A district judge recused herself from a family case after discovering that her son and a party in the case were members of the same hockey club and followed each other on social media, a Court of Appeal judgment has revealed.
In W (Children: Reopening/Recusal), the appeal court said the district judge’s findings in long-running private law proceedings should not have been set aside.
Following a fact-finding hearing in February, the district judge made six findings. In July, she made administrative arrangements for a further directions hearing to take place before another recorder.
At a hearing a few days later, the recorder decided that the father’s application for a re-hearing on findings of assault (which he denied) should be reheard by the district judge and he contacted her during the lunch break. The recorder then informed the parties that she had recused herself.
Later that month, the father’s application to reopen some of the findings came before His Honour Judge Duggan, who introduced the issue of recusal ‘from the outset’, the appeal court said.
HHJ Duggan said the district judge withdrew from the case because of a family connection with one of the parties. To ensure justice was not only done but seen to be done, he set aside the district judge’s findings.
Contemplating an appeal, the mother’s counsel asked the court office to confirm what the family connection was and whether the district judge was aware of the connection at the February hearing.
On 29 July, the district judge told the court office that her son and the mother were members of a local hockey club, the mother was a friend of the son on Facebook and they followed each other on Instagram. She was unaware of the connection until June.
Lord Justice Peter Jackson, in the Court of Appeal, said that once the district judge declined to hear the case on the basis of recusal, she should have ensured the parties were formally notified of the reason.
Jackson LJ said HHJ Duggan had been ‘acting with the best of intentions’ but a decision to set aside the findings could only be taken in an appellate capacity. HHJ Duggan was not in a position to take a decision about apparent bias and his ‘conclusion that the district judge’s findings were infected by apparent bias is not supported by any sound reasoning’.
Jackson LJ also dismissed the father’s application, saying there were no solid grounds for believing that the district judge’s findings required revisiting.
Lord Justice Phillips and Lady Justice King agreed.