Tight deadlines for dealing with family cases are beneficial, the Court of Appeal has said, after it upheld a challenge concerning a ‘substantially delayed’ judgment.
R:T (Children) concerned care proceedings that started in Bournemouth Family Court on 14 February 2014 with respect to 10 of 15 children born to the mother. The father in the proceedings was parent to the youngest nine of the 10 children.
The appeal related primarily to four of those 10 children.
His Honour Judge Meston did not hand down judgment until 17 March 2015 – around six months after the final day of oral evidence at the end of a seven-day hearing, in which he made an order authorising the local authority to place the four youngest children, who had remained in the care of their parents, for adoption.
The father’s grounds for appeal included failure by the judge to properly consider evidence indicating ‘sustained and significant change’ established by the parents during the six months prior to the judgment.
The father asserted that the judge paid ’no regard’ to what may or may not have occurred during a period of six months leading up to the handing down of the judgment and simply decided the case in March 2015 on the basis of evidence as it had stood at the end of September 2014. This was agreed by the Court of Appeal.
Section 32 of the Children Act 1989 requires courts dealing with public law child proceedings to draw up a timetable with a view to 'disposing' the application within 26 weeks from the day the application was issued.
Lord Justice McFarlane said in the Court of Appeal ruling that it was ‘incumbent upon a judge, who requires time to prepare a reserved judgment at the conclusion of a hearing, to make express provision for an extension (of up to eight weeks) to the timetable for that purpose’. He described the delay as ‘plainly, wholly unacceptable’.
McFarlane LJ praised judges who undertook ‘the relentless diet of high-end and burdensome care cases that is the lot of the senior, and often the only, judge at a designated family centre’ as being among ‘the most hardworking individuals in our justice system’.
‘Within that group of judges, HHJ Meston is entitled, in my view, to hold his head high for the conspicuous care and hard work that he has consistently displayed since his appointment to the bench.
‘Although, inevitably in the light of our decision, this judgment must point to errors in the progress of this case before the lower court, my purpose is to seek to identify lessons for the future rather than to be critical of the judge.’
McFarlane LJ had ‘more than a little professional sympathy’ for the situation that developed after the close of oral evidence.
‘It is a situation which may well be familiar to many judges faced with the twin, but conflicting, drivers found in the need to spend time immediately after a substantial case in order to prepare the judgment, on the one hand, and, on the other, the need to get on and begin a fresh trial in the next heavy case which is booked to commence before them on the following working day.
‘In this regard, the advent of the new, tightly drawn time limits imposed by section 32 ought to be seen as a benefit to a judge, rather than the contrary.’
Although HHJ Meston referred to updating material supplied on behalf of the father in January 2015 in his 256-paragraph judgment, the Court of Appeal said the paragraph was ‘no more than a factual description of the material’.
McFarlane LJ said the judgment, which spanned over 60 pages, ‘reads exactly as it would have done had the judge delivered it immediately after the oral hearing had concluded’.
McFarlane took the view HHJ Meston should have obtained ‘short updating evidence’ from the local authority, the parents and the Children’s Guardian on the welfare of the four children.
The appeal was allowed and sent back to the family court so ‘the necessary updating evidence’ can be filed and considered.
McFarlane LJ said: ‘As no challenge is made to the judge’s analysis of the children’s welfare on the material that was already before the court, there is every good reason, and no objection, for the case to go back to HHJ Meston, as opposed to a fresh tribunal, so that he may undertake the analysis of the updating material that is, as I have found, required.’