Judges must be careful not to put unreasonable pressure on parties, the Court of Appeal has warned, finding that a mother's consent to a care order was secured by 'oppressive behaviour'.
The mother, in G (Children: Fair Hearing), claimed that she was subject to 'improper judicial pressure' at a family hearing in Sheffield last month, in which Her Honour Judge Elizabeth Carr QC made unopposed interim orders for two young children. The Court of Appeal judgment states that, after the hearing finished, the mother 'became distressed' at what had occured.
Lord Justice Peter Jackson said the case before the appeal court was about the process. He said: 'Judges can, and frequently do, indicate a provisional view to the parties. This is entirely proper and may lead to parties changing their positions. Provided they do so freely (even if reluctantly), there is nothing objectionable about this. However, judges must not place unreasonable pressure on a party to change position or appear to have prejudged the matter.'
Jackson LJ said he regretted that 'what occured in this case fell well outside the proper exercise of the court's powers'.
HHJ Carr 'rightly appreciated' that the urgent application had to be decided that day. Jackson LJ said: 'It was a matter for her, given the practical constraints, as to whether to hear oral evidence: if she had been considering making a short-term holding order I would not have criticised her for not doing so, with any evidence needed to justify a longer-term order being taken on a later date. However, this is not what happened. The judge was hearing an application issued that day, with the parents arriving at court for the first time, the social worker and the guardian knowing little of the fraught family history, and the mother being represented by inexperienced counsel.'
The judgment states that before the mother's counsel could tell the judge his instructions were to contest the order, HHJ Carr said: '...if it is heard today I shall certainly make findings that your client will be stuck with'. Jackson LJ said the only conclusion the mother could draw from this and similar statements 'is that the judge had made up her mind and was sure to make adverse findings that would be damaging to her in the long run'.
When the mother's counsel attempted to put a small part of his client's factual case, he was 'met with derision', Jackson LJ said.
HHJ Carr also 'made an entirely gratutious statement that "I shall probably send my findings, if I make any, to the police and require it goes to the CPS and - see what happens"'.
Jackson LJ ruled that the material before the appeal court 'amply substantiates the appellant's case that her consent or non-opposition to the interim care order was not freely given, but was secured by oppressive behaviour on the part of the judge in the form of inappropriate warnings and inducements.'
Mr Justice Moor agreed. He urged courts to be 'very cautious' before making reference to the significance of conclusions drawn at the interim stage 'as such comments may appear to the parents to be a form of pressure'.