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Secrecy in the UK Family Courts

Posted: 10-08-2021

Dispatches on Channel 4 aired an interesting documentary on Tuesday 20th July 2021, regarding the family courts and the law that forbids cases being disclosed to any person outside who is not involved in the court hearing. The documentary was called ‘Torn Apart: family courts uncovered’.

Within the family courts, Judges and Magistrates face impossible decisions everyday about bitter disputes between parents.

Currently the law forbids any person involved in the court hearing from disclosing the outcome within the family court. Family court hearings are held in private and therefore the press are unable to attend hearings, unlike in criminal court cases. The law forbids parents talking publicly about their case even anonymously. This is to protect the privacy of the children involved and their identity from the public or media. This remains the case even where there is an injustice or serious human rights breaches. Therefore, nobody can reveal matters without express permission from the Judge to reveal details of a case.

Reporting Restrictions

These are rules, such as those in the Administration of Justice Act 1960 and the Children Act 1989, which limit the type of information that the press can publish about family law cases; and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – This guarantees the right to respect for private and family life. Because of the Human Rights Act 1998, family courts have to ensure this right is respected.

Within the Dispatches documentary they conducted a survey to legal professionals and parents using the family courts and it was found that ‘over 70% of Mothers and Fathers were unhappy with the outcome of their family case’ and ‘over 2000 parents felt the Judge in their case was actively hostile towards them’. (It should be noted that the replies received from this survey were self-selected.)

It was also found in some cases where a parent raised allegations of domestic abuse that these were not taken seriously by some Judges. Within Dispatches it was widely accepted that family Judges and Magistrates needed training within domestic abuse cases, in particular where children were being forced to have contact with a perpetrator who is deemed dangerous. Some victims were being failed by the system. However, not all Judges are the same and like anything there are exceptional Judges who fully understand the allegations raised by parents within the family courts and focus on the welfare of the child involved.

It was also found that where domestic abuse was raised by one parent that the other parent would counter argue against this and raise ‘parental alienation’.

What is Parental Alienation? It is psychological manipulation of children by one parent, so they become estranged from the other parent.  Parental Alienation can undoubtedly harm children and these claims are very damaging. Read more in our previous blog post.

The family courts agree that it is so important for children to have contact and have a meaningful, healthy relationship with both parents. There is a presumption in law that both parents should have contact and that is the right of the child not of the parent.

An example was given in the Dispatches documentary – where a mother was accused of brainwashing and causing psychological damage to the children because she was alienating them from their father. The children clearly expressed their wishes and feelings that they did not want to see their father. Within this case they were of an age that they could fully understand matters and that this should have been considered. However, these were disregarded, and the Judge felt it should make a drastic remedy looking at the short-term pain against the long-term benefit. Whilst looking at what’s in the ‘best interests of the child’. The Judge on this occasion ordered that the children should live with their father indefinitely so that they could repair their relationship. Even though the mother had not been proven to harm or present a risk to the child at all. These type of cases also depend on a parental alienation ‘expert’ witness, whose so-called skills are self-taught and non-regulated. The children did not leave, and the father returned the matter to the court to enforce the order. He applied for an order from the court to order tipstaff to remove the children from their mother’s home. The footage watched on Dispatches showed the police recording of them forcibly removing the children from their mothers’ home at midnight to take them to their fathers home which was ordered by the court. The video recording was very distressing to watch.

Dispatches also spoke to a young adult (aged 24 years), whom as a child was removed in the circumstances similar to the above. He was on three separate occasions removed from his mother’s care and placed in his father care. He explained that he was separated from his mother for 16 months. He explained it made him feel totally broken, dehumanised and caused long term depression and anxiety.

‘Julia’s husband – a convicted paedophile – took her to court 37 times to get access to their children after his past was exposed. But Julia’s nightmare continued for eight years.’

The emphasis of these stories is that no party were allowed to discuss with anyone how this outcome impacted on them emotionally and mentally. There are campaigners that have tried to remove the secrecy element within the family courts for many years without success.

The current law forbids disclosing matters and should this happen, they may be held in contempt of court which is punishable by way of a prison sentence or fine.

The Telegraph also looked at this area ‘Why I believe family courts need more scrutiny’.

Channel 4 – Dispatches – ‘Torn Apart: family courts uncovered

By Kim Walsh

Sousa Law are specialist Family Lawyers in Southampton, and we are committed to offering a helping hand during difficult times. For further information or advice, please call us on 02380 713 060, or email book a free initial consultation with a solicitor.