Children's Commissioner: family court rules need review

The Children’s Commissioner for England has called for an independent review of rules governing media access to family courts after raising fears that greater public scrutiny could threaten children’s wellbeing.

Despite moves by the Ministry of Justice to open family courts to wider media examination, Dr Maggie Atkinson said more “workable and sensitive solutions” were available.

Last year journalists were granted access to the family courts, although they can report only an extremely limited amount of information, and are not allowed to identify any of the families involved in cases.

Atkinson said today research from her organisation showed that children were against reporters being given greater access to hearings in the family courts.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report – based on research by the University of Oxford – found those involved in family court proceedings did not trust the press to get facts right.

Respondents also feared stories would be sensationalised and that bullying would result, despite rules preventing identification.

The research team interviewed 51 people aged from nine to 23 about their experiences in family courts, of which 27 were in public law cases, such as care, and 24 in private law cases.

Most of those asked said reporters should not be allowed into cases at all – 79 per cent in the public group and 91 per cent in private.

In public courts 88 per cent of children and young people aged 11 to 17 said the presence of a journalist could discourage them from giving frank evidence, this was 45 per cent in private cases.

In a foreword to the research, Atkinson said: “I strongly believe there are more workable and sensitive solutions that would better safeguard a child’s identity.”

The report called for a review of media access to family cases involving children, keeping in mind their youngsters’ human rights.

Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England, said the opinions of young people must be included in the debate over what should be made public.

She said: “For any child or young person, a family court case is an extremely unsettling time. Their parents may be going through a divorce; they may have been physically abused or neglected by a parent.

“Intimate details of their lives, although anonymised, could appear in the media and remain in the public domain for life. It is only right that their views are included in debates about the information that the media can make public.”

Parliament is currently considering measures in the Children, Schools and Families Bill which the Government says could eventually allow more information to be reported from family courts.

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