Last night the House of Lords agreed to Part 2 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, paving the way for the Bill to become legislation and allow further media access in family proceedings.
The Bill has fallen victim to the wash-up process where proposed legislation is rushed through before Parliament is dissolved for the general election. Once the legislation comes into force, journalists will be able to view court documents and to name expert witnesses in family proceedings.
Earlier in the evening the Lords bowed to pressure from religious groups and deleted Clauses 11 to 14 of the Bill, intended to reform home schooling and sex education, saying that it was too controversial for the wash-up. However, the Lords did not feel so strongly about safeguarding the family justice system and voted 96 to 70 to include Part 2 of the Bill.
Speaking to Newswatch in reaction to the news, former chairman of the Family Law Bar Association Lucy Theis QC said: "At a time of heightened public concern about matters relating to child protection it is worrying that political expediency have put vulnerable children at increased risk of harm".
The chief opponents of the Bill in the Lords last night were the former President of the Family Division Baroness Butler-Sloss; former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and; the Liberal Democrat Lords spokesperson for Children, Schools and Families Baroness Walmsley.
Opening the debate on Part 2 in the House of Lords, Baroness Butler-Sloss said: "I am not in favour of secret courts. Throughout my time as president, I pushed for court judgments to be provided to the public and the press. However, I share the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and express my own concerns about Part 2 of this legislation being presented to this Committee when it has not been debated in either of the two Houses of Parliament.
"In my view, the whole of Part 2 should be excluded but there are two things about which I am concerned. One is the identification of witnesses-particularly medical and other expert witnesses. It is very difficult to get medical and health professionals to give evidence, but if they are to be identified in the courts they will continue to keep their heads below the parapet and will not give evidence.
"The other and even more worrying aspect relates to the groups of cases that are included. Clause 33 includes adoption proceedings. If ever there is a group of cases where no information of any sort should be given to the press or the public, it is that. No part of family proceedings is more important to protect than the law in relation to adoption."
Baroness Butler-Sloss concluded: "I am shocked that this should come before us in the wash-up without any debate or any scrutiny in either of the two Houses of Parliament."
Lord Mackay of Clashfern pointed out that Part 2 is to be brought into force only by order of the Lord Chancellor. He added that he hoped that if the Bill succeeds that the Lord Chancellor "will hesitate long before introducing this in its present form".
The Government's spokesperson, Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, responded by reiterating that the Government want to make the family courts more transparent. "We know that the recent history of tragic deaths of children, some of whom were involved in the family courts, leaves the public rightly wanting to understand how the systems work and how decisions are reached", she said.
The Bill has gone before the Commons today and is likely to be sent for Royal Assent before Parliament is dissolved on Monday.