This is a post by Sarah Phillimore. For more tweets about discussions on the  night, see #talkfamilyjustice.

On 5th 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:

  • The Honourable Mr Justice Baker(Judge of the Family Division, Senior Family Liaison Judge, Family Liaison Judge for the Western Circuit)
  • Gretchen Precey (Chair NAGALRO),
  • Sophie Ayers (Independent Social Worker, formerly statutory services),
  • Louise Tickle (Freelance journalist),
  • Callum May (BBC News Producer)

Sadly Hannah Markham QC and Suespciousminds couldn’t make it but were represented on the panel by The Transparency Project Chair, Lucy Reed.

You can view a video of the event on YouTube and below.

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 250 people registered for tickets 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 were 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? Lucy Reed answered simply and powerfully

This answer encapsulated the emerging themes of the debate:

  • Fear
  • Lack of trust
  • Lack of accountability

Most troubling was the 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. As HHJ Wildblood QC remarked; the Article 10 right of freedom of speech includes freedom of expression and your freedom to complain.

The publication of judgments was doing little to tackle those issues due to the problem identified at the outset by Suesspiciousminds – ‘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.

For me, the most powerful comments about the real dangers posed by this atmosphere of fear and distrust were made by the journalist Louise Tickle, who pulled no punches.

It was very sobering to hear the assessment of another profession that the family justice system is a danger to democracy  – and judging from the audience reaction and applause to Louise Tickle’s comments, this is an issue requiring urgent consideration.

However, for me there also remained a very important area that was mentioned by Mr Justice Baker but not tackled during the evening – the impact of social media.

Everyone present was alive to the real difficulty of balancing the need to keep children safe from pruient interest in their family difficulties against recognition that the system must become more open. However, without consideration of the ‘wild west’ of social media, this is a debate that risks becoming redundant. We are debating about how to deal with a mouse infestation in our kitchen when there is actually a tiger in the bathroom that wants to eat us.

The fact is that on a daily basis parents are posting photographs, names and details of their cases and social media platforms appear to have both limited will and ability to deal with this quickly and consistently.

From my perspective, the debate illustrated powerfully the limits to what ‘transparency’ encompasses, and the need to remain alive to the tensions and inherent difficulties in promoting it as a universal good in family proceedings.

As James Baldwin said – not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.  These discussions are very important and I am proud to be part of them.