Family Court's Limited Authority in Regulating Police Interviews of Minors: Cornwall Council v M & Ors Analysis

Citation: [2023] EWFC 188
Judgment on

Introduction

The case of Cornwall Council v M & Ors ([2023] EWFC 188) presents key topics and legal principles pertinent to the intersection of family law and criminal investigation procedures. The rulings highlight the scope and limitations of parental consent for police interviews of minors, the balancing of child welfare against public interests, and the jurisdiction of family courts over decisions impinging on police functions.

Key Facts

In the Cornwall Council v M & Ors case, the mother of a 9-year-old sought a section 8 order to prohibit the father from consenting to a police interview of their daughter (“F”), following allegations of F’s sexual abuse by the mother’s partner. The family proceedings had a convoluted history, including the Court of Appeal setting aside initial findings due to flawed interviews. With varying views on the necessity and appropriateness of another interview, there was contention over the father’s consent and the lack of the mother’s consultation. This dispute raised questions about the authority of one parent to consent to a police interview and the role of the court in such decisions.

Several legal principles emerged from the judgments:

  1. Parental Consent for Police Interviews: The 2022 Achieving Best Evidence Guidance requires the consent of an adult with parental responsibility for child interviews when the child cannot understand the implications. The guidance suggests that consent from only one parent suffices, leaving room for law enforcement to proceed without unanimity between parents.

  2. Prohibited Steps Order/Specific Issue Order: Under the Children Act 1989, these orders regulate steps taken in exercising parental responsibility and deciding specific questions related to parental responsibility.

  3. Jurisdictional Limits in Police Investigation: The family courts cannot exercise their powers to intervene in administrative decisions reserved for public authorities, like the police, except in exceptional circumstances (Re W (A Minor)(Wardship: Jurisdiction) [1985] AC 792).

  4. Welfare vs. Public Interest Balance: In Chief Constable of Greater Manchester v KI and KW, the test applied was not the paramountcy of the child’s welfare but a balance of interests. This aligns with the reasoning in Re B [2022] EWCA Civ 982, which reiterates that court intervention in police duties should be exceptional and motivated by a balance of the child’s welfare and public interest in investigating crimes.

Outcomes

The judgment ultimately did not grant the mother’s application for a prohibited steps order against the father, nor did it make a specific issue order. Mrs Justice Judd concluded that, although the family court had the power to make such orders, the application did not justify exercising this intervention in police functions. Despite valid welfare concerns for F, the court recognized the police’s statutory duty to investigate crime and the CPS’s professional standards.

The judgment drew a clear distinction that while both s8 Children Act 1989 and the inherent jurisdiction provide the court with powers to regulate parental responsibility, including the consent for child interviews, this does not extend to supervising or intervening with the police’s statutory functions.

Conclusion

In summary, Cornwall Council v M & Ors has upheld the principle that the responsibilities and powers of public authorities to investigate crime should not be checked by the family courts unless under exceptional circumstances. It affirmed that one parent’s consent can suffice for a child’s police interview and that the child’s welfare, while a significant consideration, does not always override the public interest. The case underscores the delicate balance between parental rights and the state’s obligation to protect children and prosecute crimes, with the courts careful not to overstep into the administrative decisions of public bodies.

Related Summaries