Transparency in the Family Courts

Despite issuing a consultation paper over two years ago, Transparency – The Next Steps, inviting views on how the practice guidance on publication of judgments is working, whether certain documents should be disclosed to the media and whether family cases should be heard in public, there has been no formal information about the next steps to be taken to achieve greater transparency in the Family Court.

Over the last two years, transparency in financial remedy proceedings has increasingly become a hot topic in family law. In June 2015, in the case of Fields v Fields [2015] EWHC 1670 (Fam), Holman J directed that the final hearing in financial remedy proceedings should largely be heard in public. Later that summer, in the case of DL v SL [2015]  Mostyn J expressed his understanding that the Family Procedure Rules FPR 27.10 incorporates a strong presumption that financial remedy proceedings should be heard in private, unless there is a compelling reason not to do so.

Mostyn J reiterated his view that media reporting of financial remedy proceedings should be restricted and such proceedings heard in private in divorce proceedings between pop-stars Liam Gallagher and Nicole Appleton. It was the court’s view that FPR 27.10-27.12 were drafted, essentially permitting journalists to attend a hearing held in private and without access to the documents. If the parties are famous, their identities and the fact there are ongoing financial remedy proceedings may be reported, as often this information is already in the public domain.

The intention of rule changes in 2009 to rules regarding transparency, which permitted the media access to family law proceedings, was so that the public could understand how children law cases, particularly care proceedings, were conducted: as such, the media’s role is strictly as a “watchdog”.

Mostyn J also commented that financial remedy proceedings, unless mainly relating to the maintenance of a child, are not “children proceedings” within FPR 25.2(1). Therefore, the trial court has the power to restrict reporting.

Mostyn J called on the higher courts to provide guidance about the hearing of financial remedy proceedings in public. It is hoped that guidance might emerge during 2017.

In the meantime however, the Civil Procedure Rule Committee published a series of consultation papers, amending Practice Direction 52C of the Civil Procedure Rules 1998, allowing the press to have access to skeleton arguments for Court of Appeal hearings. The aim is to give accredited media reporters sufficient information to report cases accurately. In appeals relating to family proceedings involving a child, the copies of the skeleton argument must be anonymised and must omit any detail that might, if reported by the press, lead to the identification of the child.

If you are concerned about potential press coverage of proceedings in the Family Court and the adverse impact it may have on your children, contact one of our specialist solicitors on 01234 889777 to discuss your case further.

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