Language Matters: An End to Custody Battles

For many years, family lawyers, mediators and judges have been frustrated to hear family law incorrectly referenced in the media, arts, and by the public in general. One continually hears reference to the term ‘custody’ when in fact this was abolished by the Children Act in 1991.  Similarly, there’s a language of battles, when the law expects parents to cooperate with each other wherever safe to do so. Only yesterday there was a play on the radio which  referred to ‘the main carer’s rights’. Aaagh!

There’s great news this month and hopes for change. First of all, the President of the Family Division[1] has been promoting the importance of using the right language in the context of family law, quoting extensively from this article by Helen Adam in Family Law:

This article highlights the many changes to family and relationships over the last 50 years, and the important progress made in many aspects of our modern vocabulary, for example the removal of gender-biased and racist language from everyday speech. Yet we still carry the unfortunate legacy that family breakdown is an adversarial legal process conducted against a backdrop of aggression and conflict.

A new language around family breakdown is needed to ensure safety and to protect the children of parents who separate.

Launching this week is a new initiative: the Family Law Language Project. This was borne out of a recommendation by the Family Solutions Group for correct language to be used in all references to family law, bringing an end to the unhelpful and potentially harmful terminology so often heard. Emma Nash, a London solicitor, has pulled this together with a team of family professionals. Their hope is to make it user-friendly, to demystify terms which are difficult to understand, and gently to correct those words which so often crop up and which in fact have no place in family law at all.

Well done Emma! We’re really excited by this new initiative and hope it will be the start of a new language – one which is less intimidating and more reflective of the needs of families going through a difficult transition time, and mindful of the wellbeing of children.

Helen is one of the founding partners of The Wells Group. She is a Senior Mediator and Child Consultant. Helen is the mediator representative on the Private Law Working Group, which is examining how family law disputes are currently resolved in England and Wales, and how that might be improved.  In 2020 Helen was invited to become Chair of the Family Solutions Group (a sub-group of the PrLWG), and its report “What about me?”, focusing on the needs of the child following family separation, was published on 12 November 2020.