A judge was wrong to exclude a mother from an emergency legal bid to have her two young children removed, the Court of Appeal ruled today.
She was said to have been denied her right to a fair hearing by having no input in an application which resulted in an Emergency Protection Order (EPO) being granted.
Lord Justice Treacy said: "By proceeding ex parte and failing to convene a properly constituted court the District Judge acted unlawfully."
In October 2017 the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust sought an EPO for the woman's children, aged three and one.
During an evening sitting at Craigavon Court the authority's representatives requested permission to proceed ex parte, or without the mother's participation, due to the urgency of the situation.
The Trust felt it was the only way it could get the EPO application heard that day.
By that stage a family court chaired by the District Judge, with two lay magistrates, had concluded.
The judge believed he had no jurisdiction to conduct a contested EPO application while sitting alone.
He granted the order sought for a seven-day period, with the two children removed from the mother's care and fostered separately.
Appeal judges examined the lawfulness of hearing the Trust's application without evidence from her.
She had been notified in advance and attended Craigavon Court in order to participate.
But as her solicitor travelled to the hearing he was phoned by a member of the court staff and told he would have to remain at the back of the courtroom without permission to speak during the application.
He was also advised that his client would not be permitted into the courtroom during the hearing.
Ruling on the appeal, Lord Justice Treacy said: "The District Judge was plainly wrong" to proceed on an ex parte basis."
Instead, he held, a properly constituted court should have been convened, potentially by asking lay members to remain to hear the case.
Pointing out that a contested hearing with the involvement of both sides is generally necessary to protect the parent's human rights, Lord Justice Treacy added: "The appellant was denied her right to a fair hearing before a properly constituted court."