The human face of family courts

Family Courts / Film 2

Northern Ireland’s law courts can be imposing and intimidating places for adults.

So imagine how frightening it must be for a child caught up in a breakdown of relations between his/her parents.

Clare Quinn and her younger brother were not told they would be going before a judge. They were simply told they would be going to see a man in a funny wig. She was just six at the time.

“I remember walking in and just it being really big, the court,” she told The Detail a few weeks ago.

Clare, now 19, added: “We were kind of disappointed because there was no man with a funny wig, he must have took it off. But he had asked us who did we want to live with. And I had said my daddy and so did my brother.

“And he had asked did we want to spend time with our mummy and we said yes. And then he had asked us what day. And would a Saturday be okay and we said yeah. And then he just left the room and that was it.”

Claire Quinn expected to see a man with a wig

Claire Quinn expected to see a man with a wig

Clare said she welcomed the opportunity to speak to the judge.

She added: “I think it’s right that the court should ask,because without the courts asking they wouldn’t take our opinion into consideration, they would have just thought what they felt is best, but it’s not their lives, it’s ours, and we should be where we feel most comfortable.”

But in the world of gowns and wigs, there’s often little opportunity or dare it be said, interest in what children have to say when their parents begin the process of pursuing separation and divorce.

Joan Davis is director of Family Mediation Northern Ireland and she shares Clare’s view that children should be heard and consulted in a world where often their voice is stifled.

She said: “The legal process sometimes, well-meaning as it is to protect the rights of the child, sometimes the child actually gets lost in the process, so we’re very much reminding people that the child is very much the vulnerable person in all this and that they have a right to access of both their parents unless in very exceptional circumstances.”

Real Fathers for Justice, a pressure group representing men going through separation and divorce, says that mediation has no legal standing in Northern Ireland as much as they would prefer a system outside the courts.

Their spokesman Peter Morris is also concerned that the courts have a gender bias against men.

He told The Detail: “The family courts at present, both in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK, are very gender biased towards the female. The family courts system is somewhere where a father has got to fight to prove that he can be a father.”

And he claims women use the courts as a vehicle for making false allegations.

He added: “There are too many cases of false allegations going through the family courts system at the minute and it is another tool that a woman or a mother can use against a father to deny him the rights to see his child.

“We have had members who have had all sorts of allegations put against them, sexual assault on a child, domestic violence against the female. One person in particular fought through the whole system and every allegation that was put to him he managed to get them admonished and he got full residence of his own children.”

Dave, not his real name, says he was denied access to his child for 18 months because his ex-partner made serious allegations against him. But amazingly he claims he was never even interviewed about the allegations.

He said: “I helped to raise my child since he was born, since he learned to walk, learned to speak. He started to attend nursery school. All of a sudden through a text message I was told I wasn’t allowed to see my child again.

“What transpired to be was I waited nine months to get Social Services involved.I waited 18 months to get into a court room. And after I won the court case I picked up my child two days after it. I was granted shared residence with my child after an hour in court. After facing allegations which I was never arrested or charged for. I was never questioned about them.”

Breaking up is hard to do… no doubt about that. And there is also no doubt that couples can be extremely bitter over the way they are treated.

And there’s the issue of legal aid. Men are upset when they arrive in court to find that while they are paying for legal representation, their wives or partners are provided with legal aid.

Joan Davis recognizes the problems this can cause.

She said: “We see that again at the other end of that continuum. They’re very entrenched and inevitably one party will be aided and the other will be self-funded and there will be a lot of frustration on behalf of the self-funding client who is paying for this service and the legally aided client isn’t and that’s a matter for government and certainly under the review of Access for Justice.

“I think we’ll hear something more about that through the course of the year and Minister Ford will be looking at that. And I think that legal system really does need to be overhauled and the open cheque book approach to legal aid which is something that doesn’t really particularly concern us as an organisation and to a certain extent it’s not our business but just in terms of commenting on that point yes we do have one party coming here legally aided via the courts, the other party is self-funded.”

Joan Davis sees first-hand the pain individuals in every family face when there’s a break-up. Mothers, fathers, children are all victims who should not have to endure court appearances to settle their differences.

She told The Detail: “Some of the legal profession and indeed some of the judiciary privately would recommend that people are not in the courts system, that it’s not the place to resolve emotional and practical issues in family life, and a lot of the judiciary are very pro-mediation.”

Justice Minister David Ford’s Access to Justice report to be published next month is expected to reflect that position – with an attempt to persuade people to find mediation and conciliation a better alternative to courtroom confrontations.