Scrutiny of family courts – what can we learn from Ireland?

IMG_6520

The family court building, Dublin

 

I’m recently back from Ireland, where I went on a mission to explore how the country’s Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP) works to provide scrutiny of their family courts and family law system. This blog should certainly have been written sooner, but I’ve been felled by a vicious bug, and am only now really able to collect my thoughts and attempt to analyse what I learned.

I made this trip because I am trying to figure out what might work in terms of achieving greater scrutiny of the family law system in the UK, so there is more transparency when the state intrudes into families’ lives, and better accountability for its methods, ethics and outcomes.

I’m tentatively calling this an Open Family Court pilot, and am hoping to advocate for it in meetings I have coming up with some people who might be able to help to make it happen.

 

Dublin visit

I met with solicitors, barristers, civil servants, the head of the biggest provider of Guardian at litem services, a human rights charity focusing on children with experience of care, and with judges. I also interviewed a journalist by telephone, spent a morning in a family court with one of the CCLRP’s rapporteurs (she is both a qualified barrister and a journalist), and interviewed the Project’s director, Dr Carol Coulter (who last autumn presented to the Association of Lawyers for Children conference in Bristol – here is her speech).

I tried over several weeks to arrange a meeting with Irish social workers, but this didn’t work out. I also didn’t have the chance to speak to any families who had been through the care system. Both are a real shame and I acknowledge that it is a significant gap.

The reactions from everyone I met to the Child Care Law Reporting Project were broadly very positive, with some criticisms. I will do my best to set out both in this post.

The first thing to note is that applications to remove children into care in Ireland are made not by local authorities, but by a central government body, the Child and Family Agency (also known as Tusla). This means that accountability issues on care applications are predominantly for central government to face. And helpfully, if you don’t need to name a local authority in order to hold the state to account, then worries around family identification relating to geography substantially fall away.

Of course, local authority areas in England hardly comprise tiny populations, but the fact that the Child Care Law Reporting Project does not need to – and indeed has chosen not to – name where care cases are heard, has probably helped considerably in countering arguments that detailed reporting of hearings risks identifying families.

Secondly, there is considerable protection given to families in the Irish Constitution.

Screenshot 2019-03-29 at 13.35.25Screenshot 2019-03-29 at 13.35.57

There is no constitution in England and Wales. And I was told several times that the protections provided in the Irish constitution results in the courts being exceptionally wary when considering the removal of children from their parents. Interim care orders are made for 28 days, and often renewed repeatedly rather than applications being made for full care orders. Longer time-limited – one and two year – care orders  are common. Adoption without parental consent almost never happens, though the conditions in which it can take place have recently been very slightly relaxed. And care numbers in Ireland are currently going down, though numbers of voluntary agreements for children to live with their wider family members are going up.

Thirdly, the fact that families are highly unlikely ever to have their child adopted, does, I sense, takes some of the fury and heat out of the child protection debate. Here there is undoubtedly very great fear within families that care proceedings, particularly when they concern young children, might lead to parents, siblings and relatives losing their relationship with a child for ever. Not having the spectre of adoption hanging over them also, I venture, may well affect the relationship parents in Ireland have with the state and therefore the social workers they come into contact with: because the government is vanishingly unlikely to intrude quite this drastically into family life, there is perhaps not the visceral terror related to anticipated permanent loss, and therefore maybe a better chance of constructive working.

Fourthly, journalists in Ireland do not only have the right, as does the media here, to attend family court cases held in private: quite differently from in the UK, they are permitted to report the detail of those cases, and this does happen, though only typically for controversial cases. The legislation provides for the ability to impose restrictions on publication of information from family cases, and there are really draconian penalties – 50,000 Euro fines and a possible three years in clink – for any reporting that identifies a child or family.

But, critically, the starting point is that journalists may publish details of family cases held in private.

This is the direct opposite of the situation in the UK, where the starting point is that they may not. This is something I would very much like to reverse.

Nevertheless, I was told by Shane Phelan, legal affairs editor of the Irish Independent, the penalties have a rather chilling effect on editors’ willingness to cover family cases, even if they could stomach the resource implications of sending reporters to multi-day trials.

Finally, it’s important to understand that the Child Care Law Reporting Project does not, apart from specifying when cases are held in Dublin, identify the area of the country in which a case is heard, nor name the judge, social workers, experts or Guardians. Families of course are not identified either.

___

On the Monday morning that I arrived at the offices of the CCLRP, it had just released a report to the media. This report was unusual in that it did not detail any individual family cases, but described instead the pressures of lists in the district courts around the country that sometimes ran to 90 and 100 cases. District judges in the smaller towns, the Project’s rapporteurs had found, were dealing with issues like child contact, maintenance and domestic violence as well as public law care cases, all in the course of a day. While in bigger cities, care cases are dealt with on dedicated days, in the smaller and commuter towns, these cases were being squashed into more general lists, and the media was running stories about it on radio, tv and in print.

Coulter had previously told me that every time the Project releases a report, there is considerable media interest and even though there was no “sensational” family case described in this report, the media was certainly talking about the issues it raised: Coulter had been up early doing radio interviews, and dashed out of our meeting to give another one mid-way through the morning.

Only shortly before, a different report detailing six-months worth of lengthy, highly contested and problematic family cases had shown that homelessness was an increasingly frequent reason for courts being reluctant to allow children to return to their families: this issue too had been comprehensively picked up by the media.

___

“At the outset, civil servants and the Child and Family Agency (CFA) were not enthusiastic about us,” Dr Coulter told me, between radio interviews. “They had this fear that all journalists do is look for problems, which I understand. But we designed our attendance at court to be as randomised as possible, based on court statistics on volumes. I think, with some caveats, we get a more or less representative sample, and I think they were at least somewhat reassured.”

Coulter  designed a reporting protocol based on anonymisation best practice as carried out by responsible media outlets: the protocol is the mechanism whereby the Project’s reporters do not breach legislation on identification. “It wasn’t reinventing the wheel: it was based on how the media ensures it doesn’t name, for instance, victims of sexual offences,” said Coulter. “We train our new reporters in it.”

Coulter explained that many of the cases the CCLRP has written about are not contested, or are short and relatively simple, with only a very small number being highly contested. “If you were doing this journalistically,” she pointed out, “you’d go for highly contested, and that’s certainly important. But it’s not very useful in looking at the issues faced by vulnerable children across Ireland.”

This measured approach was specifically noted, and regarded as important by several of the people I later spoke to in the sector.

“The beauty of Carol’s work is that she’s not only looking at the worst cases,” said Freda McKittrick, a social worker by background who has worked in both England and Ireland, and is now assistant director of the Guardian Ad Litem service at the charity Barnardo’s Ireland.

She  believes that by describing the detail of public law care cases, the Project has given policy makers an insight into what is happening in child protection across the board. “That might be on the ethnicity of parents, or what proportion of care orders are granted compared to those asked for. This is not data that’s collected by the state.”

McKittrick also believes that reporting has raised society’s awareness of and sensitivity to child abuse. “Our perception is that the general public have had no idea of the level of misery that these children experience, and we can’t talk about it,” she said.

She expressed concern about whether children’s views on whether their cases should be reported, even anonymously, are ever solicited, let alone taken into account.

“The Guardian Ad Litem relationship has limits to its confidentiality already; we have to tell children that their information will appear to parents, also to other lawyers – should we also be saying ‘and it might also appear in the papers’?”

But she also observed that, as a Guardian who had built a relationship with a child, “you would know a child who was very sensitive to information and other children who would like people to know what happened in their case”.

Overall, McKittrick’s view was that “you need to look at the value of the reporting. And balance it against the rights of the individual child and also their anonymity and their consent.

“Having said that,” she concluded, when the Project began reporting, “the world didn’t fall in.”

____

I met John McDaid, the chief executive of Ireland’s Legal Aid Board, and a lawyer who formerly worked on child care cases, on my first afternoon in Dublin.

Is the Child Care Law Reporting Project effective in holding the state to account, I asked him.

“I think we’ve made giant strides but there is a way to go,” he said. “I think the fact Carol’s team even go into the district courts may make people behave a little more carefully than might otherwise have been the case.

“Historically there was no scrutiny and everything was private, so anything could go on.”

I laugh to myself a little hollowly. That’s pretty much where we are in the UK, I thought.

But what about more overt media interest in family cases… what would he think of journalists reporting more enthusiastically from family courts?

“I’d have no problem with it.” McDaid said firmly.

“In terms of greater levels of press scrutiny it’s good. The risk is the level of experience of the journalist, and the level of understanding of what is taking place in court.”

____

Catherine Ghent and Seona Ni Mhurchu are solicitors who represent children and families. Ghent introduced me to the delights of breakfast at the food emporium and cafe extraordinaire Dollard and Co, on the south bank of the river Liffey, before dashing to court on the Tuesday morning. Ni Mhurchu was kind enough to meet me in her office the following day before her court commitments.

Of journalists reporting on family cases, Ghent said: “I see public discourse as a way to hold judges, lawyers and the state to account.” However she also felt strongly that it was important that entire cases were observed, rather than journalists coming in for one day out of three or four.

“The problem is you need to be there for a long time, not only so that you get to see the whole progression of the case, and get a feel for the dynamics between professionals, parents, lawyers and the judge, but also so the judge forgets you’re there. It’s then you’d see how conduct of the case affects the evidence put before the court, affects how professionals give their evidence and how – and if – it’s properly heard.

“In cases where solicitors and social workers are bullied into not putting evidence they want to before the court, or are stopped from cross-examining for spurious reasons, it’s really dangerous for the system because it’s having a knock-on effect in terms of what case will be put forward on behalf of the child,” she continued. “Courts then make decisions with incomplete information. These are cases where children are at risk from dangerous decisions being made. And then you have other judges riding roughshod over parents’ rights, and if that had been reported at all…”

She also said that there are some “excellent judges trying their best to deal with difficult cases, who are very skilled and do a great job”: her view is that problematic judges are thankfully a rare minority “but one is too many given the ramifications for children and parents”.

I’m surprised she’s willing to be so publicly critical, but Ghent says she has made her opinions openly known.

“The whole system becomes complicit,” she says. “It’s a human reaction to want to avoid conflict.

“You need a complaints mechanism beyond judicial review. There needs to be an accountability mechanism. Because you have judges who are conducting family hearings in camera, and in courts that are open, you don’t get away with that.”

Although she said there is some excellent reporting and it plays an important role in terms of informing the public, Ghent is not uncritical of the Child Care Law Reporting Project: “What’s missing from the reporting is an analysis of the atmosphere (in court),” she said. “Where the judge’s conduct is relevant to how the case has proceeded and if that conduct is problematic, then that should be reported to give the full picture.” She felt this was a difficult line to walk for the Project in terms of its remit and observed that it highlights a need for a wider mechanism for accountability within the courts system.

___

Across the river, in Seona Ni Mhurchu’s office, the solicitor recalled the reaction among lawyers and social workers when the CCLRP was first proposed: “Oh, the scaremongering!” she laughs.

I ask whether she believes the potential risks of children being identified as a result of family cases being reported have ever materialised.

Ni Mhurchu says there have been only a very few instances: identification has occurred not because of CCLRP reporting, she said, but because individual news journalists had failed to understand the law which states that no child who is in care may be publicly identified as such. She cites one case, in which a journalist reporting on the inquest of a child (who had not been not in care), wrote that they had a sibling who was fostered.

She also emphasised that there are situations in which reporting public law family cases “really matters.”

“I think the Child Care Law Reporting Project has brought to the fore the extent of child sexual abuse in our society – around 70% of my cases have an element of that in it,” she explained. In one such case a few years ago, reporting by the wider media was, she says, “really helpful.”

Is reporting worth the danger of identification, I asked?

“I think it’s so important that there is scrutiny. I think it trumps any downside.”

“Unfortunately you have to take that risk. Before (the CCLRP) here was no oversight at all. Having that journalistic oversight – it changes things. And there is an overwhelming benefit to people in understanding what is happening in these cases and how difficult social workers’ jobs are.”

Pol O Mhurchu, her father, a renowned family law solicitor in Dublin, popped his head round the door. I grabbed the chance to ask what he thinks about the CCLRP, and scrutiny of family law systems.

“It’s very good idea, very important,” he said. “Because it’s starts right here. I need someone to check on me. Because it’s much healthier. I know that I need to be open to that.”

And yes, he said, he would accept the risk of a family being identified for the benefits gained through better scrutiny.

He also says that everyone involved “must make every effort to avoid it.”

___

Terry Dignan, chief executive of the human rights charity EPIC which supports children with experience of care, had tried very hard to arrange for me to meet some of the young people he works with, but this had unfortunately proved tricky to achieve.

Instead, I met with both him and EPIC’s head of policy, Karla Charles.

Dignan offered a surprising perspective on the right to privacy as it relates to family cases. “Talking about the ‘in camera’ principle,’ he said, “whose interest is best served? What about young people who go on social media and identify themselves as being in the care system?” Under Irish law, he pointed out, this isn’t permitted.

Of this blanket rule not to identify children who have been subject to care proceedings, he said: “You wonder why it’s being used as such a blunt instrument. Obviously, we shouldn’t be publishing the details of why they’re in care. But just the fact that they are in care – why are we increasing the stigma? Rather than reducing the stigma by normalising the fact that a child is in care.”

When I asked about the possibility of children being identified as a result of reporting, Dignan’s response was: “I have no doubt that some children feel that they don’t want it known. But others do tell their peers that they are in care.”

Karla Charles then posed a fascinating question, to which of course we don’t know the answer:

“It would be interesting to go to care leavers and ask, would it have bothered you to have your case anonymised and published?”

___

My final meeting – apart from a fascinating lunch with a group of senior family judges, which I can’t report on – was with a civil servant at the Irish government’s Department of Child and Youth Affairs (DCYA). He oversaw the recent three year funding agreement with the CCLRP.

It was this official’s perception that the Project’s reporting is “scrupulously neutral.”

“It’s more like a research project,” he said. “It’s not positioned as existing in order to call out the failings of the judiciary or others. Its reports are descriptive rather than commentary.”

In terms of people’s original fears that the Project’s work risked identifying children and families, he points out that while this is not a widespread problem, court rules occasionally already fail to prevent families and professionals being identified on social media, as people release details of their own cases across various online platforms. “Carol has established an effective protocol to ensure that the reports do not in any way identify parties and that this has been effective now for a number of years,” he said.

The DCYA has made a significant financial commitment to support the Project’s work: the benefit, the official said, is that its reports bring emerging trends in public law care cases to the attention of national media and the attention of government. “As an example, reports have highlighted the length of time children are spending in care under renewed interim care orders,” he said. “This has implications for their wellbeing and also has resource implications, so clearly that’s an issue that may require a policy response.”

And what if the CCLRP didn’t exist?

“We would miss it,” he said. “It’s a good spot check, and while it has to be seen as indicative, and as flagging issues rather than analysing them in depth – we couldn’t make policy on the basis of its findings alone – it does tell us where we need to look and where we might need to do more.”

____

My conclusions from my visit, are as follows:

Despite widespread initial misgivings throughout Ireland’s family law and child protection sector, the CCLRP appears to have become widely accepted as a valuable tool in holding the Irish state to account in public law care cases, and is used and appreciated by policy makers for the information it provides that is not otherwise available.

The Project’s neutrality is valued, as is the fact that it does not cherrypick the “juicy” cases, or attend only those which are highly contested.

There remains a degree of concern that children might be identified via reporting of family courts, though this has very rarely happened, and never so far as a result of reporting by the CCLRP. This may be because its reporters are specifically trained in its anonymisation protocols and also, there is no pressure of time in terms of publication, as there will always be in news reporting (though less so for longer pieces/documentaries/investigations).

There was a strong sense from everyone I spoke to that the risk of identification needs to be tolerated in order to ensure the state can be held to account for its intrusions into family life, and very importantly, in order that those who are involved in the system, and those whose policies shape it, can improve on what they do to protect vulnerable children.

___

Reflections

As a journalist, my job is make things that are hidden, known: to help people see what currently they don’t – or can’t.

The media doesn’t itself reform, though it may at times campaign.

So my ambition for this Open Family Court pilot – in whatever form it takes – is to allow people to understand better what they currently have little chance of grasping, because family law processes are private, and hearings are held in such restrictive conditions that despite UK journalists’ entitlement to be present in court, we are left with what I’d argue amounts to a judicial process exercised in secret.

The only consideration, in my view, which needs to be taken seriously in relation to reporting, is the risk that children might be identified. The CCLRP has two significant mechanisms to help avoid this: the distance in time between a case being heard and the reporting of it, and the fact that there is no need in Ireland to identify a local authority as the agent of the state.

My feeling is that arguments for some degree of delay in reporting may have some value in helping prevent identification, even if in journalistic terms, a time-lag is very far from ideal – if you do not report something at the time it happens or very shortly afterwards, you might easily find you can never report it at all.

But in the UK, where local authorities are the arm of the state which both propose and heavily influence drastic and life-changing intrusions into families’ lives, failing to identify who is doing what would make the exercise of reporting pretty well pointless.

Not only would it mean we could not identify where poor practice and human rights breaches were taking place, so that the prompt of public knowledge can add salutory impetus to drive change: it would also mean that councils’ good practice could never be identified either.

Next week, I’m meeting with three other journalists who between them have considerable experience of reporting on family courts, to try to thrash out what we feel might be an acceptable and useful way forward for an Open Family Court pilot.  I’ll follow that up with a blog about what we’ve discussed.

If anyone has any feedback on the findings of my Dublin trip, or constructive suggestions on how an Open Family Court pilot might shape up, I’d very much welcome your comments!

Oh, and yes, Dublin did have excellent cakes.

IMG_6510

 

Louise

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s