HELEN CONWAY

SUPERVISOR - COACH - TRAINER

family law supervisor, relationship counseling, wellbeing coaching, Mindfulness teacher

Extended court opening hours – the threat and the power of choice.

The statement in my inbox held no punches. The woman who wrote it told me she was ‘struggling’, that her ‘mental health was spiralling out of control’ that she ‘lived a daily nightmare’. As a Family Law practitioner, I am sadly used to tales like this.  What I am not used to is these stories not being about the clients of lawyers but about the barristers and solicitors themselves. Those descriptions of an intolerable life come from a criminal barrister who is describing her current experience as a working mother. It was written to explain why extended opening hours were simply not possible for her to contemplate. It is only one of a series of similar statements tweeted by @CrimeGirl.

Not being a criminal practitioner and, until recently, silenced by my position as a Judge, I have not so far said much about the widely opposed plan for extended court opening hours. In any event, my current role as a coach comes with training to listen carefully before we speak. We learn to sense the clues to what is going on in the ’field’ we observe by feeling what is happening in our own bodies. As I read angry tweet after distressed tweet I felt a rising recognition.  The way I feel when I read legal twitter and the comments from the Executive is the same way I feel when I hear the communication between abuser and abused.

The pattern of abuse

Any Domestic Violence practitioner will know the pattern of abuse. It’s not only about physical violence but about power and control. Abuse is not only physical violence. It can be manifest by depriving people of sleep, by isolating them from their families, by making them feel devalued, by gaslighting, by making unreasonable demands at all hours, by ignoring their views or by putting them in precarious economic positions. Once this abuse of power is uncovered comes the minimising, blaming and denying behaviour. 

 I’ll hold no punches either. I see a direct parallel between the experiences of those who apply for Family law Injunctions and the fate of the Criminal bar at the moment. All those experiences are reflected in the tweets made my criminal barristers in recent days. There is a wholesale use of power to manipulate in direct conflict with the welfare of the people the power holders are supposed to care about. (And by that I mean not only the profession but the general public who depend on an accessible, high quality legal system not staffed by exhausted, depleted, underpaid lawyers). 

The existence of choice

That’s not to say that lawyers are powerless victims. However bad the abuse is so-called ‘victims’ * always have a choice. That choice can be horribly hard to make. It almost always involves real loss as well as gain and it requires courage and often assistance and support from individuals and organisations. It often has to be made from a position of real disadvantage. There is no right choice per se. Only the right choice in the current moment for each ‘victim’, depending on their circumstances, resources and values. Family and crime practitioners will have seen many clients make those choices: Some leave. Some stay. Some stay and their partners get help and change. Some stay and put up with it. Some stay and fight back. Some stay for a while and then leave. Some go and then return. Some die.

Abuse of course can be – and should be – tackled at an institutional and systemic level. It should be called out and opposed by individuals and organisations and formal accountability methods used. But below that, individuals must choose, because to choose to do nothing is still a (valid) choice. 

The most dangerous time for a person subjected to domestic abuse is the time between making a decision to leave or take legal action and just having done so. This is because the very act of making a choice tips the balance of power. It moves the individual from someone who is having things done to them to someone who has decided that the future will be defined and created by them.  Making the choice does not change the abuser necessarily, nor their capacity to be abusive. But it breaks the connection between the power and the control. From the moment the ‘victim’ decides to start hiding £1 coins in the laundry bag for an escape fund or starts to stockpile clothes at a friend’s house ready for the day she flees, they start making small steps forward out of the situation they are trapped in.  From the moment the ‘victim’ decides to make the appointment for their partner to get help and plans the conversation where they issue the ultimatum, they begin to be the one creating the future.

The power of decision making

 It’s the same when we are trapped in professional situations that are destroying our wellbeing. The only way to tip the balance in our favour is to make a decision on how we are going to live our life in response to the intolerable situation and then start to implement that decision, with reviews along the way. In doing so we move our gaze from our feet to the destination ahead, a destination of our choice.

I remember my own decision moment.  I had just spent an hour talking about my love of a legal job that was turning to rot with aConsultant Psychologist. “Decide,” she told me. “Make a decision and if it is to leave, set a date.” I made that decision standing on the path outside her home because I knew instinctively that deciding was the right thing to do. Being stuck in the mere describing of my situation was part of the problem.

No-one but her, my coaches and my husband knew for months that I had decided to leave. But making it caused the power to shift and things started to become different and the decision that seemed wild and impossible to implement became possible. I am not advocating a stupid leap into the dark. I’m not advocating one decision over another, not pushing either leaving or going, changing practice or domestic arrangements, capitulating or campaigning, or anything in between. I’m advocating looking first at what you most want from life, what are your non-negotiable priorities. Next I suggest you look at all your options (obvious and not), make a decision and then a wholehearted commitment to explore how and when you can implement your decision to get what you need in life. 

Your decision will be personal to you. It could be a decision to change practical arrangements in terms of how you earn money or a decision to take action from within the profession. It could be a decision to change nothing but to take the energy you spent wondering if you should change something and use that energy in a better way. If it seems , as it once did to me, like there are no options, that all the options are dark ones or that you simply don’t have the energy to get to them, consider talking it through with a professional skilled at helping people find ways forward in their life. Sometimes we need help to raise our own awareness and get unstuck.

Of course, anyone doing this will go through very difficult emotions associated with the fact that the future will not be the one they envisaged when the relationship began. Anger, distress, outrage, fear, sadness and despair are all appropriate responses. Of course, barristers and solicitors who entered law when it was still properly funded and their work respected will be looking at a different future than the one they imaged back then, whatever their choices. But by looking at your values, your priorities, your options (especially the wild and previously unimagined ones) you can start to shift the power. 

Will you still have something broken in your path?  Yes. 

Are you facing hard choices involving revaluation of expectations and feelings of loss and anger? Yes and yes again.

Will deciding to decide and then acting according to what is the right option for you make you feel empowered even as the Government continue to wreck the legal system? I’m betting on a Churchill nodding dog -like yes, yes, yes. 

*I use the term ‘so -called victim’ not to deny their experience but to reflect the fact that some organisations prefer to use the term ‘survivor’.