Are you sitting comfortably? The Art of Story Telling

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.


Further Reading


  • 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 [1]. 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 [4], 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 [5] online debunking campaigns have been shown to create a reinforcement effect in usual consumers of conspiracy stories.’


21 thoughts on “Are you sitting comfortably? The Art of Story Telling

  1. looked_after_child

    Maybe this is waffling but..

    If you want to persuade – you have to be trusted, seen as having an expertise and/or experience/commitment. There is a very big question about how we choose our experts though. Too few people trust those involved in the Child Protection system in any way shape or form and you have to ask why that would be. A lot more light needs to be shone in some very dark corners to fix some of this. (Substantive change?)

    Trust is also linked to communication skills. (Changing the message?)
    For what it is worth, I think being good at communication, dos’ent make you right ( fraudsters know this very well) although it makes you more persuasive

    I’m employed to ‘deliver’ in my own area of expertise. The evidence for success/failure is plain to see. I know if something I’m involved with is going badly, anyone associated with ‘failure’ gets tarred hence the need for very good communication skills to explain/deflect? etc.

    Hiding behind jargon, or a job title or a qualification or a process or a desk without either good communication skills or knowledge about how to be effective in your role will not do the trick for very many people – Frankly I don’t see why anyone would think it should.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I agree. I have often argued that jargon is used as cloak or shield for those who doubt their competence. And it doesn’t inspire trust.

    2. Angelo Granda

      I agree with all you have written.
      I think it will help the situation were we all to focus on success /failure. I would say that wherever the LA feels it necessary to instigate a care-plan which permanently liquidates a family, then it represents a failure for which the child/children involved will suffer great emotional harm. It ought to be very rare when social care is unable to engineer a care-plan which leads to family preservation; I understand fully that under the current system sometimes such a draconian act may be inevitable but when it is ,the child/children have been failed by one party or another.
      Can we agree?

      1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

        Of course. When a family is separated it does indeed represent a failure – either of the SW to offer the right kind of support at the right time or of the parent for failing to understand why they needed support and to accept it. But a worse failure would be to leave a child in a place where they are suffering serious harm.

        1. Angelo Granda

          Thanks for this reply ,Sarah. You haven’t actually asked any questions for me to answer but you have caused me to ask three more.
          1. Do you blame the failure to offer the right kind of support at the right time on individual SW or on the LA executive management team?

          I have borrowed this from the very next post about innovations around children’s social care. QUOTE:
          _ the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration.
          – wherever possible, children should be brought up and cared for within their own families.
          – parents with children in need should be helped to bring up their children themselves; this help would be provided as a service to the child and his family.

          When providing social care for a child and family ,we have to consider the spiritual, physical,emotional and intellectual health of the child and family concerned. It is imposing serious harm on any child to separate them from Mum taking them into a care-system where they will suffer even greater trauma and will also face the possibility of institutional abuse and neglect possibly over a lifetime.
          We cannot begin to care for children and keep them together with family without caring for the mother too. Children should not be left in a place where they are suffering ( or alleged to be at risk of suffering) serious harm but it is even worse to liquidate the family. We must focus on the wording of the Act and provide facilities ( training, monitoring and reform) designed to ensure the child comes to no significant harm. It is always possible to keep child and Mum together ( even if it has to be in a prison cell). I repeat, we should focus on the wording of the Children’s Act. It is a monolithic myth that permanent liquidation is better than family preservation EVER. It is failure.
          2. If a parent does not understand and accept concerns, do you agree it is the task of the SW’s and/or advocates to follow the working together frameworks openly and honestly in order to persuade him or her accept them ?
          3. If a parent expresses disagreements and argues their case in Court, how can he or she be expected to accept support before the Court has come to a decision it is needed?

          1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

            Question 1 – it is more likely to be a failure of central government which has decided to remove or reduce support services for families and children. So there is just less support that can be offered all round.
            Question 2 – yes SW should try to engage parents but they now have very limited time once proceedings start and children can’t wait years for parents to engage with therapy etc which is sometimes necessary to bring about a shift in attitude.
            Question 3 – yes difficult for parents to accept support if they don’t accept they have a problem. I refer again to timescales as mentioned in answer to question 2. The 26 week timetable puts a lot of pressure on parents to accept SW concerns very quickly. If they contest it but the court agrees with the SW then a lot of time has been wasted.

          2. Angelo Granda

            It is LA management which chooses to spend on expensive residential and foster-care rather than family support issuing policy directives to Sw’s which is why they are all complaining about it all over the place.This is what confuses everyone.The Law says one thing but the judiciary support the LA’s in doing the opposite against the interests of children not for them.Parents aren’t refusing support; it isn’t offered.
            1.Why no shortage of funds to fritter away on private care but not on family preservation?


            The Working Together Frameworks direct the mediation is to take place well before the instigation of proceedings; hopefully a support plan offered would avoid them.
            2. Were the guidelines enforced,the 26 weeks would be inapplicable,wouldn’t they?


  2. El Coyote

    I think you’ve hit on a very important point about the need to tell stories—truthful stories—as a kind of inoculation against the paranoid fictions told by conspiracy theorists. The old saw that “a lie can make it halfway round the world while the truth is still lacing up its shoes” holds true here, I think.

    Trust is of course important, as is an understanding of who we’re talking to.

    If we’re addressing people whose education levels are quite basic, who might be feeling marginalised either by poverty, health issue, or some other factor, and who have concluded that the “system” is out to get them, we need to be especially careful to tell our stories in ways which neither confuse nor talk down to our audience.

    The “narrative drive” is very human, and we forget that at our peril.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I can’t now find the article I wanted about how telling deluded people the truth makes them cling harder to their delusions, but I did find this which was also interesting!
      Proceeding from the assumption that the so-called experts are not to be trusted, self-investigators are pushed and pulled by the churn of memes and social media, an endless loop of echoes, reflections and intentional lies. With only themselves and their appetites as a guide, they bypass any information that doesn’t suit their predisposition and worldview. The self-investigator’s media diet is like an endless breakfast buffet, only without the guilt: Take what you want, leave what you don’t.

      1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

        Found it!
        The World Wide Web has changed the dynamics of information transmission as well as the agenda-setting process [1]. 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 [4], individuals can be uninformed or misinformed and the role of corrections in the diffusion and formation of biased beliefs are not effective

    2. Angelo Granda

      We should never disrespect the respondents evidence in Public Law cases no matter what their education level. The working together frameworks direct problems in of communicating with ordinary families shall be taken care of by informing them at the outset of their right to an independent advocate to help them deal with professionals. The SW’s are supposed to facilitate contact with one locally at the outset.
      I understand it may confound lawyers when a parent claims the system is out to get them but ignore their evidence at your peril. However badly put , it is possibly quite true especially if a SW has ignored procedures such as the one above ,where he or she has abused an S20,for example, and where they have uttered at the very start of proceedings something like ” YOU WILL NEVER BEAT THE SYSTEM. ”
      Respect all you are told by ordinary common people remembering all the time that they alone know the real truth ; the LA are the ones who have to invent ‘stories’ and tell the tale!
      You must be careful not to tell your own stories , Courts should not be about stories; they are about comparing evidence and establishing the truth. Lawyers should look for forensic evidence to back up their clients not just listen to and compare various narratives.

  3. Angelo Granda

    I agree also with the concept of ‘active transparency’ especially in discussing substantive change.
    I think the process will be helped were we to ask questions of one another honestly and answer them honestly forgetting about alleged world views ,conspiracy theories etc.
    A good question to start with would be this one which greatly concerns parents who continually complain about professional evidence outgunning theirs.
    Are Judges biased towards Local Authority evidence?
    Does the principle of comity extend to all Local Authorities and government departments ( not only those of other countries) and assume without checking that their evidence is well thought out and strict procedure has been followed at all times in the ‘best interests’ of children?
    Are they biased towards ‘brief’ official forms of evidence as against lengthy statements of non-professional respondents?

    All replies welcome!

  4. cb

    Redcar & Cleveland Local Authority, like all local authorities have their in house social service department.
    This department takes no part in the public law child care cases
    The public law cases are contracted to a local solicitor Askew & Askew, one of their solicitors represents the child, this solicitor in turn employs the guardian ad litem to represent the child
    The Local Authority are not therefore liable for any malicous conduct within the proceedings, it is the outside firm of solicitors, in RCLA it is Askew & Askew, unbeknown by all parents and families, that enter these courts
    These courts are not only secretive, (stating best interests of child) they are secretive about the fact that the local community by way of council tax are paying an outside firm of solicitors to handle them without
    consequence for any wrong doing, from the Local Authority, court staff, judges, and defineatley not from the childs/parents local solicitor that is not going to dispute any solicitor with the power of the Local Authority contract, this is called biting the hand that feeds you in the North East, is the same country wide

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      It’s not uncommon for some LA to instruct solicitors to act for them. I don’t understand why you say there are no consequences for wrong doing. Any solicitors firm that acts contrary to the law or good practice is going to get criticised by a Judge or possibly subject to even more serous penalties if referred to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

  5. Angelo Granda

    Cb,Are you saying that this particular firm in Cleveland ànd Redcar act for both the Local Authority and for the Guardian? I think the Public should be very concerned if that is the case.
    Sarah,why do you think LA’s instruct these solicitors when they have their own lawyers?
    I do know the city solicitors usually complete all applications and documents ( under oath)
    but do not have to go to court to explain why they are false.They are not held accountable and I feel certain that the judiciciary grant grace and courtesy,civility etc. to their LA child a protection ‘colleagues’.
    Everyone grants empathy ,credit and respect to the evidence of public officials in civil courts,Sarah,even parents themselves assume at first that they will be truthful.
    The judge does unless their are really exceptional reasons not to ,I bet the appointed take all the documents lodged with court as kosher as does the court office which rubber stamps them.Even the extended families of respondents assume that LA evidence must emanate from accurate records and impartial investigation.
    Why not ‘come out’ and admit that there is bias in family court public law cases?

  6. Angelo Granda

    I understand the need for openness and the call for ‘active transparency’ but quite surprised to see real names mentioned in comments on the CPR.
    Does the moderator now permit it?

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I am not sure what comments you refer to – I try to remove names of children and any named professional if serious allegations are made against them as this isn’t fair or could be defamatory. But if people want to use their real names or give out their email etc I think that’s up to them. As long as it doesn’t lead to the identification of any child who is subject to care proceedings or has been, it is not unlawful.

      1. Angelo Granda

        Sorry,Sarah,I meant one by cb which named a guardian on a solicitor’s letterhead which you have now removed.
        Occasionally some comments sneak through without moderation e.g. the one with a blog link with serious allegations about a judge in Surrey yesterday which you have also deleted now.

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