A new pilot scheme allowing accredited journalists and legal bloggers to report more freely on what happens inside three court centres – in Cardiff, Carlisle and Leeds – began on 30 January 2023.
The easing of restrictions comes with strict conditions. This is to ensure that the anonymity of families is maintained, and their privacy respected.
The pilot scheme, at present only applies to public law proceedings and involves the following key changes, enabling journalists and legal bloggers to:
• be able to talk to family members and quote them, provided that the anonymity of the family and children is always maintained.
• be given a “transparency order” and provided with key court documents. Although the identity of the family and children must be withheld, local authorities and high-level individuals involved can be named.
• attend court and to report what they see. Previously, journalists could only publish details of what they see if the judge agreed to vary the automatic reporting restrictions to safeguard the privacy of children.
Notwithstanding these changes, a judge will still be able to prohibit reporting or vary the standard order if circumstances require it.
Head of Family Justice, Sir Andrew McFarlane, said the pilot was a “really big change”.
He added that for many years the problem of opening up the family courts to more scrutiny had “sat in the too difficult box” owing to the challenge of “squaring the circle” of enhancing public confidence while retaining the anonymity of family members.”
The scheme, if the pilot is deemed successful, could be implemented in every court in England and Wales.
Sue Andrews, family partner, comments:
“For some time, there has been concern about what has been seen as the secrecy of the family courts, particularly in care proceedings, which frequently involve the removal of a child / children from the care of parents to a local authority. There has been a feeling that the lack of transparency means that inconsistent decisions are made between courts and also that there is a lack of judicial accountability for their decisions.
”There is the benefit of transparency, however the pressure that could be put on clients in private law proceedings to reach an unfavourable outcome rather than attend court is concerning. Clients are frequently nervous about having to attend court and this could be much more daunting with journalists present, particularly when discussing their private lives.
“The changes could even by used in some instances by a controlling ex-partner refusing to negotiate, knowing that their former partner would find it so intimidating giving evidence in the presence of a reporter.”