This judgment published last week on The National Archives – FW v MJ [2024]EWFC 33 (B) caught our eye because it’s unusual for a judgment by a district judge to be published. The reasons for the low numbers were investigated by a TIG (Transparency Implementation Group) subgroup in 2022 – you can read that report here. This followed the President’s proposal that all judges (including DJs) should publish 10% of their judgments, which now seems to be impractical and has been replaced with a recommendation that DJs should publish at least five judgments a year.

We noted that this judgment was delivered on 22 February 2024 at Reading, which is not a Reporting PIlot court, but that a journalist was in attendance.

While we don’t know anything about this case other than what is contained in the judgment, it does have some complex features, which we’ll highlight in this post.

History of the case

This is a contact dispute in respect of a five year old that’s been going on for more than two years. At this hearing, both the mother and father were represented by barristers and there was a bundle of documents of more than 360 pages. The same judge, DJ Sophie Harrison, had conducted a fact-finding hearing in December 2022. The child lives with the mother, and the father was applying for increased contact – he was seeing the child regularly with supported, but not supervised, contact at a centre. At a hearing in June 2023, this contact was varied to extend to some unsupervised contact ‘in the community’.

Findings of fact about domestic abuse

The district judge had made findings of fact about the father’s use of steroids and cannabis. There were some very serious findings:

The mother and D, and S as a new baby, lived in an environment of coercive behaviour from the father with a pattern of acts of threats and intimidation used to harm and frighten the mother, and the mother was emotionally traumatised by frightening and aggressive behaviour from the father.

There had also been a number of incidents of sexual assault of the mother by the father.

The Cafcass safeguardng report before the court stated that the father had a number of criminal convictions, including one for rape (not of the mother) some 15 years ago, for which he had served a prison sentence.

Issues before the court

  • the further progression, if any, of S’s time with F, including at his home and how, if appropriate, contact should progress to S spending time with F overnight and whether a schedule for progression of contact should be specified in an order,
  • the courses completed by F and whether they allow the court to order any progression of contact,
  • exact arrangements for handover longer term,
  • whether any refinements are required for contact and arrangements for the same on special days and during holiday times.

The father wanted to see more of the child, including overnight stays at his home. The mother wanted the contact to be further restricted.

While the possibility of the father posing a risk to the child could not be ruled out, there was also evidence that the father and child enjoyed a very good relationship.

The court’s decision

The judge had directed a section 7 report from Cafcass. This report concluded that the father needed to complete a DAPP (Domestic Abuse Perpetrators Programme) before more contact could be considered:

[the Cafcass officer] does not consider that contact can progress for S to her father’s home or overnight, whilst there is an unaddressed risk of domestic abuse. Contact in the daytime in a public place, in her view, adequately mitigates this risk. Ms Jones was concerned that ending contact now between S and F would of itself cause S harm, given their established attachment and positive relationship. She viewed contact in a centre as somewhat artificial for S, who needs the normality of the community contact that seems to be working well for her.

Apparently there is a DAP programme near Reading, but it only takes on clients who have been out of court proceedings for at least a year.

The judge concluded:

Throughout this long and difficult process, S’s mother has provided her with excellent care, kept her safe and put S’s needs first. S is fortunate to have the benefit of a relationship with her father, who loves her very much, and this relationship will help S understand her own unique identity as she grows up. I commend M for her decision-making throughout these proceedings which, in my judgement, has achieved a safe and beneficial outcome for S.

The order I will make as the final order in these proceedings is as follows: order for S to continue to live with her mother (already agreed and recorded as a final order) order for S to spend time with her father on alternate weekends in the community on a Saturday between 10am and 5pm

3.a recital that F is expected to access and complete a DAPP (or its successor) before making an application to increase the time S spends with him.

Media reporting

This paragraph in the judgment may be helpful to reporters considering attendance in other non-pilot courts:

An accredited representative of the press, Ms Martin, attended the final hearing, which was held in private. Applying FPR 2010 r 27.11, having invited short submissions from the parties, I permitted Ms Martin to remain in the court room, and reminded all those in court of the applicable reporting restrictions under the Administration of Justice Act 1960, s 12 and the Children Act 1989, s 97(2). Ms Martin sent an email to the court office at around midday, forwarded to me during the short adjournment, for permission to read the hearing bundle and indicating that she would seek for the reporting restrictions to be lifted. I confirmed, when the hearing resumed at 2pm, that a formal application would be required for access to documents and/or the lifting of reporting restrictions and that any such application, if made, should be referred by the court office to me and I would give directions for it to be considered on notice to the parties. The court must perform a proper balancing exercise of the relevant Article 10 and Article 8 rights before making these decisions.

Assuming an application was then made, the decision on lifting restrictions may still be awaited or may have been refused, as we’ve not yet seen any reporting that matches this case.

Image – Reading County Court – thanks to Smuconlaw at Wikimedia Commons

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