Page last updated at 11:06 GMT, Monday, 20 October 2008 12:06 UK

'Open family courts' says judge

Young girl
Social workers says children's right to privacy needs to be protected.

A senior judge has challenged the secrecy that surrounds family courts, saying that reporters should be allowed to cover cases involving children.

By law, the media cannot report on cases about whether children should be taken into care because of concerns about family privacy.

But Sir Mark Potter told the Times that he wanted to dispel accusations of "secret justice" in care proceedings.

The justice ministry said it was considering whether to open up courts.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw is expected to announce changes to the family court system some time before Christmas.

This is an important and complex area of policy about which people have strong views. We must ensure we get it right

Ministry of Justice spokesman

It is thought he will back Sir Mark's call for greater transparency in the system.

The expected reforms follow criticism from parents who say social workers took their children into care on the basis of flimsy and unsupported evidence.

MPs have spoken out - saying the rules on secrecy allow some councils to remove children from their parents in order to meet "adoption targets."

But Sir Mark, who is president of the Family Division of the High Court, said that opening up family courts would prove to everyone that justice was being done.

He told the Times: "It is my firm belief that when people see these cases in action, and the extreme care with which they are dealt - and the fact that so much of what is said comes from interested and disgruntled parties not reporting the matter objectively - it can do nothing but good for the system."

'Myths and inaccuracies'

Sir Mark also said some private hearings which divided assets between divorcing couples might also be opened up to public scrutiny, at the judge's discretion.

More open justice would help dispel some of the "myths and inaccuracies" surrounding the family courts, he said.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw hinted at changes to the family courts system in his Labour Conference speech last month.

He said: "In the very sensitive area of the family courts, I think we can shed more light whilst preserving the imperative of the welfare of the child."

The reforms are likely to maintain the rules protecting the identity of children dealt with by the courts.

'No evidence'

But many social workers are likely to oppose changes that could see often sensitive court proceedings open to press scrutiny.

Ian Johnson of the British Association of Social Workers told the BBC: "We are trading families' fundamental right to privacy for the assumption that more openness will bring about an improvement in standards.

"I don't think that there is any evidence that will be the case."

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "Last year, we consulted on improving the openness of family courts.

"We will publish our response once we have fully considered the findings.

"This is an important and complex area of policy about which people have strong views. We must ensure we get it right."

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