Wednesday 17 December 2008

Opening family courts is victory for press to report divorce, care and custody cases

The announcement by Justice Secretary Jack Straw that family court hearings are for the first time to be opened to the media, should be warmly welcomed by the press. Family court proceedings covering such matters as divorce, custody and care proceedings have been shrouded in secrecy for too long.
What the Ministry of Justice describes as "accredited media" will be able to attend all levels of family courts, removing the inconsistency of access between the higher and lower courts. Although, the court will be able to restrict attendance if the welfare of the child requires it, or for the safety and protection of parties or witnesses.
Introducing the new scheme Jack Straw said: "It is critical that family courts make the right decisions and the public have confidence they are doing so. A key part of building trust in the system is that people understand how it works.
"At the same time, we must protect the privacy of children and families involved in family court cases so they are not identified or stigmatised by their community or friends."
A pilot project will start in Spring 2009 to place anonymised judgements online from some family cases so that the public can see how decisions were reached.
The opening up of the family courts should create opportunities for specialist court reporters and freelance court news agencies and, perhaps, create employment for some of the reporters losing their jobs as newspapers cut costs. Some social workers believe that opening up the family courts to the press will give the media an insight into the problems they are up against and counter the negative publicity they have received in the wake of the "Baby P" case.
Jack Straw will win even more plaudits from the press if, as anticipated, he takes action to cap fees charged by lawyers in 'no win, no fee' arrangements in libel cases.

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