This is, unsurprisingly, a very rare situation. Generally, where a judge has to make a decision regarding arrangements for a child, they will provide their judgment in a prescribed legal form. Often, such judgements are not easy for a lay person or child to fully understand. However, in this case, the judge felt that it was important for him to clearly and concisely set out the reasons for his decision and therefore wrote a personal letter to the boy, rather than publishing a legal judgment in the conventional way.
The case concerned a 14-year-old boy, who lived with his mother and stepfather and saw his father regularly. The child’s father wanted to take him to live in Scandinavia and the boy said that he wanted to go.
The case was heard in the Family Division of the High Court in London by Mr Justice Jackson, who eventually dismissed the application to take the boy to live in Scandinavia and for him to apply for citizenship there. The judge instead ruled that the boy would have contact with his father on alternate weekends and that the boy’s needs were better met by staying in the UK with his mother.
In the letter, the judge told the boy that he believed: “…your feelings are that you love everyone in your family very much, just as they love you.” He added that the boy’s parents had “very different personalities” and the fact they found it hard to agree was “stressful for [you]”.
Also in the letter, the judge said that he found the boy’s father to be someone who was “troubled” and had a “lot of influence over [you]”. “All fathers influence their sons, but your father goes a lot further than that. I’m quite clear that if he was happy with the present arrangements, you probably would be too. Because he isn’t, you aren’t.”
The judge also wrote: “Also, I may be wrong, but when you gave your evidence I didn’t get the feeling that you actually see your future in Scandinavia at all. Instead, what I saw was you doing your duty by your dad while trying not to be too unfair to your mum. But you still felt you had to boost your dad wherever you could. That’s how subtle and not-so-subtle pressure works. So I respect your views, but I don’t take them at face value because I think they are significantly formed by your loyalty to your father.”
The letter went on to say the boy’s father had a “manipulative side” and has “in some ways lost sight of what was best” for his son.
He told the boy he had no confidence that a move to Scandinavia would work and hoped his father would decide to stay in England “for your sake”.
The judge said the evidence showed the boy was doing well in life in England and that he “should make the most of the many opportunities that life here has to offer you”. He went on: “If, when you finish your A-levels, you want to move to Scandinavia, you will be 18 and an adult – it will be up to you.”
In the letter, he added: “Whatever each of your parents might think about it, I hope they have the dignity not to impose their views on you, so that you can work things out for yourself.”
In concluding the letter, the judge wrote that he and the boy’s father had “enjoyed finding out they loved the film My Cousin Vinny – but for different reasons”. The father had apparently mentioned it as an example of a miscarriage of justice, whilst the judge remembered it for the best courtroom scenes in any film, and the fact that justice was done in the end.
Emma Alfieri comments that she found the letter to be very compelling and personal: “As is usual when judges have to make decisions about the arrangements for children, their first consideration is the child’s welfare. The judge also has to consider multiple factors and make sure that all are taken into account. In this case, the judge decided that the boy’s welfare was better accounted for here in the UK with his mum, rather than in Scandinavia with his father. This was particularly so, given that the father could not provide any information about plans that he had made regarding housing or employment.”
I believe that other judges may follow the lead of Mr Justice Jackson in dealing with sensitive cases like this, particularly where the child[ren] are of an age where they may not fully understand the judge’s reasoning.”