Justice gets jittery when 'family court' doors finally open

The revolution in coverage of the courts has been set back by 'shambolic' enforcement of the new rules. Cahal Milmo reports

The adoption case before Judge Diane Redgrave in Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court yesterday should have been part of a quiet revolution in the way society deals with families when they go wrong.

For decades, this corner of the justice system that deals with such sensitive and harrowing issues as child custody in bitter divorces or compulsory care orders for abused infants has gone about its daily work shielded from the scrutiny of the public.

But after years of campaigning by child welfare groups and individuals aggrieved at what they saw as the failings of the system, the ban on revealing details of the work of "family courts" was supposed to be lifted yesterday.

The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, had announced that journalists would be granted access to the courts to create a "more open, transparent and accountable system while protecting children and families during a difficult and traumatic time in their lives".

Guidance issued to courts by the country's most senior family judge, Sir Mark Potter, stated that "in broad terms" the media was now permitted to "be present at hearings of all family proceedings".

But in the five-mile journey from Whitehall to the family section of the Clerkenwell court in north London, the translation of such lofty ambitions into procedural reality proved elusive.

Rather than a brave dawn of efficient transparency, the curtain was lifted on a scene of barristers and judges alike struggling to digest dozens of pages of rulings and legal guidance issued by the Ministry of Justice as late as last Friday.

One lawyer said: "Lots of journalists suddenly running about makes us nervous. The idea is fine but it's been brought in too abruptly."

In Court Three of the Clerkenwell court, part of a shining glass and steel office building bristling with wi-fi links and monochrome panels decorating minimalist rooms, proceedings were delayed when The Independent showed up to attend a child welfare hearing.

In a case that required a swift resolution, Judge Redgrave, a lawyer with more than 30 years' experience who was appointed a circuit judge last year, indicated that substantial time would be needed to sanction the presence of a reporter in the court room.

She said: "There would seem to be no absolute right for reporters to attend [private family court hearings]. It is a question of whether I should permit it after hearing submissions." Rather than divert dwindling court time away from considering the welfare of the child involved, The Independent agreed to leave the proceedings.

Judge Redgrave added: "I imagine the newspapers will be full of stories about these cases tomorrow because they seem to have used all their reporters to cover these courts."

The reality was somewhat different. At the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, the base of the Family Division of the High Court, one court clerk openly admitted that the enforcement of the new media rules was "shambolic".

The "revolution" was hampered by a conflict between the desire to provide access to the family courts and legislation such as section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act, which means that a journalist would be breaking the law if he or she reported the substance of what was said in a court that was dealing with a child. The result is growing tension about the issue between the media and ministers, who insist that reporters in courts should be able to "report the gist of proceedings without identifying those involved".

In a letter to Mr Straw, the Newspaper Society and the Society of Editors said: "The great majority of the very cases in which public concern is most acute are those which involve children and particularly state intervention in children's care and upbringing."

The new rules meant that "these proceedings would not be reportable and effectively there would be no change at all", the letter said.

Mr Justice Ryder, a senior Family Division judge at the Royal Courts of Justice, underlined the point yesterday when he told reporters attending divorce hearings in his court that journalists were free to write about the new system but any facts about the cases "remain subject to reporting restrictions" banning all publication.

Mr Straw appeared to accept the difficulties of the new arrangements by announcing legislation to create a "flexible and simplified" framework of reporting rules for the family courts.

However, he failed to set a timetable for the change, saying only it would happen "as and when parliamentary time allows".

In the meantime, concern remains that the media will ultimately focus on a handful of high-profile or sensational family law cases.

Andrew Greensmith, from the family lawyers group Resolution, said: "We are calling on the Government to set up a Family Courts Inspectorate, made up predominantly of lay people which could act as an effective guardian of standards. Otherwise, the risk is that only those cases that are 'newsworthy' will be subject to any public scrutiny."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker