Opening up the Family Courts.           

The battle of adoption and the government’s attacks of justice (including the proposed abolition of the already weakened Family Justice Council) is a situation where we are on the defensive trying to protect what we have got from a destructive government.  But your desire to “Open up the Family Courts” – to increase the transparency of the court – may be prove in the end to be a self-inflicted wound.

Your lecture on 11 November was to the Annual Conference of The Society of Editors ‘Freedom to Inform’. You say that your motivation is to improve the quality of justice by exposing the proceedings to the jealous vigilance of an informed media which you associate with “the disinfectant power of exposure to forensic sunlight”. However you go on to acknowledge that the actual reporting may well be exaggerated, provocative and distorting. The protection you mention through actions for defamation you will know is a hollow one for all but the very rich.

In fact you make it clear in your conclusion that a major part of your motivation is to avoid criticism.: “I am determined that the new Family Court should not be saddled, as the family courts are at present, with the charge that we are a system of secret and unaccountable justice”.

I appreciate that you have a long history of valuing the importance of a free press and you may have a belief in the ultimate impact of publicity being benign notwithstanding the immediate damage done by sensationalist stories.

However we have to ask if your commitment to this value system is overriding your often stated and your undoubted commitment to the welfare of children and to the improvement of the process of care proceedings.

As you well know, in 2010 work was commissioned by the Office of the Commissioner for Children; it explored the views of children and young people in private and public law proceedings (Brophy et al, ‘The views of children and young people regarding media access to family courts’, OCC, 2010).  The findings present a clear challenge to your plans.

Almost all respondents (79% in the public law sample, 91% in the private law group) were opposed to the decision to permit reporters into family court hearings. The major reason was that children/young people said court hearings address issues that are ‘private’. They concern events that are painful, embarrassing and humiliating for children and an overwhelming majority said this detail was not the business of newspapers – or the general public.

Even more important perhaps is that almost all young people (96%) also said once children are told a reporter might be in court [or obviously if documents are disclosed] they will be unwilling/less willing to talk to a clinician about ill-treatment or parental disputes about their care, or about their wishes and feelings.

The proposal to allow documents to be disclosed to the press will have an evcn greater adverse affect on the welfare of children, their ability to be open with clinicians, to heal the wounds of abuse and on the proper conduct of care cases.

It may have other more dramatic consequences. With the recently revealed tactics of the press it is fair to anticipate ruthless behaviour by the press. You may go down in history as the judge that opened up the courts and documents to sensationalist media-led witch hunts leading to the harassment, even assaults of not only alleged abusers but of social workers, foster carers and adopters, which will have a devastating effect on recruitment of these vital people.

That leaves aside the same treatment towards expert witnesses, lawyers or even judges.

Please reconsider your total commitment to opening up the courts and publishing documents – and abolishing the privacy that the children and families have asked for, need and deserve.

David Jockelson  (writing as a private citizen – not on behalf of my firm or any organisation.)