Warring parents face penalties for clogging up family courts

The President’s recent call for ‘a better way’ in his Jersey speech must also apply to our journalists.

This is exemplified by a recent report in the Sunday Times headlined: ‘Warring parents face penalties for clogging up family courts’.  There were similar references in The Times and The Mirror.

As it happens, the news item being reported was progressive and positive; the Lord Chancellor is to  encourage greater support for families to resolve issues where safe to do so without recourse to litigation.  However, the manner of its reporting was the opposite.  The headline promotes an all-too-prevalent harmful approach to the reporting of issues around family breakdown.  Language matters.  The way we reference the problems faced by families who separate has the capacity to influence child welfare and is therefore of paramount importance.

First, the headline used a battle metaphor, of warring couples, both inappropriate and potentially harmful when referencing parents.  Children need their parents to cooperate wherever safe to do so, and we should not use language or attitudes which promote an expectation of battles and wars between parents after separation.

Second it suggests the parents are the problem, the ‘warring parents’.  In truth, these are families in crisis, with fallouts that they can’t handle and sadly, for many, the only known and affordable option is the family court.   If they were given information at an earlier stage, access to a separated parenting programme, support to focus on their child’s needs, and an invitation to alternative processes such as mediation, then many fewer would be turning to court.   With our adversarial language and the only visible provision being the open door of court, it’s no wonder that we end up with parents turning to the one service they know, the family court.

Thirdly, it promotes a ‘stick’ approach via penalties, when in fact the ‘carrot’ approach would be far better.  Coming alongside parents soon after breakdown and encouraging them to resolve issues away from court for their and their child’s benefit would be a more constructive approach.  The stick approach will force angry parents into mediation who don’t want to be there.  The stick is much less likely to lead to a successfully mediated outcome than the carrot, where parents choose mediation themselves.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the headline presents this as a problem for the courts, being ‘clogged up’, rather than anything to do with child welfare.   As is so often the case, the problems facing the family justice system are invariably reported as problems for the system, with little or no reference to the problems caused to the children of families in crisis.

Dominic Raab is quoted as wanting to ‘spare children the trauma of seeing their parents fight it out in court’.  It says he has commissioned proposals and the article refers to incentives, as well as disincentives.  Let’s hope they are sensible and centred on child welfare, rather than blaming parents for creating a problem in the system.

A much better headline would have been “Early Support Needed for Families in Crisis”.