Sarah Phillimore attended the Family Law Class at Bristol CJC on 1st October 2015.
HHJ Stephen Wildblood QC
This conference is the first of its kind. It is open and reportable for the public. It is not possible to speak about family law without touching very raw nerves or on topics that are controversial. Please don’t disrupt the conference. If this fails, it is highly unlikely any others will be held. What we are doing is being observed by many people. Part of our aim is to make the family court system as transparent as possible. We hope you will feel this is important as first of its kind and recognise our good intentions. You are only hearing from me for a short while. I am Stephen Wildblood the Designated Family Judge (DFJ). I have responsibility for the family justice system in five counties including Bristol.
Justice has got to be accessible. People must understand what it is – how to come to court and the process that is in effect. We serve the community and the community must know what we do. We want to outline help that is available. We have developed a unique system in this court – we want you to know about it. You don’t get many judges, barristers, academics to face the public and deal with questions they don’t have advance notice about.
This is reportable conference. People may write as they see fit. I don’t tell you what to say about it. People have their own views.
We can’t discuss what we think the law should be. Its not our opinion that matters. Our intention today is to give you information. I have to uphold the law as it is. We cannot discuss specific cases.
Advice – don’t come to court. I am up at 6am and work until 10pm – midnight. Workload is increasing month on month. Working flat out. Private and public law cases up. We are getting many more litigants in person. That is a particular feature to explain why we are organising conferences like this.
Variety of cases we deal with – not all ‘Baby P type monsters’ – vulnerable people.
Private law – custody and access now child arrangements.
Public law – care
Relationship breakdown – divorce
Great to see so many people interested in family law. People dealing with very emotional subject matter and have to get to grips with terminology. I will help you understand that. Private law cases are brought by one of the parents.
Child arrangements orders – used to be custody and access, then residence and contact. Name changes again. Who the child lives with or spends time with.
Change of surname. Permission to take abroad.
How are private law cases decided? – Welfare checklist of Children Act 1989.
People are actively encouraged NOT to come to court. No order principle. If parents can agree, they are the ones that should be making the decisions.
Where should a child live? No presumption in favour of mother – legislation is gender neutral. No presumption about amount of time child spends with either parent. Looking at parental responsibility.
Should all parents have PR, married or not.
There should be an effective relationship with both parents unless exceptional reasons why not. Many forms of contact between children and parents. Direct, indirect, overnight, or visiting.
Mediation – will be encouraged to reach a solution.
Cafcass – try to help parents reach agreement.
Enforcement – decision embodied in court order. But we want to encourage you to make your own decisions about your child.
SPIP – Separated Parents Information Programme – to understand impact on children of relationship breakdown
Public law – the available public law options. Supervision, care and placement orders. Range of orders – least intervention to greatest.
How difficult are these cases? – Very. No case is the same. Each case represents its own challenges for each individual. Court assisted by professional evidence.
Parents participate fully in proceedings and give evidence. Court makes final decision and may disagree with SW and guardian.
What is more serious than an order placing a child for adoption? Stirs a lot of emotion.
Nature law and common sense require it is recognised that best place for child is with natural parent unless proved otherwise.
Test of significant harm and link between that and care provided by parents.
Threshold criteria. Sets out what harm must entail. Standards of parenting vary. Court is not one of social engineering. Even if significant harm is found, court does not necessarily make a care order.
Important to look at what support can be provided. The LA expected to file a care plan which will set out proposals for plan for child.
26 week time limit – since 22nd April 2014 last year, care proceedings should be concluded without delay and within 26 weeks unless good reasons. It is maximum.
Major issues – some LA don’t bring cases swiftly enough. Section 20 accommodation lasting too long.
Louise Tickle: What can I report about – very little. Not generally allowed to report on detail of dispute. Can apply to the Judge to lift the restrictions. In the moment I am in the process of making that application. Judges can decide to hear a case in open court but doesn’t happen very often.
Things don’t change much after case concluded but not enough to interest most media in reporting. Can’t report detail.
Emma Whewell of UWE talking about relationship breakdown. Sometimes court has to decide who is a parent. Division of financial assets etc. She details the resources available for parents and other litigants in person.
Then some practical advice from Judi Evans and HHJ Wildblood QC – be prepared! Consider what witnesses and documents you need in advance. If you are tired and want a break ask for one! remember that orders are orders and not invitations for a discussion. Remember that appeals are rare – only when judge gets things wrong.
Discussions with audience
What percentage of wrong decisions are acceptable? – HHJ Wildblood: none. The burden on Judges is huge. You are making the most serious order you could possibly make. Taking child away from parents. You are legitimising child into another family. Consequences for the rest of the child’s life and you will materially effect child’s natural family. I get at least one application a month where someone is saying I want to see my adoption file – but my parents’ adoption file!
Know thyself – we all want to know where we come from and who we are.
How many mistakes are acceptable – none. Like how many mistakes are acceptable in surgery. They happen but not acceptable.
Several clients of the PSU say if they had known about stresses of litigation, they would not have started. Should court survey litigants to find out what further education required? – HHJ WQC: One of things you don’t get as a Judge is feedback. That’s why I am keen to do conferences like this. Open forum encourages Judges to hear what other people think and force us to think more deeply. External feedback is so valuable.
PSU volunteer – people are hugely effected by way they are treated in court process. They want a fair hearing. Have you done a survey of your users?
HHJ WQC – there has been research. Suggestion that people are more concerned about fairness in process. Then more prepared to accept outcome. That has limitations. People are also concerned about outcomes – if child adopted against your wishes. The ultimate result is thing of greatest import. I accept process must be fair. My view that both system and outcome must be fair.
Julie Haines – criticisms can be put in skeleton argument and preamble in grounds of appeal. That is why a lot of parents want to appeal – they want Court of Appeal to know what is happening in court room. Refreshing to see your criticism of some failures of LA. whole raft of things that Court of Appeal gets to hear about. A useful exercise. Parents don’t want to ever give up.
HHJ WQC – when its got to permission to appeal, things have gone wrong already. I have stopped a case and referred parents to a support group. Case stopped at next hearing and LA withdrew. Please make use of support. Very important that system seen as fair and humane.
Question – Concern that parents’ solicitors are advising parents not to contest at ICO and wait until final hearing. parents don’t feel knowlegeable enough to overrule representation.
Judi Evans – very difficult to make a generalised comment about that. Can’t trespass on individual cases. Test for ICO is lower – if you embark on interim hearing, findings will be made.
Zahid Hussain – ICO should be seen as a ‘neutral holding order’ shouldn’t give one side advantage.
HHJ WQC – ICO with removal – Judge must be satisfied child’s safety demands immediate separation. Can’t overlook impact on young mother. She agrees ICO and by FH she may have given up hope. They are not lightly made, I don’t make them lightly. Very astute to effect they may have. I do apply test set down by law. You may be able to find mother and baby placement. I try to keep children with parents if possible. If its not possible… point about not having full blown hearing at interim stage, it would be very prejudicial. If something is not proved it is treated as not happening. We are not a court of tittle tattle. No smoke without fire is the adage of an idiot.
If people give evidence on oath and it is found to be false, that could lead to prosecution for perjury. Family court does not treat evidence lightly. It applies across the board. Applies to LA witnesses as well. Anyone who gives false evidence will be in serious trouble.
Question – problem of drift of section 20. there are problems but in some circumstances it works very well.
Family Court information – advice website for families in Bristol, Bath, Weston and Gloucester area.
The Way We Are – accessing the court after LASPO – article by HHJ Wildblood QC looking at the recent initiatives in Bristol to improve access to the family courts.