What price court security? by John Bolch

Family Law | 23 Jan 2014 7

Yesterday the President of the Family Division handed down his judgment in the contempt of court case Re Ramet.

The case concerned an attack by the father upon the mother and a court clerk at Southend County Court. The attack took place in the courtroom itself, in the course of long-running contact proceedings. The incident itself was not news – it had appeared in at least one national newspaper when it occurred last October, and I mentioned it myself here in one of my Friday Review posts.

I don’t propose to detail the President’s judgment yesterday. Instead, I wanted to say a few words about security in the family courts generally, something that has concerned me for many years.

Throughout my career I often noted with concern the almost total lack of security in family courts. Criminal courts would have some basic security, but family and other civil courts would have none at all save, in more recent times, for checks at the court entrance (although not even that takes place at all courts).

When one considers the level of feelings that family proceedings can give rise to, this is a considerable risk. The judge who dealt with Mr Ramet’s criminal charges arising from the incident said about this:

“In a criminal court it is entirely appropriate to be acting in a secure atmosphere. There is a dock. There is a considerable presence by way of security, if necessary … The family court cannot operate in that way. It is, of its very nature, less structured, somewhat less formal, and in cases where the emotional temperature is inevitably high. Parties are going to be in close proximity to each other. That increases the risk of matters such as that which occurred on this occasion happening. It also increases the responsibility of people involved in such proceedings to keep their emotions in trim, to act with appropriate dignity, not to lose their temper and the court will always act by way of deterrent sentences to ensure that……”

Is it good enough to rely upon the parties acting responsibly, and the deterrent of what will happen to them if they do not? This is all very well if the assault only involves the infliction of minor injuries, but what if the injuries are serious, or worse? Imposing a deterrent sentence then would be akin to shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted.

And if you think that the worst could never happen, think again. It may not yet have happened in this country, but in Austria in 2009 a “jilted” husband shot and killed a court employee when he failed to find the judge who granted his wife a divorce. OK, this incident may not have occurred in the courtroom (it happened elsewhere in the courthouse) and hopefully the man would have been picked up had there been security checks at the door, but it does illustrate just how high feelings can run in family matters, and that those feelings can drive parties to the most extreme of actions.

And it isn’t just the parties who are at risk. In December 2012 The Guardian ran a piece in which it reported that family judges across England were saying that they feared being attacked by angry or disturbed parents because security in court is often dangerously inadequate. The piece mentioned a number of incidents, including one in which a female judge was seriously injured by an aggrieved parent in the courtroom. Another piece on the same subject in The Guardian in February last year stated that official records revealed some 26 incidents in the previous twelve months.

I know that court security costs money, and that money is in short supply these days, but are we simply going to continue ‘on a wing and a prayer’, until such time as there is a fatality in one of our family courts. What price security?

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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    1. Tristan says:

      I’m not surprised the author doesn’t comment on the case. The father’s treatment by the courts was itself inexcusable. That is an accurate description of the actions of judges in allowing a contact dispute to drift on for ten years. Munby recognised that at least.

      The head of family division needs to focus his considerable abilities in getting his family courts to start awarding applicant fathers far higher levels of access to their children. A contact case that has been running from 2003 is a disgrace and that’s because awards of contact are not made swiftly and definitively. At present fathers are perfectly justified in walking away from their children and sticking two fingers up to everyone. Standard court awards of access ought to provide fathers to look after their children a minimum of four night in fourteen with additional time if they can fit it in, like doing a school run. School holiday time should be weighted in favour of time spent with dad. It is impossible for alienation reaction to kick in with that degree of access to one’s child.

      The term “quality time” should be banished from the lexicon of family law.

    2. JamesB says:

      I am very proud that we do not routinely have to arm the police force with Guns in this country. The more we have to rely on security then the more we have become a fascist state with a ruling elite.

      Given that the law should be the will of the people and serving the people then the answer to this is probably to make people feel that the law and society is for them, and not, as so many who go to family court feel, that the law is not their law.

    3. JamesB says:

      Family law in this country is at risk of losing the consent of the people it is supposing to represent.

    4. Pete says:

      Solicitors should remember that everyone has their breaking point whether it be in a violent way or with a breakdown of some kind. . Solicitors should take some responsibility for what goes on, If it’s not bad enough losing your kids, people also lose their house, savings and pension with a solicitor who’s on £200 plus an hour telling you one thing then doing something else when you get to court it all adds fuel to the fire. You would think a good solicitor would get to know their client so that when things start to get heated they could call a break in order to let things calm down. Its a biased unfair system that will not change as long as people in the legal profession are making so much money from other peoples misery.

    5. Andrew says:

      Pete, please stop making excuses for violence and hooliganism. The obligation to behave in court is absolute.

    6. Tristan says:

      However much you disapprove of the father’s behaviour, there were very strong mitigating circumstances, notably the despicable and cowardly treatment meted out to the father by the courts over the preceding ten years of his contact case. That’s enough to test anyone’s patience. If you keep provoking someone, in the end he breaks. Ten years was quite enough.

    7. Anonymous says:

      I don’t think anybody is making excuses. They are simply commenting on something. Family law consistently treats fathers in an ‘inhuman and degrading way’, though the politics of the ECHR is such that a blind eye is turned to this all the time. Unfortunately it’s just a fact that violence is usually the result of suffering violence, whether it’s in court or in war. Courts can choose to operate independently of the state and make things fairer, or they can continue to be run by a mob of hooligans in wigs and black cloaks.

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