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Increased transparency in the family courts is on the way

For many years, the question of whether there should be more openness in the family courts has been a live issue. But previous proposals calling for increased transparency, including the initial government proposal of 2006 to allow the media to report on family cases, have been unsuccessful.

In May 2019, President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, launched a review into transparency in the family courts and the report outlining his findings was published on 29 October 2021. You can view the report here. The president’s aim was to enhance public confidence in the family justice system, whilst at the same time maintaining the anonymity of those families and children who turn to it for protection or resolution.

Although current rules permit accredited representatives of the press (and in one pilot scheme, legal bloggers) to attend hearings, if the proceedings concern children then the law prevents the contemporaneous reporting and publication of information relating to such proceedings. However, the president’s report called for the ‘major shift in culture’. It is proposed that accredited media representatives shall not only be able to attend family hearings, but also to report publicly on what they see and hear, subject to maintaining the anonymity of children and families, and keeping intimate details confidential.

There is an understandable apprehension about the impact of the proposed changes. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), the public body which promotes the welfare of children and families involved in family court, has asserted their support for increased transparency, but emphasised that this should be balanced against the need to safeguard parties within proceedings and priority should remain for the wishes and feelings of children.

The president is keen to move forward with the transparency proposals, having already established the Transparency Implementation Group which met for the first time on 15 December 2021 to discuss the report’s suggestions. But users of the family courts should not be perturbed by the changes, because the transparency initiative is intended to shine a light on and understand the work of the courts and judges, not individual families.

As the report neatly summarises: work in the family court ‘is undertaken within the law and on behalf of society at large, which has a strong legitimate interest in understanding the work of the court and knowing if it is being done well.’ The Transparency Implementation Group next meets in March 2022 where further updates on progress and next steps are expected.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2022.

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