Family Law publishes a regular column by The Transparency Project. This blog post originally appeared in the February 2018 issue,[2018] Fam Law 222.

On 5 December 2017, The Transparency Project hosted a debate about privacy and accountability in the family courts, in order to mark the launch of our Guidance Note: Publication of Family Court Judgments. This was also an opportunity to discuss wider issues of privacy versus accountability with the panel. The debate was chaired by His Honour Judge Stephen Wildblood QC, Designated Family Judge for Avon, North Somerset and Gloucestershire. The panel were:

  1.  •     Baker J
  2.  •     Gretchen Precey (Chair NAGALRO),
  3.  •     Sophie Ayers (Independent Social Worker, formerly statutory services),
  4.  •     Louise Tickle (Freelance journalist),
  5.  •     Callum May (BBC News Producer)

Sadly, Hannah Markham QC and Andrew Pack (Suesspicious Minds) could not make it so yours truly stepped in and read out messages from each of them. The event was aimed at anyone with an interest in social work, journalism or in family law and justice – so the hope was that many others beyond the professionals of law, social work or journalism would attend. The question of what is the balance between privacy for children and accountability of those who intervene in the lives of families is clearly one of wide importance for many others. This question clearly resonated with a wide cross section of people as approximately 240 attended on the night and the audience had a variety of questions and issues to raise with the panel.

When asked the question, ‘Should be the family courts be more open?’, the audience was roughly split 50/50. Time and again, speakers came back to the fundamental tension of how to promote openness and yet protect children from having their family difficulties published for many thousands to read. Anonymising judgments can be difficult and time and resource consuming and will not always deal with the problems of ‘jigsaw identification’. An audience member asked – what IS transparency? What is its purpose? My answer was ‘accountability, understanding and trust – and with those three things you have better justice’, which perhaps encapsulated the emerging themes of the debate:

  1.  •     Fear
  2.  •     Lack of trust
  3.  •     Lack of accountability

There was a clear message from journalists and parents present about the far reaching impact of the fear of talking about their cases – if they spoke negatively, they risked repercussions from social workers and the court.

The publication of judgments was doing little to tackle those issues due to the problem identified in a message from Andrew Pack – ‘good news writes in white ink’. Judgments that simply reflected the worst cases when things had gone very badly wrong thus cemented an unhelpful and reactive culture of ‘blame and shame’. There seems little doubt that such a culture compounds the difficulties for local authorities and social workers in engaging in conversations about the work they do and why they do it. And thus the cycle of distrust and fear continues.

You can view a video of the event on our YouTube channel, by accessing our blog post-dated 7 December 2017 here. We will be holding further events as we finalise more Guidance Notes. We would welcome your idea for discussion topics, formats or venues.