Byline: HARRIET HARMAN
IT'S HARD to overstate the importance of the work of the family courts, or the difficulty of making judgments that affect people's lives for ever. Over the more than two decades during which I have been an MP, my advice 'surgery' has seen a steady stream of constituents making heartfelt but contradictory demands on the issue.
Women complain that their children have been taken from them; neighbours allege child cruelty; mothers take issue about violent ex-partners; fathers claim they have been banned from seeing their children.
As shown by the case of Mark and Nicky Hardingham, reported in today's Mail on Sunday, the stakes could not be higher. To take a child from its mother and place it for adoption can save the life of that child. But a bad decision is no less an injustice than a wrongly imposed life sentence - both for mother and child.
Similarly, a father denied contact with a child suffers a terrible loss; yet in some cases failing to prevent a father's visit can put lives at risk.
Which is all the more reason why our family courts should command the confidence of the public and be seen to operate with fairness and compassion.
In this respect, the system is failing through its lack of openness.
Public confidence depends on public scrutiny. Something has to be seen to be believed and justice not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done.
People don't understand the complexity and importance of the work of the family courts - an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the fact that they sit in secret and make judgments behind closed doors.
PUBLIC confidence in any part of the legal system is necessary for its own sake but also to ensure people affected by court judgments accept them, and for the professions involved in the system to be respected.
I have concluded that it is now impossible to defend a system from accusations of bias and discrimination if it operates behind closed doors.
Even as Minister for Family Justice, I find the rules make it hard for me to establish what is going on.
It is my job to reassure Parliament that the family court system is working properly. But how can I know? I can't read newspaper reports of cases; I can't just go and sit at the back of the court, as I can - and do - in magistrates' courts. And how can MPs hold me to account for a system they cannot see?
Parliamentary accountability for the family courts is wholly theoretical while the system remains closed. How can the influential Constitutional Affairs Select Committee conduct investigations into its workings?
And when we debate family law in Parliament, neither MPs nor Ministers can really know what we are talking about. We have to legislate in the dark.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Court Administration can't go in to the family courts unless the court lets them; yet even the Prison Inspectorate has the right to enter prisons to inspect without giving notice. In that respect our family courts are more secret than our prisons. …