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08 APR 2010

Family courts' plan threaten children's wellbeing, says Children's Commissioner

THURS 18/03/2010 - Children and young people's concerns about the Government's proposal to allow the media to report more widely on family court proceedings are revealed in new research undertaken by the University of Oxford and published yesterday by the Children's Commissioner for England, Dr Maggie Atkinson.

Despite the fact that any information released from the family courts must not identify children involved, the overwhelming view of children who took part in the Commissioner's research was that reporters should not be allowed into the family courts because the hearings address matters that are intensely private, embarrassing and humiliating.

The research, which was conducted by Dr Julia Brophy at the University of Oxford on behalf of the Children's Commissioner for England, reveals that many children and young people would not speak freely to professionals, including doctors and social workers, charged with undertaking assessments, if a reporter was in court to hear the evidence.

The Children's Commissioner is now calling for an independent review of the rules on media access to hearings in the context of children having a right to be heard in matters affecting their lives and in conditions that are conducive to their welfare and safety. This review will include a consultation with children and young people who are subject to family court proceedings.

Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children's Commissioner for England, 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.

"I support the principle of opening up the family courts but I strongly believe there are more workable and sensitive solutions that would better safeguard a child's identity. There have been highly successful open days in some courts to inform the public about proceedings. I also look forward with interest to the outcome of the Family Court Information Pilots to test whether judges should publish an increased number of summaries of anonymised judgments."

Last month the Government was forced to make concessions to its plans to further expand media access in the family courts. It accepted an amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill that requires a full independent review to media access in the family courts before any changes can be made to the current arrangements.

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