Rules preventing the media from reporting what goes on in the family courts are to be eased, justice secretary Jack Straw has announced.
Journalists were given the right to attend hearings in family courts from 27 April – but reporting restrictions still make it extremely difficult to report cases, and much information cannot be used.
Straw is now proposing to relax restrictions on what journalists can report – which could mean that they would be able to publish information from expert witness reports, containing details of material such as child abuse allegations.
Safeguards would continue to protect the identities of individuals and families involved.
Straw said yesterday: “Family courts play a very important role in our society, and the decisions they make need to be transparent so that the public who use them have confidence in them.
“Allowing the substance of children’s cases to be reported in more detail will lead to greater transparency in the family justice system, resulting in greater public confidence in the excellent service that it provides.”
Straw last month announced his intention to introduce legislation to bring the restrictions on reporting children cases in the family courts into line with those which apply in the youth courts.
Journalists are allowed to attend and report on youth courts, but are banned from publishing anything which would identify any person under the age of 18 who is involved in the proceedings.
Youth courts have a discretion to lift the automatic anonymity for the juveniles – and family court judges will also have discretion to lift the automatic anonymity if it was in the public interest, and was considered safe to do so.
Family courts will also still be able to use statutory powers to protect the identities of those involved in case.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The government will be working with the media to explore ways in which the privacy of families can be protected.”
The new statutory framework covering reporting of family courts will be in the Improving Schools and Safeguarding Children Bill, which is subject to consultation in the draft legislative programme.
In the meantime, a committee chaired by Sir Mark Potter, president of the family division of the high court, will also look at changes that can be made before any new law comes in to force