Plans to open family courts do not go far enough, says Justice McFarlane

23 MAR 2009

In a speech to Resolution family lawyers at their annual conference in Bristol this weekend, Mr Justice Andrew McFarlane said that Government plans to open family courts to the press are unlikely to enable journalists to report fully and accurately on family cases.

Mr Justice McFarlane said that detailed plans, due to come into force next month, will mean that journalists are able to attend family courts, sit in on cases and report on the process, but are likely to mean that they are specifically excluded from reporting the detail of the cases, even after the case is over.

"Whilst accredited journalists can now expect to be permitted to sit in on a private court hearing relating to children, they will face tough sanctions if they report any detail of the particular case that they are observing. Reporting will be limited to the process and the gist of proceedings, rather than the detail of any particular case. In other words the reporting will be about system rather than substance.

"The current changes will do little, I fear, to address the very real difficulty that journalists face when confronted, for the first time, after the end of the court case with a parent who is complaining about a miscarriage of justice. Such parents are, I would suggest, highly unlikely to tip a journalist off before the case starts and invite them to exercise their right to attend and observe the proceedings. Under the new scheme, the journalist is in no better position than they are now to evaluate the validity of the complaints that they are hearing", said Mr Justice McFarlane.

Mr Justice McFarlane explained that in his view it is: "not really a question of whether the family court should be opened up, but how that can be achieved whilst at the same time meeting all the conflicting and valid reasons for maintaining the essential confidentiality of the process as a whole.

He called for "a mechanism that permits accredited journalists, MPs and others to have access to such material from past court proceedings as would enable them to audit the family justice process against the complaints that they are hearing from the parent.

"This might simply involve the receipt of an anonymised copy of the judgment which would do no more than expose material in written form that the journalist would have had access to had they attended the original oral hearing.

"The brave new world post-April following the 'opening up of the Family Courts' therefore seems to be far more sophisticated and restricted than may at first sight have been understood by some journalists, the public at large and, for that matter, the legal profession".

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