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Inside the family courtroom

Magistrate Mark pictured with quote: "Families should feel we have sought to be fair, taken expert knowledge from legal advisers and acted in the best interest of their children."

In celebration of International Day for Families we spoke with Mark, a train driver, about his experience sitting as a family court magistrate. Having had a challenging childhood, as an adult, Mark always sought out opportunities where he could make a positive impact on children and young people.

What inspired you to become a family court magistrate?

Just before the pandemic, I had a career change where I left policing and joined the railway sector. As I had mainly specialised as a youth offending team officer, I had many positive encounters and experiences with magistrates; I was always inspired by the work that they undertook. I always say to my own children that one of the most valuable things we can give to others is our time. I passionately believe in the role of volunteering. When I saw the opportunity to become a family court magistrate, I jumped at it. I knew it would be a worthwhile use of my time. I could directly have an impact undertaking an important, historically unique, and privileged role in society. 

How do you balance the legal aspects of your role with the emotional needs of families involved in cases?

The primary concern of the family court is the welfare of children. As a starting point for any decision making, balancing needs can be straightforward. Through our training and experience, the importance of this principle is constantly driven home. We always remain open minded and allow applicants and respondents an opportunity to voice their concerns. But ultimately, we recognise that people are in the family court because there is disagreement. Therefore, the responsibility falls on us as magistrates to work hard to reach a way forward.

Personally, I have a problem-solving mind and being fair is something that is very important to me. As a bench (a group of magistrates who oversee legal proceedings in a court) we help families understand that they may not always leave the court happy or in agreement. But they feel that we have sought to be fair, have taken expert knowledge from legal advisers and acted in the best interest of their children. It is not only the right thing to do but is our overriding legal duty and the benchmark we are held accountable to. 

How does your role as a magistrate support families?

We know that it is usually in the best interest of a child to be supported, loved and to have safe contact with both parents, though this may not always be the case. One of the most appealing aspects of the family court is that we can be quite fluid in the way we deal with matters. There is no one size fits all or tick box exercise where we just go through the motions.

In every case before us, wherever possible, we work to a position where families reach an agreement themselves. We aim to convince and explain that it might not be what they want but is best for their child. At times we find the family court becomes a place to facilitate mediation and we make good use of court time doing that with the guidance of our legal adviser. Agreed outcomes have the most chance at being successful and will be in the best interests of supporting the family and children in particular. 

Are there any specific qualities you need to be a family court magistrate?

You need to be a really good listener and need to know how to listen to understand and not simply to just reply. Communication skills are really important too as often we have proceedings in person where individuals navigate the justice system without a legal representative. It’s also important for magistrates to help individuals understand the system. Justice should be fair and it doesn’t serve anybody to have someone go through a legal process feeling scared, confused, misunderstood or unheard. Those qualities you use in your everyday life that make you human will serve you well.

Lastly, it helps if you can read and digest large amounts of information in, often, a short space of time – there are training courses available to support you. You should be able to prioritise information to best help you understand the matters that will be before you. As someone who suffers from dyslexia, this was one of the areas I was most concerned about, but I received lots of support from colleagues. You always sit with two other magistrates in court and work as a team to formulate outcomes, so you never feel isolated or under too much pressure. 

Are there any misconceptions about family court cases or your role as a magistrate?

I think there is a common misconception that family court justices favour or ‘side’ with women over men or mothers over fathers. But the reality is we will favour the interests, wishes, and welfare of children over both.

Magistrates receive substantive training on topics such as how to deal with domestic abuse, and how violence and cohesive and controlled behaviour can impact families and children. Much like the criminal court, family court justices also have the support and guidance from legal advisers and are regularly provided expert advice by children and family court advisers and other child social workers. 

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