Court of Appeal Sets Aside Family Court's Findings in Child Head Injury Case

Citation: [2024] EWCA Civ 153
Judgment on

Introduction

In the matter of R (Children: Findings of Fact) [2024] EWCA Civ 153, the Court of Appeal undertakes a thorough examination of a Family Court’s findings of fact concerning the serious head injury of a small child, C. The fundamental legal questions pertain to the interpretation of the event leading to the injury and the identification of the possible perpetrator. This analysis elucidates the legal principles applied and the reasoning behind the appellate court’s decision to set aside the Family Court’s original findings.

Key Facts

The case concerns three young siblings, with a focus on the youngest, C, who, at the age of 8 months, sustained a significant head injury. During the incident, six family members were present, and the Family Court was tasked with determining who was responsible for the injuries. The judge at the Family Court concluded that C had been shaken by an unidentified family member, leading to the head injury, and dismissed the local authority’s claim of collusion among family members. The appellant mother, supported by the father and other family members, challenged the ‘pool finding’ indicating that one of the relatives was responsible.

The appellate court’s examination hinges on several paramount legal principles. The first is the standard of proof in civil cases, which is the balance of probabilities. The court must be satisfied that it is more likely than not that the event occurred as the evidence suggests. This principle is contrasted with the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt.

The second principle concerns the assessment of witness credibility and reliability. In these matters, the court evaluates not only the accounts given but also the wider context, including the relationship between witnesses and any previous history that might impact their credibility.

Lastly, the legal principle from Re B (Children) [2008] UKHL 35 is depicted, where inherent improbability ceases to have relevance once an event is known to have occurred. However, this was misapplied by the Family Court judge as the assault was not established as a fact, and therefore the inherent improbability was still of legal relevance to determine the likelihood of the event having occurred.

Outcomes

Upon appealing, the legal argument presented focused on two main grounds. First, it was alleged that the Family Court failed to properly treat the evidence from the family and second, that the judge erred in the approach to assessing the probable cause of C’s injuries.

The Court of Appeal noted that the Family Court’s judgment did not sufficiently engage with whether the group account of the family was true or fabricated. A careful assessment of credibility was missing, which is crucial, given the unlikelihood of multiple family members inventing a consistent narrative immediately after the incident and maintaining it thereafter, if it were not true.

The appeal was allowed, and the initial findings of fact were set aside. The Court of Appeal held that the Family Court judge did not adequately assess the probabilities, and a misapplication of the principles from Re B led to a lack of thorough evaluation of the evidence and, consequently, an improper conclusion.

Conclusion

The appellate decision in R (Children: Findings of Fact) signifies the necessity of a comprehensive and reasoned evaluation of witness testimony in relation to the medical evidence in fact-finding missions. It underscores the obligations of the judiciary to meticulously assess the inherent improbability of events in conjunction with the credibility of witness accounts. In cases where the Family Court is confronted with highly improbable scenarios, it is particularly important to present explanations for rejecting any account, especially in cases involving severe implications for the individuals concerned. The Court of Appeal’s judgment serves as a reminder that the evaluation of evidence must be done holistically and with express and clear reasoning, especially in complex family proceedings.

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