PARENTS FOUND INNOCENT OF CHILD ABUSE AFTER THEIR BABY WAS REMOVED AND ADOPTED – an explanation

This case has been much reported in the press over the last 48 hours or so. I have been asked specifically to write about it via twitter, so here is a bit of context to help people understand what it's all about. I don't know any more about the case than is publicly available - what is reported in the news appears primarily to be drawn from this press release on the Garden Court Chambers website, which is the chambers of defence counsel in the criminal proceedings. There is therefore only so much I can usefully say about it without descending into guess work.

What we know is this :

In April 2012 a baby its as taken to hospital to injuries to it's frenulum (a little bit inside the mouth), and this led to the apparent discovery of several fractures. Those injuries were thought to be suspicious, or "non-accidental". This led to two things :

  • care proceedings to decide if the baby could safely stay with his or her parents
  • a criminal investigation and prosecution process which seems to have been very lengthy in part due to the sequential production of various different expert reports.

The parents are named as a result of them being defendants in criminal proceedings. Under Family Court rules it is not permitted to identify the child or his / her adopters unless the court allows it.

The prosecution

Let's deal with the criminal side of it first. On 7 October 2015, shortly after a report was received from a defence expert, the prosecution offered no evidence. That means they dropped the case because they didn't think they could get a conviction i.e. they didn't think they could prove the case beyond reasonable doubt. It appears from the press release that the expert evidence produced by the defence team was pretty clear in casting doubt on the suggestion the parents had caused the injuries by giving an alternate cause for them - but because the prosecution dropped the case that evidence was never tested in court through cross examination. [update 5pm 9/10/15 - I've just seen a news report suggesting the case was dropped half way through the trial and that Dr Fairhurst denied again and again" the suggestion the injuries were not caused by child abuse. It seems possible therefore that at least some of the evidence was tested]. We are told that the "expert’s opinion...concluded that he was doubtful there were any fractures at all." So, doubtful, but not certain. That's about as much detail as we have.

The family court case

Next, the family court side of things. We know that care proceedings were begun, probably immediately after the hospital admission, when the baby was very young (6 weeks old). We know that the court at some stage found that the parents had caused the injuries, and that in reaching that conclusion it had the benefit of an expert report from a paediatrician, Dr Fairhurst. We don't know but it is likely that this expert was instructed jointly by all the parties rather than having separate "defence" and "prosecution" witnesses as in criminal cases. The judge in the family court controls the use of expert evidence, and must give permission for it. The test now for allowing expert evidence is that it must be "necessary", but depending on when the decision was made in this case it might have been under the earlier, slightly less strict test of "reasonably required". The family court operates on a different standard of proof to the criminal court - that is to say something is proved in the Family Court (like all other civil courts) if it is "more likely than not" that it happened. Put another way it is 51% or more likely - the local authority (social services) must prove the case and tip the balance to "more likely than not". They appear to have done so successfully in this case. It is quite possible for someone to be acquitted in a criminal court because a jury can't be "satisfied so it is sure", but for something to still be "more likely than not". Imagine a juror saying "well I think it probably happened but I can't be sure". That juror would have to go "not guilty", but if he was judging the case in the Family or Civil Court would say that the thing was proved, because it probably happened.

We know that the court approved a plan for adoption, by making care and placement orders. We don't know when, but it is likely (based on other cases of this sort) that it was done within a year - say by the middle of 2013 (the fact that contact continued for around 2 years after injury could suggest that the case was not finalised until later, but it is difficult to say). In some cases the Family Court will await the verdict in a criminal trial before finalising a Family Court case, but it depends on the circumstances. If the court waits for a conviction means that there is no need for those facts to be tried again in the Family Court - put simply the parents are stuck with it. If however there is an acquittal the Family Court would still have to go on and look at the evidence and decide if the thing was proved on the balance of probabilities (more likely than not) - and in that scenario a child would end up spending longer hanging around in foster care waiting for a decision. We don't know what stage the criminal proceedings had reached by this point, but it is reasonable to assume that the Family Court felt that the decision could not wait. We don't know what, if any, argument was had about this at the time.

So, the court had Dr Fairhurst's report. It decided the allegations were proved. We are told that "no real challenge to the science was made" in those proceedings, but it's not clear what that implied criticism is getting at. For example, we don't know if the court was asked but refused to permit the instruction of a further expert either as second opinion or from a different discipline (an endocrinologist for example, as this is the discipline which seems to have been critical in the decision to drop the prosecution) - or if no such request was made. We don't know if the remark is referring to a failure to properly cross examine Dr Fairhurst. So at this stage it is unclear if the focus of challenge / criticism is likely to be of the parent's legal team or of the court - or of Dr Fairhurst - or a combination of all three.

The suggestion is that the new defence experts considered both ricketts and Von Willebrand's disease, and implicitly that this had not been properly considered in the Family Court. From my experience I can say that Von Willebrand's disease is something about which there is a good level of general awareness in the Family Court. It is often asked about when reports of this sort are commissioned. Ricketts too is now "on the radar" in the Family Court, particularly since the case of London Borough of Islington v Al Alas and Wray [2012] EWHC 865 (Fam), which was major news in April 2012 (exactly the time the care proceedings were likely to have been commenced in this case) and really raised the profile of rickets as a potential cause of injuries that might otherwise be thought suspicious. So it would be surprising if both of these potential innocent explanations for the apparent injuries had not been raised in the Family Court in some shape or form - for example through questions to Dr Fairhurst or a request for an expert of a particular specialism that could deal with those issues, or specific tests to be carried out to rule such conditions in or out.

The steps in the adoption process

The process for non-consensual adoption is this. The court makes a care and placement order, which authorises the local authority to place a child for adoption with prospective adopters. Once this happens a search begins and the child is matched to appropriate adopters. With a baby or young child with no disabilities one would normally not expect this to take very long - in this case we can guess the baby was in fact about 2 years old by the time he or she was placed. Until the child is placed with adopters a parent may apply for permission to try and have a placement order revoked, for example if there is a change in circumstances that makes it no longer appropriate.

Once a child has been placed for adoption a period of time must elapse before the adopters can apply for a final adoption order. A parent is not usually entitled to raise any opposition to that application, but in recent years there has been an increase in applications for permission to oppose the making of the adoption order, and (I think) an increase in the numbers of applications that are successful. Even if a parent is permitted to oppose the adoption the court can still (if appropriate) go on to confirm the adoption. Once an adoption order is made the biological parent has no legal connection or entitlement in respect of the child at all and it is extremely rare for an adoption order to be overturned once made. The 2009 case of Webster demonstrates the position. See : Couple vow to fight adoption 'miscarriage of justice'.

The adoption process in this case

Back to this case. We don't know when the child was placed with adopters, although we do know he or she has been placed, and that therefore the window to apply to revoke the placement order has closed. We know that the parents continued to have contact for two years after the injuries, which we can estimate at April 2014, some 18 months ago. It is likely that the point at which the contact stopped was not long before the placement with the adopters (contact is usually reduced and stopped before this happens) and that therefore the child has been with his or her adopters for over a year. Although the press release says the child has been "adopted" this is sometimes used colloquially to mean that the child has been placed for adoption but not necessarily that the adoption order has been made. It is likely, given that the press release is written by lawyers that "adoption" means adoption orders have been made - in which case the parents here appear to be in a similar position to the Websters, who were unsuccessful in challenging an adoption 3 years after the event. Here, our best guess is that the child has been with the adopters for maybe a year to a year and a half - so there are some differences of degree. If the adoption order has yet to be made the parents could potentially apply for leave to oppose the adoption order on the basis of a change of circumstance - but they cannot do this until an adoption order application is made.

An important point

It is clear that there is substantial new evidence that was not available to the Family Court when it made it's findings, but those findings do still stand at the moment. It may be that in order to challenge the adoption the parents will need to challenge the findings by applying for them to be set aside - and possibly through a rehearing of them, taking into account the subsequent evidence. The fact that the prosecution ditched the criminal case does not necessarily mean that the findings in the Family Court will just be written off or overturned. Potentially they could be, but much would depend on the specifics of the case. If there did have to be a rehearing that would cause delay, which of course would weigh against the placement with the adopters being disrupted (for all the reasons in Webster).

Quite apart from their desperate wish to get their baby back, the parents are young and are likely to want more children. As long as the findings stand they are likely to face the scrutiny of the court in respect of those children. It is possible that the court will be asked to look at the findings again now or at the point when any future child is born for that reason, even if one ignores the obvious relevance to the existing child.

What will happen?

I make no predictions about what will happen in this case. It is very sad and awful for all involved - the biological parents and the adopters - and potentially the child (Although hopefully he or she is blissfully oblivious).

It is likely that in due course the judgments in the original family proceedings will be published. They were probably delivered prior to the publication of guidance encouraging the publication of more judgments from this sort of case, but the obvious public interest in this case may mean that a request is made for release of those judgments retrospectively. It is likely that publication of any judgment would have been postponed until the end of the criminal trial to avoid contamination or prejudice to the parents, and to avoid the identification of the child through jigsaw identification - and of course it is only very recently that this prosecution has gone away.

It may well be that as with the Websters any future judgment about these issues in the Family Court is delivered in open court with the parents (but not adopters) identified.

If any judgment is released I will update this post with a link.

One final point

The Garden Court press release says a few things I don't quite understand :

This tragic case highlights the real dangers of the Government’s drive to increase adoption and speed up family proceedings at all costs. 

and

what of the savage legal aid cuts, rushed adoptions and restrictions on expert funding in the family courts leading to such skewed evidence being the only evidence presented to the family courts.

It is absolutely right to say that there has been tightening up of the use of expert evidence to the point that last year Parliament specifically legislated to say it must be "necessary" (previously it had been only set out in court rules). It is also right to say that there are regularly difficulties with the funding of experts in family proceedings, particularly in suspected non-accidental injury cases where experts in highly specialised fields often have an hourly rate way above the rate permitted by the Legal Aid Agency. There is often an enormous problem with this.

Leaving aside legal aid cuts to the rate of payment for experts as above, legal aid cuts have not primarily affected this sort of family case ("public law" i.e. care proceedings). These sorts of cases still attract automatic legal aid regardless of means or merits (although this will not necessarily apply to any application the parents make now), and although the lawyers rates have been progressively cut over the years parents are still represented.

As to the "rush for adoption" point - there has been a drive to speed up the court process and to make decisions about whether children should be adopted more quickly - and a drive to speed up the process of finding them adopters once that has happened. We don't really know in this case whether the general pressure to deal with proceedings more quickly had an impact on the way the family case concluded. If, for example, the parents sought a second opinion or further expert report but were refused on grounds of delay - one could see the argument for saying so. I expect we will find out more about this in due course.

[UPDATE 12.37 : Just seen this in the Independent : Couple wrongly accused of abuse ‘unlikely to see their child again,

which says :

Lawyers for the couple said Ms Cox and Mr Carter had been refused legal aid to fight the adoption in the Family Court and criticised the decision to finalise adoption before the criminal court had made its ruling.

As I indicated above legal aid is not automatically available after care orders are made - and in this case it appears to have been refused. What this quote also tells us is that the adoption order has been made final (or at least that leave to oppose the application has been refused), and so as I thought was likely the parents are in a Webster-like scenario. The article gives us a bit more detail on the chronology however, which suggests that the contact only stopped a year ago - a year is still a long time in the life of a toddler though, so it is unclear how much difference that comparatively short period of time will make. It isn't clear if the parents went to court alone and argued unsuccessfully that the court should wait for the verdict in the criminal court. It's not clear where the evidence was pointing at the time the application for leave to oppose the adoption / the adoption order was made.]

Litigants in Person – the horror!

Nicola Williams & Co published a thoughtful article on Flawbord earlier this week about the difficulties caused by and to litigants in person through their inability to secure legal advice and representation: Horrendous. Amongst other things the article looks at publicly available stats on the numbers of cases, noting along the way that those published stats don't "tell us ... how many of those were dealt with without a solicitor or other representative." No, they don't, but I know where you can get 'em, because I extracted them under the Freedom of Information Act and subsequently wrote a blog post about the resulting statistical tables.

And reading the post on Flawbord this week has prompted me to go back to HMCTS / the MOJ to call them out on their promise to publish updating stats on 12 Jan via another FOI request. Watch this space for news as to whether or not the numbers of LiPs rose between July 11 and Sep 11.

What do we think people? "Higher! Higher!" Brucey bonus if I'm right.

Out On A Technicality

I complain often enough about the LSC finding pathetic technicalities upon which to base the rejection of my claims for payment for work done (most recently a five figure sum which relates to work between 6 and 18 months ago on a single case, but more frequently the rejection of a smaller claim because I have a court seal (not readily forged) instead of the mandatory initial (easily forged) on my FAS form). But the recent refusal of a legal aid contract to the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) to enable it to continue to represent children involved in intractable or complex private law children disputes really takes the biscuit.

NYAS LogoIn short, the LSC says that some of the office addresses of NYAS were omitted from their tender application. So that's it. They're out. No right of appeal. Notwithstanding the fact that NYAS dispute the suggestion the address information was omitted, saying that there was a technical error with the online portal which was the sole route for submitting tender applications. And notwithstanding the fact that the LSC presumably had the information it now complains was missing, since NYAS has been a provider since 1999.

From discussions I've had with local solicitors, the application process and the portal left something to be desired: no way of knowing whether or not your application had been correctly received or received at all, coupled with an inflexible deadline and no right of appeal left many very anxious.

There are around 70 organisations in the same boat, with equally valid grievances, but the NYAS case stands out for me. NYAS are unique - they are the only body other than CAFCASS who are able to represent these children, and there are some cases where a child's trust in CAFCASS has been lost, or where CAFCASS lack capacity or expertise.

Frankly it's scandalous that the LSC can run it's operations in such a way as to achieve results like this. "Computer says no" is no basis upon which to run a public body whose purpose is to serve the interests of justice. What possible public interest can be served by operating in this purposely inflexible way? I often ask the same question about the non-payment of counsel's fees - but to that there are a number of obvious skeptic's answers (to keep a bit more cash in the bank until the end of the financial year, or to  run the bar out of business if you are really paranoid). But what about the rationale for this? If I were a conspiracy theorist I might think that NYAS have fallen foul of the Government's antipathy towards private law children proceedings in general, but I know that in reality there is no rationale. It is just mindless bureaucracy.

I don't know which is worse.

You can read the full appeal documentation on the NYAS website.

NYAS are asking people to write to Ken Clark or to their MP.

For myself, I'm taking bets on a JR of the LSC being launched by someone before Valentine's day is out.