A leading family lawyer has branded as ‘irresponsible and dangerous’ an MP's advice that parents suspected of child abuse should flee abroad rather than risk care proceedings in ‘unfair’ family courts.
Liberal Democrat John Hemming, chair of the Justice for Families Group, said he has been contacted by hundreds of parents who claim they have been unfairly suspected of harming their children.
The system has become so unfair that parents should leave the country to avoid getting caught up the process, he tells tonight's edition of BBC TV's Panorama.
‘All the cards are held by the local authority. It has large resources to fight the cases – it does all the assessments,' he said.
'My advice to people - if they can afford it - is just to go abroad. You can’t get a fair trial here, because you can’t rely on the evidence being fair. It’s best simply to go if you can, at the right time, lawfully.’
The chairman of the Law Society’s family law committee Naomi Angell said recent changes to speed up care cases had shifted the balance against parents, but described Hemmings’ comments as ‘irresponsible and dangerous’.
‘Local authorities have a duty to, and society demands, that they protect children at risk,’ said Angell.
She told the Gazette that the family court process needs to more transparent and there is concern that recent reforms to speed up care cases have shifted the balance against parents.
Local authority investigations, assessing children and parenting capabilities, are being shifted to the pre-proceedings stage, said Angell, where parents have only limited involvement and the children are not represented.
It will be harder to persuade the court to get another expert report, said Angell, and the law is changing so that experts reports will be ordered only where necessary. But she said: ‘You can get the evidence; you just have to fight for it.’
In response to the reforms, lawyers will have to be more competent and more energetic, she said. 'They will have to fight to ensure they get independent expert reports, so there is equality of arms and to enable the courts to reach the right decision,’ said Angell.
Where reports are refused, she said, lawyers will have to appeal.
Angell added: ‘There are very good and committed lawyers doing this work, who are committed to parents having an equal voice where far-reaching decisions are being made.’
In 2012, local authorities made a record 10,218 applications to take children away from their parents. The numbers rose in response to high-profile cases where children have died and where local authorities have been criticised for failing to act quickly enough.
The Children and Family Court Advisory Service (Cafcass), which looks after the interests of children in family proceedings, said more children are being protected.
Its chief executive Anthony Douglas said: ‘We can’t play poker with children’s safety; we’ve got to have a system that plays it safe to begin with.’
Douglas said: ‘I do think we have a responsibility to make our family courts better; to make them more transparent; to build public confidence in them.’
But he said: ‘To advocate leaving altogether doesn’t solve the problem for the vast majority of children and parents who need our courts to be as good as they possibly can be.’
Justice minister Simon Hughes rebutted Hemming's allegations. 'It is simply not the case that the family courts are broken or corrupt,' he said in a statement. 'The courts carry out vital work and by their nature, the issues that come before the family courts are sensitive and emotive. Expert judges need to make important decisions based on the evidence brought before them.
'We are now making major reforms to drive further improvement so there are new standards for expert witnesses and more effective court processes.'