On 25th July 2017 the legal blogger John Bolch published his further thoughts on the post truth world and its impact on the wider understanding of family law, with particular regard to the work of The Transparency Project.
I am happy to take some time to reply as I think this is a really important issue and I agree with a lot of what John says.
In essence John’s concerns were set out in the paragraph:
… the excellent Transparency Project, a charity that aims to explain how family law and the family courts in England and Wales work, was all very well, but was founded on the misconception that truth will always win – i.e. if you explain the truth of why the family courts do what they do, then the public will understand. Sadly, however, that is not the case, as we live in a post-truth world. People will believe what they want to believe, irrespective of whether or not it is true. Accordingly, they will disregard anything that contradicts their belief, and accept anything that accords with it. And the source of the information will have no bearing whatsoever. All that matter is what it says, and thus information from a legal expert is just as likely to be rejected or accepted as information from the bloke down the pub.
John poses some important questions, the answers to which he accepts he does not know.
- Do we keep plugging away in the hope that attitudes may change?
- Is the alternative to just give up and let people discover how the family justice system really works, when they experience it for themselves?
- Do we simply hope that there will always be a majority of people who understand that the family justice system strives to do the best for those who are affected by its decisions
- Or will there come a tipping-point, where the post-truthers outnumber the understanders?
- And what will happen then? Will the post-truthers demand that the law be changed to fit in with their warped ideals? Of course, then they will become the truthers…
Before I consider those questions, I must first deal with John’s own misconception about what he perceives to be our misconception – that The Transparency Project was founded on the belief that ‘truth will always win’.
I can’t speak for the other members of The Transparency Project, but I would be very surprised if any of us held that belief, given that none of us are six years old. Moreover, our aims and objectives are set out clearly on the website. We do not refer to any belief in ‘truth’ that will always prevail.
We are a registered charity. 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. We do not take on individual cases or provide legal services.
Of course ‘the truth’ doesn’t always ‘win’ – if what John means by winning is ‘becomes accepted by the majority as their preferred narrative’ . Very often ‘the truth’ is boring, unsexy, complicated or nuanced so it is very likely to be abandoned in favour of the exciting or simple.
So, given that I suspect we would all agree that ‘the truth’ doesn’t always win, what are the implications for this for continuing to strive to present clear and accurate narratives in this post truth world?
Do we keep plugging away?
Short answer. Yes.
Longer answer: I dealt with this issue in more detail in a post for the Child Protection Resource ‘My belief is the same as your fact; campaigning in a post truth world’ . I attended a talk at the Bristol Festival of Ideas by Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of ‘A Field Guide to Lies’. His clear message was that we ALL have a moral imperative to think critically and challenge lies. I agree with him and said:
… we must ALL take personal responsibility for educating ourselves to think critically and challenge people that we know are pushing misinformation. We cannot discuss issues sensibly or at all unless we are able to agree on what the ‘facts’ are. There are no ‘alternative facts’ only ‘facts’. But peoples’ beliefs about what is or is not a fact can shift over time.
We are in a world where the Rule of Law is clearly under threat from a variety of sources. Some of these threats are deliberate – the removal of Legal Aid under LASPO for e.g. Some of these threats are the result of genuine pain, fear and confusion from those who increasingly feel that ‘law’ is simply something that is ‘done’ to them. They distrust the law and lawyers and do not wish to engage with either.
We must not lose sight that most of the campaigners ‘against’ the family law system have experienced it first hand. They are bewildered and miserable and often easy pickings for that very dangerous minority who have the education and understanding to know better, but for motivations of their own, chose to push the ‘sexy’ narrative of the Evil Secret Family Courts.
I think it is a great shame and sadness for society generally that in 2017 charities such as The Transparency Project should be trying to plug the gaps in public legal education or access to the law – why can’t the government update its own websites for example? Why was legal aid removed/restricted in many family cases with no corresponding attempt to improve available information and help for litigants in person? Why are dangerous people allowed to put themselves forward as ‘McKenzie friends’ with no regulation or controls?
I am aware of arguments that an attempt to plug the harmful gaps in a system, can be seen as collusion with that failing system. I think these arguments have some force but I do not think they provide a convincing rationale for doing nothing at all.
So are we ‘excellent’ or are we ‘futile’?
What John gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. I don’t think The Transparency Project can be both at the same time ‘excellent’ and ‘futile’. It may of course depend on how one defines ‘futile’.
I don’t agree that those act in vain, who have tried to inform and write more clearly and accessibly about complicated issues. The Transparency Project often receives comments via the website and email from those who have found our guides and blog posts of assistance in attempting to navigate reported decisions or their own cases. See for example our event on 5th April 2017 about reporting family cases and the support The Transparency Project has given to CPConf2015 and CPConf2016.
Of course, John is right that no matter how eloquently and persistently we blog, we will have no impact on the mind of a person who – for example – firmly believes that a Judge should ‘look into a child’s eyes’ to inform a legal decision, rather than analyse then apply fact, law and precedent.
However, the judgments of Francis J in the sad case of Charlie Gard have been a model of clarity and compassion and reflect what I think is an increasing awareness of the need for judgments to be read beyond smaller professional circles. Whatever the howling headlines of the Daily Mail, there are clearly many people ‘out there’ who have welcomed the chance to read and engage with the judgments.
And even if there were no people at all who read the judgments, even if all there is now is the empty wasteland of Twitter where packs of Katie Hopkins prowl, I would still deny that the drive and desire for clarity about our law is ‘futile’.
Our moral duties don’t depend on outcomes to make them necessary or desirable. Sometimes, trying IS the only moral good available. To do nothing is the counsel of despair. I would rather try to be the light in the darkness than embrace the shadows and what lurks there. We will try. That, in the end, is all anyone can do.