We know that the issue of family courts dealing with domestic abuse is contentious. In fact, it’s almost impossible to talk about it without being criticised by someone or other. We knew this when we produced our guidance note for families, and we knew it when we made the decision earlier this week to post a guest blog from barrister Charlotte Proudman. And so it is. Alongside a raft of congratulatory tweets, saying how brilliant and refreshing the post is, there are a number of others (still in the minority but enough) who are highly critical of the post and of the attitudes they see as underlying it.

Some have expressed their disappointment that we, a charity, would give a platform to a post that they see as gender biased, as lacking in evidential underpinning, and that does not reflect their own experience. So this seems a good time to restate our charitable objectives. These are set out in our constitution and are :

To advance the education of the public in the subject of family law and its administration, including the family justice system in England and Wales and the work of the family courts, in particular but not exclusively through the provision of balanced, accurate and accessible information about the work of family courts and the facilitating of public discussions and debates which encompass a range of viewpoints.

To promote the sound administration and development of the law in England and Wales, in particular, family law, by encouraging and contributing to the transparency of processes in the family justice system, contributing to public legal education concerning family law and matters of family justice, enhancing access to justice in matters of family law and by such other means as the trustees may determine.

This is what we were set up for; it is what we have always done and it is what we will continue doing. 

Our longstanding editorial and comments policy states that

Opinions are welcomed, even strong or critical ones. You can comment even if you disagree with us.

Charlotte Proudman offers one view, based on her experience as a barrister, of how the courts deal with this issue. Readers are welcome to comment (politely in line with our comments policy) on whether they think that her experience is representative or atypical, on whether they think her post is written in a balanced way and on whether data backs up or undermines her claims. We encourage that and we think that Charlotte will engage with constructive challenge. 

A number of commenters have been dismayed at the perceived lack of acknowledgment of male victims of abuse or of female perpetrators. In our own publications, we have always strived to acknowledge those issues fairly and neutrally. However, it would stifle debate to refuse to publish a guest blog post that does not adopt exactly the same approach as we do. We think it is fine for others to challenge us, or any of our guest authors. If we only published opinion we (the TP members) all agreed with, or we were confident all our readers would agree with, we would not be holding true to our objectives.

It is clear from our twitter timeline and comments that, for many readers (particularly female commentators who have experienced abuse), this blog post chimes with their experience. However, for a number of barristers, who do the same area of work, it does not. I am one barrister whose experience does not match Charlotte’s. I’ve seen most of the things she describes at some point, but in my experience those examples of poor practice and outdated attitudes are the exception rather than the rule, these days. If I were writing Charlotte’s post, I’d have written it in more gender neutral terms, acknowledging the victimhood of some men, and the reality that not all allegations are truthful or accurate. But mine is merely one view, my experience is just as much anecdote as Charlotte’s, and no doubt somebody will remind me that I have my own prejudices that I do not see or acknowledge. Nobody’s sole perspective is the whole truth about this difficult field.

Like Charlotte, I also appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire show in May, and subsequently I wrote in The Times about the limitations of anecdotal information : We must shed light on family court crisis – Protecting children’s privacy should always be paramount but we cannot rely on media reports and anecdotal evidence if we are to reform the system (sorry, paywall). 

I note that some of the barristers who have commented on Charlotte’s post on twitter have themselves offered contradictory anecdotes, implicitly suggesting that the length of their experience trumps that of the less experienced Proudman. I think we all have to be careful about that. It is so easy for rounded debate to devolve into competitive attempts to discredit the ‘other side’ and for people to stop the voices that don’t match their own. We all of us see what we are looking for and remember what suits us – and so such our reported experiences are different. Some are more reflective about our cognitive biases than others.

Like Charlotte, I supported a call for an inquiry into family courts precisely to try and move us beyond anecdote. I have my doubts about whether the three month ‘spotlight review’ will fulfill that task. I would like The Transparency Project to offer a platform for sensible discussion about that issue – as our charitable objectives mandates us to do.

We are happy to host constructive contributions to this debate subject to legal requirements and restrictions. We welcome robust challenge but keep it clean please. We have already had to edit some comments. 

For my part (as a barrister whose experience doesn’t entirely match Charlotte’s) I’m going to contribute some questions about why that might be – and duck out :

  • Is Charlotte’s experience different than mine (and some other barristers) because something objectively different is happening in the courts she practises in than in the ones I practise in? i.e. are London judges doing it differently to those in the West Country?
  • Is Charlotte’s experience different because she is taking on a different level of work or type of client than I am? Charlotte is 2010 call, whilst I am 2002. Some of the other commentators are also more senior (longer in experience) than her. The reality is that the more senior you get, the less private law legal aid do, so we may be seeing very different cases, prepared in different ways, allocated to different tiers of judiciary. I don’t know, I’m simply hypothesising (not least because year of call is not a precise way to guess the complexity or nature of work someone is doing). 
  • Are our responses to a failure to properly consider PD12J qualitatively different? Are some of us more robust in putting the judge or magistrates right when they are about to go off track?
  • Are the responses of the judiciary to more senior counsel different (i.e. do they behave better of their own volition)?
  • Has Charlotte simply had a run of bad luck in the responses she’s seen – or have I been very fortunate?

Charlotte and others may in due course have some thoughts of their own on these issues and on whether my questions are at all helpful.

For my part, I am not going to recruit specific examples to suggest that I know better than Charlotte, or better than the many other voices out there who say contradictory things about what is really happening. If I have any disagreement with Charlotte it is one I have with a number of other commentators of differing perspectives: your experience is no more valid than anyone else’s.

The responses to Charlotte’s post emphasise for me just how much we need a proper inquiry into the family court that can measure the powerful anecdotes and experiences we all bring against the objective reality in a way that the public can have confidence in. 

Please comment on this post or on twitter. If you have a longer contribution to the debate please email us. We will not be recruited by any one part of the competing campaigns here and we will not be cowed into only publishing safe posts from one viewpoint, nor will we publish guest post that are no more than repetitive point scoring. 

Lucy Reed is the Chair of The Transparency Project

PS : You can now read another post on this topic from Bob Greig (onlydads) here.

Pic courtesy of Bob Jagendorf (Flickr – creative commons – thanks!)