An MP has advised parents suspected of abusing or neglecting their children to leave the country if they fear being denied a fair hearing in the family courts.
Liberal Democrat John Hemming, chairman of the Justice for Families group, said the legal system was stacked heavily against individuals and in favour of local authorities. He said he had been contacted by hundreds of parents who claimed they were being unfairly targeted by social services.
“All the cards are held by the local authority. It has large resources to fight the cases, it does all the assessments,” he told tonight’s BBC Panorama. “My advice to people, if they can afford it, is just to go abroad. You can’t get a fair trial here, because you can’t rely on the evidence being fair. It’s best simply to go if you can, at the right time, lawfully.”
Mr Hemming cited the case of a young woman with mild learning difficulties who fled to Spain to prevent her baby being taken off her by Suffolk social services which had flagged up concerns over her ability to look after the child when she became pregnant in 2009. The woman eventually returned to the UK when her parents were granted a court order giving them shared responsibility and guaranteeing she could keep the child, who is now thriving.
Local authorities made 10,000 applications to take children away from their parents and into care last year, the highest number on record. Some campaigners claim social workers are over-reacting following the public outcry over the Baby P case and other high-profile incidents of child abuse and neglect.
But the Children and Family Court Advisors and Support Service (Cafcass), which looks after the interests of children in the family courts, said the figures demonstrated that more children were being protected.
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas criticised Mr Hemming’s call for parents to flee Britain, saying it would not help improve the system.
“To advocate leaving altogether doesn’t solve the problem for the vast majority of children and parents who need our courts to be as good as they possibly can be,” he said.
Mr Hemming was at the centre of a controversy earlier this month when it emerged he had been suspended from using the social-networking site Mumsnet after breaching rules safeguarding the anonymity of users taking part in online debates.
The MP for Birmingham Yardley had earlier accidentally breached UK reporting restrictions when he posted a transcript of Italian court proceedings which identified some of the protagonists in the case of an Italian woman who was forced to undergo a Caesarean and whose child was taken into care by Essex County Council. The post was deleted.
Mr Hemming told The Independent: “The authorities abroad know things are a bit silly in England.” He added: “It’s awful, the whole thing is awful. They leave children to die from child abuse and neglect whilst going after unborn babies and parents who have not had a chance to prove themselves.”
He also called on family courts to be made more transparent to journalists seeking to report their proceedings. At present private hearings in family courts and the Court of Protection are listed by case number or letters to protect the identity of children and vulnerable people involved.