Today I want to talk about another case in which a party abuses the family justice system in pursuit of his own ends, but only succeeds in bringing disaster upon himself and his whole family. The case also, I think, illustrates once again the problems that can arise when a litigant doesn’t have the restraining influence of legal representation.
The case is AEY v AL (Family Proceedings: Civil Restraint Order), which concerned multiple applications for permission to appeal against various orders by the father of two girls. As one might guess from that case title, the matter did not go well for the father, who was representing himself. All of his applications were refused for being totally without merit, and an extended civil restraint order was made against him, preventing him from making any further applications to the court for the next two years, without first seeking permission to do so.
The matter was decided on the papers (i.e. without a hearing) by Mrs Justice Knowles in the High Court.
The first thing to note from her judgment comes in the second paragraph, when she says:
“I have read all the voluminous papers submitted by [the father] which filled two cardboard boxes, many of which had no bearing on any of the applications for permission to appeal.”
This, unfortunately, is typical of the actions of a litigant in person. OK, it is sadly true that often lawyers are guilty of bombarding the court with far more documentation than is required but, with no disrespect intended to this father, litigants in person often find it very difficult to know when to stop, perhaps believing that the more paperwork they file with the court, the stronger their case is likely to be. But there is the other point also: litigants in person very often do not understand what is relevant to the matter before the court and what is not. They therefore burden the judge with irrelevant material, which is obviously not the best way to get the judge on their side.
The second thing to note is the fifth paragraph of the judgment, in which Mrs Justice Knowles says:
“This is a sad, if not a tragic, case where the father has pursued litigation in relation to his daughters beyond reason and almost without restraint. His litigation conduct, as evidenced in these seven applications for permission to appeal, appears to be driven by a conviction that he alone is right and by a desire to punish the mother of his children. The dreadful allegations he made about her as well as about the judge who had to determine matters at first instance required a robust response from this appellate court.”
I’ll come back to this in a moment, but suffice to say two things here. Firstly, that the family justice system does not exist to serve as a conduit for vengeance against the other party, no matter how strongly you feel about their actions, and using it in such a way will inevitably be frowned upon by the court. Secondly (and this really should not need saying), making allegations against a judge, another all too common practice of litigants in person, is almost never going to go well.
For the purpose of this post I do not need to go into details of the proceedings or the various matters that the father was seeking to appeal against (you can read the full judgment here). Instead, I will skip to the penultimate paragraph of Mrs Justice Knowles’ judgment, in which she says:
“Throughout my perusal of these applications for permission to appeal, I have been struck by the father’s protestations that he merely seeks “justice” for himself and for his daughters. Whilst I have no doubt at all that he feels deeply about the breakdown of his family, his conduct in the children and family litigation has done him no favours and has eventually alienated him from his daughters, such that neither wishes to have any direct contact with him. The further pursuit of legal remedies to punish the mother and those he holds responsible for the breakdown of his family will not repair those relationships. The father would be well advised to focus in future on how he might positively play a role – however limited – in the lives of his daughters.”
And here is the real tragedy. It is of course not just a tragedy for a father now cut off from his children, but also for children now cut off from their father.
Once again there are lessons to be learned from all of this. In fact, the lessons are useful for all litigants in family proceedings, including those who have the benefit of legal representation. It is all too easy to get carried away with a sense that you alone are right, and that the litigation must be pursued relentlessly until you are vindicated. As we have seen, such a course will lead to nothing but disaster. Hard as it may be, you must take a step back, and see the inevitable consequences of your actions. And if you are lucky enough to have the benefit of good legal advice, make sure you heed it!