‘Is the theatre of the family courts – where legalese often takes over – really helpful?’

A young social worker reflects on their first experiences in the courtroom

by Andrew Matthews

Attending court is a key part of the social worker role and one I am starting to experience more frequently. I’m drawn to the court’s analytical nature but the system itself leaves me disillusioned.

I’m struck by the theatre of the courtroom and how alien it is to 99% of the population – parents and social workers included. Is this approach what’s best for families or the social workers trying to do their jobs? Watching parents on the witness stand, I can’t help but think there is a better way this could be resolved or addressed.

In evidence, barristers challenge witnesses with multi-layered questions peppered with jargon. It all contributes to the court show on display.

Sharpen up your court skills

Do you find the court process and appearing in the witness box daunting? Then sign up now for your free place at Community Care Live London to receive expert training on improving your court skills.
In her session, solicitor and trainer Shefali Shah will arm you with the essential skills to ensure your evidence stands up to scrutiny.
Register now for the event, on 26-27 September.

Often under this questioning it feels that legalese takes over and facts and truth are distorted. Questions such as ‘It is right isn’t it that if we consider X, then Y must be true’ and ‘It is not the case is it, that this actually happened, and your version of said events was in fact false, yes?’.


I have given evidence on several occasions. At times it became clear barristers were targeting my relative lack of experience in years practising to discredit and unsettle me.

One recent unpleasant experience involved a barrister wrongly surmising in her submission that I was both younger than the parents and would in effect struggle to understand parenting. This assumption left me feeling insulted and uncomfortable.

I’ve also seen barristers chat and laugh about their private and social lives in the courtroom while families look on, unsure about whether this is correct or not. I felt it was a little farcical.

Supportive managers mean I am kept focused on my role, but I can’t help question how the parents feel about all of this if my general feelings and experiences are of discomfort.

It’s difficult, because I feel confident about my evidence when there are risks to children, but feel the court environment is not parent friendly or helpful. As the social worker, you go from working with the family regularly for a long time to a court where you can share little, or no, communication often because of the context.


In social work it is important to be collaborative and work in partnership with families. Is court a place where this could ever happen? How could one work towards the removal of a child, yet work in collaboration if it is done against the parents’ wishes?

I remain optimistic that this can occur. But I feel disheartened how, in some of my cases, it is not a reality. Even when relationships have fractured it should not mean that attempts to foster collaboration should ever stop.

After a full week of court where I have been expected to hear all of the evidence, I have often felt drained and tired. I have felt worried about neglecting the other families I work with and the work I have to catch up with.

But mostly, I’m left feeling frustrated and sometimes a little angry at how slow the process can be and how alienating it can be for social workers and parents alike.

Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym, he is a children’s social worker. 


More from Community Care

9 Responses to ‘Is the theatre of the family courts – where legalese often takes over – really helpful?’

  1. Tom J July 6, 2017 at 10:54 am #

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    The court environment couldn’t be more oppressive if it tried.

  2. Georgina Child July 6, 2017 at 1:26 pm #

    You will be interested in the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) operating in the north west. Judges meet with the parents directly without lawyers. This could be the future!

    • Yasmin a July 10, 2017 at 9:07 pm #

      @georgina FDAC started in london

  3. Yasmin a July 10, 2017 at 9:06 pm #

    fdac has been in London for years… was piloted down here

  4. Jonathan Ritchie July 11, 2017 at 11:30 am #

    Its impossible for parents to get a fair trial in the family courts. Working in partnership is a cruel joke

    • Mary Ryan July 14, 2017 at 9:30 am #

      The FDAC model, as evaluated, operating in London, South West, Kent and Medway, Coventry, E Sussex, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Bucks has demonstrated that it is possible to have court proceedings which are not antagonistic, encourage direct communication between the judge and the parents and which, crucially, are seen as just and fair by parents, lawyers, and social workers.

  5. David Steare July 13, 2017 at 7:36 pm #

    Well written ‘Andrew Matthews’, legalise is not just oppressive but represents a paradigm attack on our common humanity: attacking both parents and social workers. “If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” Henry David Thoreau 1817-62.

  6. Incognito July 16, 2017 at 5:01 pm #

    There is a good analysis of this article, and the issues raised within it, on the following website: http://www.pinktape.co.uk/rants/the-theatre-of-legalese-oh-please

  7. Sophie Kershaw July 18, 2017 at 9:12 am #

    Visit http://www.FDAC.org.uk for more information on how FDAC delivers better justice for families and professionals.