Summary of judgment by Sheriff K. Mackie

In proceedings to determine whether CM and GL, Social Workers, Children’s and Families Department City of Edinburgh Council are in Contempt of Court.

Edinburgh Sheriff Court – 16 December 2013

On 24th May 2013 I allowed appeals by AT against decisions of a Children’s Hearing to reduce the frequency of contact with the children AP and CP.  AT was found “entitled to contact with the children once per week for a period of two hours, such contact to be supervised by the Social Work Department”.

The present proceedings commenced following receipt by the court of a copy of a letter dated 6th August 2013 from Edinburgh Law Solicitors on behalf of AT addressed to the Social Work Department suggesting that a potential contempt of court may have occurred. 

CM and GL denied wilful contempt of court.  At a diet of proof fixed to take place on 21st August 2013 a motion by the City of Edinburgh Council to dismiss these proceedings as incompetent was refused.  Thereafter the Council not being the alleged contemnors withdrew from the proceedings.  At an adjourned proof when CM and GL were independently represented evidence was led over a number of days.

This case does not involve a breach of statutory duty.  At issue in these proceedings was whether the conduct of CM and GL challenged or affronted the authority of this court.  The court has inherent and necessary jurisdiction to take effective action to vindicate its authority and preserve the administration of justice.

On about 11th July 2013 CM decided to terminate the arrangements for contact by AT with the children.  She did not seek or obtain any legal advice before or after deciding so to do.  She did not discuss with GL her intention to terminate the arrangements before taking the decision to do so.  CM was on leave at the time she made the decision.  She delegated to a duty social worker the task of contacting AT by telephone to inform her of the decision.  She also delegated to that person the task of informing GL of her decision.  Thereafter she switched off her telephone and could not be contacted until she returned to work the following Wednesday.  Contact was not made with AT until 15th July 2013 when contact was due to take place.  Apart from one occasion no contact took place until after 22nd August 2013 when a Children’s Hearing, affirming the decision of this court, decided that contact should take place once per week for two hours.

It was not disputed that CM and GL were aware that on 24th May 2013 appeals against a Children’s Hearing’s decision to reduce the frequency of contact with the children were allowed by this court.  They were also aware that the court pronounced in each child’s case an interlocutor in which AT was found “entitled to contact with the children once per week for a period of two hours, such contact to be supervised by the Social Work Department”.  CM was in attendance at court on 24th May 2013, was advised of the outcome of the appeals immediately after the hearings and the next working day received by email from the Reporter, a full and detailed account of the proceedings.  Subsequently, CM received a copy of the interlocutors and Notes of full reasons. 

There was no doubt in the minds of CM and GL as to the meaning of the interlocutors.  They understood that they, as the Social Workers responsible for the care of the children, required to facilitate the contact to which AT had been found entitled.

The failure to comply with the interlocutors of 24th May 2013, by ceasing to make the children available for contact with AT, and thus interfering with the administration of justice, implies, on the face of it, a lack of respect or contempt for the order of this court.  The decisions by CM and GL were deliberate and intentional and were not made accidentally or through inadvertence.  The question was whether CM and GL’s conduct could be explained as anything other than contumacious.

Whether or not CM had concerns about the impact of contact upon the children by taking the decision to terminate contact she interfered with the administration of justice.  Her decision was not scrutinised by any court or other hearing before it took effect.  AT had no opportunity to challenge the decision.  Until reviewed by a Children’s Hearing contact continued to be regulated by the decision of this court.  GL accepted and relied upon information from CM.  She did not review or consider the records or the reasons for the court’s decision.  She was aware that AT was unaware of the decision to terminate contact.  She took no steps to countermand the decision until the issue of contact might be considered by the Children’s Hearing.  In these circumstances she also interfered with the administration of justice.

It must be emphasised that social workers are in no different a position from anyone else and require to comply with orders of the court, Children’s Hearings and the general law.  They have no authority to act unilaterally however strongly held their views may be. 

I am satisfied to the necessary standard that the conduct of both CM and GL was contumacious.  They have shown disrespect for and disregard for the decision of this court and interfered with the administration of justice.  They have affronted the authority of this court, frustrated the rights of AT and deprived the children of contact with her from 15th July 2013, with the exception of one occasion on 5th August 2013, until contact was reinstated following the decision of the Children’s Hearing on 22nd August 2013.

Accordingly, CM and GL are guilty of contempt of court. 

A finding of contempt of court will be of considerable importance for persons in the positions of CM and GL.   In these circumstances I do not find it necessary to be addressed in mitigation and no further penalty will be imposed.

The circumstances of this case have been drawn already to the attention of the Scottish Social Services Council.  I do not propose anything other than that a copy of the judgement will be made available to them and to the Chief Officer of Social Work.  There is an indication of a need for further training monitoring and supervision.  The reports written by CM in which AT is criticised for failing to keep the children safe and for continuing to be involved with CP senior without seeking to hold him to account for his behaviour, do not demonstrate an appropriate level of understanding of the complexities of domestic abuse or coercive control which is a central feature of such behaviour.

The full judgment is available here.

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