Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Clear messages about the Family Courts

Two recent research studies give a clear picture of children and young people's views of the family courts.

Reporting the interim findings of a study undertaken by Dr Julia Brophy of Oxford University and funded by the Children's Commissioner for England, a press release by 11 Million states that almost all the children interviewed so far are opposed to the media being present in the family courts and to reporting their findings. The children interviewed were also very opposed to journalists having access to medical and other expert reports, saying that they would unwilling to share information with doctors and other professionals if they thought the press would have access to it.

In similar vein another recent study of children's views of family court cases, this time conducted by Cafcass (Private Law Consultation: "How It Looks To Me"),  reports that many children and young people not only wanted more opportunities to tell the court their views, but also were concerned about the confidentiality of the information put before the court.

The overwhelming weight of all the available research evidence points in the same direction. Children and young people subject to family court proceedings are intensely concerned about their privacy. They fear having initmate details of family life aired in public and, if they think that is likely to happen, they will keep quiet. Research conducted as part of a consultation in 2007 was taken very seriously by the then Justice Secretary,  Lord Falconer. The Government's response to this consultation concludes: "In line with the overwhelming evidence from children and young people and the groups which support, protect and represent them, we now believe that the right course of action is not to proceed with this proposal (to allow the media access)."

Sadly Jack Straw has taken a different view and legislation currently before Parliament will, if passed, permit the media wide access to the family courts. The effect on both private and public cases will be substantial. In particular there is a very real danger that abused and neglected children will not co-operate fully with the court process, making it much harder to protect them and to ensure that the court decides in their best interests.