The family courts opened their doors to the press this week, of course – well, sort of. Afua Hirsch wrote the other day about what she couldn’t report, and Natasha Phillips thought the change was much ado about nothing. John Bolch has reservations, summarised initial reactions and told some home truths.

I must admit, my initial reaction to this change was a slightly typical lawyer’s knee-jerk: there are good reasons for family hearings to be in private, I thought, and wanting “openness” is at best a desire to rewrite the rules for rewriting’s sake, at worst a victory for Fathers4Justice. But on reflection, I think I was guilty of pure knee-jerkery. I’m sure Afua is right that the rules can’t stay as they are – reporters must be allowed to report something about what goes on in family courts if there’s to be any point in the change. But perhaps a gradual, step-by-step change is a sensible approach. Letting reporters in will not prevent accusations that the family courts represent a conspiracy against justice, but they may make it less likely the general public will listen to them.

Here are the amending rules, by the way. Something that interests me is that access is limited to

duly accredited representatives of news gathering and reporting organisations

The government’s press release says this means the family courts will be open to those with a press card from the UK Press Card Authority. I’m not sure that’s right: there may be a definition of news gathering and reporting organisation in the Family Proceedings Rules (I couldn’t find one), but that phrase is not defined in the amending rules, and in its natural meaning doesn’t obviously cover freelance journalists, say, unless on a specific assignment. And even many publications that might well be interested in the family courts – women’s magazines, say – can hardly be called news gathering organisations. I wonder what media lawyers are advising journalists about this.

Interestingly, the government says bloggers are excluded. First, I’m not sure that’s really correct: bloggers can now be admitted to organisations that are “gatekeepers” to the press card scheme, and anyway, loads of proper journalists have blogs. Bloggers aren’t excluded at all. But anyway, why should the government want to exclude bloggers? Of course I know that if just anyone with a blog could turn up, that would include loads of obsessive crazies, ignoring all the rules and typing in green ink about how family judges are really lizards. But the entire blogosphere is not like that, and it’s wrong for a government which claims to be friendly to the development of new media to take that instinctive attitude.

There’s no shortage of responsible family blawgers: they can and should be allowed to apply for access to the courts under this scheme. Let’s hope that’s among the changes the government gradually makes.

2009-05-01T10:36:00+00:00Tags: , , |