It is not uncommon in care proceedings to be in a situation where all of the evidence on the parents is now available and the professionals have taken a view on it, this may not necessarily be a view that is shared by the parents. The case is not ready for a final hearing and won’t be for another 3-4 months, usually because placement is being tested with a relative, or sibling assessments may be taking place. Where this is the case, can a parent or parents be ruled out as a carer for their child or children before a final hearing?
The case of North Yorkshire County Council v B 2007 [2008 1 FLR 1645] does provide some authority for suggesting that the Court can deal with a parents case before the case is ready for a final hearing.
The case was listed for an eleven day final hearing, however just before the final hearing it was clear that the final assessment that was being undertaken on family carers would not be ready in time for the final hearing. The Judge was faced with a decision of abandoning a hearing where eleven days had been set aside, witnesses had all been warned and the difficulty of finding further time in the future to list the case again or the Judge could try and see if something useful could be done with this Court time in order to prevent the above.
The Local Authority suggested that the Court use the eleven days to hear the mother’s case which was that the children should be returned to her care. A shorter hearing could then take place in the future to deal with an appropriate order and contact.
The case sets out the Judge’s decision on this issue of whether a Court can actually determine a parents case before a final hearing. We do not know the decision at the end of the eleven days as the full case was not reported. However the Judge did conclude that it is open to the Court to decide a parents case before a final hearing had taken place.
The Court held that it could not be argued that decisions in care proceedings only crystallise when the Court is about to make a final order. If evidence was available, then there was nothing wrong with the Court considering whether a parent was going to be in a position to care for a child safely in the child’s timescales. The question in this case was not whether it was a lawful exercise of discretion to deal with matters this way, but whether evidence was available to make a decision at this stage. All of the evidence had been gathered on the mother and it was not going to change by continuing the assessments of other family members, therefore evidence as to the mother’s long term situation would be heard at the hearing despite the case not being ready for a final hearing.
It is worth noting that in this case the mother was making a positive case. She was asserting that she was making progress and could evidence this. She did accept that she was not in a position to have the child returned to her immediately however she believed it was achievable in the future. The family members who were being assessed were not certain to have a positive full assessment, the initial viability had been negative. This judgment also only states that the Court could have a hearing to determine mother’s case before a final hearing, it does not state that a Court has to do this in all similar circumstances. It also does not set out any criteria as to when it would and when it would not be appropriate to do so.
Here at Emery Johnson Astills, we have extensive experience in advising and assisting parents at all stages of involvement with the Local Authority.
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