Earlier this month, Mrs Justice Judd delivered her judgment in A County Council v L and Others [2024] EWFC 120. The case is a good example of where reunification and the end of proceedings is possible; even in situations where a case originally started with a very serious medical situation for a child.

In February 2022, a baby girl, ‘A’, suffered an episode in the middle of the night whereby she began to scream and arch her back when in her father’s arms. The parents called 999 straight away. A was taken to hospital and found to have suffered bleeding from a ruptured cortical bridging vein. She underwent surgery and appears to have made a full recovery.

Care proceedings started straightaway and there was a difference of opinion between the experts as to the explanation for the injuries but agreement that it must have been caused by a traumatic event.

There was a fact-finding hearing resulting in findings being made against the parents. There was a successful appeal in the Court of Appeal and the case remitted back to Bristol Family Court.

A had been living with the maternal grandparents since the start of the proceedings and started having unsupervised family time (contact) with her parents in December 2023. The care provided was always considered to be exemplary and no observations of A being affected by the time with her parents.

The local authority applied for permission to withdraw proceedings for the now two-year old ‘A’, (application supported by the other parties). None of the parties sought a second fact-finding hearing.

The question for the court at any future hearing would be whether the injury was caused as a result of an undisclosed traumatic event or as a result of something natural which occurred, the cause of which is unknown. All parties agreed that, apart from the medical evidence by itself, there was nothing at all about these parents which would suggest that they might injure their child, or indeed that they are not telling the truth.

Mrs Justice Judd recapped the factors to be considered when deciding if a fact-finding hearing should take place (see further Re P and E (Care Proceedings: Whether to Hold Fact Finding Hearing) [2024] EWCA Civ 403. In that case, Baker LJ confirmed that the principles to be applied are those set out by McFarlane J (as he then was) in Oxfordshire County Council v DP, RS, and BS [2005] EWHC 1593 (Fam), and approved in Re H-D-H (Children) [2021] EWCA Civ 1192.

The local authority and Guardian were of the view that it was time for A to move home with her parents. Even if a new fact-finding hearing was to determine that the injury was caused by one or other of the parents non-accidentally, the plan would remain the same. The local authority has made enquiries of experts who could conduct a Resolutions type assessment, but this would take several months, a delay that the social work team did not consider was in A’s best interests.

Mrs Justice Judd considered that it was in A’s best interests to have a safe and secure home with her parents and for this to be achieved as soon as possible. A new fact-finding hearing would be difficult to imminently achieve, the evidential result would be unknown (it being a very difficult case to second guess) not to mention a very costly exercise.

Mrs Justice Judd weighed up the original expert evidenced and recognised that there are cases where the cause of an injury is simply unknown. However, even if the injury was inflicted, it was an isolated event and the parents sought medical help immediately. In addition, there are numerous cases where children are rehabilitated home after adverse findings against parents.

The impact of the potential result of the investigation to the future care plans for A was considered. The local authority and Guardian considering there would be little, if any change, regardless of the outcome of a new fact-finding hearing with two years having passed since the events in question and no new concerns arising.

Mrs Justice considered that, whilst a fair re-trial would be possible and there would be purpose to such an exercise, the impact of the length of time since the precipitating events and giving evidence on several occasions would make it difficult to look at the issue again.

Mrs Justice Judd agreed with all the parties that it was not in the interests of justice to A, her parents, or anyone else to hold another fact-finding hearing. The damaging impact of further stress and delay strongly outweighs such advantage as there is in the court considering all the evidence again to see whether it is possible to achieve a clear answer to what happened, there was no advantage to A ‘knowing the truth’, the parents cooperated with the authorities all along and it was anticipated they would continue to do so and they had supportive family nearby.

The local authority’s application was granted and proceedings brought to an end.

10 June 2024

Emma Cross, Barrister

Magdalen Chambers