The show recently came to our attention from a headline in the soaps section of the Metro published on 30 August 2022.
Put yourself in the shoes of the regular punter demographic of ‘Enders and, if you didn’t know any better, you might come away feeling confused and anxious; not just at the powers that ‘Social Services’ hold but also as to the function and purpose of the legal aid lawyers involved.
Metro reports an ‘Eastenders spoiler’ of Linda punching Janine after Linda’s baby is removed from her care. To do a deeper dive, I’ve watched several episodes tracing this storyline, my own spoiler alert being that I haven’t watched regularly since 1994 so please forgive omissions…
A little background context to this thread: Linda is a single parent of two, a boy around 6/7 and a baby called Annie (maybe a year old who is just starting to walk). She has recently been convicted of drink driving (not for the first time) with the baby in the car and, after an impassioned plea when expecting to serve some prison time, Linda is given a sentence of community service and costs. The baby has a fall that day in The Old Vic pub witnessed by others, she is picked up and dusted off by her mum with no obvious injuries. Linda is supported emotionally and financially by her ex-husband Mick (the inimitable Danny Dyer), Mick is father to her son but not the baby. Mick’s girlfriend is resident ‘baddie’ Janine Butcher. Janine is jealous of the old relationship and conspires to set Linda up by placing empty vodka bottles where Linda lives and blackmailing someone living with Linda to put in a call about child welfare concerns relating to the baby to ‘The Social’. In my experience, clients often refer to them this way. So far, so accurate. The accuracy is short-lived:
Two social workers turn up to Linda’s and find the empty bottles planted around the house. The social workers identify a bruise on the baby and ask how she got it. For some reason Linda fails to mention the witnessed fall the baby has had in the pub earlier that day. The social workers say they would like to take her to the hospital to get her checked over more thoroughly, and her mother objects. In spite of this objection they swiftly remove the child and pop her in the car to go to hospital for medical inspection. The social worker reassures Linda saying, ‘If there’s nothing wrong the doctors will confirm that very quickly’ and implying the child might be returned after this hospital trip.
Linda vociferously objects and chases the car down the street, wailing. It would certainly be less exciting for Linda to have been able to go to hospital with them but then that well known exit drumbeat just wouldn’t have the same impact.
Let’s pick that scene apart a little: For a child to be lawfully removed from a parent, the process can happen in a couple of different ways. I’ve not personally seen or heard of a social worker removing a child from the family home without a court order, police powers of protection or the approval of a person with Parental Responsibility for the child. That is not to say that it has never happened.
The story continues with Linda and Mick travelling independently to the hospital where a doctor tells them they’ve found a number of bruises, not just on the baby’s arm but down her legs and ‘trunk’. The doctor says it needs to be investigated further and the social worker says they are removing Annie from her mother’s care whilst police undertake further investigation, saying, ‘She will be placed with experienced carers and social services will be in touch’. They add ‘She will be well looked after’ in ‘emergency foster care’. Cue any legal professionals/social workers shouting at their screens at home.
This cannot happen without some sort of legal oversight. It is not up to social services to decide alongside medical professionals that the baby will go to emergency foster care. They have to issue proceedings and take the matter to court quickly if there’s no agreement from parents. It is a judge who decides. And the parent has an automatic right to a lawyer paid for by the Legal Aid Agency. The parent, and the child separately (who is also represented independently of the local authority or parent through a Guardian) will all have lawyers who can put their client’s case at court before a decision is made about where the child should go.
Anyone watching this scene unfold who doesn’t know better might be terrified at the power the social workers seem to have here. It continues with the message being that she can’t see her other child, her son (who will be looked after by his father Mick) without supervision until ‘this’ is over. These inaccuracies do nothing to reassure those who already suspect the system of being bent towards ‘child snatching’ local authorities.
The story continues
Back to the show, and Linda suspects Janine of foul play. She goes straight over and lands a punch to Janine’s face and this is where the Metro headline kicks in as above.
At some point, we understand that a hair strand test for alcohol use is required and undertaken which clears Linda of the empty bottles charge, but the bruises leave cause for concern. Linda has a lawyer who Mick refers to as her ‘Brief’ (strictly speaking, that means barrister rather than solicitor, but ok), and levels criticism at the lawyer for not getting the hair strand test results back on time. Janine agrees the shoddy service is expected ‘if you pay peanuts….’
As mentioned, the reality is that Linda wouldn’t have been paying peanuts, she wouldn’t have been paying anything at all through Legal Aid. If you are a parent of the child or have parental responsibility of a child made subject to care proceedings, Legal Aid is automatically available. The added worry of having to fund your own lawyer, whether or not you have ‘peanuts’, is another inaccuracy which lumps unnecessary financial anxiety to the stress for anyone who might face proceedings. It’s an already distressing enough situation, ladies and gents of the writing team – try a little research!
The story goes on, and Mick offers to ‘have a word’ and carries on with the line that ‘the Social are still reviewing it’. As if it is just up to social services. It ain’t.
Let’s leave the view of social services as portrayed in Eastenders. UK social workers have had plenty of cause to complain about how they’re portrayed by this and other programmes – See ‘an open letter to Eastenders from BASW‘ in 2017, and new joint Impress and BASW guidelines on media reporting of social workers last month.
Legal representation in care proceedings
A closer inspection of the portrayal of the child protection lawyer is merited here.
The ‘Brief’ turns up for a conference with Linda at her home. Unusual. These meetings normally take place at solicitor’s offices or, most likely, post lockdown via video call these days. The lawyer is portrayed as slightly dishevelled, sweaty and wiping his nose. Presumably to reinforce the notion that paying peanuts gets you someone shoddy. He explains that if all goes well at the CMH (which is a Case Management Hearing in front of a judge), she might be able to have Annie back in her care, though that may not be the end of it.
At last! Mention of the judicial process is upon us… However, when Mick challenges the lawyer as to whether or not he believes Linda is innocent and the Brief responds that this is irrelevant, Mick takes this personally (as might be expected). The lawyer does eventually say he believes the client, but Mick calls him ‘spineless’ and suggests that Linda needs someone with ‘fire in their belly’, like Tom Cruise in the movie ‘A Few Good Men’. He offers to pay privately for a new lawyer.
When they get to court with their version of Tom Cruise, in conference she tells them social services haven’t got a case and ‘You’re paying me to win’. They come out of court, seemingly triumphant with the lawyer saying there is now a Child in Need plan which Linda needs to work with. Linda says, ‘you totally wiped the floor with them; and the lawyer responds, ‘the amount he’s paying me, I should hope so’.
In theory, a parent could dispense with their legal aid lawyer and pay privately for someone. I’ve not seen it done, but it’s not to say it can’t happen. In my view, you’d be absolutely crazy to do it, or maybe a billionaire. I’m not sure Mick from Eastenders is either.
Are there injustices done to innocent parents where children are wrongly removed? There are.
Are there some slightly rubbish practitioners in family law out there? Yep.
But from what I’ve seen, around 90% of practitioners representing parents show not just ‘fire in their belly’ but internal infernos of liquid hot magma, fighting tooth and nail, working very long (mostly unpaid) hours over late nights and weekends to do the best job possible for clients in need, whatever their personal views of the case they must run. Those conferences between advocates outside the courtroom do not shy away from confrontation and outrage (conducted, for the most part, with professionalism and respect) nor do these practitioners back down in front of the judiciary when challenged. Some judges are pretty scary. Even to us.
The system is creaking and on its knees. It has many failings but, in my view, this storyline is a classic case of good drama usurping reality.
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Feature Pic : Tim Abbot on Flickr (Creative Commons – thanks)