I’m despondent. Not because of my recent first hand experience of cyber nastiness, but because the prospects of having any real debate, and of finding new ways to improve the lot of children and parents caught up in the family justice system are receding ever further into the distance. Or so it seems. There are moments when it seems as if we are communicating, learning, listening. But they always seem to be fleeting. And almost in the same breath that something sensible is said somebody gets ornery.
There is a lot wrong with the system, notwithstanding the efforts of those who work within it to make the best of limited resources in the face of hostility from government, press and large chunks of the public. It is right that the system should be criticized and it is right that those within the system should hear that criticism. We can learn from it.
But we can’t do that by shouting at one another and by engaging in endless circular “discussions” about how “I’m right” and “you’re wrong”. That’s a waste of everyone’s energy and a source of yet more frustration – for practitioners who feel under fire, and for fathers (and mothers) who feel they have been ignored and done over by a failing system.
No, what we NEED is dialogue, not a playing out of competing cases in adversarial style. It’s like an intractable contact dispute. Neither side really wants to engage. It’s all about their issues and not a lot about seeing it from the perspective of the other. It’s all about blaming the mendacious, malicious other side. Neither can conceive that the other could be motivated by anything but selfishness. Sound familiar?
And so. There are two separate conversations going on – the one amongst professionals: how can we make things work better, cut delay, focus on the needs of children, divert cases from court etc? And the one amongst the disgruntled public, mainly fathers: how can we make them listen? How can we expose the system for what it is?
But actually, what we desperately need is to pool our knowledge, skill and experience.
The blame does not lie with one side. It lies with both.
The professionals for their part largely pretend that the other conversation is not happening – avoid fathers rights groups and members at all costs: "Don’t engage, it’s pointless, dangerous even". They pretend that the public debate about the injustice in the secret family courts is not raging across the internet. "Don’t read the rants. They are deluding themselves and nobody is really listening". But it is out there, and it is massive and it is corroding public confidence in the justice system, and not just on the margins either. And this is happening because we let it. Because we do not redress the balance by telling our own story. Because we do not challenge the obvious fallacies and false logic. Because we do not listen to the voice of the activist and of the disillusioned for long enough to try to sift out the grains of truth in the badly expressed complaints. There is a sort of prejudice against those who aggressively pursue their points outside the established legal pathways, a prejudice that allows us to consign them all to the “loony” category.
And the critics, who wage their campaigns on facebook and blogs and by direct action? They are also to blame. For expecting their viewpoint to be accepted without question and for seeing conspiracy in everything. Good points obscured, opportunities to change minds wasted by point scoring, personal attacks and a poor use of evidence. Too much anti-lawyer, anti-female prejudice. And a lack of realism about what can be achieved with limited resources and a tide of new cases and an upsurge in family breakdown. And sadly, a few far too vocal loonies, who the sensible majority seem powerless to tackle.
There is a lack of respect and paranoia on both sides, an inability to deal with criticism – it’s met by a combination of denial, ridicule and aggression. But you know what? If you ignore it it’s still there.
There have been a number of comments on the blog recently from lawyers fed up with the unconstructive attacks on lawyers that characterize the father’s rights movement’s approach. They are almost all anonymous. Not because they are cowardly, but because they are fearful or at least just don't want the hassle. It comes to something when a lawyer is not prepared to express a view. The state of communications between professional and lay stakeholders in the family justice system is critically dysfunctional.
And it’s not just dads versus lawyers. CAFCASS too are under perpetual heavy fire (sometimes from me but more often from parents of both sexes) and they appear sometimes to adopt a bunker mentality. There are many reports that CAFCASS staff feel unable to express their own strongly held views about the direction in which CAFCASS is travelling, which is another problem in itself.
I don’t know how to fix this dysfunciton. I wish that a critical mass of professionals were prepared to stand up and be counted, to publicly explain what their job is really all about, what they are trying to do and the obstacles they face. To try to redress the balance. Because at the moment the professionals are talking to themselves. I join in those discussions and then I step into the internet and it’s like another dimension.
And I wish that a critical mass of those who are agitating for change could keep a lid on the urge to blame for long enough to make constructive suggestions.
It’s chicken and egg. I don’t blame any lawyer for observing silently or for commenting anonymously. Or for just getting on with the day job and letting someone else deal with the big picture. As a result of being verbally attacked by Matt O’Connor I am now being approached at court by worried colleagues asking if I am “keeping safe” who themselves have had bad experiences with activists. We aren’t in this for the money, but by God we aren’t paid enough to count as danger money. There is enough mud slinging and agro in the job already without inviting more of it. It’s easier to leave it to someone else. For my part, having already attracted the ire of the dads, I feel I might as well continue. I've been under attack for pretty much the whole time I've run this blog, although much of that has not been public until recently. It hasn't stopped me so far and it's not likely to do so now. I’ve never been able to keep my gob shut for long. And I'm a bit bloody minded.
The problem is bad enough now. But what happens when LASPO goes through and everyone but the Djanogly family is unable to afford legal representation? They’ll be seeking information and guidance from the internet. And they’ll have plenty of time to find that guidance whilst the court service sinks under the weight of its own caseload. We will not only have a tide of litigants in person, we will have a tsunami of litigants in person who view the system as not just imperfect but corrupt, and who are fully expecting the system to fail them (and they may be right). It’s not the kind of public legal education that we need.
We can turn away from the conversation, but we will be forced to confront it one day.
Part of the reason for the delay in posting this is because I’ve been pondering for some time whether there is another way to address this issue. There may be better ways, but I’d like to start by inviting those who work in the system to give their accounts, anonymously if it encourages frankness. Not as some kind of propaganda exercise, but as an exercise in helping people to understand what motivates those people, what practical and ethical difficulties they face, what they really think about the strengths and weaknesses of the system and how we can sustain and improve it and how we can better engage with stakeholders. There are lots of accounts out there of the poor experience of parents going through the system, but few accounts of the other side of the coin. So maybe it will be a small first step if those accounts could be made available through Pink Tape.
Any professional reading this blog who wishes to participate can email me using the email address given on the About page, or by tweeting me (DM me or email me if you wish to remain anonymous). Whilst I wait for the probably underwhelming response I will ponder on a list of broad questions that each respondent might use as a framework for their post.