The transparency delusion

Family Law|June 8th 2015

I have been writing publicly about family law for some nine years now. During that time I have witnessed at first hand the vitriol of those who have an axe to grind against the family justice system. For much of those nine years I tried to engage with such people, but they were not prepared to countenance the possibility that anyone could not share their views, clinging to their position with ever-increasing bile. Sadly, I came to the conclusion that there was no point in knocking my head against their brick wall and hence these days I no longer attempt to engage with them.

However, we live in a world where he who shouts loudest is often the only one that is heard. The idea that there is something corrupt about the family justice system has therefore gained a level of general acceptance amongst a large proportion of the public, fuelled by certain quarters of the media. This has been seen by many within the family justice system as a threat that not only erodes public confidence but could also lead to the sort of knee-jerk reaction from government we have seen so often in the past when faced with popular outcry: ill thought-out reform.

Many notables within the system have decided that the threat must be responded to and that the best method of response is to lay bare the system, so that all can see that, for the most part at least, it really does operate in the best interests of those involved in the system, in particular the children. This method of response has gained the general title of ‘transparency’.

Transparency is seen as being so important that, as we know, in January last year the President of the Family Division no less gave guidance on it, requiring many Family Court judgments to be published, in order to counter “the charge that we are a system of secret and unaccountable justice”. Elsewhere, there have been other initiatives, including a ‘Transparency Project’, which “aims to promote the transparency of Family Court proceedings in England and Wales through providing straightforward, accurate and accessible information for litigants and the wider public.” The Project does not seek to promote a particular perspective on the family justice system, but clearly feels that better information is required, to counter misconceptions.

Are all of these initiatives a waste of time? The public believes what it wants to believe, prompted by the popular media. Neither the media (which wants stories to sell) nor the public are prepared to devote the time and effort required to get to the truth of the matter. Like me with those who have an axe to grind, are the transparency promoters knocking their heads against a brick wall? Is the whole concept that transparency will improve public understanding of the family justice system a delusion?

One does not have to look very far to see how entrenched are the views of the naysayers. Only this weekend a headline in a certain national newspaper invoked Godwin’s Law to compare social workers who remove children from parents to Nazis. The paper was only reporting the comparison from elsewhere, but still the headline is indicative of the level of debate. Appealing to such people in the hope that they are prepared to give proper consideration to accurate information is always likely to be a futile exercise.

Meanwhile, the futility of the President’s publication of judgments guidance was demonstrated last week by the many headlines that suggested that a couple had had their son taken into care simply because they were heavy smokers. As Marilyn Stowe pointed out here, that was far from the sole reason why the court felt that the best interests of the child dictated that he should be placed for adoption. Now, the judgment in the case was published on the day it was handed down, and a quick reading of it would have made it quite clear that the issue of the parents’ smoking was not the prime reason for the court doing what it did. However, many of those who wrote those headlines either did not read the judgment or, if they did, they decided that the truth would ruin a good story. Meanwhile, further damage to the public perception of the family justice system was done. The President’s guidance was, indeed, a waste of time.

Now, I certainly don’t mean to offend some very well-meaning and dedicated people who are trying to promote better understanding and more informed debate, nor am I even suggesting that they cease their efforts. I guess I am just saying that transparency, for all we talk about it, is far from being the answer to the challengers of the integrity of the family justice system, for the simple reason that there isn’t any point in trying to engage with those who aren’t prepared to listen.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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  1. SL says:

    I am not one of your conspiracy nuts. I am a registered nurse with an orthopaedic qualification a neuro nursing experience. Worked in the NHs for 36 years. I am more than qualified to comment on the medical facts of our case. Unlike some of the comments made by some of the experts to justify the decision made in eir report guided by the social worker report which set the scene
    When safeguarding procedures were put in place belatedly as far as the SCR was concerned I had already raised several concerns with midwives and doctors that were I’d owed or dismissed rather than investigated just to make sure. Things deteriorated to the point my GD was taken under a S20. The police blame involved. Injuries were found and the process of losing her began.
    I no longer can fight for her, I now have to concentrate on helping my son clear his name.
    I read the disclosed reports for x Rays and MRi’s with a medical mind. The warped account by the sw report to the experts. The experts reports that a missed so many vital clues to challenge more investigation prior to the court process. The wasted an opportunity
    I made sure that my son and to some point his partners solicitor were aware of the missing elements that could prove that there was more to this than child abuse. I provided peer reviewed clinical papers to support my arguments. They chose to ignore them in favour of the LA chosen doctors.
    The same happened in the criminal court. The legal teams choosing a non medical defence. A medical defence challenge was what was needed. They refused to budge. Again more evidence to show why the medical evidence should be challenged. I was ONLY a nurse. What did I know. Wel actually a darn site more than the legal teams, and that’s all of them. Including both judges who made school boy and girl erros in their judgements. One error would have meant in her version of accounts my GD would have been dead or close to it when the midwife visited.
    No one has ever offered to engage in any discussion or answer my many questions as to how things were directed to the outcome by the LA. Every request made to investigate my concerns was blocked by them or their ‘agents’
    I can go through the medical notes and show where the experts ignored vital missing peices. Their reliance on a vitamin D test to prove no bone problems has been shown in the Jayden Wray case to be unreliable. So many elements of this case scream negligence incompetance and blinkered approach.
    I am sick to death of being ignored. Being called a conspiracist. What would you do faced with certain knowledge that would clear you of an offence that was so conveniently being ignored by the very people who were defending you. Because an Expert was saying it was not possible.
    Before people tell me I am wrong at least have the decency to explore the evidence I have. We are currently awaiting an appeal. If that succeeds we will look to see how the family offence can be addressed so my son can get his life back. Just becuase a group of people do not agree with the Social Services and LA supporting legals does not make all their. arguments wrong. If at the very beginning the social workers engaged with us and made sure all our concerns had been addressed, all the very basic tests we asked to be done, done and if found that the results did not bear out our concerns at least we couldn’t then shout foul. We could have save our breath. The evidence would be there for us to see. However we are still at least. 10 major blood tests for the parents and child missing and like baking a cake,miss no good only putting in half the ingredients! There are at least 4 diagnoses that could have been simply investigated but the medical staff were hell bent on abuse and only ticked boxes that made their case. I could go on but I have got to cook tea now. I have a night shift to attend.

  2. Sarah Phillimore says:

    I agree. And that’s why the Transparency Project isn’t simply some cardigan clutching vanity project. For transparency to be of any use or interest it has to come with a willingness to engage with and understand what one is attempting to be transparent about.

    I am very pleased by the success of the Transparency Project’s first event, a multi disciplinary conference on the 1st of June where parents and professionals met and communicated. I hope we will continue to build on the progress made on that day.

    Of course some won’t listen or care. But we have held back for too long because of them. Let’s continue to turn them further into embarrassing irrelevancies.

    • SL says:

      The seed of hope last week was trampled by a really uncaring SW’ers reply to an email this morning. I hope you succeed but not at the expense of the truth. I am more than prepared to listen if they listen to me. I don’t expect them to care, though it would be nice. I expect them to have done their job properly without the judgement we went through.
      This process is a two way street, except they from the very beginning put barriers up and made no attempt to communicate.we wanted answers they were not prepared to give us any or at least that was the experience of my son. I made sure he knew what questions to ask.
      It is probably too late now for us, they are hardly going to admit they are wrong. I am not one to fight proof IF I am wrong but the proof I needed was not even acknowledged let alone disproven. It is almost as if they were frightened they were going to proven wrong so ignoring us was the easiest option to succeed.

  3. Stitchedup says:

    so john, if you’ve given up trying to convince the sceptics why do you continue to blog? Blogging is a social media exercise and the one thing that any marketeer worth their salt will tell you is that it is meant to be a dialogue; an opportunity to engage and capture the voice of the customer. I and many others that contribute to the dialogue are customers of the family justice system and have found that it is outdated, infected with feminist political correctness, not just falable but postitively designed to fail.

  4. says:

    Thank you for comments

  5. Dr. Nigel Miles says:

    Well commented John. Transparency is not really the question just its interpretation and you must recognise this reality.

    We come from different backgrounds. You the legal profession and mine is science! We collect evidence in a different way. Science can ONLY exist on empirical evidence, the law does not. That is in one way it’s failing. It relies on what we assume to be the truth rather than confirmed facts. When confirmed facts are proven to support a position there is no argument. Unfortunately the Court often does not take on the responsibility to get to the facts and in the meantime and because of ignorance and perjury children suffer; millions in deed and in fact!

    It is and always will be about the effective and agreed interpretation of the responsibility as parents which underpins family responsibllot. If the state unequivocally (and sadly there a few and yes only a few, rogue public servants who lie and have lied…sorry perjured themselves in Court believing that they can hide from justice) can show that through a transparent and thorough investigation a result found to be FACTUALLY TRUE, then there is only one conclusion. But in many cases the Court does not enact a transparent investigation to all for the facts to be established.

    This as in many cases including Family Law gives reason for the comments it is presumably charged with; secret court hearings: press stifling. Children X and Y without recourse to any more identifiable attributes together with Applicant/appellant/Respondent 1 and 2….But no…

    Oh dear. Case closed.

  6. Winston Smith says:

    Unfortunately the Family Court IS corrupt, IS run by an Old Boy network, Does operate behind total secrecy and DOES perpetrate extreme injustice. And defence legals WILL NOT conduct fighting defences.

    We have had this with the FII revival making a huge headway. Clients arrive saying they have argued with their solicitor since FIIis discredited and want them to submit the statement to that effect they have written.

    We have standard drafts to directors of SS and for court submissions on FII.

    Judge “I am not prepared to hear any more evidence till the other professional view is heard”.

    The problem is the secrecy means no part of the system is fully accountable.

    it is impossible for the Family Court to have a worse image as a combination of the French revolutionary tribunal/ 17th century witch trial and holy inquisition in which all families are found guilty. Once found guilty the child is likely to go to Forced Adoption and this cannot be stopped.

    he reason

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  8. Jerry Lonsdale says:

    John, like yourself I have been “talking” about the Family Justice System for the past decade, whether through social media, comments on blogs, meetings, conferences et al, I often feel that with lack of engagement and lack of transparency we will always see the vitriolic axe grinders flourish to the levels we see now.

    How do we set about engaging with the axe grinders, how do we change the single tracked mindset of those who feel there is no smoke without fire, some would say its an impossible task and should be simply left alone, what would that achieve though, does that defeat the very purpose of what we are hoping to achieve.

    What is it we are actually hoping to achieve?, that is an almighty question, again, others have differences for their overall wants and needs, the axe grinders often feel that they want to see the whole Family Justice System implode on itself, while others are wanting to prevent that from happening.

    Primarily taking the first part of that, I know the implosion is a desire through their own personal experiences, not by perception but by on the ground real hard and often devastating experiences, they tend to only take the one side of the negatives and run with it because of those experiences, come hell or high water they are not for changing their mindset, I have never refused to engage with them though, I often direct them to the book that has many more pages than the front cover, I would add I can only show them the whole book through transparency.

    Secondly, what are the “other siders” hoping to achieve, more frequently we see the other siders as those who want to rebut the half truths or the negatives being suggested by the vitriolic’s by doing that are we making a system of “Them v Us” that is an unhealthy balance to have, never the twain shall meet!

    • stitchedip says:

      Simply dismissing anybody that challenges the family justice system is part of the problem and really only serves to support the old saying that the law is an ass.

  9. CB says:

    SW’s are not legal, not medical nor in most cases HONEST, they (in my experience monkies, used by the Organ Grinders, these being the NHS Legal, LA Legal Departments.
    Why these Legal Departments are so dishonest and will work to-gether to cover-up birth defects, or birth negligence has gone on, will go on forever, until some government department, or Court stops it once and for all, Children and innocent Families of this miscarriage of justice is not what BRITISH LAW is about

  10. Alice T says:

    TP (and others) can do little about the commercial and political forces that drive some journalism from truth and complexity in favour of sensation and propping up of popular myths. This is not likely to change in the near future in the society we currently inhabit. I don’t think TP members have suggested otherwise.

    That doesn’t mean it’s not sensible, useful and constructive to correct misinformation and link to judgements where possible on sites like TP and others.

    Opening the family courts is just an aspect of true transparency (as TP commentators often note) but it is an important part. (Published transcripts of Judgements is a good start -not without problems needing to be addressed- but not negated by those problems either) :

    -Being observed almost always moderates behaviour in all walks of life, often for the better.
    -Those journalists who want to scratch the surface and get to the bottom of something in a constructive way are enabled. (And need to be further enabled in my view, alongside effective, funded, operational systems within the fjs to make this safe enough for children).
    -Misreporting can be corrected or more easily complained about (albeit that won’t necessarily change some things).
    -Those without subscriptions/legal training/professional access can become ‘expert’ by intelligent interest and in some cases this can change outcomes for children and their families. There are certainly families saying this has happened.
    -There is something concrete (a Judgement for now, with reference to evidence including expert reports) for commentators to debate (even if just the version of reality settled on by a Judge). This carries a real prospect of change (Change that parents say they have achieved by reading blogs and seeing Judgements etc; change in knowledge levels of professionals about the level expected of them and the law; changes in views over time.

    With respect to that last one – people are entitled to believe that the child protection / family court system needs radical overhaul and is not fit for purpose. Others are entitled to say that the only real problem is the views of the first group. There is polarity and there are extreme voices, some driven by personal pain and their own defences. But what the 1st June Conference showed very clearly is that there is also a very significant middle ground of parents, parents campaigners and supporters, and professionals including social workers, capable of constructive dialogue about improvement, with children’s interests firmly held in mind. This matters because it is important that alternative, intelligent voices seeking reasonable change, are not dismissed as insufficiently focused on children’s interests or colluding with those voices.

    Transcripts of Judgements are a good start (not without difficulties that still need addressing but not negated by those difficulties).

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