Tara Vindis examines a recent High Court ruling on parents’ extreme religiously motivated views and whether the state should intervene.
The fact finding judgment of Mr Justice Newton, A Local Authority v M, F and C, D, E, and F, in which I represent the four children was recently reported at  EWHC 1599.
This is the latest in a number of other recently reported High Court cases in which the Family Courts have had to evaluate a different type of harm to children; cases in which it is alleged that the extreme religiously motivated views held by a parent or parents are so harmful that the State should intervene to protect the child or children.
As Mr Justice Newton states at paragraph 6 of his judgment.
"Every person in this jurisdiction has an unalienable right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the freedom to believe whatever one wishes, to be able to express those beliefs, to manifest them in every aspect of life, including to associate with others who hold similar beliefs; additionally, self-evidently, the right to bring up their children within those beliefs and the right not to be treated less favourably than others because of those beliefs…..But the question in this and in other cases is under what circumstances might the parents' religious views and activities result in harm to the children's physical and emotional health and well-being."
In this case the Court found that the children had suffered significant harm as a result of their exposure to the mother's views and those of prominent supporters of ALM and ISIL whose views the mother shared and promulgated.
Helpfully for those involved in these types of cases, the full schedule of facts in its proven form can be found at Annex A of the judgment.
The case is also of importance to practitioners as a model example of child protection agencies working together in an efficient and collaborative way.
The facts in this case are that in the late summer of last year the mother travelled from London to Turkey with her four young children, then aged 13, 12, 9 and 5 years old. A jury accepted that Mother had not informed the father of her plans to leave the UK and she was duly convicted of child abduction and received a custodial sentence. The mother's explanation for the journey was that she wished to see her sister, a women who had fled with her husband (apparently known to the media as the new “Jihadi John”) and children to Syria in 2014 at a time when he was on police bail for suspected terrorist offences. The mother stated that she had hoped to rescue her sister from her situation and persuade her to leave with her. This was her case within the criminal and family proceedings.
The mother's choice of route to Syria was convoluted. Whilst the mother purchased return tickets from the UK to a European airport, once they had arrived in Europe, the mother purchased single tickets only and the family undertook an arduous journey involving long train and bus rides taking them to the other side of Turkey and specifically to a border area which was one of only two open borders with Syria, a destination within Turkey which the FCO strongly advise British citizens not to visit. In fact the preparation that the mother made for the journey, in terms of her planning, in conveying her luggage, changing her mobile phone number and the route that she took was described as “textbook” for those desiring to travel to Syria without detection.
In the meantime (albeit with some delay and prevarication) the childrens' father had notified the authorities and through collaboration with Interpol and the Turkish police the children and their mother were found and they were returned to the jurisdiction. Newton J is highly complimentary in his judgment about the how the various public authorities worked collaboratively to achieve the safe return of the children and how the co-operation of the Metropolitan Counter Terrorism Police had been invaluable in terms of evidence gathering (this was described in his judgment as being of exceptional quality, focussed and highly relevant material) and the prosecution of the case within the Family Court. The level of co-operation and assistance was in happy contrast to that seen in other reported radicalisation cases.
As a result of the intelligent and cooperative working between the local authority and the Metropolitan Police, a much more complicated picture of the mother and her beliefs emerged, all of which evidence was relevant to the fact finding hearing. The evidence gathered included from the children themselves, from text messages sent and received by the mother publicising gatherings in support of high profile hate preachers and from written materials found within the children's home. There was also photographic evidence depicting the three older children at numerous ALM rallies and demonstrations with the children often seen in the company of convicted terrorists at those rallies. The evidence demonstrated that the mother had been involved for many years with groups supporting the goals of ISIL and was herself a co-ordinator of a secretive womens' group actively promoting ISIL's political beliefs. In addition to oral evidence taken from officers from Counter Terrorism Command, the Judge also viewed two recently broadcast television documentaries. The mother accepted that one of the documentaries involved secretly filmed footage of members of her own womens' group.
The local authority's threshold was thus based upon two aspects of the mother's conduct; her attempt to remove the children from the UK and taken them to live in a war zone in Syria and additionally the exposure of her children to her own ideologies which mirrored those of the individuals linked to ISIL including the children's direct exposure to ISIL group activities.
The mother's account describing the purpose of their journey to Syria was not accepted by the Court; it was found not to have been borne out by the surreptitious nature of her departure, and the reason she gave was as improbable as it was impractical. The fact that she had taken her four children on a long an arduous journey rather than going alone made her reason all the more incredible.
In relation to the case on radicalisation that she had to meet, the mother contended that her activities were a result of her own devout faith and her ability to participate freely within this country to peaceable demonstrations; ironically many of the demonstrations were in support of Sharia Law and anti-democratic views.
The Court thus went on to consider, as other Courts have done, what is meant by the terms “radicalisation” and “extremism” which are defined within the judgment.
The judgment contains a comprehensive assessment of the evidence taken from the family members and police officers. The Court was unimpressed with the mother's portrayal of the demonstrations as being of carnival in nature - in fact the photographic evidence revealed the childrens' frequent presence at events used to raise money to fund terrorist work and at which hateful proclamations were made and anger demonstrated. The Court also heard evidence that the children had not attended main stream schools as their mother's extreme views precluded this; she wished to keep them apart from wider society, whose tolerant views the mother was unable to accept.
In relation to the father's role in the children's lives and his own knowledge of his wife's beliefs, the Court found that he had more involvement within and understanding of what went on within the family home (and outside of it) than he claimed in Court. Although he himself was not found to have shared his wife's extreme views he had known of them and also of her political associations and chosen to turn a blind eye to them and to his children's exposure to them by agreeing to his children being home schooled and by allowing them to attend ALM events and demonstrations where they were exposed to extreme religious and political views.
The case has been adjourned for further assessments to determine whether the children are able to return to the care of their family.