The High Court called time on one of the longest running child custody disputes ever seen in the English courts last week.
The dispute centred on the custody of a 12-year-old boy, whose identity has not been disclosed publicly.
The child’s parents separated before he was born and the father issued his first court application for contact in June 1999. At first, he succeeded in establishing contact, but this broke down in 2006.
In January 2010, the court became so exasperated with the mother in the case — seemingly because she failed to facilitate contact between the boy and his father — that it decided to transfer custody away from her.
As a first step the child was placed in foster care with long-term custody intended to transfer to the father over time.
The boy, however, having had no contact with the father for four years claimed to “hate” him. At a meeting arranged to break the ice between father and son, the boy sat “with his head in his lap and his hands over his ears”. He refused to engage with his father.
Four more contact sessions took place and the child continued to behave the same way. He placed his head in his lap, his hands in his ears, and refused all offers of food or drink. Following each session, he insisted he did not want to see his father and that he would not go and live with him.
The child’s court-appointed guardian reported that the child was being put under ‘unacceptable pressure’ and the demands on him were ‘extreme’. She told the father that the child was experiencing ‘suicidal ideation’. Apparently the boy ‘expressed a view that he at times could not see any other way out of the situation other than to harm himself’.
In order to protect the mental health of the boy, the father accepted her recommendation that the child should return to live with his mother. The case went back to court and the judge agreed that the decision to permanently remove the boy from his mother should not be enforced.
In the postscript to the court’s final judgment in the case the judge included an email written to him by the child’s guardian with details of the meeting at which the father told the child he was no longer pursuing custody:
‘The father read out his letter to S and we asked S to listen which he did. It was an extremely difficult meeting for father but he managed to read the letter and S did allow his father to touch him on his arm. S did not look at his father and had his head down for the whole time.
‘I spoke to S after his father had left and he was feeling numb but “good”. He said to say thank you and said that this was not the end and he would think about seeing his father after his GCSEs.
‘I am sure he listened to his father and it was S who volunteered that this was not the end and he would see his father on his terms when he was ready.
‘Overall S managed the situation very well, but sadly we could hear his father sobbing as he left.
The case is covered in greater detail on the Family Law Week website. And to read about the balancing act exercised by the court when it considers the change of residence from one parent to the other, read this excellent piece by Claire Brissenden: Changing Residence – A Judgment of Solomon.
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