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Applying the lessons of psychology to the practicalities of relocation

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Applying the lessons of psychology to the practicalities of relocation

Matthew Richardson

Relocation applications are unusual in the extent to which the client’s ability to address the practicalities is such a key factor in the outcome. Unlike many other areas of children law where often the client cannot control or influence the key considerations, for example things like the nature and value of existing relationships and the harm suffered or at risk of suffering, in a relocation application a make-or-break factor is whether and to what extent the client seeking to move has properly planned what they seek to do.

With such an important part of the case being something over which the client has such significant influence, it is all the more important that we are able to find ways to encourage them into clear, focused thought and action. To that end, this article applies some readily available lessons from the field of psychology to the task of advising clients.

A good starting point for speaking to clients about the need to focus their energy and attention on those things over which they have control is the idea of the ‘circle of influence’ and the ‘circle of concern’ articulated by Stephen Covey in his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. What he describes is the vital importance of being able to consider two different but related categories of things: First is the set of all things with which one is concerned (with the word being used in the widest sense, so as to refer to the things one thinks about, cares about, the things that have a greater and lesser impact on one’s life and the lives one cares about – generally speaking everything that is even remotely relevant to one’s life). Second is the set of things one can influence – things one can actually do something about – which naturally exists as a sub-set of the first.

The circle of concern / influence is a very helpful shorthand way of encouraging clients to spend their valuable time and energy where it matters, which is all the more important in cases where not only do the practicalities matter so much but also, as is often the case, where there may well remain a significant amount of ill-feeling about the behaviour of a former partner and co-parent. Unfettered, this ill-feeling leads easily to distracted, reactive focus on the words and actions of the other person, which of course cannot be directly influenced or altered.

Further, where often one may see a client almost frozen into inactivity by worrying about how their former partner and co-parent may react to a particular course of action, this is precisely the sort of psychological reframing that has to take place. The reaction to an action cannot be controlled or pre-determined; the best one can ever do is present something clear, persuasive and reasonable. A failure to take proper steps out of a fear of something that cannot be controlled is only going to make matters worse, resulting as it inevitably does in a complaint from the court and/or the other side that clear and reasonable things are not being done.

A common human mistake, and one that is seen not only in clients but also must be guarded against in professionals, is the unconscious assumption that those matters known to oneself are obvious to other people. Commonly-known as ‘the curse of knowledge’, the mistake arises because of how inherently difficult it is to imagine the time prior to having the knowledge that one does. The act of ‘un-knowing’ something is hard because it gets woven into a complex network of understanding alongside all other relevant and related information, and so one is trying to return to a period where matters were less clear and one was more ignorant. The point is frequently illustrated with reference to how hard it can be to teach, and the fact that those who are at the academic peak of their field are not necessarily the best at teaching what they know – the further one gets from ignorance the harder it is to return to it. A related issue is that of course it can be more difficult to see the importance of things that appear to be obvious.

In the context of a plan to relocate, this mistake manifests itself in clients not only not readily conveying as much information as one would want them to, but at times not even realising that certain types of information are important at all.

Importantly, this mistake also appears in the other direction insofar as there are many aspects of the proper planning of a relocation application that to experienced practitioners seem incredibly obvious, and thus the risk is that clients are assumed to see these things as obvious as well. The importance of, say, education provision in a new location can be such that it may be assumed a client has done the necessary research and is getting on with the necessary steps needed. Then, when the fact of it having been overlooked is only identified late in the process, it has become a substantial problem.

From the point of view of advising a client, what is crucial is that they understand the fundamental task at hand, which is that you are trying to collaborate with them to do two things that are both complex: plan a relocation and explain it as clearly and fully as possible to someone (a former partner and co-parent, an ISW, a guardian, a judge) that does not yet understand it and may not agree with it.

Bringing a client on board with this complex task is among the most important parts of the role we as professionals have to undertake. Faced with the psychological hurdles presented by clients, it can be helpful to make the nature of the task explicit – explain to the client that this is a complicated, stage-by-stage process akin to managing a project. Another short hand to achieving this can be to go through with clients the key stages of decision-making, explaining that as professionals giving advice we are under an obligation to start at the beginning of the process in order to legitimately get to the end:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Gather relevant evidence
  3. Analyse that evidence
  4. Consider the available options
  5. Select an option
  6. Advocate for that option

In a fundamental sense this is also what the court process requires – again something that clients benefit from understanding – and the point of tension is that clients (i) start with their preferred stage 5 option and expect us to move immediately to stage 6 and (ii) fail to appreciate that the stages 1 to 4 they have already gone through (to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the client) are non-obvious and absolutely vital. In other words, the starting point for many clients will be seen by the intended recipient as a non-obvious conclusion. Our task in advising the client is to help them go back to the start of the process and do it properly, such that the conclusion advocated is properly researched and demonstrated.

To that end, there is value in considering how we equip clients to work on this complex project with us. Atul Gawande’s 2014 Reith Lectures series is an illuminating look at how systems in medicine impact outcomes and how the lessons from the medical sphere can be applied more widely – noting that a lot of failures and mistakes arise not from a lack of information but from a failure to properly gather and apply that information. His 2010 book ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ goes into further detail about the perhaps surprising extent to which the use of checklists in medical procedures has had a massive impact on improving outcomes. Surgery is such a complex undertaking that basic mistakes can be avoided via the use of checklists because it means that there is a system in place to guarantee, as far as possible, that key things are not overlooked.

‘The checklist doesn’t tell you what to do… it is not a formula. But the checklist helps you to be as smart as possible every step of the way, ensuring you’ve got the critical information you need when you need it, that you’re systematic about decision-making, that you’ve talked to everyone you should. With a good checklist in hand… you can make decisions as well as human beings are able.’

Of course as family lawyers we are familiar with the welfare checklist that is the core of any decision made about the welfare of a child. Whilst that addresses in broad terms the key factors relevant to welfare, within the context of a matter as complex as a plan to relocate to another country, there is a clear benefit to much more focused and detailed checklists, and to actively using them in collaboration with clients. The added benefit, from the client’s point of view, is the further reassurance that will be provided by having a clear and definite guide to action.

What might these checklists look like? Doubtless many readers will have versions of their own, to varying degrees of detail and design, but an example of a basic education checklist might be as follows:

Education – key considerations

  • School terms – key dates:
  • Qualification structure used (e.g. what is the destination country’s equivalent to GCSEs and A-levels?):
  • Proposed start date for child(ren):
  • School district or jurisdiction:
  • Website for school district authority:
  • Number of schools in the local area:
  • Names and addresses of the schools in the local area:
  • Websites for each school:
  • Ofsted or equivalent rating for each school, and year of last review:
  • Application deadline(s):
  • Application details, application websites:
  • (If applicable) Fees payable at each school:
  • (If applicable) Brief details of how / by whom it is thought school fees will be paid:
  • Distance of each school from proposed housing options:
  • Nature of journey to school:
  • Example journeys via journey planner (e.g. Google Maps):
  • Do you have a preference for any particular school, if so why?
  • Have you taken any steps to advance an application to one or more schools, if so what has been done already?
  • Have you involved the other parent in the research and decision-making? If so, to what extent? If not, why not?
  • How would you anticipate that the other parent would receive updates from the school and give input into education decisions?

This is of course just one example but the wider point is about considering the ways in which we can help clients to work with us to go through the key stages of decision-making and project planning. With the benefit of understanding the sorts of psychological processes that will influence their thinking and behaviour, we can give clients explicit and deliberate advice about how a successful relocation application is constructed from the ground up. Enabling clients to collaborate with us in the project of building that application is a vital part of how we deliver value for money.


[To read the full version, with diagrams, click the button below].

Matthew Richardson is a family law: private client specialist at Coram Chambers



This post was written for Coram’s international children law blog and is featured in our September 2019 newsletter. To subscribe, email theresa.yurkewich@coramchambers.co.uk Our International Children Law team has extensive experience in public and private child disputes. We act as family law barristers on a range of international children law matters, including relocation, Hague and non-Hague child abduction, international surrogacy, and cases of contested jurisdiction. 

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