Memorandum submitted by the Society of Editors (CS 36)

 

From Executive Director, Society of Editors.

 

Further to the evidence that I gave to the committee last week concerning the part of the Bill referring to Family Courts I would like to clarify several important points.

 

1. It would be wrong to suggest that the idea of opening up the Family Courts had been rushed. The Lord Chancellor's Department's consultation paper on 'Review of Access to and Reporting of Family Proceedings' was published in August 1993. Developments at the end of 2008 were not media driven. The Secretary of State for Justice announced, "The decisions of family courts have profound and long term effects on the lives of those involved and cumulatively on society as a whole....It is vital that these courts- like any others- command the confidence of the public, if the public- including the parties involved-are to accept their decisions. This can best be achieved if justice in these courts is seen to be done." Government wanted greater openness along the lines of the Youth Court where "the rules have worked effectively, and their spirit has been well respected by the media". Media organisations were then asked to help implement his proposals.

2. Along with other media organisations we have had long and detailed discussions with officials about how to allow the media to report with proper safeguards. We have also worked with officials to help draft guidelines for court staff.

3. Much of that work has been undermined by constant pressure from other sources, which clearly had no intention of finding a sensible way forward that would allow the media to report on behalf of the public while ensuring that there would be adequate safeguards for families and particularly children. That was clearly evident in the committee hearing last week.

4. Our position now is simply that the Bill as drafted would not achieve the Government's aims and indeed that there is a real danger that the proposed legislation could in fact reduce openness and accountability even to the point of preventing the reporting of information already legitimately in the public domain.

5. That would be a backward step for the public and would be unhelpful to the courts and the judicial process that would benefit from greater openness by enhancing public confidence in the system.

6. All of that could be achieved by taking on board the detailed amendments that have been carefully developed by media organisations' lawyers and submitted to the Ministry of Justice.

January 2010