Archive for April, 2009

The rudimentary Press sign, stuck with Blu-Tack on the door of what moments before was an interview room, indicated that the officials at Ipswich County Court were not used to such intrusions. One looked shocked when told that The Times had entered the building, and security guards insisted that the press keep identification cards visible at all times and await court hearings in segregation from the various parties.

The establishment recovered quickly, however. Within 45 minutes the flimsy Press sign had been replaced with a smarter, laminated version, and The Times was granted access to a care order hearing without any disruptions or objections from the various legal parties.

It was only at the lunchtime recess that Judge Peter Thompson acknowledged the press in the courtroom two journalists from The Times and one from the local newspaper, the Ipswich Evening Star. He emphasised that the normal reporting restrictions applying to the anonymity of children in the case still stood, but said nothing further about the new legislation and imposed no further restrictions.

The Times was thus afforded access to Day One of the hearing in its entirety care proceedings initiated by a council in relation to a ten-month-old girl. An interim care order, under which the child was placed with a guardian last October, was being contested by both parents.

It was an illuminating glimpse into the workings of the court. Psychological experts altered their conclusions as they were being questioned on the stand, and complained on numerous occasions that they had not been given enough information about the case to make satisfactory conclusions.

It emerged that, of the three psychological experts on whose testimony the childs fate will be decided, only one had interviewed all the parties (the mother, aged 32, the father, 41, and the child). One said that he was making conclusions about parenting ability without having seen the way that the mother or the father interacted with the child.


At one point in proceedings, the judge asked the pregnant mother before him whether she was in the habit of giving birth on the due delivery date. Normally, on time, she replied cheerily.

Judge Ian Hamilton, sitting at the Manchester Civil Justice Centre yesterday, was not being solicitous about her welfare. He was simply anxious to fix a date for a hearing to decide who will care for the unborn child and its two older brothers.

The parenting of the mother, a drug addict on a methadone programme, and her partner had given such cause for alarm that her eldest son was already being cared for by his paternal aunt.

Now aged 12, he was said to have suffered a neglectful childhood and been so emotionally traumatised that he lived in fear and had withdrawn into a shell, spending many hours in his bedroom playing computer games.

It was clear that Judge Hamilton was growing exasperated at the lack of progress of what had become a long-running case. It did not help that counsel for the local authority had not turned up on time, and then appeared to have no plan of action to push the matter forward.

Judge Hamilton brought proceedings to a close by ordering the local authority to come up with a care plan by May 11 and then fixed three days for the final hearing in July. It will certainly give Mum time to have recovered from the birth of the new baby in any event, he said.

Cases involving an abusive family and traumatised children, although dismally routine in such a building, would have been closed to the media until the change in the law came into force yesterday.

It was clear that the court staff at the centre, known as the Filing Cabinet because of its distinctive design, had been briefed about possible media interest.

When I presented my press accreditation to the court usher and then to the court clerk, they were aware of the changes of the law. I was told that the various counsel would have to be informed, and this may mean a delay.

The Times arrived at Cardiff civil justice centre yesterday on the first morning of a fact-finding hearing relating to a child.

After alerting the clerk to my presence before the case started, I was allowed to take a seat at the side of a small, brightly lit family proceedings courtroom on the third floor.

Although they knew about the rule change, my arrival was a surprise to at least some. On his way in, one of the solicitors involved in the case spotted that I had a copy of the new regulations allowing me to be there, and asked if he could borrow them to take a look. The judge asked to see my press card, and then explained to the court that I was there in accordance with the new access regulations that came into force yesterday, and was subject to the reporting restrictions imposed by the 1989 Childrens Act and the 1960 Administration of Justice Act.

If judges and court staff were ready for what has been hailed as a revolution in the family courts, lawyers at Barnets Civil and Family Court Centre were slightly taken by surprise by the arrival of the media.

Two cases had to be adjourned while lawyers discussed whether to oppose the admittance of The Times, but both, in the end, agreed realising that stringent reporting restrictions remain in place.

After decades of holding such hearings behind closed doors, no one quite knew what to do. One counsel for a local authority at least had on him the guidance on admitting the media just issued by Britains most senior judge. But he confessed to Judge Marcia Levy: I dont know what our position is . . . I simply dont know. I was asking for ten minutes to take instructions from the team manager.

The judge, who was preparing to give an hour-long judgment in a case involving two young children, said that neither their names, nor those of other children involved, could be mentioned; nor those of the parents, nor schools, places or anyone else connected with them that would enable them to be identified.

Nonetheless, her detailed unravelling of the complex family circumstances of a young mother who faces losing her two children, one aged 4, the other a baby, cast light on the daily difficult balancing exercise that the courts face in such cases.

The mother, in her twenties, was the step-daughter of the man who had fathered her children. She had grown up with his four other children, and had helped to look after them. A relationship developed and two children resulted.

There were allegations of sex abuse (denied) between the father and one of his other children; of inappropriate sexual behaviour between those children; and evidence of his unpredictable personality, glue-sniffing, lack of ability or willingness to care for them in any appropriate way or put their needs first.

Rather than worry about his children, the judge, noted, his main concern was for himself.

The action was brought by one London council but three others were mentioned and one, Judge Levy noted, had been criticised by the guardian (the social worker for the children) for failing to take action over the elder child at least three years ago.

The list on the notice board at Bath County Court said simply: A Minor. They were two short words that concealed a world of heartbreak.

Seated to one side of a horseshoe of tables in front of the judges desk was the mother of a six-year-old boy. At right angles to her, but never once catching her eye, sat her mother. The childs father, separated from the mother but siding with her, appeared briefly but did not speak. All were accompanied by lawyers.

At issue was the grandmothers belief that her daughter was not a fit parent. She wants the boy, who is living with her, to remain permanently. The question before the court was whether he should be allowed to stay with his mother on three weekends between now and the full hearing in June to determine his future home.

In the family court yesterday were district judge, six lawyers, two parents, a grandmother, a legally appointed guardian, hundreds of pages of testimony and experts reports and, for the first time, a reporter. The hearing was scheduled to last a full day.

In the past few weeks in the course of my duties for The Times I have been savaged by an alsatian (I was allowed to wear a padded suit), been pursued by a herd of Nazi cattle and come face to sucker with a bathful of giant leeches. The prospect of facing a court room full of hostility was worse than any of them.

I need not have worried. The move towards greater openness was welcomed not only by most of the lawyers but also by the judge, Francis Goddard. Only the barrister representing the boys mother attempted to have the case heard in private on the ground that it was an exceptional case that involved allegations of abuse and the mothers history of mental health problems.

Judge Goddard ran through the list of grounds for excluding the media under the new regulations, which include the possibility of disorder and the risk that it could endanger the safety of a witness, then said that he was happy as long as the case was anonymised and the boy could not be identified.

Of the 66 hearings listed for the Principal Registry of the Family Division in Central London yesterday, 11 were already marked Not open to the media.

In those cases, Her Majestys Courts Service said, the press were automatically barred, and so the hearings were not covered by the new regulations.

Of those hearings to which the press was allowed to try to gain access, many were harrowing residency cases involving children, or divorcing couples arguing over dwindling assets. But in nearly all, the press was allowed to report only the workings of the court, to avoid identifying the children involved.

In some cases, barristers had been employed by local authorities or childrens charities seeking judicial approval about the best way to return youngsters to parents who now appeared fit enough to look after their offspring.

On the first day that reporters were allowed into the imposing seven-floor building just off Chancery Lane, The Times was granted access to sit in a hearing involving a celebrity who was trying to gain the right for his child to live with him.

However, the presss presence in the case, which already has a series of strict reporting restrictions placed on it, led Her Honour Judge Vera Mayer to transfer it to High Court to establish exactly what journalists could report, if anything.

Referring to the new regulations allowing journalists to attend such sensitive cases, she said: I think this is a new field and none of us has any proper guidelines. It has come at a speed that none of us anticipated.

And a case of this nature has issues very specific to it; a foreign element and many other specific concerns. It could either be a case making bad law or an error which if it happened could not be rectified.

The case was adjourned and the celebrity left court. One divorced couple who had probably not exchanged a civil word in months, paused as the immaculately dressed man walked passed them in the corridor, before one nudged the other and said: Isnt that, you know?

A disturbing case in which a local authority failed to act to take a child into care was able to be revealed yesterday, after the groundbreaking decision to admit the media into the family courts came into effect.

The case, set against a background of alleged sex abuse, revealed how a family had managed to slip through the net of three London councils because they kept moving home and were not known to the social services.

The details are typical of the kind that would have remained unknown but for the opening of such hearings after decades of decisions being taken behind closed doors.

The historic opening up of the courts was taken by Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, after sustained pressure from families affected by the courts decisions and the media, led by The Times.

Under the reforms more than 200,000 hearings involving sensitive and traumatic cases, and with decisions that will have a huge impact on the lives of children and their families, will now be open to media scrutiny.

However, there is still confusion in the courts as to how this reform should operate, although The Times was admitted to most hearings at the six court centres it attended yesterday.

Strict reporting restrictions remain in force, which many including judges fear will undermine the reform and dilute its impact. There is also no automatic access to papers that have been laid before the court as evidence.

No identification of parties can take place and there was a mixed message over whether local authorities, often the butt of criticism in care cases, can be named.

The Times attended the above case, at the Barnet Civil and Family Court Centre, in which a council wants to remove a four-year-old child and baby into care.