Pilot scheme begins aimed at opening up proceedings in family courts

Reporting has previously been highly restricted to only what a judge will allow.

Children enjoy playing on swings in a park (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Children enjoy playing on swings in a park (Gareth Fuller/PA)

A pilot scheme has started which aims to throw a light on the workings of the family court system.

Although reporters have had access to courts dealing with sensitive matters involving children for some time, despite them being closed to the public, reporting has been highly restricted to only what a judge will allow.

A pilot scheme began on Monday in Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle which will allow accredited journalists and legal bloggers to report on cases as they unfold, as they would do in the criminal courts, as long as the identities of the families and certain professional involved are not revealed.

The project officially began on Monday but the first case to be held under the new rules started last week, when a High Court judge in Leeds decided to adopt the protocols at the beginning of an 11 week long hearing rather than bring them in part-way through the proceedings.

Despite this, very few details of the case can be reported at this stage, until the conclusion of any criminal proceedings arising out of the matters being considered during the hearing.

A barrister holding a legal wig by his side (Clara Molden/PA)
A barrister holding a legal wig by his side (Clara Molden/PA)

At the start of the hearing last week, Mr Justice Poole allowed the reporting of certain details, including that this is a finding-of-fact hearing involving three families and allegations of fabricated or induced illness.

Under the current law, journalists and legally-qualified bloggers can attend hearings in family courts, which are closed to the public, but can only report details of what happens in the courtroom if the judge hearing the case allows it.

In the pilot courts, the starting point will be that accredited journalists and legal bloggers can report on hearings, subject to strict reporting restrictions to protect the anonymity of the families involved.

Cases where journalists and bloggers attend will be covered by a Transparency Order, setting out what can and can’t be reported, and reporters will be able to access some basic case documents.

Families will also be able to talk to a journalist about their case, without risking punishment for contempt of court, as under the present regime.

However, judges may still decide that some cases may not be reported on, or that reporting should be postponed in certain circumstances.

The pilot will run for 12 months, following which there will be an evaluation before the scheme is rolled out to other family courts.

Only public law cases, for example those involving local authorities, will be included in the pilot, but it will be extended to cover private law cases, such as custody disputes between separated parents.

The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, recently hailed the new reporting provisions as a “big change” and said it was important the public can know what is happening in family courts to ensure confidence in the justice system.

At a launch event last Thursday, he said there are currently just under 250,000 cases heard in the family courts in England and Wales each year.

He said the issue of greater transparency had “sat in the too difficult box” for a number of years, but that some of his predecessors had made great strides towards more openness.

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