The government’s proposals to open up the family courts to scrutiny are designed to increase public confidence in the system while protecting parties to proceedings, particularly children. In particular, it wants to counter charges of bias, often levelled by fathers’ rights groups, which cannot be done so easily under the current system of largely closed proceedings.
• Levels of access to public and private law proceedings depend on the type of court.
• Family proceedings courts, which handle less complex cases, are open as of right to the media, except in adoption cases, but not the public. The media can be excluded by the court, for instance in the interests of the children. It cannot publish anything likely to lead to a child’s identification, with breaches punished by a fine.
• County courts and the high court generally sit in private with judicial discretion to open courts to the press or public. High court judgments are increasingly given in open court if deemed in the public interest.
• Children have limited access to information about proceedings they are involved in, and by extension the reasons behind key decisions affecting their lives. Those who have been in care have a local authority file, but these often lack crucial information from the court process. As parties to proceedings, they can apply for court files.
Those in private law cases, who are not parties to proceedings, are likely to be reliant on their parents’ accounts, which are unlikely to be objective.
• The media, though not the public, should have automatic access to all family proceedings, except in adoption cases after a placement order is made, unless the court rules otherwise.
• They would be prevented from naming parties to proceedings, notably children, but could name witnesses, such as social workers.
• Reporting restrictions could be relaxed or increased at the court’s discretion. The consultation suggests that children could be named in exceptional circumstances, following a child’s abduction for instance. Restrictions could be increased to protect parties or witnesses or where evidence is particularly intimate.
• A new specific criminal offence of breaching reporting restrictions would be introduced, punishable by a fine or possibly imprisonment.
• Members of the public could be admitted at the court’s discretion on a case-by-case basis. The government will consider giving individuals with a particular interest in the system, such as MPs, lead members for children’s services or service inspectors, automatic access.
• Consideration will be given to giving children involved in proceedings access to information from them when they reach adulthood.
Consultation on the proposals closes on 30 October.