeal case of Re K & H (Children) [2015] EWCA Civ 543 sub nom K and H (Private Law: Public Funding) [2016] 1 FLR 754, where Lord Dyson MR said in terms that if a judge considers that parent B should not cross-examine the other (A),  then the judge must make do and conduct the questioning of A for B (Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 s 31G(6)) (and see per Lord Bingham CJ in R v Brown (Milton) [1998] 2 Cr App Rep 364 cited by Lord Dyson at [55]).

 

Peter Jackson J explains that in August 2015 – yes, 2015 – the matter was allocated to HHJ Kushner QC.  Her first task, said the judge, was to conduct a hearing of the mother’s allegations which were likely to have a strong effect on the welfare decision, whether proved or not. He went on: ‘[10] A broad survey of the events over the past two years makes very concerning reading.  It would be no exaggeration to say that practically no progress has yet been made;’ and he then lists 10 examples of why he was concerned at the lack of progress.

 

At the conclusion of all this, the circuit judge ordered that the father be permitted to cross-examine the mother. She then appealled against this decision; and, in the course of the appeal, advance an ‘additional ground of appeal, based upon the general failure of case management’.

 

Peter Jackson J allowed the mothers appeal, and sent the case back to another judge in the court appealled from. Perhaps his most controversial finding was that the father had no right to ‘cross-examine’ or ask questions of the mother ([21], first bullet-point). Directions had already been given to which the father did not object. The court had made ‘repeated orders (five in all) requiring [him] to put his questions in writing’. The father did not comply, ‘no sanctions were applied, and it was not until 7 March 2017 (Day 2 of the hearing), that he eventually produced a list of questions’ ([10](ii)). In fairness to Peter Jackson J, he perhaps treated that direction as sufficient to deal with F’s ‘right to cross-examine’.

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3 thoughts on “Evidence of vulnerable witnesses

  1. Pingback: Evidence of vulnerable witnesses – ShabbyGabby3737 Bringing you the very best in independent and impartial advice and discussion on humantarian and social and legal issues in the UK (Part of ShabbyGabby3737 Ltd)

  2. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    Asylum application by 15 year old Afghan
    Fair assessment of vulnerability
    Credibility and objective evidence
    “Ryder LJ considered that the psychologist’s opinion for the FtT was ‘appropriate’; and the FtT judge was not entitled, ‘effectively’, to ignore ([13]) them. He therefore concluded:
    [16] In like manner to my conclusion at [13] I have come to the firm view that the UT judge took no sufficient steps to ensure that the appellant had obtained effective access to justice and in particular that his voice could be heard in proceedings that concerned him. Procedurally, the proceedings were neither fair nor just. That was a material error of law. The appellant was a vulnerable party with needs that were not addressed ….”
    “[44] The decision of the House of Lords in Re B (Children) [2008] UKHL 35 confirms what we all already knew, namely that if an allegation in relation to a past (as opposed to future) fact or event is not proved to a probability of 51% then it is treated as not having happened: see Lord Hoffmann at paragraph 2. The court may feel that there is a not fanciful (im)probability, say 25%, of the event having happened, but that mere suspicion, for that is all it is, entirely falls by the wayside….”
    Issue of law: ‘a probability of 51%’
    “In Mibanga the Court of Appeal stressed the importance of reference to expert evidence to assist with an objective view of credibility. In that case Wilson J (sitting in the Court of Appeal and with whom Ward and Buxton LJJ agreed) said:
    [24] It seems to me to be axiomatic that a fact-finder must not reach his or her conclusion before surveying all the evidence relevant thereto. Just as, if I may take a banal if alliterative example, one cannot make a cake with only one ingredient, so also frequently one cannot make a case, in the sense of establishing its truth, otherwise than by combination of a number of pieces of evidence. Mr Tam, on behalf of the Secretary of State, argues that decisions as to the credibility of an account are to be taken by the judicial fact-finder and that, in their reports, experts, whether in relation to medical matters or in relation to in-country circumstances, cannot usurp the fact-finder’s function in assessing credibility. I agree. What, however, they can offer, is a factual context in which it may be necessary for the fact-finder to survey the allegations placed before him; and such context may prove a crucial aid to the decision whether or not to accept the truth of them. What the fact-finder does at his peril is to reach a conclusion by reference only to the appellant’s evidence and then, if it be negative, to ask whether the conclusion should be shifted by the expert evidence….”
    (3) H v D (Appeal – Failure of Case Management)
    A right to cross-examine?
    “Peter Jackson J explains that in August 2015 – yes, 2015 – the matter was allocated to HHJ Kushner QC. Her first task, said the judge, was to conduct a hearing of the mother’s allegations which were likely to have a strong effect on the welfare decision, whether proved or not. He went on: ‘[10] A broad survey of the events over the past two years makes very concerning reading. It would be no exaggeration to say that practically no progress has yet been made;’ and he then lists 10 examples of why he was concerned at the lack of progress.”

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