On Saturday a short article appeared in The Guardian, setting out briefly the thoughts of a family court adviser (who I used to know as a ‘court welfare officer’) when they deal with a dispute over arrangements for children. Their thoughts pretty well match those I used to have when dealing with such cases and, I suspect the thoughts of most family lawyers (not to mention judges). I think it would be useful for the parents involved in such disputes to hear what other people think about them, so I am repeating some of the thoughts here.
I’ll begin with the old cliché about the hatred that former partners can express for one another, expressed by the family court adviser thus: “How is it only now that you’ve noticed that your erstwhile partner is the devil incarnate?” You were fond of one another once, and sometimes for quite a long time. Could you really have been so wrong about them? Or is the truth that they aren’t actually that bad? Are you just caught up in a cycle of animosity, driven by the desire to paint them as badly as you can, for the benefit of the court? Remember, there are children involved here – they are far more important than your feelings towards your former partner.
In a similar vein, there is the phenomenon of the incompatible stories that each party tells. All family lawyers see this: their client tells them one version of events, but they know that the other party is going to come up with another version. How can this be, given that they have both experienced the same set of events? Is one party telling the truth and the other lying? Or did each party genuinely see things so differently from the other? Obviously, it is the job of the court to decide, but this will take time and may well add to the costs. Far better for the parties to stop and ask themselves: is that really what happened? Or am I embroidering it for my own benefit?
As the family court adviser says, sometimes it is fairly obvious which way the matter is going to go, for example in the case of the father who has always controlled his family and now seeks to carry on doing so by other means, or the mother who has a new man in her life and wants to wipe all traces of the previous one. Most often, however, the court will impose a compromise arrangement upon the parties that will satisfy neither of them. How often did I explain this to my clients? It is a simple, but obvious, fact of life, and the reason why the parties should do their best to sort matters out between themselves by agreement, rather than rely upon the court to sort them out for them.
Many of the difficulties involved in contested children disputes of course go back to a point that the family court adviser makes, and that I myself made here only recently: the court cannot force parents to act in a reasonable fashion. Sadly, that goes not just for their behaviour at court, but also for their behaviour both before and after attending court. If a judge could wave a magic wand that made the parties behave nicely towards one another then all problems would instantly be solved. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand, and it is no good getting frustrated with the court for failing to control the behaviour of the other party: there is only so much the court, and the law, can do. In the end it is often up to the parents to put aside their personal feelings, and do what is really best for their children. It is also very sad, as the family court adviser also points out, that bad behaviour after a separation is more supported than challenged by friends and family. If you know someone who is going through a separation then the best thing you can do as their friend is point out to them when they are behaving badly, rather than blindly agree with everything they say.
As I said at the beginning, this post is intended to help parents. It is not intended to criticise them. It just seems to me that knowing how other people see them and their actions may assist them to take a step back, and thereby make it more likely that they will avoid lengthy contested court proceedings which are, of course, a disaster for the entire family, especially the children.
You can read the article here.
Image by j t via Flickr under the Public Domain.