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.

26 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. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      If ‘facts’ are not ‘truth’ then what on earth do you say truth is?

      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.

          1. Angelo Granda

            No,it is not sophistry at all,readers.Facts alone are not the truth.
            I wrote that the truth can only be arrived at by well-informed appraisal of ALL the freely available facts after a full and impartial investigation.
            Well-informed,fair appraisals depend on a fully and fairly loaded matrix.

            To try and explain by giving an example.
            In one case, the L.A. put forward as fact that a year previously there had been child-protection ‘concerns’ following a referral received and went on to detail a raft of allegations.
            The L.A. ,however,forgot to mention that following a full,impartial inquiry , the concerns had been found baseless and that all professionals involved had absolved parents from any failure .
            Obviously, the initial referral and cause for concern had been entered onto the L.A. database but the results of the social care inquiry had not been . Or if it had, the L.A. had deliberately failed to inform the court of all the facts showing a distinct lack of impartiality.

            Another time,the L.A. reported that a parent had been arrested by police and removed from the family home after a child had received unexplained bruises. It forgot to mention that the parent hadn’t been charged with any offence and that any arrest was found to be totally unwarranted.

            Courts must not be misinformed in this way. Lawyers should take note. Check out L.A. statements and assessments carefully. If there is not one piece of evidence in favour of a parent not one , the assessment is not impartial. A Court needs to see ALL freely available facts to get to the truth.

  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 .

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      that’s not a happy comparison! I don’t want to die for my principles…

      1. Angelo Granda

        Tact and diplomacy means silence and diverting attention from the actual hard truth for reasons of political correctness and appeasing the powerful especially offending authorities. It is rarely used with offending citizens;they are just dealt with.
        The language of cover-up!

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

  7. Angelo Granda

    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.

    Looking through the published list of panel members , i am more concerned about the overload of child-protection professionals ( family lawyers and social workers,women’s aid etc.) than with the point that all but one are women. I worry that the panel consists mainly of those who represent a body of ‘experts’ which the general public already feel have failed .It only leads to Failures discussing reform is not the best way forward ; whilst previously stated notions of the system are pertinent , if a panel consists largely of those who may already be committed ,then the discussion will tend to be largely a homeostatic conversation which supports the status quo . In other words, and this is no criticism of individuals, they tend to be stuck -in-the-mud and resistant to radical change.
    So,Sarah, if you have time to answer, who do you think should be on the panel? Bear in mind that the goal is to ensure that Family Courts should operate apparently in the explicit interests of children ( not families which is something of a contradiction in itself).
    Basically, the Family Justice system is there to control the cp system and ensure justice. It is broken,alas. It doesn’t focus properly.
    I can only make suggestions. Possibly a couple of human rights lawyers should be installed and at least one might be a foreigner involved with the E.C.H.R. Next suggestion; at least two ‘service -users’ perhaps one man and one woman who have been party to a private law case and another couple who have been respondents in Public law, a representative from targeted groups such as the autistic or ex-care leavers.
    A barrister with experience of mediation, arbitration and conciliation?
    A high Court Judge with power to make changes might be considered .How about HHJ McFarlane?

    I look forward to your reply ,Sarah, but also to ideas from all readers.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      It’s a three month Inquiry. It doesn’t matter if its chaired by Nelson Mandela. It can achieve absolutely nothing in 3 months.

      1. Angelo Granda

        I appreciate your opinion that three months isn’t long enough . i agree. Alas,however the powers that be think otherwise and that is that, the panel have to make the best of it. They have to think constructively (positively).

        It will help ,of course, if readers all understand how inquiries should be undertaken.
        1. All the discussions have to be ‘ GOAL DIRECTED’. In this Inquiry, the goal is to ensure that the judicial system operates in the explicit interests of children NOT those of L.A. politicians, social work entrepreneurs,or women’s and men’s groups in dispute.There has to be unification as to purpose.The judicial system must be in ‘control’ and be able to agree and achieve the goal.
        2. The first task should be to identify that the system in existence now has been found wanting. The panel has to face reality. It is felt the current system does not meet the GOAL aspired to. Arguably, it has FAILED. That is to be assumed by all.
        3.The current state of the system has to be discussed in great detail especially as to the immediate environment and analysed in respect of its salient attributes and drawbacks. There will be pluses and minuses.
        4. The next stage will be error-detection. This is to determine where the current state of the system deviates from the GOAL. For example, is the system fair and proportionate OR NOT? The goal is that the system is scrupulously fair in the explicit interests of the children. The panel have to effect a method of error-detection.
        5. Thorough democratic decision making by discussion to be the method of error detection including consultation with analysts, researchers and relevant policy officials from MOJ.

        At the start , the inquiry panel should bring together experts and witnesses from many diverse disciplines .The panel has to be unified in its aims and apply all their diverse principles in the work undertaken.
        One of the first decisions it should take is as to whether three months is ample time for discussions. Secondly, it should decide if the right experts have been appointed. If not, it should make that clear and call for changes.

    2. Angelo Granda

      As it is often found by the Appeal Court that things go wrong very early in proceedings , perhaps a Magistrate and a Magistrates Clerk should be included .At the very least , they should be consulted.

  8. Angelo Granda

    1. How long do you estimate would it take for the Public Inquiry to achieve its object?
    2. Regarding the child protection system , i am inclined to think that, if we wish it reform it and make it fit for purpose, two public inquiries are needed :-
    a) One into the judiciary i.e. the part played by the Civil Family Courts.
    b) the part played by the L.A. Social Services ( which includes the C.S.)

    3. It is a free country and any organisation, university,business or resource can conduct a public Inquiry if it so wishes and that includes the CPR.
    4. If we were to instigate our own inquiry to be held on line on this resource, how many would you need on the panel and who would you invite to join it?

    As you have given up trying to get SW’s and professionals to connect ,would it be worth trying a new tack? Approach them and ask specific questions perhaps.
    We may get some positive,constructive answers.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      1. Minimum of a year. More likely would need 5.
      2. If you are going to inquire into the judiciary and local authorities, make that 10 years
      3/4. Anyone can conduct whatever it likes but in order to be taken seriously, it would need to be a credible organisation with credible research. That puts it beyond any private individual or even panel of enthusiastic volunteers.

      I have given up trying to campaign with and alongside people and organisations who are in reality not interested in any change but prefer to promote their own agenda at the expense of core ethical principles. I am still going to be discussing and blogging here but I step away from any attempt at systemic change. It was naive to think I could have any impact on that.

  9. Angelo Granda

    You’re right about systemic change . The clue for readers is that no SW’s or L.A. staff comment anymore neither do many solicitors or barristers . What does silence mean ?
    Are they warned off commenting on resources such as this one by the authorities? I believe they have.
    Why? I feel the TRUTH is that the authorities don’t want change and the reason for that is because they are not and never have been acting in the best interests of children but in exploiting them. Child-protection is a ‘SACRED BULL’ which provides wealth to the usual suspects , grey suits and profiteers, who will work to the very end to maintain the status quo by fair means sometimes but mostly by foul. ‘Discouraging ‘free conversation and public interaction by staff members is counted as fair to them,of course.
    Then when changes are eventually instigated by Parliament as they were in 1989, they won’t be made accountable anyway just retired with golden handshakes; then new laws will be flouted and new ways found to exploit the golden bull as per usual.Normal service will be resumed. Sadly, this fact of life ,of course, is not confined to child -protection but to most other authoritarian systems too
    I can only conclude,as I’ve said many times ,that we only have the law to protect us . As the judicial system is broken or just hanging on, the only solution is for individual barristers to fight cases as they come along.
    I wish the CPR could be instrumental in fighting fundamental TEST CASES as the opportunity arises as with Louise Tickle’s appeal. Could it get involved in fund-raising efforts to support such a strategy or is that unethical?
    I hope you don’t mind me making suggestions, Sarah.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      As I have I hoped made clear, I will no longer be working with or alongside those organisations or groups who have demonstrated their hypocrisy and cowardice very clearly to me now. That will do more harm than good. I will continue to write and discuss and do what I can in my sphere of influence. But ‘test cases’ I am afraid are a matter beyond my ability and available time and money.

  10. Angelo Granda

    Obviously, we are against unqualified set-ups like JFF exploiting specific cases and going to Court using unqualified MKF’s who lack expertise ( and impartiality) especially when it comes to High Court hearings ( and above). However, tests and appeals carefully planned by real lawyers are worth thinking about.
    I think we would need money in the coffers to even think about it.
    Some sort of fund-raising effort is needed. Perhaps a donate button
    or optional membership scheme.
    I know you are fed up of campaigning and ,to be frank, parents are tired of commenting too.We need a new direction. If you think i am talking pie in the sky please say so and i won’t pursue this idea.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      It’s not pie in the sky and you are right that all this talking appears to have achieved very little. I am afraid I think it will take a concentrated and national effort to achieve change and there is very little prospect of that. Sorry to be pessimistic.

      I would be willing to consider fund raising but I have deliberately steered away from any attempt to use this site to raise money as I know there are many people out there who will then use it as a stick to beat me with and accuse me of corruption etc etc. So its been important that I am clear I make no money from this site; I lose money.

  11. Angelo Granda

    Which is why I asked about professional ethics.
    Realistically,Sarah, the reason the CPR has achieved little in practice is because you are losing money! Apart from it being silly for our leader to finance our activities personally without any help, i think we can guarantee that if we had plenty of it available ( or even a modicum) the top solicitors and Q.C’s would be queuing up to help us change the system if you think test cases are beyond your ability.
    Money makes the world go round,i think the saying goes but let us be clear, even if the CPR had assets in the bank, no-one would make profit from it especially not barristers associated with it who are guided by professional ethics.
    I shall put my thinking cap on and put a few ideas to you shortly on the CPR private e-mail address.
    In the meantime, readers should understand that L.A’s ,management , politicians and business people who run the system currently are ruled by money. Their policy is to deny,deny and deny the truth of it and continually refer to being skint,to be struggling and subject to ‘austerity’. They have plenty , this parent says,thanks very much to all of us. Every politician and entrepreneur make it a strict rule to profess poverty in order to stop competition.They don’t want others jumping on the bandwagon. It’s called dishonesty! In truth,they know the word on the street is right and Public opinion is right themselves. Too many of us will testify against them in Court if given the opportunity. The only defence against the truth they have is silence. To keep the status quo.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      Thank you, always happy to consider fresh ideas but after five years now I am not at all convinced that many others are.

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