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Inside Family Court

August 24, 2009 permalink

British reporter Ed Saunt took advantage of a new policy opening family courts to the press, though with heavy restrictions on what could be reported. He gives a rare look at the courts from the family's point of view. The predominant experience is waiting. The negotiations occur out of the presence of the parties, and when children's lives are altered, they never find out the reasons.



Lifting the lid on the closed world of our family courts

Aug 24 2009

Richmond Magistrates Court

In the wake of the horrific death of Baby P after failures in the care and social work system in Haringey and the subsequent trial of his killers, the Government announced that family courts were to be opened up to the press. Two years and two weeks after Baby Peter Connelly died ED SAUNT became the first journalist to attend a care hearing at Richmond Magistrates Court.

THIS is a story about a brother and sister being taken into care. It was almost a story about how – despite Baby P, despite the Government pledging to make family courts more transparent – it is still virtually impossible for the press to scrutinise a care hearing.

When I arrived at Richmond Magistrates Court – which deals with care orders from Richmond, Kingston and Hounslow councils – to be told by an usher that the media were barred from family court proceedings, it was clear open justice was still an unfamiliar concept.

After I explained the change in the law and she had made some phone calls, she apologised, said I could sit in the courts if the magistrates agreed and explained I was the first journalist to have visited Richmond's family court.

I told her the case I was interested in, which was a typically complicated one which involved a local authority applying for an interim care order for two teenagers whose mother is a drug user.

I was asked to wait in the holding area with the nervous mums and dads and difficult children and it was here that I first learned one of the main frustrations of the care system – delays. I waited and waited as around me tempers frayed and mothers sobbed.

“The communication here is unacceptable, we've been waiting ages,” one woman fretted. Another had brought a book – the title The Black Hole seemed apt somehow. This clearly was not her first time.

A sense of anguish and emotion pervaded the halls around the court in contrast to the bolshy arrogance that is part-and-parcel of the adjacent criminal courts.

Finally, after almost two hours waiting, the parties were summoned to court. I counted four lawyers in addition to four others who I guessed were social workers.

When I entered I was told the lawyers for the local authority, the mother, one of the children and the current guardian had ceased hostilities and come to an agreement. But not over the children – they had asked the magistrates to exclude me from proceedings.

After representations from one of the lawyers – accompanied by sneering from the others – and my arguments, the magistrates decided that opening the courts to the press was pointless if they then omitted journalists from individual cases and allowed me to stay.

The lawyers looked furious and later refused to give me their names but by now it was almost lunchtime and barely a mention had been made of the reason we were there – the children.

When things finally began to move forward the court heard the two teenagers had been living with a guardian but at this hearing the council involved – which cannot be named for legal reasons – was looking to move them into care in another county ahead of a permanent custody hearing next month.

We broke for discussions between the parties and an early lunch at 12.30pm with chair of the magistrates Mr Prior adamant that something should be agreed on our return at 1.45pm.

When they returned and asked for more time, Mr Prior was losing patience. “You have been asking for time since 10am,” he said. “It's now almost 2 o'clock and we are not making any progress.”

In the subsequent discussions, it became clear the children were likely to be separated, their mother – who struggles with learning difficulties – broke down. Inconsolable, she stormed out of the court and, after another recess and much crying, shouting and screaming, it was agreed that she should be taken home.

Her lawyer said: “Mother was understandably very upset. It came as a bit of a shock to her that the local authority is planning to move the children to separate placements.”

As further adjournment followed and I had a chance to probe the parties involved it became clear that the lack of scrutiny has allowed these courts to fall into a comfort zone that makes the prospect of another Baby P a frightening possibility.

The lawyers complained about their casework, the magistrates bemoaned the fact that different advocates represent each party at every hearing in a case and more than 10 people on the public payroll spent a full day deciding the destiny of two children for two weeks.

The majority of the discussion was done outside of court away from the magistrates – whose main job seemed to chivvy proceedings along and and look over documents drawn up in their absence. Very little was said in court and the merits of taking the children away were barely mentioned.

One would hope scrutiny of these proceedings that the new laws allow will help throw light on the problems faced but the impression this visitor was given was not one of a system eager to change but an operation frightened of its own reflection in the mirror.

At the outset I said this was a story about two children. So, what became of them? As suggested earlier, they have ended up miles from home and miles apart. Why? I'm afraid I can't tell you. No one in that court room was prepared to say it out loud.

Source: Hounslow Chronicle