Transparency in the Family Courts
We explore recent calls for greater transparency in the Family Courts.
In recent years, there have been calls for increased openness in the Family Court. Fear that there has been an erosion of public trust and confidence in this area of law has led to a drive for greater transparency. However, there has often been a tension between the desire to enhance transparency whilst at the same time protecting the confidentiality of those involved in such personal proceedings.
On 28 October 2021, Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, published a report titled “Confidence and Confidentiality: Transparency in the Family Courts”. The report addresses the concerns around greater openness but argues that the question of transparency should not be seen as a simple yes/no issue. Instead, he suggests that the Family Court can become more open whilst still protecting the parties involved.
The report lists a number of proposals which would result in significant changes. Notably, a call for accredited media representatives and legal bloggers to not only be permitted to attend and observe hearings, but to also be allowed to report on them publicly. However, such reporting would be subject to strict rules of anonymity and confidentiality. Another key proposal is for judges to publish anonymised versions of at least 10% of their judgements each year. Further proposals include a scheme of compulsory data collection and an annual Family Court report where case numbers, categories of proceedings and outcomes would all be recorded.
Similarly, Mr Justice Mostyn and His Honour Judge Hess have reviewed transparency in the Financial Remedy Court. A consultation was launched on the proposal for a standard Reporting Permission Order (“RPO”) to relax reporting permissions. It is proposed that the RPO would be issued as a standard step following the filing of Form A and subject to review at the First Appointment. The RPO would allow journalists who are permitted to attend hearings to have sight of key documents, subject to strict conditions. The RPO would also allow journalists to publish broad information on the finances, although also subject to a number of conditions. It is hoped that the RPO will help create a balance between allowing journalists to report on financial remedy proceedings whilst at the same time maintaining the privacy of the parties.
These proposals will most likely take some time to be fully implemented. However, there is a strong desire to move towards greater transparency. Moving away from a closed system will allow for not only greater public scrutiny, but also greater public understanding. More openness will most likely increase public trust by removing the misinformation surrounding the Family Court. However, with these significant changes, careful consideration will be needed to ensure the privacy and safety of individuals is maintained.