Free information index
Justice must be seen to be done in family courts
Sometimes, families malfunction so badly that the state must step in. In the most extreme cases, that means separating children from their parents. That is not a moral supposition, it is a fact, albeit one which many people find uncomfortable.
It is also a fact that the number of families needing intervention has grown significantly since the rules governing family courts were established half-a-century ago. As the volume of cases has grown, so, inevitably, have questions about accountability and fears of miscarriages of justice. The closed nature of family court proceedings - a sensible measure designed to protect the identities of vulnerable children - only works if built on a bedrock of public trust. But enough cases of appalling injustice have emerged to make greater transparency essential.
As The Observer reports this week, having been granted rare access to family court proceedings, openness does not only help the victims of bad decisions. Lifting reporting restrictions allows a greater understanding of the harrowingly difficult decisions that judges have to make. Certain myths - that local authorities conspire against families, for example, or that courts are routinely biased against fathers - would be debunked if more facts were allowed out.
Last month, Harriet Harman, Constitutional Affairs Minister, launched a public consultation on plans to reform family courts. They include admitting media, but with continued guarantees of anonymity. Councillors, MPs and independent court inspectors would also be let in, but not the general public (although applications by individuals to attend could be made). Breach of reporting restrictions could become a criminal offence. Children would be allowed access to details of their cases once they turn 18.
These measures mark a significant improvement on the status quo and Ms Harman must be given the full support of the cabinet and the Treasury to pursue her agenda. But that is not enough. We must also work towards changing the whole culture of family law. There is only one court in the country devoted exclusively to family justice and only one judge who sits on such matters full time. That is scandalous, given the volume of cases - around 400,000 a year. We need dedicated courts that become trusted public institutions, mediating as well as judging.
For too long, family courts have operated like a grubby secret of the judiciary. As a society, we have to learn to be more honest about what sometimes goes on behind closed doors.
Join us in campaigning for equality and justice.