The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, who is also Head of Family Justice, has released draft guidance for consultation on reporting in Family Courts.
Family proceedings are usually held in private however, journalists with a valid UK press card may attend hearings, save for those involving children. Since October 2018 legal bloggers may also attend hearings.
However, the right to attend hearings does not automatically mean that details of the hearing can be reported on or published. When deciding whether cases can be reported, and to what extent, the Court must balance the parties rights to a fair trial and private life against the right to freedom of expression.
When the comedian David Walliams divorced his wife, model Lara Stone the Court allowed their names to be published as well as the date of the hearings, but did not permit details of the case or the eventual settlement to be published.
The former Oasis singer, Liam Gallagher and Nicole Appleton, a TV presenter/singer, made a joint application during their matrimonial proceedings to exclude the press from hearings concerning the financial aspects of their divorce. The Judge allowed the press to attend the hearings and name the parties, but prohibited them from reporting details of the parties’ finances or matters relating to their children.
In proceedings between the TV presenter, Ant McPartlin and make-up artist, Lisa Armstrong, the Judge decided that the parties could be named but their financial details should be kept private. When Ant failed to attend a hearing, the Judge allowed his non-attendance to be reported, as well as the fact that he’d been “told off” by the Judge.
Following a recent care case, when a journalist appealed against a Reporting Restrictions Order, the President has decided to issue guidance and open a consultation into the issue of reporting in family proceedings. The aim of the review is to consider whether the current degree of openness in Family Courts should be extended, rather than reduced.
Family Courts have often been criticised for conducting cases ‘behind closed doors’, which some have felt has led to proceedings being conducted in secrecy. However, there is a fine balancing act between the sensitive nature of family proceedings and the privacy of the parties involved, and the current age of instant news and live blogging.
The fact that the President has taken steps to review transparency in family proceedings is a positive step that demonstrates a willingness to change and move with the times, and it is hoped that this will help ensure that public confidence in the family justice system continues.
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