Monday, January 17, 2005

Nick Cohen on the family court system

The best left-wing journalists writing in Britain at the moment is Nick Cohen - you can find an archive of his columns in the Observer here. He is consistently original and entertaining, and the best thing in any Sunday's papers, even when you disagree with the line he is taking.

When he supported the war in Iraq, you felt he did so because he really believed what he was saying. With other pro-war journalists (it would be invidious to mention David Aaronovitch or Johann Hari in this context), it was hard to dismiss the suspicion that they were merely following the Downing Street line.

Yesterday's column is a good example. A lesser journalist would have used Lord Falconer's appointment of an old friend with a background in commercial law as the new president of the family division as the occasion for a piece on new Labour cronyism. Cohen does those very well, but this time he gives us far more.

It is worth reading in full, but here are a few quotations to give whet you appetite:

If Charles Dickens were around today, he'd be writing The Family Division. You might think that as a British citizen you are innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. And so you are when you are charged with a criminal offence.

But if you are ever unlucky enough to be faced with the prospect of having your child taken into care - a far worse punishment than a jail term for most parents - you will find that the state need only prove that you are guilty on the balance of probabilities.


You might think that it's a basic tradition of the English law that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done and that secret justice is no justice at all. Not so in the Family Division. Enter into its courts and you enter a British Guantanamo where basic traditions no longer apply...

It's not merely that the cases are held in secret. Nothing about them - court papers, expert reports, statements from witnesses - can be made public without the permission of the court.


Like all closed systems, family law is prone to attacks of collective mania. Delusions sweep the minds of otherwise sane men and women because there are no sceptical outsiders to bring them up short. In the 1980s and 1990s, the modern witch-crazes of satanic and ritual abuse swept through social service departments and the courts. They died down only to be replaced by Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, an impressively difficult name for a criminally-vague theory, which purported to explain otherwise inexplicable deaths and injuries by asserting that parents were seeking attention by harming their children.

The most notorious incident was during the Rochdale witch craze when children were dragged from their homes by social workers convinced they had uncovered a coven of Lancashire devil worshippers. Parents went to their councillors, who could do nothing because they had been warned that it was illegal to ask what was going on.

And finally:

If to make reform work Lord Falconer has to parachute in a crony, well three cheers for cronyism. Let's have more of it. If Dame Elizabeth doesn't like it, that's good. If Family Division judges are resentful, that's better. We should urge Lord Falconer to cram the bench with lawyers who haven't been contaminated by decades of secrecy. If he runs out of legal cronies, there's always his milkman, postman, lady who does and teenage children. Anything and anyone will be better than the status quo.

I seem to have ended up by quoting most of the article, but as always with Cohen, it is worth reading him for yourself.

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