UK: Judges Outraged at Breach of Family Court Secrecy

To gain an advantage in a custody case, Vicky Haigh coached her daughter to call her father a pedophile.  But that’s just the beginning of Haigh’s wrongdoing and its far-reaching consequences.  Read about it here (Daily Mail, 8/23/11).

What’s perhaps most remarkable about the case is that the English judges who’ve heard it have gotten highly incensed about Haigh’s behavior.  After all, mothers lying about fathers in the course of custody matters is hardly new.  Mothers falsely claiming domestic violence or child sexual abuse by the fathers isn’t either.  Those are so common and any form of punishment for them so rare that the case can’t help but draw attention.

So the salient feature of the case must be the reason for the judges’ pique.

Vicky Haigh and David Tune were locked in a custody battle and Haigh, fearing success by Tune, played the abuse card.  She said he’d sexually abused their daughter and coached the girl to back up her claims.

But Haigh went a dangerous step further.  She hired one Elizabeth Watson as an “investigator.”  Watson’s “investigation” consisted in toto of slander and libel.  She fired off multiple emails re-alleging Haigh’s claims, all of which might again have gone unnoticed by the judges, but she too went a step further.

Watson not only libelled, but named the social workers hired by the Doncaster council to investigate Haigh’s allegations against Tune.  Those unfortunates had looked into the claims and found them to be false, so Watson took to the ether to libel them by name as well as the Doncaster Council.

And I’d put good money on the proposition that it’s that – the naming of the individuals – that got the judges’ dander up.  Not only the trial judge, but the highest judge in the British family court system Sir Nicholas Wall, took time out to excoriate Haigh and Watson.

Sir Nicholas said: ‘Allegations of sexual abuse were first made by the mother and not by X. These were false and the mother knew them to be false. X was coached by the mother to make allegations of sexual abuse against the father.”

He added that two judges examined the case at previous High Court hearings and both found that Mr Tune was not a paedophile and had not sexually abused his daughter.

Sir Nicholas said: ‘The child”s mother is wholly unable to accept the court”s verdict and, with the misguided assistance of Elizabeth Watson has unlawfully and in breach of court orders, put into the public domain via email and the internet a series of unwarranted and scandalous allegations about the father and others.

‘She has repeated the untruth that the father is a paedophile and – without a scintilla of evidence – has attacked the good faith of all the professionals who had had any contact with the case.

‘These proceedings have had a serious effect on the life of the father and have threatened the stability of the child. Her mother”s actions are wholly contrary to her interests.”

Watson has been sentenced to nine months in prison.  So far there’s no word if Haigh will receive any punishment at all.

As I said, this type of thing goes on all the time in family court and it’s one of the scandals of the family court system that it routinely allows perjury and false allegations to go unpunished.  The unsurprising result is that the practice of false swearing continues.  Why wouldn’t it?

But the real issue to the judges was that Haigh and Watson aired the whole thing publicly, and that, as Judge Wall made clear “will not be tolerated.”

You see, in the United Kingdom, family court proceedings occur in secret.  Usually, no one is allowed to name names or reveal much of anything about who said or did what.  The press is generally barred from reporting anything of substance about family court.

And it is that secrecy that is surely to blame for much of the anti-father decision-making of British family courts.  The theory behind the secrecy is that the publicity would be too traumatic for children (another “best interests of the child” argument, don’t you know.)  Of course with the number of divorces involving children, 99% of them would never make the papers anyway, and of those that did, most would do so completely outside the child’s awareness.

So it’s always seemed to me that the secrecy imposed by British family courts has a lot more to do with protecting judges than with protecting children.  And I’d say this case bears that out.

Enter John Hemming.  He’s a Liberal Democrat MP who made the mistake of taking up Haigh’s cause in the House of Commons.  He did the same in a previous case.  

The MP said Haigh had been unfairly put under threat of imprisonment by Doncaster Council for speaking to a Westminster meeting about family law issues.

Again, Haigh had named names and among them were the Council and the social workers in her case.  More to the point, he was sticking up for Haigh’s right to speak publicly about the doings of family courts.  He picked a uniquely bad case in which to do so, but that’s what he was doing.  Now he too is in hot water, with at least one MP calling for his resignation from the office his constituents elected him to.

Well, I can’t go to bat for two women who slander, libel and defame a father in order to deny him custody, an attempt that failed by the way.  I’m glad Watson is going to prison and I think Haigh should too.  What she did was illegal and should be punished.

But what’s also true is that courts routinely tolerate exactly that type of behavior with nary a blink.  The reason they didn’t in this case is that the pair, plus MP Hemming, made the matter public.  They divested the family court of its cloak of secrecy, and that, and that alone brought the wrath of the court down on them.

But the High Court should direct its attention elsewhere.  First, it should punish perjury, false allegations and false swearing in custody cases.  It should do so not in isolated cases that are forced into the public eye, but in all cases.  Only then will the practice cease.

Second, it should do away with the secrecy of family courts that serves to shield from public scrutiny the often outrageously anti-father decisions of those courts.  As long as the press can only guess at what happens behind the closed and locked doors of family courts, there can be no effective public clamor for reform.

So this case should be seen for what it is.  The judges feign outrage at the lies of two women.  What they’re really upset about is the women’s breaching the secrecy of family court proceedings.

Both must change.

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