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
article 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