Rolling out openness in the family courts

3234776149_e140c0231d_oThe Ministry of Justice has announced an information pilot by which anonymised judgments from some family courts will be made available on Bailii (press release here). Leeds FPC and Cardiff County Court and FPC are already in the pilot and will be joined by Wolverhampton County Court and FPC at the beginning of next year. I’ve had a look at the Bailii website, but I can’t see any judgments posted yet as part of the pilot; in fact I can’t see any mention of the pilot, or the courts involved, in any obvious place on the site. Maybe there’s a gaming element to it, and it helps to think like SuperMario; or maybe they just haven’t joined up the actions with the words yet.

The press release sets out the type of judgment which will be covered in the pilot. The focus is very tightly on children and Children Act cases: the wording isn’t entirely clear, but it appears that energy will be directed at reporting cases in which an interim or a final care or supervision order has been made. My guess is that somebody at the MoJ is bearing very much in mind the campaign run by the Times earlier this year, which concentrated on care cases, and of course the storm of criticism over Baby P. But, disappointingly, it does not anticipate covering ancillary relief/child support at all, although contested residence or disputed contact cases will be reported “where the outcome is unusual”.

From the money and financial point of view, it would be enormously helpful (and would help to standardise practice across the country) if we were able to get some decent reporting of applications for lump sum payments and property adjustments under Schedule 1 of the 1989 Act, rather than the very selective reports we get at the moment, but it appears that we’re going to have to wait a bit longer for that.

Openness in the Family Courts: A Rare Voice

New openness in the family justice system is going to affect children cases more than finance ones, but although it’s not of direct relevance to this blog, I’m linking to this interesting article by Thomas McMahon on spiked about the lifting of reporting restrictions in the family courts. I confess I have quite a lot of sympathy for the views he expresses. It has done the family courts no favours to develop a culture of secrecy, and that is the way the public perceive it, whether that was the intention or not. On many occasions the spectre of confidentiality seems to be invoked to protect the children involved when in reality the real aim is to protect the adults. The welfare principle can sometimes seem to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance. My guess is that opening up the reporting of proceedings and in particular making the general public more aware of the welfare principle will make everyone involved in Children Act proceedings more careful about ensuring that they refer expressly to section 1. Anything that achieves that aim in my view has to be a good thing. Unfortunately many of the partisans of a more open family justice system want to move in the opposite direction. It’s particularly interesting that Mr McMahon is not a lone voice, but a pretty rare one. Are most people simply not bothered about the family justice system until it affects them personally?