27 June 2016
BBC Radio 4, Monday 13 June 2016
By Clara Glynn
'Behind Closed Doors' is a Radio 4 trilogy of short dramas that are set within legal proceedings. The first episode is set in the Family Court, where Harry – Molly's biological father – is applying for a child arrangements order to see his six-year-old daughter.
As a family law barrister with a specialist practice that often involves alternative families created through donor insemination and surrogacy, I was particularly interested to see how a radio dramatisation would depict a world with which I am all too familiar.
'Contact' raises some of the wider issues that face the family courts in a post-legal-aid system. There is the proliferation of litigants in person in the courtroom, and the perceived disequilibrium that is engendered when one party is represented and the other not. We also get a view of the judiciary from a lesbian lay client – precisely how is a 'white, straight male in his 60s' going to make a decision about a little girl, her same-sex female parents and her heterosexual father?
The protagonist, Harry, entered into an informal arrangement with Molly's mother, a friend and former colleague with whom he worked, to donate his sperm. The drama is set over the course of a two-day final hearing. On the first day the court hears from various witnesses: a Cafcass officer, the father, the mother and the mother's new partner, before we hear the judgment on the second day.
Somewhat frustratingly, a judgment in an earlier fact-finding hearing is alluded to but the listener is not made aware of what, if any, findings were made and the impact that may have on the welfare determination.
From the outset the listener is given a glimpse into not only the intensity that these proceedings often bring with them, but also the fragility of the human emotions that are ever present.
The father opens the case stating that he is Molly's father, to which the mother exclaims 'he's just the donor'. Of course, family lawyers are all too familiar with such feelings being expressed. However, in these particular cases where the applicant father is very much fighting for 'recognition' as a father, it is juxtaposed with a mother who does not wish to have her family unit 'eroded' by the father being awarded such recognition.
We learn that until Molly was four years old, the father had seen Molly on a regular basis (although the frequency is disputed between the parties). It was when the mother started her new relationship that the father felt as though he was being 'pushed out'. He nonetheless agreed to the mother's new partner acquiring parental responsibility.
As is often the case, the parties' positions are polar opposites: the father wishes to see Molly every weekend, the mother says the father's contact should be limited to indirect contact on special occasions.
What should the court do? How does the court find a solution that is in the best interests of the child when one party is opposed to direct contact? During a lunch adjournment on the first day of the final hearing, there is a chance of a rapprochement, when the father makes a proposal of monthly visiting contact. The mother's partner thinks it is a good offer, which they should accept as they could end up with far worse. The mother is opposed and refuses to accept the offer and wishes to let the judge determine the issue.
No spoilers here, though – you'll have to listen to find out what the judge decided.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this short drama, despite the niggling complaint that it was somewhat unrealistic to expect a court to get through four witnesses in one day, when one party is a litigant in person. Bearing in mind the growing number of cases involving donor insemination, 'Contact' works well as a timely look at the socio-legal issues that are involved in such cases.