The drive for transparency in the family courts and the Court of Protection has the admirable aim of countering the false charge that the courts operate a secret and unaccountable system of justice. However, the drive is having consequences that perhaps haven’t been properly thought through.
One of those consequences has already been reported: that children involved in family proceedings are concerned about the issue of transparency and media access to the family courts. They don’t trust the media; they consider that the family courts are private for good reason and they feel that the President of the Family Division should stop trying to please the media.
Another consequence is also coming to light: the effect of the drive upon social workers involved in family cases.
Last January of course the President issued Practice Guidance regarding the publication of judgments in the family courts and the Court of Protection. That guidance envisaged the publication of more judgments and specifically stated that public authorities and expert witnesses should be named in the judgments approved for publication, unless there were ‘compelling reasons’ why they should not be named.
Concerned about the effect of social workers being named, public services trade union UNISON has launched a survey of social work members to gather information on their experiences of court work, how well prepared, trained and supported they are by their employers, and their opinions on the impact of naming social workers when court decisions are published.
The results of the survey are not yet to hand, but UNISON say that what they are hearing so far suggests a need for a package of measures aimed at protecting social workers involved in these cases. They say that their experience of supporting members named in recent cases has shown the danger of selective media coverage of complex court proceedings, which can cause a backlash against the social workers involved, exposing them to public hostility and media intrusion into their private and family lives.
They go on to say that such experiences take social workers away from the front line, increase stress and damage health. They can also have an adverse effect upon the family involved, as once a social worker has been vilified in the media, securing co-operation from families and other agencies may become difficult.
UNISON point out that the social workers named are often the least senior and lowest paid staff involved in the decision-making chain. They say that this risks ‘scapegoating’ them for decisions when the council should instead be taking responsibility at a senior level.
Social workers are at the core of the family justice system. They are truly on the ‘front line’, doing the most difficult of jobs, under the most difficult of circumstances. Quite what would happen without them does not bear thinking about. We should all be doing everything we can to support them: allowing them to be sacrificed upon the altar of transparency is not just wrong, it is shameful.
Of course, there will be occasions where social work standards have fallen below the required level, and in those cases those responsible should be brought to account, with senior staff taking responsibility for the failures of those under their supervision. However, in the vast majority of cases there will be no such failures, yet named social workers can still face unmerited vilification, particularly when families are aggrieved at decisions that go against them. Is there really any need to unnecessarily expose social workers in those cases?
Photo of the Royal Courts of Justice by kaysgeog via Flickr