Open justice but closed mouths?

Open justice but closed mouths?

The juggle to balance calls for a more transparent and open system of family justice against the rights of families and children to privacy has been the subject of significant debate in recent years.  The government issued a consultation paper in 2006: Confidence and confidentiality: Improving transparency and privacy in family courts.  Changes then came about in April 2009 to allow accredited members of the media to attend family court proceedings.  The rules on reporting, though, were not relaxed and the press were not allowed to see documents.

The Children Schools and Family Act 2010 was the next step towards extending transparency as it proposed that the media could attend adoption cases as well, and provided exceptions to the general rule that publication of information was contempt of court.  It also extended the right of publication of ‘sensitive personal information’.  These provisions have not yet come into force however and some consider that the legislation was put through in haste and would not satisfy the objective of increasing public confidence while protecting vulnerable individuals.

Next steps

The Family Courts Information Pilot then took place from November 2009 to December 2010 in Cardiff, Leeds and Wolverhampton to test the publication of judgments in family cases on the internet.  Views were obtained from the judiciary, magistrates, legal advisers, court staff, local lawyers, the local authorities and CAFCASS.  The consensus was in favour of the greater transparency and a better public understanding of the family justice system.  There was concern however among some lawyers, the judiciary and court staff about the protection of the families' privacy.  There was also no evidence of press interest but the information gathered was of value to policy analysts, researchers and those training professionals in the judiciary.  The national cost was around £500,000 in 2010.

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