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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 May 2006, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Family courts secrecy could end
Harriet Harman
Harriet Harman says secrecy damages confidence in the system
Family court hearings could be thrown open to public scrutiny under plans to boost confidence in the way divorce and child custody cases are handled.

Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman says the courts have nothing to hide but the current secrecy stops them defending themselves against criticism.

Plans due next month could mean hearings could be open to the press but there would be anonymity.

The news comes after the Fathers 4 Justice group invaded the lottery show.

The campaign group, which says the secrecy of the court system means the public do not know about unfair decisions, announced after the stunt that it had reformed. Family court hearings are usually held behind closed doors, often because judges are concerned to protect the identities of children involved.

Confidence fears

In a speech this week, Ms Harman said: "In this day and age, it is hard for people to value what they cannot see.

"It is hard for people to have confidence in something which is closed.

"It is impossible to defend a system from accusations of bias and discrimination if it operates behind closed doors."

It is so far unclear whether the government will propose letting the general public, or just the press, into the hearings.

Ms Harman said even judges, MPs, ministers were not allowed into family court cases unless they obtained special permission from the judge or magistrate.

"Privacy is necessary to protect families seeking justice - but privacy is not necessary to protect the courts. The courts have nothing to hide. Far from it," she argued.

Ms Harman said anonymity for families and children involved in hearings had to be "zealously" enforced.

"We will not allow there to be a situation where confidence in the family courts rises as it allows its work to be seen, only to have that confidence collapse through children or parents suffering the anguish of being identified - either directly or indirectly," she said.

Ms Harman believes anonymity is regularly broken under the current rules because the secrecy makes it difficult to defend the system.

'Scrutiny needed'

Guy Harrison, spokesman for the Fathers 4 Justice campaign, said ending secrecy of the courts would be a step in the right direction.

But he could not see the case for protecting the anonymity of adults - although the situation was different for children involved in family court cases.

"I think it will transform the law courts if, when a judge makes a ridiculous order, it's public," said Mr Harrison.

He said he thought the courts had a lot to hide, which was why hearings had been kept secret for so long.

Fathers 4 Justice is calling for a presumption in favour of shared parenting in the courts. It argues that fathers are treated unfairly in custody battles and court orders are often not enforced.

Some family court lawyers believe there should be more openness about the system but think that making actual hearings public could encourage prurience and deter people from going to court.

They suggest that publishing more anonymised judgements could be a better way to educate the public about the work of the courts.

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