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Oxford academics join criticism of new family court reporting rules

Date:14 DEC 2009

Leading academics at the University of Oxford have joined a growing number of critics of new legislation to relax the restrictions on media reporting of family court cases.

The proposed Children, Schools and Families Bill will be implemented in two stages. The first stage will allow journalists to report most details of individual cases they see, unless a judge restricts publication, but information including the identities of the parties involved and 'sensitive personal information' could not be reported unless a judge agrees.

Journalists will also be allowed to name expert witnesses if they have been paid to give evidence. These rules will not cover some matters to do with divorce proceedings, which are already more open, and the final stage of adoption proceedings, which will be closed.

Implementation of the second stage would enable journalists to report 'sensitive personal information' about the parties involved in a case. The criteria used by judges to decide whether to apply reporting restrictions will be relaxed, making it more difficult to restrict reporting in the interests of the child. The Government also plans to amend the law so that journalists can name all expert witnesses.

Robert George and Ceridwen Roberts from Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Oxford have written a briefing paper stating that the legislation lacks sufficient clarity about what can be reported and could put the privacy of vulnerable children at risk.

The family policy experts are calling for greater scrutiny of the proposals, which they say are being rushed through Parliament without adequate public consultation and before alternative options for making family courts more open and accountable have been explored.

Although journalists will not be able to report information that could compromise a person's anonymity, they will be able to report details of people's private lives and if the local community is aware a court case is underway, publishing this information could identify parties in the case even if a name is not published in the wider media.

"Under these changes we could see very personal details of vulnerable children and adults published in local and national newspapers and online. Journalists will not be able to name children and families, but that will not necessarily prevent them from being identified," Mr George said.

The Government's stated goal in introducing this legislation is to increase the openness and transparency of family courts, but the evidence from countries such as Australia and New Zealand does not show that allowing greater media access will achieve that goal.

Alternative options to provide greater openness and accountability in the family courts have not been fully explored. One such alternative is the publication of anonymised family court judgements, currently being piloted in Leeds, Cardiff and Wolverhampton.

"Publication of anonymised judgments could offer a balance between allowing greater scrutiny of the process whilst protecting vulnerable children and families, so it is not clear why the Government is rushing through this legislation rather than waiting for the results of its pilot study," Ms Roberts said.

Last week Lord Justice Wall was also critical of the process that has led to the proposals in the Bill: "In my judgment, it is not a subject to be rushed, or to be the subject of ill-thought through legislation immediately prior to a general election. It needs to be considered with care; it needs to be the subject of sensible dialogue between the government, those directly affectedby the proposed change, and the press. None of this - so far as I am aware - has happened."

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

To download the Department of Social Policy and Social Work's Briefing Paper click here.