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."

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