Privacy V Public Interest in Children’s Disputes

There has long been a debate concerning the tension between the public interest in understanding how the family courts reach their decisions and the privacy of the families who appear in those courts.

The public interest has prevailed and the press have been able to widely report on high and low profile family disputes.

What is often missed in the debate about transparency, but which our judges have always been acutely aware of, is that the vast majority of the work of the family court is concerned with the protection of vulnerable children.

Two recent cases demonstrate the opposing approaches that can be taken by the court to press reporting restrictions, both of which were intended to, and fortunately succeeded in, promoting the welfare of the children in question.

The fact that the press were completely unrestricted in their reporting of the recent case involving Rebecca Minnock and her three year-old Ethan was highly unusual.  Normally in cases involving child welfare issues, reporting restrictions are imposed which prevent the publication of the names of parents and children involved.

However in Minnock the Judge removed all of the usual reporting restrictions because it was, in his words, “really important that we work together – the court and the press – to find where this child is”.

A completely different approach to the issue of press reporting was recently taken by Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, in a case initiated after a couple had taken their four young children to Syria.

In that case, the police and Counter Terrorism Unit had disclosed to the court that they believed that the parents intended to join Islamic State.  It was also disclosed to the court that the Foreign and Commonwealth office had been collaborating with the Turkish and Moldovan Governments in an attempt to impound the family’s passports and prevent their onward travel to Syria.

The Judge therefore imposed a temporary prohibition on the publication of all information concerning the case because of the very real risk that the parents would have been tipped off by even anonymised reporting, which would have frustrated the multi-jurisdictional child protection measures that the court had ordered.

It is highly debatable whether increased transparency actually improves public faith in the working of the family justice system; most cases that are reported in the press divide public opinion, often on gender lines.

What is beyond debate is that our judges work tirelessly,  compassionately and flexibly to do the very best they can to protect vulnerable children.