Now on to Part 3 (of 9) of climbing the mountain of high conflict family separation of all kinds. See Introduction, and Before court. Or read the whole lot at once – with feedback added in. Inevitably there is a British flavour to all this, but the issues are often global. Please link in any equivalent schemas in other countries by Commenting below. Part 3 …
Prevention and Early Intervention: In Courts
Family courts everywhere have slowly changed from their natural adversarial culture to help shape more collaborative outcomes. There is still a way to go. Maybe in some legislatures (e.g. Scotland) significant change will happen shortly.
A family court may seem intimidatingly like what we all imagine a full court of law looks like. But – until they specifically move to become proof hearings – family courts (in the UK at least) are intended to be just another more structured public way to encourage and produce a collaborative agreement between parents. The focus is still on pushing for collaborative parenting decisions.
- Aim: There are many improvements in family courts in progress and under review that need to be more quickly defined and put to work. Some require more development and determination, others are just a matter of changing custom and practice.
- Aim: To have lawyers and family courts everywhere clarify the difference between an informal and a proof hearing, about reports and challenging them, so that clients who are new to the system are clearly and reliably informed from the very start. It is not enough to rely on clients’ ignorance and their blind trust of those who know the system.
- Aim: Courts have an important role in prevention. The initial informal family courts must leave further behind their old adversarial patterns in order not to add to unfairness, injustice, polarisation and entrenchment. Many good ideas are slowly being put in place:
- For example, all courts should send out in advance routine guidelines (as some do now – Florida and Midlands) as part of proactively establishing what parents and lawyers are expected to do and not do in that court.
- For example, to avoid harmful delays for the children, there should be reliable waiting time limits for child welfare hearings and reports.
- For example, chronological if not actual continuity of the judge or sheriff can be instructed through the pre-welfare hearing assessment and report
- For example, a fairer more level playing field at the start would mean that the resident parent’s previous decisions are addressed before the non-resident parent is put on the downhill spot as if they are on trial for their innocence and worthiness to be a parent. If serious allegations of risk are made, those must be properly and promptly assessed as the next step. If the resident parent does not have good enough reason to have limited contact with their other parent, then the court can without further ado expect parents to take steps to establish better contact and shared care. And courts need to be ready to follow up to see that changes happen.
- Aim: Those lawyers, experts and judges who take part in the more informal processes must still be the best, most comprehensively trained and skilled professionals, since their assessments and decisions have more unchecked power than in a proof hearing. In the UK, in at least some cases – the more complex ones – courts struggle or make things worse because of reporters and reports that are inadequate. This is no surprise given the complexity and the lack of enough training. To class these reports as just information-gathering is to fail to realise how powerful complex personal information is shaped, interpreted and easily misinterpreted.
- Aim: The court culture must enable relevant challenges to reports at informal hearings to discover when a move to proof is appropriate and to avoid imposing badly made, poorly agreed, decisions.
- Aim: It is very relevant, then, to properly review and ensure better levels of service and training for CAFCASS or Bar Reporters (in Scotland) and their equivalent officers in any country.
Here we have moved on to the more severe and enduring cases. We need to keep remembering that these always mean there is emotional child abuse going on. We simply must not turn a deaf ear to child abuse.
To be continued. Next time: 4. Enduring Cases
No claim is made that this thinking is the best. Please feedback below to improve and enrich the process.