A very harsh environment: judge’s play shines light on family courts

We don’t know anything about this play but it’s being performed on 28 January 2020 in Bristol and there is a Q&A with the Judge who wrote it, sounds interesting!

Louise Tickle The Guardian Wed 18 Dec 2019

A judge’s play shows some of the secret workings of family courts amid calls for greater transparency

A distraught young mother sits in front of a judge in a family court. Beside her sits her baby’s social worker. Alongside are the child’s grandmother and grandfather, and at the end of the row, a young man, the father. His leg taps and jumps. He looks away, looks down, looks anywhere but at the judge. The judge too looks anywhere but at the family in front of him. As he speaks, the room chills.

“I therefore dispense with the consent of the mother and of the father to the placement of Kye for adoption,” the judge intones. It’s the end of a six-month legal fight. The mother still doesn’t fully understand what’s just happened. The judge gets up and walks out, fast. It looks like an escape.

Listening to the words that will remove a baby from its mother, for ever, feels akin to what it must once have been like to hear a judge pronounce the death sentence. It is hard to think of a more serious act – even imprisonment – that the state can now impose than extinguishing the relationship between a parent and their child.

The fact that this scene is from a play, written by family judge Stephen Wildblood QC – who takes the role of the judge – does not diminish the gravity of what we have just watched: a courtroom reality that almost nobody in this country will ever witness, despite thousands of adoptions being ordered every year in courts up and down the land. That is because family law cases are held in private – there is no independent scrutiny of what they do, which means that immense state powers are exercised effectively in secret.

In an interactive post-performance discussion with the audience at the University of Gloucestershire, Wildblood acknowledges that family courts are brutal places. “It’s a very harsh environment,” he says.

Among a generally reserved judiciary, family judges are particularly tight-lipped when it comes to engaging with the public. So why is Wildblood putting on plays about what he does in court? “People don’t see how the family courts work … my idea is to put it on stage, so this is show, don’t tell,” he explains.

Together with a women’s charity, the Nelson Trust, and Rob Tyrrell, principal social worker at Gloucestershire county council, Wildblood – whose day job as the most senior family judge for Avon, North Somerset and Gloucestershire sees him ordering adoptions “about once a fortnight” – has worked with the actors on developing backstories for their characters that mirror the complex and painful lives of the people who come before his court every day.

The play Who Cares?, comes in the context of increasingly urgent calls for greater scrutiny. Campaigners, including mothers, fathers, relatives, lawyers, journalists and members of parliament, want what goes on in closed family courts to be made more transparent so that the state can be held accountable beyond the single mechanism of the court of appeal, the barriers to which are high. “People don’t trust the system because they’ve had their fingers burned,” says campaigner Natalie Page, who recently organised a demonstration called #TheCourtSaid to highlight the fact that domestic abuse survivors are banned by law from talking about what survivors believe is some judges’ antiquated attitudes to the dangers they and their children face.

It is not just family court users who are banging on the court’s closed doors. Annual government figures just released show that the number of looked-after children has risen again by 4%, with 78,150 now in local authority care. The increase makes the argument for independent scrutiny of the system even more compelling. In May, the president of the family division of the high court, Sir Andrew McFarlane announced an official review of transparency in the family courts to establish whether the status quo is fit for purpose or, alternatively, “whether greater openness is now justified and, if so, how that may appropriately be achieved”. It has taken seven months to appoint a panel, which, it is anticipated, will report in May 2020. Panel members will therefore have only a matter of weeks to consider evidence, the call for which is going out in January.

As well as Wildblood – who this year also worked with the National Theatre on its play Faith, Hope and Charity, about a mother at risk of losing her child – others in the system are trying hard to help the public understand the extent and limits of the court’spowers. After an initial pilot stage, the Northern Ireland judiciary proposed “media access to family courts reporting scheme”, allowing pre-approved media representatives to report on family cases theyhave observed in court. However, following consultation, it is now thought that legislation will be needed to take the scheme forward. In England, family court judge Clifford Bellamy’s forthcoming book, The Secret Family Court – Fact or Fiction?, explores whether privacy rules damage family courts’ functioning. Bellamy, who says he personally feels it is a “gross injustice” that parents may not speak to journalists about their experiences, believes that the term “secret family court” is wrong and unhelpful. “It has caught hold in the public imagination and has caused damage to the system,” he says. “It is only by making the effort to demonstrate that we’re not a secret court and we are trying to do our best for children and families that we might restore the balance.”

Can the family justice system rebuild confidence among its users who feel utterly let down, and regain the legitimacy many feel has been lost? “If it acknowledged the failings, had some honest and real conversations with families that had been harmed about how it happened and what allowed it, and put changes in place that keep people safe, that would be a start,” says Page.

Back at the University of Gloucestershire, Wildblood is answering questions from the public. “Most people don’t have any idea of what happens inside family courts – do you think that’s helpful?” an audience member calls out. Judges are not allowed to express their personal views, so Wildblood simply says: “While other people are arguing about whether the family court should change its ways, I’m trying to put things on stage showing what I see.”

Who Cares? will next be performed at the University of the West of England on 28 January 2020

[family justice]