By Nicola Campbell and Gill Hunter

As shared in the first blog post of this guest edited series, The Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR), Birkbeck and Revolving Doors (RD) are working in partnership on a research and policy project – Lived Experience of the Law. The project is funded by the Nuffield Foundation and explores people’s experiences of the family and criminal courts in the context of their wider encounters with the law and justice system. It examines how ‘effective participation’ and ‘access to justice’ are understood from a lived experience perspective and through ‘policy workshops’ it creates opportunities to discuss the kinds of policy and practice reforms needed to improve people’s experiences of the courts.

ICPR researchers, Gillian Hunter and Nicola Campbell, and Dr Monica Thomas from Revolving Doors completed a 6-month pilot study during 2023. This focused on the experiences of parents and special guardians of public law care proceedings in the family courts in England. The purpose of the pilot was to test our methodology, including interview style, topic guide and the policy workshop format for the main study. This research is co-produced and peer researchers with personal experience of family court proceedings were involved in the development of the interview guide, analysis of interviews and the facilitation of the pilot policy workshop. A future blog by the peer researchers will set out more fully their role in the study.

We opted for a narrative interviewing style as a means of gathering people’s stories about their experiences of family court, including what happened before and after proceedings were completed. This meant – for the most part – the interviewee controlled the dialogue, focusing on aspects they found to be most relevant to them whilst trying to navigate the family court process. We did, however, interject at times to ask for further details or for clarifications. Parents revealed experiences of feeling silenced and unheard during court proceedings – a key theme in the interviews – and often reported finding the interview process quite cathartic and an opportunity to have their say.

We conducted 21 narrative interviews with parents (18) and special guardians (3) who had been a party in family care proceedings in the past three years. The sample was small, but the data were rich. We also carried out a series of observations in one local family court centre in the early stages of the pilot study. These observations helped our understanding of the day-to-day practice of the proceedings and provided us with an opportunity to contextualise some of the discussion points being raised in the interviews, especially regarding the layout and atmosphere of the court room, and court building more generally.

For the most part, the family court was described as a traumatic space. One mother noted how nerve- wracking the process was: ‘You sweat, you shake, and you feel sick.’ Another admitted: ‘I was terrified. I’m not even scared to admit it. I had no idea what was going on’. Parents remained on the periphery of proceedings. There was a degree of situational silencing due to the physical layout of the courts. Parties (the parents and special guardians), sat at the back of the court and were removed from the ‘central performance’ of the lawyers and the judge. They were given limited opportunities to speak and often felt their lawyer did not adequately challenge what was being said about them or how they were being portrayed by the legal representatives for the local authority and Cafcass.

We also noted a degree of self-silencing, where individuals choose not to speak, either because they were told to remain quiet, or they did not understand the technical language being used by the legal professionals. Common among the female and minoritised ethnic parents, was a view that their voice was not deemed worthy or relevant to the proceedings.

However, where parents had some interaction with the judge directly, this often had a lasting impact. Positive or supportive comments made to parents by the judge were relayed to us verbatim during the interviews. These demonstrated to parents some judicial understanding of their lives and circumstances. In contrast, negative comments or being ignored by the judge – ‘she never once spoke to me’ and ‘he spoke at me rather than to me’ – further undermined their engagement in proceedings.

We were also told about court failures to support victims of domestic abuse. This included instances of protective measures not being set up in the courtroom, despite requests being made by legal representatives. A perceived lack of sympathy that some judges had for women who had experiences of domestic violence, and a lack of understanding regarding fears of being in the same courtroom or on the same computer screen as their abuser. One woman expressed her fears about being followed by her ex-partner or one of his friends once she left the court building.

Parents and special guardians also talked about the lack of post-court support to deal with the emotional and practical aftermath of proceedings, and parents wanted more detailed direction from judges about what they must do to have their children returned to them. Where this was made clear, it gave parents some hope.

These findings accord with previous research on parents’ experiences of the family justice system and suggest continuing failings in terms of support for parties to engage and to feel heard in proceedings. Their experiences often negatively affected any trust they may have had in the courts. Several parents discussed their unwillingness to go back to court to revoke orders, despite being in the position to do so, because of the fear of being retraumatised by the process.

As a final part of the pilot study, we hosted a policy workshop that was facilitated by two peer-researchers. The workshop provided a space for people with lived and professional expertise to reflect on these initial findings, engage in an open dialogue with one another and co-produce initial recommendations for policy and practice. You can read more about that workshop here.

To read our full briefing and more information about the main study check out our Lived Experience webpage or email us at to receive further updates!



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