Tag Archives: judgments

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