We call it the ‘family justice system’. The third of those words is important: it is a complete system, designed to dispense family justice. That means that it provides everything required to thoroughly investigate matters relating to family justice, including procedures to review decisions and to ensure that, subject to any such review, those decisions are final.
Now, like any system it is not perfect. Mistakes can be made. We all know that. A good system cannot prevent all mistakes, but it can ensure that they are kept to a minimum, and that most mistakes are rectified. I know there are some who will disagree, but I think that the majority of those who know about our family justice system believe that, whilst it may have its flaws, it is essentially a good system.
Even if the system isn’t perfect, though, the important thing is that it is the system that applies to all who use it. Everyone going to family law knows what awaits them: how the system will endeavour to resolve their dispute. Litigants may not be equal in terms of access to legal representation, but they are all subject to the same set of rules that governs the system. That is how it is, and that is how it should be.
There are some, however, who beg to differ. The system is not for them, so they seek to circumvent it by some means. There are various methods that they resort to. Perhaps the most common is appealing to the media, in the hope that a media outcry will influence the courts. A similar one is the use of social media, attempting to drum up a public outcry that will reach the ears of our judges.
Over the weekend I came across another example, again taking advantage of modern information technology: the online petition. This particular example related to the Samantha Baldwin case, in which the mother of two boys ran away with them when it became clear to her that the court had found her allegations that the boys’ father had sexually abused them to be unproven. Those allegations had been thoroughly tested by the court over a twelve day hearing and found by the judge to be false.
Now, it is of course still possible that the judge could be wrong. However, there is a remedy for that built into the system: the right of appeal. Whether Ms Baldwin will exercise that right I do not know. However, a few misguided souls have decided that the appeal system can be circumvented, by the use of an online petition. The petition, at one of the well-known online petition sites, calls upon the Attorney General and the Home Secretary “to swiftly intervene in the case of Samantha Baldwin to protect her young sons … by ensuring that a full and thorough investigation is undertaken by an independent police force into the credible and corroborated allegations of child sexual abuse made against Samantha’s ex-husband”. The petitioners also “urge the President of the Family Division of the High Court of England and Wales, the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Munby, to ensure that full legal custody of the boys is immediately returned to Samantha and to assign a new, unbiased judge to her case”. “These actions”, they say, “are necessary in the interests of justice and the protection of children, as well as the protection of Samantha and her boys.” At the time of writing this post the petition has attracted 2,425 supporters.
They are deluded. The system will not, and cannot, be circumvented in this way.
Now, I have no doubt that Ms Baldwin feels terribly aggrieved at the judge’s decision. The judge himself said that she genuinely believed that her allegations were true, despite that belief being irrational and the evidence of abuse being unreliable. She may well think that the judge was biased. But none of that gives her, or her supporters, the right to circumvent the system, and nor should it give her such a special privilege. The system provides her with a course of action if she is aggrieved at the decision, and that is to lodge an appeal. The system will even allow her to produce any fresh evidence she may have to the appeal court, in certain circumstances.
The use of some external ‘force’, such as the media or the public, to influence the outcome of a case is nothing short of an attempt at mob rule. A petition can have as many supporters as it wishes, but that does not mean they are all right. They have not seen all of the evidence, and even if they had they are not trained to properly evaluate it. Remember, there is another side to this story: the father’s side. He is equally entitled to a fair hearing, and that was provided to him by the family justice system. To deny him that by mob rule would be equivalent to a public lynching.
Photo by Toms Baugis via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.