Jail social workers who take children without telling parents why, says Britain’s top family judge
- Sir James Munby attacked workers in Bristol who didn’t explain themselves
- They did not tell a couple why their two children were being taken from them
- They breach a court order in doing so – which could carry a jail term in future
PUBLISHED: 01:36, 25 October 2013 | UPDATED: 01:37, 25 October 2013
The country’s most senior family judge yesterday launched a furious attack on social workers who failed to tell parents why their children were being adopted – and suggested that in future the same offence could carry a jail term.
Local authority workers in Bristol ignored a court order requiring them to explain why the couple’s two children were being taken for adoption.
They only released the information to the parents 45 minutes before the decision was due to be finalised, giving the family no real hope of mounting a challenge in court.
Sir James Munby, who is President of the Family Division, said their behaviour was ‘deplorable’ and ‘symptomatic of a deeply rooted culture in family courts’.
In his judgment, he accused the social workers of having a ‘slapdash’ and ‘lackadaisical’ attitude to court orders.
He said the couple, who were facing the ‘permanent loss of two children’ had been denied ‘vitally important’ information.
He also warned that in future, there would be ‘consequences’ for social workers, suggesting that they could be jailed for contempt if they fail to comply with court orders – an offence that carries a sentence of up to two years.
Until now, local authority workers have largely been protected by family courts, which also routinely tolerate delays and inefficiencies in their work.
By contrast, members of the public who have failed to comply with court orders have been dealt with severely.
The most notorious case of this was the prison sentence for contempt handed down to Wanda Maddocks, who wanted to get her father out of a care home where she thought he was being ill-treated.
Miss Maddocks was jailed without representation and in secret until her case was revealed by the Daily Mail.
But Sir James’s warning suggests council staff will now face the same punishment as ordinary members of the public if they fail – either through incompetence or unwillingness – to hand over the required information on time.
He told the court: ‘That the parents should have been put in this position is quite deplorable.
‘It is, unhappily, symptomatic of a deeply rooted culture in the family courts which, however long established, will no longer be tolerated.
‘The court is entitled to expect – and from now on family courts will demand – strict compliance with all such orders.
‘Non-compliance with orders should be expected to have and will usually have a consequence.’
He added: ‘There is simply no excuse for this. Orders must be obeyed and complied with to the letter and on time. Non-compliance with an order, any order, by anyone is bad enough.
‘It is a particularly serious matter if the defaulter is a public body such as a local authority.
‘It is also a particularly serious matter if the order goes to something as vitally important as the right of a parent who is facing the permanent loss of their child to know what case is being mounted against them by a public authority.’
Lib Dem MP John Hemming, who has campaigned for openness in the family courts, said: ‘At least anybody who is sent down for contempt by Sir James will not be locked up in secret.
‘He has put the boot on to the other foot. The next time courts are let down by the incompetence or bloody-mindedness of social workers, it will be a director of children’s services facing jail rather than a parent.’