I qualified as a solicitor in 1979 and most of my professional life was spent working as a family lawyer. In the late 1990s I was handling the usual caseload of mainly financial cases and some children work. A male client came to my office distraught one Monday morning. His two children had come to him for the weekend as usual and were refusing to go home to their mother with whom they lived. The problem was caused by the mother’s new husband. He had bought the children’s father out of his share of the house and was beginning to assert his own house rules. I advised that the client the children had to go back immediately to their mother, he could not unilaterally change the children’s residence without the court’s approval or their mother agreeing. The mother most definitely did not agree and urgent faxes arrived threatening immediate court proceedings for restoration of residence, which were subsequently issued and faxed to us as well.
The father became more and more agitated. The children, who were not little, were in the car outside. They wanted to be heard, but no one could listen to them. They were refusing to go to their mother’s home. They were going to run away and keep running away until they were allowed to stay with their father. Could they see the judge – no they couldn’t – I knew the judge would not want to see them so they could not tell the judge they were not going to go home.
Whatever could’ve happened to make these children refuse so adamantly to return home to their mother when they had lived with her for so many years, apparently quite happily? The catalyst for their departure was their step-father. The advent of the stepparents can often completely destabilise an otherwise harmonious home. Territory can become an issue, we are all, after all, little furry mammals and we do like our nests to feel the way we want them. There is a big difference between the adult view of the world and the view of children. These children wanted their hamsters to remain in their bedrooms. They were their hamsters and their bedrooms. Their stepfather was insistent that the hamsters should live in the garage. I suspect this may have been the tip of quite a big iceberg, but it was the presenting factor we solemnly discussed at the door of the court, after the mother had issued her emergency application that Monday morning. I can’t remember the detail, it was a long time ago, but I think that the mother spoke at length with the children. She came to realise that there was no way they were going to go back to live with her. They would come and see her – they wanted a reversal of the arrangement they had had with her and their father for so many years. They wish to live with their father and have regular and generous contact with their mother.
The mother fought through the day. To say she was distraught was an understatement. In the end she had to accept that the children would stay with their father – the case and could not end any other way, as they had told their mother (from the car) and indirectly everyone at court, even the judge, that if they were made to return to their mother’s home, they would keep running away to get back to their father’s until they were allowed to stay there.
There then remained the issue of the hamsters, at that time living in the mother’s and stepfather’s garage. It took a long time to negotiate the release of the hamsters, who were clearly hostages inextricably linked in the mother’s mind with having her children and she did not want them to go. I spent some time negotiating the release of the hamsters. I returned to the office convinced that I had participated in a procedure which was insanely unsuitable and unfit for the purpose it was being used for. I did not regard this as a sensible way of solving this family problem, nor was it a sensible use of expensive court time and legal expertise. Indeed no legal expertise was required, it was completely irrelevant.
I then discovered Mediation – how much kinder and how much more humane would a meeting have been to discuss all these issues outside court? There might have been a direct consultation with the children, to ascertain their wishes and feelings so that could inform parental decision-making. There was simply no question in my mind, mediation was the future for so many cases that were currently, at that time, being resolved judicially. That was many years ago now and I’m pleased to say that case would today probably be mediated. Things have improved a great deal, but we still have a way to go.