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 is a family law blogger