Opening up a closed system: The Second Bridget Lindley Memorial Lecture.

EDIT March 29th – you can now read a transcript and listen to the podcast here.

I was very pleased to be in the audience for Louise Tickle’s lecture on March 13th in Birmingham, organised by the Family Justice Council and with an impressive panel of Andrew Pack (AKA Suesspiciousminds), Dr John Simmonds of Coram/BAAF, Mr Justice Keehan and of course the President. The FJC will publish a transcript of the debate and to follow discussions on  Twitter, see #fjcdebate.

Since I first met Louise at CPConf2015 she has been an enthusiastic and tireless campaigner for prizing open the closed doors of the family court to shine some light on what goes on, in all our names. This has had an interesting impact – it does seem that more and more, those in the family justice system are realising that intelligent outsiders can actually help us do better, by showing us how practices and procedures that have become solidified and ‘the norm’ for us, appear bizarre and even frightening to those on the outside.

Louise was examining the game changer that is social media – no longer a niche hobby for ‘sad losers’ but something that is changing not just the way we communicate but the things we communicate about – personal, raw stories of human grief can be published by anyone, travel anywhere and be accessed at anytime. Louise began with a powerful story from her own childhood, where she was forced to confront at the age of 8 the ‘implacable authority’ of the adults around her to impose their choices. This left her feeling anguished and powerless. She has never forgot this feeling and it has driven her professional work.

What Louise has noticed is the rise in the number of people who contact her about their perceived experiences of injustice in the system. She cannot comment on whether or not these are based in ‘truth’ but to any journalist, this sounds as a warning bell – something is wrong if so many people feel so strongly about it.

We have to recognise this and we have to deal with it. There are enormous positives to social media – it allows people to communicate with others that they might never have met and find support. Louise was very appreciative of ‘legal Twitter’ – which was ‘awesome’ and commented about how useful it had been to allow journalists to ‘live tweet’ various proceedings.

Letting the light shine into proceedings will increase understanding and hopefully trust, which all appeared to agree was currently at dangerously low levels. The particular issue of recording interactions with professionals was raised and Louise was curt – ‘get over yourselves’. Parents want to record because they don’t trust professionals and they don’t have any power. It hurts not to be trusted but we need to be more open to considering the benefits that could flow from recorded transactions – particularly when there ARE examples of professionals behaving deplorably and making stuff up.

Louise also considered the impact on relationships of trust between parents and professionals by what appears to be the promotion of increased ‘surveillance’ of social media output as a way to gather evidence for assessments. Of course we don’t want to miss information that would inform us that a child is in danger, but given that we have finite resources of both time and emotional energy, do we really want to be directing both to increased surveillance, rather than building up relationships of trust? Perhaps the saddest comment of the night, for me, came from Dr Simmonds who remarked sadly that what underpinned his training as a social worker – the creation of relationships with others – seemed now so difficult to achieve.

Louise concluded by considering the ambit of Article 10. It appears that lawyers often overlook its essential component – freedom of expression includes the freedom to complain! She was horrified by the ‘arrogance’ of some local authorities who appeared to think that their work in child protection gave them immunity from scrutiny. Reporting on family cases was the hardest work she had ever done, as the fears of being held in contempt of court were very real. It was only with pro bono help from lawyers such as Lucy Reed of The Transparency Project that she was able to get permission from the court to tell ‘Annie’s’ story.

Louise was stark in her assessment. No other kind of proceedings, save those involved in issues of national security, permitted the kind of lack of scrutiny that is seen day in, day out in the family courts. It is an outrage.

We then turned to the Panel for comment. All agreed with Louise’s assessment that the State should be held to account – but how to do it? That’s the problem. The discussion ranged from worry about identification of children and the stigma that might then follow, the problems in expecting an overworked judiciary to anonymise and publish judgments and whether or not we should consider further accreditation for journalists who wish to report on family proceedings.

As Lucy Reed commented, there are enormous benefits to letting people in – to allow us to benefit from their fresh insights. The President agreed.

 

So, as ever, more questions than answers were raised. But without asking the questions, we will never find the answers and for too long the family justice system has been allowed to proceed on a secretive and inside track which has allowed bad practice to harden unchallenged. I was impressed by the quality of the conversation and its refreshing openness and honesty.  That we are even having this discussion is testament not just to the hard work of journalists like Louise but also the lawyers and legal bloggers who take the time to communicate their unease. And at the helm of course is the President.

I was very sad to be told I could not live tweet the location of the lecture due to security concerns for the President.  I struggle to understand how anyone would wish to interfere with his central and now long repeated message – we need to shine a light on bad practice and we do that by talking more, not less.  It will be interesting to see where our new President takes us, once Sir James Munby steps down in April.

I leave you with the words of one tweeter

 

10 thoughts on “Opening up a closed system: The Second Bridget Lindley Memorial Lecture.

  1. Angelo Granda

    QUOTE: Louise also considered the impact on relationships of trust between parents and professionals by what appears to be the promotion of increased ‘surveillance’ of social media output as a way to gather evidence for assessments :UNQUOTE

    I have heard that SW managers spend 80% of their time working on their computers. If their average working hours are 40 that means 32 hours per week . Checking social media appears to be one way they spend their time. Can anyone enlighten us as to other reasons for which they spend so much time on computers and how much of it relates to snooping and targeting of ‘troubled’ families and so on? Do they still earn £4000 for the Local Authority for every such family which satisfies government threshold for intervention with further bonuses when they close cases? I believe the ‘ troubled families’ programme was introduced following riots in 2012 or thereabouts and if threshold are crossed for intervention ( for example,if they receive benefits or have disabled children) the manager ‘s next job is to e-mail nursery, school or health staff and arrange for a child-in-need referral on whatever grounds possible.
    Clearly, information and data available online if long hours are spent in monitoring families can be very profitable and this may explain why CS staff are glued to them.

    How much of this work is done openly? Do they warn families they are under surveillance? Do they ask the parent’s permission before contacting schools and doctors ? Or do they conspire to do it all behind the family’s backs and then turn up on the doorstep with Police in tow?

    Reply
    1. ck

      I enjoy reading your comments, you are a breathe of fresh air, your honesty and commitment for justice and truth I for one find truly remarkable and uplifting for us that have spent many dark days trapped without light or hope, a system, admit to something or you will never see your baby/child ever again

      Reply
      1. Angelo Granda

        i feel we should recognize and deal with this issue. It appears as if we have a ‘culture’ of covert surveillance (spying)on citizens undertaken by Public Authority officials targeted at families with problems and/or parents who do or say anything which those with power may deem not politically correct, squeaky clean,not normal, dysfunctional ,which incurs an individual operatives displeasure or caprice and so on and so on. Do they scour the local press too, Louise ? Do they have operatives touring the streets looking for misbehaviour , scruffy children and truants etc. or the slightest excuse to initiate big brother type interferences with our family lives? Is the privacy and freedom of citizens being invaded?

        This really should be ‘opened-up’ as Sarah says. I do not believe this issue represents any top-level conspiracy at all. Zealotry and tyranny on the part of some LA management is more likely.

        Or should we consider covert spying by officialdom acceptable because it is in children’s best interests? What do lawyers think ,Sarah?

        Should we be warned about this on social media by the site-owners ?
        Should there be warning signs on every other lamp-post?
        Should headmasters be obliged to caution children and parents to watch very carefully what they say at all times or would that be in contravention of article 10?

        I am asking questions only not answering them or theorizing.
        All comments welcome.

        Reply
        1. HelenSparkles

          If you think with my caseload I also have time to scour FB or the streets, you are very much mistaken. I used my spare time to eat and sleep.

          Reply
  2. looked_after_child

    A 21st century version of a caring state will demand systemic redesign, learning critically from all of its history and from other countries too. The ChildFair State Inquiry will need to examine how marketisation and competitive tendering have affected the costs and quality of public services, affected the service user experience for the people who need them, and the professional practices of the people who work in them. It will explore how major ‘management remodelling’ and policy changes – such as the ending of secure tenure rights in social housing, Universal Credit in benefits, or school League Tables in education – have acted as paradigm shifts away from the underlying ethos of the original welfare state’s promises to its citizens.

    We believe we should be led, challenged and inspired by the children, young people and families who experience the best and the worst of our public services and systems first hand, every day.

    https://www.childrenengland.org.uk/appeal/towards-a-child-fair-state

    Reply
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