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Family courts to come under more public scrutiny

The media will soon be able to attend family court hearings. The Government hopes that by subjecting proceedings to more scrutiny it will increase public confidence in the system.

However, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw insists that the welfare of children and vulnerable adults will still be protected. Announcing the new measures in a statement to the House of Commons, he said: "It is critical that family courts make the right decisions and the public have confidence they are doing so. A key part of building trust in the system is that people understand how it works.

"At the same time, we must protect the privacy of children and families involved in family court cases so they are not identified or stigmatised by their community or friends."

Under the proposals, the media will be able to attend family courts unless the judge decides that access should be denied in order to protect the welfare of a child, or for the safety or protection of other participants in the case such as witnesses.

Some people may be concerned at the thought of a reporter attending a hearing in which they are involved but in reality, only a tiny proportion of cases are likely to attract media attention.

There are also safeguards. People involved in a case will be able to request that the media be excluded if they feel there are valid reasons why the proceedings should not be publicised. The court can also place restrictions on what can be reported in order to protect the welfare of children and their families.

There are also proposals to give people involved in a case a copy of the judgment so they have a record of how the court reached its decision. The Government is also looking how court judgments might be retained so that children involved in proceedings can access them when they are older and able to understand the reasons for decisions affecting their welfare.

A pilot project to test out some of the proposals is due to begin in the spring.

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