A quick flip through last week’s interim review of our family justice system might suggest that all is not entirely well with our family courts. The “system is not working”. It needs “significant change”. “Children and families do not understand what is happening to them.” The time taken to resolve cases is “little more than scandalous”. “Some cases should not be in court at all.” “The costs are huge.” “These are symptoms of a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.”
But as I checked the report against what I have learnt about this horribly corrupted system, from the dozens of cases I have been following where children have been seized from their parents for no good reason, I had little sense that those responsible for this review have really begun to grasp just how bad the situation has become.
They rightly bemoan how the average time needed to resolve cases has risen from 12 weeks to 53, how the number of children in care has soared to 70,000, how the cost of this alone has risen to a staggering £3.4 billion a year (making foster care one of our bigger industries). But nowhere do they recognise that one reason is how often social workers make some horrendous initial mistake when they seize children, then spin out the case as they scrabble round for evidence to cover up their error.
Very occasionally, as in the instance of one mother I spoke to again at length last week, the victims come up against a judge with the independence of mind to challenge the dishonesty of the social workers who have driven the system off the rails. In this case, the social workers’ blunder was to seize the child after the mother had accidentally fallen out of a window. After alleging that this was a suicide attempt, then falsely accusing the mother of being a potential alcoholic and drug addict (all shown to be untrue), they have tried to cover up their blunder by spinning out the court case for well over a year, falsifying evidence, continuously asking for adjournments and stopping at nothing to part a devoted mother from her daughter.
Fortunately, the mother is very bright and has found one of those rare legal teams prepared to challenge the system. Best of all, she seems to have found a judge robust enough to see through the perversity and arrogance of all those who, at great public expense, are lined up on the other side, seemingly hell-bent on perpetuating a vicious travesty of justice.
I shall return to measuring this interim report against the reality of what goes on in our family protection system. Its authors may hint that all is far from well. But before their final report, it is to be hoped that they will look much more carefully into how and why the breakdown of this system is becoming a national scandal.