Sarah Phillimore: are family courts biased?

It’s an age old question in the argument of child custody and separation, and indeed it’s one that we at the Men & Boy’s Initiative get asked quite often by the people we advise.

Yesterday (19/03/17), this complicated issue reared its head once again, this time on the ill-equipped debating forum that is Twitter. Since this discussion we’ve had the pleasure of being mentioned directly (or rather one of our founding members, Peter Morris, has) on a blog written by Sarah Phillimore – Family Law Barrister of some 20 years experience.

For your viewing pleasure you can enjoy the blog in full at the below link:

It’s an interesting piece and despite it originating from a disagreement between ourselves and the author, we’re always interested to read the views of seasoned professionals in the Family Law arena.

So, what does it say? In short it addresses this perceived bias and claims strongly that one does not exist. Which is fine, except the simple question of ‘are family courts biased against men?’ wasn’t really what brought Sarah and ourselves together, it was certainly part of the original discussion but largely the ‘bias’ we believe exists isn’t exclusive to courts, but generated by society at large before a court becomes involved and is carried through from there. The discussion which Sarah has presented is a much more granular and focused segment of this overall position which leads nicely to a self confirming conclusion.

Are family courts biased? When in context of their purpose and how they reach a decision, probably not. However, does this also mean that bias is absent from the room when courts are in session? Sadly not.

You see Family Courts are fair in the same way a guillotine is humane – They aren’t expected to be. A guillotine cares not if your neck is in it’s way, it’s job is to fall and rest at the bottom. Likewise, Family Courts are not there to be concerned with what you feel is right – Their job is to maintain stability in the best interests of the child(ren), and to this end we agree with it’s position, again our issues of bias and the disadvantaging of men begin outside the court and simply reach their climax within it.

I realise this makes the greater discussion of Family Courts a bit of a non issue now, I imagine to some degrees we may well agree with Sarah, but it was important to clarify our position and maintain that our issue with Family Court is by-proxy rather than direct. So, how did this debacle start? Like this:

As you can see, Peter’s discussion wasn’t even with Sarah. It was with the very inflammatory and frankly uneducated ‘Coercive Control’ account who claims men see bias in court because they’re not involved enough in their child’s upbringing prior to separation.

No caveat, no criteria or conditions. All men. The lot of you, useless. Good one CC, let’s hope my tax pounds aren’t contributing to any funding this lot get, I have a funny feeling they’d end up being traded for magic beans rather than being spent on service development.

From here Peter’s position was that bias against fathers wasn’t a perception, it was a reality due to the control mothers possess – Not in court but in general. Sarah disagreed:


According to Sarah, mothers do not have full control and get the run of the green in court because they are ‘left’ to undertake the majority of child care. ‘Left’. You read that correctly, the wording throughout here will be very important so it’s worth keeping an eye out.

What exactly does ‘left’ mean? Likely if we get a response we’ll be told it meant nothing and that we’re being semantic, but there’s a very visible tone to this interaction and a multitude of other words were available that didn’t bring with them a sense of resentment, so I’m afraid convincing me I’m reading too far into this will probably not work.

Where are the men then if the mothers are left with the kids? Drinking? In a strip club? Some of them might be, there are sadly quite a few bad parents out there and we won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending a number of them aren’t men.

The reality for the vast majority of men though is a little less glamorous – In all likelihood the mother has been ‘left’ with the children so the father can go to work, you know, to get the money that will inevitably keep everyone alive by homing and feeding them.

But wait, mother’s didn’t choose to be the biological bearers of children and sacrifice their careers for a family with no clear choice to have both, how dare we throw work in the faces of such women! Well I have news for you, men didn’t choose to work (quite frequently in dangerous, dirty jobs) instead of spending vital early development months with their children.

That’s just how it is, women didn’t choose it and neither did men. In fact, the government chose it by allowing lopsided maternity/paternity leave, whereby in the UK a man is legally only entitled to a fraction of the same time off as his partner. So the choice isn’t great, go work and keep everyone afloat, or stay at home and spend whatever time you have before being evicted with your children.

Damned if you don’t, deadbeat if you do.

The conversation went on a little from here, and the coveted acquisition of Parental Responsibility came into play with Sarah assessing that dad’s could do normal ‘parenty’ things like collect their children from school, as long as they had PR.

Collect your kids from school? That’s normal, right? Basic parent procedure? Of course a father can do that if he has PR.

Um, except, having PR does not equal having a right to contact. Don’t take my word for it, here’s what the UK government says:

And I quote:

“If you have parental responsibility for a child you don’t live with, you don’t necessarily have a right to contact with them – but the other parent still needs to keep you updated about their well-being and progress.”

So no Sarah, sadly PR does not qualify you to any sort of contact with the child. It just gives you a right to be told things. Think of it like getting a postcard rather than actually going on the holiday.

Also, while we’re on the topic of mothers having full control. How exactly does a father get Parental Responsibility? Well, by asking the mother of course.

Officially there are only two ways to acquire PR as a man, the first is to marry or be married to the child’s mother, the second way is to be on the child’s birth certificate. Which again requires the mothers permission.

So while mother’s may not have ‘full control’ (they can’t for example control the weather, but with a court order who knows?), they do have quite a lot of it, even before any differences or relationship breakdown occurs. You see, none of these issues we’ve raised thus far have anything to do with men not being interested, not taking part in basic child care activities or not wanting to be involved – These issues are inherent, the status quo and ‘just the way things are’. It doesn’t matter if you’re father of the year or if you suspend your recovering partner in a bubble filled with a years supply of chocolate and foot rubs for the duration of her birth recovery while you look after the child by yourself, to be legally recognised as having a responsibility to that child you need her permission, the government will refuse to acknowledge you as anything to do with the child unless the mother (you know, the person who doesn’t have more control than the father) gives the go ahead.

So sadly Sarah you’re wrong. PR really doesn’t mean anything when it comes to rights of contact.

Outside of these disagreements and little spats on social media, what really concerned me of your writing Sarah was the extent of generalisation. Within your short blog the term ‘many men’ is used 3 times (for an exact count, that’s exactly 3 times too often) and followed by a sweeping generalisation of what the majority of men feel, think or do, presented with a confusing amount of certainty and exactly no supporting evidence.

Some examples:

“It is my clear belief, after many years as a woman and parent, that our society does not value activities around child care. They are seen as low status and boring. Many men don’t want to get involved.”

“Many men, quite a lot of the time, appear to see looking after young children as boring, unrewarding, low status and they don’t want to do it.”

“for every father devastated by the denial of a relationship with his child, there is a mother who is lonely and afraid, desperate for the the father to step up and take responsibility but having no legal mechanism to ‘force him’.”

^ Really? The ratio is exactly 1:1? Exactly that? Forgive my scepticism..

“I am frequently told by men for e.g. that ‘I don’t do nappies’ – they express revulsion and horror at the idea of poo! for goodness sake. Hopefully these men are a dying breed but I think the very fact it is culturally acceptable for a child’s father to say he will not willingly meet one of the most basic needs of his child is a strong indicator that we have a problem here.”

And that is just a bit of the generalisation that went on in Sarah’s post. For the directors cut go and have a read for yourself.

The problem with these beliefs and how they were expressed is (as Sarah will fully understand being a Barrister and being privy to how proof and evidence actually works) that they are all examples of anecdotal evidence, which roughly translates as ‘not really evidence at all’. Not only that but it’s hugely and disappointingly sexist, or at least it would be if it weren’t about men.

This I believe is really why we have an issue here. Sarah despite her wealth of professional experience has a lot of firmly held, pre-conceived notions and ideas about men and fathers. Something I thought her job as an impartial party in cases as sensitive as family matters would have taught her against.

In closing I notice Sarah has since updated her post to say her posts on Twitter should be not mistaken for advice and in essence back tracked on some of her comments.

What I found alarming was less that these posts were intended to be ‘advice’ but rather that to a large degree they were just incorrect, especially surrounding PR. However one piece of ‘advice’ from us to Sarah would be that, as a Barrister and legal professional, if you don’t want people taking what you say on social media about the law as literal or factual, then you should probably refrain from commenting on it on social media, rather than commenting freely then expecting people to take it a certain way without any direction thereafter.

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