Family court system opened up

Journalists would be allowed to report cases in family courts to improve public understanding of how the system works, under new government proposals.

Constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman said the measures, included in a consultation document published today, would help members of the public trust the system.

“Public confidence depends on public scrutiny. It has to be seen to be believed and justice not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done – including in the family courts,” she said.

“Greater openness will mean a greater understanding of the courts’ work and recognition for those involved. Privacy is necessary to protect families seeking justice – but privacy is not necessary to protect the courts. The courts have nothing to hide.”

Family courts in England and Wales deal with about 400,000 cases a year, but the nature of these cases and the decisions that arise from them go largely unreported, because members of the media and the public are not allowed in.

Pressure groups such as Father for Justice have raised concerns about an automatic bias in courts to give custody of children to the mother, although this has been rejected by many in the judiciary.

Horror stories of people having their children taken away on the recommendation of social services, with little evidence, have also led to a major lack of confidence in the system – something today’s document acknowledges.

“The current operation of the family courts attracts criticism to the family justice system as a whole and lays it open to accusations of bias and injustice which cannot be satisfactorily refuted,” it says.

“There is a public perception and concern that family courts operate in an unjustifiably secret forum rather than a necessarily private one. Some members of the judiciary, legal profession and parliament share these concerns.”

The government’s proposals would see journalists allowed into courts as a right, although they would be forbidden from identifying the people involved in the case. Breaching these reporting restrictions would be a criminal offence for the first time.

This would have the effect of raising public awareness of the process and helping people involved in the family court system understand what to expect.

Under the plans, those involved would also be provided with a written statement explaining the reasons behind the decision in their case. This would be available for children both at the time of the court case and when they grew up.

“Opening up the courts and building confidence in the family justice system is important not just for the general public, but for the people involved in the proceedings,” Ms Harman said.

“Currently it is difficult for a child, even once adult, to find out why the family court ordered that they should live with mother and not see father – or vice versa.”