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13.03.24

Transparency in the Family Courts: pilot scheme extended

In October 2022 we discussed the move towards transparency in the Family Courts.  In this article, we consider recent developments and specifically the Family Court Reporting Pilot.

Background

Traditionally, hearings held in the Family Courts were conducted behind closed doors. In January 2023 the Pilot was launched in Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle in order to allow journalists to attend certain hearings, provided that the families’ privacy is upheld through anonymising their identities.  There are strict guidelines in place for the media that regulate the reporting of these hearings.

The pilot has therefore so far proved successful in allowing access to previously inaccessible information to the public. On 29 January 2024 it was extended to the following courts:

  • North West: Liverpool, Manchester
  • North East: West Yorkshire, Kingston-upon-Hull
  • Midlands: Nottingham, Stoke, Derby, Birmingham
  • London: Central Family Court, East London, West London
  • South West: Dorset, Truro
  • South East: Luton, Guildford, Milton Keynes

The President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane has said, “extending the reporting pilot to family courts across the country is a huge step in the judiciary’s ongoing work to increase transparency and improve public confidence and understanding of the family justice system. After a pioneering year of reporting from Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle journalists and legal bloggers will be allowed to report from a further sixteen courts.”

The benefits of transparency

There are strong reasons in favour of transparency in the Family Courts:-

  • The public can gain an understanding of issues that may have previously been misunderstood. Complexities and misconceptions around divorce can be clarified.
  • The factors considered by judges when making decisions become public knowledge. This should lead to greater consistency in decision-making.  Legal ‘certainty’ (or something approaching it) can help individuals in a similar position to make informed choices.
  • Greater accountability within the legal system.
  • A reduction in abusive or unreasonable behaviour by litigants.

The risks and issues around transparency

  • Family law proceedings often involved highly sensitive information about the parties’ private lives. Proceedings are already extremely stressful and some parties may find it overwhelming to have the additional worry of press coverage or even just a stranger listening in their personal matters.  Whilst parties are anonymised, in theory some may be identifiable by ‘jigsaw identification’ and/or they could be outed by a mischief actor on social media (although this may amount to a serious contempt of court).
  • Vulnerable parties, in particular, may be uncomfortable with a public hearing and feel the pressure to settle more quickly. They may find themselves agreeing to proposals which are not entirely favourable to them.
  • As with all subject matters, the media are not always accurate in reporting their stories and the risk is that someone may be portrayed in an unfair and distorted manner. Even if anonymity is preserved this can be distressing.

On this topic Sir Andrew added, “We hope than in extending the pilot further we can continue to understand the impact that family court reporting has. I would like to urge the media to read the guidance and come to the family courts to see the vital and challenging work that is done there, and to report on the cases and issues that are so important.”

Conclusion

The Family law Courts have struggled in recent years with backlogs and delays.  It is hoped that greater transparency may help restore their reputation.  A greater understanding of the process and how judges reach decisions may also encourage parties to avoid litigation and, instead, negotiate a fair settlement.  This will save parties time, money and stress, as well as alleviate pressure on the court system.

 

For advice from our specialist family law solicitors send us an emailcomplete our online enquiry form or call us on 020 3773 2464.


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Legal Disclaimer

Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.