I wrote here only recently about the perils of not engaging with the court, a phenomenon that sadly arises with considerable frequency in family law proceedings. In fact, only a day after that post was published I came across another case that illustrates all too clearly just how disastrous such a course of action can be.
The case, O (A Child: Fact Finding Hearing – Parents Refusing to Participate), involved public law child care proceedings, but one can easily envisage a parent in a private law case about arrangements for a child taking a similar stance to the parents in this case. In fact, I have come across many such cases over the years.
I suppose that there are people who refuse to recognise the authority of the court in all areas of law, but it does seem more prevalent in the field of family law. Perhaps it is the way that family law seems to interfere with the very way in which private lives are led. Many people have very strong views about how they should lead their lives, and take exception to the courts telling them what to do. This is particularly so where one of the parties is dominant within the family, and used to getting their own way.
That appears to have been the scenario in this case. The judge, His Honour Judge Bellamy, noted that the family’s health visitor had found that the father presented “as a controlling and domineering partner”. She went on: “he was overpowering in saying what he thought, above [the mother’s] voice, interrupting her at times, to express himself. His verbal presentation was loud, that his opinion was right.”
The health visitor’s description of the father mirrored Judge Bellamy’s own experience of him in court. He said: “I formed the view that the decision that both parents should be unrepresented was a decision taken by the father and that it was a decision the mother has felt obliged to accept. Although she may understand that her interests would be better served by being legally represented, the father’s domination of her has meant that she has been unable to act in her own best interests.”
It is not necessary for the purposes of this post to go into the detail of the case. It related to a one-year-old child, who was found to have suffered serious injuries, as a result of which the care proceedings were instituted. This judgment concerns a fact-finding hearing to ascertain the cause of those injuries.
Sadly, as indicated above, the parents chose to be unrepresented for almost the entirety of the proceedings, despite free legal aid being available to them, and despite Judge Bellamy encouraging them to seek representation. Further, they did not attend court on a number of occasions, including at any point during the fact-finding hearing.
As Judge Bellamy stated, given that the parents genuinely desired that the child should be returned to their care, the way they approached the proceedings was “curious”. Again, I won’t go into details, but an example of the parents’ behaviour was that, whilst not engaging with the court, they chose instead to engage in public protests relating to the actions taken by the local authority, including one occasion when the mother was seen outside the council building holding a placard which read “The Derby City Council and Royal Derby Hospital tortured me and stole my baby for adoption”.
Judge Bellamy commented:
“The parents’ failure to engage defies all logic. The effect of their failure to engage could prove to be catastrophic for them and for the son whom they clearly love very much indeed.”
He concluded by finding that the child’s injuries were non-accidental, and were caused by either the mother or the father. He said:
“In making that finding I acknowledge that had the parents engaged with these proceedings, including giving evidence at this finding of fact hearing and had they taken advantage of their entitlement to specialist legal representation provided at no cost to themselves, the outcome of this hearing could conceivably have been different. However, the court can only arrive at its conclusions on the basis of the evidence before it.”
In the light of the parents’ behaviour, there was concern that the parents may publish the judgment, in a form that would identify the child. Judge Bellamy, therefore, made an injunction ordering them not to do so. Upon being informed of the injunction, the father stated that he still intended to publicise the judgment, and the mother agreed. The father also stated that he did not recognise the court’s jurisdiction, and welcomed the threat of imprisonment for breach of the injunction.
This case is another very serious warning to parents against being tempted not to engage with the court. As I indicated earlier, it applies equally to private law children proceedings. Just because things are not going the way you want them to go, or because you have heard that the law is biased, that does not mean that the courts do not have the best interests of your child at heart.
As Judge Bellamy said, failure to engage could be catastrophic, not just for you, but also for your child.