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Straw promises another increase in media scrutiny of family courts
Jack Straw: promises legislation to overhaul restrictions in the family courts

Thousands of cases in the family courts will be exposed to increased public scrutiny under reforms to be announced today by Jack Straw.

Restrictions on what the media can report are to be relaxed and expert witness reports containing details of child abuse allegations may be published.

Mr Straw, the Justice Secretary, will also examine how, subject to safeguards, to allow media access to adoption cases.

The reforms build on the opening up of the family courts in April after a campaign by fathers’ groups, politicians and the media led by The Times.

Despite this access, reporting is hampered by a confusing array of restrictions across at least ten statutes. Interviewed by The Times, Mr Straw said that there would be legislation in the next session of Parliament to overhaul the restrictions.

In the meantime, the rules would be clarified by a committee headed by Sir Mark Potter, Britain’s most senior family judge, so that the media could report “the substance of children’s cases, while protecting the identity of parties and children”.

The opening of the family courts was marred by concerns that media access was hindered by reporting rules. At present, the Administration of Justice Act 1960 prohibits reporting of the substance of a family case unless a judge indicates otherwise.

Mr Straw said: “The first change was to allow the media into the courts and that came into force at the end of April. The second change relates to the concerns that have been expressed that although journalists can report the gist of proceedings they cannot report the substance without being in contempt of court.”

The changes will be considered next week and are likely to take effect this autumn. Legislation will then be introduced in the Improving Schools and Safeguarding Children’s Bill to rationalise reporting rules across all family courts in line with the regime that applies in the youth courts. Judges would have a discretion to lift anonymity provisions in the public interest at the end of a case. “All of this is turning around a tanker,” Mr Straw said. “But the tanker is turning.”

He added that he also wanted to look at opening up adoption proceedings, although judges strongly oppose media access, regarding adoption as a special case. “To some degree there is a special case and to some degree there isn’t,” Mr Straw said.

He added: “What I want, without disclosing the identity of the parties or gratuitously disclosing family secrets where there is no public interest, is to see a light shone on these proceedings because I think that it is in the public interest for that to happen. There is no part of the judicial system that should be private. Confidence in the system suffers if proceedings entirely take place behind closed doors.”

He said, however, that there were “genuine concerns that can’t be dismissed” about protecting the identity of parties and about the disclosure of documents containing “sometimes lurid detail of family secrets”.

Despite a “high level of suspicion” about the media and journalists, Mr Straw said that they had shown themselves to be highly responsible when it came to abiding by reporting restrictions in the youth courts or in any other cases. The regime would be enforced through the contempt of court laws and he was confident that this would work. His family, he said, was subject to a family break-up when he was 10 and his siblings ranged in age from 3 months to 12 years.

“If your children or my children were party to proceedings and some pretty unpleasant things were said, would you really want that stuff spilled out?” Mr Straw also delivered a broadside over the rising costs of family legal aid. Spending had risen from £550 million in 2004-05 to about £600 million in 2008-09 with no equivalent increase in the number of cases.

Mr Straw cited reforms to criminal trials and the cut in the number of adjournments. He questioned the need for large numbers of lawyers representing different parties in children’s cases. “A leading practitioner said to me, ‘Is it really in the interests of a child to have all these people in this room?’.”


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