Family Law Solicitor Kit O’Brian looks at a recent case to hit the news headlines.
I doubt whether anyone could have missed the media storm concerning Rebecca Minnock who went “on the run” with her 3 year old son after a court ordered that he live with his father. A family dispute exploded into a nationwide police hunt and led to two members of Ms Minnock’s family being committed to prison after they were found to have deliberately concealed knowledge of where Ms Minnock and Ethan had gone to. Obviously the most important part of the whole sorry tale is that Ethan is back home, safe, and the hope must be that arrangements can be made to ensure that he has a proper relationship with both his parents.
The case has however thrown into sharp relief the workings of family courts and the approach taken to disputes involving children. In an age where the general view seems to be that publicity, the more the better, will solve most problems it serves as an indication that where children are concerned the preference is always to protect them from media scrutiny if at all possible. There will be those who see this as the family court continuing to operate behind closed doors. The reality however is that the court’s role will always be to protect children from their parents if their parents seem unable to protect their children from their own behaviour.
The starting point in the case involving Ms Minnock and Mr Williams was, on the face of it, a simple application for a child arrangements order. Their relationship had broken down; Mr Williams wanted to spend time with his son and Ms Minnock felt unable to support contact at the level sought. Such cases are, sadly, not uncommon. When a relationship breaks down emotional tensions run very high and it’s not at all unusual to have the feeling that you never want to see your former partner again. If you have children however you have to accept in pretty much every case that simply isn’t an option. Your children have a right to a relationship with both their parents. Only in the most extreme cases is that not going to be possible to achieve and even then it may be possible to maintain some relationship through indirect contact such as letters or emails.
Whilst it’s not the advice many people will want to hear the starting point for most family lawyers will be to advise clients that their focus should be on making arrangements for their child that they can live with and that work for their children rather than trying to terminate a relationship between their child and the other parent. Of course, if there is a genuine reason why a child isn’t safe with a parent then that must be raised and examined. In all cases relating to children their welfare is paramount and a court will never seek to put a child at risk. If you are putting forward reasons why your children shouldn’t spend time with the other parent you must expect those reasons to be tested: Thoroughly. The fact that your former partner may have behaved badly towards you, even if a court accepts that was the case, doesn’t mean that they’re not going to have a relationship with their child.
Contrary to what many people think, the courts aren’t biased towards mothers and against fathers. The focus is on the children. The vast majority of fathers play a far greater role in their chlidren’s lives than they did a few decades ago. The courts recognise that there’s no reason for that to stop when a relationship ends.
Insisting that contact can’t happen and doing your best to frustrate it is a dangerous game. Again, most fathers are now far more capable of caring for their child on a day to day basis than they might have been in years gone by. Whilst there’s no doubt that courts don’t change a child’s primary care arrangements lightly they can and will do so if necessary. It’s appreciated that a change of primary home will be an upheaval and a court will look to be assured that the benefit to the child of changing their primary home justifies the upheaval. But if a change of home achieves the aim of a child having a relationship with both their parents and the court is satisfied that such a change is the only way of that happening it won’t shy away from making orders changing where a child lives.
There’s no doubt that such an order will have a devastating effect on the parent who is faced with losing their child. It clearly did have such an effect on Rebecca Minnock. Her response however served only to reinforce the court’s decision that her son should be removed from her care on a day to day basis. As the most recent judgement in the case makes plain she had options. She could have appealed the decisions made if she felt she had grounds to do so. If she felt she had factual evidence that hadn’t been put before the court she could have sought to do so. She did none of those things and, looked at objectively, her actions served only to reinforce the court’s view that she wasn’t putting her son first.
And worst of all she has put herself on the back foot where the court is concerned. She has shown herself willing to flout court orders. It is likely that, had her former partner pursued an application for her to be committed to prison that application would have been successful. The court will, undoubtedly, want to ensure her son has a proper relationship with his mother as well as his father. Ms Minnock now however has the hurdle of proving to the court that she can be trusted as she seeks to develop her contact with her son and her actions are likely to result in that contact being restricted far more and for longer than it might otherwise have been.
At Slee Blackwell, our specialist family lawyers have many years’ experience of helping to agree arrangements for children when relationships break down. We understand that however hard it may be to agree arrangements with your ex, involvement in court proceedings will be much harder and may result in a court imposed order that really isn’t what you want. We will always give you straight, objective advice even if we know that advice is going to be hard for you to hear. If court can’t be avoided and there’s evidence that needs to be put forward we’ll ensure that your case is presented to the court in the best possible way. We’re not afraid of publicity and if it can help we’ll work with you to make use of it. The reality however is that where children are concerned turning to the media rather than playing a proper part in ongoing proceedings is unlikely ever to be the answer.
For FREE initial family law advice call Kit on Taunton 01823 354545 or email her at kit.o’[email protected]
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