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Court of Appeal: family judges must justify adjournments

23 September 2019

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Judges in family cases should not adjourn final decisions simply to “press the pause button” the Court of Appeal has warned.

Giving judgment in S-L (Children: Adjournment), Lord Justice Peter Jackson (pictured) said adjourning a decision should be a “positive purposeful choice that requires a proper weighing-up of the advantages and disadvantages and a lively awareness that the passage of time has consequences”.

In cases involving children, he said, there can sometimes be good reasons for adjourning a final decision in order to obtain necessary information. however, he added that although there is an overriding obligation to deal with the case justly, there is a trade-off between the need for information and the presumptive prejudice to the child of delay, enshrined in s 1(2) Children Act 1989.

“Judges in the family court are well used to finding where the balance lies in the particular case before them and are acutely aware that for babies and young children the passage of weeks and months is a matter of real significance”, Jackson LJ said.

An appeal can only succeed if the decision was wrong or where there has been a serious procedural irregularity, he said, and in this case – in which a local authority was challenging a decision to adjourn its applications for care and placement orders in respect of a three-year-old and her seven-month-old brother – both conditions were met and the decision to adjourn was clearly wrong.

Allowing the appeal, he said: “As a general proposition I accept that a case management decision can be more briefly reasoned than a final decision, but it still has to be reasoned. Here there was no attempt to analyse the evidence or the issues, or to measure the significance of the extensive and undisputed family history, or to explain why the court was departing from strong professional advice and from the approach of the circuit judge in January. Instead, the decision was announced without context or coherent explanation. It is unnecessary to multiply the reasons why it cannot stand.”

Jackson LJ ordered the matter to be remitted for an expedited final hearing “in the light of the sensitive ages of these children”. Lord Justices Floyd and Green agreed.

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Technical legal practice Family Children