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Family courts to be opened up to media

Date:17 DEC 2008

Family court hearings are for the first time to be opened to accredited media from 1 April, Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced yesterday, in a statement in the House of Commons.

The change is one part of a package of new measures intended to improve scrutiny of and public confidence in the family court system.

Media will be able to attend all levels of family courts, removing the inconsistency of access between the higher and lower courts. The court will be able to restrict attendance if the welfare of the child requires it, or for the safety and protection of parties or witnesses.

Introducing the new scheme Jack Straw said: "It is critical that family courts make the right decisions and the public have confidence they are doing so. A key part of building trust in the system is that people understand how it works.

"At the same time, we must protect the privacy of children and families involved in family court cases so they are not identified or stigmatised by their community or friends.

"These plans strike the right balance in providing a more open, transparent and accountable system while protecting children and families during a difficult and traumatic time in their lives."

Greater openness for the media will mean that it is essential to provide necessary protection for children and families.

Courts will be able to restrict what can be reported in order to protect the welfare of children and families involved and will relax reporting rules if an individual case allows this.

A further change announced is that judges will be able to name social workers or the expert witnesses in a case.

Speaking to Camilla Cavendish of The Times, who wrote a series of articles in a campaign for the reforms, Mr Straw said: "Local authorities aren't routinely named at the moment. My view is that they ought to be. There should be no restriction on naming social workers or medical experts unless it could lead to the identification of [children]. A structural engineer at a planning enquiry puts his or her professional competence on the line in public. People who are professional have to accept that what goes with being professional is the public task.

"I know there are arguments in the medical profession, that doctors would be less willing to come forward if they were going to be named, but I happen to think that if you are professional you have to justify your professionalism in public."

Parties to the case will be able to make representations to the court if the media are present and there are good reasons why they should be excluded.

As part of making the attendance provisions consistent, the Government will consider how adoption proceedings may also be opened up. The Government will work with stakeholders, including Cafcass, to see what approach would be appropriate.

Parties and their legal representatives will also be able to disclose information about their case to advisors (including MPs) while a case is ongoing, rather than at the end. Additional proposals for increasing openness include allowing more information to be made accessible to the public about the way the family courts work and how decisions are made.

The Ministry of Justice also announced that as part of a pilot to start in Spring 2009 it will place anonymised judgements online from some family cases so that the public can see how decisions were reached. In addition parties will receive a copy of the judgement at the conclusion of their case so that they have a record of what was decided and why.

As part of the reforms, the Ministry of Justice will look at the practicalities of retaining judgements so that children involved in proceedings can access them when they are older.

Fathers' groups, the media and some judges have been intensely campaigning for these changes and are welcoming the news.

Families Need Fathers Chief Executive Jon Davies said "This represents a massive victory for families and for accountable justice. Having campaigned for over thirty years on this issue, Families Need Fathers is extremely pleased that the family justice system will be subject to similar levels of outside scrutiny as other areas of the system.

"The family courts are not the place where most family disputes should end up and these measures may encourage more people to realise that. We also believe that, despite some alarmist reactions, children will continue to be protected."

The President of the Family Division, Sir Mark Potter, welcomed the announcement, but he said that the Government would face opposition if it tried to open up adoption proceedings to the media.

"I have for some time made clear the support of the Senior Judiciary for media access to the Family Courts in the interests of transparency and public confidence in the Family Justice System, provided that judicial discretion remains to exclude the media from proceedings or parts of proceedings in particular circumstances involving the welfare of the child or necessary protection for the parties", Sir Mark said.

"The judiciary has also stressed that this needs to be accompanied by measures to protect the anonymity of children in the reports of the media. The pilots will explore these issues. While there is a need for reform we need to proceed with care over the detail not least in evaluating and making allowance for the extra demands on judicial time in relation to the anonymisation process.

"The judiciary are however united in opposing the Government's proposals to review the question whether, as previously recognised, privacy should remain the rule in respect of adoption proceedings."