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Mucky, traumatic and deeply, deeply sad; the world of family law

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Mucky, traumatic and deeply, deeply sad; the world of family law

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Radicalisation, Kindoki, and 'miracle baby' cases are just some of the unexpected challenges family courts are facing – and they must deal with them against a backdrop of unprecedented cuts. Julia Thackray reports Jo Delahunty QC's Gresham College lecture

Jo Delahunty QC, recently appointed professor of law at Gresham College, gave her first lecture last night in a series that will look at what happens when the worlds of family and the law collide.

Titled 'Sex, Death and Witchcraft; What Goes on in the Family Court Room?', the talk took a broad sweep across the whole range of cases that the family courts have to deal with and set the context for future lectures which will focus more on specific topics.

Delahunty's aim is to 'shine a light on the family justice system' and contribute greater understanding to the debate on how courts deal with children cases, which otherwise see the light of day only in soundbite controversies when cases are reported in the media. She explained the difference between family and criminal court treatment of the same cases and sought to give an overview of the process and decisions that must be made.

As a barrister with 30 years of court experience, plus experience as a judge, Delahunty has 'seen it all'. In public law proceedings concerned with the safety and wellbeing of children some of the most drastic decisions that can be made need to be made. If a child is returned home and suffers further harm there is 'no greater tragedy'. Yet the decision to remove a child permanently from home and to adopt has repercussions for that child and its parents that last a lifetime and beyond. 'Child abuse is stuff of nightmares but so is wrongful accusation' and lawyers and judges dealing with these cases know that the stakes are high.

Cases may be complex with specialist medical issues such as in non accidental injury cases or where end of life decisions need to be made. New challenges arise all the time. A few years ago practitioners were not faced with radicalisation cases, Kindoki cases '“ which involve the ritual abuse of children thought to be possessed by evil spirits '“ and 'miracle baby' cases in which children may be illegally trafficked from abroad, or female genital mutilation.

The courts must adapt, to keep protecting children and to keep giving parents the fair hearings they deserve, all in the context of cuts in funding and representation and in an era of increasing concern about secrecy as to what happens behind the court room doors. The media can attend more cases than ever before, but reporting restrictions apply to protect children from exposure of extremely sensitive information to the wider community. These competing demands of anonymity and transparency are issues that will be explored further in future lectures in the series.

Delahunty describes her world of work as 'mucky, traumatic and deeply, deeply sad'. The burden of responsibility can weigh heavy but she is avowedly passionate about it and 'wouldn't have it any other way'.

The next in the series of lectures is 'Is One Individual's Radicalism Another's Right to Free Speech?' on Thursday 24 November at Gresham College.

Julia Thackray is a family law solicitor and course director at CLT

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