06 February 2023

Following a review by the president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, a pilot has been launched in the family courts to allow journalists to report on proceedings that once took place behind closed doors.

Three Courts are taking part in the pilot; Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle and if it is proved to be positive then it is likely it will be rolled out nationwide.

The purpose is to promote public confidence in the family justice system and promote accountability. When commenting on the current position where journalists cannot report on what is said in the family court Mrs Justice Lieven said it has allowed suspicion to grow. The only cases that can be reported upon are those that go to the Court of Appeal where something goes wrong so we have an embedded bias.

It is hoped that the reporting of family courts will promote the principle of open justice and journalists in court may improve standards. Mrs Justice Lieven said everybody behaves better if they think journalists are reporting on them.

Although journalists are currently allowed to attend family courts they cannot report on the proceedings. The pilot will allow reporting of certain cases by accredited journalists. A transparency order will be made in appropriate cases defining what can or cannot be reported. The anonymity of the child or children subject to the proceedings will be preserved but details of the legal representatives, judges and the local authorities will all be able to be reported. Certain documents will also be allowed to be released to the press such as skeleton arguments, case outlines and position statements.

The Law Society commented transparency and open justice are important to help the public understand how the law works and how decisions are made.

The first transparency order has now been made and relates to a case that is to be heard in the Leeds family court concerning a fact finding hearing involving 3 families set to last 11 weeks. However as there is currently a criminal investigation relating to the same matter any reporting will not be permitted at least until after the hearing, and potentially later than that. The Judge has also restricted what documents will be disclosed to the press to skeleton arguments and the index to the bundle.

Louise Gidley, head of the family team said there will no doubt be press interest in some cases and it will be interesting to see what lessons are learned from the pilot. It is a significant milestone in the changing face of the family justice system.