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Plea to ease family courts restrictions

PUBLISHED: 09:44 08 June 2006 | UPDATED: 10:59 22 October 2010

STEVE DOWNES

The veil of secrecy could be lifted from sensitive child adoption cases in the wake of calls for the full story of a controversial Norfolk case to be told.

The veil of secrecy could be lifted from sensitive child adoption cases in the wake of calls for the full story of a controversial Norfolk case to be told.

Ministers have signalled the doors of family courts could be thrown open to the press and public to meet concerns that justice must be seen to be done.

Norfolk's health and county council bosses - currently embroiled in the case of Nicky Hardingham and husband Mark, from Cromer - have written a joint letter to family justice minister Harriet Harman. In it, they urge her to ease restrictions which prevent public disclosure of court cases involving children and families.

They claim they have been unable to give a "meaningful reply" to allegations that the Hardinghams' three children were wrongly taken from their parents and adopted.

And Ms Harman, who is currently considering reform of family courts, gave a strong indication that their wishes would be granted.

She said: "It is now impossible to defend a system from accusations of bias and discrimination if it operates behind closed doors.

"Only when we open the family courts, and the press can write about them, shall we be confident that justice is being done in this most difficult area of law."

The issue has come to a head in the wake of the case of Nicky Hardingham and husband Mark, from Cromer, who had three of their children removed after one had unexplained fractures.

The couple are currently in a hospital in Ireland - having fled their home for the birth of their fourth child, Brandon, amid fears he would also be forcibly adopted.

Last night social services officials from Norfolk and Ireland were in discussions about what should happen to Brandon.

But officials are frustrated that disclosure laws have stopped them from putting their side of the story.

Lisa Christensen, director of children's services at Norfolk County Council, Paul Forden, chief executive of the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, and Stephen Taylor, chief executive of Norwich Primary Care Trust, have jointly written to Ms Harman.

The letter says they are "happy" with all the decisions taken in the case.

It goes on: "However doubts raised in recent weeks by Mrs Hardingham, via the media, about the evidence in this case cannot be responded to in any meaningful way because of the disclosure rules relating to family court proceedings.

"This has effectively led to trial by media where the agencies are precluded from outlining any of the evidence. We do not believe this serves the wider public interest."

The letter calls for the media to be allowed to report family court proceedings, with "appropriate legal safeguards" to protect children's identities.

Last night Mrs Christensen said: "We are not saying we want it all to become public, but we are concerned that the whole system, and the public's confidence in it, is being undermined."

Ms Harman responded by accepting that family courts were "more secret than prisons", and said the system was "failing through its lack of openness".

Her response follows growing pressure for reform of family courts, including the Fathers 4 Justice battle to give more child access to dads.

Mrs Hardingham's brother Wayne, who is planning to hand a petition to north Norfolk MP Norman Lamb on Monday in support of her situation, said the family "fully supported" any move to open up family courts.

He said: "We want everything to be out in the open. Nicky and Mark have nothing to hide."

But solicitor Belinda Robison, from Story and Robison Solicitors, who is regularly involved in family court proceedings, disagreed with the move.

She said: "In many circumstances it might not be appropriate for the press to put extra pressure on families in already difficult situations simply by their presence."


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