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A matter of control

I wrote here yesterday about the recent child care case Rotherham Borough Metropolitan Council v L & Others, discussing the headline-grabbing aspect of the father’s insistence upon his right to smack his children. However, there were other aspects to the case, and today I want to discuss another facet of the father’s behaviour: his desire to be in control.

The father was described in the course of the proceedings as “a man who seeks total control of his environment and to dominate those with whom he comes into contact”. All family lawyers with a modicum of experience would have come across such people – I suppose it is just an example of human nature, albeit a rather unattractive one.

It does, however, have serious consequences in the realm of family life and family law proceedings.

Beginning with family life generally, a controlling party might seek to control not just the children, as in this case, but also the other party to the relationship. As we have already seen, exercising unreasonable control over children might result in the intervention of the local authority, and might also be a criminal offence. Exercising control over the other party might well amount to domestic abuse, even if there is no violence.

Of course, when outside bodies seek to intervene in the family life of a controlling person that control will be threatened. They will therefore seek to exercise control over not just the people with whom they come into contact during any legal process, but also over the process itself.

In this case, the father sought to control the local authority, social workers, an expert and even the court itself. Examples of his behaviour included an interview with a Forensic Psychiatrist during which he insisted that the door and window were open and the lights were switched off, and refusing in court to affirm or take the oath, stating simply “I don’t lie.”

In themselves these things may seem somewhat petty, but they are indicative of a pattern of behaviour, and they are unlikely to go unnoticed by the court. And that was just what happened here. Her Honour Judge Sarah Wright, hearing the case, described the father’s controlling behaviour as “a theme throughout”. In short, seeking to control legal proceedings is very likely to go against a party, with the inevitable result that the outcome will not be the one they are seeking.

As I indicated above, most family lawyers will have come across examples of controlling behaviour. I remember myself dealing with husbands who still sought to exercise control over their wives even after they had separated, and dealing with mothers who insisted upon controlling all aspects of the fathers’ contact with their children. I also recall dealing with parties on the other side who refused to instruct lawyers, as they felt that that would cede a measure of control of the proceedings from them. Needless to say, I always advised my own clients not to succumb to controlling behaviour, as I’m quite sure all lawyers would do. I also tried to encourage my clients to adopt a constructive approach, which would avoid any attempt to control the other party.

I guess the message of this post is that controlling behaviour can destroy families and damage the chances of a positive outcome in family proceedings. I realise that ingrained behaviour can’t be changed overnight, but I would certainly urge anyone involved in family proceedings to try to take a step back, look at themselves honestly and ask whether their approach really is the best, not just for them but also for their family.

The judgment in Rotherham Borough Metropolitan Council v L & Others can be read here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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