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Q204Mr. Gibb: You think it should be statutory, but you are not prepared to say what proportion of the curriculum it should take up. That is an odd, mixed message.
Oona Stannard: It is statutory to have a daily act of collective worship, but we do not say that the children have to sit there for five or 10 minutes or whatever.
The Chairman: I am very sorry, but I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions of the witnesses. Thank you for giving up your time. The legislation will be much better informed for us having heard your views. Thank you very much indeed.
2.33 pm
Q204The Chairman: Welcome to the evidence session of the Children, Schools and Family Bill Committee. A particularly warm welcome to our witnesses, and thank you for giving up your time to be with us.
We shall now hear evidence from Sir Mark Potter, president of the family division of the High Court, and from the Society of Editors, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, District Judge Nicholas Crichton and the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy. May we start by asking you to introduce yourselves to the Committee?
Sir Mark Potter: I am president of the family division and head of family justice.
Barbara Esam: I am a solicitor with the NSPCC, in the public policy division.
Bob Satchwell: I am director of the Society of Editors, which represents editors across all parts of the media—local and national, broadcasting, everything.
Dr. Julia Brophy: I am from the Centre for Family Law and Policy at the university of Oxford. I am senior research fellow and am currently researching children’s views about media access to family courts.
Nick Crichton: I am a district judge from the inner London family proceedings court. I also chair the Family Justice Council’s voice of the child sub-group.
Q205Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): May I ask Sir Mark Potter a question? In 2008 you dismissed an appeal by Medway council so that it would not be named as the local authority in case the identity of the child was revealed. You accepted that the case raised matters of considerable public interest, and that reporting a fuller story would enable the public to form their own view. Will the proposals help the public form a view about the family court system?
Sir Mark Potter: I think that they are an improvement. There are restrictive provisions in the interests of the child’s welfare, as opposed to simply reporting everything that goes on. There are distinctions to be drawn between giving the public an opportunity to understand fully what goes on and giving them the details of the evidence. There is a concern with public law proceedings, to which I think it is right for the press and media to have access. The cases involve medical and other expert reports on the state, welfare and feelings of the child.
If you are simply dealing with the case of a young baby being removed from their parents, for a number of years until the case has passed from people’s memory anyway, there may not be enormous concern for the child’s welfare if proceedings on the case are reported. However, as soon as you get to the time when a child is old enough to go to a local school, whatever safeguards are taken about anonymity, quite a close circle of people in an area will know who the reports are about, so it becomes very important that the details of the matter are not reported, and the press do not have access to them.
The debate has somewhat shifted in this case from the original position. The press were—and the judiciary supported them on this—concerned that the workings of the courts should be understood. In particular, in response to the complaints of some pressure groups, the judiciary was anxious that the press, and the public via the press, should know what goes on in court proceedings. Inevitably, when proceedings are entirely private, complaints about proceedings are likely to come from someone who is dissatisfied with the outcome and they may seek to publicise them in the press. However, now that the press have access, can see what goes on, and are certainly able to write an informed article in general terms about what may have happened in the proceedings, there is pressure to make details available, which in any view seems to offend against article 8 principles and the primacy of the welfare of the child set out in the Children Acts. The debate has moved on. Of course, the press are concerned, but while they may have access to proceedings, they are limited in reporting them.
Did you see a preliminary statement that I supplied for the purposes of the Committee? Regarding that, one of the judiciary’s concerns is the fact that it is the habit or likelihood of the press to drop in on the first day and see what the case is about. In so far as they will report that case, they will do so in terms of what is open. Whether it is public or private law proceedings, an applicant may open a case high, as we put it, make a number of often quite important and unpleasant allegations relating to parties in the case, or make exaggerated claims about the child. Those will get reported. Then time passes. Perhaps the judgment is given and publicised in anonymous terms two or three weeks later. There is no obligation on the press to report that. It might be that quite a different situation is found to have existed as a result of what happened, but because we are in a situation of a first-day attendance, and what is news today has passed tomorrow, an unfair and difficult position is left—quite apart from the welfare of the child concerned.
The Chairman: We cannot locate your statement at the moment, Sir Mark, but we will make sure that we find it and distribute it to the Committee.
Q206Mr. Timpson: I shall follow on from that and open it out to the other witnesses. Clearly, the welfare of any child involved in family proceedings has to be at the forefront of all our minds when these decisions are being made. A study of the impact of the most recent changes to the reporting of family proceedings indicates that, when court users, court staff and judges who responded to the impact survey were asked whether, overall, the new media attendance rules have the potential to make a positive contribution to improving the transparency and accountability of the family courts for various people, such as family justice professionals, parents, the general public and the media, the only group that did not agree with the statement was the children. In fact, they strongly disagreed with it more than any other people. Bearing that it mind, and in the knowledge that initial indications are that some rules currently going through their early stages are perhaps not working in the way that we had thought, does that concern any of you? District Judge Crichton might have something to say about that.
Nick Crichton: Yes, I have great concern. I work in the family proceedings court. It is a magistrates court, therefore the media have always been allowed to come into the proceedings. They very rarely come. When they do, they usually ask if they can come rather than say, “I can be here, as of right.” We try to give them information before they come into court and, by and large, they have been very responsible in what they report.
We deal with extremely vulnerable children and young people. When they are in my court themselves, I often have to explain to them very carefully that there is no risk of anything being reported that could lead to their being identified. Sometimes, they still say to me, “I don’t want anybody in this room hearing about my life, who doesn’t have to be here,” and on those occasions I have asked the media if they would be good enough to leave. They have always been good enough to leave.
I was dealing with a case this morning of a young woman of 15, who frankly wants to die. She was not in my court this morning, but she has been in the past and she will be again in the future. She has been prostituting herself; she has been cutting her wrists; she has been attempting suicide. We are going through a process in which we are trying to build her confidence in what social services, the children’s guardian and everybody are trying to achieve, which is to enable her to reach a point in her life when, hopefully, she can make something of herself.
If the girl had been in my court this morning, and I had said to her that a member of the media was there, we would have lost her because the situation is so fragile and delicate. I bring the case back to me each time because it is important that she should not see a different person when she comes to court. If she thought that there was a member of the media in the court room, she would run out of it. If she thought that someone other than the court staff, the social workers or the lawyers would see and hear the things contained in the psychiatric reports that I am reading, we would lose all the ground that we have made with her. It is that delicate a situation.
I am not just talking about something that happens in my court once every three months, but something that happens in my court once every three days. That is the nature of the problems that those young people face, and when I work on behalf of the voice of the child sub-group of the Family Justice Council and speak to groups of young people throughout the country, I hear similar stories. They are appalled at the thought that some third party from the media might actually be privy to the very personal stuff that we read in the reports about them and the assessments. So the answer is yes.
Q207Mr. Timpson: So when we talk about greater transparency in the family courts, should we continue at this stage to concentrate on better information being provided to the public about what is going on in the courts, rather than introducing the media into these cases in the way that the Bill suggests? When answering that question, perhaps you could consider whether we need any primary legislation in this area, or whether this process should be achieved through those practice directions or any other mechanism?
Barbara Esam: The NSPCC takes the view that there are much better ways to achieve openness and transparency in relation to the family courts. The risks of the proposed legislation to the welfare of children are extremely high. That is coming from a number of different areas. The one that has already been mentioned in relation to children not being willing to say what has been happening to them, either to experts or to the court, leaves the court in the very negative position of potentially making decisions about children’s lives on insufficient information.
Secondly, there is a risk that, although, with the best will in the world, everyone will be doing their best to ensure that anonymity is preserved, from our experience at the NSPCC we know of young witnesses who have suffered distress. Even though their personal information was meant to be kept private, in the criminal courts, where they have given evidence about abuse they have suffered, in an unpalatable number of cases that information has slipped into the public eye and caused them incredible distress. It is very difficult to guarantee that there will not be this patchwork jigsaw putting together enough information to identify a child or the family.
There is also a risk in relation to experts, because experts would be named if phase 2 were to be implemented. From the NSPCC’s point of view, we would not say that we do not think experts should be named, but we would recognise what the Royal College of Paediatrics and the Royal College of Psychiatrists have said—that there is a problem with that in that there is already a very small pool of experts available to deal with these cases, and there is a risk that that pool of experts will become even smaller if the legislation were to be implemented.
The fourth risk area relates to time and money. The courts are already under incredible pressure in terms of delays. With additional applications there would be further delays and that would cost more money and have a detrimental effect on the welfare of children. Those are the risks.
Looking at the goal—openness and transparency—we would say that that is not the best way to achieve openness and transparency in relation to the family courts. For one thing, about 50 per cent. of the material is written material—reports and so on—which the media will not have access to under the new provisions. Therefore, they will be making decisions and doing reports based on limited information. That ties in with what Sir Mark Potter said about making reports based on limited information because they do not have to attend the entire trial, or the entire process within the family court.
In a nutshell, we think that this is the wrong direction and is moving prior to making a proper evaluation of what has happened so far. It was only in April that new provisions were implemented and November when the pilots started in relation to anonymised judgments. We think that there needs to be a step back from this and a look at other ways to open up information about the family courts, which we are 100 per cent. behind, but using anonymised judgments and the open days that some courts have had. There are other methods to achieve information and scrutiny that do not allow the media in as the provisions proposed in clause 40 will. We would really like to see clause 40 out of the legislation completely.
Q208Mr. Timpson: Bob, why is your profession so uninterested in what happens in family courts? In my 10 years of practice, I saw one journalist, who was only in our court because they were in the wrong courtroom. The evidence that we have since the rules were relaxed is that after an initial flurry of activity while the matter was still in the public eye, it almost dropped off the edge of the page. Why does the journalistic profession show so little interest in the area when it is clearly of such public interest?
Bob Satchwell: Everything that we have heard so far I understand, and I share the concerns. Anyone in the media would share the concerns about anonymity and all the problems that were raised. I do not think that we come to the same conclusions, obviously; otherwise I would not be here with something to say about it.
In answer to your question, the simple problem with how the courts have been opened up in a very small way is that it was somewhat rushed, it was not an opening up of the courts and it has not been done on the basis that the Secretary of State, Jack Straw, initially wanted it to be done and where he started from. It is important to go back to where he started from and where we are starting from.
I have a very simple view of justice. The first two principles are very important. The first is that justice should be fair to all parties, and the second is that it should be open. I think that that was the intention behind trying to open up the family courts. Part of the opposition to doing so leads to what I believe are the bad provisions in the Bill. We welcome the idea that the provisions are the problem and will not achieve the aim.
That is the heart of the answer to your question about why there has been very little interest. It has been impossible to report. We have asked all our members who have looked into it and tried to go in to report. In the end, they give up and say, “It’s just impossible. You’re not able to do anything of any real value to the public. You don’t know whether you’re going to be stopped in mid-course. You have to go and ask at every step.” There is a general, misguided antipathy to the idea of having journalists in court. It started with the idea that we almost had to be pariahs in court.
I understand how young people in particular might fear the idea of journalists being in court, but there is—
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