23rd June 2014

Just like Edinburgh trams, families in dispute can get back on track

Those of us brought up with buses find it easy to understand why older folks reminisced so much about the old tramway network whenever you hear the gentle but clear bell sounded by Edinburgh’s new generation of trams.

Edinburgh’s citizens are rapidly getting used to trams despite a few teething troubles in the first two weeks of normal operation and, as a family lawyer, I began to see a strong analogy between divorce, separation, child custody and similar cases and the trams.

In such instances the participants need to learn to sometimes pause and think - just as the tram operators put a lot of resources into teaching the public to recognise the sound of that bell and then to stop until the tram passes.

The trams have priority over other traffic which is signalled to stop for them just as disputing parents will hopefully give priority to their children’s interests and, depending on individual age of course, seek out their views.

It has for some time been a part of the rights and responsibilities of parents or guardians, and a requirement of the courts, to consider children’s views on decisions being made on their behalf. Family law does not expect the stated position of children to be the sole determining factor as it acknowledges that younger siblings do not necessarily know what is best for them and it is the responsibility of parents, guardians or – failing a settlement - the judiciary to make decisions on their behalf. Parents who have tried to get a reluctant child to eat broccoli will know that if he or she will eat it only with ketchup poured over, this  might just a solution, even if not perfect nutritionally. Listening, considering, compromising and then acting on the experience makes a big difference to avoiding or resolving conflict.  

The tram analogy may also apply to family breakdown in that the priority should be getting back on track. Recriminations will not achieve much as they are backward looking and therefore negative. What needs to be done is make sure that any problem does not recur. Getting back on track may mean calling on others for assistance. It is commonplace to call on friends or relatives to help with handing over a child from one parent to another if tensions are running just too high. However, the special skill of a solicitor is sometimes required to properly structure arrangements, as is the assistance of organisations such Family Mediation to provide neutral ground for handover or a venue for contact.

The new trams have some great accessibility features - platform and doors are at the same level and there are raised areas to alert the blind or partially sighted to obstructions or “drops”. In any family disputes, getting both parties to look at the issue on the same level makes a huge difference to conflict minimisation or avoidance.

While it cannot be denied that the whole tram project has been beset by huge difficulties we should now be looking forward and considering ways the present service can be improved and, perhaps, the current single line extended. Just like those who persevered with the trams – when at times it may have seemed easier to give up – spouses and co-habitants do have the wherewithal to come through, hopefully with emotional damage to any children involved being kept to a minimum.

Sheila Byth
Solicitor - Family law

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