Transparency in the Family Courts – the Dawn of a ‘New Norm’

Should the media report on the Family Courts? Here, Ruth Hetherington looks at the role of transparency in the family courts and how transparency orders will protect those families already under a lot of stress.

For many years now, on the whole, the Family Courts sit in private, which means no one else is allowed into the Court hearing except those people involved.  Some would say that there is a shroud of secrecy in the Family Courts and decisions are being made behind closed doors.  There has been a genuine reason for this … there is a need to protect the privacy of the people involved, particularly children balanced with having the public’s perception, trust and confidence about the way in which the family courts operate.

At present S.12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 prevents reporting of most family law cases in the absence of the Judges consent.  This legislation was intended to ‘protect and support the administration of justice’.

S.97 Children Act 1989 protects the identity of children.  It is a criminal offence if breached.

As it can be seen, currently there is little scope for reporting on any family case.

It would be fair to say that most family cases have been held in private, but the public only get to hear about ‘big money’ cases and predominantly the lives of celebrities when they hit the headlines.

The appetite however for the family courts to be more accessible has been a matter of discussion and debate for many years.  The President of the Family Law Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane intends to change all of that.

Sir Andrew McFarlane published a report in October 2021 entitled ‘Confidence and Confidentiality: Transparency in the Family Courts’.

The emphasis now is very much that the veil of secrecy and mystery associated with the family courts needs to be lifted, mainly to provide the public with confidence that the family courts are safeguarding children and their families.

Sir Andrew McFarlane says ‘the time has come for accredited media representatives to be able to not only attend hearings but to report publicly on what they see and hear.  Any reporting must however be subject to very clear rules to maintain anonymity of children and families and to keep confidential intimate details of their private lives.

Pilots are now running in Cardiff, Leeds and Carlisle, and they will continue throughout 2023 with data being collated.   In essence accredited media representatives and legal bloggers are permitted to attend court hearings, have access to documents and report on the outcome, subject to the terms of a Transparency Order.

Transparency orders will set out what can and cannot be reported on.  Reporters must and will be bound by that order.   The Transparency Order can be varied or removed at any point, by the Court.

The case needs to be conducted in an orderly way and not be prejudiced or compromised.  However, how this operates in practice forms part of the Pilot now running.

The pilot will start with public law cases (care proceedings) then private law children proceedings.

The jury is still out, as many family practitioners, are apprehensive of the changes as all families going through the family court are already experiencing stress and anxiety without having to deal with an added layer that their case could be reported on.  It may prevent or deter many vulnerable people in seeking access to justice at a time in their lives where help and support is needed.

The message is clear, confidence and confidentiality can be achieved and that there needs to be a major shift in culture.

Legal bloggers

Interesting concept and development within the Pilot in that anyone can ‘blog’ on the law, but can they just attend a hearing?  The answer is no. To be able to attend court hearings you must be a ‘duly authorised lawyer’. Blogging can only be for journalistic research or public, legal educational purposes. So…in the busy lives of family practitioners do they have time to attend other court hearings that they are not involved in, would they want to, could this be part of training for young lawyers entering the early part of their career.  It remans to be some as to whether there is the ‘up take’ on legal bloggers.

If you need advice on this topic, or any other matters concerning divorce or family law, please get in touch with our team at McAlister Family Law.


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