A county court judge made final care orders for three children at a court date when the parties had expected only an initial ‘directions’ hearing.
The Court of Appeal has now criticised the judge for his “ruthlessly truncated” approach to the case.
Re S-W concerned a hearing held at Liverpool County Court before his Honour Judge Dodds. Liverpool City Council made care applications in relation to three siblings, aged 14, 11 and ten. The father of two of the children was involved in the case despite being in prison awaiting trial for unspecified criminal allegations.
In 2012 the children had been removed from their mother’s care and sent to live with grandparents, amidst concerns that she had been neglecting them and was involved in a “violent” relationship. The youngsters had also been exposed to drug and alcohol use.
Two of the children remain with their grandparents, but the 11 year-old has bounced from placement to placement and is currently in foster care. He now wishes to return to live with his mother.
In July last year, however, the local authority applied to formally place the siblings in care.
But when the case became before the courts, the judge unexpectedly made final care orders for all three at the first hearing, just weeks after the council’s applications had been made. The first hearing in care proceedings is normally only concerned with an assessment of the case and its future direction.
The mother applied for and was granted permission to appeal, “her Grounds of Appeal being directed at the summary disposal [rapid conclusion] of the case at such an early stage of the proceedings.”
Neither the children’s guardian and local council opposed her.
The Court of Appeal ruled in the mother’s favour, criticising the Judge’s approach to the case in strongly worded terms.
Lady Justice King said Judge Dodds had quickly made “abundantly clear, in trenchant terms, his determination to conclude the case there and then by making final care orders”.
He dismissed the guardian’s report on the family as “Victorian detail”.
Lady Justice King noted that the mother had relied on the first hearing being concerned with assessment only because she was awaiting the results of hair strand drug testing and still hoped the middle child could return to live with her.
By contrast, Judge Dodds had, said Lady Justice King, seen the case as one in which care orders were inevitable, given the fact that two of the children were living in settled placements and the mother had tested positive in a recent drugs test.
“All the parties crumbled under the judge’s caustically expressed views, and as a consequence, were unable to explain to the judge that the situation was more complicated than the one the judge clearly saw, and expressed.”
The care orders were made without a full judgement or an expression of his reasons, Lady Justice King continued.
Lord Justice Lewison added:
“It has long been a fundamental principle of English law that justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done. Where a judge has apparently made up his mind before hearing argument or evidence that principle has undoubtedly been breached.”
Also hearing the case, Family Division President Sir James Munby said robust case management should not come at the expense of fairness.
The previous day, the Court of Appeal overturned another ruling of Judge Dodds on the basis of his “unrestrained and immoderate language”, failure to properly hear submissions and failure to give proper reasons for dismissing that application.
Read the care ruling here.