UK Family Law Reform

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The cloak of secrecy will be lifted from family courts: Councils and witnesses will routinely be named in cases where evidence can decide whether homes are broken up

New rules will ensure court decisions are under public scrutiny

Councils and experts will be named in controversial care and adoption cases

Family courts currently hold many hearings in private

23rd July 2013

A breakthrough in the battle against secret justice will see thousands more court judgments made public.

Councils involved in controversial care and adoption cases will routinely be named in court documents, along with expert witnesses whose testimony can decide whether homes are broken up.

The guidance follows a lengthy Daily Mail campaign to end the culture of secrecy in two British courts.

The Family Division makes thousands of rulings a year about whether children are adopted or put in care, and the access arrangements for separated parents – as well as ruling on contested divorces.

In the Court of Protection, life- or-death decisions about patient treatment or care for those unable to make choices are currently taken without public accountability.

Now new rules, due to come into force later this year, will mean thousands more of their judgments are published and subject to public scrutiny.

The updated guidelines set out that the vast bulk of cases in both courts should result in a published judgment ‘unless there are compelling reasons why it should not’.

In all cases involving expert witnesses and public authorities, these should be named unless there are ‘compelling reasons’ not to.

Results of divorce proceedings are also likely to be published, unless they involve children – but names will not be released.

Launching the new rules, Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court, said they were designed ‘to bring about an immediate and significant change in relation to the publication of judgments’.

He added: ‘In both courts there is a need for greater transparency in order to improve public understanding of the court process and confidence in the court system.

At present too few judgments are made available to the public, which has a legitimate interest in being able to read what is being done by the judges in its name.’

Family courts are criticised for holding too many hearings in private and not publishing the results.

This can mean families whose children have been taken away unfairly are unable to tell their stories and get redress using the media.

On some occasions injustices are not exposed until the cases go all the way to the Court of Appeal.

Several secret care cases have been exposed by that court which has criticised the local authorities involved.

One, in 2008, saw a senior judge criticise East Sussex County Council for its ‘wholly unacceptable abuse of power’ by rushing through the adoption of an 18-month-old child and blocking a challenge by the child’s natural father.

Last year the Daily Mail reported how life-changing decisions about the care of children were routinely being made on the basis of flawed evidence.

A study for the Family Justice Council revealed that a fifth of ‘experts’ brought in to advise the family courts are completely unqualified but they can still make thousands of pounds a year in fees from local authorities.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: ‘We have been clear that there needs to be more openness in the Family Courts and the Court of Protection. This draft guidance will begin the important public debate we need to have about transparency in these courts.’

Last month the Supreme Court launched a stinging attack on secret justice, saying it is ‘not justice at all’. Its president, Lord Neuberger, said hearing evidence behind closed doors was ‘against the principle of justice’.

Draft transparency in the family courts 12th July 2013

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