The Right Honourable Jack Straw MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice:
I have today laid before Parliament the document, Family Justice in View, copies of which will be available in the Vote Office and on my department’s website.
Family courts play a crucial role in our society. They make far-reaching decisions: how to divide finance on divorce, what protection to give victims of domestic violence, for example. And they make life-changing decisions about the future of children: whether they should be given contact with their parents, whether they should be removed into the care of the state, and whether they should be placed for adoption.
The decisions of family courts have profound and long-term effects on the lives of those involved and cumulatively on society as a whole.
Family cases can be conducted in the magistrates’ family proceedings courts, in county courts, and in the Family Division of the High Court. All of those with responsibility for these proceedings are well-trained and work to extremely high standards.
It is vital that these courts – like any others – command the confidence of the public, if the public – including the parties involved – are to accept their decisions. This can best be achieved if justice in these courts is seen to be done.
For entirely legitimate reasons, the privacy of parties to family proceedings must properly be protected. This is of enormous importance to adults, and an overwhelming imperative in cases involving children. At present, with some exceptions, neither the public nor the media is permitted to witness proceedings in these courts.
However, many argue that the current provisions to safeguard privacy and confidentiality go too far – leaving family courts unfairly open to accusations of bias or even injustice.
In contrast, there is a greater degree of openness in the youth courts. For example, the media are allowed to witness and report proceedings in the youth courts, so long as they do not identify juvenile defendants, and youth courts have a wide discretion to allow others to attend. These rules have worked effectively, and their spirit has been well respected by the media.
Mr Speaker, the debate about opening up the family courts has intensified in recent years, and two successive consultations have been carried out in 2006 and 2007. The results of those exercises were inconclusive, with strong representations, on the one hand in favour of improving transparency, and on the other in favour of maintaining the current position.
In recent months, the Parliamentary Under Secretary with responsibility for access to justice, my honourable friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), and I have been actively considering how we can shed more light on family courts whilst preserving the imperative of the welfare of the child.
The government has now reached a conclusion. I am therefore announcing today that the rules will be changed to allow the media to attend family proceedings in all tiers of court.
The media will understandably be subject to reporting restrictions, similar to the youth courts. The courts will be able to relax or increase those restrictions in appropriate cases, and will have the power to exclude the media from specific proceedings altogether where the welfare of the child or the safety of the parties or witnesses requires it.
The overall effect of these changes will be fundamentally to increase the openness of family courts while protecting the privacy of children and vulnerable adults.
As well as allowing the media to attend family proceedings, there is a need to increase the amount and quality of information coming from the courts.
At present, anonymised judgments of the Court of Appeal, and in some instances the High Court, are made public. But this is not the situation for the county courts or the family proceedings courts, which deal with the bulk of family law cases.
We have therefore decided to pilot the provision of written judgments when a final order is made in certain family cases.
The courts in the pilot areas – Leeds, Wolverhampton and Cardiff – will, for the first time, routinely produce a written record of the decision for the parties involved. In selected cases where the court is making life-changing decisions for a child, they will publish an anonymous judgment online so that it can be read by the wider public.
Disclosure of information
Mr Speaker, the consequences of family proceedings are so significant that the parties involved will sometimes need to seek advice or support from a range of people, including legal advisers, family members, medical practitioners and elected representatives. To do so, they must be able to discuss and share information about their case.
In 2005, we made changes to the rules of court to allow people to disclose certain information to specified individuals. But after two years in operation, it became clear that those rules remained unnecessarily restrictive and complicated.
Following a consultation last year, the government has now decided to relax the rules on the disclosure of information in family proceedings.
Parties and legal representatives will be able to disclose more information for the purpose of advice and support, mediation and the investigation of a complaint, or – in an anonymised form – for training and research. In more cases, the person receiving the information will be able to disclose it to others for the purpose it was originally disclosed without seeking permission of the court.
But to protect the anonymity of children after proceedings have concluded, the decision of the Court of Appeal in Clayton v Clayton will be reversed.
Most of the key changes which I have announced today can be made by rules of the court, without the need for primary legislation. But some will require legislation, including the reversal of the effect of the decision in Clayton v Clayton and the potential opening of adoption proceedings. On the latter, we will be consulting about what approach would be most appropriate.
As a government, we are committed to improving the visibility of justice in this country; to lifting the veil which sometimes keeps justice from view.
The measures I have outlined will help to build a transparent, accountable family justice system which inspires the confidence of the people it serves, while continuing to protect the privacy of the parties and children involved.
I commend this statement to the House.