News organisations have expressed alarm that the opening up family courts – due to happen on 27 April – will not be the victory for press freedom that it seemed.
The Society of Editors, Newspaper Society, Press Association and ITN and have written to justice secretary Jack Straw expressing their concern over “disturbing developments” in their discussions with government officials over the opening up of the hearings.
They are concerned that proceedings involving taking children into care will remain closed.
It was this system of secret courts which prompted a campaign by The Times which was recognised with a British Press Award last month.
The letter to Straw states: “The most important issue that requires your most urgent review is that MoJ officials put forward the view that family proceedings involving the application of the Children Act 1989 or those concerning the maintenance and upbringing of a child remained subject to S.12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 as still being ‘held in private’, notwithstanding the admission of the media.
“This would mean that such proceedings could not be reported at all – since the effect of S.12 is that to report any such proceedings would be a contempt of court.
“We cannot emphasise too highly that if this interpretation is correct, then its effect will be to nullify the entire purpose of the past several years’ discussions and the Government’s stated aim of openness and accountability.
“The great majority of the very cases in which public concern is most acute are those which involve children, and particularlysState intervention in children’s care and upbringing. If the interpretation above is correct these proceedings would not be reportable and effectively there would be no change at all.
“The media’s role as the public’s eyes and ears would be completely subverted. This would be a disastrous outcome and clearly one which was surely never the Government’s intention.
“In our view this interpretation of the application of S.12 is wrong – we believe that, just as with youth courts, the media’s attendance as representatives of the public immediately negates any ‘private’ status attaching to the proceedings.
“The public have no right to attend youth court proceedings – but there is no question of them being considered ‘private’ in the procedural sense of the word.”
The groups are hopeful that a compromise can be worked out with MoJ officials to change the wording of the new court rules.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The bottom line is that we are transforming the way the family courts can be reported
“We announced that media could attend – from April if possible. That is what we have done.
“We did not announce that reporting restrictions could or would be lifted in April. To do so we need to change the law through Parliament. We said we would legislate to revise reporting restrictions as soon as parliamentary time allows. We are actively seeking opportunities to do so
“The Justice Secretary is clear that while there must be a balance between the need to protect children in family court cases, the aim of the revised reporting restrictions will be to open up the family courts to a greater degree of transparency. This is in line with his overall aim of opening up the justice system
“We said the media would be able to discuss in a more informed way how the system works.
“We said that until legislation revising reporting restrictions is in place, reporters will be able to report sufficient outlines of cases that will allow their readers to understand the gist of proceedings without identifying those involved.”