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FAMILY JUSTICE SYSTEM DEBATED

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Government must provide practical support not lecture...
Government must provide practical support not lecture

'The task of government is not to lecture about the nature of marriage, but to give practical support.'

That is the message of a speech to be delivered today by family justice minister Harriet Harman to a meeting of representatives from the voluntary sector organised by the National Family and Parenting Institute.

Ms Harman says:

'Government cannot make men and women happy together in their relationships. But what government can do is to:

* Help those in marriage difficulties who want to stay married succeed in doing so.

* Ensure when a relationship has broken down that the family justice system tries to help it be as amicable as possible.

* Ensure a fair division of the family assets - not just for the sake of fairness but also to protect children from poverty.

* Protect children.

* Protect women who are vulnerable to violence which is most prevalent around separation and divorce.

'We now invest£14m a year in family mediation and the number of couples receiving publicly funded mediation has gone up from 400 in 1997 to 14,000. The family justice system now has as one of its objectives not just judging between warring parents, but also encouraging separating parents to work out the finances and the arrangements for the children amicably. Mediation helps - even if it cannot help a relationship survive it can smooth the path for a less acrimonious break-up. And our evaluation shows that 61% of the total number of family mediations were successful - and by that we mean that people came to an agreed solution rather than needing to go to court.'

It is estimated that more than one million people every year now find themselves in the family courts. The family courts make decisions of great importance in people's lives that affect them forever:

* Ordering and enforcing contact between a child and its father can sustain that important bond a child needs with both parents.

* Taking a child into care can save a child's life.

* Ordering a husband out of the family home can save a woman's life.

The NFPI meeting is part of the consultation process on government proposals to make the family court system more open and accountable to the public. The plans would see the family court system opened to the media so that they can report on proceedings to the public and also includes new safeguards to ensure the anonymity and privacy of individuals. Most family court proceedings are currently held in private and the decisions taken generally not made public. This has led to a perception that the courts operate in secret, resulting in a loss of public confidence and trust in the family courts.

Ms Harman will also encourage people to take part in the consultation process and underline the importance of opening up the family courts:

'Public confidence depends on public scrutiny. Justice not only has to be done but be seen to be done, including in the family courts.

And the public are reluctant to see resources go to what they can't see and don't trust. Greater openness will mean a greater understanding of the work of the family justice system. While privacy is necessary to protect families seeking justice - it is not necessary to protect the courts. The courts have nothing to hide.'

Notes for Editors

1. Harriet Harman was speaking at the Openness of Family Courts meeting organised by the National Family and Parenting Institute

(NFPI) as part of stakeholder consultation regarding openness of family courts.

2. A full copy of the speech will be published on the DCA website after delivery on 5 October at: www.dca.gov.uk/speeches/ministers.htm

3. The DCA consultation paper, 'Confidence and Confidentiality:

Improving Transparency and Privacy in Family Courts' which is available from the DCA website at:

www.dca.gov.uk/consult/courttransparencey1106/cp1106.htm The consultation process ends on 30 October 2006.

4. As part of the consultation, the DCA is running an on-line discussion forum at www.familycourtsforum.net until the end of the consultation process on 30 October. An additional online forum especially for young people runs until 9 October 2006 at www.ofcf.net

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