Family court cases highlighted by the media should be investigated for any failures to protect children and other vulnerable victims, the President of the Family Division has claimed.
Speaking at a recent conference on domestic abuse held by legal charity Support Through Court (formerly known as the Personal Support Unit), Sir Andrew McFarlane endorsed the interest taken by some newspapers in the family court system, noting that two are currently running campaigns on the issue.
But he highlighted a disconnect between the personal accounts often given to journalists and the rulings subsequently published, which are routinely anonymised:
“In almost every case the journalists will have little more information than an account given to them by one or other parent. Whilst a growing number of family court judgments are published, they are published anonymously and the judgment in the particular case that has been referred to the media may either not be published or, if published, not readily identifiable as being the judgment relating to the parent who is speaking to the journalist.”
This meant that even he was often unable to properly investigate the cases reported by the press.
“From my perspective, when reading such media reports, which I can assure you I do, I am left, having read the worrying headline and short account in the paper, with an inability to identify the individual parent or children concerned and no ability, therefore, to call for the court file to see what has happened in the particular case.”
This was, said Sir Andrew, a “wholly unsatisfactory position” which “cries out for a thorough independent research project”.
Britain’s most senior family law judge continued:
“A starting point would be for the researchers to take up each and every case that has been properly highlighted in the press and then be allowed access to the court file, the orders made and, particularly, the statement of the reasons given by the judges and the magistrates for making any court order. I and the family judiciary as a whole would readily cooperate with such research, so that if mistakes have been made or, more worryingly, if the system as a whole is at fault, that can be seen to be the case and immediate steps may be taken to enhance the safety of victims and children in the future.”
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