FAMILY JUSTICE

As a barrister specialising in family and matrimonial law, I have followed with interest Camilla Cavendish’s “crusade” about the apparent iniquities perpetrated by the caring agencies and Family Courts when dealing with vulnerable children. In short, she asserts in no uncertain terms that the Law is letting down British children.

I must confess that I have never heard of Camilla Cavendish, so I cannot comment on her level of expertise in this difficult field, nor the reliability of her extensive researches. However, I can comment based on my own experiences, and in my opinion, many of her fears in practice are groundless.

I start with a self evident truth. Any child being abused by its parents must be removed without delay to a place of safety, and any child not being abused by its parents should remain with them, assuming a safe and secure family environment. That said, the caring agencies, and many find themselves under attack in these articles, are between a rock and a hard place. If they act precipitately, as perceived by Ms. Cavendish, they are roundly condemned as unfeeling and incompetent, and if they don’t act quickly enough, or not at all, there is a dead child to lament. So if I have to make the choice, I prefer precipitate action than no action at all.

The problem with “crusades,” now taken up in The Times leader today, is that they can unwittingly distort the truth by their very partiality, and nobody can accuse Ms. Cavendish of being impartial. She obviously feels strongly about injustices, real or imagined, and by inviting her readers to join her “crusade,” she and those of like mind will simply repeat her mantra.

Returning to my own professional experiences, I am quite satisfied that in Care and Adoption proceedings, everybody involved gets their chance to speak and make representations. The in depth reports from Social Services, CAFCASS, psychologists, psychiatrists, and the children’s Guardian ad Litem are disclosed to all parties well in advance of each hearing. The authors of these reports are always available in court to be questioned and challenged.

The Guardian’s role is essential, in that he or she is there to protect the best interests of the children who are the subject of care or adoption proceedings, and where they are old enough to express their own views, these are included in the Guardian’s report.

The judge, invariably a senior circuit judge, has a wealth of experience to bring to these proceedings, and nothing goes through “on the nod”. It is absurd to suggest that any application is well founded simply because it is made. It is subjected to the closest scrutiny.

I turn now to Ms. Cavendish’s two main complaints about the system, firstly that court proceedings are held in camera, and secondly that the judgment of the court is rarely made public. I agree with the present position, which denies access to the press and public. Proceedings involving children are always sensitive, and if parties are to be encouraged to speak frankly about sensitive matters, they are more likely to do so in private than in public.

As to her second complaint, I have some sympathy, particularly where the judgment of the court is subsequently challenged, and I would advocate making all judgments public unless they are compelling reasons to the contrary. However, each case must be considered on its own particular facts.

The one substantial complaint I have as a practitioner is the delay between the initial application and final judgment. The arguments in support of the present drawn out system revolve around the need for thorough and in depth research, that no stone should remain unturned. And Amen to that. But the system can, and must, be improved. It is unacceptable that CAFCASS takes up to sixteen weeks to prepare a report, and much the same criticism can be levelled at Social Services. The courts must also play their part. Sensitive cases involving children must be listed as a priority, and a much better and tighter timetabling regime introduced.

As for Ms. Cavendish, I do not question her motives or the zeal she brings to her “crusade,” but methinks the lady doth protest too much!