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Coping with divorce, part two. Fight your demons.


In the last post about coping with divorce, I wrote about how distressing the divorce process can be and how, to emerge whole at the other side, it is vitally important to do whatever it takes to keep your mind in shape.

This post is a cautionary one, about what can happen if you give in to those demons lurking in your head. I have previously written about the dirty divorce tricks born of the desire for vengeance. Earlier this week I described how bottled up emotions can result in emotionally charged choices and behaviour. Now I wish to look at how the repercussions can affect younger members of your family.

During a divorce you can be tempted to surrender to those demons, to let your baser emotions spin of control, to fight and to cause pain. However the opportunities to do so are limited. This is because the legal procedure is strictly controlled in financial cases, as misconduct is rarely of relevance and is generally frowned upon by the courts.

Proceedings involving children are different. In such cases allegation upon allegation, true or malicious, can by heaped upon parties in “the children’s interests”. Common sense and rational thought can fly out of the window.

You mustn’t go there. But some people do.

After 26 years as a divorce lawyer, I am not easily shocked. While reading some recently reported children cases, however, I was taken aback by the bitterness and malice that leapt from every page.

The ex-wife who went to prison

In a case heard by the Court of Appeal in July 2009, the judges even had to consider an appropriate prison sentence for one wife. She had originally obtained a residence order for the couple’s children. The couple gave undertakings to the court as to their future good behaviour.

Clearly the residence order and her parental obligations had little meaning for the wife, because she ignored her undertaking on several occasions. She attempted to disable her husband’s CCTV. She encouraged the couple’s son to break the lock on his father’s gate and set fire to his father’s motorbike. The fire escalated and damaged the back of the house and some contents. She sent her former husband 117 text messages accusing him of raping their daughter. She set up a direct debit to the RSPCA using her former husband’s bank details. She screamed and shouted at him outside his house, calling him a paedophile. She tried to have his disability benefit stopped.

The Court of Appeal gave her six months’ imprisonment for breach of her undertaking. A criminal court had already sentenced her for the arson attack.

And what of her children, I wonder? How are they coping? What does the future hold for them?

Five years of litigation

Here is another case from the same period, which kept Mr Justice Munby busy in the weeks leading up to his new job heading the Law Commission. The case was described in the Law Reports as “highly acrimonious residence and contact proceedings”. This description struck me as something of an understatement…

The residence and contact proceedings had gone on for five years. A guardian had been appointed for the couple’s child. The guardian considered that the parents, by their behaviour towards each other and by their conduct of the lengthy litigation, had caused the child (now eight years old) emotional harm.

The father tried to have the child’s guardian and her solicitor removed from the case and both imprisoned for – an admitted but mistaken – contempt of court. He also applied for the release of documentation, so that he could complain to the GMC about the expert psychiatrist who had prepared reports on both parents.

All these issues required judgments from the overburdened judge – and no doubt a great deal of worry for the professionals involved. I noted that the parents in this case did not appear to have appointed lawyers. (I also wondered if lawyers’ advice and costs could have encouraged the parents to end the litigation sooner.)

At the judge’s suggestion a consent order that focused, sensibly, on where the child was to spend time – rather than upon issues of “residency” and “contact” – was ultimately agreed by the parents. A review was fixed to take place after six months.

Was this the end? Far from it. Almost immediately the father expressed reservations. At one point before the expiry of the six month period, the father was seeking no fewer than 30 court orders including sole residence in his favour. Both parents breached the judge’s directions for succinct written submissions and both parties sought costs orders against one other. The father also sought permission to appeal the judge’s order, but refused to give the grounds on which he intended to appeal. The judge had to spend a good deal of time dealing with all these issues in various judgments.

Mr Justice Munby clearly exercised the utmost patience and consideration for the battling parents, in a case that would have tested the patience of Job. He expressed his sympathy for other litigants and children caught up in “an already overlong queue”, who were still waiting their turn because of such intensive judicial involvement in this one case.

What to do? Sally Ward of children’s charity Pro-Contact says that parents have to be good, but not perfect. I am not sure that court is the best place for private children cases. I also believe that contact centres, where are there are skilled people who can assist with the emotional aspects of such cases, should be used more and should be better funded. Such measures could help resolve cases and free up the courts’ time.

The cases described above are not isolated examples. Sadly there are many parents caught up in lengthy residence and contact disputes.

Long since forgotten, or so it would seem, is the plain fact that these parents conceived their children together. Until the divorce, they all lived together. When the parents go to war over their children and engage in protracted and bloody battle, whose needs are placed first? Who emerges with the battle scars?

Who, ultimately, pays the terrible price for such emotionally charged choices and out of control behaviour?

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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