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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

17 SEP 2010

Newspapers complain to MPs about access to family courts

Newspapers - iStockphotoThe Newspaper Society has presented a submission to the House of Commons' Justice Select Committee's inquiry into the operation of the family courts, claiming the new Children, Schools & Families Act 2010 will not succeed in delivering greater accountability.

The inquiry's remit includes looking at "confidentiality and openness in family courts, including the impact of the recent changes in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010".

In its submission, the regional publishers' trade body says that although the media warmly supported the previous Government's aim of increasing openness and transparency and improving public confidence in the family justice system, it now concludes that the Act will not achieve this.

"In the final event the Act became the vehicle for a regime which not only ensured total anonymity for all those involved, thus completely defeating the objective of greater accountability of those involved in the system, but which also, if brought into effect in its present form, will arguably place greater restriction upon the media's ability to report than is presently the case," the Society submitted.

The Act's effect, the Society argues, is to make it a contempt of court to publish any article referring to family proceedings, even if derived entirely from material already in the public domain and even if the parties were not identified, if the publication was not derived from an "authorised news report".

Its submission emphasises that the media always fully accepted that children and families who were parties to family court proceedings should have automatic full anonymity, but the media did not agree that there should be an automatic and blanket restriction on identifying others involved in the proceedings, including professionals and practitioners involved in the family justice system.

In conclusion, it says "that the intention of increased transparency has been lost in the Act's drafting, that the aim of achieving privacy for the families has been conflated into a renewed regime of secrecy  which - if the relevant provisions in the Act are brought into force unamended - will not only fail to deliver the desired public accountability but will represent a major reduction in what can now be lawfully published, and will actually further reduce public debate and discussion of the family justice system."

However in February this year the House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights Committee's report on the Bill questioned whether the measures conflict with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In its report, the Committee said: "We are concerned that the provisions on the reporting of family proceedings in the Bill may not be compatible with the best interests of the child principle in Article 3 UNCRC. Any relaxation of the restrictions on the attendance of the media at, and reporting of, family proceedings should not be at the expense of the best interests of the child principle. To ensure that the best interests principle in Article 3 UNCRC continues to be respected, we recommend that the Bill be amended so as to include an express restriction on the publication of information where such publication would not be in the best interests of the child."

Research by the Children's Commissioner for England has also revealed that most children and young people involved in family court cases would be unwilling or less willing to disclose maltreatment or talk about ill treatment by a parent, express their wishes and feelings and any problems they were having at school with a journalist present.

The reforms have also been strongly opposed by family lawyers who are concerned about the diminished protection provided to the welfare and privacy of the child, the undermining of key ethical principles underscoring the work of professionals such as doctors and social workers, and the delay and cost which the system would have to bear.

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