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  • Family courts to be opened up
  • By Michael Herman
  • 11/07/2006 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 61 articles in 2006 )
Children whose lives have been shaped by family court decisions will be entitled to see the details of the judgment when they reach adulthood, according to proposals set out today.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs wants family courts to record and store details of all decisions that will become available to children once they reach the age of 18.

In a wide-ranging consultation paper, which also addresses media access to family law cases, the DCA called for "a greater understanding by those involved in decisions in particular cases.

"Children and young people rarely attend family proceedings, they need to know the reasons why important decisions are taken, such as, where they live, who they live with and who they see.

"While this may be explained to them as children in an 'age appropriate' way, their needs as adults are likely to change and they may then want more detailed and objective information about those earlier decisions."

The majority of family law proceedings are private. This leaves parents free to refuse to divulge details of any decisions to their children, or where the children are very young, decline to reveal that the proceedings have even taken place.

Katherine Gieve, a leading family law expert at Bindmans, welcomed the proposals, saying: "In general it is a good idea for children to understand decisions that have been made which affect their lives."

Ms Gieve said the knowledge that children may eventually gain access to details of court hearings might encourage parents to act in a more responsible way.

Harriet Harman, the Constitutional Affairs Minister who presented the report to Parliament, said the current system forces adults to engage in detective work to uncover details about earlier court decisions.

The consultation suggests using existing rules that help adopted children trace their birth parents as a model to be extended to all children involved in family court cases.

But the report stressed "protecting the welfare and best interests of children is a key role of the family courts, and this will always remain the case. Any movement towards improved openness made at the expense of the best interests of a child is a move that should not be made."

The consultation also proposes allowing reporters into family courts albeit with tight restrictions including creating a criminal offence for breaching those restrictions.

The courts will have the flexibility to set how much detail can be reported in any particular case and retain the right to bar the media from reporting on specific cases altogether.

Lord Justice Wall, a senior family judge, has called for the media to be allowed into family courts to shake off "the canard of secret justice."

Ms Gieve said: "Although the press can be extremely vicious in their reporting and further prejudice children who are already in a vulnerable situation there are elements of the way in which family courts make decisions which should be more open."

Mark Stephens, a lawyer with Finers, Stephens Inncocent, said opening up family courts would help expose mistakes and lead to a more efficient system.

"On the occasions when the family courts system fails, it is imperative for public confidence that injustices are exposed and that malpractice by local authorities is publicly reviewed," he said.

The Conservatives said the plans fail to tackle the problem of delays in the family courts system.

Oliver Heald, shadow constitutional affairs secretary, welcomed the consultation but said: "It does not, however, tackle the main problem for family courts, which is delays.

"A recent survey by the Law Society showed that seven out of ten cases in central London suffer from delays. This issue has to be addressed."

Mr Heald called for greater focus on recruiting specialist family court judges saying that many judges had to add family work to their other duties.

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