I wrote here previously about the importance of judicial independence, and how politicians should not interfere with the judicial process. That post was about a case in Ireland, but I cautioned that it could also happen in this country. I said that it is already common here for aggrieved parties to family law cases to complain to their MP, and that it only takes a ‘bad’ or misguided MP to try to use their position to influence a court’s decision.
Over the weekend I came across a case where this seems to be exactly what happened.
Re P (A Child) concerned a girl who was then just one year old. The local authority, Essex County Council, issued care proceedings as a result of the care being provided to her by her mother. The maternal grandparents felt that they could look after the child, so applied to the court for permission to apply for a residence order. The application was supported by the mother.
The court rejected the grandparents’ application, without giving them an opportunity to be heard, and the case proceeded to a final hearing. Although the judgment in the law report doesn’t say expressly, it suggests that the grandparents complained about this decision to their local MP, while also appealing the decision.
What happened next is, however, clear. On the day of the final hearing the court received a letter from a local MP, “copying a letter he had written to the Prime Minister in the strongest terms”. Unfortunately, we are not given details of the contents of the letter to the Prime Minister, but they were obviously relevant to the case.
The grandparents’ appeal was heard and allowed by Judge Newton at the Chelmsford County Court. In the course of his judgment he referred to the letter from the MP and stated that he strongly deprecated such conduct.
The judge went on:
“It appears to be a clear political attempt to interfere with the judicial process. The justices proceeded to hear the case as I think they should have done in the circumstances but it is a matter which should be taken further, because at that time the case was still subject to judicial enquiry, whatever the circumstances, it should not have occurred in the way that it did. I do not criticise [the grandparents] they do not know the niceties of the law but an experienced Member of Parliament should, it shouldn’t have happened.”
Complaining to your MP when you are aggrieved by a decision of a family court seems to be becoming more frequent. Perhaps this has been encouraged in some quarters, where people perceive decisions that go against them as some sort of conspiracy on behalf of the “secret” or “corrupt” family courts.
While that might be misguided, the real problem comes when an MP becomes involved, while court proceedings are still ongoing. MPs are not entitled to interfere with the judicial process. This is something that all MPs should know, and it is a worry that some clearly don’t.
Any error by a court should be “corrected” within the legal process: in other words, upon appeal if necessary. For these grandparents, the proper avenue was the course they had already taken, by lodging an application to appeal against the earlier decision. In the event, the judge noted a number of concerns about this case. He granted the grandparents permission to appeal “without hesitation.” You can read his decision here.
To be clear: whatever the merits of your case, and however desperate you are or aggrieved you feel, your MP should not get involved until the court process has ended.