UK Family Law Reform

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It is time to open up family courts to public scrutiny 10th January 2005

It is heartening to see judges, who tend towards the traditional, at least taking the lead in trying to modernise the court system. When the two most senior judges in the family courts say it is time to open up that system to greater public scrutiny, then politicians must take notice.

Recent high-profile campaigns from the pressure group Fathers 4 Justice, which wants greater access to children after divorce, have highlighted the secrecy of the family courts and, that group claims, their unfairness. The concern of Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, President of the High Court Family Division, and of the second most senior family judge, Lord Justice Thorpe, is not whether justice is being done, as they believe it is, but whether it is being seen to be done. The vociferous fathers' rights movement has succeeded in giving the impression that the secrecy of the family court system allows injustice to be inflicted.

One anomaly is that the present arrangement of Queen¹s Bench, Chancery and Family Divisions allows litigants to court-shop when bringing a case ' over wills or matters of obvious public interest, for example ' knowing that the third is closed and they will be subject to less scrutiny.

A series of recent criminal cases in which expert evidence wrongly led to the conviction and imprisonment of Angela Cannings and Sally Clark, and the trial of Trupti Patel, for killing their children has also led many to question the operation of the family courts, relying as they sometimes do upon the same or similar suspect expert evidence. The fact that such evidence is used in closed proceedings led some to doubt the integrity of family court decisions which have such profound consequences not just for parents but for their children.

A government review last year came to the expected conclusion that decisions in the family courts were sound. When Mrs Cannings was cleared on appeal last year of murdering her three babies, the Children¹s Minister, Margaret Hodge, ordered a review of thousands of civil cases in which children were taken from their parents and put into care. A nine-month investigation found that, of 28,867 cases in which a care order was in place, just one was wrong and should be changed. Much of the review was conducted by social services departments investigating themselves, and so there remains doubt about the process and the outcome of such cases. The system cleared itself, but is hardly in the clear.

Opening up the system would not, and should not, mean sweeping away the anonymity needed to protect children. The outlines of cases, and the basis upon which decisions are made, can be reported without revealing the identities of those involved. Just as the Government is rightly experimenting with cameras in the appeal courts, it ought to allow the public to witness and to judge the fairness of the family courts. People may well be reassured, rather than shocked, by what they find there, but at least a better-informed public will be able to have an intelligent debate about reform.

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