This is a post by Sarah Phillimore
I feel like I am caught on a constant hamster wheel of the same problems and the same criticisms. Nothing seems to change or get any better. Rather, it gets much, much worse as now we see actual Government departments being drawn into an Inquiry on what I fear is a false premise.
So what’s the latest update at the coal face of the dispiriting Mine of Fact lite Narrative?
I have written before about my disquiet over the narrative that appears to be gaining traction in the ‘debate’ about the Family Justice System (FJS). The influence of those pushing the notion that the FJS exists as a tool of misogynistic oppression, and that judges are simply ignorant or uncaring around issues of violence and abuse, has apparently been taken up wholesale by the Ministry of Justice with its 3 month ‘Inquiry’ recently announced. I have also written about this in critical terms; pointing that 3 months is barely long enough to arrange the first meeting and decide the terms of reference.
However, I was initially hearted to see the MP Louise Haigh, one of those who had pressed for the Inquiry, apparently acknowledge via Twitter the true scope of the difficulties.
Cuts to legal aid and soaring complex caseloads for dedicated social workers are all part of a family courts system under incredible pressure,” she wrote. “There needs to be the political will and resource to fix the structural problems in order to keep our children safe.”
However, this optimism was short lived. It soon became clear that the Panel chosen to undertake this Inquiry came from a narrow group and arguably fails to reflect the sheer weight of the competing perspectives and issues that come together to challenge our FJS.
The Ministry of Justice said this about the Panel on May 21st
The three-month project aims to ensure that the family court works first and foremost in the explicit interests of the child, such as their safety, health and well-being. The MOJ-chaired panel will consist of a range of experts including senior members of the judiciary, leading academics and charities.
And – rather worryingly, as the MoJ are apparently silent about how they are going to ‘fact check’ or reassure themselves of the credibility of any complainants:
A public call for evidence will also be launched imminently and will look to those with direct involvement to share their experiences.
The panel was then announced as
- Melissa Case & Nicola Hewer, Director of Family and Criminal Justice Policy, MOJ (Chair)
- Professor Liz Trinder, University of Exeter
- Professor Rosemary Hunter FAcSS, University of Kent
- Professor Mandy Burton, University of Leicester
- Mr Justice Stephen Cobb, Judiciary
- District Judge Katherine Suh, Judiciary
- Nicki Norman, Acting Co-Chief Executive, Women’s Aid
- Dierdre Fottrell QC & Lorraine Cavanagh QC (joint representatives), Association of Lawyers for Children
- Isabelle Trowler, Chief Social Worker for England (Children & Families)
The panel will also be supported by analysts, researchers and relevant policy officials from MOJ.
This is a list of the great and good indeed. But what is immediately apparent is that it contains only one man – Mr Justice Cobb. Women’s Aid get a representative but no charity or organisation that exists to support men within the system is represented. How is this right? How does this encourage faith in the Inquiry to look with the necessary impartiality at the various issues that bedevil the system? Women’s Aid for example have been shown repeatedly to present unhelpful and inaccurate information in pursuit of their agenda.
Why wasn’t a group such as Families Need Fathers approached (I asked them; they weren’t). The dangers of approaching a problem from one perspective only should not really need pointing out. I have already commented about my real unease that women such as Victoria Haigh are being promoted and supported by ‘those prominent in the domestic violence sector’. This is not a men versus women issue – both sexes are capable of horrible cruelty and unkindness towards each other and their children. This has to be recognised and accepted before it can be dealt with.
My misery increased when I read a guest post published by the Transparency Project by barrister Charlotte Proudman. It was a piece published without comment or context – simply saying that ‘other pieces were in the pipeline’. I commented directly that I thought this was irresponsible given that Ms Proudman appeared to be making some very serious assertions about the failings of the judiciary to deal properly or at all with issues of domestic violence in the FJS and yet provided nothing by way of any evidence to support these worrying claims – that did not chime with any of the barristers who commented via social media.
Nor was unease confined to the lawyers.
It's wrong because it is promoting a gendered agenda, not seeking to understand and learn. We've all had to adjust our horizons & recognise our own experiences are but a tiny element of the whole picture, but Proudman takes the debate backwards.
— Nick Langford (@4orseti) July 5, 2019
No one gets a free pass
I am glad to see the Transparency Project published a response on 6th July to the unease that this post generated, but remain sorry that such comment was not made at the time. To publish initially Ms Proudman’s post, without comment or context, that made such frankly incredible claims, risks appearing like endorsement.
I am also concerned to see it said by the Transparency Project in their response that people objected to the post because they didn’t ‘like’ what was said or were using their own anecdotal experience as somehow superior to Ms Proudman’s.
My concerns are not about shutting up people who don’t agree with me. But if people are making incredible assertions, that chime not at all with my experience, then I do not think it is unreasonable to ask that the person making the assertion support it with some evidence and that their views not simply be published without comment or context.
This is far too important an area to be decided by any individual’s ‘feelings’ or inherent prejudice or assumptions. I am glad that the Transparency Project does not wish to ‘play it safe’ and will continue to publish a variety of views – but no one should get a free pass about the need for evidence.
I remember hearing Dan Levitin, author of ‘A field Guide to Lies’ speak at the Bristol Festival of Ideas in 2017. He told us we have a moral obligation to check our assumptions and challenge our colleagues. I wrote then and believe still:
The key message from Dan Levitin was that we must ALL take personal responsibility for educating ourselves to think critically and challenge people that we know are pushing misinformation. We cannot discuss issues sensibly or at all unless we are able to agree on what the ‘facts’ are. There are no ‘alternative facts’ only ‘facts’. But peoples’ beliefs about what is or is not a fact can shift over time.
The consequences of the degraded respect for ‘facts’ and ‘experts’ are all around us. Challenges to the FJS need to be based on proper data, properly analysed. The consequences if it is not are very serious. I am afraid the constitution of the Panel for the Inquiry and the continued promotion of incredible assertions on no evidence, gives me very little confidence that one inherently skewed narrative is going to be challenged sufficiently or at all.
But we shall see. I hope I am wrong.