It is widely recognized that legal proceedings are often protracted, expensive, and difficult. Within a family law context, this can often be the case. Individuals who are separating or indeed, those who have already separated, may find that the family court is tasked with making a final decision about the distribution of their assets or the arrangements for the child(ren). For some, not only is this worrying, particularly given the broad discretion that family judges have, it provides a feeling of uncertainty which can be extremely unsettling.
Those individuals who find themselves subject to legal proceedings have been afforded some “comfort” in knowing that proceedings are confidential, and details of their private life will be kept away from the public arena. This marks a sharp contrast to the operation of other courts, such as the criminal courts, where hearings are open for the public to access. Up until recently, journalists, members of the press, bloggers and reports have been unable to attend hearings within the family courts. To me, this seems entirely appropriate. Proceedings of this nature are extremely sensitive, and often there are young children at the center of the dispute.
However, the lack of transparency within the family justice system has caused growing concern and sparked a lack of public mistrust in the family courts. You may have seen legal dramas or television shows that portray the operation of the family courts but, you may be surprised to hear, they do not always provide an accurate representation of the family courts.
Concern has stemmed about whether individuals are being treated fairly and whether judges are maintaining impartiality and applying the law appropriately. The cases that we often hear about tend to be disputes involving celebrities, high-net-worth individuals with significant wealth, or those of an international element. However, what we do not hear about are those ‘everyday’ cases. The cases, which come before the family court daily, make it difficult to know that the law is being applied fairly to everyone.
In January 2023, legal professionals received notification of the “Transparency Project Pilot” which was being implemented within Leeds, Carlisle, and Cardiff. The Pilot provides an opportunity for ‘pilot reporters’ to report on cases being heard within the family court, for the first time.
I appreciate that this will be particularly concerning for some. However, the guidance from the government makes it clear that those who engage in this Pilot are subject to strict rules regarding anonymity.
Under the Pilot, a judge can make a “transparency order” which allows for journalists, reporters etc to attend family court hearings and report the outcome. It also enables them to access certain documents and even speak with those involved in the case. However, some limited individuals are provided access to report on a case. These are journalists with a UK Press Card or a lawyer who is not involved in the case but is permitted to attend, in the same way that a journalist is.
This Pilot is currently being trialed within the above-named courts, and it does not apply to all types of family proceedings. Currently, the Pilot only applies to cases involving public law children issues. This refers to those cases in which the Local Authority makes an application for an order to safeguard the welfare of a child. The pilot is to extend to other ‘private law’ proceedings in May 2023.
If you find that a Judge makes a transparency order within your proceedings, and you have concerns about this, the best thing that you can do is speak up and raise this with the judge. The judge will listen to your comments and decide whether reporting should or should not take place.
If you’d like more information on transparency orders, get in touch: email@example.com