By Steve Doughty
A judge broke up a family in just 15 minutes, it was revealed yesterday.
Judge James Orrell ordered that three children should be taken from their parents after doctors gave evidence in his court about bruising to the ear of one young child.
The doctors said it was their opinion that the bruising could have been caused by pinching.
The ruling made at a family court in Derby was exposed after an Appeal Court judge overturned Judge Orrell’s decision and condemned the way a family was nearly destroyed in a quarter of an hour.
Appeal Judge Lord Justice Thorpe said he was ‘aghast’ at the handling of the case.
The incident came to light amid continued controversy over the secrecy in which the family courts deal with cases despite repeated scandals over misjudgements or high-handed behaviour by social workers and wrong evidence by expert witnesses.
Last year Labour Lord Chancellor Jack Straw ordered the family courts to open their proceedings to outside scrutiny. But judges have been deeply reluctant to let anyone but lawyers, social workers and expert witnesses into the courts, and have effectively kept them closed all outsiders.
Judges and lawyers say the risk of the plight of vulnerable children becoming known to the public by name is too great and that such publicity would be greatly damaging to children.
As a result the public can know nothing of what happens, and must rely on regular assurances from judges and insiders that all is well and standards are maintained in cases that decide the future of parents and children.
Details often only become public if a family case comes to a criminal court – as happened when the circumstances of the killing of Peter Connelly, Baby P, were revealed when his mother, her boyfriend and his brother were tried at the Old Bailey in 2008.
In the Derby case social workers sent the evidence of the doctors to the court before Judge Orrell held his hearing. Their lawyers expected a preliminary hearing, but the judge heard the doctors and then ordered the social workers to remove the children from their home.
Lord Justice Thorpe said today: ‘I am completely aghast at this case. There is nothing more serious than a removal hearing, because the parents are so prejudiced in proceedings thereafter.
‘Once you have lost a child, it is very difficult to get a child back.’
Lord Justice Thorpe sent the case back to the county court in Derby, which handles the most serious local family cases, but he said any further decisions on the children’s future should be taken by a different judge.
Lawyers for the parents said the judge listened to evidence from the doctors but failed to hear what the parents had to say. He had also failed to listen to the bruised child, who is said to be ‘of sufficient age and maturity’ to speak for himself.