Saturday, 12 July 2008

The difficulties of family court proceedings

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Sir, As a clinical psychologist who has spent several years as an expert witness in child and family hearings, I would like to thank Camilla Cavendish for her excellent series of articles on family justice (times2, July 8, and letters, July 9). There are a number of issues that are also worth raising. First, there is the difficulty in reconciling an adversarial black and white system of law with the much greyer fields of psychology, social work and so on. The latter are inexact sciences, regardless of how psychologists would like to pretend otherwise; shoehorning them into a court can be a very inexact fit, leading to experts withdrawing from the system for fear of being pulled apart in a legal confrontation. I have been criticised for reading social services files without obtaining permission from the court; this was perfectly justifiable clinically, but unacceptable legally. I have sat in meetings as barristers have incomprehensible arguments about cases that have little meaning clinically. Secondly, social work is one of the most undervalued and pilloried professions in the UK, its members often working for relatively low pay and under huge pressure from swollen caseloads. We do not, and never have had, a perfect system errors are made, either when children are removed from families when they shouldnt have been or when they are left too long in a family. We do not spend the money to invest in a root and branch reform of how services are provided to families at risk of breakdown. Thirdly, there is the problem of parents with learning disabilities. Such parents have little chance of defending themselves in court there is something grotesque about people with the bottom 2 per cent of the intellectual range having their children being removed by the top 2 per cent and are sometimes classed as unable to instruct a solicitor, at which point their case is handled by a stranger. Parents with a learning disability are almost certain to lose their children once in the court arena, despite having evidence against them that would not stand up against a non-learning disabled parent. Finally, while I believe The Times is correct to wish for an increased level of transparency from the courts, there will be no such increase from some of the families involved. While I am sure that miscarriages of justice do exist, many families in cases which reach the courts have raised concerns for years; been through the GP/community mental health team/special educational needs co-ordinator routes; have not responded to social services requests to alter parenting practice; and, even after court proceedings are initiated, continue to provide care which is not adequate to meet the needs of their children.

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