Media to gain greater access to family courts

Justice Secretary announces sweeping reforms

The Justice Secretary Jack Straw has announced reforms of the family justice system which will allow greater scrutiny of its workings by the media.

From April 2009, Mr Straw said, the media will be permitted greater access to all family cases in all courts. “A really important veil is being lifted on what happens in these courts,” he said. Mr Straw said that the move would help confidence in the family law system and make the courts more accountable and transparent.

Although the default position will become open court reporting of family proceedings, including cases involving divorce and child care, there will also be a series of restrictions to protect the welfare of children, parties and witnesses. The reforms will provide for those with an interest in cases to make applications to have the media excluded. The reforms will aim to strike a balance between protecting privacy and vulnerable individuals and the principle of open justice.

Mr Straw indicated that his department would monitor whether the reforms inculcate a culture of greater openness in the family courts, and if the reforms were not seen to result in change, would consider primary legislation.

Addressing the issue of whether there would be continued anonymity for social workers, doctors and experts in family cases, Mr Straw said “I see no reason why other professionals should be immune from public examination unless there are overwhelming arguments in an individual case.”

Sir Mark Potter, the President of the Family Division of the High Court, welcomed the announcement but said that judicial discretion to exclude the media should be used where necessary.

The question of whether and how adoption proceedings may be given greater openness remains and Mr Straw said that it will be reviewed. Sir Mark Potter remarked that the Judiciary remained opposed to any change in the status quo. At present the media is allowed access only to the Court of Appeal and magistrates’ family proceedings courts.

Publicly available, written judgements in family proceedings are also to be piloted in a greater number of cases to accompany the making of a final order, Mr Straw told Parliament. At present, only the Court of Appeal and the High Court publish anonymous decisions.