Before new guidance from February 2014 (the Transparency Guidance), it was extremely rare for a judgment from a ‘routine’ family court case, outside of the High Court, raising no point of particular legal interest, to be placed in the public domain by being published (anonymously) online.
Since then there has been a dramatic rise in publication of such cases so that families, litigants in person, the press and the public at large may begin to understand the sort of situations family court Judges are routinely dealing with; and how and why decisions are made.
The idea was that ‘ordinary’ cases of the highest importance to individual children and families are also important in terms of the public interest in knowing what happens to safeguard children in their name, with public money, in the family courts and why. Decisions to remove children permanently from parents, including to place them for adoption are among those now specified as (normally) to be treated as sufficiently important to the public interest as to be published (Schedule 1 of paragraph 17 of the Guidance).
Echoing that idea, this blog simply seeks to highlight one such published ‘ordinary’ family court judgment, that provides a sad example of the devastating impact of drug addiction and dealing, on the lives of children and families.
We were alerted to it by His Honour Judge Wildblood’s introduction of Bath and North East Somerset Council v the mother & Ors  EWFC B10 (27 February 2017) as showing the truly pitiful plight of a mother caught up in drug addiction.
Evidence shows that substance abuse is one among several major recurring parental vulnerabilities leading to care proceedings, so in that sense it is very much ‘typical’. Plainly at another level no case of such importance to children and families is ever ‘routine’, ‘typical’ or ‘ordinary’ at all.
The judgment explains the final decisions made on the future of 4 children aged 3, 6, 9 and (around) 13 years of age, after removal from their mother’s care due to sustained neglect. Their mother had been addicted to Class A drugs (including heroin and (crack) cocaine) for 17 years. Their fathers were variously unavailable to them. Over the first 9 months of lengthy care proceedings their mother remained enmeshed with her youngest sons abusive, drug dealing father; attended contact sporadically; and failed to engage with drug treatment, or the parenting or specialist psychiatric assessments arranged for her. Just 2 months before the final hearing she successfully embarked on residential detoxification and treatment. She had herself been in care, having been beyond her parents control and was addicted to Class A drugs by the age of 20.
There were no viable alternate family placements for any of the children. The 2 middle children’s fathers were disengaged or unknown. The father of the eldest was in rehabilitation while the father of the youngest had just begun a long prison sentence for serious drug offences. All of the children had significant, complex, unmet needs as a result of disruption and sustained neglect. In the case of the youngest this included 5 placements by the age of 3. The eldest was already permanently excluded from school, with a significant history of drug use, sexual activity and involvement in crime. Final care orders were made for all 4 children. Placement orders were also made for the youngest 3 on the basis that a short search for a viable adoption of the middle 2 children was intended before reversion to a plan for long term fostering if required.
His Honour Judge Widlblood concluded with these final words:
I wish to end with these final words:
- I am very sorry indeed to be the one who has to cause so much pain to this mother by making those orders.
- If, in later life, any of the younger children should read this judgment I would wish them to know that nothing that has happened to them is their fault. How could it be? Their mother loves them hugely but has just not be able to care for them in the way that she wants. She has had enormous difficulties in her own life and I hope that they will view her with the same sympathy that I do.
- This case is a very clear example of the damage that drugs can do. People like this father are all too keen to profit from the drugs market but the damage that is done through drug distribution can be seen in the decimation of this family. What to some vulnerable or impressionable people may seem cool in their teens or early twenties leads to this dreadful type of picture in later life. I hope that there is sufficient education so that this type of potential ruination is known.
The Family Drug and Alcohol Court
Perhaps it’s worth noting that the FDAC model (which research suggests achieves better outcomes) doesn’t seem to have been available in this local authority as yet. We are not suggesting this would necessarily have made any difference in the individual case, particularly given that the care proceedings ran for 9 months rather than being concluded within the 26 week target time frame. See R (A Child: Care Order)  EWHC 364 (Fam) for a recently published case where FDAC wasn’t enough and a plan for adoption was made.
The Family drug and alcohol court national unit evaluation was published by the Department for Education on 24 January 2017. See the useful FDAC national headquarters existing sites list here here for where FDAC is currently operating.
Radio 4 last week on the impact of drugs
Radio 4 also focused on the decimation of drug addiction on families last week from the perspective of one family’s experience of their young adult daughters heroin addiction:
- Interviews with her mother are here (including about the struggle to obtain a methadone prescription for her in time after she was sentenced to a drug rehabilitation requirement for testing, a methadone programme, specialist group work, and a curfew and tag at their home).
The Guardian last week on some of the difficulties facing drug treatment organisations
See also this Guardian report last week: Drug addiction isn’t going away so why are treatment centres being slashed? in which an anonymous drugs worker explains the impact of pressure to meet performance targets about treatment drop out rates on rationalizing who is chosen for treatments and how long people must wait.
The number of ‘routine’ family court cases being published is small compared to the number of judgments being made; and evidence is only just starting to be available on how much of an impact publication is having on the amount or quality of reporting of cases, let alone on any improved public understanding of the family courts. Nor is there consensus about what might work better. Nevertheless, better access to an understanding of ‘ordinary’ cases of such vital importance to children, families and society (and the societal difficulties lying behind them) is key to any aim of meaningful transparency in the family justice system.