Plans to open the family courts to the media have been rejected by children and young people who remain “unconvinced” of the power of the law to protect their privacy, according to the interim findings of a study by the children’s commissioner for England.
Based on in-depth interviews, the 35 children and young people in the study were found to mistrust the media on identity protection and were worried about further humiliation and the prospect of bullying in schools and communities.
They said they would would feel “unable [or] unwilling” to talk openly about their home situation, wishes and feelings or ill-treatment by a parent if reporters were in the courtroom, meaning “family judges may be faced with making difficult and often life changing decisions about a child in the absence of a child’s evidence”.
Most of the children interviewed did not want any information from judgements to be published and were “protective” of failing parents.
Proposals for family court openness, contained in the Children, Schools and Families Bill, are being debated in parliament. Justice secretary Jack Straw has said that greater media access would lead to “greater trust” in family proceedings.
The Bill – which would allow expert witnesses to be identified and the reporting of family cases, including adoption and placement proceedings – has been strongly opposed by many children’s guardians and family lawyers.
Sir Mark Potter, president of the family division and head of family justice, yesterday told a committee of MPs that, although he supported the principle of opening the courts to the media, he had concerns about the implications.
“As soon as…a child is old enough to go to a local school, whatever safeguards are taken about anonymity, quite a close circle of people in an area will know who the reports are about, so it becomes very important that the details of the matter are not reported, and the press do not have access to them.”
Potter highlighted the “habit” of the press to drop in on the first day of a case and report “unpleasant allegations” or “exaggerated claims about the child” without following the case’s progress.
“It might be that quite a different situation is found to have existed,” he said. “But because we are in a situation of a first-day attendance, and what is news today has passed tomorrow, an unfair and difficult position is left – quite apart from the welfare of the child concerned.”