Family Court secrecy

One of the issues I campaign for in my book is greater transparency and public access to the courts and court records. Unfortunately section 32 of the Freedom of Information Act provides an absolute exemption for court records, so the Act will not provide greater access. New rules and legislation are needed to open the justice system to public view.

Nowhere is the problem of court secrecy greater than in the family courts. Fathers4Justice may have forced attention on the secrecy of the family courts, but many others have suffered in silence. Hundreds of parents have had their children taken away based on flimsy evidence that they were not allowed to see, let alone have examined by an independent expert. Accusations of bias, unfairness and injustice will continue until the family courts open up. It seems that finally some judges are getting the message.

Judges are ready to end secrecy to prove that there is no bias
The Times, Frances Gibb
10 January 2005

The secrecy of the family courts system would be stripped away under radical reforms being drawn up by senior judges which would open hearings to the public.

Hundreds of court hearings involving disputes over money or children, which are conducted behind closed doors, would be opened to the media and public under proposals shortly to go before the House of Commons for debate.

Lord Justice Thorpe told The Times: “In so far as people may be made anxious by the argument that privacy is cloaking injustice, I think it would be quite healthy to remove that privacy, (and) expose the process to public scrutiny which would reveal that it is in generally good condition.” He also added: “We are not looking into the abyss; after all in Scotland, which is part of the United Kingdom, they have always conducted their family proceedings in open court.”

The judges are expected to put forward proposals by the end of January to the Constitutional Affairs Committee. MPs, too, are examining the family courts system and, says the Times, one issue of concern is the culture of secrecy surrounding the family courts and the fact that the media cannot report on family court cases unless invited to do so by the judiciary.

5 Responses to “Family Court secrecy”

  1. Mr.J.Kendall says:

    As all adoptions are done through the Family Courts, how many years have to pass before the daily case lists of these courts will be made available to the poor single birthmothers who had their children taken from them, due to the lack of establishment support, back in the 1950’s & 1960’s – when the word ‘stigma’ was attached to these poor women to lose their children for life. Most continue to break their hearts as to where these children are now.

  2. Sue M says:

    It’s not only the Family courts that need reform but the whole of the Social Service System also needs total reform. Why Social Workers, have been allowed to feel that they have the power of god over helpless families is beyond my understanding – children “legally Abducted” by what are supposed to be Servants of the State, but act as if they are little tin gods working only for their own benefits (i.e – keeping their jobs and getting their wages) under the false statement of “working for the good of the families” they have no care or concern for either the families or the children – only to hit the targets that “new Labour” has set for them – in order to get their bonuses.

  3. The fact is there is no longer any need for family court secrecy within private or public family law arenas. If presumtion of overnight reasonable and practical contact is made the norm, naturally where there is no tangible evidence of violence (not hearsay or ‘possible emotional upset’ please!) – there would be no issues, or very few. The Childrens Act is purely for the paramount interest of the family law profession including the private social workers that are CAFCASS- not at all ‘independent’ with offices within Family Courts (Principle Registy in London) – the system is adversarial and evokes ill needed fear and anger that creates wider divisions within the family.
    These professionals take the natural power away from the family to make their own decisions. If only when there are initial problems, people would go for mediation and always keep the courts as terrible last resort, with judges rejecting cases where there has been no attempt at serious mediation. To introduce CAFCASS as mediatior, is a waste of time, these people are social workers and proven to be biast ‘pro’ courts, ‘pro’ social work intervention, ‘pro’ siding with one parent over the other. We need impartiality and the paramount interst of the child *and family* .

  4. Barbara says:

    The Family Courts spend £billions on secret trials and I am surprised that the British taxpayers are not making a massive din about the undemocratic way that their money is being wasted. This interference of the state into domestic living arrangements is not only ill advised in that it does not help the families involved in these secret trials at all, but also raises issues of the legality of these secret trials.

    The secret is not such a well kept one these days, more and more stories of forced adoption and secret imprisonments are leaking out. The Government would be well advised to address the issue before the volcano finally erupts.

  5. catherine says:

    I am not surprised there isn’t a public outcry regarding the secrecy of family court. It takes experiencing it firsthand to realize how unaccountable all professionals involved are. From social workers who fancy themselves psychologists to judges who get confused about which ‘hat’ they are wearing on the day- that of judge or barrister (many judges are also practicing family court barristers), to solicitors who don’t actually represent the client, but the ‘system’; it is difficult to describe to those who haven’t been through family court how compromised justice is in it. The fact that the doors are firmly shut must be one of the reasons for sloppy and imperious professionalism.
    In my opinion, the problems in family court are complex and simply opening its doors to the public would not entirely solve them. It might, however, help force those who have such immense power over individuals and their lives to be more accountable for their recommendations and judgements. Ideally, the litigants and the children would remain anonymous, but the names of the professionals involved, including social workers, as well as the court documents and proceedings would be public.
    Equally, professionals involved with a family who do not come forward should be held to account publically. Contrary to a commonly held belief that the ‘system’ is ultra protective of childrens’ safety, (re the Child Protection Act and ’Every Child Matters’) from what I have seen and heard, there is an insidious reluctance on the part of professionals involved with a family to contribute an expert opinion in court. It seems that a reluctance to ‘get involved’ overrides concern, even if a childs’ safety is in question. Professionals who remain silent are not, at present, held to account. It may seem contrary to the almost draconian imperative of the Child Protection Act, but this is the case.
    The reason for this, I believe, is that there is a culture of blame in child protection issues. In practice this means that to express a concern makes one vulnerable to accusations of not having raised an alarm or taken appropriate action earlier. At its worst, ones professional judgement can be questioned, as has become a serious issue for paediatricians. Therefore, there is in fact a very real disincentive to express an opinion. Only strong ‘evidence’ is acknowledged. Reporting anything else, or expressing a concern is actively discouraged.
    Family issues are, of course, full of ‘grey areas’, different points of view, huge emotions and, in family court, conflict. It is, however, in the grey areas and shadows that abuse usually takes place. There is no acknowledgement of this in family court and therefore, in my opinion, the wrong criteria are used to arrive at judgements. I believe that statistics would back this up.

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