Reporting in the Family Courts – a change on the horizon
The President of the family division reported in 2021 on the issues concerning transparency in family proceedings. He said:
“My overall conclusion is that the time has come for accredited media representatives and legal bloggers to be able , not only to attend and observe family court hearings , but also to report publicly on what they see and hear. Reporting must be subject to very clear rules to maintain both the anonymity of the children and family members who are before the court, and confidentiality with respect of intimate details of their private lives. Openness and confidentiality are not irreconcilable, and each is achievable. The aim is to enhance public confidence significantly, whilst at the same time firmly protecting continued confidentiality.” Rt Hon Sir Andrew McFarlane.
The full report can be found here: Microsoft Word – The Reporting Pilot – Guidance.docx (judiciary.uk)
Most people will be aware that criminal courts are open to the public. Criminal cases are often reported on. Family Courts are different. These proceedings are private and confidential. As a result those using the family court may feel less aware of what to expect.
The usual cases that get reported are typically ones that reach the higher courts. This means that the everyday judgements are not open to public scrutiny, therefore patterns of decisions and perceived biases cannot be seen and the risk of a miscarriage of justice increases.
Over time the hope is this will change. With enough reporting of everyday decisions the expectations of the court will be better understood and both the judges, and the courts will be held accountable for the procedural issues. Criticisms of the lack of transparency and accountability of the system are both long-term concerns of the existing system. As a result there are major changes planned for UK family court proceedings. These changes are being piloted in the Transparency Pilot.
The need for greater transparency
Until now, journalists, bloggers and reporters have not been allowed in family proceedings (with some rare exceptions and the judge’s permission) and the information shared within family court cases is private. You could even go to prison, or be fined, for sharing information about proceedings, even your own case.
For years, it’s been debated whether there should be more transparency in the family courts. The idea is that there is a need to boost public trust in the family court, however this needs to be balanced by the need to maintain confidentiality and privacy for those who use the family court to resolve family disputes.
What is the Transparency Pilot?
The Transparency Pilot is UK government-initiated scheme launched in Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle on 30th January 2023. It aims to allow ‘pilot reporters’, including accredited journalists and legal bloggers, to report on cases heard in the family court, subject to strict rules of anonymity.
Reporters’ access is being tested to ensure that it can be done safely and with minimal disruption to those involved in the cases and the courts.
Under the new rules, a judge will set out what can and cannot be reported by making a “transparency order” which allows for the following:
- Journalists, reporters and bloggers can come into family court hearings, watch the hearing and then report what happens;
- Journalists, reporters and bloggers can look at certain documents from the case;
- You can talk to journalists, reporters and bloggers about your own case;
The cases will still be anonymised. No one is allowed to name or take photos of the mums, dads, husbands and wives or their children. Although it may be possible for you to recognise your case based on specific details (particularly in the local press) crucially, the aim is to make sure that others cannot identify your case by any of the facts reported.
Who can attend and what can they see?
The only people allowed access to report on your case are journalists with a UK Press Card, or a lawyer who is not involved in the case but is authorised to attend hearings just like a journalist (also called a legal blogger).
This prevents any member of the public or person with an interest in your case coming to your hearings under the guise of being a journalist.
The journalists can only see the basic case documents, which explain what the case is about and what the parties’ positions are – if they want to see anything else, such as a report from a social worker or a report into your pension then they must ask the judge for specific permission.
Can parties object?
For the time being this trial is taking place in just three courts and the judge will decide in each case whether it is a suitable case for journalist access to be allowed.
If the judge decides that it is, but you would like it to remain private, you can request that the transparency order be changed.
The judge will balance the things that you are worried about against the overall aim of the pilot and then decide whether the reporting can continue.
Keelys Solicitors are keen to help our clients navigate the family court system with as little strain as possible. If you require advice or assistance about your family law issues please contact us at email@example.com or telephone 01543420000.