The campaign group Justice Warriors Wales held a demonstration in central Cardiff, asking for transparency and the right to a fair trial by the children’s court system in Wales. Justice Warriors Wales is a group of parents affected by ‘secret’ family courts. Many have either lost contact – or suffered significant reductions in contact – with their children, following interventions by social services.
The campaigners say they simply needed support, and are powerless in the face of lack of transparency compared to other types of courts. Richard Mylan of Justice Warriors Wales says, “The secrecy of family courts allows social services to provide a dubious standard of justice that would not be acceptable in an open court system.”
Children in care in Wales
The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 came into force on 6 April 2016. It was hailed as a groundbreaking legal framework for improving the way support is offered to adults and children. One of its fundamental principles is said to be “putting the individual and their needs at the centre of their care, and giving them a voice in and control over reaching the outcomes that help them achieve well-being.”
But more Welsh children than ever are taken into care. And some if not many of their parents feel uncared about, voiceless, and with little control over their own lives or those of their families.
Professor Donald Forrester of Cardiff University has said that a child in Wales is 50% more likely than a child in England to be placed into care. In England approximately 67 of every 10,000 children were in care in 2021; in Wales it was 112, the highest rate among UK nations and one of the highest in the world. Statistics show the number of children in care in Wales increased by 89% between 2003 and 2021.
Yet there is great variance across Welsh local authority areas, suggesting that factors like deprivation cannot be the whole story. In 2021, a child in Carmarthenshire was found to be five times less likely to be in care than a child in Torfaen.
Inconsistency and imbalance of power
A study suggested “that some of this difference is about different values and practices within local authorities. The challenge faced in Wales and the UK is how local authorities can learn from one another to ensure consistency and quality in services.” Some local authorities reportedly have social worker “vacancy rates of up to 40% and [are] heavily reliant on temporary staff”. Such inconsistencies have many ramifications, on a case by case basis, and could leave people feeling like they live in the worst ever postcode lottery.
Then such problems are compounded when they create cases leading to court hearings. People cannot adequately understand what’s happening or defend themselves due to legal aid cuts and inability to afford good representation. Yet there is enforced silence on all sides.
The public expects social workers to be honest and ethical when dealing with complex child care cases. Justice Warriors Wales tell a different story.
They describe institutional dishonesty. They claim that witnesses are primed before hearings and case notes take written evidence out of context. A common comment made by them is, “Social workers lie.” Their stories are shocking, but I can’t tell them. (You can see a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary for some idea, which may be upsetting for many viewers).
Like a Kafka novel
‘Meghan’ (name changed due reporting restrictions) says, “This is the most important story of my life.” Her story goes back a long time and reads like a novel by Kafka. She is prevented from sharing the details openly here. She says, “I have been threatened with an injunction numerous times for posting publicly about my case. I was warned that I potentially face two years in prison for contempt of court if I speak out.”
It is impossible to share cases like Meghan’s, not only because of the risks she faces but also because reporters face restrictions regarding family court proceedings. Louise Tickle, a journalist, broadcaster, author, and campaigner, tweeted on 21 September 2023: “Right. I have had it with the family justice system. It is *impossible* to do vital public interest reporting when there is no commitment to transparency even from the high court, and zero interest to make efforts to ensure transparency.”
Meghan says that in May of this year, “I had a journalist from the BBC. I emailed him almost a year in advance. I wanted him to come to report on what goes on. The judge didn’t respond until the morning of the hearing. The journalist was unable to get there for the start, and got there the next day.” She describes a biased, almost theatrical court situation. The journalist was anyway faced with restrictions stopping him from being able to report on her case; he could have been charged with contempt of court.
Secretive family courts
Family courts exist to decide on legal matters involving relationship breakdown and the custody of children. This includes determining, when a child is at risk of harm, if their local authority should intervene. Traditionally, tight restrictions on reporting on hearings and decisions in these courts have been deemed necessary to protect the privacy of families and especially of children. But this has also meant a lack of transparency and accountability as to how life-changing decisions are reached.
Meghan is a strong woman, but not unbreakable. She is well spoken, with a good understanding of family and human rights law. She says that her human rights have been breached by the family court system. The Human Rights Act 1998 Article 6 gives everyone a right to a fair and public hearing, held within a reasonable time and heard by independent and impartial decision makers. Article 3 decrees that no one should experience torture or degrading treatment, and Article 10 on freedom of expression includes the importance of a free press.
“You wouldn’t believe what has been thrown at me in court,” says Meghan. “I’ve been cross-examined for hours on end until I’m on my knees. They tried to break me. I was on the stand for over five and a half hours all in one go, at my last hearing.”
This is testimony and treatment that journalists should be able to witness and make public, but cannot. In another case, an MP and former minister used family court secrecy to try to hide the truth about his history of abuse.
A promising pilot scheme
It was announced in January that three courts in the UK – in Cardiff, Carlisle, and Leeds – could run a new reporting pilot scheme. This allows judges to make ‘transparency orders’ setting out what journalists can report in some kinds of family court cases.
This still gives discretion to judges who may not face any real accountability. But as Mrs Justice Lieven, liaison judge for the Midlands Circuit, said at the pilot’s launch, “Everybody behaves better if they think journalists are reporting on them.”
Louise Tickle did a great deal to bring about this change, including as part of The Transparency Project. Over the years she has “uncovered cases of social worker malpractice and judicial mistakes that have had huge implications for the parties concerned”.
As Tickle has written, “The fact that the family law system in this country is hidden behind a veil of secrecy means that … offensively vintage attitudes to rape and domestic violence can persist in courts … what other outrageously sexist decisions are being made by out-of-touch judges behind closed doors?”
Justice Warriors Wales want change
Nicole Elaine of Justice Warriors Wales is adamant that “social services must continue to protect children,” but feels that “the system is unfair, and is currently not fit for purpose.” She adds, “Social services don’t pick the right families. They are using a system like a crystal ball, rather than a transparent system of justice.” The new pilot scheme is welcome but not nearly enough.
This is a real battle for truth. The claims made by Justice Warriors Wales are serious, and suggest breaches of human rights. Until the press are permitted more freedom to report, or we have an independent review, we just won’t know for sure.
Many, including Professor Forrester and Justice Warriors Wales, are calling for an independent review of the system in Wales. All other UK nations have held one. In 2023, nearly ten years after the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act was passed, and in the light of statistics, is it not reasonable to expect a Welsh review? This scenario could potentially affect anyone.
The consequences for children and their families when the wrong decisions are made are serious and lifelong. Justice Warriors Wales say that someone, somewhere, has to stand up to the courts, social services, and the Welsh Government and ask probing questions: “Mr Drakeford, what is going on in children’s social care in Wales? Are you absolutely sure that this system, and secret Welsh family courts, are compliant with human rights law?”