LITTLE CHILDREN

Against my better judgment, my daughter persuaded me to watch a film entitled Little Children the other night. It starred the morose Kate Winslett, bucking for another Oscar and rapidly turning into the poor man’s Meryl Streep, together with an utterly forgettable supporting cast.

Basically, it’s a film set in Little Town America, where prejudices are as hard as granite, and into their midst is released a paedophile convicted of indecent exposure towards a minor, so hardly the crime of the century. LTA is on red alert, exacerbated by a self styled vigilante, who patrols the streets handing out leaflets and shouting from the rooftops. The film ends with the paedophile’s mother dying whilst trying to protect him from this concerted campaign of vilification, and he committing a gross act of self mutilation in the town park. All very gory and not suitable for family viewing.

I suppose the author’s message was that the paedophile was never given a chance to integrate into life in LTA, and was persecuted out of all proportion to his crime and the threat he might have posed. The oxygen of publicity all but suffocated him.

Which brings me seamlessly on to the modest reforms announced by the Ministry of Justice last year, and due to come into effect on the 27th April. In short, family courts are to be opened to the public, and by that, I mean the media, as the public, for the most part, are not remotely interested in watching dirty linen being washed in the full glare of publicity. But the ‘crusaders’ in favour of open courts have been told that judges will have the right to prevent reporting in certain cases, and to exclude the public and the media if they deem it necessary in the interests of justice.

The Times newspaper was at the forefront of this crusade, giving an inordinate amount of coverage to the views of one Camilla Cavendish, about whom I know nothing. The received wisdom from The Times commentators is that these reforms are likely to be still born if judges have their way, and CC and her camp followers have climbed back into the pulpit.

The Media, by definition, report the sensational and especially the prurient for mass consumption. If it isn’t sensational, they make it so, as this sells copies. But the Media are also slow to correct factual errors, witness their correction columns buried in the inside pages, where brevity is their watchword. Give a dog a bad name and hang it can so easily become reality, and where families are concerned, where raw emotions are never far from the surface, and with children being used as bargaining chips in bitter disputes between parents, the oxygen of publicity can indeed be suffocating.

Leave aside the real risk that with the media present, the truth will be concealed, or at least glossed over, how can families at war be helped if they are looking over their shoulders all the time, watching some news hound scribbling away, knowing that their every word may be reported and distorted?

In these days of global communications and hot press wires, Darren and Sharon squabbling over Kylie and Wayne can make for good headlines, especially if there are allegations of abuse, with all the trimmings. A quiet day in Fleet Street can turn a routine family case into a multimedia circus and do untold damage.

Finally, it is worth remembering that family cases often involve several hearings, especially if custody of the children is in issue. There will be reports from Social Services, Court appointed officers, the children will have their own guardian, possibly paediatricians, psychologists and psychiatrists, to ensure that no stone is left unturned in the best interests of the children. And the likelihood is that the media will become bored after the parties’ opening position statements, and so, several months later when the case concludes, the media will have exhausted their feeding frenzy and moved on. And what remains? Graphic headlines pillorying one party or another will never be corrected, and those pilloried will have to live with the stigma that was patently untrue and never of their making.

So I applaud the restrictions placed on open access to family courts. Presumably the media will have the same rights to challenge an exclusion order or a reporting restriction as they do routinely under the Contempt of Court Act 1984. It should be all about fairness. There is no room in the family courts for sensationalism, and long may it remain.

FAMILY JUSTICE

As a barrister specialising in family and matrimonial law, I have followed with interest Camilla Cavendish’s “crusade” about the apparent iniquities perpetrated by the caring agencies and Family Courts when dealing with vulnerable children. In short, she asserts in no uncertain terms that the Law is letting down British children.

I must confess that I have never heard of Camilla Cavendish, so I cannot comment on her level of expertise in this difficult field, nor the reliability of her extensive researches. However, I can comment based on my own experiences, and in my opinion, many of her fears in practice are groundless.

I start with a self evident truth. Any child being abused by its parents must be removed without delay to a place of safety, and any child not being abused by its parents should remain with them, assuming a safe and secure family environment. That said, the caring agencies, and many find themselves under attack in these articles, are between a rock and a hard place. If they act precipitately, as perceived by Ms. Cavendish, they are roundly condemned as unfeeling and incompetent, and if they don’t act quickly enough, or not at all, there is a dead child to lament. So if I have to make the choice, I prefer precipitate action than no action at all.

The problem with “crusades,” now taken up in The Times leader today, is that they can unwittingly distort the truth by their very partiality, and nobody can accuse Ms. Cavendish of being impartial. She obviously feels strongly about injustices, real or imagined, and by inviting her readers to join her “crusade,” she and those of like mind will simply repeat her mantra.

Returning to my own professional experiences, I am quite satisfied that in Care and Adoption proceedings, everybody involved gets their chance to speak and make representations. The in depth reports from Social Services, CAFCASS, psychologists, psychiatrists, and the children’s Guardian ad Litem are disclosed to all parties well in advance of each hearing. The authors of these reports are always available in court to be questioned and challenged.

The Guardian’s role is essential, in that he or she is there to protect the best interests of the children who are the subject of care or adoption proceedings, and where they are old enough to express their own views, these are included in the Guardian’s report.

The judge, invariably a senior circuit judge, has a wealth of experience to bring to these proceedings, and nothing goes through “on the nod”. It is absurd to suggest that any application is well founded simply because it is made. It is subjected to the closest scrutiny.

I turn now to Ms. Cavendish’s two main complaints about the system, firstly that court proceedings are held in camera, and secondly that the judgment of the court is rarely made public. I agree with the present position, which denies access to the press and public. Proceedings involving children are always sensitive, and if parties are to be encouraged to speak frankly about sensitive matters, they are more likely to do so in private than in public.

As to her second complaint, I have some sympathy, particularly where the judgment of the court is subsequently challenged, and I would advocate making all judgments public unless they are compelling reasons to the contrary. However, each case must be considered on its own particular facts.

The one substantial complaint I have as a practitioner is the delay between the initial application and final judgment. The arguments in support of the present drawn out system revolve around the need for thorough and in depth research, that no stone should remain unturned. And Amen to that. But the system can, and must, be improved. It is unacceptable that CAFCASS takes up to sixteen weeks to prepare a report, and much the same criticism can be levelled at Social Services. The courts must also play their part. Sensitive cases involving children must be listed as a priority, and a much better and tighter timetabling regime introduced.

As for Ms. Cavendish, I do not question her motives or the zeal she brings to her “crusade,” but methinks the lady doth protest too much!