Over 200,000 more family court hearings each year will be opened to the media from today, in a move the Government says is designed to strike a balance between the rights of those who need protecting and the need for transparency.
Accredited media will be able to attend all levels of family courts, removing the existing inconsistency of access between magistrates' courts and the county and High Courts.
The court will still be able to restrict attendance if, for example the welfare of the child requires it, or for the safety and protection of parties or witnesses.
Jack Straw, Secretary of State for Justice, said: "Family courts play a crucial role in our society. It is vital that these courts command the confidence of the public. If justice in these courts is seen to be done, they will be trusted by the public.
"Existing reporting restrictions for the newly attending media will of course still apply to protect children and families, but I want to ensure a change in the culture and practice of all courts towards greater openness, and this is an important step towards that goal."
In addition revised court rules also come into effect today about disclosure of information about cases involving children. These will make it easier for parties and their legal representatives to seek help and advice about their case.
These include allowing parties and their legal representatives to disclose information about their case to advisors (including MPs) while a case is ongoing, rather than at the end.
A pilot project will start later this year to place anonymised judgments online from some family cases so that the public can see how family courts work and how decisions were reached. Parties involved will also receive a copy of the judgment at the conclusion of their case so that they have a record of what was decided and why.
The Government has also pledged that it will look at the practicalities of retaining judgments so that children involved in proceedings can access them when they are older.
Family lawyers believe that the changes do not go far enough and are calling for the establishment of a Family Courts' Inspectorate.
Andrew Greensmith, Resolution's spokesperson on family court transparency, said: "These changes simply tinker at the edges of the issue and have created a system which could well make matters worse when members of the public and press realise that details of cases cannot be made public," said Andrew Greensmith, Resolution's spokesperson on family court transparency.
"Greater openness and transparency has an important part to play in ensuring public confidence in the family court system, but simply allowing the media to sit in on cases is not enough. The new rules need to be extended to allow journalists to report what they see and hear in court, providing the identity of the families involved is protected.
"Resolution is calling on the government to set up a 'Family Courts' Inspectorate', made up predominantly of lay people, which could act as an effective guardian of standards in the family courts. Otherwise the risk is that only those cases that are 'newsworthy' will be subject to any public scrutiny," said Andrew Greensmith.
To download the amendments to the Family Proceedings Courts (Children Act 1989) Rules 1991 and the Family Proceedings Courts (Child Support Act 1991) Rules 1993 that allow the attendance of the media, visit Newswatch Legislation. To download the related Practice Guidance and Directions, visit Newswatch Guidance.