Family courts open to press scrutiny? Up to a point, Lord Copper

Does anyone remember the brilliant Irish Times column ( expensive digital archive sub required ) and book Nell McCafferty wrote in the 1970s, In the Eyes of the Law? Each week she gave a deceptively simple account of how very ordinary people in trouble often had their difficult lives messed around even worse by the majesty of Dublin’s lower courts where the interests of the system were usually and unthinkingly preferred to the those of the hapless citizen. That’s how I remember the column anyway. Justice delivered with a little imagination and sympathy seemed as rare as hen’s teeth. Fast forward 30 odd years to England and to a modest fanfare introducing the first day when the most secretive part of the system, the family courts, were declared open to the press. (Whatever next? Bloggers?) How did it go? Was it a triumph of openness? Alas no, more a typically British mix of confusion and goodwill. Any sign of this happening in NI? Imagine the fluttering in the law courts’ dovecotes. It’s a complicated subject. Many people will prefer their dirty linen not to be washed in public but others may welcome greater scrutiny of child custody issues for example, while protecting identities. Adds A critical view on this from Sunday Times columnist India Knight. “What this basically means is that anyone anxious about their private behaviour being made public will be at the mercy of the partner who could make it so.” First, Jack Straw and the UK government wanted this to happen but hadn’t managed to make the necessary changes to the law to allow the press in en bloc, leaving each decision instead to individual judges without much guidance. The head of the Family Division Lord Justice Potter then criticised the government.

“The government had not gone far enough in changing the rules. Leaving the law unreformed could prove confusing to the media and the public. “The government has been unable to find parliamentary time for the general statutory overhaul required. Instead, it will fall to the judges to decide to what extent they should exercise their discretion to relax disclosure or reporting restrictions if sought by the media or one of the parties,” he said. “[This] will do little to alleviate the opportunities for further confusion.”

And on the ground, reported the Guardian….

“How dare you bring a journalist into the judge’s private corridor!” the judge bellowed.
At St Dunstan’s House in Fetter Lane, London, finding a court that was actually hearing family cases was almost impossible because many of them did not bother to publish an up-to-date case list for the day. “Why would we?” a clerk explained. “Members of the public aren’t allowed in anyway.” Told that this was no longer the case, the official was clearly aghast.

And the Times

After a separate hearing in which a woman was trying to ascertain how much her ex-husband-to-be was worth, District Judge Reid was asked what could actually be reported. She politely replied: “Speak to the Ministry of Justice press office.”

Judges are members of a rare trade that still has a pretty undisturbed high opinion of itself. It sometimes confuses its substantial lack of accountability with its essential independence. The move to extend opennness to court decisions – and therefore to submit them to unwelcome scrutiny – will need greater weight behind it, if it’s to have much impact. The holy grail is to achieve the sort of sensitive reporting of a Nell all those years ago in lower courts, in higher courts where fateful decisions on the direct fate of children and adults are taken by a single bewigged person ( though unwigged in the presence of children). So far, it remains an aspiration, if one that has drawn just a bit nearer.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London