There is nothing more important than personal liberty and, if you face proceedings that may result in your imprisonment, you have a right to be legally represented at public expense. The Court of Appeal powerfully made that point in the case of a mother who was jailed for repeatedly failing to cooperate in judicial attempts to reunite her children with their father.
Following the breakdown of the couple’s relationship, the mother remained in the UK with their three children whilst the father returned to their native Mexico. The mother’s and children’s immigration status in Britain was perilous and, after the father took action under the Hague Convention 1980, the mother was ordered to return the children to Mexico so that their father could have access to them.
Thereafter, the mother was accused of engaging in tactical manoeuvring in a bid to avoid compliance. Further orders were made and various deadlines were set for the children’s return to Mexico, but none of them were met. The father ultimately sought her committal to prison and, following numerous hearings and the imposition of three suspended sentences, she was jailed for four weeks.
In ordering her release after she had served nine days of that sentence, the Court expressed sympathy with the difficult position faced by the judge who had sentenced her. However, despite having been eventually granted non-means-tested legal aid, she had not been represented by a properly qualified lawyer at a number of hearings, including that at which she was jailed.
The Court accepted that imprisonment would have been the likely outcome, even had the mother been legally represented. However, she ostensibly wished to receive such representation and its absence amounted to a serious procedural irregularity. The mother’s appeal was allowed and the Court directed a fresh hearing of the father’s committal application before a different judge.