A costly way to decide a child's future

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The Independent Online
MANY aspects of the Peter Malkin case enrage me, but the one that reduces me to stuttering incoherent fury is the line at the end of most reports which says decorously, 'Mr Malkin's legal costs are estimated to be around pounds 150,000 so far'.

Mr Malkin is a wealthy businessman who seems able to afford these towering fees. Good for him. But they would be just as high if he were not. By what right do barristers and their cohorts, law firms and their clerks, and the rest of the o'er toppling panoply of the legal profession feel entitled to charge such staggering sums? A successful barrister can earn more than pounds 250,000 a year; a really top silk (to use their own smug jargon) two or three times as much.

That a legal training is long and arduous is well-known - though in these days of computers, when all precedents could be and, I understand, are stored on computer and accessed at the touch of a button, I doubt whether it need still be as long. The fledgling lawyer is required to 'eat his dinners' and serve a lengthy apprenticeship before commanding such fees.

Back to the Malkin case. This harrowing story of obsessional love and desire and hate has been played out over a confused and unhappy adolescent boy and in the end only the law has benefited. Once, when I queried the ethics of this, the barrister to whom I was talking said, 'Well, if people would behave themselves properly they would not require our services, would they?' - a reply of such intolerable self-

righteousness that I did not trust myself to continue the conversation. People do behave badly, lawyers among them, and I cannot see that the expense and obsolete (they call it traditional) rituals of our legal system help to solve the problems thus created. On the contrary, these hinder the search for a fair and honest outcome.

I was once peripherally involved in a child-custody case. After months of cumbersome affidavits and meetings with lawyers, the day of the court hearing finally arrived. All concerned were tense and nervous, not least the nine-year- old child at its centre. First discovery: there is nowhere at all in the Law Courts in The Strand where a child can wait for several hours, except in echoing, gloomy, draughty, lofty Gothic corridors. We therefore sat in the downstairs room of a local cafe. I attempted to distract and amuse the child while we waited for six hours to be called. Both our fingernails were bitten to the quick by the time the summons eventually arrived.

The outcome of the case is irrelevant here. The judge deciding the issue was an expert in town-planning law who had been drafted in to speed up the backlog; he was elderly and rather deaf; he had obvious difficulty in grasping the facts of the case, and only reluctantly agreed to hear the piece of evidence crucial to our side. We wrote to the Lord Chancellor's department afterwards, setting out our view. I need hardly add that nothing happened; we barely even had a civil reply, and certainly no explanation or apology.

Why cannot the law courts demonstrate their concern for children by installing a nursery, a playroom, even (shock] horror] the 20th century encroaches]) a television room and a cheerful cafeteria where people might wait in reasonable comfort? Why must the harrowing battles between families be fought out in language and behaviour of stultifying irrelevance, intoned in jargon that none but the lawyers properly understand?

I am currently involved in a case being handled by the Small Claims Court. It is not over yet, but so far the simplicity of the procedure and language have been a model of efficiency. I do not feel bewildered, overawed, or overcharged. I see no reason why child- custody cases cannot be dealt with in a similar fashion.

Suppose written evidence were taken from both sides, and included statements from the child's teachers, the parents' neighbours or colleagues, even the grandparents? Each side might then co-opt one or two witnesses - a doctor, perhaps, or a child psychologist. This evidence could then be heard in a small, unstuffy courtroom by one legal and two lay 'referees', who would conclude

by making recommendations. Only if the parents refused to abide by these recommendations need the matter proceed to a higher court with all the pomp, expense and delay that ultimately benefit no one . . . except the lawyers.