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Mrs Justice Baron ‘deprecates’ district judge’s home visits to check residence claims

High Court hears of ‘unannounced’ visit by the court to grandparents’ home

Mrs Justice Baron, hearing an appeal in AMV v RM [2012] EWHC 3629 (Fam) which concerned the future care of two young children, has deprecated the decision by a district judge to visit the homes of the mother and grandparents in order to check the veracity of the mother's claims as to residence of the children.

The district judge was concerned as to where the mother and children were actually residing.  The mother asserted that her primary home was a rented three bedroom house in London.  She accepted that she spent some time with her parents in their three bedroom council property which was situated fairly close by.  The father claimed that the mother was essentially living with her parents and he was concerned about the standard of living accommodation at the maternal grandparents' property. 

The district judge decided that it would be appropriate to make unannounced site visits to the mother's property and that of the maternal grandparents in order to assist with the determination of the issue. The judge gave the mother and her legal representative some 15 minutes to decide whether they agreed with this course.  They consented but were unable to contact the grandparents. The judge decided to visit both establishments immediately and travelled to each in the car of the husband's counsel, accompanied by the mother and the CAFCASS officer; the mother's counsel was a passenger in the father's car.

Baron J described how at the mother's house the group 'apparently combed the premises, opening doors, looking in cupboards, fridges and even wastepaper baskets'. Then, at the house of the maternal grandparents, who were surprised by the visit and did not have the opportunity to take independent legal advice, a similar process of investigation took place.

The parties returned to court and the district judge made findings in reliance upon what had been seen.

In the High Court, Mrs Justice Baron, hearing the mother's appeal, said:

"A judge cannot seek to determine who is telling the truth by a surprise or unannounced visit in relation to disputed facts."

Addressing the visit to the grandparents, she continued:

"I doubt that they felt that they had any alternative but to open their front door and make the judge, counsel, their daughter and their former son-in-law welcome in their flat."

She concluded:

"I deprecate the method used by the district judge and would urge that nothing similar occurs in the future."