Journalists found themselves free to witness most family court proceedings yesterday, but able to report little under new rules which came into force.
When justice secretary Jack Straw announced his intention to open up family courts to the press last December, the hope was that they would broadly have the same restrictions as youth courts. This would mean that journalists would be free to report anything, provided they did not identify children.
However journalists visiting the previously secret courts – which have the power to take children from their parents – found far broader reporting restrictions in their way yesterday.
The Times, which won a British Press Award for its campaign to open up family courts, sent six reporters to family courts around the country.
Simon de Bruxelles in Bath successfully reported on the case of a grandmother fighting for custody of a six-year-old child after claiming that the child’s mother was an unfit parent.
But Russell Jenkins reporting from Manchester found his case “impenetrable” and was told that he would have to apply to a High Court judge to see the court papers.
Another case at Chancery Lane in London involving a celebrity fighting for the right for his child to live with him was transferred to the High Court to establish what – if anything – journalists could report.
Journalists at Cardiff and Barnet found they were admitted to courtrooms but were unclear about what they could or could not report.
And Fiona Hamilton, in Ipswich, said her experience offered “an illuminating glimpse into the workings of the court” – with psychological experts altering conclusions when questioned on the stand and complaining that they did not have enough information to decide on a child’s future.
Writing in The Lawyer magazine, justice secretary Jack Straw promised that this week’s rule change is just phase one of a stepped improvement in family courts openness.
The second phase will be “information pilots”. These will be for the “provision of more information to parties to proceedings” and will mean that “anonymised judgments are made available to the wider public”. The third phase will involve legislation to lift reporting restrictions.
Straw said: “Given the complexity of the existing reporting restriction legislation, we need amendments to primary legislation to ensure that a clear and comprehensive scheme is in place across all tiers of court.
“That legislation will be brought forward as soon as parliamentary time is available, but I hope it will be sooner rather than later.”
With all parties involved in family proceedings given anonymity, questions remain over whether journalists will find much newsworthy to report from the hearings.
Camilla Cavendish, who led The Times family courts campaign, said today: “The family courts no longer operate in the dark, as of yesterday. But they are still in the dark ages compared to criminal courts.
“Jack Straw has promised to legislate to improve the situation. Until he does, there is a real danger that journalists will be put off by the uncertainty over what they can report.
“The door is open, but we desperately need more journalists to pick up the torch and walk through it.”
The Daily Mail, which has also campaigned on the issue of family courts, praised the Straw reforms – but called for further openness. It said: “Yes, of course it’s vital to protect children’s anonymity. But isn’t it also equally important that incompetent or over-zealous social workers should be denied the protection of secrecy?”