Douglas Carswell

24 MAR 2017

Secrecy in family courts must stop

New research on the family courts documents that, despite transparency guidance, only a tiny minority of proceedings are published. That's deeply concerning – because secrecy promotes injustice.

Sadly, children do sometimes need to be taken into care. Most of the time, I'm sure, family courts make the right call.

However, some families are broken up unnecessarily. In 2008, Camilla Cavendish wrote a number of articles for The Times, documenting serious mistakes by social services. In several cases, expert witnesses gave testimony without ever having met the families involved.

The problem is that we don't know how widespread these errors are, because the courts sit in secret. Adoption order proceedings are closed to the public and the press, and rarely published. Moreover, the identities of expert witnesses are protected. Secrecy allows injustice to be covered up.

It has long been recognised – by both ministers and judges – that more transparency is required. Yet efforts to increase it have fallen short.

Sir James Munby's transparency guidance, for example, left the decision as to whether to publish to judges' discretion. The new research by academics at Cardiff University reveals that very few judges have opted to do so – as a paper published by the UKIP PRU predicted.

The system needs much bolder reform. In our paper, we called for the publication of judgments to be mandatory, greater media access to both proceedings and case documents, and expert witnesses to be identified.

We also advocated greater use of Special Guardianship Orders, so that, if children do have to be taken from their families, they are placed at least temporarily with grandparents or other relatives, rather than total strangers.

Transparency helps ensure justice. It shouldn't be resisted.

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