Judicial Cooperation with Serious Case Reviews

….There won’t be any (cooperation). Not least because Serious Case Reviews have been abolished with the enactment of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 on 27 April, which will (from a date yet to be fixed) abolish Local Safeguarding Childrens’ Boards and thus, Serious Case Reviews. The President’s Guidance : Judicial Cooperation with Serious Case Reviews is dated 2 May 2017. It IS current, but it won’t be for long (assuming always that the Act is actually brought into force – though there is no particular reason to think it won’t be once the General Election is over).

OK, it’s a cheap point. LSCBs (Local Safeguarding Children Boards) and SCRs will be replaced with the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel and with Local child safeguarding practice reviews and Child Death Review Panels. I’ve yet to get my head around the detail of what the difference is (apart from the name), but the gist seems to be that the CSPRP is a National Panel which will look at “serious child safeguarding cases in England which raise issues that are complex or of national importance”, and the LCSPRs seem pretty much equivalent to LSCBs insofar as they are a multi agency group tasked with working together to review “serious child safeguarding cases which raise issues of importance in relation to the area”, with the CDRPs looking specifically at cases of child death (SCRs were tasked collectively with cases of serious harm or death).

Nonetheless, it seems fair to assume that the guidance, which will shortly relate to a defunct process, will apply equally to the new set up. I make that assumption because the points within the guidance are all points of basic, established principle and contain no surprises : in a nutshell : judicial independence innit. You can have all the judgments, all the documents the judge had and all the transcripts for your SCR – but judges will not be answering questions, undertaking interviews and senior judges will most certainly NOT be carrying out IMRs (Independent Management Reviews) on the work of their junior colleagues. That’s what appeals are for.

This is pretty much what I said was the position when a group of us were discussing criticism of Hogg J for refusing to engage in the SCR arising from the death of Ellie Butler (See here). This document comes as no surprise, and is likely to have been prompted by the author of that SCR writing to The President specifically to raise this issue with him (as it was said at the time she had done).

One thing I do think odd though, is the implication that it would be effectively unthinkable for one judge to comment on the decisions of another :

  1. It is a fundamental principle that judges do not comment on the decisions of other judges outside the appellate process. This is why it would be inappropriate for an IMR of a judicial decision to be conducted; it would, effectively, be one judge (or group of judges) commenting upon the decisions of another judge outside the proper appellate process…This principle evolved in order to protect the rule of law – it reinforces the idea that the only way to challenge a judicial decision is to do so in court, not to seek to undermine it outside the court process.
  2. This position on SCRs has been followed by Sir Mark’s successors, Sir Nicholas Wall P and, in turn, by me.

This seems entirely sensible until one remembers that there has been at least one occasion where precisely this has happened : the Report to the President of the Family Division on the publication ‘Twenty-nine child homicides’ was prepared by Sir Nicholas Wall, then a High Court Judge, and he said this :

…Having discussed the matter with officials from the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA), Dame Elizabeth [Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, then the President of the Family Division] and I agreed, that in view both of the importance of the subject and the Select Committee’s proper concern about it, I should examine all the available court files in all the cases identified by WAFE in which there had been court involvement. I would then report – either to her or, as was more likely, to her successor…[he conducted a file review of various cases]

…a number of queries inevitably arose, and I wrote to the judges involved in the five cases, asking questions and inviting their comments…I have received complete co-operation from all the judges involved, who have been, without exception, both frank and helpful…My assessment of their conduct appears at the conclusion of the Part of the report dealing with the individual cases…I sent a copy of the draft to each of the judges involved for comment prior to finalisation. I have received responses from all five. None made any criticisms of the report or of my comments on the individual cases, and in general each was supportive of my recommendations to you.

As far as I know this is the only time that such a report has been prepared (it is worth noting that the report was prepared in response to the Womens’ Aid 29 Homicides report, and that more recently in response to the more recent Womens’ Aid 19 Child Homicides report and subsequent campaigning by Womens’ Aid the President tasked Cobb J with a review PD12J). It is possible that there are other examples that I am unaware of.
I confess that I am struggling with the difference in principle between the Homicides report, which is to all intents and purposes an IMR, and the assertion that the judiciary don’t scrutinise or critique one another’s work except in the course of an appellate system. Granted, the Wall report was exceptional, but cases like Ellie Butler’s are also pretty exceptional – so it begs the question why an exception couldn’t be / shouldn’t have been made there. In posing this question I’m not suggesting the answer, I’m simply highlighting the apparent inconsistency in approach and trying to work it through in my own mind.
For me, it would have been more helpful for the Guidance to have acknowledged this isolated example, and to have explained the distinction for us dummies. But I guess (ironically) that might have had to involve the criticism of the position adopted by another judge, so perhaps answer I’m seeking is to be found in the silence itself.
It is something I will give more thought to – does anyone else have an answer?

4 thoughts on “Judicial Cooperation with Serious Case Reviews

  1. The senior judiciary are not good at saying “we got it wrong” and that is probably why the isolated example is passed over in profound silence. It should never have happened – the President should have told DeCaff and the Select Committee to get lost – and it must never happen again.

  2. Julie Doughty

    Couple of small points.
    1. Children and Social Work Act is mainly England only. Different structure in Wales.
    2. Nicholas Wall review had widespread support and consensus amongst judiciary and practitioners at the time. Endemic problem of perception that courts allowed dangerous contact needed addressing.

    • Hi Julie,
      Fair point on 1. Didn’t spell it out but was aware – but others may not have been.
      On 2 – It’s still endemic isn’t it? So it didn’t work very well! I note it hasn’t been repeated with the second homicides report, although it did result in a consultation which seemed only to really involve WA, as the FLBA confirmed they were unaware the PD was being amended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *