Saturday, 5 July 2014

Submissions to the EU Parliament on Failings in UK Family Justice

Vincent McGovern is Chair of Central and North London Branches of Families Need Fathers, part of the UK’s largest shared parenting charity, and has recently returned from Brussels having presented evidence to the Petitions Commission of the European Parliament in its session concerning failings in the Family Justice Service. He was also supporting a German father, giving evidence to the EU Review related to the efficacy (or lack, thereof) of the Brussels II Revised Regulations.

The German Father's Submission on cross-border Contact Order Enforcement.
In relation to the German father’s submissions, allegations involved the UK courts ignoring a contact order signed under Bis II in another member state and a failure to enforce that agreement. Further, that there was a lack of legal aid for the German father despite the other party having a six figure sum funded by the state. The father intimated there was a breach in equality of arms, and in this, a failure regarding his Article 6 rights to a fair hearing under the human rights legislation. The father invited the EU Parliament to investigate why the UK Courts do not meet their obligations under international agreements, and asked that, if the Commission accepts his evidence that there has been a breach of EU law, they should commence infringement proceedings with the European Court of Justice against the UK Government. The inference was that by not enforcing the order made in another EU state, the court had also infringed on both his child’s and his right to family life. The father was critical of the vast sums of money spent on what he considered an ineffective legal process.

Mr McGovern's Submissions on Abuses within the MARAC Process
Mr McGovern also gave evidence related to the processes followed by the UK’s Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC) and their being open to abuse. Indeed, he argued that here too, the system fails to uphold the citizen’s Article 6 and Article 8 Human Rights.  Mr McGovern raises criticism that when allegations are made, the Conference takes hearsay evidence from one party, especially when domestic violence is alleged, without the opportunity for defence or disclosure regarding the nature of allegations made. He went on to explain that the MARAC process is shrouded in secrecy, and he claimed evidence from a Freedom of Information request that evidence is only taken from females, lending the agencies involved open to criticism for gender discrimination. Mr McGovern went on to explain that this gender barrier has resulted in male victims of domestic violence being blocked from having access to local authority services, and children not having been protected from harm, due to the unipolar nature of such investigations.

One major criticism was that the accused is not provided with the evidence used by the MARAC to reach a finding. Following the finding, Social Services will meet both parents, but will only divulge the finding rather than the evidence upon which it was based.  Mr McGovern argues that this secrecy and a failure to disclose evidence is a breach of Article 6 of the Human Rights Act.

The verdict of the undefended MARAC inquiry can equip a vexatious litigant with the ammunition to approach the Family Court without notice to the father, and armed with the undefended MARAC findings, the Court will automatically make orders removing the father from both the family home and the children’s. Should he breach the orders made, he may face jail. 

Mr McGovern has contributed to a number of successful Ombudsman Investigations where findings were made against London Borough of Brent Social Services, Brent Children’s and Adolescent Mental Health Services (C.A.M.H.S), the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, Brent Primary Care Trust (a divisional arm of the National Health Service), and the Children’s and Family Court Advisory Support Service (CAFCASS).

Despite findings against and criticism of these organisations, Mr McGovern argues that the systems and processes undertaken by Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conferences continue to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act, and violate human rights in the UK.

The representations to the EU Parliament come only days after Mr Justice Tyzack criticised teachers and specialists for accepting abuse allegations without question. The judge emphasised that professionals need to keep an open mind, and not take allegations at face value.

TCM Comment
The costs involved in cross-border litigation, and litigation concerning jurisdictional disputes or other aspects of international family law are staggering. It's not uncommon to have a parent asked for a down payment of £30,000 for a leave to remove case, with estimates given of up to £100,000 in legal costs. In the German father's case, the costs for both sides have exceeded £200,000. All this to enforce an existing order. 

In relation to the other matters raised by Mr McGovern, aside from the significant harm done to the falsely accused and their children, false allegations draw diminishing resources from support services for genuine victims of abuse. The transparency wanted by Sir James Munby needs to extend beyond the court to the MARAC process.  It staggers us that someone can be barred from seeing their children and lose their home, in a closed court, following a closed investigation, where not all evidence is disclosed, and where the accused does not have representation. To my mind, not a system to be proud of, or one which supports transparent and equitable justice. Due to the draconian nature of injunctive orders, we have no doubt that allegations should be heard against the test 'beyond reasonable doubt' rather than upon the 'balance of probability' as happens in the family court. Violence and abuse are criminal matters, should be treated as such, as should the making of false allegations, and heard in the criminal courts.

The court has to take a cautious approach when allegations are made, but there also needs to be greater use of penalties for false allegations. Tyzack's cautionary words need to be heeded. There is gender bias in DV services, but this reflects an attitude in society that violence against men is more acceptable, or even a matter for humour.

If you're sceptical, watch the video below, published by Mankind (and if the thought enters into your mind "he probably asked for it", would you hold the same thought in respect of the woman being abused).