Jack Straw’s plan to name social workers in family courts ‘breaches human rights’

Plans to allow the media to name social workers in family court cases are being opposed strongly by judges and lawyers, who warn that the change could breach human rights laws. They have expressed “grave concerns” that the latest tranche of reforms to open up the courts may drive away experts and violate children’s rights to privacy.

The Family Justice Council, chaired by Sir Mark Potter, the most senior family judge in England and Wales, is “extremely concerned” that the media will have access to confidential medical and social work reports.

The forum of lawyers, judges, social workers, academics and others in the family justice system said the potential for “naming and shaming” social workers could be contrary to children’s interests.

At a recent meeting, Professor Judith Masson, a family law academic from the University of Bristol, condemned the proposals as “wholly misconceived” and expressed “strong doubts” that they were compliant with human rights laws.

A paediatrician added that providing medical reports could conflict with rules on confidentiality while a psychologist said that the result would be sanitised reports of less value to the court. Fears were also expressed that the move would deter people from becoming social workers and that judges would face heavy criticism from the media if they refused to lift anonymity provisions.

Jack Straw plans to include proposals in his Schools and Safeguarding Children Bill to be introduced in the new session of Parliament in November. The Justice Secretary told The Times in July that the opening of the courts to the media for the first time in April was marred by reporting restrictions.

He said that he wanted to rationalise reporting rules in line with youth courts, so that the media would be able to report the substance of a family case and not just the “gist”, unless a judge ruled otherwise.

The plans would build on reforms that allow the media in to thousands of family hearings — from taking children into care to disputes over contact — after a campaign by fathers’ groups, politicians and the media led by The Times.

But the Family Justice Council members say that the parallel with youth courts is misconceived. In the youth courts there are allegations of criminal behaviour while in children’s cases in the family courts, children are “caught up in events not of their making”, they said.

Marilyn Stowe, senior partner with Stowe Family Law LLP, said reporting of judgments in family proceedings should be sufficient to lift the secrecy of family courts. She added that details such as identities or financial matters in divorce cases, for example, should remain private.

Andrew Greensmith, a leading member of Resolution, the 4,000-strong association of family lawyers, expressed concern that ministers were moving very quickly on proposals. This week ministers will meet those involved to discuss the proposals, but there is no consultation period for written comments.

Mr Greensmith, a family partner with Dickson Haslam, in Preston, said: “We support openness but our concern is that this consultation is rushed and likely to be inadequate.”