STOP PRESS: Re S (Vulnerable Parent: Intermediary) – Court of Appeal considers the impact of remote and hybrid hearings on vulnerable parents
This case concerns an appeal against a case management decision in care proceedings whereby the lower court refused an application by a parent with a learning disability for an intermediary assessment and for the appointment of an intermediary.
In what is seemingly the first reported appeal against a case management decision which specifically deals with the impact of hybrid and remote hearings on vulnerable parents in care proceedings, Jackson LJ concluded that an intermediary could help the mother in this case to “negotiate the process of being questioned remotely and to participate in the hearing to the fullest possible extent” (§29).
In this case, the Mother’s request for an intermediary followed 2 psychological reports into her cognitive functioning (which is in the 1st percentile), and in the second report by Dr Hale, outlining that she would benefit from intermediary assistance.
The court denied the Mother’s application, holding that it was satisfied with the participation directions recommended in the first psychological report and that the professionals assessing Mother had concluded that it would be impossible for her to care for the child. Therefore it was held that an intermediary assessment was not necessary.
The Mother appealed on 3 grounds:
- The court failed to apply the correct test by confusing the status of a vulnerable party with that of a protected party.
- The court impermissibly disregarded the opinion of Dr Hale.
- The Judge’s evaluative process was wrong and she reached a decision that was not open to her.
Summarising the rules on the approach to be taken by the court in determining such applications, at §16 Jackson LJ states:
“The rules require the court to ask itself these questions:
(1) Is a party or a witness a vulnerable person, having regard to the matters set out in Rule 3A7 and PD3AA? – Rule 3A.3.
(2) Is a party's participation in the proceedings (other than by way of giving evidence) likely to be diminished by reason of vulnerability and, if so, is it necessary to make one or more participation directions? – Rule 3A.4.
(3) Is the quality of evidence given by a party or witness likely to be diminished by reason of vulnerability and, if so, is it is necessary to make one or more participation directions? – Rule 3A.5.”
In upholding the mother’s third ground of appeal, Jackson LJ commented at §26 that:
“It is central to my consideration of this appeal that there is to be a hybrid hearing in this case. The hearing will involve quite complex information being considered through more than one medium of communication. Professionals who are having to adapt to these demands have the advantage of repeated exposure to a range of possible formats. Lay parties do not generally have that advantage, but it is to their needs that the court must adapt. Where a party or a witness has a learning disability, the adaptation needs to be sufficient to ensure that they are genuinely able to participate effectively in the hearing, both in and out of the witness box.”
It is clear from this judgment that particular consideration has to be given to the ability of vulnerable parties to engage in proceedings that are likely to involve hybrid or remote hearings, particularly if the party is to give evidence with some involvement of remote attendance, for example by the other advocates.
Jackson LJ adds finally at §32 that “the outcome of this appeal does not imply that all parties or witnesses with a similar profile to this mother will require an intermediary, or that intermediaries are likely to be required in all cases where a parent with a learning difficulty may be taking part in a remote or hybrid hearing. All decisions of this kind are case-specific, and must be reached by applying the rules and guidance to the actual circumstances of the individual case”.
Whilst this decision is not a ‘catch-all’, it does helpfully outline what the court will need to consider when faced with applications of this sort, and particularly the considerations that come with the possibility of remote or hybrid final hearings in care proceedings.