In recent years the family courts have been subjected to an almost continuous stream of criticism, in particular from the media and fathers’ rights groups. Some of the criticism is fair, most of it is not. However, one thing must always be borne in mind before criticising the decisions of family judges: they do, of course, have to deal with some of the most difficult issues imaginable.
Take, for example, the recent case of Y (A Child: Private Law: Fact Finding).
The case concerned a child, Y, now one year and eight months old. Her parents had had a “tempestuous” relationship, involving violence and drug and alcohol abuse. They separated when Y was only four months old. Her father then applied for a contact order.
The case came before Mrs Justice Pauffley in the High Court for a ‘fact finding’ hearing, in which she would make decisions regarding various matters in dispute between the parties, before the case proceeded. Such hearings are comparatively unusual in private law children matters, but Mrs Justice Pauffley said that it was “altogether necessary in the quite extraordinary circumstances of this case”.
Those circumstances included an allegation by the mother that the father had sexually abused Y (repeated by the mother to about 100 individuals on Facebook); a test on a sample of Y’s hair proving positive for cannabis; and various injuries found on the child. Mrs Justice Pauffley had to investigate these matters and, if possible, determine the truth of the mother’s allegation of abuse, and also look at how Y had ingested cannabis and how her injuries had been caused.
Having considered the mother’s allegation that the father had sexually abused Y, Mrs Justice Pauffley found that there was no evidence to support the allegation. Further, she was convinced that the father had done nothing of a sexual kind and had to be exonerated. The mother, she said, had seemingly invented the allegation “for her own malicious purposes”.
As to Y ingesting cannabis, Mrs Justice Pauffley was not able to make any findings as to how and to what level Y had been exposed to the drug. She did, however, record that the mother had a long history of drug taking. Further, she was highly critical of the mother for shaving Y’s head the day after she learned that Y had tested positive for cannabis.
Lastly, Y had recently suffered various injuries: a swollen eye, burns on one hand and bruises on her face, all within an 18 day period when Y was in her mother’s care. Mrs Justice Pauffley found them to be unexplained, but did comment “that Y was quite extraordinarily unlucky to suffer three within so short a timeframe”.
Mrs Justice Pauffley concluded with some comments about the father’s contact with Y. She said:
“I have no doubt at all that, left to her own devices, the mother would be preventing Y from having a relationship of any kind with her father. Her feelings of hostility towards him and what she believes he has done are extraordinarily intense. There is nothing seemingly about which she feels more passionately.
“Seldom do I see such strength of feeling even in the most bitter of private law disputes.”
So, next time you pick up your pen or reach for your keyboard to criticise a family judge, stop and consider just how hard a job they have to do.