HMCTS / MoJ Guidance for separated parents

Having written a guide for litigants in person in family courts some time ago I have been waiting, post LASPO, for the MoJ to catch up. So I was interested to see that HMCTS have produced a new leaflet CB7 “Guide for Separated Parents: Children and the Family Courts” that is now appearing in some (but not all) courts. It provides a link to the MoJ You Tube Playlist “Guides for separated parents”.

This comes almost a year after I asked for permission to film in a court to produce a series of short information videos myself – a request which was never substantively responded to in spite of chasing. Hey ho. Any help for LiPs is good news. But how much difference is this new bundle of HMCTS help likely to make? My view, having laboured hard over my effort, is that genuinely helpful material is actually really hard to get right – and drafting has to be very tight to avoid introducing confusion and consequently doing more harm than good.

The leaflet has the Plain English Crystalmark which is encouraging. The problem is that law is not plain English and making something simple is not equivalent to making it accurate. Stripping away jargon is one thing, but it still has to convey the correct meaning. So, it is slightly disturbing to see a definition in the leaflet of a Litigant in Person as “someone who goes to court without a solicitor”. Call me a pedant, but people attend court without solicitors ALL THE TIME. They are witnesses or they are parties who are routinely represented by counsel (or legal execs). They are not Litigants in Person.

This may seem petty – but it is actually quite important. Not least because it diverts “Litigants in Person” (for which read “people who can’t get legal aid any more”) from an important alternative option – direct access to the bar. Reading CB7 it is as if one can have no advice or representation except through and by solicitors. When CB7 says “solicitor” it really means “lawyer”. I imagine the Bar Council, if it were aware of the leaflet, would take issue with this cutting out of the bar from the official guidance material. It is a missed opportunity to signpost.

And the videos. Oh, the videos. It is unfair I suppose to criticize the hap happy /beauty-spa-style-relaxing musical background, but it is pretty dire. But it was that or Radiohead I suppose, so let’s put the elevator music aside.

There are a series of 4 videos, “Family Mediation”, “Making your application to court”, “Attending the first hearing”, and “Attending a full hearing”.

The mediation film is a pastel coloured cartoon involving level headed birds notably not pulling their jointly owned worm in two, with uplifting music. There is no mention of lawyers in the video, notwithstanding the fact that financial agreements reached in mediation will often need to be drafted and lodged with the assistance of lawyers to be made binding. Whilst it warrants only a brief mention in a video of this sort, it does in my view warrant a mention.

The latter 3 videos feature an Asian woman (presumably mum) and a white male (presumably dad). In the course of the three videos, and within each of the videos, the parties appear unrepresented, represented (by different advocates), in a Circuit Judges court room, a district judge’s chambers (before the same judge) and – in the course of the same hearing it seems, according to the voiceover – before a bench of magistrates (who are described as “Judges” – which they are not). Beautiful as the shots of the exterior and interior of the lovely Barnet County Court were (I shed a nostalgic tear recalling some of my trials as a baby barrister there, including one particularly fierce b*llocking from a Circuit Judge in the very courtroom featured), I found the footage impossible to follow – and not at all an aid to an understanding of the voiceover (which one would assume is the point of choosing video as a medium).

At times it appears as if the Father is represented, and it is not without viewing and reviewing that I was able to infer that the woman who is sometimes sat beside him is probably meant to be a CAFCASS officer (I’m still not sure). Oddly, the Father does not bring his McKenzie friend into court.

Perhaps a Litigant in Person would not notice these things; perhaps it would pass them by in the haze of procedural confusion that many Litigants in Person struggle to cope in – but it is pretty ironic that whilst the voiceover reminds people not to behave as they have seen lawyers behave in tv dramas these videos are guilty of even more heinous legal continuity errors than Kavanagh. And aren’t these videos meant to be an attempt to use visual medium to clarify the process – who is who, and who sits where are actually important sources of confusion and anxiety for Litigants in Person.

And moreover (although I have no idea if this was scripted) the actors wore rather odd expressions – the Mother looking mightily naffed off throughout as the judge evidently made orders she did not like, the Father (sat directly opposite the Mother at times) smiling rather creepily and generally looking a bit smarmy. As the series moves on the videos appear to be focused primarily on the male Litigant in Person – the Mother seems represented throughout whilst the Father is in person. It is interesting but not surprising that this directorial choice was made: For sure it is most likely to be men who are in person post LASPO, (although significant numbers of women will be in the same situation), but the overall impression created is of a rather an unimaginative view and an over reliance on stereotyping, which is unfortunately consistent with the MoJ website which inferred that legal aid is only available to female victims of dv (now corrected).

There is a section in the videos about McKenzie friends. This too is not strictly accurate. It gives the impression that anyone who attends court with a Litigant in Person is a “McKenzie friend” and that they can also come into court. The correct way to explain this would be to state that a Litigant is entitled to bring anyone to court as it is a public building, and they may communicate information about the proceedings to a friend for the purpose of seeking confidential support or advice (Rule) but that they cannot bring the friend into court without permission. A friend permitted to come into court and support – but not represent – is called a McKenzie friend. The “Mckenzie friend” featured in the video never comes into court.

Inexplicably, there is no reference in any of the videos to the availability of legal aid in d.v. or child protection cases, except a reference to the possibility of legal aid for mediation. There is no signposting at all for those who are victims of domestic abuse either towards a legal aid solicitor or to other agencies. There is a perfect opportunity to include such signposting when referring to the C1A allegations of harm in the “Applications” video – and if nothing else, viewers could have been pointed to the (now accurate) eligibility summary page on the Justice website.

All in all, these videos have to be a positive contribution to the materials available to Litigants in Person dealing with family matters. For all my criticisms it is easy to pick holes in hindsight, and I’m sure I would have made some errors had I been let loose on my own video. But even ignoring my counsel of perfection they are only a tiny sticking plaster on a very big problem. And they have only 182 views (a large proportion of which were probably down to me trying to work out what the hell was going on in them).

8 thoughts on “HMCTS / MoJ Guidance for separated parents

  1. There is also no caution to dads that they will be routinely assaulted by the authorities, investigated in all manner on the flimsiest grounds at the taxpayer’s expense, told that they are too incompetent to be a parent, threatened with gagging orders if they try to talk to anyone, made to pay through the nose for crappy legal advice, and insulted with fortnightly contact at the end of five years of emotional violence perpetrated by the state against dad and his children.

    There are innumerable things that have been left out Familoo. Why pick on a couple of things only?

  2. Article 8: Right to privacy

    (1) Everyone has the right for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

    (2) There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others
    ANYONE would think that those who drafted this
    Article 8 did so to protect families against intrusion by the State.
    But NO! Our UK judges interpret it to protect the State against parents who wish to protest to the media when their children are taken by the State.
    Whether laws are written in legal jargon or plain English the judges always interpret them in accordance with their own political or moral views even when the result is exactly opposite to that intended by those who drafted the law in the first place !
    So much for democracy ……….

  3. The myths like these propaganda pieces portray need to be shown up for what they are. A neat little counter-propaganda piece video perhaps, to show the reality of what family breakdown actually is, at least for fathers.

    Non-mols dished out like Smarties, exclusion orders, living in bedsits, summary police arrest on bogus allegations, confinement to Gulags for “child contact”, the concept of the alternate weekend “contact” father, established by twenty years plus of legal precedent – it all needs to go in. Plus of course the contempt held by the legal profession itself for “bag lady” LIPs with their plastic bag.

  4. Paul is part right on one point.

    The “yardstick of equality” should replace the concept of “needs” as the starting point in all ancillary relief claims, not just where there is big money around. If sale and equal distribution would make children homeless, then the norm should be Mesher – which means serial hardship, first him then her. At least the former homeowner now in a bedsit could look forward to a payour when the children are older.

    And yes, I mean Mesher, not Martin.

  5. I am right on all my points, Andrew. UK family law, along with many aspects of wider law and social policy towards separated fathers and fatherhood generally, is nothing short of a hidden disgrace. Those government-sponsored videos are nothing more than propaganda pieces which cover up the bitter realities of what a private law application can end up meaning for someone who is an otherwise ordinary, normal bloke.

    Contact centres are appropriately termed Gulags in my view. For most separated fathers they are no more than a state-sponsored instrument of punishment and oppression. Normal fathers should stick two fingers up and refuse to use them, as I am pleased to say I did, and judges should think no worse of people who do so.

  6. “I am right on all my points, Andrew.”

    And modest with it.

  7. …hmmm anything officially sponsored does tend to fall woefully short (restraint being shown there). It doesn’t help when you have a form for one application and the judges go on a “FPR 4.1 & FPR 4.3 legal mystery tour of family law”…because that god forbid would imply some kind of service, who does actually serve who?…and how can a judge KNOW the direction of proceedings before the submission of evidence, even jedi can’t tell the future!

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