Summary of developments surrounding media reporting in the Family Courts, by Gill Phillips, Director of Editorial Legal Services, Guardian News & Media Limited.
Transparency and reporting of the Family Courts: summary of developments
Tags: Media Reporting, Transparency
Following a critical report by the Parliamentary Constitutional Affairs Committee, in 2002-3 about the reporting of, inter alia, the Family Courts, the government issued a consultation paper in 2006: Confidence and confidentiality: Improving transparency and privacy in family courts.
However it remained the case that until April 2009, reporting on cases in the family courts was extremely limited; proceedings in the county court were invariably held in private.
Following media concern and consultation, in 2009 the then Government introduced changes to the Family Proceedings Rules 1991, allowing the accredited members of the media to attend family court proceedings. The rules on media reporting, however, were not relaxed, and the press were not allowed to see documents. Two concerns, the limited amount of information the press could report and the privacy conferred on all participants in a case, remained unaddressed.
Part 2 of the Children Schools and Family Act 2010 proposed a number of changes to the way the family courts could be reported. One included extending the range of proceedings that the media can attend to include adoption cases and provided exceptions to the general rule that publication of information of proceedings is a contempt of court. The proposed reforms were considered by the media to impose even greater restrictions than those which existed. These provisions were never made effective.
The Family Courts Information Pilot took place from November 2009 to December 2010 in Cardiff, Leeds and Wolverhampton to test the publication of judgments in family cases on the internet. Views were obtained from the judiciary, legal advisers, court staff, local authorities and CAFCASS. The consensus was in favour of the greater transparency and a better public understanding of the family justice system. There was concern about the protection of the families’ privacy.
In July 2011, Sir Nicholas Wall, then President of the Family Division issued, jointly with the Society of Editors, a paper, The Family Courts: Media Access & Reporting (Media Access & Reporting), setting out a statement of the current state of the law. In their preface they recognised that the debate on increased transparency and public confidence in the family courts needed to move forward and that future consideration would need to include the questions of access to and reporting of proceedings by the media, whilst maintaining the privacy of the families involved.
In April 2013, following on his appointment as the President of the Family Division of the High Court and of the Court of Protection, Sir James Munby issued a statement, View from the President’s Chambers: the Process of Reform,  Fam Law 548, in which he identified transparency as one of the three strands in the reforms which the family justice system is currently undergoing. He said:
“I am determined to take steps to improve access to and reporting of family proceedings. I am determined that the new Family Court should not be saddled, as the family courts are at present, with the charge that we are a system of secret and unaccountable justice. Work, commenced by my predecessor, is well underway. I hope to be in a position to make important announcements in the near future.”
On 12 July 2013, Sir James issued draft Practice Guidance in relation to the publication of judgments in family courts and the Court of Protection. In September 2013, he said he wanted family justice to become more transparent and suggested that the family justice system would benefit from the “glare of publicity”.
On 16 January, Sir James issued the final Practice Guidance on the publication of judgments in the Family Division:
At the same time, he issued similar Guidance for the Court of Protection:
Gill Phillips, Director of Editorial Legal Services, Guardian News & Media Limited
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