Before I begin I want to say that this post is not meant to be a learned discussion of a very serious subject, but rather just a few brief thoughts. I am no expert on the subject, just someone who comes across these stories with depressing regularity, and wishes he didn’t.
A week ago I wrote here about domestic abuse killings. But homicide in a family breakdown context does not just occur in domestic abuse scenarios. Take, for example, the following three headlines that appeared in national newspapers over just the last week.
First, we had this:
“Millionaire farmer ‘killed by his wife and her lover when he refused to divorce her’, court hears”
And then there was this:
“Man shoots wife dead outside court in Irbil after divorce hearing”
Lastly, the most tragic of all was this:
“Dad hanged his four children using school belts ‘because wife wanted divorce’”
Now, I don’t know the details of any of these cases (and yes, I realise that one of them relates to an incident that did not take place in this country, but something similar could easily happen here). Obviously, the perpetrator may have previously abused their victim, but none of these headlines directly suggests that they did. Homicide in a family context does not have to be the culmination of a history of abuse.
What all of these cases do surely have in common, however, is the extreme emotions triggered by relationship breakdown. Now, I am not of course making any excuse for the actions of the perpetrators. I am just saying that they were all in a situation of extreme stress, or distress, perhaps seeing no other way forward in their lives.
We all know that family breakdown is one of the most stressful and difficult things that a person can experience in their lifetime. It can seem that their world has fallen apart. They may be angry, or they may simply be driven by despair. Obviously, some people handle these feelings better than others, and thankfully very few go to the extreme of homicide, but is there anything that the system can do to reduce the incidence of such tragic headlines?
I’m not saying that a change in the law or the way that lawyers or courts deal with family matters will stop all such cases, but it is certainly true that the family justice system has the ability to make things worse, ratcheting up the feelings of animosity between the parties.
A first thought that comes to mind is the necessity under the present divorce system to attribute blame for marriage breakdown on the other party. We all know that that can unnecessarily inflame feelings of anger in the respondent. Being told that you were to blame for the breakdown can add insult to the injury of a relationship being brought to an end against your wishes. Further to that, the current system can trap a person in an unhappy marriage, as appears to have been the story behind the first headline above. Of course, we should hopefully soon have a system of no-fault divorce, and that will remove these problems.
My next thought is about the adversarial nature of court proceedings, pitching one party against the other, and giving the impression (usually actually erroneous) that one party will be the winner, and the other will be the loser. Clearly, this can also ratchet up feelings. Happily, though, there have been moves in recent years to move the family justice stem away from this, into a more inquisitorial system, where the court simply seeks the truth, rather than who can put forward the best arguments.
But the biggest trigger for extreme responses by one party must surely be the most emotive aspect of relationship breakdown: children. We can see this directly in the third of the headlines above, and all family lawyers will have seen it, to one extent or another. The responses are a reaction to losing children, or unsatisfactory contact/residence arrangements. What can be done here? Well, obviously some will say that the courts should do more to ensure arrangements are fair and do not favour one parent over the other. But there is another thing: education. Parents need to understand that the breakdown of their relationship with the other parent does not necessarily mean the end of their relationship with their children. On the contrary, a continued relationship with the children, as full as possible, is the norm. If this message goes out then hopefully fewer parents will believe that they will be losing their children.
The last thing that I want to say is this: clearly, we all have a duty to do everything we can to reduce the heat of emotion in family breakdown. That means judges, lawyers, welfare officers and everyone else who plays a role in the family justice system. We must all ensure that we are doing nothing to exacerbate the situation, and everything to alleviate it.
Obviously, and as I said above, none of the above is going to eradicate the scourge of homicide in the context of family breakdown. But maybe, just maybe, these things will go some way to make things better, and perhaps even to save lives.