Jack Straw: Family courts to be opened up to journalists

Family courts will be opened to the media in an attempt to make them more transparent and accountable, Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced today.

From April, journalists will be allowed to attend and report on all divorce, custody and care proceedings unless specifically excluded.

Straw said the move would help to build confidence in the family court system by “lifting the veil” and allowing the public to see how justice works.

He told the Commons: “Many argue that the current provisions to safeguard privacy and confidentiality go too far – leaving family courts unfairly open to accusations of bias or even injustice.

“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 overall effect of these changes will be fundamentally to increase the openness of family courts while protecting the privacy of children and vulnerable adults.

Straw said: “The media will understandably be subject to reporting restrictions, similar to the youth courts. The courts will be able to relax or increase those restrictions in appropriate cases, and will have the power to exclude the media from specific proceedings altogether where the welfare of the child or the safety of the parties or witnesses requires it.”

But journalists might be allowed to identify social workers and doctors who give evidence.

Family courts would also be able to relax reporting rules if a particular case allowed.

There were widespread calls for greater accountability in child protection cases after the case of the death of Baby P in Haringey, north London, in August last year.

The little boy had suffered more than 50 injuries at the hands of his abusive mother, her boyfriend, and their lodger despite 60 contacts with the authorities over eight months.

Straw said he saw no reason why child protection professionals should not be named in most family court cases.

He told reporters: “If you are a structural engineer and you do the calculations for a bridge, and the bridge falls down, you will go to court and have no protection in those proceedings about your privacy.

“People could be injured, people could be killed, and your professional competence will be an issue.

“I don’t see any reason in principle why – and I say, someone could have been killed in this situation – other professionals in this field (child

protection) should have their professional competence immune from public examination unless there are overwhelming arguments, which I think are unlikely.”

Straw noted the “half-decent argument” that medical experts might be unwilling to come forward if they knew they would be subjected to public scrutiny.

But he said naming them could in fact improve standards.

“There have been a number of rather notorious cases of medical practitioners in this kind of field advancing particular theories without effective scrutiny,” he said.

“If there was continuous scrutiny, the process of openness would lead to a higher competence.”

Under the Government’s proposals, family courts would be able to exclude journalists if the welfare of a child required it, or for the safety and protection of parties or witnesses.

Straw said there was also a need increase the amount and quality of information coming from the courts.

He told the Commons: “At present, anonymised judgments of the Court of Appeal, and in some instances the High Court, are made public. But this is not the situation for the county courts or the family proceedings courts, which deal with the bulk of family law cases.

“We have therefore decided to pilot the provision of written judgments when a final order is made in certain family cases.

“The courts in the pilot areas – Leeds, Wolverhampton and Cardiff – will, for the first time, routinely produce a written record of the decision for the parties involved.

“In selected cases where the court is making life-changing decisions for a child, they will publish an anonymous judgment online so that it can be read by the wider public.”

Straw said adoption court hearings would remain closed – but the Government will now consider whether they too should be opened to the media.

Straw also announced a relaxation in the rules on disclosing information from family proceedings to third parties.

This would allow people to discuss their cases in detail with MPs, relatives and doctors in order to get advice.

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