More Scrutiny for Family Courts

A year-long pilot scheme began on 30th January to allow accredited journalists to attend and report on family court hearings, with the aim of increasing transparency and public confidence in the workings of courts. Three courts have been chosen to provide a mix of rural and urban cases – Leeds, Cardiff and Carlisle. The move follows a report in 2021 by Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division of the High Court, which called for an end to the secrecy surrounding decisions affecting the lives of thousands of children and families.

There are more than 200,000 cases before the family courts each year, involving hundreds of thousands of children and family members. Cases are broadly divided into disputes between separating parents, known as private law, and applications by local authorities to take children into care, which are public law. Last year saw the highest number of children in local authority care since records began in 1994 (82,170 in England alone). No criminal conviction is required before someone’s child can be taken into care, and often merely the testimony of a psychiatrist and doctor is enough to satisfy a judge or magistrates that the child’s welfare requires their removal from their family. Evidence in disputed cases is rarely available for public scrutiny, leading inevitably to bad decisions being covered up by those involved.

The new scheme will permit accredited journalists and legal bloggers to attend court under strict rules governing what they can report. Children and families must not be named, nor any information published which might identify them. However, reporters can name local authorities as well as senior staff and experts involved in the case. Social workers can be named when specifically permitted by the court. Reporters will be given access to certain court papers, including case outlines, skeleton arguments from lawyers, and timescales of events. As well as fostering greater understanding of how family courts operate the scheme will highlight delays and case backlogs. Attention will also be drawn to the increasing number of individuals having to represent themselves in court as a result of the removal of legal aid for most children cases in which the state is not involved.

Chairwoman of the Media Lawyers Association Pia Sharma said that the scheme was a “long overdue step towards transparency, which I hope journalists will engage with while still observing the wishes of families”, adding that the courts must strike the right “balance between open justice and privacy rights.”

Sir Andrew McFarlane commented: “Reporting must be subject to very clear rules to maintain both the anonymity of the children and family members who are before the court and confidentiality with respect to intimate details of their private lives. Openness and confidentiality are not irreconcilable, and each is achievable. The aim is to enhance public confidence significantly while at the same time firmly protecting continued confidentiality.”

The Children Law department at Bretherton Law have been helping families in Hertfordshire for over 50 years, offering professional, experienced and sympathetic advice to those in need. We are proud to be accredited by the Law Society in Family and Children Law, and are members of Resolution, the organisation representing family lawyers and other professionals in the field. We continue to offer Legal Aid in cases where eligible.