We consider the situation following Helen’s dramatic acquittal (broadcast 11 September 2016)
The big verdict has arrived – acquittal on grounds of Self Defence – and Helen left the court house a free woman, younger son Jack in her care following 5 months on remand in a prison MBU. She is back in the community, albeit not free from the oppressive presence of husband Rob who has managed to threaten her outside the court house.
So how will Helen deal with the immediate future? Her son Henry is in the care of her tormentor and Rob is fully aware of the effect of his ongoing care of Henry on her. Let’s consider her situation from a family law perspective.
The next step for Helen will be to focus on Henry as much as Jack and her path is not an easy one. Rob will seek, through the family courts, the placement of his son Gideon/Jack in his care and to retain care of Henry. Although Helen has been acquitted of criminal charges, the family court can test the allegations on a civil basis within the current proceedings.
Helen’s acquittal does not mean that Rob cannot pursue his assertions about the events of the night of 4 April; the family court can reinvestigate his claims and make its own decision as to what happened. Moreover, the family court’s decision is made “on the balance of probabilities”, i.e. it is more like than not that she committed the alleged offence. This is a lower threshold than for the criminal court, which must make its decisions ” beyond reasonable doubt”, i.e. the jury could only convict if there is no doubt in their collective mind.
The Radio 4 fictionalised account of the criminal case preparation has not featured Helen’s criminal solicitor Dominic. However Helen’s criminal barrister Anna is highly unlikely to take a role in the family case. Anna advocated on Helen’s behalf in a family court hearing concerning care of Henry; Maggie the family solicitor would be expected to take a greater role in the family court case. We are not holding our breath though for Maggie’s role as it has seemed in previous story lines that Archers story writing favoured Usha, the omnipresent legal professional, no matter what the legal issue so we shouldn’t be surprised if Anna is available to run a family case.
Back to the fact finding. Findings made against Helen could have hefty consequences for her care of her children if Rob is able to satisfy the family court that she is unstable and a risk to her children. What of Rob? Many will be astonished that he has ‘got off’. Important to note that he was not on trial (except arguably through public opinion and the media). Helen would need to report her allegations of rape to the police for the police to investigate, which would involve an “achieving best evidence” (ABE) interview (as a vulnerable rape victim) by SOIT (Sexual Offences Investigation Team) and then for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide if there is sufficient evidence to charge him. Then further criminal court proceedings against Rob and possibly another trial….
Returning Henry to Helen’s care will be far from straightforward. The family court will have to grapple with the fact that Henry has been in the (generally) good enough care of Rob (Rob’s mother) for 5 months since separation from Helen and that Rob has been a father to him for nearly half his life – proportionately significant in light of his tender years. Rob has parental responsibility for Henry and therefore an equal legal role in Henry’s life and, at present, through the fact of providing primary care to Henry, day to day decision making. Given Rob’s likely opposition to her reunion with Henry Helen currently will have no option but to seek contact access through the family court and to consider Rob’s contact application for Jack pending the conclusion of the family case. Positions are likely to be entrenched; the court will have the Children Act paramountcy principle (that the welfare of the child is the paramount concern) and the welfare checklist (s1(3) Children Act 1989) of criteria to guide it. There may also be involvement from CAFCASS (Family Court Reporter) and social services (it is a mystery that no social services support has been considered, such as play therapy for Henry, to provide age appropriate assistance in ‘processing’ the violent assault he witnessed). Rob may seek a mental health report in relation to Helen’s ability to provide parenting for the children, involving a psychiatric assessment of Helen.
How Helen copes in the days and weeks to follow will be crucial, not least because isolation was a key feature of the circumstances affecting her decisions hitherto. She can report the threat made by Rob outside the courthouse and keep her family and friends in touch as an effective support and means to rationalise her difficulties over custody and access to her children. She can also consider therapeutic support for herself as a victim of domestic violence.
This drama has been a riveting exploration of issues underpinning relationship breakdown, often only known to those involved in family court proceedings and the professionals supporting them. It will be interesting to see where the story writers take Helen and her children next. The nation holds its breath for Henry and Jack (Gideon!).