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In all actions concerning children...the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.
Some argue that privacy in family courts is essential to that end, but does the Justice Secretary agree with me that the privacy of the child and the interests of the child are not necessarily always the same thing? Secrecy can also mean a lack of accountability, which in turn leads to poor decision making. Does not the terrible case of baby P remind us that where the welfare of children is concerned, poor decisions can have catastrophic effects?
A greater degree of transparency is required in the family courts.
we need to open up the closed doors a bit more.[ Official Report, Westminster Hall, 12 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 164WH.]
Would the Justice Secretary concede, in the spirit of transparency, that the Government have been rather less sure about whether to open the door? In 2006, the previous Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, made firm proposals to allow the press in. By 2007 he had changed his mind, arguing that the welfare of children was at stake. Now the Government have changed their mind again. Within three years, the Department has changed its identity once, and its proposals twice. The Justice Secretary says that he has now reached a conclusion, but he also says that he is presenting proposals. Are they final?
We all recognise that this is a difficult issue, but is not the problem with secrecy that it ignores the issue of public confidence in the court process? The president of the family division, Sir Mark Potter, has spoken of
an age of transparency...amidst largely misplaced criticisms of secret justice.
May I press the Justice Secretary on adoption proceedings, about which he is consulting further? Does he agree that, while there should be a presumption against openness in the final hearings, in which delicate and sensitive decisions are made, it is important to have scrutiny in the opening stages, in which the work of social workers, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the National Youth Advocacy Service needs to be monitored?
Does the Justice Secretary recognise the increased stress on children that may result from the presence of the media in court, and the fact that many professionals such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have serious concerns about that? Is he confident that the press will be as compliant with reporting restrictions as they are, for example, in New
Zealand? Will all journalists be allowed into court, or only those who are accredited? Crucially, what sanctions for breaching reporting restrictions does he envisage? The Government previously proposed new legislation to ensure strong sanctions to protect anonymity. Does that proposal stand, and will third parties with a legitimate interest be permitted to attend, as they are in other countries?
A key concern for families is that they are unable to raise their cases with the media, but it appears that the Governments proposed rules for disclosure will still prevent them from doing so. Will the Justice Secretary confirm that, and explain why he believes it is right to maintain that restriction? When the Government last proposed transparency in 2006, they recognised, in the regulatory impact assessment, that both they and the courts would face increased costs, including for additional security. Have the Government estimated these costs? At a time when the courts budget is being cut, how will those costs be absorbed? Is not the fact that the Government are piloting the provision of written judgments in only three courts evidence of concern that the resource implications could be considerable?
There are important questions about how transparency in family courts will operate, but does the Justice Secretary agree with me that child protection can no longer be a secret business? It is time to shine a bright light of public scrutiny to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected. With proper safeguards, transparency is a force for good.
The reservations that the hon. Gentleman went on to express, including about the sensitivity of adoption proceedings, and the concerns raised by some childrens representatives about having the media in court, show that this is a finely balanced judgment, but ultimately we have to say yes or no. He asked whether these were firm or final proposals, and answer is yes, they are. I hope to introduce measures that require rule changes, pressing on with this, in the spring, possibly in April. The changes in adoption require primary legislationthe Adoption and Children Act 2002 imposes a statutory bar on the attendance of the media or the public, and there is no current legislation available to make those changesso we will have time to consult in more detail on that.
The hon. Gentleman asked me some specific questions about disclosure by families to the media. We have to put the detail of the changes to the rules committee, and I am actively considering that issue. The key issue, in my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament, is the assurance that if information is disclosed further, the identity and privacy of the child and, by extension, the family, is still protected. However, I thoroughly agree with his view, which is ours, too, that the quality of family justice is not served by proceedings that, to all intents and purposes, are secret and removed from the
view of the media. I take his point that there is a clear distinction between a childs best interests and the privacy, not of the childno one is arguing about thatbut of proceedings.
We have not estimated the cost of implementing the changes because we believe the costs will be marginal. For example, in respect of youth courts, which have to operate exactly the same restrictions but with the courts in many cases allowing individual members of the public and others in, I have never had any representations that that is a costly process.
Once there is a legislative opportunity, we will seek to rationalise the penalties and the regime. Meanwhile, a breach will be contempt of court, for which, in principle, imprisonment is the penalty. In respect of other proceedings in the youth courts and in Crown courts where juveniles and young people are being tried, and in respect of other reporting restrictions, the experience is that overwhelmingly the press respect restrictions.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I, too, broadly welcome the Secretary of States statement as a move in the right direction. There is a basic principle, as I hope he will agree, that justice should be seen to be done. Secret justice is often injustice. Privately heard witnesses who think they are less likely to be found out are more likely to be self-serving than witnesses in public, judges are more likely to go along with the cosy consensus that often develops between experts when there is no prospect of public comment on their judgments, and public authorities are more likely to act on insufficient evidence when their decisions are not subject to public scrutiny.
It is right that that principle should apply even in difficult cases, such as those in family proceedings. It is understandable that there will be some resistance from some professional groups, and clearly there is a balance to be struck between the public interest and the interests of individuals, especially of children, but as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, I hope the Secretary of State agrees with Sir Mark Potter when he said in October that more openness would help to dispel myths about bias and inaccuracy in the family court, especially if there are enforceable rules about anonymity.
The Secretary of State spoke only about the media. He did not speak about access to the courts for the public. Obviously, different considerations apply, but what conclusions have the Government reached on admitting the public to some family proceedings?
On the publication of judgments, I am a little disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman has not gone further than a pilot. Publication of judgments, suitably anonymised, obviously, is vital to the scrutiny of what judges do. Their judgments must be open to comment and criticism; otherwise the law itself cannot develop. There have been cases where even professional law reporters were excluded from the courts. Surely the Secretary of State agrees that that should not happen.
I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about the disclosure of information by parents, but may we be clear about what that means? Will parents be able to discuss their case with their MP, which was one of the examples that he gave? What will be the position on the important issue of expert witnesses and second opinions? Will parents be able freely to approach experts who might help to challenge the views of the local authority expert in their case?
Will the Secretary of State be specific about what part of Clayton v. Clayton he proposes to overrule? There are two parts to that judgment. Is he saying that Parliament should overrule the part about the film that the father was going to make when the child had been abducted? Overruling that would make the situation worse for the childs privacy, not better.
Finally, it is disappointing that the right hon. Gentleman has not taken the opportunity to make a wider announcement about family courts, especially about the increase in family court fees in public law cases from £150 to £5,000. Will he tell the House what effect on the volume of cases that change has had? What are his criteria for the success or failure of that policy? Is it just raising more money, or does he want there to be fewer cases?
Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the proposals. He asked me a number of specific questions. Are we proposing that members of the general public be allowed into the courts? Noand to that extent, this regime is more restrictive than the one that applies in the youth courts. However, I think that that is appropriate, although we are open to representations, if necessary, on the issue. Will parents be able to discuss their cases with MPs? Yes, and in my experience they do already, although often in breach of some extraordinarily complicated and convoluted rules, which I discovered only very recently.
One of the issues is about the identity of expert witnesses being able to be made public. My default setting is that they should; I believe that in cases of this kind, the expertise of such witnesses should no more be allowed to go without scrutiny than the expertise of those in other cases, in which equally life-threatening or life-changing decisions are made and expert witnesses have to justify publicly their expertise and judgments.
We are seeking to overturn the part of Clayton v. Clayton that says that in principle the protection of the privacy of the child should fall away once the proceedings have finally been completed. We intend to reverse that, so that the presumption is the other way.
There was a huge consultation on the increase in family court fees. Local authorities had a transfer of £40 million from the Ministry of Justice budgetand a little more, I may sayto meet the full costs of that transfer of fees. I would have preferred the transfer to have been ring-fenced to the local authorities so that they could use it only for these purposes. The local authorities are themselves root and branch opposed to ring-fencingbut they have had the money. It therefore does not lie in their mouth to complain that they cannot afford the fees: they can.
Moreover, the fee is £4,000 on average; it ranges from £1,750 to £4,825, and the full fee applies only at the upper end. Local authorities have to base their decisions on the interests of the child. The fee, even at £4,000, is a very small proportion of the total costs of taking a case, which average £25,000. It is a still smaller proportion of the costs of taking a child into care, which are £40,000 on average and rise to £101,000 and more if the child is taken into secure accommodation for a year.
John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I welcome the statement, particularly the reference to the family courts in Leeds. A recent survey of children under 14 revealed, perhaps surprisingly, that their highest wish was an absolute ban on divorce. In view of that, may I ask my right hon. Friend to underline the fact that the purpose of family courts is to disentangle broken relationships, enable people to rebuild their lives positively and ensure the future flourishing of the childrennot to expose individuals to damaging media destruction in the future?
Mr. Straw: Of course, I entirely support my right hon. Friend. Any of us hereand I include myselfwho as a child saw the break-up of their parents relationship knows that what my right hon. Friend says is absolutely true.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Obviously, the devil lies in the detail and I very much hope that we will be allowed to debate the draft rules. Subject to that, I approve of what the right hon. Gentleman has said to the House. Transparency is good news as far as the quality of justice is concerned: it puts judges on their toes, which is jolly good news, and it puts expert witnesses on their toes, which is also good news. Furthermore, it enables us to know rather more about the welfare reportsand that, too, is good news. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be as ambitious as possible about transparency and let as many people as possible into the courts, subject to the protection of proper confidentiality.
Mr. Straw: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman; it is unusually good news that he is giving support to something that I have done. I welcome that in the spirit of Christmas and will consult the Whips about debating the rules.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I declare an interest as a member of the Magistrates Association. The statement referred to all those with responsibility for these proceedings being well trained and working to extremely high standards. That is especially true and important in relation to the staff. Will the Secretary of State say a word or two about the need for staff security and the confidentiality of staff names? We saw a recent example where Fathers 4 Justice attacked staff at NAPO offices last week. They deserve better than that. The later part of the statement referred to courts having the ability to relax or increase reporting restrictions in appropriate cases. Will guidelines for those appropriate cases emerge from the pilot, and how will they be disseminated nationally?
The pilots will produce guidelines on the publication of anonymised judgments. Those guidelines will not relate to the use of discretion to exclude the mediathat will emerge principally through the practice of the family division. We are all concerned about the security of staff, but many people who make important decisions have no option but to have their identity made public. We cannot allow a situation to obtain whereby
public officials who are paid by the taxpayer are able to make their decisions anonymously because of fears for their security. In practice, the number of cases where the security of staff is threatened is tiny.
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The Justice Secretary has to understand that the increase in charges from hundreds to thousands of pounds has had the real effect of reducing the number of cases referred by social services to the family courts. The policy that he has announced this afternoon will simply not work if the cases are not taken to court in the first place. He must address the funding issue, which has led to a situation in which about a third of the casework is being funded that needs to be funded.
Mr. Straw: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. The money£40 million and moreis there and is being paid to the local authorities. Let me make it clear that it was local authorities who did not wish it to be ring-fenced. The number of cases started to fall before these changes were introduced, and because of major procedural changesthe introduction of the public law outlinethey are now rising.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I welcome openness, but will my right hon. Friend confirm whether I am right in remembering that during the second consultation, what most caused Ministers to hesitate in making the decision announced today was that the great majority of children who responded to the consultation were opposed to letting the media into family courts? Is he saying that he must regretfully disregard their representations, or that the design of the scheme takes into account those representations?
Mr. Straw: Of course, I do not dismiss childrens concerns, but ultimately we have to make a choice. I believeand experience has shown thisthat the media will act responsibility. As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said from a sedentary position, in practice, there has not been a problem with the observance of reporting restrictions in the youth courts or elsewhere. Whatever else people may say about the British media, they are respectful of these restrictions, and the penalties on editors and journalists if they break the restrictions are very severe.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): I go slightly against the flow in saying that I am yet to be convinced by these proposals, and I will watch the pilot schemes with interest. The Secretary of State drew on the experience of the youth court when he stated that these rules have worked effectively and their spirit has been well respected by the media. I must confessI have written to him about thisthat that has not necessarily been my experience, particularly as far as witnesses are concerned. Will he say what the situation will be with witnesses in the county court and the family court? Will the press be allowed to report their names?
Mr. Straw: No, the press would not be allowed to report witnesses names, because they are parties to the proceedings. The situation is different for expert witnesses, but with that exception, the identity of witnesses will be protected. I have yet to see the letter from the hon. Gentleman, but although there may be rare cases where there is concern about the operation of the family courts, such occasions are few and far between.
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