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25 FEB 2010

Further media access to family courts will be scrapped by Tories

The Government has been forced to make concessions to its plans to further expand media access in the family courts.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday night, Justice Minister Bridget Prentice accepted a new clause to the Children, Schools and Families Bill that requires a full independent review to media access in the family courts.

As a result of the accepted amendments, before Schedule 2 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill may be brought into effect, there now must be a full independent review and evaluation of the operation of the provisions and the impact of the media being granted access to family courts for the first time in April. The conclusions of the independent review must then be set out in a report laid before Parliament.

The independent review cannot commence before a full review has been completed of the findings from the pilot allowing for the publication of anonymised judgments.

However, speaking to Newswatch today the Shadow Justice Minister Henry Bellingham said that "although [the Government] have accepted our new clause 2, and although they have come up with some amendments, we are keen to scrap it and start again".

The Government had wanted to expand the April reforms to allow journalists a right to view documents filed in the proceedings. However 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 (UNCRC).

In addition to UNCRC issues, the reforms were also strongly opposed by family lawyers over concerns 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.

Mr Bellingham said it would have been far better to include the provisions by means of a separate family proceedings Bill, especially given that the Government have already announced that they are going to carry out a major review of the family justice system.

Speaking at the debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday night, Mr Bellingham said: "We always assumed that the Government would allow the new arrangements to settle in before moving on to the next stage, which would be to amend the primary legislation on reporting restrictions and look into media attendance at placement and adoption proceedings.

"We never dreamt that the Ministry of Justice would amend primary legislation by tacking on various clauses to another Bill, right at the fag-end of this Parliament, when the Government knew that there would be no time to debate these important proposals properly," Mr Bellingham added.

The Bill has now gone to the House of Lords.

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