Measures rushed through parliament at the ‘eleventh hour’ to allow greater media reporting of the family courts will put vulnerable children at risk, lawyers have warned.
Despite being opposed by lawyers’ and children’s groups, the provisions in the Children Schools and Families Bill were passed last week in the ‘wash-up’ prior to the dissolution of parliament.
The media has been allowed to report on the process of family cases since last April, but part 2 of the new act contains clauses that will broaden the amount of information that can be reported. This could allow publication of a child or parent’s medical, psychiatric or psychological details and information given by a child to its parents.
The former Children’s Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley Green, raised concerns about the legislation after he commissioned a research project which indicated in its preliminary results that children do not trust the press and would be deterred from disclosing details of abuse in front of journalists.
Piers Pressdee QC, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, said: ‘At a time when the reputation of parliament could not be any lower, it is hugely disappointing, though perhaps entirely predictable, that the welfare of vulnerable children should be sacrificed as part of some rushed and ill-considered eleventh-hour deal between Labour and the Tories.’
He said the measures, which were passed without an adequate opportunity to debate them, could put vulnerable children at ‘quite considerable risk’.
Andrew Greensmith, former national chair of family lawyers’ group Resolution, said: ‘The act will initially permit publication [of information about a case] provided it is not "personal sensitive information". But that is not defined clearly and there is a risk to children that if people don’t understand it properly, inappropriate information will be published.’
Greensmith said he hoped that the second stage of implementation, which will be subject to consultation, will be considered more carefully and ‘not rushed through as the current legislation has been’.
The act provides that the names of parties and identifying details must not be revealed to ensure lifelong anonymity for the children involved.
An MoJ spokeswoman said the act would ‘open up the family courts’.
She added: ‘This will be done through a staged process, and subject to an independent review following the introduction of the first stage. The provisions will also strengthen protection for children and families against identification.’