England and Wales Family Court Decision: Example of a Feminist Judgment

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook

Earlier this week, Mr. Justice Peter Jackson of the English and Wales Family Division of the High Court handed down a relatively run-of-the-mill custody decision in what I think is an extraordinary format. The decision is written as a signed letter by the judge to the teenage boy whose custody was at issue.  Here is an excerpt:

13 July 2017

Dear Sam,

It was a pleasure to meet you on Monday and I hope your camp this week went well.

This case is about you and your future, so I am writing this letter as a way of giving my decision to you and to your parents.

When a case like this comes before the court, the judge has to apply the law as found in the Children Act 1989, and particularly in Section 1. You may have looked at this already, but if you Google it, you will see that when making my decision, your welfare is my paramount consideration – more important than anything else. If you look at s.1(3), there is also a list of factors I have to consider, to make sure that everything is taken into account.

When I was appointed as a judge, I took the oath that every judge takes to apply the law in a way that is fair to everybody. Some people will say that this or that decision isn’t fair, but that’s usually their way of saying that they don’t like the decision. People who like decisions don’t usually say they are unfair. * * *

Sam, the evidence shows that you are doing well in life at the moment. You have your school, your friends, your music, and two homes. You’ve lived in England all your life. All your friends and most of your family are here. I have to consider the effect of any change in the arrangements and any harm that might come from it. In any case where parents don’t agree about a move overseas, the parent wanting to move has at least to show that they have a realistic plan. That plan can then be compared with other plans to see which is best. That has not been possible here. You will remember that at the earlier hearing in May, I made very clear to your father that if he was going to seriously put forward a move to Scandinavia, he had to give the court proper information about where you would be living and going to school, where the money would be coming from, and what the arrangements would be for you to keep in touch with family and friends in England. At this hearing, no information at all has been given. Your father described the move to Scandinavia as an adventure and said that once the court had given the green light, he would arrange everything. That is not good enough. In over 30 years of doing family law cases, I have never come across a parent who thought it might be, and no court could possibly accept it. What it means is that I have no confidence at all that a move to Scandinavia would work. Your dad thinks he would find a good life and good work there, but I have seen nothing to back that up – he hasn’t made a single enquiry about houses, schools or jobs. You don’t speak the language and you haven’t been there since before you were 5. Even your dad hasn’t been there for over 10 years. I also doubt his ability to provide you with a secure home and a reasonable standard of living if you lived with him full-time. I would worry about how it would be for you if things started to go wrong. I think you would find it exciting at first, but when reality set in, you might become sad and isolated. I also don’t think it is good for you to be with your father 24/7. In some ways, he would expand your vision of the world, but in many more ways he would narrow it, because he holds such very strong views himself, and because I believe that (maybe sincerely and without realising it) he needs you to fall in with his way of thinking. I also think it would be very harmful to be living so far away from your mum, from young Edward (who needs you too), and from Paul.  * * *

So, coming to the orders I am going to make:

A. I dismiss your dad’s applications to take you to live in Scandinavia and for you to apply for citizenship there.

B. You will have a holiday of a week in the second half of August this year with your dad, to be spent at his home unless he and your mother agree that it is going to be spent somewhere else. * * *

Sam, I realise that this order is not the one that you said you wanted me to make, but I am confident that it is the right order for you in the long run. Whatever each of your parents might think about it, I hope they have the dignity not to impose their views on you, so that you can work things out for yourself. I know that as you get older, you will do this increasingly and I hope that you will come to see why I have made these decisions. I wish you every success with your future and if you want to reply to this letter, I know that your solicitor will make sure that your reply reaches me.

The full opinion, which is worth reading is here. The citation is A (Letter to a Young Person), Re (Rev 1) [2017] EWFC 48 (26 July 2017).

To my eye, this opinion has many of the hallmarks that Kathy Stanchi, Linda Berger and I identified (here) as characteristics of some feminist judgments including breaking rhetorical conventions, practical reasoning, and concern for power dynamics.

Mr. Justice Jackson’s decisions have attracted some attention before, as he was the first judge to use an emoji in an official ruling, so that his decision could be better understood by the children who would read it.

Mr. Justice Jackson has been recently elevated to the Court of Appeal.

This entry was posted in Courts and the Judiciary, Feminism and Families, Feminism and Law. Bookmark the permalink.