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Child interviewed by judge

Draft Cafcass report wrongly disclosed; judge interviewed the child

I recently dealt with a private law case which had two unusual features. A 14-year-old girl had moved from mother to live with her father 3.5 years ago. Contact had later broken down, with the mother feeling unhappy with both the initial contact and the fact that it had stopped.  The daughter felt rejected. The mother initiated a full s.8 application. A change of living arrangements was ruled out at an early stage, and a Section 7 Cafcass report ordered. The daughter was reluctant about even indirect contact, totally refusing direct contact, and sent a confirmatory e-mail to the District Judge via Cafcass. The mother  did not accept the provenance of the e-mail, and wanted her daughter to tell her, and the judge, face to face.

Cafcass mistakenly distributed a draft version of its report, with criticisms by a senior colleague in the  margin (mainly re style and grammar). Accompanied by the Cafcass officer, the judge interviewed the child, who made her views clear. The judge was initially inclined to ignore the draft Cafcass report and concentrate on the amended version. The mother, however, wanted to make an issue of it (including in cross-examination) and to register a formal complaint with Cafcass.

At one point, the district judge took advice from a senior judge and considered adjourning the matter to a separate judge on the issue of the report. Ultimately, however, pragmatism prevailed. The parties agreed to accept the district judge’s view of the report, being aware of all the circumstances, including the draft. Further, in view of the 14-year-old girl’s clear and personal vocalisation of ‘wishes and feelings’ to the district judge, the reality of the situation was staring everyone in the face. The district judge even made a s.91(14) order for 2 years, having warned everyone that this was being considered.

I would be interested to know different people’s views on the judicial interview of children (not so unusual nowadays), and whether anyone has had similar experience of a draft Cafcass report being mistakenly disseminated – surely less usual?

Christopher Ferguson

Christopher specialises in children law and family finances. See Christopher’s profile.