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Ministers rethinking plan to open family courts to media
· Lord chancellor
signals unease at press intrusion
The government is having second thoughts about its proposal to open family courts to the media, in the face of strong opposition from children's groups and others, the lord chancellor signalled last night.
A consultation paper last July proposed the media should be allowed into the family courts as of right, with reporting restrictions to protect families' confidentiality.
But Lord Falconer said that more than 200 children who had given their views during consultation "overwhelmingly rejected the idea, with the clear support of key third-party organisations speaking up for the interests of children".
He added: "They are clear - crystal clear - that they do not want the family court filled with people who have no involvement in proceedings. They do not want people in the court hearing private details of their lives.
"They are worried about themselves or their families being identified by people whom they do not trust to report responsibly."
Striking the balance between the need for open justice and keeping families' private information private "may well involve allowing the press or the public in only where the judge expressly agrees as an exception", Lord Falconer told lawyers in a lecture at Gray's Inn, central London.
A decision not to go ahead with the reform would be a rebuff for the family justice minister, Harriet Harman, who made opening of the courts a priority when she took over the family brief last year.
She argued the move was necessary to counter accusations that miscarriages of justice were happening behind closed doors. Her sister, Sarah Harman, a solicitor who regularly acts in care proceedings for parents accused of harming their children, is leading a campaign to open up the family courts.
The media support the move, as do senior family judges, who believe it will help to dispel a perception of secret justice behind closed doors. But responses to the consultation, to be published today, will reveal substantial opposition not only from children's groups, but from lawyers, social workers, and expert witnesses such as paediatricians and psychiatrists.
Lord Falconer stressed that the government would not be announcing its final proposals today, but "relatively soon" would be setting out for the first time a general vision for the family courts.
The National Children's Bureau, a charitable organisation, pointed out that "the media ... inevitably has a function to find news that will increase readership and sell newspapers and magazines".
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