An interesting case, on a topic I don’t think has been previously adjudicated on. The case was dealt with by the Romford County Court, and I think handled with a great deal of sensitivity by the Judge, and who did something at the end of the judgment that I thought was quite quite excellent.
Re C (A Child)  EW Misc 15 (CC)
The child, C, was 10 ½ years old. Her parents were separated. Both had been of the Jewish faith, although the father underwent a religious experience and converted to Christianity. All four grandparents were Jewish. The parents following the separation had arrived at a shared parenting arrangement, alternating care on a weekly basis.
During some time with her father, C went to a Christian festival and on her return told him that she too had had a religious experience and wanted to be baptised as a Christian.
There was a dispute in the evidence about this as to whether father was pushing the child into it and making secret arrangements (mother’s case) or whether he was cautious and careful and wanted C to spend some real time thinking about it and discussed it with the mother (father’s case)
In any event, the mother made an application for a Prohibited Steps Order.
A CAFCASS officer reported, and ascertained that C had thought about things very carefully and had very firm and clear wishes about wanting to be baptised. The report was something of a curate’s egg, recommending both that C’s wishes be listened to and that the decision be postponed for two years.
The Court rejected all of the assertions that mother made that the father had been ‘brainwashing’ the child or taken secret steps to arrange a baptism class behind mother’s back.
One of the issues the mother cited was this text message from father, which she claimed was proof that the baptism issue was being driven firmly by father
23. “Can I suggest that you speak to C thoroughly before you write your statement to the court and consider how you (and your parents) actions will sit with her before you continue with this. I re-spoke with her a few times and she is absolutely adamant that she wants to be baptised. If she wasn’t I would not have continued, but she is absolutely dead set. Don’t damage your relationship with her any further by being the mother who didn’t talk and listen to her.
I’m asking you to consider this for C’s sake and also for your sake (by which I mean for the sake of your relationship with her). I have made a promise to C that I will fight for the right for her to practise and grow in her faith, and so can’t back down. …”
I have to say that mother’s reading of that text was not mine, and it was not the Judge’s either
I do not accept that the text message from the father which the mother has exhibited to her statement shows that it is the father who is driving this application and that it is his idea that C should be baptised. Of course as a committed Christian he wishes to do all he can to support her wish in this regard. That is only natural, but I accept his evidence that faith is a free gift from God to his daughter and not something which he would ever try to force upon her. His cautious, patient and sensitive approach to dealing with C’s request over the past nine months strongly supports his case on this point.
The Judge was critical of mother making the application for Prohibited Steps as an ex parte application – she had claimed that there was about to be a secret baptism and thus she had to rush to Court. (There is a nice exchange of letters between the Rabbi and the Minister about this, set out within the judgment)
I do not accept the validity of the reasons put forward by the mother for making her without notice application. It was wholly wrong for her not to have checked either with the father or with his Minister to discover the truth before applying to the court. There simply was no immediate danger. This has had serious consequences. She obtained her order on an assertion of fact that both children has secretly been enrolled in baptism classes without her knowledge or consent which was simply untrue.
On the issue of whether a decision should wait for two years, the Judge decided this
- I have made it clear to the parties that I have no power to order C to be baptised. That is as decision for the Minister of her church to take in the light of his evaluation of her understanding and commitment, so far as he judges those criteria to be relevant. My powers are limited to considering whether the father should be prohibited from taking any positive steps towards his daughter’s baptism and in terms of any specific issues order directing that such steps may be taken without the consent of the mother.
- The issue of delay is an important factor in this case. Since C herself first raised the issue ten months has passed and just over five months since the issue came to a head in November 2011. That is a long time in a child’s life. The court has received all the relevant information to make an informed decision but is now being asked by the Cafcass officer to delay that decision for a further two years with no guarantee then of a decision being appropriate to be made. The court is also being asked by the mother to delay making that decision for a further five and a half years when C will be sixteen.
- The only possible justification for that delay would be that the court is not satisfied that C has sufficient maturity and understanding to take such an important step in her life. I could see some justification for taking that course if the court could be sure that at age twelve and a half C will be sufficiently more mature to make a decision which her parents would have to respect. But that is not the mother’s primary position. She in effect reserves her position to continue to argue that even at that age C will still be too immature to decide. If the court is against her now on waiting to age sixteen she reluctantly accepts the Cafcass recommendation.
- The advantage of any delay has in any event to be weighed against the risk of further emotional harm being suffered by C waiting for the decision to be made.
- I am satisfied that a decision must be made now for two reasons. The first is that in my judgment a decision to delay carries a significant risk of emotional harm to the child. The second is that upon consideration of all the evidence there is no proper purpose in any delay. I am satisfied that C has already reached a sufficient degree of maturity and understanding to make a properly informed decision. In this respect I disagree with the Cafcass recommendation so I must explain why.
- The first reason is that the author of the report does not herself make any recommendation. Since the report was specifically directed towards ascertaining the wishes and feelings of the child I make no criticism of the author on that account. The suggestion for delay comes from her line Manager who has never herself met or spoken to the child. The second reason is that the report gives no reason why the decision should be delayed.
- The third reason is that the report writer gives no indication of any concern on her part about the lack of maturity of the child. On the contrary she notes, as confirmed by the parents, that C is a bright articulate child who was able clearly to express her views and give reasons for them. The final reason is that C has maintained a consistent wish to be baptised for over ten months in the face of opposition from her mother and has been able to give age appropriate reasons for her decision, a factor which the line Manager does not appear to have taken into account
The Court also took into account that the baptism would not have any irrevocable impact on C’s ability to follow her Jewish faith in later life (it would have been interesting had the roles here been reversed)
And thus the Court declined to make the Prohibited Steps order and indicated that there was no reason why C could not be baptised if that was what she wished and that the Minister who would be undertaking the ceremony was content (he ordered that the judgment could be disclosed)
The very last part of the judgment was, I think, a very nice touch, and something worth considering for other cases with children of this age and understanding – the Judge wrote an open letter to the child
80. Dear C,
It must seem rather strange for me to write to you when we have never met but I have heard a lot about you from your parents and it has been my job to make an important decision about your future.
Sometimes parents simply cannot agree on what is best for their child but they can’t both be right. Your father thinks it is right for you to be baptised as a Christian now. Your mother wants you to wait until you are older so they have asked me to decide for them. That is my job.
I have listened to everything your mother and father have wanted to say to me about this and also to what you wanted to tell me. You have done that by speaking to the Cafcass lady and she has passed on to me what you said to her. That has made my job much easier and I want to thank you for telling me so clearly why you want to be baptised now. It is important for me to know how you feel.
My job is to decide simply what is best for you and I have decided that the best thing for you is that you are allowed to start your baptism classes as soon as they can be arranged and that you are baptised as a Christian as soon as your Minister feels you are ready.
Being baptised does not mean that you give up your Jewish heritage. That will always be part of you and I hope that you will continue to learn more about that heritage and about you mother’s faith. Even after you are baptised you are still free to change your mind about your faith later when you are older. Finally, and this is the most important thing, both your mother and father will carry on loving you just as much whatever happens about your baptism.
I understand that the past few months have been a difficult time for you but that is over now and the decision is made. I send you my very best wishes for the future.
Judge John Platt