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Ministry of Justice

Straw: family court hearings open to the media from 27 April

27 April 2009

court sentencing

Over 200,000 more family court hearings each year will be opened to the media from 27 April, in a move designed to strike a balance between the rights of those who need protecting, like vulnerable children, and the need for transparency.

Accredited media will be able to attend all levels of family courts, removing the existing inconsistency of access between magistrates’ courts and the county and high courts.

The court will still be able to restrict attendance if, for example the welfare of the child requires it, or for the safety and protection of parties or witnesses.

Media representatives who attend family courts must be holders of the UK Press Card.

Jack Straw, Secretary of State for Justice, said:

‘Family courts play a crucial role in our society. It is vital that these courts command the confidence of the public. If justice in these courts is seen to be done, they will be trusted by the public.

‘Existing reporting restrictions for the newly attending media will of course still apply to protect children and families, but I want to ensure a change in the culture and practice of all courts towards greater openness, and this is an important step towards that goal.’

In addition, revised court rules also come into effect on 27 April about disclosure of information about cases involving children. These will make it easier for parties and their legal representatives to seek help and advice about their case.

These include allowing parties and their legal representatives to disclose information about their case to advisers (including MPs) while a case is ongoing, rather than at the end.

These changes are one part of a package of new measures intended to improve scrutiny of and public confidence in the family court system. The government announced in December 2008 that it will legislate to revise the law on reporting restrictions as soon as parliamentary time allows.

A pilot project will start later this year to improve the information coming out of the courts by:

  • placing anonymised judgments online from some family cases so that the public can see how family courts work and how decisions were reached
  • giving parties involved a copy of the judgment at the conclusion of their case so that they have a record of what was decided and why
  • looking at the practicalities of retaining judgments so that children involved in proceedings can access them when they are older.

Notes to editors

1. The Rt Hon Jack Straw MP’s oral statement in the House of Commons and the paper Family Justice in View.

2. Statutory Instruments were laid before Parliament to amend rules of court.

Statutory Instruments on media attendance at family courts now available on the Office of Public Sector Information website:

3. Media representatives who attend must be accredited. This will be through the existing UK Press Card scheme, which has a wide membership, and is open to those working wholly or mainly in the media. It is not, however, open to bloggers, those who write an occasional newsletter, or to foreign media not working in the UK. More information about the scheme and how to apply is available from the UK Press Card Authority.

4. The next phase of the Justice Secretary's transparency of family court project will involve consideration of reporting restrictions. Current reporting restriction legislation is complex - neither comprehensive nor comprehensible. We will bring forward a more comprehensive scheme when parliamentary time allows (amendments to primary legislation are needed).

5. Family law cases in 2007 (all figures rounded) England and Wales

Public law applications*

Family Proceedings Court: 14,100
county court: 5,700
High Court: 700

Private law applications**

Family Proceedings Court: 19,600
county court: 86,800
High Court: 700

Adoptions: 4,700 children

Domestic violence injunctions
Family Proceedings Court/county court: 24,500

Petitions for divorce
county court/High Court: 137,500

Financial orders on divorce
county court/High Court: 105,800

*including care, supervision, and emergency protection.
**parental disputes about the upbringing of children, counted by child.

6. Media enquiries please contact the Ministry of Justice press 0ffice on 020 3334 3536. Non-media enquiries should be directed to the Ministry of Justice public enquiry unit via email or by phone on 020 3334 3555.