Reported cases in private law where serious allegations of sexual harm are made against a father against a backdrop of separation and acrimony and disputes over the children are becoming more common. They are always extremely difficult. And these days, more and more, they may begin as private law cases but end up as public law cases.
The Court is generally left with four choices when faced with allegations of this kind
- The allegations against father are true, with all the consequences that that will mean for his relationship with the children
- The allegations are not true, but they were an honest mistake (with the hope that once the Court has given that judgment, everyone can move on)
- The allegations are not true, and they were made with the honest belief of the mother that they were true (again, with the same hope as above)
- The allegations have been fabricated by the mother with the intention of hurting father and frustrating his contact.
In this case, Hampshire County Council v Mother and Others 2014, there are two linked judgments.
The first http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCC/Fam/2013/B19.html was in December 2013 and was the finding of fact judgment.
That concluded that the allegations against father were not true, and that mother had played a part in bringing them about
My finding is that while Mother has indeed been the victim of her psychological problems, she has also consciously created some of the allegations here. I have been told that the Guardian is also of the view that there is a combined explanation for the allegations. The timing between contact re-starting and the next allegation being made is too much of a co-incidence for there not to have been some volition on her part. There are also examples of Mother embellishing stories as – the addition of the alleged threat of self harm she over-heard Child make to a nurse or doctor on the 31st August when she was questioned about it by MG is a good example.
It must be understood by Mother that her allegations that Father has sexually abused Child have been found to be totally unfounded, created by her both unconsciously and consciously. She must also understand that what she has done has been hugely emotionally damaging to Child, who will take a long time to recover her own psychological equilibrium, even with her Father’s help. She must never allow herself to make such allegations again, or she will risk never seeing her daughter.
An interim care order had been made in October 2013, placing the girl in foster care.
The second judgment http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B126.html
relates to the final decisions in the case, mother having been given six months of time to reflect on the findings and move forward.
Sadly, she had not been able to do so. That led to the child being placed with the father, that mother would have seven contacts per year and that there was a s91(14) order meaning that mother would be unable to make any further applications to Court without leave.
(The Court note in that analysis that it is not lawful to attach conditions to a s91(14) order but did agree that it would help to tell mother the sort of changes that she would need to be making for such leave to be granted)
One of the difficult features in this case was that mother’s position if anything had hardened in that intervening period, probably not helped by the fact that her therapist was supportive of her belief that father had abused the child, and so were her family.
(MG was an expert in the case, who had made some recommendations as to the best way of moving mother forward after the finding of fact judgment)
MG has been cross examined as to her findings and conclusions in this hearing. She said that since the last hearing it is a great pity that her recommendations as to treatment for Mother have not been taken up. She had recommended that Mother be seen by an independent psychiatrist to formulate a treatment plan to reduce her anxieties and her medication. She said that therapy should be found for Mother in conjunction with the psychiatrist. Instead Mother has been discharged by her treating psychiatrist in the NHS mental health service with a diagnosis of “no serious mental illness,” which MG said is regular practice these days by treating mental health professionals. And instead of seeing an independent psychiatrist, she has found a psychotherapist who she consults by webcam, and who has accepted without question everything that Mother has told her about her allegations of sexual abuse against Father. MG said that it is a great pity that this treatment is not evidence based and does not challenge her at all, so the net effect is that Mother is no further forward with any form of treatment, but appears to be reinforcing her views by getting professionals on-side.
Mother’s actions since the December hearing, it should be recorded, have been to try and shore up her position that the allegations against Father were true. She has repeated them fully to her psychotherapist, who wrote a lengthy letter to the court on her behalf. A mental health professional contacted Children’s Services on her behalf in connection with the allegations. Her vicar has become involved in the case, getting up a petition with over 100 signatures from churchgoers for the return of Child to Mother’s care, and attending contact uninvited. And finally Mother has re-asserted the truth of the allegations in a document written by her for a contact planning meeting in January 2014 after a difficult contact session.
[The Court doesn’t seem to have picked up on the point that it is unlawful for mother or others to identify that her child is the subject of ongoing Court proceedings, which someone must have done in order to sign the petition]
These cases are all really hard. For a father, to be accused of sexually harming your child when you have not done it must be one of the worst things imaginable and if the Court decide having tested the evidence that you are innocent you think that this will be an end of the nightmare, but it isn’t. And looking at it from the mother’s perspective, either the allegations are true and the Judge has got it wrong (which is not right legally, but is a human reaction) or by that point your relationship with the father is so corrosive and damaged that you have convinced yourself that he IS a risk and yet nobody will listen to you.
Looking at it from a purely forensic and legal perspective, the only thing for a mother to do in this situation is to say that the allegations were made in good faith and to protect the child, but that she now accepts the judgment.
But human beings don’t make decisions based on pure forensic legal considerations but on emotions and feelings.
I am reminded of the Blackadder lines
It is so often the way, sir, too late one thinks of what one should have said.
Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, “I recant my Catholicism”
In a case like Hampshire, where mother is given the chance to recant her allegations and not only doesn’t do so, but proclaims them anew, it is not a very difficult decision for a Court to make.
On the ground, for a family and a child, they are some of the hardest things of all.
The mother and her side of the family are never going to accept that the child should be with father, they are always going to feel that mother has been punished for speaking out and saying the truth and that the child is in the most dangerous placement possible. What does that do to their relationship with the child? What are those contact sessions like? How will difficult questions raised by the child be answered?
I’ve got very little sympathy for mothers who perniciously fabricate such allegations about fathers (the option 4 in my original list), but what about those mothers where the allegations were made in good faith and they can’t move on from “it is my child, I KNOW in my heart that this really happened”? (options 2 and 3)
Legally and forensically it is easy – recant your Catholicism and accept the judgment. I can’t help but have some sympathy for mothers in that position though. What, they might say, if the Judge has got this wrong? People make mistakes – Courts get things wrong.
If you are in that position, how easy is it to just say “I give up, okay, it never happened”, when every fibre of your being says that it did?
What, they might say, if the Judge thinks that on the balance of probabilities, it is 55% likely that the allegations aren’t true. For the law, that proves it. But for me as a mother, what about that 45% chance? How could I, as a mother, be happy that there was a 45% chance that my child has been abused?
[None of that counts in legal and forensic terms – once the Judge has made a decision, you either accept it, or you successfully appeal it. The Court’s decision means that all of that doubt and uncertainty is removed and that what the Court say happened IS what happened]
We are hearing more and more from the Courts that it is not the job of the Court to fix people, to make them better, to solve their problems.
(for example T v S http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/2521.html
The court simply cannot micro-manage this very difficult relationship. If it sought to do so it would simply disempower the parents and add to the stresses on the child. Despite the force and intensity of the father’s complaints, he has said nothing in my judgment which, whether looked at individually or collectively, justifies the drastic step, so shortly after Mr. Justice Hedley refused, entirely appropriately as it seems to me, to vary the arrangements, to throw all that back into the melting pot and to embark upon the kind of investigation preparatory to the kind of fundamental change in the arrangements which it is the father’s ambition to achieve.
“In this case, the parents were both to have a meaningful relationship with their sons. That should have involved active practical and emotional steps to be taken by both parents to make it work. Instead the case is suffused with anger and arrogant position taking that has nothing to do with the children. There has undoubtedly been mutual denigration, true allegations, false allegations, irrelevant allegations, insults, wrongly perceived insults and the manipulation of the boys to an outrageous degree. The idea that the court can wave a magic wand and cure all of those ills is dangerously wrong. It cannot – its function is to make a decision. It does not have available to it a supply of experts, be they psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, counsellors, drug, alcohol and domestic violence rehabilitation units, social and welfare professionals or even lawyers who can be ‘allocated’ to families. Experts that the court relies upon are either forensic experts i.e. they are specifically instructed to advise upon the evidence in a case or they are experts who are fortuitously already involved with the family through one agency or another. Their role in proceedings is to advise the court. There is no budget to employ them or anyone else to implement the court’s decision save in the most limited circumstances through the local authority, Cafcass or voluntary agencies.” )
And to an extent, that is right. The Court don’t have a magic wand to make things better, they don’t have resources to fix people.
Indupitably, however, there are people who come out of Court proceedings substantially more broken than when they went in. I don’t have an answer, and I suspect we’re less likely to get one that we were pre Austerity.