The above title may seem trite or obvious, but there is an important point behind it: the vast majority of bitter family law disputes are sparked by the appalling behaviour of one or both of the parties: no one else. In just the last week or so I have come across or reported (at least) four clear examples of this truism. As any family lawyer will attest, family disputes really do provide a platform for the very worst in human nature.
Last Tuesday I wrote here about the case T v S (Wardship), and how both parents can be their child’s worst enemy, putting their animosity towards the other parent above the welfare of their child. And then the next day I wrote about fathers who don’t think they should pay child maintenance, often again so intent upon spiting their former partner that they are oblivious to the suffering they are causing to their children.
And then there was the case Gibbs v Gibbs, in which an ex-wife was jailed for contempt of court after repeatedly falsely accusing her former husband of abuse, years after the divorce had taken place. That case demonstrates how someone can get so tied up in their hatred for the other party that they actually believe their false allegations to be true.
And finally, the most egregious example of appalling behaviour occurred in the case Veluppillai v Chief Land Registrar & Others. In fact, it is probably the worst example I have ever come across. I have written here previously about the husband’s shocking behaviour in relation to an earlier judgment in the case. As to the current judgment, there is much more that I can say about the husband’s behaviour, but I will limit myself to just one example. Angered by the fact that the case would once again be dealt with by Mr Justice Mostyn, who had previously found him to be guilty of extreme litigation misconduct, the husband responded by writing a letter to the Court Manager of the Principal Registry of the Family Division in which he called Mr Justice Mostyn ‘evil’, and said that he “ought to be murdered”. As if that was not enough, he warned that if the case was not dealt with by someone else then “we will bomb all of you concerned and your families and your properties”. It should be pointed out that the husband made these threats from the ‘safety’ of some foreign retreat, to which he fled to avoid sentencing for a conviction of assaulting the wife’s counsel.
I suppose that, whilst we may be shocked by some of this, we shouldn’t be entirely surprised. After all, family disputes concern those things that are most important in our lives: relationships and children. Of course emotions are likely to run high, and some people are simply not going to be able to control those emotions. People who are usually mild-mannered may become quite different when subject to the stress of relationship breakdown, and people who are normally assertive in nature may find it difficult to deal with a situation where they are no longer in control.
What are we to learn from all of this? Well, first of all the importance for those involved in family litigation of controlling their tempers, and the futility of failing to do so. If you don’t control your temper then only bad things will follow, whether it be your child(ren) suffering unnecessarily, you incurring huge legal costs, or worse.
The other lesson, though, is for those working within the family justice system. Difficult though it may be, they must all strive to reduce conflict and keep a lid on emotions. Lawyers, for example, have a duty to their clients to do this, to increase the chances of matters being resolved by agreement and because they must surely consider at all times the welfare of any children involved. The best family judges will allow rather more leeway to an emotional family litigant than they would most other litigants (although there are limits, as the Veluppillai case demonstrates!). And others, such as mediators, social workers and welfare officers can find themselves in the ‘front line’, often spending as much time placating emotions as actually resolving disputes.
There is a school of thought that suggests the emotional element in family disputes can be reduced, or even eliminated, by better, less adversarial laws and procedures. I suspect that such things could help a little, but I doubt that they would ever make very much difference. Human nature is human nature, and ultimately there is nothing that the legal system can do about that.
To conclude, I’m not saying for one moment that everyone involved in a family dispute behaves badly. Far from it. In my time practising the vast majority of litigants I came across behaved impeccably, often in very distressing circumstances. The ‘bad behavers’ are a minority, but they make life unnecessarily difficult for all, including themselves.
Image by Scott Robinson via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence