Or: What chance is there for those who don’t have the resources?
I generally find myself defending the family justice system in my posts on this blog. The system is constantly under attack, very often from those who either don’t understand it or don’t want to understand it. I therefore feel the need to defend it, and those who work within it. However, I have never said that the system is perfect. Sometimes things go wrong, and when they do they should of course be pointed out.
But what if you are the person who the system has failed? You find yourself fighting against this huge juggernaut of governmental organisations, lawyers, courts and judges. What do you need to take on the juggernaut and right the wrongs that you believe have been committed against you?
Well the obvious answer is a good lawyer to fight your case. They will advise you whether you have been wronged by the system, explain what steps you need to take to right the wrong, and help you in taking those steps, or even take the steps for you. The system will listen to your lawyer, even if it will not listen to you. Having a good lawyer is not an absolute guarantee that the wrong will be righted, but at least it levels the playing field somewhat.
The problem, of course, is that not everyone can afford a lawyer, and these days the chances are that legal aid will not be available to pay the lawyer’s fees for you. What, then, do you need to take on the system?
The recent case Re ABC (A child) gives an answer. The case concerned the making of a special guardianship order in favour of a grandmother in relation to her grandchild. At the final hearing of the case the grandmother, a litigant in person, expressed profound dissatisfaction about the way in which she had been assessed and treated by the Local Authority during the proceedings, and indicated that she wished to make her story known to others, by publishing an anonymised statement setting out her experiences.
The judgment deals with the issue of whether or not the Local Authority should be named in the statement. I won’t go into that here, save to say that the judge held that they could be named. Instead, what I want to mention here is what happened to the grandmother, and what it took for her to deal with it.
The grandmother’s statement is annexed to the end of the judgment. In it, she says:
“It has seemed that the local authority is unused to being questioned or called to account for their conduct, decisions or even their misinformation. Emails are frequently not acknowledged, questions not answered most of the time. When false information or advice is given it leads to a great deal of anxiety and sometimes extra costs. This has happened throughout this process. Yet no one takes responsibility for their actions. It struck me that social workers are unused to the clients they work with demanding to be treated with respect, honesty and efficiency. There is a reliance on procedure without examining the particulars of a situation.”
She goes on to explain how the Local Authority initially formed a positive assessment of her being her grandchild’s special guardian. However, that assessment subsequently changed, essentially because she didn’t quite fit in with the Local Authority’s narrow view of what was required of a special guardian. There were also other issues, the details of which I will not go into here. In the end, as indicated above, the court found that she was indeed a suitable person to be the child’s special guardian, and therefore the result was that the child remained within the family, rather than faced the alternative of adoption.
So what was required of the grandmother to achieve this result? Well, there are several clues, both with the judgment and the grandmother’s statement. Firstly, the judge describes her as “an intelligent and courteous woman”. Secondly, a ‘contextual statement’ drafted by the parties says that she is “a capable and educated grandmother”.
Thirdly, the grandmother herself explains in her statement that she did obtain some legal advice, but says:
“I have wondered how this would have ended if I had been a less vocal, expressive or determined person. I am under no doubt that this baby may have been adopted, that others may be, because many people who find themselves in this position do not have the personal resources to cope effectively.”
So, that is the question: how would this have turned out for someone without a lawyer and without the personal qualities of the grandmother? I suspect that she is quite right that it would have ended very differently.
You can read the full report of Re ABC here.