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An Interview with John Hemming MP

David Chaplin, publisher of Family Law Week, met with controversial MP, John Hemming, to find out more about his campaign on family justice

I met with John Hemming MP the other day to find out more on his family justice campaign. John has been consistently in the media headlines over the past year with coverage of his campaign in most of the nationals, in particular the Telegraph. But John certainly hit the family law headlines recently with publication of a judgment from Lord Justice Wall in which the judge accused the MP of "abusing his position" and concluded that he would not "be persuaded to take seriously any criticism made by him in the future unless it is corroborated by reliable, independent evidence". Our meeting for this interview had been arranged before publication of that judgment.

As we talked about the recent case, it was immediately obvious that John is not going to let criticism soften his stance on what he perceives are the built-in injustices of the family courts. The case had involved a young woman who was alleged to have learning difficulties whose baby, who also was alleged to have some medical disabilities, was placed for adoption after being represented by the Official Solicitor.

John stuck by his claim, for which he had been firmly admonished by Lord Justice Wall, that the solicitor's file had been altered retrospectively but was willing to accept that there was no malice in this. His main opposition was reserved for the appointment of the Official Solicitor and the appointment of a joint expert witness. One gripe was that the psychologist expert witness, who produced the report on the mother's ability to understand the proceedings, had been appointed through the recommendation and agreement of the local authority.

At this point, he ventured into his self confessed "nutter" territory by accusing some experts of being in the pay of local authorities. I suggested that was going too far – although experts get well paid for what they do most do it professionally and with an open mind but he was resolute; an expert relies for a great deal of income on this work and they know who to keep on side.

Anyway, John is seeking to keep this case in the news. He is currently preparing an appeal to the Lords on the basis that, once the Official Solicitor had been appointed, the mother had no chance to challenge any of the evidence placed before the Court. His conclusion is that she had no sort of trial, let alone a fair one.

We then moved on to the wider aims of the campaign. He was keen to emphasise that he is not seeking to overturn the entire system but he has identified several targets that he aims to topple over the next year. He already claims that he has exposed the oft-denied adoption targets with the admission by Hammersmith and Fulham, through a press release in March this year, that they had achieved a target that awarded them with an additional £500,000 of funding for achieving a target of 100 adoptions or secure placements over three years. As a councillor in Birmingham for 15 years before being elected to the House of Commons in 2005 he knew how local authority funding works and that knowledge reinforced his determination to expose this policy. He further claims that the Government has now stopped such hypothecated funding.

Another immediate target is to get two clauses inserted in the Children and Young Persons Bill that would amend the Children Act. Both clauses support his idea that there should be greater freedom for families to discuss and publicise their proceedings. One clause would see s9 of the Children Act amended so as to define a range of third parties to whom the parents involved can disclose information so they can obtain expert evidence or other assistance. The other clause seeks to amend s8 so as to require that a written judgment is provided to all the parties whenever an order under the section is made and which would allow publication of an anonymised version of the judgment in certain circumstances.

In the longer term, he will continue to push for a restriction of discretion over the interpretation of the risk of significant harm under s31 of the Children Act. He thinks this could be achieved by publication of guidelines by the DCSF, scrutinised by the parliamentary committee, which would state more explicitly those circumstances where the child should not be removed. He would also like to see an extended use of family group conferences, such as those advocated by the Family Right Group, to resolve issues early. Crucially, the chair of any conference should not be part of the local authority childrens' services team.

He admits he is still at the stage where he is trying to convince others that change is needed but within Parliament he is obviously attracting some support. A fellow Liberal Democrat MP has tabled a motion in the Council of Europe calling for an investigation into the operation of the UK family courts. It is not yet known whether the investigation will take place. There is also talk of the creation of an All Party Parliamentary Group on family law.

Whatever one thinks of John's conclusions, his thoughts on the current operation of the family justice system and his methods of campaigning, it is clear that he is going to continue to use his position as MP to agitate for change and that he will contine to stir up the public and the media.