A social worker has won an appeal against “intrinsically unfair” criticism from a judge that caused her to be suspended from her job.
Together with a local authority and police officer, the social worker appealed against being named in a court judgment that included “a range of criticisms and findings” against them.
The Court of Appeal found that the original court’s findings were the “result of a wholly unfair process” and “the consequences for those who are criticised in those findings are both real and significant”.
In the original care proceedings, the judge concluded that allegations of child sexual abuse in the case were false. The judge said the social worker and police officer “were involved in a joint enterprise to obtain evidence to prove the sexual abuse allegations irrespective of any underlying truth and irrespective of the relevant professional guidelines”.
The judge said the social worker was “the principal instigator” and had drawn other professionals in.
Recounting the original decision, the Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice McFarlane said: “The judge found that both the [social worker] and [police officer] had lied to the court with respect to an important aspect of the child sexual abuse investigation.
“The judge found that the local authority and the police generally, but [the social worker] and [police officer] in particular, had subjected [the child] to a high level of emotional abuse over a sustained period as a result of their professional interaction with her.”
The judge’s findings led to the social worker being suspended from her job at a new local authority after it was informed of the criticisms, prior to the judgment being made public.
After the criticism was revealed to the social worker and police officer, the original judge did hold direction hearings with them. These hearings led to parts of what the judge said being amended but the Court of Appeal said that this was insufficient.
McFarlane ruled that the social worker and police officer’s right to a private life would have been breached if the original judge was permitted to share their names, especially since the way he reached his conclusions was unfair.
McFarlane described the cross-examination of the two professionals as “entirely conventional” and said the case never went beyond the normal parameters of care proceedings of its kind.
“At no stage did the judge give voice to the very substantial and professional damning criticisms that surfaced for the first time in the bullet-proof judgment,” he said.
“It can be properly said that by keeping these matters to himself during the four-week hearing, and failing to arrange for the witnesses to have any opportunity to know of the critical points and to offer any answer to them, the judge was conducting a process that was intrinsically unfair.”
McFarlane concluded the original judgment represented “a wholesale failure to achieve a fair trial” and ordered the findings against the social worker and police officer to be struck from the ruling “as if they had never been made”.
“This is not a matter that is finely balanced; the ground for the criticisms that the judge came to make of [the social worker, police officer] and the local authority, was simply not covered at all during the hearing,” he said.
McFarlane described the appeal as a “vanishingly rare” case, which relied on a “highly unusual combination” of factors. These factors were a judge being driven to make highly critical findings, that the findings played no part in the case presented, and the judge chose not to raise the matters of criticism at any stage prior to judgment.
He added that in other cases where expert witnesses are criticised by a judge it would be “very rare” that fair trial rights would be in danger of breach to the extent they would be entitled to an additional process.
“Where, as I have found to be the case here, the adverse findings complained of have been made as a result of a wholly unfair process and where, again as here, the consequences for those who are criticised in those findings are both real and significant, it is incumbent on this court to provide a remedy and, so far as may be possible, to correct the effect of the unfairness that has occurred,” McFarlane said.