Family Court changes: New pilot scheme – an overview

Serena Sandhu, Director, and Charlotte Charlton, a Trainee Solicitor at Hopkin Murray Beskine Solicitors, provide a brief outline of a new pilot scheme; the Transparency Implement Group Report Pilot [TIG] that has been extended to additional courts across the UK.

In the past, parents and divorcing couples usually experienced that the only people allowed in the Family Court room, other than themselves, would be their legal team and the Judge, or experts when giving evidence. There is now an important update for practitioners, in relation to transparency.

The Transparency Implementation Group Report Pilot

At the end of January 2024, a new pilot scheme, the Transparency Implement Group Report Pilot [TIG] has been extended to additional courts across the UK to allow reporters to report much more freely what goes on in the Family Courts.

The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane said “extending the reporting pilot to family courts across the country is a huge step in the judiciary’s ongoing work to increase transparency and improve public confidence and understanding of the family justice system… We hope that in extending the pilot further we can continue to understand the impact the family court reporting has.”

Serena Sandhu

Serena Sandhu

It is anticipated that by reporting family court hearings, this will help the public gain a better understanding of family law proceedings, how they are conducted and how outcomes are reached.

Albeit subject to strict rules of anonymity, reporters under the pilot have a general right to attend the most private family hearings, however exceptions include adoption or divorce and finance remedy proceedings. They do not need to give you notice that they are going to attend, however this only applies to properly accredited journalists [with a press card] or legal bloggers [qualified lawyers attended for journalistic, research or public legal educational purposes only].

Charlotte Charlton

Charlotte Charlton

The past: Legal reporting – a not so new concept

Historically and as laid down in Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960, there were very strict rules on how journalists were able to report on family court hearings, and especially as family law proceedings were held in private. Important decisions, for example where it develops the law or applies it in a significant way, were and are still published in an anonymised form online and in law reports. The pilot eases those restrictions.

The reporter is allowed certain unredacted documents from the case such as skeleton arguments or statements.  Despite the fact they can attend, it does not necessarily follow that there can be a report of the hearing and the Judge has to decide on whether privacy needs to be protected including whether there should be an absolute ban on reporting.  Any reporting of children or family members has to be anonymous, i.e. certain details about names and addresses must be changed.  However, that is not entirely reassuring and for a determined person, the fear is that people could piece parts of reported information together, although the aim is to make sure that parties cannot be identified.  The idea is that accredited journalists can report on what they see and hear in Court, known as the transparency principle, but subject to protection known as the anonymity principle.  However, reporters are allowed to actually name the Local Authority or even name CAFCASS Officers and NHS Trusts and notably this information, once pieces together, could come quite close identifying an individual in a case.  This allows reporters into private children proceedings and even proceedings where the social workers are concerned about the parenting of a child and are looking to remove that child.

Reporters are encouraged to tell parties if they want to attend a hearing and the Court will consider this request and the parties need to be prepared to address the Court in any case about whether or not the Court shall allow a reporter in.  This means it is quite important to consider these issues if you have a children case coming to the Court.  You need to make sure that your representative is able to argue why you feel reporters should not be allowed in if that is important to you.

The idea behind the pilot scheme is to improve public confidence through understanding how the family justice system actually works.  It is difficult to predict how this will impact individuals in a family case, however from our experience, children are very often highly sensitive privacy is a real priority for parents. It has been acknowledged that having a journalist in the room might make people feel uncomfortable but from our experience this is not such a small thing and it could make a Court hearing extremely difficult, particularly when there are issues around hostile parenting, alienation, or allegations false or true of abuse. It can make the Court process all the more overwhelming with a journalist present. It is obviously really important that there is an understanding of how the family Courts work and there are many other ways of fulfilling this rather than letting people listen to the most difficult often painful debates regarding their own children.  It is important to consider the impact of the pilot if you are involved in Court proceedings and we always would want to make sure that our clients understand that we are prepared to argue powerfully against journalists attending if this is in the best interests of our clients.

Not every case will be reported, however the Judge will decide whether journalists should be granted permission to access the hearing. If the Judge grants permission, they will then consider whether a transparency order is necessary to protect the privacy of the individuals involved in the case. The court also has discretion to direct that there should be no reporting of the case.

All reporting will be subject to the principle of anonymity in relation to children, family members and other parties unless the court makes an order otherwise, Anonymity will require the reporter to anonymise various details about the parties, such as their name an address. However, there is a small risk that individuals linked to the case could be identified by way of piecing parts of reported information together in a jigsaw puzzle fashion, nevertheless the aim is to ensure that the relevant parties in the proceedings cannot be identified by any particular details.

There are positives in opening up the floor of the courtroom in the public domain subject to strict anonymity rules. However, some individuals, may find the prospect of a journalist reporting in court adding to the daunting experience of court proceedings.

Published On: 26/03/2024|
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