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Reforms could further openness in children's cases

The government has announced further reforms to allow more open reporting of the family courts – a move which, if fulfilled, will be a boost for open justice and a credit to the government.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw last week confirmed provisions in the Improving Schools and Safeguarding Children Bill would be used to implement statutory changes allowing the substance of children’s cases to be reported in greater detail.

At present, although reporters may gain access to such hearings under initial reforms in force since April this year, Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 prohibits any reporting of what actually goes on in court unless the judge gives special permission.

This automatic statutory gag left many people sceptical about the potency of the initial reforms on family court access earlier this year.

But effective reform of Section 12 of the Act would win Jack Straw plaudits from those in favour of transparent justice, particularly since there has been opposition from parts of the legal profession and expert witnesses accustomed to the cloistered privacy of the old system.

The government also deserves credit for its plans to abolish the offences of seditious libel and criminal libel.

Justice Minister Lord Bach said last week that these laws were “arcane and outdated” and were an embarrassment in that various foreign states used their inclusion in English law to justify their own repressive restrictions on freedom of expression.

Seditious libel consists of inciting hatred or contempt of state institutions via publication in writing or other permanent form.

Criminal libel involves defamatory material in writing or other permanent form that is calculated to cause serious damage to a person’s reputation or is likely to lead to a breach of the peace.

Abolition will be effected using provisions to be included in the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Many believe there is equal urgency for reform of other aspects of English libel law which have helped make London the libel capital of the world for claimants looking for an easy win. But as yet there is little sign of reform that would make our libel law more defendant-friendly, or thaw its chilling effect on press freedom.

Two recent cases illustrate some of the arcane intricacies that can work against the press and increase costs.

The British Chiropractic Association is suing science writer Simon Singh over an article published in The Guardian.

In a piece on chiropractic’s approach to ailments such as children’s colic, ear infections and asthma, Singh claimed there was “not a jot of evidence” for certain claims made by the BCA and that the BCA “happily promotes bogus treatments”.

His article in the paper’s Comment section ventured into the debate about the efficacy and evidence-base of ‘alternative’ treatments.

However, Singh found himself snagged by a ruling of Mr Justice Eady, who decided the words were assertions of fact that would have to be proved true, not mere comment that might be defensible as Fair Comment.

The author has reportedly already spent £100,000 trying to defend the libel claim.

Last month, the same top libel judge felt it necessary under English libel law to throw out The People’s challenge to a libel claim issued by footballer Glen Johnson.

Johnson claimed the paper’s article about his alleged career plans bore two particular untrue defamatory meanings: first, that he had lied about an injury, and second, an innuendo meaning that he had breached Premier League Rules on unauthorised approaches to a new football club while under contract.

The judge said a libel jury might ultimately conclude the first alleged meaning was “far-fetched”.

And as to the second alleged meaning, he said the number of readers who actually had the requisite inside knowledge to be able to appreciate the alleged innuendo about breaching Premier League Rules was “likely to be very small indeed” and any damage to Johnson’s reputation was likely to have been only “fleeting”.

But despite expressing such reservations, applying case law he ruled that the claim was unflawed and should be allowed to proceed.

From the media’s perspective, the Government would perhaps deserve more credit if its reformist zeal in family and criminal matters also found its way into some of the arcane, cost-inducing intricacies of English libel law.

  • Solicitor Nigel Hanson is a member of Foot Anstey’s media team.
    To contact Nigel telephone 0800 0731 411 or e-mail nigel.hanson@footanstey.com or visit www.footanstey.com.