A family court case — where the judge had previously found that the father was responsible for the fatal poisoning of the maternal grandfather and the non-fatal poisoning of the mother and maternal grandmother — has concluded that the father can retain his parental responsibility.

The latest application launched by the mother and heard in the Royal Courts of Justice had asked Judge Williams, amongst other issues, to: discharge the father’s parental responsibility; permission to change the child’s name; and to block the father from making any further applications.

The judge concluded that it wasn’t in the child’s best interests to give the father any forms of day-to-day decision making about his child, but decided that the restriction should not go so far as to strip the father of parental responsibility. As a result, Judge Williams decided that it would be “in the child’s welfare interests that parental responsibility is almost entirely titular or status in nature and that all decisions relating to the child save for permanent relocation should be taken unilaterally by the mother.”

Judge Williams granted the mother’s request to change the child’s name, in order to shield the child from identification, following media reports about the father and the allegations relating to the poisoning of the child’s mother and maternal grandparents.

The judge also barred the father from making any more applications to the court for a period of three years, although the mother had asked for the bar to last until her child reached 18 years of age.

The parties were also assisted by legal counsel, and of note is that the mother was co-represented by Dads House Family Law Clinic.

This is an interesting case, in part because the family court’s findings of fact in relation to the incidents of poisoning have not been made in a criminal court and do not carry the same weight as a criminal finding. (There appears to be an ongoing criminal investigation in Bulgaria where the alleged poisonings took place, and what appears to be the possibility of a criminal investigation being launched in the UK).

The judgment is also important because it highlights an attempt at balancing the best interests of the child and the father’s allegedly significant involvement with the child, and raises important questions about what the threshold should be when considering stripping a parent of parental responsibility.

There is very little information about the views and wishes of the child, who we estimate is between 11 and 12, save for one mention of the child’s express wish to the Guardian that they did not want to have direct contact with their father.

This is the key passage from the judgment:

“Direct contact at present and indeed for the foreseeable future would be contrary to the child’s wishes as expressed to the Guardian. It would expose the child to the unquantifiable risk that the father represents; I having been unable to clearly discern why he poisoned the family and he denying that he did so notwithstanding my findings.

Direct contact would also pose a real risk to the mother’s emotional and psychological well-being. The father allowed his relationship with the child to diminish by his inactivity between 2013 and 2018 such that the re-establishment of the relationship presents many hurdles. It seems likely that the child has no real recollection of his father and his life over the last eight years has been lived without his father.

The mother has chosen, in my view rightly, not to tell the child of the reasons for his father’s absence from his life. Her reason for changing his name for the purposes of his education and how he is known in the community was to protect him from being associated with the father’s name which has been the subject of press reporting in Bulgaria in connection with the poisoning.

The pursuit of indirect contact with the father would require the father’s actions to be confronted and explained to the child. It would be unconscionable to seek to reintroduce the child to even an indirect relationship with his father as an essentially benign character who had been absent for unexplained reasons when the truth is so shockingly different.

I cannot imagine that the child would forgive the mother or the court if we were to sanction the re-establishment of a relationship keeping the child in the dark only for him to learn the truth at a later stage when some sort of attachment had been re-established. It would be potentially harmful to his relationship with his mother, to his trust in authority and would be immensely confusing for him.

Whilst of course having some relationship with his father might bring some benefits in terms of parental affection and support and indeed knowledge of his paternal family the potential benefits are less than they might be given the father’s prioritisation of his own interests from 2013 to 2018 (at least) but most importantly his capability as a father is fundamentally undermined by his poisoning of the maternal family.”

There is a very good summary of the case on LexisNexis for subscribers, and as always BAILII offers free access to the judgment here.