In their best interests, part two: the alarming case of C (A Child)
Yesterday we looked at the case of L v P, in which a 15-year-old child objected to her father’s application for a DNA test to confirm her paternity. The child argued that the test and its results could affect her relationships with both her parents. The judge in that case, Mr Justice Hedley, ruled in her favour. He decided that she fully understood the issues in relation to the test, and was entitled to consent or refuse it.
Today’s case, C (A Child), Re  EW Misc 15 (CC), also concerns a parent’s wishes pitted against a child’s. Again, the judge concluded that the child understood the issues and should be permitted to realise her wish. His judgment, however, has left me horrified – to the extent that, if I found myself in such a situation, I would be considering an appeal.
Let’s take a closer look.
Unusually for such a serious case, about which the judge himself remarked that there are “no binding precedents”, C (A Child) was not heard in the High Court. Instead it was heard by Judge Platt of Romford County Court.
The case centres upon a 10-year-old girl, whose parents divorced when she was eight. The girl and her younger brother spent alternate weeks with her mother and her father. Their parents and all four of their grandparents were Jewish, although the children were being raised with little religious observance.
Following the divorce, the girl’s father converted to Christianity. With the mother’s permission, he took the children to his church and also took them to a Christian festival called New Wine.
However, when the 10-year-old daughter returned from the festival she had decided that she, too, wished to be baptised into the Church. The mother and grandparents were horrified. Why had faith become such an issue? Because of the husband’s conversion, which doesn’t seem to have been raised in this case, but which had sent the entire family into a tailspin.
In November 2011 the mother applied without notice to the father for a prohibited steps order, and the father was forbidden from baptising the girl into the Christian faith. Later that month, the without notice order was discharged by Judge Platt, who instead made an order that neither child was to be baptised or to “celebrate a bar mitzvah” (sic) without the consent of the other parent before a final hearing.
The Cafcass officer
A Cafcass officer was asked to file a report, and spoke to all parties. The officer recommended caution and suggested that a decision be deferred for two years, until the child was older. In the meantime, the officer made the following proposals, after consulting with her service manager:
a. C’s current feelings are noted, acknowledged and respected by the court and both her parents.
b. The parents to ensure C has access to information and teaching of both her parents’ faith to enable her to fully understand her choices and the implications of this.
c. the matter be reviewed in two years time, when C may have acquired the maturity and information to be able to make a fully informed decision.
d. there should be a contact activity order for the parents to attend a Parenting Information Programme and work to avoid the children being placed in an impossible position by the conflict between them.
Her conclusions don’t seem unreasonable to me, not least because the child’s experiences of the Jewish faith had been hitherto limited.
The judge’s decision
Judge Platt decided otherwise:
I am satisfied that C’s welfare interests are best served by allowing her to be enrolled in a baptism class and to present herself for baptism into the Christian church as soon as she is ready. If the mother feels unable to accept this judgment and consent to this course of action it may proceed without her consent.
He ordered that although the child was permitted to be baptised into the church, she should not be confirmed until she was 16.
It is clear from the evidence that the father belongs to the Anglican Church and I accept his evidence and understanding of mainstream Anglican belief, which is the view of his church, that baptism is a ceremony in which the child is welcomed into the community of the church and starts his or her journey in faith.
I note that the father’s church, New Wine, is part of a growing evangelical movement in the UK. It holds summer festivals, or “conferences”, which have been described as “proselytising”, with importance placed upon the “power of prayer”, “charismatic worship” and powerful spiritual experiences. A newspaper photograph shows followers standing, their hands in unison stretching up into the air.
“The vision is to see the nation changed”, the New Wine festival director has said.
I don’t have any problem with an adult following their religion. But my question is this: immersed in a proselytising movement, how could a 10-year-old step back and make a fully informed choice? I’m trying to imagine the impact of the church on such a young child, especially one who has been encouraged by her father. Judaism does not seek to convert others, so this case couldn’t have occurred the other way round.
I can certainly understand why the child asked to be baptised. But was it in her best interests, given the family’s seemingly casual attitude to the Jewish faith, and the family turmoil resulting from the father’s conversion?
In Jewish law, a 10-year-old child is not recognised as having the capacity to fully understand the nature, implications and ramifications of such a choice. As a onetime mother of a 10-year-old, I agree.
The judge’s startling comments
When dealing with the mother’s objections as to the amount of time the child intends to spend with the church, the judge made the following, incredible comments:
As the father pointed out this arrangement does not increase C’s quality time with him. It simply increases the quality time she spends with God and with the friends she has made at church.
The fact that C is away at church gives the mother the opportunity for her to spend one to one quality time with her son A which would not otherwise be open to her.
I was left (almost) speechless.
The judge found entirely against the mother. He criticised her for seeking the assistance of the court. But faced with her daughter’s determined father, who “wishes to do all he can” to support the child’s wish to be baptised, it doesn’t seem to me that the mother had many options. Why not invoke the court? It was her right.
What happens next
Where now for this little girl and her family? She has received a letter from the judge, in which he told her she could be baptised:
My job is to decide simply what is best for you and I have decided that the best thing for you is that you are allowed to start your baptism classes as soon as they can be arranged and that you are baptised as a Christian as soon as your Minister feels you are ready.
I suspect the decision will have chipped at the bond between mother and child. And for a judge to suggest that the mother should be comforted because she can spend more time with her son, and that this should somehow make up for the loss of her daughter, is one of the strangest comments I can recall reading in any judgment.
What of the grandparents’ relationship with their granddaughter? And what of the paternal grandparents’ relationship with their son? How will the family dynamic between the mother, father, daughter and son be affected? Why did religion have to be imposed upon the family by the father, with such a profound impact?
It is difficult to conceive of a more serious issue for a child than this. Surely, manifestly, this case called out for a High Court judge.
If I was advising the mother, I would suggest an appeal. But I also wonder if, by writing to the little girl as he did, the judge hasn’t ensured that an appeal is virtually impossible.
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Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner in Stowe Family Law, which has offices in Yorkshire, Cheshire and London. With more than 30 years’ experience handling divorce cases and family law proceedings she is regarded as one of the most formidable and sought after divorce lawyers in the UK. In 2012, Marilyn became one of the first solicitors to qualify as a family law arbitrator.
All persons mentioned in the scenarios are fictitious: details have been deliberately changed in order to protect identities and other confidential circumstances of my clients. All advice and information on this blog including posts written by guest authors, is given only as a general guide to the operation of the law on the date of publication. Readers must place no reliance whatsoever on the content of this blog and must always obtain their own legal advice. Marilyn Stowe, Stowe Family Law LLP and guest authors accept no liability whatsoever arising as a result of reliance upon its content.
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