April 6, 2011

Britain’s Family Justice system isn’t working

Filed under: Secret family courts — nojusticeforparents @ 6:26 pm

Britain’s Family Justice system isn’t working

By Alasdair Palmer Politics Last updated: April 6th, 2011

14 Comments Comment on this article

The Royal Courts of Justice (Photo: AFP/Getty)The Royal Courts of Justice (Photo: AFP/Getty)

It used to be said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. “Family justice”, as practised at the moment in Britain, has something of the savour of the Holy Roman Empire about it, because it has little to do with either justice or the family. Almost everyone involved with it recognises that it is not working properly, and that it does not do what it is supposed to do – which is to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, children’s interests are protected and families are preserved.

What “family justice” actually frequently involves is taking children away from their parents. It also has the consequence of ensuring that, in cases where parents divorce or separate and cannot reach an amicable agreement on how to share custody of their children, one parent never gets to see their child again.

The system of family justice is not protecting the family, still less protecting child welfare: on the contrary, it is undermining both.

It is inevitable that to protect children, it will sometimes be necessary, and right, to destroy families, because it will be necessary take them away from the homes into which they were born.

It is also true that on occasion, it may be better for a child if he or she no longer has contact with either his father or his mother.

But it cannot be right that half of all non-resident parents lose contact with their children within two years of leaving the family home; or that children are forcibly adopted, and taken away from their parents, on the basis of claims, not that those children have been harmed, but that theymight be harmed at some point in the future.

Those, however, are among the regular results of the family justice system – which indicates the degree to which it is malfunctioning.

The recognition that there are serious faults in the way family justice operates led to the setting up of the Family Justice Review. The body charged with reviewing family justice, and recommending the changes that would improve it, published its interim report last week.

It started in the right place: with the recognition that the system is not working, that it costs too much, that it involves too long delays,  that far too often, it does not promote or protect the interests of children, and that fundamental reform is needed.

Unfortunately, it did not recommend fundamental reform. Indeed, it did not tackle any of the core problems with the family justice system that lead it to delivering such unsatisfactory results.

The system is based on the sensible idea that the interests of the child are paramount – which of course they are. The central problem with it is that nowhere is any attempt made to define what those interests are in a way that can be used to guide court decisions, or anyone who attempts to intervene in order to protect the interests of children.

Some of those involved in family justice acknowledge the gravity of that problem, but respond by saying that “every case is different” and that it is “impossible to specify what the interests of the child are in a way that could guide judicial decisions in a principled fashion.”

That, however, is just not true. Consider the case of divorcing or separating parents and child custody. The Government insists, rightly, that it is in children’s  interests that, in the case where their parents separate, children continue to see both of their parents regularly: they should have a reasonable degree of contact with both their mother and father.

There is, however, no presumption of reasonable or meaningful contact with both parents in the legislation governing child custody disputes – so rulings that emerge from the family courts usually do not require it. That is why so many children lose contact with one of their parents when custody and visitation rights are disputed.

There are no plans to remedy that situation. The Interim Report from the Family Review does not recommend the introduction of a presumption of reasonable or meaningful contact with both parents.

Why not? The Report’s concern seems to be that if you grant a presumption of equal contact, you will be unable to stop violent or otherwise abusive parents from having contact with their offspring – which is clearly not in the interests of the child. But that is just a mistake. A presumption does not mean granting an indefeasible right. It means you start with the idea that both parents should have meaningful contact with their children. If one or both of those parents behaves in a manner which clearly damages the child, then the presumption is defeated – just as the presumption of a defendant’s innocence is defeated by the production by the prosecution of clear evidence that he is guilty of the crime with which he is charged. A presumption of contact with both parents does not mean that the courts cannot decide that contact should be terminated – any more than the presumption of innocence  means that it is impossible to convict anyone of a crime.

The Interim Report gets itself into a terrible tangle on the question of whether there should be a presumption in favour of contact with both parents. It recommends that there should be a “statement in legislation to reinforce the importance of the child continuing to have a meaningful relationship with both parents”; but it is also insists that “no legislation should be introduced that creates, or risks creating, the perception that there is an assumed parental right to substantially shared or equal time for both parents.”

The only way of reconciling those two statements is to say that the authors of the Interim Report believe contact with both parents is important for children – but not important enough to do anything that might achieve it.

It is instructive to compare Britain’s cumbersome, ineffective and expensive (it costs the state nearly £1 billion every year) court system for ruling on custody disputes with Norway’s. For 30 years, Norway has a very precise presumption of shared contact written in to its legislation: it involves the children seeing the non-resident parent one afternoon every week, every second weekend, every second Christmas and every second Easter, and two weeks during the summer holiday. Separating parents are free to agree on different amounts of contact if they choose. But if they can’t agree, the law stipulates very clearly what the judge should order – except, of course, in cases where there is clear evidence that continued contact with the non-resident parent would involve abuse or some other harm to the children.

Does it mean that Norwegian judges are forced to order contact orders to fathers who abuse their children? It does not.

There is no “contact dispute industry” in Norway. Court decisions are reached very swiftly, cheaply, and efficiently – and they almost always result in children continuing to have meaningful contact with both their parents, which is very obviously not the case in Britain.

Is there any reason at all why we could not adopt a similar system here? If there is, no one has produced it. Certainly, the interim report from the Family Review has not done so – all it has achieved is to ensure that the family courts continue to be mechanisms for producing one-parent families. No sensible person wants that result. But it looks as if we are going to be stuck with it.

We seem also certain to be stuck with a system that takes children from perfectly adequate families and puts them into care, with usually disastrous results, or forcibly adopts them to other families, often for utterly spurious reasons. It is more difficult to come up with a notion of  ‘children’s interests’ precise enough to  prevent, or at least diminish, such cases, but it is not impossible. Again, a presumption in favour of maintaining children in their natal families would help. That presumption should not be indefeasible, and it does not have to be: it merely needs to be strong enough to prevent care proceedings on the basis of possibleor  imagined harm, as opposed to real and actual harm.

The reform of the family justice system ought to be on of the Government’s most urgent priorities. At present, it is inflicting terrible harm on thousands of children, and thousands of parents, every year. But there is no sense of urgency in the interim report from the Family Justice Review. The Review is quite content for the system to continue operating in the way it had done: it only wants it to be more efficiently administered. But efficiently administered injustice is still injustice: it may be worse if your children are taken from you and forcibly adopted efficiently, and it may be worse for them. Inefficiency at least means delays and sometimes even that the system fails to produce any result at all — which may allow children to stay with the parents who they love and who love them rather than being taken from them.

So no one should welcome a more efficient family justice system if it means one that still operates on the same basis. Until the root cause of the system’s tendency to produce  injustice is tackled, nothing significant about it will improve.


The family justice system is callous, corrupt and staggeringly expensive

David Norgrove’s interim review of the family justice system only scratches the surface of what has become a national scandal, says Christopher Booker.

Torn apart: the system of child protection is a national scandal Photo: ALAMY
Christopher Booker

By Christopher Booker 7:30PM BST 02 Apr 2011213 Comments


A quick flip through last week’s interim review of our family justice system might suggest that all is not entirely well with our family courts. The “system is not working”. It needs “significant change”. “Children and families do not understand what is happening to them.” The time taken to resolve cases is “little more than scandalous”. “Some cases should not be in court at all.” “The costs are huge.” “These are symptoms of a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.”

But as I checked the report against what I have learnt about this horribly corrupted system, from the dozens of cases I have been following where children have been seized from their parents for no good reason, I had little sense that those responsible for this review have really begun to grasp just how bad the situation has become.

They rightly bemoan how the average time needed to resolve cases has risen from 12 weeks to 53, how the number of children in care has soared to 70,000, how the cost of this alone has risen to a staggering £3.4 billion a year (making foster care one of our bigger industries). But nowhere do they recognise that one reason is how often social workers make some horrendous initial mistake when they seize children, then spin out the case as they scrabble round for evidence to cover up their error.

Very occasionally, as in the instance of one mother I spoke to again at length last week, the victims come up against a judge with the independence of mind to challenge the dishonesty of the social workers who have driven the system off the rails. In this case, the social workers’ blunder was to seize the child after the mother had accidentally fallen out of a window. After alleging that this was a suicide attempt, then falsely accusing the mother of being a potential alcoholic and drug addict (all shown to be untrue), they have tried to cover up their blunder by spinning out the court case for well over a year, falsifying evidence, continuously asking for adjournments and stopping at nothing to part a devoted mother from her daughter.

Fortunately, the mother is very bright and has found one of those rare legal teams prepared to challenge the system. Best of all, she seems to have found a judge robust enough to see through the perversity and arrogance of all those who, at great public expense, are lined up on the other side, seemingly hell-bent on perpetuating a vicious travesty of justice.

I shall return to measuring this interim report against the reality of what goes on in our family protection system. Its authors may hint that all is far from well. But before their final report, it is to be hoped that they will look much more carefully into how and why the breakdown of this system is becoming a national scandal.

Child protection: MPs must act on the scandal of seized children

Britain’s child protection system is off the rails, and only the politicians who built it can fix it, says Christopher Booker

Torn apart: the system of child protection is a national scandal Photo: ALAMY
Christopher Booker

By Christopher Booker 7:00PM BST 30 Oct 2010394 Comments

Britain’s social workers took a beating again last week. On the orders of the children’s minister, Tim Loughton, full versions of two harrowing case reviews of the Baby P tragedy were published. They found fault not only with Haringey’s social workers but with lawyers, the police and health professionals, Under pressure from social workers, reviews of two similar cases in Yorkshire are still being kept under wraps. Meanwhile, an Ofsted report found that 119 children died or suffered serious injury last year through social workers’ failure to intervene.

Still largely hidden from view, however, is that other scandal, in its way just as disturbing, in which the failure of our child protection system is the very opposite: the seizure of thousands of children a year from loving homes, for no good reason.

In recent months, as I have followed dozens of these cases and been briefed on many more by such experts as John Hemming, the MP who runs the Justice for Families campaign, and Ian Josephs, the former councillor who has helped hundreds of families through his Forced Adoption website, a startlingly consistent picture has emerged. What follows is not based on exceptional cases but on the typical workings of a system which has gone horrifyingly off the rails.

For parents who fall foul of this system, often on no more evidence than malicious hearsay, the first shock is to find themselves treated like dangerous criminals. To seize children, social workers seem able to enlist the unquestioning support of the police, who arrive mob-handed, six or eight at a time, beating down doors, tearing babies from their mothers’ arms, holding parents in custody for up to 36 hours while their children are removed into foster care.

The parents must then wrestle with a Kafka-esque system rigged against them in every way. They find themselves in courts where every normal principle of British justice has been stood on its head. Social workers may give written evidence to a judge which the parents aren’t allowed to see. The most outrageous hearsay evidence may be accepted by the court without the parents even being allowed to cross-examine on it.

A key part is played by evidence from supposed “experts”, psychiatrists or paediatricians who may be paid up to £35,000 for their reports, and who receive regular work from the social workers involved. Parents are forbidden to call their own independent experts to challenge a case made against them. They are, all too often, pressured into being represented by lawyers who, again, work regularly for the council, who fail to put their case and who turn out to be just part of the same system.

Parents may be forbidden to testify on their own behalf, but must listen for hours, even days, to everyone else involved – including their own lawyers – putting what amounts to a case for the prosecution. The guardian appointed to represent the interests of the child may never have met the child and merely endorses whatever the social workers say.

Not surprisingly, these bizarre practices are so geared to the interests of a corrupted system that, in the latest year for which we have figures (2008), of 7,340 applications for care orders made by social workers, only 20 were refused.

Meanwhile, the children themselves are handed over to foster homes, which receive £400 a week or £20,000 a year for each child, and where many are intensely unhappy and not infrequently abused. Foster carers and social workers routinely conspire to tell bewildered children that their parents neither love them nor want them back. Children and parents meet at rigorously supervised “contact sessions”, where any expression of affection or attempt to discuss why the children have been taken from home may be punished by termination of the session or denial of further contact.

The purpose of all this, funded by hundreds of millions of pounds of public money, is partly to keep in being the vast fostering industry, run by dozens of agencies, often owned by ex-social workers, which also receive £20,000 a year for each child they place. Of course, there are many good and responsible foster parents, but statistics show that children in care do very much worse on almost every count, from health to performance in school, than children living with their birth parents.

Another purpose of the system is to ensure that as many children as possible are adopted (at a cost of £36,000 per placement), in accordance with Tony Blair’s personal commitment a decade ago that the target for adoptions in Britain should rise by 40 per cent. Councils are still receiving millions of pounds a year for meeting adoption targets.

Yet virtually none of this reaches the outside world because the system is hidden behind an almost impenetrable veil of secrecy. The nominal reason for this is to protect the identity and interests of the children, but secrecy has been so extended that its real aim is to protect the system itself and all those who do so well out of it.

Parents are forbidden to talk to the media or even to their MPs about the injustice they are suffering. Several times in recent months, councils have sought injunctions to prohibit me reporting anything at all about a case, even though no person or even the council itself would be identified. More than once, parents have been threatened with contempt of court and prison if they talk to me or anyone else about how they are being treated.

Very occasionally a judge or senior lawyer breaks ranks by speaking out against such abuse of state power, as when one Court of Appeal judge recently compared the conduct of a council’s social workers to what went on in “Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China”. But in general this cruel, dishonest and venal system continues on its way, hidden from view, accountable to nobody but itself.

The only people in a position to reform this system fundamentally are those who set it up in the first place under the 1989 Children Act – the politicians. But they have, with one or two shining exceptions – notably John Hemming – walked away from the Frankenstein’s monster that Parliament created. It is now up to them to support Mr Hemming and all those horribly maltreated families who are campaigning for one of the most out­rageous scandals in Britain today to be brought to an end.

Parents denied a voice in court against the child-snatchers

Lord Justice Thorpe was ‘aghast’ at the way children had been removed from their parents by a county court. But such outrages are an everyday procedure, says Christopher Booker

Lord Justice Thorpe

Lord Justice Thorpe in the Court of Appeal was ‘aghast’ at the way three children and been removed from their family Photo: PHOTOSHOT
Christopher Booker

By Christopher Booker 7:00PM GMT 05 Mar 2011144 Comments

In the Court of Appeal recently, Lord Justice Thorpe said he was “completely aghast” at a case where a Derby County Court judge had ordered three children to be removed from their parents. The only evidence was that of a doctor who “expressed the opinion” that bruising on one child’s ear looked as though it was caused by pinching. The hearing had lasted just 15 minutes and the parents had not been allowed to say a word. Thorpe observed: “There is nothing more serious than a removal hearing, because the parents are so prejudiced [against] in proceedings thereafter. Once you have lost a child, it is very difficult to get a child back.” He ruled that the children should be reunited with their parents.

For once, a senior judge has spoken out about a mockery of justice which is repeated week after week in courts across the land. I have now followed dozens of such cases, where children are seized from their parents by social workers on the flimsiest of evidence, and where the parents then find themselves in the clutches of a system rigged against them in every way. Often they are not allowed to speak while they hear judges apparently accepting extraordinary lies, or evidence given by supposed “experts” which cannot be questioned.

One of the most disturbing features of this system, which protects itself behind a wall of secrecy, is how far it goes to ensure that aggrieved parents are represented only by lawyers who are themselves accomplices of the system. Again and again parents are bemused to find that the lawyers they were advised to use seem unwilling to challenge the case being made against them, however spurious.

Of all the cases I have followed, none is more bizarre than that of a couple whose six children were snatched by social workers last year on evidence which seemed at best highly questionable and was at worst an absurd fiction. The mother was advised to use a solicitor, on legal aid, who she felt was so much on the other side that she discharged him. Just before Christmas, when the council’s case seemed to be falling apart, I tracked down one of the very rare solicitors who has a reputation for fighting the system. His firm applied to the Legal Services Commission for transfer of the legal aid, and when the LSC seemed to be delaying its response, I paid £2,000 from my own pocket to enable the firm to start work.

The local authority learned, it seemed before anyone else, that the LSC would not allow the transfer from the solicitor who had been discharged – and the head of the council’s legal department then sent the mother a list of other solicitors who would be able to take her case on legal aid. By the time the solicitor to whom I had given £2,000 heard that he had been turned down, he was able to present me with a bill which, including VAT, came to exactly £2,000.

By now another solicitor had appeared, who seemed keen to take on the case for a reduced fee. Ian Josephs, who runs the Forced Adoption website, advanced £3,500 towards her fees, on an understanding that she could take the case through to its final hearing for a total of £5,000. Three days before they were due in court, this solicitor too – after a long conversation with one of the array of lawyers appearing, at huge public expense, for the other side – said she was unable to continue working on the case. She has not, so far, offered to return any of the money.

The mother now faces, without legal representation, a final hearing which could result in her losing her children forever. They live, unhappily, in separate foster homes, at a cost to the taxpayer of well over £100,000 a year. She and her husband came to this country a decade ago, full of hope: now she feels utterly betrayed by a system which seems ruthlessly bent on destroying her family. Her only wish is to escape this incomprehensible nightmare and return with her husband to their native country. But to do so, they would have to abandon any hope of seeing their beloved children again.

Forced adoption: another win for the child snatchers

The case of Tony and Debbie Sims illustrates the cruelty of our child protection system, says Christopher Booker.

Debbie and Tony Sims

Seventy-four court hearings : Tony and Debbie Sims
Christopher Booker

By Christopher Booker 9:00PM GMT 20 Nov 2010688 Comments

In 43 years of medical practice, said the family’s GP, he had “never encountered a case of such appalling injustice”. To their neighbours, it was so shocking that up to 100 of them were ready to stage a public protest, until being banned from doing so by social workers and the police.

This was the case of Tony and Debbie Sims, which I first reported in July 2009 under the headline “ ’Evil destruction’ of a happy family”, and whom I can now name because their daughter, torn from them for no good reason, has finally, after three years of misery in foster care and 74 court hearings, been adopted.

The story of Mr and Mrs Sims was my first introduction to that Kafka-esque world of state child-snatching which I have so often reported on since. It illustrates so many of the reasons why, hidden behind its self-protective wall of secrecy, this ruthless and corrupt system has become a major national scandal.

Until April 2007, Mr Sims, a professional dog breeder, and his wife, then a branch vice-chairman of the local Conservative Party, were a respectable middle-class couple living happily with their five-year-old daughter, who was the apple of their eye. Shortly after Mr Sims was interviewed by the RSPCA over his unwitting infringement of a new law banning the tail-docking of puppies, their home was invaded by two RSPCA officials and 18 policemen, who had been given a wholly erroneous tip-off that there were guns on the premises.

When the dogs were released from their kennels and rampaged through the house, ripping apart his daughter’s pet boxer, Mr Sims strongly protested – verbally but not physically. He and his wife were arrested and taken away, leaving their little girl, aged five, screaming amid the chaos. Social workers were called and the child was removed into foster care. While Mrs Sims was being held for several hours in a police cell, she had a miscarriage. She returned home that night to find her daughter gone.

When the couple next saw their child – months later, at a “contact” – she said she had been told they were dead and had gone to heaven. For three years they tried to get her back through those 74 court hearings. The social workers claimed the child had been maltreated, because her home was an unholy mess. But this was only because of the police raid and the dogs – a WPC who had visited the house a month earlier on other business reported that it had been “neat and tidy”.

The child could not understand why she was not allowed to go back home with her parents. The courts were unable to consider a report by an experienced independent social worker which the couple were told described them as responsible and loving parents. The only evidence the court heard was that from the social workers and their own “experts”.

When the couple were eventually told that their child would be adopted, they appealed. In a judgment last year, which the media were permitted to report, Mr Justice Boden ruled that because the parents had not shown sufficient co‑operation with the authorities (after four psychiatric assessments of the couple, the father refused to submit to a fifth), the adoption had to go ahead.

One of the first people to contact the parents when this was made public was that independent social worker, who expressed astonishment, saying he had assumed that, because the social workers’ case seemed so flimsy, the family would have long since been reunited. Last week, however, Mr and Mrs Sims had a two-sentence note to say their daughter has now been adopted.

Since I first wrote about this case in 2009, I have come to recognise many of its features in dozens of others I have followed: the mob-handed involvement of the police; the seizing of children for no good reason; the inability of social workers to admit they have made a mistake; the way lawyers supposedly acting for the parents seem to be on the other side; the refusal of judges to look objectively at all the evidence, and their willingness to accept nonsense if told to them by social workers and their “experts”. Too often, these proceedings get away with standing every honourable principle of British justice on its head.

Such is the Frankenstein’s monster created by Parliament in the 1989 Children Act. Yet apart from the tireless John Hemming, and a handful of other MPs shocked into awareness by individual cases in their constituencies, the majority seem wholly unconcerned. So what do we pay them for?


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