Right to make family courts more open
THIS week it has been announced that the media will be permitted to report legal proceedings in family courts as part of changes proposed by Government ministers. Under the new rules, cases such as custody and divorce – but not adoption – will be open to
THIS week it has been announced that the media will be permitted to report legal proceedings in family courts as part of changes proposed by Government ministers.
Under the new rules, cases such as custody and divorce - but not adoption - will be open to the press, subject to certain restrictions.
This, to my mind, can only be a good thing, and that's not simply because I'm a reporter.
Of course parents don't want to air their dirty laundry in public but, as Justice Secretary Jack Straw said on Tuesday, these new rules will improve accountability and boost confidence in a judicial system which has been open to accusations of bias due to reporting restrictions.
Transparency is needed in family courts and the media should no longer be gagged on the grounds of it being for the welfare of a child.
In fact, reporting family proceedings will help to protect the welfare of a child precisely because it will increase scrutiny and accountability.
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The media has long been permitted to report proceedings in youth courts, subject to certain restrictions, including not identifying anyone under the age of 18. There is no reason why the same system should not operate in family courts.
Current privacy laws not only protect vulnerable children but also childcare professionals, parents, guardians and witnesses involved in a case and I don't think this is right.
Family courts are too secretive and this is dangerous. Openness will raise judicial standards and increase public confidence in the British justice system.
Under the proposed new system, laws will remain in place to protect children and people's identity in the most sensitive cases, such as those where children face being taken into care, and reporters could still be excluded if it was deemed in the interest of a child's welfare.
Mr Straw said: "The overall effect of these changes will be fundamentally to increase the openness of family courts while protecting the privacy of children and vulnerable adults.
"The proposed reforms follow criticism from parents who say social workers took their children into care on the basis of flimsy and unsupported evidence."
It was back in 1923 that Lord Hewart said: "Justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done" and I think this is of paramount importance.
Family courts have a lower standard of proof than criminal courts and only have to prove a case on the balance of probability, rather than beyond reasonable doubt. This makes it all the more vital that proceedings and outcomes are scrutinised. Decisions made in family courts can have devastating and far-reaching consequences.
Media access to family courts should be viewed as a huge leap forward in terms of creating a system which is not only just, but is seen to be just.
Parents will no longer have to suffer in silence, eaten up by the thought that a life-changing decision made behind closed doors never had to stand up to public scrutiny or accountability.
The press is the eyes and ears of the public, and media access to family courts is long overdue.