Most law reports that one reads concern cases dealing with familiar situations: financial settlements on divorce, disputes between parents over arrangements for their children, local authorities seeking care orders and so on. Occasionally, however, one comes across a case that is quite different from the rest, if not entirely unique.
Such it was when I came across the recently-reported case T (Children), decided by the Family Court in Preston on the 13th of August. What made this case different was that it involved an application by a sixteen year old girl against her parents for contact with her brothers and sisters. I suspect that there have been such ‘sibling contact’ applications before, but I can’t recall one.
How can one child be in a position to seek a contact order with their siblings? Well, there are probably quite a number of possible scenarios, but the facts here were as follows.
As mentioned, the case concerned a sixteen year old girl, known as ‘St’. St has no fewer than six siblings, with another on the way – her mother is expecting an eighth child. In February 2012 St made an allegation, which is said to be unsubstantiated, of assault against her mother. After that, St’s behaviour escalated to be extremely troubling and to incorporate dramatic incidents of self-harm. In June 2012, after one of those incidents and an admission to a local hospital, St was given accommodation by the Local Authority. She was also subsequently detained under the Mental Health Act for treatment.
St’s parents delegated their exercise of parental responsibility for her to the Local Authority. They had no contact with her and made no arrangements for her to see her brothers and sisters. St became concerned about seeing them, and therefore made the contact application, in respect of her five younger siblings in September 2013. It was assumed that her older sister was of an age where it would not be appropriate to make an application.
Pausing there I should point out, as indeed did the judge Her Honour Judge Singleton QC at the beginning of her judgment, that since the application was made, contact (and residence) orders have, of course, been replaced by ‘child arrangement orders’, under section 12 of the Children and Families Act 2014. Accordingly, what St is seeking is a child arrangements order permitting her to see her brothers and sisters.
Now, I don’t want to go into the details of the proceedings that followed St’s application, but obviously there was much consideration of St’s own position, both from a mental health point of view and from the point of view of the duties of the local authority towards her. Indeed, those issues are what the judge was primarily concerned with in her judgment, and the reason that the judgment was published.
As to the issue of St’s contact with her siblings, it seems that this is now being arranged, with the assistance of the various professionals involved in the case. The contact “is still a work in progress at its early days” and St’s application is ongoing. I wish her and her siblings well.
I have written here previously about the diversity of problems facing family court judges. T (Children) is another example of that diversity, albeit dealing with unusual circumstances. It is also a reminder of the difficult situations that those involved in the family justice system have to deal with on a daily basis.