Following a decision made in December 2008 by Lord Chancellor Jack Straw, since April of this year all Family Courts have now been open for the media to report such matters as divorce, children matters and care proceedings.
The decision to open up the Courts to the scrutiny of the press was based on an idea that greater knowledge of the system would bring about greater trust and transparency, in an area of law renowned for being shrouded in secrecy. This need is balanced against the need to maintain the confidentiality of parties involved in litigation matters, and the juggling act of seeking greater transparency while maintaining privacy has certainly polarised opinion.
The Ministry of Justice came to the conclusion that ‘’….we must increase the volume of information available about the Family Courts…but a right of access to proceedings cannot mean an untrammelled right to report anything and in any manner regardless of its impact on the children involved’’. As the practicalities of the new rules becomes reality, individual Courts have the power to restrict both attendance of the press and what can be reported, but in the initial stages court staff complained about the lack of clarity, and there still appears to be widespread confusion in respect of the rules in practice. Specific Judges have been allocated the task of dealing with these issues.
Fears have been voiced by the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (CAFCASS) who state that these changes present a risk of professionals being unfairly named and shamed by the press. CAFCASS state there is considerable unease about the fact that the changes could lead to harassment from those involved in proceedings and threats to the safety of Family Court Professionals.
These fears are strengthened by the fact that because of the need to maintain privacy, the press will not get to see relevant court paperwork, and may therefore be misinformed having to rely on non-specific oral submissions made in court which may see the real story skewed out of all context.
There are also fears that this new transparency will lead to divorcing couples using the threat of publicity to blackmail each other. Where a case involves sensitive information one party may use it to extort the maximum financial settlement on a threat of making this information available to the media.
While some see the new rules as beneficial, leading to more cases being settled out of Court, others fear that without the weight of threat of litigation, because of the fear of publicity, some parties’ cases will be unfairly compromised.
While initially there was a rush of press interest in being able to peek behind the Family Court veil, most believe that as time passes reports will largely be restricted to celebrity divorces, leaving the vast majority of family proceedings unscrutinised for lack of a catchy story.
Others see wide scrutiny of the Family Courts as only beneficial. It has been claimed that social workers, psychologists, judges and medical experts are all guilty of failing to adequately self regulate themselves, and that in practice their decisions are only available to be properly examined by the higher courts. The testimony of these and other professionals will now potentially receive appraisal from the press and be open to further comment once the “anonymised” details are in the public domain.
Only time will tell whether the fine balance between promoting trust and transparency and maintaining privacy can be struck effectively to keep all sides content.
For more information please contact Andrew Perryman on 01276 686 005 or email firstname.lastname@example.org