11:22, December 21 326 0 theguardian.com

2018-12-21 11:22:04
Nicholas Crichton obituary

Nick Crichton, who has died of cancer aged 75, was one of the most influential family judges of his generation and the pioneer of the specialist family drug and alcohol courts (FDACs) that have transformed the chances of keeping together families where one or both parents have addiction issues. The innovation has demonstrated the potential for the judicial system to play a wider role in problem-solving.

It was at an international conference in Australia in 2002 that Crichton heard of an approach being taken by a US family court in San Jose, California, whereby efforts were made to work with addicted parents before initiating the process of permanently removing their children. On returning to the UK, he began to stimulate interest in the idea, and by 2008 had secured funding from national and local government to open the first FDAC at Wells Street, the family proceedings court for inner London where he sat as a recorder.

Crichton often likened the concept to the discipline of Weight Watchers: an addicted parent, usually a mother referred to the court by social services, would be put on a structured rehabilitation programme, supported by a dedicated team of professionals, and brought back to court every fortnight to monitor progress.

In informal proceedings and surroundings, the parent would on each occasion see the same judge and be tested for substance use. If they were assessed as clean and stable after a target period of nine months, though sometimes longer, steps would be taken to reunite them with their children who had meanwhile been in care.

Results showed this “tough but fair” approach to be highly effective. A recent analysis of FDAC cases involving 754 children found that 40% had returned home at the end of the process, compared to 22% in conventional family court cases. An earlier study suggested that 40% of mothers and 25% of fathers who had been through the process were by the end no longer dependent on drugs or alcohol, as against 25% and 5% respectively for traditional courts. For every £1 spent by an FDAC, it has been estimated that the public purse saves £2.30.

Today there are FDAC teams working across more than 20 local council areas in England and Northern Ireland, although development continues to be hampered by shortage of funding. Crichton would point out in frustration that the annual cost to the taxpayer of a single specialist court was the same as that of just one dysfunctional family. But his overriding concern was always for the mothers and, even more, the children involved in such cases.

As he wrote in the Guardian in 2010: “Working as a judge for 18 years I have dealt with many, many drug-addicted mothers. Taking the sixth, seventh or even eighth child away from one mother is quite common; I have even had to take the 14th child of one woman away. I have seen a psychiatric report that recorded one mother saying that every time she has a child taken away, she goes out and gets pregnant again to deal with the pain.”

Born in Denham, Buckinghamshire, the county where he lived for most of his life, Crichton was the younger son of the film director Charles Crichton and his first wife, Vera (nee Harman-Mills). After Haileybury school, Hertfordshire, where he was an accomplished rugby player and cricketer, Crichton studied law at Queen’s University Belfast and subsequently qualified as a solicitor, becoming a partner in the firm of Nicholls, Christie & Crocker. He was appointed a metropolitan stipendiary magistrate, now known as district judge, in 1987 and was unusual in specialising in family work.

For all his influence, Crichton never held one of the higher judicial offices. He dedicated himself to the welfare of children and Wells Street became a model of how modern public law care proceedings should operate. He worked long hours but was famously engaging and unstuffy in how he acted as a judge, which came to many troubled families as a refreshing contrast to their experiences of other representatives of the state.

He regularly travelled overseas, often in his own time, to assist other countries to learn from British approaches to child protection and to develop their own procedures. In Bulgaria he visited all 28 of the country’s family courts and many specialist institutions. He was made CBE in 2012 for his contribution to the practice of family law and continued to hear cases in retirement.

Outside work, Crichton retained a passion for cricket and was a popular figure at Penn & Tylers Green cricket club, near High Wycombe, where he played for some 30 years and coached younger generations. He loved the Shetland Islands and walking his dogs. When a Guardian journalist once interviewed him in his office at Wells Street, she spotted several packets of dog food on top of a cupboard and behind them a box labelled “awards” – some of the many he received for his FDAC achievements.

Later in that interview, Crichton confessed that, at the end of a successful case, when a child was due to be reunited with their parent, he would ascertain whether they liked dogs. If they did, he would hide his pets under his desk in court and, at the conclusion of proceedings, reveal them to all, to general delight.

Crichton is survived by his second wife, Jane Maskell, whom he married in 2014; by two sons, Simon and Ian, from his first marriage, to Ann (nee Jackson), which ended in divorce; and by five grandchildren.

Nicholas Crichton, family judge, born 23 October 1943; died 17 December 2018