Members of our family team, Samantha Jago, Lauren Moir were recently fortunate enough to attend the 1KBW 360 Family Law Conference, where workshops were provided by some of 1KBW’s specialist barristers on hot topics in Family law. The day began with a panel discussion with various Kings Counsel along with Catherine Baksi, a Legal Affairs Journalist, where the contentious subject of transparency in family law proceedings (i.e. journalists attending family court hearings) was discussed in some detail. Since the start of 2023, a pilot has been in place for this in Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle courts. The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, recently published a view https://www.judiciary.uk/guidance-and-resources/a-view-from-the-presidents-chambers-july-2023/
in July 2023 which states as follows:-
“The Transparency Implementation Pilots have now been running at Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle for public law proceedings since January 2023 and for private law cases since May. The aim is to extend to the Magistrates in October. Readers of this View are likely to be aware of some accounts of court hearings, in both public and private cases, that have appeared in local and national media in the period following the two launch dates. Those reports, together with accounts from the three pilot courts, indicate that the strict ground rules for confidentiality that are established within the pilot are being followed. However, to maximise the learning from the pilot there is a need for more cases to be covered and that is being hampered by the opacity of the current lists. A journalist’s time is a precious resource (both for the individual and their employers) and journalists are understandably unwilling to attend at a Family Court regularly, or in any number, simply on the chance of observing a reportable case. At present, the daily court lists do not indicate more than the case number and that it is a Family case; no information is given about the nature or substance of the hearing. We are striving to achieve a system which does give journalists more information about the nature of listed hearings. The pilot team is working closely with HMCTS to bring forward a solution to this problem.
Two further elements in the implementation of the Transparency Review will be the publication of the first Annual Report of the Family Court for England and Wales which is now due to be in October and the publication (in April) of the working group ably led by HHJ Stuart Farquhar on ‘Transparency in the Financial Remedy Court’. Their comprehensive report recommends that reporters (i.e. the media and accredited legal bloggers) should, as the default position, be permitted to report the contents of financial remedy proceedings, provided that the anonymity and confidentiality of the parties, and their main financial instruments, is maintained. I welcome the report which has been well received. Its conclusions will be considered by the national leadership of the Financial Remedies Court and the wider Transparency Implementation Group, to determine the way forward. I anticipate that consideration will be given to a pilot scheme, similar to that currently in operation for children cases
We shall eagerly await the first Annual Report which is due in October.
As solicitors who act for clients who find themselves in vulnerable scenarios and often in heart-breaking circumstances, Samantha and Lauren felt immediately protective of their clients when the topic of the press’ ability to attend hearings and report on, what would usually be private family law proceedings. Those in favour of transparency voiced a view that the Family Court is a publicly funded system and therefore the public have a right to transparency and for the press to sit in and report on cases. However, there was concern expressed that journalists might be more interested in the salacious nature of cases rather than journalists exposing the overstretched court system, leading to more publicity of this issue.
This may be a slightly old-fashioned view, however Samantha and Lauren both voiced a belief that privacy is integral to family proceedings, to protect the individuals’ right to justice. If the press is often present in family hearings, it is suspected that court proceedings may be entirely avoided by some parties who will be concerned about their private life being exposed to the public. This may lead to the opposing party using this knowledge to their advantage and forcing a settlement that may be more favourable to them and simply unfair to the party who wishes to protect their private information. This seems inherently unjust. Further, when domestic abuse is a feature of a case it is stressful enough for a victim to attend court without the added pressure of a journalist being present. Surely it should be the position that both parties to the hearing, and the Judge/Magistrates, should all consent to a journalist being present if they ask to sit in on a case.
If journalists are able to provide measured reporting, that does not just focus on gossip or reporting on the super-rich, then perhaps the presence of journalists might help to galvanise much needed change to our court system. However, given the apparent hunger of a UK audience for celebrity gossip and sensational stories, we have little confidence that this will be the outcome of journalists attending family court hearings.