A senior government adviser has warned that children will be at greater risk of suicide if family court proceedings are opened up to greater publicity.
Sue Berelowitz, deputy children’s commissioner (pictured), said the principle of increased transparency could have unintended consequences for children involved in proceedings.
Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, has called for greater transparency in the family court, with more judgments available to the public and current restrictions relaxed.
But Berelowitz, speaking at a debate chaired by Munby last month, said transparency would not honour children’s right to have their best interests considered at all times.
‘It is only a matter of time before this deeply misguided motion, which has at its heart, I believe, an utter disregard for the welfare and best interests of children, and is in my view therefore unlawful, will result in the death of a child,’ she said.
Berelowitz said it was the view of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner that the European Convention on Human Rights requires that family proceedings to fully protect the privacy of any child involved – including details of the circumstances and histories of the case. Extending the information available could lead to jigsaw identification, she suggested.
Berelowitz insisted that having that having the press in criminal proceedings does not lead to justice being done or being seen to be done. And the prospect of greater openness in the court may stop children talking openly to their social worker or doctor.
‘Improving public confidence in the family justice system is indeed important,’ she added.
‘But in our view, increased transparency is an extremely risky step that may severely compromise the court’s ability to guarantee children’s rights.’
Berelowitz said the results of surveys of children who had gone through public and private law proceedings were clear that under no circumstances would they want the press in any court hearing in which they were involved.
However at the same debate, family court judge Roderick Newton said the case for openness in the family court was ‘overwhelming’ – and he argued that current restrictions may work against the child’s best interests.
‘If a system is constantly accused of being secret, biased and unaccountable, the children in whose name we try and make the best decisions are the one that will ultimately feel undermined,’ he added.
Baroness Tyler, chair of Cafcass, said greater transparency will mean decisions are clearly understood by all those involved and will ensure that the performance of public officials is not kept secret.
But she stressed that transparency should not mean exposing children or their families to the glare of publicity.
‘The current method of media access to family courts, and the current way of reporting cases anonymously on BAILII is probably going just about far enough,’ she added.