The transparency Reporting Pilot, launched a year ago in just three courts, has recently been expanded to a further 16 courts, one of which is East London Family Court. As that court is within easy reach by public transport, I decided to investigate its potential for legal blogging. My first visit (I hope to go back again soon) was rewarded with two short hearings, in both of which a final judgment was given, gift-wrapped with a Transparency Order apiece, enabling me to write them up straight away.

Both cases reached, I would say, a happy ending, with children being returned to a parent who had been adjudged capable of looking after them, subject to the safety net of a supervision order in favour of the local authority.

An uncertain welcome

The court is reached via a windswept parade, a short walk eastwards from Canary Wharf tube and DLR station. The area is dominated by the tall buildings of the City’s relocated financial centre – though I once worked for a newspaper (The Independent) that then had its offices here too. These tall buildings probably contribute to the wind tunnel effect, which caused my hat to blow off as I walked along the road last week. (Luckily I managed to catch it before it spun off into the Thames.)

Unlike many traditional court buildings, East London Family Court has no grand public entrance. It is not in a gleaming tower of finance, but rather a nondescript low rise office block. There is no pillared portico, no grand steps or architectural iconography to induce a  sense of awe in the visitor. It’s just a small side door, with a plain steel plaque outside. Once inside, there is a short sideways step into the security room where bags are manually checked and humans must pass through a metal detector portal.

But first I was challenged as to what case I was in, on the assumption I must be a party or their lawyer. I’m here as a legal blogger, I explained. The guard then asked for my “MOJ card”. He meant, presumably, the press card accreditation that news journalists are expected to have, when attending a private family court hearing under the current rules. But I don’t have such a card. I am, however, a qualified lawyer working for a legal charity. If I can produce evidence of this (a letter from the Transparency Project) and a Form FP301 (or one for each case I intend to cover), then I can attend a private hearing under the rules as a legal blogger. (Just to be on the safe side I also have a copy of my Call Certificate from Middle Temple.) I explained all this, showed the paperwork to the guard, and after a short call up to the court office, where he told me to report to, he let me in.

I assumed this fairly stringent level of challenge was evidence of the fact that the Reporting Pilot had only recently been extended to this court; and although I later discovered from one of the judge’s clerks that some news reporters had come in during its first week, it seems I was probably their first legal blogger. At any rate, the office staff seemed unfamiliar with the process, though very helpful once I’d explained.

The courts are arranged along two slightly maze-like corridors on the sixth and seventh floors of the office building. I went to the court office as instructed and showed them my paperwork. Then the judge’s clerk came to fetch me and introduced me to the lawyers in the first case. Everyone was friendly, no one objected to my presence, and before long I received by email a copy of the Transparency Order drafted for the judge’s approval.

The first case

The first case concerned a little girl, now aged 3, who had been the subject of protracted legal proceedings lasting almost her entire life. At a previous judgment, in April 2023, Judge Reardon had declined to make the placement order then sought by the local authority, Redbridge LBC, concluding that the facts did not support adoption. The child was then in foster care, but was subsequently allowed increased time with the mother to assess the feasibility of a return to the mother’s care. That had clearly gone well, and the social worker’s statement and guardian’s report expressed no concerns. The local authority had subsequently changed its position and agreed to a transition plan for the child to live with her mother. It was now applying for a supervision order.

Such a public law order could only be made if it was justified in law, said Judge Reardon. The threshold for the court’s intervention under section 31 of the Children Act 1989 (a risk of significant harm to the child) had been met on the basis of events occurring a long time ago. But the focus of these proceedings was on the mother’s current parenting capacity. The mother had experienced local authority involvement in her own childhood and had found motherhood difficult and stressful, especially during the covid lockdowns. She had needed considerable support with her parenting, but had shown an ability to learn and improve and take on advice.

Despite the time spent in foster care, the daughter had developed a strong relationship with the mother, thanks in part to the support of the foster carer. The child’s sense of security in her mother’s care had been enhanced and it was clear that she was best placed permanently with her. But there were problems with housing, which the local authority was trying to resolve, and the mother had a new partner, with whom she was expecting another child. There was a need for ongoing local authority involvement, so it was necessary and proportionate to make a supervision order.

Having so concluded, the judge made a 12-month supervision order. This was basically what everyone wanted and supported. As Susan George, counsel for the guardian said, “This is the kind of outcome we all like to see.” 

The second case

The second case involved an application for a supervision order, subsequent to an earlier interim care order. This one came before District Judge Coupland. The case concerned two little boys, age 4 and 7, and whether they could now live with their father. However, in this case both the father and mother, who were separated, opposed the making of a supervision order, even for a reduced period of six months.

The relationship between the mother and father had been volatile. The mother had made allegations of domestic abuse against the father, which she had later withdrawn. The mother had mental health problems and was for a period detained under the Mental Health Act 1983, though later discharged. She had anxiety and self-esteem issues. The father had also had a psychological assessment, which suggested some narcissism and borderline personality disorder. A parenting assessment had shown a negative attitude. He found it difficult to work with social workers. He did not accept that he needed assistance.

Meanwhile the court had made an interim care order, and the boys had been placed in foster care. But since the summer of 2023, under supervised contact with the boys, the father’s parenting had become more positive. He had shown warmth and affection, playing cricket with the boys. He had shown a willingness to examine his own conduct and accepted that his earlier attitude had not been good. He had attended a parenting course. But a comprehensive support plan was still needed. The mother was not in a position to provide the children with safe and consistent parenting, and the local authority had now formed the view that the children should live with their father, underpinned by a supervision order.

There had also been a problem with the father’s accommodation. That had now been resolved by the father securing suitable housing in Newham, and he had recently moved there. At a previous hearing, the interim care orders had been discharged and a child arrangements order made in the father’s favour. But pending resolution of the housing issue, the boys had remained in foster care, with the father’s agreement under section 20 of the Children Act. Once his new housing had been approved by the local authority and guardian, the boys had been able to move in with him. That had happened a week ago.

The question now was whether a supervision order should be made, to support the father’s parenting, and if so for how long. There was no dispute that the threshold conditions had been met. The local authority sought a 12-month supervision order, while the boys’ guardian contended that a 6-month order would be sufficient. However, both parents opposed any supervision order at all.

The boys needed a stable home without fear of harm or disruption. The assessment suggested that the risks could be managed but had not disappeared. The father clearly had a distrust of professionals within the local authority, but he would no longer have to work with Redbridge and the judge was not persuaded the same obstacle would prevent the father working constructively with Newham, who would be managing his case from now on.

The father had improved his parenting and demonstrated an ability to meet the children’s needs, for which he deserved huge credit. But the case was not without risk, and ongoing support was needed. For these and other reasons, the judge concluded that it was necessary and proportionate in this case to make a supervision order. He would make the order for six months, but if the father failed to work constructively with Newham LBC, in whose favour the order would be made, it could be extended at the end of that six-month period.  Subject to that, these proceedings were now (happily) concluded.

We have a small favour to ask! 

The Transparency Project is a registered charity in England & Wales run largely by volunteers who also have full-time jobs. We’re working hard to secure extra funding so that we can keep making family justice clearer for all who use the court and work within it.

Our legal bloggers take time out at their own expense to attend courts and to write up hearings.

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Thanks for reading!

Featured image: Photo by Paul M