24 July 2022: The UK’s top judge uses blunt words as he confirms that courts harm children of separating parents. He says that family law should be “the last resort” not “the first port of call”. These are family relationship problems not legal matters.
Talking on the BBC and widely reported, Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the UK Family Division, said too many couples take their cases through the courts where hostile language can make things worse and harm children in the process.
Research shows consistently that if you’re the child of parents who are at odds with each other – whether or not that they’re coming to court – that is unhealthySir Andrew McFarlane
The adversarial system and language of courts increases the hostility between parents. He confirmed that research consistently shows that disputes that run on are what harms children – that’s what “effs you up” and “does your head in”.
Sir Andrew admitted that the system he presides over is harming some children. Planned changes are frustratingly slow. As President of the Family Division, he has direct influence only with what he presides over. He has plans to improve court language, delays, workload and transparent of reporting of what courts do.
Appealing to the world
Given that family courts are failing, he urges separating parents to behave more responsibly. For example, assessments could be a wake up call to parents about “the impact of what they’re doing on their child”. Parents are fooling themselves if they say ‘Oh we’re not involving our children’.
We have hearings which are called dispute resolution hearings where we should be just problem solving for the future of the child.’Sir Andrew McFarlane, 2022
Family courts hold the child’s welfare to be paramount. Yet this senior family court judge confirms that courts harm children. If courts are harmful yet continue to be everyone’s first port of call, we can’t know how parents will be when the courts are their last resort.
From his highest office, Sir Andrew is as clear as he can be that something else is now required, that improving courts is of limited value. His views and voice carry a most powerful direct appeal to the wider world. Elsewhere he has invited others to lead the creation of better systems than family law:
The task of identifying, developing and then funding a better way … is not for the judges. My purpose [is] simply to call out what is going on in society’s name, and at the State’s expense, and invite others to take up that call.Sir Andrew McFarlane, Jersey 2021
Sir Andrew can only make that call. Others must make it happen.