Family Courts

Constitutional Affairs written statement – made on 11th July 2006.

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am pleased to inform the House that I have today laid before Parliament and placed in the Libraries of both Houses the consultation paper, "Confidence and Confidentiality: Improving Transparency and Privacy in Family Courts". It is also available on the Department's website at http://www.dca.gov.uk/consult/confr.htm

Family courts make decisions that have important effects on people's lives and that affect people's lives forever and they make judgments in the most difficult of circumstances.

Many more people are affected by decisions of the family courts than used to be the case—over 400,000 family court applications every year. And the comfortable certainties which used to be the context in which the family courts did their work have gone. Change in family structures, change in social attitudes, greater cultural diversity, new reproductive technologies and global mobility bring new challenges to the family courts. But what has not changed is the need for the courts to protect children from cruelty and neglect and to make judgments when parents cannot agree about the care of the child.

The greater the importance of the work of the court, the greater the need for public confidence. The current operation of the family courts attracts criticism to the family justice system as a whole and lays it open to accusations of bias and injustice which cannot be satisfactorily refuted.

In order to ensure that the public can have confidence in the work of the family courts, we make proposals in the consultation document to make the family courts more open and accountable while ensuring that we protect the privacy of the personal lives of those involved in family proceedings—particularly children.

We make firm proposals to allow the press into the courts and how we plan to protect anonymity. We invite further consideration on whether the courts should be accountable to the children who are affected by their judgments by keeping a record for them to obtain, if they want when they become an adult of what the court decided and why. We propose no change on the access to the courts by the inspectorates—HMICA and the Commission for Social Care Inspection—and for those who have democratic accountability for the family justice system—lead local authority members responsible for children's services and Members of Parliament. But we invite further consideration of that.

I believe these proposals are a step forward towards our dual objective of confidence and confidentiality.