UK Family Law Reform

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Secrecy protects the courts.

On Sunday August 27, 2006 the Constitutional Affairs minister Harriet Harman finally admitted that secrecy does indeed surround divorce and custody hearings.

She said the "80-year-old regime of secrecy that protects the courts has led to a failure of public confidence and a collapse of trust in their workings." This affects over 400,000 children and families every year.

It is this recognition of unhealthy secrecy that Men's Aid and other fathers groups having been seeking.

But what is the 80-year-old statute or judicial ruling the minister cites ?
Does legislation even exist ?

The answer is 'no'.
This is yet more spin, hoodwinking and inaccuracy of the public by leading politicians.

To be eighty years ago the legislation would need to have been passed round about the time of the General Strike in 1926 - a time when divorces could almost be counted on one hand (in comparison with today).

The only legislation near that date is the Criminal Justice Act 1925 made it an offence to take photographs in court.

From a lawyer friend we hear that he doesn't 'suppose for one moment that Harriet Harman know what she is talking about'

And from earlier research we know that the next significant date was 1936 when small amendments were made to divorce procedures by the MP and writer A.P. Taylor. He introduced a Private Members Bill to extend the grounds for divorce to include, insanity, epilepsy, mental defect, mental illness of a certain degree, venereal disease and desertion which was passed in 1937.

Last week we made enquiries at parliamentary level and discovered that (as we thought) it is the Children Act 1989 that places the most and severest restrictions on divorce and custody hearings, i.e. hearing them into secret courts where the evidence is only displayed behind closed doors. [See Section 97(2), CA 1989].

Interestingly, prior to the 1989 Act, section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 (the 1960 Act) made it a contempt of court to publish information relating to, or for reasons of, national security ('notices', one supposes ?); where information related to a secret process, discovery or invention. The courts simply extended this ban to cover divorce and custody.

Family courts to poll children about ending secret hearings

Amelia Hill 27th August 2006

Children are to be asked whether family courts, which rule on the lives of 400,000 children and families every year, should continue to be run behind closed doors.

Constitutional Affairs minister Harriet Harman has admitted that the 80-year-old regime of secrecy that protects the courts has led to a failure of public confidence and a collapse of trust in their workings.

On Friday, the government will launch an interactive website asking children and young people what they think of suggestions to open the courts, which judge issues arising from family breakdowns, to wider scrutiny. Under the plans, the press and broadcasters would be allowed to attend hearings, which often involve sensitive matters regarding custody of children, although members of the public would still have to apply for the right to sit in court and listen to evidence. Judges will continue to have wide powers to hear cases in private - and strict anonymity will remain.

It is the first time the views of young people have been specifically sought on any matter by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has hired a group of researchers to respond personally to questions and comments from young people to the site. 'We want to hear directly from children themselves what they think of the proposals,' said a spokesman. 'We will be responding to emails as they are posted.'

But the decision to involve children so directly with the consultation process could led to the current, highly controversial level of secrecy being maintained, warned Nicholas Crichton, the only full-time family district judge in Britain.

'A young person who has seen the most deeply personal details of their extremely difficult life being openly discussed in court is likely to be far more concerned that their family's secrets remain secret than they are to care about the wider public gaining a greater understanding of exactly what is happening inside the family justice system,' he said.

'The government needs to be aware of the context within which a young person is likely to be looking at this question,' said Crichton, who sits at the Inner London and City Family Proceedings Court and is also a member of the Voice Of The Child, a sub-group of the Family Justice Group. 'The views of young people have only a limited validity if they have not first been given the information that will allow them to understand the issues which are at stake.'

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