2020: The Year in Review

2020 has been a very strange year. I found myself both recorded by the police as a ‘hate incident’ and also rewarded as ‘Family Law Commentator of the Year’.

Annoyingly, I appear to have lost data from Google analytics for the time prior to August 2020 but from 4th August – 23rd December the CPR site had 148,689 users. Sadly, yet again the two most read posts dealt with domestic violence (26,804) and parents with mental health difficulties (22,733). The discussion about which sex abuses children most continued to be of great interest and was the fourth most read post (14,238) and attracted by far the most comments.

A lot of my focus this year has been on the increasing ferocity and general insanity of the ‘gender ideology’ debate and the impact on young children of treatment via puberty blockers and cross sex hormones. The December decision in Bell v Tavistock was of enormous significance; permission has now been sought to challenge it at the Court of Appeal and I can see I am going to need to keep updating my conference speech for the 8th Family Law and Children’s Rights Conference. Pandemic permitting, I will be speaking there in July 2021.

That focus inevitably meant I had less time to examine issues of particular relevance to the child protection system – but my concerns about the lack of open and honest debate relating to issues around the transition of children are directly relevant to the child protection system and safeguarding in general. The unifying thread for all of my work is the concern about the consequences of allowing single issue campaigners to be the ones to apparently decide the direction of law and policy.

Violence

One such concern was the approach of the Ministry of Justice to issues of violence in the family law system. The report Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law cases was published in June 2020 and in December 2020 I attended an on line discussion with some of its authors. I was not reassured. The focus appeared to be entirely on identifying women as victims at the outset; there was no discussion about the harm done by exaggerated or false allegations of abuse and how the court system was going to deal with any of this. There are serious implications for Article 6 rights in all of this.

We were told in December that it was accepted that lack of resources was a real problem – most notably for the implications this has on judicial continuity – but at the same time told to reflect on our practice and ‘improve’ our performance. I remain very uneasy at being told the courts operate a ‘pro contact’ culture. That isn’t my experience. That there is such an apparently huge disconnect between my experience and those of others, does require further thought.

A conjoined Court of Appeal case is due to be heard in January 2021, with a variety of interveners. This is apparently to examine appeals from decisions made in the magistrates court around issues of serious sexual violence in relationships between parents. Hopefully this will provide more clarity or at least be an honest airing of the issues.

Parental Alienation

This clarity is urgently needed because a further schism is opening up between those who recognise parental alienation as a serious problem, involving parents of either sex and those who claim it is rather a smokescreen put up by abusive fathers, to deny women the opportunity to protect themselves and their children. I found myself writing a lot about parental alienation this year. It must surely be possible for the Family Justice System to find better ways to more efficiently manage the tensions inherent in promoting contact but preventing children from harm.

Journalists and the ‘secret family courts’

Journalist Melanie Newman succeeded in getting permission to appeal against the decision to refuse to allow her access to case papers – the appeal should be heard in March. This is likely to be a significant decision relating to issues around the extent of disclosure of information in family cases to journalists. I used to be in favour of greater transparency but have revised my views in light of what appears to be the continuing failure of journalists to report with any degree of accuracy about the family justice system.

Happy New Year?

So there is a lot happening. We have at least appeared to have grappled tolerably well with the challenges of remote hearings during the pandemic, and the work of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has been extremely helpful.

But not all of what has been happening is the product of a genuine desire to find the truth and solutions. Much of it, in my view, is the result of single issue campaigners who wish to bend the law to their own vested interests. The courts, at least so far, seem willing to resist.

But the saddest thing of all remains. The CPR site has been running since 2014. In all that time the two most read posts remain constant – concerns about violence in relationships and how parents with mental health difficulties navigate the court system. That suggests strongly to me that we have got no better at dealing with either. I hope by the end of 2021 both no longer dominate the Top Ten, but I am not optimistic.

At least I hope this time next year, to be no longer a police certified hate monger, but that will depend on how my own court action pans out.

A very Merry Christmas to all my readers. And, I hope – a Happy New Year.

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