Family proceedings held in county courts and the High Court will be open to the media from April 27, Justice Minister Jack Straw announced today.
But journalists who wish to attend such hearings will be required to produce a valid UK Press Card to gain admission, the justice ministry said.
Accredited media would be able to attend all levels of family courts under the reform, which removes the existing inconsistency of access between magistrates’ courts and the county and High Courts.
But the court would be able to restrict attendance if a child’s welfare required it, or if it was necessary to do so for the safety and protection of parties or witnesses.
The ministry said that under the plans for greater openness in the family courts, which were originally announced in December last year, courts would have powers to restrict what can be reported to protect the welfare of children and families involved, or relax reporting rules if an individual case allowed this.
Parties to cases would also be able to make representations to a court if reporters were present but they felt there were good reasons for excluding them.
Straw said today: “Public confidence in the justice system is a necessary and vital part of a democratic society. I want to ensure that reforms to the family courts system increase their accountability to the public.
“People need to trust the justice system. One important way is by creating a more open, transparent and accountable system while protecting children and families during a difficult and traumatic time in their lives.”
The change is being introduced through a Statutory Instrument which was laid before parliament today.
The ministry spokesman said journalists who attended family courts would have to be accredited through the UK Press Card scheme, which had a wide membership, and was open to those working wholly or mainly in the media.
But the scheme is not open to bloggers, those who wrote occasional newsletters, or to foreign media not working in the UK.
There have been widespread calls for greater openness in the family courts for a number of years, with pressure growing over undue secrecy in child protection cases following the death of Baby P in August 2007.
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 when he announced the greater openness policy last December that 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 said that 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.”