A week in family law: A new Supreme Court President, an appeal and a disturbing story

Family Law | 2 Aug 2019 2

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The summer vacation is now in full swing, and the number of family law-related news items has shrunk accordingly. In fact, it could be said that none of the three items I have selected here for your delectation is strictly, or at least specifically, family law-related. I believe, however, that they will still be of interest.

Firstly, Lord Reed has been appointed to be the next President of the Supreme Court, succeeding Baroness Hale. He will take up the position on the 11th of January 2020, when Lady Hale retires (she will be sorely missed, although I suspect that that will not be the last we hear from her). Lord Reed was appointed as a justice of the Supreme Court in February 2012, and has served as Deputy President since June 2018. Prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court he served as a judge in Scotland, sitting from 1998 to 2008 in the Outer House of the Court of Session, where he was the Principal Commercial and Companies Judge, and from 2008 to 2012 in the Inner House. Following the announcement of his appointment, Lord Reed said: “It is a great honour to succeed Lady Hale as President of the Supreme Court. In this year when we are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Court, I reflect on the achievements of the distinguished Presidents who have come before me. I am privileged to follow them in working with my colleagues to maintain the fundamental role which the Supreme Court plays in the law of our country.” By my understanding, and as things presently stand, I think Lord Reed will be required to retire when he reaches the age of 70. He will be 63 when he takes office, so his tenure could be seven years, rather longer than any of the three previous holders of that high office.

Secondly, as I reported here yesterday, Lady Hale has made an appeal on the BBC’s Radio 4 Appeal programme, seeking donations for the Personal Support Unit, a charity that provides support for unrepresented litigants. The charity, of which Lady Hale is a patron, seeks to reduce the disadvantage of people facing the civil and family justice system without a lawyer, by providing them with the support of a volunteer. The charity has about 700 volunteers operating from 23 courts in 18 different cities across England and Wales, and are the only organisation providing such a service. Lady Hale told listeners: “I know how intimidating the civil and family courts can be for people without legal knowledge or help”, and she went on: “Everyone deserves access to justice whether or not they can afford a lawyer.” She also told the story of a woman helped by the charity after becoming involved in a family court case with her abusive ex-husband. As I said in my post, it is a sad sign of the times that the abolition of legal aid has meant that the highest judge in the land must now go cap in hand for donations to a charity to support litigants, who used to have the benefit of full legal representation.

And thirdly, a very disturbing story emerged this week that may technically be a criminal rather than a family matter, but it certainly concerns us all. A woman has had to go into hiding after her violent former partner was released from prison after serving just six months for an extremely serious assault upon her. The report of the story tells us that: “Abigail Blake sustained a broken back and neck and was left permanently disabled after being attacked by Sebastian Swamy at their home in July 2017. The judge in the case said the attack had had a “hugely serious and catastrophic” effect on Blake’s life.” Swamy was apparently initially charged with causing grievous bodily harm with intent, but he admitted a lesser charge of grievous bodily harm, saying that he had been drinking heavily on the night of the attack (as if that should be any excuse). Ms Blake said that she was advised to accept the plea bargain, believing that Swamy would spend a minimum of 20 months of a three-year sentence in prison. However, she has since learned that the time Swamy spent on bail wearing an electronic tag was taken into account for his custodial sentence. Fearing for the safety of herself and her two children, Ms Blake has felt it necessary to go into hiding. Now, whether this was a criminal or a family matter, the ultimate protection for a victim of serious domestic violence involves the perpetrator being sent to prison. Only when they are in prison is the victim fully protected against further assaults directly by the perpetrator. When the perpetrator is out in the community, there is no form of complete protection that the system can provide for the victim. Obviously, I’m not saying that prison sentences should be indefinite, but they should be long enough to provide a minimum assurance of safety to the victim. I don’t know exactly what happened in this case, but clearly the victim should have been fully aware of the effect of accepting the plea bargain.

Have a good weekend.

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.

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    1. Jane says:

      Dear John, I write on behalf of my daughter who has just today received an order from the designated Judge at Norwich court after a hearing on 1 August 19 which went badly wrong from the outset. Our daughter’s ex abducted her twin boys April 19 and he was employed by RAF and they lived at Marham. Our daughter met the ex in Staffs where he was working, this is our daughter’s home town. She got pregnant and they moved to RAF Marham. She has fought in the family courts at Norwich for two years and never succeeded getting the twins back because the ex accused her of alcohol and mental allegations which she disproved with hair strand and mental assessment. Our daughter had contact with her twins the last two years travelling from Staffs to Kings Lynn for 6 hrs a month, never any issue. On 16 march 19 the boys disclosed being interfered with by ex’ next door neighbour/babysitter. Our daughter told contact centre but the police/social services have reported that we coerced the twins to say what they did. These concerns had been going on for months and were not something that happened in just that day. They twins are only 4 and have been trying to tell their mother for a long time about their plight. When our daughter went into court the Judge refused to look at her evidence and tried to say she had a SW report. We know a SW had visited the twins but we knew they would not speak out as the ex was still living next door to this perpetrator babysitter. Our daughter today had the order stating she has to pay £800 costs and will not even get supervised contact! We did the right thing reporting the abuse and we and the twins are persecuted. Where next! please help

      • Kate Nestor says:

        Sorry to hear of your situation. I have passed your details to our Client Care Team who will out you in touch with a lawyer. Best wishes,

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