‘If I wait for evidence it can be too late’ – when dramatic licence goes too far


I watched the first half of Silent Witness: Protection on Wednesday via iplayer and smiled indulgently at some of the more anguished twitter responses to its portrayal of child protection social work. Having spent many months now on various internet groups where the nicest thing anyone has to say about a social worker is that they are evil Nazis, this programme seemed like a reasonably sensitive and balanced account of the pressures and challenges of the child protection role in social work.

It presented well the fear and misery of the parents but highlighted their minimisation and denial of their own abusive behaviours. The dawning realisation of the teenage boy that his mum was never going to put him first above her partner was particularly poignant.

Yes, the court room scene was a bit dodgy with the social worker rushing up to confront the judge at the end – believe me, that’s never going to happen – but I am not one of these lawyers (I hope) who writes long annoyed letters to the BBC because I find the angle of the wigs on Silk unsatisfactory. I appreciate that the narrative arc of a drama often requires that pedantic and slavish adherence to every little detail be set aside.

But as ever, the devil is in the detail.

The second episode was rather different. My smile did not remain for long. I was presented with a number of  scenes that were not simply inaccurate in the detail but dangerously wrong in their entire presentation.  And the problem with this is because these scenes appeared to be written to chime with what I read time and time again on various Facebook groups; the system is corrupt, decisions are taken without evidence, on a whim, parents are powerless, no one listens, no one will help.

For example

A decision taken about whether or not a child is accidentally injured and whether or not the social worker should apply for an interim care order is taken in a 10 second conversation between  social worker and doctor walking down a corridor. ‘The science doesn’t lie’ thunders scarey consultant. ‘People do’.

Er, yes well sometimes they do. And sometimes they don’t. And sometimes doctors don’t agree on what the science actually is. And a decision to apply for an interim care order after a baby is brought into hospital would never, ever be made in a 10 second strut down the the hospital corridor, no matter how eminent the doctor doing the strutting, no matter how dramatic their ‘serious faces’ and the swelling music that plays in the background.

Then brave junior doctor finds a medical cause for the bruising and social worker slaps him down. ‘ I thought we already reached a conclusion!…He’s on the management committee for the British Paediatric Made Up Something! Are you saying he’s wrong?’

Even if this was the way decisions were made and justified about whether or not a child was abused, once it got to court,  even a first year law student – no, even a small child, possibly even my dog –  could quite easily tear apart that kind of decision making process.

And here is the interesting thing. Where were the lawyers in the second episode? The first had been a bit odd, giving the sense that an application for a care order was somehow just a chat between earnest social worker and irritated judge. But I glossed over that on grounds of dramatic licence.


Where have all the lawyers gone?

The second episode however went even further down a very dangerous road. The nice middle class parents sat alone and terrified in court. No lawyer. Listening to the social worker make a speech from the witness box and hide relevant evidence. The only lawyer who popped up seemed to be to cross examine the poor anguished father. Couldn’t the budget stretch to a few more people in suits? The inference must be that because these were clearly well off people who lived in an enormous house, if they didn’t have a lawyer that was because the Evil Family Courts would not allow it.

What is going on? The BBC writers claim that ‘a family law barrister was consulted and read the script and gave notes’. I can only assume they were the victim of a very cruel deception from someone mischievously posing as a barrister, as I simply refuse to accept that any family law barrister would advise that this kind of scene was acceptable.

It feeds into the narrative which seems to be taking deeper hold of the general perception of care proceedings as rigged against parents from the start, throwing them into court proceedings without allowing them even to see the evidence against them. It is very sobering, as a lawyer, to see just how little impact our profession makes on the various discussions parents have on line. The power to determine what evidence is heard and what decisions are made is often given to the social worker alone. [Edit – see this post from a parents’ perspective of the system]

The corrosive impact of this perception is immediately obvious from even a superficial glance over the various postings on the Facebook groups. A sample quote from five minutes ago:

Try telling that to the Pack of Jackals who run Social Services, Cafcass and the family courts. – I doubt they would have the ability to comprehend it. Stone Age Neanderthal mentality I am afraid. Hell they haven’t even been either taught or learned to be able to tell what the difference is between the truth and lying. – If they cannot reach that stage in human development the hope of them understanding something like this is, well, none existent….

….entering into a family court system is nothing more than a living Hell and that is only from the perspective of the public area…

If this narrative was confined only to internet comments, it would be bad enough. But of course, it isn’t. It spills over into real cases, with real and devastating consequences for families. The recent Baby with No Name case is a horrible example of what can happen when conspiracy theories take hold and the siege mentality develops.

I appreciate that Silent Witness is a drama, not a documentary. Its remit isn’t to shine a light on the true workings of the family court. But it was so bafflingly, stupidly wrong in its presentation of such key elements of the proceedings; the gathering of evidence and the presentation of the evidence in court. And it makes me angry because there are a lot of people out there who want to believe this is what happens.

If anyone is still interested in this debate, Lucy Reed and I are shortly going to attempt the Transparency Project’s first podcast on this subject. Watch this space for further details.

EDIT Podcast is done.