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Government unveils plans to open family courts

11 July 2006

The government this morning unveiled plans to improve the transparency of proceedings in family courts in an effort to increase the public's confidence in the system.

Family cases are currently heard in private, except for cases in the Family Proceedings Courts, Court of Appeal and House of Lords, and the system has come under criticism for operating in secret behind closed doors.

The consultation paper released today by Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman proposes to allow the media in the courtroom as a matter of course. Judges could, where appropriate, exclude the press from the courtroom and place restrictions on the reporting of evidence. Members of the public, on the other hand, would need to apply to the court.

“It's a carefully considered approach which addresses the concerns raised by many in the profession,” said Joanne Edwards, a partner in Manches' Family team. “In particular, that there will be no public access as of right, attendance will have to be allowed by the court.”

Family lawyers initially feared that giving the public access to family proceedings could undermine the need to protect the parties' privacy in many sensitive cases. Further protection will be provided with the introduction of stricter penalties for breach of reporting restrictions.

“It will be the media's role to educate the public and report accurately,” Edwards said. “Most of the time reporting is fair and complies with reporting restrictions, but the proposed criminal penalties for breach of an order should be more effective than the current rules.”

There remains uncertainty however, as to whether the proposals will achieve the right balance between the interests at stake. According to Edwards: “there is a dichotomy between increased transparency to inspire greater confidence in the system, and the need to protect the parties' interests, particularly where children are involved. Greater transparency could make it more difficult for witnesses in cases that touch on very private matters, particularly where children are being taken away from one, or both parents.”

The consultation will run until 30 October.

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Risk & Compliance Children Marriage & Civil partnership Funding The Bar