Regular Dad Info guest blogger 60/40 Dad shares his account of going through the stressful court process below.
For parents going through a separation, we recommend our free Parenting After Separation course. Also, mediation is another avenue to explore fully before ending up in court- which is a costly, stressful and difficult process.
Over to 60/40 Dad:
I wanted to write a little about my experiences of the family court process. I’ll be honest upfront; I’m almost entirely negative about the design of the process. But let me be clear, this is not an issue with any of the individuals involved; it’s clearly an under-resourced service from top to bottom. While I feel sorry for myself and my experience, I did often find myself feeling sorry for the people working across CAFCASS and the courts. It must be extremely challenging trying to do your best without adequate resources and support.
Firstly, let’s talk about the process. Let’s be clear; no one ends up in the family court because life is going well. All the people entering those doors are doing so because their lives are in turmoil. The most important thing to any of us attending court is our family. So, we’d all like to believe that the court system would be designed in a way for truth to prevail. For a clear and justified decision to be given, so that our family can be suitably protected.
Instead, my experience is that the court process is so unclear that you don’t even know what the process will be. You don’t know whether you will even get a chance to have your voice heard. You also don’t know whether anyone will read or engage with the materials you provide, or whether there will be any clarity in the decision given.
Let me give some examples to help you understand what I mean.
Talking to CAFCASS
The first step you will come across after an application is made is a conversation with CAFCASS to undertake safeguarding checks. From my experiences, no evidence is sought that what either parent says is accurate. Understandably, in each of my court cases to date they have confirmed that there are no safeguarding issues. Job done, right? Well not quite.
CAFCASS write a couple of pages including some of what they learnt talking to both parents. However which parts of “he said, she said” they choose to include in the letter they write to the court appears to follow no logic. Remember, they have already said there are no safeguarding issues, but if they choose to include some of the other hearsay in their report, it almost becomes a view that this is the truth or in some way important or relevant. Straight away, there’s a document in front of the court that holds substantial weight despite its real job being to conclude whether there is a safeguarding concern.
First directions hearing
Next up you attend a first directions hearing. This is the court getting everyone together to work out how to progress the case, and to put a little pressure on you to try and agree something without them having to be involved. In my experiences this was always a complete waste of time. If we’d have been able to come to a decision without the court we would have already done it. The court asks for no real information during a first directions hearing. It’s mostly about looking in the diary to choose a full hearing date.
Statement to the court
Following a first directions hearing, you are asked to draft a statement to the court in support of the final hearing. There appears to be very few guidelines as to what this should include, or even its length. These statements are “swapped” with the other party on a pre-agreed date, and they are also shared with the court.
I could write a whole blog post just about the failures of the statement to the court itself.
Instead I’ll try and briefly outline the issues with it:
– There are no clear rules as to what it should include
– There is no fact checking or requirement of evidence in what you submit, other than you having to declare it to be true
– It feels like a brutal document for both sides to have to read. Essentially you read a document outlining the alternative narrative of your life according to the children’s other parent. Because it is a wild west, this can include character assassinations of you. In my case this involved referencing my upbringing, my family- literally anything and everything. There’s something brutal about this being written in black and white and knowing this is going to be read by a court without an opportunity for you to retort or provide evidence to the contrary. When I last received a version of this document I fell to the floor and cried my eyes out.
– This leads to another issue. Because you don’t get to respond to the other document, should you defend possible accusations from the other party in your document?
– And further, perhaps you should go on the attack yourself. If you’re worried about the other party making accusations there is an obvious temptation to do the same. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you just filled your document arguing for what you want for your kids and the other parent filled theirs with accusations about your perceived failures? Would the court think that you’re a flawed parent and there’s no evidence that the other parent has any flaws?
In short the statement is a terrible part of the process and incentivises the whole thing becoming more confrontational than it needs to be. There are so many things I’d like to change about this step.
So, the big one – the final hearing. Now my experience here may be abnormal, but the fact that it did happen is a warning of what can happen.
Having been given a date and location for your final hearing is no guarantee that you will be heard on this date. Let me emphasise this; the most important meeting in your life may not even happen when you were told it would be.
At my hearing, hours later than it should have occurred, we were told the court didn’t have time for us. They could either have our case as a condensed hearing or we could come back another day to do it. Both parties agreed to proceed with the condensed hearing. We’d been through so much time, money, energy and emotion to get to this point. This hearing then only involved both parties giving a summary of their key arguments. Furthermore, it didn’t seem like any of the magistrates had actually read the statement to the court.
I came away feeling that the hearing had come down to the mood of the magistrates on the day. They made their decision, and provided a page of justifications for their decision.
I know that the statements hadn’t been read because the justifications were full of basic inaccuracies. They were clearly not true based on what either party had been saying. They also contained decisions/handover times etc that clearly didn’t make sense in terms of the information presented to the court.
So to this day I still don’t really ever feel like my case was heard. My view of justice was dented. I had always believed the court process would make everyone answerable for their actions and ensure that any wrongs were righted. I believed that doing the right thing would lead to the right outcome in the end. I really struggled with my reality being punctured after this period. I think that’s what ultimately caused the subsequent mental health struggles that followed.
I’m writing this blog post at a time where, unfortunately, returning to court has become a necessity once again. Next blog, I’d like to talk about how I think this whole process could be restructured to lead to better outcomes for everyone; and especially the children at the heart of these cases.
Best wishes to anyone reading this going through similar. Stay strong, it will get better one day.