LAW REPORT: Rules of natural justice depend on context

29 November 1995

Regina v Avon County Council, ex parte Crabtree; Court of Appeal (Lord Justice Neill, Lord Justice Millett and Sir Iain Glidewell) 15 November 1995

The rules of fairness or natural justice were not rigid but depended on their context. In considering whether a particular decision was fair the court should take into account the administrative structure of the body making the decision and the nature and purpose of the decision itself.

The Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal by Robert Crabtree against the decision of Mr Justice Thorpe, on 22 March 1994, refusing an application for judicial review of the decision of the Fostering Panel of the Kingswood/ Northavon area of Avon County Council, on 14 October 1992, not to re-register Mr Crabtree as a foster carer pursuant to regulation 4 of the Foster Placement (Children) Regulations 1991 (SI 910).

Iain Glen (Bobbetts Mackan, Bristol) for the applicant; Timothy Corner (Avon County Council) for the respondent.

Lord Justice Neill said that until October 1991 the work of Mr Crabtree as a foster carer had met with considerable success. But then the department received a report in which it was alleged that Mr Crabtree had shown a child in his care a pornographic video and had bought him a pornographic magazine.

After an investigation, the panel, chaired by Mrs Bashforth, the service manager in the department for the Kingswood/Northavon area, wrote to him saying although they had received a clear account of his reasons for allowing the material to be shown, they remained concerned because he did not accept that he had acted inappropriately.

Thereafter relations between Mr Crabtree and the department deteriorated. He made a large number of complaints against members of the department.

Mr Crabtree was invited to take part in the panel's meeting on 14 October. The meeting was chaired by Roger Lake, area general manager for the Kingswood / Northavon area. It had been decided that Mrs Bashforth, who usually chaired the panel, should not attend the meeting because many of Mr Crabtree's complaints against the department involved her. The other three panel members were team managers in the department. Also present were two family placement team social workers. After discussing various matters with Mr Crabtree and then deliberating in his absence, the panel decided not to re-register him as a foster carer.

Mr Crabtree complained, inter alia, that it was unfair and in breach of natural justice for the panel sitting in judgment on him to include persons against whom he had registered complaints under investigation, and for persons who were not members of the panel to take part in its deliberations.

His Lordship agreed that at first sight the procedure adopted at the meeting appeared to have been less than fair. But this failed to take account of the nature of the decision making body in question, or of the nature of its task.

Most decisions by administrative bodies had to be taken by those with knowledge of the facts. The members comprising such bodies might, because of previous knowledge or some policy which had been adopted, have a predisposition towards a certain result. This did not mean, however, that such a body could not reach a fair decision. The courts must be careful not to treat the decision making process of such bodies as though they were judicial tribunals.

It was clear that the question of Mr Crabtree's continuing registration as a foster carer was considered at the meeting with care and at some length. The panel had a duty to place the interests of children in care at the forefront of its deliberations.

Moreover, relations between Mr Crabtree and the department had reached crisis point and a decision had to be made.

His Lordship was satisfied that in the circumstances the panel as constituted was not an unfair body to adjudicate. Nor was it unfair for social workers who had worked with Mr Crabtree to contribute to the panel's decision. It was obvious that a carer looking after children placed by the local authority must be able to work in close cooperation with the social workers and managers from the relevant department.

Lord Justice Millett and Sir Iain Glidewell concurred.

Paul Magrath, Barrister

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