Continuing an ongoing theme for the year (and, no doubt, beyond), on 5 September the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, handed down his judgment in Re J (A Child). In this, and not for the last time, he called for more transparency in the family courts, in order to restore public confidence in the system. For those with an anti-family justice system agenda, he said tellingly:
“The publicist … may be an unprincipled charlatan seeking to manipulate public opinion by feeding it tendentious accounts of the proceedings. But freedom of speech is not something to be awarded to those who are thought deserving and denied to those who are thought undeserving.”
However, Sir James’s decision to allow a father to post online a video of social workers removing his baby was not welcomed by the social work profession. Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, stated: “The Munby ruling theoretically means that not only do social workers have to face threats in person, they may have to cope with 24-hour-a-day onslaughts in the form of social media.”
The serious case review into the awful death of four year old Daniel Pelka was published in September. Issues identified by the review included deception of agencies and services by the mother, the impact of witnessing violence on children, the impact of culture, race and language and Daniel’s isolation and ‘invisibility’. The review made various recommendations, including a review of information sharing and notification systems in respect of domestic abuse. Other recommendations included a robust system for recording injuries or welfare concerns by school staff and guaranteeing that health professionals consider child abuse as a possible diagnosis when assessing the welfare of children who appear before them with unclear concerns.
Almost 50,000 people signed a petition calling for new legislation to help protect children from abuse in the wake of Daniel’s murder. The petition sought a legal requirement for people working with children in the UK to report suspected abuse. This petition was, however, rejected by the government, on the grounds that it was not required, as it is already clear that concerns should be reported.
September also brought renewed calls for additional rights for cohabiting couples when they separate. The calls came both from the Liberal Democrats at their party conference and from Resolution, which published the results of a survey suggesting that 69 per cent of MPs “agree there is a mistaken belief in the existence of “common law marriage” among their constituents. It also said 57 percent believe the law needs to be changed to provide greater protection for unmarried couples upon separation.
We then had the news that referrals to family mediation had plummeted since the abolition of legal aid in April. The primary reason was that without legal aid fewer people were consulting lawyers, and so lawyers were referring fewer to mediation. The result of the drop is that some mediation services may go out of business. As I noted at the time, this was particularly ironic, as the promotion of mediation as an alternative to court proceedings is a central pillar of the Government’s policy to reduce the cost of the legal system.
The President was never out of the news for long, and I will finish this part of my review of the year with two more stories involving him.
“Jail social workers who take children without telling parents why, says Britain’s top family judge” ran a headline in one of the popular national newspapers. The story referred to Sir James’s judgment in Re W (A Child). What he actually said in the judgment was that court orders should be complied with, including by social workers, and that failure to comply with an order “will usually have a consequence”.
The President was not content with making this point in court. In another View from the President’s Chambers, he set out the need for a cultural change in the family courts. He identified several areas where change is required, but said that his real concern was the “slapdash, lackadaisical and on occasions almost contumelious attitude which still far too frequently characterises the response to orders made by family courts”. From now on, he said, family courts will demand strict compliance with all orders.