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British Court Doors Ajar

December 17, 2008 permalink

Britain has opened its family courts to journalists. While an improvement over the previous total secrecy, there is still a long way to go to achieve openness. The press will not be reporting the names of the children, skeptical members of the public will be unable to enter the courtroom or examine the court files, and bloggers will likely not be respected as journalists. In many places, governments have exercised substantial control over what journalists publish, while giving lip service to freedom of the press.



Reporting of family courts could stop childcare mistakes

17 December 2008, By Rachael Gallagher

Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s decision to “lift the veil” and allow journalists to report on family courts could help stop bad decisions being made about the care of children, according to PA legal editor Mike Dodd.

From April, journalists will be allowed to attend and report on all divorce, custody and care proceedings unless specifically excluded.

Press Association legal editor Mike Dodd said that the media’s reporting of the courts could raise questions about proceedings that would have otherwise have gone un-asked.

Dodd referred to a case in 2006 when a child was taken into care for 14 months based on evidence that was all later declared “misleading, incomplete or wrong”, but where the council and the team leader of the case were never named.

He said: “There have been too many examples of where the secrecy has led to questionable decisions, and the secrecy has allowed certain statements to be made in the family courts which would have been instantly questioned had they been made in public courts which had been open to media coverage.”

The previous Lord Chancellor, Charles Falconer, had said that there was no way that the courts would be made open to the media, but Dodd said that this was partially to blame for evidence gathered at stake-holder sessions where a number of young people were interviewed who said they were worried that their identities would be revealed if media were allowed to cover family courts.

“We always understood that if the family courts were opened up it would be done on the basis those involved would in general remain anonymous. I don’t think it was ever made clear to the young people that their privacy would be protected above all", said Dodd.

“One way of making sure that the public understands what is going on is to report fully what is being said and of course to make sure that those who are giving evidence about a child’s wellbeing should all be named. Even if the children aren’t. That way you have track on people who claim the authority and power, and they should be held accountable for what they’re doing. If you’re a policeman investigating a murder, you don’t do it anonymously, and you don’t give evidence in court anonymously.”

The Newspaper Society gave a “qualified welcome” to the news.

Sue Oake, senior legal advisor, said that the NS will be want to scrutinise carefully what the revised reporting restrictions entail.

“Clearly these will need to be proportionate and targeted: to impose a blanket 'default' requirement of anonymity for all parties will result in a restrictions more draconian, in many cases, than those pertaining already.

“On disclosure of information, we are disappointed that the statement does not make any move towards allowing direct or indirect disclosure to the media by parties to the proceedings. Again, with appropriate safeguards, this could have been an effective means to aid openness so we are pleased to note Mr Straw’s assurance during the Parliamentary debate that he is still 'actively considering' this issue”.

The Times newspaper claimed credit for Straw’s decision to open the family courts to journalists, and said today it has “campaigned vociferously” for the change, “arguing that keeping the media out of certain courts has led to miscarriages of justice.”

Straw credited The Times for having brought the issue to his attention “more graphically than it otherwise would have done”.

“You have to deal with shedloads of issues in jobs like this … if something isn’t a particular issue at the time, you don’t go around searching for it. I commend The Times for running such a professional campaign,” he said.

Society of Editors director Bob Satchwell said that he hopes the courts will take the message in its “full spirit” and only impose reporting restrictions when there is a “specific and genuine argument for them to be introduced”.

He said: “I always believe that openness improves virtually any activity. A, the public have a right to know what’s being done in their name and b, when its all done behind closed doors it can only lead to rumour and suspicion. If you have greater openness there’s going to be more confidence in the system.”

Source: Press Gazette (UK)

Addendum: The London Times deals with the same news. The middle story presents the remarkable fact that it is illegal for a foster child to give his own name in public.



From Times Online, December 16, 2008

Family courts: case studies

Fiona Hamilton, London Correspondent

The opening up of the family courts will be welcome news for one couple whose case - currently before the Court of Appeal - has been highlighted by The Times after their baby daughter was placed into foster care earlier this year.

But although it means the couple will now be able to discuss their case with the media the reforms do not go far enough for their MP.

Tim Yeo, the Conservative MP for Suffolk South, told The Times that his efforts to help the couple had been thwarted by a system which “prevents natural justice”.

Although the couple have given Mr Yeo permission to access information about their case, the authorities have denied his requests and have refused to justify their actions on the grounds of confidentiality.

Mr Yeo said: “They continue to decline to make any information available to me despite authority by the parents.

“They’ve consistently refused to share their reasons [for placing the child in foster care]. Obviously not publicly, but not even privately with me.

“This makes it very hard for me, as the representative of the parents, to assist them."

The mother first lost custody of her young son to her ex-husband (his biological father), who claimed that she suffered from a condition known as fabricated or induced illness.

When she fell pregnant to her new partner, social services monitored the family. During a conversation with social workers, she explained her fear of losing her newborn daughter by saying that her new partner felt like killing them all if she was also taken away. The couple have no history of violence or abuse. They say that they would not dream of hurting their baby and the remark was merely an attempt to explain the full extent of their agony if she was taken away.

The child has since been taken into foster care. The mother has access to her for just three hours a week and the father has not seen her since. The couple, who have not been given full reasons for the removal, are appealing the supervision order.

Mr Yeo said: “It seems extraordinary that people can have what is a sort of life sentence, in losing their baby daughter, without really knowing what the evidence is against them and without being able to refute it.

“There is this cloak of secrecy in which social services conduct their activities. They would have more rights if they were up on a murder charge.”

At 17 years old, Curtis is old enough to move out of home, travel around the countryside for his job and have a girlfriend.

Yet, adult as he is, Curtis is prevented from speaking publicly about his past and the sister that he did not know for much of his childhood, ostensibly for his “protection”.

A month before he was born, his 17-month old sister was taken away from his mother and placed into foster care after social services expressed concern about a bruise on the child.

At three-year old his sister was adopted following proceedings in the family court, despite a judge’s misgivings, because she had “bonded” with her foster carers after social services denied the mother access. Curtis was only recently reunited with his sister after she tracked down her family.

He approached The Times to tell his story hoping that his case would raise awareness after he found out that social services also tried to place him into foster care despite there being no evidence against his mother.

However, he cannot be named until his 18th birthday and his social services referral sheet, which nearly separated him from his biological mother, cannot be published under restrictions by the Administration of Justice Act.

Curtis told The Times: “It’s disgusting. It’s my life and I want to talk about it, I want people to know so that maybe this sort of thing can be avoided in the future. It took me ages to get my court documents and even though they’re mine, I can’t make them public. Social services just get to cover things up and its wrong.”

Matthew, a working professional in his fifties, was fighting a custody case for several months before he became aware of the damaging allegations against him on his court file.

A supporter of his ex-partner had written the judge a letter in secret making various spurious claims including that Matthew was not to be trusted with his children.

Matthew only became aware of the allegations when he requested other correspondence from his file.

“I was able to reject the allegations and the judge said he wouldn’t consider them, but it was highly inappropriate and quite a concern,” he said.

“If I hadn’t have asked for other information and if this letter hadn’t been included with it, I would have never known of its existence.”

Source: London Times