Government outlines access for journalists to family courts

Journalists would routinely have access to family courts but could face new criminal charges for breaching reporting restrictions under proposals put out to consultation by the government today (Tuesday).

Currently most family court proceedings are held in secret and even most decisions are not made public.

But under the proposals put forward by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, members of the media would be given access to family courts, and members of the public would also be admitted at the discretion of the judge.

However, improved access to the secretive family court system would be coupled with more severe penalties for violating anonymity rules. Revealing the names of individuals involved in family court cases could lead to fines or even imprisonment under a new criminal offence beyond the existing offences including contempt of court.

Both court reporters and their publishers could become subject to prosecution the proposed new offences, Constitutional Affairs minister Harriet Harman (pictured) told reporters.

The aim of the proposed changes, Harman said, was to improve family courts' public accountability while preserving the privacy of individuals using the family court system.

"The difficulty that has been raised with us is how you enforce anonymity and reporting restrictions on individuals who are members of the public, and that is the concern we have had to grapple with," said Harman.

Details of how the government intends to distinguish journalists from ordinary members of the public were not immediately clear, however.

"We don't have Fleet Street, the BBC and ITV like we used to in the old days. I'm well aware that the boundary between being a member of the press and being a member of the public are more blurred than they used to be," said Harman.

One option considered in the consultation document is the accreditation system currently used by family courts in New Zealand.

New Zealand family courts allow access to journalists who work for news organisations that the Ministry of Justice has recognised as being subject to a code of ethics or professional standards and having a complaints mechanism for dealing with inaccurate or unbalanced reporting. New Zealand family court takers must identify media representatives and journalists must wear identification stickers while in court.

In the UK, a similar system already exists in Youth Courts, where only accredited journalists are admitted.

Harman defended the proposals to increase openness and accountability of the family courts as being "entirely consistent" with her department's draft Coroners Bill, which would allow coroners to impose reporting restrictions on their inquests.

Harman said: "The question is whether or not we should give coroners the powers to impose reporting restrictions, including anonymity, where the facts of the case might be in the public interest, [but] the identity of private individuals is not necessarily a matter of public interest which needs to be reported as to do so would not add to the public interest but would add to private grief. We're trying to deal with the same issues in the coroners' court as we're dealing with in the family court."

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