Openness debate: lawyers air views on court privacy

03 Apr 2006

Family lawyers voted overwhelmingly to leave decisions about publicising the details of court cases involving children firmly in the hands of the courts themselves.

Over 200 family lawyers, members of campaigning family law group, Resolution, debated the topic “Should family cases be heard in public?” at their annual conference in Bournemouth this weekend. Chaired by Her Honour Judge Isobel Plumstead, the broad ranging debate heard views from an eminent child psychiatrist, a BBC lawyer and a leading father’s group representative.

Delegates unanimously rejected the proposition to allow the public free and unfettered access to the courts in cases involving children but were in favour of giving the public the right to apply to attend such hearings. They were in favour of allowing the media to apply for anonymised transcripts of court proceedings despite passionate claims by psychiatrist Dr Claire Sturge that safeguards to provide genuine anonymity for children were almost impossible to effect.

Whilst accepting “the public’s right to know”, Dr Sturge expressed her anger at the calls for transparency for the sake of the public and the media when, she argued, “we should be talking about children’s protection.” She used the example of the distress caused to children who were the victims of child pornography, arguing that they were traumatised by the knowledge that “those images will be out there until they die”. The situation with reported court cases, where genuine anonymity is not achievable, is similar, she asserted.

Jim Parton claimed that his organisation, Families Need Fathers had started the campaign for openness in justice. Having been radicalised by his own experiences, he now praises lawyers for their move towards greater openness. But he challenged delegates to be even less “defensive, thin skinned and bashful”. Resolution members were happy to accept his urging to embrace mediation and conciliation, as he warned that if more lawyers didn’t accept the Resolution approach they would “lose the franchise”.

BBC solicitor David Attfield, who was instrumental in opening up the 1990s Rochdale children in care issue – the topic of a recent BBC documentary - opened the debate by arguing that other jurisdictions deal with sensitive cases more transparently. Recognising the need for balance, he warned that privacy could prevent parties speaking out about injustices. A lack of transparency makes family courts easy to attack and difficult to defend, he argued, describing the current situation as “ridiculous”.

Echoing Donald Rumsfeld’s famous proclamation, he warned that the “unknown unknowns” in the family law system were potentially the most disturbing.

From the floor, Katherine Gieve said, “It is troubling that you can be at risk of your children being removed from your care by the courts, but you are stopped from telling your story.”

Judge Plumstead called for a staged approach to change, in which the views of children should be heard. She called for a multidisciplinary exercise to seek a safe and secure way of anonymising cases and for a thorough risk/benefits analysis. “Admitting the public to the family courts I would put a long way down the road,” she said.

In total, over 400 delegates attended the three-day Resolution conference in Bournemouth.