It has been a long standing debate whether there should be more transparency in the family court. Until now, family court proceedings have been a strictly private and confidential process. Whilst this is essential to protect the privacy and safety of parties to family law proceedings, many members of the public know very little about the process unless they have experienced it themselves.
In October 2021, the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, released a report entitled Confidence and Confidentiality: Transparency in the Family Courts. The report noted concern that where information to the public is limited, ‘it is bound to lead to a loss of public confidence and a perception that there is something to hide.’ That being said, he acknowledged that the welfare of children must remain a priority and therefore the ‘anonymity of individual children needs to be preserved.’
Sir Andrew McFarlane’s overall conclusion was that there should be more transparency in the family courts; however, the boost of public confidence, and the need to maintain confidentiality for individuals using the family court are two major and competing factors which the transparency pilot needs to carefully balance.
The Transparency Pilot
The Transparency Pilot was launched on 30 January 2023 and was introduced in Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle. It will run for a year, and a transparency order allows accredited journalists, reporters and legal bloggers to report on what they see and hear in court whilst also allowing them access to certain case documentation such as skeleton arguments, case outlines and position statements.
Another significant change is that parties will be allowed to speak with journalists about their own case without the risk of being held in contempt of court for disclosing details. Despite this, it remains the case that parties will not be able to publish information themselves about their case.
Whilst journalists can report, this is subject to strict restrictions around reporting the identities of the individuals involved, cases will still need to be anonymised and journalists are unable to name or photograph the parties involved. It will remain a criminal offence to publish information intended or likely to identify children.
Some have raised concerns that the press may simply work to sensationalise family disputes rather than bring about positive change; however many consider it to be a progressive step towards ensuring the public can gain a deeper understanding of how decisions are made and if necessary, improve the quality of those decisions and hold the courts accountable for procedural issues.
The success of the pilot is yet to be seen; however if it is able to increase public confidence in the family court, whilst ensuring that the parties involved remain protected, it could bring about positive change.
At its conclusion, the pilot will be reviewed by an external agency and if successful, could be implemented across the family courts in England and Wales.
If you would like more information or any advice please do get in contact with us.
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Beck Fitzgerald is a leading family law firm with offices on Bedford Row in central London. We provide specialist advice and representation to our clients in all areas of family law.
We believe that access to justice should be everybody’s right and have made family law as affordable and accessible as we can.