Newspaper Society warns family court changes will harm openness

Long-awaited plans which the Government has said will lead to greater ‘openness’in the family courts will, in fact, make them far more closed to journalists, according to the Newspaper Society.

The Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Falconer said that the proposed changes will lead to greater transparency in family courts.

But the senior legal adviser at the Newspaper Society, Sue Oake, said that under the proposals, the press will lose the right to attend family proceedings in magistrates courts, subject to the discretion of each individual court.

Oake said she believed that proposals in the consultation to increase ‘consistency’of court reporting are likely to result in increased secrecy and restrictions for the press.

‘The new consultation document does not give any real indication of what the Government has in mind here,’she said. ‘Our concern would be that ‘consistency’ will really mean raising reporting restrictions and the power to impose them.

‘Consistency may be achieved by simply plugging any perceived gaps rather than taking a fresh look at what is really appropriate and necessary.”

The Government’s original 2006 proposals said that the media should be allowed to attend the family courts as a right, but that the court should be allowed to exclude reporters where deemed necessary.

Oake said: ‘The unthinkable appears now to be Government policy. The new approach seems to be a policy equivalent of the fashion industry’s ‘grey is the new black’ – closed courts are the new openness, it would appear.”

Oake criticised suggestions that the media should not be permitted into any family court, saying: ‘The effect of this will be that the majority of cases in which the state is intervening in a child’s upbringing, education et cetera, will now be held in private unless the court decides otherwise.

‘The consultation paper is silent as to a mechanism for the media to be able to appeal against a court’s refusal to allow it to attend.”

Under the proposals, in certain cases, the court will provide the media with a transcript of the judgment or a summary of the decision, but Oake believes it will have little effect.

‘Even in these important public law cases, perhaps where a child is permanently removed from the custody of a parent, the court will not be obliged to provide a full judgment transcript, even to those involved in the case. This is actually the present situation, so the consultation paper is not here proposing any improvement.

‘It will not be given as a matter of course to the public or the media unless it is felt that the case is of public interest,”she said.

‘In recent years, judges have increasingly made commendable efforts to improve the flow of information from the family courts by giving public judgments in important family law cases, albeit in anonymised form – so the consultation paper proposal may not in practice produce much more than the judiciary are already trying to do in some cases.

‘So far as the public right to know is concerned, the consultation paper proposals on supply of information are weak, to say the least.”

Walter Greenwood, joint editor of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists said: ‘Lord Falconer’s proposals are unnecessarily complicated. In part, they are a retrograde step, especially in relation to magistrates courts family proceedings, where at least there is at present a basic right for the press to attend, even if the court can overturn this.”

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