Or: we all like to say “I told you so”!
Sometimes in life something is so self-evident that you really can’t understand why other people think differently. In such cases it is really satisfying when you come across independent confirmation that you were, indeed, right. The temptation to say “I told you so” can then be overwhelming. This post is my “I told you so” moment.
As we all know, there are many people who have an axe to grind against the family justice system, at the forefront of which are the more vocal proponents of fathers’ rights. They are unhappy about how the system has treated them and, instead of looking at the real reasons for the way they have been treated, they point the finger of blame at the system. And lawyers are, of course, part of that system, in some sort of conspiracy to make money out of perpetuating the misery of others. As we will see in a moment, many of these malcontents will have experienced having to face a lawyer representing their former partner, which of course only makes it more likely that they will see the lawyer as the ‘enemy’.
I know I have said it here on many previous occasions, but I have never understood the anti-lawyer crusade. In relation to the ‘rights’ of fathers, for example, lawyers act for about as many fathers as mothers. Surely, they are friends, not enemies? They will do their best for their clients, irrespective of whether they are mothers or fathers. Lawyers are good for their clients and, by extension, for the children who are the subject matter of the cases in which they are involved, by helping both parents resolve disputes.
But I am of course a lawyer myself, albeit no longer practising. My words will therefore fall on deaf ears amongst the anti-family justice system crusaders. It is therefore welcome when my message is confirmed by an independent source. The source in this instance is the magistrates who deal with family cases. And before you complain that they are just a part of the system as well, they are not: I am referring to lay magistrates, who are not lawyers, or in the employ of the family justice system. These are ordinary people drawn from the local community, who give their time freely to help with the dispensation of justice.
The views of magistrates in relation to the benefits lawyers bring to proceedings involving children were demonstrated in a survey carried out by the Magistrates Association for BuzzFeed News, against the backdrop of the huge increase in the numbers of parents who are having to represent themselves without the benefit of a lawyer, since the legal aid cuts in 2013. The headline to the article about the survey on Buzzfeed News tells the story: Magistrates Say Children Suffer In Family Court Hearings When Their Parents Have No Lawyers. Yes! This is just what I (and, I’ll be honest, many other family lawyers) have been saying all along!
I’m not going to go into the detail of the survey findings (you can read the article at the link below), but here are a few examples of the ways in which magistrates have found that lawyers benefit children (it’s not rocket science):
- The side with a lawyer “would always fare better” or, to put it the other way around: the side without a lawyer will do worse. Sometimes a child will get to see less of one parent, simply because that parent couldn’t afford a lawyer (see also point 3 below).
- Cases taking longer: “Litigants in person find it difficult and frightening and while we are very willing to help, it does slow the day’s work considerably and ultimately in family court the children suffer again.”
- Unfair hearings: “The problem is that if one side is represented by a professional lawyer and the other isn’t represented, that must be intrinsically unfair. In family the magistrates will do their best to ensure a fair hearing for both sides, but as in criminal hearings, you can’t put questions in their mouth.” This was a quote from the chair of the Magistrates Association, John Bache, who went on to say that the imbalance of having one side represented ultimately ended up harming children: “The impact on children will stem from that because if there hasn’t been proper representation, the children won’t be achieving necessarily the best outcome in terms of relationship with their parents.”
- And finally this: “Several magistrates said the removal of legal aid had resulted in much more adversarial hearings as people fought very personal battles without a lawyer as a buffer. One said that as well as leading to cases where the side without a lawyer is “out-gunned by a partner with greater access to representation”, it has “led to more angry outbursts in court fuelled by frustration and stress”.” Clearly, the children are ultimately going to suffer if their parents are involved in such battles.
As I said, none of this is rocket science. It is both a damning indictment of the government’s decision to abolish legal aid, and a vindication of lawyers who act for parents in children disputes. The message is clear: don’t believe what you read in social media and elsewhere about lawyers being the enemies of parents and children. The opposite is true.
You can read the full Buzzfeed News article here.
Photo by Zooka Yung via Flickr