I have been writing publicly about family law for some nine years now. During that time I have witnessed at first hand the vitriol of those who have an axe to grind against the family justice system. For much of those nine years I tried to engage with such people, but they were not prepared to countenance the possibility that anyone could not share their views, clinging to their position with ever-increasing bile. Sadly, I came to the conclusion that there was no point in knocking my head against their brick wall and hence these days I no longer attempt to engage with them.
However, we live in a world where he who shouts loudest is often the only one that is heard. The idea that there is something corrupt about the family justice system has therefore gained a level of general acceptance amongst a large proportion of the public, fuelled by certain quarters of the media. This has been seen by many within the family justice system as a threat that not only erodes public confidence but could also lead to the sort of knee-jerk reaction from government we have seen so often in the past when faced with popular outcry: ill thought-out reform.
Many notables within the system have decided that the threat must be responded to and that the best method of response is to lay bare the system, so that all can see that, for the most part at least, it really does operate in the best interests of those involved in the system, in particular the children. This method of response has gained the general title of ‘transparency’.
Transparency is seen as being so important that, as we know, in January last year the President of the Family Division no less gave guidance on it, requiring many Family Court judgments to be published, in order to counter “the charge that we are a system of secret and unaccountable justice”. Elsewhere, there have been other initiatives, including a ‘Transparency Project’, which “aims to promote the transparency of Family Court proceedings in England and Wales through providing straightforward, accurate and accessible information for litigants and the wider public.” The Project does not seek to promote a particular perspective on the family justice system, but clearly feels that better information is required, to counter misconceptions.
Are all of these initiatives a waste of time? The public believes what it wants to believe, prompted by the popular media. Neither the media (which wants stories to sell) nor the public are prepared to devote the time and effort required to get to the truth of the matter. Like me with those who have an axe to grind, are the transparency promoters knocking their heads against a brick wall? Is the whole concept that transparency will improve public understanding of the family justice system a delusion?
One does not have to look very far to see how entrenched are the views of the naysayers. Only this weekend a headline in a certain national newspaper invoked Godwin’s Law to compare social workers who remove children from parents to Nazis. The paper was only reporting the comparison from elsewhere, but still the headline is indicative of the level of debate. Appealing to such people in the hope that they are prepared to give proper consideration to accurate information is always likely to be a futile exercise.
Meanwhile, the futility of the President’s publication of judgments guidance was demonstrated last week by the many headlines that suggested that a couple had had their son taken into care simply because they were heavy smokers. As Marilyn Stowe pointed out here, that was far from the sole reason why the court felt that the best interests of the child dictated that he should be placed for adoption. Now, the judgment in the case was published on the day it was handed down, and a quick reading of it would have made it quite clear that the issue of the parents’ smoking was not the prime reason for the court doing what it did. However, many of those who wrote those headlines either did not read the judgment or, if they did, they decided that the truth would ruin a good story. Meanwhile, further damage to the public perception of the family justice system was done. The President’s guidance was, indeed, a waste of time.
Now, I certainly don’t mean to offend some very well-meaning and dedicated people who are trying to promote better understanding and more informed debate, nor am I even suggesting that they cease their efforts. I guess I am just saying that transparency, for all we talk about it, is far from being the answer to the challengers of the integrity of the family justice system, for the simple reason that there isn’t any point in trying to engage with those who aren’t prepared to listen.