Comment: Opening up family courts

Last summer, the Daily Mail memorably (mis)reported the case of social workers in Essex “stealing” children from parents with learning difficulties. In an attempt to end the furore that ensued, anonymised transcripts of the judgements given during the case were published on the websites of Her Majesty’s Court Service and Essex Council giving the full reasons behind the decision to take these children into care.

It was done to increase public understanding of the difficult job social workers do as they attempt to discharge local authorities’ responsibility to ensure children are safe and protected.

This same desire to increase public understanding of the various aspects of family court proceedings lies behind the proposals published by the government this week to open the system up to wider public scrutiny by giving the media an automatic right to report.

The step is both admirable and logical but there are also inherent dangers.

While the media will be prevented from identifying the children and parents involved in any cases, they will be at liberty to name those working with them. This, in theory, is no bad thing – after all, few would argue against greater accountability. But there is undoubtedly a risk that social workers, family court advisers and guardians whose recommendations in proceedings are
unpopular with certain elements of the media could find themselves held up for public vilification.

We already know that the public discrediting of expert witness Sir Roy Meadow resulted in a decline in the number of paediatricians willing to be expert witnesses in child protection cases. It is not inconceivable that a change in reporting restrictions that leads to an increase in unfavourable coverage of family court cases could make it even more difficult to recruit child protection social workers.

It is imperative, then, that adequate sanctions are available where the law on anonymity is breached; and family courts must be empowered to exclude those journalists and media organisations who repeatedly fail to report on cases accurately and fairly.

Only then can the system and those who work in it truly begin to regain the public’s understanding and trust.

See Plan to end court anonymity could see social workers exposed to risk

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