A High Court judge has strongly criticised a council and a police force for serious breaches of the Human Rights Act, after two children were retained in care despite their mother not being charged with an offence following her arrest.
Confirming an award of £20,000 in damages against Wakefield Metropolitan District Council and West Yorkshire Police, Mr Justice Cobb severely criticised what he described as “systemic flaws” in the decision-making and information sharing procedures and actions taken by both organisations.
The two children, a nine-year-old girl GD and a four-year-old boy BD, were kept in care for ten months, long after the police had decided not to press charges against their mother.
In his judgment, published just before Christmas, in GD & BD (Children) (Rev 1)  EWHC 3312 (Fam) the judge highlighted the “casual regard, and in some respects total disregard, of ordinary principles of good professional practice” by the council and police.
He said: “[The] investigation was conducted in a way which I declare have profoundly and obviously breached the Article 6 [right to a fair trial] and Article 8 [right to a private and family life] rights of this mother and these children.”
Two claims – one by the children and another by their mother – were made against the council and police in the context of public law proceedings under Part IV of the Children Act 1989 between February and November 2015.
The children’s parents had both been arrested on suspicion of child sex offences by the West Yorkshire force after police discovered 5,000 indecent images of children on the father's computer in February 2015. Amongst these images was a short video showing a woman abusing a child which the police initially suspected may have been the children’s mother and the victim one of the two children. Another still image of a child’s genitals was also suspected to be of the elder child.
The investigating officer’s (DS Hudson’s) initial view that the woman in the video was “90% certain” to be the mother and that he was “99% certain” that the still image was of her daughter. On the basis of this suspicion, the children were placed in foster care, and the council commenced care proceedings, being granted an interim care order on 27 February 2015.
On 31 March, however, the investigating officer was informed by forensic experts that the video was not of the children’s mother, which was confirmed in writing on 12 June. This information was not passed on to the local authority until 24 June and the mother was only informed by the police on 9 July 2015. The father alone was eventually charged with (and later admitted) child sex offences, for which he was imprisoned.
On 10 June 2015, West Yorkshire Police found (in the course of a separate investigation) a longer version of the video recording from which the excerpt found on the father’s computer was extracted. This showed that the video has been recorded in the United States and provided definitive proof that neither the mother nor children the concerned were the subject of the video.
The existence of the longer video was not disclosed to the local authority or the parents until the final hearing of the care proceedings in November 2015, although it was mentioned at a meeting between the investigating officer, a council solicitor and instructed counsel on 21 August 2015 that the short video probably originated in the United States.
Despite knowing that the still image was not of their daughter, in a police interview under caution with the parents, officers showed them a copy of the image to see if they would (erroneously) identify the subject as their daughter.
A social worker for the local authority separately interviewed the mother, putting the image to her for comment, despite knowing that the image was not of her daughter. The local authority also pursued the public law proceedings on the basis that the images were of the daughter and commissioned a witness statement from DS Hudson which incriminated the mother, signed after the date on which DS Hudson knew that neither the video or the image were of the mother or her children.
The children were returned to their mother in December 2015 after nine-and-a-half months in care, during which contact with their parents was closely supervised.
Subsequently, claims were made under Articles 6 (right to a fair trial) and 8 (right to a private and family life) by the children and their mother for damages and declarations against the police and council.
Both public authorities agreed to pay damages of £10,000 to the mother and £10,000 to the children, with each authority paying one half of the total. Significant concessions as to their professional conduct were made by both authorities since proceedings began, and these form the grounds for the declarations which can be read (at annexes A and B) at the following link: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2016/3312.html
In his judgment, Mr Justice Cobb described many of the issues highlighted as “systemic”. These included:
- No strategic leadership in the joint investigation; both the police and local authority arms of the inquiry lacked direction, and there was no one individual taking responsibility for co-ordination of the inquiries. The investigating officer had allowed his beliefs about the involvement of the mother to cloud his judgement. The local authority was “beholden” to the police in relation to the information sought, and thereby at times at times found itself partially disabled from conducting any effective case management.
- Poorly defined lines of communication within each of the authorities (social services/police and their respective legal departments) and between the authorities; within each authority, different individuals took responsibility for similar functions, none of whom had a grasp of the case in its totality.
- A lack of care and accuracy in record-keeping, and in the management of information.
- Many key individuals – including the in-house lawyers – had only partial knowledge of the case, leading to incoherent decision-making.
- “Insofar as this was ever a joint investigation (which is debatable) it lacked structure and cohesion.” [Mr Justice Cobb’s emphasis]. The police took an overly defensive stance in relation to information, and the local authority “an over-ambitious position” encouraged by an experienced police officer (DS Hudson) who lacked discipline in the information sharing.
- A lack of discipline and rigour in the evaluation of the evidence.
- A casual regard, and in some respects total disregard, of ordinary principles of good professional practice.
The judge set out points which required specific attention as lessons to be learned from the experiences of the case. See paragraph 131 of the judgment.