Wednesday, 4 December 2013

At last, some sense

It is difficult to know what to make of some of the coverage of the case of the mentally ill Italian woman, in whose circumstances the British courts have intervened. I am suspicious that a wholly misleading picture is emerging from the reporting of the story. 

But there was some sound sense this morning on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme when Sir Mark Hedley, a former high court judge in the family division, spoke to presenter Sarah Montague.

Sir Mark explained that he had no inside knowledge of the case and restricted his remarks to what, in his experience as a senior judge, was the most likely explanation of what is said to have happened.

He said that it was likely that the Court of Protection would only have intervened in the woman’s medical care by ordering a Caesarean Section to be performed if the woman’s life was in danger and she was incapable of making a rational decision (to consent to surgery or not) by virtue of her mental illness.

Sir Mark went on to explain that the Family Courts make Care Orders on children only when to do so is in the best interest of the child. A range of options – such as kinship placements -  would have been explored before the child was placed for adoption.

The moral panic that seems to be bubbling up about this case is very worrying. I do not know what is intended, but the effect of the press coverage is to convey a picture of unnecessary and Draconian intervention, which is a far cry from the kind of situation Sir Mark outlines. You only need to look at some of the readers’ comments on the Daily Mail’s most recent article to see that some people are convinced that children’s services and the courts are part of some authoritarian plot.

I do not think there is a simple response to this situation. I thought Sir Mark’s intervention was very helpful and I am sure it would be generally constructive if more senior judges were able to talk in public more often, not about specific cases but rather about the types of situations with which the courts deal and how they respond. There is a lot of public ignorance on these matters.

One sad thing is more or less certain. The very same papers that today are speaking of ‘forced Caesareans’ and ‘child snatching’ will in future be quick to condemn social workers and other professionals for failing to act in a future case involving not dissimilar issues in which a child is harmed by a parent of carer.