Courts: Family Cases

– in the House of Lords at on 12 December 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Knight of Collingtree Baroness Knight of Collingtree Conservative

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to intervene in the workings of the family courts to ensure that full reasons are provided for parents whose children are removed from their care.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, courts dealing with care and adoption proceedings already have a statutory duty to state the reasons for their decision when making an order or refusing an application. In addition, we will be piloting providing written information in some cases, to assess the costs, impacts and benefits.

Photo of Baroness Knight of Collingtree Baroness Knight of Collingtree Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is never right that any woman, whatever her circumstances or record, should have her newborn child taken from her and put up for adoption without the right of appeal? Is he aware that this has been happening and that some of the more than 2,000 women who have lost their babies in this way have not been able to appeal because the family courts have refused to give a written judgment?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, clearly it is important that the appropriate processes are in place. These are critical decisions for all involved. As far as the question of information is concerned, there is already a statutory duty on courts to state the reason for their decision, but in some courts that may well be done at an oral hearing rather than through a written statement. That is why we are embarking on a pilot next year to see the impact of providing further written information.

Photo of Baroness Pitkeathley Baroness Pitkeathley Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of CAFCASS—I shall not spell out its full name—the organisation whose workers deal with these most complex and difficult issues. Indeed, that is the point that I make to my noble friend. Does he agree that it is very difficult to make simple decisions or simple statements about complex and difficult family situations such as those that the noble Baroness alluded to?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, my noble friend's question allows me, first, to congratulate her on her outstanding work in turning CAFCASS around, which has been quite remarkable. She makes an important point: clearly these are difficult decisions. Protecting children has to be the paramount consideration of the court, which has to strike a balance. However, no one should underestimate the challenge and difficulty for the courts in making those decisions.

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, in the making of a care order, is it not the case that, whether the court be a magistrates' court or a judge's court, first, there has to be a clear statement as to the finding of fact in order to justify a finding that the child has suffered significant harm; secondly, that the making of the order must in all the circumstances be wholly necessary; and, thirdly, that the final form of the care plan must be acceptable and the most appropriate one for the child in those circumstances? In adoption matters, which are even more important, should not all the information that can be given be produced in court?

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Spokesperson in the Lords (Shadow Attorney General), Home Affairs

My Lords, it is not a question of striking a balance. Is the Minister not aware of the requirement in the Family Proceedings Rules that the judge keep a note of the substance of the oral evidence and record in writing not only the court's reasons but its finding of fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, pointed out? Mr Justice Munby and Mr Justice McFarlane have on two separate occasions had to draw the Government's attention to these provisions. Why are they not being carried out?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am not sure that I follow the noble Lord's argument. The practice directions make it quite clear that parties to proceedings can receive transcripts of those proceedings without the leave of the court. The issue that was debated in the various consultative papers that came out in 2006 and 2007 was whether written information should be made available. That is what we will be piloting.

Photo of Baroness Trumpington Baroness Trumpington Conservative

My Lords, was the Minister not absolutely horrified by what my noble friend said in her original Question? He spoke of "appropriate processes". Is there any reason why appropriate processes should not sometimes be wrong, and can they be changed?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, we have to place our confidence in the judicial system to ensure that proceedings are carried out effectively, and we do so. However, the noble Baroness's Question was about written reasons. As I said, next year we will embark on a pilot to see how that would work in practice and what the implications for the courts would be.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Shadow Minister, Justice

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that the perceived secrecy in many of these cases leads a great many people to feel that justice that has not been seen to be done is justice that has not been done and that therefore a degree of greater openness might assist in this field?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's point. The question of public confidence in the privacy of proceedings has certainly been discussed and embraced in the consultation papers that the Government have put out in the past two years. Clearly, protecting children's privacy is a paramount consideration here, but of course the court has to strike a balance between protecting children and young persons, the general interest in open administration and individuals' claims to be present. That is why the consultation paper concluded that we should see whether more written information could be made available, but in all these matters the paramount interest of the child must come to the fore.

Photo of Lord Rees-Mogg Lord Rees-Mogg Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the child may be better protected by information being available to the public than by privacy? Privacy is not necessarily a guarantee of the child's security.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. As noble Lords will be aware, the 2006 consultation paper contained a proposal to allow more open access to the media. However, in the ensuing months, in discussions with children's organisations and at various meetings and events arranged with children who have been through care proceedings, a very strong view came back from the children that privacy was indeed paramount. That has had a strong influence on the Government's decision in this area.