Refusing contact – Rebecca Minnock: a cautionary tale
The recent case of Rebecca Minnock, her son Ethan, and Ethan’s father Roger Williams is notable not only for the controversial actions of Ms Minnock herself in refusing to follow several court orders and going into hiding, but also for lifting the veil somewhat on the processes followed by the family courts. In publishing a number of his judgments, Judge Wildblood has given us a rare glimpse into the family courts and the thinking of the judiciary in these cases.
Given the widespread media coverage the facts of the case are well known. Ethan’s parents separated in 2013. The separation was evidently acrimonious as the child’s father made an application to the court for contact with Ethan a month afterwards. Judge Wildblood outlines the chronology of events in his judgment of the 8th of June 2015, which is available online (https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/judgments/roger-williams-v-rebecca-minnock-and-ethan-freeman-williams-2-judgments/). It appears that following the father’s initial application for contact, which the court granted, the mother went on to make a number of allegations against the father which she claimed made him unfit to care for the child. Ms Minnock seems to have done this on a number of occasions, following a pattern of denying Ethan’s father contact with his son, necessitating him to make a fresh application to the court each time, whereupon the court judged these allegations to be unfounded.
Of course there are cases where one parent poses a genuine risk to a child. In his judgment of the 24th of June 2015 Judge Wildblood deals with this point in his reference to the allegations made by Ms Minnock that the court had found to be untrue:
“If she had evidence that invalidated past findings of a family court she could have applied for those findings to be considered afresh. Findings of a family court may, if solid reasons exist, be reconsidered since a family court operates in the welfare of children (and thus may review its own factual decisions if good cause be shown). The mother never made any such application.”
In February 2015 the court made an order that Ethan should spend four nights a week with his father and three nights with his mother. By this point the Local Authority had been asked to compile a Section 37 report – a report that is often ordered where concerns about a child are so great that care proceedings are being considered. A report from a psychiatrist was also ordered and Ethan himself was represented in the proceedings by a Guardian. The reports were unanimous in recommending that Ethan should live with his father and have supervised contact with his mother.
On the 27th May 2015 a two-day final hearing began, which Ms Minnock had been ordered to attend. She did not. Instead, she took Ethan and went into hiding. What happened subsequently has been well-documented in the media. What is interesting to look at however, are the judgments that demonstrate what the court looks at in cases involving children:
On the 12th of June 2015 Judge Wildblood said:
“No one can simply ignore that orders have been made which the mother has disobeyed; if I said otherwise it would send out a signal that the court will ignore breaches of its own orders, a signal that would be absurd and utterly wrong. Rather than act through the legal system the mother has chosen to take matters into her own hands. No parent, be it a mother or a father, should ever behave in that way. (………) The remedy for dissatisfaction with a court order relating to a child does not lie in making off with the child into hiding.
However, I think that it is important for the public and the mother to understand that, in relation to the functioning of the family court when making orders concerning Ethan, there are clear legal provisions. Everything possible will be done to ensure that Ethan has an effective relationship with both of his parents. There is no doubt at all that Ethan is a boy who is much loved by both of his parents and that they both want what they perceive to be best for him.”
There are a number of clear messages here. Firstly, court orders cannot be ignored simply because one of the parties does not agree. Where a parent disagrees with an order in respect of a child, they must resolve this via the legal route. What is also very clear is that in considering contact disputes, the court will do its utmost to protect the relationship a child has with both parents.
This last is in fact the crux of the matter and the point parents often miss. The breakdown of a relationship is hurtful and stressful and in the midst of this it is easy to forget that a child has the right to a relationship with both parents. Too often parents speak about ‘their’ contact, or ‘their’ time with their child. And of course it is vital for parents to see and spend quality time with their children. But what the court will look at is what is best for the child – how much time and what kind of time the child should spend with each parent.
While every case is different and must be considered on its own facts, parents in a similar situation to that faced by Ms Minnock can and should learn from her experience. The best outcome for any child is to have a relationship of some kind with both parents. In order to achieve that, parents must put their feelings about one another to one side and focus on what’s best for their child. This isn’t always easily done and may require some professional support, whether that comes in the form of counseling, mediation, or legal advice. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t make the mistake of ignoring it in the hope that it will go away. Give us a call and speak to someone about your options.