The woeful state of our debate; when facts just don’t matter anymore

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.


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.

12 thoughts on “The woeful state of our debate; when facts just don’t matter anymore

  1. Angelo Granda

    A Parent’s View.

    From an M.P. Louise Haigh.

    QUOTE: 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.”:UNQUOTE.

    Quite sometime ago, the Government called for radical change to practices both in the sphere of actual social work itself and in that of the judicial system.
    Can anyone think radically?

    a) My personal opinion on the problems of social work is that it must be separated from local government and local politics. This is an essential. The Social Services ,in particular must be in command of the direction it takes and in command of its own budget, expenditure etc. It is fairly common knowledge that the Social Work professions are largely philanthropic whilst local political figures are ( as it says on the can) self-interested and partisan politically.
    b) Another of my views is that we should stop confusing social work with the Family Court system. Lawyers must recognise their own independence and ensure fairness and proportionality. The legal aid problem , the shortage of judges and court time etc. are brought about by politicians and it is the politicians they have to stand up to. I suggest the lawyers recognise that the Public have lost trust in them for a very good reason. The Court system is broken and trials are no longer fair and proportionate. The Judiciary should correct the imbalances and ,i believe , they have the gift to do so.
    How? Stop granting draconian orders until fairness and proportionality are restored. Simply refuse to do it and only grant orders which keep families together.

    From the post-author,Sarah.

    QUOTE: 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: UNQUOTE

    There seems to be little understanding among the various professions that facts aren’t the truth. This was pointed out by Emma Sutcliffe on the recent thread about factitious evidence and illness. Thus the constant quest for more and more DATA ,scientific,mathematical,statistics etc. will not get us anywhere .It certainly won’t get us to the truth. This will be why the Public have no respect for ‘facts’ and ‘experts’ who are indeed all around us.

    So, how can we challenge skewed narrative. Is there a method we can all follow?
    All opinions are essentially fallacious. Even mine! Even scientists disagree and statistics are only ‘probably’ right at the best. Whilst we try to be impartial, our opinions are charged partly by our own general experiences. It is inevitable!
    It is ironic but also typical that although we all tend to think the views of others are wrong, none of us can give any proof that our own are right.
    Why not? Because ,in truth ,none of them are right.Our personal opinions are just as arbitrary as any other , they aren’t facts.

    The only method we have is for all to look at each hypothesis as a solution and question it and each other , then come to agreement. We have to try and look forward and anticipate the probabilities connected with each one and whether it will lead to a common good acceptable to us all. This should not be decided by a Judge at his discretion but by a panel or jury.

    For example, how would an independent social care organisation possibly be better than one ruled by local politicians? We have to look at the various propositions and come to precise decisions in a democratic way. What other method is there? Parents and professionals should sit down together,work together. All comments welcome.

    I do share in some respects Sarah’s disquiet about there being only one man on the panel for the Inquiry. Obviously, a jury in a court of law must be absolutely impartial. However , it seems to be a ‘truth’ that women have an innate leaning and talent for caring and leadership which is difficult to hold down . Naturally they will predominate in the social care field .It will be their calling to lead us all, their spouses included. There is no doubt also that they predominate in the Family Courts although the chief is a man (McFarlane). It is ‘probably’ right therefore that they predominate on the panel but please can we have a couple of men in there.

      1. Angelo Granda

        QUOTE: Facts are not the truth: just like cells are not an organ. It’s how the cells work together or don’t that determines function. As such facts alone do not present the truth: UNQUOTE

        It can only be arrived at by well-informed appraisal of ALL the freely available facts after a full and impartial investigation conducted correctly according to guidelines. This is laid out in the Children Act. In my opinion,to count out skewed judgments,personal value judgments etc. the appraisals should be made collectively by some sort of panel rather than by one person. In courts,for example,juries usually have to discuss and consider all the facts together for some time to agree on the appraisal.

        1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

          This is sophistry. A fact, is a fact is a fact. Facts are truth. Yes, humans can be sloppy and make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean ‘facts are not facts’. It just means the correct fact has not yet been identified. I agree with you of course that in all such important matters as making decisions about families, ‘facts’ must be as clearly and firmly established as possible.

          but humans are fallible. It won’t be possible to achieve perfection. That doesn’t mean we accept bad practice. But nor does it mean we stop relying on facts.

  2. Angelo Granda

    May I add that both my hypotheses a) and b) above have been put on this resource before.I keep repeating them. These comments columns are intended to encourage constructive discussion but we all seem only capable of criticising others. All our views are as good as anyone else’s and should be granted equal respect.
    Using the socratic methodology i have described above,we should try and look at each and every hypothesis with a positive slant at least until we agree it will probably not be .We should ask questions of each other ,answer them honestly and change our own if we can. Then decide on precise action.
    Then at conferences , instead of continually discussing problems and asking for solutions,we can form a panel and decide on a way forward. From what i can see, the conferences always seem to end by posing more questions.

  3. Angelo Granda

    This is the kind of issue on which the C.P.R. should make a judgment, in my opinion.
    It is strategic; it discusses the crucial issue of proportionality precisely and shows how family courts , to uphold the LAW , must put the explicit interests of children before those of Local Authorities.
    Read the comments section too. Responsible parents like Looked after child who regularly submit posts should be asked to join a CPR panel which would examine and decide on such issues, come to joint agreement on how to achieve change and vote through motions.
    When Public inquiries come along ,as this one has done, the C.P.R. can then put forward its own precise recommendations to it.
    Hope this helps.

  4. Angelo Granda

    Who knows? If the CPR were to circularise its collective decisions to reporters like Louise Tickle and send out press-releases in reply to specific issues on a regular basis etc. in the same manner as BASW and the FRG do, our views would gain public respect .
    We should push the CPR forward ,gain notoriety and who knows,one day ,our leader , Sarah, might be the first to be appointed to Public Inquiry panels.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      haha that is kind of you to say but somehow I suspect that I will never make those particular lists of the Great and the Good as I suspect what qualifies one for that role is considerably more tact and diplomacy than I will ever posess – or would want to.

  5. Angelo Granda

    Ha-ha , Sarah ,if we consider what happened to Socrates. Just been reading about him the other day as it happens. He was full of tact and diplomacy but his main strength was standing by his principles.
    In fact,for his ideas,he was condemned to death in an ancient Greek Court of Law . He was found guilty democratically by his peers.Later ,he was granted a pardon and could have been released but ,on principle, he insisted on being executed!
    I wish our lawyers and Courts would follow legal principles similarly and stop pushing them aside as they do, in what they claim politically to be the ‘best interests’ of children .

  6. Pingback: Judges don’t need ‘training’ about violence – they need evidence. | Child Protection Resource

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.