The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has circulated a message in relation to the Transparency Implementation Group Reporting Pilot which commenced on Monday 30 January 2023 in Cardiff, Leeds and Carlisle.
Journalists will be able to report what they see and hear in the family courts in three locations in England and Wales as part of a long-awaited pilot to improve transparency in the justice system. Under the pilot the starting point will be that accredited journalists and legal bloggers can report on the proceedings provided they protect the anonymity of the families involved.
The ability to report is being piloted to make sure it can be done safely and with minimum disruption to those involved in the cases, and the courts. This will be done through judges in these Courts making a 'Transparency Order', which sets out the rules of what can and cannot be reported.
The President writes:
"The reporting pilot in Leeds, Carlisle and Cardiff marks the start of the judiciary's ongoing work to make transparency in the Family Court a reality. Openness and confidentiality are not irreconcilable, and each is achievable. The aim of the pilot is to understand the impact of open reporting and to enhance public confidence, whilst at the same time firmly protecting continued confidentiality.
Following the publication of the Transparency Review in October 2021, and over a year of discussions with practitioners, journalists, legal bloggers and other stakeholders, accredited media representatives and legal bloggers in the pilot areas will be able, not only to attend and observe family court hearings, but also to report publicly on what they see and hear. Reporting must be subject to very clear rules to maintain both the anonymity of the children and family members who are before the court, and confidentiality with respect of intimate details of their private lives.
The pilot is a work in progress, and the judges in each area, practitioners and media will be monitoring the transparency orders, and the process, as cases come to court. The reporting pilot is one aspect of the work being done to open up the Family Court, there are other working groups for data collection, financial remedies, and anonymisation and publication of judgments."
Sir Andrew McFarlane further commented the move was a “really big change”. He said that for many years the issue of opening the family courts to greater scrutiny had “sat in the too difficult box” owing to the challenge of “squaring the circle” of improving public confidence while retaining the anonymity of children and parents.
The scheme could be rolled out to every court in England and Wales after the pilot was evaluated by an outside agency. Just under 250,000 cases go through the family justice system each year, and previously there has been criticism that it operates in “secret”. The courts have the power to make life-changing decisions about children, such as placing them in care or deciding who they should live with when there is a parental dispute or allegations of abuse.
Journalists will be issued with a “transparency order” and provided with key court documents. They must not publish any details that could identify the family involved but will be able to name local authorities and high-level individuals involved in a case, such as court-appointed experts.
However, the judge will retain discretion to ban reporting or vary the standard order if justified by the circumstances.
Another significant change is that lay parties will be permitted to talk to journalists and give interviews anonymously; under current law they could be found in contempt of court for doing so.