Dr Julia Brophy (with Kate Perry and Eleanor Harrison) has published the next stage in her research on children involved in the family courts, and their confidentiality.
‘A review of anonymised judgments on Bailii: Children, privacy and "jigsaw identification"’
published by the Association of Lawyers for Children
(ALC) and the National Youth Advocacy Service
(NYAS), examines the requirement that family judges publish anonymised judgments on the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (Bailii) website, to show how the family courts reach their decisions, without identifying the individual children involved.
The research highlights major difficulties in effectively anonymising judgments. A group of young people analysed randomly selected judgments, and identified certain types of information for example, location of children and families, children’s ages and dates of birth, details of abuse or health problems of parents, which, when pieced together, make children vulnerable to identification (particularly in the context of contemporary media and social media technologies). This risk of ‘jigsaw identification' suggests that the process of anonymisation is inadequate and requires urgent review.
Crucially, most of the young people who analysed the judgments had little or no idea of their content, and what they found shocked them: ‘Judgments contained difficult, deeply embarrassing, shaming and damaging information about children’s lives; that such information was effectively already in the public arena was distressing – many felt let down.’
Writing in November Family Law
, Dr Julia Brophy said:
'It is fair to say that the report makes some worrying reading both in terms of practices in judicial anonymisation of judgments and with regard to the capacity for jigsaw identification of children and families – but also with regard to the willingness of some parents/other family members to place information from cases on social networking sites such as Facebook. The report provides a graphics tool to demonstrate how jigsaw identification can be achieved. It also identifies some errors in the anonymisation process and demonstrates that even with the best intentions certain details can facilitate the identification of some children.'
The challenge is to find ways of ‘informing the public about the work of family courts and subjecting the work of judges to reasoned scrutiny, while at the same time protecting children and safeguarding their future’. The research proposes ‘a careful and evidence-based way forward’, to include a review of anonymisation practices in law reports, with guidance to judges.The report is available to download here. A follow up article by Dr Julia Brophy will be published in January Family Law.