MUNBY: LISTEN TO THE INDIVIDUALS AFFECTED

What do the young people think?

It is time to take stock in the ‘transparency’ debate and to review a couple of eloquent comments in [2014] Family Law: a Comment from Peggy Ray (a child law solicitor) at 1655 and an article by Dr Julia Brophy, a ‘Principal Researcher in Family Justice’ (sic a title proposed by Family Law).

Peggy Ray sets the scene: ‘Would you be happy that the problems your family may be experiencing at any particular time are shared with your local paper, even without naming you?’ she asks rhetorically. She explains why – at the very least – there must be ‘extensive consultation with the most vulnerable citizens involved’ – namely the young people whose interests are central; followed by a full assessment of risks to them. And Julia Brophy then elaborates Peggy’s themes from her research.

Almost every line of these two documents should say to Sir James Munby P that his cosying up to the press must stop. Young people do not trust journalists (as most of us do not: me, I’m a jurist, not a journalist!). Many journos don’t let facts interfere with a good story; or their own opinion Brophy’s young people note (p 1689). Local communities (whether large and rural; or urban and numerous) have a way of undermining the most effective attempts at anonymity (p 1687). Family court judges (who do not probably spend much time on Twitter or Facebook) can have scant imagination of its power to communicate; and then a child already vulnerable, has the potential to become vulnerable to paedophile grooming. And so the family court – unwittingly – becomes a party in one way or another (read Brophy) to other forms of abuse.

And, of Sir James’s current wheeze ‘Family Transparency: the next steps’: http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/publications/consultation-family-transparency-the-next-steps/ : the plan is to extend to family courts the common law rule about release of court documents to journalists (per R (ota Guardian News and Media Ltd) v City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2012] EWCA Civ 420, [2013] QB 618, [2012] 3 WLR 1343: the ‘open justice principle’). What does Munby imagine will that idea do to encourage young people to be frank with medical or other opinion witnesses (p 1691)?

Open court, a free press and protected individuals

Bentham was adamant that judges should sit in open court, so that they would be judged themselves. A free press was the means for that. In theory, Dr Bentham, yes. (As I write, a demonstration related to Charlie Hebdo, heavily attended by cynical politicians, takes place not two miles from where I sit. It is in support of freedom of a press these politicians would muzzle, or have their spies hack into). Meanwhile that free press shows itself at its most debased from the pen – a ‘pen mightier than the sword’, we must observe on Charlie Hebdo demo day, today – of an experienced (though fact averse, it seems) Christopher Booker (per Pink Tape: http://www.pinktape.co.uk/cases/i-am-calm/ ).

I return to the families in issue here. They are concerned not with high ideals of press freedom and open justice. They are concerned – as we should be – with the privacy of separate (and often ‘vulnerable’) individuals.

President: stop and think of the protected individuals concerned

Each case where the welfare of a child is in question, involves an individual family. Each individual child, his/her privacy and future privacy (European Convention 1950 Art 8, if you like) should be in issue in each separate case. I prefer to call them ‘protected individuals’ (‘vulnerable’ though many may be, also): ie deserving of protection. Each person and their case demands that different questions be answered; and that they and their welfare be protected.

One of those questions is: WHY? Why should my family issues and the possibility of my name and detail of my life be out there? What is the justification for that: whether in law and legal dogma, or in my personal case?

Sir James Munby P must bear in mind each protected individual affected by his posturing to the press. He must think very carefully about what the families individually, and the ‘vulnerable’ individuals themselves, are saying, before he goes any further. And he must remember what young people say about the real transparency of families, for anyone who reads about their family on Bailii or in Family Law Reports; and he should recall what the likes of Booker and the Daily Telegraph do with family court ‘facts’.

Finally, as a lawyer I ask Sir James, in any ‘family law reform’ you do propose, to keep to the law, not to putting out arbitrary and unlawful guidances and directions; but that plea is for another day….

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