April 28, 2009
© Photographer: Noonie | Agency: Dreamstime.com
Media access to family courts will improve clarity, says judge
• Warning that new rules may delay hearings
• Lawyers say reporting will still be restricted
Afua Hirsch, legal affairs correspondent
Monday 27 April 2009
Allowing the media to report legal cases involving adoption, care
proceedings and divorce will transform the long-established culture of
privacy in the family courts, according to the top family judge in
England and Wales.
There has been growing criticism that rules coming into force today
that allow the press access to family hearings are restrictive and
give judges too much power to decide what the media may publish.
But Sir Mark Potter, president of the family division of the high
court, said the changes would make the family courts more transparent.
"I would certainly expect [a tendency towards openness]," Potter said.
"I do not doubt that there will be more reports than there have been."
The press has been prevented from reporting proceedings in family
courts to protect the identity of those involved, often children. The
changes come amid unprecedented public interest in care proceedings,
after the case of Baby P last year prompted concern about the stage at
which children are being taken into care and the role of local
But Potter warned that although the new rules end the blanket
prohibition on reporting family law cases in the county court and high
court, in many instances details would remain confidential.
"What can be reported as to the detail of such proceedings will vary
from case to case according to the facts and the relevant statutory
provisions," he said.
The continuing power of judges to impose reporting restrictions is
supported by many lawyers, who say openness must not compromise the
necessary anonymity of vulnerable children involved in sensitive
"It is clearly important that the public have
greater information surrounding what goes on within the family justice
system. But that should not be at the expense of a child's right to
* The whole "privacy" issue is to supposedly protect the vulnerable child, but many times that argument is used to protect the "sealed"
actions of adoption attorneys/agencies and their clients. The
more openness, transparency, and accountability THE BETTER. Who says the children
want privacy? They would rather have a strong checks & balance system that truly protects them and their "best interest."Potter said that the government had not gone far enough in changing
the rules. Leaving the law unreformed could prove confusing to the
media and the public. "The government has been unable to find
parliamentary time for the general statutory overhaul required.
Instead, it will fall to the judges to decide to what extent they
should exercise their discretion to relax disclosure or reporting
restrictions if sought by the media or one of the parties," he said.
"[This] will do little to alleviate the opportunities for further
Satchwell warned that the decision to leave the law in place would
"nullify the entire purpose of the past several years' discussions and
the government's stated aim of openness and accountability".
Potter echoed sentiments of members of the legal profession in warning
that opening up the courts to the media will add to mounting pressures
on resources, and "heavily overworked" family law judges' time.
Questions have also been raised as to how debates about whether the
press should be allowed to attend individual cases could delay the
start of proceedings.
Lucy Theis, the chair of the Family Law Bar Association, said: "This
might impact on an already pressed system. Someone coming in on a
Monday morning to start a case about deeply personal things would then
have to enter into a debate about whether the press should be allowed