UK Family Law Reform

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Family courts: everybody out.

The Government has ruled that judgments can go up online, but the press and public can no longer attend magistrates' courts hearings

By Frances Gibb

Hundreds of decisions on children and families are to be made public under plans to counter allegations of secrecy in the family courts. A pilot scheme is to be launched in which the rulings of courts will be released for the first time, Bridget Prentice, the Justice Minister, has told The Times.

Initially the rulings will be published in courts in three cities — the pilot sites are still being finalised — and, if successful, will be extended across England and Wales. The decisions, whether a judgment transcript, decision summary or written reasons, would go on to a central website.

The cases to be covered include decisions about children being taken into care, decisions on contact with an absent parent and on removing a child from the UK. But they will also include decisions relating to disputes over “matters of religion, culture or ethnicity” or that turn on disputes of medical or other expert opinion or on human rights issues.

The courts will also have to look at whether, in all cases involving children, they could provide a transcript or decision summary for parents to keep and a copy kept for the child, when he or she is older.

The move comes after ministers controversially decided against opening up the family courts as of right to the media, arguing that children’s groups were concerned about the invasion of privacy and placing of sensitive material in the public domain.

Rather, in what the Newspaper Society has called a volte-face, ministers have actually proposed further restrictions, so that magistrates’ courts hearings — now automatically open — will be closed, with the press or public admitted only if the magistrates agree to allow them in.

Ms Prentice said: “Some of the judges were in favour of giving media access as of right and others were not. But judicial discretion will still be there because it will be up to the judge to decide whether media organisations or anyone else can be admitted.”

Instead, in a compromise move, anonymised court judgments will now automatically be released in a range of key cases including where children are being removed from parents, she said.

The decision may go a little way towards appeasing critics of the family courts, such Fathers 4 Justice, who maintain that their decisions are biased against fathers and cannot be questioned because they are made behind closed doors.

But critics and newspapers still favour full media access. The Newspaper Society remains firmly of the view that “these proposals are a grossly backward step that will do nothing to restore public confidence in the family courts”.

Yet the reform, if limited in scope, has the backing of Sir Mark Potter, Britain’s most senior family judge and President of the High Court Family Division. He told The Times that the judiciary had been split about whether to open up the family courts and that there was not a clear single view. However, he welcomed “a move to greater openness by the judiciary delivering public judgments, subject to anonymity”.

He said: “This is a welcome step so far as I am concerned and should do a great deal to reduce charges of secret justice by making clear to the public the reasoning of judges in cases of concern.

“The broad view of the judiciary . . .” he added, “was that the media should be admitted to family proceedings, except adoption proceedings, provided the court retains a wide discretion to exclude the media in the interests of justice in appropriate circumstances for whole or part of the case.”

The view was that the general public should not have a right to be admitted but that the court should have discretion to admit one family member or friend. But he acknowledged that, at the same time, there were “wide differences of view within the judiciary”. The decision, he added diplomatically, was “essentially a matter for government”.

The move may be dressed up as a step towards greater openness — if only going a little way in appeasing fathers’ groups whose campaigns are nourished by family hearings and decisions on contact and residence being held in private. But it will certainly not find favour with the media — and not least the argument that as the press never made much use of the right to visit magistrates’ courts hearings, why should it mind if the right is now removed — subject to a court’s discretion?

Sue Oake, senior legal adviser at the Newspaper Society, says the new policy is a “full-throttle reverse” — the equivalent of the fashion industry’s grey is the new black. “Closed courts,” she says, “are the new openness.”

Yet publicising judgments will enable the public and the media to be better informed about what courts are doing in cases that Mr Justice Munby, the High Court judge, ranked as “among the most drastic" [now that capital punishment has gone] “that any judge in any jurisdiction is ever empowered to make”.

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