This is part 2 of a post about my observations at Central London Family Court in September 2023.
In part 1 I described the first hearing I observed, Here I tell you about the second case I observed and make some general comments about my experience as a legal blogger.
So, back to the third floor of the CFC. At the end of part 1 I left you at the door of court as everyone in the first case had all dispersed…
Shortly after, the other 2pm case in the list is called on. The clerk has enthusiastically shooed me into court with one hand whilst shooing the parties away with the other, so I exchange a polite greeting with the judge and sit for a minute or so in awkward silence in court before the parties and their lawyers come in. This case is showing on the list as an interim care order removal hearing, but it takes me a few minutes to work out who is who and why the matter is at court.
I piece together that the case is about a child, Brianna*, approaching secondary school age who has been living with her grandmother under a special guardianship order for most of her childhood. Her mother is missing in action, thought to be street homeless, but her father is present at court with his mum, the special guardian grandmother. He has recently had a positive drug test for crack and other drugs, but is said to be seeking support. He lives with his mum and daughter and appears to have been quite involved. The last year has been a difficult year for the family because the grandmother and head of the household has developed a condition which affects her memory and ability to live independently. She now has a substantial care package to support the wider family in looking after her. She has come to court today with her daughter, Brianna’s aunt. The aunt has been given permission to sit in court beside her mum, and at times is invited to speak on her mother’s behalf, and to express her own views as a part of the family. Because the hearing has been arranged at short notice the grandmother doesn’t have a lawyer, though arrangements are put in train for that to be sorted before the next hearing. The aunt tells the judge that Brianna comes to stay with her on weekends, and she sees her daily, but her job means she is unable to look after her full time. Asked if her mother is able to speak on her own behalf, she says ‘maybe. She has moments’. The grandmother manages a few words: ‘Don’t like it but yeah Its best thing for [Brianna]. She was upset but not my fault I got this condition.’
The situation is desperately sad. The family have done their best to pull together as the situation has unfolded, but by the time they reach court it appears they all accept that it isn’t sustainable, and Brianna will need to move. On the horizon it seems, is a time when the grandmother will be unable to manage in her own home and will need to move, presumably to supported living.
The silver lining for Brianna is that she has some older siblings who live in the South West and who are cared for by a family friend. Brianna knows them and spends time with them in holidays and they can look after her. But it means a school move, and Brianna is anxious about that. The local authority want to share parental responsibility, which makes sense because it sounds as if there is some doubt that the grandmother can exercise her parental responsibility at all times.
The judge deals first with making sure that Brianna’s mother knows what is happening. He makes an order for the Department for Work and Pensions to provide any address they hold for the mother, although everyone is doubtful this will be a very effective way of finding the mother if she really is street homeless.
Next, he asks the local authority lawyer to summarise the position, as he knows the family won’t have had time to read the case summary. The barrister explains a bit about the background as described earlier, and is at pains to say that the grandmother has done a very good job until she fell ill, and that it recognises that the need for an order is through no fault of the grandmother. He explains that social services had been prepared to carry on with a plan of family and professional support until arrangements were able to be made for Brianna’s siblings and their carer to move to the London area in a few months time, but because of the working commitments of the father and his sister there were times when Brianna was alone with her grandmother, which were now felt not to be safe. They were seeking an order to be able to move Brianna to live with her siblings straight away, but on the basis that they would come back to the London area when able.
The judge was invited to grant the father parental responsibility given how involved he had been with Brianna, and to join him formally as a party. The judge made both orders.
The local authority acknowledged that, due to her difficulties, most discussions had been held with the adults in the family as a group rather than with the grandmother in her own right. The barrister suggested that her capacity to instruct a lawyer and to participate in the court case should be assessed before she is expected to put anything in writing formally.
The father’s lawyer indicated that whilst she formally acted on behalf of the father, she was instructed to put forward a view on behalf of the family as a whole too. Through her, the family acknowledged the concerns and that the needs of Brianna could not be fully met in the current situation. It was acknowledged that the grandmother’s likely move would place the father’s own accommodation at risk. He accepted the drug test results, though made clear that he did not use around the child. Understandably, he did not consent to the move, but he didn’t oppose it either. He was worried about the unresolved issues of schooling.
Although the outcome seemed pretty inevitable given what I’d heard of the issues and the family’s position, the judge was careful to make sure that the interim arrangements for education, contact and other matters were as clear as could be, and wanted to explore some confusion over the likely school and timing of a further move. He also made sure to satisfy himself that although there would be some disruption and uncertainty Brianna was not moving to complete strangers, but to family and people she viewed as family, and whose home she was familiar with.
The judge delivered a short judgment setting out the facts and the law. He made arrangements for a next hearing, with the new carer to be involved, and set the wheels in motion for assessment of her. To my surprise the LA said they only needed six weeks to do that.
The judge added a post script to the grandmother, acknowledging that she had been unable to fully participate and directing that at the next hearing the judge would specifically consider how she could be supported to be part of the proceedings.
Again, sorting out arrangements for me to report was pretty straightforward – the father was a little surprised at the suggestion I might report, because he had been involved in proceedings before where this did not happen. In this case the judge expressed some anxiety about a risk of identification of the family if I named the local authority, and I was happy to agree not to name them. Again, I don’t think the identity of the local authority matters to this pen picture of an ordinary account of an ordinary afternoon in Central London Family Court.
Legal blogging experience
On this occasion I attended without any real notice, but I did let the usher know just before lunch that I was planning to attend 2 hearings, and provided my paperwork to him in readiness (he was so keen to take the papers I was thrusting at him that he was almost gone before I had a chance to explain I was a legal blogger – I think he thought I was a solicitor handing in a case summary). We exchanged email addresses and within a few minutes I was told that the judge had ok’d my attendance. I introduced myself to the lawyers for both local authorities once signed in, in the expectation that they would cascade that information down to the other advocates who could take instructions (it can be intrusive to go knocking on the door of lawyers involved in discussions with family members, as well as hard to find all the right people!) but in fact this didn’t happen and so I decided to let some of the other lawyers know I was present when they were signing in. One said to me ‘what’s a legal blogger? Are you a lawyer?’, so I gave her the relevant rule to look at. There was no hostility or real objection to my attendance or reporting, and the judge handled my attendance smoothly and with minimal fuss. I’m confident my attendance didn’t detract from the parties’ ability to engage or the judge’s ability to deal with the cases.
I was able to obtain a copy of the relevant parts of the order confirming my permission to report without difficulty, although I did subsequently note that one order suggests the judge had granted permission for me to attend, which is not strictly correct. I was entitled to attend and nobody objected.
*The child’s name has been changed