Domestic abuse, harassing a judge, and a failed care appeal: The last week in family law

A group of “concerned family and human rights lawyers” have
written to David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, and Paul Maynard, Parliamentary
Under-Secretary of State for Justice, asking for an independent inquiry into
treatment of domestic abuse in the family courts. The group, who work in-house
in women’s organisations, in private practice and at the Bar, say that they
welcome the announcement last week by the Ministry of Justice that a panel of
experts will engage in a twelve-week review into how the family courts protect
children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences.
However, they do not think that twelve weeks is “enough time to properly evaluate
the reasons why the system is currently placing children and victims at
unacceptable risk”, and state that “any inquiry must be independent if justice
is to be seen to be done”. They say that the current Practice Direction 12J,
which sets out what the courts must do in child arrangements cases where
domestic abuse is an issue, “is often ignored or ‘nodded through’, without any
proper risk assessment, leaving women and children vulnerable.” They suggest twelve
“possible improvements to the family justice system for the inquiry to
consider”, and conclude: “The Prime Minister has stated that she has not seen
sufficient evidence to justify an inquiry. Domestic abuse costs £66 billion a
year. It costs the state £1million to prosecute for murder. 2 women die every
week as a result of domestic abuse and children are being placed at huge risk
by the Family Courts. The question is how much more evidence does she need? We
propose that Practice Direction 12J is enacted by the Domestic Abuse Bill and
that robust recording of decision making is made by the Judge, and collated by
an appointed court recording officer so that we can begin to assess the scale
of the problem and so understand how we must deal with it.”

An appeal by a couple who were jailed for harassing a judge
in adoption proceedings has been dismissed by the High Court. Gary Hilson and
Tracy McCarthy were given a 16-week jail sentence by the Crown Court, after
being found guilty of harassing Her Honour Judge Carol Atkinson. The harassment
included sending emails to the judge’s personal email address, making comments
in the presence of court security staff to the effect that they knew the
judges’ home address, making comments in court which indicated they knew the
movements of the judge’s husband and daughter, and posting a birthday card to
her home address. The couple appealed, but the High Court said that these
incidents were capable of amounting to harassment, being designed to harass and
intimidate the judge in relation to her public duty, to the prejudice of the
proper administration of justice. Accordingly, the appeal was dismissed.

Finally, five children have been removed from their mother
by a local authority, following concerns over the mother’s partner, who in 2012
had been found guilty of causing 17 fractures to a baby son by a previous
relationship. He was sentenced to 33 months imprisonment for inflicting
grievous bodily harm on the child, and for neglect. In mid-2017, he began a
relationship with the mother of the older four children. The local authority told
the mother about the father’s history, and a written agreement was made which
barred him from attending the family home. In January 2018, a psychiatric
report advised that the father posed a serious risk to any child, and that he
is not treatable. In the summer of 2018 the mother gave birth to the fifth
child, by her new partner. In March 2019, two of the children made statements
that the father had been staying at the family home, and this was apparently
corroborated by one of his former partners. The children were then removed
under an emergency protection order, and interim care orders were made in
April. The father appealed against the orders, claiming that the judge had not
properly considered the likelihood of harm occurring to the children,
particularly by not taking into account the offer of the mother and father to
be electronically tagged, so that their physical separation could be monitored.
The Court of Appeal found that the judge was fully entitled to find that even
if tagging could be put in place, it would be insufficient to mitigate the
risks to the children. Accordingly, the appeal was dismissed.