This Judge Says He Cries When He Has To Take Children Away From Their Parents

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Stephen Wildblood, a senior family law judge, spoke to BuzzFeed News about helping the growing number of people facing court without a lawyer.

This Judge Says He Cries When He Has To Take Children Away From Their Parents

British judges very rarely speak to journalists, but Wildblood agreed to meet after BuzzFeed News revealed the number of people seeking help to represent themselves in court because they had no lawyer had risen by 520% since 2011. After cuts to legal aid were brought in by the coalition government in 2012, almost nobody gets free legal help in private family law cases.
As a judge, Wildblood is not allowed to talk about politics, but he has championed education and support programmes for people without lawyers. In the last couple of years he has been involved in setting up legal education classes, an advice website, a free fortnightly drop-in evening with lawyers, a multi-faith support centre, interactive theatre productions on family courts and debates – all with the aim of helping people without lawyers prepare for the courtroom.

“I’ve been trying to set up a system here where people who don’t have the benefit of lawyers will understand or be able to find support,” he says.

He is helping another judge, Stephanie Cope, to partner with universities and set up pioneering family law classes that will use law students to teach people how “to go about being in court when they haven’t got a lawyer”.

Wildblood says judges are quickly learning new skills to cope with the reality of the modern family courtroom, where around 80% of cases involve at least one party without a lawyer.
When asked if he has ever cried after taking a child away from a parent, he says quickly, “Yes, yes of course,” recounting the story of a young mother on her knees pleading with him not to take away her child when she gave evidence. “I couldn’t read out the judgment, I just had to hand it down in writing.”

The judgment he referred to was published last month. In it, Wildblood’s anger bubbles off the page. He rallies at a system that sees local authorities spend thousands of pounds paying for a psychologist to argue in court that a mother is too unstable to bring up her children, while spending nothing on earlier therapy to change that situation.
According to the latest government figures, more than 90 children are taken into care every day. Wildblood won’t comment on whether he thinks local authorities’ approach to parents is too risk-averse but his judgments – and emotional response to care proceedings – suggest it is a concern.

He also wants to know what can be done to help parents after their children are taken away. Speaking about the scene he encounters outside his court “goodness knows how many times,” he says: “After all this ‘article 8 convention’ [right to private family life], all this clever legal language, ‘proportionality, necessity and legality’, all the stuff that we come out with... parents not understanding a word. And then they go out and they don’t know what’s happened and their child is taken away and they don’t have anywhere to go and there’s no support because legal aid stops: bang.”
Since bumping into the coordinator of Christian charity the National Parenting Initiative “in the dog food section of Sainsbury’s” he has been encouraging struggling parents in his court to go to them for help and avoid care proceedings.

“She was saying, when I was talking about the sort of work I was doing, well, ‘Why don’t you ring me and I’ll see about the sort of support we can give to parents?' So on occasions, if I’m in court, I’ll see a family that needs help and I’ll email her... I did it twice on Friday. Straight away she’ll come back ‘yes’ and straight away she’ll provide some parenting support. It’s not social services, it’s completely away from that.”

He says the strategy has already helped keep families together. “A family came over from India, there was a 14-year-old and a younger child. They weren’t looking after the children properly, so she, her husband, and a group of them went round, plumbed in a washing machine, got the children going to school. They helped the children get to school. And at the next hearing the social services withdrew their application.”
 
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