New ESRC project...

Opening closed doors: a micro analytic investigation of dispute resolution in child contact cases

Dr Liz Trinder from the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, together with Dr Alan Firth and Dr Christopher Jenks from the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, have been awarded a one-year project from the ESRC to analyse audio-recordings of court-based negotiations in child contact cases. 

The family courts in England and Wales are currently under intense scrutiny. Fathers' rights groups argue that courts are biased against divorced fathers trying to have contact with their children (O'Connor et al, 2005). Women's groups maintain that the family courts continue to put mothers and children at risk by ordering contact in cases where there has been a history of domestic violence (e.g. Saunders, 2004). At policy level, there has been a string of inquiries, consultation reports and proposals into the performance of the system (e.g. Children Act Sub-Committee, 1999, 2002; DCA, 2004; President of the Family Division, 2004; CAFCASS, 2005), with continuing debates about  transparency (e.g. DCA, 2006; Ministry of Justice, 2007).

These controversies have highlighted the need for accurate information about the performance of the family justice system, particularly about parent-child contact (or 'access') after divorce. We already know something about the outcomes of child contact cases, or what decisions the courts usually make (e.g. Davis & Pearce, 1999; Smart & May, 2005; Trinder et al, 2006). What is not known, however, is how decisions are made or how those outcomes are achieved.

Are domestic violence allegations really ignored? If so, how does that happen? Are fathers' really marginalised? And what does that look like and how does it occur?

Our aim in this study therefore is to advance theoretical and empirical understanding about precisely how courts make decisions in child contact cases and thereby inform policy and practice. We will do this by analysing audio recordings of actual court-based negotiations. Conversation analysis (CA), or the study of talk-in-interaction, has been highly effective in exploring contact negotiations outside of courts (e.g. Dingwall & Greatbatch 1991, 1993, 2001). We will extend this approach to look for the first time at decision-making within courts. Using CA methods, we will examine the transcripts, for example, to identify how proposals are elicited, disclosed, challenged, modified and developed during the dispute encounters, how sensitive topics, including allegations of abuse or harm, are raised and responded to and how the rights and needs of children and parents are discursively framed in the process.

Our data set for this study consists of audio recordings of fifteen 'in-court conciliation' sessions, collected in 2004 as part of an earlier study (Trinder et al, 2006), but never previously analysed. This is an important data set as tape recording at court is seldom permitted. The fifteen hours of recording (or approximately 600 pages of transcript) is a large amount of data for a CA study and therefore we will not require further data collection. In-court conciliation (or 'dispute resolution') is now the most common way for courts to deal with contact cases (CAFCASS, 2006) and so is an ideal tool for looking at court decision-making. Typically in-court conciliation consists of a meeting of up to one hour at court where a third party, either a judge or court social worker, attempts to help parents negotiate an agreement about contact (or access) arrangements in an attempt to avoid a contested hearing or trial.The research will have benefits for a wide range of users. The study will offer policy-makers much-needed empiricallygrounded descriptions of what actually happens in contact decision-making at court, rather than what people think happened. The study will generate specific messages to inform the training of court social workers, lawyers and judges, including, for example, handling domestic violence allegations. The findings will make an important theoretical and empirical contribution for socio-legal and conversation analysis scholars. We aim also to show the benefits of a CA approach and expect to use this study as a springboard for further work using a CA approach to explore talk and interaction within legal settings.

Dr Alan Firth
Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics

published on: 25th October 2007