Tuesday, 20 May 2008

'If you remove a baby, what does the forlorn mother do next? Go and have another'

Full Story: http://www.stopinjusticenow.com/News_0799.htm

What really goes on in a family court? Are they as secretive as their reputation suggests? Juliet Rix goes behind the scenes ... A teenage girl in an anorak with a round puppy-fat face and a ponytail sits in a small courtroom with her social worker. Around her is a posse of dark-suited lawyers and ahead, a bench of three magistrates. Sharon has learning disabilities. Her mother is seriously mentally ill and her father isn't even mentioned. The court is gathered to hear an application for a care order (which allows a child to be removed from its parents and given into the care of the local authority). The order is not for Sharon - it is for her one-week-old baby. Sharon is 17 and already in care. We are in Wells Street Family Proceedings Court (FPC), in London, the largest in the country with seven courtrooms working five days a week purely on family cases. Contrary to recent publicity, this is not a closed court, hidden behind a wall of secrecy. "I get really irritated by all these stories of 'secret' courts," says Katharine Marshall, a district judge (DJ) and mother of three, specialising in family matters, who sits regularly at Wells Street. It is right that the public can't just walk in off the street and poke their noses in to other families' private business, she believes, but all FPCs are open to the press, "and it is important that the public understands what goes on". I am certainly welcomed and given access not only to the courtrooms but behind-the-scenes to court staff and to the district judges and lay magistrates who make the decisions here. The only restriction is that I must not identify the people involved in the cases (Sharon is not her real name). Having been reminded of this, nobody in the courtrooms I visit objects to my presence. Family courts such as this deal with most "public law" cases in which the state (usually the local authority) is intervening, or attempting to intervene, in family life. These include everything from supervision orders (keeping an eye on a family with problems) to adoption, but most of the work - more than 9,000 cases in 2006 - is care orders.

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