Smile: High Court judge uses emoji in official ruling to help children affected understand
It is the kind of document in which one might expect to find daunting legal terminology, interspersed with Latin phrases or even a smattering of Norman French.
But one High Court judge has gone to previously unheard-of lengths to make a judgment in a family court case comprehensible even for the children it affects – by replacing dry terminology with a battery of down-to-earth phrases and even a smiley face symbol.
The ruling handed down by Mr Justice Peter Jackson and published online is thought to be the first in English legal history to incorporate an emoji, or web symbol, to explain a point of evidence.
In what is being hailed as an exemplary instance of plain English, Sir Peter carefully navigates issues from domestic abuse to religious fundamentalism and even a complex anti-terrorist investigation in a brief 17-page ruling which he said he hoped the children would read for themselves.
It explains to the children, aged 10 and 12, why they should have only limited contact with their father, a white British Muslim convert who, the judge said, wanted to spirit them off to Syria under the guise of a trip to Disneyland Paris.
The father, who can be named only as Mr A for legal reasons, was facing trial for trying to buy guns and ammunition when the judgment was drafted earlier this year. It is understood he has since been convicted.
It describes Mr A as a “loudmouth” and a “bigot” who talked “nonsense” about supposedly being persecuted for his faith and saw himself as the victim of a conspiracy by “sneaky liars” in the police and social services.
The children’s mother, who also cannot be identified, is described as having been “under Mr A’s thumb” – one of the main reasons why he was deemed a risk to the children – and that he had “got inside her head” making it hard for her to “see what everyone else can see”.
Others involved in the case include a teacher who was left “frightened to death” by his threatening behaviour.
Before detailing the evidence, the judgment attempts to allay fears about the courts the children may have had.
“Children can’t be taken away from their parents unless social services prove to a judge that it would be harmful for them to live at home,” he told them.
“If children are taken away, judges will always try to return them if that is safe.
“Another thing is that children are not taken away from their parents simply because the parents have lied about something. Even if they do tell lies they can still be good enough parents.
“People can tell lies about some things and still tell the truth about other things.
“Also, children are not taken away because parents are rude or difficult or because they have strange views, even if those views offend people.
“The only reason to take children away is because they need protecting from harm.”
It then details a history of erratic behaviour by Mr A, a former soldier who spent time in prison for robbery before becoming a born-again Christian, a faith he maintained for less than a year before converting to Islam.
During his Christian phase he went to see the headmistress of the children’s school accusing her of teaching “witchcraft” and left her so frightened she had a panic alarm installed in her office.
He also objected to his children having injections and even a story they were reading at school.
After his conversion he rapidly began to espouse increasingly extreme views – so much so that local Muslims alerted counter-terrorism police.
Last summer, having already previously tried to go to Syria, he suddenly got the family passports and started planning a £4,000 trip to France, Morocco and Turkey, promising to take the children to Disneyland in Paris. In the event they stayed only two nights in the French capital, without seeing the promised sights.
“He never had any intention of going to Euro Disney and it was unkind to [the children] to have promised it to them,” the judge noted.
“They did not even see the Eiffel Tower, which Mr A told me is ‘a lump of scrap metal’.”
After a brief spell in Morocco they flew to Turkey but were turned back. The father was arrested a few months later in connection with weapons.
One point of dispute in the case was whether a note left by the mother when they set off implicated her in a plan to travel to Syria. It asks a family member to look after their pets, saying that they would be back in a few weeks with a smiling emoji next to the date.
“They police … say that the J is winking, meaning that the mother knew they wouldn’t be coming back,” he explained.
“I don’t agree that the J is winking. It is just a J.
“The police are wrong about that.”