The Ministry of Justice has told the Gazette that it will not commence legislation that would extend the media’s right to report family cases without ‘looking closely’ at the changes, amid pressure from family lawyers.
Family lawyers have called on the government not to enact the measures contained in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010 which would change the rules on media reporting in the family courts.
Solicitors claimed the provisions did not receive sufficient scrutiny by MPs when the legislation was passed during the parliamentary ‘wash-up’ at the end of the last parliamentary session.
The media have been allowed to report on the process of family cases since April 2009, but provisions in the act will extend this to allow journalists to report on the details of individual cases.
In the first phase of the act, most details will be reportable unless restricted by a judge, but the identities of the parties and other ‘sensitive personal information’ can only be reported with the judge’s permission. The media will be able to name any expert witnesses who have been paid for giving evidence.
The second phase will allow journalists to report sensitive information, and the criteria will be changed to make it more difficult for judges to restrict reporting. Journalists will be able to name all expert witnesses.
Provisions governing the two phases have not yet been commenced.
Christina Blacklaws, Law Society council member for child care, called on the government not to enact the legislation. She said the changes could deter children and experts from giving evidence.
Blacklaws said: ‘The irony of the bill [which concerns transparency] is that it was passed without any scrutiny of both Houses, in the wash-up, tacked on to another bill.
‘What is the mischief that the changes are trying to address? If it is the general lack of understanding by the general public of how the family courts work, for example how much weight is given to certain evidence, that could be better addressed by providing a large body of anonymised judgments.’
Rachel Rogers, head of policy at family lawyers’ group Resolution, said she would welcome a ‘very thorough reconsideration of the changes’, adding that it was not clear that the new regime would achieve the greater transparency desired.
She added: ‘We are concerned that there has not been sufficient scrutiny of the bill, [which] seemed to be part of a political deal that meant it went through at the last minute.’
Rogers added that the changes, if implemented, would also have serious financial implications for the courts, a fact that she said was acknowledged in the original explanatory note accompanying the bill.
An MoJ spokeswoman said: ‘It is important that the family justice system is properly understood and commands public confidence. At the same time, there is a clear need to protect the privacy of vulnerable children and adults involved in cases in the family courts.
‘In recognition of the sensitivity of this area, the government wants to look closely at the changes the act would introduce before any final decision on implementation is taken.’