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24 January 2024
Family court matters

Tracy Sortwell JP, the chair of our family court committee, discusses the family court breakout session at the Magistrates’ Association’s 2023 conference.

The family court breakout session at the Magistrates’ Association (MA) conference in Birmingham last November was privileged to hear from Helen Adam—the chair of the Family Solutions Group, which was set up initially as a subgroup of the Private Law Working Group, launched by the President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane.

The Family Solutions Group was given the task to look at how the experience of families going through separation could be improved, look at ways to divert them away from court applications and to restore ‘the child’ into the centre of all discussions within a culture that at the moment largely only operates for the parents. The solution also needed to be within existing legislation. Their report ‘What about me? Reframing Support for Families following Parental Separation’ was launched in November 2020. The MA’s family court committee contributed to the report.

One of the core recommendations of the report was ‘language matters’. Helen introduced the session by explaining that “the words we use shape our mindsets, which in turn affect how we think and behave.”

Some families automatically turn to the family court in their attempts to resolve their conflicts, because they think it’s their only option. Our mindsets are channelled by dramatic representations on TV, radio and in books where the “I’ll see you in court” attitude reigns. And, because family legislation has evolved from the criminal adversarial system, it is full of accusatory and divisive words and systems, which can be harmful to family members who are already in a fragile state.

For these separating families, their first encounter with the family court is the application form, which family magistrates will know as the C100. It’s full of legalese and is a vocabulary nightmare. And, for parents unable to afford a solicitor who have to represent themselves in the courtroom, the system provides little or no explanation of what is going to happen.

Families will regularly come to court for their first hearing expecting that everything will be sorted there and then—only to be bombarded by words such as position statements, bundles, Section 7 reports, non-subject child, applicant and respondent.

If our courts can nurture a caring and non-conflict experience for the parents, children will benefit and thrive. In order to do this our language needs to change away from adversity and battles, towards safety, wellbeing and child welfare.

The core principles of this are the five Ps:

  1. Plain English
  2. Personal
  3. Proportionate
  4. Problem solving
  5. Positive future

Tips for family magistrates

We need to work together to improve the language we all use in court. Think about using words that engender positivity rather than conflict. An example would be in a contact order, instead of using ‘contact’, which is a cold and sterile term, you could use ‘spends time with’. Or if a no direct contact is being ordered, rather than saying ‘indirect contact’, you could use ‘write letters or send cards.’