It is a cliche of legal practice that there is nothing a lawyer likes more than a client who says that it’s not the money, it’s the principle (it’s always the money). That client will not think straight about a court case and will fight to the bitter end whatever it costs. Most of the family cases that I deal with are not about money but that same stubborn clinging on to the principle is what lies behind an awful lot of court cases. There are certain things that human beings find it very hard to give up being right about.
If you find yourself in a court case or family dispute where all around you (including your own lawyer) are trying to tell you that you are wrong about something or that you should do something you don’t believe is right, you may find yourself tempted to follow the thinking of President Roosevelt when he said : “Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are”. You may see yourself as David fighting for justice against Goliath but I would like to invite you to have a different conversation with yourself. As Charles Swindoll said: “A family is a place where principles are hammered and honed on the anvil of everyday living”. A family is made up of a collection of imperfect human beings whom we do not necessarily choose to be related to, but we are whether we like it or not, warts and all. The more you cling to your principles, ironically, the more you may be likely to lose by backing everyone including yourself into a corner with everything being black and white, right or wrong.
So take a deep breath and try to give up the idea for a little while that you are right. Ask yourself what if you were wrong? Ask other people whom you trust whether they think you might be wrong and ask them to be really honest with you, not just say what they think you want to hear. Put yourself in the shoes of the other side or the judge or the professionals who are taking a different view and try to see it from their standpoint. Have a look at the arguments against your point of view or the research which goes in the other direction. Is there something about what they are saying that you don’t understand (eg contact is important for the child’s sense of identity -what?) Is there an expert or a social worker who you can talk to? Ask yourself why it is that no-one can see what seems obvious to you? If you find yourself just repeating ‘it’s just not right’ or ‘it’s a question of principle’ look for the fears and worries that you are hiding from yourself (that because the child loves someone else too, they will not love you too?). At the very least this should enable you to put into words what you are thinking so that other people understand you. But if you really give up being right, you might be able to find a way forward that works for everyone.
A common situation where this comes up is in relation to contact. It may be that you have a suspicion that the other parent has done something terrible such as sexual abuse. It may be that you just ‘know’ they won’t look after the child properly during contact. The other parent may have convictions for terrible criminal offences and present a very bad example or be continually sent off to prison. You may be able to give plenty of examples to show why you are right that contact is a bad idea. But if you are wrong (or even if you are right) there is a terrible price to pay if contact is stopped. Whether you like it or not, the other parent is part of the child’s makeup and sooner or later the child is going to have to deal with that. You can’t protect them for ever. And sooner or later it will come back to bite you if later the child comes to resent the parent who put a stop to the relationship or tried to. Not to mention the emotional damage it may do to the child’s self image to know that they have a genetic parent you think is too awful for them to spend any time with). Unless the court is really sure that your views are correct, contact is going to happen and if you won’t make it happen, you run the risk that the child will be taken away from you. The contact will happen anyway, just without you around to love and nurture the child through the experience.
So instead of Roosevelt, listen to Oliver Wendell Holmes: “To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilised man”. Or maybe Groucho Marx is more appealing: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well I have others”.