“We do not have many women judges in the higher, law-shaping courts. We have even fewer judges, men or women, who are prepared to call themselves feminists…
…it makes such a difference how the story is told. Feminist judges will take different facts from the mass of detail to tell the story in a different way, to bring out the features which others discard, and to explain the features which others will find difficult to understand. …Feminist judges will set the story in a different context, a context which they understand but others may not.
Reading this book… is certainly a chastening experience for any judge who, like me, believes herself to be a feminist.”
I am not going to presume to analyse Lady Hale’s self-ascription as a feminist. But I am going to open my observations on B (a Child), Re  UKSC 30 (12 June 2013) by observing that the only woman ever to sit as a judge of the Supreme Court yesterday sat in a lonely minority of one as she gave judgment for the parents while the four male judges gave judgment for the local authority.
And to draw on her analysis above about how she might take a different approach, in a case involving the removal of a girl from her mother at birth.
‘…bringing out the features which others discard…’
Lady Hale’s is the only mention of empathy. Talking of the lack of co-operation of the parents with the local authority, she says,
“Perhaps this is not to be wondered at. Their original contact… was to seek an interim care order separating mother and baby without taking the usual step of a pre-proceedings letter explaining matters to them. Anyone who has had to leave a premature baby in a special baby care unit can empathise with the feelings of a mother who is prevented from taking her baby home when, miracle of miracles, that baby is well enough to be discharged from hospital. Of course, the first social work statement to the court explained why the authority was making the application. But the scene was set for a rocky relationship.”
Touché. The point about co-operation was fundamental to this case, because there was broad agreement that the child could only be removed if it was necessary, and that meant that alternatives would not work; and the reason that alternatives would not work was held to be that lack of cooperation.
Now, this point about co-operative social work is something of a hobby horse of mine. It seems to me fundamental to social work as a profession, and to the guidance under which we operate, that we try co-operation first, and compulsion as a remedy of last resort. I ask, “why don’t you try to seek consent”, and am told, “because we might not get it, and we’d have to act anyway”; and I ask, “but aren’t you more likely to get co-operation, and likely to get more co-operation, if you ask for it than if you don’t?” There are plenty of examples of the harm to a supportive relationship that can result from the premature use of compulsion.
And yet even though it is a hobby horse of mine, the fact that the “parents had been able to co-operate with a succession of workers who were supervising their contact with Amelia over the whole of her life” but had a particular problem with the local authority that had made pre-emptive use of compulsion had passed me by until Lady Hale drew out the detail.
“…a different context, a context which they understand but others may not…”
The risk of “over-medicalisation” was held to arise in this case. Here Lady Hale uses the first person plural “we, us” to identify herself as a mother:
“A child whose mother exaggerates and sees the worst and thereby exposes her to unnecessary medical investigations and even treatment may well suffer significant harm. But it will be a question of degree, depending upon its frequency and severity. Many of us are anxious mothers and take our children to the doctor far more often than we should. Some of us, of course, are not anxious enough and do not take our children to the doctor when we should. There was evidence that the mother was over-anxious during the early days when Amelia was in foster care and that she over-dramatised an occasion when Amelia was taken to hospital with breathing difficulties. On the other hand, there was no evidence at all that her older daughter had been subject to excessive medicalisation…”
More detail then: the mother was ‘over-anxious’ about the child who had been removed at birth, but not the child who had not.
“…to explain the features which others will find difficult to understand…”
Lady Hale twice mentions the notion of resilience:
“Every child is an individual, with her own character and personality. Many children are remarkably resilient. They do not all inherit their parents’ less attractive characters or copy their less attractive behaviours. Indeed some will consciously reject them. They have many other positive influences in their lives which can help them to resist the negative, whether it is their schools, their friends, or other people around them. How confident do we have to be that a child will indeed suffer harm because of her parents’ character and behaviour before we separate them for good?”
In a recent speech to the Socio-Legal Studies Association, Lady Hale explored the question whether judges should be socio-legal scholars, and along the way the place of academic research in judgments. Although she makes no mention of it, her reference to ‘resilience’ calls to mind an important and relevant piece of research published this year in the British Journal of Social Work. The authors, in words prescient of Lady Hale’s approach to unknown future harm, are specifically concerned that the policy trend towards early intervention is not underpinned by the scientific research:
“The focus on early intervention begun under New Labour has been sharpened under the Coalition. This is a future-oriented project building on elements of social investment and moral underclass discourses. It incorporates an unforgiving approach to time and to parents—improve quickly or within the set time limits. It is shored up by a particularly potent neuroscientific argument which has been widely critiqued from within neuroscience itself (Bruer, 1999; Uttal, 2011) but is unchallenged in current policy. Read carefully, the original neuroscience literature shows that the infant brain has quite remarkable resilience and plasticity when exposed to ordinary patterns of ‘chaotic’ neglect usually seen in the population referred to children’s social care (Wastell and White, 2012). In truth, if changes to the brain were the criterion for removal from parents, very few children would be removed. Yet, the rhetorical potency of the ‘now or never’ (Munro, 2011b, p. 69) argument is so great that it is supporting a drive towards early removal and has become a powerful and unquestioned professional mantra.”
‘…to tell the story in a different way…’
So is this a judgment in which Lady Hale let her heart rule her head? Absolutely not. Hers is the longest judgment by some way, and rises admirably to the challenge that she alone faced, of having to explain why she would interfere with and overturn the decisions below. The other judgments have only to explain why they would not, and as one commentator (@suesspiciousmin) has already observed,
“For my part, I am unsure why the other Judges did not share [Lady Hale’s] views…”
It is something of a problem when it is difficult to tell from four majority judgments what the key points actually are. But working out the lessons from this case is indeed for me going to have to be an exercise in revision of legal principles with obscure Latin names: stare decisis, obiter dicta, rationes decidendi, per incuriam. Because the truth of the matter is that it rather looks as though Lady Hale’s judgment fits more naturally at the beginning, and her legal analysis is largely adopted. One might almost imagine them all considering her first draft and saying, “well, we agree with you about the law, but we can’t endorse the conclusion it leads you to in this case, you’ll have to go last, and what can we say first?”
On my quick review of the majority judgments, I counted 17 specific endorsements of the minority analysis (including paragraph 73 “As Lady Hale (who knows more about this than anybody) says…”), and two specific disagreements (on the approach to proportionality by an appellate court, and the feasibility of remission). There were also statements difficult to categorise as one or the other: “[my analysis] appears to differ… However” (para 95); “real sympathy with” (para 99); “in deference to Lady Hale’s conclusions, I see how it could be argued…” (para 101). The earlier judgments adopted the factual matrix from Lady Hale (e.g. para 51); the legislation (para 50); and her approach to naming (para 2, 3, 132). One of the judges specifically endorses both the majority and the minority approach to significant harm (para 56). He also goes out of his way to specifically endorse Lady Hale’s guidance to practitioners (para 56).
The truth of the matter is that it is the minority judgment that is truly useful. I commend it not only for its emotional intelligence (and because I agree with almost all of it!), but because of its lucidity, clarity of reasoning and its attempt to give real guidance to practitioners. Which leaves wide open the question, “but is it the law if she’s in a minority”. A question which is difficult to answer but cannot be a resounding ‘no’ and may well be a qualified ‘yes’, given the nature and extent of endorsement from the majority.
Back to the Latin!