When you need a `bulldog’ by your side

Bulldog of a lawyer?Fight fight fight!

`My solicitor is really scary! He’s nice to me but he scares the hell out of the other side in court! He costs me £275 hour but he’s worth it!’

That’s what he said to me. He loved his solicitor, the man I was speaking to. His solicitor was sharp, aggressive and terrified his ex. And her solicitor too. Pretty impressive stuff. Barely concealed legal threats about no contact, hostile cross examination by a barrister, crippling legal costs and much, much more.

Barks and bites 1

I wasn’t surprised. I’ve met solicitors and barristers like that. They’re actually quite rare though. Most of them are nice enough people (seriously – I’m not `going native’ here) – although I get it can be hard to see it that way when they’re relaying your ex’s words and you seriously don’t like what they’re saying. Most of the best legal professionals are the people you’ll have a chat with and try to make the best of the situation in front of them (you wouldn’t be in court in the first place if it were all sunshine and roses in any case would you?)

But yeah…I’ve met the other sort too. The fixed scowl, the use of language that can seem intimidating and misleading, etc.

You get more flies with honey than vinegarHoney and vinegar

I always joke that the really dangerous’ legal professionals are the ones who charm and leave people walking away thinking `Did I really just agree to that?’ and the inkling that maybe they shouldn’t have done. The old saying `You catch more flies with honey than vinegar’ comes to mind: You’re more likely to achieve your goals with soft words and niceness than kicking in the door of the consultation room and telling the opposite party they’re legally doomed.

`What did the court order in your hearing?’

I asked the father whose solicitor sounded like Conan the Barbarian’s more aggressive big brother. I was picturing him a furry hat, loincloth and carrying a large unwieldy sword. Not a particularly pleasant image from my perspective. Not so soon after breakfast.

The dad in question looked at me like I was an idiot. It was clearly a silly question. His solicitor’s aggression was clearly a good thing. And then he answered.

`Oh. The court wouldn’t allow contact. It’s been 6 months now but my solicitor says it will definitely happen at some point!

Help! They’re ignoring my children’s wishes!

`I will support contact if my children want it’

We hear this a lot. After all parents need to listen to their children – because they’re people and have wishes and feelings like all of us don’t they?

But…

  • `I will support my children only eating chocolate if they want to do that’.
  • `I will support my children not going to school if they choose that’.
  • `I will support my children not going to bed if they choose to stay up all night’.

And when this is said the usual response is That is totally different and a ridiculous comparison’ or `If my children didn’t want to go to school I would find out why rather than just send them’.

Yet not many people would defend their children living off sugar, not getting an education or playing at 3am on a school night…but they would when it comes to not spending time with the closest relative they have.

Wishes and feelings

Children are subject to the Children Act. Which means the law applies to them. And of course…it applies to their parents too. It’s worth pointing out that it’s been acknowledged in court this means both parents and children sometimes have to do stuff they don’t want to do. Contact with a separated parent for example.

The main concern of the court is The best interests of the child’ and not `What the child wants’.

The Children Act applies to anyone under the age of 16 (in most cases – sometimes it’s 18). So strictly speaking if you want to know at what age a child can make their mind up about contact or anything else…that’s the answer.

Complications, complications

As a child gets older and their ascertainable wishes and feelings get clearer/stronger what they want also gets more significant. But until they’re 16 what they want remains just one of the 7 factors taken into consideration by the court when it makes an order – aka `The Welfare Checklist’. A progressively more important one…but still one of 7.

Or another way of looking at it…the older they get, the more likely what they want is liable to be able to `tip the balance’ when it comes to a court making a decision.

Magic number

But there is no magic age when you can say that what a child wants will make or break any decision. It’s theoretically possible that 15 1/2 year old will be subject to an order they’ve said they don’t want. Or for the 6 year old’s wishes to swing it.

Of course – the court has a wide ambit of discretion. You may well not agree with the court about how much weight your child’s wishes and feelings should carry when it comes to sorting things out.

So if you’re going into court and you’re relying purely on what your child is saying…or you think your child is saying you’re ignoring 6 other factors that the court will look at when it comes to making a decision. It doesn’t matter if a school or other agency plucks an age out of the air says it will listen at a certain age – it doesn’t trump the Children Act. This includes Gillick Competency by the way – it’s not relevant here.

Do you need a `Yes Man’ to help you in your case?

Yes!

Do you need to be validated?

It’s amazing how many people want to convince us that they’re right. We’re…no one. What we thinks doesn’t matter. We can’t make orders in the family court and give you what you want.

Our job could be really easy. We’ll invoice you, agree with you and if/when it goes wrong we’ll have a cup of coffee with you afterwards – telling you that you’ve been stitched up, that the courts are corrupt and that it’s a travesty of justice.

Shooting the messenger

We’re gluttons for punishment though. We’ll tell you that email wasn’t a good idea. We’ll tell you that what you want looks more like a way to stick it to the ex than be child-focused. We’ll tell you that if you keep this up you really need to think about firing us, saving your cash and doing what you were going to do in this first place.

Perhaps…perhaps you’ll listen to us. Perhaps you won’t – and instead you’ll conclude we’re just as bad as the court, your previous solicitor/McKenzie Friend, the social worker, CAFCASS, the psychologist, the school and everyone else…because we’re saying exactly the same thing as them.

Perhaps you’ll decide it’s our fault, fire us and instead to use that nice lady who will speak softly, make you a nice cup of tea and tell you how difficult it is. After all…you’re not paying someone to say stuff that you don’t like are you?

Crystal ballInconvenient truths or comforting lies?

Your solicitor or McKenzie Friend should do a little more than say stuff that gives you the warm fuzzies. That doesn’t mean they should be bullet-headed masochists who want to kick you when you’re down…but they should be able to tell you when you’re in the process of spectacularly screwing your own case up.

Sometimes you’re going to be right. Sometimes…not so much. You really need someone to tell you that. And you need to listen to that. Ever heard of the legend of Cassandra? The prophetess who was cursed to forever know exactly what was going to happen including awful disasters…but doomed to be ignored.

It’s scarily similar to how we feel at times.

A good advert

We want you to do well – let’s be honest…it doesn’t look good on us if too many of our clients got awful outcomes, would it? So we’re going to advise you what is most likely to achieve your goals.

Court is hard enough as it is – we don’t want to fight you too. We want all the energy we have to work together, to get the result that is right and to make it as easy as possible.

As always…it’s down to you.

Witnesses - need to witness and not repeat hearsay

Witnesses and witness statements. Are they worth it?

Witnesses need to have first hand experience of what they're talking about - not hearsayWitnesses: My friends have written me witness statements I want to show the court

It’s a phrase we often hear at just about any point in a court hearing when discussing witnesses. And it’s entirely understandable. You are hurt, angry and worn down by accusations you know aren’t true. Statements and letters from your ex partner’s solicitor list words and actions you know have no basis in truth.

A witness statement defending your good character can only help, yes?

Like we say…we’re not going to blame you for wanting to do this.

But.

It won’t you do you any good either

Think about it.

You have a chance to show the court documents that help even things out a little. To show you are well liked, decent, fair and a good parent and/or partner.

You’re not going to submit something that doesn’t say this though are you? You’re going to select something that backs up your position. And your closest family members will only ever write something nice in the first place won’t they?

The court won’t object to you submitting these statements of course. But it may well not pay them too much attention too.

There’s something worth reminding anyone who says they will write you a statement of something important too: They’ll need to be available to go to court to be examined on what they’ve written. By the judge. Or the other side’s solicitor/barrister.

You’d be surprised how many people change their mind when you do this. Many people suddenly realise they `don’t want to get involved’.

So are witness statements a waste of time?

The answer is black and white: No.

Witnesses can make a huge difference. We’ve known them to swing cases.

Here are a few things that make a good witness. You need someone who:

  • Isn’t an `interested party’. So no friends. No family members. Someone who is seen as neutral and `respectable’ by the court. The best witness we ever saw was the vicar of the church both parties attended. You get the picture.
  • Is prepared to wait around all day and then called into court to be cross-examined by someone who does it for a living and can ask some very tricky questions.
  • Actually saw stuff that is relevant to the case. Not someone who heard from you or someone else. Not someone who will say he/she has always been an awful person.

Should I use witnesses?

The truth is that in many circumstances there are few (if any) decent witnesses who are going to enhance the strength of a case. At best many witnesses add nothing and at worst muddy the waters and cause focus to be lost.

That’s not to say a good witness isn’t worth their weight in gold – they can be invaluable. But like many other aspects of handling your own case it is all about judgement.

Don’t sweat this, but keep your eye on the ball.

NB – there are another kind of witness you’ll find in court. Single joint experts – appointed by the court, but we’ll speak about them another time.

5 things we’re always asked

McKenzie Friends: What we’re always asked.

We get asked all sorts of questions. Some of them are complicated, some are simple – it kind of goes with the territory of what we do on a day to day basis.

But we hear quite a few myths about McKenzie Friends – many of which are untrue. They confuse people so without further ado here’s a run down on the biggies.

Can you represent me?

No. Only a solicitor or a barrister can do that. Its’ worth thinking for a moment what being `represented’ actually mean in a court context. Here it means someone who can speak for you in court. Respond to other people on your behalf – write to your ex and/or their solicitor. Sign documents. Solicitors and barristers are officers of the court.

As that link says:

Although solicitors must fearlessly advance their clients’ cases, they are not “hired guns” whose only duty is to their client. They also owe duties to the courts, third parties and to the public interest.

So we can’t. We can offer you advice, help with paperwork, that sort of thing – but we cannot represent you. But over the decade we’ve assist people we’ve come up with a pretty good way of both following the rules about what we can do and providing you with the help you need!

Are you solicitors?

See above. Solicitors are officers of the court (see above). They’re legally qualified.

McKenzie Friends don’t have to be qualified either but some are (Michaela Wade is a CILEX-qualified paralegal). Others have a wide range of skills and experience.

Can you give me legal advice?

Yes! 4.) iv of Practice Guidance: McKenzie Friends (Civil and Family Courts) says a McKenzie Friend can `quietly give advice on any aspect of the conduct of the case’.

Our advice is based on our legal knowledge (as I say above our team includes qualified individuals) and experience of a large number of wide-varying cases over the years. We’ll tell you what we think the best action to progress the situation is – and you are free to follow or disregard it at any point. We’ll tell you what the court has the power to do and not to do, what the likely response of the court and others involved in the case will be and how to handle changing situations.

It’s really as simple as that.

Can you come to court with me?

Yes! We’re really not sure why people seem to think we can’t. We can! Speak to many legal professionals and they’ll be under the impression that is all we do – they think we’ll turn up on the day, sit with you and go away when the hearing ends (Pro-tip: We do a lot more than that!)

The only time we can’t be with you is during CAFCASS conciliation appointments (mediation before a hearing) – but neither can your solicitor be if you have one instead of us assisting you.

So we can be with you at all points – including when it comes to going into the court room to speak to the judge or magistrates.

Can I change the judge/CAFCASS officer/social worker?

Maybe. But seriously…99.99% of the time it isn’t going to work and it isn’t going to help trying. It’s understandable especially if things aren’t going the way you’d like. The processes to achieve this are there – but for obvious reasons they tend to be a lot harder than actually working with the system to get the desired result.

It’s important to look at the big picture too. Judges, CAFCASS officers, social workers – they often move on over the life span of a case so it’s quite possible that whoever you aren’t particularly enamoured won’t be involved before long in any case.

This last one is a controversial – I know. But it’s a fact. Court cases are hard. Fighting the people involved in the system is even harder and you should conserve your energy on your primary goal.

Wrap up

If you’re not clear on what your McKenzie Friend can do – ask. Read. Practice Guidance on McKenzie Friends is the definitive guide to what we can and can’t do. Anything else you’re reading is just rumour!

Live, Thrive and Survive in the Family Courts

The Family Courts: Whether you go to a hearing alone, use a Family Law Assistance McKenzie Friend or a solicitor or barrister being a litigant in the family court can be hard. That’s not surprising – because what happens will likely affect your life in a material way.

It’ll be about whether your children live with you or see you. Whether you stay in your home – or have enough money to buy somewhere else. Dealing with the fall out of the end of a marriage or relationship. For many people it’s all of these things, at the same time.

You’re likely tired, wounded, stressed and unable to see a future you’ll enjoy.

You need to be clear about what you want, how to ask for it and how to make sure you are resilient, focused and determined to ensure the outcome you desire has the greatest chance of success. And how to deal with the aftermath so the past remains in the past and you move forward to a happier and more prosperous future.

A fresh start

Which is where our workshop comes in. Between us we have around 30 years of legal experience But over the years we’ve also given strategies to hundreds of people to allow them to deal with their situation by reframing the challenges they face, by focusing on their goals and by showing them to deal with the challenges they face.

And this side of our work has provided a lot of help – many of our clients saying things like `I’m able to sleep for the first time in months!’

So after much work (and training to further enhance our skills in this area) we’re now ready to offer these skills to anyone facing a court case.

Join us!

Michaela and Steven Wade - McKenzie Friends working in the Family CourtsOn Saturday, 13th October 2018 we’ll be running our workshop in Newport, South Wales. Our special Early Bird price is just £79 and £99 after they’re gone. And when they’re gone, they’re gone!

Among others we’ll be covering:

Tickets are on sale now here.

See you there!

Eleven hundred reasons to avoid the Family Court

Eleven hundred reasons not to use the Family Court

The Family Court should be the last resort

We spend as much time telling people not to get involved in the Family Court as much as we do actually helping them by the time they are in it.

They’ll come to us looking for the best solution. Which may be getting back with your ex. Or talking to him or her. Maybe it is attempting mediation. Or biting the bullet.

Only you’ll know if any of these are possible and/or you can live with any of these potential outcomes.

But going to the Family Court. If you can avoid it…do so.

That’s because making an application to change a situation is effectively pressing the nuclear button and is (in the short term at least) liable to make things worse than they already are; although to be fair – you have little to lose if things couldn’t get worse (such as being told in a child contact dispute that you’ll never see your kids again).

Speak to us and we’ll tell you if things could get worse – and believe us here…there is always someone worse off than yourself. Chances are we’ve assisted them too.

Eleven hundred reasons to avoid the Family CourtThe Family Court can be difficult to deal with

A little context. A client we recently assisted has a long-standing contact dispute with considerable hostility but no welfare concerns. Contact stops. And starts. And stops again. So for a recent final hearing we assisted our client with a trial bundle to be used before magistrates.

That means 6 copies. Of 350 pages each – the limit according to Practice Direction 27A (although we were involved in another case recently where the bundle was 900 pages before the bemused judge suggested that the other party’s solicitor trimmed down the behemoth they had created).

So for a simple contact dispute there is a bundle (not the first one either) that you wouldn’t want to drop on your foot. Another final hearing (again…not the first one). Lost time for client from work. The fees they have paid. The heartache. All the incidental costs of dealing with a hostile ex partner.

In this case – it’s not avoidable. If only it were!

If you are in the Family Court it’s hard work

Of course, despite our protestations that you should avoid the Family Court if you are don’t leave any stone unturned. Don’t expect things to all blow over. Don’t skimp on preparation. As always…it’s about focus (we know, we know…).

But the real focus is not about going to court if that’s a possibility. It’s about working out what your goal is and working backwards from there. Court is seldom the easy answer and even less seldom the way to achieve an outcome you’re happy with.

Avoid it if you can whether you are the resident or non resident parent unless there is no other option.

Unless you have Doc Brown as a friend `child custody' will never mean anything.

A very good reason why you shouldn’t ask for Child Custody

If you are going to be dealing with the family courts make sure you don’t ask for child custody. There’s a good reason for this.

`Child Custody’ has no legal meaning in England & Wales

In fact it has had no meaning at all since 1989 when the Children Act became law. That’s when the Berlin Wall came down, the first GPS satellite was launched and Back to the Future II was released. Great Scott!

`Child custody' went out in the same year the Berlin Wall did.So walking into a court and asking for Child Custody is on a par with trying to book a Pan Am flight to take you to East Berlin. At best you’ll get strange looks and told there is no such thing. At worst you’ll be sent away with nothing.

It’s no surprise though. The term is used elsewhere. But not in England and Wales.

Using the term `Child Custody’ is vague too. What does it mean? Does it mean whoever gets it doesn’t have to let the kids see the other parents at all? Or stay overnights? Or is able to call the police and get them back at any point (you can’t do that with modern orders by the way).

You can hardly blame the court if you aren’t clear about what it is you want. You’ll likely be asked as a litigant in person but you’ll also probably get something you didn’t expect and don’t really want.

Be clear about what it is you want and what the court can and can’t do.

Unless you have Doc Brown as a friend `child custody' will never mean anything.Don’t ask for something the court can’t order. If you want `residence’ (another term that no longer has a legal meaning but is snappier than describing who the children live with’) know what it means. Hint. It has nothing to do with how long your kids are with you and the ex.

If you want contact (again…a redundant term but like `residence’ still understood by the court) make it clear. And understand that the two are independent of each other. And complicated by the fact that being a resident or non resident parent again has no bearing on either of the previous too…

So be clear what is you want. Make sure you know what terms to use and not to use. If you don’t and you don’t like the result it’ll be no surprise if the unexpected happens.

/sharedcare?Justpartofthemerrygoround?

Why a presumption of 50/50 Shared Care is a waste of time.

…a story from the near future when there is a presumption of 50/50 Shared Care:

`…newly appointed President of the Family Division Sir James Holman has issued new Practice Guidance in relation to the quantum of time children spend with their separated parents. All courts have been advised that any parent wishing to depart from a routine that provides children with equal amounts of time with each parent will be required to demonstrate why this view is in line with the paramountcy principle. Fathers rights groups hailed this as a major step forward, whilst Women’s Aid…’

`Hello, Family Law Assistance – how can we help?’

50/50 shared care? Just part of the merry go round?`Hi there. I’m looking for advice. I separated from my ex 3 months ago. She won’t let me see the kids. I’ve told her that the law means they are meant to be with me for half the time but she won’t listen’.

`Have you tried mediation? It’s always best to try to avoid court and besides it’s a requirement if you are going to make an application.

Contact National Family Mediation and organise to meet them. You’ll attend a MIAM. If mediation doesn’t work you’ll need section 14 of the C100 signed and stamped in any case’.

`Already done that. I went to the MIAM’.

`How did it go?’

`She went to the first one but said she wouldn’t agree to anything more than the kids seeing me on alternate weekends and mid week contact. Because there’s 50/50 Shared Care now isn’t there? She didn’t listen and refused to go to another session’.

`You’re right. There is a presumption of 50/50 Shared Care now’.

50/50 Shared Care. Would it change anything?`OK thanks. She told me I had committed DV against her and abused the kids which is why she won’t agree to anything else. Will the court ignore that?’

`Allegations made will either be ignored, or you’ll be asked about them. Possibly order a Finding of Fact’.

`Will that slow things down? Will I get my kids half the time until then?’

`It’s unlikely at this stage. The court has an obligation to investigate allegations. Since the changes to Practice Direction 12J were made last year however contact may be difficult for the moment’.

`I was told that if the kids are with her and not seeing me it’ll make things harder for me to get 50/50 is that true?’

`The court has to work in the best interests of the child and if they’ve not seen you for a long time it may want to work on a schedule of increasing contact…’

Sound familar? How would a presumption of 50/50 work?

Court itisseldomoveruntilyougiveup

How to defeat your worst enemy in court

It is easy to defeat your worst enemy in court.

They are the one person who can make you give up. They’ll make you look like an idiot. They’ll second guess you and make you look like a fool. Finally they will completely blow any chance of getting anything like the result you would like.

You already know who this person is. Because you see them every time you look in a mirror. Yes folks…it’s you.

You are your own worst enemy in court

Court - it is seldom over until you give upI don’t want to come over all…metaphysical here. You are responsible for your actions. No one else. Yes, yes, yes. I can hear the protests now. You’re discriminated against. Your ex has made allegations that make you look like Vlad the Impaler’s less pleasant brother or sister. The court is a huge money-making conspiracy out to grind you into the dirt. I’m blaming you for the situation you are in. You were left with no option.

Not true.

You decide what to say. You decide what to do. You decide to give up. Or not. No one else. This is stunningly good news. It means you are are in far more control than you ever, ever managed.

It means you are in control ultimately.

If you decide to walk away it’s because you have chosen to. The same goes if you have given your ex, the CAFCASS officer, the judge or the security guard who scans you for metal objects your considered opinion. A 91(14) doesn’t have to stop you. Neither does a final order. Or bad behaviour in the past – if you have addressed it.

If you ex has painted you as an aggressive nutter and you kick off in court you have proven their point. If you walk away and you think that is what the ex wants, they have `won’ (at this point the more high-minded among you will put your hands together in supplication, gaze heavenward and utter softly that it is not about winning or losing…it’s about the kids. You know what I mean).

The court won’t say `He/she walked away because he/she had no choice’. It won’t even give the matter any consideration. It will close the case, probably give your ex everything they want or decide you were happy with things as they are.

So if you aren’t happy with it why are you walking away?

Walk away from court and guarantee your failure.

Court - where there is life, there is hopeWe know how hard it is. Even if you take the attitude you have a 99% of chance of not getting the outcome you want you have a 100% chance of the same outcome by giving up.

But back to the positivity for a change.

There’s a wider point here isn’t there? You’re doing what you’re doing because you believe it is in the best interests of your children. And that being the case walking away most definitely isn’t.

Maybe when it is all over you won’t get the result you set out. Maybe you’ll get one you can live with, maybe you’ll get one you can’t, maybe you’ll get one that will keep you up for nights in years to come.

But if you don’t give up, you’ll be able to look yourself in the eye in that mirror and be able to say to yourself (and anyone else who will listen) `I did my best and I didn’t give up. I did what I did for the best reasons’.

No one can give that to you or take it from you can they?