The quality of British justice is respected around the world – but there are inevitably occasions when judges overstep the mark. In a family case on point, a mother had her two young children taken into care after a judge dismissed out of hand the arguments put forward in her favour.
The mother was separated from the children's father and trouble broke out when he failed to return her four-year-old daughter after taking her on holiday for a week. The mother and others went to his home, causing a fracas, and took the little girl away with them. The mother and other members of her family were subsequently arrested. The children were taken under police protection and placed in foster care.
Three days later, the local authority's application for interim care orders in respect of both children came before the judge. She repeatedly warned the mother that, if she did not agree to the care orders, she would be stuck with any adverse findings made against her. In that event, the mother was told that the matter would probably be reported to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
The mother's lawyer argued that she had faced a difficult choice and that she had been obliged to take steps to safeguard her daughter's welfare. The judge, however, described those arguments as 'nonsense' and 'preposterous propositions' that would 'fall on deaf ears'. Following a brief adjournment, the mother gave in and consented to the interim care orders being made. However, she soon afterwards became distressed at what had happened and lodged an appeal on the ground that she had been subjected to improper judicial pressure.
In upholding her challenge, the Court of Appeal found that her consent had not been freely given and had been secured by oppressive behaviour on the part of the judge, in the form of inappropriate warnings and inducements. Regardless of the fact that she had been legally represented, the judge's approach went far beyond firmness and the mother had not received a fair hearing. The Court's ruling means that the council's application for interim care orders will be reheard by a different judge.