Plans to open up family courts sparked fears social workers could be vilified in the press. But are the press that interested in these cases? Mithran Samuel reports
The government’s plan to open up the family courts to the press is designed to boost public understanding and counter accusations of bias in the system (Plan to end court anonymity could see social workers exposed to risk).
But while the principle of opening up the courts carries widespread support, questions have been raised about how responsibly the press would use this right, and the impact on vulnerable children and adults.
Under the proposals, the media would have the right to report family hearings, including contact, residence and care cases, provided they did not identify the children and families involved.
The public would be excluded, and family justice minister Harriet Harman has suggested there should be a system of accreditation – such as National Union of Journalists membership – to distinguish the press from the public.
But Andrew Webb, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services’ children and families committee, says: “If the media had a track record of responsible action we would give this whole-hearted support. But the fact is that they don’t.”
Social workers involved in care cases and expert witnesses would not be anonymised in press reports, leading to fears the former would be pilloried and the latter discouraged from giving evidence.
For example, a case last year of two children of parents with learning difficulties who were taken into care by Essex Council prompted accusations in the popular press that social workers were unjustifiably “snatching” children.
And the press was particularly scathing in its treatment of Sir Roy Meadow, the paediatrician whose evidence led to the wrongful conviction of Sally Clark for murdering her two babies, which Webb says reflects its “poor track record”.
Alistair MacDonald, joint chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, says it will be difficult for reporters to avoid identifying children and families in smaller communities.
He says: “Those who already know the family will be in a better position to recognise them from anonymised reports.”
Pre-empting such questions, the Department for Constitutional Affairs has proposed a new offence of publishing information intended or likely to identify parties to proceedings. This could be punishable by fines or imprisonment.
Webb says press reports could exacerbate the increasing tendency of pressure groups, including fathers’ rights organisations, to use the internet to target professionals.
“I wouldn’t countenance putting my staff in the position where if they went to court someone with no interest in the case started a campaign against them,” he adds.
A clue to how things may work is in the family proceedings courts, the lowest rung of the family courts ladder, where the press can now report subject to restrictions.
But Margaret Wilson, chair of the Magistrates’ Association’s family proceedings committee, says: “I don’t think I can recall the press ever having been in to report cases. It’s generally accepted that they don’t. Most of the cases we deal with, although they are very intimate and personal, are not very interesting.”
And James Brewster, editor of Strand, a news agency that covers the High Court, says there would be “no press interest in hearings themselves”. He adds: “If the parties are celebrities then the reporting restrictions would mean they wouldn’t be reportable. Any unusual characteristics couldn’t be put into the copy because that would identify people. You get left with a non-story.”
Brewster says the media will report court judgments because they will show the principles behind judges’ decisions, giving an insight into the workings of the system.
If he is right, then professionals’ fears could yet prove unjustified and this reform could achieve the government’s aims of greater understanding of the system without exposing practitioners to the worst excesses of the media.