Helen Compton appeared on behalf of the Appellant mother in an appeal from interim care orders made in respect of two young children by HHJ Carr QC on 24 January 2019 at Sheffield Family Court. Helen Compton did not appear in the court below. The appeal was heard by Lord Justice Peter Jackson and Mr Justice Moor.
On behalf of the Appellant Helen Compton’s ‘distilled submission’ was that the mother was deprived of a meaningful opportunity to oppose the making of the orders. The Judge exerted undue influence on the mother, including by warning her that she would be ‘stuck’ with findings and threatening to refer the matter to the police and the CPS. Such inappropriate warnings placed the mother under extreme pressure and overbore her will. Further, the judge gave the impression of having prejudged threshold and the outcome.
The Court of Appeal granted the appeal and set the interim care orders aside. Lord Justice Peter Jackson considered the transcript of the hearing at Sheffield Family Court and held that,
‘This material amply substantiates the appellant’s case that her consent or non-opposition to the interim care order was not freely given, but was secured by oppressive behaviour on the part of the Judge in the form of inappropriate warnings and inducements. Regardless of the fact that the mother was legally represented, she did not get a fair hearing.’
The case raises a number of important legal principles and reminders. First, it addresses the circumstances where Judges go beyond robust case management and stray into improper pressure such as to overbear a party’s will to consent. Second, that there is a difference between Judges indicating a provisional view and giving the impression of pre-determining the outcome. Third, it serves as an important reminder that at the interim stage findings of fact should rarely be made and findings should not be made that purport to be finally determined before the hearing of the final care order. Finally it emphasises that one function of the Children’s Guardian is to ensure that the process that leads to orders affecting the children is a fair and valid one.
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