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Penny Booth: Through the looking glass

Date:11 MAY 2010

Through the looking glass

Penny BoothSo, days after the election we are sitting glued to our televisions and attached to Radio 4 trying to find out what is actually happening with the government of the country and whether there will be any changes to family law in this country. Oh, you aren't?

I don't blame you. After all, according to my husband, the newspapers (I let him read them first so that he can digest for me the very best bits and save me time looking for them) are full of references to Lewis Carroll and ‘Alice', presumably either ‘in Wonderland' or busy going ‘Through the Looking Glass'. The appearances of the White Rabbit, clutching a timepiece and rushing about everywhere may not be the first thing you think of where politicians are concerned but the sheer idiocy and madness is certainly reflective of that with which we are all concerned - families. We should find some comfort that ‘real life' reflects literature more than we would give credit for.

The Times Law section on Election Day itself (page 71 on 6 May edition) had a piece about the opening up of the family courts. Frances Gibb, a journalist for whom I have a lot of time (so I read her stuff myself rather than have my husband draw my attention to it), states that the changes in opening up the courts as we now have them were a ‘misguided politically motivated fudge'. Jack Straw set about mark 2 last autumn, but the result we find in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010, watered down as it went through Parliament with unseemly haste in early April during the tidying-up stage before Parliament went home to try again, is now a complete mistake, and, according to some pundits, almost the mirror-image opposite of what was originally intended.

The stated intention was to expose the family courts to greater scrutiny, as one might find when a professional offers their professional advice and gets it wrong, then is exposed to legal scrutiny without being able to hide behind anonymity. However, the publication of information about children and their cases is something about which much has been written; it is not a stranger to this column, either. With respect, much of what goes on the family courts is not that which can be counted with certainty and pronounced upon with confidence. You can calculate the strength of the bridge built, and if you get it wrong you can go to court to defend yourself and the calculations can be checked with some agreement as to what is being done. In families, however, you are relying upon a professional opinion often based on perception tempered by theory and moulded by experience. Keeping a personal partnership going, bringing up children and founding a family is not without its perils and hardly consistently subject to clear and precise calculation. There are other considerations - whilst we want people with poor judgement to be exposed, we are not doing this in a vacuum. Children do not like their personal lives reported upon (this is not Facebook) and have enough to cope with without fearing information that might identify them being known through the local journalists publishing anything, never mind risking the salacious and humiliating.  There must be a better way of retaining an open society, exposing incompetency in family law professionals and ensuring what we do in court is honest, professional and worthwhile.

It is only a ‘wonderland' because this has resulted in a family law world we can only wonder at - it makes most sense, of course, to the Mad Hatter, who has failed to sue for harm caused by either his wearing of noxious hats or his damaged upbringing.

Penny Booth is an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University Centre for the Study of the Child, the Family and the Law. Click here to follow Penny Booth on Twitter.

Through the looking glass