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No politics please, we’re British

Religion and politics can be very emotive subjects. Especially when parents hold differing religious or political affiliations and cannot agree on how their children should be involved in religious or political activities. With the general election looming, the issue of politics is at the forefront of many people’s minds, and we were particularly interested to read about a case dealing with the involvement of young children in the political party of one of their parents.

The case, Re A and B (Prohibited Steps Order at Dispute Resolution Appointment) 2015 saw a judge banning a UKIP Parliamentary candidate from bringing his children to election rallies, and then the decision being overturned on appeal.

The parents had five children. The eldest two lived with their father (the UKIP parliamentary candidate), and the youngest three lived with the mother, who held different political views. There had been ongoing litigation between the parents for some years but at a recent hearing, the mother had expressed concern about the effect on the children of the father involving them in his political campaigning. The judge made an order which said in its preamble (the non-legally binding background to the order) that the court held the view that it is “inappropriate for young children to be actively engaged in political activities as they may be emotionally damaged by potentially hostile reactions from members of the public.” The judge went on to order that neither parent was to involve the two youngest children (both under the age of 10) actively in any political activity.

The father appealed, arguing that the judge was plainly wrong when she made the order in relation to political activity, and was procedurally wrong in the way she dealt with the issue.

It is worth pointing out that a court does have power to set conditions about the time a child spends with a parent (known as contact conditions), and can also make a Prohibited Steps Order by which a parent is prevented from doing a specified activity with a child. A court will only make those orders if they are necessary and proportionate, and if it is better for the child concerned that the order is made rather than not being made, but there doesn’t have to be a specific application in relation to the particular issue for the court to take action – it can do so of its own motion, if in the interests of the children to do so.

The judge who made the original order in this case had expressed concern about the reactions of members of the public to UKIP campaigning when the children were present. The children had been taken out campaigning previously: one of them had had eggs thrown at him, and another had had a UKIP poster ripped up in her face. The judge considered this would be emotionally damaging for the young children so made what she thought would be a “ neutral” order, preventing both parents from directly involving children in political activities.

The appeal court found that the father had not been given notice of the mother’s intention to ask a judge to prevent him from involving the children in his political activities, so he had not had a chance to prepare his evidence dealing with this issue. This effectively rendered the judge’s decision unfair. There were also difficulties with the way the order had been drafted – no consequences of breaching the prohibition on political activity were included, and the banned political activities were not properly defined. Therefore the father succeeded in his appeal and the matter of involving children in political activity is to be reheard by a different judge, who will have the opportunity of making a fresh decision on all the evidence. It may go the father’s way, or the end result may be the same; we shall have to wait and see.

In another recent case Darlington Borough Council were strongly criticised by the President of the Family Division for having removed a young child from the care of his father because the father had connections with the far right political group the English Defence League (EDL). Social workers at the council considered the politics of the EDL to be immoral, and believed the child should not be exposed to those views. The President of the family court (‘top judge’) Sir James Munby was clear that local councils are not moral guardians, and that provided there are no welfare concerns the child should be looked after by his father. You can read the Guardian’s article about this case here: or the judgment here.

As politics rise to the forefront of many people’s minds this year, what do these decisions tell us? The Human Rights Act 1998 (which enacts the European Convention on Human Rights) protects the right to family life, which can only be interfered with when proportionate and necessary. The courts seem to be making it clear that political views which some may find distasteful are not grounds to interfere with family life unless there is a risk to the welfare of the children involved. Furthermore, if such issues are raised in litigation they must be fully explored in evidence before a decision is made.

If you would like to talk about any of the issues raised above, you can contact us on 01223 443333.

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