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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 July 2006, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Family courts 'to be more open'
The plans would allow more transparency in court proceedings
The government is expected to announce proposals that would overhaul family courts in England and Wales to make them more open and accountable.

Ministers say that the current privacy surrounding family court cases makes it hard to combat bias and discrimination.

Under the plans, the media would get greater access to hearings and children would be entitled to more information on their case when they become adults.

But the anonymity of families would remain protected.

Around 400,000 cases are heard in family courts every year in England and Wales but almost all of the proceedings take place in private.

A measure of accountability improves the decision making in any institution
Harriet Harman
Constitutional Affairs minister

Under the government's proposals, the media would be allowed to attend hearings. Currently they need special permission and reporting is extremely restricted.

Family details would still remain anonymous and ordinarily there would be no access for members of the public.

However, Constitutional Affairs minister Harriet Harman told a press briefing that individuals might be admitted to the court at the discretion of the judge.

It was also proposed that MPs, local councillors and court inspectors would be allowed to attend hearings to see the system was working.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs said in its consultation paper that Parliament often made family laws "in the dark" without a clear idea of how the family justice system worked or of the eventual impact of the laws.

'Life-long implications'

Ms Harman earlier told Radio 4's Today programme: "A measure of accountability improves the decision making in any institution and the harder the decision is, the more important that there is public confidence.

"And the judgements that are being made are of huge importance and can have life-long implications.

"If you make a right decision to take a child into care you can save that child's life, but a miscarriage of justice in the family court is no less a miscarriage of justice than a life sentence."

She said strict conditions would apply to media reporting.

This should include a "new clear provision" that it would be a criminal offence to breach the anonymity of the children or parents involved in the proceedings.

"Indeed, the public can't value a system if they don't really know what's going on," she added.

Among the proposals, the government is also expected to consult on improving the information available to children involved, so that when they turn 18 they can better understand how decisions about their care were made.

The government's consultation, which will include getting the views of the media and the public, will continue until the end of October.

The new open regime is expected to be first introduced in the High Court Family Division.

Are you affected by this story? Have you had any experiences with the family courts?

Your comments:

I dont think that attempting to make the truly opaque and incompetent system more transparent would work. The problem is that the court system is run by lawyers for the benefit of lawyers and nothing short of a massive overhaul of the complete legal system will change that. My own experience of the divorce court was that the system is corrupt and only designed to extract maximum cash from the unfortunates who have to go there, driven by their greedy lawyers. I complained to the Lord Chancellor about the judge in my case and his response was that "The judge in question cannot remember your case, so there is nothing I can do". Neither are the courts interested in the children involved. I was illegally prevented from seeing my daughter for 4 years and the court did nothing. The family court is a waste of time and money.Matt, Farnborough

This is a sham. Nothing will change unless the courts are open so that the judges can be held accountable as in criminal trials by the media and public. The abysmal prejudicial secret rulings based on ignorance and gender bias will continue because parties and their parasite lawyers will be able to cast false allegation after false allegation without fear of exposure or censure as happens now. The children's needs for both parents will continue to come a poor last as the truth is buried under a blanket of secrecy under the bogus name of privacy. Jeff, Weybridge

My first comment is: about time too. I (and more importantly my children) suffered at the hands of the family courts. The injustice, especially against fathers is terrible. Ultimately I was successful and gained residency of my own children but the path to that conclusion was something I will never forget. I would also point out that the article regarding the mother who had her children taken away, though heartbreaking and possibly wrong, does not represent what is actually going on. Far better to have had a father interviewed, seeing as its them that suffer the most. More bias I fear. Gary, Nottingham

I am a trainee solicitor and have practised in family law and hope to qualify into it. I think family law, although it is continually developing with the 'footballer's wives' settlements being in the public domain, it is an area that is still misunderstood. I think that making the information available to the public will help people understand why the legal system is the way it is. Not only will it benefit children by helping them understand the reasons why the judge awarded a particular parent care of them, it may also help extremist groups such as 'fathers for justice'. Although I agree with the principles of why such a group has developed, maybe the publicity will help clarify some views which are regarded as 'miscarriages of justice'. Overall, if the parties identity are protected then it will help future families in trouble to be aware of the likely outcome of their case. It will make the public aware of the difficulties judges face in making decisions for families, when the adults cannot seem to reason in resolving their finances and custody of their children. Estella Brown, Kent

Me and my family were unjustly dragged through the family court system for 13 months by a local authority that acted on misguided opinions with no factual basis, formed by people with too much power and no accountability. I see this announcement as a very positive step to improving the culture within the Social Services and Police Child protection teams, to one where they can't do just what they like because they feel its in "the best interest of the child". And its about time too. Yes, many children do need to be protected, but there are others whose parent are innocent of any wrongdoing and fall victim to a system that currently works on the principle that statistically the parents must be at fault and are guilty until proven innocent. At last the government has seen the light. Perhaps they should next take a long hard look at the damage LA adoption targets are doing? Oh and speed up the court process too. Dave, Hertfordshire

Hear from a mother whose children were taken away

Inside the family court
07 Jun 06 |  UK
Family courts secrecy could end
24 May 06 |  Politics
Call to create family court tour
29 Jun 06 |  Scotland

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