Sir Mark Potter: Family courts should be open to the press

Courts which decide whether children should be taken away from their parents should be opened up to the press, Sir Mark Potter, President of the Family Division of the High Court, said today.

Opening the courts would dispel criticism of “secret justice” in care cases, he told The Times.

Some private hearings which divided assets between divorcing couples might also be opened up to public scrutiny, at the judge’s discretion, he told the newspaper.

More open justice would help dispel some of the “myths and inaccuracies” surrounding the family courts, Sir Mark said, adding: “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.”

Justice Secretary Jack Straw hinted at changes to the family courts system in his Labour Conference speech last month, when he said: “In the very sensitive area of the family courts, I think we can shed more light whilst preserving the imperative of the welfare of the child.”

The reforms are likely to maintain the rules protecting the identity of children dealt with by the courts.

Some parents dealt with by the family courts complain about a perceived lack of accountability and transparency in the system.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Last year, we consulted on improving the openness of family courts.

“We will publish our response once we have fully considered the findings.

“This is an important and complex area of policy about which people have strong views. We must ensure we get it right.”

Sir Mark’s comments reflect the view of many Family Division judges that secrecy is damaging the standing of the courts, and allowing allegations about one-sidedness and unaccountability to go unchallenged.

But in June last year, in one of his last moves before he lost his post when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, the then Justice Secretary, Lord Falconer, ditched proposals to give the media the right to attend family courts, following opposition from organisations representing children.

The idea was initially floated by the Government in 2006 as a way of putting a stop to claims that the courts were secretive, particularly in cases in which children were taken into care or custody was granted to one parent.

But a consultation exercise revealed strong opposition from organisations such as the NSPCC, the Children’s Commissioner and lawyers representing children, as well as 200 young people who took part. Their message was that having reporters in court would increase anxiety for children and parents.

The Times, which has been calling for greater openness in the family courts, said in an editorial today that its campaign “stems from the belief that some social workers are too quick to jump to conclusions about parents, and that grievous miscarriages of justice are occurring because professionals can operate without scrutiny in closed courts.

“Gagging orders and reporting restrictions mean that cases do not come to light unless judges choose to make their judgments public.

“It should be quite possible, as Sir Mark Potter argues, to hold professionals to account while also preserving the anonymity of children. There is no reason to increase the suffering of innocent children by dragging their names into the public domain.”

The newspaper added: “Child protection is fraught with difficulty. Judges and social workers operate in a minefield of emotion and complexity. Many do an excellent job. It is clear that some children are at risk from family members and they need protection. But the removal of children from their parents has consequences for all of society. The statistics on children taken into care – their life chances – make grim reading.

“The public which funds the child protection system has a right to expect it to be accountable, and transparent. Sir Mark’s words are an important step in this direction.”

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