Family Courts and Secrecy

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The terrible case of Charlie Gard continues to have ramifications for the international social work community. Louise Tickle in The Guardian writes that the case “shows why our family courts must lift their secrecy.” She goes on to explain that 11-month-old Charlie Gard illustrates just what can go wrong when parents dispute the medical treatment their child is receiving (or not receiving).

Charlie Gard was born with a rare genetic disorder that causes progressive brain damage and muscle failure. Last year, when Charlie’s parents raised funds to transport him to New York to receive an experimental treatment for the illness, the British Courts and the hospital involved in Charlie’s case determined that, no, Charlie would not be permitted to go. While his parents wanted him to receive treatment, the hospital and the courts basically decreed that Charlie, instead, had to die. They wanted him disconnected from life support despite the parents’ wishes.

“The tragic case of 11-month old Charlie Gard,” writes Tickle, “shone a rare spotlight on the role of courts in disputes between parents and the authorities… Journalists reported on every hearing. This means that the ethics as well as the legal merits of his family’s wishes, doctors’ recommendations and the court’s decisions were able to be debated extensively in public as each ruling was handed down. Last year, however, approximately 18 disputes relating to medical treatment were heard by judges in England, as well as a further 10 so far this year. All of these are likely to have been heard in private, with journalists not able to report the proceedings in any detail.”

Tickle goes on to write, “It would be overstating the power of journalism to presume that reporting is the complete answer to uncovering all the failings of a council whose children’s services department is suffering a severe shortage of experienced social workers and high case loads. But media coverage can make a difference: court reporting of the Oxford gang sexual exploitation trial demonstrated clearly the pulverising effect on traumatised girls of multiple defence barristers being able to cross-examine them, one after another, often for days.”

Tickle concludes, “I have yet to come across any function of the state that works better in secret.” It’s hard to disagree. Even though almost every family court case will be far less sensational than the Charlie Gard matter, the fact remains that transparency is important. Secrecy does not help the family court system. Especially when those in power and those involved disagree on a course of action, transparency is critical to make sure that all involved are heard and understood. If we don’t want more Charlie Gards, then we must make a commitment to transparency in family courts and the associated bureaucracy. All social workers can paly a role in advocacy for this type of accountability for all concerned.

What do you think? Is secrecy in family courts a big problem? Do you think there’s a better way to handle issues like this? Was Charlie Gard merely an anomaly… or was his case an important warning sign of problems to come? Please share your thoughts with us now.

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    • Zachary
      Mar 01, 2019 10:26 am Reply

      I don’t have enough information. For example, if he had the operation in the states what would be the expected medical outcome? I can’t play G’d. Another question that must be considered is the cost. How much should the government be expected to allocate in this case? These are all issues that need to be clarified.

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