Frances Gibb, Legal Editor
Thousands of family hearings that take place behind closed doors will be opened to media this month, Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, said yesterday.
Under the reform, accredited media will be able to attend all levels of family courts from April 27, removing the inconsistency of access between magistrates’ courts, which are generally open, and the county and high courts, which are closed.
Courts will still be able to restrict attendance if a child’s welfare requires it or if it is necessary to do so for the safety and protection of parties or witnesses. Parties to cases will be able to make representations to a court if they feel that there are good reasons for excluding journalists.
The Justice Ministry said that journalists who attended family courts would have to be accredited through the British press card scheme, which has a wide membership and is open to those working wholly or mainly in the media.
The scheme is not open to bloggers, those who write occasional news-letters or to foreign media.
Courts will also have powers to restrict what can be reported to protect the welfare of children and families, or to relax reporting rules in individual cases.
Some judges and lawyers are concerned that the restrictions will leave the media unable to report much of what goes on. Mr Justice McFarlane, a High Court judge, said last month that the media would be in “no better position than now” to evaluate parents’ complaints.
He said that they would be limited to reporting the “process and gist of proceedings”, rather than the detail of any particular case.
Mr Straw said that the changes would help increase public faith in the court system.
He said yesterday: “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 court system increase their accountability to the public.
“People need to trust the justice system. One important way is 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 that was laid before Parliament yesterday.
There have been widespread calls for greater openness in the family courts for several years, with pressure growing over undue secrecy in child protection cases.
The reform also came about after a campaign by The Times.
Concerns were reignited after the death of Baby P in August 2007. The boy 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.
Mr Straw said when he announced the greater openness policy in December last year 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.”
Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre
The courts policy of restricting publication has absolutely nothing to do with child protection but everything to do with protecting the Family Court Judiciary's policy of Male Gender Apartheid. www.OttawaMensCentre.com