Family Court Hearings to be Accountable and Open

The family court system will be made more accountable to the public under proposals for consultation announced by Constitutional Affairs Minister Rt. Hon. Harriet Harman QC MP today. The plans will see the family court system opened to the media so that they can report on their work to the public. This will affect a range of cases including those where a local authority acts to take a child into care, or where parents dispute child contact or residence. The proposals also include new safeguards to ensure the anonymity and privacy of individuals.

At present most family court proceedings are held in private, with the media not allowed in and the decisions taken generally not made public. Even on reaching adulthood children whose lives have been changed by a decision are not able to discover what the court ordered and why. Different rules about reporting apply to different courts, and there is a lack of accountability with even elected representatives and professional inspection bodies having to apply for permission to go into the court. This has led to a perception that the courts operate in secret, and a resulting loss of public confidence and trust in the family courts.

Harriet Harman said: “It is hard to overstate the importance of the work the family courts do and the difficult judgments they have to make. Family courts make decisions that have important effects on people’s lives and that affect them forever. Taking a child from its mother and placing it for adoption  changes the life of that child, and that mother, irrevocably. The right judgment can mean the child’s life can be saved. But taking a child from its birth mother is, if it’s a miscarriage of justice, no lesser injustice than a wrongly imposed life sentence – both for the mother and the child.

“People don’t understand the complexity and importance of the work of the family courts, but that is an unfortunate yet inevitable consequence of sitting in secret and making judgments behind closed doors. 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. Greater openness will mean a greater understanding of the courts’ work and recognition for those involved. Privacy is necessary to protect families seeking justice – but privacy is not necessary to protect the courts. The courts have nothing to hide.

“Opening up the courts and building confidence in the family justice system is important not just for the general public, but for the people involved in the proceedings. Currently it is difficult for a child, even once adult, to find out why the family court ordered that they should live with mother and not see father – or vice versa. This paper seeks a consistent approach to retaining relevant information that they can choose to access when they reach adulthood.”

The proposals contained in a new DCA consultation paper, ‘Confidence and Confidentiality: Improving Transparency and Privacy in Family Courts’
lay out improvements to:

  • Make a single set of rules about who is allowed in to family cases and what can be reported regardless of the court where they are heard.

  • Allow the media to attend proceedings as of right so that they can report matters to the public, subject to individual anonymity being observed and the discretion of the court.

  • Consult on the provision of better information to children involved in family proceedings once they are adults.

  • Allow the court to enable attendance by inspectors and elected representatives such as MPs and council members.

  • Ensure anonymity for children and adults involved in family justice through reporting restrictions, but enabling the court to increase or relax these as the case requires.

  • Introduce a new criminal offence for breaches of reporting restrictions.

In 2004 the family courts received more than 400,000 applications with most hearings taking place in family proceedings courts, county court and the High Court. The present system is complicated by different access rules for different courts, even though they may be hearing the same types of cases. Proposals for greater openness have been welcomed by a range of groups and individuals including senior judiciary, lawyers, campaign groups and MPs.