A family court judge exceeded his powers by issuing an order preventing the Metropolitan Police from interviewing two children who reported allegations of abuse by their fathers, the appeal court found.
A request for a review of the “highly exceptional order” was presented to the judges at a hearing on June 28 and the appeal was upheld after it was ruled that Judge Keehan should not have restricted the police actions.
The welfare of the siblings at the center of the case has been the subject of a “long, complex and sad” private family law proceeding detailed in four published judgments.
Following instructions from two court-appointed experts, Dr Janine Braier and Ms Karen Woodall, who worked with the family for 15 months, the mother was found to have ‘alienated’ the children from their father and in November 2020 , they were transferred to his care despite being granted extremely limited access. After initially running away and being picked up by police, the children are said to have settled down.
However, as described in the judgment, delivered by Appeal Judges Lady Justice Macur, Lord Justice Peter Jackson and Lord Justice Nugee on Friday, an email was sent to the children’s school on October 15, 2021 with allegations against the father and apparently signed by both children. He said: “Currently, our father has custody of us. In the past, we have been locked up, searched, beaten, pushed, strangled. He continues: “We live in a constant state of terror”, and adds: “We spoke to the police, several times. We spoke to social services. We’ve run away time and time again and no one believes us. Karen Woodall. Judge Keehan. Social services. These are the people and organizations that have failed time and time again to help us. »
The school notified the police and when officers attended the home they saw no signs of injury or abuse. But when police attended the school the same day, the father arrived to say a court order prevented them from speaking to his children. The injunction said the court was ‘satisfied that the father had not acted inappropriately towards either child’ and prohibited the Metropolitan Police and Children’s Services from interviewing the child. one or other of the children without the “express order” of the judge. It was then varied but its scope was still too limited, the Met said.
In the meantime, the children had asked to be represented separately by their own lawyer to whom they had provided “clear and convincing instructions” on the “abuse” of their father. But the request was denied by Keehan.
Further allegations surfaced in December 2021 after Woodall, working as a child therapist, testified that one of the teenagers alleged he was repeatedly contacted by his mother, breaking court orders, by the intermediary of a third party.
Woodall produced a report that a man had appeared on the street providing them with phones, prompting Keehan to suggest the children needed bodyguards and were at “exceptional risk of harm”.
At a high court hearing in March, a police lawyer argued for the injunction to be overturned. But Keehan refused, saying local authorities were confident the children were safe in the care of their father and that police questioning about the allegations against either parent would cause the children “harm emotional and psychological”.
A lawyer representing the Metropolitan Police Commissioner told the appeal court last month that the allegations were of concern to both police and the public. Richard Howell QC said it was ‘unsatisfactory’ that the father chose not to involve the police in the allegations made by the children about a third party at Woodall. “For the father to use the legal process to prevent the police from telling his children, in part, about the allegations against him doesn’t seem fair.”
Howell added: ‘It must be in the wider interests of children to have a voice and to know that the police are there for them. If the police were to talk to children, it would be a completely independent approach. There is nothing in any of my submissions that is anti-mother, anti-father, or anti-Woodall.
Representing the father, Stuart McGhee urged the court to dismiss the appeal. The lawyer said: “The judge found in favor of the father that he posed no risk.” McGhee asked the court to consider Keehan’s earlier remarks, which indicated that police intervention would divert the children from therapy. “He notes…the most vital thing for children is not to engage in litigation but to engage in therapeutic work with Karen Woodall. Anything that gets in the way of therapy will harm the children. The judge says the focus should be on repairing the relationship with the father.
The appeal was allowed on three grounds relating to the court’s power to make an order of this nature, including that Keehan erred in not quashing the October order and “erred” in not taking sufficient account of the duty of the police to investigate matters. in the interests of the children and in the broader interests of justice.
Two other grounds relating to the assessment of the judge’s well-being and in particular that Keehan had placed too much weight on Woodall’s expert report, were rejected.
In a judgment upholding the appeal, Macur said there was no indication of how Keehan arrived at the assertion that the father had not acted improperly.
She added that in refusing the police request, Keehan said the local authority had ‘ensure the children were safe and well in the care of their father’ and that there was no more protective role for them. However, Macur noted that it was not suggested the local authority spoke to either child before making the decision.
She said the police, in previous submissions to the court, failed to point to the relevant case law, which made clear how “the circumstances in which a high court should … make a restraining order against an authority public exercising powers.”
Macur said there was a ‘considerable body’ of case law, including a 1985 case in which Lord Scarman said: ‘The high court cannot exercise its powers, however wide, so as to interfere on the merits in an area of concern entrusted by parliament to another public authority.
“Keehan’s previous findings that the children were manipulated into making false allegations against the father do not rule out the possibility that those made more recently are credible, nor do they absolve the Metropolitan Police Service of its responsibility to consider whether to investigate the allegations,” Macur said.
She said Woodall’s testimony raised allegations of serious criminal activity in which the children appeared to have been stalked and cared for and rightly led Keehan to question the need for bodyguards.
Macur added: ‘I find it difficult in these circumstances to understand why he and the father’s lead solicitor felt that Ms Woodall’s testimony would or should deter the Metropolitan Police Service from wanting to pursue the claim.’ Jackson and Nugee agreed that the appeal should be allowed.
While the important appeal highlights the interplay of powers between the Family Division’s focus on child welfare and the statutory duties of public agencies, the broader case also raises questions. questions about the scope and use of court-appointed psychological experts in cases where allegations of “parental alienation” are raised.
In court documents for the June 28 hearing, Met lawyers highlighted Woodall’s role, writing: Mrs Woodall in relation to the police talking to children. She apparently plays a big part in the Metropolitan Police Service being unable to even have a preliminary conversation with the kids.
A skeletal argument supporting the appeal from the mother’s legal team highlighted their concerns that Woodall’s recommendations are being relied upon by the court despite her not being registered with the regulator, the Council health and care professionals.
He highlighted advice from the Association of Clinical Psychologists UK, which notes that “only a practicing psychologist registered with the HCPC, such as a clinical psychologist, can make a diagnosis or make recommendations about treatment interventions”.
The court document also raised questions about Woodall’s independence, including a claim that she provided ‘childcare and nanny services over a weekend’ when the father traveled overseas .
Woodall was not a party to the case. However, in a skeletal argument, McGhee claimed that the mother had “a strategy to destabilize the children living with their fathers and disrupt the psychotherapy work that continues with [Woodall]an expert in [mother] has sought (unsuccessfully) to withdraw from the case and who continues to work with the children against the mother’s overt opposition.
Macur referenced the mother’s skeleton argument, saying it contained issues with an obvious partisan slant despite the rejection of leave to appeal on welfare grounds.
No criticism was leveled at Woodall by the appellate judges or Keehan.