12:36, August 03 51 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-03 12:36:03
Charlie Gard’s case shows why our family courts must lift their secrecy

The tragic case of 11-month old Charlie Gard, who died last week after a protracted legal battle, shone a rare spotlight on the role of courts in disputes between parents and the authorities. In Charlie’s case his parents were disputing the medical treatment their young son was receiving, or not receiving. Unusually for a family hearing, the parents’ arguments and those of Great Ormond Street hospital were aired in open court.

Journalists reported on every hearing. This means that the ethics as well as the legal merits of his family’s wishes, doctors’ recommendations and the court’s decisions were able to be debated extensively in public as each ruling was handed down. Last year, however, approximately 18 disputes relating to medical treatment were heard by judges in England, as well as a further 10 so far this year. All of these are likely to have been heard in private, with journalists not able to report the proceedings in any detail.

And it’s not just medical cases involving children that are often heard behind closed doors. Recently I was in a regional family court, watching as a case about a child in the care of the state unravelled in front of a judge. I was taking notes on what I saw and heard because it’s a journalist’s reflex to do so, but in truth there was not much point me being there.

I couldn’t report on how the mother’s barrister challenged the local authority’s evidence, forensically unpicking its arguments until it was clear just how misguided the social workers’ proposal for adoption for this child was. I couldn’t quote the judge, or even describe his response to the evidently awful effects of the local authority’s mismanagement of the case on the child and mother.

This is because I was in a family court and, unlike in criminal trials or in Charlie Gard’s case – because his parents publicised his plight before it came to court – family cases are almost always heard in private. This is to protect parents’ and children’s privacy. Although journalists are allowed to watch, we are normally not permitted to report more than the general gist of what happens at a hearing, even if we anonymise all those involved (though the judge’s subsequent written judgments are sometimes published).

If I do report the details of what goes on at a hearing, I can be fined and jailed for contempt. This is chilling to journalism, because despite a significant public interest in this kind of story, news outlets unsurprisingly aren’t keen on having their reporters bankrupted and banged up.

To an extent, I get it: sensationalised reporting has the potential to further damage young and vulnerable people who may already have been harmed. But being banned from independently reporting flagrant failures in social work practice as they are revealed in court actively obstructs public understanding of the harm being done by state agencies when child protection goes wrong. This lack of transparency means it can take a very long time for anyone other than insiders to comprehend the scale of the disaster for vulnerable families.

Ofsted doesn’t just inspect schools: it inspects local authority children’s services too, and its recent excoriating report on these services in Gloucestershire has left many angrily questioning why it has taken six years for the “serious and widespread failures” of the senior leadership team and social workers to be revealed. A previous “inadequate” Ofsted judgment on aspects of children’s services was published in 2011. Since then, inspectors say, the quality of support given to families has “deteriorated significantly”.

Actually quite a lot of people knew, including me, but because of reporting restrictions on saying what really happens in family courts – pretty much the only place where poor social work practice visibly plays out – it has been impossible to explain the many failures in all their shocking detail.

Gloucestershire is my local authority. My children live there. And so, ever since family lawyers, traumatised parents, worried councillors and eventually even whistleblowers began telling me about dire social work practice across the county, I have tried to publicise the concerns they have raised. I’ve written national news pieces on judgments published by the most senior family judge in the region. Professionals told me that every time one of these articles was published, there were ructions in the council. But it wasn’t enough. In part, I believe that’s because I’ve never been able to write a detailed piece on what I’ve seen when a council brings a badly conceived care case to court.

Last week, very unusually, a judge at Gloucester family court allowed my application to report the detail of what went on in a hearing at which it emerged that a breastfeeding child had been unlawfully removed by Gloucestershire county council from its mother. But in other family cases, shouldn’t we be allowed to report when a local authority acts contemptuously in contravention of a court order, or when a child protection team leader is reprimanded for acting unfairly to a parent at risk of losing their child?

Shouldn’t the public know when a judge is furious at delays that damage a child’s chance of adoption, or when it emerges that a social worker has deliberately altered records to strengthen the council’s case against the parents?

In the vast majority of cases, I can’t dash out of court to report on what I’ve observed. Instead, I have to wait to see if the judge opts to publish a judgment. Even then, all I can say is what the judge has chosen to make public.

The insidious effect of stringent reporting restrictions on family cases continues even when a social worker has been found by a judge to be lying. I am currently trying to write a story about a different case in a different city, where it was demonstrated in court that a social worker had fabricated evidence and then lied about having done so . This could not be more serious – a mother and child could have been parted for good, and the social worker in question must now attend a disciplinary hearing.

I want to talk to the child’s guardian (who is appointed by Cafcass, the independent body that represents the child’s best interests in family court cases). The guardian is happy to speak, but Cafcass has just told me this isn’t allowed: understandably, it doesn’t want to put an employee at risk of being in contempt.

It would be overstating the power of journalism to presume that reporting is the complete answer to uncovering all the failings of a council whose children’s services department is suffering a severe shortage of experienced social workers and high case loads. But media coverage can make a difference: court reporting of the Oxford gang sexual exploitation trial demonstrated clearly the pulverising effect on traumatised girls of multiple defence barristers being able to cross-examine them, one after another, often for days.

I have yet to come across any function of the state that works better in secret. I’m guessing that’s why council meetings, parliamentary debates, criminal trials and election counts are all held in public. The law that prevents reporting of what goes on in family courts is meant to protect individual children’s interests, but it is clearly now working to hide bad, and even sometimes unlawful, social work practice.

Louise Tickle is a freelance journalist who writes for the Guardian on education, social affairs and family law