A father who has been struggling to see his daughter for the last 12 years faces further delay after a judge adjourned proceedings until February.
The unnamed father won a High Court victory in September, when Lord Justice McFarlane overturned a ruling limiting him to indirect contact via email and presents with his 14 year-old daughter, called ‘M’ in case reports. The earlier judge had not fully analysed the girl’s wishes, said the Lord Justice, and the father’s application for residence and contact should be reheard.
He noted that litigation between the M’s parents had continued “almost without interruption” since October 2001, a few months after their separation.
Since 2006 alone there have been no fewer than eighty-two court orders. At least seven judges have been involved in the case at one stage or another and over ten CAFCASS officers have played a part, initially as report writers and, latterly, as M’s children’s guardian.”
The father was, said Lord Justice McFarlane, “unimpeachable” with no “adverse findings” made against him at any stage, while the mother was “implacably opposed to contact”.
He quoted a child psychologist’s comments on her:
“The mother appears to want an unhealthy exclusive relationship with M. The mother hides her opposition to contact behind her daughter’s stated “wishes and feelings”. She is an intelligent person and…may well know exactly what she is doing.”
The extreme length of the case and multiple legal delays had, ruled the Lord Justice, violated the rights of the man and his daughter to respect for family life, under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The case returned to the family courts in Leeds last month, but quickly stalled on the issue of which child psychologists should be consulted.
Speaking to the Mail, the father claimed to have spent around £100,000 in legal fees. He said:
“Speaking after the latest hearing at the family court in Leeds, he said: ‘As a parent, one’s frustration lies with the lassitude of the court process that allows precious, irreplaceable time with your children to slip away, and the relationship you seek to have with them dissolve into the mists of time.”
“Time with your children can never be recaptured – it is lost for ever.”
This is clearly a very sad case and which will be made much of by those who believe the family courts do not always give fathers a fair hearing.
It is also a very complex case and it is worth recalling that contrary to some media reports, the family courts do have the power to enforce orders for contact. The parents in breach may be fined, required to do unpaid work, or to compensate the other parent for any losses they have incurred due to the breach – for example, having to cancel planned holidays. Remedies available to the courts for more serious breaches include transferring residence – i.e. sending the child to live with the other parent – or even sending the recalcitrant parent to prison. But for such options of last resort, the welfare and best interests of the children involved would have to be very carefully considered.
Cases like these make for attention-grabbing headlines, but it is also worth recalling that “implacably hostile” parents, those who seem to ready to go almost any lengths to exclude their former partners, are in reality a “small minority” of the nation’s divorced and separated mums and dads.
And of course, it is always the children who really lose out. Whatever the parents’ difficulties, M deserved to enjoy a happy relationship with her father. Instead, to quote Lord Justice Aikens, her childhood “has been irredeemably marred by years of litigation,” and she will have to live with the legacy of that for the rest of her life.