Ministry of Justice research published this week found that since access by the media to the family courts was widened last April, relatively few journalists had taken the opportunity to attend hearings.The survey of court staff showed that only 25% said members of the press had attended their court since the rule change, and 15% said journalists had attended only once and not come back.
To encourage greater media attendance, the government has introduced measures in the Children, Schools and Families Bill to widen the information that journalists can report. Instead of only being able to report the gist of a case, they will be able to report the substance too, while preserving the anonymity of the parties involved.
The MoJ press release on the bill and survey results said the measures to allow press attendance were designed to ‘increase the public confidence in the family courts’.
But anecdotal evidence obtained through feedback from survey respondents revealed that media attendance could act to prohibit children from disclosing in court the details of any abuse they have suffered. The effect of this could be that a child’s welfare is not safeguarded.
Interim findings of a report on the impact of media access by the children’s commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, also showed that children and young people involved in family court cases would be unwilling or less willing to discuss maltreatment by a parent or express their wishes with a journalist present.
The evidence gathered by the commissioner suggests that children are concerned that they may get bullied at school if details about their case are put in the public arena, and they are sceptical about the ability of the law, judges and other adults to protect their privacy, even with a formal ban on publishing details that could lead to their identification.
As one person who took part in the MoJ survey pointed out, many of the children involved have already been abused and badly let down by adult society. ‘The breach of trust arising from media access, or possible access, may significantly compound this, resulting in children growing up further alienated and mistrustful of others,’ they said.
Justice minister Bridget Prentice said: ‘Increased transparency for the family court system must balance safeguards to ensure the protection of individual parents and children in court proceedings, while still allowing the media to report cases in the public interest.’
But Andrew Greensmith, a former chairman of family lawyers group Resolution, says the current media access rules are already presenting difficulties with children giving evidence, and it is essential that any new rules take into account the interests of children.
He points out: ‘The danger is in automatically assuming that the press are the guardians of standards. They are not. The press are there to report what happens.’
Clearly there’s a balance to be struck between access to the press and protecting children, and getting that balance right is crucial, but I think I know which one I would err towards.