Top Family Judge Criticises Local Authority

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A local authority has been dragged over the coals by the country’s top family judge for its ‘quite astonishing’ failure to participate in an appeal in which two young children were found to be at risk of sexual abuse by their parents.

Following a fact-finding hearing in the context of care proceedings, a family judge had found proved allegations that a father had abused a 14-year-old girl in the mother’s presence. The former couple challenged that ruling, which was bound to have a critical impact on the future of their own two children.

The Court of Appeal refused permission to appeal on the basis that the judge had been entitled to reach the conclusions that she had on the evidence. However, in reaching its decision, the Court had stern words of rebuke for the local authority, which had purported to take a ‘neutral’ stance on the parents’ application.

The local authority had neither instructed counsel, nor put in written arguments, so that the Court was deprived of submissions in response to the application. The President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, commented, “I do not understand what the local authority thinks ‘neutrality’ means.

“It had commenced the proceedings, had decided to make a number of allegations – as it happens very serious allegations – and had succeeded in persuading the judge that most of them were proved. How, in the circumstances, could the local authority be neutral? Had it suddenly become indifferent to the outcome? Surely not.

“Even if, in order to conserve taxpayers’ money, it was appropriate not to send an advocate to attend the hearing, written submissions resisting the appeal and setting out, even if fairly briefly, why it was being said that the appeal should be rejected would surely have been of assistance.”

Lord Justice McCombe added, “Having secured findings of fact broadly along the lines that it was seeking below, the least the local authority could have done would have been to attend before the Court to ensure that the findings were not disturbed to the potential prejudice of the children in this case, who the authority had been contending were at risk from what they said had happened to another young girl at the hands of these parents. Non-participation was not an option.”