Britain's top family judge: 'Give contraception lessons to problem parents'

  • @emilydugan

Courts should consider ordering contraception lessons for problem parents who have had multiple children taken into care, Britain’s most senior family judge said today.

Sir James Munby said cases where mothers had a dozen or more children only for them to be taken away by social service were a “distressingly regular occurrence”. Sir James, who is president of the family division of the High Court, said a solution being tried out at the moment allows courts to recommend parents for birth control programmes.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the British Association of Social Workers in central London, he said colleagues had heard cases where mothers had up to 15 children taken into care. He described a new initiative being trialled around the country called the Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDAC), where judges deal more directly with families in difficult circumstances.

“The new FDAC projects have dealt with the taking into care of 14 children of one mother and colleagues have dealt with a case of 15,” Sir James was quoted as saying in The Telegraph, adding: “I have certainly dealt with a case of 11 children.”

Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court (Photoshot)

“These cases are still happening. 11 children being taken into care, or 14 children - these are very usual. Repetitive pregnancies and repetitive care proceedings are a distressingly regular occurrence.

Pilots of the FDAC began in 2008 as a new way of dealing with care proceedings when parental substance misuse causes harm to children but the parents are ready to tackle their problems. The court coordinates services to create bespoke help for families, with the aim of giving children a better chance of a stable family life.

“With some local authorities contraception is an important part of the thinking,” Sir James said. “The whole thing is very intensive but it does seem to work. The savings if you can avoid care proceedings are enormous.”

The new court puts parents directly in touch with judges, often without lawyers present. Sir James said the change had been successful but was opposed by lawyers, who he said had found the concept “difficult to accept”.

He also spoke of an “irreconcilable” tension between government guidelines on adoption and a recent ruling from the Supreme Court, saying: “Recently ministerial guidance came out, in spring last year, which contained at some point the statement or an exaltation that social workers should get away from the idea that adoption is a last resort.

“Two months later a ruling from the Supreme Court said adoption should in fact only be used as a last resort. They are very difficult to reconcile - that is judicial speak for irreconcilable. It would be foolish and dishonest for me to deny there is that tension.”

He added: “In the final analysis if there is a clash between what the Supreme Court says and the guidance says then under our constitutional system the Supreme Court wins.” The government would need to change the law, he said, if they wanted to shift the balance in favour of their own guidelines.

Sir James also discussed the need for the courts to have a built-in system for adults who are curious to find out the reasons they went into care as a child. He said there should be a way for them to be given the information, admitting: “We don't deal with this adequately.”