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Jail for Grandpa

December 13, 2007 permalink

The British prison system is short of space for murderers and rapists, but has found room to house grandfather Charles Roy Taylor for the offense of meeting his own grandson.

Jack Frost, who brought attention to this case with internet articles in October, says Britain has 200 cases a year of persons jailed by family courts in secret proceedings.



Free the 'Grandfather One'

Is it really in the public interest that a grandparent is jailed for not avoiding his grandson?

Two MPs have put down an early day motion in the House of Commons to bring attention to what they believe is a miscarriage of justice. It notes that a man named Charles Roy Taylor has been sent to prison for 20 months for being in contact with his stepgrandson. It “wonders if this is a good use of scarce prison resources; and calls for the Secretary of State for Justice to consider whether he should be released for Christmas”. Jack Straw no doubt has bigger things on his mind. And no story like this is ever as simple as it looks. But it deserves attention.

Charles Roy Taylor is a 71-year-old with a heart condition. He knew that a jail sentence was the penalty he might pay if he did not take steps to avoid his stepgrandson. But this seems desperately unfair. The teenager, whom we shall call John, has been in care since his mother died of an overdose. He has been phoning his grandparents and running away to see them for some time. In the end, social services became concerned that the grandparents were “undermining the care plan” by continuing to see John. It does not appear to be clear to the grandparents what the care plan is. But it does not seem to include them, even though they could presumably be John's first port of call when he leaves the care system at 18.

It is not the local authority's fault that this child had a difficult childhood. In taking responsibility for him, social workers were doing their best. Neither he nor his grandparents sound like the easiest people to deal with. But as in so many cases of this kind, bitterness between the family and the authorities appears to have escalated into a ludicrous situation, which simply cannot be in the best interests of the child.

After a great deal of argy-bargy that I cannot go into for legal reasons, Mr Taylor last year gave an undertaking not to communicate with John until he was 18. But asking a man not to pick up the phone to a child, not to take him in when he turns up at the front door, is a harsh demand. It is tantamount to asking him to deny that the child exists, when what that child may need most is attention.

In stalking cases, when Person A is ordered to avoid Person B, it is usually at the explicit request of Person B, who fears assault. In this case, Person B was apparently desperate to see his grandparents. He seems to see them as his best hope. So in whose interests was such an order? If he has broken his undertaking, Mr Taylor has surely been responding as humanely as most of us would. A jail sentence seems wholly disproportionate.

When I first learnt of this case I felt that there must be more to it. That perhaps the grandparents were suspected of abuse. I can find no evidence of any such allegation. Indeed, the authorities initially seemed happy to leave them in contact with John. What appears to have happened is that the exchanges between the family and social workers became increasingly bitter, all of whom no doubt believed themselves to be in the right.

The council cannot comment on individual cases. It will say only that “Mr Taylor was sentenced by the High Court after he breached a court order”. It cannot comment on John's treatment in care. John seems unhappy. He has apparently asked to be discharged. But his voice can only be heard within the system, a system he seems determined to rebel against.

There is a growing campaign on the internet to release Mr Taylor. This has two parts. The first is that a 20-month jail sentence is preposterous when the prisons are so overcrowded that dangerous criminals are being released early. The second is that Mr Taylor was allegedly committed to jail in a “secret court”. This seems unlikely. But it is an allegation that is made frequently. Legally, you cannot send someone to jail in a secret court. In practice, it is questionable whether a judge sitting in a family court from which press and public are excluded, who declares the court open for a few minutes to pronounce sentence, is really “open”.

This matters, because the view of the legal profession increasingly seems to be that the less we know the better. The justification for keeping family courts closed, despite the recommendations of the Commons Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, is to protect children's privacy. Yet this argument is no longer confined to the family courts. It is increasingly being trotted out in criminal cases too.

In the past month, one court has ruled that the defendants in a witchcraft trial, who were alleged to have done unspeakable things to children, could not be named in case this led to the identification of their victims. Another court banned publication of anything about a mother accused of poisoning her child with salt, in case the information affected her surviving child. The Times has recently succeeded in overturning yet another ruling, that a man who pleaded guilty to making indecent images of children could not be named in case his relatives might suffer. The Court of Appeal found that the man should be named, and that the attempts to restrict the proceedings were invalid.

The law must not become a secret process. Some lawyers seem convinced that the media want to identify vulnerable children, but it is always possible to write these stories without doing so. Seeing that justice is done is a fundamental part of law.

What is sad is that our elaborate system of child protection, which is designed to put children first, has sometimes become a way of avoiding accountability. The two MPs are right to ask whose interests Mr Taylor's jailing serves. Presumably, the last thing John wants is for his grandfather to be in jail. They are both victims of a system that asks us to take on trust that it knows best. But prison is surely the wrong place for Charles Roy Taylor.

Source: Times (UK)