Judgements from the family courts will go online in a pilot scheme as part of reforms to increase public confidence in court proceedings.
The Ministry of Justice said yesterday it would take forward the plan to produce anonymous online judgements, which was included in a consultation on the issue last year.
However, in a controversial U-turn, the MoJ said it would give the media the right to report on proceedings – rather than giving judges discretion on this – in a move condemned by family court leaders.
Announcing the proposals in parliament yesterday, justice secretary Jack Straw said: “The courts in pilot areas will routinely produce a written record of the decision for the parties involved. In selected cases where the court is making life-changing decisions for a child, they will publish an anonymous judgment online so that it can be read by the wider public.”
Openness and privacy
The MoJ said the latest plans, which follow separate consultations in 2007 and 2006, are designed to “increase the openness of family courts while protecting the privacy of children”.
However, family court leaders have expressed concern that allowing the media to report on cases and publishing the judgements will harm the children and families involved as well as discourage expert witnesses from testifying for fear of a media backlash.
Under the plans, journalists will not be able to identify children involved in a case both during proceedings and afterwards, but professional witnesses, such as social workers, will be identifiable.
Harder to find expert witnesses
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said: “It is getting harder and harder to find people to become expert witnesses because of the media’s reporting. If publishing the reports is a further disincentive to become an expert witness then this is a bad thing for the children involved, whose right to privacy must be paramount.”
The MoJ said judges and magistrates would have “limited discretion” to exclude the media from courts in the interests of children and vulnerable adults.
Douglas added: “A regulated press can be very important, and the devil will be in the detail of the rules for reporting. The onus will be on the judges to decide to exclude the media or not, case by case, and clear guidance and criteria are important.”
Health and safety of social workers
British Association of Social Workers professional officer for England Nushra Mansuri said: “Our starting point is always the rights of the child and the family involved, but I am concerned about the health and safety of social workers. This isn’t about protectionism and secrecy around the profession, but about protecting the rights of our workforce. We welcome a discussion about social work, and the media have a role, but identities must be protected.”
Ann Haigh, chair of family court practitioner association Nagalro, said: “I feel very disappointed with the decisions. This is disregarding what children, young people and all of the organisations working to protect, support and represent them have previously said.”
While she supported some media presence, Haigh said: “I am concerned about how reporting could remain truly anonymous, particularly if they are writing about local areas.”