Warning, yet again this blog post contains testicles – like the last one (and no doubt, some critics would say, most of them so far have been b******s throughout)
In the early days of surgical procedure, one man stood as a giant amongst his fellow professionals. Liston, often called “The Fastest Knife in the West End”. In those days, prior to anaesthetics, the priority was to get the job done quickly, to get the ordeal over with as soon as possible and hopefully leave the patient alive. One of Liston’s specialities was limb amputation, and he was well reknowned for being able to remove a limb in less than two and a half minutes. Of course, during one of his lightening fast amputations he took the patients testicles along with the leg. On another, it is said that he was sawing and cutting so fast that he took his assistant’s fingers off in the process, and also accidentally cut a nearby spectator. As the patient, spectator, and assistant ALL died of their wounds, this is said to be the least successful operation in history, having had a 300% death rate.
BUT overall , the death rate in Liston’s procedures was 1 in 10, as opposed to the usual 1 in 4. And of course, Liston left medicine with one of the biggest advances ever, being the man who introduced anaesthesia to British medicine and gave it world-wide credibility (the chloroform he used was in practice in America, but Liston popularised its use). Ironically of course, this made his lightening fast surgical skills rather redundant, as for the first time a surgeon could work with care and precision without risking the patient’s life.
It occurs to me, therefore, and this little vignette seemed a decent illustration of it, that speed isn’t always the best measure of something, and that being faster and faster for the sake of it doesn’t necessarily achieve the best results. The Family Justice Review looked very carefully and thoughtfully at how we could make care proceedings more efficient – meaning both faster and less costly, taking as an unspoken premise that our system was already getting good results and what we had to do now was just get them quicker and cheaper. We already had the leg amputation techniques down pat, we just needed to get more efficient at it.
As has been evident to me from writing this blog, and thrown into even sharper focus with the furore about the decision of the President in Re J 2013, there’s a counter opinion to that unspoken premise. There are plenty of voices saying that actually, we aren’t currently getting the core function of family justice (to achieve the right and fair outcome in cases) and that speeding up the process isn’t going to put that right.
Now, I happen to believe that in the overwhelming majority of cases, if one looked at them independently, they would be achieving the right and fair outcomes. One can’t realistically expect a parent who loses their child to feel anything other than hurt and aggrieved and devastated. You’re not ever going to reach a system whereby every parent nods at the end of the case and says “Yeah, that was a fair cop”, but are those who speak out about the system just parents who haven’t come to terms with an awful and painful (but objectively fair decision) or are they actually as they report, the victims of injustice? Are even some of them?
I don’t mean do social workers sometimes make mistakes? Of course they do. All professions make mistakes. I mean, do we have confidence that the system we have in place – which gives the parents the chance to see the evidence against them down on paper, to see all relevant records, to have free legal advice, to question witnesses who accuse them of things, to call their own witnesses to support them, and all of that being determined by a Court who are unbiased and fair and start from the principle that children ought to be at home with parents if at all posible – does that system, catch the times when social workers have got it wrong, have come to a conclusion that might not be the best for the child?
I personally believe and hope that our system does that, but it doesn’t really matter what I believe and hope. We deal in evidence. When the State is given power by the Government, to make recommendations about whether children should live with families, or be adopted, and where the Court is given power by the Government to make the decisions about whether those recommendations are correct; we need to remind ourselves that those powers are exercised in the name of the public, and it is therefore essential that the public have confidence that a system is in place that whilst individual errors might sneak through from time to time, is not inherently flawed or failing.
This is a debate which needs to take place. Not just ‘how can we do it cheaper, how can we do it faster’ – but is the system strong enough to get things right and learn from those cases where mistakes are made? It was very easy in Re J to allow criticism of social workers to take place in the public domain, but did the Court really “own” their own decision-making? That child was removed, and remained in foster care because the Court decided so. The LA ask for the orders, but the Court decide whether or not to make them. If there’s blame there (and we really don’t know about Re J, because no information about the case is in the public domain) part of that blame rests with the Court too.
With that in mind, I can see why the President is in favour of greater transparency, both in his plans to publish anonymised judgments as a matter of routine and in the RE J case of allowing criticisms of the system in language that might seem emotionally loaded to remain in the public domain (so long as the identity of the child remains secret). In doing so, an awful lot changes, and as yet, we don’t know how much will change and in what ways. As the ruler of China said about his thoughts on the French Revolution “It is too early to say”
With these changes, the 26 week timetable, the financial pressure on family law solicitors and the prospect of more and more advice deserts spreading across the country, these are watershed moments for family justice. I’ve seen in a relatively short few years, cases move from the occasional parent being a heavy cannabis smoker to large proportions of cases being about heroin and crack addiction; I’ve seen the internet move from dial-up and “Page not found” – effectively a slower form of Ceefax, to becoming a fixture in most people’s lives, somewhere that can make publishers, documentary makers, journalists of almost anyone who chooses to be one. The times, they are a changing.