Appearing in a family court is stressful enough for most people, but the prospect of having the media there and reporting on the case is likely to add considerably to that stress.
So the news that media reporting is to be allowed in the family court may well be unwelcome to many involved in family court proceedings.
But what exactly are the rules regarding media attending family court hearings, and what is changing?
The current rules on media in the family court
The first thing to understand is that most family court hearings are held in private, meaning that the general public have no right to be present.
But that does not mean that the media cannot attend private family court hearings. In fact, the current rules already allow them to attend most hearings.
However, there are strict limits upon what the media can report, without the permission of the court.
This is particularly so where the proceedings concern children, as obviously is often the case. In fact, it is an offence to publish information which could identify a child involved in certain proceedings, including details of the child’s address and school.
The restrictiveness of these rules has led to concerns that the family courts do not allow effective public scrutiny, and even that they operate a system of secret and unaccountable justice.
It is in order to address these concerns that efforts are being made to open up the family courts to the media.
What is changing – the reporting pilot
On the 30th of January a ‘Transparency Reporting Pilot’ was launched in family courts in Cardiff, Leeds and Carlisle. The pilot will test a new scheme aimed at making it easier for the media to report upon family court proceedings.
The pilot will run for a period of 12 months, and be subject to independent evaluation.
Under the scheme accredited journalists and legal bloggers (authorised lawyers attending for journalistic, research or public legal educational purposes) will be allowed to attend court and report upon what they see and hear.
However, all reporting will be subject to the principle of protection of the anonymity of any children involved, unless the judge orders otherwise, and the court may restrict reporting if it considers that appropriate.
In any case where a journalist or legal blogger attends a hearing the court will consider whether to make a ‘transparency order’, stating what may or may not be published.
The transparency order will permit the parties to discuss the proceedings with a journalist or legal blogger and, subject to the terms of the order, permit the journalist or blogger to quote parties in their reporting.
The court retains a discretion to later vary or discharge the transparency order, or to direct that there should be no further reporting of the case. This discretion may be exercised of the court’s own motion, or on an application by a party or a journalist/blogger.
The pilot will not, however, apply to all types of family court proceedings. It will initially cover children proceedings involving local authorities, such as care proceedings, and then extend to proceedings concerning disputes between parents over arrangements for their children. Financial remedy proceedings, dealing with financial settlements on divorce, are excluded from the pilot.
Will this affect my case?
Initially, of course, your case will not be affected, unless it is a children case taking place in one of the three pilot courts.
However, if the pilot is evaluated to be a success then it may well be rolled out in all family courts in England and Wales.
But even then it is probably unlikely that the media will attend any given case, unless perhaps it involves celebrities, or is especially newsworthy for some reason.
And even if the media do attend, it will be seen from the above that the court will still be able to control what is being reported, providing protection for those who need it.