Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Age of secrecy ends as family courts are opened to media scrutiny

A disturbing case in which a local authority failed to act to take a child into care was able to be revealed yesterday, after the groundbreaking decision to admit the media into the family courts came into effect.
The case, set against a background of alleged sex abuse, revealed how a family had managed to slip through the net of three London councils because they kept moving home and were not known to the social services.
The details are typical of the kind that would have remained unknown but for the opening of such hearings after decades of decisions being taken behind closed doors.
The historic opening up of the courts was taken by Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, after sustained pressure from families affected by the courts decisions and the media, led by The Times.
Under the reforms more than 200,000 hearings involving sensitive and traumatic cases, and with decisions that will have a huge impact on the lives of children and their families, will now be open to media scrutiny.
However, there is still confusion in the courts as to how this reform should operate, although The Times was admitted to most hearings at the six court centres it attended yesterday.
Strict reporting restrictions remain in force, which many including judges fear will undermine the reform and dilute its impact. There is also no automatic access to papers that have been laid before the court as evidence.
No identification of parties can take place and there was a mixed message over whether local authorities, often the butt of criticism in care cases, can be named.
The Times attended the above case, at the Barnet Civil and Family Court Centre, in which a council wants to remove a four-year-old child and baby into care.

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