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(Family Division; Black J; 18 April 2007)
The local authority sought determination as to whether it was in the child's best interests to be placed with her mother now or in the foreseeable future. The mother argued that the judge should go no further than determining the facts necessary for establishing the threshold criteria and the facts necessary for the decision as to the placement of the child. Assessments of the paternal family were not yet complete and the local authority had not yet therefore prepared its care plan. The full hearing was listed for September before a different judge. The mother argued that it would be unusual to determine her situation before the local authority was in a position to put forward a final care plan, and also that it would be unfair to her in view of the fact that she was making progress in her personal life and might be in a position to care for her daughter by the time the paternal family assessments were complete.
It could not be argued that decisions in care proceedings only crystallise when the court is about to make a final order. The process of determination in a split case such as this was spread out over months but was still a single process. Split hearings were a well established example of decisions being taken at an early stage in care proceedings that enabled assessments and decisions to be taken later on. It was possible to have a threshold hearing as the first part, and where the threshold involved reliance on the likely to suffer harm limb of s 31 Children Act 1989, value judgments built on facts were bound to feature in the first part of the hearing as well as in the second. If the evidence was available there was nothing wrong with the court determining in advance of the local authority presenting its final care plan and the court considering 'disposal' that a particular individual was not going to be in a position to care for a child safely in the sort of timescale that the child needed.
The question was therefore not whether it was a lawful or permissible exercise of discretion to deal with matters in the proposed manner, but whether evidence was available to take the decision at this stage. All the evidence had been collected on the future prospects with regard to the mother: it was not going to be rendered uncertain by continuing assessments of the paternal family. Evidence as to the mother's long term situation would therefore be heard in this first hearing.
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