This is a guest post by “Judi”. Judi is a parent who has been through the Family Court who has acted as a Litigant in Person and McKenzie Friend.
Once upon a time, in this land places called courts used to have public counters that opened reasonable hours, where lawyers and members of the public would queue to file documents etc. I happened to be in one of these now historic places a couple of years ago , when a lawyer started talking about one of his clients to another couple of lawyers. The conversation went something like this: “I have this client who has recently arrived from this area, he does this job and his child is this age, the issue is xxx harm”. I knew straight away who was being talked about, not because I had any involvement with the case but because the client was someone I knew in my community. It had only taken three facts for me to work it out, the area, the job and the child’s age. Only one of those facts was particularly significant, the other two were not unusual, but fitted together they identified the parents and child going through care proceedings.
What has started to concern me lately is that I can see something similar in some judgements. For instance something along the lines of “the mother could not attend a previous hearing as she is self employed as a acupuncturist, for which she trained for three years at Manchester College of Complementary Therapies” Alongside “the children were born on 21/02/2006, 13/03/2009, 25/09/2011. The father is from Tibet and is part of a small Buddhist community. The maternal grandmother has had a significant alcohol addiction.”
I know I have made the above examples up, but within the nonsense I believe there are significant factors that lead to easy identification.
Judgements have on occasions identified the parent’s employment. Details about employment current and history are now in the public domain, whether voluntarily as on Linked In or it is simply the fact job agencies and the job centre expect you to upload your CV so that anyone can access it.
I would question whether stating a date of birth is absolutely necessary. Parents in proceedings normally have more than the average number of children and by actually outlining the dates of birth this too, for me puts another piece in the jigsaw. After all it would not be unusual for a birth to announced on Face book or other social media so easy to trace. As well as the fact that anyone can order a duplicate of another person birth certificate.
Increasingly cases are involving immigrants, especially Eastern Europeans and whist they may be well integrated into a community with other immigrants equally they may have settled somewhere where they actually stand out like a sore thumb. As will anyone who is a little different, they may have alcohol or drug problems, there may be domestic violence or they may have mental health problems. The neighbours will know, and if those neighbours are gossips or on social media a number of other people will know also. I also must add that professionals do not always maintain the confidentiality they should do.
Obviously the risk of identification is greater in a smaller community, for a start in somewhere like a village children cannot just vanish overnight without there being comment. I would also add that just because a parent lives in a city , there is not lesser risk of identity, if that parent happens to be part of a community group such as a religion I think they are also easily identifiable.
So does jigsaw identification matter?
Speaking personally yes. I had a breach of confidentiality by a public body, it was not malicious, but the consequence was months of stress and I am an adult imagine the effect on a vulnerable teenager? A child taken into care is already going to suffer significant disadvantages and I feel identification, will compound that. The fact that they have been a child in care, with the stigma attached and their family history searchable on the Internet is hardly going to increase their job or life prospects.
What about Transparency and publishing judgements?
Speaking as a lay person, you lawyers don’t half ramble on a bit! Just an observation but are judges are chosen from the ranks of those who can ramble on the longest ? I think the President had something to say about that as well, so I possibly may be in good company. If you are still reading after my impertinence, I would not publish dates of birth, ditch the initials and use generic terms such as the grandmother has a long standing addiction , the father is a man of faith. It is really not that important whether a person is a drug addict or an alcoholic the outcome for the family is similar. The same with faith. I can not see how disguising these details would significantly alter the judgement. It may make judgements less interesting to read ,but it is actually about people’s lives not entertainment. Sorry! It would however provide a safe way of publishing judgements and moving the transparency on into publishing skeletons and position statements.