When your MP should steer clear of your case. By John Bolch.

when should you complain to your mpI wrote here previously about the importance of judicial independence, and how politicians should not interfere with the judicial process. That post was about a case in Ireland, but I cautioned that it could also happen in this country. I said that it is already common here for aggrieved parties to family law cases to complain to their MP, and that it only takes a ‘bad’ or misguided MP to try to use their position to influence a court’s decision.

Over the weekend I came across a case where this seems to be exactly what happened.

Re P (A Child) concerned a girl who was then just one year old. The local authority, Essex County Council, issued care proceedings as a result of the care being provided to her by her mother. The maternal grandparents felt that they could look after the child, so applied to the court for permission to apply for a residence order. The application was supported by the mother.

The court rejected the grandparents’ application, without giving them an opportunity to be heard, and the case proceeded to a final hearing. Although the judgment in the law report doesn’t say expressly, it suggests that the grandparents complained about this decision to their local MP, while also appealing the decision.

What happened next is, however, clear. On the day of the final hearing the court received a letter from a local MP, “copying a letter he had written to the Prime Minister in the strongest terms”. Unfortunately, we are not given details of the contents of the letter to the Prime Minister, but they were obviously relevant to the case.

The grandparents’ appeal was heard and allowed by Judge Newton at the Chelmsford County Court. In the course of his judgment he referred to the letter from the MP and stated that he strongly deprecated such conduct.

The judge went on:

“It appears to be a clear political attempt to interfere with the judicial process. The justices proceeded to hear the case as I think they should have done in the circumstances but it is a matter which should be taken further, because at that time the case was still subject to judicial enquiry, whatever the circumstances, it should not have occurred in the way that it did. I do not criticise [the grandparents] they do not know the niceties of the law but an experienced Member of Parliament should, it shouldn’t have happened.”

Complaining to your MP when you are aggrieved by a decision of a family court seems to be becoming more frequent. Perhaps this has been encouraged in some quarters, where people perceive decisions that go against them as some sort of conspiracy on behalf of the “secret” or “corrupt” family courts.

While that might be misguided, the real problem comes when an MP becomes involved, while court proceedings are still ongoing. MPs are not entitled to interfere with the judicial process. This is something that all MPs should know, and it is a worry that some clearly don’t.

Any error by a court should be “corrected” within the legal process: in other words, upon appeal if necessary. For these grandparents, the proper avenue was the course they had already taken, by lodging an application to appeal against the earlier decision. In the event, the judge noted a number of concerns about this case. He granted the grandparents permission to appeal “without hesitation.”  You can read his decision here.

To be clear: whatever the merits of your case, and however desperate you are or aggrieved you feel, your MP should not get involved until the court process has ended.

John Bolch

 

 

 

 

John Bolch is a family law commentator

 
Westminster image credit: Dave Morris.

Marilyn Stowe

The senior partner at Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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9 comments

Andrew - December 16, 2013 at 5:55pm

MoJ regularly get letters from MPs and councillors complaining about court decisions and asking for them to be “sorted out” or “put right” and for someone to speak to the judge about it. Just part of life’s rich tapestry, I fear.

Anonymous - December 16, 2013 at 6:00pm

I think you will find that, if you do a bit of research, the notion of judicial independence is complete myth.

Expecting MPs to stay out of family proceedings, when they are the only means of keeping up the appearance (I stress appearance) that there are checks on the system, would only exacerbate the public’s despair.

Andrew - December 16, 2013 at 6:48pm

Come off it, Anonymous. I’m only a humble JP (that’s not by main job, obviously) but we don’t accept orders form the executive and a letter like this from an MP would get the shortest of shrift.

sheila oneill - December 17, 2013 at 6:47pm

Keep it all a secret then if the court blunders.
Not in the childs best interest. Child will grow up in a world where freedom of speech and to question authority is wrong.
What hope is there for the UK.
Does that not happen in apartheid and holocausts.

Andrew - December 17, 2013 at 9:52pm

Sheila, MPs have their job to do and it is not to try to influence courts. The MP was out of order and I hope the PM slapped him down.

Tristan - December 20, 2013 at 4:12pm

I see it differently.

An MP has both a right and duty to involve himself with his constituent’s problems. He (or she) must understand the issues at hand and ought properly to make representations to ministers on behalf of his constituent to improve both law and regulation as well as deal with injustice. With family law in particular that duty is imperative, given the iniquity and unfairness that abounds. Bad judicial decisions need exposure to criticism as any other.

Telling MP’s to keep their heads in the sand is a fool’s game that helps no one. It is the manner of intervention which may be critical but not the principle.

Andrew - December 20, 2013 at 8:58pm

Representations to Ministers, yes. Representations to the courts, no. If you don’t see the difference then you don’t understand the notion of an independent judiciary.

Pete - January 2, 2014 at 2:51pm

I think when it come’s to judicial independence in family law there is to much independence where Judges are free to be as biased as they please. Yes I did go to my MP after my divorce and you will be pleased to know that after opening a solicitors office a couple of weeks earlier (getting his picture in the paper) wasn’t interested, although his assistant at the meeting a retired solicitor said that if I didn’t like things the way they were then I should move to New Zealand. After recent comments from Sir James Munby and reading comments on this blog isn’t it about time there was a major review of the family law system. Oh and any contributions towards moving to New Zealand would be appreciated.

Tristan - January 2, 2014 at 3:54pm

Blair’s government ordered a certain David Norgrove to undertake a review of family law. This waste of space decided it was too risky to trust fathers with 50% shared parenting so what we eventually got from the review, despite the Coalition’s earlier promises to introduce shared parenting, boils down to an adjustment in the semantics of your contact order. Except that they don’t call it a contact order as such any more. They needed to disguise the ‘contact parent’ bit as they want to make a biased system look fairer than what it really it. So now what a father gets when he’s being turned over in family court is a Child Arrangements Order. Oh, yes, and there’s a very useful leaflet too somewhere. It tells you that family law is all about doing best for children and advises you not to argue too much just in case you forget.

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