PM v CF: Termination of parental responsibility, and the court’s range of draconian powers
The case of PM v CF has provided a recent example of circumstances in which courts will be prepared to agree to some of the most draconian orders in…
The case of PM v CF has provided a recent example of circumstances in which courts will be prepared to agree to some of the most draconian orders in family law.
The father was found to have subjected the mother to long term domestic abuse, culminating in a very serious assault. The father had been found guilty and imprisoned for that attack for 42 months. Shortly after, the mother obtained an indefinite restraining order against the father.
The father breached that order by telephoning the mother from prison. The father had threatened to seek out the mother and children on his return from prison and to kill them all. The risk was such that the mother and children were entered into the United Kingdom Protected Persons Scheme and moved to a confidential address.
The mother applied to the family court for the following:
- An order that the father's parental responsibility in relation to one of the children be terminated (he did not have parental responsibility for the other child);
- Permission to change the children's full names, first names and surnames; and
- A section 91(14) order or bar, preventing the father from making any application in relation to the children without first seeking and obtaining the permission of the court.
The first and third of these applications were for orders considered by the family courts to be draconian and extreme, and which require a balancing of the welfare test ie the best interests of the children, against the article 6 (right to a fair trial) and article 8 (right to a private and family life) human rights of the children, the mother and the father. The judge was quite clear however that the article 8 rights of the child must always prevail.
A guardian was appointed to represent the children's interests, and to report to the court. The guardian was supportive of the mother's application.
The mother had filed a Scott schedule, a document setting out specific itemised allegations against the father. Initially, the father denied the majority of these accusations.
However, following a conference at court with his representatives, the father’s position "dramatically changed". He now:
- admitted more of the Scott schedule allegations
- indicated he would not oppose the termination of his parental responsibility, although he did not wish to provide his actual consent, as he did not want the relevant child to feel he had given up on her;
- accepted that the children's names should be changed; and
- agreed to the principle of a s91(14) bar.
The issues which then remained for the court to resolve were:
- the length of the s91(14) bar – the mother was asking for the order to last for the whole of the children's minorities and the father was seeking a much more limited period of three to five years to provide him time to seek help and to change his conduct;
- whether there should be indirect contact such as letters to be exchanged. The mother objected to this.
- the father wished to be informed periodically as to how the children were doing. The mother was entirely opposed to this and conceded only that she would ensure the father was informed in the tragic event one of the children died in their minority.
In considering the above, the court was very heavily guided by the stress which would be caused to the mother by the father's continuing involvement in her life. The children's guardian felt that the children, even if they had not witnessed much of the domestic violence, had clearly and would continue to be affected by the harm caused to their mother. The eldest child also had memories of her mother's injuries.
The guardian's recommendation, as accepted by the court, was that the draconian orders sought were appropriate in these highly exceptional circumstances. The court agreed. It was noted that "it is a particularly significant factor in this case that the father, in fact, has no pre-existing relationship with either of the children. It is sad to be noted that A's only real recollection and memory appears to be of her father being violent to her mother".
Keehan J felt that especially given the complete lack of relationship between the children and the father, the mother would be adversely impacted and "destabilised" by even an annual letter or card from the father. This could not be in the welfare best interests of the children.
Further, having considered the issue, the judge felt that there was no merit to the father being informed of one of the children suffering a life-threatening illness or injury, because he could do nothing to assist and this would simply cause the mother too much harm (which would then affect the children) at a time of great stress. The mother was considered to be "extremely vulnerable".
Finally, the judge agreed with the mother and guardian that the s91(14) order should extend for the entirety of the children's minorities. Whilst he acknowledged the father's desire to "put the past behind and … change his behaviour" the only suitable order to protect the children and mother on the current facts was an extended order.
It is clear that this case involved a very serious case of prolonged domestic violence, with further threats to the mother resulting in the exceptional step of the mother and children being placed into the UK Protected Persons Scheme. Perhaps unexpectedly given his conduct to date, the Father himself made a number of concessions during the case, but it seems clear that such orders would have been made against him regardless given the conclusions the judge reached.
For good reason, such orders which so seriously limit the ability of a parent to be involved in their child’s life will be exceptionally rare. However, it is interesting to note how much weight the court placed on the children’s lack of memory of the father and the distinct lack of pre-existing relationship. Perhaps if the children had been older with a more established relationship the court may have been more inclined to make a slightly different order.
Eleanor Webster is a solicitor in the family law team