Why language is so important and impactful on first impressions of family law

As a trainee solicitor, I’ve learnt a lot in a short space of time. On Tuesday 31 January, I had the privilege of attending the Family Solutions Group Language Matters event, and one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt to date, is to pay attention to the language used in family law.

Having previously worked in litigation, phrases such as “the other side”, “parties”, “versus” and “dispute” are all I have ever really known in practice. Broadly speaking, litigation is retrospective, whereas family law is forward-looking, so when I think about it, I realise how unhelpful this type of battle language is within family law.

When someone approaches a family solicitor, they’re most likely going through an enormously emotional and stressful period in their life and need help. The idea of involving solicitors and the possibility of going to court can seem daunting and overwhelming, especially as this is often their first encounter with the legal world. To make matters worse, the language used within law is confusing, impersonal and can often inflame the situation.

Individuals are given legal labels rather than their names, often separated by the term “versus” which is indicative of a fight, including “applicant vs respondent”, or even “husband vs wife” which in itself can be particularly triggering for those going through a divorce. There are also the relevant processes to navigate, which are characterised by legal jargon and acronyms, such as “FHDRA”, “section 7 report”, “FDR” and “section 25 statement”. Although solicitors will undoubtedly give their clients support and guidance along the way, this language can be confusing for many people, not to mention litigants in person who do not have a solicitor of their own.

Language used between solicitors and other legal professionals can also be unhelpful if inflammatory language is used or aggressive and non-constructive letters are sent back and forth, which can increase costs and delay the chance of settling out of court. Legal directories also frequently advertise and applaud family lawyers who take combative approaches by using quotes such as: “you need shin pads and earmuffs to deal with her, but there’s no denying she is effective.”

There’s no doubt some people want to instruct lawyers who will take an aggressive approach and it can be very hard for individuals to be positive and look-forward in such challenging circumstances. However, the Family Solutions Group recently highlighted research around inter-parental conflict and family separation which has shown that high levels of conflict between parents and separating families can have long term effects on children’s mental health, education and behaviour which can stretch into adulthood.

The Family Solutions Group have reviewed the language for separating families and suggest language should follow the “five Ps”:

  1. Plain English – avoid legal jargon and use words which can easily be understood.
  2. Personal – use family names rather than legal labels.
  3. Proportionate – use language which is proportionate to the family issues being considered.
  4. Problem-solving – use constructive language rather than battle language, so issues can be approached in a problem-solving and child-focused way.
  5. Positive future – the emphasis should not be on past recriminations but on building positive futures.

The Family Solutions Group are leading discussions to determine how we can incorporate positive language changes into family law, whether that includes small changes, such as changing certain words in correspondence, medium changes including language training for lawyers and other professionals involved with families, or large changes such as the introduction of language practice directions for family lawyers.

As a trainee, I think it’s really important to adopt this change now and use inclusive and constructive language at this early stage, to lead by way of example and aim to benefit separating families in the long-term. I am grateful to be surrounded by solicitors at Kingsley Napley who also encourage and promote this change.