An eight year-old boy caught up in a bitter dispute between his parents is at significant risk of emotional harm, the Court of Appeal has confirmed.
In the Matter of Q (A Child) concerned ‘Q’, a boy born in September 2007. His parents separated just a few months later and litigation followed shortly afterwards. In a newly published ruling, Sir James Munby explained:
“[Litigation] has been going on ever since, driven by the father’s understandable desire to have a meaningful relationship with his son and prolonged by the seemingly insuperable difficulties in achieving that with more than fitful frequency.”
A chronology of subsequent litigation between the former couple “runs to some 30 pages”, he added. The mother is deeply hostile to contact between Q and his father, and unsurprisingly the boy has absorbed a similar attitude.
In August last year, the case returned to court, with the warring parents appearing before His Honour Judge Glen Brasse for the ninth time. Sir James noted that transcripts of the eight previous appearances ran to no less than 160 pages.
The ninth hearing followed a number of unsuccessful attempts to encourage therapeutic mediation and counselling for the parents. Therapy for Q was also discussed but this was deemed inappropriate while the parents’ legal conflict continued.
Q’s guardian submitted a statement in which she declared that she was “clear that this child is emotionally traumatised by the concept of contact and these proceedings have been going on for a considerable period of time.”
“The division between the parents is insurmountable and whichever parent Q lives with, the Guardian is not confident that anything will change.”
Judge Brasse was clear in his view of the family’s situation:
“…the conclusion that the court has come to on the basis of having heard and read a huge amount of evidence over those years is this:
*the father is well disposed towards his son and has never done him any deliberate harm;
*the allegations against the father are manifestly false;
*the recent allegations made by the child against the father are so incoherent that it is difficult to formulate any single consistent charge against him;
*the evidence in my judgment is overwhelmingly in support of the view that this child has been influenced by the mother’s hostility towards the father. She has demonstrated by the presentation of her case over and over again that she is only willing to hear from this child what supports her view, and ignores those parts of his presentation which does not.”
He considered various options for Q’s future. These included ordering a fresh assessment of Q’s circumstances, under Section 37 of the Children Act 1989; ordering the mother to allow contact once more despite her insistence that it would cause harm; and to make no further legal order, dubbing the latter possibility “the counsel of despair”. There was another option, however: the involvement of the Violet Melchett Centre, a well-established organisation specialising in therapy for children who have been harmed by parental conflict.
Maintaining the status quo and making no further order would have the fewest immediate consequences for Q, said Judge Brasse, but the father argued that this “would leave Q with an entirely false view of his father as some kind of monster; that would do huge harm to Q in the long term, because Q as he grew older would reflect that part of his biological inheritance comes from a person who is that horrible.”
Therefore, Judge Brasse continued: “[h]e would have no sound or realistic understanding of his identity because he would be cut off from his father and his father’s family. With all that I agree.”
But, nevertheless, forcing a reluctant child into contact with his father would simply “aggravate” the harm the boy had already suffered the Judge believed.
He therefore opted to order the parents to cooperate in a referral to the Centre, “for an assessment of the psychiatric and emotional wellbeing of Q together with such treatment as required”.
The father appealed, arguing that Judge Brasse had not properly considered all the evidence available and that he also had been wrong to conclude the hearing without making a specific ruling regarding where the boy was to live and how much contact he was to have with the other parent.
But Sir James concluded that the decision made by Judge Brasse had been correct and in keeping with legal principles. He declared:
“…it is quite impossible for us to interfere with Judge Brasse’s decision. He was entitled to decide as he did and for the reasons he gave. Indeed, I would go further: I suspect that if I had been where he was I would have come to precisely the same conclusion.”
The President of the Family Division, however, concluded with a warning to the mother:
“I would not want the mother to think she has won. She has not. There are no winners here, only losers. Q is far and away the greatest loser – and that, in overwhelming measure, is because of his mother’s behaviour. I urge her again, as I urged her during the hearing, to reflect on Judge Brasse’s findings. They are an indictment of her parental failings hitherto.”
The ruling is available here.