curious puzzle has arisen following my piece a fortnight ago headed, “Why don’t the family courts obey the law?” I quoted a trenchant recent judgment in which Lord Justice Munby, the head of the family courts, went out of his way to emphasise that “one of the oldest principles of our law” is that “no one is to be condemned unheard” – and that “any parents faced with the removal of their child must be entitled to make their case to the court”, and to challenge any evidence brought against them.
I then contrasted this with a case last year in which two parents arrived for a final hearing armed with a pile of evidence they wished to produce to support their case that their two young sons had been wrongly removed from them. (This included photographic evidence to show extensive injuries exhibited by their sons while in care, which were much worse than the single bruise used to justify their removal in the first place.)
According to the parents, they were astonished to be told by their lawyers that they could not come into the courtroom (as had happened on three previous occasions). And even more so when the lawyers emerged half an hour later from a private meeting with the judge to say that the case had gone against them and that their boys were to be sent for adoption. The judgment was apparently issued later that day, but the parents were not allowed to see it, and were told there were no grounds for any appeal.
I found all this surprising, not least because the judge in question, Judge Gareth Jones, has shown himself ready to be highly critical of social workers whom he finds to have acted improperly. When I argued that the case seemed to contradict what Munby called “one of the oldest principles of our law”, my article provoked some discussion on legal blogs. Then, 10 months after it was given, the judgment suddenly appeared on the Bailii website (EWFC/OJ/2014/B201). In a key paragraph, Judge Jones referred to “Miss Erwood”, representing the mother, and stated “the mother has been present during the course of today but she, like the father, has decided not to remain in this courtroom this afternoon for the purposes of this judgment”.
But the mother, an intelligent woman who is studying for a degree, is adamant that she and the father had not been allowed into the courtroom at all during that day. They had been told to wait in another room until the lawyers emerged to say that the judge had found against them. I gather on unimpeachable authority that the judge was “told” that the parents had “voluntarily left the court”, and that it was certainly not his decision that they be excluded from his courtroom.
On Thursday, I asked Miss Erwood’s chambers to confirm the circumstances whereby her client had been refused entry to the courtroom, but have had no reply. Three days after my last article, those parents were allowed to see their children for the last time. Although this is not the only occasion when I have come across parents being excluded from a family court, this particular case does appear to be such a conspicuous example of how Munby’s principles can be set aside that this matter should not be allowed to rest.
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