Top twelve family law cases for 2017

 

Miller to Mental Capacity Act 2005

 

A review of my top twelve family law cases for 2017 must mention – no more – R (Miller & anor) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017] UKSC 5, [2017] 2 WLR 583. It drew attention Brussels IIA (Council Regulation (EC) No 2201/2003 of 27 November 2003 Concerning Jurisdiction and the Recognition and Enforcement of Judgments in Matrimonial Matters and in Matters of Parental Responsibility) as being an example of legislation which any ‘Great Reform Bill’ (such a silly name, now European Union (Withdrawal) Bill)) could not replace. It requires co-operation from other EU legislatures and judiciary which may – or may not: we do not know yet – be forthcoming.

 

Lady Black must be congratulated for her promotion to the Supreme Court; but for clarity of law-making her brother McFarlane LJ remains the star. In the High Court it is hard to choose only a handful of cases when we have lawyers of the calibre of Peter Jackson (now LJ), Cobb, Keehan, MacDonald, Hayden and Baker JJ pushing out the judgments (I don’t mention Mostyn J, who is too self-indulgent; and he is too wobbly as a lawyer to be a good judge).

 

It is odd that it is the male judges who send in their judgments to BAILII. The common law (for it is reported, not unreported decisions which frame the law) – like other things in life, perhaps? – tends to be made by boys, even in family law. I have limited each Family Division judge to only one case. No women reach this cut, which may be very unfair: where are Parker or Theis, Russell or Roberts JJ, for example? Not even Lady Hale, whose judgements in her thirteen years in the Supreme Court have done so much to reform and define family law, makes it in Supreme Court judgments this year.

 

Nor have I found it possible to include in my dozen one judgement from the President, Sir James Munby. Perhaps in part this is because amongst his duties is work on obscure subjects like HRH Princess Margaret’s will and cases brought by the Queen’s Proctor such as Grasso v Naik (twenty-one irregular divorces) [2017] EWHC 2789 (Fam). Twenty-one divorce petitions issued from the same address by a struck-off barrister were revoked or set aside. After the initial explanation of the law and a scan of the evidence you could tell that Sir James was thoroughly bored by the whole thing. Neither case – the will and the QP application – add much to the use or ornament of the principles of family law.

 

The appellate courts

 

2017 began with all eleven Supreme Court Justices delivering their split (8:3) judgements in Miller. Birch v Birch [2017] UKSC 53, [2017] 2 FLR 1031 explained that an undertaking, pre-curial to a court order could be varied in narrow and appropriate circumstances (Birch by the way was ignored by Mostyn J in his administrative exercise of CH v WH (Power to order indemnity) [2017] EWHC 2379 (Fam) as explained here https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/when-is-a-financial-provision-order-not-an-order/). R (UNISON) v Lord Chancellor (Equality and Human Rights Commission and another intervening) [2017] UKSC 51, [2017] 3 WLR 409 makes the cut as a family law case. It is pervasive to all litigation. It elegantly and authoritatively defines rights to justice and the rule of law.

 

The star for me of Court of Appeal cases is Re T (A Child) [2017] EWCA Civ 1889 in which McFarlane LJ explains the breadth and utility to parties and children in family proceedings of the non-molestation order under Family Law Act 1996 s 42; in this case to protect a child who was in foster care. In so doing he refuses to define ‘molestation’ or ‘domestic abuse’ (see, by contrast, the effort to do so in the revised FPR 2010 PD12J para 3: for a pre-Re T discussion of PD12J see https://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2017/11/18/lord-scarman-and-a-definition-of-domestic-abuse/). It depends on the circumstances and whether they come within the broad meaning of molestation in Family Law Act 1996 s 42.

 

In Hart v Hart [2017] EWCA Civ 1306 Moylan LJ produced a master-class on the back-ground to the modern – ie post White v White [2000] 1 AC 596, [2000] 2 FLR 981, [2000] UKHL 54 – law on ancillary relief; and in particular in relation to ‘non-matrimonial assets’ (eg inherited, after acquired or earned by exceptional effort assets). Mrs Hart, much to the unbridled disgust of her own lawyers, Irwin Mitchell (who should have restrained their comments on the judgment) failed in her appeal. A judge has a wide discretion in these things. All lawyers, Irwin M included, must learn that discretion does not always fall the way you expect – or in the way you have advised your client to expect.

 

In AM (Afghanistan) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2017] EWCA Civ 1123 Sir Ernest Ryder (as President of Appeals Tribunals) emphasised that care is needed by courts in how they treat the evidence of vulnerable witnesses (here in an immigration appeals tribunal). It is an important case for anyone acting for a vulnerable party or witness in any form of court proceedings: criminal, family, civil or administrative tribunal (as here). Two particular issues arose which are relevant also eg to children proceedings: the way in which the credibility of a child or other vulnerable witness should be assessed against other objective evidence in the particular case; and the importance of flexibility of procedure for the hearing of vulnerable and child witnesses (including taking account of recommendations of expert witnesses as to how this could be done) (please note authors of the recent FPR 2010 Pt 3A on vulnerable witnesses: and see David Burrows on ‘Evidence of children and vulnerable witnesses: Part 1’).

 

European cases

 

Maybe I’ve been a little biased in singling out EU regulation cases; but the hole being bored in our family justice system is still only present, for now, in its ignoral by most family lawyers. In B v B (Maintenance Regulation – Stay) [2017] EWHC 1029 (Fam) MacDonald J explained the background to the stay jurisdiction and why in this case the former wife and the English courts must await a decision from the Milan court. In FE v MR & Ors [2017] EWHC 2298 (Fam) Baker J considered whether Brussels IIA Art 15 enables the court of a member state (a requesting court, R) to request another to transfer a case from that member state’s court to R’s court. Were the children’s circumstances exceptional and would the requesting court ‘be better placed to hear the case’ (Art 15.1). Baker J considers the factors which should influence him in requesting a Spanish court to transfer a case to the English courts, where two children aged 14 and 11 of Spanish parents, were living in England, but had been subject to proceedings in Spain for four years.

 

One money, one ‘private law’ children case; and finally a ‘public law’ case, all under Brussels IIA. In Redbridge LBC v D, E, F and G (Children: Art 15 – transfer of the proceedings) [2017] EWFC B82, HHJ Carol Atkinson as High Court judge dealt with an application under Art 15 in respect of 4 Roma heritage children from Romania. An application for a transfer of the proceedings to Romania, pursuant to Art 15 was issued by the mother in April 2017. The English court had jurisdiction based on habitual residence. Judge Atkinson provides a text-book analysis of the law to determine this application, by reference to leading case law and concluded that it would not be in the ‘best interests’ of the children to transfer the children; at least not at this stage.

 

In the tragic case of Re Gard (A Child) [2017] EWHC 1909 (Fam) (and see ‘Lessons from Gard’), Francis J did what a Family Division judge sometimes has to do, and he did so with great dignity and care. Charlie suffered severe brain damage and could not see or hear or breathe because of a mitochondrial condition. Your heart bleeds for his parents, who – or on whose behalf – every legal and medical stone was turned. Spare a thought too for the Family Division judge who has to say a child must die.

 

In Wolverhampton City Council v JA & Ors [2017] EWFC 62, Keehan J – with enormous care, and attention to detail of the evidence – explained why children should go into care and why the ABE evidence adduced before him was admissible and credible. An oddity of the case remains that information which should have been covered by legal professional privilege – as I read the report (see eg here) – was compelled to be produced by a lawyer who took part in the early stages of the case.

 

Peter Jackson J (as he then was) would be the first to accept that Re A (Letter to a Young Person) (Rev 1) [2017] EWFC 48 broke no new ground, in law. It has to be included here as a very real attempt to open up to a ‘young person’ (a young boy who had, originally, made his own application to go to live with his father in a ‘Scandinavian’ country). When courts are being reminded daily that the views of those children mature enough to be consulted – if they want to be consulted – must be taken into consideration (see Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union Art 24: also proposed to go with EU withdrawal), for a judge to ensure that the traffic flows in both directions is surely a very good thing?

 

My favourite case of 2017 is Re S (Child as Parent: Adoption: Consent) [2017] EWHC 2729 (Fam). In it Cobb J combines, with the typical sensitivity of a fine children lawyer, an understanding of how one of my favourite cases of all time – Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech AHA [1985] UKHL 7, [1986] 1 AC 112, [1986] 1 FLR 224 – with a subject which is essential to all family lawyers Mental Capacity Act 2005. He shows how these two subjects complement one another in relation to a child’s or other person’s understanding and ability to consent (see eg ‘Capacity to consent’).

 

Happy Christmas to any and all of my readers…

 

David Burrows

24 December 2017

 

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