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.
QUOTE: 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:UNQUOTE
You have requested feedback so I hope you find my comments helpful.I am not a lawyer or a child-protection professional just an ordinary person interested in justice.
I am concerned that the evidence in Public Law cases is sometimes corrupted at the outset of proceedings when Local Authorities lodge documents (under oath) which give wrong information.When a Judge sees an official application to court for an order ,for example,he probably assumes it is correctly completed and signed and that all due guidelines and procedures have been followed by the applicant.
Of course, if the Authority fails to follow the correct procedures ( perhaps by forgetting to check its information with parents) , the application may be false evidence in itself.
Clearly, much documentary evidence is ‘likely’ to be false when legal guidelines and. WORKING TOGETHER frameworks are ignored by professionals.
If false information is given in the court application, to what extent would that influence a Judge when he comes to the point in proceedings when he is making an assessment of ‘witness credibility’?
Can professional evidence be credible when it does not tally with freely available facts?
One wonders whether a Judge pays attention to procedures and checks if they are complied with. A respondent is entitled to expect a fair hearing , one where legal guidelines are followed scrupulously.The respondent cannot bring procedural failures to the court’s attention;he does not know what the procedures are!
It appears everyone relies on the total integrity of Social Workers.
It may apply in Bristol Family Court it did not apply in my case. It really is a postcode lottery, which court you end up in and what the judge’s attitude is to parents. I can confidently say all of the Local Authority staff lied on oath.With cases case being heard in private, parents just sound like conspiracy theorists. It is so frustrating.
I have had a bit of a revelation this week though, which others may not also have realised, or it may be me and I am just stating the obvious. Please correct me if I am wrong Sarah.
With a criminal case , the prosecution have to prove the charge set out at the beginning of the case , for instance Joe Bloggs mugged Mr X on such and such a date . They cannot add additional charges throughout the case, however with care proceedings the initial threshold document for an ICO can be added to throughout proceedings. I know it says it on it , my brain did not just take it in at the time. So the local authority decides a child is neglected because they are not attending school with regularity. There may or may not be a perfectly acceptable reason , but the local authority start proceedings then start to dig into the parents background during the weeks in court, they look at medical records and lets say at one point the mother may have taken a course of anti depressants , so they then flag up mental health issues even though it may have been some years ago. Actually I am sure if you dug sufficiently deeply into anyone’s background they would not come up smelling of roses. I believe even the President of the Family Division has had his character assassinated at one time by another senior judge , naming piglets after his perceived faults. Then they send the child miles away, and cancel contact by text when the parent has almost arrived after hours of travelling by public transport, as expected the parent gets upset and it is added to the court bundle that the parent is antagonistic. of course the the local authority comes up with a completely plausible excuse for cancelling contact. It goes on and on. Just to illustrate at one point I was supposedly responsible for something when I was actually 50 miles away and the person who caused the incident was present and I do not have a flying carpet or a tardis. Yet I was wholly responsible.
So at the beginning of the case you may have some concerns which need investigation at the end unlike in the criminal system , which just looks at the initial charge you have a whole heap of concerns dug out by the local authority and the judge invariably makes an order against the parents. So rather than a fair and proper process you get something akin to booking a travel ticket, ie it’s cheap at first but then you pay for luggage, insurance, booking fee and an extra booking fee for using a credit card. No wonder families are confused, furious and all the rest.
Am I wrong?
If thresholds are met to issue, LAs issue, they don’t leave children in circumstances where they are being neglected. More matters may arise, this is very different to a criminal trial, but it is based on the need to safeguard. Once in proceedings everyone has legal representation so you should be made aware of any issues arising.
QUOTE: If thresholds are met to issue, LAs issue, they don’t leave children in circumstances where they are being neglected. More matters may arise, this is very different to a criminal trial, but it is based on the need to safeguard:UNQUOTE
Sometimes LA’s issue too swiftly.Social workers appear not to understand that they exist to ensure that thresholds are not met.They are supposed to lead,help and organise a combined effort from a wide range of professional agencies based on the need to safeguard.
It is the CS task to keep children together with their natural families except in the most dire cases of abuse.Not to seek out and prove there is a risk of future significant harm but to find ways of eliminating the risk.See the Children’s Act.
If the Local Authorities can’t or won’t fund the CS in that legitimate aim then they are malfunctioning.Perhaps the task of leading the safeguarding effort should be passed over to a new social care department funded by the Government.
I would just like to add that the above examples other than the one about the tardis are not from my case just made up. I also wonder if it makes a difference what background the Judge is? I am not going for the obvious how can an ex public school boy know anything about the life of a working class person but are you likely to get a fairer decision from someone who has come up through the ranks of family law practice rather than something like criminal or chancery.
Helen I have greatest respect for you ( and I don’t mean that in a legal manner) for actually engaging with parents, but I do have to disagree from my experience. I would say at on some occasions LA’s actually issue proceedings when the threshold is not met and then use their power and knowledge to make sure that it is met by the final orders. I am sure from reading what you have posted before , you are a professional empathetic social worker, but for reasons , that may include management bullying ,others are less scrupulous and twist the situation to suit themselves. Before you reply please think the numerous cases where section 20 is misused, which is a great example of social workers working unlawfully.
I also stand by my assertion that all of the LA staff in my case lied on oath and in fact also in some of the social work records.
Neither of us has walked in the others shoes.
Lastly nothing so ever to do with the topic but as a parent of an ASD child who requires one to one support , I was given no support by the LA for well over 16 months ,even though professionals including my GP made urgent referrals, then a little which dried up ,then I myself found a whole 24 hours , a year support provided by a charity not the LA. I found this interesting: http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed147832 especially the being exhausted. I am sure other parents with special needs children will relate to it
The system needs drastic change.