Try a little tenderness

I spend a lot of time reading family law judgments, loads of them, and since the changes regarding transparency more than ever. Most of the time I read the facts without really taking them in and focus on the law: any significant changes, any contradictions, how does this case fit with those before it? Sometimes the facts jump out at me and I feel some sadness, particularly for those cases involving abuse, neglect, or even the death of a child. I’m conscious that now that I am no longer in practice that I am very much one step removed from the day-to-day stresses of dealing with what is often the worse period of a family client’s life. But even practitioners are a step away from how it must be to have every aspect of your behavior and decisions put under the judicial microscope. And that’s how it should be: to do the best for a family client one needs to have at least an element of professional detachment. It’s the same for judges and I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I have had with judges (at all levels) about the struggling family justice system, creaking under the strain of cuts to funding and an overload of cases in the past few years. How do judges retain their humanity when they deal with the hardest of cases, day in, day out?

Generally, these are things I just think about from time-to-time but yesterday when reading the decision in Re Chd [2014] Lexis Citation 246 I was really struck by this section from the judgment of HHJ Wildblood QC (a LexisNexis author who I work with as it happens) when he made care and placement orders in a difficult case (at para 62):

I realise how deeply distressing this decision will be for the mother and I wish I had been able to find a way through the case that would have led to a different conclusion – if I had been able to, I would have done so. I very much hope that those who have offered her support will continue to do so with the same degree of compassion that they have shown so far.’

This isn’t the first time of course that a judge has shown compassion and empathy, but I was also struck by this (at para 65):

‘I wish to pay an enormous tribute to Ms Judi Evans (counsel) and Ms Jan Norman (solicitor) for the way that they have represented the mother. They have both worked tirelessly and with the exceptional hallmark of quality that invariably defines the work that they do within the family justice system. If any two lawyers could have achieved a better outcome for this mother, it is those two lawyers.’

I particularly like the acknowledgment of the hard work of the mother’s solicitor: by the time judges hear cases all too often there is a focus on the evidence before them and the (often exhausting) support given to a client in such a difficult case by their solicitor is overlooked.

HHJ Wildblood QC also highlighted how the mother in the case would have been a ‘prime candidate’ for therapy and that (at para 63):

I have therefore already set up arrangements in the New Year to look very carefully at how we facilitate and access therapy in this area, with a view to doing my utmost to encourage much earlier therapeutic intervention if possible. I ask for as much help as possible with that endeavour.’

It gives me hope. This was a hard decision, approached with great compassion and empathy, from which the judge has sought to focus on lessons learnt and how things might be better going forward. We need more judging like this.

Geraldine Morris is a solicitor and head of the Lexis®PSL Family team

Twitter: @GeraldineMorris

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