It is not often that family law hits the national news headlines, but in the last couple of weeks there has been considerable press coverage of the story of the so-called “runaway mother” Rebecca Minnock, who went into hiding with her son Ethan, after the Family Court in Bristol ordered that Ethan should live with his father, Roger Williams.
This has been an interesting example of the press and the family courts working together to publicise the case and to help track down the mother and missing boy; according to the court, it has also been a study in how someone who is disillusioned by the court process can manipulate the media to their perceived advantage, only to have it backfire.
At the centre of this case is a little boy, Ethan, aged 3, who is clearly much loved by both of his parents. They have been involved in litigation about his living arrangements for 2 years. When Roger and Rebecca separated in February 2013, Ethan remained with his mother, and his father made an application to the court to have contact with him. The mother made various allegations about the father’s behaviour with regards to Ethan. However in April 2014, these allegations were all rejected by the court as untrue, and the court ordered that Ethan and his father should see each other.
The matter was back in court in February 2015 as Rebecca had made more allegations. Again these were rejected, and were found to have been fabricated by the mother specifically to frustrate contact between father and son. At that hearing it was ordered that Ethan spend four nights a week with his father and three nights a week with his mother. A social worker became involved, and was asked to report back to the court. A psychiatrist was appointed to report to the court, and a guardian appointed to represent Ethan’s best interests – this is something that only happens in the most difficult of children cases.
Both the social worker and the psychiatrist observed Ethan and his parents. Both, separately, formed the opinion that he was not emotionally safe with his mother, and should live primarily with his father; the court acted on these recommendations at a hearing on 27 May. The judge found that Ethan had been exposed to emotional harm by his mother, and also found that the mother had acted in breach of two court orders; one for her to attend the hearing and the second being the child arrangements order by which Ethan was to live with the father for four days of the week. She had made false allegations against the father and had obstructed his contact with Ethan.
That hearing resulted in an order that Ethan should live with his father, and have supervised contact with his mother. Changing residence of a child is one of the things a judge can do when contact with a parent is being obstructed by the other, but it is important to remember that at this point Ethan should already have been living with his father for more than half of the week following the earlier court order.
Rebecca was not in court to hear the decision, but when she learnt of it, she left her home with Ethan and went into hiding. This was a deliberate breach of the court’s order, and in the light of the opinions of the court-instructed social worker and psychiatrist about Ethan’s emotional wellbeing when with his mother, there was considerable concern about both Ethan and his mother. The court engaged an experienced Circuit Judge, HHJ Wildblood QC, and reporting restrictions were lifted to allow the press to report names and publish pictures to help locate Ethan.
The judge made Collection Orders. These are orders which empowers the tipstaff (a court officer who deals with enforcement) to remove the child from the person holding him and directs him to deliver the child into the care of a nominated person. These orders were served on various members of Rebecca’s family, including her mother, sister and brother, and her mother’s partner. All were required to either deliver the child to the police or the Tipstaff or to attend court to give any information they had about the child’s whereabouts.
They all claimed to know nothing. Rebecca’s mother and her partner were found to have lied to the police and to the court about their claimed lack of knowledge of Ethan’s whereabouts. Mobile phone records and CCTV footage undermined their protests of innocence and they were both jailed for contempt of court.
In the meantime, Rebecca granted interviews to the Sun and Daily Mail newspapers putting forward her side of the story. Videos were released showing that she and Ethan were well. Ethan’s father broadly maintained his silence. Public opinion seemed sympathetic to Rebecca – how could the family court do such a thing as to take a lovely little boy away from his loving mum?
In a judgment handed down on Friday 12 June, HHJ Wildblood QC sent a very clear message to Rebecca, and to the public who had been following this case. In essence he said that the court fully understands the stresses of litigation on parties and families. However an order was made, with the benefit of a lot of high quality professional advice. If the mother was unhappy with the court order changing residence, her remedy was an appeal, not abducting her own child. The court cannot ignore her calculating and flagrant breach of its orders, but it remains in Ethan’s best interests to have a relationship with both his parents, and “everything possible will be done to ensure that Ethan has an effective relationship with both of his parents”.
Shortly after this judgment was released, Rebecca handed herself and Ethan in.
So what now? In the short term Ethan will live with his father (having been reunited with him on Friday) and the court will consider his longer-term future in private once the dust has settled. On Monday this week, the family were back in court before HHJ Wildblood QC who held part of the hearing in public, largely to condemn Rebecca’s and her family’s behaviour. He indicated that the mother is likely to be dealt with for her contempt of court.
Among other things, the judge said:
I would ask that there is as little speculation about what might or might not happen in relation to Ethan as possible. It would be thoroughly irresponsible and incorrect to suggest that the mother is now bound only to have indirect contact or supervised contact for very short periods of time. ‘Indirect contact’ is a phrase that means contact which does not involve face to face meetings (thus indirect contact might mean contact by letter, telephone, Skype, etc). The arrangements for Ethan to see each of his parents will be governed by his paramount welfare (section One of Children Act 1989) and no one, myself included, can predict where that welfare might lie until the case has been heard fully and properly. I do make a request please that speculation, such as some of that which has occurred over the weekend, should be as limited as possible. I have already said, but repeat, that I will be doing everything possible to ensure that this little boy has an effective relationship with both of his parents.
We hope that this little boy is able to have a stable, loving upbringing involving safe time with both his parents throughout his childhood, away from the glare of publicity. We also hope that the family of this child, and the media and public at large, are able to trust the court to make the right decisions about Ethan’s welfare in the coming weeks and months, and beyond if necessary.
If you’d like to read the recent court judgments in this case, they are published here. They, unlike most of the media coverage, give a balanced and nuanced view of this very difficult case, and show the family court’s skill in managing the unfortunate situation.
As always, if you would like to talk through any of the issues raised above, we are on 01223 443333. Do call to make an appointment to see Sue, Simon, Tricia, Gail or Adam.