Constitutional Affairs Committee

Press notice No. 29 of Session 2005-06
9 June 2006


"OPEN UP FAMILY COURTS" SAYS COMMITTEE

The Constitutional Affairs Committee today releases a report calling on the Government to increase transparency in the family courts, where decisions are taken about adoption, residence and contact with children when parents are separating and about removing children from their parents when they are considered to be at risk. The committee proposes that judges would retain power to impose reporting restrictions or exclude members of the public, where necessary, to protect the child and the interest of justice.

At present, there is no access for the press or public in most family courts and the Government has acknowledged that the system is open to criticism which cannot be refuted because of the privacy of proceedings.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs is expected to produce a consultation paper on transparency in the family courts shortly and the Committee says that moves towards open justice in the family court should quickly follow.

The Committee also reiterates that when trying to resolve complex family cases, involving the welfare of children, adversarial court proceedings are far from ideal. While it may not be feasible to compel a family to use a mediator, the government's voluntary Family Resolution Pilot Project was, measured by participation level, a failure. The Committee suggests that it is reasonable to compel families at least to meet with a mediator and determine whether it is suitable for them. People who access legal aid are already expected to consider mediation before entering the court system, while those who fund their case privately are not.

The Committee also expresses its disappointment that the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) seems still to have not resolved the resourcing difficulties that mean that delays in the family court system are not being reduced. The Committee is surprised there is still only one magistrates court district judge in England who sits in the family proceedings court full time, and also urges that DCA not reduce the number of legal advisors provided to the family proceedings court.

Rt Hon Alan Beith MP, Chairman of the Committee, said:

By their very nature, the cases the family court handles are emotive and contentious. Ideally, many more cases would be resolved through mediation. To that end we would like to see everyone at least meet with a mediator and see if the process could work for them.

If a case must go to court though, it would go a long way towards dispelling accusations of bias and restoring public confidence in the system if the process was open€”with the necessary reporting restrictions in place to protect the child.

We are very pleased that now, a year after the Committee reported on this, the Government has undertaken to consult on this issue of transparency and we expect to see moves toward open justice follow quickly.


Notes:
1. The report will be available on the Committee's website: www.parliament.uk/conaffcom.
2. The Committee's previous reports on family justice issues are:
» Family justice: the operation of the family courts, HC 116 (Session 2004-05)
» Children and Family Court Advisory Service (CAFCASS), HC 614 (Session 2002-03)
3. Committee Membership is as follows: Rt Hon Alan Beith MP (Chairman), James Brokenshire MP, David Howarth MP, Barbara Keeley MP, Mr Piara S Khabra MP, Jessica Morden MP, Julie Morgan MP, Mr Andrew Tyrie MP, Keith Vaz MP, Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Jeremy Wright MP