Custody disputes are distressing. There are no winners and the children are usually the ones who suffer most. Today courts do their best to ensure that no child is upset by the proceedings and very few attend court, their views being placed before the Judge by a social worker. But, at the start of my career, contested custody cases were heard by the High Court Judge when he came on circuit.
My client, Sarah, was disputing the custody of her two children, a boy of ten and a girl of eight. Since the divorce, they had been living with their father. He worked and they spent a great deal of time with their grandparents, neither of whom enjoyed the best of health. That was the basis for Sarah’s claim for custody of her children.
She was a strange character. A tall blond who always wore dark glasses because, she claimed, of some medical condition. This was her second divorce, although to be fair to her, her first marriage had not lasted very long and there were no children. She had left her first husband for the man who she then married and who was the father of the two children. This marriage had lasted twelve years, but then she had found another man, left her husband and the children. The new relationship was over very quickly and now she wanted her children back. I, rather cynically, thought she was more interested in the maintenance than their welfare.
When the court’s children’s officer spoke to the children they said they wanted to tell the judge they wished to stay with their Dad. I advised Sarah that she should withdraw her application for custody as I believed the Judge would not go against their wishes. The lapse of time – they had been with their father for over a year – was against her as well. She insisted the hearing should go ahead as she thought the children were being pressurised by their father.
The hearing was at Lancaster Assizes. The High Court Judge was on circuit and was sitting in the courtroom inside the Castle. This case would not be heard in that room but in the judge’s chambers. We waited outside the room in a narrow corridor, all of us crushed together. The children had been brought by the social worker. They ignored their mother’s smiles.
The door was opened by a very tall slender young man with lank fair hair dressed in a morning suit. He stood to one side and waved us into the room. He introduced the case in a rather high pitched voice. I had to suppress a smile at the thought that his voice hadn’t broken. The judge was sitting at his desk in the centre of the room. His robes lay over a chair and his wig on the desk. The room was quite large with windows that overlooked the Priory Church and a small square. One of those windows was the size of a door with a small step in front of it.
‘Come and stand here,’ the Judge said to the two children. They inched forward, eyes wide open.
‘Now, do you know what this room is called?’
They shook their heads, their eyes fixed on the Judge.
‘It’s called the Drop Room. And can you guess why it’s called that?’
Again they shook their heads. ‘Oh no.’ I thought. I knew what he was about to say.
‘You see that window there?’
This time they nodded but their eyes were even wider and they stared at the window.
‘You see it’s got a step up?’
Their faces were rigid and they only tipped their heads down.
‘They used to hang people from there. Pushed them out of the window with a rope round their necks.’
The children’s faces were white.
‘Well that’s not going to happen to you. Now, I understand you want to tell me about where you want to live.’
The little boy stuttered, ‘With Dad.’
The Judge looked at the girl. ‘And you?’
She took her brother’s hand and nodded, but couldn’t speak.
Not surprisingly the Judge awarded custody of the two traumatised children to the father.