Appeal against child abuse findings dismissed by the High Court

Family Law|November 10th 2016

Attempts made by a mother, her partner and her daughter to appeal against findings of child abuse have been dismissed by the High Court.

Re A & Re B (Children) centred on allegations of sexual abuse involving three related families who lived close to one another. A total of six children featured in three separate care proceedings.  In summer last year, Mrs Justice Theis conducted a joint fact-finding hearing relating to all six children.

In the Court of Appeal Lord Justice McFarlane explained what happened next:

“At the conclusion of the fact finding hearing [Mrs Justice Theis] handed down an extensive judgment which covers 90 pages and runs to over 400 paragraphs during the course of which she made many detailed findings of sexual abuse and other forms of abusive parenting against a significant number of the members of this family group.”

The Judge placed unusually strict conditions on these findings and the care proceedings in order to maintain “total confidentiality”. This meant that the adults in the case were forbidden from having a copy of any part of the judgements in their possession at any time. Their solicitors and other professionals involved in the case were prohibiting from providing any.

The care proceedings continued, concluding earlier this year. In February the two teenage children of a couple referred to as ‘Mr and Mrs A’ were taken in care, as well as the three infant children of ‘Miss B’, who is the daughter of Mrs A from a previous relationship.

Mr and Mrs A and Ms B all applied for permission to appeal the findings of fact that had been made against them. By that point they no longer had legal aid-funded court representation and the trio were therefore forced to appear as litigants in person.

This was a problem, noted Lord Justice McFarlane:

“The difficulties that they face as litigants in person attempting to challenge the judge’s highly detailed and sophisticated analysis of the factual evidence is, sadly, compounded by the fact that Mr A and Miss B in particular and, to a lesser extent, Mrs A are said to suffer from learning difficulties.”

Their “limited intellectual resources” and lack of legal representation were compounded by their attempt to appeal against a judgement which they were not allowed to see. The situation presented a “challenge to the court” said His Lordship.

In May this year, their applications for permission to appeal came before Lord Justice McFarlane and efforts were made to make the process as “fair and as effective as could be achieved within the parameters set by the confidentiality orders made by [Mrs Justice Theis].”

For a variety of reasons, however, hearings were adjourned and the final hearing on  the trio’s applications for permission to appeal did not take place until September.

Despite the trio’s personal difficulties, which the court had attempted to address fairly, Lord Justice McFarlane concluded that neither application had any chance of success.

Mr and Mrs A had accepted the main body of the allegations made against them during the earlier hearings, and most of the grounds of appeal raised did not even challenge these.

The Judge explained:

“On that basis, it is impossible to see that there is any ground for an appeal against the findings of fact. … the findings of sexual abuse and failure to protect were so significant and all pervasive that it is very hard to contemplate that any judge could have chosen a different outcome for these two children other than the outcome chosen by the judge.”

In relation to Miss B, the key point had been her continued relationships with married men who were sexual abusers – a fact of which she was aware and which she had accepted in court. By continuing to associate with these men, she had placed her young children at risk.

“The all-important question was whether she could now be trusted to act in an altogether different and safe manner in the future. The judge, without attaching blame, and with a deal of sympathy for Miss B who is a victim of long-term abuse, concluded that her vulnerability to be drawn into such relationships again in the future remained unchecked.”

None of the grounds for appeal raised by Miss B came “close to establishing grounds for concern that [Mrs Justice Theis] may have been wrong in her decision on this central point.”

The ruling is available here.

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