The language we use during family law cases really matters. As specialist family law solicitors we tread a fine line. On the one hand we need to use precise legal language to provide certainty.

That said, we also need to communicate in a way that ensures that:

  • You understand the legal process and your options; and
  • Your spouse knows where you stand on the key issues.

Great strides have been made in recent years so that language around separation, divorce, finances and arrangements for children is more accessible than it might have been in the past. There is a much greater focus on replacing negative, outdated words and phrases with positive terminology that focuses on solutions. So, for example terms like ‘custody’ and ‘child access’ have been superseded by terms like ‘child welfare’ and ‘child arrangements’.

While using the correct legal language is important, solicitors and others involved in the family law process must be able to use every day, accessible language to avoid confusing or intimidating clients. Clients too can only benefit from familiarising themselves with the appropriate terminology – it’s designed to reduce conflict and encourage positive outcomes.

Here we look at moves by the legal profession to enhance the language we use when dealing with volatile and sensitive family law cases.

The Impact Of Language

Family law involves complex legal terms and concepts, and sometimes legal jargon may be unavoidable. It is essential however that all parties involved understand the language used by lawyers, judges and other professionals like social workers and case workers from agencies like Cafcass.

If a person does not understand the language being used, they may not fully understand their legal rights and obligations or the implications of a legal decision. This can lead to confusion, frustration, and ultimately settlements that do not reflect what is in a parent or child’s best interests.

Language Matters

Following the introduction of no fault divorce the Family Law Solutions Group launched ‘Language Matters’, a consultation with solicitors and other family law professionals. Introducing the initiative Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, explained that,

Bit by bit the penny is dropping: the language is important…It’s blindingly obvious that the language we have been using is not appropriate and only goes to stoke the minds of those in a combative mindset, rather than direct them in a different way..”

During the consultation with solicitors and others, words perceived as being harmful included words like:

  • Custody
  • Versus
  • Opponent
  • Rights
  • Dispute
  • Entitlement
  • 50:50
  • Judgement
  • Access

Words identified as being positive or helpful included:

  • Collaboration
  • Problem solving
  • Together
  • Our Children
  • Co-parenting

Using first names at all times was also seen as being helpful.

The report into appropriate language, Language Matters, produced by the Family Solutions Group identifies five core principles the group hopes will shift mindsets away from adversity and battles, towards safety, wellbeing and child welfare. These are:

  • Plain English – avoid legal jargon and use words which can easily be understood.
  • Personal – use family names rather than legal labels.
  • Proportionate – use language which is proportionate to the family issues being considered.
  • Problem-solving – use constructive problem-solving language rather than battle language. The move from combative to cooperative language reflects a move from the language of parental rights to the language of parental responsibility, so issues can be approached in a child-focused and problem-solving way.
  • Positive futures – the emphasis is not on past recriminations but on building positive futures in which children can thrive.

Comment

You should expect to be treated with respect when you use a family lawyer and when you are navigating the family justice system. The use of appropriate language plays a big part in achieving this. The Family Solutions Group report indicates a definite move towards a new approach to the language all those involved in family law use.

With the approval of Sir Andrew Mac Farlane the report is significant and wide ranging. It deals not just with the language we solicitors use but also:

  • Encourages changes to court forms and orders
  • Asks judges, barristers, court staff and court-appointed experts to reflect on the language they use
  • Suggests that language used by families, children and the wider public, including the media when discussing family issues needs to evolve

In our opinion all of this can only be ap positive thing.

At Brookman we are acutely aware of how language impacts our clients. It’s our job to ensure that the way we respond to your concerns and explain complex issues reassures you. The way we communicate should always be helpful in moving you move towards an acceptable settlement with your estranged spouse.

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