11/07/2006

Family court hearings to be more accessible

The family court system is to be made more accountable to the public, under new proposals announced today.

The plans are expected to see the family court system opened to the media so that they can report their findings to the public.

This will affect a range of cases including those where a local authority acts to take a child into care, or where parents dispute child contact or residence.

The proposals also include new safeguards to ensure the anonymity and privacy of individuals.

Currently, the majority of family court proceedings are held in private, with media banned from the court with rulings generally not made public.

Even on reaching adulthood children whose lives have been changed by a decision are not able to discover what the court ordered and why.

Different courts have different rules on reporting, and there is a lack of accountability with even elected representatives and professional inspection bodies having to apply for permission to go into the courtroom during certain hearings, which has led to a perception that the courts operate in secret, and a resulting loss of public confidence and trust in the family courts.

Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman who will announce the new proposals for consultation, today said: "It is hard to overstate the importance of the work the family courts do and the difficult judgements they have to make. Family courts make decisions that have important effects on people's lives and that affect them forever. Taking a child from its mother and placing it for adoption changes the life of that child, and that mother, irrevocably. The right judgement can mean the child's life can be saved. But taking a child from its birth mother is, if it's a miscarriage of justice, no lesser injustice than a wrongly imposed life sentence - both for the mother and the child."

She continued: "People don't understand the complexity and importance of the work of the family courts, but that is an unfortunate yet inevitable consequence of sitting in secret and making judgements behind closed doors. Public confidence depends on public scrutiny. It has to be seen to be believed and justice not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done - including in the family courts. Greater openness will mean a greater understanding of the courts' work and recognition for those involved. Privacy is necessary to protect families seeking justice - but privacy is not necessary to protect the courts. The courts have nothing to hide."

Ms Harman continued by saying that by opening up the courts and building confidence in the family justice system is important not just for the general public, but for the people involved in the proceedings.

She concluded by saying that currently it is difficult for a child, even once adult, to find out why the family court ordered that they should live with mother and not see father - or vice versa and this paper seeks a consistent approach to retaining relevant information that they can choose to access when they reach adulthood.

The proposals contained in the consultation paper, 'Confidence and Confidentiality: Improving Transparency and Privacy in Family Courts' lay out improvements to who is allowed in to family cases and what can be reported.

The present system is complicated by contradictory access rules for different courts.

The proposals for greater openness have been welcomed by the judiciary, lawyers, campaign groups and MPs.

(EF/SP)

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