Reporters have at last gained access to the Family Courts…

For decades, decisions about custody, care and adoption have been made behind closed doors — sometimes with tragic results. Now, reporters have at last gained access to the Family Courts…

  • Daily Mail peels back curtain behind custody decisions as part of landmark pilot
  • The new project allows Press to report Family Court proceedings for first time  
  • READ MORE: Judge’s heartbreaking letter to boys, aged 8 and 11, after parents’ bitter custody battle

One Monday afternoon in the Cardiff Family Court, a young girl’s future hangs in the balance. The vulnerable teenager has allegedly been attacked in her care home, requiring medical treatment, with abrasions on her body suggesting she has been restrained.

The local authority is applying to have her rehoused on an emergency basis — but there’s a problem. The only place available is an unregistered home for asylum seekers where there is, according to its representative, ‘one young man who is 16 or 17 years old’.

He is ‘engaging in the community really well’ but the judge, His Honour Jonathan Furness, KC, is concerned. How can the local authority be sure about his age, he asks, because ‘very often’ he has had asylum seekers ‘claiming to be children when they’re not because it could help their immigration position’.

The representative replies that she has heard ‘he does look young’. A social worker tells the court there are no concerns about his age. Although the judge deems the accommodation ‘unsatisfactory’, he has little choice but to allow the girl to move.

He stresses that she should spend ‘days rather than weeks’ in the accommodation, that a government inspection body must be made aware that it is unregulated, and that the case should return to court next week.

Last month, amid mounting criticism over lack of transparency, a landmark pilot project allowing the Press to report Family Court proceedings for the first time began. Stock image used

Judge Furness seems pleased the Mail is present today to document his ruling. ‘This is the sort of case that ought to be reported,’ he says — all too aware, perhaps, that the girl is just one of thousands of vulnerable children let down by a broken system, whose stories have never been revealed. Until now.

For decades, legal decisions concerning children have been made behind closed doors; complex issues regarding not just custody but surrogacy, transgender rights, medical conditions and domestic abuse. More than 200,000 such cases a year are heard in complete secrecy, to protect individuals’ anonymity.

But rigid reporting restrictions also mean the system can’t be scrutinised by the Press.

Last month, amid mounting criticism over lack of transparency, a landmark pilot project allowing the Press to report Family Court proceedings for the first time began.

This pilot followed a lengthy Mail campaign against the culture of secrecy in our courts. This newspaper has exposed a series of major scandals over the years, all of which played out behind closed courtroom doors. In 2021, a review of Family Courts by Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division of the High Court, concluded that ‘a major shift in culture’ was needed.

‘The public have a legitimate interest in understanding how the court approaches these really important decisions,’ he said. ‘There is no more draconian decision that can be made than removing someone’s children permanently or sending them off for adoption.’

The year-long pilot, led by High Court judge Mrs Justice Nathalie Lieven, is being held at Family Courts in Cardiff, Leeds and Carlisle, chosen to represent urban, rural and mixed populations. The Mail spent the first week of the pilot attending all three.

Yet just as revealing as the cases we are allowed to report are those we are still not, and the obfuscation we encounter.

Nobody expected such a complex pilot to be perfect in its first week. But neither did we expect it to descend into farce.

As one court official told us after a hearing in Cardiff: ‘I’m glad you’re here. This place is bloody mad.’

More children are being taken from their parents than ever. Last year, 82,170 children were in local authority care in England, up from 65,000 a decade ago.

Many blame cuts to local authority budgets which prevent social workers spending time trying to keep families together.

Some parents are aggrieved by their treatment, which they have been unable to discuss publicly without being in contempt of court, risking fines and imprisonment.

The closed system has also led to miscarriages of justice.

Take the case of six-year-old Ellie Butler. Unknown to the outside world, a Family Court had returned her to the home of her father, Ben Butler, only for him to beat her to death.

Or Mark and Nicky Webster, whose three eldest children were adopted in 2005 after one suffered fractures and they were wrongly accused of abuse. In fact, the fractures were the result of a vitamin C and calcium deficiency (which led to scurvy), the result of a soya milk diet prescribed by the family doctor because of the child’s intolerance to cow’s milk.

Their case only came to light after they won a legal battle, helped by The Mail on Sunday and the BBC, for the Press to attend hearings about their fourth child. But by then, the damage was done and their eldest children were never returned.

The rich and powerful can benefit from the secrecy a Family Court affords. In 2021, during a Family Court hearing regarding a child, disgraced former Tory MP Andrew Griffiths was found to have raped and physically abused his wife Kate.

Devastating: Ellie Butler was returned to the care of her father Ben (both pictured), who killed her

But a judge decided the findings, made on the balance of probabilities, should not be made public to protect the child. Only a year later, after an appeal, did Mrs Justice Lieven rule it was in the public interest for the findings to be revealed.

The same year, a Family Court ruled that 13-year-old Craig Mulligan be allowed to return to the home of his stepfather, John Cole.

Five days later, Mulligan, Cole and Cole’s partner Angharad Williamson together killed Logan Mwangi, Williamson’s five-year-old son, after he suffered injuries likened by a High Court judge to child abuse.

Former Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, a fervent campaigner for open courts, said at the time that the documents that led to Mulligan being returned to Cole should be published: ‘The public have a right to know what information Family Court judges had about this case.’

But how much will the new pilot reveal? Attempts to open up the courts have been made before — in 2009, former Justice Secretary Jack Straw allowed the Press into court, only for journalists to discover they couldn’t publish reports without the judge’s permission.

This time around, details of cases can be reported, provided judges have issued a transparency order for the case in question. In reality, however, they seem more likely to be denied than granted.

We are not allowed to report on a case in the Cardiff court, for example, because a judge says the proceedings have already started and ‘it would not be fair’ on parties involved.

Yet cases often drag on for months, potentially blocking thousands of ongoing cases from being scrutinised in the pilot.

We are barred from another case in Cardiff until a child has completed medical treatment, and a third because it is being heard by magistrates rather than a judge.

Just two of the six cases we attempt to attend at the rural Carlisle court are reportable — and even then, it takes multiple requests for the transparency orders to be sent. One is a hearing devoid of detail that lasts about 40 minutes, to impose a child arrangement order that would allow a girl to remain with her grandparents. The second is a 15-minute administration hearing to set a timetable for a care application.

Even then, transparency orders aren’t granted if reporting could jeopardise criminal proceedings — which counts out multiple cases across the three courts during the week.

Cases often drag on for months, potentially blocking thousands of ongoing cases from being scrutinised in the pilot. Stock image used

In Leeds Family Court, the judge grants a transparency order for a case on Monday, and we spend most of the week following a revealing hearing — only to be told on Thursday that the police have objected to the order. When the judge asks for a written argument to be presented, they admit they have nothing to offer and the order is reinstated.

When criminal proceedings are likely, Family Court cases — and mistakes made in them — can still be hushed up for years.

One lawyer in the Carlisle court recalls a case where criminal inquiries were slow to conclude: ‘The end of that prosecution happened four or five years after the conclusion of care proceedings.’

In Leeds, we sit in on a hearing in the chambers of District Judge Geddes, a small, nondescript room in the Leeds Combined Court Centre. Present are two social workers, a translator and three barristers: one for the mother, one for the council and one representing the children.

Authorities are pushing for three children aged 14, 13 and 11 to be taken into custody, the council’s barrister outlining a ‘chain of escalating concerns’.

The children, whose father is ‘unknown’, are suffering from scabies, missing school and the eldest child is ‘on the periphery of criminal activity’. It’s a sobering insight into young lives thwarted before they have barely started. The mother hardly speaks.

In Cardiff, hearings held in 17 courtrooms in the city’s Civil Justice Centre are listed on a noticeboard in the lobby, with cases named only as ‘A Minor’, so there is no way to know in advance if a case will be newsworthy.

When we do apply to cover them, some are suspicious — ‘Why are you interested in my client’s case?’ one nervous barrister asks — yet others are pleased that the cloak of secrecy is finally being lifted.

One guardian for Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which represents children in Family Court cases) tells us: ‘You may feel there is a feeling that the Press are not welcome here but I want you to know, certainly from my perspective, that’s not the case.’

In an era in which a wait of six months just for hearings to start is commonplace, judges, it seems, are often forced to decide between sub-optimal solutions and allowing proceedings, supposed to conclude within 26 weeks, to drag on, often depriving children of contact with a parent in the process.

Parents, admittedly, may not help matters. In the Cardiff court an estranged mother and father, whose children are in care, are here because the father has missed three doctor’s appointments for mental health assessments and ‘parental assessment’ sessions with a social worker. The reason for his absence, it eventually transpires, is that he was sitting professional exams on some of the dates in question.

The local authority representative says the council ‘didn’t feel the father was committed to this process’, only for the dad to call out: ‘That’s untrue’.

The mother wipes away a tear as the judge says the case could potentially be stalled by months.

‘These are children who cannot wait and should not wait,’ says the representative for the children’s guardian.

Rather than ordering new psychological reports and risking further delay, the judge says the case will have to rely on ‘good old-fashioned social work’ instead.

Many other hearings were reduced to finding ramshackle solutions to paper over deeper problems — or remained obscured from the public. Stock image used

In a Leeds court we hear a case on Zoom of a mother still in hospital, having recently given birth. She had suffered sexual and physical abuse and parental neglect as a child, later developed PTSD and psychosis, and started using crack cocaine, including for the first five months of her pregnancy.

Now authorities are seeking an interim care order to compel her to spend 12 weeks in a parent and child residential centre where she would be ‘intensively assessed’.

The mother’s relationship with the baby’s father featured ‘significant domestic abuse’ and, the court learned, she was currently on bail after allegedly attacking him with a broken bottle and threatening to kill him.

Yet despite being prevented from having contact with one another by bail conditions, they intend to ‘co-parent’.

Granting the order, the judge says: ‘The order will give mother the opportunity to show that she can care for her daughter.’

It’s a reassuring example of due process being applied and a reminder of the essential work these courts carry out to help families stay together. But from the events we witness over the course of the week, it seems to be in the minority.

Many other hearings were reduced to finding ramshackle solutions to paper over deeper problems — or remained obscured from the public.

A pilot promising a great deal has yet to prove it is capable of delivering open justice.

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