Gazette contributor ALAN HAYMAN explains why the coming of Christmas can mean hard choices for the Justices working in the Essex Family Courts

Christmas? Bah, humbug! Perhaps the truest three words that Charles Dickens ever wrote.

Here’s why I tend to warm to the views of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Victorian novelist’s morose and miserly character, each time the season of ill-will comes round every December.

In a previous life, I spent several years as a Presiding Justice in the Essex Family Courts.

If parents split up and can’t agree on their children’s future, the Family Court is there to step in and help.

When they arrive, deadlocked mums and dads who come to court are first nudged towards a deal by the unsung heroes of Cafcass, the court’s peace-making service. That might cover who the children live with, where they go to school, how they spend the holidays and what surnames they should have in the future.

So far, so more or less good.

But quite often, one unsorted issue was left to be settled by the Bench right at the end.

Agreeing how the kids should spend Christmas Day sometimes took longer than everything else put together.

When it comes to where little Jenny or Johnny should wake up and open their presents from Santa Claus, a red mist sometimes covered the eyes of otherwise reasonable parents – and it didn’t come from the runners on Santa’s sledge.

A deal swapping contact on Christmas Day for equal time on Boxing Day or Christmas Eve in alternate years was what I usually suggested from the Bench.

Sadly, that often pleased no-one.

Both parents had to see their beloved offspring on each and every December 25 or the world would come to an end.

That meant we were into splitting the Big Day, and finding a time and place for a handover around lunchtime. With no buses or trains on Christmas Day, that could involve setting up travel logistics of fiendish complexity.

Handing the youngsters over from one parent to the other at a petrol station or a supermarket is popular and realistic the rest of the year.

Not on Christmas Day, though: They are nearly all shut.

Sometimes a neutral family friend might kindly offer their home as a halfway venue to break up the journey and shorten each parent’s time at the wheel.

But all too often, parents and children had to endure long, dull drives round the M25, the Southend Arterial and the A12, when they could be having a far better time elsewhere.

Where it was appropriate, the young folk themselves were asked how they wanted to spend the festive days.

On the whole, their views were surprisingly flexible and pragmatic; so long as they saw everyone they loved, and got their presents, the details of times and places really didn’t matter too much.

Older and allegedly wiser folk, please take notice.

Now I am retired from the Bench, I am free to make this plea: If you are involved in settling where young people should spend the coming Christmas, please put them and their wishes first – even if it means giving up something important to you this time around.

For good or bad, youngsters have a way of remembering how they were treated at these special times. No-one wants to be remembered as Ebenezer Scrooge, the grown-up who spoiled Christmas. Not even me.