‘Transparency’ is one of the buzzwords of the moment, but what exactly does it mean, and why is it important? Or, indeed, is it important at all?
I don’t know when the term ‘transparency’ was first used in a family law context, but the idea that it represents is not a new concept. The simple fact of the matter is that historically many family law cases have been conducted in private. Contrary to popular opinion, there are often very good reasons for this, the foremost of which is to protect the identity of any children involved in the proceedings. Unfortunately, the difference between privacy and secrecy has been misunderstood in some quarters, and this has led to conspiracy theorists believing that the family courts operate, in the words of the President of the Family Division, “a system of secret and unaccountable justice”.
To counter this, the system has sought to open up its procedures to the public, to explain what it does, why it does it and to demonstrate that it most certainly is ‘accountable’. This process of opening up has been given the name ‘transparency’ (which doesn’t seem to me to be quite the right word, but we won’t dwell on that).
The conspiracy theorists to whom I referred above have always been about, but until recently they have mainly occupied the margins, predominantly consisting of those aggrieved at court decisions that have not gone their way. However, transparency has taken on a new urgency in recent years, as the family justice system has come under sustained attack by more organised groups and sections of the media. As a result, their misinformation has gained popularity. This has been considered to be hurting the system, which now sees greater need to ‘fight back’.
This greater need led to the President issuing his transparency guidance back in January, calling for more family court judgments to be published. Separate but simultaneous guidance called for the publication of more judgments of the Court of Protection, which is also seen by some to be secretive. The idea was that if more judgments were made public, the public would be able to see why the courts made the decisions that they did. Certainly, we have seen more judgments published since January, although most of them are of little or no interest to anyone save for those directly involved.
There are, of course, other aspects to this transparency drive. I will not go into the details here, but those seeking more information can find it in the consultation paper that the President issued a couple of weeks back.
Will all of this make any difference? Probably not – as has already been shown many times, those with an axe to grind against the family justice system do not allow a small matter like the truth get in the way of their arguments. They will continue with their agenda. After all, a headline such as ‘Secret family court snatches child from parents’ is likely to sell more papers than ‘Court reluctantly finds that parents are incapable of looking after their child’.
As for the general public, the vast majority will be ignorant of the transparency drive. They will not be aware, for example, that judgments are available online, let alone read them. What they will read, however, is the misinformation still peddled by the media.
Which brings me to my last point: does it matter what the public thinks anyway? This whole transparency drive is using up considerable precious resources (when resources are very limited), not just in terms of money but also in terms of time spent by people who could be more productively employed. Do those resources really need to be spent in this way? I’m not entirely convinced that they do.
So long as the system is not either secretive or unaccountable and that this is understood by the holders of the purse-strings in government, should it matter what the public thinks? I realise that governments have to listen to public opinion, but they don’t have to bow to that opinion if it is wrong. As for the family justice system, should it not concentrate on its job, rather than partake in a beauty pageant?
Photo by Florin Rosoga via Flickr