About the Family Law Week blog

The Family Law Week Blog is a companion site to Family Law Week. It complements the news, cases and articles published on Family Law Week with additional comment and coverage of the wider aspects of family law.

The Blog is edited by Jacqui Gilliatt, of 4 Brick Court and Lucy Reed, of St Johns Chambers.

Friday, 28 February 2014

RE N-L Post 3 of 3: Pauffley J on triage assessments and justice before speed

In which Pauffley J criticises the manner of obtaining evidence from an independent expert by means of a paper triage assessment commissioned in haste and without the expert meeting the mother:

29. My reading of the papers prior to the hearing on 28th January revealed causes for considerable anxiety as to whether there had been a fair and appropriate assessment exercise in relation to the mother's abilities to look after NL.

30. The letter of instruction to Dr van Rooyen invited her to undertake "a triage psychological assessment in respect of (the mother) by reading the papers, liaising with the Practice Manager and liaising with [the resource] (as necessary) and report upon (her) findings." She was asked, insofar as she was able, to provide her view in regards to (the mother's) history of drug use, the current treatment she's receiving and her prognosis for abstinence in the future." The second question of Dr van Rooyen invited her commentary upon what (the mother) would need to demonstrate in order to care for NL long term and her progress in achieving these goals. She was also asked to comment upon further advisable treatment and likely timescales.

31. There was no suggestion that it might be necessary for Dr van Rooyen to meet with the mother in order to provide her report. The terms of the letter make clear that what was being requested was a paper assessment supplemented by a telephone discussion with the Practice Manager, [named]. The mother, I should say, has never met [the Practice Manager].

32. Although it had been thought, on the part of the local authority at least, that it might be advisable for Dr van Rooyen to discuss the case with [the resource], her report makes clear she did not avail herself of that opportunity. In evidence, she said, according to the note, "I hadn't because of tight timetable."

33. That last piece of information leads on to consideration of exactly how and within what period, Dr van Rooyen's report came to be prepared. The letter of instruction is dated 31st October 2013. In the section headed "Timetable," it is recorded that the local authority's lead Solicitor understands that Dr van Rooyen was "able to file (her) report by 5pm on Thursday 31st October," that same day. The first hearing in the Family Proceedings court was scheduled for 1st November.

Dr van Rooyen's involvement – fundamental flaws
34. I am gravely troubled by the speed, the manner and the ambit of Dr van Rooyen's involvement. It simply cannot be right, fair or reasonable to commission an expert to provide what may turn out to be the pivotal evidence justifying separation of a neonate from his mother in the way that happened here.

35. It surprises and alarms me that Dr van Rooyen was asked, and was prepared, to provide a report during the course of a single working day, a terrifyingly tight timeframe, and on the basis of papers supplemented by a telephone conversation with a local authority professional who had never met the mother. I struggle to understand how Dr van Rooyen's apparently firm opinions, adverse to the mother, could have been formed given the complete absence of any kind of discussion with her or, indeed, any communication with [the resource].

36. To my mind, it is quite simply unacceptable for an 'independent' expert to be instructed in the way Dr van Rooyen was – to conduct such a scant inquiry in preparation for a hearing which was to have such wide ranging consequences for the child.


Rationale for the instruction
37. The reason why the local authority acted as it did, requesting Dr van Rooyen's assistance in preparation for the 1st November hearing, may be associated with the family justice reforms and the impetus to complete public law cases within 26 weeks. I have not conducted any kind of inquiry into exactly why the instruction for a "Triage Assessment" occurred but gained the distinct impression that this case is not an isolated instance, rather that similar practices have been applied in other proceedings locally so as to assist in ensuring the case achieves a conclusion within its allotted timeframe.

Discussion
38. Albeit in the context of care proceedings where the care plan is for adoption, the President has made it abundantly clear that justice must not be subverted by the requirement that public law cases be concluded within 26 weeks. In Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146 he said – "Critical to the success of the reforms is robust judicial case management from the outset of every care case. Case management judges must be astute to ensure that the directions they give are apt to the task and also to ensure that their directions are complied with. Never is this more important than in cases where the local authority's plan envisages adoption. If, despite all, the court does not have the kind of evidence we have identified, and is therefore not properly equipped to decide these issues, then an adjournment must be directed, even if this takes the case over 26 weeks. Where the proposal before the court is for non-consensual adoption, the issues are too grave, the stakes for all are too high, for the outcome to be determined by rigorous adherence to an inflexible timetable and justice thereby potentially denied."

39. More recently, in his 'View from the President's Chambers (7)' entitled "The process of reform, changing cultures" the President reiterated that message saying, "We must always remember that the PLO is a means of achieving justice and the best outcomes for children and, wherever possible, their families. It is not, and must never be allowed to become, a straightjacket, least of all if rigorous adherence to an inflexible timetable risks putting justice in jeopardy."

40. My enduring anxiety in relation to this case is that in the frenzy of activity which preceded the first hearing in the Family Proceedings court, there was too much local authority emphasis upon securing an expert opinion to support removal from the mother and too little focus upon ensuring a just and fair assessment process. Justice must never be sacrificed upon the altar of speed.

1 comment:

Kate Ryan said...

This is another example of the rapid trend to reducing difficult legal and evidential issues to a "how cheap can we do it" approach above all else. Cost is an important factor in almost all civil legal matters, but thoroughness and fairness are imperative also, especially in family law, for obvious reasons.