Opening the family courts to journalists last year has been an abject failure, a study by the Ministry of Justice reveals.
The family justice minister Bridget Prentice wrote last November to more than 100 members of the judiciary, legal advisers, lawyers and children’s organisations involved with the family courts. Only 13 responses were received to her request for views on how the new arrangements were operating.
That, at least, is what the report says on page 1. By page 14 of the same report, this already laughably small number of replies has shrunk to 12. And all of those were from people who said either that they were unaware of journalists attending family proceedings or that instances of media attendance were rare.
The report concludes, illiterately:
As the media already had the right to attend hearings in the Family Proceedings Court the main change introduced in April 2009 was to allow the media to attend County and High Court hearings. An assumption could have been made that impact would have mostly fell to these courts but responses to this study do not reveal any evidence to support this.
The ministry also sent an online questionnaire to family court managers at the 174 county courts and around 170 family proceedings (magistrates’) courts that deal with family matters. This time, 124 responses were received – an apparent response rate from court staff that is still little more a third. However, the ministry says it’s not really as low as this because around half the managers are responsible for two courts.
Almost 75% of respondents were not aware of a single occasion on which the media had attended family proceedings in their court since the rules were changed in April 2009. Around 15% said that journalists had attended once. Two managers claimed, implausibly, that journalists attended weekly.
None of this should come as any surprise to Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary. Four months before his proposals took effect, I wrote that they were
based on the assumption that there are enough journalists to cover the courts effectively. In these straightened times, this may be a rash assumption to make.
Responding to the findings, Bridget Prentice points out that, at present, only the gist of family proceedings may be published. She believes that a Bill currently before Parliament will encourage media attendance.
But as I wrote last November, only a child could imagine that this legislation will deliver a renaissance in family court reporting.