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28 JAN 2010

Children fear being bullied by proposals to expand media access to family courts

Interim research findings published by the Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, reveal how some children and young people really feel about the Government's proposal to allow the media to report on evidence from family court proceedings.

The research, which is being carried out by the University of Oxford, shows that most children and young people involved in family court cases would be unwilling or less willing to disclose maltreatment or talk about ill treatment by a parent, express their wishes and feelings and any problems they were having at school with a journalist present. This could seriously impact on a judge's ability to make difficult and often life changing decisions in their best interests.

Children and young people involved in the Commissioner's research say they are worried about further humiliation resulting from information about their families being placed in the public arena as this could lead to bullying in schools and communities.

Proposals to introduce new arrangements for the publication of information from family court proceedings, which would enable the media to report these proceedings more widely, were debated in Parliament last week as part of the Children, Schools and Families Bill. The Commissioner's interim research findings were passed to parliamentarians for them to consider the children and young people's views during the passage of the Bill.

Dr Julia Brophy, a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Family Law and Policy told the Public Bill Committee last week: "We have no real assessment of how the rules post-April 2009 are working, certainly from the perspective of children and parents. We want some monitoring of that to know how it is working before we move forward with the proposals in the second stage of the Bill.

"The notion that courts should be open unless there is a good reason for them not to be is problematic. Children and young people are also stakeholders here. If they are going to vote with their feet by saying nothing, the family justice system is going to be in a pickle. If the judges do not have the evidence that they need from children... they will be making decisions about children's safety and future on inadequate evidence.

"The measure is too quick, too hasty, with insufficient information. And if anything, the family justice system is supposed to be an evidence-based process."

The evidence gained to date by the Children's Commissioner also highlights children's scepticism at the power of the law, and other adults, such as lawyers and judges, to protect their privacy even if a formal ban exists on publishing information where they could be identified.

The children and young people stress the importance of them being told right from the start of the legal process that a journalist may be in court when they are giving evidence, before they disclose any information. They also feel strongly that judges or magistrates should seek children's views before deciding whether to admit the media to a hearing about their safety and care.

Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children's Commissioner for England said: "Our research findings to date are a cause for concern. We support the principle of openness but our overriding consideration is to protect the welfare of children. Transparency can be achieved in other ways such as publishing summaries of anonymised judgements.

"If these children and young people's concerns fail to be addressed in the Bill, we could be faced with a situation where they are unwilling to speak out during family court proceedings and this could result in their best interests not being met."

The Children's Commissioner's final report will be published in February.

To read the evidence regarding media access to family courts submitted to the Public Bill Committee, click here.


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