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Posts Tagged ‘openness’

Lord Justice Munby recently delivered the annual Hershman Levy Lecture on the topic of Transparency and the Children Schools and Families Act 2010, in which he referred to my recent article in Family Law, republished here. You can read the lecture here on the Association of Lawyers for Children website.

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Fudge - Stephanie189

Children Schools & Fudge Act 2010?

Further to my previous post on the passing of the Children Schools & Families Act 2010, The Times has published an article about the new provisions which is spot on: it identifies – importantly – that the new law, when it is brought into force, will in fact be more restrictive than the existing privacy rules covering children proceedings. In particular, not only will anonymity rules apply to the children themselves, but they will also apply to anyone involved in the proceedings, apart from professional witnesses.

So much for open justice. The Times says ‘a Fudge’, I’m inclined to agree.

PS Does anybody know when this is likely to be brought into force?

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The FLBA hosted a panel discussion on ‘Publicity in Family Proceedings’ today. It was moderated by Mr Justice Coleridge, and the panel was comprised of Mrs Justice Eleanor King, Anthony Hayden QC, Joshua Rozenberg and Dr Julia Brophy. It was a really interesting discussion. There was some consensus on a number of points: that greater openness was desirable, that the first round of reforms introducing media access had been a bit of a damp squib and that the proposed reforms contained in the Children, Schools & Families Bill 2009 were an impenetrable mess.

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But it’s an enormous and complex topic to cover in an hour, and there was an aspect of this debate that I wish had been explored more thoroughly. Much of the discussion was based on the supposed dichotomy between journalists (reputable) and bloggers (boo, hiss) and the assumption that all things bad are represented by the internet bogeyman. The Bill it seems, will remove (inadvertently perhaps?) the power of the court to permit access to persons other than ‘accredited media representatives’, which theoretically at least can presently be used to permit access to the responsible blogger without the benefit of a press card. It is of course imperative that whatever the rules permit to be heard, disclosed or published, safeguards should be in place to promote responsible reporting and minimise unbalanced coverage. But, in much the same way that many held misplaced expectations that the press would be a conduit for educating the public at large about the day to day work of the family justice system (is it really a surprise that they don’t report a range of cases across the board but select only those with the power to sell papers?), there seems to be a misplaced perception that we can or should draw some bright line between the ‘journalists’ and ‘the bloggers’.

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First: Journalists and bloggers alike publish, via their different media, information for their own purposes. They none of them serve the interests of the family justice system in educating or informing the public: although their interests may coincide from time to time they are not coterminous.

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Today’s press release from the MoJ in respect of proposed legislative reform to further open up the Family Courts. Hmmm….More on this when I’ve had time to look properly…

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Justice Secretary Jack Straw has announced the second tranche of reforms in respect of the opening up of the family courts, reports the Times. It is no surprise that the government has announced its plan to relax the law in respect of reporting restrictions after the widespread disappointment voiced by the media when it realised that the April reforms were not quite what had been anticipated. What is a surprise is the plan to bring changes into force by this Autumn. This seems a remarkably optimistic timetable for reform of primary legislation and presumably does not envisage further consultation. There is absolutely no consensus on how this should be handled and I wonder if it will really be possible to do this job properly by the autumn? It is essential that it is done properly rather than rushed through, and the announcement gives real cause for concern.

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It should go without saying that in the course of the announcement Mr Straw took the opportunity to lob a gratuitous shot at lawyers about legal aid, wheeling out the same old misleading figures. And now it seems he is also having a go at the notion that multiple parties should be afforded representation in children cases. Why not go the whole hog and just scrap the judicial scrutiny of the removal of children from their parents and make it an adminstrative process? Or better still why not let the media report the cases freely, each paper taking on the case for a different party and decide the case on the basis of newspaper sales? Much cheaper and much more transparent – both key goals achieved!

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Am I sounding a bit sarky this morning? It’s been a long week…

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This case concerning the Spencer Divorce is the second case I have seen reported where counsel have tried to argue for privacy within ancillary relief proceedings – and failed. The characteristic of both cases is that the argument was focussed on ousting the media from the hearing in the first place, rather than on restricting what portion of what had been observed could be reported. In both cases they were sent out with a rather public flea in their ear. In the Spencer case the battle now shifts onto the reporting restrictions.

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What I suppose was not lost on the parties in that case (who both supported a media ban) was that although there may be nothing terribly exciting or newsworthy about the divorce itself the rules permitting media access would give free reign for the prurient eye of the media to roam through the embarrassing details and little extravagances of expenditure that might be the kernel of a story in a desperate hour. Of course the media would not have access to the documents themselves (at least not without prior successful application to the court) but cross examination in ancillary relief cases may well have highlighted this and that – enough to get their teeth into.

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No doubt the media will be more interested in reporting the costs of caribbean cruises or private jets that make up the expenditure of the rich and famous than of the detail of Mrs Blogg’s monthly tesco bill, but I don’t really see that wealth or celebrity ought to raise an entitlement to privacy that is not afforded to the rest of us. Whether silken lingerie or tesco kecks none of us much wants to wash our dirty laundry in public, but rules is rules and the clear policy behind them was to open up the hearings to the media. In the course of time once the new regime has bedded down we will perhaps see a proper refocussing of energies (and costs) into applying for reporting restrictions, where appropriate, rather than attempts to ban the media from attending in the first place which appear not to be finding much favour with the courts.

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