The Court of Appeal has delivered an excoriating assessment of a judge’s ‘unprecedented’ summary dismissal of care proceedings at an interim procedural stage.

Lord Justice Peter Jackson said neither the local authority nor the courts had acted correctly in H-L (Children: Summary Dismissal of Care Proceedings: the council handled the issue in a ‘shambolic matter’, while the court took more than a year but still had not established how the girl at the heart of proceedings had been injured.

The judgment upheld an appeal against summary dismissal of care proceedings and ordered fresh proceedings, allocated to a different judge.

The case concerned a then two-year-old child who was found with 20 bruises that could only have been caused by the mother, father and a non-family carer.

In May 2018, the local authority insisted the girl be placed in her father’s care, overlooking that she had been in his care during a period when her injuries could have been caused.

Lawyers for the local authority advised that the threshold for court proceedings had been crossed, but it was not until August that care proceedings were issued.

Between September and December eight hearings took place, seven of which were conducted by the allocated judge, His Honour Judge Wicks. At the five transcribed hearings, the local authority and guardian were each represented by three different counsel one of who advanced 'obviously fallacious arguments'. 

Peter Jackson LJ said the allocated judge held a binary view that the threshold for care proceedings was not met just because the child was supposedly in a safe placement. The judge conflated arguments about the strength of the evidence, the requirements for considering a pool of perpetrators and the issue of delay, and reached a conclusion that was wrong, it was ruled.

Peter Jackson LJ added: ‘[The judge] should particularly have cautioned himself against terminating the proceedings when that course did not have the support of the guardian, nor any written analysis from her. He should ultimately have seen the absurd impracticality of this unprecedented outcome, and the inappropriateness of private law proceedings as a surrogate forum for child protection.

‘The injuries to this child cried out for investigation and the law, far from preventing it, positively demanded it.’

An interim supervision order will be made, to continue until the conclusion of proceedings.