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Sunday, April 24, 2011

High Court judge 'sits' in Tenerife: Sensitive child protection cases will be heard by telephone in hotel room

By Robert Verkaik

A High Court judge responsible for handling Britain’s most sensitive emergency court cases over Easter will be conducting hearings by phone from his holiday 1,800 miles away in Tenerife.

Sir Nicholas Mostyn, who earns £172,000 a year, is the duty judge for family hearings, often traumatic child care proceedings and bitter divorces.

He is understood to be with his new partner, fellow barrister Elizabeth Saunders, whose husband Mark was shot dead by police.

Last night the Judicial Communications Office (JCO) insisted Sir Nicholas could deal with cases by email and telephone.

But judges and lawyers expressed concern that it could cause a problem if an urgent matter needed to be dealt with in person and were surprised at the move by such a high-ranking duty judge.

Judges are already under scrutiny over the increasing number of privacy injunctions granted to celebrities who want to keep their misbehaviour out of the media.

When this newspaper contacted Sir Nicholas yesterday on his mobile phone he declined to comment.

Instead an officer from the JCO confirmed the judge went abroad after seeking permission from the head of the family division.

But one judge who specialises in family law cases said that not being in the country could be a problem if an urgent matter could not be dealt with over the telephone.

While it is possible for judges to deal with emergency family cases by conference call it is usual for duty judges to be no more than two hours’ travelling time from London.

It was made clear to The Mail on Sunday that unofficial guidance for duty judges is that they can base themselves outside the capital but they should not be as far away as Scotland or anywhere where travelling times or disruption could prevent them from attending court.

A judge conducting a case in Tenerife would need to hear the application via a mobile phone link which might be subject to an interrupted signal or routed through a hotel switchboard, which could raise concerns about security.

If a judge is in the Canary Islands, he also may not be in tune with current UK events from which the facts of the emergency case may have sprung.

Families caught up in traumatic child cases could also be perturbed to learn that the judge may have only just come off the beach or left the swimming pool.

Lawyer Mark Stephens, who has been involved in many injunction cases, said: ‘If you are going for an injunction over the Easter Holiday you will be going for one which is very important and can’t wait for someone to fly back from Tenerife to hear the case.

New love: Sir Nicholas is believed to be holidaying with his partner Elizabeth Saunders, whose husband was shot dead by police

‘I find it remarkable that a duty judge has gone away at this time.’

The cases which a duty family judge might deal with are often complex emergency care proceedings brought by local authorities or claims a child is to be unlawfully removed from his parents.

Because the interests of the child are paramount, these cases are considered to be the most important heard by the courts.

Sir Nicholas is named as the family court’s duty judge between April 20 and 26.

It is understood he flew out of the country on Friday with Mrs Saunders, whose husband was shot dead in a stand-off at his £3 million West London apartment in 2008.

The JCO said: ‘It is far from unusual for the duty judge to work from a location other than his or her home. Mr Justice Mostyn is available to deal with applications by email and telephone in the same way as he would from his home.

‘He has already dealt with a number of applications since being on duty. The nature of those is confidential to the parties.

‘He specifically agreed in advance with the President of the Family Division, Sir Nicholas Wall, the detailed arrangements for cover as duty judge.

The need for a duty family judge to attend a hearing in person is very, very exceptional. In virtually all cases, email or telephone contact is sufficient and the procedure rules allow for this.

The need to attend in person occurs when the judge feels it is necessary to take oral evidence. In those circumstances in the past, an urgent hearing has been arranged 24 hours or more later after an interim order by email.

‘On this occasion the President of the Family Division offered to hear any case if one should be needed.’

The Mail on Sunday disclosed in December that Sir Nicholas, who was one of Britain’s best-known divorce lawyers before being appointed a judge last year, had left his wife of almost 30 years for Mrs Saunders.

Earning up to £500 an hour, Sir Nicholas earned the nickname ‘Mr Payout’ because of the large sums he won for wives.

Mrs Saunders, 40, who uses her maiden name of Clarke in her career as a barrister, is said to have worked closely with Sir Nicholas on cases in the past.

There is no suggestion that their affair began before the death of her husband, but it is thought they were seeing each other when she attended the high-profile inquest into the shooting in October last year.

Friends describe Sir Nicholas, who became a judge last April, as ‘flamboyant and entertaining’.

He once said the three ingredients for a successful marriage are ‘an active sex life, a tidy home and no arguments about money’.

One of his clients, Earl Spencer, is suing him over alleged errors in handling his divorce that he claims cost him an extra £1 million.

In a High Court writ, Princess Diana’s brother revealed that Sir Nicholas had named seven piglets after the judge in the case, Lord Justice James Munby, out of apparent displeasure at the way he handled it.

'Mr Payout': Sir Nicholas' previous clients include Earl Spencer (right) and the ex-wife of former Arsenal footballer Ray Parlour, Karen

The pigs were called ‘James’, ‘Munby’, ‘self-regarding’, ‘pompous’, ‘publicity’, ‘seeking’ and ‘pillock’.

Among Sir Nicholas’s other clients were the wife of former England footballer Ray Parlour, Karen, who was awarded £4 million in 2004.

In an interview in 2007, Sir Nicholas revealed that his parents had seven marriages between them – their first to each other, then three more each.

He said: ‘People seem to have a very idealistic and rose-tinted view of marriage nowadays. I just don’t understand it. I mean, it’s a real struggle, marriage.’

Sir Nicholas was appointed a full time High Court judge on 20 April last year and was knighted the following month.



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