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High Court judge warns over police interference in family proceedings

10 November 2009

A High Court judge has warned about the “clash of culture” between the police and family courts after a wardship case was halted for 11 months on the basis of intelligence which turned out to be unproven.

“The cost of the disclosure process and the enormous delay that it caused are serious matters in themselves, but when viewed against the effects of that delay on the life of this child and his immediate family the position of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) can only be seen as highly damaging,” Mr Justice McFarlane said.

The judge made the comments in Re T (Wardship: Impact of Police Intelligence) [2009] EWHC 2440 (Fam), where a father imprisoned for abducting his young son was alleged to have organised for his wife to be killed.

The police intervened in the case after an anonymous call to the programme Crimestoppers, which they regarded as “credible intelligence” and wanted to investigate further.

The court was about to hear wardship proceedings when the police requested that the case be stopped while they investigated the allegations, and asked the judge not to disclose the evidence to the parties.

The judge criticised the Met for creating a standstill in the proceedings, and later decided not to contest the disclosure. From the point of view of the welfare of the child, this was “totally unacceptable”.

“It demonstrated neither an understanding of, nor a respect for, the priorities of the family court. What was needed, from the family court’s perspective, was a cooperative and facilitative approach,” he said.

The child, whose parents are both from India, was born in England. Shortly after the birth, the father abducted him to India for two years.

The father eventually returned to England in August 2006, and was made aware through his brother of the wardship proceedings and of court orders requiring him to inform the authorities of the child’s whereabouts.

Seven weeks elapsed between the moment he consulted solicitors and eventually agreed to take part in proceedings. He was eventually found guilty of child abduction and sentenced to prison.

It is while the father was in prison that the police heard through Crimestoppers that he may have placed a contract on his wife’s head and intervened in the family proceedings.

Mr Justice McFarlane said the police’s approach to their task was hampered by a lack of understanding of the difference between the approach of the criminal justice system and that of the family justice system to similar allegations of fact.

“At no stage does the MPS seem to have considered whether it owed a responsibility to assist the family court by conducting a more thorough investigation than may otherwise have been acceptable in purely police terms,” he observed.

Agreeing with counsel for the child’s grandparents, Lucy Theis QC, the judge said: “It is the court that should have all information/evidence put before it and it is for the court to decide whether that information/evidence should be disclosed.”

Concluding on the “unhelpful clash of cultures” and “lack of understanding that exists between the police and the family justice system”, the judge said it may be “entirely understandable from the internal perspective of each of these two arms of the state, but the fact that it exists has delayed, and at times risked thwarting, the discharge of this court’s duty to act in a manner which meets the overall welfare needs of its ward.”

Read Mr Justice McFarlane’s guidance on police intervention in family court proceedings at solicitorsjournal.com/family

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Police & Prisons Landlord & Tenant Local government