Friday, 18 July 2008

Family Courts and Injustice

Earlier this year I came across an article in The Times by Camilla Cavendish with the headline "British Justice: A Family Ruined - a chilling example of our secret state where a mother and child are forced into hiding." I was so appalled by the story told that I intended to blog about it; I found other articles by Cavendish but, life being life, I never typed a word. Hidden away in my pc, the article would have lain had I not found that just over a week ago The Times launched a campaign - headed by Cavendish - to open up the Family Court's system to scrutiny and so prevent the miscarriages of justice which go unchallenged because of the secrecy under which the proceedings are heard and imposed on the parents which makes them unable to challenge decisions.

Today I wish to highlight the issues by showing one
in its entirety and with a series of links to other articles by Camilla Cavendish on the family courts.

"British Justice: A Family Ruined - a chilling example of our secret state where a mother and child are forced into hiding."

"Last autumn a small English congregation was rocked by the news that two of its parishioners had fled abroad. A 56-year-old man had helped his pregnant wife to flee from social workers, who had already taken her son into care and were threatening to seize their baby.

Most people had no idea why. For the process that led this couple to such a desperate act was entirely secret. The local authority had warned the mother not to talk to her friends or even her MP. The judge who heard the arguments from social services sat in secret. The open-minded social workers who had initially been assigned to sort out a custody battle between the woman and her previous husband were replaced by others who seemed determined to build a guilty case against her. That is how the secret State operates. A monumental injustice has been perpetrated in this quiet corner of England; our laws are being used to try to cover it up.

I will call this couple Hugh and Sarah. Neither they nor their families have ever been in trouble with the law, as far as I know. Sarah's only fault seems to have been to suffer through a violent and volatile first marriage, which produced a son. When the marriage ended, the boy was taken into temporary foster care for a few months - as a by-product of the marriage breakdown and against her will - while she “sorted her life out” and found them a new home. But even as she cleared every hurdle set by the court, social workers dreamt up new ones. The months dragged by. A psychologist said the boy was suffering terribly in care and was desperate to come home. Sarah's mother and sister, both respected professionals with good incomes, apparently offered to foster or adopt him. The local authority did not even deign to reply.

For a long time, Sarah and her family seem to have played along. At every new hearing they thought that common sense would prevail. But it didn't. The court appeared to blame her for not ending her marriage more quickly, which had put strain on the boy, while social workers seemed to insist that she now build a good relationship with the man she had left. Eventually, she came to believe that the local authority intended to have her son adopted. She also seems to have feared that they would take away her new baby, Hugh's baby, when it was born. One night in September they fled the country with the little boy. When Hugh returned a few days later, to keep his business going and his staff in jobs, he was arrested.

Many people would think this man a hero. Instead, he received a far longer sentence - 16 months for abduction - than many muggers. This kind of sentence might be justified, perhaps, to set an example to others. But the irony of this exemplary sentence is that no one was ever supposed to know the details. (I am treading a legal tightrope writing about it at all.) How could a secret sentence for a secret crime deter anyone?

Sarah's baby has now been born, in hiding. I am told that the language from social services has become hysterical. But if the State was genuinely concerned for these two children, it would have put “wanted” pictures up in every newspaper in Europe.

It won't do that, of course, because to name the woman and her children would be to tear a hole in the fabric of the secret State, a hole we could all see through. I would be able to tell you her side of the story, the child's side of the story. I would be able to tell you every vindictive twist of this saga. And the local authority knows perfectly well how it would look. So silence is maintained.

And very effective it is too. The impotence is the worst thing. The way that perfectly decent individuals are gagged and unable to defend themselves undermines a fundamental principle of British law. I have a court order on my desk that threatens all the main actors in this case with dire consequences if they talk about it to anyone.

Can that really be the way we run justice in a country that was the fount of the rule of law? At the heart of this story is a little boy who was wrenched from the mother he loves, bundled around in foster care and never told why, when she appears to have been perfectly capable of looking after him. When she had relatives who were perfectly capable of doing so. In the meantime, he was becoming more and more troubled and unhappy. To find safety and love, that little boy has had to leave England.

What does that say about our country? The public funds the judges, the courts, the social workers. It deserves to know what they do. That does not mean vilifying all social workers, or defending every parent. But it does mean ending the presumption of guilt that infects so many family court hearings. It does mean asking why certain local authorities seem unable to let go of children whose parents have resolved their difficulties. It does mean knowing how social workers could have got away with failing to return this particular boy, after his mother had met all the criteria set by a judge at the beginning. It is simply unacceptable that social services have put themselves above the law.

We need these people to be named, and to hear in their words what happened. We need to open up the family courts. We need to tear down the wall of secrecy that has forced a decent woman to live as a fugitive, to save her little boy from a life with strangers, used like a pawn in a game of vengeance. Even if the local authority were to drop its case, it is hard to see how Sarah could ever trust them enough to return. At home, for their God-fearing congregation, the question is simple: what justice can ever be done behind closed doors? And in whose name?


Guilty until proved innocent
Family Courts are the B-side of the Law

The Rank Hypocrisy of Family Court Judges
Free the ‘Grandfather One’
British justice A family ruined
Family Justice: the secret state that steals our children
A Conspiracy of Silence

Family Courts: the hidden untouchables
Family Justice: What We Can Do to Protect Our Children
A Moving Response to Our Family Justice Campaign


  1. Australia's system is no better. Those in positions of authority make decisions that will break you and they are not necessarily correct. Just because these people have these jobs to do and in lots of cases it is warranted, many times they stuff up and wreak havoc and destroy families. You can not beat these know alls. If you stand up against them, be prepared to be treated as non compliant and dismissive of concerns.

  2. This makes my blood boil. But thanks for posting it. It's archetypal Secret State: once they get their teeth into you then you've had it.

    No common sense, no empathy, no compassion, no time to just let things heal, everything must be done according to the prescribed flow chart..Jobsworths and Stalin wannabes...

    And whatever happened to that CAFCASS outfit? I thought they were supposed to sort things like this before they got so dire?

    Aren't there enough messed up kids in our country already without creating more...?

  3. Nunyaa It's heart-rending to hear about mothers/ fathers having children adopted for "nothing".

    BHN Exactly

    Also thanks for visiting again. I've linked to you now. Hope others do too.

  4. The trouble is that the sheer weight of the state cripples any attempts to highlight things.

  5. Without a doubt, the state is a massive millstone - that's what any degenerate, unenlightened (NPI!) power is supposed to be: it's part of a cycle.

    I was reading Gracchi's post at Westminster Wisdom and learnt a lot about American independence...

    ...what I guess we're doing is akin to the project of those new Americans: feeling the wind of dictatorship blow ever colder down our necks and ever closer - and speaking out.

    Never doubt the power of a few committed people etc etc.(Margaret Mead) As Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, Button Gwinnett et all showed (off the top of my head, I don't recall any of the other signatories, many of whom paid with their lives or ruination I seem to remember). They wanted gvt-lite, quite rightly.

    I'd never advocate civil war or bloody revolution but once you've really clocked that the state would make sociopaths of us all and you decide not to play ball, then you are free to feel and do according to your conscience. Thankfully, for most of us that's a peaceable fight - blogging is one good way obviously. And, obviously, that's why the US, China, UK etc are attempting to draw the net ever tighter!

    Whew! Where did that all come from this early on a Saturday morning! Westminster Wisdom incited me yeronner!

  6. I have been a social worker for 28 years and NEVER in my career I have "dreamed" up new hardles.
    What a lot of nonsense!!!!! wish the public would check the facts before commenting about our professions and the decisions we have to make to protect children. And many children live happy and safe lives because of decisions made by social workers and the courts. Anna

  7. Anonymous / Anna

    No-one said that you "dreamed up new hurdles".

    No-one said that social workers and the courts do not do good - sorry about all the negatives!

    What is being said is that there are cases where social workers get "it" wrong; where the courts get "it" wrong; where the secrecy of the family courts prevents a sensible resolution.

    There is no profession or no grouping which always makes the correct decisions. What is important is that these profesions and groupings acknowledge that mistakes are made and that to deny errors or to refuse to resolve the issues undoes much of their good work.

    Openness is never too much to ask for.


    I'm impressed - at any time of the day!!

  8. calum, I see your point however, I do nor agree that legal proceedings involving children should be open to the public. Some parents may want this but what about the children? Their privacy has to be respected at all times. Parents and children have legal teams to represent them. When I go to court to seek a legal order I have to provide "evidence". Decisions are not based on social worker's opinions but on evidence, which is challenged by the parents legal team. I do agree that every profession gets it wrong at times (we are all humans after all) but in my experience the vast majority within my profession do learn from mistakes, sadly parents do not do so as often, for reasons (at times) which is beyond their control. Whatever anyone of us may think about those issues..........children must be protected and their needs always come before the needs of the parents. It is an important debate that you have started Cullum and important issues such as the ones highlighted by your blogs needs to be debated and not forgotten. Regards Anna

  9. Anonymous said...

    I have been a social worker for 28 years and NEVER in my career I have "dreamed" up new hardles.
    What a lot of nonsense!!!!! wish the public would check the facts before commenting about our professions and the decisions we have to make to protect children. And many children live happy and safe lives because of decisions made by social workers and the courts. Anna

    I can well understand how such criticism can feel so personal, especially when you know how hard you've worked for your clients over the years.
    The point is, I believe, that this criticism is not personal, the faults are not generally at personal level.

    And, I'm sure that many children are protected by the system.

    But when it goes wrong, it really does go very badly wrong - and there is no redress. The whole system (please get this) the whole system is completely weighed against a vulnerable client.

    I wonder if you've ever been a client or a service user? I've had the privilege of being on your side of the equation for many many years. I passionately believed I was doing a very good job to the best of my ability (at the equivalent level of second-tier council officer, so very senior). It wasn't until a brain attack/stroke felled me overnight suddenly that I REALLY began to understand how the system does conspire against support and healing. These are perspectives that you just cannot possibly understand unless you've been in this reversed position...

    Suddenly my former colleagues are faceless, rule-book-hugging stonewalls...because they have their targets and assessments and outcomes and goals to fill in. No human being fits these boxes - NONE.

    My point here is that, very unwittingly and with the best will in the world, I ACTUALLY SUPPORTED AND PERPETUATED the system's weight, the repression of service users (actually, 'repression' is the very word that my social worker used the other day to describe what her service and others have done to me - honest woman that she is).

    And, sadly, it's true to say that hurdles are indeed invented - I have evidence (I mean cold, hard, factual, on paper, evidence) of social workers falsifying records to cover their backs and deter me from asking for help with my disabilities because of failures to FACS and render timely support and resourcing implications. I have similar hard evidence of NHS staff doing the same - the NHS has proved to be amazingly circumlocuitous and brilliant at inventing yet another hurdle.

    Part of the problem - personally and generally - is that as public service employees we get so caught up in our own part of the job and we don't see the bigger perspectives. I never set out to perpetuate a callous system, and nor did you, but we have.

    Apologies, I didn't mean to hijack with my saga, but sometimes the only way to illustrate is with personal experience rather than the anecdotal drawn from newspapers etc. No, I can see only too well how this poor couple were backed into a corner by nice, kind people like you and me who were 'just doing their jobs and ticking the right boxes'.

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  11. Anna,
    I have seen myself that they do go to court with what they deem as evidence which in fact is nothing more than malicious anon phone calls, and the heresay of one. That IS a FACT and not made up.
    In some cases it is warranted and needs to be done but I disagree that in other cases it is not with a full body of evidence, only the word of a vindictive person.
    When these social workers are called out on this happening, they all stick together.
    I will back up what I am saying but not through a public blog.!

  12. This is an area that is incredibly difficult - those working in the system are often understaffed, under-resourced, and while there are many who genuinely want to make a difference, others are simply not up to the job. I just hope that the family involved in this case will find a safe haven and have a successful and happy life.