Family Courts to Open to the Press
The procedural rules governing the family court mean that hearings are usually held in private, unless the court directs otherwise. Although accredited reporters have been allowed to attend family courts since 2009, reporting on hearings when a court is sitting in private would place them in contempt of court under section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960, which may result in a fine or imprisonment.
Greater openness in the family courts has been discussed for at least 30 years, however little progress has been made as the courts struggle to find the balance between “open justice” and the importance of safeguarding children and their privacy. Upon consultation, many were concerned about children learning their background through the media and news reporting, which has prevented any changes to the current system.
The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has recently released a report into Transparency in the Family Court following a high-profile review. A new consultation on Transparency in the Financial Remedies Court was also launched at the same time, which included a proposal for a standard reporting permission order for those financial remedy cases which are not children proceedings. The new proposals include:
- Family court judges must anonymise and publish at least 10% of their decisions.
- Compulsory data collection at the end of each case to assist understanding of decisions made and identification of patterns and problems.
- Court lists of cases to be heard are to be made more detailed and available in advance to journalists and bloggers.
- An annual report on the family court’s work, including data on case numbers, categories of proceedings and outcomes.
This shift to “open justice” has been said to be required to increase public trust in the family justice system. It will also assist family law practitioners when advising their clients, as more published judgements will improve knowledge and understanding of how the courts are approaching “mainstream cases”, not just the high profile/high value cases, those involving the serious issues or changing the law in some way.
The proposals made by the President of the Family Division will need the backing of Parliament to be implemented. However he has stated that he hopes to pilot these proposals in some courts in as little as six months, with recommendations implemented across the country in a year.
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