On May 8th 2017 the Mothers in Law Blog published ‘An Open Letter to the Transparency Project’.
We are very happy to respond; communication and dialogue about the family justice system is essential to our charitable objectives which we summarise in this way:
We explain and discuss family law and family courts in England & Wales, and signpost to useful resources to help people understand the system and the law better. We work towards improving the quality, range and accessibility of information available to the public both in the press and elsewhere.
You can read our full charitable objectives here.
We – and all those who wish to be part of constructive discussions about the family justice system – need to be able to recognise and respond to legitimate criticism. But we also can’t shy away from calling out criticism which is unfair or based on wrong or partial understanding of actual facts.
With those caveats in mind, we will respond to the points as they are raised in the blog post itself. This post has been contributed to by all the trustees of The Transparency Project (the TP) and other members of our project group, given that we think it raises important issues.
We are a ‘sham charity’?
It is a shame that the letter has to start in this way:
Some people, I say some people but I mean me mostly, think that you are a bit of a sham charity, comprised mainly of self serving lawyer types using public money and perception to further your own ambitions. Rather than making family law clearer you are simply court apologists, loath to antagonise or even question the hand that feeds you.
Self serving lawyer types?
All the TP commentators are clearly identified here if you want more information about who they are and what they do. Some of us are practising family lawyers or court of protection lawyers, but some have a social work background, or are researchers / academic lawyers with media / information law or family law specialisms, or legal publishers / journalists. Our contributors are drawn from a broader pool still and we are happy to publish guest blog posts from pretty much anyone who has something to say. And we have as open a comment policy as the law allows us to do. So we hope that we are a broad church, and not just “self serving lawyer types”. Within The Transparency Project there are a range of different views and perspectives. We do not always agree with one another, and that’s okay.
It is not for the members of the TP to put forward a defence of why they do what they do; we are content to let our actions and work speak for itself. However, It should be very clear from even a cursory glance at the material published on the TP website that we do not shy away from challenge or criticism of the court system where it is needed (for example here we highlight failures in the handling of a court case, here we are critical of social work regulators, here we spoke at an event looking at what lessons could be learnt from the Ellie Butler case, and last week we were also critical of a fellow lawyer). But our primary objective is to improve understanding of what the law IS – not what individual members of the TP think it should be. Our charitable objectives don’t include us campaigning for changes in the law (save perhaps in relation to transparency itself). There are other charities and organisations who do that very ably but it isn’t what we are about. So those who expect us to do something outside our charitable objectives will be disappointed.
Beginning the letter with an accusation that we are nothing more than ‘court apologists’ does not get us off to a very good start. Particularly as the (anonymous*) author of this blog is writing from a very particular viewpoint:
*Update : actually, we now realise not anonymous, the post is authored by “trionascully”
Mothers in Law seeks to provide a counter narrative to the Men in Capes. It dares to ask questions other agencies should be asking like ‘How does shoving yourself into spandex and scaling a two storey house in any way negate your ex’s a.k.a. Mum’s concerns about your fitness to parent?’
Mothers in Laws knows of many family law groups that seek to be gender neutral. Mothers in Law makes no such claim laying the blame squarely at the doors of the patriarchy. The secret shut doors with the sign outside which reads ‘Patriarchs at work. No cameras or recording equipment allowed in the court room.’
The TP is not a ‘sham charity’. We are a genuine charity registered with the Charity Commission, which has approved our charitable purposes and holds us to account. We acknowledge a range of viewpoints and try to listen to them all, and to offer them a voice on our blog, even though they are at times irreconcilable.
We suggest we are the ‘go to authority’ on family law in the UK
We do not. What however we appear to be is the first concentrated effort by a group of people from a variety of backgrounds and professions, to try and put forward calm and factual analysis of some of the many distorted perspectives that flourish around the family court system. If the author of this blog has such ‘considerable misgivings’ about our work then that is a great shame. Either we are not being sufficiently clear about our objectives or the blog author is not being particularly fair about her characterisation of them. The vast majority of work that The Transparency Project carries out is done by volunteers giving their time for free, and they do it because of concern that the public may be misled, and for parents involved in court cases in ways that could harm their case.
It’s also important point to be clear that we are a charity in England and Wales. Our remit doesn’t extend to Scotland or Northern Ireland. Scotland in any event has a completely separate legal system. So we’re DEFINITELY no sort of authority for anything in Scotland!
Impact of our reporting of the Samantha Baldwin case.
It is clear that the blog author has been motivated to write her open letter following our attempts to provide clarity around the legal proceedings involving Samantha Baldwin and her children. We have provided extensive commentary, as was fitting with a case that involved so much public attention and so much distorted misinformation being widely circulated via social media.
The author of the blog post appears critical of our commentary, relying as we did on the ‘subjective judgement’ of the judge in the case. It is suggested that the Judge ‘stated’ that a paedophile ring operated ‘at the centre of this case’. It appears that the blog post author has misunderstood what the Judge said. He clearly made a finding that there had been NO ‘gross sexual abuse’ by the father or anyone. We repeat what we said about the court’s actual findings
the mother made allegations of sexual abuse of the boys by the father, and others, some years ago;
these were the subject of a lengthy fact-finding hearing very recently (12 days, which is a significant duration for a trial in a private law case), but it seems likely that any criminal investigation associated with this hearing did not lead to charges against the father;
after 12 days of evidence from the parents, and a host of other witnesses and consideration of more than 2,000 pages of documents, the judge decided that the mother had failed to prove that it was more likely than not that her allegations were true, although she did genuinely believe them to be true;
more than that, he found that she was so convinced that the allegations were true that she had gone to the lengths of drugging the boys in order to bolster the case that the children were victims of abuse – in essence she fabricated evidence in the hope of securing the finding she believed was justified;
The problem is – as ever – that the open letter author simply doesn’t ‘believe’ what the judge found. It doesn’t ‘feel’ right – not with Daily Mail articles saying what a great mum she was and not when seen through a lens of blaming the ‘patriarchy’ for every decision that goes against a mother in the family courts. And so, the TP as the ‘messenger’ – gets shot. We can’t tell people what to believe, but we do think it is right before people make up their minds that they understand that the judge is not just ‘stating’ in the sense of pronouncing on his gut feeling, but has made findings, having heard the evidence presented by all those involved over twelve days. It is possible that the judge was wrong (as we acknowledged in our posts), but at present that appears to be the best, most objective source of information publicly available (And as a matter of law it IS what happened). It is certainly better than relying upon a generalised proposition that mothers always make false allegations or that they always know best. Each case is unique. A judge looks at the individual facts, not general propositions.
Of course, as some of us in the TP are practitioners in family law, at the very ‘coal face’ every day, we recognise and sadly understand why the author says what she does here:
Perhaps, part of the problem is that the believers in a case like this are made up broadly of family law obsessives. An obsession in something as obscure as family law is almost always bred by direct, or at the very least indirect experience of the process. In comedic circles such people would be called a tough crowd. It doesn’t matter how many times a charity set up to inform the public about family law explains the available data to them, they will twist it and find ways to subvert its findings to support their cause. Their cause, in a nutshell, is to expose the corrupt and inept nature of family law proceedings.
The debate about the family court system is poor and has been poor for a very long time. That is because many of the individuals who take part in it have suffered terribly. Their belief that they have been the victim of injustice, even cruelty, is genuine and sometimes -sadly – based on rational grounds. There is an absence of objective, neutral commentary to attempt to provide a different view. The TP hope to fill that gap, or at least attempt to.
Perhaps we are a “tough crowd”, in the sense that some of us have been involved in lengthy trials and have some appreciation of just how much energy, testing and anxious consideration will have gone into reaching a point where findings are made. Perhaps that makes us naturally more confident that findings made by a judge are likely to be pretty reliable than those without experience of the process. But we’ve also seen enough trials to know that tthings do go wrong and that no system is perfect.
None of this means we are insensitive to or dismissive of the very real pain expressed by those parents who have had to go through the system. But nor does it mean we can shy away from a factual analysis of the cases before us. This was a case decided after a 12 day fact finding by a judge who heard all the available evidence. Just what other system is being suggested? That each party gets to weigh in the scales the number of positive articles written about them in the Daily Mail? Or who has the biggest membership for their Facebook group? The court system is imperfect. But its considerably better than the alternatives.
Is Samantha Baldwin being ‘punished’ for the publicity about her case?
We now get to the core of the concerns of the Mother In Law blog.
And here’s where you come in. There are rumours and half truths that suggest that Samantha Baldwin is being held personally to account in a closed family court for the actions of renegades. Not friends or colleagues, but absolute strangers, who see her name as an opportunity to expouse their own personal agendas, ideologies and opinions. Take me, for example, I have never met her or anyone that has ever met her. If it wasn’t for all the police released photos of her, I couldn’t pick her out of a line up. Yet, I have written three blogs about her case. Much like The Transparency Project. There is nothing that Samantha Baldwin could have reasonably done to stop me writing these articles.
Surely, Samantha Baldwin cannot be held accountable for the words and actions of people she has never met? People who would use her personal crisis in an opportunistic fashion? People who would use her and her children’s pain for personal or political gain? These questions are particularly pertinent when we recognise that Samantha Baldwin herself has never courted publicity. Can you clarify this issue for us? Can you attest as to how the actions of strangers would never impact on the outcome of a secret family court hearing?
We’re not quite sure what is being suggested here. But sadly, it is unlikely we can give the assurances requested. Of course, Ms Baldwin and her children should not suffer from the actions of misguided strangers on the internet. However, the stark fact remains that it was Ms Baldwin’s decision to remove the children in an attempt to evade the court’s ruling. That removal had the inevitable consequences that the court would need to publish details about her children in an effort to find them, and equally inevitably that people would talk about it. That appears to have included information that must have come from sources close to Ms Baldwin, but we do not know to what extent that was at her behest or within her control. However, children are supposed to be kept away from this kind of publicity for very obvious reasons. It’s likely to be embarrassing at best, emotionally harmful at worst to know that your private family business is public knowledge.
So, as Ms Baldwin chose to open that door to greater publicity, she is likely to be taken to have realised just who might come through that door; therefore the actions of strangers could indeed impact on a family court hearing and its analysis of how protective or insightful a parent she is. But neither we, nor we suspect the writer of the open letter, really know what is happening in the family court on this case right now. In due course we may see a further published judgment, but it is equally possible we will not, because the pressing need the boys have for privacy will override the public interest in us being given more information to settle the public debate.
Were it to be the case that Ms Baldwin were being punished in the sense that she was at risk of being sent to prison by the Family Court (We’re not quite sure if this is what is suggested) that would almost certainly be held in open court, rather than a private hearing. Were that to happen we would know about it and we would cover it. In addition, the press have the right to attend an ‘ordinary’ ‘in private’ child arrangement order hearing unless the court specifically rules they may not (with reasons), though there may well be restrictions on the extent of reporting of such hearings.’
What can we talk about in family law cases?
We note and agree wholeheartedly with the last point made:
I note you have already briefly referred to #justice4s campaign. You mention the ‘mistaken belief’ that some of her supporters have that using a ‘s’ to denote ‘samantha’ legally negates the fact that the tag is for Samantha. I don’t think it was a mistaken belief. I think it was outright ignorance. It’s hardly surprising! Law. Reporting restrictions law. Defamation law ( I note you suggest that some people tweeting about the case need a crash course on this – can you suggest a link?). Family law. Any type of law is in fact so specialist that we defer to lawyers. Thank goodness we have a charity set up especially to navigate such complex and skilled subjects.
To avoid libel – simply don’t publish anything that is likely to cause serious harm to someone’s reputation unless you know you would be able to prove what you have said is true, in court.
It is a matter of some shame and embarrassment that an established legal system such as ours is so poor at offering clear and accessible information to members of the public about what they can and can’t publish or talk about in family law cases. Given that the ultimate sanction for failure to comply is imprisonment, this is a sorry state of affairs. The TP remains committed to trying to help as much as possible in disseminating clear information about what we can and can’t talk about in family cases. We will shortly be publishing a further Guidance Note on one aspect of this issue (publication of judgments), and we hope that the Mothers In Law blog will find it useful.
Feature pic : by Thomas Hawk on Flickr (Creative commons) – thanks!