Finally the meeting with the President of the Family Court Division, Sir James Munby has come about and it is time to get some answers to pressing questions although I expect some answers to skirt around the question, now I am no Paxman but I think me and my three sisters in crime along with the brilliant Dr Julia Brophy got some decent answers given that we only had around an hour to get all of our questions answered.
Due to time restraints we skipped over the light hearted and polite ‘What are your views and experiences?’ kind of questions and went straight into the harder hitting why has the views of young people been ignored so far. Now in true political style he outlined how there is a difference between listening, accepting and agreeing with young people, or consumers of the judicial system which I agree; but there is also a difference between ticking boxes and acting upon the views, wishes and feelings of you consumers. The President outlined that he was keen to canvas young people more to gain their views and opinions, and that it had not been done enough in the past. I think we can all agree with him that no decision on transparency will be unanimously agreed upon, but I am not so sure about his views that half will always be upset with any decisions made.
In 2010 the government had promised a consultation with young people before moving forward with any more work on allowing the media greater access, the President explained that the legislation had been passed by a previous administration and it was his predecessor that had failed to act. The legislation had apparently not been enacted and was repealed before coming into force and that a lot of the previous work was done in private.
Now our next question may seem a rather contentious point, but we wanted to know if he had considered the consequences of media exposure for young people who have not consented and may be affected in the future. The President expressed how he had probably passed more judgements on this matter than many other judges and that decisions were always made whilst weighing up the immediate and future impact the exposure may have. The whole question came back to the fact that he felt anonymity could be achieved and that redacting too much information would just make a case insignificant ramblings (my words, not his).
Now in a tangential manner we went onto the consequences and he stated that there is no more unkind a person in the world than a bully in the playground who wants to be nasty. I think these words are something on which we can all agree, which is why more information needs to be redacted in order to illuminate the treat of jigsaw-identification and the consequences there of. With the access we have to information on one another through the internet this is easier than ever, I took the time to explain that identification can be made through meta data in images as well as their linked articles or social networking pages online, after this and some discussion on the internet as a form of media Sir James Munby proclaimed that ‘We have to try and do something about the web’ to which I giggled to myself thinking of all the recent discussion on freedom of the press and ranting’s of Jeff Jarvis (City University of New York, Professor of Journalism) on regulation of the internet.
To try and give our new friend some alternates to greater access for the media we discussed court open days and alike to which he replied that there are all sorts we could be doing and that some local judges are taking the initiative to organise court open days and such. His argument is that these are not accessible enough and that people get their information from social media and the news, to this I mused ‘Hasn’t he heard of eBooks?’ and the endless times the death of print media has been discussed over recent years, was it I or him who was missing something here? I mean there is more to be discussed later on but he’s missed our point.
Next was my turn to point out what had happened with Mirror Group and the phone hacking scandals which he must have seen coming at some point; can we actually trust the media with access to the most vulnerable people in society at probably one of their most vulnerable point in life? Apparently he believes it could be strictly controlled what the media print and that the threat of two years imprisonment for contempt of court is enough to keep the scape goat of an editor from printing anything identifiable or unethical.
I had to interject at this point and steal my colleague’s forthcoming thunder by asking if he thought these penalties were enough when they have potentially life damaging consequences. It may seem a shock but his response was blunt that they knew they could get away with hacking and this was because they were in bed with the police. Now the media have been allowed to attend family court proceedings since April 2009, this is something that the President is unaware of the MOJ (Ministry of Justice) monitoring, or the consequences there of.
Now to our knowledge no one has been harmed by these changes so far, and there are more cases reported on BAILII than ever before which is free to access globally. Now this being said he did admit that he had read about a judgement he had passed in a paper, but he had not recognised the case because it had been so mangled by the press and they had the wrong date. He claimed that it was most probably derived from the BAILII website, so doesn’t that prove our point that the media cannot be trusted?
Pointing out the gaffs of the media is easy enough, so we asked what he thought about people not knowing how to use their security settings appropriately on social media sites and the consequences there of to which we could have seen his answer coming a mile away that there is an endless struggle to ensure they [young people] are not identified and that Judges ensure that certain information is not published such as involved LA’s (Local Authorities) and particular institutions.
To this we circled back to the media breaking the rules and tried to drive home that once something is online, it’s online. If you take out a server, another can pop up within minutes. If you take out a publisher, someone abroad and outside of the jurisdiction of the UK can continue their work. He did not seem to get the fact that the web cannot be redacted and once the damage is done it can be permanent. No sanction can compensate for the loss of a job, friendships or even the cause of, or exacerbation there of mental health conditions.
Our final question, other than a quick photo op, was would he like his most intimate and vulnerable aspects of life spread across the tabloids with no control over what is printed and where. The answer is none of us would, but then he went on to defend his view on the matter of media in the family courts by stating that there are two irrevocable conflicts, the interests of the child and family and that we cannot run a private justice system where the state are taking peoples children away.
I agree with the two conflicts although is the media the right way to do this? We cannot run a system where everything is private, so we already have public access to BAILII judgements which are anonymised and we know that judges cannot really sensor the media.
Now I am proud of the final statement I left him to mill over in his mind, which is a quote from the Court of Appeal regarding media access:
‘They [the family] are bound to be harmed by immediate publicity, both because it would undermine the family as a whole and because the playground is a cruel place where bullies feed on personal discomfort and embarrassment.’ – LJ Ward (ETK v News Group Newspapers Ltd  EWCA Civ 439)
We are due to meet again to discuss things further in December.