N.B. Some of what is written here relates to my own Private Law Proceedings. As such, I have used gender neutral vocabulary and tried my very best to avoid giving out any identifying information.
I’ve read various reports of this case, in The BBC, The Guardian, The Mirror, The Sun and most recently on The Transparency Project’s site. I wanted to write about this from the perspective of a parent who knows the desperation both parents have been feeling, being as I am in the regrettable position of having experienced both sides of these circumstances, and to advise on the best way forward should you ever find yourself in either position.
The conclusion of my first set of Proceedings saw the LA and I agree to one of my children staying with their Father under the guise of a Residence Order (as it was known then). Daily Contact with this child had been agreed during Proceedings and therefore in line with normal procedure there was no need to attach an additional Contact Order (now known as a Child Arrangement Order).
Mere days later, my child’s Father was due to bring our child to Contact in the late afternoon. I had spoken to him over the phone earlier that day and all seemed well. We hadn’t argued, my child loved their time with me…I hadn’t “done” anything…that I knew of.
As the afternoon turned into evening, and the evening turned into night, it became clear that all was not well. My ex-partner’s mobile phone had been cut off; there was no way of reaching him and our child. He was not at his home. He was not anywhere to be found.
I rang every Hospital in the area, desperately hoping they would be there, whilst at the same time desperately hoping they wouldn’t be. There was no news.
I rang his friends, his family; no news.
I rang the Police and filed a missing person’s report. It was less than a week since Proceedings had concluded and I was heavily pregnant. I couldn’t actually take in what was happening.
Friends came to my aid, driving around the streets looking for my ex-partner and our child. They held my hand whilst Police took my child’s description and circulated it. They made cups of tea and tried to encourage me to eat and sleep. I did neither.
Finally, after the longest night of my life so far, the Police rang me in the morning with news.
They had been found.
However, sheer relief and joy was swiftly replaced by confusion, and utter desperation and despair.
My child’s Father had absconded, taking our child with him. He had removed our child from their school, their home and the daily contact with their Mum and siblings they had always had. The Police knew where they were, but my ex-partner did not wish for me to know so they were not able to tell me. As my ex-partner had a Residence Order, he had absolute power. The Police were sympathetic, but had to operate within the confines of the law. They told me it was a “private law matter” and I needed to take my ex-partner to Court.
I approached the LA for help. The same LA that had issued the Proceedings that had concluded days earlier! It was like asking the devil! But I did it because I truly believed that what my ex-partner had done was entirely wrong and our child would be suffering. I trusted our system.
I endured a Social Worker smirking whilst I screamed and sobbed and begged for help. Every “wrong” word I used out of anger, fear, pain, anguish was used against me. I was latterly accused of reacting “disproportionately”. Instead of safeguarding my child against the emotional harm they were clearly experiencing being put through what they were, the LA stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my ex-partner, supporting and helping him. My ex-partner made a number of wild accusations to the LA about me, which they accepted without evidence. I felt totally let down by the system that I believed was there to protect my child and at first I didn’t understand why. In hindsight, (and in my own view) it is clear. My LA planned to apply to Court to have my unborn baby removed at birth, they were building their case. It was as brutal and draconian as that.
In the Rebecca Minnock case, I have read the Judgements (here), and naturally formed my own view. I am mindful of the fact that the original District Judge’s rulings have not been published, and also mindful of the failings of our system and the lack of support when things go as wrong as they clearly have here. Nonetheless, I can entirely identify with Ethan’s Father, Roger Williams, and the distress he must have been feeling in the fortnight Mum and Son were missing. I can almost feel his pain and the frenzied desperation he must have experienced. I can remember it very clearly when separated from my own child. No doubt Ethan’s Dad felt impotent, helpless, and the pressure of being thrown into the media spotlight whilst attempting to navigate a system without the funds for legal representation must have been incredibly intense. I truly felt for the man.
However, that being said, I have also been in a position not too dissimilar than that of Rebecca Minnock. The knowledge that your child will be removed from your care is quite painfully overwhelming. The hysterical fear, the terror, the panic that you feel as a parent knowing that that is hanging over you like the Sword of Damocles? Of course you want to run. You want to pick your child up and get on the nearest plane, train or automobile. Anywhere, anyhow, it doesn’t matter; in your head you are literally racing to get away from the threat of the pain that being separated from your child will bring. I can remember it very clearly when waiting to go into labour with my baby, knowing the LA would try to take him or her. No doubt Ethan’s Mum felt horrified, powerless, and entirely let down by the system. I truly feel for her.
In my own Private Law case, I had to learn about Contact Law very very quickly indeed. I was able to put together a Contact Application, file Statements, run my case and represent myself – but it took a lot of work. As a results of the cuts in 2013 to Legal Aid, it is now extremely difficult to be able to access any kind of help (unless your case involves Domestic Abuse), and unfortunately this now means that many parents are having to represent themselves in the Family Courts.
I’ve put some tips below which may help you, if you are seeking to have Contact with your child within Private Law Proceedings. If you are risk of having your child removed from your care by the other parent, the Court or the LA, take a look at this.
- Preparation, preparation, preparation!
If you are making any sort of Application to Court, do your homework. Educate yourself on the laws that govern the Order(s) you seek. There are many useful resources on the Internet from reputable law firms, charities and organisations there to help – Google should be your new best friend!
- Be clear and succinct
The Courts and Judges are very busy, and there will be time within Hearings to speak directly to the Judge and make your case, so it’s a good idea to keep Applications and Statements brief and to the point. When making an Application, or writing a Statement, it’s also useful to ask someone else to read over it before you submit, to check for any errors or typos.
- File it
It’s really helpful to keep all of your case-related documentation in one place. I bought a couple of lever-arch files and just got used to automatically filing everything away. That way, if I needed a particular report, or statement, I could easily put my hands on it.
- Look for a Mackenzie Friend
A Mackenzie Friend (or MKF) is a person (either legally trained or not) who can provide moral support for the LiP, take notes during Hearings, help with case papers, and quietly give advice on points of law or procedure, issues that the litigant may wish to raise in court and questions the litigant may wish to ask witnesses. A McKenzie Friend has no right to act on behalf of a LIP. He may not act as the LIP’s agent in relation to the proceedings nor manage the case outside court, for example, by signing court documents. A McKenzie Friend is not entitled to address the court, nor examine any witnesses. However, in exceptional circumstances, a judge may grant a McKenzie Friend what is termed “right of audience” in a particular case. The McKenzie Friend would then be allowed to address the court and conduct the litigant’s case for him, as a solicitor or barrister would normally do.
They can be significantly cheaper than lawyers (sorry you lot!), but their “qualifications” and the quality of advice can vary significantly, too. It’s a very good idea to do a fair amount of research and go off recommendations before committing.
It’s good practice to arrive in plenty of time for your Hearing, for pre-hearing discussions with the other parties to see if any agreement can be reached, or at least the issues narrowed before going in front of the Judge. Take a friend if possible, for support – someone who will be a calming influence if things get heated.
During your Hearing, you will be able to speak directly to the Judge. In the Family Court, a District Judge is addressed as “Sir” or “Madam”. A Circuit Judge is addressed as “Your Honour”. The best advice I can give you when speaking to a Judge is to remain as calm as possible – even when very emotive issues are being discussed. Take notes wherever possible, and listen very carefully to what is being said.
If you are acting Litigant in Person (LiP) in respect of applying for Contact with your child, below are some useful links:
National Family Mediation
Family Mediation Council
Before applying to Court for Contact in Private Law Proceedings, you must show the Court you have tried Mediation. Above are two links to UK based organisations.
Application for a Child Arrangements/Prohibited Steps/Specific Issue Order or to vary or discharge or ask permission to make a Section 8 Order.
Fee exemption application form (including guidance notes)
Application for permission to start Proceedings, for an order or directions in existing Proceedings, or to be joined as, or cease to be, a party in existing family Proceedings under the Children Act 1989
The Family Court without a Lawyer
Excellent handbook written by Lucy Reed for Litigants in Person navigating the Family Court. Website has fantastic resources. Highly recommended.
Please feel free to comment with other tips for readers, or other links that would be useful.