Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 9:09 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich 9:09 pm, 11th January 2010

In the short time that is left in this Second Reading debate, I would like to concentrate on part 2 of the Bill, on which my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham spoke with great authority. I declare an interest in that before taking my seat in this place I was a practising family law barrister for 10 years.

Part 2 deals with the relaxation of the rules on reporting information relating to family proceedings. Like most Members who spoke about this issue, I support the principle of making the work of family courts more transparent and accountable to the wider public. That principle has developed over a period when the issue has been brought to the fore by a series of high-profile miscarriages of justice, including the cases of Sally Clark and Angela Cannings, involving professional or expert witnesses whose evidence has been discredited-in those cases, the expert witness was Professor Sir Roy Meadow. The desire to open up the family courts is therefore understandable. However, I agree with Sandra Gidley, who is not in her place, that the fundamental shift that the Bill will introduce should not be rushed into without proper consideration and consultation, because it concerns a particularly delicate area.

The family courts touch the lives of the majority of people in this country. One need only look at the example of adoption-one in four people knows someone who has been involved in an adoption. That, in itself, shows the importance of the family court system and of people's confidence in it. The system is subject to too much delay and suffers from a lack of judges, and there is a disconnect between the family court process and the public's understanding of what that is. It is therefore essential that we address those issues when considering the transparency of these courts. Clients in family court proceedings used to ask me questions as simple as "What is a courtroom like?", "Is there a jury?", "Can I speak?", "Will the social worker be there?", and "How does the judge decide what to do?" If the people involved in the family court system do not understand these issues, it is not surprising that the wider public have a dearth of understanding of the process. It is only right that they have those questions answered, as long as the privacy of the parties and the protection of the child remain paramount. The Bill touches on that important issue. Accessibility of information must happen without compromising the natural course of justice. People's experiences of family courts, as of criminal courts, vary widely, from satisfaction with the depth of inquiry and the sensitivity of the proceedings to disbelief at the way they feel they have been treated through their involvement in the case.

Opening up the family court system will help people to understand the judge's reasons for coming to their decision, dispel some of the myths surrounding family court proceedings, and help to bring confidence back into the system. However, I make a plea to the Government that they should also be considering how we can prevent cases from going into the family court system in the first place, particularly the role that mediation and alternative dispute resolution can play in bringing parties together and ensuring that they do not go as far as having to instruct solicitors and to spend their own money, in some cases, or money from the public purse, in others, on trying to resolve issues that could have been resolved much earlier on.

One of my concerns about this aspect of the Bill is that it builds in a two-stage process for reviewing the sensitive information that will become available to the public through the introduction of the media into the courtroom. Stage 1, which will apply for the first 18 months once the Bill becomes law, creates a slight loosening of the reins in the reporting of proceedings, particularly placement proceedings, but when we move to stage 2, that reporting goes much further and would allow the Lord Chancellor, of his own volition, to relax rules to the extent that sensitive personal information, as it is termed, can be published unless the court specifically imposes restrictions. That presumption should be re-examined to see whether it is the right way forward, because the anonymity of some very vulnerable young children is at stake. It is clear from some of the information that has been provided to us by those who are interested in that aspect of the Bill that there is a real danger that some children will become identifiable through other sensitive information that will become available to the public, such as psychiatric and health reports. When pieced together, such information could form a picture of exactly who the child in question was.

The Government have not made a huge assessment of the impact that the proposed changes will have. The original changes were brought in only in April 2009, and as we have heard, there has been no independent evaluation of their impact on children, courts and reporting. We can say that there has been very little journalistic take-up of the opportunity to go into the courts and view the family law process. The danger is that journalists will end up going only to cases that have a sensational element and that they believe will have some public interest through their newspapers, as opposed to getting a true, broad picture of what goes on in the family courts across the country. Rather than help to deal with the fear of the family court system that some people have, the media may reinforce it through the selective reporting of what goes on.

I am conscious that other Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude by saying that although it is a welcome move that we are looking to open up the family court system, there is a danger that if we go through the process set out in the Bill, we will move ahead too quickly with a rather complex system that ends up not helping the accountability of the family court system and people's understanding of it but shrouding it in even greater mystery with selective reporting of what goes on. People need to understand what goes on in the family courts, but I am not sure that the Bill goes the right way about it. A more structured and cautious approach of evaluating the evidence and returning to the matter at a later date would be a much more constructive way of ensuring that we deal with this very sensitive issue in the appropriate way.

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