From William Cash, MP for Stone
In the light of the representations I have made on your behalf I have now received the attached letter from Bridget Prentice MP who has sought personally to address the issues I raised.
I hope that the Justice Minister has gone some way to addressing the serious issues which you raised and I would ask you to read the letter carefully.
Please do not hesitate to contact me again on any issue where I might be of assistance.
Reply from Bridget Prentice 8th August 2007
Thank you for your letter of 30 May to Lord Falconer on behalf of your constituent (Zoompad), about expert evidence and transparency of the family courts. I am replying as the minister now responsible for family justice issues. I am sorry for the delay in this response coming but hope that you and (Zoompad) will find the information provided helpful.
I am not sure what (Zoompad) is referring to when she writes in her letter about the family courts using the Pennysylvanian psychologists Ralph Underwager and Richard Gardner. In all cases where an expert is instructed to provide evidence, their role is to provide an opinion entirely independent to those who are a party to the proceedings. Experts must confine their opinion to matters that are material to the issues in the case; and that relate to questions within their own area of expertise. When making any decisions in family cases, courts must take into account the overriding duty to treat the welfare of the child as paramount. The Judge makes his or her decision after hearing and considering all the evidence put before the court by the parties and any other witnesses, including experts.
The Government is committed to ensuring the evidence provided by experts is of the highest quality research and represents the current state of knowledge about the issue in question. In October 2006, the Chief Medical Officer published the report, “Bearing Good Witness: Proposals for reforming the delivery of expert medical evidence in family law cases”. The report reviewed the use of medical expert witnesses within the family courts and made proposals to secure a sustainable supply of competent, quality –assured medical expert witnesses in the future. A summery of responses to the proposals is available on the Department of Health website at ; www.dh.gov.uk/consultations/fs/en, which may be of interest to your constituent.
(Zoompad) also had concerns about secrecy in the family courts. The Government published a consultation paper titled “Confidence and confidentiality: Improving transparency and privacy in family courts” on 11 July 2006 which put forward a number of proposals with the aim of improving public confidence in the family courts, and safeguarding the privacy of those involved in proceedings. In addition to the 245 formal responses from individuals and organisations, a series of events were arranged that gave people the opportunity to debate the proposals, including an on-line forum for children. An overview of the consultation responses was published on 22 March of this year, together with a Young people’s guide to responses.
The Government published a further consultation paper on 20 June 2007, which can be downloaded from http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/cp1007.htm or obtained from my department. The consultation closes on 1 October 2007. The paper has two purposes. Firstly, it announces proposals which will be taken forward as a result of the 2006 consultation. Secondly, it will consult on some limited further proposals. The proposals aim to promote a culture of openness in the family courts, while promoting he best interests of children. The Government plans:
To pilot the provision of better information by providing more information in certain cases about how the court has reached its decision for the people involved in proceedings and for those who were subject to proceedings as children;
To publish an anonymised transcript or an anonymised decision summery (for example where a child is perminantly removed from one or both parents);
To clarify the rules on who can attend family courts, and what reporting restrictions apply; and
To develop an online information hub to provide general information on the different tiers of family court, what happens in each, on what basis the judiciary reaches decisions, and what to expect if you are going to be involved in proceedings.
The paper makes further proposals:
To allow wider disclosure of information by parties involved in family court proceedings involving children, and which are heard in private; and
To protect the identity of the children beyond the end of proceedings.
Finally, in response to (Zoompad’s) comments on family court costs, we spend about £225m a year on running the family courts in England and Wales. A large proportion of this cost is recovered in court fees payable by applicants.
The calculation of fees for family proceedings is based on taking account of the cost of all the resources needed to run the system. This includes the salaries of relevant judiciary and court staff, general administrative costs including the cost of supporting Information Technology systems, accommodation and an appropriate share of other overheads.
The part of the cost not covered by fees is met by the general taxpayer as part of the resource budget of the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry’s overarching concern is to ensure access to justice and a system of fee concessions provides an effective means of achieving this for less well-off citizens. In the previous financial year, the taxpayer, in effect paid subsidies in family proceedings of nearly £22 million.
I hope this clarifies the situation for (Zoompad) and I enclose a copy of this letter for you to send to her if you wish to.