Leading article: The last closed court is thrown open

Thursday 01 April 2010 00:00
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Yesterday's ruling by the Court of Appeal, when three of the country's most senior judges agreed that the Court of Protection should be opened to the media, is a landmark in the continuing battle over press freedom.

Since it was set up under the Mental Capacity Act of 2005, the Court of Protection has quietly passed judgment on thousands of people who have been deemed incapable of making their own decisions. Among those whose cases have been heard are people who have been mentally impaired from birth; those who have been left unable to manage their affairs after an accident, and those suffering from Alzheimer's disease. And it is not unusual for the court to decide to separate these individuals from their family or long-term carers, judging that this would be in their best interests.

Until now, though, these life-changing decisions have gone unreported. After the decision was made to open up the family courts last year, the Court of Protection was the last court in the country where all cases were automatically heard in private.

The Independent , backed by other British media organisations, has fought for the right to attend hearings for almost a year. Yesterday, we won that right, in a ruling that is a victory for transparency and open justice. It will not be plain sailing even now. Journalists reporting these cases will have to weigh the privacy of the individuals concerned against the public's right to know what goes on inside a British court. But it remains one of the over-riding principles of our court system that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.

At best, greater scrutiny should also force the Court of Protection to look more carefully at itself. It has been accused in the past of being an unfeeling institution that treats people, including carers, with undue suspicion, presuming from the start that they intended to defraud their disabled or elderly relatives or do not have their best interests at heart.

So long as the proceedings were closed, it was impossible to judge whether, or how far, such suspicions were justified. Openness is a necessary condition for establishing the truth.

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