Heads You Lose: Tails You Lose
Sarah Phillimore writes: I am grateful for this post from Emma Sutcliffe, part 4 in our series ‘why does everyone hate the family courts’? Emma’s previous post on this topic can be found here.
The family justice system is very much in the public eye at the time of writing on May 15th 2019- 120 MPs have called for an inquiry into how the courts operate and The Victoria Derbyshire programme has hosted two discussions so far. It seems to be promoting the Women’s Aid line that the family courts ‘push contact with abusers at all costs’. I don’t think that is true.
But what I can’t deny is the level of fear, misery and misinformation around the family justice system and the fact that people often come out of it more brutalised than when they went in. What is the problem? How can we fix it? The only way I know how, having very little by way of political or media influence, is to continue to host these kind of discussions in the hope that somehow, some where a seed will be planted that may grow.
I don’t agree with everything that Emma says, I don’t agree the system is ‘set up against women’ . I am also concerned to see a picture painted of two parents – who presumably at one point loved each other enough to have children together – who now treat each other as bitter enemies. I don’t think the family court is responsible for that level of bad feeling, but I accept that as an arena it is the worst place to put frightened or angry people.
However, the point of this post is not to get Emma to agree with me or hound her for being ‘wrong’. The point is to identify where our perceptions differ and what shapes that. Is that divide a product of misunderstanding? Or some deeper ideological differences? Is the perception of parents’ clouded by their pain and misery? Or is my response foggy or jaded because of professional arrogance?
What should be happening here is the entirely sensible requirement when preparing for an adversarial environment, that you develop a theory of the case and you prepare your cross examination around that. A case with no strong narrative arc is messy and uncompelling. If the burden of proof is on you then a lack of focus on your theory of the case may be enough to sink you. What Emma describes here sounds to me like game playing of a much more cynical kind and verging on the unethical. Its not a tactic I ever employ or would ever advise. Once your life is being held up to microscopic examination in a court setting, then playing games should be the very last thing on your mind.
However, this was Emma’s experience. And, as she so powerfully says, no one should ever have to ‘put on a performance’ to persuade a court to analyse the evidence before it and make a decision in the best interests of the child. Our courts should not be a theatre. If there is anything about the system and the people in it that encourages this – it needs to stop.
How does a barrister prepare you to lose your children?
By roughing you over as if you’re a criminal. Family court is vilifying, humiliating and terrifying. It is worse when the narcissist you divorced is your opponent. Because the only person a narcissist loves is themselves and they’re quite prepared to lose whatever it takes in the process so that they don’t lose face. It’s called a ‘scorched earth policy’ and my barrister pummelled me in readiness of every court statement and appearance for the inevitable lies, fury and shouting that accompanies any head to head with someone who would even suggest their own children would be better in the care system than with their own mother.
The barrister who worked for me made me look straight on at the loss of my children and study assiduously both the recommendations of the court and the people who made the recommendations. ‘what’s the sound track in the court?’ He asked when we first met — some 16 hearings in by the point.
‘You are a bad parent’ he told me. Looking directly at me as he delivered a crushing home truth — “because just by even being in family court and having strangers decide how your children are going to play out their childhood you have let them down. In the eyes of the court therefore you are a bad parent”.
Am having got me to a state of despair he then sought to get me ‘judge ready’.
“This is the Anna* we need the judge to see — an exhausted, working mum who has been driven to seek to need the court’s help to deal with an utterly uncooperative parent. We need to mitigate risk to the judge — that you can accept your flaws but still do your best for the children. Let us let the baddest parent show themselves for what they are. Otherwise this just looks to the judge like two very clever people who are adept at arguing whilst their children look on. You need to accept and convey that you are contrite and remorseful that such behaviour has and would cause them emotional harm if it were to continue.”
And with that I had an epiphany.
Like it of not; family court is a game of chess. And the system is set up against women. Children are the sacrificial pawns and to win this game I had to have the agility of the Queen and read the board. The king appears to be the dominant player, but it’s the queen who can contort to whatever move is needed to protect and win the game.
And so, with that in mind I determined to adjust my mindset and moves. I could lose 50 percent of holiday time with my children for a few years until they get wise enough to reject their father’s bullying by themselves or I could dig my heels in, battle the court officers and keep portraying myself as a battling parent too determined to beat my ex than protect my children.
Thanks to that roughing over by the barrister the small lose or ultimate lose strategy was easy to shapeshift into.
Once he knew I understood the games and the rules, the barrister and my solicitor then crafted every statement and every question in every hearing thereafter to play to the soundtrack of the court — hardworking, long suffering caring mother, able to withstand every ludicrous allegation and still demonstrate cooperativity.
And as we walked into the final hearing — the narcissist did what narcissists ultimately do and lost it when he didn’t get exactly what he believed he was entitled to — adoration and dominance.
Judges do not like risk. And they do not like arrogance. They care not for how much money someone has, what car they drive, how well connected they are or if they are dressed in Armani or Primarni. They want to know that you show up, you accept help, you recognise your flaws and vulnerabilities and you put your children first. Game over. I lost the small battle.
The loss was wonderful because it was palatable. And in his summing up the judge adeptly dismissed every taunt, claim and even overuled his own biased officers. Furthermore he praised me for my courage under persistent sniper fire and concluded with words that were music — the music of the court — to my ears and to my children:
‘I cannot be confident that if residency were given to Dad that given the ludicrous allegations Mum has successfully defended Dad would not seek continued punishment of Mum using the children. Further time with dad risks psychological harm to the daughter. And without changes in the environment when a child is 12 they will start to vote with their feet and at this point it is Dad who risks losing the relationship without making changes. Given that the children are articulate, intelligent and clearly gifted, if they goose not to go to a parent’s house when they are 12 the court will not force the contact’.
The 24 months of worry that I would lose my children and my life was lifted during that 40 min judgment.
I had been judged.
My children had been heard and understood and our concerns justified.
There is no greater victory.
The loss that never ends — the loss of a meaningful loving relationships of trust, fairness, unselfishness and courage to give your children what they need — is the ultimate loss. I won the residency order. I won my children’s faith. The only loss I have is respect for their Father. That is the loss that knows no end.
Years later, however, I remain enraged about the performance I had to make to be ‘the exhausted, desperate Mum the judge needs to see’. I resent that my strengths — accuracy, challenging injustice, truthfulness and obstinance — qualities admired as ones of leadership in a man were instructed to be turned down because they are interpreted as non-compliant in a woman. We should speak up when something is not right, when undermining is taking place, when systems, people, Cafcass Officers are corrupt and corruptible. We tell our children to be brave, be bold, be yourself. Then we tell those girls who become women to stop these characteristics and accept the archetypes directed by our own Family Courts and the officials that turn the cogs.
The Cafcass Officer didn’t like my challenges. The psychologist accepted and praised my enquiring mind and described my ex for being fixed and resolute (uncooperative) whilst telling the court I held ‘the key to the resolution of the conflict — by backing down, shutting up, accepting the abuse persistently doled our through gaslighting, stonewalling and intransigence. I could flex and contort to any slight so the abuse could continue unchecked if I wanted residency of my children. Three different judges wanted or saw three different ‘Anna’s’ — one saw a frustrated mum, one only saw a mum with anxiety and hurried me out of his court, one saw why I was ‘challenging’ and that my ability withstand years of abuse and coercive control transacted through my children was attributable to my being bold, brave, myself.
The Barrister did what he had to do to get me the right result for the misogyny of the family court with officers and paid-for experts waiting to point their fingers and say ‘difficult woman, difficult woman’.
Because challenging women challenge them and their infrastructures, assessments and belittling of women.
So I’m here. And I’m ready to fight back for all those women who don’t have my strength or have had their resilience worn away by the family courts. It is time for change.
No. It is best to open the family courts and deal with the problems that we have. Not expect everyone to bow down before the narrative of 'men bad, women good, family courts evil'. How on earth does this help anyone? Make any child safer? https://t.co/VF3xmqEAOd
— Sarah Phillimore (@SVPhillimore) May 16, 2019