Why Parents Should Avoid Family Court Proceedings

Around 90% of parents we meet who have entered the family court system describe their experience as both negative and unsatisfactory, with comments such as:

  • “It’s been financially crippling and I still don’t have the contact I hoped for” 
  • “The whole process was completely biased and unfair – there’s no equality at all”
  • “I found it really stressful having to represent myself” 
  • “My ex made so many false allegations against me – I’ll never be able to trust them again”
  • “It took far too long for me to get to see my children and now my contact is supervised” 
  • “My ex doesn’t stick to our court order so I have to keep making new court applications!”
  • “Our court order didn’t cover all the issues and we were sent back to mediation”
  • “The hearings were often delayed and sometimes we didn’t even get the same judge!”

So whether you’re the parent who is applying to the court for a child arrangements order or you are the respondent parent, there are some important points to consider:

Relinquishing Control

Separating parents should recognise and appreciate that, in bringing family matters before the courts, they are largely relinquishing ‘control’ of their family’s future and reducing their capacity to resolve their own parental issues. By handing over parental ‘power’ to a judicial system that is adversarial and combative in style, there is a real risk that the court process may only aggravate, and very possibly escalate, the level of conflict between you.

Escalating Conflict

This conflict will certainly take its toll on you personally in terms of emotional energy, financial cost, and valuable time. As parents, it will also greatly reduce your capacity to support your children as you focus on all the complex legal proceedings.  And it will impact on your children more than you can ever imagine. As they become increasingly aware of the ‘war’ being waged between you, they will struggle to find the resilience they need to adapt and deal with the emotional ‘loss cycle’ of your separation. Ultimately, the longer the conflict continues, the less they will feel able to express their thoughts and feelings and the more they will end up feeling lost, confused, isolated and abandoned.  

Allegations & Accusations

In an attempt to discredit each other some parents ‘paint’ an entirely disapproving picture and begin to negatively ‘profile’ one other. Often there is a need to feel vindicated and a desire to play out the ‘blame-game’ within the court arena. All too often, intractable and long-lasting disputes arise  as a direct result of ongoing allegations and accusations between parents.  Naturally, the court has a duty to investigate these matters in protecting and safe-guarding children. Sadly, sometimes these are strategies intentionally employed by parents in order to withhold or restrict access to children. This adversarial behaviour usually encourages increased suspicion and fosters further parental mistrust, putting an end to all vital parental communications. It’s a highly destructive approach to dealing with an already very fragile system (your family) effectively  like driving a steamroller over a ‘sensitive seedling’ (your child). In time, these malicious attempts to discredit, diminish or devalue the other parent are highly likely to backfire as children make their own observations and judgements about whether you are able to treat each other fairly.

Legal Advice

Whilst it is both recommended and essential to fully understand your legal rights and entitlements, parents should bear in mind that solicitors fight solely for their clients. In this respect any legal advice you receive does not necessarily take into account the needs of the whole family. For this reason it’s important to choose your legal counsel wisely and where possible seek out a collaborative lawyer whose code of conduct is to do all they can to minimise the conflict. Remember, you are paying for a service so the choice is yours. If you are dissatisfied with the advice you receive – look elsewhere. It’s also worth doing some of your own research as the more knowledge you have, the more empowered you will be.  And if recommended to go to court, think carefully and prepare well before entering a system that is highly likely to leave you mentally exhausted, financially depleted and emotionally battered. 

Court Resources & Costs

Court resources are now extremely limited with approx. 45,000 private law applications issued each year. As the immense backlog continues to grow (currently over 110,000 cases), long delays are to be expected. It may be many months or even years before you have a resolution to your case (averaging 21 months to final hearing). There is also no such thing as reasonably priced litigation: skilled lawyers and barristers cost significant amounts of money, and if you have a figure in your head – triple it – then you’ll have some idea of how much you’ll be out of pocket at the end of the process. It’s worth bearing in mind all the potential benefits of safeguarding your precious financial resources for your ‘new’ lives and your children’s futures.

ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution)

As we head towards a long-awaited change in the law and introduction of ‘no-fault’ divorce, the traditional contentious litigation process seems increasingly outdated. Surely the ‘true’ purpose of the family court is assisting a parent who is being denied contact with their child without cause i.e. no safeguarding issues? Unfortunately, this is representative of very few applications issued and excessive court time is being taken up with matters that parents should be capable of sorting out themselves. The key is opening up dialogue that is focused on their children’s interests – whether directly or in the mediation process. With so many collaborative options now available, there is no good reasoning for parents not to seek out the specialist support they need. By making effective use of the expert guidance and innovative co-parenting ‘tools’ available they can drive their separation/divorce down a far gentler path.                                                                     

It’s not surprising then that family courts cannot always be expected to come to the rescue of a family who find themselves ‘shipwrecked’ on an emotional ‘sea’ of hurt and despair. Judges are required to make monumental decisions for the families they deal with, mostly having only met the parents briefly and, in most cases, never having met the children. How can they be expected to satisfy the unique and detailed requirements of so many families whose lives they have such little knowledge of? In truth, the outcome is often something of a ‘lottery’ – rather than achieving a “win-win” solution for all, the impossible position of the court inevitably produces a “lose-lose” result which only generates further parental resentment, rather than fostering future collaboration. 

The family court process is certainly not an appropriate foundation on which to build a successful future co-parenting model when two parents end up locked in adversarial battle. They can be very effective at handing down specific orders but cannot be the ‘fixer’ of all problems. Family situations and dynamics vary so greatly and everyone’s situation is unique. By diminishing your decision-making capacity and blaming each other in the courts, you could find yourself unpleasantly surprised at the outcome.