It is a cardinal rule in court proceedings in the UK that both parties to a disagreement must have a fair chance to state their side of the argument. This is particularly important in family cases, which are often complex and invariably emotionally charged.
In a recent case, a judge ruled that a mother should not be allowed to instruct an expert to carry out a risk assessment relating to her capacity to look after her young child. This followed a hearing which resulted from the child being admitted to hospital at the age of six months with injuries which were not accidental and which had been sustained when the child was in the care of his parents.
The local authority commenced proceedings to take the boy into its care with a view to his being put up for adoption. His mother denied responsibility for his injuries and requested an expert’s report as to her fitness to care for the boy. The judge considered that there was no realistic possibility that the assessment would be positive and that delay would not be to the benefit of the child.
The child’s mother and father faced criminal charges concerning their treatment of the boy and the judge listed the final care hearing to take place before the outcome of their trial would be known.
The mother appealed, arguing that the judge had closed her mind to any outcome other than placement for adoption and that the mother had been denied the opportunity to put relevant evidence before the court.
The Court of Appeal ruled that the judge had gone too far. Her role was not to decide the outcome of proceedings at that stage and her refusal to allow the mother to present evidence was unfair. The pending criminal proceedings were not a matter for the judge in the family court and she should not have effectively prejudged the outcome of those proceedings.