You may have heard that Jack Straw, Justice Secretary announced on 16 December 2008 that a package of measures were being brought in intending to improve scrutiny of and public confidence in the family court system.
Legal cases involving families, whether they be children being the subject of care proceedings or a high profile divorce, are often in the media and it is clear that family courts have the power to make far reaching decisions that have a substantial and permanent effect on those involved. Family Courts deal with such a wide range of aspects of family life providing protection for victims of domestic abuse, protection of children, adoption and resolving financial aspects of divorce. The decisions have a significant impact.
It is therefore important that family courts command the respect of the public and those involved can accept the judgements made in such essential areas. However, family court proceedings are held in private, usually in order to protect the vulnerable people within, in particular, children. This privacy has attracted critiscism and accusations of secrecy, bias and injustice. The measures put forward therefore have attempted to strike a balance between the need to protect the vulnerable users of the Court and improve confidence in the system.
The measures include:
- provide better information about cases involving children including people about cases they were involved with when they were children
- provide better information to the public about decisions reached in the public interest
- pilot the provision of judgements made (or a summary) of decisions in the family courts
- change the provisions about the disclosure of information so that those involved are able to discuss their case with third parties, for example, their MP
- protect the identity of children beyond the end of court proceedings
- provide for the media to attend all family courts (with power to increase or relax any report restrictions depending on the case). Doctors, social workers and other professionals involved in cases will potentially be able to be identified, provided it is safe to do so
From Spring 2009 a pilot project will start in the Leeds Courts for a written record of judges decisions to be produced for the parties involved and in selected cases where the court is making ?life changing decisions? for a child, an anonymous judgement will be published on line so that it can be read by the wider public.
Clearly such measures are designed to open up the courts so that the reasons why decisions are made are clear and as the public will have confidence in the court system. The balance must be maintained however, against the need to improve accountability and openness in the courts whilst protecting the privacy of children and vulnerable adults.
Given that our local court is to be involved in the pilot project (one of only three, the others being Wolverhampton and Cardiff) I will keep you updated as to the impact of the changes
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