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Expert witnesses in family cases are to be named

Date:20 NOV 2009

The Children, Schools and Families Bill was put before Parliament on Thursday, introducing new legislation to further open up family courts to the media.

The Bill makes provision permitting greater access to the media in Family Court proceedings, and increasing the ability of the media to publish reports of those proceedings, and information released during hearings.

The changes will be introduced in phases to allow Ministers and Parliament to assess their impact before potentially moving to a greater degree of openness.

The first phase will allow reporting of family proceedings - including placement proceedings - with a strict indefinite ban on the publication of the identity of children and families involved. It will also prohibit sensitive personal information from being reported, unless the court directs otherwise. However, experts who are paid to provide evidence to the court may be named.

After several children's organisations established the Interdisciplinary Alliance for Children last month to express their concerns, the Government has confirmed the legislation will not change the current rules on access to court documents.

The Alliance called on the government to reconsider its plans to amend section 41 of the Children Act 1989. At present section 41 places a responsibility on the court to appoint a named guardian to represent children and their interests in care and related proceedings. The amendment would have meant that the courts would appoint Cafcass the organisation, rather than a named practitioner, to carry out the role and functions of the Children's Guardian.

Piers Pressdee, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children and a leading member of the Alliance, said: "The final shape of the Bill clearly reflects the strength and breadth of the opposition to much of what the Government was considering. Nobody seriously concerned for the welfare of children could have supported the contemplated amendment to section 41 of the Children Act 1989, nor the media access measures considered but happily absent from the first stage of the Government's intended process."

The Government's overall aim is to move to an open reporting system where information would be reportable unless the court specifically prohibited it in an individual case, whilst still protecting the anonymity of the children.

A review, after the initial provisions come into effect, will allow Ministers and Parliament to decide whether some or all the reporting restrictions could be removed in the interests of greater transparency, whilst maintaining a total ban on identifying the children and the families involved. This would cover restrictions on witnesses and sensitive personal information. Moves to the second more open phase would require a positive vote of both Houses of Parliament.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said: "We want to create a system that is transparent, accountable, and inspires public confidence in its good work, whilst still protecting the privacy of children and families involved.

"Greater media access to family courts will lead to greater trust in family courts. Finding the right balance among many strong views will take time, which is what this Bill will allow us to do."

The clauses in the Bill introduced yesterday are part of an ongoing programme to increase media reporting of family courts. The first of these changes were made in April this year, when the media were given the right to attend some family proceedings and report proceedings.

To read the Children, Schools and Families Bill click here.