When a renowned family judge thoughtfully discloses that not adding to a child's suffering is not necessarily the first priority in his work, you sit up and listen. The Honourable Mr Justice Peter Jackson - famed for his child-friendly judgments and for visiting a dying 14-year-old girl who wanted her body to be cyrogenically preserved - was answering questions last night at an event to mark the publication of a new guide for the media on attending and reporting family law cases.
The premise of the 38-page guide, published by the Transparency Project, a charity set up to improve the quality of debate about the family courts system, is that the gradual opening of the courts to reporters over the past six years is a good thing. And that more could be done to simplify access and to make judgments more accessible. The debate heard plenty of suggestions, starting with making court listings more understandable and for all judges to produce anonymised summaries.
We heard that the present reporting arrangements are more obeyed in the higher courts (supposing anyone has the time to cover them) than in the confined space of magistrates’ courts where the attendance of a reporter is likely to be seen as a provocative action.
There were also suggestions - mainly from the floor - that the press should do a better job and that unspecified action be taken against the sleazier end of the market. And at least two experienced practitioners suggested that, because of the risk of mistakes or 'jigsaw' identification, even the current access with reporting restriction arrangements were a step too far. ‘How can we guarantee protection against irresponsible reporting?’ asked Jo Edwards, former chair of family lawyers organisation Resolution.
The honest answer is that we cannot, except after the fact by enforcing sanctions against contempt of court. A social media search for hashtags like 'bent judges' will find plenty of examples, generally promoting predictable narratives. The point of the guidelines is to enable the possibility of accurate intelligent reporting as a counterweight.
It's fair to say that the responsible end of the press was over-represented in the seminar. Gazette columnist Joshua Rozenberg, award-winning freelance Louise Tickle and the Guardian's Owen Bowcott all contributed - and that was just from the audience. On the panel were the BBC's Sanchia Berg and the Press Association's court specialist Brian Farmer, a specialist newsman with an old school approach to sniffing out news. When a distinguished barrister demanded to know how the media had found out about a divorce case which attracted a disproportionate amount of prurient interest, Farmer retorted: 'I knew it was going to be a good case because you were acting in it - I followed you in to court!'
Jackson, bravely, I thought, pointed out that a free society allows irresponsible people as well as responsible ones to form views. Will Moy of the excellent Full Fact website pointed out that few in the audience would want to live in a society where the authorities had the power to decide where responsible journalism began. However he suggested that HM Judiciary be more active in issuing statements to correct untruths, along the lines of the UK Statistics Authority. Jackson was cautious about judges entering such a fray. ‘This is something we need to think very hard about,' he mused, pointing out the dangers of individual judges admitting to potentially diverging views. ‘We are in uniform whether we like it or not and we have to march to a beat.’
But what if the whole premise of increased transparency is misconceived? Surely the over-riding priority must be to protect the child at the centre of a case from any risk of further suffering? ‘I don’t agree,' Jackson said carefully, implying that a child may have to suffer some initial harm from the putting of details of a case in the public domain so that children as a whole benefit. 'I have an unease about the possibility of airbrushing abuse,' he said. 'I personally object to being told not to put in a judgment the terrible things that children have been through.'
Lucy Reed, the Transparency Project's chair, summed up: ‘The big issue is that we are harming children if people feel they can’t trust the family justice system.’
I agree. I'm glad, however, that I don't have to report family cases, much less act in them.