Sky News Speaks With Researching Reform About The Use of Emojis In Family Cases

Sky News spoke with Researching Reform this afternoon about the need for judges to understand the meanings behind emojis, after a rise in UK cases involving the symbols.

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An article published by The Times this morning sparked national media interest in this area. The story, which highlights concerns among legal professionals in the UK that judges are not familiar enough with emoji uses and meanings, includes some thoughts from Researching Reform on what needs to be done to improve that understanding and the current gaps in technology which sites like legal databases also need to address.

We spoke with news presenter Isabel Webster about the use of emojis within family law judgments, as judges try to make child-related orders more accessible and easier for children to understand. We also discussed emojis appearing in evidence, particularly within criminal cases.

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Researching Reform spoke with Yahoo UK News, who have written about the need for judges to adapt to changing forms of communication like emojis. We shared some more thoughts with Yahoo this afternoon.

The topic has also been covered by Scottish Legal News, which quotes The Times piece and Researching Reform’s comments about emojis within legal cases.

Twitter followers can catch the latest legal developments over at @JudgeJohnHack, @TheTimes and @TimesLaw.

A very big thank you to Sky News for having us.

A big thank you also to DadsHouse founder Billy McGranaghan for sending us photos of the interview, which we’ve included in this post.

You can watch the interview below.

NTV Speaks with Researching Reform about Child Abuse in the Catholic Church

Russian TV channel NTV spoke with Researching Reform this morning about child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church ahead of a landmark summit tackling clergy abuse.

The four-day conference, which Pope Francis has called the Protection of Minors Summit, starts tomorrow and will cover specific areas within child abuse and the Church:

  • Responsibility on Thursday;
  • Accountability on Friday and
  • Transparency on Saturday.

Sunday will see over 100 bishops and Catholic leaders from around the world gather for Mass in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. The summit is the first of its kind, and comes as Catholic officials grow anxious about the effect the mounting number of abuse claims against the clergy is having on the Church’s reputation.

NTV asked us about recent and non-recent child sexual abuse within Catholic institutions in England, the Child Abuse Inquiry’s efforts into investigating this area and one controversial aspect of the phenomenon which we felt was concerning, and was being overlooked by the Church. We also discussed ways in which the Church can protect children from abuse and the little that has been done to date to implement better protections for children within these communities.

You can watch the interview, which has been dubbed in Russian, here.

A very big thank you to NTV’s Liza and Boris.


In The News

The latest child welfare items that should be right on your radar:


Government Revives Infamous Troubled Families Programme In £39 Million Scheme

Welcome to another week.

The government has published guidance outlining the latest details of a programme which aims to find parents jobs under the pretext that it is tackling child abuse in the home. The project also hails the return of the government’s now infamous Troubled Families Programme. The initiative was heavily criticised during its operation for failing to help vulnerable families and engaging in fraudulent activity which included feeding stale information into under-developed Big Data software, massaging figures to cover up its failures and lying about the project’s success.

The scheme is part of the government’s Reducing Parental Conflict programme. The web page says the project has been allocated a total of £39 million in order to run.

The Department for Work and Pensions says the programme aims to improve outcomes for children living in homes experiencing parental conflict:

“Where a child lives with both parents in the same household, more than 1 in 10 (11%) of children have at least one parent who reports relationship distress.

Children living in workless families are 3 times more likely to experience parental conflict that in families where both parents are in work.

Children in workless families are almost twice as likely to live with at least one parent reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression. They are also nearly twice as likely to fail to reach expected levels at all stages of their education.”

An earlier press release, offers details about a £2.7 million fund to tackle parental conflict which was announced by the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Justin Tomlinson. The press release explains that the ultimate goal of the fund is to place parents in employment while suggesting that children who have been subjected to emotional and physical abuse at home are the driving force behind this initiative.

The Reducing Parental Conflict programme is underpinned by just one document, which appears to suggest that conflict in the home – which can come about due to do mental health problems, substance abuse and lack of emotional support for children – is all down to unemployment. The policy paper’s title, which is “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families,” sits at odds with the scheme’s working title which focuses on parental conflict in the home and does not give any indication that the programme intends to focus on employment issues. However this becomes clear within the policy paper itself. The paper’s introduction says:

“This Government is committed to creating a country that works for everyone, in which everyone can go as far as their talents and hard work will take them. However we know that, despite record employment, for some families, worklessness, not employment, is the norm. Our analysis has revealed how this worklessness and the complex problems associated with it hold people back and prevent them from reaching their potential.”

The government is using the paper to sanction its approach towards vulnerable families, which involves building on AI software to collect and analyse data sourced by local authorities about families in their area council officials deem to be vulnerable. One of the six aims of the project is to fund innovations that work to “reduce parental conflict, digitally” and “for families where the children face disadvantages.” The proposal could raise alarm bells amongst families and social work professionals who feel that the government is already too intrusive and has too much power to remove children from their homes.

We already know from the extensive research published that conflict in the home is not at its root about unemployment. Furthermore, the issue of childcare remains central to child welfare policies and pushing parents into employment today often means any money earned is spent in its entirety on child care costs. The government’s Tax-Free Childcare system, which offers up to £2,000 to help with childcare costs, extended entitlement to free childcare of up to 30 hours as well as enhanced childcare support through Universal Credit, is unlikely to ease this burden significantly for a lot of families.

In what seems like a glaring omission, the Reducing Parental Conflict programme has pledged to tackle substance abuse, but has failed to consider incorporating the highly succesful and family-friendly Drug and Alcohol Court which has had to raise money from private investors to stay operational in the UK.

The news that the Troubled Families Programme has been allowed to relaunch after a frontline social worker on the programme revealed the extent of its fraudulent activity and the Public Accounts Committee’s verdict that the programme was “Ineffective, unethical and evasive,” is going to cause a great deal of concern among child welfare professionals and families. The Troubled Families Programme also made use of AI software to analyse families’ data, and while digital support can be useful when the software is robust and effective, it’s clear that child protection big data software still has a long way to go and may currently just be automating inequality.

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Contact At All Costs? Study Into Care Orders and Domestic Violence Highlights Family Courts’ Slow Progress.

A thesis published in 2014 which claims to be the first in-depth national study into the operation and effect of a Practice Direction designed to address the issue of domestic violence within the context of care and child arrangement orders highlights the little progress achieved by the family courts, five years on.

The guidance explored in the research is Practice Direction 12J, which has become best known for its clause establishing the right to ask the judge at a hearing to step in and prevent victims and alleged victims of domestic violence from being cross examined by partners who have already been convicted of abusive behaviour or have been accused of such behaviour by the victim. Whilst this Direction is only guidance and does not have the same binding effect as law, the direction has to be considered by the judge.

Practice Direction 12J tries to ensure that any care or child placement orders do not cause a child harm where domestic abuse and violence is known to have occurred within the home. The Direction also requires the court protect the parent who has been abused, from further harm.

“Contact at all costs? Domestic Violence, Child Contact and the Practices of the Family Courts and Professionals”, was written by Adrienne Elise Barnett while she was at Brunel Law School, Brunel University. The thesis, which is over 400 pages long, is an incredibly thorough and thought-provoking look at how the law discriminates against mothers trying to protect their children from violent and abusive fathers.

On the use of Practice Direction 12J at least up until 2014, and the purpose of the study, Barnett says:

“Subsequent research and case law revealed that many courts and professionals disregarded these guidelines and continued to promote contact by minimising, trivialising or ignoring women’s concerns about continued contact with violent fathers. This raises questions about why contact between children and violent fathers is seen as not only permissible but positively desirable and why it is so hard for women to oppose such contact. These are questions that this study seeks to answer.”

Among the different sections dedicated to the relevant areas of family law, is a chapter on Presumption of contact which was written shortly before the law was amended to include a clause encouraging contact with both parents after fathers campaigned for greater visibility within child welfare policies.

Here is an extract from the chapter:

“At the heart of private law Children Act proceedings lies ‘the welfare of the child’, a ‘civilising’ device that has been selectively constructed by and in family law at different times and in response to different social, political and cultural demands, and which currently works to place fathers at the centre of children’s well-being after parental separation. By locating this dominant construct in its historical, political and material context, we have seen how it operates as a mechanism of power to reinstate and maintain the father in the post-separation family, and how it regulates and disciplines mothers by constraining their self determination.

The gendered relations of power that construct, underpin and sustain law’s current construction of ‘the truth’ about children’s welfare constantly challenge and subvert attempts to focus professionals and courts on protecting children and women in private law Children Act proceedings, and deny mothers the autonomy after parental separation that is unquestioningly afforded to fathers. The strong belief of nearly all of the professionals Vanessa Munro, Law and Politics at the Perimeter: Re-evaluating Key Debates in Feminist Theory (Hart 2007)  interviewed in the benefits of contact shows how law’s current construction of children’s welfare has acquired almost hegemonic status.

The dominant welfare discourse has become increasingly axiomatic and incontestable by marginalising and discrediting oppositional meanings about children’s welfare, and by trivialising and rendering irrational women’s reasons for opposing contact with non-resident fathers. This process is reinforced by unrelenting messages from the higher courts about the importance of contact, and the strenuous efforts made to promote it, even in cases of proven domestic violence.”

Despite a growing body of evidence coming to light that children suffer deeply when exposed to domestic violence, and the government’s acknowledgement that the law needs to change in order to better protect victims of abuse, little has happened since Barnett wrote her thesis in 2014.

The government has only just published a draft bill to address the issue of alleged domestic violence victims being cross-examined by alleged abusers in the family courts – despite the criminal courts having implemented similar legislation a long time ago. The Draft Domestic Abuse Bill contains nine measures, which will:

  • Provide for a statutory definition of domestic abuse
  • Establish the office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner and set out the commissioner’s functions and powers
  • Provide for a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice and Domestic Abuse Protection Order
  • Prohibit perpetrators of domestic and other forms of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts (and prevent victims from having to cross-examine their abusers) and give the court discretion to prevent cross-examination in person where it would diminish the quality of the witness’s evidence or cause the witness significant distress
  • Create a statutory presumption that complainants of an offence involving behaviour that amounts to domestic abuse are eligible for special measures in the criminal courts
  • Enable high-risk domestic abuse offenders to be subject to polygraph testing as a condition of their licence following their release from custody
  • Place the guidance supporting the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme on a statutory footing
  • Ensure that, where a local authority, for reasons connected with domestic abuse, grants a new secure tenancy to a social tenant who had or has a secure lifetime or assured tenancy (other than an assured shorthold tenancy), this must be a secure lifetime tenancy
  • Extend the extra-territorial jurisdiction of the criminal courts in England and Wales to further violent and sexual offences.

Campaigners are saying that while the Bill is a step forward, it is not enough. Katie Ghose, Women’s Aid chief executive, told the Law Gazette in January: ‘Although this new law is much welcomed, it alone will not protect survivors in the family courts and challenge the “contact at all costs” approach by judges which is putting children in danger.”

Barnett’s thesis offers several interesting recommendations from presumption of contact to litigants in person, and the study in its entirety is very much worth a read. Five years on, protecting women from violent partners – and we mean genuinely abusive partners – is still a tall order for the family courts in Britain.

You can read the thesis here. 

Very many thanks to Dana for sharing this study with us.



The Buzz

The child welfare items that should be right on your radar:

Many thanks to Professor Joan Durrant for sharing the update on Scotland’s Bill.


Government To Extend Legal Aid For Parents Challenging Adoption Orders

The government has promised to extend legal aid support to anyone with parental responsibility for a child who wants to challenge applications for placement or adoption orders.

The government will also extend eligibility for non‑means tested legal aid for parents or anyone with parental responsibility who would like to oppose applications for placement orders or adoption orders in public family law proceedings. The Ministry of Justice will bring these policies in line with care and other orders classified under “Special Children Act 1989 cases”. Special Children Act cases include care orders, supervision orders, child assessment orders and emergency protection orders.

The Ministry of Justice will also bring forward proposals to provide a less draconian merits test, which will be equivalent to the merits test currently applicable in “Special Children Act 1989 cases”.

At the same time, the government has promised to increase the scope of legal aid to include Special Guardianship Orders in private family law cases and support for separated migrant children in immigration cases.

As well as a review into legal aid for placement and adoption orders, the government has confirmed that it will increase support for people accessing the justice system as litigants in person.

The review is part of a Legal Support Action Plan, the details of which were published 7 February on the government’s official website. The plan has been designed to help improve access to legal advice and support.

You can read the press release here, which has links to various documents including the action plan.



Top Court Finds Judge Bullied Mother Into Accepting Care Orders For Her Children

A judge bullied a mother into agreeing to care orders for her two children, the Court of Appeal has found. The orders made by Her Honour Judge Carr QC in Sheffield were set aside by the Court of Appeal and replaced with short-term interim care orders.

The Court of Appeal raised a number of serious concerns in its judgment. The now common practice of judges making up their minds about a case before the parties put their arguments forward during hearings was noted, a phenomenon that will be familiar to lay advisors and families who have been forced to represent themselves in their own family cases.

Lord Justice Peter Jackson sitting at the Court of Appeal said that there had been “a serious procedural irregularity.”

The judgment says:  “consent or non-opposition to the interim care order was not freely given, but was secured by oppressive behaviour on the part of the judge in the form of inappropriate warnings and inducements”. These included:

  • The judge repeatedly isolating the mother and threatening her
  • The judge making fun of her counsel

The Court of Appeal also noted that family law and social work professionals in the case appeared to know very little about the case’s details and that the local authority had mishandled the case and its approach to the appeal.

Legal Futures offers the background to the case and quotes from the judgment, which contain some of the judge’s comments:

Before the mother’s barrister was able to brief the judge on his instructions to contest the care order, HHJ Carr told him that “if it is heard today I shall certainly make findings that your client will be stuck with”.

Her Honour HHJ Carr used the following language, which amounted to bullying and coercive threats, before hearing the case: ‘very risky for her’; ‘a very very precarious position’; ‘inevitably, I’m going to make findings… that that is significant harm. I don’t think there’s any question about it’; ‘not… without some consequences’… “oh, nonsense” and “preposterous proposition you’re putting to me, it’ll fall on deaf ears.”

HHJ Carr also threatened the mother by telling her that she would probably send any findings to the police and make sure that they go to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Jackson LJ said: The only conclusion that the mother and her advisers could draw from this and similar statements… is that the judge had made up her mind and was sure to make adverse findings that would be damaging to her in the long run.”

This kind of behaviour is commonplace in the family courts. We would like to invite all those lay advisors and parents who have experienced this kind of bullying and pre-emptive decision making to leave their comments below this piece as the site is read by judges and politicians. Thank you.


Event: Faces Of The Crisis

An online event launched by the Women’s Coalition aims to raise awareness around domestic abuse and child contact in family courts.

The social media event, “Faces Of The Crisis”, takes place next month and invites women from around the world who have lost custody of their children to abusive partners to send in a photo of themselves to the organisation, with details of their experience. The event will include an exhibition of photos of mothers who have experienced losing their child to an abusive partner.

Currently 379 people are confirmed to take part, with a further 706 interested in engaging with the event.

The Women’s Coalition is an international non profit organisation based in California and was founded by Cindy Dumas. She set up the coalition after a family court awarded custody of her son Damon to her partner, who went on to sexually abuse their son throughout his childhood. Damon was only able to escape the abuse, and the family court’s control, by getting married at sixteen. He is now the Communications Director for the coalition.

Cindy went on to develop a new model for child contact cases with a view to protecting future generations of children from abusive parents. She has proposed legislation to tackle this issue, which she has called The Child Custody Court Act, or Damon’s Law, after her son. The law proposes a new structure in which child contact cases are heard in conventional civil courts rather than family courts, with the right to a jury trial and full due process protections which are given within civil courts and jury trials.

As part of the model, Damon’s Law also suggests the following:

  • Custody cases heard in regular civil court, i.e. not Family Court
  • Right to a jury trial
  • Right to a speedy trial
  • Videotaped forensic interview of children ​​​​
  • Children may testify only by closed circuit TV​
  • Parents may hire experts to testify​
  • All law enforcement and forensic interviewer evidence admissible​​
  • Primary attachment figure retains temporary primary custody until jury verdict
  • No mandatory or recommending mediation
  • No court-appointed evaluators, children’s attorneys, mediators, psychologists
  • No social services involvement until and unless jury finds both parents abusive​

After trial:

  • Jury decides 1) who is the primary parent and 2) if either parent is abusive.
  • Primary parent maintains primary custody; other parent gets frequent visitation.
  • Visits with abusive parent only with primary parent’s consent and supervised
  • No contact with a sexually abusive parent
  • Judge may not overrule jury verdict
  • Database documenting relevant variables and outcomes​

Mothers who wish to take part in the event should send a photo of themselves (alone), their first name and the country they are from, to or on the event’s Facebook page. Only first names will be used for the exhibition.

In order to take part, you will need to have been:

  1. The primary nurturer of your children and that role was taken from you after separation/divorce through being forced into equal or less parenting time
  2. Unable to protect your children from an abusive father, i.e. if he was given unsupervised visitation, regardless of whether you maintained primary custody.

The Facebook page for the event says that parents can also include a brief summary of how custody and/or unsupervised visitation was given to the father, if they’d like to and that the organisation may edit the summary for clarity, brevity and anonymity.

The exhibition will include photos sent in by mothers previously, which can be seen on the coalition’s website, along with short video clips of mothers talking about their experiences.

The event takes place on Sunday, March 31, 2019 at 1 PM – 4 PM PDT. 

If you would like to take part in this event and you are based in the UK, please be aware that sharing details of your case, including your name and your photo, may constitute a breach of your court order.