For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Family Courts: a Scandal With an End In Sight?

Those who follow Christopher Booker's column (I have a permanent link to his Daily Telegraph page at the right hand side) will know that, prompted by some recent and scandalous cases that have become public because they have been published outside Britain, there is a growing hope that the corrupt and secret family courts will see the light of day. One might not think much of Sir James Munby's professed legal philosophy, but at least he is moving to do something about this painfully flawed system.

I know a little about this matter from friends in the medical profession: one doctor with whom I worked told me the story of an immigrant mother who was terrorised by a social worker. The mother had a few months of post-natal depression, but with an attentive and hard-working husband, she was able to make it through and get back to health. A social worker who had needlessly threatened to take the five older children away during the episode then "kept tabs" on the family, and complained to my friend that there was something not quite right about the mother's behaviour when she went round to the spotlessly clean and obviously happy household: the mother wasn't chatty or friendly. My friend quite rightly pointed out to said social worker: that is because she knows what you intended to do, and is terrified of you still, and your "helpful" prying visits to see if there is anything that might justify your breaking up a close-knit family.

If you think that this is a rare problem, I am not so sure. There are other similar cases in which I have been involved directly which have made me very angry, and mystified as to the motives of the social workers concerned. In one case, although not involving children, another doctor and I had to start a procedure to obtain an legally appointed I.M.C.A. (Independent Mental Capacity Advocate) for a patient, before we could prevent a social worker from needlessly forcing an elderly person into a place that they clearly did not wish to go to, when there were obvious simple and preferable alternatives.

I suppose that any era or nation is not judged in retrospect by the relatively large number of people who acquiesce, or live a life that never runs into conflict with authority and power. No-one talks about the vast numbers of happy people living in Spain during the Inquisition period; no-one writes pieces on the fact that most Germans had reasonably normal and free war-time lives, comparable to the lives of British people not under a Nazi regime. Most people make the minor adjustments necessary, keep their voices down when they are saying something that could be dangerous, and compromise here and there - all for a reasonably quiet time. But these ages and civilisations are censured and maligned because of what happened to the people who either actively resisted the regime, were not discreet enough, or those who for whatever reason ended up on the wrong side of the wrong people.

It is generally accepted that splitting up families and forcing adoptions is the mark of a wicked tyranny - whether it be perpetrated upon medieval Jews, communists in Franco's Spain, or Aboriginal families in Australia. It is possible that this is one of the things for which our age will be remembered: children taken from their parents on flawed medical evidence, or to satisfy the personal hostility of a social worker, and without hope of recourse or a public hearing. And although the injustice does not touch a large proportion of people, it is the manner in which the affected families are treated that will leave a lasting shame upon this time and this country.

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