Guidance Published On Family Court Transparency

New Rules Designed To Improve Public And Media Understanding Of Cases

17.01.2014

Practice guidance has been published which has been created to ensure a greater level of transparency in relation to decisions made by family courts and the Court of Protection.

Issued by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court and of the Court of Protection, the new information has been designed to encourage more clarity which will in turn improve public understanding and confidence in the court system.

Unveiling the plans, he specifically refers to a case before Christmas in which the media reported on a case where a pregnant woman was ordered to have Caesarean section due to fears that a natural birth may prove life-threatening.

He said that while much of the reporting was inaccurate, it was not necessarily the fault of the media which did not have full access to judgments in relation to the case.

In the guidance, he explains: “Permission to publish a judgment should always be given whenever the judge concludes that publication would be in the public interest and whether or not a request has been made by a party or the media.”

The new guidance on the issue is set to come into effect from 3 February.

Expert Opinion
There is a lot of support for reform, including from lawyers, but where the line ought to be drawn is the subject of much debate.

"A major concern amongst the legal profession is that the presence of the media may adversely affect family proceedings, with family courts being stretched and some believing that applications for court access may only create more delay and divert attention from the court’s true purpose.

"Whilst the media might be well positioned to highlight flaws in the legal system, how judges decide what can be reported remains largely unaffected and the law still falls heavily on the side of those who require protection, often in the form of anonymity.

"The President’s vision is not that the press ought to be able to report unreservedly on what happens in the family courts at the expense of the most vulnerable.

"It must be remembered that if the rules governing media access are too relaxed then there is a real risk that the judiciary’s ability to use its discretion will be curtailed. However, if the rules are too restrictive, then the flaws in the system may go unchallenged or unaccounted for and the existing problems with transparency will remain. A balance has to be struck.

"Ultimately, the increased number of public judgements these days is definitely a move in the right direction to achieve open justice in this area, but the importance of anonymity must never be forgotten."
David Lister, Associate