UK Family Law Reform

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Family Courts are more Secret than our Prisons

Harriet Harman - Family Courts are more Secret
than our Prisons and that must change.

June 04 2006


IT'S HARD to overstate the importance of the work of the family courts, or the difficulty of making judgments that affect people's lives for ever. Over the more than two decades during which I have been an MP, my advice 'surgery' has seen a steady stream of constituents making heartfelt but contradictory demands on the issue.

Women complain that their children have been taken from them; neighbours allege child cruelty; mothers take issue about violent ex-partners; fathers claim they have been banned from seeing their children.

As shown by the case of Mark and Nicky Hardingham, reported in today's Mail on Sunday, the stakes could not be higher. To take a child from its mother and place it for adoption can save the life of that child. But a bad decision is no less an injustice than a wrongly imposed life sentence - both for mother and child.

Similarly, a father denied contact with a child suffers a terrible loss; yet in some cases failing to prevent a father's visit can put lives at risk. Which is all the more reason why our family courts should command the confidence of the public and be seen to operate with fairness and compassion. In this respect, the system is failing through its lack of openness.

Public confidence depends on public scrutiny. Something has to be seen to be believed and justice not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done. People don't understand the complexity and ' importance of the work of the family courts - an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the fact that they sit in secret and make judgments behind closed doors.

PUBLIC confidence in any part of the legal system is necessary for its own sake but also to ensure people affected by court judgments accept them, and for the professions involved in the system to be respected.

I have concluded that it is now impossible to defend a system from accusations of bias and discrimination if it operates behind closed doors. Even as Minister for Family Justice, I find the rules make it hard for me to establish what is going on.

It is my job to reassure Parliament that the family court system is working properly. But how can I know? I can't read newspaper reports of cases; I can't just go and sit at the back of the court, as I can - and do - in magistrates' courts. And how can MPs hold me to account for a system they cannot see? Parliamentary accountability for the family courts is wholly theoretical while the system remains closed. How can the influential Constitutional Affairs Select Committee conduct investigations into its workings?

And when we debate family law in Parliament, neither MP’s nor Ministers can really know what we are talking about. We have to legislate in the dark.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Court Administration can't go in to the family courts unless the court lets them; yet even the Prison Inspectorate has the right to enter prisons to inspect without giving notice. In that respect our family courts are more secret than our prisons.

The context in which the family courts work has changed significantly and it is time for us to acknowledge that many of the comfortable certainties of family life are no longer there.

There are, for example, many more cases in the family courts today - more than 400,000 a year. There is more divorce, more separation, more couples living together, greater cultural diversity and growing social problems such as drug addiction. Once, married people stayed married. Now one in three couples divorce. Women used to have babies only in wedlock -but, in 2004, 42 per cent of births were outside of marriage. One third of children now live either with a lone parent or with one parent and a step-parent.

New patterns of family life pose new problems for the courts. Courts in the past would rarely have had to deal .with children of parents who live in different countries and would never, for example, have had to deal with a child born through IVF to a woman in a lesbian civil partnership that has collapsed.

Courts in the past would rarely have had to deal .with children of parents who live in different countries and would never, for example, have had to deal with a child born through IVF to a woman in a lesbian civil partnership that has collapsed.

ATTITUDES have changed, too. It is now recognised that sometimes it is in a child's best interests to live with the father, not the mother, and that sometimes it is right to leave a child with parents who have learning difficulties - with the right support. The main principles are no different, however.

The courts have to make decisions when warring parents cannot agree, and work to prevent cruelty and neglect. And each case must be judged on its merits and in the child's interests.

But we need to make the courts more open. Privacy is necessary to protect families seeking justice - but privacy is not necessary to protect the courts, which should have nothing to hide. At the same time, we must ensure we have tough penalties for those who breach anominity restrictions and name children.

We can't allow a situation where confidence in the family courts grows as their work becomes more transparent, only for it to plummet through children or parents suffering the anguish of being identified.

So we shall include proposals on enforcement when we publish plans to reform the family courts next month and put them out for consultation.

We also need to see what can be done to open up the courts in the near future, even before we change the law.

I have already held discussions with the most senior judge in the family court, the President of the Family Division, on directing the High Court - where the most serious family cases are heard - to let the Press in to all cases (subject to reporting restrictions).

This way, when we do come to legislate, we shall be more confident, with a clearer sense of what the legislation that we are debating will do in practice.

The protection of children is of the greatest importance. Only when we open the family courts, and the Press can write about them, shall we be confident that justice is being done in this most difficult area of law.

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