I went to Bristol Crown Court today [Update 22/6/15 : original date of publication was 11/6/15] to report on “the missing mum case” as it appears now to have been labelled.
I asked a journalist sat outside with his film crew whether he was here for the committal hearing in the Minnock case, to see if he knew when it was due to start. “No” he said. “I’m here for the missing mum case”. We were talking about the same thing but in different language.
The case relates to a child called Ethan, aged 3, who it appears was the subject of a court case about what the arrangements for his care and contact should be. The case was dealt with by a District Judge, and from the information provided in this judgment it appears that things became difficult – intractable – and the assistance of an expert was considered necessary. The court also appointed a Guardian for the child, to represent his interests in the case, something which usually only happens when a case becomes particularly complicated or protracted. Finally, the court ordered a s37 report, which is a reference to s37 Children Act 1989. This directs a local authority (social services) to consider whether things have got so bad that the state should intervene by starting care proceedings. From what we are told in the judgment the court had concluded that allegations made by the mother against the father were found to be false, but the mother persisted in making allegations and in resisting contact between father and child. The expert, the Guardian and social services all recommended that Ethan should [Edit 11.35pm 11/6/15 : not] live with his mother, but on or around the day of the final hearing Ethan’s mother fled with him. The judge made the orders for transfer of care to the father, as it seems the mother had anticipated she would. And so began “the missing mum case”.
What has happened since is that the case has been reallocated to a more senior judge with High Court powers, and that judge (His Honour Judge Wildblood QC) has made Ethan a ward of court and has issued orders requiring anyone who knows where he is to tell the Tipstaff. The Tipstaff is an officer of the High Court, who assists the court in carrying out its orders, a little bit like a bailiff, but for children rather than property. The Tipstaff often uses the local police as his agents in investigating and tracing children.
Since those orders were made various members of the mother’s family have been brought to court for alleged breaches of those orders – in essence it was said that they either knew where Ethan was or had information that might help the Tipstaff find him, but they were refusing to share that information. To breach a court order is a contempt of court and the court can imprison or fine someone who is in contempt of court. This is not a criminal offence, but it is still pretty serious as the court can fix a sentence of as much as two years. A person who has been found in contempt (the contemnor) may ask to “purge their contempt” by fixing the breach or by saying sorry. If the judge accepts that application to purge the contemnor can be released.
We don’t have the judgment of the District Judge (these are not routinely published) so no doubt there is a lot of detail missing, but the summary of the case before the District Judge that we do have suggests that this was a case where the court felt it had no option but to switch care over to the Father, because the Mother’s behaviour was so harmful to him. We can’t say whether that decision was right or not, although it is clear that the maternal family strongly disagree with it, but it appears to have been a decision based on a consensus of all the experts and professionals involved and after a number of other things were tried. And it hasn’t been appealed.
All things being equal I would hope that the judgment of the District Judge would be published in due course, as this case has excited so much attention. But my guess is that the reality of the case is such that it will not be – someone would need probably to apply for that to happen and neither of the parents is now represented. The media might apply, but my guess would be that they don’t need any more information to make a good story.
Back to Crown….
Today’s hearing was a committal hearing – another family member had been arrested because the Tipstaff was not happy they had been cooperating in finding Ethan. Although the hearing was in the Crown Court building, in fact the judge is a judge of the Family Court – but because the Family Court building in Bristol has no cells, cases of this sort must be held at the Crown Court where there are appropriate facilities.
This case is unusual because the Judge has lifted all the usual restrictions upon the identification of the child or discussion of the ongoing case, which would normally be private, in order to try and help the police locate him. Committal hearings are always heard in public but often the court would order the anonymisation of the name of the child or parents – that has not happened in this case and we are free to report it in full.
In fact I spent a good couple of hours outside court 2 at Bristol Crown Court waiting for the hearing to start, and whilst I was there 8 journalists and a couple of what seemed like family members pitched up outside, along with DC Davis and a twitchy looking security guard. It was interesting to listen to the ebb and flow of their conversations, their pondering on what the case was all about and what might happen. Perhaps it is naive of me but I was surprised that some of those journalists did not know what a Guardian was, did not know what the Tipstaff was, did not seem to entirely understand the different types of lawyers, did not know what the court’s powers were, and wondered how the court could issue a judgment when the case was ongoing. More amusingly, they jovially compared the judge, His Honour Judge Wildblood QC to Judge Judy for his fierce interrogation of a witness earlier that week, and praised his willingness to allow the press to ask questions “You can ask him anything!” said one incredulously. I wondered what stories would emerge as a result of today’s hearing…
Here are a few I have seen so far :
Guardian : Rebecca Minnock case: friend helped her escape with son, court hears. Andrew Butt whisked away runaway woman and three-year-old Ethan and told police he would go to prison rather than say where they are
According to those reports, the judge appears to have made some remarks aimed at allaying the mother’s fear that she will not see Ethan again if she hands herself in, which must have been made after I left court.
Those reports seem to me to be pretty accurate as far as they go, but they don’t give a flavour of the extraordinary amount of effort and detail that has gone into a number of hearings over several days in this matter. The Judge sat through lunch, and delivered his judgment at 5pm, by which point he had still got two cases to deal with (lots of weary looking lawyers outside court when we came out). The parents were not present or represented. Mr Butt had been granted legal aid and was represented by a barrister, and a solicitor sat behind him. The child was represented by a lawyer also.
The court heard evidence from DC Davis, from Mr Butt (the alleged contemnor, Ethan’s maternal grandmother’s partner) and from Louise Butt (Ethan’s maternal grandmother), allowing each to be cross examined by the representative for Mr Butt and for the child. Their evidence did not match. The judge considered the legal tests that he had to apply – he had to be satisfied so that he was sure that Mr Butt had breached the order by not providing helpful information he had and he reminded himself that people lie for all sorts of reasons, so dishonesty about one thing does not mean dishonesty about everything. He asked lots of questions of both the police officer and the other witnesses, and allow both lawyers to ask as many questions as they wished. He typed a note of the evidence as he went and after pausing for a few minutes with everyone in court, he delivered his judgment on the spot and sent it immediately to the press for publication. He found that Mr Butt had lied and was withholding information, that he had driven Ethan and his mum to Cheltenham on the day of their disappearance, and was in effect covering up. Mr Kenny asked for time to take instructions on the question of mitigation (mitigation is the points made to try and persuade the judge to give a light sentence), and Mr Butt was held in custody overnight, leaving his sentence to be dealt with tomorrow. Overall the hearing took some four hours and caused a significant problem with the court listing for the day. The judge was polite and alert throughout, ensuring that Mr Kenny had had sufficient time to take instructions and prepare and that he was happy the procedure was fair.
We will try and update this post as new information becomes available. I will not be able to attend the hearing tomorrow but no doubt the press will report it in due course. The judge will be deciding whether to impose a custodial sentence (prison), to fine or to release. He can suspend a sentence on terms if he thinks appropriate.
12 June: Judge Wildblood gave an additional judgment, in which he said he was grateful to the press for the assistance they had given in the case:
The press are the eyes and ears of our society and have a vital role to play within it; the quality of press reporting has been very high, in my opinion and I would ask that the same effective relationship between the court, the press and the police should continue in the best interests of Ethan.
He noted that the mother had spoken to a newspaper, and had expressed fears for her future relationship with Ethan if she came out of hiding. He said it was important that the legal position should be made clear. He gave the mother (and those helping her hide) a clear indication that disobeying a court order was wrong and was not going to help anyone in the long run:
Family law proceedings are exceptionally stressful for all concerned. Under the stress that arises people may, wrongly, behave in ways that are impulsive and damaging to the welfare of children. Where a parent does behave in way that is wrong it is very important that matters are put right by that parent as soon as possible. The more time that goes by the more emotionally harmful it is for a child to be in the circumstances in which Ethan now finds himself. This mother must not see herself as being backed into a corner because there is a very simple solution for her – come forward with Ethan. […]
No one can simply ignore that orders have been made which the mother has disobeyed; if I said otherwise it would send out a signal that the court will ignore breaches of its own orders, a signal that would be absurd and utterly wrong. Rather than act through the legal system the mother has chosen to take matters into her own hands. No parent, be it a mother or a father, should ever behave in that way. […]
The remedy for dissatisfaction with a court order relating to a child does not lie in making off with the child into hiding. […]
I think that it is important for the public and the mother to understand that, in relation to the functioning of the family court when making orders concerning Ethan, there are clear legal provisions. Everything possible will be done to ensure that Ethan has an effective relationship with both of his parents.
You can also hear me discuss the case on BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning here.
[UPDATE 9.20pm 12 June :
Further update from BBC here: Rebecca Minnock: Grandmother jailed over missing mum lies
although no judgment that I can find as yet. The Maternal Grandmother has been sentenced to 10 days in prison, whilst her partner Mr Butt has been sentenced to 28 days – both for contempt of court by breaching the orders. Mr Butt it appears admitted on Friday that he had lied under oath at court on Thursday, which appears to have contributed to the court concluding that Louise Minnock the MGM had lied as well. We will get better detail when the judgment on the sentence is published, which I expect it will be in due course.
As far as I am aware Ethan has not been found yet.]
[UPDATE 13 June
As reported late Friday night, mother and child have now been found. See Bristol Post: Missing mum Rebecca Minnock hands herself and son Ethan, 3, in to police]
[UPDATE 15 June
There is apparently going to be a further hearing in Bristol Crown Court on Monday, 15 June. We hope to bring further updates thereafter.
His Honour Judge Wildblood QC held a hearing today in open court at Bristol Crown Court, and subsequently continued the hearing in private. He has released two judgments as a result of those hearings, and they explain that the court has postponed deciding what to do next until a private hearing on 26 June, by which time there will be a decision on whether anybody wishes to ask the court to punish Rebecca Minnock for contempt of court by breaching the orders for Ethan to be handed over to his dad. The judge was critical of Rebecca Minnock for her “publicity stunt” but has said that the focus will now be on working out what arrangements should be made for Ethan to have a relationship with both parents – he has made clear that supervised or very restricted contact is not automatically the outcome. The judge has also said that he will have to decide how much other information should be released into the public given the public interest in finding out what led to the events of the last few weeks and in what happens to Ethan in the future (for example the District Judge’s judgment or any future decision on contact). The judgments are quite short and readable and I would recommend reading them in full. They can be found here (the last two files), along with all the other judgments in the case since Ethan’s disappearance. These judgments appear to be the basis of most media reports about the developments in the case, for example in the Guardian here.
If a party applies for the Mother to be committed to prison as punishment for her conduct that aspect of the case will be heard in public, but the main part of the case is likely to be heard in private. If there are future judgments published we will post them here (please let us know if we miss one).]
[Update 23/6/15 : We’ve published a related post here : When journalists ignore source material it is public debate which pays the price ]
[Update 30/6/15 : on 24 June HHJ Wildblood QC published his eighth judgment in this case, confirming that the Father had asked to discontinue his application for Rebecca Minnock’s committal to prison for her breaches of the court orders. The judge allowed this, but made some remarks about Rebecca Minnock’s conduct, saying he would have sent her to prison for 28 days had the application been pursued. He said that Rebecca Minnock owed her liberty to Mr Williams. The full judgment can be read here (and is listed along with the other 7 judgments here).]