From time to time reports of ‘old’ cases appear on the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, better known as ‘Bailii’. I’ve just come across a group of such reports, all family County Court decisions dating from March and April 2014. As one might expect, most of the decisions relate to care proceedings. However, one private law report caught my eye.
There is nothing remotely special about the judgment in H-R (Children), handed down by Her Honour Judge Newton in the Manchester County Court on the 11th of April. However, it is sometimes useful to mention a ‘routine’ decision of a court, as it illustrates just how the courts operate on a day to day basis. This case, for example, provides a reminder of what a party to family proceedings can expect if they choose to disobey the orders of the court to make their children available for contact – a scenario that is all too common.
The case concerned two children, born in 2005 and 2007. We are not told when the parents separated, but the father applied for contact in April 2011. Eventually, on the 3rd of April 2013, the court made an order for direct contact between the children and their father each Sunday from 11 am until 2 pm. That contact took place on a couple of occasions, but quickly broke down and as soon as the 20th of May the father was taking enforcement proceedings.
A hearing was fixed for the 1st of July, but the mother did not attend and the hearing was therefore adjourned. The mother did attend a hearing on 5th of August, when it was agreed that the contact arrangements be altered so that contact occurred between 6 pm on Friday and 5 pm on Saturday. A final hearing was listed for November 2013.
However, before that hearing could take place the contact arrangements broke down again and the matter went back before the court on the 23rd of September. Once again the mother did not attend, and the hearing was adjourned. Nor did she attend the adjourned hearing on the 11th of October, or a further hearing on the 22nd of November. The case was then transferred to the Circuit bench, where it went before Mr Recorder Murray on the 23rd of January 2014. Yet again the mother did not attend. The recorder made a fresh order for direct contact each Saturday between 4 pm and 7 pm, commencing on the 1st of February 2014.
It should be pointed out that on each of the occasions that the mother failed to attend court there had been appropriate directions for her to attend, usually supported by a penal notice, and that the relevant orders were personally served upon her. There were also repeated applications for enforcement of the contact orders.
Judge Newton sets out what followed next:
“Unsurprisingly, contact did not take place in accordance with the order of the learned recorder. On 4th February 2014 the father in desperation issued an application for the mother’s committal to prison and the mother was served with that application on 6th February 2014.”
The mother did attend the next hearing on the 7th of March. However, she left the court before the matter could be heard. In her absence the court made a 21 day committal order, suspended on the terms that from the 15th of March the mother took the children each Saturday at 4 pm to a particular location and hand them over to their father, returning there at 7 pm the same day to collect them from him. The mother was duly served with this order.
The contact did not take place. A committal hearing took place before Judge Newton on the 4th of April. Again the mother did not attend. Judge Newton was concerned that there was no formal evidence of the alleged breaches of the order and therefore adjourned the committal application until the 11th of April, again requiring the mother to comply with the arrangements for contact between 4 pm and 7 pm each Saturday.
The mother did not attend on the 11th of April. Satisfied that she had been properly served with the relevant orders and that she had failed to comply with them, in particular the terms of the contact order made in connection with the committal order, Judge Newton made an order for the mother’s immediate committal to prison for the period of 21 days.
Despite her clear disrespect for the court in disobeying orders and failing to attend hearings, the mother was given every chance by the court to mend her ways (some may say too many chances). Courts do not want to commit parents to prison, particularly the parent caring for the children. As Judge Newton said:
“It is always a grave step to deprive the mother of two young children of her liberty. Realistically, however, the only alternative is for this court to acquiesce in the mother’s blatant disregard for the orders of this court and to accept that notwithstanding that previous judges have concluded that contact between the children and their father accords with their welfare interests, the prospect of such contact occurring must be abandoned.”
In other words, the court was left with no choice but to commit the mother to prison. A salutary reminder to anyone tempted to ignore the will of the court, and also of the lengths that courts are prepared to go to ensure that children have contact with their parents.
The full report in H-R (Children) can be found here.