More open justice for families in the courts
Family courts are to be opened up to public scrutiny in response to mounting criticism from parents whose children are taken into care that they are victims of secret justice.
Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, plans to announce the change next month to create more transparency in the family justice system while seeking to protect the welfare of the child, The Times has learnt.
The move to open family courts to the media, which is supported by most judges but opposed by many social workers who present applications for care proceedings to courts, follows growing controversy over their decisions and the way that they operate.
Earlier this year The Times launched a campaign to reform the family justice system and open up the courts amid accusations that they were operating in a conspiracy of silence.
Details of how far the reforms will go are still being finalised. But the move towards greater openness will amount to a U-turn from the policy of the last Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who changed his mind about admitting the media after consultations with children and childrens groups.
Britains most senior family judge backs the reforms today in an interview with The Times. Sir Mark Potter, President of the Family Division, favours opening to the media all care cases involving the removal of children from home other than for adoption, a highly sensitive area that ministers and judges agree is a special case. In private disputes between divorcing couples over money or children, judges should have discretion to exclude the press, Sir Mark says.
Greater openness would help to dispel the myths and inaccuracies that have grown up around the workings of the family courts. It is my firm belief that when people see these cases in action, and the extreme care with which they are dealt “ and the fact that so much of what is said comes from interested and disgruntled parties not reporting the matter objectively “ it can do nothing but good for the system, he says.
Ian Johnson, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, was unconvinced that opening up care proceedings in court would lead to improvements.
Social workers are very concerned that childrens fundamental rights to privacy are preserved, he said. The nature of some of the information dealt with in family courts should just not be in the public domain. I just dont agree with this argument that having the press there will result in better social services.
But John Coughlan, spokesman for the Association of Directors of Childrens Services which represents senior social workers, said the organisation would back more openness provided it was done carefully.
We believe that, as long as we can guarantee absolutely confidentiality and the press can be reasonable and do not report in a way that affects the outcome of a case, there is a public interest issue, he said.
Mr Coughlan said that these are some of the most draconian powers the state holds and that the public wants to see how they are exercised.
NSPCC, the childrens charity, opposed openness but suggested more judgments from family courts should be given in public and then made anonymous, but only where childrens interests were protected.