The case of Finley Bowden shines a spotlight on the often hidden world of family court hearings.
Despite social services raising concerns about his drug use and parenting abilities, the order to return the child to his parents set off a chain of events that culminated in his murder at their hands. happened in.
His case has raised questions about how and why he was returned to the care of Shannon Marsden and Stephen Bowden just a month before he died on Christmas Day 2020.
But now a leading family barrister has explained the process and steps being taken to increase transparency in the system.
Lucy Reed Casey is a family barrister, specializing in children for 22 years Bristol and London.
He clarified that family courts become involved when social services have child protection concerns but need the court’s input to manage this, such as when they are removed from their parents without their consent. Feels the need to protect the child.
Ms Reid said that because of the individual nature of each case, each can progress in very different ways.
She said: “Things can develop and go on in different ways, but the very general structure is that the local authority will often, but not always, come to court, saying ‘things are so serious that we need to remove this child from care’. want to delete.” their parents while we work out what the long-term plan is’.
“The court would have to make that decision fairly early, and then there would normally be a process of assessment and evidence gathering.
“Parents will be able to see all that evidence and respond to it at the appropriate time, and either the matter will be resolved by agreement when all the evidence is in place or the court, if it is not agreeable, list a hearing.” that all evidence can be tested.
“Will make a decision to resolve the dispute about what should happen to the child in the long term.”
The court has “a wide menu of options” for child protection, Ms Reed said, and children can either stay or be returned to their parents, looked after by other relatives or foster May be placed in care, or adopted.
A case management hearing first outlines a plan, including how much evidence will need to be collected and for how long, and decides whether the child needs to be removed while the proceedings are ongoing. .
The parents are represented through legal aid at these hearings, and the child will also be represented, usually by a social worker employed by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).
In child custody cases, guardians are automatically appointed and will represent the child through their own solicitor at the Family Court hearing, as was the case with Finley.
Once all parties have presented evidence on how they think the case should end, a second hearing is arranged, called an issue resolution hearing.
If all parties agree to a settlement, the case may end by settlement, but if not, a hearing is set so that evidence can be heard.
Final decisions are then made by ordinary magistrates, who are untrained volunteers who are assisted by trained legal counsel, or by district judges, who are trained and may take on a full-time role.
At the finale hearing on 1 October 2020, for a representative derbyshire county council said that “all parties” agreed that she should be returned to her parents, but there was disagreement over the duration of the transition and the need for Bowden and Marsden to be subject to drug testing.
While the council wanted a four-month transition, the Cafcass Guardian and parents advocated adherence to an eight-week plan with supervision, with two lay magistrates ordering the latter and a bar from ordering further drug tests. Were staying
After Finley’s death, Kafkas said that “no one could have predicted” that Bowden and Marsden were “capable of such brutality” as was known at the time, and Ms. Reid said that the views of Kafkas’ guardians would be reflected in the family courts. I am influential.
She said: “If a CAFE officer makes a recommendation, the court must have a good reason to recede from it and they can’t just say ‘we don’t like it’, they have to give reasons for receding from the see.
“When predicting risk, sometimes guardians get it right, sometimes they don’t as social workers, but Kafkas’s thought is generally respected and influential.”
She said: “The guardians were advocating for accelerated rehabilitation based on what was necessary and proportionate, in the context of the identified and proven risks.”
Cases are meant to be finished within 26 weeks, and while Ms Reid says “this doesn’t always happen” due to a number of factors, including backlogs covid Pandemic, cases may be extended for up to eight weeks at a time if justified by their circumstances.
Ms Reid is also chair of the Transparency Project, which aims to provide access and insight into the family courts after decades of calls to show how justice is administered.
While he believes the process should maintain some degree of secrecy due to the vulnerability of the children and adults involved, he added that greater openness can be achieved “in a sensible way”.
He said: “Family Courts, whether they are Magistrates, or District Judges, Circuit Judges, High Court Judge, they’re making really serious decisions.
,magistratesThose who are not lawyers have the power to remove people’s children and put them up for adoption.
“Those are really big, important decisions and the public deserves to understand how those decisions are made.
“I think many people whose lives have been touched by family court or social services, perhaps even those who haven’t, are fearful and skeptical of the process.
“The more we can get information into the public domain and understand a little bit more about where things are going wrong, the better our chances of identifying problems and then taking steps to rectify things. “