Behind the quiet sandstone exterior of Bristol Civil Court lies a dark secret.
Until recently, the activities of the family court, a branch of the high court, were almost entirely unknown to the general public. A small number of campaigners are hoping to bring what goes on behind closed doors into the light.
‘Unless you’ve been in this you couldn’t possibly realise how dark the family court is,’ said a protester, one of a group of eight gathered outside the courthouse on July 5 with banners calling for reform.
‘We’ve all been through the courts and we see the harm it’s doing to children,’ she said, adding: ‘Until you’re in it you would never think it could happen.’
Eight people, mainly women, gathered from midday for the protest, called by Hold Up Your Hands, a UK-wide collective. Most had personal experience of the family courts and were wary of sharing their identities for fear that protesting would be used against them within the court.
The family court is a branch of the judiciary that deals with cases involving children, such as when a child needs to be taken into care for protection, or divorce cases where custody of the child must be determined.
Issues with the family court system have recently made headlines. Articles in The Guardian and Observer record how parents – mainly although not always mothers – are losing custody of their children after being accused of a practice known as parental alienation.
Parental alienation has no legal definition but refers to behaviour by which one parent may try to encourage hostility in their children towards the other parent.
The legitimacy of the idea has been questioned and the way it is applied in court is widely criticised. There are also concerns over the way in which parental alienation assessors stand to make substantial sums of money by recommending themselves as treatment providers.
Assessments of parental alienation are often made by unqualified and unregulated “experts” and a misdiagnosis can be almost impossible to lift.
Parents deemed to be alienating their children against a partner can either submit to treatment – at a cost of several thousand pounds – or risk losing contact with their children.
This process understandably takes a heavy toll – emotionally and financially – on those going through it.
One protester, who has an ongoing case in the family court, said that she has had to delete all her social media accounts for fear that they will be used as evidence against her in court. Several other protesters nodded in recognition when she said this, themselves having faced similar personal scrutiny during their own court cases.
‘You can’t live a life while you’re in this system,’ said the protester. Having thought she had escaped by leaving her partner, she said that life after separation is ‘worse than living with abuse.’
Amongst the protesters, and one of a few willing to be named, was Nataly Anderson.
Nat is the founder of Family Court Crisis, a group fighting for change in the system. Her children currently live with their father in Croatia having been taken away from Nat six years ago.
She said that during her court case her evidence was ignored and her witnesses barred from speaking. Like many women who suffer in the family courts, Nat was told hers was an isolated incident.
She said that she founded Family Court Crisis because women together are stronger. Yesterday’s protest is evidence that these are not isolated incidents but a pattern of failure by a court system seemingly designed to persecute those who most require its protection and support.
With the cost of appeal prohibitive, Nat said she is looking for other ways to take on the courts.
She has built a network of women around the world who have been affected by family courts in the UK and abroad. Together they are demanding representation as victims and to be stakeholders in finding a solution.
Protesters also want judges, the courts and the government to be held accountable for the damage done to families by the courts.
Perhaps most of all, protesters want the reality of family courts to be more widely known and for their experiences, and the experiences of thousands of women like them, to be given the validation they deserve.