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(Court of Appeal; Wall LJ and Blackburne J; 31 July 2007)
The four-year-old child's father was a Schedule 1 offender and there was concern that the mother was failing to adequately protect and care for the child. The father had been assessed as a 'medium risk' to the child. From time to time the child had been placed on the local authority's child protection register but the local authority had maintained the child's placement with her parents on certain conditions set out at various stages of the child's life. The child then alleged to a social worker that the father had touched her genital area and by reason of both this and breaches by the parents of agreements with the local authority, the local authority commenced care proceedings in the Family Proceedings Court. They sought an interim care order and assessments of the child concerned and the parents. The case was transferred to the county court where a district judge initially gave directions as to how the case should be tried. Following this, at a fact finding hearing the judge hearing the case found that the parents had 'no case to answer' as to the threshold criteria under s 31 of the Children Act 1989 and dismissed the proceedings.
Allowing the local authority's appeal, the Court of Appeal held that it was clear that the local authority was not seeking a determination of the s 31 Children Act 1989 threshold criteria: it was applying for an interim care order and assessments of the parents and child. Although the judge had tried the case on the basis that the district judge had set it up, his concentration on the s 31 threshold criteria had closed his mind to the real risks posed to the child in her environment, namely the risk posed to the child by the father. The result was wrong and did not serve the best interests of the child. When a split hearing was ordered in care proceedings it was essential for the court and the parties to be absolutely clear about the purpose of the hearing, the issues to be decided and the relief sought.
The judge's order would be set aside; the proceedings would be re-instated and listed before a different judge to consider whether there should be further assessments of the parents and the child and whether an interim care order should be made.
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