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  • Inside the family court
  • By Jenny Cuffe
  • BBC Radio 4
  • 07/06/2006 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 61 articles in 2006 )
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Many cases represent a "personal tragedy"

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The family courts make crucial decisions on the custody of children that will affect them and their parents for the rest of their lives. But it is all done behind closed doors.

BBC Radio 4 has been given exclusive access.

Outside court room 2 at the family proceedings court in Wells Street, London, Jonathan breaks down in tears as he recalls with painful precision the last time he saw his daughter - 6 October at 9.38am.

In the past seven months, he has bombarded his estranged partner with letters and telephone messages pleading for contact, but has received no response.

Like everyone else in Britain, Jonathan has witnessed the anger of celebrities like Bob Geldof and campaigners such as Fathers 4 Justice who say the courts are biased against men.

It is incredibly difficult to enforce an order where a mother is adamant
Audrey Damazer, Justice's Clerk
Even his lawyer has warned him that non-resident parents, mainly fathers, are at a disadvantage, but coming here today is his last resort.

Minutes before the parties are due in court, Jonathan's former partner turns up with a friend but no lawyer.

Legal adviser Anne Fletcher, who has judicial authority to give directions in the case, reminds them that it is the welfare of their daughter, not their relationship with each other, that concerns the court and that it is best for children to have contact with both parents.

To Jonathan's surprise, his ex-partner agrees to bring the toddler to see him at a family centre once a fortnight.

A date is fixed for them to come back to court in three months if the arrangement is not working.

Attitudes changing

On the same day Jonathan comes to court, another father is granted a residence order for his two small children.

Audrey Damazer, Justice's Clerk for London's 17 family courts, insists that allegations of bias in the court are the result of a lack of understanding.

But although initial decisions may be free of gender bias, she admits that courts regularly fail to punish mothers who refuse to comply with contact orders as a display of power, or out of spite.

"It is incredibly difficult to enforce an order where a mother is adamant," she says.

Only one court - in London - deals exclusively with family cases

Only one court - in London - deals exclusively with family cases
Wells Street is the only court in England and Wales dedicated to family cases and resident District Judge Nicholas Crichton believes this gives them an advantage over other courts, which deal mainly with criminal law.

Society's attitudes are changing and many of the families who appear before family courts are from cultures with a different understanding of the norm.

"Cases are getting more and more complex and maybe that is because we are getting better at understanding the complexities. Staff here have the opportunity to become specialists," he said.

Visibly upset

It requires expertise and the wisdom of Solomon to decide whether or not to take a child from his birth parents.

In London, over a 12-month period, there has been a 20% rise in public law cases involving child protection and, as a result, there are long delays and an increasing concern about cost.

In court four, Judge Crichton sees a mother who has had one baby after another taken into care and is now battling for a last chance to prove that she can look after her seventh child.

Emotionally damaged after an abusive childhood and a succession of foster placements, she has avoided the pitfalls of crime or heavy drug use and wants to be sent with her baby to a residential centre where experts can assess her parenting skills.

The judge has to weigh up the possibility that she has transformed herself against the expense of an assessment which could last three months at £2,000 a week, and the delay it would cause in settling her child's long-term future.

He turns down her application and watches her collapse in a fit of crying.

As he leaves court, he is visibly upset.

"I think from her face she knew what would happen as the day went on. It's a personal tragedy for a number of people in these proceedings."

The names in this article have all been changed to protect the identity of the children.

Jenny Cuffe's reports, Inside the Family Court are on Radio 4 at 2000 BST on Thursday 8 and 15 June, or afterwards online at Radio 4's Listen again page.

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