Courts have been ordered not to ban journalists after reporters were prevented from entering the building where a judge was considering a controversial fostering case (David Brown writes).
Security staff were told to bar reporters from the East London Family Court yesterday, which was considering the case of a Christian girl fostered by a Muslim family. The previous day the judge had praised The Times for acting responsibly in raising “very concerning matters” of “legitimate public interest”.
Journalists were given increased access to family court hearings by the government in 2009 after an award-winning campaign by The Times for open justice.
The banning of reporters yesterday led to concerns about the lack of transparency in the family courts, which have far-reaching powers including over whether children should be put up for adoption or taken into care.
The Times’s chief investigative reporter, Andrew Norfolk, was ordered to leave the court building during a hearing on Tuesday but was later readmitted.
Reporters from newspapers, broadcasters and the Press Association were barred from the building for 90 minutes yesterday. Judge Carol Atkinson intervened after being alerted by the Ministry of Justice.
A senior official at HM Courts and Tribunal Service later wrote to managers at all courts in London informing them that the media must be allowed into buildings. “The media plays a vital role in how government communicates with the public on a day-to-day basis,” it said.
“It both informs and shapes the public’s perception of government policies and services, including those provided by the courts and tribunals. Earlier today there was an incident at one of our courts, where members of the media were excluded from a court building.
“Can you please remind your teams that this must not happen under any circumstances and that security officers should also be reminded of the policy too.”
A campaigner for open justice urged judicial heads to examine the case as it appeared that the drive for greater transparency by Sir James Munby, the most senior family court judge, was not working.
John Hemming, a former Liberal Democrat MP, said: “We've had a situation here where journalists have been told that they can't enter a public building, let alone listen to a hearing.
“The East London Family Court must be the most secret court in the country.
“Of course people can enter public court buildings. Members of the public are not allowed into private family court hearings but the rules allow media representatives to sit on any family court case.”
David Brown is a reporter at The Times