Doctor Foster: a family lawyer’s perspective

Children|October 5th 2017

For a moment, put to one side the headlines, forget the hype, and suspend any doubts you may hold about the credibility of the storyline. Instead ask what, if anything, we can learn from the conclusion to the second series of BBC 1’s Doctor Foster.

Human nature was seen at its worst.

Both the parents were self-absorbed, bitter, angry, vengeful, malicious, manipulative and above all, totally selfish. They were unable or unwilling to put the best interests of their teenage son, Tom, above their own.

The behavior of each of them plumbed ever greater depths as the story unfolded.

The end result for Simon, the husband, was the destruction of the new life and the new family he had so carefully created, to the point where he became determined to take his own life.

For Gemma, the lead character, the end result was the loss of the new life she had tried to create after her acrimonious divorce from Simon and the potential loss of her career as a GP.

The mental health of each of the characters seemed to deteriorate over the course of the show, leading the viewer to suspect it might never recover.

But above all Gemma and Simon both lost Tom, for ever. Which was ironic, given that they had each done all within their power to keep him, to the exclusion of the other.

And so, in the end, they both lost him.

The real loser in the story, however, was Tom of course. He lost his childhood.

He was left alienated from both of his parents, and his own behaviour deteriorated as his parents failed or refused to notice the affects their own actions were having on him, until he could stand it no more. You were left wondering whether the character would ever be able to form loving, lasting relationships of his own.

Ah, but, this was just drama and had no bearing on reality.

Sadly it did.

Family lawyers up and down the country witness similar situations all too frequently. The vast majority of parents love their children and are able to put them first – but some need  real help when their families break up deciding what is in best for their children. The law and lawyers can help, but they are not omnipotent. In the worst cases, by the time we become involved a lot of damage has already been done. Parents may be estranged from one another and children estranged from their parents.

On occasions parents blame the Judges and even their own lawyers.” Judges are biased,” they claim. “Lawyers don’t care”. Rarely are either correct. Rather, such reactions are symptomatic of the underlying problem: some parents are just not able to put their children’s needs above everything and everyone else and take responsibility for their own actions.

So what is the solution?

A greater awareness of how vulnerable all children can be, no matter what their age.

More support from the wider family.

A greater awareness of the consequences of relationship breakdown.

The increased availability of specialised, independent support for parents and children when it is needed.

But if that is not enough to stir legislators and politicians, as well as the rest of us, into action, perhaps we all need reminding that every year relationship breakdown costs us all as taxpayers £50 billion. Surely that money could be better spent?

Image by Phil Gradwell via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

Graham is based at the firm's London Chancery Lane office. His career as a family law specialist has spanned three decades. He is an experienced advocate, mediator and arbitrator who has worked in all areas of family law.

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  1. Paul says:

    Try spending £50 million on relationship counciling instead of family courts. The nature of court procedures is to out do each other make a more compelling ‘story’and win the case. Why does this behaviour come as a shock to a person with experience like yourself? People only turn to courts when they have lost capacity to reason themselves.
    If people go to councilors instead of solicitors the situation could improve. People take reaonable steps then if a party is not responding to reason then the councilor could make a complaint to the court and ask for enforcement.
    Take the feuding parties out of the equation.
    Councilor could work to calm the situation down and help people communicate reasonably.
    Unlike a soliciter who will simply help you compile a catalogue of solacious allegations to throw at each other in court.

  2. JamesB says:

    I watched this. Both series. The one part that struck a chord was when the son asks the Mum, “Is Dad ok?” then she looks confused, because he clearly isn’t.

    How to end a relationship unilaterally without damaging the other person or the children when their are children involved? The man (cuckold) made a reasonable solution to the woman (including 50:50 shared care and maintenance and split of assets) and the woman (wife) agreed.

    The posturing and fighting and trying to win and do the other person over so often undertaken in courts was rightly shown as offerring nothing but phyric victories. We need a book with a title How to Divorce and remain friends (for the children).

    Oh, and him sniffing round his ex wasn’t realistic in my mind. Why go out for a burger when their’s steak at home. Artistic license I suppose.

    I do understand the yurning for the family mean though. I think divorced families miss out on that, although they gain on babysitting. If you can I think perhaps do it once a year the Mum Dad and children having dinner. Without the tears and stuff though and keeping it positive.

    The whole things did bring back some unpleasant memories. i am pleased to say when faced with such nonsense from my ex I did not fight back and sat in police cell instead before NFA’d. The police eventually stopped the calls.

    Final point, you saying child comes first is illustrative of the problem where not enough to go round, expecting one party to be ok to sleep rough safe and happy that his or her kids are ok is pushing your luck and the series was right to show that. Sadly Frequently divorce ends in early death for at least one of the two main parties and often harms the children.

    Perhaps a ‘good divorce’ wouldn’t make as good tv.

  3. Andy says:

    This is all to real in today’s divorce courts.
    The lies, accusations and threats that decimate both parties yet the children suffer.
    Trouble is courts of today award financial sums of money to the lying parent from usually the ex father.
    Then CMS demands. Then court due to a slight brush on a child in fact it’s all to real. You would think you were reading a novel but sadly not..

  4. Mr T says:

    If you read enough around this topic you ultimately realise as stated, nobody wins, everybody loses.

    All parties lose a family and end up with some kind of trauma. How the parents deal with it here in the aftermath is key. It’s very simple. Show some empathy and if possible compassion to each other. Failing that don’t be hostile and treat them how you want to be treated. Focus on the child’s needs, not yours – like the article states.

    Pointless words to the disordered – but that’s another topic, or is it?

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