Operation of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from the Society of Editors (FC 47)


We are grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry. At this stage I wish only to comment briefly and to add our support to the more detailed analysis provided by Susan Oake for the Newspaper Society with whom we have worked closely.

In essence we welcomed the then Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw's intention to open up the family courts to greater scrutiny by lifting some of the restrictions on media reporting.

This was an opportunity to provide the public with a proper insight into how the courts operated and the complex and often harrowing issues that they have to consider. It would also provide opportunities to ensure that the system could be more easily challenged by those who might feel aggrieved by their treatment in the courts.

The first principle of justice is that it should be fair. The second is that it should be open and that in turn helps to support the first. Improved understanding that flows from greater openness benefits both individuals and the public generally.

In arguing the case for greater openness we fully appreciated the need to protect children and vulnerable families. The media in the UK has a long track record in accepting the need for restrictions and has a first class reputation in reporting other courts.

Sadly as plans for reform progressed we found that there were powerful voices that appeared not to understand the importance of openness in creating confidence in the justice system and clearly had no understanding of the role of the media in informing the public.

That slowed the progress of sensible reform and eventually produced unrealistic legislation that would, if implemented, make reporting more difficult and sadly add nothing to public understanding of the important work of the courts.

Instead of an approach that in broad terms provided for a system whereby the public can be told everything about the work of the courts unless there are clearly important reasons for restricting information, such as the protection of children, for example, there is potential for increasing the mystery surrounding the courts.

The proposals simply created greater complexity in the rules and provided for protection from publicity where it was not necessary and in some cases plainly unhelpful.

What is more, if implemented, the two stage approach to reform would inevitably set back change further because the difficulties for reporting would create an impression of disinterest on the part of the media. That would serve the interests only of those who seem determined to maintain secrecy in the process.

In short an opportunity has been missed to bring the system into the modern world where the benefits of transparency are properly appreciated. This serves the real interests of no-one.

As the Newspaper Society's submission states, "It is wrong to suggest that the interests of the families are best met by a system of secret justice." Neither is it in the wider public interest nor more specifically in the interest of the justice system and all those who work with and in it.

We look forward to your review and we would gladly add to these comments either in writing or orally.

September 2010

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