Are family court hearings private or public?
Family court hearings usually take place in private, ensuring the participants’ anonymity, although accredited journalists and bloggers can attend.
In practice, it is unusual for reporters to cover family court hearings as reporting restrictions are strict.
Journalists are prevented from reporting anything other than the general gist of a case and must not report on any case involving children or reveal any information that might lead to the identification of a child (which in practice guarantees the anonymity of parents).
A cultural shift could, however, be on the horizon…
A pilot scheme has been launched in Cardiff, Carlisle and Leeds, which allows journalists to report more freely on family proceedings when a ‘transparency order’ is issued.
The aim is to encourage effective scrutiny of the family courts and raise awareness of and improve public confidence in the work of the courts.
If a case is designated as being part of the scheme, it allows accredited journalists and legal bloggers to report on what they see in court, access key court documents and talk to family members. However, the anonymity of families involved in hearings must still be preserved.
Initially journalists will be able to report on court applications and placement applications made within court proceedings and towards the end of March will also be allowed to report on private law children’s cases.
Financial remedies cases, adoption cases and standalone placement applications will not be reportable under the pilot scheme.
If successful, it is possible that the pilot could be rolled out to all family courts across England and Wales.
While this might sound alarming, my view is that this is nothing to be concerned about. Children and families will still have their privacy protected.
The primary reason for greater transparency is to ensure consistent decision-making and accountability when it comes to, for example, the handling of care proceedings. The aim is to open the family courts up to greater scrutiny, not to expose the private lives of couples who are going through divorce, financial proceedings or agreeing arrangements for their children.
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