Monday, July 2, 2007

UK family courts not like Guantánamo says magistrate

Family law courts in Ireland and Britain are often accused of treating fathers unjustly. Because their proceedings are not open to the media, the validity of these accusations is hard to assess. In a letter in today`s Guardian, a magistrate, Tim Ottevanger, defends the family court system against charges from Trevor Jones of Parents Against Injustice, in a previous letter. Jones had claimed that these courts comprised a `secret court system more reminiscent of Guantánamo Bay than Britain`. Jones was commenting on an announcement by the then justice secretary, Lord Falconer, that plans to open the family law courts to the media were being dropped partly because children were overwhelmingly against the idea.

`Magistrates in the family court system frequently agonise over the decisions they make, knowing the implications of their orders for the future welfare of the children,` writes Ottevanger. `Magistrates, as well as judges, have to base their decisions on the evidence before them. They do not claim infallibility, hence the need for a robust appeals system. Likening the system they operate within to a prison camp of questionable legality is cheap and insulting.`

Here in Ireland there is also questioning of the operation of the courts in relation, especially, to access to children following separation or divorce. To bring about some small degree of openness, the Courts Service has appointed Dr Carol Coulter (on leave of absence from The Irish Times) to produce research on what happens in family cases. Her first report showed a high level of agreement between separating parents on issues such as access to children. Fathers` advocates claim men are coerced into these agreements by the expectation that they will get a raw deal in court.

My own feeling is that Carol Coulter is nobody`s fool, has a strong sense of justice and is highly unlikely to be party to a whitewash of the family courts system (she has publicly stated that judges in family law cases rarely consider the input of children) - so I am inclined to take an optimistic view of her findings.

The argument can only be settled, and justice advanced, by allowing the media to report these cases on condition that the parties` anonymity is respected as has been the case for years in the Children`s Court.....

1 comment:

jim jones said...

Padraig, you say that “Fathers` advocates claim men are coerced into these agreements by the expectation that they will get a raw deal in court” and then say that “Carol Coulter is nobody`s fool, has a strong sense of justice and is highly unlikely to be party to a whitewash of the family courts system so I am inclined to take an optimistic view of her findings”.
I should point out that Carol Coulter has no access to the information discussed during the pre-hearing negotiations and so can only comment on documentation submitted to the court as well as any oral evidence heard.
If a father feels he is better off with the access he is offered by his wife’s legal team through his own solicitor, he will take it, particularly if he thinks it is better than what a judge would give him. This happened to me recently with my solicitor telling me that I was getting a good deal but Carol’s report has shown me that the time I have with my children is well below average, despite the maintenance I pay being well above average.