The High Court decision in Re J and K (Children : Private Law) 2014
Another judgment from Pauffley J – not remarkable on the facts, nor indeed on the law, and I suspect it is one that might not have been published were it not for the transparency guidance. But it is another good judgment, and remarkable in that a set of private law litigation, which began in 2003 and involved 24 court hearings finally ended with agreement.
This opening is worth reading, for a start
This private law dispute demonstrates a number of phenomena. Firstly, that it is sometimes possible to achieve real and substantial progress as the result of the hearing itself. Secondly, that there can be incalculable benefits from the simple exercise of parents giving evidence and, just as importantly, listening to the evidence of others. Thirdly, that proceedings which begin in an atmosphere of adversity may swiftly evolve into an exercise in constructive collaboration. Fourthly, that protracted litigation over children is profoundly harmful to everyone concerned. And fifthly, that the involvement of skilled and insightful professionals – in this instance Miss Wiley, Ms Bushell and Mr Kirkwood – has immeasurable advantages in (a) achieving a better understanding of the genesis of past problems and (b) assisting parents to an infinitely more constructive way of working together for the benefit of their children.
The Judge tried, in this case, to understand, and describe why it was that two loving, caring and kind parents had ended up in a horribly conflicted and contentious bout of litigation that lasted so long. It is worth a read, if you advise parents in this position, or if you are finding yourself in this position. It is possible to get sucked into a fight that neither side really intended – there doesn’t have to be a good guy and a bad guy in family cases. Sometimes everyone is a decent person and a good parent, and a wrong turning just gets made and the case escalates into something nobody wanted.
Why did the problems arise?
- So why did things go so badly wrong for this couple such that there was serious and persistent disagreement even although there has never been a valid welfare argument against ongoing contact? Peeling away the layers of mistrust and antipathy has been both painful for the parents but also, I would say, illuminating. In addition, it has been, as Mr Kirkwood so rightly says, cathartic. And the best demonstration of that is the scene he witnessed at lunch time on Wednesday when all the family members were together in the coffee shop, standing around and chatting.
- To revert to the reasons for the difficulties, I would identify the following as having contributed to the atmosphere of hostility. The twins were alarmingly small when delivered – less than 3 lbs each – and had to stay in hospital for 8 weeks. Their mother had been ill herself in the period prior to their birth. Thereafter, the boys were not physically robust for a couple of years. The mother, entirely understandably, was intensely protective of them as was their closely involved maternal grandmother. It must have been a time of enormous stress and anxiety for the whole family, particularly the mother whose attachment to the babies, of necessity, was of the most concentrated kind.
- The father felt excluded to an extent though he would say he always did his best to support the mother and his children. During the twins’ first year, the long standing relationship between the parents ended. Doubtless there was disappointment and a sense of loss on both sides. Inevitably, the maternal grandmother would not have been inclined to give the father ‘a good press’ at that time or indeed in the years that followed. Clearly, she had views about his actions in the earliest months of the boys’ lives which were highly unflattering and, I would have to say, very hurtful to him.
- In the years that followed, the father’s applications to court – his efforts to ensure he played a proper fatherly role in the boys’ lives – were seen as “attacks” upon the mother. Doubtless she was strongly encouraged, by successive CAFCASS officers and judges, to play her part in ensuring the smooth progress of a developing contact routine. Her husband and the children’s father are very different individuals. By trying to do right by her husband, there must have been times when she did wrong by the children’s father. She was criticised for the way in which contact handovers were undertaken at the children’s schools. She complained to various bodies when she believed her behaviour had been wrongly reported as having been confrontational. When a suggestion was made by Cafcass that her actions may have had a psychological or psychiatric component requiring of expert advice, she responded defensively. There was, as it is all too easy to see now, a downward spiral of alarming dimensions.
- If there was one thing that the parents seemingly failed to do for all of the years they were in dispute, it was that they did not consider the impact upon the other – and the children themselves – of their actions. A prime example of that lack of empathy and its harmful impact was the regularly repeated performance at the children’s schools on a Friday afternoon when the handover was effected. It was easily done; and could, with the benefit of hindsight, have been so straightforwardly avoided as the mother conceded in evidence.
- For his part, I have no doubt but that the father had not considered the repercussions for the mother and her very respectable, well ordered and closely governed family of repeated court appearances. I am sure they became almost too much for her to bear; and the impact upon the children was a sense that their mother was under attack. They are and were both incredibly loyal to and, said the mother’s husband, fiercely protective of her. He could see though that the boys would have been far better off had they not been inappropriately exposed to the detail of the adults’ dispute.
- I am hopeful, very hopeful, that for the future similar mistakes will not be made; and that, as Ms Bushell suggested, the mother and her husband will be able to parent the boys authoritatively. There is very little which frightens children more than an absence of appropriate parental guidance and firm boundaries about the things in life which matter most.
I think that it is also worth drawing specific attention to the praise that the Judge gave to Ms Bushell, who acted as the McKenzie Friend for the father. McKenzie Friends are a bit like Environment Ministers – you only usually know who they are when they are getting told off, but the reality is that 99% of the time they are silently getting on with it and doing very good work. I have been lucky enough, in the writing of this blog, to come into contact with some very good and thoughful McKenzie Friends, and it is a role that requires all of the qualities praised here by the Judge.
So, it is nice to see a case that recognises that McKenzie Friends can be a powerful force for good and common sense. (It is also worth noting that the mother’s counsel was acting pro bono – which is a way of masking by clever use of Latin to your clerks and bank manager that you are doing work for free)
- Ms Bushell has acted as the father’s McKenzie friend. Her background is in social work; her experience of the family justice system as a former guardian is extensive. I had no problem in agreeing that she should perform the role of speaking for the father, asking questions of him and on his behalf. Ms Bushell explained that the father is a shy man who would have encountered considerable difficulty if left to conduct the advocacy on his own. Having seen him give evidence, I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. He is also, unsurprisingly given what he had lived through, extremely emotional, and would not have managed the advocacy task unaided.
- Miss Wiley is a member of the Bar with very considerable experience of high conflict private law disputes as well public law Children Act and inherent jurisdiction cases. She enjoys a reputation, deservedly, for diligence, economy, realism and innovative thought. She responded with immense generosity and in the very best traditions of the Bar when she accepted the invitation to act pro bono for the mother. Minor adjustments were made to the court’s sitting time on Wednesday to accommodate another one of her professional commitments in the High Court. Miss Wiley’s questions of her own client as well as of the father demonstrated just how well she understands the dynamics of a dispute of this kind. Her wisdom and emotional intelligence played a very large part in achieving so pleasing an outcome – not just as to the order itself but more importantly as to the shifts in attitude.
- Both parents were fortunate indeed for the professionalism and legal assistance provided by each of their ‘representatives.’ But of greater significance still, it seems to me, they were in the hands of individuals unafraid to show kindness, generosity and with a desire to help others.