There are two main groups of critics of the family courts: they are Father’s rights groups (such as Fathers4Justice but of course there are many others) who concern themselves primarily with private law disputes, and a quite separate group concerned primarily with care proceedings and “forced” adoptions (John Hemming MP and journalist Christopher Booker to give two examples). The discourse these two sets of critics adopt may be similar – both criticise (rightly) the lack of transparency and both criticise the inefficiencies of social services, CAFCASS and the court system (with justification in some cases). Both seek to challenge what they see as miscarriages of justice. But their use and treatment of the leit motif of the Mother is very different, and indeed mutually contradictory.
For Father’s rights groups the Mother is seen and drawn as the beneficiary of institutionalised gender bias and the malicious withholder of contact to entitled and maligned fathers. Courts are too favourably disposed to Mothers, they are unquestioningly believed, pandered to and assumed to be the best placed to be a resident parent. Or so it goes.
For those who wave the “forced adoption” and “child snatching” banners parents, but usually and particularly the Mother is altogether more saintly. She has been wrongly accused, misrepresented and tricked. Her desire to fulfil her maternal role as only a mother can do is brushed aside in order to meet a target or a policy of adoption. Nothing she can do will be recognised – she is the victim of a campaign of persecution. This mother is victim, saint and martyr. She is a paradigm of selflessness. Or so it goes.
Of course I have sketched in very general terms the lines along which these stories tend to be told. I am identifying patterns, and I caricature a little for illustrative purposes – but not much.
How do we reconcile these two apparently incompatible criticisms of the courts’ approach to Mothers? Does it undermine one group or the other or both (or neither)?
Surely the court does not discriminate in favour of mothers in one sort of case, only to discriminate against them in another? What of care cases where the issue is the Mother’s ability to protect against an abusive Father? What is the pattern of injustice alleged by these groups?
And how is the justice system to go about meeting the criticisms from both sides (and should it try)?
I’m not mischief making nor proposing a particular answer to this, but it is a pattern that I’ve only really noted this week, and it does raise a conundrum for the judiciary, professionals and those looking at reform to the system, as well as for the campaigners themselves.