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  • In open Court.
  • By Times Legal Reporter
  • The Times
  • 27/04/2009 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: Daveyone ( 29 articles in 2009 )
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The opening of the family courts today strikes an historic blow for justice. However, it is only a first step and much more needs to be done

Today thousands of family courts in England and Wales will be opened to the media for the first time. This is an important moment, one that The Times has campaigned strenuously to bring about. It means that decisions that can derail or repair lives will no longer be taken behind closed doors, by professionals whose identities are unknown. It is an historic step towards open justice and will let the public see what is done in their name.

Yet it is only a first step. There is considerable disappointment about how much discretion judges will retain to stop journalists reporting proceedings. The labyrinth of reporting restrictions contained in the Children's Act 1989 and the Administration of Justice Act 1960 will not be swept away today. What journalists will actually be able to relay to the public will depend enormously on the nature of the case.

These and other rules exist ostensibly to protect the identity of parties in what are often deeply intimate and personal cases. Yet while the rules grant the parties anonymity - which will continue - they have also had the effect of gagging parents and preventing them from seeking help in overturning miscarriages of justice. Many parents and children want to be allowed to tell their stories. They want to make local authorities and expert witnesses accountable. The sheer number of parents who feel the system is stacked against them is alarming. Some of them have been judged to pose a “potential risk of emotional harm” to their children. More children are removed from their families on the basis of emotional harm than physical abuse. Yet emotional harm has no definition in British law.

Since the tragedy of Baby P, most of us have vivid pictures of the horror that can result if social workers do not intervene. Yet we have almost no idea of what happens when the same system intervenes in the wrong lives. There is no doubt that many children do need protection. Yet we also need the child protection system to be accountable and transparent.

Today will be a test of how open the courts will really be. It may well prove a damp squib. Judges will be able to refuse entry to journalists on certain grounds. More worryingly, there will still be severe limitations on what journalists can read and report. There will be no media right to see documents relied on in court, many of which will be referred to only glancingly during the proceedings. There will be no media right to publish.

The campaign for justice for families was not conducted in order to procure and publish salacious details about people's personal lives. Some defendants, and lawyers, have expressed concerns that more openness will damage privacy. That is understandable. But there is no question of children and families seeing their names splashed all over the media. They will remain anonymous.

Rape trials are an important precedent. In rape cases, the media routinely keep victims' names secret while reporting the evidence. That is the model that should apply to the family courts. We had expected that publication would be routine, unless expressly forbidden by the judge. We find instead that the onus will be on journalists to convince judges to let them print. So family courts will no longer operate in the dark, but they will still be in the dark ages, compared to criminal proceedings.

The panoply of rules is dramatically at odds with the impassioned rhetoric about open justice from Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary. He is now promising to table legislation to lift some of the reporting restrictions. But he needs to make good on his promises. At the moment there is too little detail to be certain that justice really will be seen to be done.


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