Family court secrecy should stay, MPs say in attack on reforms

This article was written by Frances Gibb, Legal Editor of The Times on July 14, 2011.

It reads like one of those ‘fobb off’ emails one gets from authorities: we don’t deal with individual cases, you should get legal advice, etc. After all, the issue is far from just allowing the media into secret family courts. The issue is the gap between what is preached and what is practised: the welfare or the abuse of children… And as long as I read about institutionalised abuse, I shall blog about it! And I shall write to Sir Alan Beith MP pointing him to this blog and the story about the Musa Family. And I’ve left a comment on the article…

After I paid £1, here’s the full text:

Reforms to allow the media into the family courts should be scrapped and ministers should “go back to the drawing board”, MPs say in a report published today.

The provisions in the Children, Schools and Families Act have been universally condemned and should be abolished, the Justice Select Committee says. Instead, ministers should redraft proposals to increase transparency in the family courts, putting the views of children centre stage.

Sir Alan Beith, chairman of the committee, said: “Greater transparency in the administration of family justice is much needed, but it has to be balanced against the equally important requirement of protecting the interests of children. Ministers must go back to the drawing board when it comes to granting media access to family courts and properly consider the views of children who may be affected. Children themselves must be properly consulted about any such new proposals. To do otherwise would run counter to the ethos that should underpin all proposals relating to the family justice system.”

In the report, the MPs note that the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010 proposed a new two-stage scheme to open the family courts to the media. The first stage extended the range of proceedings that the media could attend to include adoption cases. The second extended the type of information, defined as “sensitive personal information”, that could be published. Neither stage is in force.

However, no witness to the MPs’ inquiry had been in favour of the scheme, including the media, which argued that it would reduce, rather than increase, what could be published, the MPs say. Other witnesses said that the provisions were “unworkable” because of their conflict with a child’s rights to privacy and to have his or her voice heard before decisions affecting his or her life.

The MPs note that “witnesses were united in opposing implementation of the scheme to increase media access”. They add: “Such universal condemnation compels us to recommend that the measures should not be implemented and the Ministry of Justice begin afresh.”

The report also warns that legal aid cuts will result in a surge of people going to court without lawyers, despite the Government’s aim of diverting people to mediation. The MPs say: “We are not convinced the Ministry of Justice has fully appreciated the impact on court resources of many more unrepresented parties.”

It is unlikely that parents will give up applications for contact, residence or maintenance for their children simply because they have no access to public funding, the Justice Select Committee says. The family courts will see an increase in litigants in person and the Ministry of Justice “does not appear to have appreciated that this is the inevitable outcome of the legal aid reforms”.

The report also criticises the lack of robust data on the family courts, saying that it makes evidence-based policymaking impossible.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “We recognise that there will always be risks for anyone who chooses to bring a case by themselves and so are improving the information and support available to them. But we also want people to be aware of their options so they can choose the most suitable way forward, which will not always be to take legal action.

“The justice system will be able to handle increased numbers of litigants in person because of fewer cases in total going to court. We will continue to collect and review new data to ensure this is happening.”

She added: “The family justice system must serve the needs of those at its heart — children. Legal aid remains available for anyone at risk of serious violence, or losing their liberty or home, or where children may be taken into care.”

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One thought on “Family court secrecy should stay, MPs say in attack on reforms

  1. Pingback: Why I am Publishing a Website for the Musa Family and Their Stolen Children | Bishop Gloria Musa and Family want to go back Home – WITH their Children!

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