Well, you did ask

This is a funny sort of book review. I’m not going to tell you the name of the book or the author. It is in fact an anonymised book review of an already anonymised book which was ghost written on behalf of a father previously involved in lengthy family court proceedings in the County and High Courts. The book tells the story of his relationship, the birth of his son, the breakdown of that relationship and ensuing battles both in and out of court. Ultimately, awesomely lengthy proceedings result in alienation of child from father. However if I told you the name of the book or the pseudonym of the author I’d have to kill you. And we wouldn’t want that. So I’m going to call him Mr Pseudonym.

anonymous, courtesy of Matt Westervelt on Flickr

anonymous, courtesy of Matt Westervelt on Flickr

I have been hounded repeatedly for this review by the representative of what appears to be some self publishing promotional service employed by Mr Pseudonym  – have I read it yet, would I like to interview the author, can he write me a guest post? So lady, here’s the review. And thanks but no thanks to the other stuff.

First of all let me explain why I’m not going to tell you the name of the book or the Mr Pseudonym’s pseudonym. The reasons are fourfold:

  1. I wouldn’t do such a thing to you, my loyal readers. If you knew what it was called I fear you would feel compelled to seek it out. You would thank me, if only you could understand just how excruciating a read it was. If there wasn’t already a law against it (see 3) I would be saying there should be.
  2. Whilst I am not shy of saying what I think, I have no particular desire to publicly humiliate another human being, let alone one self evidently suffering from the anguish of a lengthy and acrimonious family dispute, and the loss of a child.
  3. Whilst it may have escaped the author, the publisher (a US self publishing house) and the many many international distributors who are offering this book for sale online (Amazon, WHSmith, Barnes & Noble to name but a few), there are (as I see it) some legal problems with the publication of this book. Of which more below.
  4. Even if I’m wrong about the legal problems I am uncomfortable with the extent to which the privacy of the ex Mrs Pseudonym and the parties’ child is being invaded, and the possible impact this book might have on them were it to become known to them. I want no part in that. Sadly, this limits the extent to which I am able to quote the more exquisitely awful passages.

So why publish a review at all? The reasons are also fourfold:

  1. I have dedicated a significant number of hours of my life to reading this book, when I could have been poking my eye with a sharp stick or watching X Factor. At least if I can get a blog post out of it this time will not have been entirely wasted.
  2. The legal issue itself is an interesting one and one which other would be campaigning novelists – and publishers – should be mindful of.
  3. I have a theory that the author of the book (or possibly the ghost writer) was under a bet to get the most number of instances of the word “nipple” in one novel. This has inspired me to adopt the same approach in my blogging. That’s 1 “nipple” and counting (2 now).
  4. The writing is dire and the proof reading non-existant, one might say ghostly. I need to purge, exorcise the ghost writing if you will.

This book purports to be both a “real life story” and a novel. It doesn’t know if it is Arthur or Martha (what are the odds of the parties in fact being called Arthur and Martha in real life I wonder?).  It is very obviously an account of real life events from the perspective on an individual right in the thick of those events, and largely based on scarcely revised diaries compiled by that person. This much is evident from the frequent slippage into the first person mid-sentence and back again, that one can only assume the “professional ghost writer” neglected to notice or inserted deliberately as some kind of post-ironic uber-clever literary device (I’m being ironic there). And from the entirely random detail (techniques for animal husbandry and dairy production in the main) that interrupts the telling of the story and that serves no narrative purpose. It is either an emblematic motif or a lack of perspective, the latter seeming most likely.

A rather more troubling symptom of the identity crisis from which this book suffers is the insertion into the diary narrative of self-evidently fictional chapters written from the perspective of the ex-wife, detailing conversations and actions which the real Mr Pseudonym cannot, on his own account, have been privy to or aware of. These chapters are his retrospective imaginings as to what machinations and evil schemes ex Mrs Pseudonym was cooking up, slotted nonchalantly into the telling of this “real life story” as if they were fact. Telling your own story is one thing, but telling her story through the prism of your bitterness is another. It makes for an unintentionally unreliable narrator.

Rumpole, courtesy of John C Abell on flickr

Rumpole, courtesy of John C Abell on flickr

And of course, the law and legal procedure is all wrong. There are numerous accounts of advice apparently given by lawyers, most of it is garbage or utterly incomprehensible. To give but one example, a lawyer advises the anonymous protagonist that a parent can’t make an application for contact until they’ve issued a divorce petition and he would have to include a residence application in the divorce petition if he thought he might want to make such an application further down the line. That is of course advice that not even the most minimally competent family lawyer would ever give, and there are many such examples of misunderstandings, misinterpretation or misremembering of advice given, and of legal events and sequences, something which is not uncommon for clients involved in such disputes but which is indicative of the impossibility of them giving a full or objective account. It was like watching a legal drama, where one inevitably spends much of it saying “Well, that wouldn’t happen in real life” every five minutes, but much much worse. Of course it is possible that this is an accurate account of very bad advice, and if so I hope said lawyer is no longer in practice. But it is entirely commonplace for those in my line of work to hear distorted versions of advice given by laypersons who have not fully grasped the legal nuances, or who are prone to hearing what they want to hear, so you will forgive my skepticism.

Back to the point: that’s a #FAIL on the “real life story” criterion then.

So, how does it fare on the “novel” front? It would be wrong to mince my words: it was unutterably awful as a piece of writing, ghost writer or not. Not apparently proof read, nor edited, and not written I’m afraid with any skill. No particular structure or balance is evident (half the book is taken up getting to the starting point i.e. the relationship breakdown and by that point the writer has run out of steam and just resorts to regurgitating a chronology of legal proceedings, hearings, orders, breaches, legal costs interspersed with a superficial critique of the family justice system. This is an odd contrast with the heady romance of the first half, which is liberally sprinkled with nipples). Cliches, hackneyed phrases, repetitive use of language. Hyberbole without drama. Typos, inconsistencies, reference to events or people who had not previously been introduced so nothing made sense, skipping backwards and forwards in the timeline without markers (no, not a flashback, just poorly planned writing). And the sex scenes….O…M…G… Me and my mate used to steal a peek at my Grandma’s Mills & Boon when we were kids. We’d try and find the sexy bits before she came back into the room. I didn’t think I would ever read anything more excruciating, but I have, thanks to Mr Pseudonym and his nipple infatuation. The first half of the book (which covers the meeting, the early days of the romance and the relationship up to its breakdown) is littered with sex scenes. Now call me an old prude, but in a novel which is about the injustices of the family justice system it is not necessary to give detailed accounts of who did what to whose nipples, although perhaps it was felt this would afford a little light relief to the intended (male?) audience? I do not know if the irony in the oft made allegation by Mrs Pseudonym that Mr Pseudonym only thinks about one thing was intentional, but it was exquisite.

It’s a shame really. I don’t doubt that there is the subject matter there for a compelling account to be written by someone. But such a task is very difficult for the person caught up in the events themselves, and requires a combination of writing skill, passion and objectivity. And there are important points of public interest, sadly not as well articulated as they might be.

So, onto the little legal difficulty.

This book contains an enormous amount of detail about the proceedings and about the lives of the parties. It gives a high degree of geographical specificity and the employment backgrounds and business careers of the parties are highly specific. It appears that the anonymity is limited to the changing of the names of the parties and child and of the lawyers, judges, experts and CAFCASS officers involved in the case. I seems highly likely that Mrs Pseudonym would be quite able to identify herself readily should this book come to her attention, and it seems highly likely that she would be both upset and angry at its depiction of events and indeed of her (in essence she is drawn as an evil, manipulative, warped, emotionally abusive individual). It appears in part that the book has been written in the hope that it will one day explain to the child (who must I think be approaching his teens) what “really” happened. How the child might react to that is anyone’s guess, but it would be concerning indeed if he were to find it on the internet and recognise his family described within it. I would hazard a guess that the professionals involved in the case would recognise the case and themselves.

Amongst other things the book contains some details of CAFCASS recommendations and lay, professional and expert evidence, judicial comment and submissions made in hearings. One can track the case through a particular County Court near where the parties lived and ran their businesses up to the Family Division. The judges are described, although sadly, since it is not a court I am familiar with, I have not been able myself to identify them. I am sure local practitioners would be able to do so with ease.

I have been deliberately quite careful not to repeat any of the specific information that could lead to identification. The book is not so cautious.

Unless the author of the book has sought and obtained specific permission from the court to publish the material contained in his book it is in my view a publication contrary to the Family Procedure Rules 2010 and contrary to s12 Administration of Justice Act 1960. I make no comment as to whether or not it may be vulnerable to a claim for libel since this is not my area of expertise.

The law in a nutshell:

s12 Administration of Justice Act 1960 provides that the publication of information relating to proceedings before any court sitting in private is a contempt where the proceedings are brought under the Children Act 1989 or otherwise relate wholly or mainly to the maintenance or upbringing of a minor, unless authorised by court rules.

Rule 12.73 (2) of the Family Procedure Rule 2010 makes clear that whilst certain documents may be disclosed to specific individuals or organisations for specified purposes (as set out in PD12G), the rules do not authorise any communication to the public at large, or any section of the public, of any information relating to the proceedings (and it is worth saying that the 2010 rules are by and large identical in this respect to the previous 1991 rules as amended). That is to say, they do not negate the provisions of s12 AJA.

Caselaw has established that s12 bites even after the proceedings have concluded and that “information relating to proceedings” includes:

“accounts of what has gone on in front of the judge sitting in private, documents such as affidavits, witness statements, reports, position statements, skeleton arguments or other documents filed int he proceedings, transcripts or notes of the evidence or submissions, and transcripts or notes of the judgment (this list is not necessarily exhaustive); extracts or quotations from such documents; summaries of such documents.” (Re B (A Child) (Disclosure) [2004] EWHC 411 (Fam), [2004] 2 FLR 142).

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And crucially, “These prohibitions apply whether or not the information or the document being published has been anonymised” (also Re B).

In addition it is a criminal offence to publish information intended to or likely to identify a child as involved in Children Act proceedings (s97(2) Children Act 1989). As established in Clayton v Clayton [2006] EWCA Civ 878, [2007] 1 FLR 11 this provision is not applicable after the conclusion of the proceedings, so it is probably not relevant in this case, although query what the position will be if proceedings revive.

There may be an order permitting publication of this material, but it seems unlikely, not least because the website associated with the book gives the simple explanation that the author can’t publicise what has happened until the child is 18 so he can’t give too much detail in case he identifies the child. There is no further explanation.

So, whilst I’m happy to publish a review, albeit not an enormously positive one, I am not prepared to run the risk of further publicising or publishing material in breach of s12.

Hence, the anonymised anonymous review, complete with more nipples than Scaramanga.


6 thoughts on “Well, you did ask

  1. I agree looks very likely to be a breach of the AJA s 12 and therefore wise of you to be so cautious. While one can’t expect the writer to know the law in detail it seems v irresponsible of the publisher. Surely the point of having a publisher is partly to advise its authors on what is legal?

  2. Yes, the point of having a publisher is partly to deal with legal issues, (the other half of legal issues is: employ an agent) but from the description I doubt he’s with a publisher per se. If he’s using a self-pub promotion service, then the ‘publisher’ is likely to be a vanity press, or a you pay-we print house, and their contracts specifically limit that kind of liability – in fact, they are an extremely bad deal for would be authors, on both the liability and financial side. Some vanity presses offer editing services, for limited values of editing. At an extra charge of course.
    Writer Beware, http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/ might provide you with further information on that.

    • perhaps someone can post a comment telling us whether or not a vanity publisher can really limit their liability in respect of contempt of court? would it be different if said publisher was in the jurisdiction?

  3. I suppose there are two limbs to that argument – the first is the contract that they have with the writer, which would be that all liability for libel, contempt, copyright infringements et al rest with the writer. (There’s then the argument about whether that falls foul of the Unfair Contract Terms legislation, and a secondary argument about whether, presuming the writer is a man of straw, the person who has been libelled can interfere with that contact)

    But I suspect that what the ‘publishing company’ would chiefly argue, is that they are in fact a printing-on-demand company and not a publishing company at all; so that they print the book for the author and those customers who ask for it (rather than print 5000 books and try to sell them), and that therefore they have much the same liability as say a photocopying company have for the content of what they photocopy. (i.e pretty much none at all)

    The big difference between publishing and printing, is that the former take some active steps to try to sell your book; so I suspect most firms that would take on the job of turning this manuscript into a book would be really better classified as printers.

    I think writing the book was probably deeply cathartic for the author, and probably something that he needed to do, but actually publishing it, not such a good thing. I really, really, really hope that there’s no intention to give it to any child involved ‘so that they can read the truth’

    (And your bravery in reviewing the book when the author is Mr Justice [name deleted on legal advice] is remarkable…)

    • Can you contract out of being in contempt of court? And what about the distributors (online bookshops)?

      And I think I can safely reveal that the author of the book is not a High Court Judge (or if he is he is mightily well disguised).

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