Unhappy Families

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A Bill intended to open up family courts to the media will require major amendment if it is to achieve its aims. That has become abundantly clear to me after my experiences in defending the media at two separate events organised by family lawyers over the past 10 days.

It is not just, as I explained in this piece, that the relevant clauses in the Children, Schools and Families Bill are so badly drafted as to be almost unworkable in practice. The real problem, I have been told by family lawyers, is that the Bill would lead to less openness rather than more.

That is because lawyers and other professionals would be required to warn children and adults involved in family or care proceedings that there might be reporters in court. The effect of this, I am assured, would be to discourage parties from talking freely to their own lawyers and to others, such as psychiatrists appointed on their behalf.

But most newspapers have very few reporters these days and very little money to pay for freelances. As a result, the chances that there will be anyone in court to cover a run-of-the mill care case are vanishingly small.

But lawyers cannot be sure that a reporter will not wander in and they would be negligent if they failed to warn their clients. So parties will be less forthcoming in what they say, even though their evidence is unlikely to be reported. Everything will be for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds.

Before bringing these proposals before parliament, Jack Straw should have taken advice from lawyers and judges. He should also have heeded the advice he received from the press. It would be foolhardy in the extreme for parliament to enact this Bill in its current state.