LITTLE CHILDREN

Against my better judgment, my daughter persuaded me to watch a film entitled Little Children the other night. It starred the morose Kate Winslett, bucking for another Oscar and rapidly turning into the poor man’s Meryl Streep, together with an utterly forgettable supporting cast.

Basically, it’s a film set in Little Town America, where prejudices are as hard as granite, and into their midst is released a paedophile convicted of indecent exposure towards a minor, so hardly the crime of the century. LTA is on red alert, exacerbated by a self styled vigilante, who patrols the streets handing out leaflets and shouting from the rooftops. The film ends with the paedophile’s mother dying whilst trying to protect him from this concerted campaign of vilification, and he committing a gross act of self mutilation in the town park. All very gory and not suitable for family viewing.

I suppose the author’s message was that the paedophile was never given a chance to integrate into life in LTA, and was persecuted out of all proportion to his crime and the threat he might have posed. The oxygen of publicity all but suffocated him.

Which brings me seamlessly on to the modest reforms announced by the Ministry of Justice last year, and due to come into effect on the 27th April. In short, family courts are to be opened to the public, and by that, I mean the media, as the public, for the most part, are not remotely interested in watching dirty linen being washed in the full glare of publicity. But the ‘crusaders’ in favour of open courts have been told that judges will have the right to prevent reporting in certain cases, and to exclude the public and the media if they deem it necessary in the interests of justice.

The Times newspaper was at the forefront of this crusade, giving an inordinate amount of coverage to the views of one Camilla Cavendish, about whom I know nothing. The received wisdom from The Times commentators is that these reforms are likely to be still born if judges have their way, and CC and her camp followers have climbed back into the pulpit.

The Media, by definition, report the sensational and especially the prurient for mass consumption. If it isn’t sensational, they make it so, as this sells copies. But the Media are also slow to correct factual errors, witness their correction columns buried in the inside pages, where brevity is their watchword. Give a dog a bad name and hang it can so easily become reality, and where families are concerned, where raw emotions are never far from the surface, and with children being used as bargaining chips in bitter disputes between parents, the oxygen of publicity can indeed be suffocating.

Leave aside the real risk that with the media present, the truth will be concealed, or at least glossed over, how can families at war be helped if they are looking over their shoulders all the time, watching some news hound scribbling away, knowing that their every word may be reported and distorted?

In these days of global communications and hot press wires, Darren and Sharon squabbling over Kylie and Wayne can make for good headlines, especially if there are allegations of abuse, with all the trimmings. A quiet day in Fleet Street can turn a routine family case into a multimedia circus and do untold damage.

Finally, it is worth remembering that family cases often involve several hearings, especially if custody of the children is in issue. There will be reports from Social Services, Court appointed officers, the children will have their own guardian, possibly paediatricians, psychologists and psychiatrists, to ensure that no stone is left unturned in the best interests of the children. And the likelihood is that the media will become bored after the parties’ opening position statements, and so, several months later when the case concludes, the media will have exhausted their feeding frenzy and moved on. And what remains? Graphic headlines pillorying one party or another will never be corrected, and those pilloried will have to live with the stigma that was patently untrue and never of their making.

So I applaud the restrictions placed on open access to family courts. Presumably the media will have the same rights to challenge an exclusion order or a reporting restriction as they do routinely under the Contempt of Court Act 1984. It should be all about fairness. There is no room in the family courts for sensationalism, and long may it remain.

THE OXYGEN OF PUBLICITY

As a practising barrister, I have never eschewed the professional limelight, as good publicity is the oxygen of life. In my glittering career spanning many years, I have had my fair share of media attention, but with very mixed reviews. The problem as I see it is that the media have their own agenda, which doesn’t always chime with my own. They want an angle, something sensational, something to grab the eye of the beholder. I’m not suggesting a deliberate distortion, more a massaging of the facts to make for ‘good press.’

Upon mature reflection, I suspect the recipient of a full page “exposé” in the Sunday Times may well be questioning the wisdom of that particular exercise in self promotion, as this was the main thrust of the article. I skim read it, so sadly I’ve already forgotten his name, but as I remember it, this self styled legal ‘celebrity’ was a solicitor from oop north, a sort of ‘larger than life’ character with gold jewellery and sharp suits, photographed with a large cigar stuck in his mouth, a ruse no doubt by the interviewer to stop him droning on interminably about his brilliance.

Cutting to the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the article, this solicitor was telling us, at some length, about his divorce practice, the number of high profile clients he had represented, all female, and the millions he had screwed out of their undeserving husbands.

As a divorce practitioner myself, I cringe whenever I read this complete garbage. It’s true that in the recent past, a number of decisions mainly from the House of Lords have shifted the balance towards the wife, some might say unfairly, with the result that husbands have been obliged to hand over a disproportionate amount of their wealth to their departing wives. Many of the old rules have changed. Short marriages are no longer an impediment, and marital conduct is all but irrelevant. Wealth brought to the nuptial couch may still be a factor to be taken into consideration, but the days of ‘ring fencing’ are long gone.

But these significant changes are nothing to do with cigar chomping solicitors, however much they and the readers of the Sunday Times would like us to believe it. They are more to do with a gradual sea change in the approach adopted by the courts, which had historically favoured the husband as the bread winner and the main, sometimes sole, earner.

I like to think that the courts still strive to achieve fairness in the distribution of marital assets, although in my considerable experience, what is fair to one warring party is manifestly unfair to the other. As they say, when love flies out the window, so does reason, and reaching an amicable settlement is often a bridge too far. Hence the need for good advocates, cigar chomping or not.

There may be rare occasions when the husband has had enough of the bitterness and acrimony stirred up during these protracted proceedings, throws in the towel, and allows self promoting advocates to trumpet their brilliance. But my experience tells me that in high profile divorces, I am routinely pitted against able advocates representing the interests of the other party, and case law constrains me from arguing the unarguable.

Above all, the good advocate in divorce proceedings should not be there to screw the other party, but to achieve a fair result with the minimum of distress to both. Perhaps I’m just an old softie, in which case I’ll live with the disappointment, and no full page profile for me.

At least the solicitor and I share one thing in common. We both enjoy a good cigar, although I remove the band from mine before lighting up.