Press Reporting in Family Court Cases Expanded Again

 

Over the last year the team at FLiP has published several blogs about the increasing drive for transparency in the family courts. In my blog published on 11 May 2023 (found here) I set out some of the history behind the move towards greater openness in the family courts, both in case law, where FLiP have been involved in the leading cases, and the Transparency Project started by the current President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane. This blog deals with the latter aspect, and examines the recent guidance issued by the President that extends the Transparency pilot to several more courts including the Central Family Court in London.

Journalists have been able to attend family court hearings since 2009 but because the judiciary have historically prevented publication of what takes place in the family court, the press have largely been uninterested. But this is changing.

The Transparency Project to date

As I said in my previous blog, in 2019 the President appointed a panel to investigate greater transparency in the family courts, which reported in October 2021.

The President’s foreword to the report reads:

“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 President then moved forward with a pilot scheme that presently operates in Leeds, Carlisle and Cardiff.  It began in January 2023 for particular public law cases and on 15 May 2023, it was extended to private law hearings concerning children, i.e. disputes concerning child arrangements.  At the start of the pilot the President said:

“Following the publication of the Transparency Review in October 2021, and over a year of discussions with practitioners, journalists, legal bloggers and other stakeholders, accredited media representatives and legal bloggers in the pilot areas will 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.”

The President has recently announced that the pilot scheme will be extended to 16 more family court centres from 29 January 2024, meaning that almost half of all family courts will be included, including all of the London Family Courts.

The Financial Remedies Court sub-group report

Prior to commencement of the pilot scheme the President had established a sub-group to consider all issues of transparency as they impact upon the Financial Remedies Court (FRC).  This is the section of the family court that deals with financial claims on divorce and other similar claims.

In April 2023, the report of the sub-group was published. It made a number of recommendations, which include:

  1. All cause lists (that is the lists published online and at court of cases to be heard) should contain the names of the parties and identify that the subject matter of the hearing is financial remedies;
  2. In any case attended by a reporter, a Reporting Order should be made entitling the reporter to see the ES1 (case summary) and position statements of the parties, and setting out what reporting is permitted in the case, whilst preserving the anonymity of the parties, and the confidentiality of their most private details. The suggested 3 core principles are that a reporter should be permitted to publish information relating to the proceedings save for the following:
  • The names and addresses of the parties (including any intervenors) and their children and any photographs of them;
  • The identity of any school attended by a child of the family;
  • The identity of the employers, the name of the business or the place of work of any of the parties;
  • The address of any real property owned by the parties;
  • The identity of any account or investment held by the parties;
  • The identity of any private company or partnership in which any party has an interest;
  • The name and address of any witness or of any other person referred to in the hearing save for an expert witness.

The President has decided to move forward with a pilot scheme in which these recommendations will apply to the Family Courts in Birmingham, Leeds and Central London from 29 January, extending the scheme on 4 November 2024 to cases at High Court level.

Conclusion

Whether we like it or not, the drive for transparency has gained considerable momentum and is very likely to continue and widen in scope. Whether the anonymity provisions will protect individuals involved in family court proceedings and their children remains to be seen. Equally, it remains to be seen whether a press that is largely interested in printing salacious details of high profile cases will be interested in attending the family court if anonymity is preserved.

Of course, this only applies to cases that go before the family courts. At Family Law in Partnership we have pioneered many out of court dispute resolution models and have developed robust processes for parties wanting to protect their privacy whilst at the same time, securing the right result for their family. A result that is binding and enforceable. At FLiP we are ideally placed to help clients find solutions in this way.

All out of court dispute resolution processes require the commitment of both parties and where one is determined to go to court, that remains the default. But at FLiP we offer cogent alternatives and extensive expertise in a landscape where the current uncertainty of the law surrounding privacy is unhelpful and in need of reform.

David Allison is a director at Family Law in Partnership and a trained mediator and collaborative lawyer. David specialises in financial claims on divorce, especially divorce cases with an international element. David settles his cases outside the Court process wherever that is possible, and the client’s goals can be met without court intervention. However, where cases have to go to court he is a determined and effective litigator. To find out more about David’s practice and his approach to resolving family law issues, contact David at E: dna@flip.co.uk. 

To find out more about the expert family law services offered by our top London divorce lawyers, contact our team at E: hello@flip.co.uk or T: 020 7420 5000.