As I said here in this post, ‘transparency’ is one of the buzzwords of the moment. The rationale behind the current ‘transparency drive’ is to counter the allegation that the family courts operate “a system of secret and unaccountable justice”, and the primary area of concern over secrecy is, of course, proceedings relating to children.
With this in mind, I have been taking a look at the report Safeguarding, Privacy and Respect for Children and Young People & The Next Steps in Media Access to Family Courts. This was prepared by Dr Julia Brophy, principal researcher in family justice at the University of Oxford, for the National Youth Advocacy Service and the Association of Lawyers for Children. And what interesting reading it has been.
The report details the results of a study into the views of a sample group of children and young people regarding the issue of transparency and media access to the family courts. Almost all of the group had had direct experience of family court proceedings. The report is quite lengthy and covers a lot of ground, but here are some of its main findings and recommendations:
- Young people do not trust the media – in all its forms. They see it as a highly competitive, commercially driven industry motivated by the need to increase sales figures through populist readership. This results in an industry – whether newsprint, TV, radio or other social media – which does not prioritise the truth.
- The group was unanimous in opposition to media attendance at hearings. They said that the family court is not a public arena and a recent move to permit the media to attend hearings represents a failure of Parliament to consider and take seriously the views, needs and long term welfare of the children concerned.
- They argued that increased, meaningful public knowledge about the work of family courts could not be achieved via the media. They did not ‘buy’ the argument of policy makers that permitting the press to report detailed information from live cases will reduce criticisms of family courts.
- On the other hand, they understood that published judgments provide accurate information of events and the reasons for a court decision, but were concerned about ‘jigsaw identification’ – i.e. that the identity of the children concerned could be pieced together from information in the judgments.
Then, most interestingly of all:
- Young people said accusations that family courts are ‘secret courts’ are disingenuous: they are private, and for good reason – such accusations were simply a justification for press access to information it would otherwise not achieve.
- They said judges are there to protect children: the terms of their work and training provide public assurance there is nothing ‘secret’ going on and that the process is fair.
As to the future:
- They said the President of the Family Division should stop trying to please the media, not least because it will not fulfil his agenda. He should explore other mechanisms for monitoring and, if necessary, improving services and information about services.
I have to say that I don’t recall previously reading so much common sense about the issue of transparency in one place. That it should emanate from the mouths of the children involved in family proceedings, rather than from lawyers or other ‘experts’ is particularly poignant. Certainly, I hope that the Government and those tasked with considering reform in this area pay close attention to what they have to say.