Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Family Courts; Bath

The list on the notice board at Bath County Court said simply: A Minor. They were two short words that concealed a world of heartbreak.
Seated to one side of a horseshoe of tables in front of the judges desk was the mother of a six-year-old boy. At right angles to her, but never once catching her eye, sat her mother. The childs father, separated from the mother but siding with her, appeared briefly but did not speak. All were accompanied by lawyers.
At issue was the grandmothers belief that her daughter was not a fit parent. She wants the boy, who is living with her, to remain permanently. The question before the court was whether he should be allowed to stay with his mother on three weekends between now and the full hearing in June to determine his future home.
In the family court yesterday were district judge, six lawyers, two parents, a grandmother, a legally appointed guardian, hundreds of pages of testimony and experts reports and, for the first time, a reporter. The hearing was scheduled to last a full day.
In the past few weeks in the course of my duties for The Times I have been savaged by an alsatian (I was allowed to wear a padded suit), been pursued by a herd of Nazi cattle and come face to sucker with a bathful of giant leeches. The prospect of facing a court room full of hostility was worse than any of them.
I need not have worried. The move towards greater openness was welcomed not only by most of the lawyers but also by the judge, Francis Goddard. Only the barrister representing the boys mother attempted to have the case heard in private on the ground that it was an exceptional case that involved allegations of abuse and the mothers history of mental health problems.
Judge Goddard ran through the list of grounds for excluding the media under the new regulations, which include the possibility of disorder and the risk that it could endanger the safety of a witness, then said that he was happy as long as the case was anonymised and the boy could not be identified.

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