Parents are occasionally told by social or Cafcass workers, or even their lawyers, to ‘play the game’. Not surprisingly, they are usually horrified to hear their trauma of going through the family court called a game. Worse still, no-one ever tells them the rules of the game.
If you’re going through court it’s always best to have a strategy and to consider what moves you’re going to make, so to that extent it is like a game. And I’m afraid many lawyers do treat it like a game, and some play it by annoying, harassing, threatening or embarrassing their opponent. Because that’s what you are, our legal system is adversarial, even the family court, and it plays right to the strengths of people who enjoy the drama: it’s a great game which the system enables them to play to win, rather than doing what’s best for the children.
Talking of drama, it might help you to think of the court room as a stage, and all the people there as putting on a performance. Many of the lawyers, and maybe your ex too, will be doing just that anyway and … if you can’t beat them, join them. Think of yourself as an actor, and play the part of the most powerful and persuasive person you can think of.
Although most barristers enjoy the drama and are supposed to be there to fight for you some will do anything to get you to reach an agreement with your ex and go home early. The judge wants to do the same so you need to insist on a proper hearing and the evidence being heard, even though you want to go home even more than they do.
If you’ve been in an abusive relationship a useful prop you can request for your own performance on the family court stage is a screen. This will not only protect you from your ex’s stares and having to see him, it will be a constant visual reminder to the judge of your fear and make it more likely they will believe what you say you’ve been through.
Misperceptions about the family court
“This is meant to be justice, where you’re supposed to tell the truth” is what people seem to think will happen in the family court.
The Secret Barrister is still on my reading list but one of the reviews I read talks about British justice being the envy of the world. It may well have been once upon a time and, unless you’ve been caught up in it, you’d have no reason to know how much it’s changed. The reviewer goes on to say “…. years of cuts, complacency and incompetence at higher levels have undermined the system of justice and turned it into little more than a lottery. Reading it, you will be heartily glad that you may never be in court: it certainly won’t assure you if you are!” The Secret Barrister is about the criminal courts but the above applies equally to the family courts: they are not good places to be these days.
The court will protect me and my children
It will, if you’re lucky enough to win that particular lottery. But the court may equally well help your ex to continue the abuse you’ve already suffered and make things worse, rather than better, for you and your children. The court operates on the assumption that a child needs both parents in their life and it’s very hard to fight against the culture of “contact at all costs” no matter how dreadfully a father has behaved. (There appear to be different rules for mothers who are expected to be pretty well perfect.)
Also, our legal system allows an abusive parent to drag their victim back to court for many years. They will take you to court for contact with the children and if they get contact, they will take you back to court quite quickly to get more contact, or to complain you’ve not been allowing the contact. Then they’ll take you back to court again, maybe for shared care. Once the case has finished, they’ll be back applying for something else, over and over again. The more success they have with this tactic, the more times they will use the court to continue their control over your life.
The court does have the power to make an order barring a parent from making further applications but this is rarely used and even when it is, the order is often made against both parents, not just the one who keeps returning the case to court.
If you do manage to get truth or justice from the family court, you’re one of the lucky ones.
The truth is the judge has far too many cases in her list and wants you out of her court room as soon as possible. Judges are lawyers and they want to deal with cold facts, figures and logic, not emotions. Nevertheless, they don’t always hold fact finding hearings when they should, either because they don’t have time or because they don’t think the abuse a parent or child has suffered is important, or relevant. This is another problem: judges have far too little training in domestic abuse and no understanding of personality disorders. I believe a high percentage of children cases these days, which aren’t quickly settled, involve a parent with a personality disorder as I cannot think that two mentally healthy parents would subject themselves to the awful experience of the family court if they didn’t absolutely have to.
As all the personality disorders involve at least an element of narcissism for ease of reference I will refer to narcissists, and to men as it is said that more men than women are narcissists, although I’m not convinced that’s true. (And please don’t ever mention the word narcissist in court, it won’t go down well!)
Avoid being labelled a ‘high conflict case’
When parents each make allegations against each other and can’t agree about anything, it’s often referred to as a ‘high conflict case’. Judges have no idea which parent is telling the truth and they don’t have the time or resources to find out so tend to come to the conclusion that both parents are as bad as each other and equally to blame. Judges are not usually interested in what’s happened in the past or how you’ve been treated, they don’t have time to care like they used to, they just want to force you into an agreement or draw a line down the middle between you and move on.
A narcissistic parent’s aim is to get you to engage but when the healthy parent takes the bait and reacts, the result is “he said, she said” which appears to the court as high conflict. And once this label is applied, it’s almost impossible to turn it around. So don’t play their game, ignore their allegations against you and don’t get drawn in. The problem is that the truth is important to you, and you want everyone to know he’s lying, but this emotional response is your weakness. And your ex knows your vulnerability, because you’ve argued with him about his ‘truths’ in the past.
If you absolutely have to respond to a lie, all you need say is ‘that’s not true’ or ‘I disagree with your version of events’. The more you get pulled in to where he wants to put you, the further you get from where you need to be and your own case. So keep your eye on the ball and don’t get distracted, it’s key to winning a game on any court!
As well as lying about you, he’ll lie about himself and when he’s telling the court what a brilliant dad he is you’ll be wanting to scream that he’s never been a parent to his children. But that doesn’t work, so don’t do it. Poker is the game to play here: don’t let even a flicker of emotion cross your face. He will remain calm throughout and the more emotional you get the more likely you are to be considered ‘unstable’ and cause the focus to be put onto you, when it’s not you who’s the problem. The calmer you are, the more he will fall apart. So let him lie as much as he likes which will give him every possible opportunity to trip himself up later.
You too can play the long game (narcissists are very good at this) and give him enough rope to hang himself. Sadly this may take more than one lot of court proceedings, sometimes the long game can be long indeed. You won’t get far trying to prove his untruths yourself, so it’s far better to get him to expose his own lies by showing that what he says and what he does are two different things. A narcissist is manipulative and flies under the radar which means you have to prepare your case well, so keep a list of his lies, and his actions which are the opposite. Also make sure you scrupulously keep all the evidence and, awful though it is, photograph the state your children come back in, and get someone else to video traumatic handovers. Make notes of everything that happens, everything the children say, and make sure it’s all dated, as that’s your best hope of eventually being believed by the court.
Inflate the narcissist, then burst his bubble
The way you expose him is to fight a narcissist like a narcissist ie fight fire with fire, in the way they manipulate. When they say something negative about you they say it as though they care, eg “she’s a good mum, and I want my family to be together but she has a mental health problem” or “unfortunately she’s not willing to allow me to take my responsibility as a parent”. He sets you up with praise and then slams you down, and you can ask your barrister to do the same to him in cross-examination, to show that his words and actions are not on the same page.
If he talked about how important both mother and father are to the children and how much he wanted to be in their lives, and how it should be 50/50, your barrister can start by asking questions he’ll be happy to answer such as “is it right that it’s the responsibility of both parents to care for the children?” and “is it true that you want to be with the children 50/50?” etc and then take him off guard by asking things like “isn’t it true that you’ve done little or nothing with your children to date?” and “is it true you’ve not paid any child maintenance”. Hopefully this will bring his anger out, which is what you want the court to see, as well as that his actions are not in line with his words.
The truth, the whole truth … or economical with the truth?
Truth does not always prevail: the more you try to expose a narcissist the less people believe you, so act as if it doesn’t touch you, don’t defend yourself or point the finger. The more you try to point the finger negatively at the other parent the worse the court will view you. And if you do that, it’s very easy to find the victim and abuser roles have been reversed, so don’t join a game you can’t win.
Like judges, Cafcass workers are not educated in personality disorders and most have no experience of working with victims of domestic violence or child abuse, and are easily manipulated. Because of the way they talk narcissists manipulate the truth and the way they do it is more effective than the truth itself and Cafcass frequently side with the abuser. And it’s not unknown for them to lie too.
It’s often best if you limit the information you give and always calculate your words and keep them largely devoid of emotion. An abuser will often try to convince the court that you are the abuser and he is the victim and will paint the picture of you as being the unreasonable and unfair one. If a professional person doesn’t ask you for specific information don’t volunteer it. Always talk about how the abuse affects the children rather than how it affects you, because if they become aware of how you are upset or traumatised by it they can use that against you to support the abuser’s narrative that you are unstable. This is especially true if you don’t have evidence of the things you know they did, and an abuser can use that to claim that you are the abuser, unstable and a liar. They can also use it as evidence of parental alienation and in some cases mothers lose residence of their children as a result.
Cafcass and judges want both parents to “get along” and frequently blame the protective parent for the problems. They expect you to get on because that’s what most separated parents do, sooner or later. They are incompetent to recognise that your ex does not come into the category of “most” parents and that you are never going to be able to “get along” with them and so they fail to take the robust action that is needed in these cases.
Try not to be so concerned about the truth: that’s not what the family court is about. These days it’s a desperate place to be, and desperate situations call for desperate measures. If your ex is playing dirty, how is it going to benefit you – and, more importantly, your children – to play by the rules? What is the destination you’re aiming for when you take the moral high ground? You have a choice – you can do the right thing, or you can play to win.
A good question to ask yourself is: ‘will this work?’ rather than ‘is this right?’.
If you have any questions, comments, or tips to pass on to other readers, please do get in touch below.