Spare a thought for the judges

Family Law|June 24th 2014

It sounds like some sort of puzzle or competition: What is the connection between the cases Re Z (Children) and London Borough of Waltham Forest v AD?

Unfortunately, it is not a puzzle or a competition.

I have written here previously about the many difficult and appalling circumstances that our family courts have to deal with, on a daily basis. Two cases in point were reported in quick succession on Bailii last week. I don’t propose here to discuss the cases in detail, rather to look at their striking similarities.

The first case, Re Z, was dealt with by the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby. It involved care proceedings relating to ‘some young children’. The judgment concerned the issue of whether or not a man is the father of the children as he asserts, despite the fact that he refused to submit to DNA testing (he seemed to think that such testing was not necessary, as he believed he was the children’s father, and they believed he was their father).

What set Re Z apart, however, was that the question of paternity arose in “the most appalling circumstances”. The father had murdered the children’s mother, and is serving a sentence of life imprisonment. The question of paternity needs to be resolved in order to consider what role the father’s wider family should have in the children’s lives.

There was evidence that after attacking the mother the father had cut his wrists. Some of the blood samples taken at the scene did not belong to the mother. The children’s guardian therefore sought an order, supported by the local authority, that copies of the DNA profiles from the blood be provided to the local authority so that they could be used to determine paternity. The President found in favour of the guardian.

The Waltham Forest case involved an application by a local authority for a reporting restriction order concerning a three year old girl who is presently in foster care. Nothing particularly unusual about that, you might think. However, the similarity to Re Z becomes clear when we find out why the child is in foster care: she was placed there after she witnessed the murder of her mother, who died from multiple stab wounds. Her father is currently standing trial for the murder at the Central Criminal Court.

Once again, I’m not going to go into the details of the Waltham Forest case, Suffice to say that Mr Justice Keehan was not satisfied that there was sufficient evidence of harm coming to, or being caused to, the child either now or in the future years by her being named in any reporting of the trial of her father. He therefore refused the application for the reporting restriction order.

Two cases, two very different points of law, but two strikingly similar sets of circumstances for the judges concerned to deal with.

Our family court judges are under constant attack by certain sections of society and the media, who allege everything from bias to corruption, to being involved in some sort of national conspiracy to remove children from their parents. Very rarely is this attack balanced by any appreciation of the work that the judges (and all others involved in the family justice system) do.

The most important people in cases such as these are, of course, the children. However, I for one would not want to be responsible for deciding how best to repair their broken lives, so I think we should spare a thought for the thankless task that the judges take on when adjudicating such cases.

Photo by quinn.anya via Flickr

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Comments(2)

  1. Paul Apreda says:

    I agree with John. Judges do have a tough time of things and need all the help and support available. In giving evidence to the H of C Justice committee I was asked by Elfyn Llwyd MP whether I though Judges had been getting it wrong for the past 30 years. I replied that I didnt think they had, as we had seen that when Judges become involved in Family cases in Wales they often brought clarity and swifter resolution than magistrates (who hear 60% of Private law cases in Wales).
    More worryingly however I spoke recently with a senior Family Court judge in Wales who said ‘I know that people come to my Court every day of the week and tell me a pack of lies – but what can I do about it!?’ That i believe is the heart of the problem. As long as litigants – and their advisers – can make statements to courts knowing them to be false with impunity the Family Justice system can not be regarded as being ‘Just’ .

  2. Luke says:

    Seriously – a thankless task ! Given the average salary of a Judge in England and Wales ?
    Or is this a spoof ?
    .
    Allow me to play the smallest violin possible in sympathy 🙂
    .
    I think part of the problem is that sections of the legal profession are now so out of touch with how the average man and woman has to live that they are actually serious with articles like this…

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