Call to End the Combative Language of Family Separation, on First Anniversary of No Fault Divorce

Family professionals show support for the Family Solutions Group call to end the use of ‘battle’ language and the term ‘custody’ following a family separation. Taking the ‘fight’ out of family separation is long overdue to protect children.
Photo by Nemesia Production on Unsplash.
Helen Adam
Helen Adam
Family Solutions Group
  • Family professionals show support for the Family Solutions Group call to end the use of ‘battle’ language and the term ‘custody’ following a family separation. Taking the ‘fight’ out of family separation is long overdue to protect children.
  • Supported by the President of the Family Division, the FSG urges legal professionals to stop using adversarial terms and legal jargon in family separation proceedings.
  • 99% of professionals said the language legal professionals use affects separating clients’ mindsets and their behaviour.
  • 99% of professionals said that small changes in language could make a difference to a child’s experience following their parents’ separation.
  • Professionals say that the biggest obstacles to changing family separation language are habit, and client expectations.

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Solutions Group, backed by Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, is calling for a radical change in outdated and combative language used by lawyers, courts, media and wider public in cases of family separation.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 6 April 2022, ending the need for separating couples to apportion blame for the breakdown of their marriage, helping them instead to focus on practical decisions involving children or their finances.

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, 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 simple 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.

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.
  • Professionals were asked whether a move away from legal jargon to plain English in client correspondence and case paperwork could improve outcomes and reduce conflict: 86% strongly agreed and 14% said it might have a positive impact.
  • 98% said that using clients’ first names, rather than words like ‘Applicant’, could also make a difference.
  • Professionals cited the biggest barriers to changing family separation language were: habit 50%, client expectations 22%, vested interests 10% and 5% apathy.
  • Over 400 professionals working with separating families, including mediators, barristers, solicitors, judges, family legal advisors, Cafcass, parent coordinators, relationship therapists, contact centres and clinical psychologists attended three workshops in January, February and March and contributed to polls about language.
  • The words custody, dispute, contact, versus, rights, battle and opponent were thought to be the most harmful and damaging, and their continued use sets the tone for acrimonious parental separation and child arrangements. Specifically, stopping using the word “versus” in court headings, like in the high-profile 1979 Kramer vs. Kramer film, could remove the “battle” element.

The phrase ‘custody’ dates back from another era and is loaded with inappropriate connotations of possession and property.  This was removed from the law by The Children Act 1989 and yet 30 years on it is still widely used across media, social media and by the public.

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.”

It’s clear from our workshops and survey that it’s time for a major culture shift in our language, as people understand the impact on children. There is now a groundswell of support among family law professionals to dial down their language, replacing adversarial and battle-laden terms with forwards-looking and solutions-focused language.  This is all about protecting child welfare which, under the Children Act, should be our paramount consideration.”

We are grateful to the President of the Family Division for highlighting this important issue and leading the call for change.

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.

About Helen

Helen read law at Cambridge and qualified as a solicitor in 1990. Her legal career started with a leading private client practise in London, and she then moved to a High Street practise to broaden her experience. Following a career break she decided not to return to work as a solicitor, limited to representing one parent, and in 2007 retrained as a mediator. She is a founding Partner of Wells Family Mediation and works with clients online, and in person in Tunbridge Wells and Central London.

Helen is one of the foundation trainers for the Family Mediators’ Association and also a Professional Practise Consultant and a Child Consultant. She is an advocate of bringing the voice of the child into mediation and expects age-appropriate children to be offered the opportunity to be consulted.

She promotes an integrated approach to mediation and, as well as working with other professionals within mediation, encourages her clients to seek legal, financial, personal or parenting support outside of the mediation meetings.

Helen is also involved with family policy work. She was the mediator representative on the Private Law Working Group and in 2020, was invited to set up and chair the Family Solutions Group. It’s report “What About Me?“, focusing on the needs of the child following family separation, was published later that year. Helen continues to chair the Family Solutions Group and their paper “Language Matters” was published in September 2022.

Helen is a regular speaker on the need to reframe support for families following separation to be less adversarial and more child-focussed. She delivered the John Cornwell memorial lecture at the Family Mediators’ Association Conference in 2021, and the Bridget Lindley memorial lecture at the Family Justice Council Conference in 2022.

Helen was awarded ‘Family Mediator of the Year’ and ‘Child-Inclusive Mediator of the Year’ at the National Mediation Awards in 2022.

Helen’s clear and unshakeable professional goal is to support parents, where safe to do so, to handle their separation in a way which enables them to cooperate as parents for the years ahead, to the lasting benefit of their children.

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