'Torn Apart: Family Courts Uncovered', by Dispatches on Ch4 was a difficult watch. I thought it did a very good job of reporting on how traumatic it can be for children and parents to go through the Court system when there is a dispute about how much time children spend with each parent. As a family lawyer, this is my experience of the family justice system we currently have in England and Wales.
There are so many reasons why it's so traumatic, including, but definitely not limited to:-
- It is set against a backdrop of an often difficult relationship ending with emotions running high, and often different truths about what has happened.
- The design of the family justice system positions parents against each other which can encourage parents to build their case for what they want, frequently involving criticism of the other parent's parenting;
- There are often allegations of behaviour, parental alienation and coercive control, which need to be investigated by the Court, with parents being questioned by barristers trying to prove that these allegations are true;
- Judges often have to make a decision based on one parent's work against the other's. And it can be very difficult for a Judge to get to the bottom of an issue, such as why a child becomes distressed when it comes to seeing the other parent, as there could be many different reasons for this.
- The child's voice can often get lost in everything else that is going on.
- If a parent makes a Court application and lots of allegations against the other parent, the Court will hear it, unless there is a bar on applications being made without permission, which can only usually be obtained several years and several applications later;
- Judges and magistrates making the decisions often do not have any long standing experience or knowledge of working with separating families and the issues or within the family justice system;
- Legal aid for family cases was slashed around a decade ago and is now available in only limited circumstances, so parents often either have to represent themselves or pay tens of thousands for legal representation. When this is coupled with Judges and magistrates who have no long standing experience of the family justice system, the outcome can often not be in the interests of the children.
It's incredibly difficult for a short TV programme to deal with all of these issues. I felt that Dispatches did a good job in getting key messages across, although it felt uncomfortable that the only parents spoken to were mothers.
The difficult question is, what is the answer? How do we help parents resolve disputes when they can't agree between them what is best for their children? This is an incredibly difficult question, especially in the context of the underfunding of services to support families. The 'What About Me' report provides some good answers and suggestions for change, so I hope that it is listened to and implemented.
Channel 4 Dispatches looks inside the family courts system and reveals how courts can order the police to forcibly remove children, who are not in danger, from loving homes. Dispatches has obtained disturbing and never before seen footage of police forcibly removing children from their mother at midnight, to be taken to go and live with their father.