In his own inimitable style, this month's exclusive article from Family Law Blogger John Bolch examines family law courts and cases and how family justice always seems to be under criticism. Whether this is justified or unjustified (the Cansford jury is out on this one), his post will certainly make you think...
Comment is free (unless you're paid and verified on X/Twitter), but facts are sacred...
For reasons I have long since forgotten, I run a ‘service’ on Twitter (I refuse to call it ‘X’) that provides readers with links to the latest family law news and cases. The service has over 15,000 followers, all of whom presumably have some interest in the family justice system. Many of them are lawyers and other professionals who work in the system, but many are also ‘lay people’, who have acquired an interest for some other reason, often their own experiences of the system.
The service regularly receives comments from users. The comments from lawyers are usually of the ‘serious legal commentary’ type, but those from non-lawyers can often be, shall we say, less than favourable towards the family justice system and those who work within it.
I refer to the latter commenters as the “corrupt family courts brigade”, and usually deal with them by copious use of Twitter’s mute and ‘leave this conversation’ functions.
Sadly, dealing with such critics of the system is not quite so easy in the real world.
And despite the best efforts of (at least some of those) within the system, the attacks upon it keep coming.
The BBC joins in...
Last month the BBC joined in, with a documentary encouragingly entitled “Mums On The Run: Failed By The Family Court”.
The documentary tells the story of abused mothers who claim that their children have been forced by the courts to have contact with their abusive fathers. This, and the effect of the experience upon the health of the mothers, has driven some of them to flee the family justice system entirely, seeking refuge in northern Cyprus, which is not a signatory to The Hague Convention on Child Abduction, and which has no extradition agreement with the UK.
The documentary referenced a study led by University of Manchester researchers involving 45 women who accused their partners of domestic abuse. The study highlighted serious health problems that the women claim to have suffered as a result, they say, of “biased family court proceedings”.
This conclusion of bias was confirmed by lead researcher, Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno, who said that the courts tend to side with male perpetrators of abuse, by accepting their allegations of parental alienation. She put this bias down to lack of training for judges and court professionals around coercive control and domestic abuse, and a culture of misogyny and woman and victim-blaming which is prevalent in society.
I’m pretty sure that judges, many of whom are of course of the female persuasion, do receive this kind of training, but when even respected academics say the courts are biased, then we can see just how prevalent dissatisfaction with the family justice system is.
Transparency failed (could it ever succeed?)...
Contrary to what some would no doubt tell you, the family justice system is not, of course, deaf to criticism. In fact, it has been endeavouring for years to respond to it.
Most notably back in 2014 the then President of the Family Division Sir James Munby issued his now (in)famous ‘Transparency Guidance’ aimed at opening up the workings of the family courts, in response to the charge that it is a “system of secret and unaccountable justice.”
The guidance aimed to vastly increase the number of family judgments that were published, to enable the public to see how the courts work, in the (forlorn?) hope that this would reduce misunderstanding, and thereby increase confidence in the system.
The guidance has not been entirely successful. There was an increase in the number of published judgments, especially initially, but judicial enthusiasm has since waned. Just recently it was reported that one fifth of judgments are missing from the new National Archives database, with “the main laggard” being the Family Division of the High Court, where only 26% of judgments are posted on the day.
Another more recent initiative is ‘legal blogging’, whereby lawyers are allowed to attend some family hearings and report upon what they see, subject to certain restrictions.
Again, the initiative has not been a great success, with many complaining about how few legal bloggers have bothered to take part. This is not at all surprising, given that the bloggers are not paid for blogging, and have to spend most of their time making a living doing their ‘real jobs’.
But ultimately one has to ask whether transparency could ever succeed. The views of the “corrupt family courts brigade”, for example, are so entrenched that no amount of transparency would ever be likely to persuade them to moderate their stance.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the family justice system will always be the subject of criticism, from the mild to the manic, and there is nothing that can be done to change that.