Two members of the Transparency Project, Lucy Reed and Julie Doughty, attended the Family Justice Council annual debate on ‘Transparency in family proceedings’ in London last night. The speakers ‘for’ openness were Sir Roderick Newton, the judge in the Pacchieri care and adoption proceedings and Baroness Claire Tyler, the chair of the Cafcass Board. The speakers ‘against’ were Sue Berelowitz from the Children’s Commissioner’s Office and Dr Julia Brophy, who has conducted extensive research on young people’s views on the topic. The participants were, however, not polarised into two camps, and agreed with each other on some points. The event, chaired by the President, Sir James Munby, was very well attended and about half the session was devoted to contributions from the floor. The event will be transcribed and posted on the FJC site in due course.
There was a great deal of discussion about children’s fear of exposure which (in my view) tends to become emotive and can obscure the deeper moral problems of breaching young people’s rights to privacy and how even a baby’s life might in future be affected by what others know has been published about them. Too much emphasis on identification as the problem can be answered (not entirely convincingly) by claiming we can rely on efficient anonymisation. The speakers ‘for’ made some compelling arguments for improved public accountability, although the inputs from Cafcass were more about improving transparency of process for the child and the family than for the wider public. On the other hand, those ‘against’ focused on the operation and commercial imperatives of the mainstream press and broadcast media. Several contributors called for full parliamentary scrutiny before the ‘Next Steps’ in the President’s campaign are taken. Another interesting aspect was that professionals do not seem to be advising children and families about the rights of the media. Some contributors called for training on this, but no clear answers on this were forthcoming during the evening.
As proceedings drew to a close, Lucy Reed pointed out that it was fallacious to assume the current system was watertight. There are already dangers of children being identified and sought via the internet, and false perceptions about the authorities fuelled by social media are having a corrosive effect on some parents’ trust and ability to engage with child protection and family justice. She reminded the audience that there is also a responsible blogging community and what this might offer in informing the public without further intrusion on children and families. Lucy not only had the last word, she was then name-checked twice by the President in his closing remarks! We were assured that Sir James is listening and reading everything we send him, and has not yet made up his mind on ‘The Next Steps’.