When journalists ignore source material it is public debate which pays the price

This is re-posted from a post I wrote on the Transparency Project blog here.

Christopher Booker wrote about the case of Ethan Williams in The Telegraph this weekend, in an article entitled :
When judges defy instinct, it is children who pay the price – We were presented with two flatly opposing views of the story of Rebecca Minnock, who went on the run with her son.

You can read the background to this case in our blog post here : The Missing Mum Case.

Most lawyers would be surprised to read a headline that suggested it is somehow wrong for judges not to rely on instinct. We don’t think that judges or journalists should rely on instinct, but it is not part of the Transparency Project’s role to tell Mr Booker or anyone else what their opinion of this or other cases should be. However, we do think it is important to correct some inaccuracies in the report and to give some context. Mr Booker is an opinion journalist, but in our view all journalists, whether investigative or opinion ought to check basic facts before publication. We have alerted The Telegraph (via twitter) of the fact that we think the article is inaccurate (and will point them to this blog post for details), and continue to await any reply. We have also asked them to link to the original judgments here so people can form their own informed view as to whether Mr Booker is right or not. If a reply is received we will update this blog post*. We offered a version of this article to The Telegraph to publish in the interests of public debate, but they declined.

At the time Mr Booker wrote his article 7 judgments about this case had been published, each of them within a matter of hours of their delivery by the judge. It is reasonable to assume that many readers of the article would not have been aware of the availability or contents of the published judgments, even though they are freely available online, as the public generally would not know where to look and the article does not link to or refer to them. However, an experienced journalist like Mr Booker will no doubt be familiar with how to locate and access judgments. It appears that either Mr Booker has not read the judgments, or he has read them but not fully understood them, or he has read them and chosen to ignore their contents. Or, he does not accept the judgments as an accurate account of the history – but if this is the case he has not said so.

The article identifies Stephen Wildblood QC as “the judge who prompted the mother’s flight by ordering that the boy should be handed over permanently to her former partner, the boy’s father.”

In fact, the judgments make clear that His Honour Judge Wildblood QC was not involved in the case until after Rebecca Minnock had fled. The case had previously been dealt with by a District Judge (a lower level of judge), but had been re-allocated to His Honour Judge Wildblood because the court needed to make orders for the location and return of Ethan, and needed to involve the Tipstaff (a High Court Officer) to do that quickly. District Judges do not have the necessary powers and so Judge Wildblood was passed the case.

Secondly, according to the judgments, it is clear that the mother fled early in the morning of the 27th May (as seen on CCTV and admitted by family members), that is the day of the final hearing where the District Judge decided that Ethan should live with his father. It appears then that the mother fled before the Judge had made her decision, although she almost certainly will have been aware that this order was likely. Rebecca Minnock did not attend the final hearing, and although the judgment tells us she was represented her lawyer will have been severely hampered in challenging the evidence without a client at court.

So it is clear that neither Judge Wildblood nor the District Judge “prompted” the mother’s flight. This is important, because the article insinuates that it is the court is responsible for the conduct of Rebecca Minnock, rather than Rebecca Minnock herself. That suggestion however, is based upon a factual misstatement.

Christopher Booker talks about two “flatly opposing” points of view. One is, he says, the “lawyer’s view” – that of Judge Wildblood. The other, “that of many non-lawyers …was that what the judge had done was a terrible travesty of justice”. In fact we know that the view of the District Judge who made the decision to alter the living arrangements for Ethan was based upon the evidence of an independent child psychiatrist, a local authority social worker and the child’s court Guardian (a social worker appointed by CAFCASS), who all thought shared the same concerns. It seems likely (although the judge does not tell us this in the judgment) that Ethan’s father also held the view that this was the right outcome for Ethan. There is lots of discussion about this case on the internet elsewhere, including from many non-lawyers who see the case as one where the court has rightly taken action to prevent “alienation” of a child from his father by his mother. So, there are definitely two different ways of looking at this case, but it is not accurate to class one as “the lawyer’s view” and one as the “non-lawyer’s view”.

“Even in the eyes of the judge, her only error had been to “obstruct” giving the father contact with his son by making “false” allegations against him. And to tear them permanently apart like this, the contrary view held, was an affront to one of the most basic of all human instincts.”

It is not clear why the words “obstruct” and “false” are in inverted commas, but presumably this is intended to convey that Mr Booker does not accept the findings of the court that Rebecca Minnock had obstructed contact and had repeatedly made false allegations against him. See this extract from the judgment of 8 June, which summarises what had happened in the earlier hearings:

  1. In January 2014 the mother made further serious allegations against the father. She alleged that the father was controlling in his behaviour and also behaved in ways that were sexually inappropriate. In a fully contested hearing in April 2014 the District Judge rejected all of the allegations. Orders were then made for contact with the father to develop; however matters did not progress according to the intentions of the court and a further hearing took place in February 2015. At that hearing there were further issues of fact as a result of allegations made by the mother against the father, all of which the District Judge rejected and, in relation to which the District Judge found that the allegations had been fabricated by the mother to frustrate contact.
  2. As a result of the hearing in February 2015, Ethan began to spend four nights a week with his father and three nights a week with his mother. [my emphasis]

Mr Booker does not say why he thinks these findings do not warrant a response from the court. He says this was Rebecca Minnock’s “only” error, but many experts working with children would say that to prevent a child from having a relationship with his other parent is emotionally harmful, and that making false allegations is emotionally abusive. The court generally takes such actions very seriously, although it is often criticised by fathers and fathers’ groups for not taking prompt or decisive action to stop children from losing their relationship with their father or from being given a false belief system. The judgment of 8 June confirms that the original application made by the father had been for contact rather than to remove the child from his mother’s care, but that as a direct result of the false allegations the court had ordered a shared care arrangement and in May this was altered to have the child living with the father full time.

It is worth noting that the judgments arising from the hearings in April 2014, February 2015 and May 2015 have not been published and as such there is undoubtedly detail that neither Mr Booker nor the public generally have access to. Those judgments may be published in due course, but at the moment these are the best information available. Mr Booker does not assert first hand knowledge of the case himself.

Mr Booker isn’t clear what he means by the “most basic of all human instincts”, but presumably he means the maternal instinct and the “special” mother-child bond. If that is what he means, not everybody would agree with Mr Booker that the relationship between a child and his mother is necessarily any more special than that of a father, or that it should “trump” the need to protect a child from emotionally harmful or abusive behaviour by that mother. He goes on to say that

“in too many cases, the “lawyers’ view” has won out over the “instinctive view” – with results for the children that leave a sense that what has happened is a tragic offence against nature.”

The Family Court operates on the basis of evidence not instinct. This is what Parliament tells the court it must do. Although in this article he is critical of the court for not relying on instinct, in fact he often criticises the court for not basing its decisions on evidence (see here for example).

The Family Court has historically been criticised for being seen to operate on a presumption that children should be raised by their mothers, but for many years now the Family Court has been issuing judgments confirming that no such biological presumption should or does apply. Recent research by Maebh Harding found no gender bias in decision making, although many fathers and fathers’ groups hold the view that in practice there is gender bias against fathers. Equally, some women’s groups criticise the court for favouring fathers and prioritising contact over safety.

 “I am struck by how often judges end up by removing the child from the loving mother with whom it has lived happily since birth, to be handed over to a father with whom it may never have lived at all.”

Mr Booker says he has experience of about 12 such cases. Recent research by Maebh Harding confirms that the success rate for applications for residence is broadly similar as between mothers and fathers, and that a transfer of sole residence is rare. However such cases are “disproportionately likely to be transfers from mum to dad and to feature welfare concerns and children’s services involvement”. 

The other cases that Mr Booker refers to are cases like RS v NS which Christopher Booker wrote about and Lucy Reed blogged about here : Which is better – there’s only one way to find out and here : Fair to Fathers (which provide links to the Booker articles) and this article : Family Judge ignored law over 9 year old girl (we cannot identify a published judgment relating to this case).

There are many cases for which there are publicly available judgments involving judges criticising Local Authorities or other professionals for their conduct, and where higher courts quite rightly criticise the poor decisions and decision making processes of lower courts – sometimes in very strong terms. However, these do not, by and large, seem to be the cases that Mr Booker chooses to write about. Instead he often writes about cases involving children being “wrenched” or “torn” from their mothers, and he writes about “natural maternal instincts : “As she and her baby happily bonded according to the laws of biology..” (see here for example : A Judge with little time for free speech) where Booker appears to suggest that the because the judge is a “childless feminist” she had displayed bias towards the mother).

If Mr Booker’s belief is that it is natural and right for children to live with their mothers and that it is an affront for them ever to be removed and placed in the care of other family members (or even away from their families), he is entitled to that opinion. However, he will inevitably continue to be disappointed by the Family Court, because that is not the law in this country. The law in this country is that a court must operate on the basis of evidence, and that it must make decision that best promote the child’s welfare based on the circumstances for that individual child, and that there is a presumption that both parents should be involved in a child’s life in some shape or form.

Mr Booker’s article is likely to further polarise the debate about this and other cases. It is an area which provokes strong feelings, and on which people often disagree, but it is not as simple as suggesting that it is lawyers versus the rest of the world. Courts are often criticised by both sides of the debate for favouring the other. In respect of this particular case most press focus has been on Rebecca Minnock and why she took her desperate actions, but very few if any reports have explained the lengthy background that led to the court concluding that it was necessary to order her son should live with his father.

*In the meantime we have taken screen-shots of the original article.

18 thoughts on “When journalists ignore source material it is public debate which pays the price

  1. All the rant above does is to criticise Booker for daring to present both sides of a sad story.One for the lawyers and one shared by most of the public.Most friends and neighbours of the father thought the children should stay with the mother but Booker still makes it clear that legally the judge was right even though morally maybe he was wrong.Yes he has to follow the law but as was famously said by Mr Bumble”The law in an ass”

    • I’m not sure we are reading the same article. Or upon what you base your assertions about friends and neighbours for that matter…

  2. Family Court do not base their decisions on evidence but on prejudiced opinions and ‘probablity’. Psychiatric reports in which the so-called expert is not an expert and is paid by the father to report in his favour, and who has actually no idea whether the mother has so-called false beliefs about abusive behaviour from the father. Fact findings that are a complete shambles and Judges who are trained not to believe mothers (and therefore have a negative belief system about mothers who allege abuse), Cafcass officers who are poorly trained and overworked, and often prejudiced and opinionated. This young child was, like many, taken from a protective mother and suddenly forced to lived with his father and not allowed any contact with the mother who has brought him up. This is abuse of the child and will no doubt have caused trauma and damage to last a lifetime. Why are there thousands of mothers with ‘false beliefs’ about abusive fathers as judge by the courts? This is a type of entrapment in which mothers are labelled and then everything they say or do is used against them. If mothers are in an abusive relationship with a father, I would advise them not to leave but to stay so they can protect their children in the home. If they leave they are at risk of having their children forced into contact with an abuser, and of losing them to him.

    • Judges are not trained not to believe mothers. I have often represented mothers who have successfully proved allegations of domestic abuse or other sorts of abuse. Similarly, I have represented fathers who have done the same. And I have represented those who are unable to prove their allegations, either through lack of evidence or because the allegation was simply untrue. I have represented mothers and fathers who genuinely believe abuse has taken place but where the evidence looked at objectively really does not support it. The whole range. I don’t see a picture of the court assuming all mothers have false beliefs as your comment implies, although as I say sometimes allegations made by one parent are not accepted.

      The judgment released today in the Minnock case makes clear that the child is having contact with his mother since her return.

    • Winston Smith

      I’m sorry, Lucy, but FC judges give every impression of being trained not to believe and being prejudiced against mothers. The Dread Christopher Booker is being bashed again. You may get the judge to believe you over DV because it’s emotive and PC, but not in other things. Both mothers and more important, kids, get a raw deal from FC judges, the cases go on and on, there are innumerable hearings, and it costs the court system a fortune in legal aid.

      A lot would be achieved by sending FC judges for retraining. n

      • So wait – family judges are anti-mothers EXCEPT when it comes to DV? I don’t understand why they would do that. I can understand an argument that they are anti-mother (although I wouldn’t agree with it) but why would they act in a way directly contrary to their prejudice (as you would have it)? Personally, I find it easier to prove DV with evidence rather than emotions. You know, insignificant things like contemporaneous evidence from witnesses, or medical evidence showing injuries…

  3. […] When journalists ignore source material it is public debate which pays the price / Pink Tape. […]

  4. I feel your indiganation coming through the screen. This is a case in your home court, you know both the judges so it’s personal. The District Judge is not named but HHJ Wildblood QC is a conscientious man who cares about the effect of proceedings on families.
    Christopher Booker is a hack who has consistently slated what has been happening in the “secret” family courts with varying degrees of accuracy.
    Despite of the above if I could get Mr Booker to listen to me I would happily get him to report on my case. Why ? It’s not only journalists who ignore source material and children suffer for not only the period of time of the court proceedings but it will impact over their lifetime. My case is always before HHJ Family Designated Judge QC who ignores what is put in front of him just as much as Mr Booker and his judgements are just about as accurate as one of Mr Bookers articles i.e a little short of detail and not always reflecting the true facts. Yes I am indignant too.
    Can I do anything about it other than reply to blogs and appeal the judgement. Or shall I post documents on the internet or demonstrate.Could I move to Bristol, in order to get my case before a decent judge. No can’t afford that. I suppose I could use a P O Box address but that’s already been used. I am stuck ,so are my children.
    I am afraid I disagree with you Lucy , we need Ian Josephs, and Christopher Booker.
    I just go and put my earplugs in!

  5. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the case, and the various judges would be better placed to decide that than a journalist or lawyer reading only the latest judgments and not the whole case, it is clear that Mr Booker has decided not to let the facts get in the way of a story. So good work fot letting the judgments speak for themselves and presenting the actual history of the case as counterpoint. The case is based on the parents two opposing views so opinions on the outcome will naturally be polarised, but to have any validity they should be based first on the facts and the law…

  6. Yes most judges probably would be better to decide a case, but they only see the tip of the iceberg. In care cases the local authority would have already sorted out what was needed to win way before the parents had chance to get legal advice by way of manipulation and down right lies. If you don’t believe me check out this http://www.lgo.org.uk/news/2015/jun/mother-baby-separated-due-council-s-disproportionate-arbitrary-actions/ I wonder if any social workers have lost their registration due to this?
    In my case because the police failed to take appropriate action and the actual crime scene was not secured , I look like a liar. Also a judge took a wrong turn at the outset and it’s so much easier to make a parent look like a lunatic than admit the mistake .

  7. P.Z. Temperton

    Christopher Booker is a crackpot who has never let mere facts get in his way.

  8. I am a retired CAFCASS officer. I have extensive experience of the sort of situation described above. It is more often mothers who try to undermine or destroy child contact with the father, sometimes using false allegations which delay court proceedings and thus create circumstance where the resumption of contact is less likely.
    Judges and CAFCASS officers are in an impossible situation as regards the enforcement of contact. Many fathers give up. Many children eventually oppose contact because there are too many hurdles of maternal opposition to overcome. There is huge and understandable reluctance to use the ultimate sanction of imprisonment. Transfer of residence is in reality the only effective method of ensuring that contact takes place, whilst ensuring that the unco-operative parent also sees the child regularly. Unfortunately, it is often the case that transfer of residence is not viable due to employment or other family factors. The result is that there is a very large number of fathers ( and children) who completely lose contact and feel the system is against them. In my view this is not correct, but it is inevitable that fathers will feel this way due to the many cases where the Courts’ options for enforcement are so limited.
    In this case the mother has sole responsibility for taking such drastic action by running away with the child. Her behaviour simply underlines the need of the Court to take the protective action of transferring residence.
    Mr Booker should start writing articles highlighting the importance of parents co-operating in the interests of the child. He could also draw attention to a rickety under-resourced child contact centre provision in the UK, run by well-intentioned volunteers.Properly resourced centres could do much to prevent the kind of difficulties experienced in this sad case.

  9. I disagree with you Luci. The family court is corrupt and a judgement does not mean anything if it is based on evidences the judge is allowed to pick and choose or ignore (in this case the judge ignored the evidence showing the harm caused by the father).
    We need more Mr Booker in this country and I don’t agree that a child who was in his mother’s womb for 9 months and whose mother is loving should be separated from her. This is very cruel to the child.
    Law wants us to believe that we live in a society where both genders are similar but this is not how things work: Mothers are the ones who raise children in the majority of cases, small children need their mother.
    There are great dads who are fully involved with children but we are not talking about these people here but about the domestic abusers who sue for transfer of residence as a way to carry on the abuse.
    What would you have felt if you were removed from your mother as a young child? Can anyone reading this blog say they would have been the same if they were only raised by their dad?

    • Anna we will have to agree to disagree.
      The judgments are clear that the court heard the mother’s evidence of abuse on two separate occasions and decided that the allegations were not proved – and in fact that they were fabricated. The evidence hasn’t been ignored, it just hasn’t been accepted. We don’t know the detail of that evidence as we don’t have the original judgments, so it is difficult to make an assessment of the strength of it but we do know that the court considered it and both parties were at that time represented, and no appeal was made from those findings.
      I simply don’t agree with your opinion (to which you are entitled) that the biological fact of childbirth prevents the court from separating a child from a parent who is a risk to them. I don’t agree with your perspective on parenting roles fro mums and dads. You are talking to the wrong person, as my husband stays at home while I go out and earn. I guess that makes me some kind of inferior mother?
      Incidentally, the judgments make clear that the father in this case did not “sue for residence” – he applied for contact, and when almost 2 years later allegations the mother was persisting in making allegations in a way that professionals felt was harmful to the child, the professionals recommended a change of residence. This is usually a last resort where all else has failed.

  10. The comment by “Ian Josephs” is funny.

    The article is an objective rebuttal of Christopher Booker’s inaccurate and drivel-laden rant.

    It is amusing seeing complaints that the Family Court is overly friendly to fathers when most noise and campaigning has been from fathers complaining that the court is prejudiced the other way.

    It reminds me of Northern Irish politics – it is only when the extremists on both sides are complaining of unfairness that we know the right balance has been struck.

  11. How can any rational person deny even indirect contact with their kids to to either a mother or father forbidding letters,emails,or phone calls ,and put them in prison for sending a birthday card,or waving at their children as they pass in the street, or even posting happy 21st birthday on Facebook,( Yes I did say 21st!) 3 years jail for meeting at a petrol station…… Poor ,poor,UK .

    • Well it rather depends on what risk they pose. In most instances there would be neither reason nor justification for such steps, but in more extreme cases there might be.

  12. Christopher Booker is a libertarian who has somewhat gone off the rails and who now seems to find conspiracy theories, secrecy and state oppression at every turn. I think he started out at Private Eye, a vital institution in keeping the Establishment and media in check, but then fell out with everybody. The more he gets into conflict with the legal system, the more he seems to go out on a limb and the more egregious he becomes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.