Final Care Plans - When Courts Say "No!"

08 Aug


Recently, I represented a  mother at a final hearing in care proceedings. The chief allegations against  her  and  the  father  were  that  they  were  incapable  of  consistently  providing  adequate home conditions and basic care for the children who were 15, 11, and 10 years old.

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Recently, I represented a  mother at a final hearing in care proceedings. The chief allegations against  her  and  the  father  were  that  they  were  incapable  of  consistently  providing  adequate home conditions and basic care for the children who were 15, 11, and 10 years old.

As often happens  in  chronic  neglect  cases,  home  conditions  improved  when  the  local  authority  got involved,  the  local  authority  disengaged,  and  home conditions  slipped,  leading  to  further local authority involvement, an improvement in home conditions, disengagement by the local authority,  and  so  on  ad  infinitum  (or  at  least  to  until  proceedings  are  issued).  Despite  2 attempts by the local authority to persuade the court to authorise the removal of the children, the children remained at home throughout the proceedings albeit under interim care orders.

At the final hearing, the local authority and the guardian held divergent views about what the best  outcomes  would  be for the  children  given their ages and the  improvements in the  home conditions  that  the  guardian  had  observed  over  the latter  part  of  the  proceedings.  The  local authority  wanted  to  remove  the  children  to  long-term  foster  care  and  it  had  identified  a potential placement for all 3 children together. The  guardian  was  opposed  to  the  removal  of  the  children  from  the  family  home,  not  least because  the  children  were  actually  pretty  well-adjusted  (they  had  none  of  the  behavioural issues so frequently noted in such cases), they had lived with the parents for their entire lives, and  there  was  a  real  risk  that  removal  would  have  a devastating  effect  on  them. 

The guardian’s views were strongly endorsed by an independent social worker. Despite  the  improvements  that  she  had  observed,  the guardian  was  concerned  about  the welfare  of  the  children  and  suggested,  in  view  of  the  cycle  of  improvement/worsening  of home  conditions,  there  should  be  care  orders  at  home  with  a  robust  support  package.  The parents  would,  potentially,  have  been  agreeable  to that  arrangement  depending  on  what  was being offered by way of support. The  court  raised  the  possibility  of  amending  the  care  plan  in  line  with  the  guardian’s suggestion at the  IRH. The  court  warned the  local authority at the  outset  of the final  hearing that,  having  read  the  papers,  it  was  struggling  with  the  idea  of  removing  the  children  from home.  The  court  once  again  raised  the  possibility  of  a  change  of  care  plan  having  heard  the allocated  social  worker’s  evidence. 

It  again  invited  the  local  authority  to  consider  an amendment to the care plan at the end of submissions. Despite this, the local authority pressed ahead in full Thatcherian ‘the-lady’s-not-for-turning’mode (even after the social worker admitted in cross-examination that he had not heard of Re B-S  (Children) [2013]  EWCA Civ  1146, that  he  had  not  made any referrals to agencies that might have been able to offer the sort of support the guardian thought the family would need if the children remained at home, and that he was not going to do so).

As, gentle reader, you  might imagine that did not go down well with the court. Giving highly cogent reasons for its decision, the court made a supervision order for 12  months, expressing its  frustration  and  annoyance  that  the  local  authority’s  intransigence  had  meant  that  the children ended up being less well protected than the court thought they should be.

What,  I  hear  you  cry,  is  the  point  of  this  story  and  how  does  it  relate  to  the  title  of  this fascinating  blog article?  Well, the  point is this:  during the  course  of submissions  it  was said on more than one occasion that the bench faced a stark choice – it could either make the final care  orders  on  the  basis  of  the  care  plans  or,  if  it  did  not  like  those  care  plans  and  the  local authority  would  not  change them,  it could  not  make the  care  order and  would  have to  either make  no  order  or  a  supervision  order  (which  does  not  require  there  to  be  a  care  plan).  That was also the advice given to the bench by their very experienced legal advisory.

Now,  playing  in  the  back  of  my  mind  was  a passage  from Re  B-S that  I  had  read  out  to  the social worker when I was cross-examining him. As I know you will all recall, at paragraph 29 of the judgment, the President says this: It is the obligation of the local authority to make the order which the court has determined is proportionate  work.
 

The local authority cannot press for a more drastic form  of order, least of  all  press  for  adoption,  because  it  is  unable  or unwilling  to  support  a  less  interventionist form of order. Reading that passage carefully, the implication is clearly that the court does not have to make a stark choice between accepting a local authority’s care plan (and making the orders sought) or  rejecting  the  care  plan  (and  making  either  no  order  or  an  order  that  does  not  require  the endorsement of the care plan).

The court, Re B-S seems to suggest, is free to  make  whatever orders it sees fit to make. But  is  that  correct?  If  it  is,  then  I  have  obviously  been  missing  something  all  these  years because,  ‘Your  Honour  is  free  to  make  whatever  orders  you  see  fit  irrespective  of  what  is contained  in  the  care  plan,’  is  not  a  submission  I have  ever  heard.  Rather,  the  position  (in those  cases  where the  point arises)  is always suggested to  be,  ‘Your  Honour  either  endorses he  care  plan  or  you  do  not.  If  you  do  not,  then  you  cannot  make  the  orders  sought  by  thelocal authority.’

Intrigued  (and  with  the  deadline  for  producing  a  blog  looming),  I  did  some  reading.  What emerged was this .In Oxfordshire County Council v. L (Care or Supervision Order) [1998] 1 FLR 70, Hale J (as she then was) held that the Children Act 1989 allowed the court to  make an order other than that for which the local authority asked, although there must be cogent and strong reasons to force upon the local authority a more Draconian order than the one requested.

The  importance  of  Hale  J’s  view  on  this  point  was  recently  endorsed  in RW v. Neath  Port Talbot  County  Borough  Council  &  Others [2013]  EWCA  Civ  1227.  In  that  case,  the President  and  Ryder  and  McCombe  LJJ  analysed  in  great  detail  the  respective  roles  and responsibilities of the local authority bringing the case and the judge hearing it.
At paragraphs 64 and 65, Ryder LJ said: In  proceedings  where  the  local  authority  are  asking for  a  supervision  order  but  the  court might make a care order, the  care plan  will of necessity relate to an option that is not being proposed by the local authority. If directed by the court to prepare and file a plan, the local authority  is  obliged  to  do  so  even  though  the  plan’s  contents  would  not  reflect  their  formal position. 

A  similar  circumstance  will  arise  where  the  local  authority  are  asking  for  a  care order  but the  court  might  make  a supervision  order. A supervision  order  does  not require  a care  plan  for  its  implementation  but  in  order  for  the  court  to  know  how  the  local  authority would implement such an order and what services would be provided there must be evidence of  the  same,  whether  that  is  put  into  the  body  of  a care  plan  or  in  the  authority’s  written evidence or both.

It can readily be seen that it is entirely possible in such circumstances for the care plan to be conditional  upon  the  decision  the  court  makes  about an  order  or  to  be  in  the  alternative  to the  authority’s  primary  position.  Whether  that  is  the  case  or  not,  every  plan  has  to  contain the  prescribed  content,  which  includes  the  permanence  and  placement  strategy  the  local authority propose if a care order is made  and the services identified to meet the risk.

A care plan that is defective as to its content can be the object of an order from a family court or the High  Court  and  there  is  nothing  in  the  statutory  formulation  that  prevents  a  family  court requiring  a  local  authority  to  specify  the  services that  are  practicable  under  each  of  the range  of  orders  that  the  court  may  be  considering  and  whether  that  is  in  the  form  of  detail contained in the plan or a  witness statement is simply a matter of form. It may need to be set out in one and explained in the other.

He returned to the theme at paragraphs 80 and 81: The court’s powers extend to  making an order other than that asked for by a local authority. The  process  of  deciding  what  order  is  necessary  involves  a  value  judgment  about  the proportionality  of  the  State’s  intervention  to  meet the  risk  against  which  the  court  decides there is a need for protection. In that regard, one starts  with the  court’s findings of fact and moves  on  to  the  value  judgments  that  are  the  welfare evaluation. 

That  evaluation  is  the court’s not the local authority’s, the guardian’s or indeed any other party’s. It is the function of the  court to come to that value judgment. It  is simply  not open to a local authority  within proceedings  to  decline  to  accept  the  court’s  evaluation  of  risk,  no  matter  how  much  it  may disagree   with   the   same.   Furthermore,   it   is   that   evaluation   which   will   inform   the proportionality of the response which the court decides is necessary.

It  is  likewise  not  open  to  a  local  authority  within proceedings  to  decline  to  identify  the practicable services that it is able to provide to make each of the range of placement options and  orders  work  in  order  to  meet  the  risk  identified  by  the  court.  That  is  the  purpose  of  a section  31  care  plan.  If  a  local  authority  were  able  to  decline  to  join  with  the  court  in  the partnership endeavour of identifying the best solution to the problem, then there would be no purpose  in  having  a  judicial  decision  on  the  question  raised  by  the  application. 

It  might  as well be an administrative act. Parliament has decided that the decision is to be a judicial act and accordingly, the care plan  or care plan  options filed  with the  court must be  designed to meet  the  risk  identified  by  the  court.  It  is  only  by  such  a  process  that  the  court  is  able  to examine  the  welfare  implications  of  each  of  the  placement  options  before  the  court  and  the benefits and detriments of the same and the proportionality of the orders sought.

To  ensure  that  there  really  was  no  room  for  doubt, Ryder  LJ  took  up  the  theme  again  at paragraph 101: The  local  authority  is  required  to  provide  the  evidence  to  enable  the  judge  to  undertake  the welfare  and  proportionality  evaluations. That includes  a  description  of the  services that  are available and practicable for each placement option and  each order being considered by the court.

It may be convenient for that to be put into the form of the section 31A care plan in the alternative  so  that  the  court  may  expressly  undertake  its  statutory  function  to  consider  the same or in evidence filed in support. There should be no question of an authority declining to file its evidence or proposed plans in response to the court’s evaluations. None of this strays into  the  impermissible  territory  of  seeking  to  bind the  local  authority’s  care  planning  and review processes once a full order is made.
If a local authority make it clear that they will not implement  a  care  plan  option  about  which  evidence  has  been  given  and  which  the  judge prefers on  welfare  and proportionality grounds, then in a rare case they  can be subjected to challenge in the High Court within the proceedings.

If and in so far as the local authority are of  the  opinion  that  they  need  to  change  a  care  plan option  approved  by  the  court  once  the proceedings  are  complete,  they  are  entitled  to  do  so  and  must  do  so  in  accordance  with  the processes  laid  out  in  the  regulations.  If  they  do  so  without  good  reason  they  will  risk  an appropriate  challenge  including  on  behalf  of  the  child  after  a  referral  from  an  IRO  to Cafcass or a Welsh family proceedings officer.

In other words, the court’s role is  more than simply endorsing the local authority’s care plan or not as the case may be. The court can make any orders it sees fit even if none of the parties wants  the  order  that  the  court  is  considering  making.  However,  before  the  court  does  so,  it must  consider  a  care  plan  setting  out  what,  if  any, services  the  local  authority  could  and would put in place to  enable the court’s decision to be carried into effect.

As Ryder LJ noted at paragraph 66 of the judgment: The  court  is  required  to  consider  but  does  not  have to  approve  the  section  31A  care  plan before deciding whether and if so what full order is necessary. In  order  to  obtain  that  information,  the  court  can simply  direct  the  local  authority  to  file  a care plan dealing with the issues that arise in relation to relation to the order that the court is considering making.

The local authority is obliged to comply with that direction (Re B-S says the same). If a  local authority refuses to  do  so,  it  may  be  held  in  contempt and/or subject to judicial review.
Where the  judge at first  instance  in RW v. Neath Port Talbot CBC went  wrong  was that she rejected the local authority’s case (which was for a supervision order) and  made a care order with  the  child  remaining  at  home  with  mother  in  the absence  of  any  evidence  as  to  what,  if any, services the local authority would offer mother and the child in those circumstances. She did  not  direct  the  local  authority  to  file  and  serve  a  care  plan  setting  out  the  missing information before making the final orders.

Therefore, the Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and substituted interim care  orders for the full  care  order  made  at  first  instance.  The  matter was  then  returned  to  the  county  court  for further  consideration  in  light  of  the  care  plans  to be  filed  by  the  local  authority  setting  out what services they would offer in the range of options being considered by the county court.


Of course, the decision in RW v. Neath Port Talbot CBC predates the recent changes wrought by  the  Children  and  Families  Act  2014.  As  Ryder  LJ points  out  at  paragraph  66  of  the judgment: A word of caution is necessary because there are provisions in the Children and Families Bill before  Parliament  which  may  change  the  nature  and  extent  of  the  court’s  obligations  in respect of the care plan and its scrutiny (for example, by limiting scrutiny to the permanence arrangements alone), and if and insofar as those changes are enacted and implemented, this judgment will have to be read subject to the same.

Like  many  of the  provisions  of  what  is  now the  Children and Families  Act  2014, section  15 (which amends section 31(3A) of the Children Act 1989) came into effect on 22nd April 2014 but only in respect of cases issued after that date. Cases issued before that date will continue to  be  governed  by  the  old  version  of  section  31(3A) (no  care  order  or  supervision  order without consideration of a care plan).

The  new  section  31(3A)(a) requires the  court, ‘to  consider the  permanence  provisions  of the section  31A  plan for the  child.’ Section  31(3A)(b) does  not require the  court to  consider the remainder of the plan except for the provisions as to contact. However, it is important to note that  the  court  only  has  to  consider  the  care  plan. As RW v. Neath  Port  Talbot  CBC makes clear, there is a vital difference between considering a plan and endorsing it.

The  upshot  of  the  recent  legislative  changes  therefore  appears  to  be  to  leave  the  decision  in RW v. Neath Port Talbot CBC unscathed: the local authority proposes but the court disposes.
That  this  is  all  well  and  good,  I  hear  you  say,  but surely  if  a  local  authority  has  a  full  care order  on  the  basis  of  a  plan  that  it  does  not  like (for  example,  with  a  placement  at  home)  it will have the ability to remove the child (potentially on a whim in order to get what it wanted in  the   first  place,  eg,  the  child   in  foster  care)  since  it  will  have  overriding  parental responsibility  and  there  will  be  no  forum  to  which the  parents  can  quickly  turn  for  redress.

That certainly appeared to be Hale J’s view of the local authority’s powers in Oxfordshire CC v. L since she said at p.75:...  a  care  order  allows  the  local  authority  to  remove the  children  from  home.  This  has  two aspects:  the  first  is  that  it  allows  the  local  authority  to  remove  the  children  without  any judicial  sanction  in  an  emergency.  The  second  is  that  it  then  allows  the  local  authority  to make long-term  plans for those  children, and to  place them  elsewhere  on  a long-term  basis, again without any judicial authority.

The only way in which this can be challenged on behalf of the children or the parent is by an application for the discharge of the care order. Happily, Baker J provided the answer to this solution in Re DE (A Child) [2014] EWFC 6. At paragraph 49 he gave the following guidance (endorsed by the President):

 

1.In every case where a care order is made on the basis of a care plan providing that a child should live at home with his or her parents, it should be a term of the care plan, and  a  recital  in  the  care  order,  that  the  local  authority  agrees  to  give  not  less  than fourteen  days  notice of  a removal  of the  child, save in  an emergency.  I consider that fourteen  days  is  an  appropriate  period,  on  the  one hand  to  avoid  unnecessary  delay but, on the other hand, to allow the parents an opportunity to obtain legal advice.

2. Where  a  care  order  has  been  granted  on  the  basis  of a  care  plan  providing  that  the child  should  remain  at  home,  a  local  authority  considering  changing  the  plan  and removing  the  child  permanently  from  the  family  must have  regard  to  the  fact  that permanent placement outside the family is to be preferred only as a last resort where nothing else will do and must rigorously analyse al l the realistic options, considering the  arguments  for  and  against  each  option.  Furthermore,  it  must  involve  the  parents properly in the decision-making process.

3. In  every  case  where  a  parent  decides  to  apply  to   discharge  a  care  order  in circumstances  where  the  local  authority  has  given  notice  of  intention  to  remove  a child placed at home under a care order, the parent should consider whether to apply in addition for an injunction under s.8 of the HRA to prevent the local authority from removing  the  child  pending  the  determination  of  the discharge  application.  If  the parent  decides  to  apply  for  an  injunction,  that  application  should  be  issued  at  the same time as the discharge application.

4. When  a local  authority, having  given  notice  of its intention to remove  a child  placed at  home  under  a  care  order,  is  given  notice  of  an  application  for  discharge  of  the care,  the  local  authority  must  consider  whether  the child's  welfare  requires  his immediate   removal.   Furthermore,   the   authority   must keep   a   written   record demonstrating  that  it  has  considered  this  question and  recording  the  reasons  for  its decision.  In  reaching  its  decision  on  this  point,  the  local  authority  must  again  interalia  consult  with  the  parents.  Any removal  of  a  child  in  circumstances  where  the child's  welfare  does  not require immediate removal, or  without  proper  consideration and  consultation,  is  likely  to  be  an  unlawful  interference  with  the  Article  8  rights  of the parent and child.

5. On  receipt  of  an  application  to  discharge  a  care  order,  where  the  child  has  been living at home, the allocation gatekeeper at the designated family centre should check whether it is accompanied by an application under s.8 of HRA and, if not, whether the circumstances  might  give  rise  to  such  an  application.  This  check  is  needed  because, as   discussed   below,   automatic   legal   aid   is   not   at   present   available   for   such applications to discharge a care order, and it is therefore likely that such applications may be made by parents acting in person. In cases where the discharge application is accompanied  by  an  application  for  an  order  under  s. 8  HRA,  or  the  allocation gatekeeper considers that the circumstances might give rise to such an application, he or  she  should  allocate  the  case  as  soon  as  possible to  a  circuit  judge  for  case management. Any application for an injunction in these circumstances must  be listed for an early hearing.


6. On  hearing  an  application  for  an  injunction  under  s.8  HRA  to  restrain  a  local authority removing a  child living  at  home  under  a  care  order  pending  determination of  an  application  to  discharge  the  care  order,  the court  should  normally  grant  the injunction  unless  the  child's  welfare  requires  his immediate  removal  from  the  family home.
Therefore, the  court  has the  power to make  orders to prevent  a  local authority seeking to  go behind the court’s decision. While I do not underestimate the funding difficulties, this should offer  parents  some reassurance that, if the  court imposes  orders  on the  local authority that  it does  not  want,  the  local  authority  is  not  able  simply  to  bypass  those  without  very  good reason.

Graeme Harrison
                   

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