Last week was a big one for those of us desperate for change in the family courts. I hope you saw at least some of the exposure of how the courts are failing both children and parents.
On Wednesday, Victoria Derbyshire devoted her whole show to the problem of domestic abuse not being taken seriously, and in particular the four children who have died in the last five years as a result of court-ordered contact. It is well worth watching and if you missed it you can still catch it for the next couple of weeks here. If you don’t have time to watch all three programmes, the third one contains a good brief review of the first one.
I wrote to Victoria Derbyshire on Wednesday after seeing her programme. As one of the men on the show was from Families need Fathers and was complaining about all the mothers who stop contact by making false allegations, I thought people may be confused as to how we could have both mothers and fathers complaining at the same time. Victoria read out a couple of lines of my email on Thursday:
My clients are mainly mothers, but also fathers, and what I’ve come to realise is that it’s usually the abusive parent who wins in the family court. The difference is that the men are usually more physically violent and frightening, and can rape, whereas the women tend to be more subtle in their abuse. But ask any woman or child who has been abused, and most if not all will tell you that the emotional abuse was worse than the physical.
Women’s Aid were represented and complained about the “culture of contact at all costs”. You can watch the Thursday programme here.
Also last Wednesday, Louise Haigh MP asked for an independent inquiry into the family court during Prime Minister’s Question Time, following a letter sent to the Justice Secretary by over 120 MPs. It took Theresa May less than a minute to reject an inquiry out of hand: you can watch it here.
But it looked as though the House was fairly full so hopefully it at least raised some awareness where there may have been none before.
It all made the news as well, including an interview:
“I was completely naive about the family courts,” says Mary – not her real name. She has spent £130,000 in legal fees to try to protect her children. Her ex-partner has been awarded regular, unsupervised overnight contact with them. She says they have since come home with injuries – and she has taken them to A&E. “My solicitor told me, ‘Unless he’s beaten you black and blue, he’ll be deemed a good enough father. Don’t even bother trying.”
You can listen to the rest of Mary’s story here.
The advice Mary was given seems to me to be typical of that given to many clients by their lawyers. And whilst it’s true that the courts often take no notice of even very serious abuse, injuries and rapes, as well as abuse of the children themselves, I consider it bad advice not to even try to be heard. It seems to me that often the only way to get the right result in our family courts is to keep on and on returning to court and repeating the story until finally someone listens. And of course this needs to change.
Sir James Munby, former President of the Family Division, weighed in with his thoughts saying that it would be “very foolish” to ignore the findings that dozens of parents have told the Victoria Derbyshire programme that their abusive ex-partners were granted unsupervised contact with their child.
And then, surprisingly, on Tuesday this week we heard that the government has ordered an inquiry. It will be just a three month inquiry and since it’s to be made by the Ministry of Justice it will not be independent. I’m hoping it’s not just intended to distract the people who have suddenly woken up to what’s really happening in our family courts and make them think that something’s being done about it.
Although we’re not told when this inquiry might begin, the press release states that “a public call for evidence will be launched imminently and will look to those with direct involvement to share their experiences.” I hope it will be a very public call, which will be heard by many parents who have had dreadful experiences in the family courts, and not just the judges and lawyers working in them. But I fear the MoJ will carefully pick and choose who they listen to.
Victoria Derbyshire took it up again and had Louise Haigh back on her show who said “we need to know the full scale of the problem”. She also said that it will take serious resources to fix it (eg
bringing back legal aid) which is why the government does not want a proper enquiry, and she said “I don’t think the political will is there.” Which is depressing, but doubtless true.
I am very grateful to Victoria Derbyshire for all her investigations and for exposing how the family courts are failing children and abused women, and also to Louise Haigh for taking it up. I don’t know what the answer is but something has to change. I believe the vast majority of children cases in the family court involve abuse, or allegations of abuse, and the lawyers and judges dealing with these cases have insufficient knowledge and training to be able to work out which party is the perpetrator and who is the victim. It would seem to me that psychologists and psychiatrists would be better placed to be able to understand what was happening in these relationships, and how best to protect the children.
What I do know is that right now we have to keep the pressure up and keep the failings of the family court in the limelight. Please email your MP and ask if they are on the list supporting an independent inquiry into the family court, and if not why they are unwilling to support it. If you’ve been through family court and are unhappy with how your case was dealt with, please make an appointment to see your MP in their local surgery to make them aware and ask what they can do to help put your situation right.
I’m afraid I don’t hold out much hope that this little inquiry will achieve anything. My belief is that it will take the children (when they become adults) who’ve been so badly served by the family courts to speak out before anything will really change.
So if you have a child of 18 or over (or know someone else who does), who has been through the family court and is willing to speak out, please do let me know by email and I will do all I can to make sure they are heard.
I also hope to be able to write to the inquiry myself so please email me now with any comments about what went wrong for you and suggestions you may have for doing things better for both children and parents.
Our secret family court has been exposed at last!
You might also be interested in reading the 'Legal Structure of Divorce' a two-minute guide to divorce proceedings.