A few snacks in case your inner geek is starving

So, I’ve been collecting a few snackettes, a few tasty morsels from the back of the walk in pantry that is the FPR. Things in tins you had forgotten you had (ignore the best before date, they’ll be fine to use).

Firstly, FPR 12.26C, Extension of time limit : reasons for court’s decision

(1) When refusing or granting an extension of the period that is for the time being allowed under section 32(1)(a)(ii) in the case of the application, the court will announce its decision and –

(a) the reasons for that decision; and 

(b) where an extension is granted or refused, a short explanation of the impact which the decision would have on the welfare of the child.

 

Straw poll – does that always happen? (Clue : no).

Secondly, PRACTICE DIRECTION 14F – DISCLOSING INFORMATION TO AN ADOPTED ADULT (backing rule 14.18) – a whole procedure for adopted adults to use to get hold of papers in their case, including the application form for an adoption order (but not the documents attached to that form), the adoption order and any other orders relating to the adoption proceedings; orders allowing any person contact with the child after the adoption order was made, any transcript or written reasons of the court’s decision; a report made to the court by a children’s guardian, reporting officer or children and family reporter, a local authority or an adoption agency.

Increasingly courts are ordering transcripts for the purpose of them remaining on the file for a child to read when an adult, although there are some costs difficulties with this as the LAA often grumble and throw their toys out of their pram. HHJ Wildblood, DFJ in Bristol often remarks in his judgments that he has an increasing number of applications of this sort to deal with from adults who were once the subject of orders in his court. It is always worth remembering that the children we are dealing with now may come back in a decade or so wondering what on earth went on in the family court in 2017 and why they were separated from their family.

Thirdly, not yet in force, and not from the FPR, s9 of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which will amend the Adoption and Children Act 2002 enhanced welfare checklist to specifically require the court to have regard to a child’s relationship with prospective adopters. Personally i’m not sure it adds much, since prospective adopters fell to be considered under “other person” in that checklist anyway. But others take a different view. Also see s8 of that Act (also not yet in force) which I haven’t yet quite got my head around but which seems to me to amount to an Asda roll back to an earlier time in terms of the restrictions on what the court is to consider at final hearing in a care case :

Care orders: permanence provisions

In section 31 of the Children Act 1989 (care and supervision orders), for subsection (3B) substitute—

(3B)For the purposes of subsection (3A), the permanence provisions of a section 31A plan are—

(a)such of the plan’s provisions setting out the long-term plan for the upbringing of the child concerned as provide for any of the following—

(i)the child to live with any parent of the child’s or with any other member of, or any friend of, the child’s family;

(ii)adoption;

(iii)long-term care not within sub-paragraph (i) or (ii);

(b)such of the plan’s provisions as set out any of the following—

(i)the impact on the child concerned of any harm that he or she suffered or was likely to suffer;

(ii)the current and future needs of the child (including needs arising out of that impact);

(iii)the way in which the long-term plan for the upbringing of the child would meet those current and future needs.

I hope that your inner geek will be fortified for the week ahead by my little ploughmans board of delights. It’s amazing what you can make a meal out of…

I’m off for an almost-birthday lunch involving too much pizza and too many nieces and nephews high on fizzy pop.

Terrorism : all the fault of divorcees (apparently)

I read the headline in The Brief this morning as I got in the car to drive to chambers:

Family breakdown causes terrorism, says former judge 

I didn’t get much past the headline before I threw the phone on the passenger seat and decided to ignore it. And promptly spent the entire drive to Bristol seething. No prizes for guessing which controversial former judge is pontificating about family breakdown.

I sat in the car park and read the rest of the article, in the hope it was just an outrageously pimped headline. This is what I got :

Family breakdown in the UK has reached epidemic levels and is spawning crime and even terrorism, a former High Court judge has warned…there was a clear link between family instability and terrorism which ministers were failing to tackle through legislative measures. “Terrorists are all from appalling family backgrounds – Donald Trump was right: they tend to be losers with no ties and so they find their identity in groups of like-minded people; or suffer mental breakdown.”

Similarly, many people in prison came from broken homes, he said. “Family instability is at epidemic levels and the UK is at the top of the family instability league compared with other developed nations,” he said.

Children, he added in an exclusive interview with The Times, were those most severely affected by the epidemic, in which, he said, the collapse of families was at record levels. “Nearly half of all teenagers are not living with both their natural parents,” he said. “Teenage mental health issues, child abuse, domestic violence and abuse, the social care crisis, the housing crisis – every one is either primarily caused by or massively exacerbated by the scale of family breakdown.”….

This did not improve my mood. But I had to go and do some actual work so, having parked the car, I parked my reaction to this too…

The headline to the linked article is : Sir Paul Coleridge: If I had stayed as a family High Court judge I would have had to keep quiet.

In that article Sir Paul is quoted as saying “If we don’t address the root causes [of family breakdown], we can throw money at family breakdown until the cows come home, but it would be like trying to deal with typhoid and not sorting out the dirty water.”

Now you can call me a snowflake if you like, but it’s really really offensive to see the people I work with, not to mention my friends, my family – all described as diseased, as being responsible for making their children into criminals and terrorists by virtue of the simple fact that their relationship has not stood the test of time. The headline may belong to the newspaper, but the words in quotation marks all belong to Coleridge. For a former High Court Judge he is remarkably cavalier with words. The language of disease, the rangy generalisations : terrorists are ALL from appalling family backgrounds? REALLY? I’m pretty sure there is absolutely no evidence base for such a sweeping assertion. This is blatant reverse engineering for the purposes of spin, on a grand and revolting scale.

On this leaping logic we should lock up (quarantine?) all the children of separated parents and all the separated parents themselves. Because they are responsible for all the social ills that beset us.

Ironic then that this former High Court Judge should place reliance upon the opinion of Donald Trump, a man who is thrice married with five children, some of whom hold positions of influence and responsibility in the Whitehouse. Goodness only knows what terrible things these children of a twice divorced man might be capable if we were to accept Coleridge’s judgment.

 

The theatre of legalese? Oh, please…

If you’re anything like me this headline got your hackles right up :

‘Is the theatre of the family courts – where legalese often takes over – really helpful?’

No, thunk I. It’s not helpful. But it’s also fictional. Who is this “young social worker” said to be “reflect[ing] on their first experiences in the courtroom”? I had my special patronising eye rolls at the ready.

But then I read it. And he has a point. Because, hackneyed and stereotyped as the headline may be, this young social worker was not speculating, but describing his actual experience (yes, yes the clue was in the strapline I quoted above).

He describes lawyers asking “multi-layered questions peppered with jargon”, wondering if there is a better way. Cringe. Yes, there is a better way – and most decent advocates know it. This should not be how it is in court.

None of us are perfect of course, though I have to observe that the social work profession may need to look at its own use of jargon sometimes too…it is quite difficult not to use jargon when asking questions about the jargon laden reports we are challenging.

Our young social worker goes on, with more descriptions straight from the Dummies Guide to Bad Advocacy :

Often under this questioning it feels that legalese takes over and facts and truth are distorted. Questions such as ‘It is right isn’t it that if we consider X, then Y must be true’ and ‘It is not the case is it, that this actually happened, and your version of said events was in fact false, yes?’.

Oh dear. We aren’t covering ourselves in glory here, are we? At least nobody said “I poot it too yoo…”. If this is an accurate account of the sort of questioning that is happening, we really need to give ourselves a detention.

I’m less sympathetic with the complaint that barristers were “targeting [his] relative lack of experience in years practising to discredit and unsettle” him. Whilst one shouldn’t do it just for laughs, it IS a legitimate line of questioning – and one which I have used on occasion to devastating effect – most often when a young social worker is dumped with something way beyond their competence. This is sometimes necessary. And it isn’t done just for theatre or for kicks. I can quite understand though, that the experience described of a barrister “wrongly surmising in her submission that [the social worker] was both younger than the parents and would in effect struggle to understand parenting” would leave the social worker feeling insulted.

Where I part company with the author of this piece is his criticism here :

I’ve also seen barristers chat and laugh about their private and social lives in the courtroom while families look on, unsure about whether this is correct or not. I felt it was a little farcical.

I’ve seen some insensitive lawyers, some insensitive judges and some insensitive social workers in my time. There is a need to have your antenna up. But I think that the idea that we should pretend we don’t have lives or children, and must completely compartmentalise our lives is naive and misplaced. Firstly, from a selfish point of view this is our workplace, day in and day out. And yes, in the moments between evidence we do sometimes exchange chit chat about the stuff that happens when we are not in court. The job we do is not often fun, and it’s important to retain some semblance of a normal life when possible. But more importantly, it’s also important to allow clients to see that those involved in the system that is scrutinising their lives are human too. And patronising to think they should be shielded by us being barred from normal social interactions. There is a limit of course – some things shared would be upsetting, some are just private and none of anybody’s business. So it’s important not to overshare, and to be alert to inappropriate hilarity or unprofessional remarks. But clients often want to know and are reassured by knowing that I have a normal life too, that I’ve got kids at home, that I understand its tough being a parent because I have my own home crises too. And a little light relief in a trial situation can often make the unbearable just about bearable – can soften the edges of the formal, adversarial court process that the social worker is complaining of. Clients often appreciate a bad joke or some banal chat about whats on the news or some trivial matter. The social worker says that in the court environment “you can share little, or no, communication often because of the context”. Yes the context is different, but the need to communicate as humans remains, and the court process doesn’t prevent that. Whilst clients may think it odd if opposing lawyers are too pally, it is not necessary to behave like sworn enemies throughout the proceedings. It isn’t a theatre, and we don’t have to stay “in character”.

Finally, he muses about the impact of the court process on the ability to work collaboratively with families :

In social work it is important to be collaborative and work in partnership with families. Is court a place where this could ever happen? How could one work towards the removal of a child, yet work in collaboration if it is done against the parents’ wishes?

And here I think he is muddling up two things : it is not the court environment which makes it a hard task for a social worker to achieve a collaborative relationship with parents : It is a feature of the coercive role a child protection social worker is required to play. I hope it isn’t too patronising to say to this young social worker : that’s life in child protection social work – it is very difficult to be their chum when you are asking to take away their kids. That is a hard burden to carry when you are young, passionate and idealistic and your motivation is to help families and children – but it isn’t the fault of the court or the lawyers.

For all that though, this article is a reminder that we could all do better to make the court experience less jarring, less discombobulating – more humane – for all those participating in it. Whether the participants are frightened and hostile parents, inexperienced social workers or anyone else. And from what this young man is describing we lawyers could usefully reflect on our own language and behaviour, and continue to work on it. It may not be a theatre, but there are always others watching our performance.