Can’t See The Trees For The Forest: The Westminster Legal Policy Forum
The 2018 Westminster Policy Forum was, for me, like walking through a forest of information, good ideas, and a genuine commitment to supporting everyone in our society at every economic level. There was a call for policies focused on prevention rather than just ‘coping strategies’ – but an overriding sense of hopelessness pervaded the forest, as some of the speakers grappled with the illogicality of short-term fiscal thinking.
When it came to the modernisation and improvement of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service, both Adam Lennon – who is leading this technological revolution of the way people divorce, and Dr Elizabeth Gibby, Deputy Director of the Family Justice Policy Division at the MOJ – both spoke with some excitement about the progress being made. However, I was left with the distinct impression that the Forum speakers were not so much ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’ – I came away thinking that even though they must be continually bumping into the trees, they are actually ignoring that the trees are there at all.
So what I am I getting at here?
Trees are pretty obvious things, and you would expect them to be visible and taken into account. Yet responses to some of my questions to the panels during the day revealed to me how perhaps the structures that drive legal change, are missing the point. Bumping into the trees, as if they weren’t there, rather than seeing opportunities in their path.
Let’s take the online divorce process that is being carefully created, making the whole experience less confusing and arduous for couples navigating the system.
Well, when you scrap legal aid for most people who are divorcing they will need to do more themselves, won’t they – so yes, it makes sense to de-clutter the process now lawyers are not always going to be filling in the forms on divorcing people’s behalf. And the idea of moving forwards and making the process of creating financial and parenting agreements easier to do online, seems obvious enough. Except, that is where the situation becomes fraught with dangers. Massive great big gnarly ones with wide reaching branches, and spiky dog roses intertwined. Looking lovely to the casual observer, but hiding ferocious prickles that get stuck under your skin when you get too close.
To focus on legal matters divorced from the human reality of family separation, is like clearing a path through a forest with a lawn mower, and trying to pretend there are no trees in the way.
Creating a system that believes financial agreements can be done through an online form, or parenting arrangements made without any access or encouragement to at least have a chat with a skilled financial expert or parenting guide as part of that journey, is like chopping down the trees so you can get your mower through. Only now you have ruddy great trunks lying everywhere and it’s not even possible to see your way out of the forest.
As a divorce strategist, I spend much of my time explaining very simple ideas that no-one else seems to have mentioned to my clients before. Their lawyers (assuming they have found the courage to speak to a lawyer yet, scared of the potential for escalating costs) have not told them what a financial planner is, and how they could provide valuable insight into the financial options of splitting assets from very early on in the divorce process, and often charging nothing for an initial consultation. They are misled by their friends and even their therapists and healers, so quick to agree with them that their Ex is indeed probably a narcissist, and that obviously mediation won’t work because it’s too ‘fluffy’. Of course, none of these friends or therapists or healers have ever actually experienced mediation or know very much about it. So making sure my clients understand the benefits of a peaceful approach that they seem to not have quite taken in during their MIAMS, is par for the course.
So even with real people involved instead of swift, simplified online processes, the divorce situation for many is often confusing, messy and downright misleading.
So would we be better off with less people involved and more online forms?
About as well off as chopping down all the trees and getting stuck in the chaos of our own making.
The questions I asked at the seminar were around how to prepare people for divorce BEFORE they start using the forms. I suggested that the parts of the online process, where people stop and don’t seem to be able to continue – the moments that are being carefully measured and noted as part of the proficient testing of the system – that those could be the moments where people discover that planning their own and their children’s financial future is just not coming together whilst filling in boxes online. Or that the parenting arrangements form doesn’t deal with the emotional impact of not being able to tell bedtime stories to their children every night, because they live in a different house. My suggestion, that at these points that some access to relevant professionals and free video resources to help divorcing parents in particular to access the additional help they may need, was met with a “we are open to all good ideas”.
But surely, this isn’t a ‘good idea’ that’s just floating around, like a leaf on the breeze? Shouldn’t it already be part of the very architecture of an online system?
Men, women, children, grandparents, extended families, work colleagues, friends – are all inextricably bound in the complex eco-structure of family separation. You cannot mow your way through them trying to pretend they are not there.
The sense of hopelessness that I mentioned at the outset was not mine. It came from Cafcass and Women’s Aid and Families Need Fathers and other outstanding organisations as they decried the culture of ‘coping’ over any intelligent preventative policies that funding inexplicably does not seem to be available for. Inexplicable, because if you look ahead to 20 years, the ultimate savings to the economy, society and to people’s lives, are clear cut.
Yet the insanity of short-term thinking prevails. The hopelessness of this situation that pervades every level of our nation, was in stark contrast to the excitement of the online system. As if we could solve everything by making the small administrative aspect of divorce (a tiny aspect overall) easier to fill in.
The idea that key information, video content and professionals prepared to offer initial guidance – or even retreats where individuals access the emotional and practical preparation required to have a successful and largely peaceful divorce (that question of whether this would be of benefit was barely registered and answers were ‘off track’ – as if the very suggestion was beyond comprehension) – those ideas may seem other-worldly to the legal mechanisms that still view divorce as an administrative process that needs simply to be made less confusing.
How many trees do they have to bump into before they open their eyes and see what the rest of us see – the children self-harming due to their parents acrimonious divorce; the suicide rate for men in particular rising post-divorce; the financial hardship after thousands are spent in court battles to create settlements that could have been decided in a few mediation sessions if only the participants had truly understood the benefits of staying out of court?
I can see the trees.
If you’ve ever experienced family separation, I suspect you can too.
Suzy Miller is the UK’s unique ‘Alternative Divorce Guide’, A Divorce Strategist, Public Speaker and Trainer, featured on Radio 4 Women’s Hour, the Daily Mail and C5’s The Vanessa Show. Suzy provides free online resources and physical retreats to help families navigate divorce in more peaceful ways.