*WE ARE RECRUITING*

If you are a member of the Bar seeking to leave the city hustle and bustle aside and relocate to practice in the scenic South West, we want to hear from you!

Magdalen Chambers is one of the largest sets in the south west outside of Bristol with members excelling in a wide range of areas of civil and family work. We were thrilled to achieve success for another year having been recognised by Chambers and Partners 2021 and be ranked once again to be recognised by the Legal 500 as a leading set on the Western Circuit in the Legal 500 UK Bar Guide 2021.

After a busy and successful 2020, we are looking to expand and wish to hear from members of the Bar that seek to share in our growing and busy workload. We are situated in the heart of Exeter which offers the city living alongside its close links to the beautiful countryside, Dartmoor and beaches – what more could you want!

Magdalen Chambers is proud to have a strong, supportive and leading clerking team who have been recognised by Chambers and Partners 2020.

We will happily consider applications for tenancy or 3rd six pupillages. Please direct any applications which will be treated in the strictest confidence to : Senior Clerk, James Basden.  James@magdalenchambers.co.uk

 

Domestic Abuse in the Family Courts: A Changing Landscape?

The Court of Appeal has handed down judgment in 4 joined cases considering the approach of the Family Court to the issue of domestic abuse. In a case that attracted substantial comment in the media, and which was live tweeted to the public by legal bloggers (as well as being conducted entirely remotely on a live stream) the Conducted a wide-ranging review of the approach of the Family Court to cases involving Domestic Abuse.

Some context

For some time, there has been controversy about the perceived failure of the Family Courts to protect alleged victims of domestic abuse and their children from the dual harm of an abusive partner/parent and a traumatic court process. Some very public judgments criticising the way in which hearings were dealt with led to outrage in the media and wider public and, it must be said, to successful appeals and enhanced training.

Domestic abuse cases are far from rare. As the President observed, in 2019/2020 there were 55,253 private law children applications and at least 40% of them raised issues of domestic abuse. While the Court noted that the number of appeals in such cases is small it was still a cause of deep unease: in such cases the stakes are high but access to legal representation is limited since they were removed from the scope of legal aid by The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). While each of the appellants (all mothers and alleged victims of some form of domestic abuse) had legal aid, none of the respondents (fathers accused of being perpetrators of that abuse) did, and all were represented by lawyers acting for free (pro bono).

Against this background Re H-N and Others (Children) (Domestic abuse: finding of fact hearings) [2021] EWCA Civ 448 combined 4 different appeals against orders made by three different Circuit Judges into a single hearing. Various women’s rights organisations, Cafcass, Rape Crisis, Families Need Fathers and the Association of Lawyers for Children were all joined as intervenors. The Court roamed well beyond the facts of the individual cases and looked at the process, at Practice Direction 12J of the Family Procedure Rules 2010 which governs the procedure in domestic abuse cases, and at the wider approach to the fact-finding exercise.

The appeals

All four appeals involved domestic abuse. In all four cases there were issues raised about the findings or lack of findings which were made, with criticisms including the manner in which the Judges had dealt with the alleged victims and the impact of coercive and controlling behaviour.

The developing attitude of the Courts to domestic abuse

Having set out the historical development of English law’s approach to domestic abuse, the Court turned to the issue of coercive and controlling behaviour. The President cited with approval the judgment of Hayden J in F v M [2021] EWFC 4:

“4. …The nature of the allegations included in support of the application can succinctly and accurately be summarised as involving complaints of ‘coercive and controlling behaviour’ on F’s part. In the Family Court, that expression is given no legal definition. In my judgement, it requires none. The term is unambiguous and needs no embellishment. Understanding the scope and ambit of the behaviour however, requires a recognition that ‘coercion’ will usually involve a pattern of acts encompassing, for example, assault, intimidation, humiliation and threats. ‘Controlling behaviour’ really involves a range of acts designed to render an individual subordinate and to corrode their sense of personal autonomy. Key to both behaviours is an appreciation of a ‘pattern’ or ‘a series of acts’, the impact of which must be assessed cumulatively and rarely in isolation. There has been very little reported case law in the Family Court considering coercive and controlling behaviour. I have taken the opportunity below, to highlight the insidious reach of this facet of domestic abuse. My strong impression, having heard the disturbing evidence in this case, is that it requires greater awareness and, I strongly suspect, more focused training for the relevant professionals.”

Coercive and controlling behaviour has been a central part of the definition of domestic abuse within PD12J for some years now and will be a familiar concept to anyone who practices in this area of law. The President acknowledged that:

“31… coercive and/or controlling behaviour by one party may cause serious emotional and psychological harm to the other members of the family unit, whether or not there has been any actual episode of violence or sexual abuse. In short, a pattern of coercive and/or controlling behaviour can be as abusive as or more abusive than any particular factual incident that might be written down and included in a schedule in court proceedings (see ‘Scott Schedules’ at paragraph 42 -50). It follows that the harm to a child in an abusive household is not limited to cases of actual violence to the child or to the parent. A pattern of abusive behaviour is as relevant to the child as to the adult victim.”

At the same time, the Court recognised that “not all directive, assertive, stubborn or selfish behaviour will be ‘abuse’ in the context of proceedings concerning the welfare of a child; much will turn on the intention of the perpetrator of the alleged abuse and on the harmful impact of the behaviour”. No marriage is perfect, and where some bad behaviour is alleged which is not ‘used to harm, punish or frighten’ or make the victim subordinate it is unlikely to be relevant.

However, a failure to consider the potential impact of coercive and controlling behaviour, and to look at the allegations in the round to establish a pattern, led to two of the appeals against findings of fact to be upheld – an unusual outcome, as did an undue focus on the intention of the perpetrator as opposed to the impact of the behaviour on the victim in another.

The Court’s approach

The issue that the court sought to address in the context of coercive and controlling behaviour, however, was how to approach those cases where what is alleged is a pattern of behaviour which can be somewhat nebulous and not capable of summing up in a series of distinct index events. The Court routinely lists separate ‘fact-finding’ hearings to establish the truth or otherwise of allegations. Where there are specific and serious individual allegations of physical or sexual violence the approach is straightforward: set them out as if an indictment and then address them in turn. The allegations are often so serious individually that their relevance is obvious. Where coercive and controlling behaviour is alleged it is less straightforward. The incidents alone may be relatively minor, but together they have a cumulative affect over time. It was suggested that the standard practice was no longer fit for purpose in dealing with such cases.

Fact-finding hearings

The Court reviewed the guidance within PD12J on when it is appropriate to hold a separate fact-finding hearing in cases where domestic abuse is raised as an issue. The President observed that the Court should only determine those issues which it is necessary to determine in order to dispose of the case – there is not a right to litigate every issue which each party wishes to be heard. The proper approach to the decision on whether to hold a fact-finding is therefore (paragraph 37 of the judgment):

  • Consider the nature of the allegations and the extent they are likely to be relevant to any order which is made (PD12J.5);
  • Keep in mind that the purpose of the exercise is to assess risk and the impact of the alleged abuse on the children (PD12J.16);
  • Consider whether a separate hearing is ‘necessary’ and in particular whether there is other evidence which addresses the point adequately without such a hearing (such as a conviction or admission), and the relevance of the issues at hand (PD12J.17);
  • Consider whether a separate hearing is necessary and proportionate, with reference to the overriding objective and the President’s Guidance in The Road Ahead’.

This is, essentially, a restatement of the law as it stands. It is obvious that some forms of behaviour will be highly relevant and should be at the centre of the Court’s consideration of risk. Identifying and addressing the risks posed by a range of abusive behaviours is key to child welfare. But it is equally obvious that the Court is not ‘a Court of morals’ in the position of passing judgment on every ill-considered or objectionable act by a party to a relationship which inevitably has fallen apart in some acrimony.

While the Courts have not always had the most enlightened approach to domestic abuse, and while continual attention to the changing understanding of its impact is needed, not everything which one party to a relationship found upsetting will pose a risk to the welfare of children. Nor is the Court there to lay blame for the sad disintegration of intimate relationships. That can lead to the elevation of petty misdemeanours but also (as in one of the appeals) to an exercise in excusing abusive behaviour because the other party was not blameless. The court should assess the allegations which are relevant to the issues at stake.

Indeed, one of the appeals failed because while the disputed allegation was serious, the mother made clear that she did not seek to overturn the order for contact – only to address a finding that had been considered and rejected in the original proceedings. The issue was therefore academic, and it was not necessary to resolve the appeal. Another succeeded in part because the judge had engaged in an exercise of laying blame on one or other party and thereby minimising the abuse which had been found to have taken place.

Scott Schedules

One significant part of the judgment for practitioners is in the Court’s guidance on how to plead domestic abuse. During the parties’ submissions to the Court there was a universal feeling that the Scott Schedule was no longer suitable. For the uninitiated, a Scott Schedule sets out in tabular form each alleged incident of abuse, the response of the other party, the evidence they each rely on and the findings of the Judge. Originating from building disputes it is designed to include single items on which there is a dispute in an accessible form. Imported into Children Act proceedings a common practice is for a judge to direct a limited number of ‘incidents’ (often 6 is considered proportionate) sometimes described as the first, last, best and worst – i.e. how it all started, the most ‘serious’ incident(s), the final incident that led to protective action being taken and those with the strongest supporting evidence.

The Court of Appeal looked at two criticisms: the inability of a schedule to address the cumulative impact of coercive and controlling behaviour, and the tendency to limit the number of items to be considered.

The criticism of the more limited approach is obvious – if the allegation is of daily low-level coercive and controlling behaviour consisting of perhaps many thousands of incidents over perhaps decades of a relationship, how is that to be pleaded? Is 6 incidents of name-calling or mutual pushing and shoving during arguments in the last weeks of a relationship worse than daily ritual belittling and controlling of a person so as to destroy their spirit and make them dependent?

And how is a pattern of behaviour to be assessed if limits are placed on the number of incidents to be pleased? In a building claim each faulty item is easily identified and the Court will allow you to address each aspect of your claim. If you are a pair of Hollywood stars arguing over a libel claim you can have 16 days with a High Court Judge. But if you are a victim of domestic abuse dealing with a perpetrator who poses a risk to you and your children you are limited to only a small number of issues and potentially criticised if you then stray outside the schedule. The focus on index incidents, it was argued, skews the picture and limits the Court’s assessment of risk – the argument will always be that ‘only’ 3 or 4 or whatever number of incidents were proven, where they may be part of a pattern which is what really poses the risk.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the criticism of Scott Schedules:

“46. For our part, we see the force of these criticisms and consider that serious thought is now needed to develop a different way of summarising and organising the matters that are to be tried at a fact-finding hearing so that the case that a respondent has to meet is clearly spelled out, but the process of organisation and summary does not so distort the focus of the court proceedings that the question of whether there has been a pattern of behaviour or a course of abusive conduct is not before the court when it should be.”

As to what that format might be – pleadings as in a civil case or a threshold style document identifying types of harm and the causes of them were suggested – that issue was left to another day. In my personal experience it is now common for Scott Schedules to identify ‘coercive and controlling behaviour’ or similar patterns as one of the index allegations, followed by a series of stated examples. This is sometimes criticised as a way of ‘getting around’ the limit on the number of allegations pleaded. This criticism seems inappropriate in light of the Judgment of the Court of Appeal and the recommendations in similar terms of the Harm Report. Until further guidance is received it is likely that the Scott Schedule will need to be adapted to allow a wider view of the narrative.

Controlling and Coercive Behaviour

Perhaps the most important part of the judgment relates to the approach of the Courts to controlling and coercive behaviour allegations. The Court observed that the vast majority of domestic abuse cases were underpinned by coercive and controlling behaviour. It is likely, therefore, to be central to the Court’s exercise in most domestic abuse cases. Even where there was violence it was likely to be part of a pattern of intimidation and control.

Importantly, just as the antiquated approach from the 1970s and 1980s of looking at ‘violence’ as something between the adults had rightly been left behind, so too should the approach of viewing coercive and controlling behaviour as incidents that are between the adults and ‘in the past’ and therefore irrelevant.

That the parties are separated and therefore not in a position where physical or sexual violence can be perpetrated does not address the underlying patterns of behaviour that are the foundation of domestic abuse. The Court observed that the patterns and attitudes that lead to abusive behaviour are likely to find a different outlet if not addressed and therefore to pose a risk, even if the route to a repetition of the past behaviour is closed off by separation or injunctions. A judge who fails to consider the issue of coercive and controlling behaviour is therefore likely to fall into error and expose themselves to an appeal.

The Courts should, it was held (paragraph 56), look less at individual incidents (unless they are obviously of significant concern in their own right) and more at the pattern of behaviour. The Court of Appeal considered this may restrict the length of the exercise and ease the burden on the courts. How a judge is to find as a fact that a pattern of behaviour has occurred without establishing a series of examples of that behaviour remains to be seen. The Court’s guidance was that:

  • The focus should be on issues relevant to the proceedings, and necessary to provide a basis for the assessment of risk and the overall welfare analysis;
  • Only those allegations which it is necessary to resolve should be listed for determination; and
  • In every case where domestic abuse is alleged the parties should be asked to describe (orally or in a statement) the overall experience of being in a relationship with each other.
  • Where coercive and controlling behaviour is alleged, that should be the primary issue for determination. Any specific factual allegations should be selected because of their potential probative relevance to that issue unless they are so serious as to require resolution (for example rape allegations).

The relevance of the criminal law

Since the case of Re R (Children) (Care Proceedings) [2018] EWCA Civ 198 there has been debate about the relevance of criminal law concepts to Children Act cases. In many cases the allegations made could easily constitute a criminal offence. In some cases, there will have been criminal proceedings resulting in acquittal – a cause of consternation to some that the allegations can be resurrected in a different court with a different standard of proof.

In Re R the Court of Appeal held that it was wrong for the Family Court to engage in debates about whether the alleged abuse constituted a criminal offence. The focus should be on the broad canvas of narrative not the specific detail of an alleged crime. In criminal proceedings no findings of fact per se are made – the jury decides whether a person is guilty or not in relation to the offence as pleaded in the indictment. The issue in Family Proceedings is very different. The Court needs to establish what has happened and how and then assess the risks arising from that.

So far so sensible. The result, however, has been a degree of confusion. As Cobb J observed in F v M [2019] EWHC 3177 (Fam) it is the focus on the ingredients of an offence (for example defences to an established offence or the constituent aspects making up the offence of rape) which was the error envisaged in Re R. The Family Court is ill-placed to consider whether some specific legal defence would be available to a charge in the criminal court, and even where a party may not be guilty of an offence, their conduct may be such as to give rise to genuine risk and real harm. As such it would remain relevant to the welfare exercise even if not a criminal act.

In some cases, however, the Court has become focussed on the language and this was addressed by the Court of Appeal. The contortion of a judge stating that a party or a legal representative let alone a judge is not allowed to use the word ‘rape’ for example but rather must refer to ‘non-consensual sex’ so as to avoid straying into criminal concepts is troubling. What does it say to the victim? They will understand their experience as rape, but a judge is telling them that it is not. They will be left with the understandable feeling that their experience is somehow not so serious. It is artificial, insulting and harmful to victims and was deprecated by the Court of Appeal, who stated that nothing in Re R should cause the courts to shy away from the use of such colloquial language to describe behaviour found to have taken place. The restriction on the consideration of criminal concepts should also not prevent the consideration by the court of procedural matters drawn from the criminal law, such as the relevance of past sexual conduct of the accuser.

The Future

This is not the end of the story for Domestic Abuse cases. In the past 12 months both the Harm Panel Report (MOJ: Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases) and the President’s Private Law Working Group have published detailed reports that are being piloted in Family Courts. They reflect a move away from the adversarial contest between two parties towards a more investigative approach.

It is worth noting that the current position is itself an evolution. The Court observed that as recently as 1976 the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Homes Act required evidence of actual bodily harm before a power of arrest could be attached to an injunction. In the 1980s ‘domestic violence’ was considered a matter between the adults which was irrelevant to the welfare of children. In 2000 the conjoined appeals in Re L (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re V (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re M (Contact: Domestic Violence); Re H (Contact: Domestic Violence) [2000] EWCA Civ 194 brought heightened awareness of the importance of domestic abuse and its relevance to child welfare, and since then the introduction of PD12J has codified the required best practice, within which domestic abuse is given a wide definition including coercive and controlling behaviour. As society’s approach to domestic abuse evolves, so too does the Court’s.

It is also worth noting that the Courts currently face unprecedented resource restrictions, exacerbated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Fact-finding hearings are routinely listed for 1 or 2 days, perhaps 3 at most. At least one party is often unrepresented. Lists are busy and the number of judges available restricted. Establishing patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour through many relatively ‘minor’ incidents takes time and care. The challenge for the courts will be to undertake the forensic exercise envisaged by the Court of Appeal within these constraints. Time will tell whether that is possible.

Rupert Chapman

Magdalen Chambers

31 March 2021

We welcome Liberty Crawford as a tenant of chambers.

Members and clerks of chambers are delighted to congratulate Liberty following the successful completion of her specialist family law pupillage and we welcome her as a tenant of chambers.

Christian Gape, Head of the Family Team:-

“Liberty has very quickly gained a reputation as a skilled advocate with a client focused manner.  Liberty has attracted particular praise in family finance and private law children work where her robust but level-headed approach has gained plaudits from clients and colleagues alike.  I am very pleased to welcome her to Magdalen Chambers where she will add strength and depth to our busy family team.”

Chambers continued success with rankings in Chambers and Partners 2021

Chambers are thrilled to achieve success for another year having been recognised by Chambers and Partners 2021. Over three areas of law, Employment, Family and Planning, six members have also been individually ranked together with recognition for the clerking team.

“The clerks are friendly, very helpful and will liaise directly with the court and other clerks regarding hearings if there is a clash. They are easy to deal with.” “Grainne McGovern, senior family clerk, is an excellent clerk providing information regarding fees and availability of counsel in a quick and efficient manner.”

Employment

Nigel Moore (Band 3)

“He is technically excellent, very experienced and a high-quality advocate.”

Family/Matrimonial

Christopher Naish (Band 1)

“He is articulate and gently persuasive, grabbing the ear of the judges, and his witness handling is second to none.” “He quickly and easily establishes an excellent working relationship with clients.”

Rupert Chapman (Band 2)

“He is very easy to deal with, extremely thorough and always has a good rapport with clients.”

Carol Mashembo (Band 2)

“She is a firm favourite to instruct in financial remedy proceedings given her great client care, bedside manner, her thoughtful preparation and her availability to deal with queries in a timely manner.” “She always adopts a meticulously thorough approach in dealing with matters, which puts everyone involved at ease.”

Elizabeth Willsteed (Band 3)

“She brought balance and insight into the case and was perceptive and unflappable.” “She’s a class act. She knows family law inside out and she is excellent in her knowledge.”

Planning

Gavin Collett (Band 2)

“Gavin is great for regulatory and prosecution matters.” “He is very personable and knowledgeable.”

Many congratulations to all involved.

Read more

Magdalen Chambers ranked as Leading Set by the Legal 500 2021

Magdalen Chambers is delighted once again to be  recognised by the Legal 500 as a leading set on the Western Circuit in the Legal 500 UK Bar Guide 2021, with eight members of chambers individually ranked in their areas of expertise. Chambers is a recommended set on the Western Circuit in three categories – , Family and Children Law, Planning and Environment law and Property and Construction Disputes.

We are particularly proud that our family team has been promoted to Tier 2 in this year’s guide, reflecting as it does the continued growth and development of the team’s reputation and coverage.The authors of the guide wrote that:

“Magdalen Chambers has ‘an extremely strong family team‘ and offers ‘a wide range of barristers who without fail are top quality, therefore, they are usually my first phone call as they are helpful and friendly‘. Areas of expertise include private and public law children law, adoption, and financial remedy on divorce. At the senior end, Susan Campbell QC is an experienced silk, ‘popular with clients and has a gentle but persuasive manner; intellectually sharp‘. With a broad practice covering most areas, Christopher Naish is ‘calm, and approachable but has a rapier-sharp advocacy style which he can adapt to suit cases‘. Carol Mashembo is praised for having ‘attention to detail that is second to none‘ and for delivering ‘detailed and precise presentation in court‘, whether it be in relation to children matters or financial. Elizabeth Willsteed is a go-to for children law matters; for family financial dispute resolution matters and TOLATA cases, Rupert Chapman is ‘always meticulous in his preparation‘.”

Five members of the family team have been ranked as leading individuals:

  • Susan Campbell QC is ranked as a leading silk in Child Law (Public and Private): ‘She has an innate ability to put clients at ease in the most upsetting and trying situations. She goes the extra mile to ensure that clients feel that they have had their say but also that they understand the process.’;
  • Christopher Naish is ranked in Tier 1 for both Child Law and Financial Remedies: ‘In terms of numerous strengths, Mr Naish is technically excellent, has a quick mind and a very personable manner with clients. Such is his ability, I have complete confidence in whatever area of Family Law I instruct him in.’;
  • Joint head of chambers Rupert Chapman is ranked at Tier 2 for Financial Remedies: ’Rupert has a sharp analytical mind that suits him particularly well to complex and technical cases; in particular cases involving trusts and business assets. He is friendly and approachable and easy to work with as an instructing solicitor. Clients like him.’;
  • Carol Mashembo is rated as Tier 2 for both Child Law and Financial Remedies: ‘Good affinity with clients, gives clear and firm advice. Clients find her pleasant to work with. Excellent preparation and analysis of facts, issues and law. Detailed and precise presentation in court. Always prepared to go the extra yards to get the case right.’; and
  • Elizabeth Willsteed, ranked Tier 4 for Child Law: ‘a highly skilled and effective advocate in the courtroom producing concise written legal documents and excelling in submissions and cross examination. She is highly regarded amongst clients and solicitors alike.

“Magdalen Chambers’ commercial, property, and Chancery team handles national cases as well as those on the Western Circuit. Russell James specialises in housing and homelessness work, acting often for clients with disabilities, as well as taking on landlord and tenant, as well as boundaries and easements work. Natasha Bellinger has particular expertise in social housing, specialising in possession claims, injunctions, and committals. She uses her practice in personal injury and environmental law to take on cross-discipline matters, such as occupier’s liability. Also of note, the set recently introduced a direct access platform.”

Three members of our civil team are individually recognised:

  • Natasha Bellinger is ranked at Tier 2 for Property and Construction: ‘Always very thoughtful and responsive. Pragmatic, thorough, and great with clients. Friendly and approachable and always willing to look into matters early on. Great on her feet.
  • Gavin Collett is described as ‘highly experienced in planning, highways, and rights of way matters’; and
  • Russell James is rated as Tier 2 for Property and Construction: ‘Russell is our first choice for complex housing work.’;

Joint head of Chambers Rupert Chapman said ”While it is always encouraging to read positive reviews in the legal directories, this year’s edition of the Legal 500 reflects Magdalen Chambers’ continuing growth as one of the prominent sets in the South West for all forms of civil and family work. It is a testament to the hard work and adaptability of our barristers and clerks that chambers not only receives such positive feedback from our clients but that they show how we continue to go from strength to strength in even the most challenging of legal markets.”

Family pupil Liberty Crawford is on her feet.

We are delighted to announce that Liberty has successfully completed her specialist family first six pupillage. She has now entered into her second six months and is able to accept instructions.

Liberty has been fully trained to use the main cloud-based video platforms (Sykpe for Business, Zoom and Microsoft Teams), in order to conduct remote hearings from home together with telephone conferencing. Papers can be accepted electronically and our clerking team will be happy to help you with any advice.

During Lockdown Liberty provided Covid19 Guidance for Local Authorities which was published by Class Legal. See the link below.

Class Legal Covid19 Guidance

Private FDR – Frequently Asked Questions – Covid 19 and beyond

Given the understandable delays in the Court system brought on by the Covid-19 crisis we have seen an unprecedented number of enquiries about our Private FDR service.  Even more so following the encouragement of the judiciary both locally Financial Remedy Work During Lockdown  and nationally Presidents Guidance Covid 19 for parties to consider Private FDRs as a means to resolve their cases.

To assist those who are considering a Private FDR we list below some of the questions our clerks are being asked most frequently:

  1. How much does it cost?

At Magdalen Chambers we pride ourselves in making the legal process accessible.  We offer a range of options tailored to the level of complexity of each case.

In most cases an experienced Private FDR Judge can be provided for between £1,000 and £2,000 for the day.  This cost is shared between the parties unless otherwise agreed

  1. How quickly can the Private FDR take place?

Subject to availability a hearing can normally be arranged within two weeks – complex cases will, as a rule, require longer to prepare.  However where there is an urgent need for matters to be resolved quickly every attempt will be made to assist the parties to do so.

  1. Can the hearing be conducted remotely?

All our Private FDR Judges and Barristers are able to work remotely.  We find that the most effective way to conduct an FDR is by one of the available video platforms.  The parties will generally just require access to a computer and broadband.  Our clerks will speak to both parties to identify the best platform to work on.

  1. What if one party is unable to use video-conferencing technology?

We have video-conferencing facilities in Chambers available upon request to parties taking part in a Private FDR organised by Magdalen Chambers.  Use of the facilities will be subject to strict safety criteria which will be discussed with the party upon request.

  1. How long will the Private FDR last?

Like the ideal court based FDR a Private FDR will normally be scheduled to start early in the day.  Unlike a court based FDR the Private FDR Judge will then be available exclusively to the parties for the whole day.  To maximise the chances of settlement the parties should also make themselves available all day.  On occasions where a second day of input would be of benefit this can be arranged.

  1. What if one of the parties has to work Monday to Friday?

We understand that during the national Covid-19 crisis those who are currently able to work may find it difficult to take time off.  Therefore whilst the current situation persists our Judges and Barristers are available to work outside of the traditional Monday to Friday working week where necessary.

  1. Is every case suitable for a Private FDR?

The aim of an FDR is to find a way to settle proceedings by consent.  In the current economic climate the future may simply be too uncertain for the parties to reach an agreement.  This can be discussed with the Private FDR Judge before a booking is made.  Alternatively parties may wish to have the input of a Private FDR Judge to settle some of the issues in a case whilst leaving other issues to be resolved after the crisis has abated.

Local Authority’s duty to promote contact between a child in their care and relevant parties under section 34 of the Children Act 1989: Covid-19 Guidance

In the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak (‘Covid-19’), there has been little guidance as to whether Local Authorities have the ability to suspend contact between a child in their care and parties who have a right to contact with that child, either by parental responsibility or by a Court order.

The recently passed Coronavirus Bill[1] and corresponding Guidance[2] is unfortunately silent as to any relaxation of a Local Authority’s statutory duty under the Children Act 1989 to promote contact between a child in care and any relevant party as per section 34 and Schedule 2 paragraph 15 under the current circumstances.

However, as Covid-19 and legislation surrounding it progresses and changes, there may be future legislation and guidance continuing to emerge in the near future. As it stands the current laws, regulations and guidance provided is still in force and should be followed.

What is the applicable Law? 

Children Act 1989 (‘CA 1989’)

Where a child is in the care of the Local Authority, section 34(1)(a-e) and Schedule 2 paragraph 15 of the CA 1989 outlines the individuals that the Authority shall endeavour to promote contact with and allow the child reasonable contact with. 

Can the Local Authority suspend contact?

Due to the increasing risk that Covid-19 poses on the safe facilitation of contact, Local Authorities may consider suspending contact arrangements. This would be likely to result in parents and/or ‘connected persons’[3] of the child in care making an application to the Court under section 34(3) of the CA 1989 to allow contact to be re-engaged.

Paragraph 2.78 of 2015 Guidance[4] outlines  the presumption that there should be continued contact between the child and their family whilst the child is in the care of the Local Authority. [5]

However, the Local Authority is only under a duty to promote contact between the child and the parents and/or connected persons, ‘unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with his welfare’[6]. If the Local Authority is concerned that the child in their care would be at risk of coming into contact with a carrier of the virus, it would be arguable that such contact would not be consistent with the child’s welfare. Paragraph 2.96 of the 2015 Guidance provides further clarification, in that the responsible Authority must allow reasonable contact, ‘provided that contact is consistent with the Local Authority’s duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child’, thus supporting the caveat provided by Schedule 2 paragraph 15(1).

Section 34(6) CA 1989

Local Authorities can refuse to allow contact without making an application to the Court under section 34(6) CA 1989.

 Any refusal of contact under section 34(6) will only provide a temporary termination for seven days.  According to the current Government guidance, if an individual contracts the virus, they must self-isolate for seven days. If any individual contracts the virus in a household of several people, other individuals must remain in isolation for 14 days[7]. If any relevant parties were to contract the virus themselves or come into contact with an individual who has had the virus, a suspension of contact for seven days would not be a sufficient period of time to ensure that the virus will not be passed on, particularly in larger households. Therefore, if the suspension of contact is based on the Local Authority’s fears of Covid-19, it is not advisable to rely on s34(6).

Section 34(4) CA 1989

The Local Authority may also refuse to allow contact under section 34(4) CA 1989, whereby on an application, the Court may make an order authorising the Authority to refuse to allow contact between the child in care and any person mentioned in section 34(1)(a – d) and named in the order.  However, Thorpe J expressed in the case of Re S (Care: Parental Contact) [2005] 1 FLR 469, CA at [11], ‘a section 34(4) order should not be made… merely against the possibility that circumstances may change in such a way to make termination of contact desirable’. Due to the very real threat that Covid-19 poses on the public, it is arguable that the circumstances have already changed from what was the status-quo in England, before the virus was classed a ‘pandemic’.

If granted, contact will remain suspended until the order is discharged. There must be some material change in circumstances between the making of the order and the application to discharge it[8]. A clear material change would be a point where the Government confirms that Covid-19 is no longer a threat to the general public.

Any decisions to make a section 34(4) application should be carefully considered by the Local Authority. Such  an order may not be suitable where none of the relevant parties are showing any signs of Covid-19 symptoms and have not had contact with any other person who is symptomatic. However, the risk is that there is a level of uncertainty. The consequence is not only that the relevant parties could contract the virus themselves, but also that they could pass it on, putting others surrounding the parties at an unnecessary risk. The Local Authority should rely on their professional judgement in deciding what action to take, taking into consideration the welfare of the child and the effect on the child of no contact.

What does the Law mean in the current climate?

There is no express wording within section 34 that states that the Local Authority must promote contact through face-to-face meetings. Section 34 and paragraph 15(1) [Schedule 2] CA 1989 states only that the Local Authority must ‘endeavour to promote contact’ and ‘allow reasonable contact’. There is no further clarification of the definition of ‘contact’ within section 34, as such, there is room for interpretation as to what can amount to sufficient contact.

For example, paragraph 2.92 of the 2015 Guidance provides that meaningful contact can also be achieved through indirect means such asletters, telephone calls and exchange of photographs  and paragraph 2.94 encourages the use of modern technology in order to maintain contact. Therefore, the Local Authority will not be in breach of the duty to promote contact if they are unwilling to facilitate in-person contact due to fears of Covid-19.

 Practical Considerations

Given the recent guidance provided by the Government in response to Covid-19, consideration should be given to the safety of the child in care and the safety of the relevant parties. All parties should refrain from unnecessary exposure where possible. If the child in care, relevant parties, or any other individual living within the same household is symptomatic or has been in contact with another individual showing symptoms of the virus or the child is sick with something that might be the virus, then face to face contact should not take place.

 Video-Calling

If the relevant parties have mobile phones or laptops that can accommodate either Facetime, Skype or other video-calling technology, this would allow the parties seeking contact to see and speak to the child.

N.B. Video-calling presents the most efficient way to provide contact between the parties without putting any individual at risk of exposure.

Other forms of indirect contact

Parents and/or connected parties can have contact with the child indirectly through;

  • Letters
  • Gifts
  • Photographs
  • Telephone calls (Voice-calls only)

Contact in the Community

If the parents or connected persons wish to see the child in person, contact with the child may be possible from a distance, for example;

  • The child in care may be able to have contact at the front door of the household they are living in. This would allow the child to be seen and spoken too without having to leave the household and the parent or connected person would be able to safely distance themselves.
  • Contact could take place in the garden of the property if the parent or a connected person is able to gain access to it, without having to pass through the inside of the premises.
  • If the household that the child in care presides has windows on the lower floors of the property, which can provide a sufficient view and that can be opened so that the parties can speak to each other, this may allow contact to take place if the carer of the child is agreeable to contact taking place in this manner.

Current Government measures[9] have restricted the public’s need to leave their home. The Local Authority will need to review whether contact that has been previously facilitated at Contact Centres should continue and whether the risk posed to contact centre supervisors can be safeguarded against. The current restrictions on movement have been scheduled to last for three weeks, however, there are fears that such restrictions will continue for longer than initially presumed. On that basis, it is advised that face-to-face contact within Contact Centres should not take place. By offering and facilitating alternative methods of contacts, such a video-calling and letters, the Local Authority will not be in breach of their duties to their staff and under the Children Act 1989 to promote and facilitate contact.

In removing the option of face to face contact, the Local Authority would need to be prepared to deal with more applications for mother and baby placements for very young children. Arguably the case of keeping a mother and baby/toddler together would be strengthened if the alternative was no in-person contact whatsoever.

N.B. In keeping in line with current Government guidance, a distance of at least two metres should be kept between the parties for any in-person meeting. Open air contact, e.g. in parks, is to be advised against in light of the Government’s restrictions limiting public gatherings to a minimum of two people. If social workers believe they can effectively supervise contact from a distance, so as to ensure the parties are not ‘gathering’, there is a small possibility that open air contact could be carried out as the parent and child’s daily exercise. The Local Authority and the social worker would need to use their professional judgement to decide if they can safely facilitate contact in this way.

 Travel

If any of the relevant parties are required to travel for contact, public transport should be avoided as this may increase the risk of exposure. If one party in unable to travel, consider if it is possible to arrange with the other party to travel for contact instead, if they are able to do so safely.

N.B. Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parent’s homes.[10]

Government Intervention

Due to the lack of clarity surrounding the Local Authority’s duty to promote and facilitate contact, the Local Authority could consider contacting the relevant Government Minister directly to seek clarification as to whether Government envisages that face-to-face contact can take place under the current circumstances.

Whilst guidance has been issued concerning private law cases and children moving between households, that guidance does not assist in this instance. Given the pace of Government advice that is being sent out, this advice may be superseded by Government Guidelines forthwith.

 Refusal to co-operate

If the parents initially refuse to co-operate in using any alternative processes to facilitate contact, the Local Authority should consider first if the contact can be re-scheduled and whether any further provisions may be put in place.

If the parents either continue to refuse to co-operate, or having attempted to facilitate contact using alternative processes they have not been effective, the Local Authority will need to make an application to the Court under section 34(4) or apply s34(6) CA 1989 to suspend contact.

Conclusion

Recent developments have not led to a legal change in a Local Authority’s duty to safeguard and promote welfare and allow reasonable contact. However, during the current crisis it is likely that the word ‘safeguard’ will form the overriding basis when considering whether contact can be safely carried out. The Local Authority’s duty towards its supervising staff and foster carers means that exposing them to numerous families contact sessions is unlikely to be safe. Without that supervision, contact is likely to be rendered unsafe for other underlying reasons, which resulted in the child being in care. Thus, the practicality of arranging face to face contact poses significant problems particularly as there is no caveat within the current rules for parents to leave their home to travel to contact, placing them in breach of the current rules.

Pragmatically, at the present time, the only way to comply with the Local Authority’s duty is to offer and promote other indirect types of contact, but to commit to keeping the situation continually under review subject to Government rules.

For further updates from the judiciary visit judiciary.uk.

Liberty Crawford

Magdalen Chambers

[1]https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/coronavirus.html

[2]https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-01/0122/en/20122en.pdf

[3] any other person named in sections (b) – (e) of section 34(1) CA 1989

[4] The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations: Volume 2: Care planning, Placement and Case Review 2015

[5] This sentiment extends to those with parental responsibility for the child and connected persons [paragraph 2.79 of the 2015 Guidance].

[6] Schedule 2 paragraph 15(1) of the Children Act 1989

[7] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-stay-at-home-guidance/stay-at-home-guidance-for-households-with-possible-coronavirus-covid-19-infection

[8] Re T (Termination of Contact: Discharge of Order) [1997] 1 FLR  517, CA at [526]

[9]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/874742/Full_guidance_on_staying_at_home_and_away_from_others__1_.pdf

[10] Ibid

As published by Class Legal