The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.
Sydney J. Harris
This is an article by Sarah Phillimore of St Johns Chambers in Bristol who has been a family law barrister since 1999 and worked in courts all over London and the South West.
In this article Sarah discusses the impact of the Internet on professional debate and the new drive for openness and transparency in the family law system and how it is hoped this can have positive outcomes for all involved in the area of child protection law.
I write from the perspective of a family law barrister who has been in practice for nearly 15 years. The bulk of my work is in care proceedings and most of the time I represent parents, although I am also instructed to represent Local Authorities and Guardians.
I am also someone who spends a lot of the time on the Internet, discussing things that interest me. I now have an ipad and often many hours in the day spent travelling or sitting and waiting outside court, so I have been able to indulge this hobby pretty regularly.
What I have found depressing over the years is the increasing number of those commentating on issues of child protection who firmly believe that the entire system is corrupt and broken. They argue, inter alia, that children are taken from loving homes, for no good or for ‘silly’ reasons in order for Local Authorities to fulfill their government sanctioned ‘adoption targets’. Given that their belief is of a malign State which deliberately sets out to ruin families for some obscure and unexplained financial benefit arising from each ‘forced adoption’, it is not difficult to understand why their views of family lawyers are equally stark and unflattering.
I am variously told that I am ‘a legal aid loser’, that I am ‘in the pockets of the LA’ and do what I am told or I won’t get paid. I am told that my clients don’t get to see the evidence against them and/or are not allowed to challenge it and if I haven’t noticed that I am swimming in a sea of corruption, it is because I am too stupid.
I consider myself a relatively robust individual and can weather the insults directed at me on line. But it isn’t the impact on my psyche that is the issue here. It is what these Internet debates have more widely revealed as the general corrosion of general public trust in the entire system of child protection. I think there is now an urgent need for more professionals not only to recognize this but also to engage with it. The protection of children is far too important an issue to be hijacked by just one agenda.
Lack of public trust and confidence in the system.
One of the reasons I am so concerned is that in the last few years, I have noticed an increasing and worrying trend for the Internet debate to spill out into my practice. I have had a number of clients who tell me that they understand why their child is being removed – because it will make the LA money. I have been quoted £30,000 per child, never mind that this is more likely a figure to represent the cost of keeping a child in foster care for a year. When I ask them to tell me WHY a cash strapped LA will spend large amounts of money on expensive care proceedings, of course, they cannot explain. I really do doubt there is an international conspiracy to steal children, headed by the United Nations – as some have asserted to me in all seriousness.
All this represents is a sad waste and diversion of some parents’ energies away from what really matters – dealing with their issues with drugs, with alcohol, with violence, which are standing in the way of their ability to translate the love they undoubtedly feel for their children into action which will ensure their children are reliably fed, clothed and taken to school.
The saddest example of this for me to date was the client who had made some dramatic and impressive changes to a life previously blighted by alcohol misuse and denial of the same. She had achieved the previously unprecedented stability of her own accommodation and had stopped drinking for a number of months. But on her application to discharge a placement order, she stood up to address the Judge on the basis that her child had been ‘stolen’ to make money for the LA. There was little I could do in closing submissions to repair the damage that had done to her credibility in the court’s eyes and an application which that morning had seemed promising, by lunch time had collapsed.
The point I am trying to make is that these Internet debates and the constant round of conspiracy theorizing have real and serious consequences when people take them out into the real world. In addition, whilst our energies are focusing on either maintaining or detracting from these theories, they are not focusing on what really matters – how do we improve the child protection system, how do we ensure that Victoria Climbie, Peter Connolley, Daniel Pelka and many other children did not die in vain, while at the same time not being too quick to remove children on an imperfect understanding of their family or medicial history?
The case of Allessandra Pacchieri and the ‘forced caesarean’ in December 2013 was a stark example of all that worried the conspiracy theorists about the reach and malign motives of the State: the narrative of John Hemming MP together with Christopher Booker in the Telegraph being the targeting of a vulnerable foreign national who suffered a ‘panic attack’ and then found herself detained in a psychiatric hospital and forced to have a C section so that her baby could be ‘taken’ for adoption.
It was also a clear example of how frustrating it is for energies to be so misdirected. I agree there are interesting questions to be asked about the degree to which Alessandra Pacchieri was or could have been consulted prior to the court deciding that medical intervention was in her best interests. And I share the concerns of some commentators about why the original application was made on an urgent basis, when by that time she had been sectioned for a number of weeks and her advancing pregnancy was hardly a mystery.
However, a case involving a woman who was seriously mentally ill at the time of the application, to the extent that she lacked capacity to engage in legal proceedings and was represented by the Official Solicitor, whose two elder children did not live with her due to her inability to care for them, and who had both been delivered by C-section leading to doctors to have legitimate concerns about a subsequent attempt at a natural birth, made this a rather more complicated scenario than some would wish and certainly much less of a clear cut example of a ‘corrupt’ or ‘evil’ system.
However, reasonable and sensible debate about what could have been done better in this case quickly became buried under a mass of assertion and counter assertion about the systemic corruption of the family law system as a whole.
Positive changes to the way we debate
The first good thing
However, not all was lost. Some good has come out of what at first glance seemed to be yet another rehash of the same wild and unsupported allegations about ‘baby snatching’, lies and collusion.
The first good thing is a move towards greater transparency in the reporting of court judgments. If we have confidence in the decisions our judges make – as I do – we should not be afraid to let as much sunlight in as possible.
In the court ruling concerning reporting restrictions relating to Ms. Pacchieri’s baby, the President of the Family Division himself noted that:  EWCH 4048
This case must surely stand as final, stark and irrefutable demonstration of the pressing need for radical changes in the way in which both the family courts and the Court of Protection approach what for shorthand I will refer to as transparency. We simply cannot go on as hitherto. Many more judgments must be published. And, as this case so very clearly demonstrates, that applies not merely to the judgments of High Court Judges; it applies also to the judgments of Circuit Judges.
The President was true to his word and on January 14th 2014 issued a Practice Direction relating to Transparency in the Family Courts and the Publication of Judgments that hopefully will lead to judgments routinely being transcribed and widely published. The cost of such endeavor must surely be worth it when balanced against the harm and damage done by loss of confidence in an entire system.
As the President also said in his 2013 judgment
… How can the family justice system blame the media for inaccuracy in the reporting of family cases if for whatever reason none of the relevant information has been put before the public?
I am glad that the debate is moving forward with regard to transparency but hope also that proper regard is going to be given to the need for maintaining privacy in some cases – particularly when the children don’t want details of their family lives exposed to greater scrutiny. There is a good blog post by Pink Tape on this very point.
You may also be interested in The Transparency Project -the aim of the project is to shed some light on the workings of the Family Courts, to make the process and the cases understandable for people without law degrees.
The second good thing
Along with this judicial recognition of the need for greater transparency which has been explicitly recognized goes hand in hand with increased pubic discussion of such cases, came the possibly belated recognition that those of us who did have faith in the family justice system needed to also use the power of the internet to share information and hopefully encourage more positive debate.
A number of contributors to the various Internet discussion threads pointed out that there did not currently seem to be any clearly signposted resource offering advice and information without an agenda to all the people who might be involved in care proceedings. There were many excellent sources of information on the Internet but they appeared to be directed to particular groups of people only and it was not always easy to find unless you knew what you were looking for.
So a number of us from a variety of backgrounds and experiences decided to get together and create a resource that would help to inform all of those who might be involved in child protection issues be they, parents, lawyers, social workers or doctors. You will find us at www.childprotectionresource.org.uk
We hope that this site will be useful and interesting to a wide range of people. We always welcome contributions or comments, as long as they are reasonably polite and you don’t make serious assertions about corruption or conspiracies without some kind of proof in support.
How the internet can make us better professionals
I also expect and hope to learn from the site. The emotional perspectives from parents and children who have experienced the system are invaluable and sadly can sometimes get overlooked by a busy practitioner who is focusing on the forensic task of ‘winning’ a case.
I ask my clients to trust me; to trust that I am going to do the best job I can for them, that I am not a ‘legal aid loser’, here to appease the LA or simply worrying about paying my mortgage but that I chose to be a family lawyer because this area of law deals in vital and necessary issues about the very foundations of our society, our treatment of the vulnerable and our respect for difference.
But quite apart from my commitment to family law, equally my clients need to trust me to always recognize their humanity – that I won’t be blasé or cynical about their case, one of many to me but the only case that will ever matter to them. We all need to remember and understand that sometimes the conspiracy theories are promoted by many who have suffered real pain from the removal of their children and who sadly met along the way professionals who were rude, hostile or dismissive.
I do accept that mistakes have been made and miscarriages of justice have occurred. Mistakes in this field are particularly regrettable given their often profound and life long consequences for the children and families concerned – both for those children removed too soon and those removed too late, or sadly not at all.
What I don’t accept it that such mistakes represent a deliberate and planned attempt to ruin families and ‘snatch’ children. The more time we waste on that debate, the less time and energy we have to devote to ways to improve the system. For example, see the excellent Kids Company campaign ‘See the Child’.
We need to remove as many of the barriers that stand between trust and good working relationships as possible. While professionals must remain ‘professional’, there is a danger this can slip into aloofness, imposition of unnecessary barriers to communication, and/or unwillingness to enter a legitimate arena of debate. This area of law and of life is too important to be dominated by those with narrow and possibly dangerous agendas, be they professional or parent.
The time is long overdue for greater transparency, co-operation and debate. We all want the same thing. To protect children, the most vulnerable members of society, and to do the least harm possible in the pursuit of that essential aim.