Local government – Care orders – Expert evidence – Placement orders

Re A-H (children): CA (Civ Div) (Lords Justices Thorpe, Patten, Lady Justice Smith: 24 September 2010

The appellant mother (M) appealed against care and placement orders made in care proceedings brought by the first respondent local authority in relation to eight of her nine ­children (C1, C2, C4, C5, C6, C7, C8 and C9).

At the final hearing the judge had pessimistic or negative opinions about M’s ability to care for the children contained in a parenting assessment and reports of two social workers, and more optimistic and positive reports from the children’s guardian and an adult psychiatrist. The psychiatrist recommended that M undergo long-term psychodynamic therapy. M sought a three-month adjournment of the hearing to begin therapy and obtain an interim report of any progress. At the end of the hearing the judge reserved his decision. He was later pressed by the local authority for a decision and he made an order with reasons to follow. The judge ordered that there should be a risk assessment in relation to C1 and C2, who were the eldest children, that C4 be subject to a care order with a plan for long-term fostering, that C5 be removed from her parents with an interim care order to enable the local authority to amend the care plan to long-term fostering, that C6, C7 and C8 be subject to care orders and placed for adoption and that C9 remain at home subject to an interim care order pending an assessment of his father, the fourth respondent. Three months after the end of the final hearing he gave an extempore judgment containing his reasons. Later the same day M applied for permission to appeal on the grounds that the judgment was defective. The judge then delivered a supplemental judgment attempting to correct some omissions in his earlier judgment. M argued that the extempore judgment was inadequate, in particular his assessment and analysis of the ­psychiatrist’s evidence about the improvements made by M, and in ­failing sufficiently to record the guardian’s view that removal of the children was not proportionate and did not reflect the balance between the risk of them remaining with M and the risk of removing them given the extent to which they were rooted in the family and, to some extent, thriving in the family.

Held: The judge’s extempore judgment was not of a sufficient standard. He had undoubtedly been under huge pressure and it was a bold decision to give an extempore judgment three months after the evidence had been concluded. It would have been wiser to compose a written judgment. In relation to C1 and C2 there were contradictions between the earlier order and the later reasons, and the judge had incorrectly described his conclusions in respect of them as findings of fact. There was undoubtedly material on which the judge could have written an impregnable judgment moving the younger children away from the family, but however carefully composed it might have been the judge could not have taken the same course in respect of C1 and C2, who were doing well at school and were very happy at home. There was insufficient professional opinion to justify a conclusion that they should be removed from their family into an uncertain future in the care system. The orders in respect of C1 and C2 were set aside. C5 clearly fell within the group of children whose future should not be decided until M’s progress had been assessed after three months of therapy. The placement orders were irregular as the judge had failed to indicate that he had dispensed with parental ­consent. The placement orders would be set aside and the issue remitted to the county court for reconsideration.

Appeal allowed.

Alison Ball QC, Esther MacLachlan for the appellant; Judith Charlton for the first respondent; in person for the second respondent; Mr Hall for the third respondent.