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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

22 JUN 2006

Transparency - awaited but confirmed

The Department for Constitutional Affairs has not as yet published its long-awaited consultation paper on transparency in the family courts. It is expected before the summer recess. However, at the President of the Family Division's conference for judges at the end of May 2006 the Minister of State for Constitutional Affairs, Harriet Harman MP, made very clear the Government's thinking on the matter. She said that, generally speaking, people did not understand the complexity and importance of the work of the family court, which was unfortunate:

When the courts are criticised, rebuttal of those criticisms has to depend on assertions from those within the system. But gone are the days when simply because you were judges, caring and highly intelligent people, that the public would accept what you do and the conclusions that you reach. That is the same for any institution now. Public confidence in any part of the legal system is necessary for its own sake but also because:

  • it is necessary if people affected by court judgements are to accept them;
  • it is necessary if the work of those in the professions involved with the family justice system is properly respected and valued;
  • it is necessary if the system is to attract, on a sustained basis, the human and financial resources it needs to do such important work.

Public confidence depends on public scrutiny. It has to be seen to be believed and justice not only has to be done it has to be seen to be done including in the family courts ... Privacy is necessary to protect families seeking justice but privacy is not necessary to protect the courts. The courts have nothing to hide. Far from it ... When we make the courts more open, we need to ensure that we have tough penalties for those who overstep the mark. There need to be clear and effective penalties for those who breach anonymity."

Ms Harman confirmed the absolute necessity for there to be clear understanding of and zealous enforcement of anonymity for families and children involved in family proceedings. The Government would not allow there to be a situation where confidence in the family courts rose as it allowed its work to be seen, only to have that confidence collapse through children or parents suffering the anguish of being identified - either directly or indirectly - and would therefore be including proposals on enforcement when its plans were published. She said that the senior judiciary had made it clear to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee that they supported that committee's concern for openness (see July issue of Family Law, p 599) and the Government would respond to the call for change.

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