The secrecy of the family courts - in which nearly 95,000 cases are heard in private each year - is to end under reforms announced yesterday that will allow the media access to all levels of the system. The move could mean that social workers and expert witnesses who fail children, and now enjoy the protection of anonymity, will in future be named publicly when criticised by judges. Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, said that from April the media would be permitted access to all family cases in all courts - from celebrity divorces to hearings over domestic violence or children being removed from families. "A really important veil is being lifted on what happens in these courts," he said.
Crucially, media reporting of the cases will be subject to tight restrictions to protect the welfare and privacy of the children and families involved. The people involved in such cases will also be able to apply to a judge to have the media excluded. Mr Straw indicated that judges were not expected to grant such requests often and, when they did, the cases would be closely monitored. "If it is not working, we will actively consider changes or primary legislation."
The moves follow a campaign by The Times, begun this year, to reform the family justice system and open up the courts amid accusations that they are operating under a "conspiracy of silence".
Mr Straw said yesterday: "My view is that public confidence depends crucially on the system being as open as possible - so the case for restrictions has to be a very strong one." As for the anonymity given to professionals such as social workers and expert witnesses, he indicated that his view, although the change is not finalised, was that this should be removed. Professional experts such as structural engineers whose competence is questioned - perhaps because someone has been injured - have no anonymity protection. "I see no reason why other professionals should be immune from public examination unless there are overwhelming arguments in an individual case," Mr Straw said.
He said that the long-awaited measures, which have been more than two years in consultation and revision, struck a balance between openness and the need to protect the privacy of children and vulnerable adults. Ministers would also consider how adoption proceedings could be opened up. The change is partly in response to pressure from the media and fathers' groups to open the family courts so that justice can be seen to be done.
Britain's most senior family judge, Sir Mark Potter, the President of the Family Division of the High Court, welcomed the announcement but said that judicial discretion to exclude the media should be used where necessary. "I have for some time made clear the support of the senior judiciary for media access to the family courts in the interests of transparency and public confidence in the family justice system," he said. But he criticised Mr Straw's proposal to review the question of whether privacy should remain the rule for adoption proceedings. He said that the judiciary was united in opposing that.
The Family Justice Council, a forum of lawyers and other users of the family courts, condemned the change and said that it was "disappointed to learn that the Government is planning to allow the media into family courts as of right. In doing so, they have disregarded the views of children, young people and the organisations which protect, support and represent them." At present the media is allowed access only to the Court of Appeal and magistrates' family proceedings courts.
In the dark
- A couple whose baby daughter was placed in foster care this year were refused information by the authorities on the ground of confidentiality. Tim Yeo, the couple's MP in Suffolk South, said that his efforts to help the couple had been thwarted by a system that "prevents natural justice"
- Matthew, a professional in his fifties, was fighting a custody case for several months before he became aware of damaging allegations against him on his court file. A supporter of his former partner had written to the judge, making spurious claims, including one that said Matthew was not to be trusted with his children. Matthew only became aware of the allegations when he requested other correspondence from his file
- A month before Curtis, 17, was born, his sister was placed in foster care and then adopted, after social services expressed concern about a bruise on the child. He was only reunited recently with his sister after she tracked down her family. He found that social services had also tried to place him in foster care despite no evidence against his mother
Below is another example of the horrors that Left-trained British social workers inflict on innocent families
They put the Christmas decorations up a couple of days ago but no one in the Smith family feels much like celebrating. Despite the tinsel over their sons' photographs, there are no excited children racing around the flat. Instead, Patrick, 6, and Donald, 2 - not their real names - will spend the holiday in foster care.
It started two years ago with a nosebleed. Robert Smith wiped his stepson Patrick's nose and took him to school. A teacher spotted some dried blood, and asked Patrick what had happened. "Robert," he said, and made a wiping motion. She went to social services, who called the police. That afternoon Mr Smith was arrested for assault and had to move out of the flat. "We thought, it will all get sorted and go away. We knew we'd done nothing wrong," he said. A criminal court threw out the charges after the prosecution admitted that it had no evidence. But social services would not let Mr Smith move back home. Stacks of legal paper under the Christmas tree chronicle the Smiths' struggle in the family courts, where the case is still being heard.
Because reporters have been unable to cover such proceedings, their story would have remained untold had Mr Smith's parents not read about The Times's campaign and contacted the paper. Even so, The Times is unable to report details of the case against them.
For several months, Mr Smith could see Donald only twice a week under supervision. Social services did provide some help, and last spring the Smiths were reunited in an assessment centre. They thought everything was going well. But after eight weeks the children were taken into foster care because the parents showed "inconsistent emotional warmth". The Smiths now see their sons for three supervised hour-long visits a week. The worst days are the ones in between. "You want to press fast forward on the world for the day," Mr Smith said.
His parents have submitted a complaint about the way that social services have handled the proceedings. They also welcome greater transparency in the system: "If we were all allowed to put this in the paper from day one, social services could look more closely at what was going on in each case."
For their family, time is running out. A preadoption hearing will take place in the spring. A tea towel pinned up on the kitchen wall spells out an encouraging "Don't Quit". The Smiths find it increasingly hard, however. "Life has been on hold for the last two years. The tape is paused," Mr Smith said. They hope that Mr Straw's proposals will wind it on enough for them: "This is a step in the right direction, certainly. But everything starts slow. It always has to."
NHS Cancer patient given less than two months to live is told she must wait 25 days for drugs
A cancer patient given less than two months to live has been refused a life-prolonging drug until an NHS trust finishes a month-long investigation. Margaret Jones hopes to be treated with Revlimid for myeloma, an incurable cancer of the bone marrow. Her consultant says the drug, which costs around 4,300 pounds for each cycle, could extend the 72-year-old's life without debilitating side effects. But bosses at her primary care trust ruled they would not pay for Revlimid because it was not 'cost effective', even though other PCTs prescribe it for myeloma sufferers.
Mother-of-three Mrs Jones - backed by her family, MP, doctor and cancer charities - appealed on the grounds that another patient living nearby successfully overturned the trust's decision to block the same drug treatment in September. But on December 5 Anne Walker, chief executive of East and North Hertfordshire PCT, said her case was still being investigated and said a response would be sent 'within 25 working days' - about half of Mrs Jones's life expectancy.
The case reignites the controversy over the 'postcode lottery' for NHS care and the time taken by the Government's rationing body to approve new cancer drugs. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) ruled last month that it would deny Revlimid to patients with myeloma despite admitting that it could extend life by up to three years.
Mrs Jones, of Welwyn, Hertfordshire, was diagnosed with myeloma just before Easter 2006. She had been using the controversial drug thalidomide to fight the cancer but recently began to suffer damaging side-effects, including loss of feeling in her hands and feet, and excruciating pain elsewhere in her body. Following advice from her consultant-haematologist at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Welwyn Garden City, backed by the charity Myeloma UK, she applied to the trust to use Revlimid - but was declined.
Yesterday she said: 'It seems wrong that there is a drug that can help people and yet the authorities put it beyond the reach of them. It is like being in a cage and somebody putting a piece of bread just out of reach. It is cruel.' Her son Jon Jones, 37, said: 'The concerning aspect of this case is that decisions on whether to provide a treatment are being made on the basis of total cost and do not consider the clinical effectiveness of those therapies. 'Elsewhere in the country, Revlimid is being provided. The PCT making this particular decision is located in one of the wealthiest counties in the country. The issue of a postcode lottery for health care is not going away and is still a heart-breaking issue for many people and their families.'
The 37-year-old former RAF pilot, who lives in Wiltshire, added that the PCT's decision to spend up to 25 days investigating his mother's appeal was 'upsetting'. He said: 'If you have got someone who has got a matter of weeks to live then 25 days is too long. It should become a matter of urgency. 'I am not saying that those responsible at the trust are off playing golf. I accept they are busy people. But when a decision needs making very quickly, they need to act quickly.'
Mrs Jones's Tory MP, Grant Shapps, said: 'The PCT should be utterly ashamed of itself. They have a woman's life in their hands and they should overturn their original decision immediately.'
British Christmas concert cancelled over fears audience member might 'fall over in the dark'
A night-time Christmas concert in a rural church has been scrapped in case one of the congregation fell in the dark and sued. The 16-strong Collegium Vocale choir has spent weeks practising Handel's Messiah for the festive performance at tiny St Stephen Church. But organisers have cancelled the event claiming the quaint countryside church could be 'dangerous' on a winter's night.
Although the 100-year-old building has electric lighting they feared that in the event of a power cut a member of the audience could come a cropper in the darkness. Choirmaster Ian Davis carried out a risk assessment of the venue and also found there was an unlit tree-lined avenue leading up to it which also presented a concern. Mr Davis, 43, feared his voluntary choir could have faced legal action due to the 'absurd' health and safety laws and so decided to pull the concert.
He said: 'The law states that a dark church is dangerous if it does not have relevant health and safety procedures in place. 'The church is only small and is right in the middle of the countryside so could, according to the law, lead to slipping and tripping in the dark. 'If there was to be an incident and the lights went out, someone could fall over and hurt themselves. The walk up to the building is in darkness at night and the law states that we need lighting outside in case there are potholes and rocks.
'I understand why the law is in place but it does highlight the absurdity of how far it has gone - I am sure we are not alone. Clearly for an amateur performance you can't take the risk of it coming back on us or the vicar if someone does injure themselves. 'Luckily I had been to do a risk assessment before we started selling the tickets so nobody has been left out of pocket by it.'
St Stephen Church is located in the grounds of the Kingston Lacy Estate near Wimborne, Dorset. The historic building was constructed in 1906 at the top of a long tree-lined avenue and can seat up to 120 people. The vicar, Reverend Dr Alistair Stewart-Sykes, has liability insurance in the event of an accident but the policy does not cover paid-for events, like the concert. In order to be protected, either Rev Stewart-Sykes or Mr Davis would have to take out another costly policy or install emergency lighting inside and out.
Mr Davis said: 'The church itself does have electric lighting but it does not have emergency lighting which is also required. 'There is no way we can provide the funding to put things like emergency lighting in place so we have had to cancel the performance. 'Following a consultation with the vicar we together decided that it was just not worth it.' Mr Davis said his choir, which has performed in Westminster Abbey and Chichester Cathedral in the past, was now planning an Easter and summer concert at the church.
Rev Dr Stewart-Sykes said: 'We regret having to cancel the concert but we must be mindful of the requirements needed to conform with the law. 'I have liability insurance for services but we believe it only covers volunteers so may not apply to a paying concert. Rather than take a risk, we have regretfully decided that the best option is to cancel. 'I do however intend to explore other options with regards to insurance so we can present a full programme of concerts and performances in the future.'
The O word: The word 'obese' is banned in Britain
"Ministers banned the word 'obese' on letters to the parents of fat children - because focus groups did not like it, England's chief medical officer said today. Professor Liam Donaldson revealed that the term was replaced on letters to parents by 'very overweight' over fears it would upset and stigmatise fat children. Writing on the BBC News website he said obesity had become a taboo word or an 'O word'.
The Department of Health announced in August that for the first time parents would be routinely informed if their child was clinically overweight. Children are weighed on entering primary school (at age four or five) and in their final year (aged 10 or 11) as part of the National Child Measurement Programme.
Letters are then sent out to make parents aware of potential problems with their child's weight so they go and see their doctor about it if needed. But Professor Donaldson said that in the planning stage, a 'stumbling block' was the wording of the feedback letter. 'The majority of these parents felt that using the term "very overweight" in combination with the associated health risks was a better approach. Suddenly, we had stepped on eggshells.' He added: 'Obesity has become the new cancer. A word that is taboo, that intimidates, strikes fear, that promoted softer euphemisms. In effect it has become an "O" word.
At the time, the National Obesity Forum described the Government's decision not to use the word obese as 'prissy and namby pamby'.
The word is deliberately used by fat-warriors in a derogatory way. Strictly, it refers only to grossly overweight people but has come to be used to refer to any degree of being overweight. So we now have the amusing situation where people will hear all these furious condemnations of obesity in the media but then will all be told that it does not apply to their kid -- a very confused and confusing message. One arm of officialdom is being defeated by another arm of officialdom!
Obesity is determined 'by the time a child is five'
So the tots are now in line for harassment. The results are ENTIRELY in line with genetically-determined overeating. That the kids were the same as earlier at birth means nothing. They had not by the time of birth had any influence on their nutritional intake
Child obesity is determined before the age of five, ministers were told yesterday. Scientists found that the majority of weight gain in children happens before they have started school, raising doubts over Government policies which target fatter children only when they start primary education. They urged ministers to launch more pre-school obesity initiatives. A quarter of children aged four and five in England are overweight, and around 10 per cent are classified as obese - so fat that their health is in danger.
Experts blame diets rich in fat, salt, sugar and processed foods, and say that bad dietary examples set by their parents could also be to blame. The findings, published in the journal Paediatrics, came from the EarlyBird study of 233 children from birth to puberty which were presented to ministers today. At birth, children in the study were the same weight as children born 25 years ago, the study found.
But by puberty they had gained more fat compared to children of the same age in the 1980s. Most of the excess weight gain was put on before the age of five, they found. Although the weight of a five-year-old bore no relation to his or her weight at birth, it closely predicted the weight the child would be at nine, indicating that the child's path to obesity began before school age but was not connected with birth weight. They found that before a girl gets to school, she will have gained 90 per cent of the excess weight she will have at puberty. Boys will have piled on an extra 70 per cent.
Lead researcher Professor Terry Wilkin, of Plymouth's Peninsula Medical School, said: 'When they reach five, the die seems to be cast, at least until the age of puberty.' He said he believed a poor diet probably had more effect than lack of physical exercise. 'It is entirely possible that the calorie density of food and portion sizes could be higher,' he said.
Professor Wilkin criticised Government policy which focuses on school age children, with initiatives to make school meals healthier and get children to play fewer computer games. Professor Liam Donaldson, England's chief medical officer, said soaring rates of obesity amounted to an 'impending crisis'. He told the BBC: 'It is never too late. Obesity is one of the few serious medical problems that can be reversed very, very quickly.'
The Department of Health said: 'We have made obesity prevention, nutrition and physical activity a priority in the updated Child Health Promotion Programme. 'In addition, the Healthy Start scheme provides vouchers to put towards the cost of milk, fresh fruit and vegetables or infant formula to around half a million pregnant women and children under four in low income and disadvantaged families.'