My experience of the Family Court system
That was my first mistake. Calling the Judge ‘Sir.’ It should have been ‘Your Honour’; the two lawyers opposing me on that full day at an English county court knew that, but I didn’t. How could I? At a previous hearing, the distinguished-looking man that was ushered into the Courtroom via his own secret door was called Sir, and this man today looked no different to my layman’s eyes.
I’m not sure I’d have called anyone ‘Your Honour’ anyway. I was there all alone, partly out of a lack of money, but mostly by choice: out of a surfeit of principle and a determination to stand up for my children. I had been represented by professional advocates in my previous three encounters with the family court system, and hated the way they were simultaneously interested and disinterested in my family. The distinction is subtle, yet it mattered deeply to me.
I could picture the lawyers clocking off at five, going home and hanging their pinstripes up, never giving my children another second’s thought, their minds wandering towards tomorrow’s case and another torn-apart family that they are tasked with either annihilating or healing, depending on their brief. Meanwhile my children would be in my mind 24 hours a day.
I wanted to stand up and put on record my feelings in my own words; not via an intermediary, and not via the discipline of precision-guided theatre that is the barrister’s stock-in-trade. Although I was polite to everyone, I soon learned that raising my voice to emphasise a point that I felt particularly strongly about was A Fault, and felt the sighs and sniggers of the smooth Oxbridge orators ripple around me. There are no marks for passion in this bizarre play, where the leads are at once enemies and golf partners. “Let’s not go there,” scolds the Judge, whose intermittent trendy phrasing makes me wonder whether I’ve wandered into an episode of Friends.
You have to know what to say. Nobody cares that you spent ten years trudging to work in the snow with no shoes and nothing but lard for lunch so that your children could have a home to live in and food on the table. Ok, I exaggerate: it was only five years. Seriously, the Judge will tell you in very reasonable tones that he has to look at where we are now; at the future. Any atrocious behaviour in the past is largely irrelevant, although you may be humoured with a passing nod to your complaint: a brief stage for your sincerely felt arguments, albeit marred by an accompanying soundtrack of rolling eyes and crashing boredom.
The legal people know what to say. It’s their job. It’s like a fantastically rarified version of some Oxford college debating club. They know from years of argy-bargy what works and what doesn’t; and the simple fact is that what doesn’t work is simply not worth saying. The process is very conservative and dogmatic. Counsel for my ex-wife cites a case from 1971, in which the wife got her own way, and is mock-mystified that anyone should take any other view to that which was decided forty years ago. The Judge feigns surprise at the unearthing of the landmark case (which even I knew about) and nods along to the barrister’s clipped tones as if it were already checkmate. I mentally shake my head in disbelief.
Look at the title at the top of the page. A whole day’s discussion can be condensed down to that one phrase, and after my mind’s dictaphone being overloaded with hours of rhetoric, it is clear that the decision has been made. “No, you may not,” the Judge finds, “but you may write to the children once a month.” So, I’m not allowed the couple of weeks’ contact at Christmas that I asked for as a minimum, I’m not allowed to speak to them on the telephone, but- magnanimity! -I’m allowed to write to them once a month!
At this point, considering my place in a roomful of actors-for-hire, I should have been awarded the Oscar there and then for Most Convincing Litigant; for while, as if from afar, I saw my external persona involuntarily bow his head and say Thank You Sir, the real, inner me was seething with regret and sorrow for what my children have lost.