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Family court doors remain closed

Principal Registry of the Family Division, Holborn
Judges still have wide powers to restrict reporting and media access

Family courts were opened to the press at the end of April but as yet there has been remarkably little reporting of them. Sanchia Berg spent a fortnight in different family courts to find out why.

The judge was happy for me to sit in his courtroom, the duty clerk informed me, so I walked in and found a seat in the corner.

This was my first day at the Principal Registry in Holborn - London's equivalent of the county court family division.

These courtrooms are quite informal, rather like seminar rooms, except for the little raised area where the judge and clerk sit.

The judge asked me to introduce myself. I explained that I simply wanted to observe the processes of the family courts, and report what I could, anonymised of course.

The judge seemed quite pleased - but the barristers looked uncomfortable.

Even though any reporting has to be anonymous - the reporter's still there listening.
Sanchia Berg

One became quite agitated. He explained he represented the children's mother - and he needed to check what she thought about it. He went out to find her.

As we waited, we heard muffled screams coming from the corridor outside - and the sound of someone running. After a short while, the barrister came back.

"I think you all heard my client's reaction," he said. The mother had violently objected to me being there. In fact, she said she would not be present if I was.

The judge invited the barristers to give their view. They said they did not know if the case could go forward if the mother was not there - that it would not be in the best interests of the children involved.

Young girl
Family courts deal with divorce and custody battles

The judge didn't ask me to leave, however I decided to go - I didn't want my presence to affect the case.

It was a reminder of how intensely personal these cases are.

As they assess whether a parent is the best carer for their child, experts will talk about parents' mental ability, their IQ, their personality, their ability to learn.

They talk about their state of mind, the condition of their home, and the nature of their relationships. Even though any reporting has to be anonymous - the reporter's still there listening.

'Lose-lose situation'

Yet that was the only case I had to leave.

I did hear part of several cases, but then stumbled across one where the local authority had applied to take several children from one family into care.

I followed that through its last few days - hearing evidence from the father, and the court-appointed guardian, the final submissions and the judgement a few days later.

I heard enough to understand the issues and the history.

But because I wasn't allowed access to the experts' reports - so far no-one has - I could not really assess the case for myself. For instance, a key question was what was to happen to the eldest child, a nine-year-old girl.

Baby Peter
Applications to take a child away from their family increased after Baby P

Experts had told the court that she was being damaged by the destructive relationship between her parents - that was why she had five hour tantrums and threatened her father with a knife.

This was challenged by the father's barrister.

The experts also said the little girl was in a "lose-lose situation" - she was too old to be adopted, so she would have to go to foster parents - and she might do very badly in the care system as she had learning difficulties and behavioural problems.

She might drift from placement to placement, dropping out of school, the experts said.

Her grandparents had applied to the court to look after her - but the judge decided that they were not able to provide the stable home the little girl needed, and they were too close to their own daughter, emotionally and geographically.

Because I had not seen the expert report, I didn't have the full picture - the grandparents had been repeatedly described in court as "good" people, who had brought up four children of their own, though like all the other adults in this case they had learning difficulties.

Jeremy Rosenblatt, a leading barrister in the family courts, told me that no journalist could fully grasp a case without those expert reports.

"The expert evidence is clearly crucial," he told me.

"The experts guide the parent who is seeking assessment, they guide the local authority.

"And of course they guide the judge."




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