The Family Solutions Group, backed by Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, is calling for a radical change in outdated and combative language used by lawyers, courts, media and wider public in cases of family separation.
The call comes on the anniversary of the No Fault Divorce, (Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020), the “biggest shake up” in divorce law for more than half a century, which came into force on 6th April 2022.
The Family Solutions Group, set up by Sir Stephen Cobb in 2020, say that “battle-stoked language and words like ‘custody’, ‘dispute’ and ‘versus’ can heighten conflict between parents, and can have a long-term negative impact on children caught in the middle”.
They argue that a change in the language of family separation away from adversity and battles, towards safety, wellbeing, and child welfare could improve outcomes for parents and their children.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, addressing a Family Solutions Group event said:
“It’s blindingly obvious that the language we have been using is not appropriate and only goes to stoke the minds of those in a combative mindset, rather than direct them in a different way.”
…this is not a custody fight, it’s a coming together of parents to work together to reduce the impact on their children and help them resolve their issues about the arrangements for their children, in as low a temperature as possible.
And bit by bit the penny is dropping. The language is important. I want to do all I can to bring about a change in the way we use language in the court.”
The Family Solutions Group’s call for change is informed by recent polls of over 400 professionals to find out which words are most harmful and helpful, plus a survey completed by 228 professionals.
The Family Solutions Group survey found that a majority (99%) of professionals said that the language legal professionals use affects separating clients’ mindsets and their behaviour, and that small changes in language could affect a child’s experience following their parents’ separation.
Helen Adam, Chair of the Family Solutions Group said:
“It’s shocking that harmful terms like ‘custody’ are still commonplace in our society and the media, despite every effort to remove them. The ‘fighting talk’ so often used in the context of family separation sets parents against each other, escalating family problems and putting children at risk. A ‘custody battle’ suggests a tug of war between parents for the control of their child, with parents pulling against each other. Not only is this 30 years out of date, but it’s harmful to children, unhelpful for parents and ultimately damaging to society.
In these days of increasing awareness of the impact of language upon minority groups, it is extraordinary that there is such a blind spot over the impact of language on families who separate. The simple truth is that fuelling aggression and battles between parents increases the risk of harm to their children. Our language should reflect a problem-solving approach rather than stoke the fire of a battle.”
The Family Solutions Group is marshalling widespread support across all family legal sectors in calling for the end to the use of unnecessary hostile and combative language in family separation.