As part of my determination to ensure that the justice system is as open and transparent as possible – and therefore accountable to the people it serves – media organisations will for the first time be able to attend proceedings of all the family courts as of Monday (27 April).
The media has a critical role to play in ensuring that justice is seen to be done and it is right that we lift the veil on the important and very sensitive work of the family courts.
Unfortunately there has been some misinterpretation of what we are doing in this year, and I’m afraid The Lawyer’s article ‘Family Court transparency: has New Labour reneged on its promise?’ falls into this trap.
In my statement to the House of Commons on 16 December, and in the consultation response document ‘Family Justice in View’ published on the same day, I set out the overall package of changes:
* media attendance at family proceedings across all tiers of court (except, for the time being, adoption proceedings)
* pilots for the provision of more information to parties to proceedings, and anonymised judgments made available to the wider public
* a new legislative framework for reporting restrictions
* revised provisions for the disclosure of information in children cases, to make it easier for parties to seek the help they need
Overall, these measures demonstrate my firm commitment to opening up the family courts, and they represent a significant change from the current position. I have always been clear that the measures would have to be introduced in stages, not least because some of the changes need primary legislation.
The first phase – the provisions for media attendance and disclosure – is being implemented today, just four months after my announcement. I am very grateful to all those who have ensured a successful launch, particularly the Rules Committees in developing the new court rules, and court staff in preparing for the new arrangements. The significance of this change is that media attendance is now the default position in all family courts. The practice direction to support the new rules, issued by the President of the Family Division, makes clear that the media have a right of attendance and can be excluded only in the limited circumstances set out in the rules. It is not our intention that discussions about whether or not any media wishing to present should be allowed to stay should take up a lot of court time, although if parties do raise any objections it is of course absolutely right that the media should be allowed to make their case for staying. Some people may be concerned about the media being present but that concern is not in itself sufficient reason to have them excluded – there must be a reason in relation to one of the prescribed exclusion provisions.
The second phase will be the information pilots. These will start as soon as the necessary procedures and security provisions are agreed and in place.
The third phase will be reporting restrictions. Given the complexity of the existing reporting restriction legislation, we need amendments to primary legislation to ensure that a clear and comprehensive scheme is in place across all tiers of court. That legislation will be brought forward as soon as parliamentary time is available, but I hope it will be sooner rather than later.
Your article rightly makes the point that that there is a careful balance to be struck between transparency and privacy. That is why I was very clear when I made my statement that there will continue to be some restrictions on what can be reported, now and when we have introduced new legislation. It would be wholly inappropriate to allow reporting of every detail, especially of identity, of all family proceedings – parties to proceedings and children have a right to privacy and we must, and will, respect that.
Overall, this package of measures will deliver a fundamental shift in the openness of family courts, and is far from the “damp squib” suggested in your article. There is a very wide range of very strongly held views on the issues, from those opposed to any opening up to those who argue for full access and unlimited reporting. Neither extreme is sustainable and I believe that what this Government is doing represents a fair way forward for everyone.
Jack Straw MP is Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice