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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 June 2006, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
Funding fears over family courts
Family (generic)
Courts make decisions 'that affect lives forever'
Attempts to cut delays in family courts are being hampered by a shortage of money, a committee of MPs has claimed.

Judges have tried to reduce the delays by pushing cases into specialist family proceedings courts.

But the MPs say they are worried the system does not have enough funding or legal advisers.

The committee also wants the traditional secrecy of the family courts to end - something ministers are already planning.

'Urgent'

Delays in handling family cases are seen as particularly damaging as they involve divorce and child custody disputes.

Department for Constitutional Affairs officials say the process has improved considerably in recent years and the delays have been cut.

But Sir Mark Potter, president of the Family Courts Division of the courts, told MPs there was an "urgent need" for extra legal advisers to be available to run the family proceeding courts.

He told the Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee extra advisers were "critical" to expanding the courts' work and reducing delays throughout the system.

Audrey Damazer, from the Justices' Clerks Society, said: "One of our fears is that if there are going to be cuts and we do not increase the number of legal advisers, or not replace the legal advisers we have, then we are not going to be able to take on this work."

It would go a long way towards dispelling accusations of bias and restoring public confidence in the system if the process was open
MPs committee

In their report, the MPs say: "We are disappointed it appears that the department's continuing difficulties with resources seem to be preventing the judiciary from reducing the delays in the family court system."

Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman has promised a consultation paper will be published this month on throwing open the family courts to public scrutiny.

The public and media are usually banned from them - something critics say has been exploited by fathers' rights campaigners.

Liberal Democrat MP, Alan Beith, who is chairman of the MPs' committee, said the "adversarial" nature of the court proceedings was an issue.

He told BBC news: "You have someone representing one side, someone representing another, each trying to pick holes in the other's case.

"It is no recipe for the child's interest to be protected, still less for some degree of reconciliation between people whose relationship has broken down."

Fellow MPs on the committee say making proceedings open would help: "It would go a long way towards dispelling accusations of bias and restoring public confidence in the system if the process was open - with the necessary reporting restrictions in place to protect the child."

They say the press and public could be allowed into the court - with appropriate restrictions on what can be reported outside it.

The MPs also want everyone at least to meet with a mediator before going to court with their case. The government has so far resisted using compulsion.

Confidence call

Ms Harman welcomed the report, saying: "Family courts make major decisions that affect people's lives forever.

"It is hard to overstate the importance of their work and the difficult judgments they have to make.

"It is important that a system which affects so many is properly understood and commands public confidence.

"Public confidence depends on public scrutiny. It has to be seen to be believed and justice not only has to be done it has to be seen to be done - including in the family courts."




SEE ALSO:
Family courts secrecy could end
24 May 06 |  UK Politics
Inside the family court
07 Jun 06 |  UK


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