What do family courts have to hide?
Opening up UK family courts to the public will not lead to social worker witch-hunts, but to greater public trust.
UK justice secretary Jack Straw has recently announced plans to open up the notoriously secretive family justice system to the public gaze. The Schools and Safeguarding Children Bill, due to come before parliament in November, will include provisions to allow the social workers involved in court cases to be named by the press, and to allow more substantial reporting of the substance of the case, rather than merely being permitted to report a case’s gist.
Straw has managed to provoke howls of outrage from those with vested interests in the current system, from the Family Justice Council to the judges, lawyers, social workers and academics who work in the relative obscurity of the family courts. They protested that revealing the identities of social workers involved in cases would potentially see them ‘named and shamed’, while fears have been raised that media intrusion would stop expert witnesses from coming forward or speaking their minds in full view of the public.
Let’s hope these fears are well-founded. It would certainly be beneficial if social workers began to think about how the public at large would react to their actions. And ensuring that experts are only prepared to present evidence for which they are happy to be held accountable is surely a positive.
It is precisely because the issues dealt with by the family courts are so personal and so sensitive that they should be subject to public scrutiny. We do not allow professionals to deal with other sensitive matters in private so why should we allow it in the case of family cases? We do not allow criminal courts to convict and sentence murderers and rapists in private, and those issues cause at least as much distress as those dealt with in the family courts. People can have their children taken away from them for good in the family courts. It is not right that the public is currently forbidden from scrutinising the evidence and rationale for family court decisions.
The consequence of keeping such decisions private is to drive a wedge between the public and the legal system, producing a deep sense of mistrust. There can be no doubt that the public support for Fathers 4 Justice, a fathers’ rights campaign group, was magnified by the widespread doubts raised about the opacity of the system that apportions custody of kids. It takes a fairly rare, and fairly strange, person to trust authority that operates behind closed doors. ‘What do they have to hide?’ is our reflex response.
The main argument against the new proposals is that giving the press greater access and reporting rights may produce witch-hunts and biased reporting against the professionals and witnesses. The case of Sharon Shoesmith, the ex-director of children services at Haringey council in London, is a prime example of this. Following the conviction of three carers for the gruesome death of 17-month-old Baby P in November 2008, Haringey children services came under fierce scrutiny for not spotting the many tell-tale signs of child abuse. It was Shoesmith in particular, with her face and salary plastered all over the newspapers, who bore the brunt of public revulsion.
However, what prompted people’s anger was not the failings of her department so much as her response to the media’s questioning. Her attitude was that she and her employees had simply followed guidelines, and therefore they had no need to apologise. This is the same attitude that lies behind the desire to keep family courts’ workings secret: a desire to allow the professionals to judge their own success and failure against yardsticks of their own making. Public opinion was repelled by the ‘computer says no’ amorality of Shoesmith’s self-justification and her refusal to take responsibility.
In general, people are more than capable of understanding that everyone makes mistakes at work, for the very good reason that most people have jobs. Whatever spasm of public anger may be directed at experts and professionals who fail will dissipate with time and debate. What will not be forgiven is the attitude that these people are not accountable to the community at large for their actions. They have been entrusted by us to deal with some of the most sensitive personal situations, situations that could arise in any of our lives. It is outrageous to deny us the right to publicly investigate the decisions, and it is this denial that causes the public to distrust the system and bring the knives out for the likes of Shoesmith.
Fears may also be raised of Daily Mail-style reporting – that is, a selective reporting of the facts to whip up public hysteria. Yet the privacy laws as they stand encourage irresponsible reporting. If only one side of the issue is ever put, it is far easier, and possibly justifiable, to present a biased account. Recently the Mail published a story about a Christian couple who were being prosecuted for offending a Muslim woman about her religion. The article presented only the Christian couple’s point of view, and a sentence to the effect that the Muslim woman did not wish to comment. This is the predictable result of refusing to allow the press to examine both sides of the story. The popularity of Fathers 4 Justice was provoked by ignorance rather than reasoned judgement: the public only ever heard the group’s point of view and distrusted the secrecy of the court system.
In any case, just as a lunatic railing against the fluoridation of water can only have any influence if he convinces more rational people of his fears, public scrutiny of the Daily Mail ensures that most people insist on other sources to gain a fuller picture. It may well be unpleasant to have your reputation dragged through the newspapers, but anyone who wishes to work in areas of such public importance should accept that as a part of the deal and trust the public at large to come to the just conclusion at the end. We will only trust the state when the state trusts us and allows us to trust one another, when public debate is understood as vital to the peace of mind of a healthy society.
Thomas McMahon is a freelance writer.