Saturday, 12 July 2008

Family justice is private - not secretive

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In its leading article on Monday, The Times accused the family courts of operating in a conspiracy of silence, that allowed miscarriages of justice without the possibility of redress. This was supported by the first of a thought-provoking series of articles by Camilla Cavendish on the family justice system. The system is far from perfect, and in her final article yesterday, Cavendish set out a ten-point plan for improving it, much of which I am in broad (but qualified) agreement with. However, the vision of a secretive system that removes children from families without good reason is an inaccurate and unfair reflection of the work of the family courts in England and Wales. The suggestion that there is a need to guard against any judges on a crusade against parents is a slur for which I have seen no supporting material in any of her articles. The Children Act 1989 requires judges and magistrates to regard the welfare of the child as paramount. While they bear in mind that the welfare of the child is best promoted wherever possible by keeping the family intact, cases brought before them are, by definition, those in which there are serious concerns that harm has occurred or is likely to occur to the child if left in his or her present circumstances. Many cases involve parents with learning difficulties, drink or drug problems and very vulnerable children. The leading article ended by stating that The Times would not be part of what has become in effect a conspiracy of silence against children who have no voice. In truth, children have a voice in the guardian and lawyer expressly charged with representing their interests, and the parents, too, have the benefit of legal aid representation. (The increasing threat to the availability of this is a matter of high judicial concern.) As Cavendish recounted, miscarriages of justice can occur, but where they do, judges will not hesitate to publish their judgments (granting the child anonymity), as does the Court of Appeal.

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