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A judgment written to be understood by non-lawyers

Family court proceedings of virtually any type are capable of being bewildering to the parties involved. When those proceedings concern the possibility of the state removing your child from your care, then the level of bewilderment must go through the roof. In such situations it is surely essential that the court makes every effort to ensure that the parties understand what they have decided, and why.

We have seen here before at least one example of a judge endeavouring to make his decision understandable. In a case last July Mr Justice Peter Jackson (as he then was) took the unusual step of putting his judgment into the form of a letter to the child involved, in an effort to make the child understand why he had come to the decision that he had.

The other day I came across another example, this time in a care case. Giving her decision in Jack (A Child : care and placement orders) Deputy District Judge Reed took great pains to couch the judgment in terms that, hopefully, the parents could understand.

As DDJ Reed explained at the end of the judgment, junior judges don’t usually publish their judgments, but I think we can all be grateful that this judgment was published, even if the case itself is not particularly noteworthy from a purely legal point of view. In fact, it seems a pretty classic and sad care case, involving the youngest of three siblings, ‘Jack’, who is not yet a year old, and who has been in foster care since he was born. Jack’s older brothers are living with their grandparents, one under the auspices of a special guardianship order made following social services concerns regarding how that child was being cared for, and the conditions at the parents’ home.

We are told that Jack’s father “has ADHD, depression and a mild learning disability which all make things difficult for him”, and that he finds reading difficult, which perhaps explains why the judgment is written as it is.

I don’t need to go into the details of the case for the purpose of this post. Suffice to say that DDJ Reed found that if Jack went to live with his parents his needs would not be met and he would not be safe. Accordingly, she made a care order, and an order that Jack be placed for adoption.

So how successful was the judgment in making the decision understandable by the parents (and, indeed, any non-lawyers)? Well, in my view, probably about as successful as possible in such a case. Subject to what I say below, the wording is generally accessible, the headings, mostly written in simple language, make it very easy to see what is being discussed, and the short paragraphs are excellent.

But still the exercise in making the judgment understandable is not entirely successful. That, however, is not in any way a criticism of DDJ Reed’s highly praiseworthy efforts, but simply because making a judgment in a care case intelligible to all is a virtually impossible task. Inevitably, for example, the judgment uses legal terms, such as ‘threshold document’, ‘welfare checklist’ and ‘placement order’. Whilst each of those terms is initially explained, I suspect that the lay reader may have difficulty recalling the explanations each time they subsequently come across them. But there really isn’t any way of setting out a judgment in a care case without referring to such terms.

And what about the parents? Well, whilst I’m sure they won’t think it, they have been lucky that their case was dealt with by a judge who took such care to explain to them why she came to the decision that she did, even if that decision was obviously not the one they wanted her to make. In fact, it is obviously even more important that ‘adverse’ decisions are understood by parties.

And then there are the children. DDJ Reed makes the point in her judgment that it is important that her decision is explained to Jack as he gets older, particularly as he is the only one of the three siblings to be adopted, and he may feel that he has done something wrong. This judgment will obviously make it easier to explain the decision to Jack.

I first came across the judgment on Twitter, where it quite rightly received pretty well universal praise from the lawyers who were discussing it. Hopefully, it will be a model for similar judgments in other family cases.

You can read the full judgment here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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