No party holds a veto on reporting in the Family Court
You may recall a few months ago reading a Law Column about the transparency pilot launched in the Family Court in January of this year.
The pilot heralded changes allowing accredited journalists and legal bloggers permission to attend and report on some family court proceedings in certain courts with the types of matters being reportable set to increase in a staggered process.
These changes represented a dramatic cultural shift within the family court system which has traditionally operated behind closed doors. Though not perfect, it was acknowledged that the changes would allow for greater opportunities for reporting proceedings that may otherwise have been conducted entirely in secret.
Now in what marks a further step towards greater transparency in the Family Court, journalist and transparency campaigner Louise Tickle has been successful in her appeal of a decision which prevented reporting of a case.
In the case of Louise Tickle v Father & Ors.  EWHC 2446 (Fam), Mrs. Justice Lieven (who also announced the launch of the transparency pilot) held that His Honour Judge Haigh had erred in law when he adjourned a journalist’s application seeking permission to report on a case in Manchester Family Court which related to a child under the age of 5.
Ms Tickle had sought permission to report on the case, though not on the specific circumstances of the dispute itself, but rather the procedural aspect concerning the lack of legal aid availability and the effect that this is having on the family court system in general.
In her application, Ms Tickle gave detailed assurances to the Court that nothing she intended to report would identify any of the parties as participants in the case.
At first instance both the father and guardian of the child opposed the application, the latter on the basis that in the circumstances, a very cautious approach to reporting should be taken in order not to exacerbate the tensions already present between the parents.
HHJ Haigh took the decision to adjourn consideration of the application until such time as the substantive hearing had concluded. He held that he felt it would be very likely that a judgement would be published at the conclusion of the proceedings and that at point it may be appropriate for a relaxation of some of the restrictions.
He further considered it to be clear that partial reporting of any element of the case ahead of the full hearing was likely to be prejudicial to the outcome, and by extension would carry a significant risk to the welfare of the child.
However, in an appeal decision which will be noted as a significant mark of progress towards a more open family court, Lieven J. overturned the ruling and held that whilst the views of the parties as to the presence of reporters were of "great significance", they were not "determinative" and (in a sentence that is sure to be repeated in submissions across the country) that "no party holds a veto on reporting".
Lieven J. took the view that the judge in the original case at Manchester had failed to carry out the balancing exercise between the rights of privacy and freedom of expression appropriately.
She further stated that it is rarely, though not never, relevant for a Judge to consider why a reporter is seeking to report on a matter. It is not for the Court to consider the quality or fairness of any coverage.
In a statement certain to be welcomed by editors across the nation, the Judge held that "the court is not an arbiter of the editorial content of reporting"
Lieven J. went on to say that there was a clear and strong public interest in reporting the case and that whilst the father may well identify his own case in a generic report, that did not constitute grounds on which to refuse reporting.
In reality, she continued, there was no realistic prospect of the child or parents being identified by the proposed coverage.
This decision serves as both a welcome and timely reminder of the principles to be applied, and the nature of the balancing exercise to be undertaken when considering an application of this nature.
It also demonstrates a sign of commitment from the Judiciary to the issue of improved transparency in the family courts and further highlights the importance of the principle of open justice, particularly in relation to the significant public interest in reporting cases heard within the family court.