This is a post by Conference on Coercive Control, an individual who wishes to remain anonymous. I am grateful for the time they have taken to write this post, in an attempt to move forward the debate about the family justice system to a more constructive arena. There are things we can do to improve matters; we should not be doomed to simply shout at each other from our different sides of the divide. Rather than continue to put the focus on a ‘corrupt’ or broken system, we need to be looking at what we could practically do, to make things better.
It has become almost commonplace for the words “corrupt”, “secret” and “family courts” to be conjoined in a splenetic invective centring on children snatched from loving parents by conspiratorial social workers pushing a forced adoption agenda or by fathers denied their rights to see children due to alienation or contact denial. A system oft described as ‘broken’ where lawyers become rich on decisions made behind closed doors in “secret” family courts.
‘200 children cruelly lose contact with their fathers every day in secret family courts” claims a fathers rights group, whilst elsewhere, headlines talk of parents fleeing the country to escape local authorities intent on removing children. That the family justice system is callous, corrupt and broken is an oft repeated refrain in certain circles and I imagine many people throwing up their hands in despair and those about to enter the process terrified by what they are about to face.
It is not just angry parents who feel the system is failing. Professionals wade in adding fuel to an already intensely burning flame yet not everyone involved (professionals included) have the full facts to hand so the discourse quickly descends into an embittered exchange of poorly-informed rants instead of becoming a discussion on how effective changes can be made so that a system that is struggling can improve.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand anger. I also understand the mistrust of the local authority. Having been in a situation where I nearly lost my children to adoption due to a false allegation, having been involved with a person so devious, he maintained a campaign of blackmail and control for years, keeping it well below the radar to near-devastating effect and having had my mental health questioned so often even though, to this date, I have never been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness.
Yup, I know all about anger and all about professionals misreading a situation of smoke and mirrors.
But before talking further about these so- called “corrupt” family courts…
My experience of the family court system
a little bit about me…
Without delving into specifics, I have been in the family court for over 30 hearings. For about 20 of them, I did not qualify for legal aid. Although there was proof of domestic violence I did not pass the means test and so represented myself as a Litigant in Person. I can honestly say that the whole experience was one of the most traumatic of my life. It was all-consuming and for nearly 2 years it dominated my life as I learned to become a lay lawyer. Each time the postman came, I held my breath. I waited with dread for yet another court application to drop on the mat. Each time the phone rang I would freeze. Panicking if it showed a withheld number fearful of yet another fictitious allegation made to the police and designed to send me into a tailspin. To this day, I still hold my breath when the post van arrives and keep holding on whilst I walk (slooowly) to the front door. His need to keep making applications is ongoing and so I wait. Old habits die hard.
I learned to represent myself when I was still recovering from his abuse so was often prone to floods of tears. Having to manage my own case file with all the information still raw and searingly painful and against a backdrop of a pending criminal investigation was far from easy. There was literally no escape, no mental escape from the trauma, no escape from the flashbacks, the nightmares. Living on “high alert” with the constant fear that he would return to the house to break in again and this time with more than a crowbar. There was certainly no escape from the ever growing pile of paperwork that was threatening to take over the house and no escape from the reams and reams of paperwork he sent me as part of his statement with information designed to deeply humiliate me in court to deflect from what I was saying. I swear that year my stomach had taken up temporary residency near my tonsils.
I was very, very lucky in that my wonderful SOIT arranged for support to make sure I was ok and so I received extensive counselling, some weeks I had 5 hours and I needed it. It was this support that gave me the strength to carry on. It was a God-send to know that if I couldn’t cope, it was only a day or two until therapy. It helped me focus.
My biggest fear was meeting my abuser in court and not being able to control my bodily functions. I would be so tense that if my stomach lurched hard enough at the sight of him, I would have to run off to vomit or worse. There were several occasions where I incurred the wrath of the judge because I had to run off, at a moment’s notice to the loo to dry retch. I don’t think the judge ever really understood the impact of being in the same room as the man who did what he did. How could he? The man in front of him was charming and softly spoken and said all the right things. How was the judge to know that saying the right thing was easy and meaningless? Putting it into practice, not so much. To the judge, the end of the relationship signalled the end of the abuse. We needed to concentrate on contact. We needed to move forward.
I would try to keep my tears in check by clenching my teeth, aware that it would make me look stern, possibly even angry but I was scared my body would leak so my words would come out distorted in either a barely audible whisper or a robotic monotone. To stop from crying I opened my eyes wide. Thinking of it now, I possibly may have looked a little crazy but I needed to do all I could to not collapse into sobs. Either way, it contrasted greatly with his ability to talk mellifluously, even tell a small joke or two. Yes, judges need training on how people can change their persona and their demeanour. I’m sure some get it but just not enough of them do, sadly.
At some hearings I would sit stock still, not move at all, hardly breathe and just stare ahead determined not to cry even though my eyes were stinging from tears forbidden to fall.
Sometimes I could feel myself shaking from exhaustion. The few days before a hearing would play havoc with my sleep. He sometimes made a joke about me being mentally ill and paranoid and both he and the judge would laugh. I wanted to shout out, why are you falling for this act? I do not have a mental illness. Read the bundle. I wanted to scream that my perceived mental illness was a fiction to explain away the sleep deprivation from being woken up by him 4 or 5 times during the night, lack of sleep, the stress, caring for a baby. All were reasons for my sluggishness and disorientation. But for him it was convenient to say “Look at her, she can’t cope- it’s because she is mentally ill”. It was a distraction that helped to gloss over his abuse, but I stayed silent. I was too worried my stomach would let me down – or worse.
Those were my experiences. Traumatic and deeply distressing and I have heard many others say the same of their experiences. Whatever the reason for finding yourself in the family court, the experience of court is horrific but, even with the misinterpretations, lack of training, some really dubious report writing and certain conclusions that were so way out I suspected the author may have been high, I do not believe the courts are corrupt.
Family courts are not ‘corrupt’ but the Judges NEED training
What I DO believe is that many judges and magistrates are out of touch with what happens, especially where domestic violence is concerned. Their understanding of the dynamics of abuse, perpetrator tactics and victim behaviour does not reflect what happens in real life and that concerns me greatly. I especially believe there is very little understanding of the coercive and controlling behaviour that can reduce a person to a hostage in their own home but without a bruise or fracture to validate their fear. There is an urgent need for training to help identify behaviour that is invisible to the untrained eye so that outcomes reflect the actual situation and not the distorted picture that has been presented. All too often what appears to be a high conflict split has been categorised as ‘toxic’ and whereas this can be the case, often underlying coercive control has not been identified and so the abuser remains able to manipulate and control in the knowledge that it will not be seen as abuse but six of one and half a dozen of the other.
I believe some very poor decisions are being made due to a general lack of understanding. Training should not be confined solely to Judges. Social workers, Cafcass officers, expert witnesses, lawyers as well as court staff need to be aware. There needs to be a shift from looking at isolated incidents to identifying patterns of behaviour and more training across all sectors will help to change the way domestic abuse is investigated by creating better awareness and understanding to identify and evidence abuse that hides in plain sight.
Evidence is not always available in the form of an outright confession or CCTV footage and sometimes evidence needs to be gathered in a different way. This could apply to witnesses. Courts are hugely intimidating to most people and often court staff, lawyers and judges forget this. Courts are scary enough for the parties involved in an actual hearing but for witnesses whose only involvement is to provide information, it can be too much and so many are reluctant to go to court thus depriving someone of valuable evidence. By making the process less intimidating for someone to act as a witness, it would be a benefit especially in cases of domestic violence, abuse and child neglect, cruelty where people are reluctant to get involved for fear of getting it wrong or for fear of retribution from the party they have information on.
Court does not make people angry
I also don’t feel the court system is broken. It is in need of a systems upgrade but it is not broken. It is the people coming in to the court who are broken. Court doesn’t make people angry, the come in angry and a high stress environment will only increase the likelihood of volatility. When looking at improving the court process, it is vital that the parties themselves are not excluded. A less traumatic experience can only have long term benefits not just for the parties but also the efficient running of the court.
A Plea for Pre-Hearing Counselling
There is a duty CAFCASS officer in court on family days to help with children. I believe that Litigants in Persons should have someone there for them to help with information and for support. A Pre-Hearing Counselling Session would be a session where a counsellor or similar is on duty to help explain the court process, calculate rough timescales as to length of the matter, what to expect in a hearing, an explanation of what the judge is looking for but more importantly, that person should be a calming influence with good negotiating and people skills and able to engage with people who are emotional and agitated and put them at their ease. They will be able to, at least in part, inform, ease someone’s distress, assuage their fears as well as signpost them on to counsellors or suitable support services they may need. I believe a friendly face in court would allay a great deal of the fear, tension, distress and animosity, especially one who could say. “Look, I understand your anger but for this matter, you have to put it to one side as it won’t help you and it won’t help your child.” then get the parties to see that feelings of anger, hurt and betrayal are natural but using it as a weapon helps no one.
Post – Hearing Counselling
To help parties consolidate and come to terms with what just happened.
Vulnerable People are Easily Exploited
I have lost count of the times I have said to someone who has contacted me, if you want contact, start a dialogue but don’t expect much cooperation if you’ve put their photo on Facebook and are calling for them to be sent to prison for contact denial. In some cases, the hostility started from the word go and has escalated into an entrenched impasse but often, the hostility has come from family or friends and it has dictated the direction of the split and the injured party has been caught up in the conflict. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have heard that someone was hurt, upset and betrayed by the loss of their relationship and they did not know where to turn, who to speak to and they allowed themselves to be convinced by the anger of their friends or family or some action group and are in a situation where everyone feels personally invested. There is a role for family and friends to act as go-betweens but only if they are able to sit on the fence and remain neutral. A huge problem is that people love to feel involved, even interfere and some use the opportunity to wage war.
Many years ago, a male friend told a female friend that if the father of her children did not pay maintenance, she should stop contact. The father had been made redundant and his ex-wife was sympathetic to his plight but I could see the effect her friend’s anger was having on her and at the time I felt his involvement was unhelpful and told him. He responded in two syllables. Often litigants have no idea of the legal process and rely on false information. They are distressed, worried about legal costs, intimidated by the thought of court, suspicious of lawyers and frightened. One thing I have learnt from being with an abuser is that vulnerable people are easily exploited and this is as true of a divorcee coming across a ‘charmer’ as it is of a distraught dad coming across some of the angry and unhelpful ‘advice’ in the form of people who have had bad experiences and lash out at the system. Better signposting for available help in the form of either legal advice or therapy would be hugely beneficial and would help those in distress with no way of knowing where to go to avoid those out to exploit.
Interview your lawyer
For those lucky enough to have legal representation, lawyers can and do offer support and advice and I have known some brilliant lawyers who were able to get a client to maintain focus on a desired outcome and not go over to the Dark Side. I have also known some pretty bad lawyers who have been dismissive, have not taken the trouble to explain things adequately but continued to flummox with legal jargon leaving a client perplexed and excluded at their own hearing. Some are in desperate need of people skills and some hold deeply ingrained beliefs that are contrary to their client’s. It is important to make sure the lawyer you choose is one you can work with. Much the process will be deeply uncomfortable and distressing with sometimes very personal information being discussed so it is important to feel comfortable with the person representing you.
Make sure they ”Get It”
Most lawyers are lovely, though admittedly even the lovely ones don’t’ always understand your experiences and it is important that they do. As an example, the dynamics of domestic violence/coercive control or a deep mistrust of social services are not always understood or acknowledged. I have often heard lawyers dismiss domestic violence as a ‘legal aid matter’ and some hold the view that abuse is only serious if it has been physical. A client needs to make sure their lawyer “gets them” and understands their situation. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of them.
Sometimes it gets forgotten that people in a state of high distress are incapable of thinking straight. It’s not that they don’t want to but the hurt, the fear, the anguish sits there and dominates proceedings and they sometimes react unexpectedly. This needs to be remembered. Court staff, lawyers, magistrates, judges need to be aware of this. People in distress don’t always react the way normally expected of them. Abusers can cry, and they do and some actually look as though they mean it. They admit their mistakes and say they have learnt but not all are sincere. Victims don’t always cry. They can come off as more aggressive that the alleged perpetrator. Some have an unfortunate nervous laugh. Often they come across as defensive and brittle. Corner a frightened animal in a cage, they don’t always cower. Adequate training for court staff, magistrates, lawyers, judges, social workers, CAFCASS should be mandatory so that in family cases, both private and public, there will be better insight Having been in hearings where it is obvious the Judge has no idea of who to believe and which direction to take, training would help to make a decision that is appropriate. I will always remember the words of a solicitor who said, of a judge who was fair. “Being fair isn’t always right”.
Self–Defeating Attitude Kills Hope
It is a huge judgement on my part, I know, but some people are just so wrong for the job. I recall a lawyer who, arms folded, towering over my seated position and glowering, hissed at me that if I did not agree to her client’s demands, there would be hearing upon hearing upon hearing until I had no money. She advertised herself as a domestic abuse lawyer and she was representing my abuser. I have to say, I was terrified. Not just by what she said but by her aggressive stance and intimidating body language. There should be no place for bullies in a domestic abuse situation. I have met many people who, at the start of their career, would have had a passion for their work, be it law, statutory services, the volunteer sector but somewhere along the line they have become despondent, disillusioned, bitter, resentful, have given up but not yet left the building. If you are an employer and looking for change, for progress, you need to have people who believe it can happen. Nothing will change if the prevailing view is “What’s the point, nothing will happen, why bother, nobody listens, nothing ever changes” Negative thinking and a self-defeating attitude will 100% guarantee that nothing gets done and, in the case of domestic violence, when you are advising a victim of abuse that there is a way out, there is a chance to start again, you’re not trapped. How will a victim believe that, if they know you don’t? If you no longer believe in what you do, it’s time to get out.
There are some changes that could be made fairly easily and which would create a less cumbersome system which could potentially go some way towards creating a better experience. One of them is staggered arrival times. I speak for myself and others when they describe the terror of arriving in court with the possibility that they may bump into their ex with a possible entourage. I have been known to hide in bushes because of queues for the security check and I did not want to risk my abuser walking up behind me. I have also known an abuser bring his extended family to wait for him before the court opened. His ex had to force herself to walk past the sneering and name calling. Maybe staggered arrival times aren’t always practical, maybe some courts could put in place separate entrances for applicants and respondents. It seems extravagant to give each a private meeting room and this could be a simple way of reducing the likelihood of an unwanted encounter.
In cases where there is domestic violence where victims of abuse act in person, a coding system could be arranged whereby on arrival, the victim could show a discrete badge or ticket and the security guard could accompany them to a separate waiting room without a huge disruption. Court staff could then inform their arrival to the Usher. It is very common that abusers will chose to sit either right by the Usher, the door to the loo or the water cooler. I have known some that will happily switch between all three, knowing that every time they move position, it creates distress. I have heard many stories of victims transfixed to their seat and unable to go to the loo or the water cooler and have often gone into a hearing parched and bursting for the loo. I feel that often court staff do not get it. An innocent gesture of the perpetrator opening the door for the victim and accidentally brushing their hand is enough to intimidate a victim into silence yet looks harmless to the untrained eye. Keeping applicants and respondents apart would minimise much of the subtle ‘below the radar’ forms of intimidation seen in coercive control.
Maybe creating separate waiting rooms is not feasible so maybe screens could be put up to give at least some semblance of protection from intimidating stares although diehard intimidators will use heavy sighs, coughs and annoying finger clicking to announce their presence, the main purpose of which is to signal “ Yoo hoo, I’m here and I know you can hear me”.
Court staff should be made aware of subtle forms of intimidation so they can report it to the judge. I remember a hearing where the abuser was accompanied by a Mackenzie friend with an exceptionally loud booming voice. Whilst waiting to be called into the hearing, the MKF would stand by the victim and have a conversation, very loudly, in Italian (which I suspect only she and the MKF spoke). The conversation was less than polite about her but how do you prove it? Luckily, he was so loud, the usher asked him to continue out in the stairwell whereupon he stood just outside the ladies lavatory. Classic intimidation but who would have recognised it?
Someone else told me that their abuser would delicately run his index finger down his face, it was a code to her to say he would cut her face. To everyone else it looked like he was brushing off a stray hair. Training and observation. Much better training. That is what is needed.
Feeding the meter
Parking for court hearings is another thorny subject. It never fails to amaze me that conference halls can organise tickets for all day parking yet with hearings, lawyers and their clients often have to dash out to feed a meter which, at an all-day hearing, is not only distracting but adds to the stress levels already at play. I fail to see the difficulty in a system whereby a person due in court can purchase a half day/full day parking permit online when they are listed for a hearing.
I fail to see the reasoning behind listing a hearing for 10 am and then having to hang around all day waiting to go into court. I understand the bit about not wasting the judge’s time but, in light of legal aid cuts, all this hanging around must be a huge drain on the public purse.
I can laugh about it now but I remember the time I arrived at the court with an urgent ex parte application for an occupation order. I arrived and asked the security guard where I could deliver it only for him to shout, “Why are you coming here with an occupation order? We’re not the bloody job centre, you know!”
In conclusion, some suggestions I would have welcomed as a LiP which would have made the whole process a little less distressing but, if I am completely honest, I would have put up with a hearing in a barn with a mouldy squat loo if it meant the judges, lawyers, court staff et al had received comprehensive training in identifying below the radar non-physical abuse.
Now there’s a thought.