Journalists and bloggers are set to be allowed to report on family court proceedings for the first time under a new pilot scheme set to launch in January.
Historically, reporters have been able to enter the family courts and report on judgments, but the 12-month pilot – which is taking place in Leeds, Cardiff, and Carlisle – will allow them to report on “what they see and hear”.
All reporting will be subject to the principles of protection of the anonymity of any children involved unless the Judge orders otherwise.
President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane also said the Court “must ensure the rights of the family and parties to a fair trial under Article 6 ECHR and must balance the rights to a private and family life under Article 8 ECHR, and the rights of the press, public and parties under Article 10 ECHR (or any other relevant rights which may be engaged)”.
Reporters will be able to name local authorities, court-appointed experts, director of local children’s services, and lawyers involved.
They will not, however, be able to name individual social workers, medical professionals treating children, or any family member involved in a case.
The Court will retain the ability to make a Transparency Order and to direct that there should be no reporting of the case.
McFarlane previously said in 2021:
“The present system in the Family Court whereby a journalist may attend any hearing but may not always report what they observe, is not sustainable.
I have reached the conclusion that there needs to be a major shift in culture and process to increase the transparency in a number of respects.
The time has come for accredited media representatives to be able, not only to attend hearings, but to report publicly on what they see and hear. Any reporting must, however, be subject to very clear rules to maintain the anonymity of children and families, and to keep confidential intimate details of their private lives.”
The full pilot guidance is available here.
“Time will tell on whether the decision to allow journalists to report on family court proceedings is beneficial or not,” said Rachel Frost-Smith, Legal Director at Birketts, continuing:
“The default position of the courts has been that proceedings are confidential. Family law cases, both private and public, put family life in the spotlight, often divulging painful and difficult circumstances. In children proceedings it is not difficult to understand why this has been the position. The welfare of children must be the paramount consideration.”
Frost-Smith did, however, explain a key rationale for allowing reporting of certain details in some cases:
“Where parties consider that a decision has been made incorrectly, their hands are tied in their ability to publicise what they consider a miscarriage of justice. In addition, there have been campaigns from various interest groups, such as those campaigning on the role of fathers in children’s’ lives, to make the family court more transparent.”
The Birketts Legal Director said that the answer “would seem to lie in the middle ground”:
“It still remains of particular importance for children and victims of abuse to be afforded with the right protection and details anonymised. However, if the family court system and its processes are to be fit for purpose, greater access to reliable information is a no brainer.
Provided judges continue to protect those involved, this could be a real opportunity to highlight the hard work being carried out by the family court, and for changes to be made for the better.”