I was so refreshed to read this pivotal report published by the Family Solutions Group ‘What about me?’ Reframing Support for Families following Parental Separation.’ I’ve been longing for society and the family law profession to really take strides to change the way we deal with family separation since I first started my career as a family lawyer in 1999. I’ve always had a vision for a better way. It’s long overdue.
As the report itself states ‘the family justice system is in crisis’. This is no exaggeration. The numbers of parents making applications are unmanageable and family courts are stretched beyond limits, with the number of applications (often about matters that should never have reached the doors of the court) growing exponentially.’ I think clients need to know this. You can find the report here:-
As the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane said: “This report brings together the various lines of thinking of recent years aimed at finding a better way to achieve good co-parenting between separated parents. It is an important and impressive document”.
“It should be a matter of concern for society in general to achieve better co-parenting between separating couples. It is thought that about 40% of all separating parents bring issues about their children’s care to the Family Court for determination, rather than exercising parental responsibility and sorting problems out themselves. This figure is both startling and worrying. Where there are no issues of domestic abuse or child protection, parents ought to be able, or encouraged, to make arrangements for their own child, rather than come to a court of law and a judge to resolve the issues”.
“The number of these private law applications [applications relating to children]continues to increase, and the trend is that more and more parents see lawyers and the court as the first port of call in dispute resolution, rather than as the facility of last resort as it should be in all cases where domestic abuse or child protection are not an issue”.
“For as long as I can recall, going back to Sir Nicholas Wall’s work on ‘Making Contact Work’ and indeed before that to the philosophy behind the Children Act 1989, 30 years ago, concerted efforts have been made to achieve a major societal shift away from seeing issues about ordinary child care arrangements as involving ‘rights’ or requiring legal redress. The Family Solutions Group are to be commended for mounting a strong case for major change; the courts can only do so much, any major change requires widespread engagement and support. The themes of this report should therefore be of interest to all”.
There are so many important findings and messages in this report, none more so than encouraging parents to find ways of resolving their own conflict and taking control themselves, with appropriate support. Now that essentially is exactly what mediation is about. Parents working together, alongside their grief and emotions, with help from a neutral professional and other professionals such as divorce coaches, family consultants and counsellors, to find their own solutions which are individually tailored to their needs.
This report takes me back to my family lawyer days. I always knew that I wanted to focus on family law. The psychology of what makes us tick, the grief we experience on separation are areas which have always intrigued me. From day one, I was always interested in helping couples navigate divorce and separation without unnecessary conflict. I believed that there were better ways. However, whilst I had this view, some of my fellow colleagues (we are talking in 1999 here but unfortunately there are still a few around even in 2020) didn’t share my vision. Many talked the talk by joining local collaborative groups but did not walk the walk. They wrote unnecessarily hostile letters, they wouldn’t answer a phone call to talk about an issue to try and get things resolved, they were rude at court etc. It just went on. These old ways of dealing with sensitive family breakdowns only create conflict and stress not only for the law professional who absorbs this emotional trauma day in day out which can be harmful for their wellbeing but also for clients who are already experiencing so much upset.
My experience tells me that most family law clients go to a law professional because they want help finding a solution rather than wanting to engage in a conflictual process at a time when they already have enough internal and external conflict going on in their lives.
This report really highlights the shortcomings of the court system. It explains the reality of a system struggling to cope and why all efforts should be made to avoid resorting to court. It also sets out the great work by the family law community in offering clients a wide range of options to resolve their issues without resorting to court as we know a one size fits all approach isn’t right.
It also shows that for things to really get better you will need to take responsibility for sorting things out yourself (with help of course). So finding the right professional is key. What language are they using? What is their approach? What do their clients say about the experience of working with them? In my lawyer days I would often get calls from prospective clients seeking an aggressive approach. They genuinely thought this was the badge of honour for family law solicitors. Sometimes prospective clients would ask me ‘how many cases have I won?’ I would always challenge this? What did they consider would make them feel they had won? Is there ever a winner on a divorce or separation? I was recently reminded of this during a training course with Thomas Nash, a Divorce Coach from Melior Minds who said that on divorce ‘there is either a winner or a loser but never both. The children are the only winners or losers. They will either be winners if their parents can find a way to co-operatively parent or they will lose out.’
I knew then that acting in an aggressive way would not solve the problem. It would increase costs. It would cause a lot of stress for them but also for me as aggression is often met with aggression. It did not work. My approach was and still is fundamentally the same (although that is not to say I have not adapted and grown professionally over my twenty year career). My approach is ‘how can I help you to find a solution to what you are going through in the best possible way for you but which also enables your family to move forward without ongoing conflict and acrimony which is emotionally harmful for children caught up in the middle of it?’ What tools can I use to help you, how can you learn to help yourself and find your own solutions, co-operatively parent and to really understand that conflict is harmful for your ongoing health and wellbeing and your childrens.
I now work as a family mediator and set up my own practice in March 2018. By this point I had become jaded with the system and knew that the best way to offer the service I believe really benefits clients is to do this myself, with the vision I’ve always had. The sole focus is to work with couples who want to find solutions together. Now I know all too well that this is not easy. It takes a lot of bravery to face your ex partner and work things through. My clients often need emotional support and help from a counsellor, divorce coach or family consultant to find an outlet for the various emotions they experience which range from anger, upset, guilt and loss. We acknowledge these emotions but find a way to channel them to find solutions rather than continue harmful conflict. I work collaboratively with both parties to ensure they have the best possible chance of being able to find a resolution and move forward as co parents. Children depend on this in order for them to thrive in a more harmonious, loving situation.
I will still campaign for change in our society as to the way we address divorce and separation. It needs to be more holistic recognising the real trauma clients experience on separation. It needs to be more child focused. It needs to be more solution based rather than adversarial as that serves no one. Society and ultimately those who experience divorce and separation really need to want to separate in a more positive, child focused way. We need to start to normalise this and change the narrative of court. Ultimately this will also serve our emotional and physical health better and clients will be able to go through a divorce and separation without a longstanding impact on their wellbeing.