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Judge Tries to Clean Up Family Court

February 14, 2015 permalink

Christopher Booker commends judge James Munby for his efforts in cleaning up the mess in British family courts. In British family law, children can be permanently separated from parents in a case in which the parents are not even admitted to the courtroom.



Why don’t the family courts obey the law?

Too many cases are standing the fundamental principles of British justice on their head, writes Christopher Booker

James Munby
Lord Justice Munby, head of family courts

For two years, Lord Justice Munby, the head of our family courts, has been heroically fighting to restore some semblance of justice and common sense to our horribly secretive and corrupted “child protection” system, which I have been reporting on here since 2009 as one of the most shocking scandals in Britain today.

Two weeks ago, Munby again made headlines when he and two other judges in the Appeal Court magisterially tore apart a Liverpool judge, Robert Dodds, for his handling of a case-management hearing involving an intelligent boy, described as an “over-achiever” at school, who was desperate to return to live with his mother.

In 2012, Liverpool social workers sent the boy to live with his abusive father, who was sent to jail for assaulting him. They then placed him miserably in 14 different foster homes. The social workers were now considering that it might be best for him to return to his mother. But Dodds refused to hear any evidence and, without issuing a formal judgment or even giving his reasons, instantly ordered that the boy must remain in care.

After highly critical rulings from the other two judges, Munby weighed in by saying that he wished to emphasise two “important” points. The first was that it is “one of the oldest principles of our law”, going back 400 years, that “no one is to be condemned unheard”. Any “parent faced with the removal of their child must be entitled to make their case to the court”; and if they wish “to give evidence in answer to a local authority’s care application”, they must be permitted to do so. Secondly “there is the right to confront one’s accusers”, and to cross-examine any important witness on whose evidence the local authority is relying. Judge Dodds’s adoption of such a “ruthlessly truncated process” in this case was “fundamentally unprincipled and unfair”.

Just when Munby was making these points another case came my way which, as so often in the family courts, stood those fundamental principles on their head. A woman in Wales, after being made pregnant from a rape, lived for some years with the father, who continued to treat her so violently that she eventually fled with her son to a women’s refuge. They then began living happily with a new partner by whom she had two more sons. Because of her past involvement in violence, however, Denbighshire social workers intervened to say that, unless she handed over her oldest son to his father, they would also remove her other two boys. She had no choice but to obey.

When the middle son was two, his mother took him to her doctor to look at a small bruise, which he said was nothing to worry about. But, on learning of this, the social workers insisted that the boy be examined by another doctor, who said that the injury might be “non-accidental”, i.e. a sign of parental abuse. On a court order, the two boys were taken into care, and over the following months, through several court hearings from which the parents were excluded by their lawyers, they were shocked at “contact sessions” to see both the boys displaying many cuts and bruises (which they photographed).

Last April, the couple were summoned to a final hearing to decide their sons’ future. The mother was represented by lawyers she had been given by Women’s Aid, which works closely with the local authority. As an intelligent woman, studying for a university degree, she and her partner arrived early at the court, for what was scheduled to be a five-day hearing. They were armed with files of evidence and a list of witnesses they wished to call, all of which they believed would demolish the local authority’s case.

But the mother describes how they were astonished to be told by their lawyers that again they would not be permitted to enter the court. Half an hour later, the barristers emerged to say that the judge had decided that their two boys should be placed for adoption. There was no judgment for them to see, and no possibility of any appeal against his decision. This Wednesday the couple will have a final “goodbye session” with their sons, never to see them again.

What makes this even odder is that two months later the same judge, Gareth Jones, made national headlines for ruling that Anglesey social workers acted “above the law” in removing a nine-year-old boy from his family without a court order. This judge is clearly capable of upholding the law when he sees social workers acting improperly. But, since we cannot know what happened in his other courtroom weeks earlier, we cannot know how a planned five-day hearing came to be cut to just 30 minutes; or why those lawyers told the parents that they were not allowed even to enter the court, let alone to give evidence. We can only surmise what Lord Justice Munby might say were he given the chance to pronounce on a case that seems so flagrantly to have flouted those same fundamental rights under the law that he was recently so insistent must be upheld.

Source: Telegraph (UK)

Booker follows up on the family excluded from the courtroom in their own case. Someone hoodwinked the judge.



Mystery over parents denied their right to enter the courtroom

It would seem that 'one of the oldest principles of our law' has not been followed, writes Christopher Booker

A curious puzzle has arisen following my piece a fortnight ago headed, “Why don’t the family courts obey the law?” I quoted a trenchant recent judgment in which Lord Justice Munby, the head of the family courts, went out of his way to emphasise that “one of the oldest principles of our law” is that “no one is to be condemned unheard” – and that “any parents faced with the removal of their child must be entitled to make their case to the court”, and to challenge any evidence brought against them.

I then contrasted this with a case last year in which two parents arrived for a final hearing armed with a pile of evidence they wished to produce to support their case that their two young sons had been wrongly removed from them. (This included photographic evidence to show extensive injuries exhibited by their sons while in care, which were much worse than the single bruise used to justify their removal in the first place.)

According to the parents, they were astonished to be told by their lawyers that they could not come into the courtroom (as had happened on three previous occasions). And even more so when the lawyers emerged half an hour later from a private meeting with the judge to say that the case had gone against them and that their boys were to be sent for adoption. The judgment was apparently issued later that day, but the parents were not allowed to see it, and were told there were no grounds for any appeal.

I found all this surprising, not least because the judge in question, Judge Gareth Jones, has shown himself ready to be highly critical of social workers whom he finds to have acted improperly. When I argued that the case seemed to contradict what Munby called “one of the oldest principles of our law”, my article provoked some discussion on legal blogs. Then, 10 months after it was given, the judgment suddenly appeared on the Bailii website (EWFC/OJ/2014/B201). In a key paragraph, Judge Jones referred to “Miss Erwood”, representing the mother, and stated “the mother has been present during the course of today but she, like the father, has decided not to remain in this courtroom this afternoon for the purposes of this judgment”.

But the mother, an intelligent woman who is studying for a degree, is adamant that she and the father had not been allowed into the courtroom at all during that day. They had been told to wait in another room until the lawyers emerged to say that the judge had found against them. I gather on unimpeachable authority that the judge was “told” that the parents had “voluntarily left the court”, and that it was certainly not his decision that they be excluded from his courtroom.

On Thursday, I asked Miss Erwood’s chambers to confirm the circumstances whereby her client had been refused entry to the courtroom, but have had no reply. Three days after my last article, those parents were allowed to see their children for the last time. Although this is not the only occasion when I have come across parents being excluded from a family court, this particular case does appear to be such a conspicuous example of how Munby’s principles can be set aside that this matter should not be allowed to rest.

Source: Telegraph (UK)