(4 September 2016, UK) Sir James Munby, president of the High Court’s family division
When our top family judge, Lord Justice Munby, last week attacked the “squandering” of public money on lawyers involved in cases where children are taken into care (up 15 per cent in a year), he was only touching on one part of a very much larger problem. Since January, I have been following one such case that exemplifies almost everything which has gone so horribly wrong with our “child protection” system.
For eight months, social workers tried every trick in the book to remove two children from their parents, for reasons which both the police and the courts ultimately found wholly unconvincing. During that time, the case involved dozens of lawyers, 20 court hearings before eight different judges, including several visits to the High Court. The cost to public funds must have been well over £1 million. But I can only report on it now because, thanks to two unusually sensible judges, the whole case finally fell apart and was thrown out of court.
“The attack by Lord Justice Munby on the “squandering” of public money on lawyers involved in cases where children are taken into care (up 15 per cent in a year), was only touching on one part of a very much larger problem.”
The story unfolded through five stages. It centred on a boy, now 14, and a girl, nine, who until last November lived with their parents in Kingston-upon-Thames.
Stage one. This began with a weekend when the boy and his father had a row not untypical of many between fathers and spirited young teenage sons, which involved nothing more serious than him being pulled out of bed and briefly put outside the back door. Next morning in school, the boy mentioned this to a teacher, after which the school authorities reported it to the social workers employed by Kingston-on-Thames council. On the basis of their own version of the incident they called in the police, and the boy was removed to a foster home. So alarmed by what was happening was his mother that she flew off with his sister to join her husband’s extended family in the West Indian island of St Kitts.
Stage two. Although St Kitts is out of UK jurisdiction, the social workers sought an order for the girl to be returned to England. The police held the father for questioning, before interviewing the boy, who strongly disputed almost everything the social workers had told them. The boy was so unhappy with his first, “racist” foster family that he had to be moved to another. Meanwhile, in court, his father unwittingly made such an unfortunate admission on a legal point that his canny wife insisted that his legal team must be replaced.
Stage three. The family’s fortunes began to look up. First, the police found the son’s version of what had happened so convincing that they dropped any further proceedings against his father. Then, with the local authority planning in December to ask a new judge, Conway Middleton-Roy, for an interim care order on the son, the boy wrote him a letter explaining that the social workers had got it all wrong, that he was being mistreated in foster care, and only wished to go back to his family.
The judge not only read the letter (very unusual in such cases) but found it “clear and compelling” evidence that the boy was suffering “psychological harm”, ruling that he must be returned home. He then adjourned the case with an order that, if the social workers wished to proceed, they should come up with a plan for the boy’s future. Meanwhile, his British passport could be confiscated.
“With no thanks to the army of lawyers involved in the case did the story at last, for the family, come to a happy ending. But at what appalling cost”
Stage four. For weeks after Christmas, despite several more hearings (with Middleton-Roy seemingly having been taken off the case), the social workers repeatedly failed to produce their “plan” (during the entire story, no fewer than five social workers came and went on the case). But finally they asked instead for a “psychological assessment” of the whole family. Permission was given instead for an independent social worker (ISW) to fly out to St Kitts to assess mother and daughter (despite the mother’s repeated objection through her own solicitor that the island was outside UK jurisdiction).
Stage five. In May, before the ISW could arrive, the resourceful son managed to get a St Kitts passport in London and flew out to join his mother and sister. The social workers sent a red alert to St Kitts police and social workers, claiming that the boy had been “abducted” and must be returned immediately to England. But, after investigation, they saw no reason for any further action.
Basseterre, St Kitts
Basseterre, St Kitts Credit: -/Via www.kevandkaren.net
The ISW then arrived to stay for a week in one of the island’s top hotels. But after meeting the mother and children, surrounded by a wide circle of relatives and friends, she reported back to England that they seemed a perfectly normal, happy family and that she saw no reason why the boy should not remain there.
After further hearings in London, district judge Lucinda Rowe finally in July invited the local authority to withdraw its case. Its response was to ask for yet another hearing: a five-day “fact-finding” (which could have cost in excess of £100,000). At which point the judge called on the mother’s solicitor to ask for the case to be “summarily dismissed”. This she instantly granted.
Thus, with no thanks to the army of lawyers involved in the case, above all those paid supposedly to represent the interests of the father and the son, did the story at last, for the family, come to a happy ending.
But at what appalling cost – and not just in the sense identified by Lord Justice Munby in his trenchant comments last week.