For a long time, the family court has been shrouded in mystery.
Around 250,000 cases go through the family justice system every year. How much do we know about those cases? Very little – and this lack of transparency has led to much criticism about how the court operates in secret. Thereby creating confusion and a ‘vacuum of confidence’ among the public.
But thankfully, things are about to change.
Following the success of last year’s ‘Family Reporting Pilot’, more courtroom doors will be opened in 2024 – giving journalists much greater freedom to take a look inside and report on what they see. A welcome change that, as leading family law solicitors, we’re backing wholeheartedly.
A successful pilot of family court reporting
Launched in January 2023, the ‘Family Reporting Pilot’ was initially a one-year project that involved the family courts in just three locations – Cardiff, Carlisle and Leeds.
Typically, journalists are allowed to attend family hearings, but they can’t report on what they witness – unless given specific permission to do so by the court. However, as part of the pilot, these restrictions were eased. Journalists, accredited media representatives and legal bloggers were all given the green light – legally permitted to report on anything they saw or heard.
The only condition? The parties involved always remained anonymous.
Public interest reporting of these sensitive and complex cases is vital for people to understand what happens and how state power is exercised behind the closed doors of the family courtroom.
The pilot aimed to increase such public interest reporting – improving transparency of the family justice system – whilst also checking it can be done with minimal disruption to the court itself and anyone involved in the case. And it’s fair to say, it’s been a great success.
Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen groundbreaking reports of family court cases – covering child abuse, domestic violence, parental disputes and more – across numerous high-profile news outlets, including BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, BBC News, The Sunday Times, The Economist, The Guardian and Observer, the Daily Mail and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
All of which have successfully shed light on the ‘mystery’ that is the family court of justice, providing considerable detail into each case and marking the start of greater ‘family law’ transparency.
An extension of the pilot
And another step in the right direction.
2023 was a ‘pioneering year’ for family court reporting – and the pilot worked. So why stop there?
Following its initial success, the president of the judiciary’s family division – Sir Andrew McFarlane – recently announced the pilot will be extended for a further 12 months, now including 16 family courts throughout England and Wales. This includes courts located in:
- West Yorkshire
- Central Family Court in London
- East London
- West London
- Milton Keynes
Initially, the roll-out will apply only to public law proceedings, before extending to both public and private law proceedings later in the year. The judges involved will be asked to consider each case individually, making a transparency order – that specifies what can and cannot be reported – and departing from the pilot’s guidance if they feel the circumstances justify it.
As before, journalists, accredited media representatives and legal bloggers will all be permitted to report on family court proceedings – as long as anonymity and confidentially is maintained.
It’s hoped this extension will increase transparency even further, whilst also giving the judiciary another chance to assess the impact of family court reporting. i.e. an attempt to ‘square the circle’ that is improving public understanding and confidence, whilst also protecting the parties involved.
A much-welcome change to the family justice system
The pilot extension is definitely a step forward for the UK’s family justice system.
Some concerns have been raised about the potential discomfort a journalist could cause to those going through the family court. But on the whole, the announcement has garnered a positive reaction – with most legal professionals believing it will help address the challenges faced by the family justice system (e.g. backlogs) and continue to contribute to public understanding.
A lack of information is one of the biggest barriers to those who need help with family law – and the pilot extension will certainly help to reduce this. If the press is allowed to report on what is happening in family proceedings, this will raise awareness and (hopefully) empower the public in their decision-making, when faced with a similar legal issue themselves.
The more the public knows about what goes on inside a courtroom, the greater the trust and confidence will be and that should lead to the right result for more people.
What’s more, the pilot extension will provide a mechanism to ensure judges are held accountable.
Family courts make the most ‘draconian orders’ and challenging decisions about highly complex family matters. Therefore, being transparent – and opening these decisions up to public scrutiny – is a way of raising standards. Not only will it improve understanding of how the family court works, but also what it does well and where things need to change.
Contact our family law solicitors today
Think you may have a case for the family court?
Here at St Helens Law, we have a specialist team of family law solicitors – who can assist with a wide range of matters, including everything from divorce, financial remedies and ongoing custody arrangements to child protection, domestic violence and coercive control.
Backed by many years of experience and significant knowledge of family law, we know the legal processes inside out and have excellent insight into what happens behind those family courtroom doors. Which means, we can provide the honest and straightforward advice you need – to assess your options and make an informed decision on how you wish to proceed.
The ‘Family Court Reporting’ pilot has demonstrated how, with the right level of care and skill, cases can be reported in considerable detail, whilst ensuring families are safely anonymous. But if you have any concerns about how the pilot may impact your case, we’re happy to discuss these in confidence.
There are also several other options that may allow you to resolve the issues in private – such as mediation – without having to step foot in the courtroom.
An initial no-obligation consultation with our family solicitors is available free of charge. So why not get in touch today and find out how we could help? You’re welcome to call us at any time on 01744 742360 or send an email to email@example.com. Alternatively, fill out our online form and a member of the team will respond to your enquiry as soon as possible.