When accountability and privacy collide…

The Transparency Project (which I chair) are facilitating a debate on 5 December in Bristol looking at the question of whether privacy should trump accountability. It’s taken quite a lot of effort to pull together, but I think you’ll agree the line up is pretty sooper, and I hope that this – together with some enthusiastic audience participation – will make for a rounded and useful discussion of what is quite a chunky topic.

We have HHJ Wildblood QC in the chair, with a panel of :

  • The Honourable Mr Justice Baker,
  • Louise Tickle (freelance journalist),
  • Gretchen Precey (NAGALRO Chair),
  • Andrew Pack (Suesspicious Minds blog, local authority lawyer),
  • Sophie Ayers (Independent Social Worker (formerly in statutory services))
  • Callum May (BBC News Producer)
  • Hannah Markham QC (barrister)

Since I hit publish on the Eventbrite booking page we’ve had 60 odd bookings, so it looks like it has generated some real interest. Everyone with an interest in the topic (even if you have no particular expertise or experience) is welcome.

Book tickets here. And if you can – please donate a little.

L

 

Feature picture : Bart Maguire on Flickr (Creative Commons – thanks!)

Social workers should not hide – they are accountable to all of us

The Guardian social care network ran a piece last week entitled Muslim fostering row: Careless press must be held to account in which the author – a social worker expresses shock that “Tower Hamlets council responded and that a court document was made public, disclosing more information about the child”. She goes on to say that “social care professionals are not accountable to the press or public with regards to the care plan for a particular child; they are accountable to service users, other professionals, independent staff and, on occasion, to senior management and regulatory bodies.”

 

She is wrong. Child protection social workers are agents of the state. They act in our name. We give them the power through democratic processes and via Parliament to take children away from their parents – sometimes forever. As such they are accountable to us and it is important that any social worker understands this. If agents of the state feel as if they are unaccountable it will lead to abuses. When a social worker feels they can say “I don’t have to answer to you” we are all in trouble. One of the reasons for the open justice principle is to prevent and to shed a light on abuses of state power, whether it be by a social worker or a police officer, a lawyer or a judge.

 

The fact that in many cases the needs of the child for privacy means there has to be a restriction on what information is made public does not mean that social workers are not accountable.

 

Family cases are heard in private, but privacy should never be a shield for professionals, only for a child. That it is apparently seen as such by a practising social worker invested with highly intrusive powers is profoundly worrying, and one can only hope this is not typical. Both case law and judicial guidance makes clear that social workers ordinarily have no legitimate expectation of anonymity. The sometimes uncomfortable (and sometimes unbalanced) scrutiny of the press is one of the only ways the public can hold social workers in family cases to account, and one of the only ways that they can find out about what is done in their name.

 

Whilst there may be much to criticise about the reporting of the Muslim foster care case (and social workers have not held back in offering it) it is nonetheless important that the press should be entitled to report (albeit often on a restricted basis) – and all the more so where the public cannot come into court and form a view for themselves. As a practising family law barrister, I know from experience that there is, on rare occasions, much to criticise about the work of social workers.

 

Scrutiny is not just about criticism but also about validation of what is done to families by the state. Without some measure of public accountability the legitimacy of what social workers are doing in the name of child protection is called into question. There is a crisis in public confidence in what social workers do, as the #standupforsocialwork campaign acknowledges. Public confidence will only be restored by letting people see what happens in the family courts and in child protection, not by saying “I don’t have to answer to you!”.

Tip for anyone thinking of applying for a reporting restriction order…

Bill Barber on Flickr

Well, I’ve done my good deed for the day. This is about my only practically useful achievement this week as I have been mired in procrastination and diversionary tactics.

In the course of doing some research for some writing about reporting restriction orders recently, I realised that the version of the 2005 Cafcass / OffSol Practice Note on Reporting Restriction Orders that appears in the Family Court Practice (Red Book) is different from the version appearing elsewhere – including in major textbooks, via Lexis at the original 2005 FLR citation, and most importantly on the CopyDirect website (which is where I suspect most will go to find it). The Red Book version is marked as “updated March 2015“. However, it appears that CAFCASS neglected to circulate it other than to the editors of the Red Book and, until I directly asked them today, hadn’t published it on their site – so it was only available to those with the right subscription. I would guess that many media lawyers would access the note via CopyDirect or Lexis and not from the Red Book (which is more of a family lawyer’s friend), so they will probably have been happily oblivious that there have been any changes. The changes are not radical, and are largely in the form of updating, but neither are they negligible.

This is how our conversation began…

Not a terribly promising start. However, one thing CAFCASS are really good at is responding by email once you’ve raised a query on twitter. Their comms team are on the ball. And so, I’m happy to say the 2015 version is now on the CAFCASS website here, listed on their policies page and CAFCASS say :

Re the practice note, this was something Cafcass and the Official Solicitor agreed to provide as a resource a number of years ago (2004) to practitioners who were making applications for RROs. Since then the document has been updated (2015) and the contact details of Cafcass and the Official Solicitor were removed to avoid giving the impression that legal advice would be provided by those organisations.  That said, it remains a published document containing what we hope is useful guidance and should be available somewhere other than the online red book.

Belated recognition of the need to make publicly available one’s own guidance if you expect it to be followed, but welcome nonetheless.

I included links above to both the pdf and the policies page because it is possible that the first link will be altered at some point, as CAFCASS seem to have uploaded a PDF of the relevant bit of the Red Book, which incorporates their editorial commentary notes, and I think is probably therefore not CAFCASS copyright. I’ve let CAFCASS know about this possible issue, along with the fact that publishing the document in this way makes it look as if the commentary notes are part of the substantive guidance.

I expect that the Copydirect site will be updated in due course, but its the summer hols – so in the short term anyone applying for a RRO should look to the Red Book or the CAFCASS website.

You may send tokens of your gratitude to my flunkies whilst I am away*…

*what IS a flunky?

 

Feature pic : Bill Barber on Flickr (creative commons licence – thanks!)