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Young Lawyers – Kate Gomery: The Rules of Engagement

Date:25 MAY 2011

Kate GomeryJust a couple of days after starting out in publicly funded childcare work, I was made aware of a quote, attributed to Munby J, to the effect that removing a child from his or her parents is the most draconian action the state can take against the individual since the abolition of the death penalty. Unsurprisingly this quote has stayed with me ever since and I try to bear it in mind every day as a powerful reminder of the importance of every aspect of my work.

In public law proceedings, however, it can also be said that no matter the quality of the of the lawyer, a case can substantially succeed or fail based on the ability of the parent-client to demonstrate to the court, via the various agencies required to report back, that it is in the best interests of the child(ren) to remain with them. By and large this will be through engaging with the agencies and committing to all the courses and appointments they are offered.

Many of our clients face the very real possibility that their children will be permanently removed from their care. Many are utterly and genuinely distressed by the prospect. These are most likely to engage and do everything that is asked of them. Some are sadly so caught up in drink, drugs or abusive relationships (often a combination of all three) that the implications of failing to engage can appear to pass them by. For these, much depends on the quality of the support offered (both professional, and from family and friends) and whilst some do engage and manage to turn their lives around, others are unable to break the cycle of addiction or abuse. Some, often due to mental health issues including learning disabilities, simply don't have the necessary coping mechanisms to deal with the prospect of losing their children (probably for the same reasons they were unable to care for their child in the first place) and can fail to engage totally.   

Any parent who is reluctant to engage, or refuses outright will seriously damage any hope of the court finding in their favour. In my (albeit limited) experience it is an almost daily occurrence to speak with clients who, usually from the middle group described above, on the one hand will swear blind that they will do anything to prevent the permanent removal of their child and, on the other will refuse to engage as "I've not smoked weed now for two weeks" or "He hasn't hit me for six months and we get on really well now" or "My social worker hates me" or "Nothing they say is relevant to my situation".

Advising clients in these circumstances is extremely challenging as it requires a fine balance of the strongest advice (so that the client fully understands the implications of failing to engage) without running the risk of alienation, particularly with more vulnerable parents who may already feel that the rest of the world is against them. It is particularly difficult when what the client says they want is diametrically opposed to what will clearly be in their best interests in the context of public law proceedings.

We work in a system where the interests and welfare of the child are paramount. Helping those parents who are able not only to recognise that concept, but to be willing and able to demonstrate their understanding (via engagement) is one of the most rewarding experiences I have come across so far.

Kate Gomery has recently qualified as a family law solicitor. She works at Heaney Watson in Liverpool where she is exposed to all types of family law work but particularly publicly funded family law cases. Prior to qualification Kate spent several years doing general crime and then serious fraud work.  She trained at Pannone in Manchester.