Why do judges in our family courts ignore the law?The appearance they will be out of a job as well as their brethren.
March 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
Why do judges in our family courts ignore the law?
Sir James Munby’s guidelines are being breached
6:24PM GMT 02 Nov 2013
It is a basic principle of British justice that no one should be sent to prison except in open court, so that their name can be known and why they have been jailed. But this has long been one of those basic principles that are routinely ignored in our ultra-secretive family courts.
In a parliamentary answer given by Harriet Harman in 2006, she said that some 200 people had been jailed in secret by the family courts in 2005, and that her government now wanted to open up the courts to ensure that this scandal did not continue. Last May and July, following publicity given to a case in which a woman was secretly sentenced to 12 months in prison for rescuing her father from a care home, where he was being mistreated, the new head of the Family Division of the High Court, Sir James Munby, issued guidelines reminding his fellow judges that this was against the law, as clearly restated in the Rules of the Supreme Court as long ago as 1965.
In recent years, I have come across many cases of judges continuing to break the law in this way. In one instance, a father who had already lost his two teenage sons because they were held to be “at risk of emotional abuse” from their mother, from whom he had separated, was before a judge who wanted to order the removal for adoption of his third son, aged four. When the father left the courtroom in disgust, the judge ordered his arrest for contempt.
While he was in custody, his new partner, still at home and fearful that the little boy might also be removed, panicked and took him to a secret destination. The judge summoned the father back to court to ask where they had gone. Since his partner’s flight was on the spur of the moment, the father explained, truthfully, that he had no idea. Refusing to believe him, the judge angrily sentenced him in secret to 12 months. The police tracked down the woman, who was convicted of kidnapping the boy but let off with a caution. The father was released after six months in prison, but given a penal notice forbidding him to have any further contact with his boys, all now in foster care, whom he had brought up and who loved him.
In another recent case, a couple whose son had repeatedly run away from a care home were secretly jailed for not disclosing his whereabouts. In October, months after Munby issued his guidelines, three judges in the Court of Appeal upheld their sentencing. Also last month, John Hemming MP protested that the sentencing of a woman to 28 days by another High Court judge, Mrs Justice Theis, was yet another example of “secret justice” in breach of Munby’s guidelines and the law, because, although her court had been technically “open” for the brief period of the sentencing, the case was not advertised and no one was allowed to know the woman’s name or why she was imprisoned.
It seems that Lord Justice Munby has a battle on his hands to persuade judges that it is their duty to obey the law of the land.
March 10, 2014 § 1 Comment
Opinion: Family Court System Expensive, Inefficient And Abusive
On Feb. 26, there was a historic vote at the state Capitol in which family court Judge Leslie Olear was only narrowly reappointed by the legislature. This vote came after public protests which gained media attention and after legislators were called into action to address the serious problems in our state’s family courts. After this vote, some members of the legal community understandably rushed to defend Judge Olear, claiming that the votes against her were politically motivated and only in response to complaints being expressed by a “small number of family court critics.” This is simply not the case.
This vote came after scores of parents, adult children of divorce, grandparents, attorneys and business executives testified until the early morning hours in front of a task force in January, after more than 630 parents signed a petition demanding legislative reforms of the family court’s broken guardian ad litem (GAL) system, and after legislators were inundated with thousands of complaints about our family courts from parents, as consumers of the family court system’s services.
In an op-ed piece submitted to the Law Tribune, Kimberly Knox, president of the Connecticut Bar Association, fell back on well-worn industry rhetoric trying to blame the actual victims in this scenario — the thousands of parents and families who have been financially devastated and unfairly denied access to their children solely due the problems in our family courts. The vote on Feb. 26 was not about a judge and what was in her best interests. The vote was about parents, children, families, citizens and taxpayers and what is in our best interests. The protests and the vote reflected how expensive, ineffective, abusive and damaging our family courts have become.
Unfortunately, Olear did not come before the legislature with a stellar record. In 2011, the state Supreme Court overturned a custody case ruling made by Olear where Chief Justice Chase Rogers expressed strong constitutional concerns. The opinions of the family law attorneys who testified in favor of Olear have a vested interest in doing so. The question should be asked how many parents and adult children of divorce testified – those impacted by the judge’s rulings. It is quite unfortunate that these voices and opinions are seldom solicited or heard.
What legislators heard (and responded to) were complaints about children being arbitrarily separated from their parents and parents forced to pay for supervised visitations to see them. Parents being jailed for not being able to pay outlandish GAL fees. Parents being jailed for not being able to pay outlandish GAL feesThis same scenario has become the operational norm in our family courts, not one only associated with a small number of “high-conflict cases.”
The majority of the family courts’ time is consumed by the growing number of 3,400 or so custody cases it hears. It is the underlying politics and misguided policies of the family court itself which created this crisis – and one which is harming parents, children and families.
The vote signaled that citizens are no longer tolerating the status quo and expecting far better of our legislature and judiciary. It reflects a historic shift in attitudes and approaches towards family law happening not just here in Connecticut, but nationally and internationally as well. Connecticut is characteristically late to the game.
Many states have already enacted sweeping changes in their family laws and made shared parenting a standard. Maine reformed its GAL system last summer, following states such as Maryland, which eliminated GAL immunity. The chief justice of New York State and a task force in Delaware both proposed opening their family courts in order to “eliminate the atmosphere of corruption.” The chief justice of Canada called the country’s family courts “beyond the point of simple repair” and a Royal Commission is examining ways to replace their system with “something else.”
Connecticut’s family courts are in a state of operational dysfunction solely due to a self-inflicted legal monstrosity it created and of epic proportions. We have the largest Practice Book in the country, as our judiciary has essentially been allowed to write self-serving legislation.
None of the people in the fast growing family court reform movement deny that custody cases can be difficult. This is not the issue. The issue is that in this state, we have allowed a very small group of family law attorneys and GALs to directly and adversely impact family court operations in a manner designed to personally enrich them at the expense of parents and families. This has created a situation where 85 percent of the cases before the court involve a pro se party, as no one can afford the agenda being promoted by these individuals. To be clear, this group does not represent mainstream legal thought in this state and many attorneys are increasingly speaking out about this.
Our state’s GALs are almost exclusively family law attorneys who enjoy complete immunity and been granted quasi-judicial authority – this is not common elsewhere in the country. Our GALs are not held to any standard of performance or excellence and they are not licensed or monitored. They are allowed to bill with impunity with the expected results. GALs in this state legally trump a parent’s right to be a parent as soon as they are assigned to case. These individuals are allowed to make life-altering decisions directly impacting children and families as judges routinely outsource their judicial authority to them – for the entire life of a case and child. This is misguided, unethical and simply wrong.
Too many of our judges operate with the misguided belief that parents are to blame and inherently flawed, invalid, and incapable of parenting solely because they have dared to approach the Court for help or have a dispute with the other parent. Instead of making effective rulings, even simple cases are allowed to drag on for months and years as children and families suffer and parents are literally bankrupted in process. Concerns for their clients expressed to the family court by well-meaning attorneys and professionals, fall of deaf ears as these people are shut out of the system.
Along with many others, I attended and watched the recent hearings of a task force assigned to study the costs of custody cases. Ms. Knox did not. This task force failed its legislative mandate as it was chaired by two “full-time GALs” who blocked every effort by other task force members to collect and analyze meaningful financial cost and operational metrics data related to custody cases. This may explain why many legislators have little faith in what the task force ultimately recommended.
In summary, the legal industry and judiciary need to recognize that the world has changed. As with many other movements, social media has brought together thousands of parents, progressive lawyers, former judges, concerned mental health professionals, business executives and legislators on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, uniting us in a common cause. A cause which cuts across all political lines, all social and economic classes, all genders and race classifications.
We have three branches of government because when one of these branches goes astray and operates in a manner which violates the Constitution and ignores basic civil and due process rights, the other two must step in to take correction action. Having no other recourse, citizens have properly turned to the legislature and the legislature is responding – which mirrors what has happened in many other states.
Parents who have suffered for years due to the problems in our family courts are the actual experts and our voices must be heard – not just those of the legal industry. This is the very best way to run a government and court system – for the people, of the people, and by the people.
Peter T. Szymonik is a portfolio manager at UnitedHealthcare, where he works as a liaison between business technology executives and the legal and compliance teams. He is a former member of the executive board at Cummings & Lockwood and has served as the state chair of the Council of Litigation Management. He is also the father of two young sons and has been working with state legislators on family court reform for many years.