The Final Straw

Justice Secretary Jack Straw has announced the second tranche of reforms in respect of the opening up of the family courts, reports the Times. It is no surprise that the government has announced its plan to relax the law in respect of reporting restrictions after the widespread disappointment voiced by the media when it realised that the April reforms were not quite what had been anticipated. What is a surprise is the plan to bring changes into force by this Autumn. This seems a remarkably optimistic timetable for reform of primary legislation and presumably does not envisage further consultation. There is absolutely no consensus on how this should be handled and I wonder if it will really be possible to do this job properly by the autumn? It is essential that it is done properly rather than rushed through, and the announcement gives real cause for concern.

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It should go without saying that in the course of the announcement Mr Straw took the opportunity to lob a gratuitous shot at lawyers about legal aid, wheeling out the same old misleading figures. And now it seems he is also having a go at the notion that multiple parties should be afforded representation in children cases. Why not go the whole hog and just scrap the judicial scrutiny of the removal of children from their parents and make it an adminstrative process? Or better still why not let the media report the cases freely, each paper taking on the case for a different party and decide the case on the basis of newspaper sales? Much cheaper and much more transparent – both key goals achieved!

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Am I sounding a bit sarky this morning? It’s been a long week…

The Prurient Eye

This case concerning the Spencer Divorce is the second case I have seen reported where counsel have tried to argue for privacy within ancillary relief proceedings – and failed. The characteristic of both cases is that the argument was focussed on ousting the media from the hearing in the first place, rather than on restricting what portion of what had been observed could be reported. In both cases they were sent out with a rather public flea in their ear. In the Spencer case the battle now shifts onto the reporting restrictions.

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What I suppose was not lost on the parties in that case (who both supported a media ban) was that although there may be nothing terribly exciting or newsworthy about the divorce itself the rules permitting media access would give free reign for the prurient eye of the media to roam through the embarrassing details and little extravagances of expenditure that might be the kernel of a story in a desperate hour. Of course the media would not have access to the documents themselves (at least not without prior successful application to the court) but cross examination in ancillary relief cases may well have highlighted this and that – enough to get their teeth into.

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No doubt the media will be more interested in reporting the costs of caribbean cruises or private jets that make up the expenditure of the rich and famous than of the detail of Mrs Blogg’s monthly tesco bill, but I don’t really see that wealth or celebrity ought to raise an entitlement to privacy that is not afforded to the rest of us. Whether silken lingerie or tesco kecks none of us much wants to wash our dirty laundry in public, but rules is rules and the clear policy behind them was to open up the hearings to the media. In the course of time once the new regime has bedded down we will perhaps see a proper refocussing of energies (and costs) into applying for reporting restrictions, where appropriate, rather than attempts to ban the media from attending in the first place which appear not to be finding much favour with the courts.