In a statement which has thrown the transparency debate off-kilter and caused more than a small uprising amongst those who are pushing for complete openness inside the family courts, Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, has warned that making the family courts open in the fullest sense could lead to child deaths.
And we agree.
Speaking at the The Family Justice Council’s annual debate, Miss Berelowitz explained that children may kill themselves if they fear that their names will become public knowledge in relation to their cases. Her remark stunned the audience and caused fury amongst judges, lawyers and social workers pushing for more open reporting within the family courts.
And although the Daily Mail article is filled with disparaging remarks about Sue’s track record in the child welfare sector, we think Sue has a point.
And she’s not alone. Recent research which sought the opinions of children about opening up the family courts confirms her view. Many children are mistrustful of the media and view their role as a sensationalist one, which doesn’t include seeking out fact and highlighting injustice. (You can access the NYAS report here). And many of these children are already in a state of deep anxiety as a result of very difficult personal circumstances, circumstances which many find painful and hugely embarrassing to revisit within the confines of the court room, let alone in the glare of the media spotlight.
Sue’s comment has also been taken out of context. In the past, she has been a strong advocate for openness within the family courts – as long as that openness doesn’t come at the expense of the welfare of those children involved. Speaking about the Ministry of Justice’s promise to look at media reporting in the courts previously, Sue has said:
“We [The Office of The Children’s Commissioner] have long advocated for assurances that a child’s privacy is upheld and the utmost sensitivity is demonstrated before any information from the family courts is made public. Any change to the current rules on reporting must put the best interests of the child first. We will continue to work with the Ministry of Justice to ensure these children’s lives are adequately protected.”
Of course, transparency also offers protections to those who have experienced injustice and poor quality service inside the system. Those worst hit by these difficulties are usually children, and many have been vocal about having their say in court and being put on the record. That desire to be seen and heard in court though, is not the same as having the details of their cases made public and the potential to be identified within those cases.
The key lies in getting the balance right. If we can put into place measures which both assure the anonymity of those children who wish to remain ‘unseen’ by the public at large and offer a process by which children can waive that anonymity if they want to, we will start to be able to offer something meaningful. Some may argue that this is a tall order, and that you can never have transparency without the risk of identification, but we must try. The current guidelines on media reporting too, are measured and cautious, and a good stepping stone upon which to move forward.
As for Sue, we think she’s spot on. Let’s not open up the family courts because we want to make a point, or make public interest our priority, but because, first and foremost, we want to protect our children, both from media scrutiny and life-changing injustice.