A Family Court Judge in England decided to “see for herself” in a court case that involved two young children. (AMV v. RM (2012) EWHC 3629) The proceedings commenced in the usual fashion, but early in the hearing the children’s father disputed the mother’s claim that she and the two children lived in a three-bedroom flat in London. He asserted that mother and children spent most of their time at her parent’s home in council housing, the term used in Britain and Ireland for public or social housing.
Mother admitted that she and the children spent time at her parent’s home, an admission that raised the issue of the standard of the living accommodation of the children. Suddenly, the Judge suggested to mother’s counsel that the court hearing be adjourned so that she could personally inspect both homes.
With only fifteen minutes to ponder the Judge’s request, mother’s lawyer consented to the Judge’s suggestion, but advised that her client had not been able to reach her parents to arrange a visit to their home.
So off they went, the Judge was driven to the homes, both of them, by the father’s lawyer with the mother accompanying him. The mother’s lawyer drove her car with her passenger, the father.
First the Judge inspected the mother’s home, opening cupboards, looking through the refrigerator and scanning the garbage in the waste paper basket. Then they drove to her parent’s home, surprising them as they entered the premises to look about the home, even opening drawers to examine their contents.
At the conclusion of the inspections, the Judge noted that the parent’s home was “cramped, dirty and untidy”.
Not surprisingly, the Court of Appeal was not impressed with the impromptu inspections calling them “litigation by ambush”. The Appeal Court noted that the Judge’s request to view the homes was unfair because if mother’s lawyer had not agreed, it is likely the Judge would have drawn an adverse inference against the mother. The unexpected request on short notice was also a breach of the mother’s right to a fair trial.
The Court’s imposition on the maternal grandparents was also wholly inappropriate as they had no time to consider their position or obtain independent legal advice. Finally, the Appeal Court said that if there were issues about the children’s accommodation, it was a matter for social services, not for a Judge of the Court.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang