Court secrecy is not in Children’s interest

Essex Council social workers are facing the all too familiar
charge of “stealing” children from families. Six couples claim that
Essex social workers have misrepresented their cases in the family
courts. One couple has had their cause championed by the Daily

The mother has an IQ of 60; the father has held a job as a porter
for 22 years. Both have received intensive family support. A High
Court judge upheld social workers’ decision to have the children

The media coverage of these families, reducing complex
circumstances into the absurd simplicity of “good” parents versus
“evil” social workers, yet again highlights the problems inherent
in family courts that prohibit any disclosure or examination of

The argument in favour of secrecy is that it is in the best
interests of the child. A catch 22 prevails. We can’t know in
individual cases, whether it is in the best interests or not, since
nothing can revealed. That undermines the principle that justice
has to be seen to be done.

The House of Commons constitutional affairs committee’s two volume
inquiry into the family courts finds that “strict confidentiality”
impedes the process again and again. Nevertheless, the little
evidence that is available does cause concern.

Women’s Aid Federation, for instance, compiled a list of 29
children killed in the past 10 years as a result of contact or
residence arrangements. In at least five of the 13 families
concerned, contact was ordered by the court. In three cases, the
court granted orders for unsupervised contact or residence to
violent fathers either against professional advice or without
seeking it.

This lack of accountability is a travesty of justice and prevents
proper scrutiny of the family system. It also permits poor social
care practice to go unchecked while it wastes the opportunity to
educate the public about the efforts of social workers to keep
families together.

The family court in Australia has been open to the public and the
media since 1983, demonstrating that it is possible to have
transparency and still preserve the anonymity of children. A
government review is now under way looking at a range of issues,
including the role of mediation and difficulties with contact faced
by non-resident parents. Arguably, if the doors of the family
courts had been opened to the world years ago – many of these
difficulties would already have been resolved.

This is Yvonne Roberts’ final column. She will continue
to write occasional articles for Community Care.

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