Secrecy and Silence: It’s Time to Open Up the Family Courts

Articles

The doors of the family courts are firmly closed. While journalists can report freely on criminal cases, they are prohibited from telling the stories of parents and children going through care proceedings, divorce or domestic abuse cases in the family justice system. This veil of secrecy is supposedly designed to protect the privacy of vulnerable families, but it is also shielding a culture of complacency, incompetence and sluggish reform within these crucial courts.

For far too long, the secrecy allowed by the courts’ reporting restrictions has served to muffle the voices of the vulnerable and powerless. It has allowed injustice, misjudgement and dysfunction to flourish unchallenged. This broken system operates unchecked by public scrutiny, accountable only to itself. If we are ever to fix the deep-rooted problems in the family courts, it is time for this suffocating shroud of secrecy to be lifted. The rights of children and families to privacy must be balanced against the overwhelming public interest in exposing and reforming these vital courts.

Trapped in a Broken System

For adult and child victims of domestic abuse navigating the hostile environment of the family courts, the gagging orders prohibiting media reporting mean their harrowing stories cannot be heard. Their experiences highlight precisely why transparency and accountability is so urgently needed.

The government must now allow journalists to report on the family courts with anonymity safeguards where needed. Until this happens, the most vulnerable will continue to suffer in the shadows. Share on X

Behind closed doors, many tell of manipulative and violent ex-partners who are able to charm social workers and the judge, casting doubt on abuse allegations and securing court-ordered access to children. Parents find their own testimony dismissed and crucial corroborating evidence ignored, forced by decrees to hand over their terrified children to abusive ex-es. Vulnerable victims are disbelieved and dismissed by the very system built to protect them.

These injustices are allowed to fester and spread unseen, the secrecy serving only to muffle the voices of the powerless. Gagged from speaking out, victims have no recourse when the system fails them. The broken culture operates unchecked by public scrutiny, accountable only to itself.

A Deep Culture of Complacency

There are many dedicated professionals working tirelessly within the family courts but years of operating behind this iron veil of secrecy has engendered a culture of complacency and chronic errors going unchallenged. As one former children’s social worker described it: “It’s a pressure cooker environment, the support isn’t there and the workloads are immense.”

In this environment, poor practices and faulty decision making becomes normalised, with few willing to stick their heads above the parapet to call it out. Independent reviews have repeatedly found concerning inefficiencies – frequent missed deadlines, incomplete or cursory assessments, sparse analysis when making life-changing decisions over a child’s future.

If we are ever to fix the deep-rooted problems in the family courts, it is time for the suffocating shroud of secrecy to be lifted. Share on X

The high turnover of social workers due to intense caseloads means vulnerable children often have multiple case workers in quick succession. There is a lack of continuity in care. Social workers change so frequently they barely get to know the children. In this environment, poor practice continues unchecked.

Systemic Failure to Recognise Domestic Abuse

The secrecy of family courts also shields a systemic failure to adequately recognise and respond to domestic abuse. Reviews have repeatedly found an alarming lack of understanding of coercive control and its impact. Professionals often lack training in domestic abuse dynamics, unable to recognise the power and control exerted by perpetrators.

Survivors find their testimony dismissed when describing manipulative and controlling behaviour that doesn’t fit a narrow concept of physical violence. Abusers can often manipulate the system, presenting themselves as charming and reasonable. With professionals not trained to spot coercive control, the abuse is often minimised or doubted. The outcome can be catastrophic for the vulnerable, ordered by the court into the clutches of their abuser.

Dragging Feet on Urgently Needed Reform

Successive governments have been aware urgent reform is needed. The 2020 ‘Child Arrangements Programme’ report made 41 recommendations to address “serious safeguarding errors” when dealing with domestic abuse cases. It called for improved training, enforced timescales and greater scrutiny to protect abuse victims. Three years on, most of its proposals remain gathering dust.

The Ministry of Justice has dragged its feet on implementing reforms, seemingly resistant to external checks on its power. Campaigners report family court judges are often openly hostile to greater transparency. But maintaining the status quo is no longer an option when a dysfunctional system is putting vulnerable parents and children in danger.

The painful stories of domestic abuse survivors failed by the system must be told if we are ever to learn from past failures. The cycle of secrecy has shielded bad practices for too long. It serves no-one but the system itself. Share on X

It took years of sustained campaigning to finally allow journalists into the Court of Protection, where judges make decisions for adults lacking mental capacity. Dire warnings were issued that scrutiny would inhibit decision-making. The sky did not fall in. Opening these courts to journalists has served the public interest by exposing questionable practices. There are no more credible arguments left for maintaining this suffocating secrecy on the family courts.

The Public Interest Demands Transparency

We must bring balance to this uneven system, where the rights of vulnerable parents and children to privacy have long outweighed the need for transparency and reform. The cycle of secrecy has bred insularity, inertia and failure. If we are to fix the family courts, this must change.

Shedding light will force urgently needed reforms. It will give voice to the voiceless parents and children failed by the system. It will allow hidden dysfunction to be exposed and addressed. Yes, privacy concerns are real, but they can be managed. Anonymity orders and sensitive reporting will still guard families’ identities. The public interest is not served by allowing injustice and misjudgement to continue festering in the shadows.

It Is Time to Open the Doors

We cannot fix what we cannot see. The cycle of error, complacency and poor decision making destroying lives behind closed doors must end. The disinfectant of sunlight is the only solution to breeding reform. For too long, the system has hidden its own failures under the cloak of secrecy supposedly designed to protect the vulnerable. But it has served only to protect itself, not the people it was created to serve.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled public scrutiny of the courts is a fundamental principle of any democracy. Exposing the failings of the most opaque corners of the justice system is vital to uphold this basic tenet. Shedding light will also give impetus and urgency to delivering reform.

Most importantly, transparency and accountability will help ensure the safety and support of children is placed before all else when life-changing decisions are made. The painful stories of domestic abuse survivors failed by the system must be told if we are ever to learn from past failures. The cycle of secrecy has shielded bad practices for too long. It serves no-one but the system itself.

The time for minor tweaks, empty platitudes and defensive deflection from the family justice system is over. The government must now allow journalists to report on the family courts with anonymity safeguards where needed. Until this happens, the most vulnerable will continue to suffer in the shadows. We can wait no longer.


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