The wishes and opinions of children and young people have helped to inform new guidance from the President of the Family Division on anonymisation in Family Court judgments, thanks to the involvement of NYAS.

The guidance aims to reduce the risk of inadvertent jigsaw identification of children and makes recommendations on how descriptions of sexual abuse could be presented in judgments with a view to protecting children from the dissemination of distressing and potentially harmful material on the internet or social media. When issuing the guidance, Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division urged all judges to refer to it when publishing any judgment in a family case relating to children.

In the guidance Sir Andrew McFarlane endorses two checklists contained in a 2016 report published by Dr Julia Brophy, a Principal Researcher in Family Justice, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and supported and published by the Association of Lawyers for Children (ALC).

The Brophy Guidance built on views expressed on transparency in the Family Court by a panel of young people appointed by NYAS who were concerned that members of the public would be able to ‘piece together’ details about vulnerable children who are the subject of family court judgments, putting them at further risk.

We ensured that these young people were able to raise their opinions with the President of the Family Division, who then identified a need for research that would put their concerns to the test. A research project jointly funded by us and ALC followed, which reviewed publicly accessible children judgments on the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII).

Co-ordinated by Ellie Harrison, NYAS National Participation Officer, Kate Perry, NYAS Operations Manager and Dr Julia Brophy, this review of anonymised judgments effectively demonstrated how ‘geographical indicators’ and the presentation of sensitive and/or intimate information can enable young people to be identified, placing some at risk of further harm.

To facilitate the research, we appointed a panel of eight young investigators, aged between 17 and 25 years old, the majority of whom had been the subject of care proceedings, to analyse a sample of judgments posted on BAILII. The panel then selected its own internet and social media search terms from the judgments and founds that 24% (5/21) judgments were covered in local/ national mainstream media sites, with 33% (7/21) of judgments covered on social networking sites including materials posted that identified children and other family members.

Through the review, the panel was able to demonstrate how ‘layers’ of detail enable jigsaw identification and their work was then used as evidence to inform guidance, funded by Nuffield and drafted by Brophy (2016) and upon which Sir Andrew McFarlane based his Practice Guidance (2018) for Family Court judges.

Eleanor Harrison, NYAS, said, “This has been a long and very involved process but all of our hard work has paid off and we are delighted that the voices of vulnerable children and young people have helped to shape the official guidance from the President of the Family Division. Working alongside Dr Brophy and the ALC, we have been honoured to help provide a platform for the concerns expressed by the young people we advocate for and we hope the new guidance will significantly reduce the risk of jigsaw identification, and limit the amount of unnecessary and graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse of children thus better safe-guarding the most vulnerable children in our society.”

Dr Julia Brophy added, “The time, energy and commitment given to this complex and demanding research by the young people from NYAS has to be applauded, along with their wish to assist the President of the Family Division in finding a way forward.”

The full guidance issued by the President of the Family Division can be found here