UK Family Law Reform

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Falconer refuses to lift veil of secrecy over family courts


Courts that decide the fate of broken families must be held in secret, the Lord Chancellor has ruled.

Lord Falconer crushed an attempt to open the proceedings to public scrutiny and declared that "children's right to privacy" comes first.

In a document called Openness in the Family Courts - A New Approach, he proposes even tighter restrictions on what can be said about family cases.

The clampdown is in direct contrast to the views of his own Minister of State Harriet Harman and comes amid concern over decisions taken in family courts.

Last year the Daily Mail highlighted the way a couple in Essex had their children taken from them after courts held in secret decided they were too intellectually slow to bring them up - even though no harm had come to the children.

An academic study later found that such families were being singled out by social workers and should instead be given support.

And a High Court judge last year found that family courts had allowed social workers to take a nine-year-old girl from her family "on a whim". A court ordered the girl to be taken into care on the basis of 13 false assertions by a social services manager.

The document document provoked anger from fathers' protest groups which have campaigned against secrecy, saying it hides bias and incompetence.

Families Need Fathers, the pressure group that has co- operated with ministers to try to end what it says is bias against men, said its views had been ignored. Secrecy, it added, would undermine confidence in the courts.

A spokesman for high-profile Fathers4Justice said: "To have secret justice in a 21st century democracy is a disgrace and goes against everything we are supposed to believe in.

"The family courts are not just a closed shop - they are more like something out of North Korea. The way they work means parents have fewer rights than terrorists."

The Ministry of Justice under Lord Falconer's leadership has ordered the family courts to remain closed and proposed that coroners should get new powers to keep the media out of their courts.

It also established a new Court of Protection to rule over the lives of the dying and incapacitated which will make life- or- death decisions behind closed doors.

But an attempt by the ministry to restrict the Freedom of Information Act through stiff costs and limits is likely to be blocked by Gordon Brown when he becomes premier next week.

Lord Falconer's decision to maintain secrecy in the family courts was a humiliating reverse for Miss Harman. Last year she said that, because of public disquiet, the courts should be open to reporting by accredited members of the media.

But the Lord Chancellor said yesterday: "I have listened to the views of children and young people. The clear message was the media should not be given an automatic right to attend family courts as this could jeopardise children's rights to privacy and anonymity."

He gave weight to a survey of 200 children in which those asked said they feared being reported in the media. The Lord Chancellor said children worry about "people who live in their neighbourhoods finding out about how the courts have dealt with their family".

He also took into account the views of those who "protect, support and represent' children, such as lawyers and heavily State-funded charities such as the NSPCC and the National Children's Bureau.

The consultation paper from the Ministry of Justice yesterday says courts should remain closed but judges should in some cases release anonymous transcripts of cases. The document said media representatives could apply to be allowed in to specific cases.

But the courts should stay closed because organisations such as the NCB believe newspapers and broadcasters are irresponsible and will concentrate on celebrity cases.

Family hearings held in magistrates' courts, which are currently open to the public, will be closed in future, the paper said. It recommended setting up websites to explain how the courts work.

Critics questioned the right of the NSPCC and NCB to have their view given precedence as they take almost £20million from the State.

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