The case of Vicky Haigh has made lurid headlines today. She is the woman publicly named and shamed by Lord Justice Wall, the President of the Family Division, after making “entirely false” and “scandalous” allegations about her former partner. She accused him of sexually abusing their young daughter.
Sir Nicholas Wall said:
“Allegations of sexual abuse were first made by the mother and not by X [the child]… X was coached by the mother to make allegations of sexual abuse against the father.”
He explained his decision to sit in open court as follows:
“The father is entitled to tell the world, and the world is entitled to know, that he is not a paedophile, that he has not sexually abused his daughter and that the allegations made against him are false.”
Now the father has been publicly exonerated in national news reports. The damage done to him has been corrected, although I expect that there will always be some people who believe him guilty. That is the way of the world. The child now lives with him, and Vicky Haigh may make no applications to the court about the child for two years. She is living in Ireland, having given birth to a second child there to evade concerned social workers.
Vicky Haigh’s sexual abuse allegations were examined and rejected by two judges at previous High Court hearings, which took place in private. However the allegations were also repeated elsewhere. Yesterday Sir Nicholas Wall sentenced Elizabeth Watson, a private investigator engaged by Vicky Haigh, to nine months’ imprisonment for contempt of court.
Sir Nicholas Wall said that Vicky Haigh had been
“wholly unable to accept the court’s verdict and, with the misguided assistance of Elizabeth Watson has unlawfully and in breach of court orders put into the public domain via e-mail and the internet a series of unwarranted and scandalous allegations about the father and others”.
The Court could not have come out more strongly against Vicky Haigh and her supporters. There will still be those who side with her. As for me: based on what I have read in the newspapers today, I find this to be one of the most repugnant cases I have ever come across.
I am sorry to say that it is not the only case of women behaving badly that I have encountered. Over the years I have, on occasion, come across other women who are prepared to stoop this low. There is, perhaps, a taboo about discussing women who behave badly. But during a family breakdown both sexes can behave towards each other with conduct so bad, it beggars belief. So in this post, which I understand is likely to prove contentious, let’s look at how women can behave. Fortunately such cases, in common with those of men who stoop similarly low, are rare.
Sometimes, I have found myself acting for a less sinister version of the mother whose conduct was laid bare in the High Court yesterday. At our first meeting she will tell me, in graphic detail, about her suffering at the hands of her monster of a husband. She and the children are at his mercy. She will be intelligent and persuasive. However as the case goes on, and the excuses for not settling come thicker and faster, it becomes apparent that far from being the victim, she is in fact in complete and utter control of the family’s situation. For example, she will do all she can to ensure that the father never sees his children at all. She will make arrangements for all their free time. She will have ready excuses for why he can’t have the children for contact when he comes to collect them. She will always blame him for this state of affairs, ultimately because of what he has done to her. It will never, ever be her responsibility. Perhaps she makes him jump through hoops of fire because he has left her, and this is “payback time”. Perhaps she feels that she hasn’t had enough money from him, so he must pay.
In such cases, there is little doubt that once I twig what is really going on, and the extent of her determination to stop him seeing his children becomes clear, she will likely part company with our firm. We cannot continue to act for a client who is playing out a charade for revenge, who lacks insight, and who has no comprehension or concern of what she is denying her own children: the right to a relationship with their father.
Such people portray themselves as victims, their partners as predators when nothing could be further from the truth. The perceived wrongdoings in a relationship should have as little impact upon the children as possible, but every effort we may make to resolve the situation falls on stony ground. This particular client has no intention of settling with the father, none at all. The intention is to completely alienate the children from the other parent.
(Don’t overlook the fact that even if we don’t see eye to eye with a client, another firm of lawyers will. An individual will have his or her own version of what is happening, and everybody has the right to have a case heard by the court – which is as it should be.)
I have also acted in two cases of a type rarer still, for innocent fathers who never faltered in their accounts of what had happened. In one case, the mother made an allegation of paedophilia -whereas it was the mother herself who was the paedophile. She had lost control of herself and, emboldened by all the steps the court and social services were taking to protect the children from the father – removing him from his home and allowing him the strictest possible supervised contact – she sexually assaulted one baby on a day when the father could conclusively prove that he’d had no contact with the child. The children were ultimately removed from the mother by social services, and placed with their father.
In another case, the father had to move out of his home following allegations of violence, which he disputed. There followed an arduous battle for contact with his children. Ultimately the father was successful, but the struggle wore him to a frazzle. It was a lengthy case, and our firm ended up doing the last part of it pro bono. The mother made all the nastiest allegations that she could, did all she could to avoid giving him any contact, then permitted only the most limited contact. She almost got away with it, hoping he would give up – but with our support, he did not.
There are, I am very sorry to say, those who are so driven by a desire to punish their former partners that they will do anything to hit back. Anything at all.
The problem is that it is much easier to believe these types of allegations, because in certain cases, they are true. There are fathers who do abuse their children. And because the allegations can be true, we think they must be true. We desperately want to protect the innocent children who are at risk.
And these accusers know it. So do the courts and social services, who need no reminding of obligations that can make front-page news. They have to make decisions in cases where the “facts” may not exist at all or can be swept away, if examined with greater care. But how many courts and local authorities have all the resources to do this? They struggle to do their best. And they are not helped by these types of cases.
Such cases remind me of the circumstances I came across when I became involved with Sally Clark’s case. Sally Clark finally walked free from court on her second appeal against convictions for murder of her two babies, three years after her original conviction. Because two babies died in her care, it was argued, they must have been murdered. And she must have done it. The jury and even the Court of Appeal agreed. Only after the most careful digging, to unearth what had really happened, did the truth come out.
And that’s the problem. When serious allegations are made against an innocent man, the tendency is to believe that “there is no smoke without fire”. His back is up against the wall. He can have the entire system ranged against him, as two of my clients did.
Thankfully in the Vicky Haigh case (and in my clients’ cases too), justice has ultimately been done. A wicked vendetta and a misguided campaign have been caught and stopped.
The price that may ultimately be paid, if social services and the courts relax their vigilance and get it wrong, is by a child or another parent. And how easy it is, to get it wrong.
UPDATE 05/09/2011: The judgments have been published in relation to Ms Haigh and Ms Watson. After applying to purge her contempt, Ms Watson has now been released from prison. Instead, a two-year suspended sentence has been imposed by the court.