Ombudsman Cafcass report
On 30th October, 2013, I brought proceedings at the principal registry, a preliminary hearing for contact with my four year old son requesting two nights a month visitation. As events transpired, the Judge, who was clearly pushed for time, decided to forego any legal arguments and exercised his right to base his decision entirely on the advice and opinion of the Cafcass official. The Cafcass official based his decision on a fifteen minute interview with both parents. For your information, I recorded that interview on my iPhone the duration of which was 15 minutes, 43 seconds.
From my perspective the Judge’s decision was a tremendous disappointment as the Cafcass official had, by his demeanour and the aggressive attitude he had displayed towards me at the pre-court meeting, made it perfectly clear to me that he was just not interested in hearing my side of the story in the objective and professional manner that one should be able to expect of an official who was to act in such a crucial matter. Consequently he advised the Judge against my request for 2 nights a month visitation. Although I would have preferred that the Judge heard from the legal representatives of both parties – a situation that may well have produced an entirely different result – I have no basis for an argument against the decision he took.
My case against Cafcass is twofold:-
- That its official behaved in an inappropriate manner (which I consider to be racially motivated) and expressed inappropriate and totally unacceptable views and opinions in the pre-court meeting and performed poorly and inadequately during the hearing itself.
- That having complained to Cafcass regarding the performance of its official, the Enhanced Service Manager Philip Durban rejected my case on that which I consider to be a fallacious and dismissive argument.
1.1 The performance of the Cafcass Officer at the Pre-Court meeting
I was born in South Africa and although I have lived in the UK for 29 years, I still have a strong South African accent. Mr Osei Agyeman (the Cafcass official) is also from Africa, probably Ghana.
As soon as I started to speak – i.e. before he had heard anything of any substance from me at all, it was immediately apparent to me – the feedback being conveyed by the expression on his face – that he took an instant dislike to me and that he had already made up his mind as to how he would construct his view that he would later put before the judge. Racial discrimination is not just one-way and I am not new to being subjected to it as a ‘white South African’. As such, I was immediately aware of the predicament I was facing. In fact, within minutes of the start of the meeting I seriously considered clearing the air by asking Mr Agyeman if he had a problem with my ethnicity. However as my relationship with my son was at stake, I decided that such a challenge, had he been racially motivated as I suspected, could have antagonised him further and so decided against it. A decision I now regret.
I attempted to put my case as calmly as I could but received what I considered to be aggressive interruptions and extremely negative body language throughout the whole meeting. On six occasions, I was on the wrong end of unprofessional ‘put-downs’ such as “in your opinion”. Before that meeting I had expected to face an objective professional official who would listen attentively to both parties but give very little away by means of attitude or body language. In that I was entirely disappointed. Mr Agyeman was an open book.
The situation worsened when Mr Agyeman expressed a totally unacceptable view after he learnt that my former partner (a divorce lawyer) went to work in an office whilst I work from home. He clearly found this unacceptable and said “Relationships where the husband stays at home while the wife goes out to work, don’t work. They work when the man goes to work, because when the women go out to work and come home and the man is at home, they expect magic, and that’s hard when you are at home. So it is better if you go out to work.”
I was absolutely horrified that such an archaic sexist view should have been expressed by someone in his position and took it to mean that, in his opinion, I was not a man – and therefore, it follows, not a good father. This is just not an unacceptable and ill-informed view of the society in which we live today, but it reveals that Mr Agyeman has little appreciation of, and lack of respect for, the role he has been employed to fulfil. Even though he may hold such a sexist view of today’s society, it was totally inappropriate and unprofessional of him to have expressed it at that meeting. I understand the correct terminology is domestic profiling.
Apart from the racist and sexist views he expressed, at times I found it very difficult to understand what Mr Agyeman was actually saying. This was due to the fact that, in my experience, his command of the English language was not of a high standard, his diction was poor and overall communication was not helped by his seeming inability to maintain the acceptable level of eye contact demanded of such an information gathering exercise. I noticed that he had some considerable difficulty writing his notes. In short I considered his performance well below that which one should reasonably expect of an official who was to play such a crucial role in my son’s future and well-being.
1.2 The performance of the Cafcass Official at the Court Hearing
I was again struck by his poor delivery and lack of verbal skills. However the incident that virtually took my breath away was when he took a telephone call on his mobile phone whilst the judge was speaking. I was appalled by this lack of respect for court etiquette, which, under normal circumstances, would have been regarded as a clear case of contempt. It crossed my mind that the judge was possibly showing more awareness of the need for ‘political correctness’ than he was of contempt. However to my mind this summed up Mr Agyeman’s attitude towards the power that he was able to exercise not only over me, but the court itself.
I was left in no doubt that Mr Agyeman’s performance was well below par and that, because it had had such a disastrous effect on my relationship with my son, I simply had to question his qualifications to perform such an important role. Hence the next step in this matter.
2.1 My complaint to Cafcass was rejected out-of-hand as vexatious
I sincerely believed – and still believe – that Mr Agyeman’s performance was not up to the standard that should reasonably be expected of an official charged with the duties he was undertaking. I therefore complained to Cafcass and requested sight of his qualifications. This was refused. In his reply to me Mr Philip Durban (Enhanced Service Manager) stated:-
‘In your complaint you have made a series of discourteous and abusive statements about Mr Osei Agyeman (Family Court Adviser) relating to his ethnic, cultural and professional background and his use of the English language. Paragraph 20 of The Cafcass Complaints Procedure applies :- “ Cafcass will not accept complaints that are submitted in an abusive manner.2 Consequently your complaint will not be reviewed under the complaints procedure and we will not respond to any further communications from you in relation to these matters.”
This is deplorable. I was the one who faced racial discrimination when I was at my most vulnerable and in need of objective professionalism. All I did was to express – as clearly and as honestly as I could – why I felt aggrieved and let down by someone who, in my opinion, did not live up to the standards I could reasonably expect of an official tasked with this life changing responsibility involving a small child. I was sincerely shocked by his demeanour, his views and his poor communication skills. But it was his obvious racism that resulted in a total lack of objectivity and an unfair, unbalanced report. As such I sought to bring the matter to the attention of his employers and seek evidence of his qualifications.
I believe that every citizen has the right to know the qualifications of those who can exercise power over them. Indeed, I am sure that if I seek this information under the Freedom of Information Act, it will be supplied to me. However, I would rather that Cafcass provide it rather than hide behind such a soft get-out-of-trouble clause.
I appreciate that Mr Agyeman may have no legal qualifications as neither do magistrates. However magistrates, who do not sit alone (to ensure balance, fairness and objectivity) have to meet certain ‘quality’ criteria. The first five are relevant here.
- 1. Good Character: personal integrity and the respect and trust of others
- 2. Understanding and communication: to be able to understand documents, identify relevant facts, follow evidence and communicate effectively
- 3. Social awareness: to appreciate and accept the rule of law
- 4. Maturity and sound temperament: an awareness and understanding of people and a sense of fairness
- 5. Sound Judgement: to be able to think logically, weigh arguments and reach a sound decision
As judges have the right to base their decisions entirely on the view and opinion expressed by a Cafcass official that could mean – as it did in my case – that the Cafcass official can be the sole arbiter of justice. However as Cafcass officials work entirely on their own, the checks and balance procedures which are built in to the magistrates system do not exist in their realm. Therefore the risk of poor judgement on their part is always present. It follows that the ‘quality’ requirements that magistrates must meet are even more vital as far as Cafcass officials are concerned – so too is their training. From what you have read so far, you will see why it is that I consider that Mr Agyeman did not meet these essential requirements.
My case against Cafcass is that it does not feel that anyone subjected to the rulings of its officials has any right to challenge their fitness to fulfil their role. That is nonsense. There are times when it is not simply the right for someone to blow the whistle in order to expose a major problem – it is a duty.
With that in mind, let me remind you of the inappropriate and medically non-recognised breast cancer (‘cleaver sparing’) procedures performed by a qualified surgeon Mr Ian Paterson. This gentleman carried out 1,100 procedures, which had enormous emotional and physical effects on the women concerned, between 1994 and 2011. Consequently the NHS is now facing a multi-million compensation bill. A report on the scandal, due shortly, is expected to criticise managers who were aware of the situation for quite some time but did nothing to stop Mr Paterson.
Similarly, having been subjected to Mr Agyeman’s lack of essential qualities and skills I considered it to be my duty to bring them to the attention of Cafcass before he does more damage to estranged couples and their children
But Mr Durban not only rejected my complaint out-of-hand, he also made a statement that was entirely untrue. “The judge did consider the representations made by your legal representative which led to an order being made with your consent.”
I do not know whether he based this comment on any incorrect information supplied by Mr Agyeman or whether he simply misunderstood what he was told. However, the truth is, as I stated earlier, the judge did NOT hear representations from either party with regard to the contact but based his judgement entirely upon the views and opinions expressed by Mr Agyeman.
In fact, at this hearing my son’s mother, a divorce lawyer, lodged an application for costs against me, which meant that unless I agreed with the Cafcass order, I would face a hefty additional legal bill. It requires no more than simple common sense to appreciate that I would not have paid £17,000 pounds for one thing, to happily agree to another.
Simply put, I went to court asking for two nights a month with my son. I paid £17,000 for the opportunity. Cafcass refused my request. I no longer have any contact with my son. I complained to Cafcass. They refused my complaint.
I have detailed the sequence of correspondence leading to Enhanced Service Manager Durban’s dismissal of my complaint, and would like to register my dissatisfaction with Cafcass and their complaints procedure.
The Correspondence with Cafcass in chronological order can be viewed on this link.
I will be grateful for any comments you may have in assisting my case.
With kind regards,