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Home > Judgments > 2010 archive

Re L & B (Children) [2010] EWCA Civ 1118

Care proceedings: Appeal of a refusal by a Recorder to set aside findings and conclusions of a fact-finding hearing in circumstances where the Recorder had a current professional relationship with the guardian. Appeal allowed.

The case concerned 3 children. The guardian's interim report recorded that the children had been exposed to domestic violence. At the fact-finding hearing the Guardian did not adopt a position of neutrality but supported the mother fully. The judge described counsel for the Guardian's submissions as key. The Recorder at the fact- finding hearing delivered judgment that the father had indeed been guilty of persistent domestic violence inflicted on his wife and to some extent two of the children.

Concerns were raised following the fact-finding hearing that the Recorder in her practice had been instructed by the Guardian in another public law case and that those instructions were continuing and live at the date of the fact finding. An application was made for the Recorder to recuse herself.

At a later hearing, the Recorder delivered a judgment in which she recused herself from determining the outstanding issues as to the future of the children, but refused the father's application to set aside her findings and conclusions from the fact-finding hearing.

The appeal was heard by Thorpe, Smith and Patten LLJ. The relevant test is the informed bystander test set out in Helow v Home Secretary [2008] 1 WLR 2416. In this case there was very little information as to the extent of the relationship between the Recorder and the guardian. Each case in this field is heavily fact-dependant.  A judge is always wise to err, if at all, on the side of caution and reveal anything that might provoke an application to recuse at the outset.  That was not done in this case. The appeal was allowed unanimously. Smith LJ held that the appeal must be allowed principally because the association between the Recorder and the guardian was current. It was also an important factor that the guardian had not adopted a position of neutrality at the fact finding hearing. Patten LJ made it clear that it is incumbent on a judge in these circumstances to explain in sufficient detail the scale and content of the professional or other relationship which is challenged on the application.

Summary by Alfred Procter, barrister, 1 Garden Court


______________________________

Case No: B4/2010/2092
Neutral Citation Number: [2010] EWCA Civ 1118
IN THE COURT OF APPEAL  (CIVIL DIVISION)
ON APPEAL FROM PRINCIPAL REGISTRY, FAMILY DIVISION
 (HIS HONOUR JUDGE ALTMAN)
Royal Courts of Justice
Strand, London, WC2A 2LL
Date: Friday, 23rd September 2010
Before:

LORD JUSTICE THORPE
LADY JUSTICE SMITH
and
LORD JUSTICE PATTEN

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IN THE MATTER OF L-B (Children)
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(DAR Transcript of 
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Mr Southey QC (instructed by HS Kang & Co Solicitors) appeared on behalf of the Appellant father.
Ms Mather (instructed by London Borough of Barking & Dagenham Legal Services) appeared on behalf of the First Respondent, the local authority.
Mr Bedingfield (instructed by Sternberg Reed Solicitors) appeared on behalf of the Second Respondent, the mother.
Mr Sharp (instructed by Gary Jacobs & Co) appeared on behalf of the Third Respondent, the Guardian ad Litem.
The remaining respondents did not appear and were not represented.
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Judgment
 
Lord Justice Thorpe:
1. The London Borough of Lambeth commenced public law proceedings in March 2009 in relation to three children of the family, consisting of parents who had had undoubtedly a turbulent relationship.  Interim Care Orders were made in relation to two of the children and an Interim Supervision Order in relation to the third in September 2009.  The appointed guardian was a Ms Cocker-Thompson.  She prepared an interim report in August in which she recorded that the children had been exposed to domestic violence.  What had been intended to be a disposal fixture in October was then adapted to investigate this issue of whether or not the children had been exposed to domestic violence.

2. This four day fixture commenced on 19 October and concluded on 23 October when the judge, Recorder Sadd, delivered her judgment finding that the father had indeed been guilty of persistent domestic violence inflicted on his wife and to some extent two of the children.

3. The arrangements were made for the subsequent consideration of the children's future at a hearing in May, but it is important at this stage to underline that at the investigation in October the guardian had not adopted a position of neutrality but had instructed her counsel, Mr Sharp, to support the mother fully in her evidence in submissions.  And accordingly, at the close of the case, Mr Sharp was arguing that the evidence of the mother should be accepted despite some apparent inconsistencies and that generally the evidence of the father should be rejected.  The Recorder accepted Mr Sharp's submissions, which she described as key.

4. The hearing fixed for 17 May 2010 was destined to be adjourned for reasons quite unconnected with the issues raised by this appeal, but by chance Mr Sharp had been appearing in the same court before one of the regular judges, Judge Cox, some seven days before the case was due to commence, and as a result of observations made by Judge Cox, Mr Sharp informed the parties to this pending case that there were concerns arising out of the fact that the Recorder in her practice had been instructed by Ms Cocker-Thompson in another public law case and that those instructions were continuing and live at the date of the trial in October.  Accordingly an application was made for the Recorder to recuse and, after, an adjournment to allow the application to be formally prepared and fortified by a skeleton argument.

5. On 18 May the Recorder delivered a judgment in which she recused herself from determining the outstanding issues as to the future of the children, but refused the father's application to set aside her findings and conclusions incorporated in the judgment of 23 October. The judge's reasons for recusing prospectively and refusing retrospectively are set out in a relatively brief judgment.

6. The refusal led to an application for permission to appeal which was considered on paper by Black LJ and on 2 July she granted the application, explaining that the point was plainly arguable although there were nice ancillary questions as to whether the Recorder had jurisdiction to set aside an order which was perfected and in respect of which she was essentially functus.

7. The case in this court has been very thoroughly prepared and we have two skeletons from Mr Southey QC for the appellant father, and skeletons from Ms Mather for the local authority, Mr Bedingfield for the mother and Mr Sharp for the guardian ad litem. All three oppose Mr Southey's appeal, albeit for different reasons.  The responsibility for the family has since passed from Lambeth to Camden, and Camden have helpfully submitted a note from their counsel in which he explains that his involvement is too recent to justify his attendance before this court today.

8. Mr Southey's submission could be summarised in this very simple way. The Recorder having recused in respect of the future on the ground that (although she does not thus express it) an informed objective observer might question her impartiality, it must follow logically that the same taint is there in respect of her past adjudication and therefore as a matter of simplicity she was wrong to have refused to set aside her findings on the domestic violence issues.

9. Mr Southey meets the point that the guardian is not an ordinary litigant.  The guardian is not a party to the proceedings.  The guardian is an expert and accordingly is not covered by the classic line of authority which makes it plain that a practitioner acting as a judge may not sit in judgment in a case in which there are continuing live instructions in another matter from a party to the case listed.

10. Mr Southey stresses that the rationale of the general rule rests on three ingredients: the commercial aspect of the relationship between the part-time judge and the litigant; the relationship of trust between lawyer and client; and the continuing professional duty that the lawyer owes to the client.  As my Lady Smith LJ emphasised at the outset of argument, in relation to a professional such as a guardian ad litem the real foundation for the rule must be the relationship of trust which is engendered between the child's guardian and the solicitor for the child, who are both essentially working in harness to advance the welfare issues created by the case.

11. The contrary arguments were advanced firmly by Mr Sharp for the guardian, who emphasises that in modern times the House of Lords, particularly in the Helow case, have emphasised the qualities and attributes of this informed bystander. Such a bystander must be taken to be informed as to the background and the facts, and here a well-informed bystander would know that practitioner recorders in this public law domain will almost always have a public law practice when not sitting in judicial capacity.  There is a very small world in which the few specialists are continuously exchanging roles in individual cases, and the operation would become impracticable or unworkable were this principle advanced by Mr Southey upheld by the court.  He and Mr Bedingfield both draw attention to the relatively recent decision of this court in the case of Re G and B (Children: Fact-finding hearing) [2009] 1 FLR 1145. However, with respect to Mr Sharp and Mr Bedingfield, I am clear in my conclusion that the case cited does not bear in any way upon the issues which we considered, which are essentially the circumstances in which a judge must consider recusal.  Here all that the court addressed was the listing question of whether a remitted or continuing case after a successful appeal should be returned to the first judge or to some other, giving due respect to the subjective view of the successful appellant that he or she might not expect justice from the first judge. 

12. So my clear conclusion is that Mr Southey is entitled to succeed on this appeal.

13. We were told this morning that Recorder Sadd is a solicitor and a consultant with the prominent public law firm of solicitors Messrs Hornby and Levy.  I would emphasise the role of the guardian in public law proceedings.  The guardian, as Mr Bedingfield correctly submits, has a statutory function and the statutory code is extensive, but the role of the guardian, client or expert will vary from case to case.  The guardian may be the detached expert in the case, for instance, of a very young child, or, at the other end of the scale, in the case of a teenager of strong convictions who has chosen to part company with the guardian and instruct (inaudible).  By contrast the guardian may be an advocate for articulate children in between those two poles who have strong wishes and feelings consistent with their future welfare.

14. In split trials, very often, indeed normally, the position adopted by the guardian at the fact-finding investigation is one of neutrality.  For instance, in a case of physical injury the first task of the judge is to decide whether the injury is accidental or non-accidental and then to contemplate the pool of perpetrators.  The guardian seldom has much contribution to make to that judicial enquiry.  It is rare for a preliminary issue trial in public law proceedings to investigate domestic violence, which is more usually the subject of preliminary hearing in private law proceedings, and it seems to me almost a fortiori the guardian will ordinarily have a position of neutrality.  Here the guardian entered the arena supporting the mother's case to the full.  I say that just as a matter of record, not in any criticism of the guardian.  But it is an important factor in determining whether the earlier conclusions enshrined in the judgment of 23 October can stand.

15. Another point that I emphasise is that the spectre of delay to these children, which is much emphasised in the respondent's skeletons, has evaporated as a result of an approach to the county court that seemingly anticipated the success of the appeal; for the fixture commencing on 24 January before Judge Cox has been extended to a ten-day fixture to enable that judge to start from scratch, to investigate the history again, to reach conclusions on the history as well as determining difficult issues as to the future.

16. So finally I would emphasise that each case in this field is heavily fact-dependant. We have very little information as to the extent of the relationship between the Recorder and the guardian.  It was not investigated in the court below and very little in the preparation of this appeal has entered that arena. 

17. If we turn to the judgment of the Recorder, she only recognises in paragraph 31 "a professional involvement with the guardian in another case", but she so records only in the context of her conviction that that involvement had not affected her judgment in any way. That of course is not the issue that the Recorder had to consider. Nor in the previous paragraph (paragraph 30) does she approach the real test, for there she says only:

"Having considered both the case law and submissions, in my judgment I am not obliged to recuse myself.  However, whilst I bear in mind the importance of not recusing myself as it would be more comfortable to do so, in my view it is important justice is not only done but seen to be done." 

18. So those passages, which are at the heart of her judgment, do not approach the question in the manner that is now manifest from the decisions of the House of Lords -- I stress in the informed bystander test and the extent of the information that is to be assumed in the bystander.  So it does seem to me that in this case it is just worth emphasising that a judge is always wise to err if at all on the side of caution and reveal anything that might provoke an application to recuse at the outset.  That was not done in this case and it was almost fortuitous that at the halfway stage information emerged which provoked the application to recuse.  It can be seen that the belated emergence of the relevant circumstances has led to unfortunate consequences, particularly the necessity for this appeal.

19. Once the Recorder had decided not to continue and explained that decision, it does seem to me that the consequential question, as to whether her past judgment required to be set aside and the question re-litigated, would perhaps have been better referred to Judge Cox for decision.  But all that said, I would allow the appeal.

Lady Justice Smith:
20. I agree and I add a few words of my own, only to stress that this court is not seeking to lay down any general rule that the relationship between a guardian in a public law family case and a solicitor instructed by her is such that it will inevitably follow that the solicitor must recuse him or herself from another case in which that guardian is appointed to safeguard the children's interests. Issues of recusal are often not clear cut and will usually be case-specific.  I agree with my Lord, Thorpe LJ, that this appeal must be allowed, but principally to my mind because the association between the Recorder and the guardian was current.  The result here might have been different had the relationship occurred some time ago and been closed.

21. Also, if during the fact-finding hearing in this case the guardian had taken a completely neutral stance, I might well have been of the view that there was no need to set aside the facts that she found although I would still have been of the view that it would have been appropriate for her to recuse herself from involvement in the disposal hearing where the guardian's evidence was to be of real importance.  So I would not wish it to be thought that we were laying down any general rule.  I merely say that on the facts here the Recorder should not have been involved at all because of the currency of the relationship with the guardian and her findings of fact must be set aside.

Lord Justice Patten:
22. I agree with both judgments and would add only this.  Where a judge is faced with an application that he should recuse himself on the ground of apparent advice it is in my judgment incumbent on him to explain in sufficient detail the scale and content of the professional or other relationship which is challenged on the application.  The parties are not in the position of being able to cross-examine the judge about it and he is likely to be the only source of the relevant information.  Without this, it becomes difficult if not impossible properly to apply the informed bystander test set out by Lord Hope in his speech in Helow v Home Secretary [2008] 1 WLR 2416. In this case the Recorder has not done this and, as my Lord Thorpe LJ has pointed out, has in fact given no reasons at all for her rejection of the argument that her professional relationship with the guardian is not such as could give the informed observer any reason or cause for concern.  So for the reasons given by my Lord I would therefore also allow this appeal. 
Order: Application granted