UK Family Law Reform

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'The status quo is not an option'

The opening of the family courts to journalists will provide a rich source of stories, but many care professionals are unhappy

Chris Smith 6th November 2006

They are probably some of the most secretive courts in the land, dealing with highly delicate issues and individuals, but should the family courts in England and Wales be more open to journalists? It is a contentious question that has long divided expert opinion but is now, once again, under the microscope.

Last week, the high court took the rare step of lifting reporting restrictions on the case of two Norfolk parents whose three children had been placed for adoption. The case, covered by the BBC, the Times and other media organisations, concerned a fourth child and whether there had been a miscarriage of justice. Mr Justice Munby said: "The case raises important questions of principle about the right of access to and reporting of care proceedings in the family division and other family courts."

The family courts handle access disputes, adoption and fostering and care proceedings by social services. They are busy places; according to the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA), more than a million people every year pass through.The Munby decision is rare: cases are invariably heard in secret, and any party who reveals case details will be found guilty of contempt of court. This is to protect the identity of vulnerable children who are unable to defend themselves.

But the government argues that public confidence in the system has been eroded and campaigners, such as Fathers4Justice, claim a culture of secrecy has developed. Harriet Harman, the family justice minister, told a conference on opening up the family courts, held last week by the think-tank CareandHealth, that allowing the press in will happen - but with safeguards and a two-year trial followed by a review.

"The status quo is not an option. There need to be clear and effective penalties for those who breach anonymity," she said. "We will not allow there to be a situation where confidence in the family courts rises as it allows its work to be seen, only to have that confidence collapse through children or parents suffering the anguish of being identified - either directly or indirectly."

The judiciary is in favour; the appeal court judge Lord Justice Wall has proposed a system similar to Westminster's lobby correspondents. But he has highlighted the case of two children placed for adoption by Essex County Council, whose parents had learning difficulties. Details of the case were leaked to the tabloids and the social workers portrayed as child snatchers.

Liz Railton, director of children's services at the Council, says: "It was a very sad case. There was a large amount of media coverage about the rights and wrongs of what Essex County Council did. Most of it was inaccurate. I was very, concerned about the impact locally. Doctors were reluctant to refer cases and parents were reluctant to self-refer in case their children were snatched. We also lost prospective adopters."

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) backs the plan for accredited journalists but worries information will be "out there forever", particularly of abused children who know their images are on the internet.

Chief executive Anthony Douglas says: "There is a vast difference between cases, and between children and families. Some cases need exposing; others need to be worked out behind closed doors. Children will benefit from the complexity of the situations they face being brought out by responsible journalists."

John Batt, the solicitor involved in the case of Sally Clark, who was convicted for the murder of her two sons and later exonerated, says media presence could prevent miscarriages of justice and points to systems working in Scotland, New Zealand and British Columbia: "What is wrong with our families that we can't do the same?"

Patricia Hamilton, president of the Royal College of Paediatricians, has reservations: "We would support the press as contributing to openness but it's not the only measure. It should be part of a portfolio. Our concern is in the transfer to the high courts of cases where there is sensational detail. You can have 'jigsaw identification' when you put a group of circumstances together."

Care professionals see danger from playground or village gossip, and fear "Asbo-isation" as the red-tops go hunting for the next Rat Boy or real-life Vicky Pollard. Ray Jones, chair of the British Association of Social Workers, cites the case of a 24-year-old woman dubbed "evil" for leaving her child with her brother while on holiday abroad: "Why do we see the media as a good proxy for the public? We're not talking about media coverage telling it how it is; it's looking for the salacious and the sensational."

Alison Paddle, chief executive of Nagalro, the professional body for children's guardians, says: "The children who come before the family courts have already had major disruption in their lives. Publicity can really demoralise them. Revealing their parents' sexual behaviour or drug use makes them feel ashamed."

One teenager, who spent his childhood in care, doubts his local paper's reporting, however guarded, would have given him a voice: "We suffer in silence and then we suffer in public. We lose both ways."

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