Judge wrong to rule children in council care could not spend time with mother during lockdown
A family court judge was wrong to rule that three children taken into council care pending the outcome of legal proceedings could not spend time with their mother following lockdown, Court of Appeal judges have said.
Judge Jeremy Lea should not have dismissed the woman’s application for a “contact order”, three appeal judges concluded.
Lord Justice Peter Jackson, Lord Justice Baker and Lady Justice Carr suggested that Judge Lea should have considered more evidence before making a decision.
The three appeal judges outlined their reasoning in a written ruling published on Tuesday, following a Court of Appeal hearing.
They said the issue at the centre of the case had “wider importance”.
Appeal judges have not identified the family at the centre of the case but said Nottingham City Council (pictured) was the local authority involved.
They said the three youngsters, who are aged between one and eight, were in “interim” council care pending decisions about their long-term future.
A family court judge was due to oversee a hearing centred on their welfare in November, appeal judges said.
The children had gone into interim care nearly a year ago and had been seeing their mother three times a week, during supervised meetings at a contact centre, prior to lockdown in March.
Council social services bosses had subsequently decided that face-to-face meetings were no longer possible because the children could not be “expected to socially distance themselves from their mother”.
The woman was, as a result, only able to have “indirect contact” – via phone and video calls.
In June, the woman had asked Judge Lea, who hears family court cases in Nottingham, to rule that she should be allowed to spend time with her children.
Judge Lea dismissed her application.
He said the law required councils to facilitate “reasonable contact” between children in care and parents.
But he said “in these unprecedented times” it was hard to “set out” what level of contact was “reasonable”.
He said the “contact provided” – phone and video calls – was reasonable in the circumstances.
The woman then appealed – and appeal judges have upheld her challenge.
“In this case, as in others like it, there is no doubt that face-to-face contact would be in the children’s interests if it could be achieved,” said Lord Justice Jackson.
“In order to form a view about that, the court needed basic information about the children’s situation, the local authority’s resources and the current Government guidance.
“Unfortunately, the decision in this case did not grapple with these matters except at a general level.”
He said “practical challenges” might mean that “less contact” was appropriate.
But he said the evidence before Judge Lea did not support the conclusion that “no face-to-face contact at all” was possible.
Appeal judges said the woman had now begun spending time with the children again.
But they said they had still analysed the issue because it had “wider importance”.
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