June 2, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The British Family Court system of silencing any and all commentary about cases in which children are involved has always been one of the greater outrages of family law anywhere. It’s nominally supposed to protect children who presumably would be too traumatized if it were known that their parents were divorcing or that one parent claimed the other abused the kids. But of course that’s just a cover story. What the court-imposed blackout on news about custody cases mostly does is allow judges and bureaucrats to function in secret. As we've seen, that secrecy shields tactics by judges and social services workers that more than once have been called those of a police state. And rightly so.
In this case, a mother used that secrecy requirement to do what she was unable to do by more legitimate means (Daily Mail, 5/31/13).
Garry Johnson was married and two sons, Sam, the elder, and Adam who’s three years younger. Eight years ago, when the boys were 12 and nine respectively, Johnson and his wife got divorced. The boys didn’t like her boyfriend, so they asked to live with Johnson, and their preference was granted by the courts.
Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with Johnson’s ex, so she began a campaign to get someone – anyone – to say that Johnson was a bad dad.
But within a year of the divorce, Mr Johnson’s ex-wife made allegations to Essex social workers that he was neglecting the children and not feeding them properly at his smart family home.
An investigation by social workers cleared him of any wrongdoing and said the boys were fine.
A year later, in 2006, she made further allegations to social workers that he was mentally unfit to care for the boys.
Medical documents shown to the Mail by Sam and Adam reveal that Mr Johnson was examined three times by a local psychiatrist hired by social workers. The doctor wrote to social workers saying:
There is no evidence of mental illness. I cannot understand why there are concerns about Mr Johnson’s mental health.’
I can. Mom decided to use the courts and social services agencies to thwart her sons’ desires, i.e. to live with their father, and it didn’t make much difference to her that all her claims were bogus. Her aim was not to spare her children abuse or neglect; Johnson’s always been a good father as Sam and Adam said all along and still do. No, her point was to complain long enough and loudly enough to eventually drive a wedge between Johnson and his sons, or, failing that, cause him grief.
The third time proved to be the charm.
In 2007, the ex-wife started private care proceedings to remove the boys from their father. A judge put the boys under a ‘living at home with parent’ care order.
In other words, she tried for the third time in three years to wrest control of the kids from their loving father. She’d already, within the recent memory of the judges, social services workers, mental health professionals, etc., tried to do that and failed. None of her allegations were true and the fact was well known.
But what was obvious to all – that her allegations were made up, that Johnson was a perfectly fit father and that her entire purpose was to get the children out of his care – finally escaped the notice of a judge. The children remained living with Johnson, but, per his order, they were now under a care order that provided for supervision of his parenting by social services. My guess is that meant that social services would “pop ‘round” every so often, ascertain that all was going well and then leave.
But Johnson’s ex hadn’t failed in her third attempt. That’s because the judge had done one more thing.
This care order was accompanied by the gagging order to stop an increasingly anguished Mr Johnson talking about the case publicly.
Even naming his sons in the most innocuous circumstances – such as on Facebook – became a contempt of court.
That’s right. The court finally acceded to the wishes of the mother despite two prior sets of false allegations against Johnson. And just to make sure no one learned about its craven kowtowing to an obviously vengeful ex, the court placed a gag order on Johnson. He was not allowed to say a word about them in public. Go figure.
But he managed well enough until Sam was 21 and Adam was 18. Understand that, when each boy turned 18, the care order became no longer effective. They were legally adults, so they obviously didn’t need social services dropping by to check on them. Now, under normal circumstances, when a care order is no longer effective, a gag order is dropped as well. After all, the claimed reason for these gag orders is the protection of the child. What possible purpose can they serve once the boy becomes a man?
Who knows? But suffice it to say that, in Johnson’s case, the gag order was made with no mention of it’s going out of effect. In short, it was operative until Johnson died.
But he didn’t know that, so, on the occasion of Sam’s 21st birthday, he did the unforgiveable. Garry Johnson posted Happy Birthday greetings on the young man’s Facebook page! I know that’s shocking and I probably should have warned you ahead of time. Mea culpa.
Johnson was summoned to court, he knew not why. When he appeared, he was hauled into a private, closed-door session. He was never told he might need a lawyer and, once in court, he was not afforded the opportunity to hire one. For his contempt of the judge’s order, he was sentenced to 28 days in jail. In vain did Johnson tell the court of his serious heart condition that, prior to age 46, had resulted in four heart attacks. He told the court that he was scheduled for bypass surgery. Judge Damien Lochrane didn’t care. He ordered Johnson to a holding cell where, yes, he had yet another heart attack.
He was taken by ambulance to a hospital where he was shackled to a bed with armed guards outside the door to his room. He was given two days to recover and then taken to jail to begin serving his sentence.
And of course Garry Johnson can’t speak a word of this. If he does, he goes back to jail. The only reason we know any of this travesty is that Sam and Adam are under no gag order. They can speak publicly, but their father can’t. If that makes sense to you, let me know. Me? I have no clue.
Sam, a telesales manager and former professional footballer, said last night: ‘My dad is a good father and has never been in trouble with the police. He was treated like a criminal. This ludicrous gagging order should not exist and must now be lifted.
Both Adam and myself are adults. This cruel ruling is now hanging over my father to silence him about the sons he loves for the rest of his life. That is a terrible thing in what is meant to be a free country.’ I suppose the good news is that Sam and Adam have had a front-row seat for this absurdist drama. Perhaps they’ve learned a thing or two about how the family courts treat fathers.
But every silver lining has its cloud, so I suppose we must consider how the courts behaved in this case and compare it to how they behave when a mother decides to cut a loving father out of his children’s lives via the expedient of ignoring a visitation order. Looking at Johnson’s abuse by the court, it’s easy to see that, when a family court wants to hold someone in contempt, it can do so. Indeed, its procedures can be quite swift, sure and ruthless.
But courts throughout the English-speaking world are well known for their intransigent unwillingness to enforce their own orders when they stand to benefit non-custodial fathers. As a matter of fact, in Australia, their refusal to enforce orders for access is enshrined in law as the historian John Hirst has so accurately documented.
Garry Johnson’s case is more shameful than most. We’ve seen an Australian father jailed for sending his daughter a birthday card, and that’s certainly right down there in the muck of bad court orders against fathers. But Johnson’s sons were adults when all this happened. There was no order affecting them and no reason for there to be one. The gag order on him should never have been made in the first place, but certainly should have expired when the care orders did. His violation of it was of the most benign possible sort. And the man has a life-threatening heart condition. That Judge Lochrane could see no course of action save that of jailing this decent, loving father is - dare I say it? - beneath contempt.
But the main lesson is what family courts choose to punish by their contempt power and what they don’t. It’s anti-father writ large enough for all to see.
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