Convicted father precluded from having contact with his children

family law

I don’t think I’ve commented here before on what is essentially a criminal case, but I think the Court of Appeal’s recent decision in ZX, R (on the application of) v The Secretary of State for Justice is of interest to the family law fraternity.

The case concerned a married man with three children, two boys born in 2003 and 2005 and a girl born in 2011. The family has always lived in the London area. The man has convictions for offences related to terrorism and in June 2014 he was sentenced for five of those offences to three years imprisonment.

In December 2014 the man was released from prison on licence. There were a number of conditions attached to his licence, including a requirement that he lived away from the family home in approved premises in Camden.

Because of the man’s convictions, and concerns arising in consequence, there had been various visits by local social services to the family home in Tower Hamlets. The view of social workers at the time was that there did not appear to be a risk to the children through their parents’ beliefs.

In July 2015 there was a Probation Management Review. By this time, the man was spending up to 12 hours a day at the family home, although not living there. Concerns were raised that he still held extremist views, and it was decided that pending further assessment he should be suspended from visiting the family home or having contact with his children, save as directed by the National Probation Service (NPS) and local Children’s Services.

The man complained about this decision, and in November 2015 he applied for permission to apply for judicial review (judicial review is a form of court proceedings in which a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body; all applications for judicial; review must first go through a permission stage, which allows the court to filter out meritless cases). His application for permission was refused, and he appealed against that decision, to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, holding that the decision to impose the licence conditions was a lawful and proportionate decision, and was objectively justified, given the facts and circumstances of this case. As to the argument put forward on behalf of the man that there was no sufficient evidence of a risk of the children being radicalised by him, Lord Justice Davis said: “it suffices to say that that simply comes down to a disagreement with the rational evaluation of the NPS.”

The point that I think is of particular interest to those involved in family law relates to another argument that had been put forward on behalf of the man, albeit ultimately not pursued by his counsel.

Lord Justice Davis explained the argument as follows:

“…that Parliament had, by the Children Act 1989, provided a statutory scheme whereby children may be lawfully separated from a parent on protection grounds. It was submitted that court approval was needed for such a result: and the provision by Parliament for scrutiny by the Family Court of such a decision … “must not be circumvented by use of criminal justice powers”. Accordingly, it was said, where the NPS or other relevant body contemplated making a decision – as here – which would result in a child being separated from its parent for an unspecified period, an application to court – by the relevant local authority Children’s Social Care department, if not the NPS – was needed.”

The argument received short shrift from Lord Justice Davis. He said:

“…the Children Act 1989 (and related Practice Directions) have, in terms of direct application, nothing to do with this case. Here the liberty of the appellant was taken away from him, in accordance with law, by the three year custodial sentence imposed on him by the Crown Court on 6 June 2014, thereby separating him from his family. His early release from prison was then subject to conditions, which the NPS was empowered to impose under the provisions of the Criminal Justice 2003 and the 2015 Order. Such conditions are legislatively authorised to extend to restrictions on (for example) contact with a person. That decision making is entrusted to the NPS – not to a local authority Children’s Care Service department or to a Family Court or to anyone else. Thus to say that the criminal justice system cannot be used to circumvent the provisions of the Children Act 1989 with regard to the removal of children from their parents puts the matter the wrong way round in a case such as this. A local authority’s functions and powers in care proceedings with regard to children under the Children Act 1989 cannot be used to defeat the functions and powers available to the NPS under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and 2015 Order with regard to the imposition of licence conditions.”

In other words, the functions, and therefore the aims, of the NPS were quite different from the functions and aims of a local authority under the Children Act 1989. The two ‘systems’ were therefore quite separate. Yes, it might be the case that the local authority had no concerns about the children, but that did not mean that the NPS was not entitled to impose whatever conditions it considered appropriate upon the licence on order to (amongst other things) protect the public. A court order under the Children Act is not the only means by which a parent can be lawfully separated from his children.

Lord Justice Davis was at pains, however, to emphasise that this does not mean that considerations of the impact on the family life of the man and the children, and considerations of safeguarding and promoting the welfare and interests of the children, have no part to play in the imposition by the NPS of licence conditions such as these. On the contrary, he said, they most certainly and decidedly do.

In this case, he said:

“It is plain beyond argument that … due regard was had by the NPS to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children. Indeed it can be seen that, on the facts here, it was that consideration which ran in parallel with the need to protect the public and to prevent re-offending. It could properly be assessed that it was in the interests of the children themselves for them not to be exposed to the risk of their being radicalised by their father just as it was in the interests of public protection that they not be thus exposed.”

Lord Justice Lindblom and ‘our own’ Sir James Munby gave concurring judgments.

The full report of ZX, R (on the application of) v The Secretary of State for Justice can be read here.

Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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D - March 20, 2017 at 4:38pm

One would perhaps hope the convicted man would have been somewhat rehabilitated and de-radicalised before release from prison. In that light wouldn’t ensuring the man has a family life of sorts and access to his children have some effect to reducing the risk of re-radicalisation ( as opposed from isolated him from family life perhaps making it more likely he comes into contact with those pushing undesirable views and intensifying his distrust of the society and the state)?

In the criminal law context shouldn’t that possible reduced risk be balanced against the risk of radicalisation of the children?

StuG - March 21, 2017 at 9:28pm

I’m the last who would contend that a family court is a proper place to reliably evaluate and direct arrangements but at least the facade of justice is there. One does not go to family court in any real hope of the ‘court’ getting it right but in hope of being one of the few cases where they do at least get things partly right and the orders are obeyed. Plus there is the option of Review by appeal, for what that’s often worth.

Can even that little be said of the NPS? Apparently not; there is no court. So what qualifies the NPS to consider and make such decisions involving children?

And there is apparently no appeal, because where the father has appealed a decision by the NPS, the appeal judges have insinuated his application comes under the Children Act 1989. It obviously did not, as from the way J.Bolch has narrated things, there was no application to the family court.

Are there different thresholds as to what qualifies the protection of the children from indoctrination between the local authority and the NPS or is this just a matter of opinion and the judges have chosen to prefer the NPS? Or did the local authority have input between December 2014 and July 2015 and change their views within that six months to line up with the NPS?

The appeal was to review the decision of the NPS, but without knowing the position of the local authority in July 2015 it seems the NPS have not been reviewed, there’s merely been a reiteration of the NPS decision on appeal, a reiteration couched behind the narrative of inapplicable laws, a presumption that the NPS decision was ‘rational,’ and the insinuation that Children Act 1989 proceedings were invoked because the local authority supported the children’s contact with their father and that was used as part of his evidence. But the local authority made no applications to family court and neither did the father.

It seems either there is something not being told here, in which case what’s the point of releasing the judgement, or this a flannel job where the judges do not seem to have been motivated to actually review the NPS decision so deployed some persuasive lingo to palm the case off.

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