Language matters. The words we use shape our mindsets, which in turn affect how we think and behave.  

Language for separating families has evolved out of an adversarial legal system: it is accusatory and divisive. It is also potentially harmful, increasing conflict through battle metaphors while parents compete for justice and control of their children.

Appropriate language is needed through every part of a family’s separation: at the school gate, with their wider family and friends, in the media, on government websites, with support services and throughout any legal process.

Following the Family Solutions Group recommendations in the “What about me?” report, the President of the Family Division commissioned this report, “Language Matters”, which calls for a fresh look at the way family law is framed and delivered to those who need it.  

The report has distilled feedback from a range of consultees and existing literature into five core principles for language change, to shift mindsets away from adversity and battles, towards safety, wellbeing and child welfare. The core principles or five ‘P’s 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-focussed and problem-solving way
  • Positive futures – the emphasis is not on past recriminations but on building positive futures in which children can thrive.

Language Matters Events

The Family Solutions Group hosted two Language Matters webinars in January and February 2023 to explore with a range of legal professionals the appetite for using solutions-focused language which promotes child welfare, rather than combative or battle terminology. We also wanted to find out which words used in family law are the most harmful and which most helpful. The webinar below took place on 14 February and was attended by over 200 professionals, including mediators, barristers, solicitors, judges, parent coordinators, CAFCASS, contact centres, relationship therapists and clinical psychologists.

This is an idea which has found its time

The Right Honourable Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, addressed the webinar, setting out how the journey to reframe the language of family separation had evolved over the years, since a time when custody and access were enshrined in law to our current emphasis on child welfare and child arrangements Replacing outdated and negative words with positive, solution focused language that enable good outcomes for the child and their parents is vitally important. He recognised the need for a major change in culture to achieve this.

Sir Andrew McFarlane said:

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.

The real change will come by each one of us thinking about it, and then changing practice.

Now we can see the whole range of quite small things that we can do. Each of these feeds into the bigger messages that this is not a custody fight, it’s a coming to together of parents to work together to reduce the impact on their children and help them resolve their issues about the arrangements for their children, in as low a temperature as possible.

It’s obvious what we should do, and we should now just get on with it. And I will do all I can to put my shoulder to the same wheel to bring about as much change as possible.

Which words are the most harmful and most helpful in family separation cases?
Harmful Words

We asked professionals to share the words that are most harmful to family relationships. There were some common themes across our two language webinars. The top three most harmful words were: Custody, Versus and Contact, and Opponent, Rights, Dispute, Parties were also strongly represented. Other harmful words or phrases included Entitlement, 50:50, Judgement, Primary carer, Fight, Access, My client, and Applicant.

Helpful Words

We asked professionals to share the words that they felt were the most helpful to family relationships, in cases wherever it is safe and in the child’s best interests.

Although there were similarities across the two webinars, the most popular positive and helpful words were different across the two dates. The first group selected three top phrases or words: Using first names, Collaboration and Problem solving. The second group preferred Together, Our Children and Co-parenting.

Other popular helpful words and phrases included: Communication, Sharing, Solutions, Amicable, Compassion, Responsibility, Co-parent, Respect and Family.

Making change happen

Change is needed throughout the Family Court: in court forms, case headings, the Family Procedure Rules, and in the language used by (and about) legal professionals at all levels.  The Family Court needs to lead the charge, so that these principles begin to permeate into the rest of society, for example to schools, health professionals, charities and the media.  

A language of wellbeing and cooperation, instead of law and justice, could also open up wider government responsibility for separating families. It could encourage a positive shift from the limited concept of “Family Justice” towards an integrated and coordinated response which has safety and child welfare at its core.  Changed language will change mindsets and lay the foundations for improved systems of support for separating families.