Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Big Question

In July The Times carried a series of articles about the perceived secretiveness of family courts summarised by John Bolch of Family Lore in this post. On Monday The Times published here details of an interview with the President of the Family Division in England and Wales, Sir Mark Potter, who has given his backing to opening up the family court system in certain cases.

Marilyn Stowe made comments on her blog with which I'm in total agreement "that in public family law cases, where the State is taking action in relation to a child, the entire process should be transparent. Removing a child from its parents is the most draconian civil action that can be taken. It is open to allegations of wrong doing if it is not transparent..." She continues "As for closing private law family courts to the media, I agree they should not be a public spectacle. I don’t think the financial cases of individuals getting divorced - however high profile - should be printed in the media. It’s quite simply none of our business and leaves them vulnerable to any host of risks."

Yesterday The Independent asked "The Big Question: What would be the result of opening family courts up to the public gaze?" which is the most balanced media article about the issue I've seen yet. There is a government consultation on changing court access rules in family cases expected to be published by the end of the year. Some people believe the rules have established secret courts where justice is not being seen to be done, although child protection experts are concerned that the welfare of children might be at risk if reforms are introduced to improve the public scrutiny of the courts. The Independent asks should family court proceedings be opened up and lists the pros and cons.

*Social workers would be more careful when deciding to take children into care
*The public would have greater confidence in the system because they could witness justice being done
*Higher visibility would make judges more accountable to the public for their decisions

*It would turn the divorce courts into cirucuses. Witness the recent Mills/McCartney litigation
*Children would be damaged by revelations made about their personal lives
*A relaxation of privacy rules would discourage parents and experts from giving objective evidence

In Scotland, Canada and New Zealand, the press are allowed to attend court hearings involving children. This does not mean that journalists are free to report on all child cases in these countries. Those supporting reform argue children in these countries have not been damaged by family courts being open to the media.


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