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Government struggling to increase media access to family courts

Date:23 FEB 2010

TUES 23/02/2010 - The House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights has frustrated the Government's attempts to introduce new provisions that would lead to further expansion of media access in family courts.

The Committee's report on the Children, Schools and Families Bill, which comes before the House of Commons today, questions whether the measures conflict with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

The Government, supported by a campaign led by The Times, would like to expand reforms that led to the media being granted access to family courts for the first time in April to allow journalists a right to view documents filed in the proceedings.

In addition to UNCRC issues, further reforms have also been strongly opposed by family lawyers over concerns about the diminished protection provided to the welfare and privacy of the child, the undermining of key ethical principles underscoring the work of professionals such as doctors and social workers, and the delay and cost which the system would have to bear.

In its report, the Committee said: "We are concerned that the provisions on the reporting of family proceedings in the Bill may not be compatible with the best interests of the child principle in Article 3 UNCRC. Any relaxation of the restrictions on the attendance of the media at, and reporting of, family proceedings should not be at the expense of the best interests of the child principle. To ensure that the best interests principle in Article 3 UNCRC continues to be respected, we recommend that the Bill be amended so as to include an express restriction on the publication of information where such publication would not be in the best interests of the child."

Last month the Children's Commissioner for England revealed interim research findings showing that most children and young people involved in family court cases would be unwilling or less willing to disclose maltreatment or talk about ill treatment by a parent, express their wishes and feelings and any problems they were having at school with a journalist present.

Giving evidence to the Committee, Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children's Commissioner for England said: "Our research findings to date are a cause for concern. We support the principle of openness but our overriding consideration is to protect the welfare of children. Transparency can be achieved in other ways such as publishing summaries of anonymised judgements.

"If these children and young people's concerns fail to be addressed in the Bill, we could be faced with a situation where they are unwilling to speak out during family court proceedings and this could result in their best interests not being met."