Pilot launched to allow reporting in family courts
The family courts have long been off-limits for journalists because of the restrictions on reporting. Why would publishers send journalists into the family courts if they can’t actually report any, or most of, what they hear?
This has led to a lack of transparency in the family court system, the feeling that it operates entirely behind closed doors, and arguably a lack of trust in the system.
After years of debate on the issue, finally, the Transparency Reporting Pilot is starting with the aim of improving transparency and accountability.
Mrs Justice Lieven, who gave a briefing on the Pilot last week, has acknowledged that it isn’t perfect but argues it “is where we are”.
So, what does the Pilot involve? From 30th January accredited journalists and legal bloggers will be able to attend some family court proceedings in Leeds, Carlisle, and Cardiff.
Initially journalists will be able to report on court applications and placement applications made within court proceedings, and 6 to 8 weeks into the Pilot they will also be able to report on private law children’s cases.
It follows that not all types of cases will be reportable (including financial remedies cases, adoption cases and standalone placement applications) as part of the Pilot.
In each case where reporting is allowed a Transparency Order will outline what can and cannot be reported. A standard template has been formulated for this purpose, but it can be edited in order to reflect the case to which it relates.
So, what will and won’t generally be reportable?
The child or children involved in the case will be given anonymity (which in practical terms obviously means the parents will also need to remain anonymous), but legal representatives, judges and local authorities may be reportable.
In addition, the Transparency Order will allow journalists access to key documents, including skeleton arguments, case outlines and position statements.
In her briefing Lady Justice Lieven recognised that because the family court system has operated behind closed doors for so long, this is a drastic cultural change, but noted this is about opening up the system rather than “allowing voyeuristic interest” or doing anything that will interfere with personal or professional relationships.
However, one immediately obvious issue is that the publicly available cause list will remain the same – which essentially means the only thing published in advance of the hearing will be the date, time and location of the hearing, along with the name of the Judge and case number, without any detail of the type of hearing.
This has been justified on the basis that it would be costly and delay the start of the Pilot to change the way the lists are published.
The implication of this is that journalists will either need to have received a tip-off about a specific hearing, or spend time sitting in court awaiting a hearing that they can and want to report on.
Despite this drawback, the Pilot undoubtedly means greater opportunities for journalists to be able to report proceedings in the family court that would otherwise have passed them by.
Mrs Justice Lieven believes that journalists being able to report in the family courts will have a major impact on the open justice principle, and that having journalists in court will improve standards.
Let’s hope this is the case.