Why I no longer support opening up the family courts

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

Yesterday I was told that a published judgment in a family case had been the subject of an article in a tabloid newspaper. I am not going to link to either the case or the article for reasons which I hope will become very clear. But if anyone doubts the veracity of what I am saying, contact me and I will share the links with you privately.

The article was the usual tabloid fodder. No discussion of the wider issues examined by the judgment, no recognition of the work done by parents, the social workers, or the court. It read to me simply as an exercise in slut shaming. Given the level of detail about the services the parents had been offered it was apparently easy for people in their locality to know who they are. The parents, I am told and understandably – are distraught.

I had an email discussion with a journalist about this. I haven’t asked their permission to repeat their emails so I don’t. But you will get a flavour of the conversation from mine:

This is why transparency will stall as journalists are so irresponsible….

Really? You didn’t notice even a whiff of slut shaming in their approach? It is this kind of thing that will slam door shut on transparency. Journalists have to step up…

OK but the door to transparency remains firmly shut – this is why. Again the excuse that journalists only hold mirror up to society, rarely any recognition of or responsibility taken for how your profession feeds that. A great shame. The mother is distraught. That is a whole group of lawyers who won’t be supporting the next publication of a judgment and I too am wavering.

The damage done by journalists over the death of Peter Connelly is with us still. They continue to compound this damage as for example we see with the reporting of Andrew Norfolk over the ‘Muslim Foster carers’ case. Time and time again I see gleeful reporting of women who have had children removed as just some kind of shameful baby making machines. But these are real people – with real children.

It is just not good enough to say that journalists are ‘just giving the public what they want’. Journalists need to accept that they are also responsible for encouraging and feeding this – going to ever more lurid extremes in their reporting to secure readership and comment.

I have always been wary about whether or not we have the journalists we need to report on sensitive family matters. I have decided now that we do not. I remain very grateful for the efforts of Tortoise media to provide more detailed coverage of these important issues but my fear is that they will always be overshadowed and overwhelmed by the tsunami of nasty, prurient baiting that comes from the majority of the press.

I am still glad I played a small part in Louise Tickle’s victory in the Court of Appeal┬áto challenge an unlawful Reporting Restrictions Order, and that it will lead to a greater discussion about transparency. What she revealed about the nature and extent to which lawyers either understood or applied the law was frightening – the expensive administrative labyrinth she entered into merely to make an appeal, even more so. I will continue to admire and pay tribute to the courage and tenacity she showed to do the right thing.

But should anyone care to ask for my views in the forthcoming Transparency Review then they will be as set out above. I sadly don’t think the majority of our journalists have the will or the ability to report on family matters in any other way than sensationalised click bait. And this hurts people. It doesn’t ‘shine a light’ on the system or increase public understanding. Its just the 2019 equivalent of the stocks or the ducking stool.

I will not support further opening up of the family courts. I will no longer support the pain and misery of my parent clients being offered up for public entertainment. I will no longer agree to the publication of any judgment in a case where I act, unless and until I can see some recognition from our Fourth Estate of the power they wield, and the harm they do.

4 thoughts on “Why I no longer support opening up the family courts

  1. Angelo Granda

    A Parent’s View,
    I will always give my support to open courts with open reporting because justice must be seen and should be reported . It may embarrass families and it may embarrass the authorities involved but transparency is essential , in my opinion, to ensure fairness and impartiality.
    We have all seen how closed ( secret ) courts were used in the Soviet Union by tyrants there and we know lots of other countries operate totalitarian justice. We don’t want it here any longer.
    Should any newspaper misreport the facts then there are complaints procedures and there are libel courts to which those affected can go.
    I repeat we don’t want secret courts and we don’t want summary,biased,political judgments.
    Ofcourse ,I understand why Sarah disagrees and I also realise any apparent misreporting which occurs right now will be used against the transparency project .What ordinary parents think will mean little but I would like to point out one very important point essential to fair reporting if the press are to be allowed in court ,permitted to hear judgments and record facts.
    Each Judge must make it absolutely clear to the Public that when he or she makes
    findings, they are NOT ,I repeat NOT findings of FACT. In truth,they are merely findings of MAY BE’s! Thus the findings in the Judgment should be reported as such. Press reporters should make it clear to the Public that all kinds of evidence ,hearsay, illicitly-collected data etc.etc. are used in Family Court’s and that despite the inherent unreliability ,it does not get checked thoroughly .It must also be pointed out in the judgment that findings are made on the value-judgment/s of the Judge alone not by a panel of jurors. The Public can then come to some sortof opinion themselves.
    Hope this helps. I really don’t think the CPR should start preaching against open,honest Courts just because some rag displeases it. Perhaps the reporter concerned was an accredited scribe dedicated to demonising parents .

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  3. Angelo Granda

    Do you recognise that open reporting by the press with all its pros and cons is a separate issue completely from that of fair and just,open court proceedings where family ,friends and the general public are free to attend and bear witness?

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