This Young Mother Is Banned by Law from Caring for Her Infant Son or Living with the Man She Loves. Her Crime? to Have Lost a Baby to Cot Death - and to Come before the Secretive and All-Powerful Family Courts. SPECIAL REPORT

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Byline: SUE REID

EVERY month, for four short hours, Nicky Underdown visits her two year old son Tommy. She walks him in the park or takes him to the beach.

Almost before she has said hello, it is time for the emotional goodbye.

Tommy is often close to tears. So is 25-year-old Nicky as she drives home, knowing that the child she adores is growing up without her.

She cannot see Tommy for long because of an extraordinary decision by a family court, against which there is little chance of appeal.

She cannot live with Tommy and his father Richard, 24, although they yearn to be a normal family. Instead, she is forced by a court order to live apart from the son and partner she loves for a reason that defies logic.

Three years ago, in a grave miscarriage of justice, Nicky was wrongly convicted of murdering her first child, William. The little boy was only 14 days old when he died at home in what Nicky has always maintained was a tragic cot death.

By the time her life sentence was judged unsafe at the Court of Appeal, and a retrial had exonerated her, Nicky had spent 14 months in jail. She had also given birth to the couple's second son, Tommy, who had been taken from her on the day he was born.

It was a horrendous experience for any mother. But when Nicky was freed after being judged innocent, she hoped she would, at least, be able to fulfil her dream of becoming a doting mother to her second child at home with Richard.

Yet that dream was crushed in the family courts, where it was ruled that - although Nicky had been cleared of any wrongdoing in William's death - she would still be denied all but token access to baby Tommy.

AND, as Tommy lives with Richard, she must also live apart from the man she hopes to marry, or risk having their son taken into care. For both parents, in homes a few miles apart in a south coast town, it is an agonising situation.

Their only hope rests with the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth, who is preparing to fight Nicky's case at the European Court of Human Rights.

The case will put a spotlight on Britain's powerful and secretive family courts, through which thousands of children have been taken from their homes and farmed out to foster parents, or adopted, on the basis of evidence from 'experts' and social workers.

Here, the solid cornerstone of our legal system - that you are innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt - does not apply.

In such cases, there is no jury to weigh the evidence, only lone judges who make decisions based on the balance of probability. And crucially, as in Nicky Underdown's case, the outcome of earlier criminal court trials is often ignored.

The courts' culture of secrecy - sternly policed with the commendable aim of protecting children's identities - means there is no public scrutiny of the often heartbreaking proceedings. Those who protest are threatened with contempt and even imprisonment.

NICKY UNDERDOWN is a bright, articulate former nurse.

In prison she became a friend of Sally Clark, the solicitor who was also found guilty of infanticide, before being cleared by the Court of Appeal this year.

Together, the two women would pore over legal documents as they waited for the appeals which would eventually clear them both.

Like that of Sally Clark, Nicky's tale is one that you can scarcely believe in a modern, democratic nation.

The tragedy began when Nicky and Richard's first baby was born at Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport, near Manchester, on July 14, 1999.

The couple had been delighted by the pregnancy, and when Nicky began having labour pains, they drove excitedly to the maternity wing. Nicky's labour was long and tiring. As the hours wore on, a paediatrician became worried that the strain might be harming the unborn child.

So, to hasten the delivery, a suction cap was applied to the baby's head and he was pulled out into the world. …