As a species we appear to be primed to impose a narrative on our experiences. We love stories and we need them. As Adam Gopnik commented in 2012, looking at the science behind storytelling:
Gottschall’s encouraging thesis is that human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.
The book ‘The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories’ is described thus:
This remarkable and monumental book at last provides a comprehensive answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of ‘basic stories’ in the world. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling.
It is of course a bitter irony that its author is Christopher Booker, one of the chief proponents over many years of the narrative of the ‘evil and secret’ family courts that do untold harm to ‘innocent’ families for no reason other than caprice and cruelty. See this post for how he wrote about the case of Marie Black, a convicted paedophile in the criminal courts but to Booker simply another in a long line of victims of the family courts.
So I can conclude that stories are important to our psychological make up as a species and that there are only a limited number of ‘basic stories’ . I can also conclude that the family justice system has not been able to grapple with this narrative drive for some very obvious reasons. Predominantly this is the operation of section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act which prohibits publication of details of proceedings held in private – as most proceedings under the Children Act are.
This insistence on privacy is to protect the identity of the children involved becoming widely known – a perfectly proper endeavour. Children did not ask to be born and they certainly did not ask to become involved in public airing of the family’s dirty secrets.
But this has lead to silence from those who know best about how cases are argued, how judges make decisions, why and how families are separated and children adopted. Into that silence, over the years, has come the noise and chatter of many groups and individuals who for a variety of reasons have a strong and appealing narrative about the family justice system. Many of these narratives bear no resemblance to reality but to counter them is next to impossible because of course responsible commentators cannot refer to the details of actual court proceedings involving children.
This has all come to a head recently with the death of Alfie Evans on 28th April 2018. The ‘compassionate’ judgments in this case have been published. But how many are reading them?
Its always interesting to apply a Dunning Fog index test to published text.This is
a weighted average of the number of words per sentence, and the number of long words per word. An interpretation is that the text can be understood by someone who left full-time education at a later age than the index.
To be ‘universally accessible’ the text needs to score no more than 8. To be ‘widely accessible’ no more than 12. Looking at the first judgment in Alfie Evan’s case in February 2018, a random paragraph scores 18.61. The Church Militant article, pictured above, scored 13.29 and of course was accompanied by heart wrending photographs of a little boy and a far more instantly accessible and emotional narrative than that provided by the court judgments.
Many lawyers commented on social media that they could not understand why so many appeared to be by-passing the compassion and legal wisdom of the published judgments and preferring instead to share the more lurid and fantastical stories playing out around Alfie’s life and death. Perhaps this discussion may give them a clue.
Why does this matter? The difference between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ transparency
It matters because those who peddle the strong but wrong narratives have a reach and influence far beyond comments on a screen. No sadder and clearer example can be found than in the Alfie Evans case where hundreds of people marched on a children’s hospital to shout abuse at doctors and nurses. The comments of the Court of Appeal in the final court judgment in April 2018 make for troubling reading:
We were reminded that in the past leading counsel, Mr Stephen Knafler QC, acting then on behalf of both of the parents, deprecated the involvement of legally qualified but not practising lawyers who introduced (to use Mr Knafler’s phrase) a “darker side” to what was otherwise valuable support. It has become apparent to this court, and we referred to it in the postscript to the judgment that we gave on 6 March 2018 in relation to the first appeal, that there was some coordinated organisation of potential medical experts in relation to more than one of these vulnerable families, the same expert being covertly introduced to Kings College Hospital to examine secretly one child in the paediatric intensive care unit there and the next day to go to Alder Hey, again covertly and secretly, to purport to examine Alfie there.
It is not the function of this court now to embark upon an investigation of these matters, but it has become apparent, in particular in terms of the information we have been given about the instruction of the new legal team for the mother today and the drafting of the grounds of appeal upon which Mr Coppel purported to rely at the start of his submissions, (with its unhappy emphasis on prospective criminal proceedings against the staff at Alder Hey) that the representation of the parents may have been infiltrated or compromised by others who purport to act on their behalf. I say no more, but I have in mind the tenuous nature of the direct contact that Mr Coppel and his instructing solicitors had with the mother and yet the clear grounds of appeal that he was instructed to put forward on her behalf, which were, it now transpires, drafted by a lawyer who is not before the court. It may be that some investigation of whether, in this country, at this time, parents who find themselves in these awful circumstances, and are therefore desperate for help and vulnerable to engaging with people whose interests may not in fact assist the parents’ case, needs some wider investigation, but I do no more than draw attention to the concern that this court has at what seems to be an unhelpful development which may, in reality, be contrary to the interests of such parents.
There are many other examples of this kind of attack on the rule of law and the erosion of public trust and confidence in the family justice system. The same names crop up over and over again – Sabine McNeil, John Hemming, Ian Josephs and Christopher Booker for example. They all promote the narrative that parents would be better off leaving the jurisdiction than facing the UK family court system. Josephs and Hemming provide money and accommodation for mothers they persuade to ‘flee’. For many, this proves a disastrous decision.
Sabine McNeil was one of those ‘campaigners’ responsible for promoting the ‘Hampstead Hoax’ which even now continues to cause anxiety to local parents who find themselves branded satanic abusers. The judgment in the fact finding hearing sets out the truth but that judgment can make no inroads into the deluded certainties of those who are convinced that a primary school in Hampstead routinely organised the murder of babies and the wearing of their skin as shoes.
Although Sabine McNeil is now in prison, it is sobering to remember that only in 2014 she was presenting a petition to the European Parliament about the UK family courts, which lead to a visit to London by a European delegation in November of that year.
Also in 2014 the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby made it clear that things had to change, saying:
I am determined to take steps to improve access to and reporting of family proceedings. I am determined that the new Family Court should not be saddled, as the family courts are at present, with the charge that we are a system of secret and unaccountable justice.’
The President issued guidelines for the publication of judgments and the last four years have seen a significant increase in the number published – however, there appears no clear or coherent strategy behind this. Some judges publish a lot, some none at all. Publishing a judgment, as I have commented, doesn’t mean that anyone will read it or that it can stand up to a much more immediate and ‘sexy’ narrative.
So what’s the solution?
Family lawyers and the family justice system need to understand the difference between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ transparency and need to be more willing to promote the first. ‘Transparency’ is about so much more than just allowing passive public scrutiny of processes and outcomes: we must generate a far greater understanding amongst the public about what is behind the decisions made. This becomes an increasingly urgent project as distrust between parents and professionals apparently hardens and increases. For example, in 2017 McFarlane LJ noted with disquiet in the first Bridget Lindley Memorial Lecture:
‘From what I have been told from a range of sources, and from my own exposure on a daily basis to litigants in person seeking to appeal child care decisions, there is a significant and growing distrust shown by some parents in child care lawyers and judges. This is deeply worrying and needs to be addressed if it is not to lead to yet more parents disengaging from working with professionals and the process in a way which can, in my view, only damage their interests rather than enhance them.’
This worrying evidence of growing distrust between parents and professionals was also highlighted by the journalist and Transparency Project member Louise Tickle who delivered the second BLM lecture on March 13th in Birmingham. Louise is an example of the benefits of a particular type of ‘active’ transparency – encouraging intelligent outsiders to examine our current closed systems and highlight where practice and procedure that to family lawyers seems normal, may appear bizarre and even frightening to those on the outside. Her clear conclusion was that the secrecy of the family courts was a disgrace and led to bad practice escaping scrutiny and censure. When writing about family cases her inbox became ‘one long scream of pain’.
Little wonder then that the narratives about the ‘evil secret family courts’ take such firm grasp and no doubt at all about the damage they do – not just to individuals who find themselves taking some very bad advice, but to society as a whole, for respect for the rule of law.
All of us involved in the family justice system have to start getting better at telling our story.
- Note in particular this article Science vs Conspiracy: Collective Narratives in the Age of Misinformation: ‘the World Wide Web has changed the dynamics of information transmission as well as the agenda-setting process . Relevance of facts, in particular when related to social relevant issues, mingle with half-truths and untruths to create informational blends [2, 3]. In such a scenario, as pointed out by , individuals can be uninformed or misinformed and the role of corrections in the diffusion and formation of biased beliefs are not effective. In particular, in  online debunking campaigns have been shown to create a reinforcement effect in usual consumers of conspiracy stories.’