Europe to begin investigation of secrecy in family courts
Britain faces an investigation by Europe into secrecy in family courts, amid growing political pressure to overhaul the system.
Sam Coates and Camilla Cavendish, The Times Online, July 10 2008
The Council of Europe has stepped in after allegations that gagging laws designed to protect the rights of children are allowing miscarriages of justice and children to be removed unnecessarily from their parents.
The Times has been running a series of articles this week about the consequences of the system that keeps reporters and the public out of many family court hearings and obstructs people from seeing evidence against them or obtaining copies of judgments. Opponents of the system say that judges can be too ready to side with social workers and experts who want a child removed but whose evidence is rarely made public.
Family courts in England and Wales hear 400,000 cases a year, mostly divorces and child custody cases. In about 20,000 cases a year, however, local councils apply to remove children from parents on the ground that parents are abusive or neglectful.
The council’s investigation was initiated by Paul Rowen, the Liberal Democrat MP who is one of Britain’s representatives, and will begin in September. It could involve hearings by a committee that will take evidence and be able to visit courts.
It will come at a critical time for campaigners who are fighting to open up the system. The Government has promised to respond to a long-delayed consultation after the summer.
Three years ago the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee said that greater transparency was required and restrictions on the discussion of their cases by parents should be removed entirely.
Moves to open the courts up were quashed by Lord Falconer of Thoroton in one of his final acts as Lord Chancellor in June 2007. He stated that a survey of 200 children had shown that many would be anxious about the presence of the press in the family courts.
Evidence taken by the Children and Schools Select Committee last month heard how pregnant women who missed antenatal classes were being threatened with referral to social services.