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Home > Judgments > 2019 archive

S-L (Children : Adjournment) [2019] EWCA Civ 1571

Peter Jackson LJ here delivers the single judgment of the Court of Appeal, in which the local authority’s appeal against the decision of a Recorder to adjourn care proceedings at the conclusion of a contested final hearing, for the purposes of further assessment was upheld.

The local authority had sought care and placement orders in respect of two of three young children (an older child already being settled in long term foster care). The background to the applications was a history of concern regarding domestic abuse, instability in the parents relationship, poor supervision and neglect, and evidence that the middle child was developmentally delayed and behaving abnormally – being without speech, pulling her hair out, rocking and banging her head. She had been removed under police powers of protection on the discovery of unexplained bruising, following which there had been a 'decisively' negative residential assessment immediately prior to the birth of the youngest child who, in light of that assessment, was removed following a contested hearing before a circuit judge. That judge had determined that there was no need for further assessment and had timetabled the matter to the final hearing before the recorder some 3 months later.

The evidence at the final hearing was unanimous in its conclusion the parents could had been unable to care adequately for their first two children, and would be unable to care for the youngest two together now. The recorder had not been prepared to accept the proposition that the parents care of the youngest child would necessarily be inadequate on the basis of the history of parenting of the older two, and declined to make final orders on the basis that there should be a further 12 week assessment, ideally at the residential unit or at home. Interim care orders were made to facilitate this, notwithstanding that the professionals clearly did not consider they could keep the children safe in such a setting.

The criticism from the Court of Appeal was trenchant : the court stated that such was the 'complete inadequacy' of the three page long judgment, that this amounted to a serious procedural irregularity. There had been no attempt to analyse the evidence or issues, or to measure the significance of the extensive and undisputed family history, or to explain why the court was departing from strong professional advice or the view of the circuit judge who had dealt with the matter earlier on. Jackson LJ goes on to record that the decision was 'announced without context or coherent explanation'.

Whilst the Court of Appeal accepted that there can sometimes be good reasons to adjourn a final hearing in order to obtain further evidence, such a step should never been seen as 'pressing the pause button', but as a positive purposeful choice that requires a weighing-up of the pros and cons and a 'lively awareness' that the passage of time has consequences. The court had to have regard to the no delay principle and the statutory timetabling imperative in s32(1)(a) Children Act 1989. There had been consideration or explanation by the judge as to whether and how, the extension to the timetable was necessary to enable proceedings to be resolved justly, as required by s32(5). Indeed theses provisions had not even been referred to.

The Court of Appeal were clear that in the circumstances of this case, although the delay was regrettable, the local authority were right to challenge a decision that it and the Guardian considered disruptive to the children and of no forensic value to the court. There was no gap in the evidence and delay was a pressing negative feature.

The matter has been remitted for an expedited final hearing.

Floyd LJ and Green LJ concurred.

Summary by Lucy Reed, barrister, St John's Chambers.

You can read the full judgment of S-L (Children : Adjournment) [2019] EWCA Civ 1571 on BAILII