Children in The Vine Audio Series: Episode Eight

Children In The Vine

Based on actual events, this is a serial about the love, hate, anger, panic, occasional joy, dark humour, professional dedication and professional controversy at the heart of the family justice system. The stories feature an organisation of McKenzie Friends – lay advocates who help clients who are representing themselves in legal cases.

The dramas feature cases about public family law (where a public body like a local authority is involved in arranging the care of children), and private family law (disputes between parents, especially over children) .

The cases are controversial and life changing for the families.

McKenzie Friends are a relatively new phenomenon inside the legal system but over the last few years their presence has increased significantly. Today they sit uncomfortably in the court system with fee charging lawyers who sometimes view them as potential competition. But as the legal aid cuts impact on the family justice system and the economy worsens, the small office becomes inundated with requests for assistance. The team of four have to learn to cope with the increase in work and an unforgiving system which makes it almost impossible to resolve issues conventionally.

The team begin to resort to unconventional methods to get to the bottom of the cases they’re given.

Each McKenzie Friend has their own style of working through cases and their own personal motivations for getting involved, stemming from personal experience with the system. They work with limited resources which they share with each other. They learn on the job.

But the team find help and support in the most unusual places. Rogue journalists, renegade MPs and family lawyers come in and out of the agency’s life to help them solve their cases and help the families and children they work with.

This is a story about the next generation of lawyers, who work with the spirit of law as it was intended. Often discriminated against in the court system for not having legal qualifications they slowly infiltrate the system and expose corruption and malpractice as they try to help the families who come to them because they have nowhere left to go.

We hope you enjoy this series.

You can catch the eighth episode, here.

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Woolf Inquiry – Panel Members

The Independent Panel Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse led by Fiona Woolf now has its panel members.

In a press release yesterday, Theresa May announced that the following individuals would head up the panel. They are:

Sharon Evans, (Ex journo, and Chief Exec of Dot.Com a children’s charity which provides safeguarding mechanisms for vulnerable children. She is also a survivor of sexual abuse)

Ivor Frank, (Barrister who experienced the care system as a child)

Dame Moira Gibb, (social work expert)

Professor Jenny Pearce OBE, (lecturer and researcher who specialises in research relating to sexual exploitation)

Dru Sharpling CBE (trained as a barrister, now working for HMIC to help improve the criminal justice system response to vulnerable  people)

Professor Terence Stephenson, (specialist in paediatrics and Chair of the GMC)

Graham Wilmer MBE, (founder of the Lantern Project and survivor of child sexual abuse)

Barbara Hearn OBE, (Past Deputy CEO of National Children’s Bureau)

Ben Emmerson QC as counsel to the inquiry and

Professor Alexis Jay OBE as their expert adviser.

Lord Mayor Fiona Woolf

Female Genital Mutilation: Proposal to Introduce a Civil Protection Order

As we mentioned yesterday, the government is hoping to introduce new laws to protect victims of FGM, after issuing a consultation on the matter in July of this year.

They have now published the consultation outcome which responds to that proposal.

The response to the consultation was carried out by the Ministry of Justice, and runs to 17 pages. It highlights the background to the report, a summary of the responses, responses to questions raised in the report and the next steps post the consultation.

It’s an interesting document which explains the different viewpoints on the proposal for a civil protection order. Some respondents felt that the current criminal sanctions were not enough, others felt that the Children Act’s prohibited steps order was already effective at preventing parents from removing children from the jurisdiction to undergo FGM and others felt that a specific civil law measure would offer child welfare professionals a clear pathway to safeguarding children and supporting them within the family unit.

It’s a complex area, combining cultural norms and standards which are not always beneficial to empowering children or allowing them to speak out without fear of devastating repercussions. A must read report, which highlights many of the nuances in this field and offers a good overview.

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Westminster Debate: Religion, Human Rights and Child Abuse

With ever-growing concerns surrounding child sexual abuse within a faith context and the current investigation into nationwide child abuse by the Lord Mayor Fiona Woolf, our debate, “Religious Power; Risk & Regulation” has been created with a view to support and inform this inquiry and to open up discussion with faith groups and members of the public in the UK.

The debate will take place in the House of Commons on Tuesday 18th November, at 6pm.

Co-hosted by several respected religious organisations, who promote peace and understanding between faiths and a non practicing public, this debate hopes to create an ongoing dialogue between the most senior members of our clergy and government.

Our dedicated website offers you all the latest news on the debate, the issues it raises and a look at our panel members and partners:

This is an open event, so if you would like to attend, please email Natasha at Sobk13 at gmail dot com. Thank you.

Please note that places are going fast, so do book now to avoid disappointment.

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Judge of the Week: Hayden J

Being a judge in the family courts today requires a solid grasp of the law, but being a consummate diplomat helps too. And when that is combined with fairness and careful thought, you have a gem of a judge.

At the end of last month, Hayden J gave a judgment on a troubling case. A mother, who was considered to be vulnerable, was expecting her ninth child (the previous eight had been taken into care), and both she and her partner, also a vulnerable adult, desperately wanted to have a child of their own to love and take care of.

The Local Authority, panicked by the intention and the fact that during the previous birth the mother had hidden herself away and gone into labour at home where she delivered her twins, sought something called ‘anticipatory declaratory relief’. This type of application allows the local authority to make provisions for a child before they are born.

The argument by the local authority, despite reports by medical and psychiatric professionals assigned to the case which all emphatically showed to the contrary, was that mum did not have capacity to understand crucial elements in relation to her circumstances. Specifically:

(1) Does she have the capacity to make decisions as to the contact she has with professionals?

(2) Does she have the capacity to make decisions in relation to the safe management of the birth of her baby and particularly in deciding whether and when to undergo an induction?

(3) Does she have the capacity to make decisions as to the treatment that she should receive following the birth of the baby?

It is not clear from the judgment why the local authority then changed its position, but the application to seek ‘anticipatory declaratory relief’, was then withdrawn by the local authority and it was at this point that Hayden J was asked to review that decision. Hayden J then subsequently allowed the application for relief to be withdrawn, satisfied that it was not necessary and that mum had capacity to understand the questions above.

Even more wonderful was Hayden’s consideration of the issue post birth. Despite the likelihood that this latest child would also eventually be taken into care, he called for a humane approach to the afterbirth, with support from professionals, to allow the child and mother to be together during what he calls “the mutual need each, for the other.”

Despite the local authority’s over-zealous actions, and on this Hayden J says, “Those instincts are laudable, but there is a paternalistic complexion to them,” the view was that the initial application was sincere. Hayden J’s sentiment below perhaps sums this up best:

“I’ve no doubt that the professional instincts here were sincere. However, equally, I’ve no doubt that they were, ultimately, misconceived.”

It’s a sensitive judgment, both to the family involved and the professionals assisting, and it reiterates the need to respect personal autonomy, which we think is crucial in a democratic society. So, for delivering a fair and sensitive judgment with deft application of the law and for employing a level of diplomacy to help keep the temperature down in an already heated arena, our judge of the week is Hayden, J.

Good on you, sir.

Vulnerable Girls to be Protected From FGM

The government has today unveiled plans to create new laws to help protect girls from Female Genital Mutilation.

The Gov.UK website tells us:

“Proposals being put forward in the Serious Crime Bill include a new civil protection order which would protect victims or potential victims of FGM. This could include, for example, a requirement for a passport to be surrendered to prevent a girl being taken abroad for FGM.”

The site also tells us that victims, potential victims or third parties like teachers, friends, carers and social workers will be able to apply to the court for an order if they believe there is a real risk of FGM taking place.

The government is also going to create a new law which will turn failing to protect a girl from FGM into an offence. The press release tells us:

“Anyone who has parental responsibility for a girl who has been mutilated when she was under 16, and is in frequent contact with her, or who has assumed responsibility for such a girl, will be potentially liable if they knew, or ought to have known, that there was a significant risk of FGM being carried out, but did not take reasonable steps to prevent it from happening.”

The government is also going to grant FGM victims lifelong anonymity from the time the allegation is made to encourage victims to come forward.

Justice Minister Mike Penning said:

FGM is child abuse and the government is committed to tackling and preventing this harmful and unacceptable practice.

We are introducing an unprecedented package of measures to strengthen protection for victims, encourage them to report the crime to the police and get support. We also want to prosecute those who knowingly let this terrible abuse happen to children they are responsible for.

We know that legislation alone cannot eradicate this unacceptable practice. But it is important that we change the law where necessary.

Committee Seeks Debate on Accommodation for Young People in care

This year, the government announced a legal duty on local authorities to financially support every care leaver who wishes to stay with foster parents until their 21st birthday. However, the duty does not extend to those children living in residential children’s homes or other types of accommodation.

A report which was recently released by The Education Committee on the subject of accommodation for over 16s in this context has received its response from the government, and now, the Committee would like to have a debate around those responses.

We’re heartened to see that the government is considering including those children who are currently living in other types of accommodation, and we hope the debate, should they have one, will be fruitful.

 

 

One Boy’s Story Inside the Care System

My name is Matthew* and I’m 13. I live with foster carers now, and they’re nice. I ended up in care when I was little because my parents abused me, but I still have to see them. I try not to make a fuss about that because the social workers say it’s important for me to have a relationship with my mum and dad, but I feel very uncomfortable during contact and more than anything, I wish someone would make it stop.

But nobody listens.

Nobody except my grandma.

My grandma is a very good person. Sometimes she says things that surprise me, but I know she loves me and I love her, too. She stands up for me. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.

My life is really restrictive. I can’t cycle around my neighbourhood because my family complained about cuts and bruises they’ve seen on me in the past. I tried to tell them I got them from doing regular activities like the kind boys do, but they wouldn’t listen. So now, I can’t cycle with my friends and because of another incident, I can’t socialise freely either. I’m so angry. I just want to be able to live my life.

But nobody listens.

Nobody except my grandma.

I want to see more of my grandma. But the social workers won’t let me. they’ve accused her of being addicted to drugs and alcohol, but she isn’t and all the tests they made her do came back negative. They say she’s harming me with the things she tells me, that she complains about the care system to me and tells me bad things about the people who work in it, but she isn’t. And sometimes, when she says things that are a bit awkward, I just brush it off. I don’t mind the things she says at all, it doesn’t affect me. She lets me speak my mind and stops when I ask her to. The real reason the social workers won’t let me have more contact is that they’re frightened of my grandma. They keep threatening to reduce contact if she carries on with her charity work which involves helping children in care have a voice. I don’t see how that comes into my contact with her. The social workers say she’s being vocal about my case and putting me at risk, but she isn’t – she’s just trying to get people to hear me.

But nobody listens.

Nobody except my grandma.

I’d like to spend time with my grandma without it being supervised. When we’re together, there’s a whole list of things we’re not allowed to do, which are supposed to be for my own good. The social worker told my grandma that boys my age don’t want affection, that we’re too old for it, but we’re not. We all need affection, at 1, 11 and 101.

I miss my grandma and the love she gives me so much. I got to live with her for a while. But the social workers took me away. On the day I went into care, I put stones under her car tyres so she wouldn’t leave me on my own.

The social workers are always criticising my grandma. It’s like they’ve got it in for her because she’s complained on my behalf about the way I’m being treated. It seems so childish – like a tit for tat. I feel like the adult, and the social workers just behave like squabbling children. It’s really depressing. The list of things my grandma can’t do or bring during contact is depressing too. These include:

  • No chocolates or crisps at contact unless permissions is given (what do they think I’m going to do, contract diabetes in an hour?)
  • No comments about wanting unsupervised contact or contact which occurs outside of the god forsaken contact centre (hardly quality contact)
  • No whispering during the contact session
  • No spontaneous kissing or hugging by my grandma

I’ve written a statement for my next court date. I would like to stop having to tell a million different people what my wishes and feelings are all the time. It would be fine, except

Nobody listens.

Nobody except my grandma.

I would like to be able to live my life, and although I’ve agreed to contact with my parents, I really don’t want to see them. I find it deeply upsetting – I feel like social services are abusing me. After years of being abused by my parents, now it’s the social worker’s turn. What’s wrong with everyone?

In my statement, I ask people to listen to me.

Will somebody listen?

* Name changed to protect this boy’s privacy

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“No Need To Consider Human Rights in Private Family Cases Is Human Rights Compliant.”

Yes, that’s what the Court of Appeal have said, in a ruling on a private family law case which involved relocation issues and a Section 8 (Children Act 1989) application (which looks at contact and residence).

The case involved a husband and wife, who had two children together. They subsequently divorced, and the father remarried and went on to have a child with his second wife. The second wife was from America and began to miss her home town in the States, feeling increasingly unhappy in the UK. The father then sought permission to remove his two children with his first wife, and their half sibling to the US. The application was successfully opposed by his first wife, and the father appealed, citing Article 8 of the ECHR as one of the grounds for appeal. He argued, amongst other things, that refusal to move would violate his youngest daughter’s right to a family life, and would cause the unit to break apart due to the wife’s growing unhappiness at living in England.

The judge took the view that human rights considerations of this nature, in family cases only applied where a public authority was involved and directly responsible for any actions which might lead to interference of a family member’s human rights. The judge went on to say that Parliament had provided a legislative mechanism for parties with parental responsibility in this area, which is human rights compliant.

Ryder LJ said in the judgment:

“[…] can only be an attempt to impose the concept of ‘horizontality’ into private law children cases where the agency of the state is not the principal actor seeking to interfere in the family or the private life of those concerned.  If that is right, the submission is misguided.  In private law applications it is a person with parental responsibility who seeks to interfere with the Article 8 rights of the other relevant persons, be they other adults with parental responsibility or the children themselves. Parliament has provided a legislative mechanism for such a decision that is human rights compliant.  It is neither necessary nor appropriate for the Family Court in ordinary private law applications where there are no public law consequences to undertake a separate human rights proportionality evaluation balancing the effects of the interference on each person’s Article 8 rights so as to evaluate whether its decision is proportionate.  [Counsel for the father] could point to no jurisprudence to suggest otherwise.  That position is quite distinct from public law applications where such an evaluation is required by reason of the fact that a local authority applicant is a public authority seeking itself to interfere in the rights that are engaged.”

It’s an interesting judgment. Come on over and tell us what you make of it….

Many thanks to the superb Jerry Lonsdale for alerting us to this case.

Consultation: Non Molestation & Occupation Orders

In the wake of Sir James Munby, The President’s Practice Guidance (issued on 13th October), which effectively prevents ex parte non molestation injunctions from being issued for an unlimited period, Sir Nicholas Mostyn has released a consultation.

The consultation aims to look at the proposed language to be used for drafting these orders and the suggested format of the draft orders (and permitted deviations from the forms).

The Courts and Tribubals website tells us that comments should be sent to Joanna Wilkinson (Joanna.wilkinson@judiciary.gsi.gov.uk) by 10 November 2014.

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