Pilot Scheme Launch for Family Court Reporting
As of next Monday, a pilot scheme will be introduced in the UK bringing transparency to family court reporting.
The new scheme allows journalists to report more freely on court proceedings including quoting family members involved.
However, the easing of restrictions comes with strict requirements. Journalists must assure they protect the anonymity of the families involved.
Current Family Court Reporting
Currently, the rules on reporting family law court cases (Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960), prevent all but the most general information about a case from being published.
Currently, journalists can report very little on a family law court case. However, this can allow for wrongdoings in the court system to go under the radar.
Louise Tickle’s Effort to Lift Reporting Restrictions
In October 2018, Freelance journalist, Louise Tickle won an effort to lift reporting restrictions. The case in question was one where the local authority was using what she called “weak evidence” to put a child into adoptive care. Her efforts led to new guidelines over challenging reporting restrictions in family courts. This includes guidance that journalists are not to occur costs for any challenges.
Transparency in Family Court Review
In October 2021, Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division of the courts, published a transparency review. The review found that “there needs to be a major shift in culture and process to increase the transparency [of family courts] in a number of respects”.
Those that can attend and report on family court hearings and family proceedings at the High Court are restricted. Currently, the rule allows for journalists holding a press card and authorised legal bloggers. However, what information can be reported is highly monitored and controlled.
“They can’t report anything apart from the most general gist of what happens in the courtroom,” said Tickle. “And that has been the subject of millions of pounds worth of contested case law because nobody is confident as to what the general gist means. And it’s very, very scary if you get it wrong.”
Additionally, family members are also not allowed to tell journalists details of their court case. “They’re at risk of contempt of court for doing that – as would you be if you published what they said.”
Parliament Slow to Make Changes to Transparency in Family Court Reporting
Tickle states that change is been slow because the rules are laid down in statute law. Therefore, there’s “a natural level of drag in Parliament” about legislation not seen as urgent. Additionally, the law’s current rules make it difficult for those negatively affected to explain their experiences.
“As media, or as people who are campaigning, it’s really difficult for them to give examples and talk about the things that are potentially going wrong, the things that they observe that need scrutiny, because you are literally not allowed to give examples of what you see in court. That is a contempt. So how do you campaign? How do you raise awareness?”
Arguments Against Greater Transparency in Family Court Reporting
Tickle acknowledges there are “strong competing arguments against greater transparency.” For example, nobody in family court cases is accused of a crime and children’s safety and anonymity needs protecting. But she said the case for liberalisation has been growing over the past decade, especially in the last five years.
“We have the highest number of children in local authority care on record. That is a really significant public interest.”
While what goes on in family court is always important, Tickle says, “the more families affected by these powers being exerted in secret by the state, the more compelling is the reason for transparency.”
“It’s taken a lot of people, from journalists like me and others, by lawyers, by judges, sometimes retired judges, arguing really from a range of different perspectives – and families themselves who’ve been through the family courts who in their view had terrible process and poor decision making – to raise the profile of this.”
What the Pilot Scheme for Transparency in Family Court Reporting Introduces
The pilot scheme is introducing three main changes in Cardiff, Carlisle, and Leeds:
- Holders of a UK Press Authority press card and legal bloggers can talk to family members. If the case is in the scheme, they will be able to quote them in their reporting.
- Journalists will be allowed access to quite several documents which were hard to acquire previously. Journalists will be allowed to quote from them.
- Finally, journalists will be able to report what they see in court.
Although restrictions are easing in the pilot scheme, anonymity preservation is still vital. For example, in a big city such as Manchester, the reporting might not need as much redaction of detail as a smaller more rural area.
“Effective anonymisation and imaginative, creative ways of making sure that you get editorially what you need to put in – while making sure the family is safe – will be very key…
“Even though these rules will make life a lot easier for journalists, they are still rules, and you still have to abide by them in detail.”
Tickle suggested there were important stories about the UK that would now be easier to tell under the scheme.
“Stuff that goes on in family courts is just so compelling… it touches on so many parts of public policy and our life as a society.”
An Important Step Forward for Family’s Going Through the Courts
Angela Frazer-Wicks, a survivor of domestic abuse had her children removed from her care by the courts. In an interview conducted with her on behalf of the Guardian, she states that the change is an important step forward.
“If we can start to hear the voices of the families who are going through the system then hopefully, we can bring about acknowledgment of what needs to change – but also what is working well,” she said.
Improving the Public’s Understanding of When Children are Taken Away
Frazer-Wicks, chair of trustees for Family Rights Groups, said she hoped greater transparency would improve the public’s understanding of the circumstances in which children are taken from their birth parents by the state.
“It feels like the odds can be stacked against families,” she said. “I know from my own experience the sheer frustration at a lack of transparency or accountability for the things being done to me and not having anyone I could speak to. I felt like I had no voice.”
Having journalists “in the room” should mean local authorities and judges were more accountable for their decisions, she added.
Transparency to Raise Standards in the Justice System
At a recent stakeholders’ meeting, Mrs. Justice Lieven, who leads the group devising the pilot, says the family courts made “the most draconian orders about families that it is possible to contemplate”.
She adds: “We are taking children away from their birth families and in some cases, indeed many cases, severing links to the birth family for the whole of that child’s childhood, often in the face of the fiercest opposition, and we are doing that without any public scrutiny and that feels to me deeply uncomfortable. Being open and transparent is a way of raising standards in the justice system.”
How Our Family Law Solicitors Can Help You
There really is no substitute for talking to a specialist child law solicitor or family law solicitor when it comes to legal matters involving children. In most cases, court proceedings will not be necessary as long as negotiations are handled with expert care and guidance.
Call us today to discuss your case in further detail. A member of our team will put you through to one of our specialists.
All advice is correct at time of publication.