Ellie Butler – drawing together some strands and discussion

THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON THE TRANSPARENCY PROJECT BLOG. I REPRODUCE IT HERE FOR BROADER CIRCULATION – IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO COMMENT IT WOULD BE GREAT IF YOU COMMENTED ON THE ORIGINAL POST ON THE PROJECT BLOG HERE, SO ALL COMMENTS ARE IN ONE PLACE.

Several family lawyers have been discussing this case on Twitter, and it was suggested to us that it might be helpful to draw together a document with some important questions and our answers. We won’t necessarily agree on everything, but even our disagreements might help with the debate.

This post is a collaborative post to which a number of people have contributed. We would welcome others responses to the specific questions we’ve set – email info@transparencyproject.org.uk with your replies.

We are Lucy Reed (barrister and author of the Pink Tape website www.pinktape.co.uk)  Sarah Phillimore (barrister and author of the Child Protection Resource website – for a discussion of the principles the courts must apply when trying to find out in family cases how a child has been hurt, see this post), Andrew Pack  (local authority lawyer and author of the Suesspicious Minds website www.suesspiciousminds.com) and Louise Tickle, freelance journalist writing for the Guardian newspaper.

On the evidence that Hogg J heard at the time, what do we think about the finding that the father didn’t cause the shaking injury to Ellie?

Andrew Pack:

When I read the judgment about the shaking injury at the time, it looked to me like a solid and fair analysis of very complicated medical evidence. What causes that sort of head injury in infants is very complex and very controversial, and medical science is moving on all the time. Doctors in this field are talking about it all the time – a decade ago, the medical consensus was that these injuries could NEVER be caused by birth trauma and now we now that birth causes these bleeds on the brain (albeit to a lesser extent) in 50% of births. Reading the Court of Appeal decision in the criminal case, where the conviction was overturned, they highlighted some really unusual aspects about this particular case which would have given more doubt than is usual even in this very controversial field – Hogg J then had added to that the fresh medical evidence about the cyst, and whether that would have been a causing or contributory factor.  I think that the Court had the benefit of the best experts around, arguing both sides, and all of the evidence, and making the finding that the LA had not proved that it was more likely than not that father shook the child was the only safe one to make.  One might argue that the Judge did not give sufficient weight to father’s criminal history of violent behaviour and whether that might have tipped the balance if it was very finely balanced. Reading her analysis, I don’t think that she viewed the evidence as that finely balanced.  She was, on the evidence, confident that father had not done this.

Sarah Phillimore:

I agree with this. I don’t think the Judge can be faulted for how she treated this evidence.

Lucy Reed:

I also agree. The judge heard a large number of the most eminent experts in their respective fields, in some cases several from a single discipline – ophthalmologist, ENT, paediatrician, radiology, neuro-radiology, neuro-surgery…She also heard the evidence of the parents, which she took a particular view on – she thought the father convincing. The law is : if, having heard all the evidence, she was unpersuaded that it was more likely than not that the injuries were inflicted she should determine the infliction not proved – and exonerate the father of those acts.

What do we think about the exoneration speech and letter?

Andrew Pack:

As a matter of law, once the Judge has found that the LA didn’t prove their case about the shaking injury the legal finding is that father did NOT do it. Professionals working with the family would have been told of that legal finding and that the father could not be treated as a risk as a result of the head injury/shaking injury. The Judge clearly felt that father HAD been exonerated and that he had NOT caused the head injury, and her language reflected, I think, her view that the removal of Ellie and his imprisonment had been a miscarriage of justice. From the Serious Case Review, I think you can see that the strength of language that she used made professionals feel that they were being given the message of ‘back off’ and the parents felt that they were bullet-proof. That may have made professionals feel that when they were encountering behaviour that they found concerning they were powerless to act. I think it was a bit too strong at the time but not wildly out of order, and of course with the benefit of hindsight, it was far too strong and could have been couched more carefully – that there were other residual issues about the father that still presented a risk.

Sarah Phillimore:

This is the issue that troubles me. Yes, if there was no evidence that he caused the injuries in 2007 on either the civil or the criminal standard of proof, then as a matter of fact, no one could say that he did. But this was a man with – as I understand it – a clearly documented history of violence, who had served a three year prison term? ( I think – I have not been able to re-read the 2012 judgment as I understand it was removed from publication on line and has not been returned.). I do not know how that history was presented or what weight the Judge put on it. But, in the light of that history, and that the LA were clearly justified in being worried about the initial injuries caused to Ellie when she was a baby, I do not understand why the Judge thought it was appropriate to remove the LA from further oversight of this case and require that a letter setting out Butler’s ‘exoneration’ was sent to other agencies. The Judge found he had NOT hurt Ellie when she was a baby. She did not make findings about his propensity for violence and his criminal history. It may not have been appropriate to do that, particularly if the LA had not relied on these issues to prove their case. BUT. They were clearly part of the background and should, in my view, have given pause for thought before going down any route of widely publicised ‘exoneration’.

This issue also brings into focus some more general concerns about the standard of proof in care proceedings being the ‘balance of probabilities’. I appreciate the arguments that it is not always compatible with the need to protect children, if we insist on proof beyond a reasonable doubt. However, my concerns arise about the subsequent status achieved by a ‘finding of fact’ on the balance of probabilities. The courts are clear that a binary system operates; something is true or it is not. Therefore a finding of fact against a parent can determine the whole course of the proceedings. Parents are required to ‘accept’ the findings with little time for reflection, or risk the LA – and the court – ruling them out entirely as lacking ‘insight’. On serious and life changing matters, I do not feel comfortable with ‘truth’ being established as 51% more likely than not. As the Judge was operating in Butler’s case on the ‘balance of probabilities’ this also should have given some pause for reflection before being keen to ‘exonerate’ him and establish him as an entirely safe and responsible parent.

Lucy Reed:

There is a question as to how the exoneration letter came to be drafted and how it came to be expressed more broadly than the judgment itself. I’ve raised this in my blog post on Pink Tape here. The main issue for me though is the interpretation / response to the exoneration. Ben Butler was exonerated of the physical injuries. The LA elected not to appeal or to argue that he was culpable in any other way. The suggestion in the SCR is that professionals were paralysed by the exoneration. Some time passed before the LA conceded the balance of the threshold, and decided not to pursue findings on any broader threshold risks – from the judgment it is easy to infer that the LA took the reasonable view that to pursue such findings would have served no purpose, partly because the subsequent assessment of the parents was positive and this made it unlikely that the judge would find the threshold crossed on the basis of behaviours that on one view were attributable to the parents being wrongly accused and unlikely (based on the assessment) to endure. The more I consider this point the more I think it would be very illuminating to see the assessment report itself.

I don’t fully understand why, after proceedings had concluded and Ellie returned home, the exoneration should have made professionals feel like the couldn’t / shouldn’t pursue matters of concern. In any event, it appears (based on the SCR) that that subsequent events and information were assessed as not being sufficient to cross the threshold to move into child protection / proceedings, so I’d query what ongoing impact the exoneration had.

Louise Tickle:

I agree with Sarah on this. The psychological impact on on professionals working with Ellie of that letter could not have been anything but one of profound reluctance and fear of stepping in, and being torn to shreds by their own managers and in court if Butler and Gray had protested – which of course they would have done, and I believe in the case of the school raising concerns, did. This was a very senior judge, the LA had fought very hard, and lost. Where, really, were they to go at that point, without fresh evidence of harm reaching a high threshold – and how were they to be able to make assessments given total lack of access, and fear of what would be forthcoming if they were to seek such access?

Were the other issues that could have amounted to threshold properly dealt with, or did the non finding on shaking dominate?

Andrew Pack:

I think this really is the million dollar question. In the first fact finding hearing before Hogg J, the case was all about the head injury, and all of the evidence called and 95% of the documents looked at would have been about that. Having failed to prove that, there was of course still the convictions for violence to consider. Those offences were not against children, so they would not automatically mean that father would have posed a risk to a child, but it was material which needed to be considered in detail in an assessment and could have satisfied threshold.  That, coupled with the child’s presentation around father and the grandparents evidence COULD, have led to a decision that despite the finding on the head injury, Ellie wasn’t going to be moved from grandparents.  I would like to see the threshold document with the findings sought, and to have more clarity about which ones the Judge was specifically asked to make findings on and heard evidence about, and which were simply not put to her as a result of her very clear finding on the head injury and the direction of travel.

Sarah Phillimore:

I agree with this. If this was presented as a ‘single issue’ case – i.e. did he hurt Ellie as a baby, that would seem – with hindsight – to be a mistake. But of course, Judges can only decide the cases before them.

Lucy Reed:

The press coverage at the time focused heavily on the physical injuries but other matters of concern were known about and before the court, but were not the subject of findings. It is arguable that the other matters could have potentially amounted to threshold but the fact and force of the exoneration may have affected decision making about whether it was going to be a good idea to pursue them. The critical question is whether the other matters were presented and pursued and if not why not – and whether any thought was given to reframing threshold after the exoneration. Following the ISW assessment the balance of threshold was crossed. Although we don’t have the threshold document itself it appears from the judgments that the fact of the fathers convictions was not pleaded as a threshold risk in itself. The question of suspected domestic violence / control in the parents relationship was raised and evidence was heard – but the judge made no ruling on this evidence and adjourned off for further assessment. By the time the matter returned to court the LA were not pursuing findings and nobody seems to have asked the judge to record or make findings in respect of this evidence. The first judgment records that evidence was heard but does not record its extent or cogency. It is reasonable to assume that if the evidence was compelling and of high concern this would not have been dropped and would have been the subject of judicial comment or findings. But we don’t actually know.

Was the decision to have Independent Social Workers (ISWs) deal with not just the assessment of whether Ellie should move from her grandparents but the actual social work of the move unusual, and did this make a difference?

Andrew Pack:

The Judge was clearly taking into account that during the earlier hearing, the parents had been substantially criticised by the Local Authority for not accepting that father had injured Ellie and the working relationship was very strained. Having made the finding that father was exonerated, it was put to her, and she agreed, that any assessment by the Council would be ‘doomed to failure’.  That’s strong, but I think it wasn’t unreasonable to ask for the assessment as to whether Ellie should go home to be done by Independent Social Workers. What is much harder to understand is why those ISWs were also charged with doing all of the direct social work with grandparents, Ellie and parents, to prepare Ellie for the move and do the social work visits. The Serious Case Review shows that that agency were not given clear background information and essentially just had the judgment exonerating father – was it clear enough to them that this man had a history of violent offending? Might that have made them more concerned about the visits where they now report that he had been angry and unable to calm down for 10-15 minutes for some of these visits? Or, in the absence of knowing about his convictions for violence, did they assume that this was justifiable frustration about the process from a man who on that judgment had lost his child and been wrongly sent to prison and was still not reunited with his child?  I think that consideration should have been given to a fresh social work team within London Borough of Sutton doing the social work (ISW to do the assessment is fine) or if that wasn’t possible, perhaps a neighbouring authority.  ISW assessment work and direct social work with a family are very different. I think that the Judge got that wrong. At the time, I’d score that decision a 4 out of 10 (it was unusual and a bit strange at the time) and obviously in retrospect it was a major factor to the Court not having the proper evidence about Ellie after the fact finding judgment.

Lucy Reed:

I agree with Andrew. There is a big difference between an independent social work assessment and an independent agency taking over social work responsibility. I’m not sure whether the court intended them to perform this broader role or whether this got mixed up in the process of instruction or at some later stage – perhaps the LA / professionals took the view that they were being ousted for all purposes. It’s unclear whether the ISWs considered themselves to hold this broader responsibility (I’d say doubtful). It’s concerning to learn that over this period the Guardian was off sick and no cover provided. This may well have had a significant impact on the way in which the assessment was carried out and monitored.

Why did grandparents have to pay £70k for legal costs, can anything be done?

Andrew Pack:

The grandparents had parental responsibility by virtue of the Special Guardianship Order, so if these had been care proceedings (the Local Authority wanting to take Ellie away from them) they would have had free legal representation. Because instead this started as a rehearing of a fact finding, and then proceedings primarily regarding a younger sibling not cared for by the grandparents, the grandparents didn’t get legal aid, had to pay their own costs and eventually ran out of money. Grandparents representing themselves, up against two of the best family law Silks around, and a Judge who was viewing Ellie’s case as a miscarriage of justice to be put right – it certainly wasn’t a level playing field. I would strenuously argue for reform of the law here – these grandparents had been caring for Ellie for a long time and doing it well, and if they were to lose her against their will and what their eyes and ears were telling them was right, then they should have had lawyers to fight the case.  A starting point would be for the Ministry of Justice to write the grandfather a cheque for the full amount of his costs – it is bad enough that he lost Ellie, he shouldn’t have lost his life savings too.

Sarah Phillimore:

I agree with this. Ellie had lived with them since she was a very small baby. It is simply wrong in a civilised society that they were left in this position. It wasn’t a level playing field.

Lucy Reed:

This is a problem for grandparents AND parents – even where a parent or other adult has care of a child, public funding is means and merits tested for anything other than the main care proceedings. So, applications to discharge care or placement orders, to appeal or to apply to revoke placement orders or oppose adoption orders, standalone applications about special guardianship or any other private law application – no matter how complex – are means and merits tested. The threshold to be ruled out on means grounds is low so it is easy to be ineligible whilst still being unable to pay.

Judicial accountability and unwillingness to participate in the serious case review (SCR).

Andrew Pack:

I don’t think that the judiciary should routinely participate in Serious Case Reviews. Judicial independence is very important, and the way that SCR’s are conducted, with all parties being very honest about what happened, what could have happened differently, what lessons can be learned, don’t sit entirely comfortably with the judicial role, and the need for them to be independent and to NOT be a part of the professional agencies charged with child protection. However, in a case like this, where the child dies in a placement that the Court have not only sanctioned, but sanctioned in the teeth of opposition from grandparents and social workers, I think that it was unwise for the Judge not to at the very least have spoken with the authors of the Serious Case Review. There needs to be some mechanism for the most exceptional cases of this kind. Likewise, the family judiciary knew of this case 2 years before the verdict – yet the Judge was still given difficult family cases to decide, and they had no press statement or comment. It gives the distinct impression that the judiciary aren’t scrutinising this decision and accepting any part in this tragedy, and that’s a bad impression to give to the Press and public.

Sarah Phillimore:

I agree with this.

Lucy Reed:

On a human level it would be immensely helpful to hear the judge’s view in hindsight, and an explanation of what was going through her mind. But I agree that there are sound constitutional reasons why that should not happen. It’s really important that a judgment is an authoritative and final explanation of a decision or a set of findings. That’s an important protection for adults and children and I think that if alongside a judgment there is a public rumination about what might have been wrong about a judgment then the judgment loses its specialness and the authority of the court is lost. I think it’s right that where a judgment is wrong it can be appealed, and where material new evidence arises a finding can be revisited. That happened in this case when new medical evidence pointed towards a miscarriage of justice against Ben Butler, and of course with hindsight many people are now reappraising the exoneration finding.

For me though the corollary of saying that a judge should not participate in an SCR is that there must be meaningful transparency in terms of the judgments and process. We don’t have that in this case because the judgments have been pulled and the public can’t appraise the judgments or case documents against the SCR. Having seen some of the judgments in this case it seems to me that there is some tension between some of the accounts given and views expressed in the SCR and in media reports and the content of the judgments themselves. I think that constitutionally the public need to have access to this material.

Louise Tickle:

I don’t agree with this. I cannot see why the judiciary should have zero accountability when every other actor in the case has had to answer for their decision making and judgement calls. I think, in response to Lucy’s point, that the authority of the court is only as good as the public’s confidence in it. I do not think public confidence in the judiciary has been increased by this case, but worse, I think it has been even further damaged by the position taken by the President that a judge simply will not enter into the processes of examination as to why she acted in ways that went, in some people’s view, far further than was required, on a standard of proof that can be hardly said to truly exonerate anyone. Particularly anyone with the previous, safe, criminal convictions for violence that Ben Butler had. Overall, I cannot see why any part of our society’s agencies should be above questioning and scrutiny. A child has died. The ‘specialness’ of the judiciary is an irrelevance and an abuse of privilege in this extreme circumstance, if there is something to be learnt by other judges and indeed the rest of us. It is not about demanding heads on plates – it about Hogg’s thought processes and levels of risk aversion and judgement relating to facts and evidence she was appraising that could, if it were to be known, be reflected upon, considered, discussed and learned from. We do not get better understanding of failures by refusing to look at what let up to them. And judges have vast powers. The more power you have, the more accountable you should be when something very terrible goes wrong.

What pieces of information are we still lacking? Should for example suitably anonymised medical reports be in the public domain so press and public can see how complex and difficult the medical evidence is?

Andrew Pack:

I think we need the judgments available to the public and put in one easily accessible place – the Court of Appeal criminal judgment, the fact finding judgment from Hogg J, the second judgment from Hogg J where she decided that Ellie would live with Jennie and  Ben, and very vitally the judgments from King J about Ellie’s sibling after Ellie had died. At the moment, we don’t know whether King J reconsidered Hogg J’s exoneration at all, or whether it proceeded just on the evidence about Ellie’s death. Nor do we know what the outcome was for Ellie’s sibling– of course we shouldn’t have name or details of the sibling’s address, but I think there’s public interest in whether the child was placed with the grandparents and if not why that was decided. I think that unusually in this case, there is justification for the entire court bundle to be available to be seen. Obviously one has to be careful about any photographs and we don’t want prurient rubber-necking, but there is such public unhappiness about this decision that seeing the medical reports would, I think be justified.

Sarah Phillimore:

I agree with this.

Lucy Reed:

I agree also. I would in particular like to see skeleton arguments or written opening / submissions presented to the court at the rehearing, threshold documents filed at particular times, position statements and orders.

3 thoughts on “Ellie Butler – drawing together some strands and discussion

  1. George Eddon

    The judgments are not currently freely available on BAILII (and should be), but are still available to Family Law Reports subscribers
    – fact-finding at [2013] 1 FLR 833
    – second hearing at [2013] 1 FLR 914

    • Indeed they are, but unfortunately (having just checked), there is information contained in those reports which is covered by a RRO. But I can’t tell you what it is! So all I can suggest is that subscribers don’t republish the judgments in full or link to them in case you inadvertently breach the RRO. It is very unsatisfactory and somewhat arbitrary in terms of who may see these documents.

  2. […] told you. And also participated in a collaborative blog post with others about Ellie’s case here. And I also bemoaned how hopelessly amateurish our approach to transparency, both in terms of my […]

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