This is a guest blog by Ember Rose, of the group Mothers Unite. Ember took part in the first Open Family Court workshop I held at UWE in Bristol, and I’m very grateful to her for asking members of her group for their thoughts and ideas on what a more open and transparent family court might look like.
These views, clearly, come from mothers. Interestingly, at the Open Family Court workshop I held in London on Saturday, the one father who attended spoke to say that many of the concerns expressed by the women on the day were also felt keenly by fathers who had experienced the family court system. I hope to have a guest blog from fathers in the near future: if you are a father or organise a fathers’ group, and would like to offer your perspective on ways forward for a more open and accountable family court system, I’d be keen to hear from you – please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, here is the Mothers Unite contribution to the debate.
I help to run a group for mothers, 90% of whom are domestic abuse victims, have children who have been subject to or witnessed abuse from the father, and under private law are being taken through family court by the perpetrator.
We have over 1000 members and know there are many who contact other charities and organisations facing the same problems. I asked members what they thought an ‘open family court’ would look like. There were many thoughts, mainly centering on accountability for the decisions professionals make which are currently hidden and unchecked, allowing abuse to continue from the perpetrator and children to be placed in unsafe contact or even residence.
Many members have found that court professionals are uneducated in the dynamics of abuse and have attitudes based on deeply entrenched beliefs that women are vindictive and abuse rare. Many of those professionals, in our experience, appear to have a mindset that defies reality and normal life, and so the ordinary person entering family court finds they are in a ‘parallel universe’ or ‘an alternate planet’. An open court would allow some common sense and logic to enter this arena.
Some had concerns that the press would not report correctly or would base their reports on court orders which are frequently not a representation of reality, as Mothers Unite members experience it. However, others thought that this was the only way for the truth to be exposed and that they would be given the chance to speak out.
Many would not want children to be named – however most felt that the distress and abuse children are currently subject to is worse than being publicly named.
It was thought that the courts could be open to the press but perhaps not to the general public due to fear of perpetrators family and friends turning up at court.
A jury was mentioned, but there was concern that many members of the public may not have a full understanding of domestic abuse, and so the problem of victim blaming would continue.
We would like to see a panel of experts who are independent of family courts and who have an understanding of domestic abuse, child abuse and types of abusive personalities. They could be involved at an early stage of the process whereby an application is made to a family court: they could advise – as happens now – but they would be properly trained and experienced. Alternatively – or additionally – they could hold meetings with parents and children, examine the situation and family dynamics, including any relevant evidence, and then present a report to the courts. This, we suggest, would reduce the number of stressful hearings, and give the family a better and more natural chance to talk. It would also reduce the expense of lawyers, or the deeply unfair situation where one party has a lawyer, and the other is self-representing and unable to put their case well.
Other measures to ensure openness in family court proceedings could be the recording of all meetings with Cafcass, social workers, contact centre sessions etc, and transcripts of hearings to be available at no cost to the parties.
Another action that would enable more transparency is the end of ‘gagging orders’ and the threats to mothers of losing their children if they speak out. This threat, in our members’ experience, can come from Cafcass, judges, social services and lawyers. It happens like this: if a mother does not agree that a father should have contact or a child is refusing to spend time with him, then the mother is given a warning that the child’s residence will be changed to the father if they don’t support contact, and/or don’t stop talking about abuse.
In our group many have lost residence of their child for these reasons. We often have to advise mothers to continue sending a child to contact where they are being abused (sometimes very serious abuse) because there have been these threats.
Once there has been a threat – which may come in the form of a ‘recommendation’, especially within a Cafcass report – we know that losing our child is a real danger, and the aim at that point becomes not losing your child to full-time abuse and trauma. Alongside this, there is usually the accusation of ‘parental alienation’ in some form. Some solicitors tell mothers not to talk about abuse because courts ‘don’t like it’ and mothers tell us they are frequently told contact will be expected to go ahead whether there is abuse or not.
This is a use of children that is unacceptable. The general silencing of abuse victims is felt as sinister and terrifying by many victims.
In summary, it seems to our members that the fears of bad publicity and the naming of children is a risk they feel they would be willing to take, for them to have a better chance of a childhood free from years of abuse, worry and distress.
Above all, we want our children’s voices to be heard – and this does not happen in the current climate of hidden ‘goings-on’ in family courts.
Ember Rose, Mothers Unite UK