The Family Court covers a vast array of cases, ranging from Child Arrangements Orders (CAO), Protective Injunctions and Care Proceedings. The one thing that all of these proceedings have in common is that they are heard in private; details of these cases are not commonly reported by the press. Confidentiality versus transparency within Family Law proceedings has been a contentious area of debate for almost all of the last half century.
In 1960, a new statutory provision clearly outlined what information, if any, could be published by the press, during and after family law proceedings. In almost all such cases there was a complete bar on press reporting without the express consent of the judge. This is somewhat different to the situation in the civil and criminal courts. In complete contrast, the media can freely report on these cases, providing an invaluable insight into the ‘work behind the court room door’.
More recently ‘accredited media representatives’ (including so-called ‘bloggers’) have been able to attend family law hearings, but not freely report on ‘the work behind the court room door’. This apparent lack of transparency has inherently reduced public confidence in the Family Justice system, begging the question, why has nothing changed?
In 2007, an important step towards addressing the issue of openness within the Family Court system was taken. Valuable insight into balancing the scales of media freedom versus the contrasting position of children and young people who felt their right to privacy and anonymity would be jeopardised, was gleaned. Whilst this report provided invaluable awareness into the issue of what information could be provided, little change has been exercised.
It has since become increasingly apparent that public distrust in the Family Courts has grown from the restriction on press reporting and the power of social media. Many will be aware of the increase and impact of social media campaigning for transparency within the Family Law system, with many feeling that their pleas are going unheard.
In October 2021 a report on the issue of confidence and confidentiality in the Family Justice system was published. The conclusion of the report is clear: restoring the public’s confidence in the Family Courts is possible, whilst at the same time also safeguarding the privacy of the families and children who rely upon the court. This comprehensive report details nine proposals for change. Arguably, the three most important in relation to the Family Court process are:
Reporting of Proceedings: the presumption against free press reporting should be reversed on the basis that the anonymity of children and their families are fully protected;
Publication of Judgements: all judges to publish anonymised versions of at least 10% of their judgements each year;
Data Collection: compulsory data collection at the end of each case so evidence-based assessments can take place in the years to come.
This report takes into account the court’s duty to protect the children and families in these proceedings but also the growing public distrust in the Family Courts. The proposals for change are cautious yet fair, taking into consideration the Human Rights Act, especially the right to privacy in family life and the right to a fair trial.
Is there is still space for hope that the public will regain its broken trust in this area of law? We will have to wait and see.
For more information about Bastian Lloyd Morris visit
www.blmsolicitors.co.uk or call 01908 546580